[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: Tim Minear | Director: Tim Minear | Aired: 05/15/2001]
Now this is Pylea done right. The first two episodes of the four episode arc were decent enough, but were held severely down by their unwillingness to go forth with any real character development. But here Pylea is good. Surprisingly good. “Through the Looking Glass” is bursting through the seams with development for all the main characters, and the speed the plot advances at is very evenly paced. We also finally get to the real point of Pylea after all the mere hints we got in “Over the Rainbow” [2×20], the intrigue and effectiveness of which is surprisingly good. For the first half of the episode, you may sit back and very well wonder if you haven’t switched on the television program “Angel: the Series” after a good dish of Pylean fungi or not.
By the time the second half kicks off, this odd piece will have you completely enveloped in its strange world, even if you didn’t quite like it as much as I did. On the surface, it does seem like a sitcom parody of the Angel series, blended with some cheesy, early 90’s fantasy show like “Beast Master.” However, its sociological and metaphysical levels prove it endlessly fascinating to watch. The episode’s title and theme comes from sociologist C.H. Cooley’s term “the looking glass self.” The idea was composed of three principal elements: Our perception of our appearance to the other person, our perception of that person’s judgment of our appearance, and our feeling based on what we conclude those perceptions are.
Writer/Director Tim Minear (yes!) bases the episode off of this. He creates Pylea to be one great looking glass. Lorne puts it succinctly: “They start to see you a certain way, you become that image.” The episode is about our perceptions: How we’re seen, what we do with that image, how it makes us see ourselves and how we really are. In their new struggle to discover who they are and where they belong, each member of Angel’s crew has had to face some tough issues. Angel, searching for a new direction in his quest for redemption, is unsure of where to go with his new position serving under Wesley.
He’s almost where he was back in “To Shanshu in LA” [1×22], in a way. He may be sure of his human connection to the world unlike then, but in lieu of all that’s happened he is without a sense of who/what he is in this world, or where to go now. Pylea is particularly affecting for him. For all the pain and struggle he’s endured, to be publicly recognized as not only an equal, but a champion above average men (or..demons) and a true hero, is a breath of fresh air. For years he’s been an extraordinary person, but has had to suffer in silence and claim no credit for his miraculous deeds.
The Pylean people see him in a way he sometimes sees himself: A hero, traveling the land slaying evil and serving a good path, free of moral ambiguities that dilute his noble deeds. In “Guise Will Be Guise” [2×06], the fake swami accurately summed Angel as a man of image; the black coat and the silent-as-night style spoke of a man playing the role of the mysterious hero because it was how he saw himself. But the swami warned that hiding behind this image was wrong, because by becoming it he denied the depth of who he was. This is made pointedly clear when Angel, in a flash, gives up his chair as champion to save Fred from the savage Bach’nal feast.
He knows he’s not that image, however much he may want to be. The primitive horror of how the Pyleans celebrate nobility casts a darker light on the image of heroes for him. No good man can slaughter an innocent, but apparently in Pylea a hero can. Denying this is the important first step towards who Angel becomes in Season Three: a genuinely great human being, rather than simply a champion. But first, he also has to conquer another image: The manifestation of the darker parts of his whole personality that he sees as his vampiric side. Wes and Cordy see it as an unfortunate consequence; something to be avoided and overlooked when considering Angel’s merits as a man.
And so does Fred. Angel can’t help but see himself as someone that can instantly turn into a monster. He doesn’t see himself as divided between Angel and Angelus, but as someone capable of both; he fears this, especially after all that’s happened this season. His reaction to what he really sees himself as terrifies him to the core. Fred, having had her life saved by Angel in the most classic and noble way, believes in him the same way Wes and Cordy do, but for all she’s seen is as unsure of what Angel is as he is. That she can at all is substantial, given that her only method of mental survival thus far has been to allow herself to perceive Pylea as she’d like to: a terrifying illusion.
This shift in tone between this dynamic and the earlier one of praise and fancy was particularly impressive. The early scenes at the palace or at Lorne’s homestead (featuring Joss Whedon himself as Numfar; look for him!) were absolutely hysterical, but by the end we’ve been taken to an exceedingly dark place, and not one bit of it feels contrived. Cordy’s experience is much like Angel’s: she finally gets to be seen the way she wants to. She’s a worshipped, doted-upon princess with riches, fame and glory; as good (er-hem) as any actress! And, initially, she also believes the perception, and responds extremely positively to it.
She’s suffered an increasingly difficult and inhuman burden, so much so that praise and reward almost feels owed and is very easy to accept. Cordelia isn’t as image based a being as Angel, so the revelations about her perceptions of the royal life aren’t quite as shocking as his were about a hero’s, but remain important. Short of being higher on the chain of command than in L.A., not much has changed since her ‘acting’ gig in “Belonging” [2×19], in which she was valued not for her character but her body, which, like her visions, she did not choose nor earn. The meaning of material things has finally and truly escaped Cordy, and she finally accepts it.
What she sees as the correct perception of her appearance lies in the Groosalug, a noble man of character who has bravely transcended the infuriating ethnocentrism of his homeland to do miraculous things, and who sees what she believes is her true value. However, as we can already see, it is her royal status he is in awe of, and it is only this admiration of her and a physical attraction that sparks her interest. It is something confused for a genuine human connection, and what will ultimately be the end of their relationship in “Tomorrow” [3×22].
Another item that destroys Cordy’s idea of royalty is The Covenant, Wolfram and Hart’s representation in Pylea. A truly inspired idea (the best of the episode), The Covenant is not meant to be a link to the law offices we know, but are meant to fit in with in what Holland Manners said in “Reprise” [2×15] when he talked of W&H being evil itself; having representation in all places because of the necessity of opportunistic evil. In Pylea they function in a way similar to LA:
Composed of those who crave power and who do what they feel is necessary to protect that power, subverting lawful systems and encouraging others that keep those who could threaten them enslaved. Like the Pyleans, their morals are less complex, and their methods of control are a little blunter but the point is clear. In the middle of such a lighthearted arc, the sense of danger interjected into the middle of everything by their presence was strikingly genuine. The cliffhanger ending in which they reveal Lorne’s severed head is the best moment of the show, and it’s a shame that “There’s No Place Like Plrtz Glrb” [2×22] backs down on such a bold plot move.
Another bold thing the episode does right away is allow the characters more time apart, without giving them an easy way out. Cordy is trapped by the Covenant, and Wesley and Gunn are captured by ‘cow’ rebels. Unlike Angel and Cordy, Pylea is a middling experience for them. While the other two examine and re-learn their perceptions, Wes fights to confirm his own. Faced with dangers, he finally begins accepting ugly reality and taking charge of situations, standing up to the Covenant and formulating an escape plan from the castle. Like in “Guise Will Be Guise” [2×06], how others have perceived him has forced him to react in a certain way, and this time it’s much for the better.
Where the last couple episodes spoke a lot of setup with this kind of material, this episode is more of a rolling stone. It’s not a conclusion, but it’s an impressively well put together progression of necessary events that are made to be worthwhile in their own right. Its only stumble is that it can’t keep the pace chugging along quite well enough to generate momentum between its dramatic spikes, but in light of its intellectual graces, it’s hardly a problem. Its thematic inquisitions more than make up for its visceral inadequacies, themselves not all that terrible either; the sets and theme songs of Pylea create such an atmosphere that’s it’s wondrously easy to get lost in.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Angel finally realizing the tragedy of his hair. Spike would be proud.
+ The entire sequence at Lorne’s old house, and especially Numfar. Bless you, Tim.
+ The Wolfram and Hart connection to Pylea. In such a lighthearted arc,
+ Angel telling the story of chopping Lindsey’s hand off in “To Shanshu in LA” [1×22].
+ Lorne’s complete and utter misery at the family reunion, and everyone absolutely freaking out at his singing.
+ Cordelia looting the palace.
* Angel begins to show signs of rejecting championhood and destiny here and starting to accept himself truly as a deeply flawed human being, however good. His development in S3 continues this and tests it.
* Cordelia’s development marks a huge turning point away from her old material past. She’s finally moved past it, and when she gets over the superficiality of her relationship with the Groosalug, it will be the final cut away from her past, a moment at which she literally becomes a transcendent being in “Tomorrow” [3×22].
* Wesley takes real charge of the situation in this episode. In “There’s No Place Like Plrtz Glrb” [2×22] he shows more of this initiative, and ends up leading the rebels. In S3 he becomes a more confident leader.