“Waiting In The Wings”
I’ve been hearing about and reading about the Joss Whedon written-and-directed Buffy episode “Once More With Feeling” for years, and rightfully so—it’s a wonderfully realized and emotionally affecting piece of work. But why does no one rave over Whedon’s Angel episode “Waiting In The Wings” as loudly—or at least loudly enough that I’d have known to look forward to it? I’m not claiming that “Waiting In The Wings” is on par with “Once More With Feeling,” because it’s not. It’s a less ambitious episode, and a less elaborate production. But it’s funny, and imaginative, and uses its theatrical setting and premise as an excuse to shoot for big emotions and big themes. By nearly every significant measure, it’s a powerhouse.
The occasion? A ballet, which Angel buys tickets for when he’s supposed to be out getting tickets to a concert by Gunn’s favorite band, Mata Hari. (Hey, could be worse; Angel could’ve come back with magic beans.) The ballet is Giselle, performed by the venerable Blinnikov World Ballet Corps, whom Angel last saw back in 1890. “I cried like a baby… and I was evil!” he enthuses. The rest of the Angel Investigations crew has varying reactions to their new plans for the evening. Fred’s excited because she’s loved the ballet ever since she saw The Nutcracker as a kid. (“I had my first sexual dream about The Mouse King.”) Cordelia sees an opportunity to dress Fred up and kickstart a romance between her and Wes—little realizing that Fred has her eyes on Gunn. And Gunn’s mad about missing Mata Hari, until he starts watching Giselle and realizes, to his surprise, that ballet is kinda awesome.
Angel thinks it’s awesome too, even from the gang’s terrible back-of-the-house seats. (“Back in the day I’d always get box seats,” he grumbles. “Or I’d just eat the people who had them.”) But Angel gradually realizes that something’s wrong. He hasn’t just seen this company perform this ballet before—he saw this exact lead dancer doing these exact steps, over 100 years ago. As he finds out later, the owner of the company, Count Kurkov (played by Mark Harelik), is a jealous man, who was so enraged when his prima ballerina (played by Summer Glau) took a lover that he yanked her out of time and has had her performing Giselle every night ever since in different towns and different years. In order to free the dancer, Angel and his team will need to piece together her story backstage, while fighting off the masked minions that Count Kurkov conjures.
Just about everything works in “Waiting In The Wings.” The distorted harlequin masks worn by the minions—combined with the way their weird laughs are pushed way up in the sound mix—continue the post-“Hush” Whedon tradition of making the Buffys and Angels he directs extra-freaky. It’s also a very funny episode, with lots of fun banter between Angel and Cordelia in particular. When they leave at the act-break to investigate backstage, Angel cracks, “How will the dancers keep time without your rhythmic snoring?” and when they debate how to get past the guard, Angel suggests, “I think I’ll just have to go with my patented sudden burst of violence.” (Cordelia has a different plan, which involves going up to the guard and asking, “Hey do you like bribes?” to which he replies, “Do I ever!” Then Angel swoops in with his patented sudden burst of violence.) And the episode is genuinely sexy, from Cordelia joking about how her only romantic companion is “an invisible ghost who’s good with the loofah” to her and Angel shedding their clothes backstage when they become possessed by the spirit of the ballerina and her lover. (Even after they recover their faculties, Angel has to cover his crotchal region with a jacket.)
Tellingly, when Gunn, Wes and Fred slip backstage to find out what happened to Angel and Cordelia, they initially misinterpret the moans of pleasure they hear as cries of pain. (These folks don’t have much experience with the sound of people enjoying themselves.) But as they come to understand what Count Kurkov has done, they also see how the backstage intrigue reflects their own lives. Like the ballerina and her lover, Angel and Cordelia are turned on by the idea that they could get together, even though it seems so forbidden. Like Count Kurkov, Wes catches a glimpse of Gunn and Fred kissing and is crushed by jealousy. (The scene is shot with Wesley next to a mirror, which makes it all the more operatic.) The spirits of this old love story are giving everyone permission to play parts that they secretly want to play. Here they are, out on the town, in costumes of a sort, and as they peel through the layers of “inhabiting a role” to true empathy, it gets harder to determine whether they’re trapped in a game of pretend or not. That’s a fiendishly clever conceit on Whedon’s part, using the theater and performance themselves as a metaphor.
Ultimately, our gang beats the bad guy by overtaxing him, forcing him to create more minions and then distracting him while Angel crushes the amulet that provides the source of his mystical powers. Angel provides the distraction too, by urging the dancer to break free of the pattern she’s been trapped in forever, to dance something new. She does it, but it’s hard. In words that sum up what our heroes have gone through backstage and will likely continue to go through after this adventure is over, the dancer says: “I don’t dance, I echo.”
Once again, this week’s Buffy serves as kind of a companion piece to this week’s Angel (or vice-versa, perhaps). The big bombshell in “Dead Things” is that despite Buffy’s certainty that she came back “wrong” when Willow and her pals resurrected her, she’s exactly the woman she was when she died, aside from some molecular shifts that have her registering as inhuman on Spike’s brain-chip. So while she’s been using her “wrongness” as an excuse to have rough, animalistic sex with Spike at every opportunity, the truth is that she’s doing bad stuff because she wants to do bad stuff. She thinks she’s trapped in a role, but it’s a role she’s chosen freely.
I liked a lot of “Dead Things,” but it’s an odd episode, and one that doesn’t always feel like a Buffy. In fact, during the scene where Spike cozies up to our heroine in the balcony of The Bronze and coos “you always end up in the dark with me” before taking her from behind, I thought to myself, “This is kind of Twin Peaks-y.” And sure enough, later on, Buffy herself compares something she experienced to David Lynch. So it wasn’t just me.
What Buffy’s referring to though is a moment in the woods by the cemetery where she feels time skipping and she repeats a fight against Spike and some demons over and over until she realizes that she’s actually been beating on a woman, who is laying dead at her feet. Buffy thinks she’s responsible for killing the woman, and Spike takes charge of the situation by disposing of the body, but in fact the whole situation is a ruse, designed by The Trio to pin a crime on Buffy that she didn’t commit.
The woman in question is Katrina, Warren’s ex-girlfriend, whom Warren intended to make into his sex-slave via a Cerebral Dampener. Instead, Katrina starts to come out of her stupor before Warren can get very far with her, and then he accidentally kills her as she’s trying to escape. That’s a very dark turn for our goofy supervillains to take, and I appreciated the ballsiness of it. It’s chilling to hear Warren ask Andrew if he can summon a demon to devour the corpse—and for the line not to be a joke. It’s equally chilling a few moments earlier, when a fleeing Katrina stares down Andrew and Jonathan and lets them know that while they may think it’s cool and funny to trick a woman into having sex with them against her will, it’s actually rape.
Poor Andrew and Jonathan, really. They go along with Warren’s plan not realizing that he’s targeting Katrina, but instead thinking that they’re going to find some generic hot bimbo and make her a sexbot. I think I like The Trio so much because part of me identifies with their cluelessness. Their situation is far more severe, but I remember plenty of nights with my buddies in my late teens and early 20s that began with us boasting about how we were going to score and ended with us drunk and alone, realizing that finding success with the opposite sex is much easier in the war room than it is when you’re in the field.
That said, I wish “Dead Things” had been a little tighter and punchier. It’s another season six episode that spends two-thirds of its time on set-up and only the last 15 minutes or so on execution. And it’s another episode that gets its emotional resonance from a montage set to modern rock, which—through no fault of the creators, I assure you—reminds me too much these days of a fan-made YouTube video.
But I’m glad we’re finally getting to the crux of the Buffy/Spike relationship. I’d been finding Buffy’s perpetual hesitation a little tiresome, but her episode-ending breakdown in front of Tara is very moving. Plus, I’m intrigued by the philosophical discussion she has with Spike earlier in “Dead Things.” With all the good she’s done and continues to do as The Slayer, doesn’t she have the right to do some appalling things in her private life if she wants to, or even to kill the occasional human by accident? That’s a question worth pursuing as Buffy continues to consider what being a champion means.
- The other big news of “Waiting In The Wings” is that Cordelia’s Pylean honey The Groosalugg returns, just as Angel’s about to declare his affections. More on this new love triangle to come, I’m sure.
- Cordelia has a vision of a six-breasted ravager coming, but not for another month or so. Knowing Angel, I’ll be surprised if I don’t see said Ravager by the end of this season.
- You can tell Angel’s in a festive mood at the start of the episode because he’s wearing not-so-black.
- As Lorne is trying to break it to Angel that he should be with Cordelia, Angel gets annoyed with Lorne’s condescending terms of endearment. “Stop calling me pastries,” he snaps.
- Old-school comedy:
Cordelia: “There will be no visions tonight.”
Angel: “How can you be sure?”
Cordelia: “I had a vision.”
- During the destruction of the minions, one of them falls to the ground and does that vibrating face thing that became popular in horror films and edgy music videos towards the end of the ‘90s. That effect always freaks my wife out.
- Hooray for Summer Glau! Who knew she could dance so divinely?
- At The Bronze, Xander and Anya swing-dance. Here’s what funny about watching a TV show for the first time long after it originally aired: My memory says that in 2002, the swing-dance craze was pretty much over, but I don’t know if people watching this episode originally would’ve found that moment a few years out of date, or just hip enough for TV (which is nearly always a few years out of date when it comes to popular culture). I do know this, though: As 2002 fades further into the past and gets compressed into a generalized “back then,” fewer people will remember whether the swing-dance scene is unhip or not. They’ll just think, “Oh yeah, swing-dancing was really hot back then. Swingers. That Gap ad. The Buffy episode. It was a pretty big deal.”
- I’m still intrigued by Dawn this season, as she tries to make sure that Buffy won’t be abandoning her, then lashes out at her sister when she knows it’s safe to do so. Very interesting emotional state she’s in. I’m hoping that the character is being set up for some strong material down the stretch.
Next week: Love triangles beset the Angel gang in "Couplet," and Buffy does a bottle episode in "Older And Far Away."