Thursday, September 16, 2010

Kindred Monster Spirits

(Jenny Mollen as Nina Ash)

(Note: 9/17/2010 - Two minor updates added in italics in text below in the "Nina Ash" and "Here's to Good Friends" sections.)

The last thing I want to do is continue on with a habit I developed several months ago of writing two to three posts for each episode of Angel as I work my way through my DVD collection. My creative muse is a strict taskmistress. Although I thoroughly enjoyed all of Season 5 on my first viewing, I was somewhat underwhelmed the last few times I saw the first several episodes of the season. I was therefore looking forward to just pounding out a few slight posts here and there covering the first eleven episodes of Season 5 before I really started getting serious with "You're Welcome".

I'm almost disappointed now that I'm really liking early Season 5, since that means more work for me. For one thing there seems to be a lot more depth to these episodes than what I remember. Another thing is that I'm on the lookout for certain key themes that I neglected in my earlier reviews, and I'm finding treasure troves of information in unexpected places.

"Unleashed" (which introduced the character of Nina the Werewolf) is carrying on the tradition of being a Season 5 episode where there's a lot more happening than what meets the eye.

Opening Dialogue Sequence. I don't know what's more excruciating for readers to have to deal with: when I write more than one post per episode, or when I deconstruct a dialogue sequence. When I do the latter, I feel like I'm talking down to readers, like I'm explaining a Sunday comic strip to a 5-year-old.

So naturally, "Unleashed" starts off with this terrific scene where the gang is having their late-night picnic and hoping that they're not being spied upon by employees of Wolfram & Hart. Right away the Angel Investigations group started talking about a new favorite subject or mine: are all employees of Wolfram & Hart evil? Fred, who always naively saw the best in everyone she met, reassured everyone that "'s not like everyone there's evil. I mean, we work with these people. Some of 'em I see more than I see you guys, at least lately, anyway." (I'll let you read the rest of the dialogue if you're interested.)

Then, in what I thought I'd never be happy to see again, Wesley started in on his jealousy act when he started saying in so many words that Fred was seeing a lot more of Knox than anyone else in the Angel Investigations group. Fred naturally got all flustered and started in with the unintentional double entendres (like being "on top" of Knox) before Angel mercifully brought that little episode to a close by concluding that they all at least agreed that the Senior Partners were undeniably evil. To back up a bit, when Wesley started giving Fred some grief, he was wonderfully reverting back to his slightly unstable Dark Wesley persona from Season 4. Since I'm still not sure of what to make of his New and Improved personality for Season 5, I'm naturally gravitating toward Bad-Ass Wesley for at least being familiar territory.

Then, in another nod to Season 4 rivalry, Wesley started the ball rolling with "What about Gunn?" To her credit, Fred kept things going by conceding that nobody really knew what Wolfram & Hart put into Charles' head, while Angel agreed that it was a "legitimate concern". As the dialogue continued, it became apparent that Charles did get the most out of the deal with Wolfram & Hart. Similar to how Angel Investigations couldn't afford to shy away from the question of why Connor was brought into the world, the group had every right to question what might have been lying in wait inside Charles' brain. (For example, could he have been something out of The Manchurian Candidate, waiting to be activated when he received a signal?)

I'd have to wade through the rest of the Season 5 episodes to further develop this theory, but it's possible that Wolfram & Hart wasn't so much concerned with giving Charles advanced legal knowledge as much as grooming him to accept that he was special and deserving of greater rewards. This feeling of entitlement would have carried through when he was vamped in First Night and would have helped him believe throughout most of After the Fall that he (Vampire Charles) had been specially chosen by The Powers That Be rather than Wolfram & Hart to rescue Los Angeles from the Apocalypse.

Nina Ash. Werewolf Nina seemed to be Season 5's version of Season 4's Gwen Raiden, in that she was introduced with great fanfare and seldom used thereafter. I always liked Nina and was pleased to see that she played a prominent part in the first four volumes of After the Fall, particularly in Volumes 3 and 4. (Come to think of it, Gwen Raiden played a prominent part in After the Fall as well.)

Mutant Enemy seemed to like reintroducing themes from Season 1 back into Season 5, which they did in this episode by allowing Angel to do what he did best: work one-on-one with helpless victims. I thought this piece of dialogue from the end of the episode provided a deft touch, where Angel advised Nina, "If you separate yourself from the ones you love, the monster wins ". This, of course, was another throwback to Season 1, where Doyle warned Angel in so many words that if he completely cut himself from the people he was trying to save, pretty soon they'd start looking like meals.

I always have a hard time finding this citation, but I've read before that in Season 1 actor David Boreanaz was paired up with different actresses/victims of the week to see what happened. If they created any chemistry, then the implication was that the actress would be brought back to appear in additional episodes, perhaps as a love interest. If true, I don't know if it would have been fair for an actress to be thrown into a situation like that, since you need an equally strong commitment from the writers to help make sure that the "chemistry" developed.

In Season 5's "Unleashed" it looked like a foregone conclusion that Angel was going to have a love interest, and actress Jenny Mollen provided us with a pleasing, refreshingly normal and uncomplicated character to enjoy. I've often wondered, why did Angel, who always worked so hard to put himself off-limits to women, all of a sudden become so relatively available in Season 5? I have a few half-baked ideas on this, including the fact that a stressed-out CEO needs someone outside of his work environment to be able to relax with. Plus, the fact that Nina was a fellow "monster" probably had a huge part to play as well. Regardless, I'm always happy when a character gets some stability in his or her life by taking on a romantic partner. As a bonus, rather than dying a horrible death a few episodes later (which is the fate of most Whedonverse love interests), as far as I know, Nina still lives on in the After the Fall continuation comics.

(Update 9/17/2010. I should have read the Production details of this episode in the Wikipedia entry first before writing this post. According to Mutant Enemy's Jeffrey Bell, "Nina is not becoming a regular, but there was good chemistry so we’ve talked about bringing her back. There are no master plans for Angel and werewolf girl but we’re always open to the possibility.")

I thought this scene was quite fascinating, where Fred was accompanying Nina (along with a bunch of armed security guards) back to her house to gather up a few possessions that she could take back to Wolfram & Hart. To back up, it was crucial that Nina remain locked up in a cage at Wolfram & Hart during full moon nights so she wouldn't go out and kill people in murderous rampages. Anyway, up to that point, we had known sweet, innocent Fred to be a champion of Good, always taking the side of the little guy against Evil. Although we knew Fred was unchanged, she was still in an uncomfortable position of representing a huge conglomerate while being forced to spout off the slightly-ridiculous sounding line of "It's not like you're a prisoner". Fred was put in the unenviable position of having to justify her reasoning and her actions, where no matter how hard she tried to spin things in a different direction, she was carrying out paternal, sinister-sounding "for your own good" policies on behalf of a Big Bad Corporation.

Nina's reaction was interesting, in that she knew deep down that putting herself in the hands of Wolfram & Hart was the right thing to do. However, by putting herself in the hands of Big Brother, she also knew that she ran the risk of losing some of her autonomy, not to mention the fact that she had to be on the alert for unanticipated dangers that actually cropped up pretty quickly.

Jumping back a bit, it was interesting how Angel was the one who first came to then-naked Nina after she spent her first night in the cage. We don't know how much of a free show Angel received in person before she had a chance to get dressed, but Angel most certainly received an eyeful from the closed-circuit cameras after Nina reverted back to her human state from her werewolf persona. Although still quite young, Nina was an adult, and as an art student she seemed to be somewhat of a free spirit. She didn't seem to be the overly-modest type. Still, most people would consider it to be a violation to be parading around naked while being locked in a cage and having no idea what's happening in the outside world.

If Angel was bureaucratic and correct in his actions, he would have sent Fred ahead of him to make initial contact with Nina and to otherwise reassure her of her safety. Once it was established Nina was fully dressed and feeling somewhat secure, Angel could have stepped in to take over. However, Angel himself was the one who greeted Nina as he unlocked her from the cage. He would have looked quite menacing to Nina initially, but it was important for her to realize that she was being cared for, not by a faceless business entity, but by a real person instead. She wasn't going to get passed off from department to department based on her particular needs, but one person would be shepherding and guiding her through the entire process.

This certainly brings up patient/therapist issues, where someone who is quite vulnerable can fall in love with a therapist who appears to be taking an active interest in her well-being. Nina did what any woman would have done when she developed a crush on the big strong handsome man who was saving her life. (Remember how Fred had the same feelings about Angel in late Season 2 and early Season 3 after Angel rescued her from Pylea.) Angel of course spent most of the rest of the season denying that Nina and he had any feelings for each other. However, we weren't convinced, and neither was he. Similar to how Cordelia faced Angel and Wesley at her most sexually vulnerable moment after she became impregnated in Season 1's "Expecting", Nina was confronted with Angel at a few of her most vulnerable moments, first when she was naked in a cage, then when she was naked (albeit covered) and about to be served as the main course at a debauched dinner party. From that point on, Nina and Angel gained a certain amount of intimacy from the fact that she literally had nothing more to hide.

Which brings me to the issue of Nina's in-your-face nudity throughout the episode. When Nina woke up naked in the cage, actress Jenny Mollen was artfully filmed in such a way to show off as much skin as possible without actually revealing anything that would be cut by the censors. Judging from the various forums, this seemed to be a controversial aspect when the episode first aired. The comments seemed to be evenly divided between "Oh my God she's naked!" and "Quit whining about it and get a life."

I was not loving what I was seeing on my TV, although I admit I didn't object to David Boreanaz being filmed in a similar manner when Angel arrived back in Sunnydale from the hell dimension in early Season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Anyway, I was dutifully telling myself that of course she wouldn't have a stitch of clothing on her after she reverted from being a werewolf back to human form, and that I should stop acting so Puritanical. Then, the creators had to insert this scene where Nina was chained and having her clothes cut off by a Helga-the-Heifer character who looked like an archetype SS Nazi women's prison guard.

Notice that more often than not, it seems like when any show features more exploitation of women than usual, the producers are always careful to make sure that women's names are prominently featured in key creative roles in the opening credits, probably in an attempt to stave off criticism. In Season 1's "She", Marti Noxon was credited as being one of the co-writers. "Unleashed" was written by Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain, and directed by Marita Grabiak. Very clever. Anyway, similar to how Spike never liked being "played", I don't appreciate having situations like these being shoved in my face where I can't help but look like a dried-up, narrow-minded old crone if I speak out against what I'm seeing.

Another Bureaucrat Bites the Dust. Cryptozoologist/werewolf specialist Dr. Royce was the next morally ambivalent Wolfram & Hart employee to get sacrificed to unabashed evildoers. In what quickly turned into a recurring theme in Season 5, the Good Guys of Angel Investigations crew seemed content to reach an equilibrium with the Bad Guys, in a respect-for-enemy-professional-soldiers sort of way. The little guys who are too afraid to take a stand are the ones who get caught in the crossfire.

Again, were we supposed to buy into the notion that Dr. Royce was inherently evil? He certainly acted like he was caught in circumstances outside of his control, though this might be a continuation of the theme of Evil taking on many faces. The fact that he (with the implication that large numbers of other Wolfram & Hart employees) took calendula to mask his true aura when he sang for Lorne certainly did not help his cause. Regardless, I couldn't help but feel sorry for the guy, particularly since we never learned his back story or those of any of the lowly bureaucrats who signed on with Wolfram & Hart.

I'm reminded of how Americans were recruited to spy for the Soviet Union during 1940 and 1941, before the U.S. had been attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. The Russian recruiters appealed to their sense of patriotism, in that these people were eager to protect their country against Fascism. A few years later, after the U.S. had officially entered the war and these recruits were asked to turn over damaging military secrets, they were reminded that they had already broken U.S. laws when they originally agreed to spy for the Soviets. Furthermore, they would be turned over to American authorities if they refused to carry out orders. Werewolf specialists like Dr. Royce would have hardly been able to make their livings outside of Wolfram & Hart, and they might have been originally enticed to join the firm with the promise of being given all of the available resources necessary to carry out their research. Once they signed on with Wolfram & Hart, it would have been too late to revert back to a more innocent lifestyle.

Spike. I was glad that Spike was a little more in the background in "Unleashed", since his constant moralizing in the previous episode was starting to get on my nerves. However, I absolutely adored this scene with Fred when he attempted to pour on the charm and push all of her buttons by bullshitting big time about the "vendettas sworn" between him and Wesley. Ironically, this scene where he really was trying to pull one over on Fred convinced me in my first viewing of this episode of his absolute sincerity. He acted a little embarrassed when Fred called him out on his lies, but I think he was actually quite pleased that she was smart enough to be able to see right through his little charade. Incidentally, Spike talked a big story in "Just Rewards" about how he was all gung-ho to save the world, but he was quite willing to put his own personal problems in front of Nina's in Fred's personal to-do list.

Here's To Good Friends. Regular readers know that I'm an absolute sucker for warm, cozy scenes like these where everyone's getting together and having a good time. At this point, where Angel finally invited his friends to his luxurious executive apartment, I couldn't help but be reminded of a jingle from an old Lowenbrau beer commercial, "Here's to good friends, tonight is something special, tonight....tonight....let it be Lowenbrau." (I apologize to nostalgia buffs for not being able to directly link to the lyrics on the Wikipedia page because of case sensitivity issues.) In fact the whole mood was quite different from similar moments that occurred within the Hyperion, in that everyone was effortlessly chit-chatting while being comfortably draped over leather couches. I can't remember if there was a lit fireplace anywhere, but there should have been. Usually a happy scene like this in the Whedonverse is immediately followed by a horrible tragedy. Fred was destroyed by Illyria later on in the season, but I'm not sure that the gathering in Angel's apartment provided the direct foreshadowing.

(Update 9/17/2010 - Also, per the Wikipedia entry for the Production details of this episode, "This episode is notable for being one of the very few in the entire series that close with a legitimately upbeat ending that isn't tempered by the usual Whedonesque "shadows of doom".)

Idle Thoughts. Gunn mentioned in this scene that the crew had been at Wolfram & Hart for a month. I always appreciate specific references to the passage of time in Angel. Most of Season 4 had been compacted into a few short weeks, and I appreciated knowing that the characters had a chance to have a little bit of an off-camera life. It certainly makes it easier for fanfic writers to develop stories for their favorite characters!

I loved how successfully Amy Acker pulled off the dialogue in this scene when she reverted back to her old Fred persona as she prattled on and on about how she called Nina feeling "totally suicidal" after she got dumped by her boyfriend, and her car got towed, and the battery died on her cell phone, etc.

Although I was enjoying Wesley's return to his sexy Season 4 darkness, I did not like the look he presented to us in an early scene (here? I can't remember) where he was wearing a dark blue shirt and a brown (leather? suede?) vest. He looked like he was trying to emulate the early 1970's heartthrobs who appeared in Alias, Smith and Jones.

Whew! I did this all in one post.

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