Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Angel's Perfect Day

I had written in a previous post from last June that:
Season 4's "Awakening" was absolutely heartbreaking. As I told my husband, I'm not sure if it's a favorite or least favorite episode of mine. I was really fooled and drawn into it the first time I saw it, and I was absolutely crushed to find out that all of the wonderful things that were happening was just part of a dream sequence that Angel experienced before Angelus emerged.
What's amazing is that I was just as drawn into this episode the second time I saw it (when I wrote those words above), even though I already knew the outcome.

What's Reality? When I first started watching Angel a little over a year ago, my disciplined little Puritan voice told me that I should stay away from spoilers so I could enjoy the show as though it was a first-run series. Naturally, I was usually online within minutes after viewing each episode so I could see what everyone else had to say about it. You can guess the rest. One link would lead to another and before I knew it I was reading spoilers all over the place. When all was said and done, I knew just enough to get myself into trouble and draw the wrong conclusions.

I can understand the concept of how my mind can take over and fill in the gaps when I'm trying to figure out a story line. However, I can't understand some of the out-and-out errors I made while dealing with what was presented to me. I could have sworn that Faith would be torturing Wesley in Season 5 instead of Season 1. Also, I think I was coming across fan fiction and mistaking it for the real deal. For example, I had read somewhere that Lilah convinced Wesley to work for Wolfram & Hart in Season 4, and he showed up at the office everyday wearing suits. I think in one other instance I was picking up some plot lines from After the Fall and transferring them to the TV series. In my defense, I think I was getting a lot of my information from message boards, where you pretty much have to already know the series before the two and three-line posts start making sense. (Not to mention that undoubtedly some of the commenters were making errors.)

As a result, even when I knew an unpleasant plot development would be occurring, I always held out hope that I had made a mistake and the story would actually go off in another direction.

"Awakening" represented a particular point in my first run-through of the series where I hoped everything I saw was real. Perhaps Angel and Connor could reconcile and work together to destroy The Beast. Maybe Angel and Cordelia would finally became lovers. Even though I had a vague idea that Angel would be reverting to Angelus and that Cordy would become evil, I was still completely fooled by the story line. Unfortunately, it turned out that everything I saw had been conjured up by a mystically-induced dream sequence, which became the impetus for turning Angel into Angelus once he achieved perfect happiness.

I keep calling all of the episodes after "Habeas Corpses" the bad part of Season 4, but we all know there are no absolutes in life. David Fury and Steven S. DeKnight put together the perfect script, making the heartbreak that much more painful for rookie Whedonites who didn't fully understand the concept that there are no happy endings in the Buffyverse. Even though I can say "Awakening" is outstanding in every way, it isn't an episode that I watch over and over again either.

I did find that the episode lost most of its punch upon the third viewing, which is no real criticism since it's supposed to be just a one-time only deal. The fact that I enjoyed it just as much on the second viewing last year speaks to the quality of the writing, directing, acting, stunt work and all of the other things that go into production. On the second viewing I was able to start spotting a certain melodramatic flair. Yesterday, when I was watching "Awakening" for the third time, I could smile indulgently at some of the insights we received into Angel's fantasy world, where fighting and brawling ruled the day, where Cordelia came up with her visions at just the right moments, where Wesley could admit his failures and apologize for them, where Connor could reconcile with Angel (but not until he put up a spirited defense just to prove he was a chip off the old block), and where the lovely Cordelia could beg for forgiveness and fall weepingly into Angel's arms. I can't believe I fell for all of this the first time around! However, I won't apologize for how I can occasionally allow myself to suspend all sense of reality and get completely drawn into a show.

In fact, throughout the episode I tried to make a game out of, how much of what we saw represented Angel's wishful thinking, and how much was just necessary filler material connecting his fantasy pieces together. There was one segment where Angel, Cordy, Wes and Connor were descending into the center of the earth to retrieve the Sword of Bosh M'ad. There's no doubt in my mind that Angel chose his three favorite people in the world to accompany him on that trip. At one point they had to negotiate a "minefield" where little bells suspended from ribbons acted as tripwires for deadly wooden stakes (and other weapons?) that would spring out from the sides. Cordelia almost set off a deadly barrage when her sleeve caught one of the bells. Wesley was the one who saved the moment by carefully removing the bell from the sleeve. However, a moment letter, he set off a bell, and Angel immediately jumped in to save Wesley's life.

There are many ways to interpret that little sequence with the bells, but was Angel kind of missing the days when it was just the three of them, where Wesley could act heroically, but would always need and rely on Angel to get him out of trouble? Did this part of his dream act as a way to reassure Angel of his alpha male status within the group?

Angel's Soul. One reason I looked forward to seeing this particular episode again is because I thought it gave one of the clearest explanations in the whole series of the nature of Angel's soul. According to Cordelia:

CORDELIA: ........ The gypsies cursed him with a soul so he could feel remorse—to make him suffer for all the people he slaughtered. Removing that soul is the only way to change Angel back into Angelus.


CORDELIA: The gypsy curse was specific. For Angel to lose his soul, he would have to experience a moment of perfect, pure happiness. And right now, happiness of any kind is in... kind of short supply.

The real significance of this episode is that it ties together at least two competing theories floating around in the Buffyverse about the nature of the soul. According to one theory, the soul is existential in nature and gives a person the moral capacity to recognize and be able to make choices between Good and Evil. (In other words, an existential soul gives a person a conscience.) Another theory dates back to Plato and to some of the even earlier ancient Greeks, where the soul is a life-giving source, separate from the body, that gives each person his or her own individual free will and identity. The way I'm looking at it is, the gypsies cursed Angel with an existential soul, which the shaman extracted in the form of a Platonic soul. I went into this in much more detail in a post, "After the Fall Interrupted: Now Where Did We Leave Fred's Soul?" (I also discussed some of the events of Season 4 in this post as well.) For the best discussion around, I highly recommend Scott McLaren's "The Evolution of Whedon's Vampire Mythology and the Ontology of the Soul".

Persistence of Memory. TV trial lawyers know all about the value of bringing in testimony or evidence that will inevitably be stricken from the proceedings. Once a juror sees something, it's hard to discount it later on. I've often thought that many people continue to be confused by Skip the Demon's narratives for Cordelia in Season 3's "Birthday" and "Tomorrow". It's hard to reconcile the messages we had been relying on for roughly a year against Skip's final reveal that Cordy had been put on a path for a train wreck with Jasmine as he explained in Season 4's "Inside Out".

Even I relied on this scene in Cordelia's alternate timeline in "Birthday" as proof that Wesley felt humiliated ("forced death march down memory lane") by memories of his kisses with Cordelia back in Sunnydale. It appeared that all blame for the failed kisses landed on Wesley, with Cordelia being absolved of any failure on her part. It wasn't until later on that I realized that Cordelia's alternate timeline was really how she wished her life had turned out rather than what would have actually happened if she hadn't have met Angel in Los Angeles. (Wesley still could have been humiliated by those kisses. We just don't have positive proof.)

After watching "Long Day's Journey" for the first time, even though I found out at the end of the episode it was just a dream, I still looked back on the scene of Wesley's apologies for his failures as something that really happened. It wasn't until I saw it again a few months later that I realized that, in fact, Wesley never did apologize and take responsibility for any failures outside of Angel's dreams. Also, I couldn't remember which episode they retrieved the Sword of Bosh M'ad, and I remembered it as being a scene that took place in an episode some time in late Season 3 before Cordelia was elevated into a higher being.

Idle Thoughts. I loved Wesley's Uber Tough Guy personality that came out in this episode. How is it that I can put up with someone who is arrogant, acts unilaterally, barks out orders and literally pushes people around? I guess you just need to take one look at the picture at the beginning of this post for your answer.

To be honest, I always admired Wesley for sizing up a situation, making the difficult decisions and taking immediate action. Sometimes there's no time to form a committee during a dire emergency and reach a consensus after performing group hugs. Wes has been criticized a lot in the message boards for acting recklessly and/or shoving Angel out of the way in order to take over the group. I think these same people sometimes forget that Angel made the final decision on his own. (With the help of some evil manipulation from Cordy, but we'll ignore that for now.)

I loved this scene where Connor, forever the teenage brat, indicated he would have no qualms about killing Angel/Angelus if necessary.

I also loved Cordy's observation "what is it about evil that jacks up the I.Q. points?" I actually made a remark in a roundabout way that Lilah might have been more intelligent than Wesley, but sometimes evil people just appear to be smarter.

Fred and Wesley continued to swoon over each to a certain extent, but it really isn't worth writing about. I suppose I should add this one little uncomfortable slip-up where Fred complained, "I need Wesley - his expertise".

When I think of "Wo-Pang" (the name of the dark mystic who took out Angel's soul), I always think, "That's a phony-sounding Chinese name if I ever heard one." It reminds me of a name a non-Chinese speaker would have came up with for a Mandarin villain in a 1920's mystery novel. Ironically, the words "wo pang" actually show up in Filipino and Malay song lyrics in Google searches. For the record, I have no idea what the words mean. I just hope I'm not embarrassing myself.

I thought Roger Yuan did a great job with his limited role of Wo-Pang. I'm amazed at how shamans, mystics, psychics and other dark priestly types get kidnapped or otherwise involuntarily pressed into duty with great frequency inside the Buffyverse. They always seem to matter-of-factly go about their business regardless of the circumstances.

"Long Day's Journey" was written by David Fury and Steven S. DeKnight. In his DVD commentary for "Apocalypse, Nowish", DeKnight said he was really into writing action scenes. I think he delivered in a big way for "Long Day's Journey", assuming he wrote these scenes here and here. This might be an over-simplification, but I wonder if DeKnight was brought in to write the action sequences, and Fury was brought in to write the more sentimental scenes like the ones here and here? Regardless, it took a deft touch to write an episode that could poke gentle fun at Angel's secret fantasies without crossing over the line into mocking or ridiculing him.

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