Thursday, July 8, 2010

Wesley in the Middle

(I'm doing a series of posts about the sizzling relationship between Wesley Wyndam-Pryce and Faith in Season 4 of Angel. My previous posts are here, here and here. In this post I'll be concentrating on the episode "Release", where Wesley and Faith continued their pursuit of Angelus.)

The opening sequence in "Release" is one of the most challenging scenes in the entire series for me to get a grip on. I can't think of any other time within Angel where the gap is greater between what's actually being presented on the screen and what I'm actually seeing (or choosing to see). This scene, of course, was where Faith quietly rebuffed Wesley's offer of treatment after he brought her home to his apartment.

To set the stage, towards the end of the prior episode, "Salvage", the previously quite-confident Faith got her butt kicked not only by The Beast, but also by super-vamp Angelus. (Fortunately for Faith, Angelus killed The Beast, which at least cut her workload in half.) Understandably, while being covered with all sorts of cuts and bruises, and possibly suffering from other unseen injuries, Faith was not only suffering physically as she stood bleeding onto Wesley's hardwood floor, she was also suffering from serious self-doubts about her abilities as a Slayer. I'd be willing to bet that she'd never been beaten that seriously in her life (afterthought: oops, forgot about Buffy), and her sense of mortality was probably weighing quite heavily on her at that time.

To complicate matters, her former Watcher (Wesley), whom she had brutally tortured a few years earlier, was acting all concerned about her well-being. He offered her a place to sit, and she elected to keep standing. His reaction was to bring an icepack to her, which he tenderly applied to the side of her neck after he gently pushed her hair aside. Notice how Faith kept her back to him at all times. When Wesley then told her he was getting bandages for her, Faith quickly insisted, "No drama [trauma?]. I'm good."

That "...drama [trauma?]" part from above is the key to all of my confusion. I, and a few others online, interpreted what she said as "drama". Some other credible and authoritative sites are reporting that she said "trauma" instead. None of these sites have "official" transcripts and all of the dialogue appeared to have been transcribed by ordinary (albeit dedicated) fans who don't appear to have any sort of inside track with the scriptwriters. I'd appreciate any insights provided by my readers.

I think there's a huge difference between "drama" and "trauma" as far as Faith's reaction to how Wesley treated her. It was so important for me to get this right for my post, I forced three bemused family members to listen to that scene and give me their opinions. Long story short (and without tipping them off in advance) - they all heard "drama". Regardless, when I first saw the scene, I had no idea that there was any sort of question as to whether she used the word "drama" or "trauma". I clearly heard "drama", which colored my perception of their relationship for the remainder of the story arc.

And this is where I got bogged down in writing about this episode. I almost felt obligated to write two parallel reviews: one where I wrote about what I logically thought was happening on the screen, and another where I wrote about what I was personally seeing on the screen.

What do I think I was supposed to see? A broken, yet still defiant Slayer refusing all offers of medical attention while projecting an independent "I don't need anyone's help" attitude. Faith stating "no trauma" can be interpreted as a simple declaration that she was A-OK ("Five by Five") and didn't need any additional medical treatment. In other words, she would be good to go with a minimum of introspection, as if she had simply encountered a minor road bump. If we want to muddy the waters a bit, we can say that she also wanted to skip out on being treated for injuries that seemed all-too-reminiscent of the injuries suffered by Wesley when he was on the receiving end of her rage and frustration. "No trauma" could mean that she was either pretending not to notice, or refusing to acknowledge, the underlying tensions that defined the relationship between Wes and Faith.

So what did I actually see? Far from being the larger-than-life Slayer who broke out of prison, I instead saw Faith as a small, bewildered young girl who had been forced to grow up way too quickly and make her own way in this violent demon world. Then Wesley complicated matters by speaking so tenderly, almost lovingly, to this confused young girl. An incredible amount of erotic energy seemed to course back and forth between the two performers (Alexis Denisof and Eliza Dushku), particularly as Wesley gently ran his hands down the sides of her shoulders, ostensibly to check her out for additional injuries. Similar actions from Giles acting with a fatherly interest towards Buffy takes on whole new meanings when performed by two highly sexually charged creatures who appear to be much closer together in age.

Under these circumstances, Faith's declaration of "no drama" could mean an open declaration that she was acknowledging the intense feelings they were both experiencing. Indeed, there was a strong component of awkwardness between them, as they realized they both had a lot to say to each other but felt compelled to keep silent. Faith was not only directly dealing with a person she had tortured in the past, but was also dealing with how she was thrown into the impossible situation of taking violent action against two powerful supernatural beings while simultaneously trying to perform penance by becoming more peaceable in her dealings with humans. I also couldn't help but think that Faith feared there was a distinct possibility that if Wesley performed the intimate act of treating her wounds, it could have all led to a romantic situation that Faith was simply not ready for at the time.

I read a comment somewhere that Faith had the most unerotic shower scene ever filmed. I tend to agree with that statement while acknowledging that it wasn't intended to be erotic. However, we can't ignore that some of the elements were there, including Faith stripping out of her clothes and obviously being nude within the shower. Taken with the slow, languid action on Wesley's part in his living room, a person could be forgiven for thinking that some elements of eroticism were present. Quite frankly, Faith was suffering from emotional overload, and punching out part of the shower wall was the only way she could relieve some of that frustration. It's also quite possible that she was attempting to drive away the erotic elements that were troubling her.

For his part, Wesley probably realized that it was better for Faith to punch out the wall than him or some other innocent bystander. In what seemed to be a recurring theme, Wesley had some real doubts as to whether Faith was up to the challenge of capturing Angelus. In his words, Wesley wondered, "I need to know you're in the game, Faith. All the way." Faith confidently answered, "Five by five, boss."

Wesley again suffered some doubts in this scene outside the Hyperion Hotel when Faith opted to let Angelus go rather than risk having him kill Wesley. There were a lot of interesting dynamics at play, including how Wes was really putting his "by all means necessary" philosophy into action where he was apparently willing to give up his own life for the sake of the Greater Good. Faith, of course, was still struggling with the concept espoused by Buffy of protecting the sanctity of human lives while simultaneously taking violent action against demons. She had ignored that creed in the past and ended up in prison for her troubles. Faith only had a few seconds to react, and, apparently, being fully ingrained with her new-found philosophy, chose to save Wesley's life as opposed to sacrificing him.

Wesley roundly berated Faith for her choice, even telling her that "The only way to defeat him is to be just as vicious as he is." Wesley was asking a lot from her, since he was fully cognizant of the fact that if she reverted to being "as vicious" as Angelus, that could undo many months of progress she was making in her own rehabilitation. As correct as Wesley's attitude was on the surface, I can't help but think he was being a bit disingenuous. He demanded that she kill Angelus fully knowing that she would be unable to do so. In that light, his claim to self-sacrificing heroism looks a bit suspicious.

In their next scene together, Wesley and Faith were both in fine form as they terrorized the demon bar. This ranks right up with this scene from "Salvage" where they were working together to try to find Angelus and The Beast. In both instances Wes and Faith looked as though they had already been a team for several years. Faith certainly looked as though her "vicious" instincts were kicking in as she continuously banged "Lumpy's" head against the bar counter.

Wesley required a certain level of bad-assitude from Faith in order to track down Angelus, which she seemed quite willing to provide in the main room of the bar. However, a definite change came over Faith as she went into the backroom with Wesley. This scene offered an excellent example of Faith's struggles with redemption as she wavered between her new-found empathy for the suffering of humans and the need to keep focused on her brutal mission. From the dialogue sequence in the above link, we can see that Faith's initial reaction was to rescue one particular human (a young girl) from a very dangerous situation. The scene had all of the hallmarks of a drug den, with syringes scattered about, needle marks on people's arms, and humans and vampires intertwined, all in various stages of stupor.
FAITH: (to Wes) What did they do to her?

WESLEY: She did it to herself. They shoot up, the vampires feed, use 'em like a filter. I've read the effects can be quite intoxicating...for both of them.
Even that little bit of dialogue revealed a lot about the very complex interactions between humans and demons within the Buffyverse world. On the surface, the two species were in a constant war of extermination with each other. If you scratch away the layers just a little bit we find that the two sides co-existed in some rather surprisingly "beneficial" ways. As sick as it sounded, vampires needed to keep the humans alive in order to get their drug fixes. It's also reminiscent of real-life situations where parties of seemingly opposite sides work together in order to keep various vice trades going.

I've mentioned in previous posts that Wesley seemed to know an awful lot about this seedy demon underworld. I even wrote about how he appeared to take issue with the indiscriminate slaughter of demons in Season 3's "That Old Gang of Mine". Wes recognized that there was a very delicate ecosystem at play, where the mass elimination of demons could cause some rather nasty side effects. (These side effects aren't all that obvious, but I'm thinking in terms of the inevitable escalation of violence that occurs within sudden power vacuums.) By this point in the series, we're not surprised at all that Wesley seemed to have an intimate knowledge of these vampire/human drug dens.

I thought Faith was fairly worldly, but she seemed to be unaware of this particular subculture since she was still a young and relatively inexperienced Slayer. Regardless, Faith's sympathy for the girl very quickly turned to disgust when the girl told her, "Hey, you're pretty. You wanna make out?" That seemed to pull Faith out of her momentary shock as she pushed the girl against the wall and started her interrogation, culminating with Faith punching the girl in the face when she failed to acknowledge that she saw Angelus.

When Faith again accused the girl of lying about Angelus, the girl started begging and crying, "No, I didn't. Stop it, you're hurting me!" Faith's conscience again took over while she took pity on the girl. Faith released her and informed Wesley "She doesn't know anything."

Then, in probably one of the most shocking scenes in the entire series, Wesley calmly looked at Faith as he said "maybe not", then took out his knife and stabbed the girl in the shoulder, pinning her to the wall. Shouting the entire time, he showed Faith the real way to elicit information from people:
FAITH: (screams) What are you doing, Wes?

WESLEY: (to Faith) Shut up! (to the girl) The tracks on your arms—you've been here, what, two or three days straight? (twists the knife) Answer me!

DRUGGED GIRL: Yeah, God, stop! Yes four—four days.

WESLEY: Then you must've seen the vampire we're looking for.

DRUGGED GIRL: Angelus, I saw him. He, uh...

WESLEY: Where is he?

DRUGGED GIRL: I don't know. (Wes punches her) I don't know! Please stop!

WESLEY: They said he was talking to himself. What was he saying?

DRUGGED GIRL: I don't know. It wa—It was like he was talking to someone else. It was all rain of fire a-and pulling strings and a soul. That's all I heard. Please stop. It hurts.

(Wes pulls the knife out of the girl. Faith runs to the girl's side.)

FAITH: (to Wes) Have you totally lost it?

WESLEY: I avoided the main arteries. She'll live, if that's what you call this. Whatever's controlling the Beast—it's made contact with Angelus.
Where the earlier part of the scene effectively highlighted Faith's inner turmoil, this particular segment gave an excellent illustration of where Wesley was at in his life. He was definitely in a very dark place, with his youthful idealism apparently gone forever. Superficially, we could point to this scene as Wesley's low point to date. (If nothing else, it was yet one more in a long line of examples of Wesley's supposed "ruthless" streak of putting ahead the needs of the many over that of the few!) But, like everything else with Wes, it didn't take long to spot a certain method to his madness. Angelus was on the loose, and he had to be stopped quickly, almost regardless of the cost. Niceties be damned!

This little segment also put a spotlight on the normally shadowy world that operated completely outside of the law. I spend a lot of time defending some of the more vigilante aspects of Angel Investigations since it was just about impossible to bring certain wrongdoers to trial within the criminal justice system. Stabbing a woman and pinning her to a wall would be a criminal offense under almost any system, regardless as to whether the outcome would ultimately help advance mankind. Just think of countries (including the U.S.) that systematically engage in extra-legal activities, including torturing their prisoners, in order to obtain what they believe is vital information. Like it or not, Wesley and his teammates were forced to use whatever tools were available to carry out their missions.

Faith was desperate to find balance in her life. She had lived most of her young adult life at one extreme (as a wild psychopath), and it was necessary to experience some of the other extreme (as a non-violent person learning to empathize with others) in order to achieve that middle ground. Sometimes our responsibilities don't allow us the luxury of healing at our own rates. Wesley yanked Faith out of her recovery program and provided shock therapy to get her back to her Slayer duties.

This piece of dialogue gave us some intriguing insights into Wesley's motivations:
FAITH: So, what? Torturing humans part of the new makeover?

WESLEY: I did what I had to do because you couldn't.

FAITH: I hit her.

WESLEY: You think that's something new to her?

FAITH: You crossed it back there, Wes. What you did back there—

WESLEY: Oh, you have a problem with torture now? I seem to recall a time when you rather enjoyed it.

FAITH: Yeah, well, it's not me anymore. You know that.

WESLEY: (leans the shotgun forward) Nice to have this along, just in case. I remember what you did to me, Faith. The broken glass, the shallow cuts so I would remain conscious.

FAITH: You think I'd hurt you again?

WESLEY: This the part where you tell me you've turned a new leaf, found God, inner peace? We both know that isn't true. You haven't changed. You can't.

FAITH: Wes...

WESLEY: Because you're sick. You've always been sick. It goes right down to the roots rotting your soul. That's why your friends turned on you in Sunnydale, why the Watchers' Council tried to kill you. No one trusts you, Faith. You're a rabid dog who should've been put down years ago! (Faith pushes Wesley violently against the chain link fence, taking the gun from him and raising it back to hit him with it, but stops short) See, that wasn't so hard, was it? It's what you'll need to beat him.

FAITH: (puts the gun down, steps back) No.

WESLEY: You have to be willing to take it all the way, Faith.

FAITH: I can't risk killing Angel. Not after what he's done for me. There's got to be another way.

(walks away)
It would be easy to accuse Wesley of being a misogynist in this episode, with his rough treatment of Faith and the young woman drug addict. In reality, Wesley was an Equal Opportunity boss who expected certain behaviors from his charges regardless of their sex. He wasn't afraid to use any means necessary in service of the Greater Good. Faith and the drug addict joined the pantheon of other women he treated sans kid gloves in order to achieve his goals, including Bethany, Justine, Lilah and Illyria.

At this point, Wes/Faith shippers probably couldn't help but think that the story between the rogue Watcher and Slayer was just beginning. For example, one can imagine a semi-erotic subtext in the above-referenced scene where Wesley was challenging (taunting?) Faith to take control over their relationship, and where she declined to do so. This brings to mind all of the delicious power plays involved in certain relationships (e.g., Wesley and Lilah) where we are left wondering who has the upper hand. Was it Wes, because he was giving orders? Was it Faith, because she made the conscious decision to give up control despite her Slayer strength? Or did Wesley have the ultimate authority, since he inspired Faith to give up control? Regardless, Wesley and Faith tying each up as a form of foreplay has became a staple of fan fiction.

Unfortunately, we discovered that the above scene (and, really, all of "Salvage" and "Release" up to this point) was simply a lengthy prelude to what was probably the real story, which was the final showdown between Faith and Angelus, and the continuation of Faith's quest in "Orpheus" to return the favor to the guy (Angel) who had "never given up" on her when he was working to bring her redemption. All of this, of course. leads up to Wesley being squarely "in the middle" of Faith and Angel.

The entire Angel/Faith arc dating back to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer days was certainly quite powerful in its own right. I don't want to diminish that narrative simply because the Wesley/Faith story arc didn't pan out the way I would have liked. In essence, Wesley was the Marine drill sergeant who broke down the raw recruit in order to build her back up again. In the process, Wesley was able to gain his own redemption for his failed Watcher past. We can certainly be grateful to Mutant Enemy for giving us the building blocks that allowed the Wesley/Faith relationship to continue to flourish in so many great fanfic sites.

Closing Thoughts
. I had previously thought of the relationship between Wesley and Faith in Season 4 as being a pure unadulterated partnership between Watcher and Slayer. I read a comment or essay somewhere recently where the author pointed out that this was the least typical example of this partnership within the Buffyverse. Wes and Faith in Season 4 were obviously miles apart from Buffy and Giles! Although Wes and Faith's pairing was far from typical, it certainly did offer intriguing possiblities of how Wes and Faith could have been criss-crossing the nation as rogue demon-hunters if a spinoff series had ever materialized. (Please note that although Eliza Dushku was offered a chance to continue on as Faith, I've never read that Alexis Denisof was offered the same opportunity to continue on as Wesley.)

One key difference between Wesley/Faith and Giles/Buffy is that Giles was very reluctant to put Buffy into extremely dangerous situations (as opposed to daily run-of-the-mill dangerous situations.) Just think of the episode "Helpless" from Season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Giles' interference with her ultra-dangerous Cruciamentum test caused him to be dismissed from the Watcher's Council since it was feared he had grown too attached to his Slayer. One could easily imagine Wesley putting one of his Slayers to the test without too much trauma on his part.

I'll be re-watching "Orpheus" over the next day or so, which is the last show in the Season 4 "Faith" trilogy. This episode has always been somewhat of a disappointment for me, and I'm curious to see if my opinions change after seeing it again.

I can always change my mind, but I think in my next post I'll briefly touch on a few things that were going on with other characters in "Release". In subsequent post(s) I'll then talk about "Orpheus" and give some closing thoughts on the Wesley/Faith relationship.

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