[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: Howard Gordon | Director: Nick Marck | Aired: 02/29/2000]
“The Ring” is a harmless and fun little piece of work that’s more enjoyable than it has any right to be. Cliche to its core, save for the first act, it’s redeemed entirely by a confident swagger in its writing. The wo/men behind the pen (or in this case, word processor) have unflinching confidence in their characters here, which they place the burden of the story’s follies on and, for the most part, they succeed. The episode itself is also another interesting piece in the puzzle of S1, as it continues to establish AtS’ moral gray area on the evil of humans vs. demons; something smartly set up this season, as it becomes central in the coming years.
The plot begins with the appearance of another potential client, and it’s clear that Angel Investigations is starting to establish a name for itself in this way. Darin MacNamara has heard that the team handles ‘unusual cases’ and is quite good at it. In the context of truth, where Darin is indeed the antagonist, this too speaks of Angel Investigation’s notoriety, as Angel would’ve had to have made a decent name for his firm to get this kind of attention as a fighter. Darin steps onto the scene badly beat up, and claims his brother Jack has been kidnapped by demons whom he owes gambling money. He gives Angel the name of a bookie to go to for information, and the plot is in motion fairly quickly.
One of the episode’s best qualities is, in fact, the early pieces of the plot. The bookie sends Angel to a location where Jack was supposedly taken, but Angel winds up the victim, knocked out and captured. So far we’ve seen a few of these standard victim cases and I was pleasantly surprised to see the episode take a different turn. This is, sadly, the only real big shock and twist. Angel is captured and placed in captivity as a slave at a demon fight ring, where Jack and Darin force demons to fight, promising them freedom after 21 kills. The duration of the plot from here is largely uninteresting, save for its piece in the puzzle of AtS’ stance that humans can truly be demons as well.
When Cordelia and Wesley have rescued Angel, they rejoice at setting the captives free, only to stop and realize that they just set a group of demons free. It’s good this gave them pause, but there was no doubt that the MacNamara brothers were the true evil. Demons or not, they were taking sentient beings against their will and pitting them against each other for personal profit, purely for their enjoyment. The point is not that “but they were demons, not people,” but that the brothers were exercising cruelty for personal gain, which constitutes the greater evil between they and the demons.
It’s done pretty well, though a little too hammered in at some places. Darin coldly shooting Jack to death was a darkly clever way for him to prove to the demons how little their chance of freedom really was, and made Angel’s heroism quite null. But, it did seem to step into curled-mustache-villain territory; they seemed to want to hammer home how EVIL he was long after we got the point. The rest of the plot itself is, as I mentioned, very cliche; Angel constantly encouraging the demons to freedom, their tough attitudes and initial reluctance, Angel’s heroism in the face of it all and then their final banding together against all odds for freedom. I’ve seen this too many times.
Yet the charm of the finished product is in some of the more individual moments that take place as a result of the plot. Lilah’s sultry temptation of Angel, Wes and Cordy working together on their own and the demon rebellion itself all stand out in that field. The first two scenes I mentioned, in point of fact, do give the episode some general relevance. Aside from the great foreshadowing for all of S5, Lilah and Angel’s very first private meeting works on several different levels, first by establishing why Wolfram and Hart has to be his enemy. Lilah is adamant that devil’s bargains can be done for the greater good, and that pockets of evil must exist in the bigger picture. It seems to be the M.O. of Wolfram and Hart as far as we know it; their primary function.
Angel disagrees with this philosophy entirely, and how swiftly he does so says much about his character now (a pure hero of conviction), and speaks volumes of the change and erosion he is to endure later on, making him willing to strike just such a devil’s bargain. Second, this functions as the hammer-stroke over the final nail in the coffin; Angel has done much to pester W&H, and with this last ditch effort they’ve exhausted every last “diplomatic” effort they have. This of course, is very little, but not much more is to be expected from Hell Inc.
One also assumes that, at this time, they are aware of the Shanshu Prophecy (which is revealed in “To Shanshu in LA” [1×22] ), and that this was either their first act based on the information contained in the prophecy, its failure leading to their use of the warlock Vocah in the aforementioned episode, or their last ditch-effort before acting on the prophecy.
And it is about time they acted. S1 itself does lack an up front arc; indeed, it functions more as an anthology of character-connected events and self-contained stories than an ongoing tale. But as we learn by the finale, an arc has been developing in the background, justified by events such as Angel’s interactions with Lilah here, and his many other meddlings with W&H. I, myself, don’t mind an anthology at all. In fact, when AtS dives too far in to a meticulously connected arc it tends to spread its strengths too thin, as it does in S4 and some portions of S3. But one of my biggest issues with S1 and Wolfram and Hart here is that they’ve taken too long to act. From what we see later on the series, they are motivated, omnipresent and extremely convicted.
So it leaves me to wonder why exactly they’ve taken so long to do something about Angel. My only real theory is that they’ve been aware of the Prophecy for some time, and have simply been waiting for a good opening to get at Angel, since he’s proved more of a nuisance than an actual threat so far. But it’s no excuse for lazy writing, and I would’ve appreciated some subplot-or-even-less developments injected here and there in some episodes.
Another set of stand alone moments that likened me to this installment were all of Wesley and Cordelia’s interactions; these too lent more significance to the episode. Both Cordy and Angel have had plenty of time to interact and bond, and in the wake of Doyle’s death became only that much closer. As of yet, however, Wesley has been something of an outsider in comparison. His adventures with Cordelia give him the opportunity he’s needed, and the two grow in their confidence in each for it. Also interesting about it was seeing how they function without Angel, and we’re shown that they’d be A-OK. Wes is too often portrayed as bumbling, but here, when properly motivated and not in the presence of those he feels he must prove himself to (such as Angel, or when he was in Sunnydale, Buffy and Giles), his resourcefulness and unshakable drive are invaluable, as are his book-based teachings in constructing the key to the MacNamara’s shackles. Cordelia is quite a help too: She can now type, use the internet, and even puts her acting skills to use to get inside the ring club and distract the guard.
I mentioned in my review of “In the Dark” [1×03] that they key difference between the Fang Gang and the Scoobies of parent show BtVS was that the Fang Gang were more “grown up,” so to speak. Where Buffy’s troupe is often willing to give in to the greater danger for the safety of one of their own, Angel’s clan is more double-or-nothing; saving Angel is only saving Angel if it’s done without aiding their enemies as well. Their “oops” attitude over freeing the demons, and their all-out takedown of Darin prove this to us further. This dynamic is clearly still intact even with Wesley on board rather than Doyle, and now it’s Angel, as opposed to Cordelia (“Expecting” [1×12] ) who learns that he has two people he can trust absolutely.
Owing a bit to the feature film “Fight Club,” this is still a very entertaining romp which surprised me considering how over-used the concept is in pop culture. It’s certainly a worthwhile watch.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The Demon Database.
+ Lilah Morgan’s very first appearance on the show.
+ Wesley taking down the bookie.
+ Cribb’s tongue.
+ The demons’ revenge against Darin; perfect.
* Lilah encourages Angel to compromise and pick his battles in the fight against evil, and explains that a partnership with W&H would be advantageous in the greater picture. For these reasons and more, Angel agrees to take over Wolfram and Hart in “Home” [4×22], and spends all of S5 dealing with the ramifications of that compromise.
* Lilah also gives us the idea that Wolfram and Hart’s general purpose is to function as the necessary evil; a yang to the yin of the good. In “Power Play” [5×21] Angel says of W&H: “Maybe they’re not there to be beat. Maybe they’re there to be fought.”