Saturday, September 10, 2011

Out With the New, In With the Old

(Above: Amy Acker's screen test for Angel.)

As I work through my Angel DVD collection, I can never predict in advance how I'm going to react to a particular episode. Regular readers know that I've previously recorded all of the episodes from TNT, and I've obviously viewed my favorite shows a lot more often than the others.

I seem to be enjoying my "least" favorite episodes a lot more than my "favorites" this time around since I'm viewing them with a fresher set of eyes. As a result I'm picking up on things that I missed the first time(s) through. I'm keying in on a few of my pet themes, and I'm finding that some of the so-called lesser episodes (like "Why We Fight") are actually full of valuable information.

"A Hole in the World" started off as one of those favorite episodes that I've unfortunately seen one too many times. That surprised me since I found that I had not lost any enthusiasm for the previous episode, "Smile Time", which is also one of my all-time favorites. What worried me is that "A Hole in the World" is meatier and much more substantial than "Smile Time". I had particularly been looking forward to this stretch of Season 5 since I thought this was arguably the best string of episodes of the entire series. I was also interested in seeing how the end of the Angel TV series may have possibly blended in with the After the Fall comic continuation series. I was therefore daring to hope that I'd be able to reverse the trend of not enjoying my "favorite" episodes quite so much.

Although the commentary for "A Hole in the World" with Joss Whedon, Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker was quite entertaining during my first run-through, I found that more than anything else it merely served to reinforce some of the things I'd already figured out (e.g., Fred and Wesley's romance was shoehorned into the series so that her death would be that much more tragic.) With this in mind, I thought it would be a bit unfair for me to review "A Hole in the World" under these circumstances. I felt that this post deserved to be written up by someone who is still genuinely in awe of the sheer tragedy and beauty of this episode. (Perhaps what I wrote back in 2009 here and here was more appropriate.)

Luckily for me, I decided to give the DVD commentary one more chance. Rather than watching as a passive viewer this time around, I found that through the process of jotting down notes and otherwise dissecting the information that was presented to me, this episode was just as rewarding for me to watch as it was two years ago.

DVD Commentary. It was wonderful to listen to Joss Whedon and Alexis Denisof as usual, but Amy Acker was a pleasant surprise. Although I found her natural speaking voice to be somewhat cloying (little girlish and wavery), Amy quickly won me over with her warmth, humor and charm. This was arguably her most important episode, and it was quite vital to have both Alexis and Amy (as well as Joss) give us their insights.

The trio joked throughout about how they were spending more time watching and listening to the episode than describing the action. Joss even made a quip about their "DVD pantomime" and how their commentary "sucked". I thought they did a fine job. I'd rather hear long stretches of dialogue once in a while so that I feel more in tune with what I'm watching.

Fred and Spike. Fred and Spike had a wonderful rapport with each other, which I've written about previously here, and to a lessor extent, here. I was actually looking forward to a lot more interplay between Fred and Spike in Season 5, but unfortunately everything seemed to come to a halt after "Hell-Bound". Amy Acker said in her commentary that actor James Marsters had told her that he thought the two of them (presumably the characters, wink-wink) would become "love interests". Although this was presented as a joke, from what we saw earlier in Season 5, it seemed somewhat inevitable that perhaps something would start brewing between Spike and Fred.

Putting aside the fact that the writers just didn't have time to fit everything in, perhaps Spike held off in pursuing Fred because he was still trying to get over that little thing he had going with Buffy. He might have also shrewdly sensed that the playing field was a little crowded, with Fred being surrounded by an ex-boyfriend (Gunn), a current somewhat-of-a-boyfriend (Knox), and a boyfriend-in-waiting (Wesley). However, it would have been fascinating to see the newly ensouled Spike, who probably would have welcomed the chance to get reacquainted with his poetic side, become involved with someone like the eternal optimist Fred, who desperately needed to get in touch with her darker side. For some reason I don't think the relationship would have been quite the disaster as it might have seemed at first glance.

As it was, although we were able to witness Spike's true depths of feeling for Fred both before and after her death, Fred's feelings for Spike were much less apparent. It's possible a few entertaining thoughts about Spike entered her head once in a while. She was certainly flirtier with Spike than she ever was with Wesley! However, deep down I feel that Fred was a natural- born charmer, so a warm smile toward Spike probably meant little more than Fred being Fred.

Spike and Angel. Joss said it best about this scene ("cavemen versus astronauts") when he joked, "I'd never seen a more intense or beautiful romance....We finally found....the right girl for Angel. I'm sort of kidding......." Spike and Angel bickering early on in the episode was a marvelous contrast to how we saw them working seamlessly together in this wonderful scene at the Deeper Well. It's always fun to speculate about the "true" nature of a relationship. Despite what seemed to be their insurmountable differences, Spike and Angel appeared to mean a lot more to each other than they cared to admit. Fred's death was the perfect catalyst for bringing this little-seen aspect of their relationship up to the surface.

David Boreanaz and James Marsters worked incredibly well together, to the point where Joss emphasized that they put the actors in the same camera views as much as possible. This brings to mind all of the minefields associated with the subject of male bonding, and all of the absurdities surrounding the whole "I don't want to look like I'm gay" mindset. Please forgive my venture into the land of stereotypes, but it appears that a lot of men are completely unable to accept that they have feelings for each other. There are many instances where men will willingly go off en masse and leave the womenfolk behind (off to war, fishing trips, jobs in remote outposts, sports training camps etc.), and will even openly admit that they like the "No Girls Allowed" club rules. However, they are quick to point out that they are mostly enjoying their little rebellions against female rule. They don't have to take showers, they can leave beer cans scattered all over the place, and they have the freedom to tell jokes and otherwise function in ways that would never have been allowed at their grandmothers' houses. These same semi-mythical man-creatures would never take it a step further and admit that perhaps the opportunity to spend quality time with male soul-mates might be the biggest attraction of all.

I've noticed that, unlike with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I have a hard time identifying with female characters in Angel. That's because females in Angel are presented as being exotic and inscrutable, like we're viewing them through the eyes of their completely mystified male admirers. There was only one stretch of Angel where we were finally getting something close to the woman's point of view, and that was when Cordelia and Fred were bonding in early Season 3. Then Cordelia turned into a higher being, and you know the rest. I haven't put too much thought into this, but it appears that within these constraints, the only way Mutant Enemy could really explore the depths of feelings within a male/female relationship in Angel was through the proxy of male/male relationships.

Jonathan Woodward as Knox. I had mentioned in a previous post that:
Whenever I see Knox, I get that same sinking feeling you get when the least attractive guy in your department asks you out on a date. Tim Minear mentioned in the DVD commentary for the Season 4 finale "Home" that everyone who mattered was impressed with actor Jonathan Woodward's work as Holden Webster in the Buffy Season 7 episode "Conversations with Dead People", and they were eager to bring him over to Angel. Woodward is a very good actor and successfully portrayed Knox as being almost endearingly shy and awkward with Fred, but with that touch of malice that Pollyanna Fred was completely unable to pick up on. I could never put my finger on why I disliked his character so much, yet the fact that I could never understand what Fred saw in Knox may have ultimately doomed their whole storyline. Regardless, if I was wired up with electrodes in a focus group, I wouldn't give off whatever vital signs the marketers were looking for that would indicate that Knox would be a popular character on a TV show.
It never ceases to amaze me how I can completely change my mind about how I feel about certain characters or situations. One thing I'm making an effort to do is challenge past notions and prejudices while I make my way through the Angel DVD's. It's not that I'm trying to make myself a better person. It's more like I'm able to watch an almost completely different series when I approach the show from a different direction.

Although Woodward made several substantial appearances as Knox throughout Season 5, his was another character that I would have liked to have seen a little more often. Based on Joss Whedon's DVD commentary and this Wikipedia entry, it appears that Mutant Enemy didn't have Knox's complete story arc mapped out ahead of time. It also appears that Woodward never knew exactly what his character was up to until he read the individual scripts. This leads me to a point that I can be making about just about every character in television: nobody wants to telegraph future story lines and spoil the surprise for fans. However, since the actors are forced to somewhat fumble around in the dark in each episode, it can quite often be a bit disconcerting to see how the actors' previous performances don't seem to jibe with the Big Reveal. We're then forced to go back and conjure up reasons why He Did This and She Did That in earlier episodes, and also rely heavily on the old saw "he did a really good job of fooling everyone" when all else fails.

I thought Woodward did an excellent job of portraying Knox as a seemingly mild-mannered guy who nonetheless had a hint of malevolence just below the surface. Was Knox basically Evil but did a good job covering it up? Or was he basically Good and had a touch of Evil that bubbled up once in a while? Kudos to Woodward and the production staff for shaping Knox's character in such a way that he could have gone either way.

Amy Acker's and Alexis Denisof's tour de force aside, the best little piece of acting in the entire episode probably occurred when Jonathan Woodward uttered that simple "Oops" after Gunn caught Knox calling Fred "it". Woodward's timing of his pause was impeccable (though he may have had some help from the editors.) Regardless, I loved how he played it, as someone who almost instantaneously sensed that it was useless to keep on lying. I truly think "Knoxy" would have been able to continue the charade for at least a little while longer. However, he might have very quickly decided it was pointless since, in an odd way, he was probably better off letting the truth come out sooner rather than later. With Knox, even though the inclusion of his character with the rest of the males in the earlier "let's save Fred" moments of the episode was a classic misdirect, it still added an interesting dynamic to those scenes. If Knox had not been one of the villains it would have been interesting to explore just how he was able to so quickly work his way into the circle of alpha male superheroes.

Gunn in the White Room. The scene where Gunn wrestled his alter-ego/conduit in the White Room is another one of those scenes where I always felt like I was missing something. To back up, I guess I never really understood the purpose of allowing Gunn to access the Senior Partners. Wasn't Gunn's role redundant, as the Senior Partners always seemed to have some other dedicated staff member who played the liaison part, with first Eve, then Hamilton? As an aside I was shocked to find out that, as far as I can tell, Mutant Enemy only filmed three actual scenes with Gunn in the White Room, here, here and here. I'd have to scour the dialogue to find out if Gunn made any off-camera visits there, but I definitely had the impression that Gunn was tighter with the Senior Partners than perhaps he actually was.

I could go on and on about this, but I think it all boils down to something pretty simple. The Senior Partners built up and massaged Gunn's ego long enough to get him hooked, then dropped him when he outlived his usefulness. In other words, there was no reason to be best buddies with Gunn once he passed the point of no return after he received his second legal brain upgrade behind Team Angel's back, and obviously when he unwittingly signed the paper that allowed Illyria's sarcophagus to pass through customs. The Senior Partners needed Gunn to experience a dramatic fall from grace, with raising his status to the highest level being an integral part of the plan. Ironically, this particular plotline in the TV series was that much more of an important element in the first four volumes of After the Fall.

Eve. I've mentioned before that I started to really like Eve after she'd been cut down to size. I actually found her vulnerability quite touching in this scene where Team Angel burst into her bedroom and started interrogating her. Eve seemed quite sincere when she told them that "I wanna help. I swear to you. I've got nothing against Fred", although her motivations may have been somewhat murky. Nonetheless, she provided the guys some spectacularly valuable information when she told them about the Old Ones and the Deeper Well. (As an aside, her revelations were equally as valuable for giving the viewers a much clearer picture of the cosmology of the Angelverse).

All of this leads me to wonder, was Eve acting purely out of self-preservation or was she acting out of at least some goodness of her heart? The cop-out answer is that it was probably a little bit of both, but it's the best conclusion I can come up with at this time. Putting aside how the Mutant Enemy writers were planting a bunch of false flags in front of us, I really do think that at least a small part of Eve actually wanted to be a true part of Team Angel, somewhat reminiscent of how Spike was attracted to the Scoobies in Season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Although I never found her "sexual chemistry" with Angel to be all that convincing, it actually suits my purposes right here to think that perhaps she really was a little sweet on Angel. We have no idea what Eve's background might have been, but she may have felt more than a few regrets about not being able to fully integrate into Angel's loving, tight-knit little family.

Perhaps one of her biggest motivations could also tie in with one of my favorite themes, where the Bad Guys will instinctively throw their lots in with the Good Guys when opportunities arise. (Think of Lilah aligning herself with the crew at the Hyperion in Season 4's "Calvary"). Eve knew that she'd be treated fairly by Angel, and she understood that any rough handling she might have encountered in the process, although unfortunate, would have been well-deserved.

Wesley and Fred, Alexis and Amy. I always regretted not writing about Amy Acker's (and also Vincent Kartheiser's) screen tests that appeared as Season 3 DVD extras. In both cases I was just as impressed by the performances of the seasoned veterans (Denisof, Richards and Boreanaz) as I was by the newcomers. Both Alexis Denisof and J. August Richards seemed positively smitten with Amy Acker as the three of them clowned their way through a faux-Midsummer's Night Dream sequence that took place at the Hyperion Hotel. I've always been a little puzzled about why the doomed Wesley/Fred love affair struck such a chord with fans. After watching Amy and Alexis' scenes in "A Hole in the World" I'm leaning towards the idea that fans were actually reacting to the deep rapport felt between the actors themselves rather than what their characters were presenting to us on-screen.

Per the DVD commentary, the filming of Fred's death was as emotionally draining as it was rewarding for the cast and crew involved. I've unfortunately misplaced my notes, but I believe Joss Whedon humorously called that particular day of filming as one of the best days of Alexis and Amy's life! The two actors had spent roughly two years waiting to really delve into their roles, and Joss Whedon noted the irony in using Fred's death as the catalyst. Joss also told us that a lot more was filmed than what we saw on-screen, which allowed the actors to really jump into their characters and explore their emotional depths. This obviously gave Whedon a wealth of material to choose from for the final cut.

Fred's final death scene was the last sequence filmed on a very long day of shooting. Joss offered to wrap things up before Fred's death and allow everyone to start off fresh the next day. However, Alexis and Amy and (probably the rest of the crew) agreed that, as tired as they were, it would have been way too difficult to get back into the same emotional state on the next day. That turned out to be a wise decision since it was vital for the audience to see the total exhaustion in both Fred and Wesley as her death finally arrived.

From what I understand, the sequences were not filmed in the order that we saw in the finished product. However, Joss noted that he was amazed at how the movements seemed to flow seamlessly from one moment to the next as he worked on putting the final cuts together. If Joss had any sort of difficulty at all in editing this scene I certainly didn't notice it. Alexis said it best when he described the finished product as "There's a sort of tightening that happens in each scene, where you feel it just getting worse and worse".

Drogyn. Alec Newman was absolutely outstanding as the noble warrior Drogyn. He was another one of those characters who established himself so quickly you had to remind yourself that he was actually making his series debut. There was more than a few similarities between Alec Newman's Drogyn and Mark Lutz' Groosalugg, to the point where a person can't help but think that this might have been a good place to re-introduce Groo into the series. However, Drogyn was much more darker and introspective than The Groosalugg, and, plotwise, seemed to be better suited for the final fate that awaited him. As it turned out, Drogyn was simply another one of those Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-type characters who perform a few crucial deeds or introduce a few key concepts (e.g., Drogyn always told the truth so we would know that Fred could not be brought back), then goes off and dies.

Idle Thoughts. Joss mentioned in his commentary that Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker were his two star performers at his semi-regular Shakespeare readings that he held at his house. Whedon also described how it was through these Shakespeare readings that he got the germ of the idea to kill off Fred and have Amy start portraying someone who was "regal and scary" and quite different from anything she had done before. I'm not sure if it was as simple as Amy turning in powerhouse Lady Macbeth performances, or if Joss just saw the potential for Amy to expand her acting range when he witnessed her readings. Regardless, Whedon made a great call, and I still think Illyria's her best role to date.

Think of the similar fates that Eve and Lilah suffered after they put themselves under the protection of Team Angel.

I wasn't nearly as enchanted with the Wesley-shooting-the-soulless office hack scene this time around. Joss Whedon explained in his DVD commentary that, just like every other episode he wrote, "A Hole in the World" came in quite long. He acknowledged that if the scene had been deleted it would not have affected the story line at all. However, he said something to the effect that it was too cool to cut out. Although the scene lost it's punch for me after viewing it for about the fourth time, I will grant that it was valuable in that it reinforced the fact that there was a darkness that remained within Wesley even after the Connor mindwipe.

I usually watch the DVD commentaries of the episodes twice. Like I described above, I watch the first time as a passive viewer. Usually I'm so excited about what I've learned I can hardly wait to watch it a second time through and take copious notes. With "A Hole in the World" I was so bored with the commentary that I literally had to force myself to sit through it again. There was nothing wrong with the commentary per se. It's just that I think I've sat through too many commentaries by now, and even the new information I receive doesn't seem to be that much of a surprise.

As I typed this blog post I couldn't seem to do justice to the Deeper Well scene with Drogyn, Angel and Spike. What can I say about the interaction between the three seasoned warriors, the contrast between the "modern-day" iconoclastic Spike and the anachronistic Drogyn, how the bonds between Angel and Spike seemed to strengthen before our very eyes, and Spike's marvelous ".....There's a hole in the world. Feels like we ought to have known." I reluctantly moved this from the main body of the post down to "Idle Thoughts".

The reason it took me so long to finish this post is that I misplaced my notes when I was about two-thirds of the way through with writing this up. One casualty is that I only vaguely remembering Amy asking some very good questions in the commentary that led to a lot of good additional information from Joss. Anyways, predictably, I can attribute any shortcomings in this post to the loss of my notes.

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