In the sixteenth episode of the first season of Angel, Angel falls into a trap while investigating a kidnapping, and he’s thrust into the world of underground demon fighting. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Angel.
What a fantastic episode of Angel. This gets so many things right, and while it is incredibly brash and heavy-handed, there are a ton of really cool subtle moments that give this story a fascinating context within the history of the show. This is perhaps the most violent and action-packed episode of the series’ run at this point, but I think it’s also a great way to not only explore how Wesley and Cordelia work with one another, but to show us how much they’ve grown and changed since we first met them.
I admit that I thought something seemed very strange about Darin MacNamara when he came walking into the office. First of all, his brother’s name had the same last name as Scott William Winters’s character on Dexter and then I had crossover thoughts between the Buffy/Angel universe and Dexter and I totally spaced out for ten seconds thinking about this because it’s a really interesting thought to have. I didn’t guess that it was a set-up, though; I assumed that Darin was lying, but only because he might be protecting something or someone. Obviously, that was not the case, but I thought I was prepared! I was seriously ready to pat my back because I’d totally figured this out. As Angel went from place to place searching for Jack, I believed that “The Ring” would be a type of modern noir story set in Los Angeles. We haven’t had much of that feel since the first couple episodes, despite that the bulk of this show explores the underbelly of the city.
Clearly, I was meant to believe this, that Jack had gotten overwhelmed by his gambling, and that he’d been sent to this organization that pits demons against each other for entertainment and money. In fact, once Angel sees that demons are fighting each other gladiator style, I assumed that Jack would be brought out next, forced to pay his debt by fighting for his life. And look, it’s not that the gladiator/Fight Club story would have been terrible before the twist, but when I found out it was all a trick to nab Angel, this episode got a whole lot better.
It’s at that point that two things happen that made me DEARLY LOVE this episode:
1) Angel has to cope with the reality of this fighting ring.
It would have been remarkably easy (and lazy) for the writers to have Angel show up, quickly inspire the demons to overthrow their captors, and then everyone walks away after some stress to their freedom. It’s a very, very basic trope. Angel is the hero! That is all these people ever needed! Now they can learn how to overcome oppression! Everyone feels good! This story is so much more complicated (and uncomfortable) than that. I do find it noble that Angel tries to do something to escape his predicament, so I don’t want it to sound like I think he should have just accepted his luck. What Angel could not have understood about what these demons have gone through is the idea that their primary concern is to stay alive, not to get out. Who knows how long these creatures have been held captive? For some of them, like Cribb and Trepkos, it appeared that they’ve been there for quite some time. Angel just left freedom, so of course he immediately tries to get it back.
I found it telling that Mellish tells Angel very early on not to “rock the boat.” This wasn’t because Mellish and the other demons were on the side of the MacNamara brothers. I’m sure all of them wanted to be free. But with those bracelets on, it’s not like any of them had much of a choice. What were they supposed to do? Stay alive. It’s why it was easy for them to turn on one another in the ring, and then do so later once the fighting was over.
It’s kind of a rad representation of how an oppressive system works against those it harms. I remember back in college, one of the things I started doing to cope with a lot of the negative shit I had in my brain regarding my sexuality was to volunteer to speak on behalf of my campus’s LGBT club. We would have these panels in Human Sexuality classes that allowed students to ask pretty much any question they wanted, and provided we were comfortable with the question, we’d give them an answer. The idea was that we could root out bigotry and prejudice by giving ignorant people an outlet for them to work out their thoughts and opinions on the idea of non-normative sexuality. I mean, I would literally meet people who genuinely believed they had never seen or spoken to a gay man in person. This was their first interaction ever.
I did a lot of these panels, but in particular, I remember one question some guy asked me once: Why did I allow my parents and the bullies to torment me for being gay? Why didn’t I just stand up to them and tell them to fuck off? It was actually a very easy question to answer: I wanted to stay alive and unhurt. And this was a MIND BLOWING CONCEPT to this man. He could not comprehend the idea that I lived in fear daily of being jumped. There were almost no out people on campus, and the few who were learned to be violently fierce to protect themselves. People in my neighborhood were stabbed, punched, and brutalized all the time! I was a victim to all kinds of violence. Someone tried to drown me in a bathroom toilet because I wouldn’t go out with a girl I didn’t like to prove I was straight. That is a thing that happened and was real, and this guy had never spent one moment of his life having to worry about that. It doesn’t make him an awful person, but it meant that he couldn’t understand my choices. It’s why he would ask a question like that. Self-preservation is an important and life-saving choice for many marginalized folk, and I sure as hell put up a facade in order to keep people from hurting me.
I think it’s really easy to see that in Angel’s interactions with these demons. They are trying to stay alive, and that’s their number one priority. And now Angel waltzes in, and he’s upsetting things so much that it’s now possible they have to worry about another way in which they might die. Does it mean Angel is awful? No, of course not. Obviously, his intent is to save everyone and get them out of this prison. That’s good! But it’s hard for Angel, who is so certain in his morals, to take a step back and appreciate what this must be like for people without the choice or certainty that he has. Even in the end, Angel’s really not the one to save the day. It’s actually Cordelia and Wesley. LOOK AT THIS SEGUE, FOLKS
2) Cordy and Wesley make a great team
Okay, let me first say that I love when Wesley and Cordelia argue. It’s just so entertaining! But this story isn’t about them fighting. Without Angel around to help them at all, these two characters start to come into their own. It’s fascinating to watch because despite that this has been a gradual process, things don’t necessarily start out smoothly. God, I laughed so hard at that moment where Wesley tried to pull a weapon out of the drawer. But it’s actually a great set-up to what actually happens here: Wesley is learning. When he finally confronts Ernie, I expected him to basically clumsy his way through the situation. You can imagine my shock when he not only pins Ernie’s hand to the wall with a crossbow, but gets his gun, too. In like three seconds. All this hard work is paying off, and I kind of like Wesley as a badass.
Cordelia is the one to provide the perfect addition to the key to unlock the bracelets and orchestrates that brilliant method to get tickets. She’s actually quite convincing as a detective, I admit. CAN THIS BE FORESHADOWING OF SOME SORT. When the two of them take the time to believe that they’re actually a considerable part of Angel Investigations, they can do beautiful things. I’m glad that Angel recognizes this, too. His employees are not just his best friends, they’re damn fine at what they do.
This episode also brings back the Wolfram & Hart folks AGAIN, this time with a new lawyer named Lilah Morgan. I’m getting the sense that I really should be paying attention to them and their involvement in the supernatural underground. They keep popping up over and over again! I think they’re something that just wouldn’t work on Buffy, and they fit well in a Los Angeles setting. So is their goal to keep monsters and demons out of the public eye while making a ton of money in the process? Why the interest in Angel? Do they genuinely want him to good, or is it a lot more complicated than that?
So many questions. ONWARDS I GO.
Mark Links Stuff
– My eBook adaptations of reviews I’ve posted are on sale at MarkDoesStuff.com. Harry Potter, Twilight, and Firefly books are priced from $2.99 to $3.99 a piece, and are available in ePub (iBook, iPod, iPad, Nook), Kindle, and PDF files.
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– I am presenting for three days at Ascendio 2012! Come hang out and have the best weekend ever in July!
– Mark Watches The Two Towers will happen most likely on Sunday at 1pm PDT, which is the same as this past weekend. Y’all better break the comment record again.
– I finish Mark Reads The Princess Bride on April 13th, and then Mark Reads Sandman begins on Monday, April 16th. I will split up reviews by issue, and I will be reading the extra books/volumes. IT SHALL BE GRAND.
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