Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Angel: Time to Get His Groove Back

Numero Cinco, from Screencap Paradise

I've learned from past experience that whenever I sit down to watch a particularly satisfying episode of Angel, it's not too unusual to see Jeffrey Bell's name plastered all over the opening credits. For pure entertainment value, his "The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco" from Season 5 is one of my favorite shows of the entire series. It's also one of the few episodes of Angel that I've shown to the rest of my family, since I knew they could watch it with a minimum of additional explanation. As usual, this is less a review and more of an exploration of some of my current pet themes.

Shanshu Prophecy. We learned a little bit more in this episode about how Angel had just about completely turned his back on the Shanshu prophecy which, in the words of Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, "....tells of an epic, apocalyptic battle and a vampire with a soul who plays a major role in that battle. And there's the suggestion that the vampire will get to live again." It's a little too much for me to go into how Angel was feeling "disconnected", how Spike realized the prophecy could have been about him instead of Angel, and how Wesley confronted Angel about how hope was "the only thing that will sustain you, that will keep you from ending up like Numero 5."

Wes was always the one who felt the most attached to the Shanshu prophecy, probably since he bonded with it considerably while he was translating the scrolls that Angel had swiped from Wolfram & Hart in Season 1. Wesley also acted borderline patronizing toward Angel concerning the prophecy, somewhat like a parent keeping a fairy tale alive in order to maintain a desired behavior from a young child. In this case, Wesley was the "parent" who was keeping "child" Angel focused on his mission of being a champion. Spike picked up on this fairy tale aspect pretty quickly when he described the prophecy as being the one "that says that Angel gets to be a real boy again."

Angel's attitude toward the prophecy tended to run between hot and cold, depending on how well things were going for him at the time. In early Season 5, he was running "cold" since, as he described to Wesley, "The prophecies are nonsense. You know that. Oh, come on, Wes, after everything we've seen the past couple of years? 'The father will kill the son'?"

I'll stop at this point simply because whenever I write about the Shanshu prophecy, I feel that I'm doing so out of a sense of obligation. I can't deny that the prophecy, which was introduced in late Season 1, played a huge part in shaping almost the entire series. However, the Shanshu prophecy itself never really grabbed my imagination. I often feel that I'm not entirely grasping the concept, even though it seems pretty simple when I type it out. What's particularly troubling to me is that half of the time I can never really figure out how the prophecy's being interpreted and how Angel is reacting to it. After looking at this Buffyverse Wiki entry, now I'm really glad I haven't devoted a lot of time to the Shanshu prophecy. It appears that, rather than changing through an organic process, the prophecy seems to go through abrupt changes in order to make it fit into whatever agenda the writers are pushing at that particular point in time. In other words, I should stop trying to analyze the process of change and just take what the writers are giving me at face value.

New and Improved Wesley. The Season 5 version of Wesley was obviously a lot more mature than earlier versions. Paradoxically, although he went through definite character growth, Wesley was closer in spirit (good-natured and naive) to Seasons 1 through the early part of Season 3 Wesley, rather than the "Dark Wesley" who emerged after he kidnapped baby Connor in late Season 3's "Sleep Tight".

When I first saw Season 5 I tried to ignore the nature of the Connor mind wipe, which was a magical procedure that Angel allowed Wolfram & Hart to perform as a condition to accepting the law firm's job offer. After the mind wipe, most of the characters had forgotten all about Connor, which allowed Connor to be placed in a normal family and live as though his hellish nightmarish years had never happened. I therefore saw Wesley's Season 5 character as someone who had successfully integrated the best of his Old and New (Dark) Wesley personality traits and emerged as someone who was much more well-grounded and mature. This theory didn't hold up too well after I witnessed Wesley's obvious disintegration in "Origin" when all of his dark memories returned to him after he released the spell of the Orlon Window. Wesley obviously couldn't have "integrated" personality traits that he didn't even know existed.

At some point, after probably about three seconds of thought, I decided to dub the Season 5 version of Wesley as being the New and Improved Wesley. What complicates things a bit further is that I've recently discovered that in earlier posts I used Dark Wesley and the New and Improved Wesley as somewhat interchangeable terms. Regardless, although I still consider most of Season 5 Wesley as being more well-grounded, confident and mature, there definitely seemed to be something missing from his personality.

Indeed, this part of the dialogue sequence where Wesley lectured Angel on the importance of keeping the faith regarding the Shanshu prophecy (and where Wesley revealed that he had no memories regarding Connor) is reminiscent of this dialogue sequence from Season 1's "To Shanshu in L.A." where Wes voiced his concerns to Cordy on how "there's nothing in life he [Angel] wants". So rather than being New and Improved in Season 5, it appeared that Wesley actually regressed a bit.

Another clue I often point out regarding Wesley's character regression is the fact that he just did not dress as well in Season 5 as he did in Season 4. I've often wondered if this was a result of a decision by the producers to have Wesley go through a definite style change, if the production staff members themselves lacked fashion sense, if maybe I lack fashion sense, or if I'm being too nitpicky and should really move on to other things.

Although I can't criticize Wesley's clothes in all of the Season 5 episodes, what he wore in "The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco" was not one of his better looks. For one thing, the brown pants he wore wouldn't have looked that good with much of anything. (Or, as my husband claims, "nobody looks good in brown".) For another thing, the combination of those same pants with the dark blue shirt, where the brownish/tannish vertical stripes may have almost matched his slacks, looked like an ensemble that one of my sons would have put together. The son in question has no fashion sense whatsoever, and he has a tendency to take the fashion rules that I've taught him and twist them around in order to use them against me. So, whenever I see Wesley in that particular outfit, I can just hear my son telling me, "But Mom, the stripe in my shirt matches my pants."

Yes Sir Mr. Boss Man.
In my "Wesley Wyndam-Pryce Agency" post, I mentioned that Wes tended to be arrogant and dismissive toward people he considered to be his inferiors. This was a trait that dated at least as far back as his Sunnydale days. Although there was nothing overtly offensive in the way he treated his Wolfram & Hart employees in these scenes here and here, there was still something about his attitude that would have rubbed me the wrong way if I was working for him.

The real kicker was how his underlings called him "Sir". Sir? "Sir" comes trippingly off the tongue to Southerners in the U.S., but I'm a lifelong Yankee. I've worked for some very conservative companies over the years, and the only people I ever called "sir" were much older important clients. (Not to mention complete strangers, like, "Sir, you dropped your keys".)

We can attribute part of Wesley's attitude to what may have been his Old World sense of propriety. However, I can distinctly remember Lilah calling her superiors "sir" during her Wolfram & Hart days. Since Wolfram & Hart was as big and formal a company as you could get, the practice of calling male superiors "Sir" might have already been ingrained into the corporate culture long before Angel and his crew arrived.

We also have to be mindful that Wesley was not the only one who treated his people like dirt. Fred came out and said once that her people deserved to die, while Angel had a brutal way of terminating less-favored Wolfram & Hart employees. I don't recall Gunn ever taking direct action against any of his immediate underlings, but he certainly had his hands full when he was acting in an advisory capacity.

Respect for Subject Matter.
One of the aspects that I admired about Jeffrey Bell's "The Magic Bullet" from Season 4 was how, even though he poked gentle fun at Jasmine's followers, he avoided crossing the line and out-and-out ridiculing them. I wrote in a previous blog post that this attitude of respect for the characters seemed to permeate from the top, from Joss Whedon all the way down through the ranks of the Mutant Enemy production staff.

The subject matter of "The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco" also presented a lot of opportunities for ridicule, with its exploration of Mexican wrestlers and bad horror films. Again, Mutant Enemy and Bell decided to present the subject matter with an attitude of simple respect, which made the episode all that more effective.

What really interested me about this scene, where Numero Cinco described the exploits of "Los Hermanos Numeros" (aka the "Number Brothers"), was how Angel scoffed at some of the more outlandish aspects of the story. But as Numero Cinco reminded Angel, "It was a different time. One that no longer exists". Two hundred forty-something year-old Angel should have realized this, but in this scene he quite effectively stood in as a proxy for skeptical modern-day audience members. This point about bygone days was also driven home by the fact that the brothers' stories lived on as a freakish sideshow "farce" being played out by midget wrestlers.

This scene also featured that beautifully choreographed sequence where Los Hermanos Numeros "fought" the bad guys in a tag-team wrestling match. As I listened to the music I couldn't help but be reminded of the lovely background music for the iconic Cartoon Network Quick Draw McGraw short, "El Kabong Rides Again". Sure enough, the closing credits confirmed that the eclectic indie band Calexico indeed provided the music. Based on the list of current members of the group, Calexico seems to be as authentically Mexican as the Baja Marimba Band. As a Midwestern WASP, I know only too well that, for Anglos, the most Spanish-sounding music (to Nordic ears) is written by Frenchmen (e.g., Bizet's Carmen). By extension, if it sounds authentically Mexican, it probably isn't. (Note: not meant as a criticism. I adore Calexico.)

I'm always fascinated with how the real and supernatural worlds collided in Angel, and also how the supernatural elements tended to haunt the lower-class areas in town. Think of the vampires in Gunn's old neighborhood as an example. Demons needed a place to hang out in the Angelverse, but it also appeared that they wanted to avoid all-out warfare with the human race. By living amongst and exploiting the people in poorer neighborhoods, the demons instinctively knew that they could basically run amok almost unseen by the rest of society. Wealthier people tend to justify their lack of interest in what's going on in poorer neighborhoods by stating that poverty will always be with us and there's nothing much that can be done about it.

In "...Numero Cinco", although the victims of the Aztec demon Tezcatcatl didn't seem to be exclusively Hispanic, the demon still appeared to confine his activities to the Hispanic neighborhoods of East LA. Another fascinating element was how Numero Cinco described the wrestling matches as being genuine, in that the Numbers Brothers really were fighting the Bad Guys in the ring. I highly doubted that was the case even when I allowed myself to suspend all sense of reality long enough to watch the episode. Instead, writer Jeffrey Bell was tapping into the concept of how ritual storytelling in just about every culture is as important (or even more important) than the actual events.

Idle Thoughts. On the surface it seemed as though Angel was quite abusive to Numero Cinco when he arrived at the ex-mailroom clerk's apartment. Quite tellingly, Numero Cinco didn't seem to put up too much of a fuss after Angel established his Alpha Male status. I won't even try to go into the psychology of the machismo culture, but I will state that it did seem to be a necessary ritual that needed to be performed before the guys could get down to the nuts and bolts of the business at hand.

Similar to how I feel I neglected Gunn's character at times during Seasons 2-4, I'm really not talking too much about him during this stretch of Season 5. There aren't too many ways I can describe how he really loved being a brainiac lawyer without being repetitive.

It was annoying to find that both Fred and Lorne chose to believe Spike when he claimed that "Angel went right off on the mail guy" at the beginning of the episode. Angel, of course, was provoked into his actions when Numero Cinco attacked him without warning. Angel never could figure out how to accurately describe his side of any story, but Fred and Lorne should have remembered that particular character trait and not rushed to judgment. It just goes to show how working at Wolfram & Hart was really doing a number on everyone's thought processes. (And let's not lose sight of the fact that Fred had developed a sweet spot for Spike, which he was not above exploiting for his own personal gain.)

The final fight scene had the potential to be a ridiculously cliched over-the-top portrayal of champions fighting (and winning) an epic battle between Good versus Evil. Instead, Jeffrey Bell again displayed a deft touch by giving the scene a wonderful sense of decency and quiet dignity.

Danny Mora was excellent in his portrayal of Numero Cinco. I'm sure the entire audience was anxiously waiting to find out his character's back-story the moment they first laid eyes on him earlier in the season. (Or did he appear in the final episode of Season 4?)

I didn't think the Aztec demon Tezcatcatl was scary enough. Again, we seemed to be reminded that the production budget for Angel was reportedly slashed for Season 5. I've always heard that if you don't have a very convincing monster, then it's best to use him sparingly.

I've often thought that the major flaw in Wolfram & Hart's magic books was that, if a character was trying to solve a mystery, he already needed to know what he was looking for in order to find the clues. In other words, the characters needed to have studied the actual texts ahead of time in order to get much use out of the newer system.

One of the things I'm watching in Season 5 is the relationship between Wesley and Spike. In this scene they weren't really at each other's throats, but they're both clearly irritated with each other. I'm looking for a clear turning point, where Spike stopped treating Wesley like he was a pompous sissy and started treating him more like an equal.

I thought it was a nice touch to (very briefly) bring Holland Manners back to the series, even though actor Sam Anderson didn't actually make an appearance. It gave us more insight on how Wolfram & Hart preyed on people during their weakest moments in order to recruit them to work for the firm.

I've already mentioned this in a much earlier post, but it bears repeating: I always thought Wesley's "I'd forgotten that Aztec culture was so violent" was an uninspired piece of dialogue. Anyone who's ever heard of the Aztecs also know that they were extremely violent. I try to explain it away by saying that English-born Wesley wasn't up on Western hemisphere demonology, since a surprisingly large percentage of demons who showed up in California seemed to be of European origin.

I can't decide if it was well-established that Tezcatcatl will make another appearance in 50 years, as evidenced by the fact that Angel wanted to make sure the demon would have a hard time finding the amulet when he came back. I'm also not sure that it's all that obvious that, according to Gunn, it's normally not a great thing for a dead being to be cursed to come back to life on a periodic basis.

If I had worked on this post last year, I would have felt obligated to come up with some thoughts about how Angel appeared to be regaining a sense of the mission, particularly in the closing scene where he revisited the Shanshu prophecy. Unfortunately, the looming dual specters of Wolfram & Hart grooming Angel for the Apocalypse in After the Fall and Lindsey McDonald setting up Angel for his own power play grab once again put a damper on things. I don't think either Wolfram & Hart or Lindsey McDonald had a direct hand in the events of "...Numero Cinco" outside of the fact that the Senior Partners would have known that Tezcatcatl would be making another appearance. Again, I believe the Senior Partners were letting events unfold and being watchful for how they could take advantage of the situation. About the only thing I can add is that I guess it was important to rebuild Angel's sense of confidence so it could be cruelly dashed again in "Destiny" when Spike defeated him in the fight for the right to drink from the Cup of Perpetual Torment.

I'll be busy with estate work over the next week or so, but I'm hoping to start a more regular posting schedule by the end of the month. It's nice to be back at least for a little while.

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