There are layers within layers. Layers within Illyria, where some fragment of Fred may still be nestled. Layers within Wolfram & Hart, where the Senior Partners have been masking their true intentions from this vampire they’ve pretended to name “the boss.” Layers of the Earth, in which each strata of dirt and rock gives way to another, until there’s only hard, hot metal. And even layers within dimensions, such as in the happy hell where Lindsey McDonald finds himself. A dimension where he’s a contented suburban husband and father some of the time, and where the rest of the time he’s subject to unspeakable torture in his own basement—y’know, underneath the top layer of his house.
The two Angels this week are odd episodes, not because they tell stories in an unusual or digressive way—if anything, “Underneath” is one of the most plot-heavy and arc-centric episodes of this season—but because they expand the scope of what this show is about, while doing so in ways that are more poetic and abstract. These episodes seek to create a mood: a sense of persistent disquiet that runs through every plane, and makes every choice seem moot. There’s a hole in the world, remember? And though Angel has been contemplating the dreadful compromises of heroism for nearly five years, in these two episodes, the writers seem to be free-associating a bit, riffing on the rot that runs through everything. It’s powerful, primal stuff, and though I don’t know where it is that they’re going with this, my presumption is that they’re building a case for action. Because if you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, then damn it, do!
Since “Underneath” originally aired a month after “Shells,” the episode opens with a little bit of catch-up. While Angel sits at an empty conference table, Harmony explains why nobody’s there for the big meeting (well, aside from Spike, who has nothing better to do). Lorne’s still mourning Fred, and drinking in a demon bar so that he can build up the fortitude to head into the office and pretend that he can help—“‘Cause that’s what the green guy does,” Lorne mutters to the bartender. Meanwhile, Wes is also boozing it up and babysitting Illyria, and Gunn is recuperating and sulking in the hospital, where Angel tells him that he should feel lousy, “because you’re a good man,” and where Angel also tells Gunn that he should take advantage of one of the many opportunities for atonement that lies ahead.
Specifically, Angel suggests that Gunn, having paid such a terrible price for his legal expertise, should put that expertise to use in order to shield Eve from the Senior Partners while she helps them figure out the Partners’ plan. Gunn discovers a contractual loophole to exploit, and just in time, because upon Angel and Spike’s arrival at Eve’s apartment, the protective symbols begin to disappear from her walls, as they all escape just ahead of an ice-cold, super-creep played by Firefly’s Adam Baldwin, (who’s now the third Firefly good guy to be a Buffy/Angel bad guy). Later we’ll learn that this super-creep—whom even Angel has to concede is “well-dressed”—is Marcus Hamilton, Angel’s new liaison to the Senior Partners, and one who promises to be even more inscrutable than Eve. At the start of the episode though, he’s just one more malevolent force in a universe that never seems to be in short supply of evil villains.
As I mentioned, “Underneath” is a packed episode that makes good use of cross-cutting between three different locales: Wesley’s apartment, where he and Illyria go around-and-around about the state of the world; the W&H offices, where Lorne, Eve, and Harmony try to ward off Marcus; and the curious hell-dimension where Lindsey has been banished. (Aside: As much as I enjoyed The Avengers, I wish there were as much cross-cutting in the film as there is in “Underneath.” Especially in the first hour, The Avengers is a little too one-thing-after-another. Still very good, though.)
Angel, Spike, and Gunn drive to the hell-dimension in a KITT-esque, self-driving Camaro, intending to bring Lindsey back, because he’s an expert in Senior-Partner-ology. The problem is that, in the absence of Lindsey, there’s a void in that dimension that must be filled. So, once our heroes remove the pendant that retains Lindsey’s blissful ignorance of his former life, suddenly Lindsey’s fake wife and fake son pull out and begin firing automatic rifles indiscriminately. It’s up to Gunn—who knew this was going to happen—to put on the pendant effectively assuming Lindsey’s place. Now he’ll be the one to wake up every morning with a beautiful family in a wonderful neighborhood only to walk downstairs to have his heart ripped out by a monster. Day after day. For eternity. How’s that for atonement?
I’ve got more to say about Gunn’s choice and the overall sublime weirdness of “Underneath” in just a moment. First, let’s address “Origin,” another well-rounded Angel episode—at once funny, gripping and poignant—though more straightforward than “Underneath.” The title of “Origin” probably holds some other meaning that I’m missing (but that I’m sure you guys will note in the comments), but to me, I understand it as classic superhero stuff. What if you were an ordinary college student, and then one day you were hit by a van and survived without a scratch? And then, what if the people you’ve always known as your parents took you to a vampire detective who specializes in the supernatural and who tells you that you have powers beyond those of mere mortals? And then, what if you were told that it’s been prophesied that you must kill an ancient demon, and while you’re trying to do so, someone tampers with a reality-bending spell and rekindles every lost memory you now possess of being the son of that vampire detective? That would be a pretty good Issue #1, right there.
There’s a lot to like about “Origin,” including the return of the hilariously wry Sahjhan, whose containment-urn is being held by Cyvus Vail, the dying old demon who managed the reality spell that gave Connor his new life. (When told that Vail has tendrils everywhere, Angel asks, “Tendril tendrils?”) But what’s most enjoyable is that the episode gives its viewers a much different, less annoying version of Connor. When this Connor witnesses Angel slaughtering demons, he yelps, “That was awesome!” And when told about his powers, Connor shrugs cheerfully, and says, “What am I supposed to do, complain?” Even when the spell is altered and Connor regains his old memories, he at least pretends that nothing has changed, sweetly assuring Angel that he’s going to continue to protect his ersatz family because he “learned that from [his] father.” If this is the last we ever see of Connor, it’s nice that we can think of him out there in the universe, existing as a pleasant, well-adjusted dude.
To me though, what’s most significant about “Origin” is its continuation of the riffs on confinement, decay, and regression from the episodes that precede it. Again, there’s nothing too heavy-handed about this; it’s more like everything’s just falling together for the writers, in terms of the plot, the character arcs, and their own preoccupations. So it becomes, that in “Origin,” Wes can fall back on old, bad habits, and accuse Angel of sacrificing Fred to pay for the reality-altering spell, only to find out—when he smashes the spell’s container—that it’s he who’s partly at fault for all of this, because of his decision to kidnap Connor. A decision that Wes has just now been forced to recall. And so it becomes, that Cyvus Vail pressures Angel and Connor into killing Sahjhan, because he knows that “urns tend to break.” Prophecies may not always be right, but there’s a way in which things are meant to be, and no matter how much Angel’s heroes and villains try to tamper with that way, eventually the universe seems to correct itself.
Both of these episodes have a lot to do with obligations, both moral and contractual, and with how much people must adhere to them. It’s not just the devil that’s in the details, it’s everything.
That’s why the long conversation between Wes and Illyria in “Underneath” carries so much weight. She tells Wes about how, in her day, nightmares walked the Earth, while now those same nightmares are trapped in the heads of humans as pitiful echoes of their former selves. Wes then tells her about the ways in which humans and demons both seem to enjoy boxing themselves into ever-smaller rooms, because they both know that there are things worse than walls. Then, in “Origin,” after Wesley’s memories are restored, he and Illyria talk about how false memories and real memories sit side-by-side with one another, and how a being may choose to embrace the false memories in order to “endure the truth.” As Lindsey explains to Angel at the end of “Underneath,” the apocalypse is actively in effect, in ways almost imperceptible to the human eye, but the distractions of legal busywork and false memories seem to divide and distract the people who are capable of stopping it. We’re sliding into oblivion because we’re directing our cares and concerns in the wrong direction.
My favorite scene in both of these episodes is also the strangest one: It’s Wesley’s dream, in which he tells the following “joke” to Fred:
Two men walk into a bar. The first man orders a scotch and soda. The second man remembers something he’d forgotten, and it doubles him over with pain. He falls to the floor shaking, and then through the floor and into the Earth. He looks back up at the first man, but he doesn’t call out to him. They’re not that close.
I laughed when I heard this “joke,” because it has the construction of a joke, and it is darkly amusing. But it’s been haunting me ever since I watched the episode last night. It’s a motif in Angel: people not asking for help, or people accepting their punishment because they feel that they deserve it. In “Origin,” for example, while Wesley learns all there is to know about Connor, Gunn refuses to sign an agreement to escape the hell that he’s chosen for himself. No one’s coming to rescue him, but Gunn doesn’t seem to mind. He just hops onto the torture-table and says, “This heart ain’t gonna cut itself out.”
- Spike asks Angel if his team has an official name, and groans, “Tell me we’re not Scoobies.” But when Spike then mockingly suggests “Angel’s Avengers,” Angel genuinely contemplates it. Whedon foreshadowing!
- When Illyria names some of the places she visited, she cites an old Buffyverse favorite: “One world with nothing but shrimp.”
- Angel asks Harmony to put the building on lockdown, and Harmony says, “Okay, but you know how that never works…?” Sure enough, Marcus is able to breach security easily, even punching all the way through one of the guards.
- When Angel stands at the door of Lindsey’s house in suburbia hell, he asks, “Is Lindsey home?” like a kid wondering if his best friend can come out to play.
- I’ll admit that I initially groaned inwardly at “Underneath” trotting out the old suburbia gag of a whole street of identical houses, and men walking out in unison to pick up the newspaper. Then it became clear that Lindsey goes through this routine every day, and it’s less of a gag than a part of his punishment. The day starts out so sweetly, and then… stab and slice.
- Lorne, when Angel and Spike return with Lindsey but not Gunn: “You never leave a… I guess we do now?” Poor sad, disillusioned Lorne.
- Spike is elected to run tests on Illyria, which largely consists of him hitting her, her hitting him, and him writing it all down on his clipboard. Illyria doesn’t mind this, because she likes the way Spike “makes noise” when she wallops him.
- When Connor meets Illyria, she senses something. “Your body warms,” she says, “This one is lusting after me.” When Connor awkwardly mutters that he has a thing for older women, Angel sighs, “They were supposed to fix that.” Ah, but raw desire is the kind of thing that can’t be fixed, Angel.