Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Orpheus Ascending

Season 4 of Angel's "Orpheus" had always been a bit of a disappointment for me, mostly because it marked an abrupt ending to the wonderfully nuanced Wesley/Faith relationship. A few other problems I initially had were: how I failed to be drawn into the internal Angel/Angelus struggle; I had mixed feelings about that strange "Willow" character (note: I had not seen any episodes of Buffy the first few times I saw "Orpheus"); and I was becoming increasingly aware of how that awful Cordelia/Jasmine problem wasn't going away any time soon.

Despite my negative feelings, "Orpheus" still had somewhat of a light-hearted air to it despite its heavy subject matter. Many of the actors obviously had a wonderful time filming the episode, similar to what occurred in Season 3's "Waiting in the Wings" and early Season 4's "Spin the Bottle".

When I saw "Orpheus" again earlier this week I told myself that I would put aside some of my disappointments and try to evaluate the episode on its own merits. "Orpheus" does have a number of wonderful qualities. Unfortunately, the show was still somewhat of a swing-and-a- miss proposition for me since it appeared that the creators were trying to accomplish a bit too much at one time.

Mere Smith. I have somewhat of a running gag about Mere Smith, since the character of Wesley Wyndam-Pryce (played by Alexis Denisof) always looked particularly hot in the episodes that she wrote, starting with Season 3's "Birthday". "Orpheus" is no exception, as you can tell from the picture above. Showrunner Jeffrey Bell and director Terrence O'Hara also remarked a few times in their voiceover commentary that Wesley always looked cooler after he'd been beat up.

I don't think my claim that "Wesley looks better" in Smith's episodes really stands up to much scrutiny. However, there is some circumstantial evidence (you can explore my "Mere Smith" tag if you're interested) that she was instrumental in creating his uber-handsome Dark Wesley persona, so I naturally pay closer attention to how he looked in her episodes.

Mere Smith is a wonderful yet maddening writer. Whenever I think of a Mere Smith episode, I think of a show that offered promise yet failed to deliver a satisfying conclusion (like Season 3's "Birthday", with it's false messages about Cordelia), or offered out-and-out disappointment and heartbreak (like Season 3's magnificent "Loyalty"). Season 2's "Untouched", and Season 4's "Ground State" and "Long Day's Journey" also fit in the first category that I've listed above as episodes that really didn't go anywhere. However, as far as I'm concerned, her Season 2's "Redefinition" was a grand slam out of the ball park, with Season 2's "Over the Rainbow" and Season 3's "Fredless" being sentimental favorites of mine. As far as any "problems" I might have with Mere Smith scripts, I hesitate to dish out much blame to her since she was only one of many people who had creative input into these episodes.

Jeffrey Bell and Terrence O'Hara. Showrunner Jeffrey Bell and director Terrence O'Hara provided probably the driest Angel DVD commentary to date. Both of them were low-key, and they had similar voices. If I put in just a little bit of effort I could have figured out which voice belonged to which person in the commentary, but I wasn't sufficiently motivated to do so. Jeffrey Bell had provided wonderful commentary in the past, particularly with Tim Minear. However, both Bell and O'Hara came across as being straight men in search of comic relief. Perhaps if one of them had been paired up with Mere Smith the commentary might have been a bit more entertaining. Nonetheless, Bell and O'Hara were still quite informative, and I was happy to hear some of their insights as to what was happening on the screen.

Wesley and Faith
(and Lorne). Trust Mutant Enemy to not allow Wesley Wyndam-Pryce and Faith to take out Angelus with a near-fatal one-two punch. Wesley was never allowed to do anything heroic, so talking his Slayer into injecting herself with the Orpheus drug and allowing Angelus to feed off of her in order to knock him into unconsciousness was about par for the course.

I never really care for conflict being introduced just for the sake of conflict (see this post for a description of a particularly wince-worthy moment). However, I thought it was entirely appropriate for Lorne to go after Wesley for subjecting Faith to what would turn out to be a dangerous and terrifying experience. Lorne's speech not only let the audience in on the dangers involved, it solidified the fact that Wesley was keeping his eye on the mission despite the fact that he still cared deeply for what was happening to Faith. Connor's startling admission that he thought that Wesley "did the right thing" was cold comfort to Wes when he was deeply worried about her fate.

Wesley continued his watchful worrying ways with Faith for the remainder of "Orpheus". I did not sense any hint of a romantic attachment towards her, but I did sense that he was aware that he had done his small part to prod her along toward her eventual rehabilitation and to reach her full potential as a Slayer. (Wes would have to leave it up to Angel to finish the process.) Having Faith survive this ordeal would help give Wesley a chance to finish his redemption for his failures as a Watcher back in Sunnydale, and would give him the sense of closure that he secretly craved on that chapter of his life.

Wes and Faith's final pairing was heavy with Pregnant Pauses and Unspoken Words, with a little bit of erotic tension thrown in to please the Faithsley fans. Unfortunately, their time together was way too brief, since several other loose ends were being tied up in the same scene. They parted ways as professionals, which may have been the best outcome everyone could have hoped for. Incidentally, there was an interesting tableau at the end of their scene, with Wes and Faith facing each other in the foreground, and Angel standing between them in the background. Forever the Eternal Triangle? Or, this time, Angel's in the middle?

Was Willow Necessary? Bell and/or O'Hara noted that it was Tim Minear's idea to bring Willow (actress Alyson Hannigan) onto the set, since her character had already successfully ensouled Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Season 2 season finale "Becoming". Minear's solution was elegant in its simplicity, not to mention pretty obvious. I've often wondered if fans kept screaming "bring in Willow!" during the original Season 4 air dates. As an added bonus, the audience was treated to the pairing of the newly-engaged lovebirds Alyson Hannigan and Alexis Denisof.

I won't go into a blow-by-blow of the events, but throughout the episode we saw Angel and Angelus reacting and responding to each other based on the outside witchcraft and magical actions performed by Willow. (Here's an example.) I recognize that some sort of outside intervention was needed, but I thought "Orpheus" might have been a bit stronger if we felt it was more about a battle between Good (Angel) and Evil (Angelus). As such, it was a bit disappointing that Angel ultimately won the battle thanks to Connor ruining Cordelia's concentration, thereby allowing Willow's magic to destroy the orb that held Angel's soul. The creators did allow us to enjoy one moment of Free Will when Angel talked Faith into rousing herself out of her depths to ultimately defeat not Angelus, but Connor at least.

Willow and Fred. I thought Amy Acker put in one of her best performances in this episode as she portrayed the giddy young woman who felt she had finally found a true new friend in Willow. I particularly enjoyed the scene where Fred was prancing around with the bell while she was assisting Willow with her spell. There was a wistfully sweet subtext of Fred perhaps reverting back to a more innocent lifestyle, where second-grade girls held hands with their girlfriends while they walked together on the school playground. You may remember how Cordelia cruelly took advantage of this wishful thinking in Season 4's "Spin the Bottle" when 17-year old Cordy told Fred, "Oh, gosh, let's be best friends so I can lose all my cool ones."

Contrast that to a much younger Willow (I'm guessing Fred's character was about 29 years old at the time of this episode, while Willow was just a few years out of high school) who was gaining maturity by exploring her sexuality and her lesbian identity. Regardless, the interplay between Willow and Fred was one of the top highlights of the episode for me.

Willow probably fell in love with Fred over the phone! Fred immediately responded to Willow's friendly overtures when she recognized a kindred nerdy spirit. I had mentioned in one of my recent "Supersymmetry" posts that "I can't help but think that what she [Fred] really needed was a close girlfriend she could spout off to while devouring a half-gallon of chocolate chip cherry cordial ice cream", and Willow seemed to fit the bill.

Apparently Cordelia was the only one in Angel Investigations who knew that Willow was gay, and Cordy wasn't in a situation to say anything since she was still sequestered in her room. Fred was blithely not picking up on any of the signals, though presumably she figured things out when Willow announced in one of the final scenes, "I'm seeing someone." I really don't trust my judgment on these things because it seems like whenever I'm absolutely positive a character has figured something out, one of the Mutant Enemy creators will point out in a commentary that the character is totally clueless about what's happening. I choose to believe that Fred finally reasoned it out, and I'll leave it at that.

Willow and Wesley. Jeffrey Bell and/or Terrence O'Hara did come right out and say that Wesley was equally clueless about Willow being a lesbian, particularly at the end of this scene:
WESLEY: You seem exactly the same as when I left. No other major changes I'm not up on?

WILLOW: (shrugs) Just little things. So, uh, Fred. What's her story?
I thought Wesley might have suspected Willow was gay, so I was grateful for the insight offered by the commentators. Regardless, it was well within Wesley's character to be clueless about the affairs of the heart, and, more importantly, he was always absolutely adorable when he was clueless. It always opens up certain fantasy worlds in my mind where Wesley has to be told or shown in explicit detail what's really happening. (Think of Fred giving up and finally showing her feelings for Wesley with a kiss in Season 5's "Smile Time".)

When I see Wesley and Willow together, I think more in terms of the creators giving everyone a treat by pairing up the then-engaged Alexis Denisof and Alyson Hannigan. I'm not really sure we should be reading too much into their scenes, but I still enjoyed sitting back and objectively seeing how their characters were interacting. Wesley and Willow did not have that much to do with each other back in Sunnydale during their Buffy days. I'm sure Wesley did not have anything against Willow, but Willow shared the feelings of the other Scooby gang members when she scornfully viewed Wesley as a bumbling outsider.

I didn't think Wes and Willow parted company in Sunnydale on particularly good terms, and I didn't expect them to reunite as lost friends. However, they seemed to get along quite nicely with each other from the very beginning of "Orpheus". (Notice how Wesley's normal speech patterns changed after Willow arrived.) I could be a killjoy and say the continuity was off in their relationship. Instead I'll just say that they seemed to have somehow gained mutual respect for each other's abilities during their time apart.

This scene was particularly touching (and funny) as they exchanged stories about the dark periods they had experienced in their lives. Besides the humor of Wesley's darkness not quite matching up to Willow's, I was struck by how this was the first time Wesley opened up to anyone about what he was going through in his life. I thought this aspect was quite significant, and I was delighted that his dialogue addressed some of the dichotomy that always fascinates me about his character. He seemed to acknowledge (in what I had often suspected) that dark, bad-ass Wesley was not the real Wesley, and that he wanted to change. In other words, he considered Dark Wesley to be the product of a phase he was going through, and he didn't seem to know how to snap out his funk and get on with his life.

Was Wesley hitting on Willow at that point? Bell and O'Hara correctly pointed out that we could see just how much Alexis cared for Alyson in this scene. (The feelings appeared to be mutual). Willow was an outsider who could offer a fresh perspective, but they had enough in common so Willow could understand Wesley and sympathize with what he was going through. Wes was probably comparing Fred against Willow at that time. Fred seemed permanently out of reach, yet here was Willow who was exhibiting all of Fred's finest qualities. Not only that, but Willow was much more accomplished and had reached a higher level of maturity than Fred. Wes could open up to Willow, and she could offer non-judgmental heartfelt guidance and advice. If Wesley opened up to Fred, at her worst she would have been shocked by his admissions and could have drawn herself further away from him (like when she found out about his relationship with Lilah). At her best, Fred would have only offered empty platitudes and told him not to worry because things would get better.

Finally, Wesley seemed quite proud of Willow's abilities in this scene when she was casting one of her spells, particularly when he assured Connor "I think she can hold her own." Wes seemed to be exhibiting somewhat misplaced pride of ownership, similar to how he basked in the reflected glory of Faith when she first started kicking ass in LA. One would think that Wesley was fully aware of Willow's strong witchcraft abilities, but I can't recall that he really saw her at her best
while he was still living in Sunnydale. In short, I'm not sure how Wesley gained his confidence in Willow's abilities.

The Soul(s) of Angel/Angelus. Bell and O'Hara pointed out that it was pretty much Joss Whedon's idea to establish that Angelus had been trapped inside Angel all of those years. This again touches on the tension within the Buffyverse that exists between the Platonic and existential souls. I won't go into the differences too much here (you can check my "soul" tag for more information), but in a nutshell, a Platonic soul is a separate entity, while an existential soul serves as a person's moral capacity. A big question I had was, what was Angel experiencing while his soul (his Platonic soul?) was trapped inside the orb?

Bell and O'Hara came right out and said that Angelus not only existed within Angel, but that Angel existed within Angelus. I'd have to put a lot more thought into this, since I don't think that concept was clearly established in "Orpheus". I vaguely recall in later Season 4 episodes that Angel seemed to be aware of what Angelus had done, but it makes a difference to me as to whether he was actively observing Angelus' actions (trapped in his body) during Angelus' reign of terror, or whether Angel gained Angelus' memories after Angel's soul was popped back into his body. In other words, I'm wondering if Angel was aware of what was happening in the outside world while his soul was trapped inside of the orb.

I'd also have to review Season 3 of Buffy to see if I can find any clues as to Angel's awareness of Angelus' activities in Season 2. However, I'm guessing that I won't find much information. (I do recall Angel seemed to be suffering from memory loss in the moments between the time he was ensouled by Willow and when Buffy pushed him into Hell.) Regardless, the nature of Angel's soul is still a wide open question for me, and I'll just have to keep slogging along and keep my eyes open for clues.

Vincent Kartheiser as Connor. I've read a few non-authoritative references online about how Kartheiser started really hating his Connor character in late Season 4, leading to a decision not to return until late Season 5. I can't vouch for that, but Bell and O'Hara did drop a few hints that Kartheiser was not loving his role, particularly in how Connor always had a few nasty things to say about magic.

Bell and O'Hara also mentioned that Kartheiser successfully portrayed Connor in a way that allowed us to feel empathy for the confusion he was feeling and for the poor decisions that he made. I disagree. I actually started hating Connor even more then ever, since I was angry at him for being too stupid to be able to make any correct decisions. He was trusting the person who meant him harm (Cordelia) and was suspicious of the people who had his best interests at heart (everyone else). If anything, I felt empathy for Kartheiser for being given an impossible acting assignment. (I might add that Kartheiser's overall acting performance was still as wonderful as ever.)

Faith and Angel. Similar to how I mentioned above that Wesley could never do anything heroic, it appeared equally important to the creators to make sure that Faith always failed to get a glamorous upper hand over Angelus. Even in their final moment together, Faith simply popped out of view when Angelus went after her. We were finally treated to some magnificent kick-assery from Faith, but Connor was the one at the receiving end of her blows instead of Angelus. I'm beginning to think that Eliza Dushku's Faith was in a similar situation to Denisof's Wesley, where she always had to appear a few notches lower than stars Sarah Michelle Gellar and David Boreanaz.

Although Wesley inspired Faith to successfully take on Angelus (in a manner of speaking), it was up to Angel to keep her going in the aftermath. I thought it was a lovely turn to have Angel pay back the favor after Faith "rescued" him by once again showing her the path toward redemption. Faith was ready to call it a victory and slip into death, but Angel refused to let her give up that easily. He had retreated from the world in the past, and he wasn't going to allow Faith to make the same mistake.

This is probably unfair to say, since I don't know how much more Wesley could have done, but it appeared that Wesley was resigned (albeit saddened) to see Faith surrender to death. Perhaps the fact that a new Slayer was destined to arise made it easier for him? Whereas Angel ultimately showed us that the story arc really was about Angel and Faith all along when he fought for her to the end.

Cordelia. The less said about her character assassination, the better. Charisma Carpenter Rocks!

Closing Thoughts. When I first saw this episode, I thought to myself "Who is this Willow character?" I think it really helps to have seen Willow evolve on Buffy before seeing her in "Orpheus", since she was such an idiosyncratic character. Regardless, watching this for the third time was the charm for me, and I think the interplay between Willow and Fred was one of the highlights of the episode. Willow and Fred obviously had a lot in common, with their brainy nerdiness and similar babbling speech patterns.

Wes and Gunn were still working well together as a team. There was no real warmth between them, but both were acting in a highly professional manner towards each other.

I didn't mind the fact that the Orpheus drug had magical qualities. We can scoff at how it was a little too convenient to ascribe everything that was happening to the drug, but I like a device that allows the plot to keep moving along. As a matter of fact, quite often when the action would bog down a little too much in Angel, I would snap, "Just do a spell and get it over with."

Weren't Eliza Dushku and David Boreanaz fantastic together as Faith and Angelus? I thought it was a wonderful device to show how Faith could identify with and compare herself against the murderous Angelus as well as the redemption-seeking Angel.

I ultimately hoped for a more nuanced understanding of Angel after watching his character travel throughout the decades. It was probably a bit too much to hope that we could see his character actually evolve, since there were a lot of plotlines being packed into this particular episode. About all we received was reinforcement of the idea that Angel was deliberately avoiding humans since he was afraid he would return to his murderous vampire ways.

I'm not sure if Andy Hallett's Lorne was being utilized more in this episode, but his character seemed to be make more of an impact in "Orpheus" than in some of the prior episodes. I loved how he tenderly cared for Faith, but I thought he was hysterically funny when he shrieked, "...ah! Angelus! He's in the hotel!"

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