Summer Retrospective – Angel, “Waiting In The Wings”

(Note: This summer, I’ll be going back over some of my favorite television shows and looking at episodes I think are particularly notable, ambitious, or otherwise interesting – episodes that I think are worth revisiting or, sometimes, defending. I won’t be approaching this with any particular order in mind, but I’d like to start out with what I think is one of the most unduly overlooked episodes from the Whedonverse – Waiting In the Wings, from Angel’s third season.)

A lot gets said about how Angel  was darker than Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and, in some ways, that was unavoidable. Buffy was about a hero fighting bad guys, whereas Angel was about a bad guy trying desperately to be a hero, even though he was usually convinced of his own fundamental irredeemability.  Put simply, Buffy was about teenagers, and Angel was about grown-ups, and so even when Buffy went dark (which, don’t get me wrong, it definitely did), it couldn’t even conceive of the kind of darkness Angel built a show around.

But even though this darkness did, to be sure, manifest itself as (SPOILERS like a month old banana, friends) the hero burning a room full of people alive, or an intentional apocalypse, or a suggestion that life is literally hell, Angel was best when it did quiet melancholy. Sure, bad things happened to our characters all the time, but, to me, the strongest quality of the show was its underlying sadness. Angel was such a compelling character because he knew that no matter how much good he did, he would never make up for all the evil. He hid that insecurity by punching a lot of stuff, and the show hid its own melancholy by making a lot of stuff go boom, but Angel – both the show and the character – was always better when allowed to be quiet.

And that’s why I think that the best Angel episodes are the one when the thing that needs beating is less menacing, more sad than scary and less important than what’s going on with the characters. The adversary in “Waiting In the Wings” is, simply, lovely, with a ballerina caught in time and lost in love. Sure, it’s easy to point at the Count and yell evil, but there’s a wonderful gothic quality to this episode, a gorgeous shadowy romanticism that puts “defeating the bad guy” on the low end of priorities. You get the feeling that the only reason there’s a bad guy at all in this episode is just because people are so lonely and desperate and foolish.

And it’s a good thing that the threat this hour wasn’t much of a one, because this was one of the greatest character-based episodes of the entire series. There are few creators  who can match Joss Whedon in terms of torturing fictional people (though I have to say, Kripke is making one heck of a go), and this episode took place in one of the very brief lulls in the relentless five season beat-down. Team Angel always struck me as the kind of people who would love each other unconditionally except that everything else always got in the way, and this was one of the few points when nothing else was getting in the way. It was (if you care about SPOILERS, you probably should have stopped reading a few paragraphs ago, but here’s another warning anyway) after Angel went looney, and before Wesley did. It was after a respectable enough time had passed from Doyle, before that unfortunate quasi-incest plotline (seriously, did anyone care that Cordelia was posessed? anyone?), and during the point where all of the romantic relationships were still in the giddy anything-can-happen place.

Because, sue me, I like seeing our heroes happy. I like seeing Gunn joke about how he used to be cool, Angel casually reference being evil like a well-adjusted former psychopath, and Cordelia playing matchmaker. I like seeing Connor when he was still young enough that his dad could fantasize about him playing hockey because it was a night sport, and I like seeing Lorne before he got all disillusioned and cynical. I like it when the overt angst is dialed down, since that’s when the quieter stuff is able to come out.

Because Wesley’s devastation at seeing Gunn and Fred kiss had nothing to do with evil or stupidity or Wesley’s own human failings; it had to do with a very straightforward case of wrong place, wrong time, and a friend who was quicker on the uptake. Angel’s conversation with the prima ballerina wasn’t one of his “once more unto the breach, dear friends;” if he had failed, all they would have lost would have been one forgotten girl. Instead, this had the feeling of tucking a problem into bed – no one bursts into flames or explodes into dust. Summer Glau merely smiles and melts into the floor.

It’s no mistake, I think, that this episode is reminiscent of the Buffy season 2 episode “I Only Have Eyes For You” (Angel even references that experience in passing). Obviously, both episodes involve current (or potentially current) lovers possessed by spirits of those past, but, more pertinently, both force the heroes to solve their current issue by means different than what they usually use. Punching things is, for the most part, ineffective; the only way to “win” here is to listen to the story. Listening to the story requires a much more cerebral – and a much more engaged – approach than either Buffy or Angel are used to, and that’s why these episodes tend to be so quiet. It’s why “Waiting In the Wings” is so willing to linger over the characters joking and enjoying each others’ company – the basic conceit of this episode is that the story is what’s important.

And that is why I absolutely and completely loathe the end of this episode, where Gru comes back and Fred and Gunn are a couple and Wesley and Angel start moping around. Everything leading up to that existed in a sort of “penny in the air” state, with a sense that anything could happen, and that maybe, for once, it would stay good and nice and happy. The end of the episode stops lingering over the quiet stuff and dives right back into the noisy angst. I know that had to happen eventually, but this episode would have been flawless if Gru had just been pushed into the next episode. I get the impact of ending the episode on such a downer, but honestly, it feels more manipulative than effective, and more contrived than anything else.

Look, obviously I didn’t stop loving Angel after this episode – actually, I would argue that some of its best episodes were still ahead. But “Waiting In the Wings” took place in a magic liminal space – the dreamlike backstage that went on forever acts, I think, as a metaphor for the whole hour. It let us leave, for a bit, the horrible, crappy reality of our heroes’ lives, and as they pretended for an evening to be young and carefree, we got to pretend that everything could have a tidy andtheyalllivedhappilyeveryaftertheend. While I probably wouldn’t contend that this is Angel’s best episode, it is their most beautiful, a near perfect blend of tragedy and hope.

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