Saturday, July 31, 2010

I Wanna Hold Your Hand

When I recently compared Fred in my post "Orpheus Ascending" to a 2nd grader who liked to hold hands with her little girlfriends, I honestly didn't have this piece of dialogue in mind from the next episode "Players" where Wesley gently chided Fred, "It's not always about holding hands." As I watched more of "Players" it began to dawn on me that there was a lot of hand-holding going on (figuratively speaking) in this part of Season 4 of Angel.

First I'll back up and say this is another one of those Season 4 episodes that initially disgusted me simply because I couldn't get over the whole cruddy Cordelia/Connor story line. The last two times I saw it, including when I viewed it a few nights ago, I realized that if I just judged "Players" on its own merits, the episode was really quite outstanding.

Wesley, Lilah and Fred. Jeffrey Bell and the team of Sarah Fain and Elizabeth Craft did a fine job of writing the script for "Players". Although it's always dangerous to attribute certain parts of a script to a specific writer if you don't have any inside information on the writing assignments, I have noticed recently that Jeffrey Bell's name always seemed to be nearby whenever something particularly lovely was going on with the Wesley/Lilah relationship. Although Lilah Morgan was long dead and (presumably) buried by that time, her presence was still very much felt within the Hyperion Hotel.

One of the first things the newly-ensouled Angel did was inform Wesley that Angelus did not kill Lilah. He even came right out and told Wesley "I'm sorry for your loss." Although Angel brusquely went on with the business at hand, it was still a thoughtful gesture on his part. He acknowledged that Lilah had been a significant part of Wesley's life, and signaled to Wesley that he no longer had to suffer her loss in silence. Almost more significantly, Wesley's relationship with Lilah was brought out into the open in front of the group. No one spoke up and said "I'm glad the bitch is dead". We could see that Wesley was almost completely re-integrated into Angel Investigations courtesy of the fact that everyone was respectful of his feelings.

Lilah made another "appearance" later on in "Players" in this marvelous scene where Wesley pointedly schooled Fred about the facts of life. I think it would be a little too simplistic to say that Fred was in an active retreat from sexuality. For example, I can't claim she was scarred in any way by her brush with lesbianism when Willow came calling in "Orpheus". However, I could make a good superficial case for stating that Fred was desperately trying to stay attached to a more innocent way of life, where girlfriends laughed and giggled with each other, and lovebirds held hands and picked daisies in the fields rather than murdered their former professors. Contrast her unsophisticated and naive outlook with Wesley's more world-weary attitude:
FRED: It's the pictures in my mind that are getting me. I can't stop thinking about Connor and Cordy...hiding up in that room...imagining what they do up there. It's like being stuck in a really bad movie with those Clockwork Orange clampy things on my eyeballs.

WESLEY: Why imagine? Reality's disturbing enough.

FRED: Connor's Angel's son. How did he and Cordy get all... couply?

WESLEY:They were probably as surprised as anyone. But they were both lost, lonely...

FRED: No matter how lonely I was, I would never—

WESLEY:(pointedly) Things happen, Fred. When you're alienated from the people who care about you, you start to look other places.

FRED: Hm. Lilah.

WESLEY: We were fighting on opposite sides, but it was the same war.

FRED: But you hated her...didn't you?

WESLEY: It's not always about holding hands...
A level of tension remained between Fred and Wesley in this scene and in subsequent scenes. However, the pressure seemed to be off as they both understood where they stood with each other. Fred had been disillusioned by the disclosure that the man she had been falling for had been sleeping with the enemy, and Wesley wisely opted to give her the space that she need to sort things out. Fred wasn't even trying to understand what Wesley was going through. I wouldn't say the situation improved between Fred and Wesley in the scene mentioned above, but they did have the chance to get a few things out in the open that had been festering just beneath the surface for quite some time. From that point on they achieved a new equilibrium as they somewhat successfully built a new framework to operate within.

Gwen Raiden. Contrast Fred's apparent retreat from sexuality with Electric Freak Gwen's full-speed-ahead approach. On the surface, her theft of the L.I.S.A. device looked an awful lot like part of a master plan to seduce Charles Gunn, starting with her need for a "suave guy in a tight spot", but that would be way too simplistic. Once Gunn implanted the device on her back (which allowed her to touch people without electrocuting them) Gwen did head straight for the base paths with him, but one has to remember she was a young woman in her early 20's who was eager to experience everything she had been missing throughout her life.

Despite her cool, tough-as-nails persona, Gwen allowed some of her vulnerabilities to seep through once in a while in "Players". We couldn't help but be mindful of what a horrible childhood she must have had while growing up in a world without touch. It brings to mind experiments that we read about in Psych 101 about baby animals who are given adequate food and shelter by researchers, but wither away in isolation since they are separated from their mothers. We also can't help but think of even more dreadful scenes of babies wasting away in their cribs in overcrowded orphanages, even though they are fed at regular intervals.

We could tell from early Season 4's "Ground State" that the adults in her life played lip-service to meeting some of her childhood needs, we were also mindful that she still lived her life in comparative isolation even though she was often in close proximity to others.

Although Gwen was probably playing coy when she explained, "
That thing might let me be—(sighs) well, not normal—but...hold hands, maybe", one can't help but think that a simple game of holding hands would have been quite satisfying for her nonetheless. Even the interplay between Gwen and the inept industrial spy in her opening scene in "Players" showed her bemused indulgence for a man who undoubtedly would have been a horrible match for her as a romantic partner. We had to wait until the comic continuation volume After the Fall: First Night before that aspect was explored a little bit more deeply. (I wrote a little bit about her First Night encounter and discussed her character more in depth here.)

Idle Thoughts. Alexis Denisof looked even hotter than usual as Wesley Wyndam-Pryce in "Players", which kills my theory that he looked his best in episodes written by Mere Smith. His acting was equally outstanding, particularly in the scenes mentioned above that touched on the subject of Lilah. He was also a master at conveying erotic tension, and his "It's not always about holding hands" lines was one his best. Extra DVD commentary would have been much appreciated for this episode.

Amy Acker also did an outstanding job portraying Fred as a woman who was doing her best to stay within her sheltered little world. If she was ever going to become more sophisticated about how the world operated, she'd have to be dragged there kicking and screaming.

Fred and Wesley always had a difficult time keeping themselves on an equal footing in their relationship. The natural state seemed to be Wesley as the older and wiser mentor with Fred being the apt but naive pupil. No matter how hard they tried to break out of that pattern, they always reverted back to their teacher/student state.

It's always hard to tell the differences in days between episodes, but we know "Players" started right where "Orpheus" ended. Fred was wearing a skirt in those episodes, which seemed kind of odd to me particularly since Angelus was still on the loose through most of "Orpheus". In earlier seasons Cordelia also had the knack for inappropriately wearing (short) skirts when we all knew the possibility of an outbreak of demon violence was always imminent. I know, I know. All about the ratings.

In my next post I'll write about how "Players" gave us a fascinating exploration of Gunn's role within Angel Investigation.

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