Monday, March 19, 2012

A Wrinkle in Time

Amy Acker as Illyria
(Courtesy of Screencap Paradise)


Although I've seen just about every episode of Angel 3 or 4 times, I'm currently working on viewing the entire series for the first time on DVD. As a result I've already hit upon several high points from Angel in previous posts, and I'm now currently working on a mopping-up operation, continuing this time around with "Time Bomb".

This is the part where I usually say, "I've written extensively about this episode before, here's the link, I don't feel like repeating myself, so I'll just write about a bunch of unrelated loose ends." However, I'll change my M.O. and use my "Instability" post that I wrote back in 2009 as a springboard for some further discussions here. So, obviously, if you're interested in a more thorough review of the episode, please click on the above link.

General Overview. Based on some quick searches I've made in the past, it appears that "Time Bomb" is not held in high regard by a lot of reviewers. The main criticisms are that the episode is too gimmicky and that it tries to make the subject of time bending a lot more complicated than it really is.

I admit that the first time I saw this episode I tried way too hard to ascribe some deeper meaning to every single twist and turn and jumps back and forth along the timeline. Once I realized that the story was just a simple narrative of how Illyria and Angel worked through their differences (with Wesley Wyndam-Pryce acting as a facilitator) and achieved something close to a mutual understanding, the rest of the pieces fell into place. Illyria's "instability" that resulted from her demon essence being trapped into her human body, with all of the attending time warping activity, turned out to be more of a McGuffin than anything else.

Wesley and Angel. I wrote in my "Instability" post that, in this early scene, "...Angel and Wesley were having a wonderfully frank discussion about Wes and Illyria's relationship." I won't go into a lot of details about their discussion except to say that Angel had some disturbing doubts about Illyria's motivations while Wesley openly mused about the possibility of integrating Illyria into the group.

Upon viewing this scene again recently I realized that, although Angel and Wesley were airing their viewpoints, they were hardly having a meeting of the minds. Angel was openly well on his way to deciding (in a later scene) that Illyria would need to be eliminated. For his part, while Wesley seemed distant and preoccupied, presumably because of his grief over the loss of his beloved Fred, he was also being cagey as he concentrated more on his own agenda of keeping Illyria around.

Since I'm a big fan of the Angel/Wesley relationship, it was therefore quite a relief to see them reconciled by the end of "Time Bomb". Illyria's powers were safely contained, and Angel had decided that she could potentially be a powerful asset after all. Angel and Wesley (in particular) were back to their old selves, and they were truly communicating with each other once again as close colleagues and confidants.

Wesley and Illyria. To expand on something that I touched on above, in "Instability" I had written that (regarding Wesley's depressed state):
Wes was obviously not dealing very well with the triple whammy of the loss of Fred, the appearance of Illyria within Fred's form, and the re-emergence of his forgotten painful memories when the spell of the Orlon Window was broken in the previous episode.
Although these were all very powerful factors, I think I should have added that Wesley's demeanor was influenced by how he was obsessed with all aspects involving Illyria. He had apparently made the decision quite early on that he wanted to keep her alive.

I started off a fairly lengthy discussion about Wesley's motivations in his dealings with Illyria by stating:
I can't help but think that Wesley derived an enormous amount of satisfaction out of bringing down a once-powerful creature to someone who would now be under his control. I wouldn't call Wesley a classic control-freak, but there seemed to be somewhat of an erotic element to how he first ultimately put Lilah under his control, then Illyria. It was certainly different from dealing with alpha males! Wesley's actions with the ladies seemed to be a perfect illustration of the eroticism within Wesley's natural-born Watcher instincts, where he absolutely loved women and wanted to guide and protect them. In both instances, with Lilah and Illyria, he not only wanted to turn them into playmates of sorts, he genuinely wanted to "save" them and improve their lives.
I should have brought up the possibility that, despite how Wesley told Illyria that he had accepted the fact that Fred was gone, perhaps he really was still motivated by the outside chance that he would be able to bring Fred back to life. The above-referenced scene did use a clever bit of time bending to raise suspicions that Wesley's wishes to bring back Fred were perhaps not as firmly left in the past as it appeared. However, if Mutant Enemy really wanted us to believe that Wesley's main motivation was to resurrect Fred, I think they would have made it a little more obvious. Above all, Wesley was a realist: he might not have totally reconciled himself with Fred's death, but I don't think he was actively looking for a miracle either.

The Apocalypse. There's an interesting tension between Season 5 of the TV show and the After the Fall comic continuation series as to what the Senior Partners had in mind for Angel during the Apocalypse. Wesley reminded us in Season 5's "The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco" that the Shanshu Prophecy ".... tells of an epic, apocalyptic battle and a vampire with a soul who plays a major role in that battle. And there's the suggestion that the vampire will get to live again."

Throughout Season 5, the audience (and probably Angel himself) was led to believe that the Senior Partners were actively trying to either corrupt Team Angel and turn them over to the dark side, or at least trick them into thinking they were on the side of good when they were in fact doing all of their work for evil. As this piece of dialogue from "Time Bomb" shows, everyone was feeling pretty helpless with how the events appeared to be unfolding:
GUNN: Yeah, for example, what about the Apocalypse? Still trying to get my head around that one. Lindsey said we're in the middle of it?

WESLEY: Oh, yes. The thousand-year war of good versus evil is well under way.

ANGEL: Evil just hasn't told anyone about it yet, which is probably why they're winning.

SPIKE: Oh, and by the way, we're apparently on the wrong side. Or the right side, if you like winning.

GUNN: Sounds like you guys are buying it.

ANGEL: Next time you go out there, take a good look around. 'Cause it's true, Gunn.

GUNN: Works for me. So what's that mean for us?

ANGEL: Tell us how we fight an invisible war. I don't even know who we're fighting. All the evil we've stopped so far, and we're still the partners' number-one earner.
It's pretty clear that Team Angel knew they were being manipulated by the Senior Partners and that they needed to take drastic action. The only problem was that they were only thinking in terms of reacting against the Senior Partners, which was close to impossible since they didn't know for sure what they were reacting against.

I'm getting pretty far ahead of myself here, but Angel ultimately decided by the end of this episode (with a little help from Illyria), that the only thing he could do was lull the Senior Partners into complacency, then launch a violent preemptive strike. Unfortunately for Angel, and according to After the Fall, this played right into the Senior Partners' plans, since they were counting on Angel to play an active part in starting and sustaining the Apocalypse.

In a lot these types of shows (e.g., Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Supernatural, etc.) there was often a general sense that things were steadily getting worse out there. It was mostly a plot device to show that yesterday was normal, whereas today things are different. In this case, Lindsey McDonald clearly stated in "Underneath" that the Apocalypse was already well underway, which was in direct contrast to Holland Manners telling Angel in Season 2's "Reprise" that the Apocalypse was not yet underway. According to Holland:
"Well, it's true. We do have one scheduled. And I imagine if you were to prevent it you would save a great many people. Well, you should do that then. Absolutely. I wasn't thinking. Of course all those people you save from that apocalypse would then have the next one to look forward to, but, hey, it's always something, isn't it?"
What I find interesting about Lindsey is that, for a guy who seemed to be on the outs with Wolfram & Hart, he certainly seemed to be doing the Senior Partners a favor when he first told Angel,
".....Every day you sit behind your desk and you learn a little more how to accept the world the way it is. Well, here's the rub... heroes don't do that. Heroes don't accept the world the way it is. They fight it."
then a little later on,
".....The world keeps sliding towards entropy and degradation, and what do you do? You sit in your big chair, and you sign your checks, just like the senior partners planned. The war's here, Angel. And you're already 2 soldiers down."
Clearly between what Lindsey McDonald was saying and Illyria's "If you want to win a war, you must serve no master but your ambition", Angel was inspired to change from defense to offense, or, from being reactive to proactive. Tragically, he decided to take the fight directly to Wolfram & Hart, just as the Senior Partners had planned.

Finally, it might not really matter too much whether an Apocalypse was or was not already raging during Season 5 of Angel. If you look hard enough, at just about any point in history you can look around and be able to conclude that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. The only analogy I can think of off the top of my head is how sometimes in retrospect it can be hard to assign a precise date for when a war started. For example, did WWII start when Japan invaded China or Germany invaded Poland? Or did it start during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, or when various nations started lending their support during the Spanish Civil War?

The Senior Partners/Wolfram & Hart. Although Angel wasn't sure how Illyria fit into the overall grand design, it's misleading to say that Angel was simply trying to figure out if she was an agent of Wolfram & Hart. I keep throwing out the possibility that she might have been deliberately introduced by the Senior Partners, but all indications show that she was a wildcard. Angel himself told Wesley, "
She's still here because this place reeks of influence. She had everything, Wes. Everything. You think she's not lookin' to get that back?"

To push it further, maybe it was pure fate that brought Illyria to Wolfram & Hart. However, Angel couldn't ignore the possibility that she could team up with the Senior Partners in order to regain some of her past glory, despite the fact that
Illyria remarked dismissively in "Shells" that "The wolf, ram, and hart? In my time they were weak, barely above the vampire."

I had written in my "Instabilty" post that, in this scene, where Angel and others expressed their doubts about Illyria, and after Illyria had returned with Gunn after she rescued him from the hell dimension, that:
When Hamilton came in and described, in great detail, how he was not happy about all of the the damage Illyria inflicted when she went after Gunn, and how the damages would be paid from their division, people must have really been wondering about her ties with the Senior Partners.
Specifically I was referring to this dialogue sequence, where Hamilton stated,
HAMILTON: "Illyria destroyed 11 torture units before she found your man. 2 troop carriers, an ice cream truck, and 8 beautifully maintained lawns. Not to mention dozens of employees rendered useless to the company."

ANGEL: Bill me.

HAMILTON:
Oh, we will. The damages are coming directly out of this division's profits. Congratulations. In one swift stroke, you've gone from leader of the pack to staggering at the rear.
It's been a recurring theme throughout Season 5 (and, really, throughout the entire series) that Wolfram & Hart was a for-profit enterprise, where budgets needed to be adhered to, and revenue was expected to exceed costs. In short, money didn't grow on trees.

I used to wonder if the Senior Partners, through their Wolfram & Hart enterprise, were the supreme rulers of all of the demons within the Angelverse. However, if I've interpreted things correctly in After the Fall, it appears that Wolfram & Hart was simply the most powerful (and perhaps the largest) demonic enterprise. In other words, they were kind of like Microsoft Corp. about a decade ago. Although it wasn't a great idea to cross swords with Wolfram & Hart, there were plenty of other demons out there who didn't feel any particular loyalty to the Senior Partners.

We know that at one time Wolfram & Hart controlled the Pylea dimension through an order of priests called the Covenant of Trombli. As the above-referenced Wikipedia entry indicates, Angel informed us in "A Hole in the World" that Wolfram & Hart existed in many other dimensions as well.

We could make an argument that Wolfram & Hart was able to adapt to each dimension that they had a presence in. For example, Pylea was a medieval agrarian dimension, so it made perfect sense that their representatives were able to rule by spouting out mumbo-jumbo from what looked like sacred texts. In our earthly dimension, Wolfram & Hart adapted by becoming a hugely-successful commercial enterprise that consolidated their wealth and power through bribing officials, exploiting loopholes to their advantage, engaging in monopolistic practices, embezzling funds and otherwise stealing from associates and competitors alike, etc. One could make an equally convincing argument that Wolfram & Hart invented all of these practices!

Key to all of this was the fact that, powerful as they were, Wolfram & Hart did not have unlimited resources, monetary or otherwise. For one thing it appeared that demons like Cyvus Vail and the shaman involved in Lindsey McDonald's hand-transplant operation expected to be paid quite handsomely for their efforts. It was therefore quite important for the firm to maintain a constant stream of revenue in order to keep their operations going.

There must have also been a complex demonic bartering system in place as well, where the parties involved repaid each other back and forth through performing in-kind services. A better way to describe it would be they maintained a system of doing favors and calling in their markers. I won't get into the details, but one reason why Angel was able to achieve a major victory over Wolfram & Hart in After the Fall was that he was able to stretch their monetary and mystical resources to the breaking point.

Idle Thoughts
. Wesley stated here that "
The thousand-year war of good versus evil is well under way." Was that just a figurative nod to millennialism in general, or were they literally in the middle of a thousand-year war with Wolfram & Hart? I'm assuming the former since I can't remember hearing about any other details. Any corrections in the comment section would be much appreciated.

I thought David Boreanaz's wife Jaime Bergman did a nice job portraying Amanda, the impoverished pregnant woman who was dealing with the malevolent Fell Brethren. Bergman's character was sweet and vulnerable, with just the right amount of pathos that allowed her to gain our sympathy. Amanda could have potentially been quite unlikeable since she was negotiating to sell her baby!

It's difficult to write about the Senior Partners and Wolfram & Hart because it's sometimes hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Presumably the Senior Partners were three demons (the Wolf, the Ram and the Hart) who operated through their Wolfram & Hart entity. "Wolfram & Hart" seems to be both the organization name and the umbrella name for the minions who worked for the Senior Partners. Did these three demons belong to a larger race of demons who had special privileges within Wolfram & Hart? I've never found any evidence to support this.

In Season 4's "Deep Down" Lilah Morgan met (off camera) with a Senior Partner named "Mr. Suvarta", who presumably gave her the OK for her "off with Linwood's head" power play. I've often wondered how Lilah was able to meet with an actual Senior Partner since it probably wouldn't have been all that easy to arrange. (Did Lilah meet him via the White Room?) I've also hoped that she would have been rewarded for her loyal service by being allowed to live a relatively more comfortable afterlife in her hell dimension.

I wrote in my earlier "Instability" post that:
I wonder if Spike knew ahead of time that the Mutari generator device would not kill Illyria? Wes and Spike certainly acted like two kids sneaking behind Angel's back when they were working together in the lab. The only thing that makes me doubt Spike's prior knowledge was his wisecrack to Illyria that "It's not murder if you say yes." I'd have to review the scene to see if Spike shows any sort of reaction when Wesley admitted that the device would not kill her.
After viewing the episode again about all I can add is that Spike's crack about "It's not murder..." could just as easily be interpreted to mean that he did know that Wes wasn't going to kill Illyria. On screen, we only saw reactions from Angel and Lorne, and both of them were genuinely surprised to find out that Illyria wasn't going to be killed.

"The Girl in Question" is the only Angel episode that I haven't seen all the way through. Although it has its fans, I've found it to be almost completely unwatchable. I've only seen the episode twice, and both times I ended up scanning through most of the scenes so I could focus on the marvelous Wesley/Illyria sequences. Within the next few days I'll be forcing myself to watch the entire episode for the first time. Hopefully, I'll get more out of it now that I've seen all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I'm not getting my hopes up.

Monday, March 12, 2012

To Hell and Back


Angel and Connor - Together at Last
(David Boreanaz and Vincent Kartheiser -
courtesy of Screencap Paradise)



"Origin" from Season 5 of Angel was notable for rewarding long-suffering viewers with both a Connor we could actually stand and a Connor who could finally start getting along with his real dad. Like most other Season 5 episodes I'm viewing this time around, I'm not really picking up much of anything new. However, the series is still giving me fodder for writing about current pet themes to mine.

I've written a fair amount about certain aspects of "Origin" in the past. I focused mostly on the Wesley/Illyria relationship here, while I talked more about the fate of Fred's soul here. I won't be discussing these topics in this post, so obviously feel free to click on the above two links if you're so inclined.

The Supernatural World: Common Knowledge?. I've always been fascinated with the subject of how widely known the supernatural world was in Angel. (See this post "Through the Looking Glass; or, Welcome to My Nightmare".) Although it would be impossible to come up with the precise percentage of believers versus non-believers, I think I can safely say that the conventional wisdom within the Buffy/Angelverse still seemed to be that supernatural forces did not exist. However, in absolute terms, people who had actual contact with the supernatural (e.g., demon hunters, both the poorest and wealthiest elements of society, law enforcement officers, government officials, the business class, the criminal class, poor unfortunates who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, etc.) might have actually outnumbered the people who hadn't!

The society overlords in Angel seemed to be working very hard to conceal the presence of the supernatural world from the masses. There could have been a lot of good reasons for this, but the primary reason seemed to be to keep everyone from panicking. One only has to look to Fukushima, Japan for a present-day analogy, where government officials seem quite reluctant to hand out much in the way of useful information to their citizens. One could easily make the jump that it would be necessary to keep the population in the dark as much as possible so as not to disrupt the firmly entrenched interests of those who desperately wanted to maintain the status quo.

To belabor the point a little bit further, it would have been necessary to isolate people who did come in contact with the supernatural world. I don't necessarily mean that these people risked being rounded up and put into concentration camps (though with recent events that possibility, in the U.S. at least, seems a little less absurd). Instead, a climate was maintained where people were reluctant to talk about their experiences due to fear of ridicule. Indeed, it appeared the ruling classes didn't even have to put in much effort to maintain this environment since people were already way too eager to rationalize and explain away their unpleasant experiences!

We found out how Connor's surrogate parents had their own experience down the rabbit hole when they informed Wesley Wyndam-Pryce:
DAD: We had nowhere else to go. Our son was... getting the mail.

MOM: We could see him from the living room. He was walking across the driveway, and this van--

DAD: It must have been going 50, 60 miles an hour. It hopped the curb, and it ran right into him. It slammed him right into the side of the garage, and then... backed up and sped off.

WESLEY: And the police think this was intentional? Has homicide found the van?

DAD: You don't understand.

MOM: Our son's not dead.

WESLEY: He's not?

DAD: No. He's fine. The van hit him, and he got right up.

MOM: He hardly has a scratch on him.

DAD: Police said it was dumb luck, but if you saw it...

MOM: One of the officers called us later, said our son might be different.

(Wesley hurriedly picks up the phone)

DAD: He mentioned that there was a law firm in Los Angeles that dealt with... things like this.
There's no reason to spend a lot of time wondering about the driver of the speeding van. We can simply say that he was hired either directly or indirectly by Cyvus Vail to do perform the dirty deed, which would in turn start off a chain of events that would bring Connor to LA. Meanwhile, the identity of the police officer who phoned Connor's parents and recommended Wolfram & Hart to them is a little more intriguing. It would be naive to think that the officer had some sort of shadowy knowledge of Wolfram & Hart and made the referral out of the goodness of his heart. It's more likely that he received some sort of payoff to make the phone call, but what were the other particulars? Was he a real police officer, or did he and at least one other person pose as officers at the scene? If he was a real officer, how much prior knowledge of the supernatural world did he have, and how was he specifically chosen to make the call?

I'm still trying to find out answers to some questions I posed in the "Through the Looking Glass..." post noted above. Specifically, I wondered, did Kate Lockley's fellow officers shun her because they thought she was nuts? Or did they flat out think she was poking around in places that she didn't belong? In other words, was the supernatural world common knowledge among police officers? My best admittedly vague guess is that some officers were at least somewhat aware, while others were pretty clueless.

Hell Dimension in the Buffyverse as a State of Mind. Buffy herself confirmed that some form of heaven existed, while, as Spike humorously pointed out, there were more hell dimensions than you could shake a stick at. Although there's some dialogue scattered throughout that seems to imply that there was one particular hell that people went to if they were evil (see examples here and here), in actuality it seemed that in a lot of cases the hell that people ended up in depended on which demon they happened to piss off, (e.g., infant Connor ended up in Quor'toth after unfortunately crossing paths with Sahjahn). Sometimes, one person's hell was another person's relative paradise (e.g., Season 2's Pylea was hell for humans but quite nice for most people who had green skin and horns sticking out of their heads.)

This Buffy Wikia entry flat out states that a "hell dimension" is a "...dimension with conditions extremely hostile for the development of human life and in which demons are the dominant life form." It appears that, for the most part, "hell" was being used in the Buffyverse as an adjective to describe just how awful it was to live in places like Quor'toth and Pylea rather than as a place that bad people were sent to as a matter of course. Using the strict "demon dimension" definition, it may be a mistake to attach a moralistic connotation to the phrase.

I've made kind of a big deal in the past about how Lindsey informed the group in "Underneath" that, as far as his treatment in his particular hell dimension: "Turns out they can only undo you as far as you think you deserve to be undone." I wish the series had explored this concept a little bit further to see if this was universally true in all hell dimensions. This sounds like a topic for another Post That Will Probably Not Be Written about how there seem to be two competing versions of hell floating around in the Buffyverse; hells that people were sent or chose to go because of their own wrongdoing (Lindsey and Gunn), and hells that people were sent to through no fault of their own (Fred, Cordelia and Connor).

It's also worth noting that there is a school of thought both inside and outside of the Buffyverse that states that your guilty conscience at death will send you to hell. A favorite quote of mine comes from the marvelous family dinner flashback scene in the Woody Allen movie Crimes and Misdemeanors where the eccentric Marxist Aunt May states (in regards to whether wrongdoers will automatically be "punished"), "And I say, if he can do it [commit murder] and gets away with it, and he chooses not to be bothered by the ethics, then he's home free". It leads one to think that Angelus might have fared a lot better than Angel in the hell dimension that Buffy sent him into at the end of Season 2 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.


Was Wolfram & Hart Behind Connor's Return? I've been wondering throughout my Season 5 reviews of Angel how much of the bad things that happened to Angel et al were directly inflicted by Wolfram & Hart. This is particularly crucial in light of how the After the Fall comic continuation series made it quite clear that Angel was being manipulated into taking the fight directly to the Senior Partners, thereby starting an Apocalypse.

Hamilton disavowed all knowledge of why Connor returned to Los Angeles. In his words, "...the Senior Partners weren't behind it. This isn't an accident. Someone out there's trying to send you a message... and they're using your son to do it." Of course the fact that the demon warlock Cyvus Vail, who altered Connor's memories and manipulated his return to Los Angeles, also turned out to be a member of the Circle of the Black Thorn, (which was "the Senior Partners' instrument on Earth",) kind of leads one to suspect Hamilton's credibility.

I've been maintaining all along that, although the Senior Partners might not have been micromanaging all of the dreadful events, they certainly fostered an environment that allowed wretched things to occur. Perhaps the workings of a not-quite-autonomous Circle of the Black Thorn was an important element in this "environment".

Connor is a...what is he again? I thought the episode "Release" from Season 4 made it pretty clear that Connor had some sort of demon blood in him when it was established that the "no demon violence" spell that protected the Hyperion Hotel prevented Connor from landing a punch against Angelus. (Note the Buffy Wikia discussion here.)

Angel himself perhaps clarified things when he informed Connor in "Origin" that "Best we can tell, you're a healthy, well-adjusted kid, with, uh... enhanced abilities." However, notice that slightly before then, when Connor flat out asked Angel if he (Connor) was a demon, Angel had to pause for a second before answering "No."

There definitely is precedence in the Buffyverse for non-demons who exhibit non-human characteristics. As the Buffy Wikia discussion referenced above implies, while Buffy as Slayer was instilled with "essence" of demon, this didn't actually make her a demon. Also, when it was revealed that Spike, while he still had the anti-human violence chip implanted in his brain, was able to hit Buffy after she returned from the dead, Tara reassured Buffy in Season 6 of Buffy's "Dead Things" that there was nothing wrong with her: Buffy was suffering from nothing more than a "deep tropical cellular tan". And don't get me started on Gwen Raiden! Simply put, you didn't need to be a demon in the Buffyverse to have superhuman powers.

Idle Thoughts. Someone pointed out to me that there's a whole body of work out there which talks about soul, body and spirit. Here's a good example. Crap! Back to the drawing board with my soul talk.

It seems kind of naive to pretend that the Senior Partners weren't behind every terrible thing that happened to Angel and his gang in Season 5. It doesn't stop me from trying to push the opposite argument to see how far I can take it.

We've seen Angel swoop to the rescue a number of times over the course of the series, but it was particularly heart-warming to see him jump in and rescue Connor in the scene where Connor and his parents were waylaid by demons in their motel parking lot.

Despite the evil delivery system, maybe we can allow ourselves to believe that perhaps some divine intervention finally gave Connor the life he deserved and allowed him to start building a wonderful new relationship with his dad.

Vincent Kartheiser was as excellent as always as Connor, while David Boreanaz once again showed us that special on-screen rapport he had with Kartheiser.

When Connor told Angel that he needed to stick around and protect his surrogate parents, that definitely become another worthy, "Oh, how sweet!" moment of the series.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Underneath It All


Spike Joins the Team
[James Marsters (Spike) and David Boreanaz (Angel)
]


The only reason "Underneath" from Season 5 of Angel didn't make it into any of my Top Favorites lists is that I'm not clever enough to come up with a category to put this episode into. That's truly a pity since "Underneath", with its crackling dialogue and great action sequences, is absolutely outstanding from beginning to end. It was quite a relief for me to watch this episode at this point in time since I was inexplicably starting to get quite bored with what should have been my favorite string of episodes of the entire series.

DVD Commentary. Skip Schoolnik, Elizabeth Craft, Sarah Fain and Adam Baldwin all contributed fine commentary for this episode. Unfortunately, unlike the quartet that provided the commentary for Season 5's "Destiny", there was an element of too many cooks in the kitchen for "Underneath". The group desperately needed someone like David Fury to take the lead and keep the commentary on track. My biggest overall gripe was that although I usually enjoy hearing about technical details, in "Underneath" I felt that there was just too much Film School 101 talk going on and not enough commentary about the story lines.

The main problem seemed to be with Adam Baldwin, since a lot of attention was shifted towards his Hamilton character and Baldwin's overall acting career. Also, I don't know how much is scripted ahead of time, but there were times when Adam (and, really, a lot of other actors who've appeared in other commentaries) seemed to be asking some rather facile questions just so that the production staff would have an excuse to explain some of the more technical details. I wish the commentators would just plunge ahead and give their explanations without using the awkward device of having someone else pose the question. That being said, I don't totally feel justified in pointing the finger of blame at Baldwin. (To his credit, he mentioned towards the beginning of the commentary that he wasn't even sure why he had been included.) You can't invite someone to contribute and expect him to be quiet.

Overall, all four speakers gave us a lot of fascinating insights into the series. Once I got over the fact that they wouldn't be spending a whole lot of time talking about the plot, I settled in and found the commentary to be quite entertaining.

Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain. I'm not going to sit here and analyze all of the scripts this duo has written for Angel. However, it seems that if you're enjoying a Season 4 or 5 episode that's a little bit out of the ordinary, chances are Craft and Fain wrote the script. Some of my favorite "outside the box" episodes that they've written include "Supersymmetry" (which tackled the subject of vigilante justice head-on), "Release" (with those marvelous erotically-charged scenes featuring Wesley and Faith), "Harm's Way" (which I consider to be the best depiction of the petty indignities administrative assistants are forced to put up with on a daily basis), and of course "Underneath", which I consider to be their masterpiece. I should point out that Craft & Fain seemed to have had an equal number of relative misses throughout their run at Angel (see this post about Season 4's "Soulless" for an example) , but it's hard for me to blame the writers when I have no idea how much direct control they have in plotting out the script.

Team Angel. I've also noticed throughout Angel that whenever there's a particularly striking scene, there's usually a pretty good real-life story behind it. The very beginning of "Underneath", with Angel and Spike in the boardroom, provided an excellent case in point. As Sarah Fain explained, executive producer David Fury hated this scene and almost cut it from the script! Fain continued that she and Fury went round and round on this for two hours, but she ultimately won out after the big guy himself, Joss Whedon, gave his stamp of approval.

I thought this scene was absolutely crucial on so many levels. It drove home Angel's isolation and the fact that his pre-Wolfram & Hart group seemed to have completely evaporated away, as evidenced by the fact that Angel found himself in the awkward position of seemingly throwing a meeting that nobody else was attending. It also reinforced the fact that Spike had stepped up to the plate and had become a full-fledged member of the team despite his differences with Angel. We could arguably claim that without Spike, there wouldn't have been a team for anyone else to return to. Also, although Harmony was never fully accepted into the group, no one could ignore the fact that she was still there and putting in a considerable amount of face time.

Later on in the scene, Spike shrewdly pointed out: "My first official parley as a very loosely affiliated member of the... what are we? Tell me we're not Scoobies." I loved how the dialogue directly addressed a maddening problem that existed throughout the entire series; what do we call these people? In earlier seasons I called Angel and his pals "Angel Investigations" (or AI for short), then called them "Team Angel" from time to time just to mix things up in order to avoid repetition. (This Buffy Wikia page gives credence to both of these nicknames.) However, "Angel Investigations" didn't work out too well since it was strictly the agency name, and the agency was never the main focus of the series. Most of the time I tried to get around this dilemma by calling these people the "Angel Investigations team", which is even more unwieldy. Sometimes I would call them "Angel and his pals", or "Angel et al", or "Angel and his buddies", but NEVER the "Fang Gang". As the group moved over to Wolfram & Hart, the Angel Investigations moniker became obsolete. I then started sticking more with Team Angel.

I'm not aware that the writers ever came up with an official name for the group within the series. If they did, it probably only lasted for the duration of the episode before disappearing for good. Fang Gang is just too silly, whereas Team Angel screams of us bloggers grasping at straws while we try to think of something better. Spike finally pointed out the futility of even trying to come up with a name when the best he could come up with was "Angel's Avengers".

For his part, director Skip Schoolnik told us that, despite initial reservations, this turned into a great scene. He particularly enjoyed seeing actors David Boreanaz and James Marsters take charge of the script and run with it. Per Schoolnik, ".....these guys, David and James, really played well off of each other, and I think they just raised the level of the show so much, especially when they were together, because neither one could slack off".

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention another interesting dynamic on the set, which had to do with Christian Kane and J. August Richards acting in their identical Leave It to Beaver Meets Hell Dimension scenes here and here. According to Schoolnik, Richards (Gunn) observed Kane (Lindsey) as he performed the scene earlier in the shoot. Richards had a special challenge in that he didn't want to perform the scene exactly the same as Kane, but he didn't want to do worse either. Schoolnik stated that this led to a friendly competition between the two actors.

Lorne. Another scene that miraculously appeared was this sequence where the extremely morose Lorne was chatting with the hapless demon bartender. According to Elizabeth Craft, this scene was added when the episode came in short. Per Craft, this "......set up Lorne for the rest of the episode, and sort of for the rest of the season".

I've been continuously amazed throughout the course of Buffy and Angel with how hastily written scenes that were thrown in at the last minute were often crucial to the story lines. I've often thought that Joss and the writers took advantage of these opportunities to emphasize some points that might not have been previously fully explored to their satisfaction. Again, it's hard to imagine that the audience could have fully appreciated Lorne's disillusionment and sense of isolation from the group without viewing this scene.

Fred/Illyria/Wesley. I was disappointed that the commentators did not talk about the significance of this Fred and Wesley "Tell me a joke" scene. I speculated about some of the hidden meanings in this post, and I was looking forward to finding out if I was even remotely close to the target.

As it turns out, per Elizabeth Craft, Joss Whedon himself wrote all of the Fred/Illyria/Wesley scenes, which might explain why the commentators couldn't add any words of wisdom about the "joke". This seems pretty obvious to me only in retrospect, since these scenes represented a real sense of "otherness" from the rest of the series. I'm guessing that Whedon was off in his own little world while he wrote the dialogue, which carried over to the finished product. Far from being jarringly out of place, the beautiful Fred/Illyria/Wesley scenes brilliantly conveyed how Wesley was off in his own world while he struggled with his grief of losing Fred.

General Observations About Angel: the Series. One thing that delighted me about the commentary for "Underneath" was how the speakers touched on a few topics of interest that are quite near and dear to my heart. I've written in the past at how difficult it was for me to watch the series during daylight hours (I was working at night when I first saw the series), and how I felt I was missing some significant plot points simply because I couldn't see what was going on in the darkly lit scenes.

Bless Elizabeth Craft for telling us that "Angel's gotta be one of the most darkly lit shows, I would think, ever...I remember when we [Craft and Fain] came on in Season 4 and we wanted to re-watch all of the episodes and I watched 66 episodes back-to-back....my TV, which at the time was not a good TV, and it was so dark half of the time I couldn't see what was going on, and I would constantly be amazed when I saw the episode again I'd go, 'oh, that's how that monster died'."

Later on Adam Baldwin admitted that he had not seen a lot of Angel before he joined the cast, although he claimed his kids had been watching the series. He went on to say that the series was difficult to follow if you hadn't been keeping up. Craft agreed with Baldwin and added that it had been a constant topic of conversation in the writers' room.

I personally think the writers did a very good job with the exposition dialogue, which at least gave new viewers a fighting chance of understanding a little bit of the ongoing story lines. However, I also think that the chance of someone getting hooked on the show depended heavily on which episode or story arc he or she stumbled into. I imagine people would be more likely to stick with a show if they start off with relatively light-weight standalone episodes rather than jumping in halfway through a dramatically dreary story arc.

One of the Cheaper Baldwins. Both Adam Baldwin and Skip Schoolnik agreed in their commentary that actor David Boreanaz appeared to be intimidated when the extremely tall Baldwin first came onto the set. Schoolnik then said that this actually worked quite well in their first scene together where Angel, although obviously rattled by Hamilton's sudden appearance, didn't give up any ground either.

Baldwin and Elizabeth Craft also had an interesting exchange about what it's like to be the new kid on the set. Baldwin explained that he'd found out through experience that it's better to be bold and have to be told to hold back rather than to come in with low energy and appear to be fearful. Baldwin certainly seemed to own the character of Hamilton from the very beginning, which leads me to the subject of guest stars or actors who have a very limited number of appearances in a series.

To back up a bit, some actors seem to really make a strong impression from the very beginning when they step into new character roles, whereas others seem to need a few episodes before they can really settle in. I hesitate to label the former as being "better" actors than others, since a lot of elements would need to coalesce before a character could start making a real impact. Nonetheless, it must be a genuine relief to the production staff when a actor can step in and really nail a performance from the start. It must be tougher for actors in single guest appearances since, in essence, they only have one chance to get things right. It can't be too much of a stretch to guess that an actor's "bold" attitude can make a real difference as far as being able to get a character off to a strong start.

I also liked hearing about Adam Baldwin's ideas about work ethics, specifically his thoughts about actors who get attacks of the giggles. Baldwin stated that "I hate it when other actors get the giggles...It really makes me angry because it's unprofessional, and it steals time from what you're doing...I'm an old hat(?). When I was younger and less experienced, sure...but some people are truly funny. There's some people on shows that are just profoundly hysterical, like Nathan Filion, for instance, and it's really hard not to laugh when he's doing that, but then you look at the schedule and you go 'Man, I want this closeup of mine. I want this in the show."

Baldwin stated the above after there was talk on the commentary about David Boreanaz having problems getting through a scene because he had an attack of the giggles. I'm not sure if Baldwin was obliquely referring to Boreanaz' work ethic, but David's frequent breakups have been kind of a running theme throughout the five seasons of commentary for Angel. I say good for Baldwin for speaking up about this. Actors work incredibly long hours, but I can imagine that the production staff and crew might have to put in even longer hours. It can certainly seem quite selfish to be goofing off when other people are trying to get their work done so they can get home for a few well-deserved hours of sleep.

There was also a general discussion about the importance of actors knowing their lines when they show up on the set. As Schoolnik and Baldwin explained, losing five minutes here and five minutes there while actors bring themselves up to speed (or, for that matter, fight off the giggles) can quickly add up to a significant amount of lost time.

Idle Thoughts. Although I thought Adam Baldwin put in excellent performances on Angel, for whatever reason I could never really get excited about his Hamilton character. I'm not willing to spend a lot of time analyzing my feelings, but I can't help but think that both Eve and Hamilton might have been more exciting if they had become truly integrated into the team as opposed to popping in and out of the show at unpredictable intervals.

Director Skip Schoolnik said he was initially concerned that Craft and Fain's script had too much talk and not enough action. He continued on that he was so wrong about his earlier misgivings and now feels it was a real privilege to have been able to direct the episode. Craft informed us that it was her and Sarah Fain's favorite episode that they had written, (at least until the date they recorded the commentary).

Craft stated that Angel probably had one of the tallest casts in television. I find that statement helpful, since I've often wondered if the male cast members were uniformly roughly the same height, or if at least a few of them benefited from standing on specially raised platforms during filming.

Sarah Fain told us that it was Joss Whedon's idea to cast Firefly alumnus Adam Baldwin into the role of Hamilton. Prior to that, Craft and Fain had pictured a hot, kick-ass female playing the part. I think that was the correct decision since it was getting to be time to break up the female Senior Partners liaison mold.

The cast and crew were informed of the WB Network's decision to cancel the series roughly at the time they were shooting the Fight the Wrath scene in the basement of the hell dimension house. The audio quality is dreadful, but actor Christian Kane poignantly described what it was like to hear the news in this 2009 TV Series Finale podcast.

Baldwin gave us another reason why actors shouldn't get an attack of the giggles during filming: think of how uncomfortable it can get for the poor actors who are wearing those latex monster suits!