Thursday, February 25, 2010

Wesley's Memorable Turn on Buffy the Vampire Slayer

What makes it so challenging (and ultimately rewarding) to watch Wesley Wyndam-Pryce on Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that he was originally conceived as a buffoonish, stuffy Englishman who was supposed to be killed off almost as quickly as he arrived in Sunnydale. One can't help but wonder, would Wesley's character have been written any differently if he was originally intended to stick around for a while? Regardless, it's quite a tribute to everyone at Mutant Enemy, from Joss Whedon on down, for consistently coming up with rich and nuanced story lines for even the most minor cast members. Similar to how I previously wrote that I didn't think it was even possible for the directors to cast a weak actor in Angel: The Series, I feel that it must have have been equally impossible for the Buffyverse writers to create a weak character.

Jane Espenson left an intriguing little clue in her DVD voiceover of Angel's Season 1's "Rm w/a Vu" when she remarked that if a writer created a character and that same character was used in later episodes, the writer received additional money for every episode the character appeared in. I felt like I was missing a little bit at the time when I first heard the explanation, but now it makes a little more sense to me. This is a great way to make sure that shows aren't overly-burdened with one-note stock characters. Many sources point to Joss Whedon himself as being Wesley's creator, so I'm not sure if anyone got a little more money in their pay envelopes when Wes started showing up in additional episodes.

Watcher's Council. I wrote previously that: "Wesley certainly had a lot of self-confidence, even if he didn't have much to back it up with." It's hard to imagine that the Watcher's Council would send out such an inexperienced person to act as a handler to Buffy and Faith in Sunnydale, California. If anything, they should have made Wesley a Watcher-in-Training under Giles' direct tutelage. The Council's decision makes more sense taken within the context that Wesley was originally supposed to die a hilarious death after making just a few appearances. Since that angle didn't quite work out as planned, we're stuck with creating a backstory to try to explain away what seemed to be a very poor decision by the Council.

The Watcher's Council seemed to operate as an extremely exclusive secret society. I'm assuming that the Council didn't call just anyone to be a Watcher. As such, it appears that by definition it was a nepotistic organization, where the Watcher tradition was handed down from generation to generation.

There are certain advantages to keeping the Watcher profession all in the family, so to speak. A person can pick up a fair amount of knowledge during a few years of Watcher Academy training, but that can only go so far. Nothing can replace a lifetime of being steeped inside a family tradition of magic and demonology. (My personal analogy is that my son would have never gone to engineering school if I was a single parent. It took a lifetime of him hanging out with his dad to develop his particular talents.) Also, necessary secrets will be less likely to leak out into the public if the "need to know" knowledge is kept within a tight-knit circle. The main disadvantage of nepotism is that the pool of potential candidates can be disastrously small, with the real added danger that the ranks could be further weakened by inbreeding. An unqualified person can become a Watcher simply because Daddy was a Watcher. With such an insular organization, new ideas and fresh viewpoints can be very slow to seep through into the hierarchy.

I cannot discount the fact that the Watchers had many centuries to figure out the best ways to deal with vampires and demons. Institutional knowledge is quite valuable, and, in this case, lessons lost could have caused the needless deaths of thousands of innocent victims. Like the Roman Catholic church, the Watcher's Council had to walk a fine line between preserving necessary traditions and making themselves totally irrelevant to modern society as a result of their hidebound ways. The Council had created a perfect recipe for turning out a bunch of smug and arrogant individuals who felt that they were superior to everyone else in the world. Their members seemed incapable of acknowledging that there might have been better ways of doing things.

Wesley Carrying on the Watcher Tradition. I've written a few other posts about my conjectures regarding Wesley's background, early influences, training, and his failed Watcher experiences. I'd almost have to rewrite the entire posts just to summarize them, so if you're interested I'd highly recommend that you read: "The Unsinkable Wesley Wyndam-Pryce", which I wrote in regards to his overall character development; and "Ages and Stages", where I tried to guess Wesley's age, and at what time in his life he received his Watcher training.

By watching his appearances on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I was hoping for additional insights about Wesley's background, but I haven't had any luck so far. My biggest burning questions are, how old was Wesley? Is my assumption correct that he received pre-university Watcher training? Did he even attend university? My only real clue is Wesley's conversation with Giles about how class proms seemed to be a new experience for him. Giles remarked that "At an all-male preparatory they didn't go in for this sort of thing."

My immediate thought was that Giles implied that Wesley's lifetime of experiences ended at prep school. Surely there must have been something resembling school dances at whatever university Wesley might have attended! However, I have to admit that I didn't attend anything resembling a high school prom in my college days, so the questions about how much formal education Wesley received are still wide open.

The Scoobies' Reaction to the New Watcher. My (not so) best guess is that Wesley was about 22 years old when he arrived at Sunnydale. He came across as being quite a comical figure, but it should have been obvious to all that he was overcompensating for his insecurities. No one could deny that he was extremely knowledgeable about the supernatural world! Overall, Wesley's demeanor suggested that he may have had some genuine managerial experience (perhaps at the Council level) beyond his "head boy" leadership role at the Watcher's Academy. By extension, he was perhaps somewhat older than what I had originally thought. One obvious explanation for his maturity is that actor Alexis Denisof was about 32 years old when he arrived on the Buffy set in 1998/1999.

Regardless of his age, Wesley's lack of skill in dealing with the Scoobies could have totally been explained by the fact that he had probably only been exposed to one style of leadership throughout his entire life. His father, Roger Wyndam-Pryce, was later revealed in Angel to have been quite dictatorial in his treatment of Wesley. However, all indications point to how that must have been the de rigueur leadership style for the entire Watcher's Council. Add the assumption that Wesley was probably exposed to strict regimens throughout his school years, and it becomes easier to understand why he hit Sunnydale with his "you jump when I bark out orders" attitude.

I honestly didn't think Wesley was all that bad. As a matter of fact, I could think of myself interrupting his first meeting with the Scoobies by giving him a big, deep passionate kiss, then telling him, "OK, let me tell you how we do things around here". That apparently wasn't a real option in Sunnydale, so everyone immediately took an "us against him" attitude as they closed ranks.

Seriously, I've run across many Wesley Wyndam-Pryces in my working career, and others who could be considered to be "outsiders" who "didn't fit in with the corporate culture". You have two options: you can totally exclude the outsider, to the total detriment of the team environment; or, you can work with the outsider and be prepared to make a few compromises. If the person is reasonable at all, the second approach actually works quite beautifully. (Of course, if the person is a complete asshole, all bets are off.) Wesley showed every indication that he could have been worked into the group, particularly when he sincerely stated a couple of times (usually after he had messed up quite badly) that he was willing to do anything to help out.

There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason as to when Wesley would be present when the Scoobies assembled. Obviously, if he called the meeting, he would of course be there with the rest of the group. Sometimes the group informed Wesley of their activities and made it a point to include him. Other times the Scoobies met without Wesley's knowledge and worked behind his back. This led to the disastrous sequence of events where Wesley, rightfully feeling excluded from the Scooby activities, made a unilateral decision to call in the Council operatives to capture Faith and send her to England to meet whatever fate awaited rogue psycho slayers.

It's interesting how the members of the Scooby gang, outsiders themselves, were in turn extra determined to keep another outsider, Wesley, out of the group. Giles, being perturbed at Wesley's pompous attitude, did make the effort to keep Buffy's sarcasm in check during the meetings. However, he didn't lift a finger to help Wesley in his professional development, which would probably have been a bit much to ask of someone who had just been fired.

I thought one of Wesley's finest episodes was "Choices", which featured Buffy, Angel and Willow breaking into City Hall to try to steal the Box of Gavrok away from the Mayor before his Ascension Day. Wesley, sounding like an old fuss-budget, insisted that they develop a real plan before barging into the Mayor's office. Giles overruled him and sent everyone on their way. Buffy and Angel did manage to retrieve the box, but Willow paid the price by being taken hostage by Faith and the Mayor. In a highly significant scene, for the first time we saw Wesley arguing for the needs of the many when he insisted that they destroy the Box rather than exchange it for Willow. His viewpoint sufficiently shocked the Scoobies, specifically Oz, but notice that Wesley was not calling for an outright sacrifice of Willow when he stated "Now I want to help Willow as much as the rest of you, but we will find another way."

Wes was unable to exert his authority, but was able to get somewhat of the last word with Buffy when she started to gloat a bit over the fact that Willow was able to retrieve a few of the pages from one of the Books of Ascension. He said, "Well, let's hope there is something useful in those pages. The Mayor has the Box of Gavrock. As of now, we are right back where we started. Wouldn't you say?"

I don't think this episode marked any sort of turning point for Wesley in his relations with the Scoobies. From that point on, for every moment of rapprochement that seemed to occur, something else would happen that would keep Wesley firmly detached from the rest of the group.

Wes and Cordy. One of my favorite story lines in Angel was the special friendship between Wes and Cordy. Naturally I was quite interested in how their relationship developed on Buffy, and how their awkward kisses influenced their relationship later on. Rest assured, that will be the subject of my next post.

Wesley's Legacy. We're all aware that Buffy decided to turn her back on the Watcher's Council, which ultimately resulted in Wesley being dismissed in complete disgrace over losing his two Slayers, Buffy and Faith. That's worth a whole new blog post regarding, how can you be blamed for losing two strong, independent women who have outgrown their need for the Council? However, for having appeared in only nine episodes, Wes certainly seemed to have left his mark on Buffy fans. I can hardly call this scientific statistical sampling, but in my occasional forays through Buffy-themed forums, it seems like Wesley's most commonly remembered as the failed Watcher in the third season of Buffy. When pressed, fans will add as an afterthought, "Oh, yeah - he also appeared in Angel." I'm also amazed at the incredible amount of fan fiction he seems to continue to generate regarding his brief stay with Buffy.

One thing I find disconcerting is that the man I've found to be just about the sexiest thing ever created (Wesley Wyndam-Pryce during his Bad Ass days on Angel) seems to be almost solely remembered as being the foppish nerd on Buffy. When I see Wesley during his earlier appearances, I can only smile and think "But I know what's hiding underneath all of that!"

Idle Thoughts. It's pretty amazing to be in a position to approach a subject matter all backwards, i.e, having watched Angel before Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In a way, it's sort of like getting two stories for the price of one. The first story is the one I make up when I "fill in the blanks" while trying to figure out what happened in the past, with the second story being the real story that I discover later on. I'm big on spoilers, so I often know what's happening just based on my internet readings. However, it's impossible to spend a lot of time reading the actual dialogue when I'm trying to figure out a backstory. Even if I do read some of the dialogue, it's simply not the same as seeing the actual acting performances.

I never consciously fabricate a previous story line when I'm trying to figure out what's going on in the "present". I try to make educated guesses based on the evidence that's available to me. Nonetheless, it's amazing how off the mark I can be when I'm finally presented with the real story. For example, I started watching Angel in late Season 2. By the time I got around to seeing the beginning of Season 2, I was amazed at how close Angel came to turning himself back into Angelus during his crisis of faith with Darla. After viewing that, all of a sudden a lot of his later dialogue with Cordelia started making more sense to me.

Finally, special kudos to Alexis Denisof for turning a throwaway character into one who had remarkable staying power through his five seasons on Angel. It was certainly fun to watch Alexis' few scenes together with future wife Alyson Hannigan (Willow) to see if I could spot any special spark that may have flared up between the two of them.

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