Angel: “Unleashed”/“Hellbound”

Angel: “Unleashed”/“Hellbound”

There are three ways to measure time when you’re talking about television. There’s narrative time, which refers to how many hours/days/months/years are covered over the course of single episode (or season, or series). There’s running time, which is how many actual minutes of television the viewer will have to watch to receive that narrative. And then there’s production/programming time, which means both how long it takes the creators to produce a block of episodes and when those episodes run (or, if the show is off the air, when the viewer watches it on home video). If you wanted to, you could divide that last measure into two, but I think they belong together, since the demands of the network determine when the writers are writing, when the actors are acting, and—as is important to what I want to talk about this week—when they’re idle.

What stood out most to me about this week’s Angel duo of “Unleashed” and “Hell Bound” is how both episodes emphasize the familial warmth and friendship of our core group of heroes. Our gang works together, dines together, cracks jokes together, and talks over old times. Sure, there’s the occasional sideways glance, and even a few glimmers of lingering mistrust, but given that these characters are only about a month removed from their Jasmine adventure—prior to which they kind of hated each other’s guts—it’s surprising how well they’re all getting along*. And yet it’s also not surprising, because of that third measure: production/programming time. In narrative time, the staff of Angel Investigations has spent a month at Wolfram & Hart, and has been working side by side since we left them there at the end of season four. But in production time, the Angel creative team spent some time away from the characters, and came back to them fairly fresh, with a new premise to explore. Similarly, in the original measure of programming time, viewers had a whole summer off between the season four finale and the season five premiere.

Even I, who have access to the entire series, took a long break between seasons, mimicking the way a lot of fans originally watched these Angels. And that may be why the sudden easing of tensions between the characters hasn’t seemed too jarring to me. People often want to compare serialized TV dramas and adventure shows to novels, because we now have the capability to watch series in big chunks, blowing through episodes as though they were chapters in a book, until we get to the end. But even now, most TV writers think more in terms of episodes first, and then arcs, and then seasons. (And then, for the lucky and rare few, in terms of the full series.) It’s a feature of the medium—not a bug—that the people who make television can give themselves the license to start fresh every time they have to fill an hour of airtime.

Anyway, I’m sure Joss Whedon and company found some way to set the principals at odds with each other before the end of season five. I fully expect to be reminded of who stole who’s baby and who broke up with whom and all the accumulated sour feelings of the past four seasons of Angel. And when that happens, I hope I’ll find it wonderfully tense, not annoying. (With Whedon shows, the squabbling sometimes grates—something I complained about periodically during my Buffy write-ups.) For now though, I’m enjoying the team being a team again, and cracking cases in the foreground while dealing with the ongoing mystery of Wolfram & Hart in the background.

I think I liked “Unleashed” a little better than “Hell Bound,” because of a late twist that took into some freaky new places. But I liked both episodes overall because of their back-to-basics “We are a horror series, right?” attitude. Bring on the werewolves! Bring on the serial killers and haunted office buildings! Let’s get our “boo” on.

The werewolf in question is one Nina Ash (played by Jenny Mollen), who transforms after being bitten by another werewolf from whom Angel almost saves her. The gang then pours all their resources into finding Nina before she transforms, and eventually track her down to the home she shares with her sister and her niece, where Wes promptly tranquilizes her before she can do something terrible to her family. When Nina awakes, Angel tries to be encouraging, saying that he knows she can learn to control herself because he’s a monster too. (Nina’s best guess: “A Frankenstein?”) But before he can start working with her, Nina gets abducted by a band of rogue foodies who pay a premium to dine on werewolf meat.

The introduction of the kidnapping gourmands is that twist I mentioned earlier: something that elevates “Unleashed” from the usual routine werewolf origin tale. Honestly, I’m a sucker for any kind of story with a “secret society” in it—all that giallo-esque men-in-cloaks-and-masks-sacrificing-virgins jazz—so I appreciated the nod here to old-school exploitation, with Nina being stripped and scrubbed before being presented in a formal dining room. It was also fun to see kooky character actor John Billingsley as Dr. Royce, who passes Lorne’s rat-test by singing “Jessie’s Girl,” only because he’d taken a drug to cover the fact that he’s actually feeding info to the foodies. Angel and the team eventually rescues Nina, who bites Dr. Royce, allowing Angel to leave the foodies with another soon-to-be-werewolf to dine on. And then Angel drives Nina home, where the sight of her loving family reminds him of how good it is to have people who care about you. (There’s that family motif again.)

The black sheep of Angel’s family right now is Spike, who plays a minor role in “Unleashed” and a major one in “Hell Bound.” In the former he’s mainly comic relief: lying to a savvy Fred about he and Wesley have a blood-vendetta from back when Wes was a novice Watcher; and starting to recount the epic tale of his fight with a werewolf before being waved off again by Fred, who says, “Angel killed him with a pen.” But Lorne does note in “Unleashed” that Spike’s lingering presence seems to have gotten under Angel’s skin in a way that’s throwing him off his game. (At one point, Angel grumbles to a loitering Spike, “You know that whoosh thing you do? I love that.”)

And it’s not just Angel that Spike is distracting. At the start of “Hell Bound,” Angel and Eve call Fred into the big office for a stern chat—not about the fact that she’s been looking so tired and wan lately, but because she’s already overspent her quarterly budget by $800,000, just in trying to help Spike. Fred explains that she’s trying to do something that’s never been done: defying the laws of nature to re-corporealize him. In this episode the job becomes more vital than ever, because Spike becomes not just non-corporeal but also invisible and silent, thanks to an old evil named Matthias Pavayne, a.k.a. The Reaper. Pavayne has the power to bend reality, which he uses to take Spike out of the picture and to torment him with the ghosts of Wolfram & Hart’s dead.

“Hell Bound” is mostly just a creepshow, with long stretches of the episode devoted to Spike roaming the dark halls of W&H while ashy humanoids with twisted faces and missing body parts pop out of the shadows. There’s even another old-school exploitation scene, in which Fred takes a shower in a dark lab and Spike tries to alert her to what’s really going on by writing “REAPER” in the condensation on the glass, all spooky-like. But that ability of Spike’s to actually touch something also proves to be key to the plot. Once he realizes that he can exert a physical presence if he wants it badly enough, Spike begins knocking around Pavayne, eventually forcing him into a mystical device Fred has built (with the help of Gunn’s panther pal from The White Room), which makes Pavayne corporeal instead of Spike. So Fred’s plan to ground Spike in reality fails, but only because Spike does something heroic, while at the same time showing that he may be able to control his ghostliness. 

There’s a little bit of W&H backstory in “Hell Bound,” involving Pavayne being sacrificed by the senior partners long ago to de-consecrate the ground the offices stand on. For me though, the big takeaway from this episode (and “Unleashed,” for that matter) is that Angel seems to be hardening as much as he’s softening. His familial, collegial feelings are all well and good, and even prompt one absolutely fantastic scene between Angel and Spike where they compare notes on Hell and prophecy and guilt in a way that’s at once standoffish and respectful of the fact that there are things that only the two of them know. And yet the season premiere ended with Angel facilitating the death of one human, “Unleashed” ends with Angel leaving another human to be eaten by gourmets in a month, and “Hell Bound” ends with Angel savagely beating Pavayne and then locking him in a cell, immobile, for all eternity. Angel has never shied away from killing, but he’s usually been more about dispatching demons, not people. The way way he growls “some people can’t be saved” when he hears about Fred’s plans to save Spike seems to indicate more of a take-no-prisoners attitude this season.

Of course, I could be reading something that’s not there, or I could be conveniently forgetting that Angel’s always played this rough. And of course, everything may change in the weeks to come, because this is TV. It can be frustrating sometimes, but the beauty of this medium is that each week offers a chance to revise, refine and rethink, discovering something new about the characters and the premise with each fade-in.

*As pointed out by many, I failed to take into account the extent of the “no Connor” memory wipe when writing the above. That’s a common issue with those kind of retcons: keeping track of how far back everything unwinds. (See also: Fringe.) Apologies for the confusion. The essence of my point still pertains—that TV shows can reinvent themselves perpetually—but there’s more of a logic to Angel’s changes than I’d recalled.

Stray observations:

  • I try to stay away from any Angel episode guides outside of double-checking plot-points and quotes in the episodes I’m already writing about, because I don’t want to inadvertently find out what’s happening next. But when I looked up the Wikipedia entry for Jenny Mollen to find out if I’d seen her in anything before, and read on her page that she’s “best known for her portrayal of Nina Ash,” I think I got a tip-off that we’ll be seeing this character again.
  • As happy as the gang seems, there are some thin cracks forming: like for example everyone’s concern that Gunn was infected with some kind of evil when the senior partners made him a legal genius. For now though, they’re willing to give Gunn the benefit of the doubt so long as he’s willing to do a little covert spying on the muckety-mucks.
  • Fred on Knox: “He’s under me. I’m on top of him. Professionally.”
  • Lorne says what we’re all thinking to Angel:  “That extra weight is not lookin’ so good on ya.”
  • Even the werewolf-eaters acknowledge that there’s no such thing as a leprechaun.
  • A little Ryan Adams there at the end of “Unleashed,” which was nice; and yet the song in my head all week has been by The Breeders, thanks to the title of “Hell Bound.”
  • Spike looks back on his evil partnership with Angel, saying that they were like “Hope and Crosby… Stills and Nash… Chico and the Man.”
  • Angel admits that he liked Spike’s poems back when they were hangout buddies. Spike takes no comfort than this, since Angel also likes Barry Manilow.
  • Fred finally reveals to Wes and Gunn that Spike keeps getting pulled down to Hell, but they’re not at all surprised. (“Where else would he be headed?”)
  • It’s too bad that The Reaper exploded the W&H house psychic, because she was a funny character. (“I have Pilates at the crack of ‘Why am I awake?’ so we’re gonna move this right along.”)
  • Speaking of characters changing, I’m loving what they’re doing with Fred this season. Perhaps this follows logically from her experience as a Jasmine-skeptic and perhaps not, but she seems much more confident now. When Wes and Gunn catch her scribbling equations on a window, she explains, “I just ran out of whiteboard; I’m not crazy. Again.” And when Angel warns her that Spike’s just toying with her affections, Fred snaps that she’s “not some idiot schoolgirl.” Go Fred.
  • Just for the record, that whole “three measures of time” thing up top was just my way of explaining my reaction to the series’ change of focus at the start of the fifth season, and explaining why it doesn’t bother me. It’s something I came up with off the top of my head, not any kind of legitimate academic approach to television. I have friends who are real TV scholars who probably know of actual theories with actual names in regards to how the matter of time affects how we watch. If I’ve inadvertently swiped and/or bastardized something that actually exists, I apologize in advance and invite the smarter folks to suggest appropriate readings in the comments below.