Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Meritocracy In the Vampire World?

Michael Halsey as Rutherford Sirk
(Courtesy of Screencap Paradise)

A person could almost say that the episode "Destiny" marked the real beginning of Season 5 of Angel by dealing directly with the issue of, which Vampire With a Soul (Angel or Spike) was destined to not only play a leading role in the Apocalypse as referenced in the Shanshu Prophecy, but also regain his humanity as a reward?

Who Was the Better Man? Angel or Spike? "Destiny" is another one of those Season 5 episodes that's been rendered into one more huge moot point by the After the Fall comic continuation series. The big questions as I mentioned above were, 1) Which Vampire With a Soul was the Shanshu Prophecy about, and; 2) Which Vampire With a Soul deserved to be the vampire mentioned in the Shanshu Prophecy? The quick answer? The closing episodes of Season 5 and the first four volumes of After the Fall clearly showed that the Shanshu Prophecy was always all about Angel, which leads us to the obvious conclusion that the answer to question #2 simply didn't matter.

The flashback sequence in "Destiny" gave us some wonderful insights into the beginning of the longtime love/hate relationship between Angel and Spike. When Drusilla introduced Spike to Angelus shortly after she had turned Spike, I did not see an introduction between two equals. Instead, I saw a nervous giggling freshman who was a little too eager to please the alpha male upperclassman just so he could join the club. A freshman in a situation like that will do humiliating things that he wouldn't normally do in order to gain approval. For his part, the senior is delighted to find a patsy whom he can victimize for his amusement on a regular basis while feigning friendship at the same time.

The lifelong challenge for Angelus was to find that perfect balance, where he would be able to continue to take pleasure in tormenting Spike, but not go too far and risk driving Spike away for good. Spike, of course, knew exactly what was going on, and continuously challenged Angelus as time went on (as evidenced by this scene in Season 5 of Buffy's "Fool for Love"). But the rewards of staying in the group were too powerful an incentive to keep him from making a clean break from Angelus.

To jump far ahead, in "Destiny", then-ghostly Spike was suddenly recorporealized by a blinding flash of light when Harmony opened up a mysterious package that was addressed to him. The telephones and other electrical equipment started going haywire. One by one the employees of Wolfram & Hart went crazy and tried to kill each other. All of this was eventually explained away by Eve as the consequences that occurred after the balance of the natural world went off-kilter when the second Vampire With a Soul arrived on the scene.

Wesley was off recuperating from the shock of seemingly killing his father in the previous episode "Lineage". (In reality, actor Alexis Denisof was getting married to the lovely Alyson Hannigan). Sirk, Wesley's associate-in-charge, obligingly provided everyone with some newly translated passages from the Shanshu Prophecy that spoke of how "The balance will falter until the vampire with a soul drinks from the Cup of Perpetual Torment." This cup just happened to be residing within an abandoned theater located in Nevada's Death Valley. Sirk continued on that "The drinking of the cup is predestined. That can't be changed. Whoever drinks from it was meant to. When one is confirmed as the central figure of the prophecy, the universe should realign itself."

At that point, Angel and Spike started their race to determine who would be the first to take a drink from this mysterious Cup. With their egos fully stoked, it never occurred to them that there might have been something kind of fishy about Sirk's newly-translated passages.

I'm not going to come up with a scorecard that keeps a tally of Angel's and Spike's "good" points, where we can just add up the totals and come up with a winner of the Best Vampire With a Soul award. I'll just let the dialogue from their exciting chase and fight scenes here, here, here, here, here, and here speak for itself. Suffice it to say that, as far as I can tell, there seems to be something close to a consensus that Spike was the better man, partly because he retained more of his humanity after he became a vampire. Spike performed good deeds in order to gain his soul, whereas Angel performed good deeds in order to atone for his past sins. Lead writer David Fury also went so far to say on the DVD commentary that Angel was pissed off because he knew deep down that Spike was the better man.

I naturally can't find a link right now, but I also came across something from Joss Whedon quite recently where he clearly stated that he felt Spike was also the better vampire. Whedon put a lot of emphasis on how Spike fought for and relished having a soul, whereas Angel treated his soul as a curse that was forced upon him. Whedon also correctly stated that the fight between Angel and Spike was the highlight of the entire 5th season!

Scott McLaren, in his excellent "The Evolution of Joss Whedon's Vampire Mythology and the Ontology of the Soul" didn't come out and say one vampire was better than the other. He did point out,
(20) That Whedon cites the battle between Angel and Spike in “Destiny” (A5008) as the highlight of the final season isn’t surprising since this episode succeeds in portraying an almost perfect balance between the concepts of the soul as existential metaphor and ontological reality (Whedon, “Angel: The Final Season”). The battle itself is for title to a type of martyrdom where Spike’s and Angel’s souls function as ontological prerequisites and become, in that sense, both heavy burdens and precious baubles. The ensouled vampire, according to the Shanshu prophecy, is set apart for a unique if unclear role in the apocalypse together with the promise of a subsequent return of humanity; their souls have the effect of making one of either Spike or Angel “better” or at least more important than other vampires (cf. A2017). Since the end of the series’ first season, Angel has believed that the prophecy, if true, is specifically about him. Spike’s sudden appearance as a second ensouled vampire champion throws that conviction into question. During the course of the dramatic battle for both immolation and ascendancy, Spike vents on Angel all his latent anger and jealousy. Though he admits that Drusilla turned him into a vampire, he accuses Angel of making him a monster, and in various flashbacks we see how Angel deprived him of both his dignity and his innocent romanticism. But the accusation itself seems to suggest that, while Spike may have lost his soul when he became a vampire, he had yet to lose something more—not just romantic pretensions but also decency and a sense of belonging to something larger than himself—by choosing to adopt the sadistic and heartless Angelus as his mentor. In an argument to prove he is more worthy of his soul than Angel, Spike further points out that his soul, unlike Angel’s, was not inflicted on him against his will as a curse and penalty for past crime: he chose it and pursued it. Indeed, Spike, as a soulless vampire, made himself unique in the Whedonverse by asserting his existential prerogative to seek an ontological change in his being.
I can actually come up with an argument that perhaps Angel deserved the honor, since he seemed more capable than Spike of carrying the mantle of self-sacrifice for the cause of devoting his life to the greater good. In other words, the best man for the job isn't always the best man. We also can't discount the fact that Spike himself always seemed to keep Angel on the top of the pyramid, whether he meant to do so or not. Spike would always be working to unseat Angel as the Top Dog. In one of those ironic twists of fate, the more Spike tried to equal or surpass Angel/Angelus as either a vicious demon or as a champion, the more he reinforced the idea that Angel/Angelus was indeed the #1 Vampire to Beat.

Spike in Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I wrote in a recent post that I was beginning to think that "......James Marsters could act circles around just about everyone else in the Buffyverse". He's an absolutely mesmerizing performer, and "Destiny" played up perfectly to his strengths. To back up, it seems to be universally understood that it's a lot easier to play a villain than a good guy, but I don't think that diminishes Marsters' abilities in any way. Spike was a marvelously complex character and I don't think just any actor could have performed that part. Whereas Angel was the Vampire with a Soul, Spike could easily have been billed as the Asshole with a Soul. I've actually run into more than a few Spikes in my lifetime, and these guys can be incredibly unpredictable. Just when you have these boors pegged as being the worst pricks in the universe, they can totally surprise you with their bravery, sensitivity and intelligence.

I'm always fascinated with the implications of viewing a TV show out of chronological order. In my case, I first saw Spike in Season 5 of Angel, then I saw his solitary performances in Season 1 of Angel and Season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, followed by his Season 2 performances in Buffy. Thanks to Hulu and some nice DVD's that I received as Christmas gifts, I've also just recently seen a smattering of his performances in Seasons 4 and 5 of Buffy.

As you can tell, there's a huge gap in my viewing history of his character. To back up a bit, I've usually been a little bit surprised at how little additional insight I receive when I watch a Buffy episode that directly pertains to a particular thing that's going on in Angel. (This is a credit to the Angel writers who always worked hard to bring the audience up to date.) For example, I didn't really learn much more about the relationship between Wesley and Faith when I finally saw Season 3 of Buffy. However, I always felt I was really missing out on something by not seeing Spike on Buffy ahead of his Season 5 appearances on Angel. That being said, I was able to figure out fairly early on in my Angel viewing at least some of the reasons why Spike had a huge chip on his shoulder in regards to his treatment at the hands of Angel/Angelus. I won't go into a huge amount of detail, but we found out in "Destiny" how Spike/William began his depraved apprenticeship under Angelus. We also learned that Spike wasn't thrilled with the vampire rules of share and share alike, yet still managed to retain some of his romantic idealism after he had been turned since, as Angelus noted, "Ah, still the poet now, aren't we, Willy?"

It wasn't until I recently saw "Fool for Love" from Season 5 of Buffy that I was able to understand how William/Spike was clearly wounded even before he met Angelus, Drusilla and Darla. He was ridiculed by his peers for his maudlin poetry and humiliatingly rejected by his dream-girl Cecily. Far from being bad-to-the-bone his entire life, Spike worked for more than a century to get out from underneath the shadow of Angelus/Angel, with perhaps the emergence of his terrifying vampire persona occurring as a by-product. To push the obvious even further, uber-scary Spike was not created from a position of strength, but from weakness.

Angel Was Originally Supposed to Win the Fight. Another favorite question of mine is, how far ahead of time did the Mutant Enemy creators chart out the plot lines? We would think that they would have created a rough outline quite early in the season, then assigned writers to fill in the blanks as they wrote the individual episodes. I was therefore quite shocked to find out that David Fury, as head writer of "Destiny", originally planned on having Angel win the dramatic fight in the abandoned theater rather than Spike! To me, having Spike win the fight was such an important event, I just couldn't imagine how Mutant Enemy would have been able to plan out the rest of the season without knowing the outcome in advance.

I won't spend too much time on this, but it would have been pointless to introduce Spike to the series only to have him lose the fight. (An episode like "Soul Purpose" could have never been written otherwise.) It was crucial for Angel to go through an incredible amount of soul-searching before he made the decision to once again bring the fight directly to the Senior Partners. Having him wonder if he was even the right guy for the job was a brilliant plot device that gave Angel a lot of mileage for the rest of the season.

As an aside, David Fury and the other "Destiny" commentators talked about how Joss Whedon originally wanted the fight to be about Buffy. However, the writers seemed to have reached the consensus that no, the fight couldn't be about Buffy because the show was Angel, not Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They also agreed that the fight needed to be about a much larger issue, namely, how important it was to acknowledge the fact that there was suddenly one more Vampire With A Soul within the universe. This little anecdote helps put the spotlight on just how far Angel was able to evolve away from BtVS, and how Angel was certainly capable of standing on its own two feet as a TV series.

Fury certainly made the right call in having Spike win the fight. I'm guessing that the rest of the season probably fell into place quite quickly after that.

Eve and Lindsey. Another pet theme of mine is, was Lindsey McDonald really necessary for Season 5? Granted, I'm willing to admit that he played a crucial part by introducing Spike to the series, and by extension, giving Angel a good excuse to be racked by self-doubt throughout most of the season. However, I still can't help but think that reintroducing his character was little more than a ploy by Mutant Enemy to give the series a ratings boost by bringing actor Christian Kane back to the series.

Eve could have just as easily arranged for all of these things to happen if she was working strictly on orders from the Senior Partners. In fact, I could never buy the idea that she was doing all of this (bringing back Spike, creating the chaos caused by the addition of another Vampire with a Soul, etc.) behind the Senior Partners' backs, Lindsey's magic invisibility tattoos notwithstanding. I've mentioned in the past how sometimes the Senior Partners seemed to be all-seeing and all-knowing, while other times they seemed to be totally reliant on their earthly emissaries for information.

So we're left to wonder, at what point was Eve working on behalf of the Senior Partners, and at what point was she working on behalf of Lindsey? I don't know if Mutant Enemy didn't have time to further develop this theme or if they just wanted to keep Eve cloaked in an air of mystery. Regardless, I've often thought it was a mistake to not let the audience know exactly how Eve interacted with the Senior Partners.

I've theorized that the Senior Partners might not have planned every detail, but were quick to jump on an unplanned opportunity when they saw one. They might not have approved of Lindsey McDonald and his methods, but he wasn't exactly hurting their cause either. Also, in light of how it was revealed in After the Fall that Angel was manipulated into picking a fight with Wolfram & Hart, we could also make a case that the Senior Partners themselves manipulated Lindsey into taking all of his actions. I just wish that some of these aspects would have come out into the open in the TV series.

As long I'm repeating myself, I might also add that I never cared for the Sarah Thompson/Christian Kane pairing. You know things are bad when I turn away from a chance to see a shirtless Christian Kane (circa 2003) in a love scene.

Rutherford Sirk. I've mentioned in a previous post how much I loved actor Michael Halsey's portrayal of Rutherford Sirk, the ex-member of the Watchers' Council who had joined Wolfram & Hart's research department. Wesley's pompous Mr. Know-It-All attitude with his underlings was starting to wear a bit thin on me, and I thought Sirk would have provided the perfect foil. Apparently I wasn't the only one who wished he had more appearances in Angel, since it came out in the DVD commentary that the Mutant Enemy creators desperately tried to find different ways to bring his character back to the series. Fury even mentioned that they even thought about making Sirk a member of the Circle of the Black Thorn, but discarded that idea since Sirk was "such a tool".

I can understand how producers can't create an entire season around one single character actor, but I still think it's too bad that Mutant Enemy limited Sirk's appearances by allying him with Eve and Lindsey. As soon as Spike drank the Mountain Dew, the party was over, and Sirk had to leave town fast. However, I'm grateful that uncredited writer Ben Edlund gave us one more chance to admire Halsey's talents when he wrote this marvelous scene, where Sirk wove that fantastic tale of the Cup of Perpetual Torment for two incredibly gullible vampires.

DVD Commentary. "Destiny" was quite unusual in that four different people provided DVD commentary for the episode: director Skip Schoolnik, co-writers David Fury and Steven S. DeKnight, and actress Juliet Landau (Drusilla). Up to this point, if memory serves me, the previous record on Angel was two commentators, which happened on several occasions.

It would be unfair to say that having four people in the broadcast booth was like having too many cooks in the kitchen, since everyone did a remarkable job of providing commentary without cutting each other off. It helped that David Fury took the lead role by providing the framework for the commentary, with the others jumping in at appropriate times.

Although I enjoyed it immensely, it was obviously quite difficult for me to scribble away at my notepad while listening to the four of them speak at the same time. I wasn't afraid to hit the "Pause" button on my remote, but I also didn't want to turn watching the episode into a day-long job. As a result it became problematic for me to accurately credit exactly who said what. So, my apologies in advance for not giving the proper attributions, my improper use of quotations marks etc.

I should add that Juliet Landau's commentary was unfortunately somewhat limited since she could only logically be expected to speak during Spike's/William's flashback sequences. On one level it was somewhat awkward that she was obviously being underutilized, but Landau carried on quite gracefully. When she did speak she gave us some invaluable insight into the motivations of the on-screen characters. Juliet Landau seems like an intelligent and fascinating person in her own right, and it was a nice gesture for Mutant Enemy to invite her along to provide her own thoughts on the matters at hand.

Idle Thoughts. Homoeroticism has always been a dominant theme in Angel's interactions with Spike and Lindsey. I don't talk about this too much, not because I'm shying away from the subject matter, but because this topic is worthy of long posts in their own right. However, I can't help but mention that David Fury stated in his commentary during the opening scene between Angel and Spike that Joss Whedon reportedly said, "Why don't they just kiss already?"

David Fury said that Mutant Enemy received a lot of flack from Buffy fans for the scene where Spike jumped on Harmony for a "nooner" shortly after he became recorporealized. Apparently, fans felt that Spike would not have cheated on Buffy in this way. I personally thought his behavior was right in character for Spike as evidenced by the After the Fall comic continuation series. This is another instance where I wish I could go back in time and watch the complete Buffy the Vampire Slayer series ahead of time just so I could decide for myself.

I've mentioned in several other posts that victims did not get a lot of camera time in the Buffyverse. (Please see my post "Faceless Victims and First Responders" for more of my thoughts if you're interested.) From this we gain insight into how the rescuers were probably wisely avoiding bonding with the victims, and how vampires viewed humans as being almost completely beneath contempt. In the flashback scenes in "Destiny" it's startling to see that, for the most part, it's very hard to tell if the victims are even dead or alive!

Steven S. DeKnight originally made Angel the winner of the fight scene, as ordered by lead writer David Fury. DeKnight was therefore reportedly not too thrilled at first when he was ordered by Fury to re-write the scene and make Spike the winner. Fury and DeKnight gave an amusing account on the DVD commentary of their little spat, where Fury claimed that he didn't think it would be such a big deal to re-write a few lines, and DeKnight explained that he lashed out because he was totally exhausted from completing another grueling assignment on another episode. As it was, DeKnight not only came up with a great fight scene, he wrote some crucial dialogue that gets right to the crux of the relationship between Spike and Angel.

Continuing in the same vein, there are a few Angel episodes that I find myself referring to over and over again when I try to gain insight into certain events and character motivations. DeKnight's dialogue in the Angel/Spike fight sequence was crucial for helping us understand their relationship throughout the whole Buffy/Angel run. DeKnight also wrote another episode that I refer to constantly, Season 4's "Inside Out", where he brilliantly carried out the assignment of tying together all of the pieces of the Cordelia/Connor/Jasmine story arc.

One of my favorite parts of the DVD commentary had to do with this scene, where Spike caught Angelus having sex with his beloved Drusilla. Angel explained to Spike that "....let me explain to you how things are now. There's no belonging or deserving anymore. You can take what you want, have what you want... but nothing is yours. Not even her." Spike refused to accept this, and countered that "You're wrong. We're forever, Drusilla and me!" Juliet Landau beautifully explained that Spike touched Dru like no other had done before, and she came to the realization that there was a real possibility that the two of them could be together. Furthermore, Spike approached Dru on a romantic level, whereas Dru approached the relationship on an intellectual level.

I've heard throughout many of the Buffy and Angel DVD commentaries that extra scenes were somewhat hastily written and added to several episodes when they came in short. Rather than being simply time-fillers, the creators often used these scenes as opportunities to highlight certain aspects that might not have otherwise been brought to the forefront. This scene, where an injured Eve explained to Fred that "I'm not the bad guy", was an example of a good filler scene in "Destiny", since Eve's play for sympathy made the Big Reveal of her duplicity later on that much more effective.

David Fury pushed for Fresca to be the magical beverage inside the Cup of Perpetual Torment, whereas others pushed for Mountain Dew. Fury said he lost because it was felt that a lot of people had perhaps never heard of Fresca. I think Mountain Dew was the better choice, mostly because of its humorous reputation for being a drink that's favored by lower-intelligence trailer trash males. Fresca is just too hip and urbane to be funny.

Both David Boreanaz and James Marsters put in excellent performances in "Destiny". I loved the male-bonding that occurred after they realized they'd been duped. I was therefore rather disappointed that Lindsey stepped in a short time later and manipulated events so that once again it appeared that Spike was the true Champion. Angel and Spike should have been a little bit wiser after they experienced the drinking-from-the-cup fiasco. As it was, we had to wait until "You're Welcome" for the two heroes to finally figure out that Lindsey McDonald was the one one who was pulling Spike's strings.

Whedonesque recently featured a thread which asked the question, "Angel vs. Spike. Who would win?" I purposely didn't read it so I wouldn't be influenced by the comments while I wrote this post. I guess I'm free to read it now.


Elena said...

Here via Simon on LJ.

I thoroughly enjoyed your analysis. I don't have much to add, except...

I naturally can't find a link right now, but I also came across something from Joss Whedon quite recently where he clearly stated that he felt Spike was also the better vampire.

I guess it's The Write Environment DVD interview with Joss; here's the transcript.


Miriam said...

Thanks for the link, Elena! And also thanks to Simon for putting up links to this post at Whedonesque and LJ.