Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Holding the Center

Keeping the Core Together.
David Boreanaz and James Marsters
as Battle-Hardened Angel and Spike.
(Courtesy of Screencap Paradise.)

I was interrupted about three-quarters of the way through "Shells" from Season 5 of Angel last weekend when the rest of my family commandeered the TV set for the Michigan-Notre Dame football game. Unfortunately, I decided not to watch the ending. Again, just like with the previous episode "A Hole in the World" (my post here), I was pretty bored with what is actually a very fine episode. I've simply seen it too many times to be able to whip up much enthusiasm. (Note to new readers: I'm working my way through the DVD's for the first time.) What sets "Shells" apart from others is that, similar to "Inside Out" in Season 4, "Shells" is an episode that I find myself referring to over and over again when I'm looking for information regarding some very key elements, mostly in reference to all of the "soul" talk.

I've written about "Shells" quite extensively in the past. For talk about the concepts of souls in general and what might have happened to Fred's soul, I recommend "The Soul of the Matter" and its follow-up post, "After the Fall Interrupted: Now, Where Did We Leave Fred's Soul?". For a more specific post regarding "Shells" (which mostly focused on Wesley's relationship with Illyria) you can read "Best Teacher in the World", In this post, "After the Fall Volumes 3 & 4: Wesley and Illyria/Fred" I only briefed touched on "Shells" but I expanded on the topic of Fred's soul quite a bit more.

About the only thing that's left for me to is to focus on some specific key concepts I've been following and take it from there.

Wesley and Spike. If you look at my Wesley and Spike tag you'll notice that I've been interested in how their relationship moved from mutual disgust toward something approaching mutual respect. "Lineage" seemed to be somewhat of a breakthrough episode in that, although Spike's methods were a bit crude in how he tried to cheer up Wesley after Wesley's unfortunate incident with the cyber version of his father, Spike's heart was obviously in the right place. There were never any dramatic moments where the two of them hugged each other and sobbed "I love you, man". However, by the time "Shells" came around, both of them were working competently together as professional colleagues.

Angel, the Senior Partners, and Some (almost) Buffy Crossovers. I'm specifically interested in how Angel went full circle starting off with when he tried to take the fight to the Senior Partners in early to mid-Season 2, how he repudiated his methods in late Season 2 ("....if there is no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world...."), back to how he decided to take on the Senior Partners again by the end of Season 5. I usually couch this in terms of Angel veering back and forth between idealism and pragmatism, with all of the pitfalls associated with the accompanying moral ambiguity. Seeing as how it was clearly stated in the After the Fall comic continuation series that the Senior Partners were actively manipulating Angel into fighting them head-on, (thereby bringing on the Apocalypse), I certainly don't see how Angel could have chosen the alternative of just sitting at his desk and watching his loved ones get picked off one by one.

Another thing I've been trying to figure out is: were the Senior Partners actively involved in bringing on the unfortunate events of Season 5?, Or did they simply create fertile grounds that allowed these events to occur? Specifically, did they talk to Knox and the mad doctor and order them to bring Illyria's sarcophagus into the lab? Long story short, I still haven't found a lot of signs of direct hands-on involvement by the Senior Partners. However, this plays into an interesting parallel with a lot of corporate scandals (think of the recent Murdoch media empire phone-hacking scandals) in how executives can be just as culpable as their underlings simply by creating an environment that allows malfeasance to take place. This also ties in with the nature of Higher Beings in general, in that they don't spend a lot of time with details but are more concerned with keeping the underlying machinery up and functioning.

I've been writing quite a bit lately about how Joss Whedon seemed to have his heart set on bringing more characters into the show from the newly-ended Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He was able to bring over James Marsters' Spike as a main character and Tom Lenk's Andrew Wells for a few substantial guest performances. However he struck out with Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy and Anthony Stewart Head as Giles. The best that Whedon could manage with "Shells" was to include a one-sided phone conversation between Angel and Giles where Giles informed Angel that Willow was unavailable and that he was unwilling to help out Angel now that he was associated with Wolfram & Hart.

Far from simply pandering to Buffy fans, this little scene was quite crucial for showing us that Angel was starting to understand that it was all between him and the Senior Partners. Although Angel still had somewhat of a ragtag team underneath him (Spike, Wesley, Gunn, Lorne and Harmony), he understood that it was ultimately up to him to deal with the situation the best he could. When he was outside of Wolfram & Hart it was possible to find ways to avoid direct confrontations. Now that Angel was firmly attached to Wolfram & Hart it was impossible for him to disentangle himself for their clutches.

Angel and Spike/Heroism and Leadership. Sometimes I get a little tired of inexperienced demon hunters (i.e., Buffy, Sam and Dean Winchester) getting all angsty as they flounder around trying to figure out what they're supposed to do. I'm always looking for role models who can exhibit calm leadership in the face of adversity. In "Shells" I really appreciated how the two wise-not-quite-beyond-their-years vampires Angel and Spike were able to take over and keep the center core intact while Wesley and Gunn self-destructed and Lorne went AWOL. I specifically appreciated how Angel did everything right by shocking Wesley out of his murderous impulses while simultaneously reassuring Wes that he was still an integral part of the team.

Although Angel was just as much in the know, Spike was allowed to shine a little bit brighter when they explained why they were best suited for the job of trying to retrieve Fred's soul. I particularly liked this sequence:
SPIKE: The thing only took over her body. Just a tip of the theological.

ANGEL: It's the soul that matters.

SPIKE: Trust us. We're kind of experts.

GUNN: What about her— If her organs have been liquefied?

SPIKE: Flash fried in a pillar of fire saving the world. I got better.
With all of these previous scenes of Angel and Spike joining forces to fight for a common cause, I still found this scene to be rather startling, where Angel was surprised that Spike was staying to continue the fight rather than striking off on his own.
SPIKE: (sighs) Long day. That offer still good? Send me abroad, roving agent and all?

ANGEL: Yeah, it's still good.

SPIKE: Great. (sighs) Maybe we should send Gunn... before Wes has another poke.

ANGEL: (surprised) You're not leaving?

SPIKE: This is what she would have wanted. (thinks about it) It's what *I* want. I don't really like you. Suppose I never will. But this is important, what's happening here. Fred gave her life for it. The least I can do is give what's left of mine. The fight's comin', Angel. We both feel it... and it's gonna be a hell of a lot bigger than Illyria. Things are gonna get ugly. (shrugs and smiles) That's where I live.
If you've already seen the entire series it's easy to forget that this scene was really quite pivotal. Upon first viewing, the audience still wasn't sure if Spike could be trusted to stick around and help out his old nemesis Angel. If you're viewing this episode for the second time or more, it seems a bit jarring to see the writers emphasize something that you think has already been well-established. Regardless, it was another great piece of dialogue that reinforced the fact that Spike could be every bit the champion that Angel was.

Although Angel and Spike failed to bring Fred back, they were at least able to stabilize the situation and bring a much-needed sense of finality to her death. It was important for Angel and Spike to present a united front, which they succeeded in doing so quite magnificently.

Wesley and Illyria. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I've already written quite a bit about Wesley and Illyria. I'm always fascinated with how Wesley was able to work as Illyria's guide and mentor despite his grief over the loss of Fred. I've always attributed this to his natural Watcher tendencies where he had an innate (possibly erotic) need to nurture women as they started off on their life's journeys.

I wrote at length about their interactions in "Shells" here. I don't have too much more to add except that After the Fall pretty well established that Fred was no longer presiding inside of Illyria, and that Illyria herself was falling for Wesley, albeit courtesy of the vestiges of Fred's memories that still remained inside her body.

Harmony. I can't overlook how well the character of still-evil vampire Harmony stepped up to the plate during this stretch of Season 5. Although Harmony was totally unpredictable, she proved yet again, particularly in this scene, that she was fully capable of making important contributions to the team. She also acted as another steadying influence while others (like Wesley and Gunn) were falling apart. Harmony provided much-needed moments of comic relief that broke up the otherwise pervasive dreariness. Actress Mercedes McNab, as usual, did an excellent job of providing this comic relief without going too far over into zaniness.

Idle Thoughts. I'm betting that my remaining blog posts regarding Season 5 of Angel will be very much the same as this one, where I overlook a lot of key plot points and focus in a few of my pet themes. (Presumably my posts will have a little more substance if the episode I'm reviewing has extra DVD commentary.) If you're looking for anything specific, I invite you to explore my subject tags in the lower right and use the search functions on this blog.

I fully realize I'm repeating things over and over again. For example, I'm working through my Angel DVD's, I've already seen most of the episodes several times already etc. This can be excruciating for regular readers, but I feel like I need to provide these explanations for the sake of one-time readers who land here courtesy of search engines.

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