Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Better to Burn Out than to Fade Away

Yesterday, I finished watching Angel season five on DVD. I had seen all the episodes before, the second half when they aired, and I filled in others as I went along, but, unlike every other Buffyverse season, I hadn't seen this season straight through. And, seeing it straight through only confirmed that this was by far the best season of the show, and one of the best in the whole Buffyverse.

The first half of the year is all about the moral gray area the characters find themselves in now that they are running Wolfram and Hart. The episodes are pretty much standalone, but they each in someway contribute to the thematic development of the season, and a lot of threads are started that will pay off later.

The basic conflict is between the fact that in theory, the group can do much more good running Wolfram and Hart than they can as independent operatives, but it doesn't feel that way. Working in the office, there's no sense that they're actually helping people, and in each of the episodes they make some kind of moral compromise to reach an end. For example, in the first episode, Gunn gets knowledge of the law implanted in his head, which helps prevent a bomb from going off that would level L.A., however it also leads to a criminal getting out of the punishment for his crimes. Yes, many people have been saved, but they had to do something bad to get there.

So, there's a lot of moral angst, and I find it very interesting. Each of our heroes is getting run down and losing the conviction to do good that was so strong in the earlier years. In Lineage, Wesley guns down his own father because it will save Fred. He has no hesitation about doing this. Similarly, at the end of 'Hellbound,' Angel imprison Pavayne in a box, presumably for eternity, an extremely cruel punishment, even for this bad guy. It will help the people at Wolfram and Hart, but the Angel of earlier years probably wouldn't have gone such a cruel route to punish someone.

The issues come to a head at the middle of the season, when we see Spike taking over as the champion, fighting evil on the streets, even as Angel becomes more and more imprisioned within his office. I love the way Spike is recast as Angel circa season one, complete with the parallel Doyle.

One of the best episodes of the whole series is 'You're Welcome,' which thankfully rescues Cordelia and gives her a fitting farewell after the way her character was trashed in season four. The scenes between her and Angel are phenomenal, particularly the brutal final scene. You have a sense of a real ending, not just because I knew she was going to die, even before that, you know that this is the end of an era.

The Cordelia appearance sets up a change in Angel, and makes him more proactive in the rest of the season, such as in another classic, 'Smile Time,' which is by far the funniest episode of the series, and also rather disturbing. Angel turns into a puppet sounds like a recipe for laughs, and it is, but those puppets are really nasty characters, and not in a way that's just meant for shock value. The scenes where they drain the energy from the kids have a really dark abuse component. And of course, no one who says the line, "I'm going to rip you a new puppethole bitch," can be a very good person.

This season has arguably the best regular cast of any Buffy show. Boreanaz, Marsters, Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker all are amazing, and do their best work here. I think Boreanaz wasn't great in season one of Buffy, but since then he's just gotten better, and he completely anchors this season, able to do both really dramatic stuff and great petty bickering with Spike. He and Marsters together are hilarious for most of the season, and even better in the dramatic stuff. In 'A Hole in the World,' when they go to England, you can sense that they really respect and understand each other now, in a way they didn't before, even in the vampire days. Some people question the placement of 'The Girl in Question,' but I think it works well within the season. When nothing that important is at stake, Spike and Angel still have their rivalry, but it's more of a joke between them. I don't think either of them really expects to win Buffy at that point, it's more just about the compettition, between each other and with The Immortal. Then, in the next episode, Spike is the first one to support Angel's plan to take down the Black Thorn, and they stand together at the end of 'Not Fade Away.'

Angel goes through a lot in this season, but he's there more as the center, and catalyst for the action. He's in a really interesting moral place at the end of the series, one that is very related to the end of his 'beige' arc in season two. Back then, he realized that if nothing we do matters, everything we do matters, so fighting for good is worth it. For most of season five, he tries to change the system from within, and ultimately fails, so he decides to stop trying to change things gradually, and just destroy the power structure of the senior partners, even though he knows it's probably going to end up killing him. He's basically sick of half measures and compromise, he's going to do what's right even if it means sacrificing a lot. Did Angel know that what he did would bring about the apocalypse? I don't think he quite expected it, but I think he figured that this is the only way to really make the world better. Talking with Lindsey, he says how bad things were getting, and it's clear that considering what he's been through, he has little reason for optimism, but that doesn't mean he's going to stop fighting.

Spike is a great addition to the series. When I was first watching, I liked that he was on the show, but I sort of felt that I'd rather have his ending on Buffy be the way he went out, since it was such a great ending to his arc on that show. However, season five is essential to the completion of his redemption arc. On Buffy, he is always a 'fool for love,' and constantly trying to impress the woman in his life, be it Drusilla or Buffy. At the end of season seven, he sacrifices himself to save Buffy's life, and it seemed like he was certainly a hero by then.

But, in Angel season five, we get to see Spike existing on his own for the first time. He'd gone from his mother to Drusilla to Buffy, but in this year, he gets to be his own person. I think Spike worked best in seasons five and six of Buffy, but he's still a great character here. The most notable thing is that he has truly become a champion, and I think his pure desire to do good is a great contrast to Angel's more compromised worldview. Spike is always there fighting for good, such that he becomes almost an afterthought. When he sacrificed his life at the end of Buffy, it was a grand gesture of love, when he agrees to do the same at the end of Angel, it's because it's the right thing to do. Spike's redemption is complete there, because he is completely selfless in his dedication to doing the right thing.

While Marsters is always great, even Spike was eclipsed by someone towards the end of this season and that was Illyria. I never thought of Amy Acker as a particularly good actress. Fred had some good moments on Angel, but I always assumed Amy Acker was basically playing herself, and she couldn't play any other role. I was proven very, very wrong after 'A Hole in the World.' First, AHITW was probably the second best episode of the series. Like 'You're Welcome,' it has a really apocalyptic feel, a sense of impending doom that has rarely been echoed on the series. Even Lorne is violent and nasty, as everyone comes together to try to save Fred. Gunn realizing that he's the one responsible for what happened to Fred is a haunting moment, as is Spike's speech about the hole in the world, but the real highlight is the scenes in Fred's apartment as she dies. It comes at roughly the same point in the series as The Body on Buffy and this episode is probably the most comprable thing that Joss has written. The Body was a brutal episode and 'A Hole in the World' is very tough too. "Why can't I stay?" was as obvious as Anya's speech in The Body, it's something we've all wondered, but would never say, and to hear it expressed is painful.

But out of all this pain came the best character ever created on Angel, Illyria. Illyria has some parallels with Anya, particularly in her more comedic moments, but she's a much more tragic character. The scene at the end of 'Shells' when she and Wesley are staring at the remains of her kingdom is really powerful. In the two parter, Wesley gets some of his best material to work with. Stabbing Gunn is harsh and really disturbing if you consider their history. Wesley had been betrayed by all his friends in season three, and now he turns further away from Gunn, who had once been his best friend. After becoming so close during the 'Beige Angel' arc in season two, Wesley can't forgive gunn for what he did.

Over the course of the series, Wesley has made a life for himself, and become leader of the team. By the end of season two, he had turned everything around from his ineptitude on Buffy and become a successful leader. But, starting in season three, he gradually loses everything. His arc is right there with Willow and Spike as most compelling in the Buffyverse. The scene where Angel tries to smother him with a pillow is still one of the best in the series. By the end of season three, he's lost all his friends and become an isolated, desolate figure. Season four sees his relationship with Lilah, and gradual reintegration into the gang, but things still aren't the same. Even though Wesley brought him back from the bottom of the ocean, I don't think Angel ever forgives him for stealing his son. Angel has to give up Connor because of what Wesley did.

By season five, Wesley has one thing to live for, Fred. He has no problem killing his own father if it means saving Fred, and right after that, he lets Fred go with Knox instead of telling her how he feels. And, when Fred dies because of Illyria, he loses the one thing he had left, and falls into an even worse depression, and an odd relationship with Illyria. The conceit of Illyria is genius because the characters are constantly confronted by that which they lost, and Illyria cannot understand why they see her that way.

Amy Acker as Illyria is a performance that's unbelievable. When she replays Fred's voice at the end of 'Shells' it really sounds like a recording, it couldn't possibly be the same person. This effect is used again in 'The Girl in Question,' when Illyria changes into Fred to fool her parents. It's almost inconceivable that it's the same person. To see her looking like Fred, but behaving like Illyria gives an idea of just how great the performance is. It's interesting that Wes passes up the chance to be with the fake Fred when back in season four, he had no problem being with Lilah dressed up as Fred. I'd imagine that seeing Lilah as Fred gave him hope, while seeing Illyria as Fred only brings up the pain again.

In the last episode, we see Wesley staying with Illyria on what is supposed to be his last perfect day. He has nothing left to live for, and remains strangely connected to Illyria. One of the most powerful scenes of the series is Wesley's death. We get the reverse of Fred's death, as this time, Illyria gives Wesley the illusion of Fred as he is dying. The really tough part is to see Illyria wearing Fred, but expressing her own emotions. As she says in the alley, she does care about Wesley, and is grieving for him. In her own form, I don't think she can really express this, but as Fred, she completely breaks down. Perhaps the best expression of Illyria's feeling is when she begins as Fred, then switches to Illlyria while punching through Vail's head. It's a great image, and really cathartic for the character.

'Not Fade Away' is the best episode of the series, and just so full of amazing moments. The last days are great, and give the episode the character touch that the end of Buffy didn't have. I like that the fighting isn't really the focus. The fight montage is cool, and we get just enough of each one. One of the most haunting moments of the finale is Lorne killing Lindsey. It's so cold blooded and unheroic, and shocking coming from the most serene character on the series. I've said it before about a couple of episodes, but this had that impending apocalypse feeling as well. Like 'The Gift' on Buffy you just get the sense that this is something very important, and the people aren't going to walk away from this the same.

The last scene of the series is pretty controversial, but I think it perfectly fits the theme of the series. I didn't realize how late things are still being developed. Illyria's grief, something critical to her character is mentioned about a minute before things end, and Gunn dying is just stated offhand. I love the rainy ambience, and Spike and Angel united again at the end. But, most of all, it's the fact that they know they're going to die, but are still doing the right thing. Angel signs away the Shanshu, he's got no destination, nothing to win, and neither do Illyria, Gunn or Spike, but they're all going to fight anyway, because compromising isn't worth it. If nothing we do matters, then everything matters, and even though they are not going to win the fight, they might save some people along the way and after a year of compromising, they are going to finally take a stand.

Comparing the end of Angel to the end of Buffy gives you a good idea of what's different about the two shows. Buffy was all about an ending, when she could stop being the slayer and live a normal life. She had an out, and in the end, she finds that end. She's not the only slayer anymore, Sunnydale and the Hellmouth are destroyed and her duties are done. Her life is just beginning. The whole series Angel had a similar out, the Shanshu, the chance to become human and maybe get back with Buffy. He would have an ending, but in this episode, he signs away the Shanshu and sacrifices the chance that he could ever have a normal life. This is the sort of thing Buffy would never do, she may have sacrificed herself in 'The Gift,' but it was becuase her life was so bad at that point.

Buffy's group always had friends and family. Buffy, Xander, Willow and Giles always had each other, they always had a home, and later Dawn had the same thing. They always had somewhere to go back to. Angel's group is assembled out of people who were alone and just sort of drifted together because they have nowhere else to be. Cordelia joined him because she had no one else, as did Wesley. Gunn killed his sister, and needed a refuge. Fred was alone in L.A. after returning from Pylea, and had nowhere else to go. Illyria is the same way, her kingdom has been destroyed, and she only has Wesley left. Even Spike in season five is basically without aim, his whole world for the past few years has been destroyed, and he can't go back to Buffy. Angel's group is cobbled together out of people who aren't fighting to an end, they've all got their best days behind them, and aren't going anywhere. On Buffy, there's always the sense that one day things will end, and they do, but what's the end for Wesley or Gunn? They've got too much stuff in their past to ever have a really happy ending.

Similarly, through everything, the Buffy people stayed together. Even after turning evil, they accept Willow back into the group, but when Wesley steals Angel's son, he's on his own for a season, and things are never the same. That wound lingers on right up to the end of the series. Similarly, Wesley stabs Gunn, Gunn inadvertantly allows Fred to die, and in season two, Angel abandons his friends. There's a lot of fluidity in the group, but somehow they all stick together, and are with Angel at the end.

While I have issues with Chosen, the end of Buffy perfectly resovles the main character conflict of the series, and gives her an ending. By not giving Angel a concrete ending, and leaving him to fight, and presumably die, the theme of the series is once again stated. It's not the end result, whether you win or lose, it's the fight itself that matters. After signing away the Shanshu, Angel can never win, there's no end point in sight, just the same struggles. So, he decides that he will not be content with leaving the world the way it is, he's going to fight to make it better even if he dies doing so, and his group, each having gone through signficant pain over the course of the series, is there to do the same. Better to burn out than to fade away.

Related Posts
Twin Peaks and Buffy Essay (12/17/2004)
Angel (2/15/2005)
Joss Whedon Q&A (9/5/2005)


Daniel said...

What really bugged me about Angel (the series) was that it always seemed to undermined Buffy's efforts. Buffy was saving the world and killing gods, yet Angel was the one that had the connections with the powers that be. Buffy did not sacrafice herself in "The Gift" because her life was bad. That would be selfish and suicide. She did it because even though she knew Dawn was not her sister she also knew she loved her. She preffered to allow Dawn the chance to live even if it meant her death was necessary. She did it for the world, and even if she didn't she was just a teen with the weight of the world and like all other slayers her time had come. Death was her gift to the world not herself. I agree with you that Illyria was a really great character. I never fully understood why Fred's accent came and went with every scene.Illyria was more solid and my favorite character on Angel. The last episode of Buffy was not the best and I believe it did not need Angel's appearance. The final battle was the epic battle that the show needed to say "Hey I fought the big bad and smacked it down." Angel never had a chance to get an end. The only way he could have had one was for Buffy to show up along with Faith and her slayers. For Buffy to tell Angel "This is my show now. The dragon is mine." Angel was meant to die, he had lived his life and it was done. Buffy was meant to live because she had yet to begin her life. Great post and i hope you do one on Buffy.

Anonymous said...

The dialogue, the expressions, used by the characters, in the last few episodes, were really interesting. Illyria, a ferociously savage warrior-queen who delighted in slaughter and cruelity, who made Genghis Khan, Boudica, Oliver Cromwell, etc. seem like Mary Poppins in comparison, would have made a great poet or writer. "opalione towers as high as small moons", "worlds of unnameable beauty", "the ecstacy of death". When she used her powers to open gates to other dimensions, she would have undoubtedly skewered the unfortunate locals, made trophies of their spines, despite any appreciation she might have felt for the beauty of their worlds, their opaline towers or other architecture. I wonder where Joss Whedon's script writers got the ideas for some of this stuff. Possibly from prisons or mental facilities? Angelus raped nuns on St. Valentine's Day, and nailed puppies to church doors. Was this based on some real life convict or mental patient? A hour, or half hour, program on Joss Whedon's script writers; in which they reveal where, from whom, they got some of their characters' interesting little habits, would be fascinating.