Friday, March 11, 2011

No Harm, No Foul

(Mercedes McNab as Vampire Harmony Kendall)

I had a discussion with co-workers several years ago about how hard it must be for managers to fire inept employees, particularly when they consistently show up for work on time and faithfully stay on the job until 5:00 pm or later. "Harm's Way" from Season 5 of Angel, by focusing on the lovely Harmony the Vampire, brought into sharp relief the issue of, how do you deal with a hard-working, devoted employee who just can't seem to rise above her own level of incompetence?

Luckily for us, this dovetails nicely into how Mutant Enemy seemed to feel that the audience needed to be reminded on a semi-regular basis that Vampires Without Souls vastly outnumber our two Vampires With Souls, Spike and Angel.

Harmony the Great. One of the biggest surprises for me was how little we saw of Harmony in Seasons 1-3 of Buffy, where she was a very much alive high school student/shallow friend of Cordelia. Every once in a while actress Mercedes McNab would land some scenes where she could string more than a few lines of dialogue together, but for the most part I thought of Harmony as a minor character with very few redeeming qualities.

Fortunately for McNab, Joss Whedon admired her acting skills, and her character was given the honor of being "turned" on her "Graduation Day" by one of the vampires who attacked Sunnydale High School. As a result, we were fortunate to see all of McNab's wonderful performances as the comedic and bubble-headed vampire who was pathetically in love with her "Blondie Bear". Harmony was much more likable as a vicious demon than as a vicious bitch. Writer Doug Petrie had nothing but praise for McNab, as he correctly stated in the DVD commentary for Season 4 of Buffy's "The Initiative":
"Mercedes, who plays Harmony, is an incredible actress, and the thing that she does so beautifully is, we write these scenes for her that are strictly comedy, and we're kind of making fun of the character because she's such a boob. But when she plays the scenes she brings the real pathos to it, and you find yourself really caring about her getting her feelings hurt. She's a brilliant actress......"
Harmony is one of my favorite characters on Angel, and I have not made it a secret that I think Mercedes McNab is one of the greatest "dumb blondes" in TV history. I can certainly understand why the producers wanted to reward McNab by bringing her over to Angel when Buffy the Vampire Slayer went off the air.

The Trouble With Harmony - Part 1. I might as well start off by swiping from one of my more recent posts:
Similar to how I missed Spike and Lindsey in my first run through Angel, I also missed Harmony. I loved Mercedes McNab's portrayal of the bubbly vampire, and she provided me with some of my favorite moments of Season 5. I've even written some glowing reviews of her performances. Empty-headed bleached blondes are not my favorite stock characters, and I was always impressed with how the writers pulled Harmony back whenever she got close to taking things too far. However, I always thought Harmony was completely wrong for Season 5 and could never figure out why Wesley thought she'd work out as Angel's administrative assistant. I've read somewhere that someone (Joss himself?) thought the series needed a blond, and they decided to reward McNab for her outstanding work in Buffy. It appears that the producers were getting a little sentimental when they decided to cast both Jonathan Woodward and Mercedes McNab in Season 5.
As an aside, after I published the above-post, I found the reference to Joss Whedon's decision to bring McNab over from Buffy to Angel. As Joss stated in his DVD commentary for the premiere episode in Season 5, "Conviction": "Mercedes has worked for us for as long as I've worked on the show. She has been tirelessly funny, and engaging, and sexy, and delightful and it was very nice to bring her into the fold. She was long overdue to get into the mix, and we needed a blond, let's face it,"

I also wrote in a more recent post that:
It was totally out of character for Wesley to bring in vampire Harmony Kendall as Angel's administrative assistant. We may recall that he totally despised Harmony in Season 2's "Disharmony", while she failed to give him (or anyone else in Angel Investigations) any reason to trust her again. I'll go over this topic in more detail when I review "Harm's Way", but on the surface it just looked like an exceedingly clumsy way to introduce her as a regular character to the series.
There were many instances throughout Season 5 where it appeared that Harmony's character was shoehorned into the series, starting with, what on earth possessed Wesley to pull her out of the steno pool and make her Angel's assistant? When he called her a "...filthy demon, an unholy monster" early on in Season 2's "Disharmony", he had no reason to change his opinion of Harmony when she almost got the entire Angel Investigations team killed after she betrayed them to the odious motivational speaker/vampire cult leader.

The best official explanation we'll ever get for Wesley's decision came from Wesley himself "......I thought a familiar face would be just the thing in a place like this." There is a strong implication that the sensitive position of Angel's assistant should stay in the family, so to speak, and that having a well-known yet troublesome Harmony was a wiser choice than selecting a complete unknown from inside Wolfram & Hart.

Forgiveness was never one of Wesley's strong character traits, so I find myself thinking this might be yet more manifestation of how the "New and Improved Wesley" that emerged after the Connor mind wipe was somewhat less than whole. This almost Stepford-like Wesley might have recognized that Harmony, who was hit with the double stigma of being a relatively new employee and a vampire, was a definite outcast within her group. He might have sincerely felt sorry for Harmony while at the same time admiring her for taking positive steps to try to improve her situation. He might have also realized she probably had no close circle of friends that she'd be tempted to blab secrets to regarding the inner workings of Angel's cabal.

The Trouble With Team Angel - Part 1. It became obvious quite quickly in Season 5 that the members of Team Angel (particularly Angel and Wesley) viewed and treated the administrative staff of Wolfram & Hart like they were completely interchangeable, as though you could fill a job position with any warm (or cold) body and life would go on as usual. Cordelia's importance as an ultra-capable Gal Friday apparently made no impression on these guys.

Even though Harmony provided a lot of welcome moments of comic relief when she crossed over to Angel, it still never made sense to take the biggest twit in the office and turn her into the CEO's executive assistant. A good assistant can anticipate her manager's needs, carry out her duties with a minimum of supervision, act as an efficient and diplomatic gate-keeper between her boss and the rest of the company, and take the initiative and perform tasks that will lessen the burden on her manager. Harmony Kendall consistently failed on all of these counts.

(As an aside, this whole thing reminds me of how a relative of mine applied for a job in a different subsidiary of her organization. Long story short, she was extremely qualified for the position, but the job was ultimately given to, in my relative's words, "the stupidest girl in my department").

I won't provide a big list of Harmony's bad judgment calls (the incident of the camel in the lobby pretty much sums it all up). However, it's worth noting that despite all of the trouble and extra work she caused for the principals, no one ever seriously called for her resignation. Despite having no positive past history with Angel Investigations, Harmony somehow managed to make herself immune from being fired.

I almost don't know what to make of this, outside of the obvious fact that Harmony was added to the group courtesy of producer Joss Whedon. Did Angel, Wesley and everyone else have such a low opinion of administrative assistants, they perhaps felt that they wouldn't be able to come up with a more suitable replacement? Fortunately for my sanity, there are hints scattered throughout that Harmony was perhaps one more cause Team Angel took on in the name of "helping the helpless", where Angel's creed of not giving up on anyone even included helping out a lovably pathetic little vampire from Sunnydale.

The Trouble with Team Angel - Part 2. I suppose I've established that Harmony was horribly unsuited for her job as Angel's assistant, and that everyone allowed her to stay in her position out of the goodness of their hearts. However, does it make sense to keep an employee around if all you're going to do is constantly berate her for her incompetence? Isn't it true that even stupid people deserve to be treated with a minimal amount of courtesy and respect?

Admins, when given a chance, can be an integral part of any business team. Unfortunately, the two main principals involved, Angel and Wesley, gave every indication that they considered admins to be second-class citizens. I'll even go so far as to say that they probably thought that anyone else brought into that position could potentially be just as bad as Harmony. Regardless, I'm not sure that either of the two guys would have ever been interested in grooming a clerical worker to rise up very far on her career ladder.

We were used to seeing Angel be gruff and demanding with the members of Angel Investigations in Seasons 1-4. However, since the group was extremely close-knit, all of the members of the team knew quite well that Angel appreciated their efforts. As an outsider who was not brought into the inner circle, Harmony had no idea how Angel felt about her. Even the audience didn't know for sure until Angel informed her (albeit rather gruffly) in one of the last scenes in "Harm's Way" that "You should have just come to me" after Harmony found herself in the troublesome position of finding a vampire-bitten corpse in her bed. Even his insensitive admonition at the end of the scene "Harmony? Just bring us some coffee" reassured viewers that Harmony was in no danger of literally being terminated. Unfortunately, he was also driving home the point that Harmony was no closer to being drawn any further into the Team Angel family. A few kind words from Angel about her genuinely valuable contributions to the company would have gone a long way.

I've written on several occasions before about how off-putting Wesley could be to staff members. I probably said it best in this post when I mentioned that:
In his dealings with Harmony and his seldom-seen administrative assistant Jennifer, he was correct in every way, and somewhat condescending and dismissive. In other words, a "bring me my coffee and the Penske file" type of boss.
I also mentioned in a more recent post that
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.
I obviously adore Wesley, but his arrogant request for Harmony to order lunch in this scene gave me a definite "I want to kick him in the balls" feeling. Angel and Wesley had quite an interesting contrast in managerial styles. Whereas Angel could probably make just about anyone cower when he was yelling and rampaging, at least he was honest and people knew what was on his mind. A good case could be made that if Angel wasn't chewing you out about something, then he probably didn't care about you. Wesley's more measured style was more sinister, in that you never knew just how far out of favor you fell until it was too late.

Hold On.......Wait For It........Another "Vampire as Metaphor" Analogy. It would almost make more sense for Angel to bring on Harmony as an assistant rather than Wesley, since Angel was more into "helping the helpless". But perhaps Angel's failure to mentor Harmony hinged on the fact that he knew from personal knowledge that vampires are beyond help even if they do have a few recognizable redeeming qualities. In other words, you can't help someone save her soul if she doesn't have one to begin with.

Regular readers know that whenever I touch on the topic of "soul" in the Buffyverse, I always refer to Scott McLaren's excellent essay, "The Evolution of Joss Whedon's Vampire and the Ontology of the Soul". He points out in paragraph 13 that:
....there are several examples of soulless vampires, including Spike, Harmony, and even Willow’s vampire double, who seem to possess some potentiality (and even actuality) for good, just as certain fully-human characters such as Faith are able to function, in spite of their souls, in ways that make them almost indistinguishable from vampires.


When a fan asked Whedon how he defined the soul and how its presence set Angel apart from other vampires he replied that “soulless creatures can do good and souled creatures can do evil, but that the soul-free are instinctually drawn toward doing evil while those with souls tend to instinctually want to do good” (qtd. “All Things Philosophical on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel” at
This immediately brings to mind the oft-repeated story of the scorpion and the turtle, where the scorpion stings the turtle who's carrying him across the river even though it means certain death for the two of them, simply because it's the scorpion's nature to do so. In the end, Harmony could always be counted on to choose the side of Evil.

McLaren also discussed how the exploration of Harmony's character served as yet one more manifestation of the tension between two competing theories of the soul within the Buffyverse namely, the Christian/Platonic view of the soul, and the soul serving as a "metaphor for existential agency". As McLaren points out regarding the Angel Investigations team's attitude toward her in Season 2's "Disharmony", "Their censure of her is based not on what she is, but on the choice she made—their condemnation of Harmony is existential to the extent that it implies she might have been free to choose a different path in spite of her lack of a soul" Harmony herself was speaking more from the Christian/Platonic viewpoint in Season 5's "Harm's Way"when she explained, "OK, I made some bad choices. I mean, it's not like I have a soul. I have to try a lot harder."

(If you're interested in reading more about Harmony and the two competing theories of soul, I highly encourage you to read paragraphs 13, 17, 18, 24 and 27 of McLaren's essay.)

And what a lovely segue this makes into the concept that I introduced in the beginning of this post of how some terminally incompetent people just don't "get it" no matter how hard they try. I once worked with a woman who always wanted to buy stock in our clients' companies, particularly when they were in the middle of mergers and acquisitions. Even though she could talk intelligently about some of the more noteworthy insider trading scandals that were going on at the time, she never seemed to make the mental leap that what she wanted to do was equally wrong.

To push the analogy to the breaking point, some of these workers can be compared to soulless vampires, since they seem to lack the capacity to make the intelligent choices that are so distressingly obvious to everyone else. It would have seemed particularly cruel to toss my co-worker mentioned above into prison simply because she was clueless. She would have certainly learned her lesson after being locked up for a few months, but someone like her could easily get out of jail and start innocently working as an office manager for a man running a Ponzi scheme. It's a constant dilemma to have to try to distinguish between malice and ignorance, but that's a whole new topic for another day.

Closing Thoughts. I described in an Idle Thoughts portion of a previous post that "Harm's Way" is one of the "...[better ones] out there as far as portraying the subtle indignities and intrigues that low-level office grunts have to suffer through on a daily basis."

I always take Angel's side in the endless debate about who's the better vampire, Angel or Spike? Spike's treatment of Harmony in Season 5 gives me more fuel for my arguments.

I've noted before that Angel and his crew generally left vampires and demons alone as long as they were not causing a lot of obvious trouble. From this point of view it would make a certain amount of sense to hire a vampire to be Angel's assistant. This would also explain how someone like Harmony would be tolerated but not necessarily warmly received.

It's too bad that bringing in an administrative assistant from the outside seemed to be totally out of the question. Angel was reluctant to bring in additional members to the main team, as evidenced by how the comic store clerk's offer to join was rebuffed in "Supersymmetry". It also obviously would have been unethical to bring in a total innocent into Wolfram & Hart. Wouldn't it have been great if Wesley brought in the mysterious "Diana" who administered his cases while he was running his own agency?

I originally wanted to focus on how the contributions of lower level staff members are often not appreciated, mostly because upper management has no idea what their workers have to go through in order to perform their job functions. (Think of the office politics involved in Harmony performing a simple task like warming up Angel's blood in the lunchroom microwave). I ended up going off in a different direction.

It was interesting how one-dimensional Angel's and Wesley's characters were at times in this episode. This was a good device for allowing the audience to see the two guys from Harmony's point of view.

It feels good to be posting again.


Lisa said...

Forgiveness was never one of Wesley's strong character traits.

I somewhat disagree here. Wesley had a lot of awful things happen to him - but he always came around. He held a lot of anger inside, but the anger would dissipate. He forgives, but only after the person proves worthy of forgiveness - as with Faith after Salvage/Release/Orpheus. I think he genuinely forgave her and held no ill will toward her (even liked her and cared about her.)

I think he forgave Angel...though it is not easy to pinpoint the moment that happened. I would say somewhere after the Jasmine episodes and before the mindwipe. He tells Angel that someone has to live on, to tell of what happened. There is a warmth to their conversation then. I think it's clear that any grudge has melted away, on both sides.

And most importantly, he forgave Illyria - the one person who he would be least likely to. He realized that she was actually not at fault. He even helped her find her way (albiet after being kind of mean to her, I admit.)

I think Wes has a great capacity for forgiveness - it's just that he's been so supremely dicked over during the course of the show!

Always love reading your posts :) Just watched the Harmony episode of season 5 recently. Forgot how fun she is.

Miriam said...

I don't disagree with you - I tend to focus on how Wesley tended to get as much mileage out of his grudges as possible before he let go.

And you're right about how he was "supremely dicked over" so much during the show. I always thought that when Wes held a grudge, it wasn't so much over a particular situation (like when he was jealous of Charles' relationship with Fred, or when he was cast from the group), it was more like he was reacting against how he could never really catch a break no matter how hard he tried.

Miriam said...

Let's add Faith to his capacity to forgive category.