Farscape: “Revenging Angel”/“The Choice”

Farscape: “Revenging Angel”/“The Choice”

“Meh, what’s up, D’Argo?”

“Revenging Angel” (season 3, episode 16; originally aired 8/10/2001)

(Available on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.)

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to pay our final respects and to say farewell to our dear friend, Commander John Crichton, a schmuck. Mule-headed, reckless, and probably brain-dead before I met him.”

“Revenging Angel” is a story I want to like more than I actually do. After all, if we define Farscape as something that is fundamentally weird, irreverent, messily emotional, fundamentally concerned with character dynamics, and quite brazenly sexy, then “Revenging Angel” is the most Farscape episode we’ve yet seen this season. This is a quintessential mindfrell episode, very much of a kind with last year’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” another episode set extensively inside John Crichton’s mind and a damn classic to boot. And, if we’re looking at broader critical reputations, “Revenging Angel” would probably qualify for classic status, too; it’s routinely included in lists of Farscape’s finest episodes, and it earned a spot in Pivot’s recent marathon of 10 fan favorite episodes. Worse, I don’t really have any grand theory on why this episode doesn’t quite work for me. The core idea of this episode is so insanely ambitious that I can’t help but respect it, and there’s no shortage of beautiful, incisive moments to be found here. We come away from this episode having gleaned valuable insights about John, D’Argo, and even Jool; throw in the fact that Chiana and Harvey get some nice material on the margins of the story, and this is easily the Moya-set episode that does best by all its principal characters.

I’ll admit that some of my issues with this episode come down to a matter of personal taste. An objective review is a myth, but I try to assess each Farscape episode in terms of what that particular story and the series as a whole are trying to accomplish; the fact that I generally like what the show sets out to do isn’t required, but it allows me to set a useful baseline in analyzing the show. “Revenging Angel” represents the show’s most extreme genre shift, as the bulk of its animated segments are homages to old Looney Tunes cartoons; of all the old Warner Bros. animators, Chuck Jones is specifically name-checked, and that makes sense given his status as the primary creator of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. The animated segments in Farscape are painstaking reconstructions of those old cartoon shorts, with several jokes here being direct callbacks to the original gags. And, well, I’ve got to admit that I’m not really the biggest Looney Tunes fan. I totally get its cultural importance, and I understand why it’s so beloved, but it’s not really my cup of tea; as such, even the best possible version of “Revenging Angel” was never going to work as well for me as it would for others.

A fairer criticism deals less with the concept and more with the execution. Mostly, the Looney Tunes riffs never quite have enough energy. The pacing of the animated segments strikes me as just a hair too slow; the zany sound effects, for instance, work best when the audience isn’t given too much time to think about them, but the animated segments unfold at a relatively leisurely pace. On this point, I suspect “Revenging Angel” is caught in a tricky place between the zippy pacing of a contemporary slice of madness like Farscape and the relative slowness of a decades-old cartoon. This episode also offers a good illustration of how voice acting is its own distinct skill; none of the cast members are bad in the animated sequences, but Ben Browder and Anthony Simcoe are able to bring noticeably more vitality to the live-action portions of Crichton’s coma dream. Wayne Pygram and Claudia Black are more successful in recapturing their characters without the benefit of physicality, but they are helped by voicing particularly over-the-top versions of Harvey and Aeryn. 

I suspect none of this would matter so much if the episode were able to provide a more tangible justification for all the time spent in Crichton’s subconscious. We’re essentially dealing with that I’m going to call the Life On Mars scenario here, in which Crichton must construct the fantasies necessarily to keep him alive and, ultimately, wake himself up. That’s straightforward enough, but “Revenging Angel” unnecessarily confuses the point by skipping a beat too quickly to Harvey and his revenge plan. The problem, I suspect, is that the episode has to literalize Crichton’s internal fight for survival; the idea of having him face off against a hyper-rage-afflicted D’Argo makes good sense, given that’s how he ended up in a coma in the first place, but the episode is a little too abstract in how the various approaches suggested by his illusory friends are meant to help him, or indeed what endgame he is working toward in his conflict with D’Argo. Crichton gets a little too lost in his own mind for this to play properly. After all, it’s the coyote, not the roadrunner, that is the relatable figure in those original cartoons; the roadrunner is essentially an elemental force, an eternal source of frustration who may or may not be even aware of why his very presence so aggrieves his foe. And, yes, put that way, that sounds like a damn good parallel for Crichton’s relationship with D’Argo, especially from Crichton’s perspective. Make no mistake, everyone: I don’t dislike “Revenging Angel.” I’m just deeply conflicted about it.

Much like in “Scratch ‘N’ Sniff,” this episode would likely work better for me if I were more invested in Crichton and D’Argo’s ongoing feud. I already went over some of my particular issues with the show’s character-based storytelling in that previous review, but I would add another wrinkle here: Farscape struggles to hold D’Argo to account. There was plenty of discussion in the back half of season two about what a jackass D’Argo was being to his shipmates during the search for his son, and it can be odd that D’Argo is so quick to condemn Crichton when he’s often just as guilty. The short answer there is that D’Argo is a bit of a hypocrite, but Farscape is hesitant to call him out on that. To its great credit, “Revenging Angel” goes further than any episode this season in redressing that imbalance, as D’Argo is forced to admit his failings to Chiana, Jool, and ultimately Crichton. It’s only really the “ultimately” that I take issue with; the animated sequences mean that Crichton spends most of the episode with his conception of D’Argo as an unreasoning, unrelenting killer. It’s interesting—if unsurprising, again given how Crichton landed in his coma—that the human sees his friend in that way, but it’s not a point that can really sustain the bulk of the Crichton material in this story. At a certain point, I want to see the real Crichton and the real D’Argo talk it out.

To that end, the final scene, in which Crichton goes into outer space to give himself sufficient distance from D’Argo, is a beautiful moment for both characters, as D’Argo finally recognizes just how much a liability he is, given his capacity for inhuman rage and the general bleakness of his life. When the pair talk about how D’Argo “just” needs to learn how to control it better, only Crichton fully understands how hollow the word “just” is in this context. Crichton has spent the last two years trying and often failing to control his madness, and he at least sometimes understands just how dangerous he has been to his compatriots. D’Argo has come to believe that he is one of the dependable ones on Moya, and there was a time back in the second season—back when he was just starting out with Chiana, and before Stark made the possibility of rescuing Jothee turn into an obsession—that that might have been true. But then, most people can be counted on when everything is great. The trouble is that, when things do go to crap, most people are too busy wallowing in self-pity to realize just how useless they have become. 

I mentioned this episode up top, but “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is a useful comparison here. Crucial to the success of that episode is that it never leaves Crichton’s mind until the very end; it’s downright painful to imagine that episode if it featured occasional cutaways to his shipmates wandering the market looking for him. That episode’s power comes in part from its totally self-contained nature. Even once it becomes clear that none of this is “real,” it all still remains the realest thing we ever see. The audience has no choice but to stay inside Crichton’s head, and the neural clone is able to sell the idea that Crichton is in real jeopardy. “Revenging Angel,” on the other hand, tries to alternate between Crichton’s animated adventures inside his own head and the dire mess facing Moya. The audience knows that Crichton is never going to die—I actually would say that’s particularly true in the episode that comes immediately after when he does die—but it’s at least possible that the others might have to pay some terrible price for Moya’s survival, and so I always find Crichton’s predicament rather inconsequential, even though he is technically supposed to be fighting for his life. I’ve said it before, but storytelling is a magic trick, an illusion meant to convince viewers that the terrible thing that won’t ever happen could, in fact, actually happen. Here, for many tiny reasons, I remain unconvinced. But if there’s one Farscape episode I still hold out hope that I’ll fall in love with eventually, it’s “Revenging Angel.” 

Stray observations:

  • For all my issues with this episode, I will say that Jool is used better here than she has been in any previous appearance. Tammy MacIntosh does a nice job bringing out the crushing loneliness that drives Jool to mess around with D’Argo’s spaceship, setting the episode’s plot in motion. Her emotional confession to D’Argo sounds unique to her in a way that only her most annoying lines previous had. No other character we’ve met would try to explain herself with that particular mix of bratty entitlement and naked vulnerability. She knows what her shipmates—and probably a good chunk of the audience—thinks of her, she knows she’s not really capable of changing anybody’s mind, and so she’s just desperate to forge whatever connection she can with the one person who seems to not completely despise her. Even D’Argo can’t stay mad after hearing all that.
  • It must be noted just how sadistic it is to position this episode between “Infinite Possibilities” and “The Choice.” The Moya Crichton takes it for granted that the worst thing his twin is up to is having tons of sex with Aeryn. The episode’s utter refusal to hint at the fate we all just saw Talyn Crichton is a point in its favor, a good reminder that there’s no larger fate or destiny driving these characters. They’re all just fools and lunatics trying to do their best to stay alive, and Crichton at least tends to think of survival solely in terms of love and sex. Well, it is better than revenge.

“The Choice” (season 3, episode 17; originally aired 8/17/2001)

(Available on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.)

“You’re not a child, like he is. How can I help you if I’m cuffed?” “Oh, you’ll help. If someone starts shooting, you’ll make a very good shield.”

This is despair. “The Choice” shows what it is to abandon hope, and not just because Rygel—Rygel!—is the voice of reason. It’s an hour of television devoid of all but the faintest glimmers of optimism, and those tiny hints of brighter days ahead—the survival of Aeryn’s father, the possible retrieval of Crichton’s soul—prove so cruelly illusory. This is arguably Farscape’s most daring episode, if only because it completely commits to depicting emotions that are neither pleasant to experience nor necessarily all that riveting to watch. A rule of thumb for effective television storytelling is that the best episodes find ways to take abstract themes or complex emotions and transmute them into clear, concrete action. Characters don’t deal with their emotions so much as work through them. While those are probably interchangeable phrases in most senses, the difference here is that the former involves direct confrontation with the emotions in question—a fundamentally internal, introspective process inimical to the demands of conventional television narrative—whereas the latter presents the latest episodic conflict as an analogy for the turmoil within. Any episode of television that attempts the former necessarily deemphasizes plot in favor of character, but plot has a way of creeping back in, even when it isn’t really required.

That’s about the worst thing you can say about “The Choice,” really, beyond a more general criticism that this episode is just too damn miserable and too damn grim to bear; that’s not an opinion I hold, but as someone who pushed back against “Taking The Stone” in part for those reasons, I’m sympathetic to that position. But, that aside, this is a fine episode, a 45-minute meditation on grief and loss that acts as one hell of a showcase for Claudia Black. She manages to captivate even as the most withdrawn possible version of Aeryn, providing tiny, riveting hints of the defiant, brilliant person hidden beneath all the anguish. Compared to such a performance, the attempt to tie up the Xhalax Sun loose end is a bit of a necessary evil. After all, all we really need from that subplot—actually, I guess it’s the closest thing this episode has to a traditional main plot—are the thematic resonances, and the narrative mechanics necessary to get are always a bit distracting. The business with the fake Talyn Lyczac and the seer Cresus is so convoluted; their plot to manipulate Aeryn basically hangs together as yet another manifestation of Xhalax Sun’s all-consuming hatred of her daughter, but simply explaining what’s going on takes valuable time away from the heart of the episode, which is Aeryn and her grief.

But then, what repeatedly justify Lyczac and Cresus’s scam—or is it!? (Almost certainly yes)—are Aeryn’s reactions. She is somewhere between inconsolable with grief and unfathomably drunk, and the combined effect is that she laughs and ridicules whatever latest bit of patter she’s presented with. There’s a temptation to say that she responds to the fake Talyn and to Cresus as Crichton would, and her mix of anguish and booze probably is a pretty good substitute for internalized trauma and a neural clone, but that isn’t really right. Crichton helped show her a greater range of possible actions and reactions—again, “You can be more” back in “Premiere” is arguably Farscape’s single most important line—but she always reacts as Aeryn Sun would.

That’s the real reason that “The Choice” is such a worthy portrait of its main character. This episode presents Aeryn at her lowest, but never at her worst. Grief is not truly a presence in this episode; it isn’t something that takes control of Aeryn or robs her of her faculties. Rather, grief is an absence. It is the absence of Crichton, the absence of hope, the absence of a tomorrow worth living. Aeryn knows exactly what she is doing at all points in “The Choice.” She immediately sees through Lyczac’s implausible story about being her father, and she is ready when her mother springs the trap. These are all elective actions—or, in keeping with the title, choices—and that’s something Aeryn makes all too clear when she walks away from Cresus and his final bit of almost certain bullshit about Crichton still being out there. Admittedly, Cresus might simply be picking up on the existence of the other Crichton, but since never acknowledges his existence in any of the scenes with Aeryn, I don’t think we can assume she was thinking of the Moya Crichton at any point here; as far as she’s concerned, “her” Crichton is dead.

In any event, while the titular choice may refer to Xhalax’s decision to save her daughter’s life by killing the father, the title is also an appropriate description of everything that she does here. That’s not to say that she could have simply banished her feelings—and the illusory Crichton—whenever she wanted to, or that any of this was somehow an act.  Grief, much like the mystical planet Valdun, is a place that Aeryn does feel compelled to visit, but the key is that she has no intention of setting up permanent residence. Indeed, part of what’s so powerful about “The Choice” is how much agency it gives Aeryn. As both Crichton and Aeryn have observed at various points throughout the series, neither is ever going to be able to stop the other from doing what he or she wants to. Both of them are just too damn headstrong to listen to the other’s advice—or to submit to the other’s more controlling personality traits, depending on your perspective. The fact that they could so blithely dismiss each other’s advice, even orders, while still fundamentally respecting each other was just one part of why they came to love each other so much; they were willing to rely on each other without ever becoming codependent.

As “The Choice” makes all too painfully clear, the same cannot be said of Aeryn’s surviving would-be suitors. Her blistering condemnation of Stark is particularly long overdue, her every line serving to remind call attention to his transgressions, none of which are any more forgivable for their lack of subtlety. Stark’s obsession with Aeryn has built slowly throughout the third season, with the very earliest hints even preceding the death of Zhaan. Until now, Farscape has generally registered Aeryn’s discomfort with these undesired advances, but it has couched these actions in Stark’s unreasoning grief for Zhaan or in his general madness; as long as Aeryn had some more pressing crisis to deal with, they could be dismissed as distractions. “The Choice,” however, shows his infatuation for her reach critical mass: His description of her to the hotel clerk offers a needlessly updated hairstyle history, and it’s painfully clear throughout that Stark is less interested in ensuring Aeryn’s safety than he is giving himself the opportunity to protect her. His ultimate decision to leave was as much a logistical consideration—Paul Goddard had booked an engagement at the Sydney Opera House—as anything else, but it does drive home the notion that Stark can only be redeemed with distance. Continued proximity to Aeryn will only feed his obsession, one that he’s only occasionally lucid enough to recognize properly.

But what of Crais? Aeryn’s thoughts on their would-be relationship really only serve as a part of her larger takedown of Stark, as she angrily points out that the worst thing about Stark is that he’s so convinced he’s better than Crais. “The Choice” isn’t all that interested in exploring Crais, but the rather expected revelation that he did lie about killing Xhalax—admittedly for what may have been the best, or at least the most logical, of reasons—underscores the fact that it’s always difficult to know what to make of him. There’s little question that he has spent the past season or so obsessed with Aeryn, though it’s up to the individual viewer to determine how much of that is sexual attraction and how much of it is Talyn-related fascination. Either way, all of Crais’ body language is about holding himself back; he tries so painfully hard to keep a respectful distance, if only because he knows he can’t trust himself. His mind may well strive to be something more, but all his instincts remain the worst combinations of Peacekeeper and wild animal. As such, it is brutally fitting that it be he who finally kills Xhalax Sun right at a pivotal moment; whereas Aeryn and perhaps even Xhalax had found another path, Crais can still only see the most efficient, most ruthless solution.

Indeed, the emotional collapse Aeryn allows herself here is the final, most powerful break from all that she was ever trained to be as a Peacekeeper. The choice her mother made all those years ago may well have been based in a kind of love, as she claims, but it was still filtered through the Peacekeeper mindset. She killed the real Talyn because she loved Aeryn, but the beauty of the motivation does not alter the ruthlessness of the action. When presented with an impossible crisis, Xhalax solved it like a Peacekeeper, sacrificing the weaker element to save the stronger. Whether the “weaker” and the “stronger” here refers to Talyn and Aeryn or perhaps to her respective feelings of them doesn’t really matter. The result is the same. Aeryn, on the other hand, makes her own choice here. Her choice is to grieve, to do something that no true Peacekeeper could ever do. Her every action—her anguish, her drunkenness, her willingness to hope against hope that any of these obvious con artists is telling something resembling the truth—is a tribute to Crichton and the love she felt for her. Yes, there comes a time to move on, a time to tell the imaginary Crichton that he has to go, and Aeryn even believes that she must now abandon all that Crichton showed her and return to being the Peacekeeper she was always bred to be. Shutting off all emotion, all love, might seem like a pretty good idea right about now. Good luck to Aeryn. She’d be the first to manage the feat.

Stray observations:

  • I always think Aeryn is a hair too harsh to Rygel in this episode, but then past conduct does matter. Rygel may well be trying to show genuine concern for Aeryn when he approaches her on the balcony, but that genuine concern remains rooted through his need to get away from this planet and keep going. He at least tries to be more honest than Stark and Crais do, but it’s readily apparent just out of practice he really is. And yet, this is still easily the most virtuous Rygel has ever been. I’m scared too.
  • It’s deeply weird that the very first flashback we’re treated to is from “The Locket,” a story that technically was never supposed to happen. This is either a continuity error, an illustration of Valdun’s mystical properties, or a subtle reminder that grief is not constrained by simple logic. I tend to think it’s a bit of option two and a lot of option three, but opinions can vary.

Next week: Unhappy reunions are had in “Fractures,” and then we prepare for the season’s endgame with “I-Yensch, You-Yensch.”

Filed Under: TV, Farscape

More TV Club