“Players”/“Inside Out” S2003 / E16-17
- B+ Community Grade
It’s probably a mistake to keep reading pieces of dialogue and plot in Buffy and Angel as the writers’ meta-commentary, but it’s hard not to hear Gunn complain that his life’s been “a turgid, supernatural soap opera” lately, and not feel that his eagerness to take part in a straightforward case-of-the-week adventure is at least a little bit shared by the Angel creative team. And, I gotta be honest… me too. I’ve enjoyed this fourth season overall, despite some elements that I don’t think have worked all that well, but I also miss the days when someone would just walk in the door looking for help from Angel Investigations. And I prefer it when that person is Gwen Raiden.
I know that not all of you agree. Some get impatient with standalone episodes in the middle of a sprawling, serialized show; and of course, some of you just dislike Gwen. I understand that. I think you’re nuts—Gwen is super-bad—but I understand.
So all y’all Gwen-haters and standalone-skeptics can step away for a moment while I drink in the sight of Gwen and Gunn dressed in evening-wear, slinking around the estate of a Japanese tycoon and scheming to swipe a piece of cutting-edge tech. At the start of the episode Gwen had told Gunn that she needed his help rescuing a kidnapped tyke named “Lisa,” and since Gunn’s been relegated to “muscle on deck” lately by Angel, he quickly signs on. But after Gunn fast-talks his way into Takeshi Morimoto’s swank soiree, with the help of some introductory Japanese and the thoughtful gift of a jade tiger figurine (which he stole from Gwen), Gunn discovers that Gwen’s only using him as a distraction, while she sneaks off to get what she’s really after: an experimental device called “L.I.S.A.” (for “Localized Ionic Sensory Activator”), which she hopes will help her control her electricity powers. Gunn’s not that mad about being tricked, though. He seems to enjoy the game of it all, from showing off the scars he considers his “souvenirs” of missions to fighting his way out of a mansion full of thuggish henchmen. All very fun for me to watch too, especially with the way the mission ended, with Gunn helping Gwen “install” L.I.S.A. in the small of her bare back, and then kissing her when the device proved effective. The suaveness of it all, coupled with the superhero trappings and the moment of tender sensuality… all told, it left me feeling like Gunn did when Gwen told him, “You’re going to have to stop grinning like that and share the joke with the entire class.”
Meanwhile, back at the Hyperion… well, frankly the non-Gwen/Gunn action is fairly dreary in “Players.” Cordelia, having revealed her accelerated pregnancy to the group, takes umbrage to Angel’s suggestion that whomever’s behind all the weirdness going on lately is “deluded and demented,” and does what she can to prevent Angel and Wes from successfully completing their research into The Beast and its Master. There’s a lot of hiding in plain sight, coupled with some misdirection and soupçon of irony, but since it’s all Cordy-related—and since Cordy isn’t Cordy any more (maybe)—it’s mainly a distraction from the Gwen/Gunn action.
That is, until the ending of the episode, which is legitimately tense. Lorne commences a ritual which he claims will bring his empathic powers back, allowing him to “read” Cordelia and find out what’s up with her pregnancy. But it’s all a ruse to entrap Cordelia. As Cordy comes up behind a robed Lorne, ready to stab him with a big sharp knife, the lights switch on and the team surrounds her, weapons drawn. Lorne pulls out a Magic 8-Ball and asks if Cordelia’s been bad. The answer: “Definitely.”
… in which Cordelia is saved when Connor swoops in and spirits her away, after knocking everyone around a bit. As the young lovers leave, Angel croaks out, “What… are… you?” And the Magic 8-Ball returns, answering: “Ask Again Later.”
So this is it: The big crux. The moment where what’s been going on this season is (sort of) explained. “Inside Out” is dotted with scenes that play like the last act of a drawing room mystery, with flashbacks to previous Angel episodes, now with new information to explain what was really going on. Even though I’m not wild about the actual explanations—more on that later—I did dig the Scooby-Doo-ish-ness of it. So it was Cordelia who drugged Angel’s blood! And Cordelia who killed Manny, and the priestesses! And Cordelia who hung that sheet in the window to make it look like the hotel was haunted!
It helps that a lot of this backstory-dumping is delivered with the help of the always hilarious Skip The Demon, whom Angel finds in his lair, eating wings and pretending never to have heard of Cordelia Chase. When Skip realizes that Angel’s not buying his ignorance, he tries to play the part of The Emissary Of The Powers, saying, “This is going to be really hard for you to accept, but Cordelia has ascended to a higher plane.” But Angel waves him off, saying, “Oh I know,” and suggesting that Skip has either been played for a dupe like the rest of them, or that he is in fact a player. Skip attacks Angel, laughing at his threats—“Or what? You’ll bleed on me some more?”—but eventually Angel gets the upper hand and drags Skip back to the Hyperion.
Skip’s a funny character; it’s a shame that he gets shot dead by Wesley at the end of the episode (after muttering the last words, “Well, that ain’t right”). He serves his purpose in “Inside Out” though, which is to help credited writer/director Steven S. DeKnight sell some tricky notions. In particular, it’s up to Skip to explain that nearly everything that’s happened on Angel for the past four seasons has been planned, as a way to get Cordelia knocked-up with whatever she’s currently knocked-up with. Aside from “a cheese sandwich here, when to floss,” everything else has been mapped out. That’s… well, I don’t know what to say about that. On the one hand, I kind of hate the idea that everything’s been about this one plot development, because the amount of coincidence required for that borders on the preposterous, even in a world where magic exists. On the other hand, I like the way Gunn shrugs Skip’s pronouncement off, saying:
“Look, monochrome can yap all he wants about no-name’s cosmic plan, but here’s a little something I picked up rubbing mojos these past couple of years. The final score can’t be rigged. I don’t care how many players you grease, that last shot always comes up a question mark. But here’s the thing: You never know when you’re taking it. It could be when you’re duking it out with The Legion Of Doom, or just crossing the street deciding where to have brunch. So you just treat it all like it was up to you—the world in the balance—’cause you never know when it is.”
Can I just say how much I liked the writing in this episode? I even liked the philosophical conversations between Connor and Cordelia, the latter of whom tries to manipulate the former into killing an innocent young woman in order to bring Cordelia’s baby-thing into the world. She tells him that “good” and “evil” are “concepts of morality they forced around your neck to yank you wherever you please,” which is the kind of line that works on a rebellious-but-lovestruck teenager. DeKnight stages and shoots Connor’s predicament well too, showing it from the point-of-view of his potential victim, who sees him talking to thin air—when he’s actually defending his plan to murder her to the ghost of his mother, Darla—and then switching to slow-motion as Connor drags the girl into a chamber where Cordelia slits her throat.
That said, I thought the performances of Charisma Carpenter and Vincent Kartheiser let down the material. She wasn’t very convincing as a manipulator, and he was too easily manipulated. It looked to me like the two actors were playing the endpoint, not the destination, missing the subtleties of Connor’s conflict between wanting to be normal (like the girl he’s helping to kill) and his secretly enjoying playing the martyr/freak.
Or maybe I’m unduly influenced by what I know now from reading your comments: that this whole Cordelia storyline is a salvage job, forced into being because of Carpenter’s real-life pregnancy. Maybe that’s why even now, in the big “explanation” episode, it’s still not fully explained whether the Cordelia who’s been tormenting her friends all season is the “real” Cordelia. She claims she is, and Skip claims she is, but Gunn thinks that the “baby” is controlling what Cordelia is up to. If Gunn’s right, then what all this has to do with Cordelia’s ascension, her return, her amnesia, and the memory-restoring ritual that Angel thinks was the start of the trouble, I’m not entirely sure. Though it’s possible I missed something, and also possible that I was too busy rolling my eyes at Angel and Skip both referring to Cordelia as the woman Angel “loves.” (That emotional beat still ain’t connecting.)
But I repeat: Though I’m skeptical about the way the Evil Cordelia storyline is playing out, I thought “Inside Out” was an exciting and well-crafted episode. Plus it ends with Cordelia giving birth to a full-grown Gina Torres. Which is awesome.
- The man who gets Gwen the blueprints to Morimoto’s place looks skittish. “Trench-coat,” Gwen says, looking him over. “Definite rookie mistake.”
- “I can explain that; I was struck by lightning.”
- Morimoto’s party guests seem to be enjoying the apocalypse. Pssh… Rich folks.
- Fred is rightfully creeped-out by the thought of Connor and Cordy, y’know, doin’ it. But Wes tries to be more understanding: “Things happen, Fred. When you’re alienated from the people who care about you, you start to look other places.”
- Fred catches Gunn up on what he’s missed while he was having his night on the town with Gwen: “Cordy’s evil. Nice suit.”
- Gunn is shocked to hear that the team got their butt kicked by Evil Cordy, but as Lorne explains, “Kid Vicious did the heavy-lifting. Cordy just ‘mwah-hah-hah’-ed at us.”
- As Angel leaves to go find Skip, he describes these little trans-dimensional trips as “a walk in the park.” Cut to: Angel descending to Skip’s lair, grumbling, “I really hate the park.”
- Skip is certain that Angel will never find Cordelia, because to perform the proper ritual he’d need a magic paw that… (Cue Lorne: “Got it! Cordy kept one in her desk drawer.”)
- Skip: “Nobody comes back from paradise. Well, a Slayer, once….”
- More Skip: “How many chunks you gotta hack off a vampire before he goes all dust bunny?”
- Still more Skip: “Look out! The monkey’s thinkin’ again.”
- Next week: Buffy, “Dirty Girls,” and Angel, “Shiny Happy People.”