Sunday, May 1, 2011

Lilah Morgan's Legacy

Just Like Bogey and Bacall
(Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep, 1946)

CORDELIA: (nervously) Wes? Last year, when that, um, higher...whatever took over my body, did those things. Nobody's talking about it.

WESLEY: What's to say? We all understand it wasn't you.


WESLEY: You didn't kill Lilah.

CORDELIA: I know. Still... I'm sorry. I just wanted to tell you that before— Hey! That's them.
(Dialogue from Season 5 of Angel's "You're Welcome".)

I admit that I can get kind of lazy in my Google searches, but to date I have not been able to find very many academic works about Lilah Morgan, who we know and love as the evil lawyer from Wolfram & Hart in Angel. I suspect the main reason has to do with the fact that Jennifer Stoy wrote the definitive piece about Lilah in her excellent "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine' : Wesley/Lilah and the Complicated (?) Role of the Female Agent on Angel". This work appears in the Stacey Abbott-edited collection of essays, Reading Angel: The TV Spin-Off With a Soul (2005), but fortunately a truncated version appears here courtesy of Google books.

In honor of the last official (verbal) mention of Lilah Morgan in Angel, (as noted in the dialogue sequence above), I'm doing what I've wanted to do for a long time, which is use Stoy's essay as a basis for a blog post. Although her piece touches on just about every aspect of the Wesley/Lilah relationship, including its noir-ish elements in general, and some parallels to the Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall plotline from the 1946 file, The Big Sleep, I'm focusing on just a few areas of Stoy's essay.

A Cut Above the Rest. We can view the Wesley/Lilah story arc from either a glass half-full or a glass half-empty perspective. The Mutant Enemy production company usually gives top-level treatment to relatively minor storylines, to the point where viewers feel genuine sadness when the storylines are wrapped up and/or one of the characters is killed off. Or, more to the point, we become very much emotionally attached to characters precisely because of Mutant Enemy's superior production values and their total commitment to the integrity of the series. Viewers became Weslah fans because Mutant Enemy did all of the right things. Unfortunately, the Wesley/Lilah arc also represents yet one more subplot that developed a life of its own, only to be cut down when things were really starting to look interesting.

Although when Stoy spoke of the "superior acting and a more convincing storyline" (page 167) within the context of comparing the Wesley/Lilah and Wesley/Fred relationships against each other, she could have equally been comparing the Wesley/Lilah storyline to the rest of the series. She particularly nailed it when she wrote of the juxtaposition between the more grown-up noir aspects of Angel against "Joss Whedon's traditional superheroic ethos". According to Stoy, (page 163):
" the Wesley and Lilah storylines of Season Three and Four, the writers, directors and actors of Angel have not only shown their great love of Los Angeles noir, they have demonstrated how the series succeeds artistically, aesthetically and ethically by relying on the world of noir - and how what I find to be Whedon's optimistic but naive ethos cannot encompass its ambiguities and thus fails Angel as a series as compared to its parent series Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
Joss Whedon will often successfully bring creative tension to a series by introducing two or more competing concepts or ideas, and then opting not to reconcile them. One example is his presentation of two or three different versions of the concept of "soul" within the Buffyverse. Another example is how there may or may not have been divine intervention involved when Angel had his "moment of clarity" in Season 2 and saved Kate Lockley's life after her suicide attempt.

Whedon's presentation of "noir" versus "superhero ethos" within Angel have at times given us some fascinating explorations of competing elements such as idealism versus pragmatism, youth versus maturity, optimism versus pessimism, individualism versus loyalty to the group, black and white versus shades of gray, etc. Unfortunately, there was an appearance that Mutant Enemy, after flirting with taboo subject matters or otherwise straying too far from the superhero ethos, would always eventually get cold feet and beat a hasty retreat back to the safety of their comfort zones. Buffy stopped pushing the boundaries of her sexuality through her relationship with Spike when she went back to her "missionary" Scooby friends. A recalcitrant Angel ended his Season 2 crisis of faith by virtually renouncing everything he had learned from the experience and returning back to his more naive and judgmental friends (Wes, Cordy and Gunn). A much tougher and wiser Wesley was reconciled with Team Angel towards the end of Season 4, only to suffer from a character regression after the Connor mindwipe. How much of this constant reversion back to the mean was the result of network interference and how much was the result "maintaining the integrity of the series" is unknown (by me at least).

All I know is that Wesley and Lilah were intellectually light years ahead of the other characters when it came to pragmatism and maturity. Rather than muddling up the issues, their viewpoint of the world through their shades of gray often paradoxically gave them the crystal clarity that was so severely lacking from the other characters whose viewfinders could only bring out the crisper imagery of black and white.

Wesley/Lilah versus Wesley/Fred. Regular readers are well aware that I prefer the much more realistic Wesley/Lilah love affair over the fairy tale romance of Wesley and Fred. I won't spend too much time on this topic, but I will add that Stoy again nailed it when she wrote (page 167):
"Despite superior acting and a more convincing storyline, the Wesley and Lilah relationship is dismissed as an obstacle between Wesley and his 'true love' Winifred Burkle, whose numerous dismissals of Wesley's uncertain and dark nature did not prevent Joss Whedon, in Angel Season Five, from shoe-horning the relationship in during 'Smile Time' (5:14), one episode before Fred's tragic death in 'A Hole in the World' (5:15), in a stunning display of misunderstanding of both the Wesley character and the complex morality of Angel's Los Angeles. The bad girl dies; the redeemed prodigal engages in chaste interaction with his dream girl (with whom he notably does not have sex) before her Little Nell-style death."
The key word mentioned above is "shoe-horned", which describes how Wes and Fred finally had something resembling a real relationship towards the end of Season 5, just before Fred disappeared for good when her body was taken over by the ancient demon goddess Illyria. It has all of the earmarkings of Joss Whedon deciding that it would be a terrific idea to kill off Fred, while realizing the only element that was missing was a tragic ending to true love. This certainly fits in with how I mentioned in my last post that David Fury admitted in his DVD commentary for "You're Welcome" that the scene where it became apparent that Fred was falling in love with Wesley was filmed quite a bit later after the rest of the production for the episode was wrapped up, just so that the beginning of their love affair in "Smile Time" wouldn't look so abrupt.

Lilah's Legacy (or lack thereof). The bad-girl-done-good trope can go many ways, encompassing the spectrum from the bad girl dying while performing her one good deed (think of Darla giving birth to Connor) to the bad girl gaining complete vindication (probably not the greatest example, but think of Ava Gardner the Floozy winning out over somewhat Good Girl Grace Kelly in Mogambo.) I, and perhaps other people, tend to equate the ultimate fate of a character with what is considered to be the "preferred" or "correct" morality of a series. A classic example in my case is the confusion I felt when the end-of-the-series Angel apparently repudiated his "if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do" and "All I wanna to do is help" lessons from Season 2. Joss Whedon has come out and said on many occasions that the dialogue from Season 2's "Epiphany" (some of which is referenced above) comes the closest to matching his own personal philosophy. In my way of thinking, Angel's series-ending, nihilistic charge against the Senior Partners should have been the defining moment of the entire series, in which all of the events that occurred in the prior seasons led up to this "inevitable" or "correct" conclusion. (After the Fall changed everything, but we'll ignore that for now.)

We all know that Joss Whedon likes to twist the rules around inside out and upside down. Good people will die (Fred and Doyle) and bad people won't be saved by the healing powers of redemption (Lilah). Although it's troubling, as Stoy points out, that there was no saving Lilah from an eternal Hell, there's nothing within the Buffyverse that says that life (or death) is fair. In that sense we shouldn't automatically expect any happily-ever-outcomes since, quite frankly, that's how things happen in real life. However, as I alluded to above, in the grand scheme of things in the Buffyverse, although bad or unfair things can happen (like Fred dying), Bad may prevail at times over Good, and a few more sophisticated themes may be introduced (Wes and Lilah's affair), the story will always in time return back to the simpler trope of superheroes battling against Evil.

After establishing above that the audience isn't entitled to 100% happiness and sunshine within the Buffyverse, it's still distressing that there's an appearance that Lilah, who had played such an instrumental part in Wesley's emotional and intellectual growth and development, failed to leave a lasting impression on either him or the series. Stoy was of the opinion that, because of the Connor mindwipe, most of Team Angel's memories of Lilah ended with her death at the Hyperion earlier in Season 4. Stoy pointed out (page 172) that:
"Nothing indicates that any member of Angel Investigations, other than Angel, even remembers that it's Lilah's undead presence and her offer that put them in their dangerous position as new rulers of Wolfram & Hart; it seems that Wesley certainly does not recall that, rather than being quietly dead, Lilah is actively working or burning in hell. He never speaks of Lilah's current circumstance; instead, when discussing Lilah, Wesley speaks of her beheading to his father in 'Lineage' and her death to Cordelia in 'You're Welcome' (5:12.) The difficult woman and her correct assessments of the ambiguity, ambivalences and true dangers of the world around Angel Investigations are silenced, and the show suffers for it."
We can't overlook the obvious; that the reason for Lilah's waning influence had to do with the fact that actress Stephanie Romanov left the series at the end of Season 4. Romanov had been mired in a long-time salary dispute and the network and/or producers decided they simply could not afford her anymore. I haven't found any evidence that Romanov left the show on particularly bad terms, but I have noticed that harsh fates always seem to befall female characters and/or the actual actresses themselves when they commit the cardinal sin of asking for pay raises. I can't help but think that Lilah Morgan may have achieved a happier fate if her character had simply run its own natural course on the series.

I also can't help but think that the little tiny references to Lilah Morgan in Season 5 were somehow snuck in to assure the audience that perhaps she left a deeper impression on Wesley than what was actually shown on camera. (The writers couldn't possibly give all of the minor storylines the attention they deserved, so the fact that Lilah was mentioned at all might actually speak volumes.) Also think of how images of Lilah were prominently featured when all of Wesley's memories came rushing back to him after he smashed the glass cube of the Orlon Window spell in "Origin". Although this was not addressed in the series, perhaps his regained knowledge of her ultimate fate helped push him deeper into madness.

It's been noted many times that the audience really had no idea what constituted Wesley's memories of Lilah. It boggles the mind that he'd have any recollection of his relationship with her if all of his memories of Connor had been erased. However, he was clearly suffering when he spoke of Lilah with both his "father" and Cordelia in Season 5. I won't go into too much more detail, but I think it would be valid for me to assume that he might have known that he had some sort of falling out with the group (otherwise, why would he have hooked up with Lilah), had a sexual relationship with her, and was clearly grieving over her tragic death.

It's almost just as bad that both Wesley and Fred were not "of right minds" when they had their little relationship. They had both been profoundly affected by the events surrounding Lilah's death and her brief undead reappearance, and they were cheated out of the opportunity to honestly work through their issues and differences while starting out on their own relationship. Although it's possible that Wes and Fred's memories of Lilah may have been enough to make them both squirm a little whenever the subject came up, I also have a slightly sickening feeling that their already too-good-to-be-true relationship ended up as a true piece of fiction. Tragically, Fred died before Fred and Wesley really got to know each other.

Idle Thoughts. Ironically, it took a comic book continuation series, After the Fall, for the Angel saga to really reach the next level of maturity.

The "noir" versus "superhero" aspects actually reached a peak quite early on in Season 1, when Angel started out as the darkly cynical, solitary detective who rescued flawed damsels-in-distress on a weekly basis. I still think the series could have really broken a lot of new ground if it had continued along that path. However, it also seemed that just about everyone, from Mutant Enemy to the fans, was unhappy with the direction the new series was taken. The episode "Eternity" seemed to mark a turning point, where, to paraphrase writer Tim Minear, the emphasis turned away from the noirish client of the week aspect to the more wholesome idealism of the youthful group dynamic.

Believe it or not, when I first started working on this post, I thought "You're Welcome" marked the last reference to Lilah Morgan in the series. It took me a while to remember Wesley's thoughts of Lilah rushing back to him in "Origin". I honestly don't know if I'll be writing about Lilah anymore in any great detail, but never say never I guess.

I'm not sure if I was overdoing things when I wrote about Wesley's guilt over the death of Lilah Morgan in this post regarding After the Fall. I had guessed that Wesley might have possibly signed the "perpetuity clause" contract with Wolfram & Hart to help atone for the fact that he wasn't able to save Lilah from her own contract. At that point in time I seemed to think Wes was suffering equally from the deaths of both Fred and Lilah. I'm not so sure anymore, which brings me to another point: I tend to downplay what the writers have presented to me if I feel that they were being intellectually dishonest with the audience. I thought it was a cop-out when Mutant Enemy tried to tell us that Wesley did not in fact love Lilah, but rather was suffering more from the extreme guilt he felt for not being able to either save her life or protect her soul. I also thought it was unacceptable for the characters to have their memories wiped out or altered, to the point where we really could not truly understand what the characters were going through or what their motivations were.

I'm usually pretty good at viewing things from the past through a historical lens, but even I'm having a hard time coming to terms with the lyrics from the Joe Greene song, "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine". Here's a YouTube video showing Lauren Bacall's rendition in The Big Sleep. That is one bizarre song!

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