Thursday, May 20, 2010

Secrets and Lies

The first time I saw "Soulless" from Season 4 of Angel, I didn't appreciate how everyone was in a really bad place at the time they brought back Angelus courtesy of the extraction of Angel's soul in "Awakening". Angel was jealous that Cordelia had slept with Connor; Angel, although mad at Connor (for obvious reasons), was not making any headway in his attempts to reconcile with his son; and Cordelia was trying to mend fences with Angel while simultaneously trying to keep Connor on an even keel. She seemed like the most effective member of the group at that time, yet in reality she was an evil rogue Power That Be who was manipulating events from behind the scenes.

Connor was mad at Cordelia because she was acting less like his lover and more like a mother figure; Connor was mad at everyone because he thought they all thought he was connected to The Beast; and everyone hated Connor because he was a brat and he wasn't giving anyone any reasons to trust him.

Gunn was mad at Wesley because Wesley had barged into the Hyperion and was trying to snatch Fred away from him; Wesley was mad at Gunn for apparently not stepping aside and gracefully giving up Fred; Fred was mad at Gunn because he killed her evil oppressor Professor Seidel without her permission, but wasn't mad enough to break up with him; Fred was supposedly in love with Wesley, probably because he just happened to show up while she was in a state of emotional flux over her situation with Gunn; and Lorne was trying his best to keep himself out of everybody's way.

And all of this was happening when they should have been pulling together to try to defeat The Beast, who was well on his way to destroying the world.

About the best thing I can say about "Soulless" was that it wasn't as horrible as I remembered. It's just that the creators were piling on the melodrama deep and thick while turning everyone stupid at the worst possible moments just to keep the story line going until the end of the season. Although the evil little girl conduit at Wolfram & Hart had warned them "the answer is among you" as she lay dying in "Habeas Corpses" just after The Beast attacked her, no one seemed to be developing any healthy sense of paranoia.

Angelus. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has been characterized as a TV show about teenagers, and Angel has been characterized as a show about young adults. Much as I love watching shows with a lots of highly attractive young people running around, I can't help but think Angel Investigations might have benefited from a few gray hairs on the team. I have a neighbor who retired a few years ago after serving 35 years as an elementary school secretary. After spending ten minutes with her, both Angelus and The Beast would have found themselves sitting in a corner doing their homework.

I haven't seen a lot of Angelus in Season 2 of Buffy, but from what little I saw he was fun to watch. I even enjoyed the ersatz Angelus in Season 1 of Angel's "Eternity", where a young actress slipped Angel a happy pill in the hopes he would experience his moment of perfect bliss and turn her into a vampire. Unfortunately, even though I'm stomaching David Boreanaz' performances a lot better on my third viewing, Season 4's Angelus seems more like some of my most irritating co-workers rather than the baddest vampire of them all.

Admittedly, being irritating was the only thing that Angelus had to do. Since he was trapped inside Angel all along, Angelus knew everyone's faults, weaknesses and dirty little secrets. Once he blabbed everything to the world like he was a Mean Girl at the high school prom, he could just sit back and let everything fall to pieces. (Here's that ludicrous scene where Angelus said to himself "That was fast" while Wesley and Gunn fought, and Gunn accidentally took out Fred with an errant swing.)

Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. Wesley warned the group ahead of time of Angelus' tactics when he told them,
WESLEY: Watch the monitor when I go down. Pay attention to everything he does, everything he says. He'll try to confuse you, to play on your emotions so you drop your guard. If he succeeds—even for an instant—we're all dead. I spent my life training for this, and I'm still not ready. He's smarter than I am, and a great deal more focused. He'll exploit everything Angel knows about me and go for the jugular. Whatever he's got, I'm not gonna see it coming.
In hindsight, he should have taken things a lot further. Wesley should have known from his Season 1 of Angel encounter that Angelus was a speaker of unpleasant truths and would probably try to set all of the members of the group against each other. If not Wesley, than at least somebody should have stepped up to the plate and reminded everyone that each and every one of them had something to hide. The team could get through the situation by keeping their egos in check and by staying focused on their mission. The ideal person to give this particular pep talk would have been Cordelia since she had the most dealings with Angelus, but she had her own agenda going at the time.

Although Wesley seemed to be well on his way to maturity while he was running his own operation, probably nothing prepared him for his encounter with the legendary Angelus. I'm not going to pick apart the dialogue between the two of them. You can see for yourself how things went down between the two of them here, here, and here. Suffice it to say, Angelus pointed out all of Wesley's weaknesses and screw-ups, including how: Wesley was trying to be the hero in order to impress Fred; Wesley felt, and in fact, was inferior to Angel; he allowed Lilah to extract part of Lorne's brain; he failed miserably as Faith's Watcher; he kidnapped Connor; his own father was ashamed of him; and Wesley would never amount to anything no matter how hard he tried.

We can see that Angelus spoke some uncomfortable truths, but liberally sprinkled in a lot of half-truths as well. For example, Wesley had no idea that Lilah was going after Lorne. He obviously would have tried to warn the others if he knew. However, the fact that he fell for Lilah's trap could be considered a failure, so Wesley would have still had ample opportunity to suffer a lot of guilt over that matter.

Wesley acquitted himself reasonably well under the circumstances, but he still left a lot of room for improvement in his dealings with Angelus. In what will become a repeating pattern throughout Season 4, despite being continuously beaten down (both literally and figuratively), and despite all of his failures and setbacks (like supposedly being responsible for the loss of Angel's soul), Wesley never quit. I spoke more about this particular character trait in my post "The Unsinkable Wesley Wyndam-Pryce" when I noted:
Although he was constantly being pulled down by his father, paradoxically, Wes seemed to have had an endless pool of self-confidence and egotism to draw from, which may have been distilled in him somewhat by his mother. Wesley knew his own self-worth, even when everyone around him viewed him as a failure. No matter how many times during the course of Angel Wesley was wracked with self-doubt, he was always able to pull himself through with his reserve strength. That egotistical streak that made him so insufferable at times was a great survival mechanism that kept him going through hard times. Wes knew he had something valuable to contribute. It was just up to him to find his niche in the world where he could play his strengths to everyone else's advantage.
Fred Burkle, Charles Gunn, and Wesley. Dear sweet Fred always had a maddening tendency to give out false reassurances when things were looking bad. However, this scene presented a special case in that Fred was actually being self-serving for once. In response to how Angelus had correctly stated that Wes had a crush on her, Fred said, "Charles, remember, we can't believe anything Angelus says."

Cordelia more accurately noted, "He distorts everything. He lies with the truth. It's part of what makes him so dangerous."

Then, in yet one more instance where character IQ's suddenly dropped several points, Fred got herself captured by Angelus under Charles' watchful eyes when they went down to give him some blood. Luckily, Wes saved her life by shooting Angelus with the tranquilizer gun. Then, in another one of those "Fred is sure sending out mixed signals" moments, she threw herself into Gunn's arms and told him, "I'm just glad you're here."

When I first watched the series I honestly couldn't tell at times whether Fred and Gunn had broken up or if they were still together. I just remembered that when they finally did break up for good (my apologies, I can't remember which episode), I was surprised by that development because I thought it was pretty obvious that they had broken up quite a bit earlier than that. Regardless, I couldn't tell if Fred was cheating on Gunn half of the time and if Wes was making inappropriate moves on Fred, since I was never knew the true status of Fred and Gunn's relationship. Suffice it to say, Fred and Gunn were still technically together in "Soulless", and everyone should have behaved accordingly.

Wes was obviously in love with Fred in Season 4, while it seemed Fred was more or less just taking advantage of a good opportunity that came along. She was having problems with Charles, and a good-looking man who absolutely adored her just happened to walk into her life. What more could she have asked for?

If Fred was looking around while she was still with Charles, that obviously put her in a difficult spot. I honestly didn't look at her as a two-timing, conniving bitch. I looked at her as a confused young woman who had lost several years of socialization while she was stuck in the Pylea dimension. In addition to giving false reassurances, Fred had the ability to put herself in a state of denial whenever she witnessed something bad or immoral happening. She tried to see the best in everyone and give everything else a positive spin. Wesley was giving her signals that he was interested in her, but, in her mind, Wes was a good man who wouldn't try to steal another man's girl. Fred obviously had some feelings for Wesley, but couldn't bring herself to break up with Charles because she was trying her hardest to deny that there was anything at all going on between her and Wes.

This is where a good adult conversation between Fred and Wesley would have done a world of good. Fred could have asked him how he felt about her, admitted that she had feelings for him, and then gone on from there. She could have also asked Wesley to give her some space so she think things through or give her a chance to reconcile with Charles. Or, she could have broken up with Charles and taken up with Wesley.

If this was beyond Fred's capabilities, then Wesley should have had the brains to tell Fred how he felt, then either given her some space if she so desired, or supported her if she chose to break up with Gunn. Regardless, in this scene it looked like Fred might have been at least attempting to start a conversation along those lines when Wesley, probably interpreting her actions as a big green light, came up to her and started kissing her. Fred, who was momentarily startled at first, quickly returned his kisses quite enthusiastically. Unfortunately for Wes and Fred, Charles caught them practically red-handed, which ended up with the big brawl in the lobby between Wes and Charles.

According to my "Ages and Stages" post, I figured Fred was about 28 or 29 years old in Season 4 (making her possibly the oldest human in the group), while Wesley might have been a year or two younger than her. (Not once during Buffy or Angel did we ever get a clue about Wesley's real age.) They should have been old enough to know better, but both of them were somewhat in a state of arrested development. Regardless, it's amazing how Wesley, who I figured was every bit Lilah's intellectual equal, turned into a complete schoolboy around Fred.

Connor and Cordelia. Out of everybody who had their turn with Angelus, these two had the best success against him. It's too bad Cordelia was really the evil Jasmine because I really liked her in "Soulless". I could actually see a little bit of the Sunnydale Cordy going toe-to-toe with Angelus, and I think she was the only one who didn't blink. (Though I admit I wasn't fond of the "you can have your way with me" part of the deal.)

Connor started off good, and I think he actually impressed Angelus a bit. However, Angelus knew how to get at him by starting off with blatant lies about why Darla staked herself and how Holtz supposedly also killed himself. I don't think Connor really believed him, but it was enough to get Connor riled up to the point where Cordelia felt compelled to come down the stairs and rescue the situation.

Idle Thoughts. It's amazing how hard it is to think outside the box, in that you think you're covering a situation from every angle but can't find your way to investigate that huge blind spot that's right in front of you. Of course Cordy, as a wise ancient demon, was very skillful at covering her tracks. However, the fact that she was one of the people in "Long Day's Journey" who was on duty guarding Manjet when he was slaughtered in Gwen's secret safe room should have at least signaled somebody to the fact that she should have been searched and interrogated for no other reason than to eliminate her as a suspect. I also thought somebody could have put two and two together that Cordy was the only one around who could have killed Manjet and swiped Angel's soul.

So far so good as far as Charisma Carpenter's performance as evil Cordelia. I'm amazed that I'm still liking her character, but that will probably end pretty quickly after I see "Calvary".

Now that I have a better understanding of the dynamics of the Fred/Wesley relationship, I'm looking forward to watching "Calvary" again to see how Wesley acted around Lilah compared to how he acted around Fred. I've actually seen "Calvary" a few times more than some of the preceding episodes, but it's tough to watch a single show out of context in Angel and be able to understand or even recognize everything that's happening.

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