Angel 2×21: Through the Looking Glass

[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.



14 thoughts on “Angel 2×21: Through the Looking Glass”

  1. [Note: AshleyHalliwell posted this comment on May 31, 2009.]

    I like reading your comments because your insight into the characters is amazing. What I really thought was funny was how everyone is trying to impregnate Cordelia with something. I started laughing when Gun was like “I told you it was dirty!”


  2. [Note: Anonymous posted this comment on July 31, 2009.]

    Erm, the title of the episode comes from ‘Through the Looking Glass’, the sequel to ‘Alice in Wonderland’


  3. [Note: Victoria posted this comment on November 1, 2009.]

    I also love Fred’s reaction to making Cordelia a Princess. In a way it also kind of starts affirming her own personal lack of self-worth that she brings back with her to their normal world (the other side of the looking glass). In Pylea, Fred is sort of a rogue warrior, she’s a thief, and kind of crazy, but she manages to survive five whole years in a world where she’s seen as nothing but a cow (and they apparently they love Human Cow Burgers.. ew). But in the normal world, she loses that and sort of falls into a mousy shell, where she hides behind books and science and logic, but lets the others fight battles for her. We see hints of brave Fred every now and then but she doesn’t find her inner warrior again until… well, right before then end, when she’s fighting for her life against Illyria. It’s also in this epsiode that Gunn and Wesley first lay their eyes upon Fred, when she bravely lures Super-Vampire Angel away from them. It’s not surprising that they both fell head-over-heels in love with her (and according to Wesley, that was the moment, or maybe before… sighh…). I always wonder what Illyria’s thoughts were, looking back through Fred’s memories, and seeing such a divided personality between the two worlds. On one hand, she feels as if she’s inherited a mousy little weak body, and on the other hand, that weak little body survived a lot of torment and pain.


  4. [Note: Nathan.Taurus posted this comment on January 28, 2010.]

    Fred, or, Winifred is so adorable throughout, but especially here. Her surprised look at the revelation of Cordelia being made a Princess was priceless.

    Also, Joss doing his dances and David smiling at him, probably trying not to laugh.

    Angel miming, “Mum” when Lorne introduces his mother.

    I really liked the scene where Fred lures Angel away from Wes and Gunn with the haunting music playing and the look in Fred’s eyes.

    The best episode of the Pylean arc


  5. [Note: Chris posted this comment on May 7, 2010.]

    I disagree that Groo liked cordelia only for her status, and that is why they failed. It was the other way around. Groo cared for cordelia regardless though Cordelia was attracted to the muscular hero and lost interest back on earth in comparison to angel who was both a hero a friend. Though watching Groo’s actions here and in three he appears to care for her greatly if not love her.

    I think a major missed oppertunity was angels change being to a failry lame demon, it would have been amazing if it was an ubervamp/the master type creature.


  6. [Note: Jason posted this comment on October 6, 2010.]

    I’m a breathless Buffy fan trying to make my way through Angel. It’s had its ups and downs so far… but this arc, and this episode, may be it for me. The path from great television to cliched television is gentle but treacherous, and suddenly you look up and realize you’re basically watching Xena. Sorry– I’m out for a while. 😦


  7. [Note: Alice posted this comment on November 6, 2010.]

    I agree with Chris about Groo truly loving Cordelia. Groo may have “loved” her, initially, because of necessity, but he got to see Cordelia’s selflessness and compassion when she refused to give up her visions and when she pardoned the “prisoners”, despite how damaging they are to her, and loved her for it.

    However, I don’t think Cordelia only liked Groo physically (at least not after she got to know him, anyway). Cordelia loved Groo because she saw him as a brave and selfless warrior-basically, a simple version of Angel, whom she really loved, but didn’t know yet (also, possibly- no strike that, considering this is Cordy- PROBABLY, because Groo treated her like, well, a princess).

    I believe this was the reason the couple could never work. Cordelia couldn’t fully love Groo because he was only part of the package.


  8. [Note: Wveth posted this comment on March 21, 2011.]

    Jason, you need to seriously look at what you’re watching here. If you only like Buffy and Angel because of their non-fantasy setting (which you seem to be implying), then you should stick to television shows with a little less intelligence.

    The setting is irrelevant. No TV show could spark this much intelligent discussion without being worthy of it. Look again. Look deeper.


  9. [Note: Neil posted this comment on April 26, 2011.]

    Laughed out loud when Landork referenced Season ones “I fall to pieces” episode by asking Angel to “Tell us once again of the wizard who could remove his body parts” and Lorne summing up everyone’s feelings towards that episode by sarcastically remarking “Yeah because that’s a good one”

    Genius Dialogue!


  10. [Note: Poltargyst posted this comment on March 2, 2017.]

    Bah! Jason knew not what he was saying. This episode makes me do the Dance of Joy! In fact, I’m doing it now


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