Wednesday, January 20, 2010

That Object of Desire

"Fredless" in Season 3 of Angel marked the transition between Angel being the man of Fred Burkle's dreams to the race between Wesley Wyndam-Pryce and Charles Gunn for her affections.

I actually wanted to start off by saying the episode marked the transition between focusing on Angel's and Wesley's feelings for Fred over to focusing on Wesley and Gunn vying for her attentions, but that wouldn't be totally honest. Since I'm a fan of Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, I know I tend to focus on his on-screen reactions more than any other character's reactions. In the early Season 3 episodes, Angel was basking in the glow of Fred's hero-worship, while Wesley was obviously starting to fall in love with her. It was also obvious, judging from a few references scattered throughout, that Gunn was quite smitten with Fred as well. Although I could be rightfully accused of ignoring or downplaying Gunn's feelings, I still think the camera was focusing more on Wesley's reactions to Fred. Otherwise, the tragic circumstances surrounding Wesley's demon-inspired attacks on her in the next episode, "Billy", would not have had quite the same dramatic impact.

In my post from a few days ago, "And Fred Makes Five", I focused on how Cordelia might have felt about the addition of Fred to the group. Today it's the boys' turn.

Angel. Despite the fact Angel could totally lose his head over Darla and Buffy, he could be remarkably controlled over his feelings toward other women at other times. This isn't as harsh as it may sound, but Angel's "relationship" with Fred was more about his happiness at being the object of her hero-worship than his actual feelings for her. (Though he really was quite fond of her.) Men and women fall in love with or develop crushes on other people all the time and don't feel compelled to act on their feelings. Instead, they are content to just sit back and enjoy the other person's company as a pleasant little diversion.

Angel wasn't exhibiting enormous self-control to "deny" himself of Fred's company. His only fault was that he perhaps stepped a little too much into her fantasy world of handsome champions rescuing damsels in distress. As I've pointed out many times in the past, although he could do it as well, if not better, than anyone else, negotiating his way through a world filled with shades of gray could get quite tiresome at times. For Angel, if felt good to enter a world of black and white where the dangers were obvious, and all he had to do was concentrate on saving the Fair Ladies in his life.

Much has been made about how Angel was a product of the 1700's who had old-fashioned attitudes about chivalry. That's undoubtedly true, but he didn't have those values simply because he came from olden times. Many men today have the same values, which seemed to really rub feminists the wrong way in the 1960's/1970's when they correctly derided the notion that women couldn't take care of themselves. Think of Angel's stifling effect on Cordelia's love life in Season 1 when he insisted on personally vetting her dates. (With good reason, as it turned out.)

As a real-life example, my husband and one of my bosses will swear up and down that they don't constantly fret about my safety. However, whenever come back to town after a long road trip, I feel like I almost have to call both of these men and let them know when I have to stop to use the restroom. They think they know exactly how long it takes for me to get back to Detroit after I meet with a client. If I don't check in by a certain time, they're on their cell phones calling to make sure I'm OK. The problem is, they both seem to think I should be driving down the freeway at 85 mph.

Angel exhibited the same chivalric concerns for just about everyone, but he undoubtedly cranked things up a notch when a pretty girl was involved. Although I used to find that type of behavior quite irritating, I now recognize it as a natural instinct that is somewhat akin to protective parenting instincts. Trying to change the man's behavior is almost like asking him to cut off his arm, since suppressing that natural instinct would be asking the man to cut out a huge part of himself. That behavior needs to be challenged if it becomes too obsessive and controlling, but understanding and accepting someone's need to protect will go a long ways toward being able to deal with that behavior.

What Fred brought out in Angel was the freedom to act the hero and save the girl on a regular basis in front of an appreciative audience, without Cordelia's constant (albeit funny) wisecracks. Even though Angel and Fred never became lovers, his affection for her never waned, which become that much more obvious in Season 5.

Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. Although he lacked Angel's specific melodramatic, swashbuckling flair, Wesley also exhibited some unmistakable old-fashioned chivalric behaviors of his own. Like Angel, Wesley would have helped anyone, male or female, yet he too exhibited that extra little spark whenever a beautiful young woman was involved. (Think of Rebecca Lobo in Season 1's "Eternity" and Virginia in Season 2's "Guise Will Be Guise".)

I've talked at great length about Wesley's watcher instincts, where he had an innate need to cherish, protect and guide young women that went way beyond being a Watcher for vampire slayers. (You can click on my Wesley the Watcher tag for more of my thoughts.) Everyone knows that when Wesley lectured Angel in "Smile Time" about hiding behind his curse to avoid women, he was really talking about his own affection for Fred when he said, "...if there's a woman out there... who you find truly attractive, who you think about, let's say, most of the time, who represents even part of what you think makes the world worth fighting for and who doesn't view you as an entirely sexless shoulder to lean have to do something about it."

This piece of dialogue, this time from Season 5's "A Hole in the World" was even more revealing about Wesley's feelings, when he told a dying Fred "I've loved you since I've known you. No, that's not—I think maybe even before."

Wesley's rescues were a lot more subtle than Angel's. Presumably through his good breeding, he was usually careful to be correct and keep an appropriate distance from these rescued women (both physically and metaphorically) in every way. When Wesley was protecting Fred in Caritas in "That Old Gang of Mine", there was nothing remotely romantic in his treatment of her, even though she spent a considerable amount of time being held tightly in his arms. To Fred, Wesley was the latest in the line of Nice People who were doing Nice Things for her since she arrived back from Pylea. Fred was also the only one of the Angel Investigations team who only knew Wes as The Boss, and that he represented a sort of protective Father Figure/Authority Figure to her. For his part, although it wasn't overtly manifested on the screen, we know that Wesley obviously couldn't help but feel a certain thrill from holding a beautiful frightened young woman in his arms.

Wesley looked upon brainiac Fred as being a kindred soul, and was delighted that she was more talented than he was in many ways. Angel admired and respected Fred's abilities as a survivor, but one senses that he thought she was a rare exception to the rule. Wes looked at Fred as more of an equal than Angel did, probably due to his lifetime exposure to the Watcher lifestyle, where Watchers were forever in contact with young women who possessed extraordinary abilities. (Notice how I didn't come out and say that Wesley fully accepted Fred as an equal, which Fred noted a few times in Season 5, particularly in this scene. Wesley himself was old-fashioned to the core. Although he could recognize and accept Fred's abilities, he would always place himself above her in the totem pole through his self-appointed role of mentor.)

Charles Gunn. In his DVD voiceover for Season 2's "Over the Rainbow", director Fred Keller praised J. August Richards for his extraordinarily natural acting abilities in his portrayal of Charles Gunn. The key word here is "natural", since, in many ways, Charles Gunn was the most "natural" and realistic person in the group. In real life, no one is a vampire like Angel, no one is as smart as Wesley or Fred, and no one has visions like Cordelia. Even though Gunn had exceptional fighting abilities, we do have a feeling that if we devoted to ourselves to a vigorous training regimen, we'd be able to fight vampires and demons just like him.

Just like our moods would lighten up a bit whenever we saw Lorne enter the scene, we would also relax a bit whenever Charles showed up. We couldn't help but think that a little bit of sanity and common sense was finally headed our way. Although this might not be strictly the truth, we never sensed anything tortured or complicated in Gunn's attitude towards Fred. Instead, we saw how any other young man would react to a sweet and beautiful kick-ass woman who entered his life. Gunn saw a pretty girl, fell in love with her, went to breakfast with her every morning, and later made his move on her (in "Waiting in the Wings") in the most natural and uncomplicated way possible.

Fred recognized fairly quickly that her feelings for Angel were simply a fairy tale infatuation. With Wesley, she always felt like had to mind her p's and q's around him. Although I don't actually recall seeing this too much (if at all), one has a feeling that if she made one little mistake, he'd be right on top of her to correct her, albeit kindly and lovingly. Also, Wesley's personal life was probably remarkably a lot like his professional life. We sense that after he spent a hard day at the Hyperion Hotel reading musty old books, he probably went back to his apartment to kick back and relax by reading musty old books.

Fred seemed to be able to compartmentalize her personal and professional lives. When she was off-duty, she probably enjoyed swimming, playing tennis, watching TV, painting her nails, building ax-hurling devices and playing video games. With Charles, she didn't have to constantly worry about creating a good impression. She could laugh, be silly, tell bad jokes and otherwise be free to relax and be herself. Those mornings at the diner created some wonderful bonding moments for the two of them where they could talk about their lives and complain about work a little before psyching themselves up for another big day.

Although Charles was every inch as chivalrous as Angel and Wesley, and certainly did his part of protect Fred, he rarely made a big production out of it. When we saw Charles taking care of Fred, he wasn't making any bold statements. He was simply doing what he had to do at that moment in time to protect the girl he loved. In hindsight, Fred didn't have to make any choice at all between Gunn and Wesley in Season 3, since Gunn was the frontrunner all along.

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