[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: Joss Whedon | Director: Joss Whedon | Aired: 02/04/2002]
“Waiting in the Wings” is another fan favourite episode of the show in the vein of “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?” [2×02]: fantastical, highly interesting, oozing in atmosphere and at the heart of it: an old-fashioned mystery that leads to an unexpectedly touching place. While it’s not as good as “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?” [2×02] it’s good enough, and is, if not anything else, quite a memorable experience. Like that episode, everything that happens in it is predicated on an old fashioned gimmick ripped from classic TV plots: “The X goes to the Y!” Substitute family/beach, group/foreign city where needed. Indeed, ‘Angel Investigations goes to the ballet’ sounds like a damned odd gimmick to start with, even for a show as ‘unique’ as this.
But never fear. With Joss Whedon writing and directing for the first time since “City of” [1×01], we’re in for a cliche destroying treat. And unlike in S4 or S5, his dialogue here isn’t too boppy, happy, or Buffy-like for the “Angel” characters; this is a point at which Angel Investigations is its happiest and most unified. Everyone has plenty of things to laugh about, and throughout the episode, in the drama or the comedy, you get the sense that this is an intensely tight little family as they take jabs at one another and just enjoy each others company. This series is never light, but one of my favourite things about S3 is that the gang actually gets to be happy for a bit.
Of course, that doesn’t last. This is a Joss Whedon show, and joy unburdened by agonizing context should always read akin to a giant neon sign flashing “PAIN AHEAD!” “Sleep Tight” [3×16] is the season’s most tragic episode, but there’s still a good gut punch or two for the characters and the audience here. In addition to beautiful cinematography, lusciously designed sets, impressive action and dance choreography, and clever editing that effectively enhances the soft aesthetic of the ballet outing, the show boasts a moving tale of fate and romance. Whedon uses the ballet company as the central metaphor for the group to resounding success; all of them trapped in time, echoing.
The central thematic question is: Can we defy our fates? The episode doesn’t look at fate as some great cosmic plan, but determinism as I discussed it in my review of “Quickening” [3×08]: the unavoidable confluence of events brought together by the way of the world. If one person is as he is, and another is as she is, then something between them may be destined – in a way – to happen. Consider the saying “I wouldn’t do that if I were you!” My response to that is “Yes you would. I would do that, so if you were me, you wouldn’t be you, you would be me, and so you would do exactly that.” Things seem to be ‘destined’ in this way between members of Angel Investigations.
In “Offspring” [3×07], Fred mentioned ‘kyrumption:’ the meeting of two great champions in the field, and used it to imply a destined romance between Angel and Cordelia. Lorne, who has spent his time in L.A. helping others map out their personal destinies, sees ‘kyrumption’ as well. Angel has now grown into a fully mature member of human society both practically (having Connor, creating a family with Angel Investigations) and metaphysically (realizing his worth in “To Shanshu in LA” [1×22] and defining his desire to simply help the suffering in “Epiphany” [2×16]). Cordelia has too, having gone from a materialistic, irreconcilable bitch trapped outside regular humanity in her own way, to a heroic champion with a mission (where Angel was in S1, minus the depression).
They have a strong bond of friendship and trust, and have come to a mutual understanding of one another’s strengths and weaknesses. That their ‘destiny’ to be together doesn’t seem a contrivance is a credit to the long-term continuity of this series. There is also Fred and Wesley, who share intellectual graces and find reassurance in one another. Finally, there is Fred and Gunn, who despite seeming to have nothing in common, both make remarks about appreciating beauty in this episode; they both have good hearts, and act on a general attraction the way anyone else would. There is potential for all of these pairings, but the metaphor of the ballet demonstrates why some are acted on and some aren’t.
The Prima Ballerina of the company represents the main question of fate, having lived her life for her goal: to dance. She had presumably worked her whole life, as many professional dancers do, to hone the skill and grace required of a ballet performer. Much like Angel, she attempted to deny herself the greatest passions and pleasures of life (her love with Stefan) due to her high regard for the past; the time she spent preparing. Angel’s past as Angelus, especially after Sunnydale, kept him from actively pursuing love or happiness because he too couldn’t let ago of the significance of that other life he’d lived. But love seemed destined to happen to both of them.
When in the presence of the spirits of Stefan and the Ballerina, Angel and Cordelia, acting out their past, are compelled helplessly to one another; their union seems inescapable, for whom they were and their passion for each other could do nothing but bring them together. This seems true of both couples. But like the Ballerina, Angel’s inability to detach himself from the past cost him the prospective future; he was hesitant to act on his feelings, and when he finally did, fate stepped in. The love of another man for the woman of the pair interfered, something also painfully true of the Fred-Wesley-Gunn triangle, in which we are meant to root for Wesley.
His parallel to Kurskov is the pivotal moment in the episode, both for the plot and for the theme. He’s clearly overtaken by jealousy, connecting completely to Count Kurskov’s anger and bitterness. But where Kurskov changed his love’s fate for the worse, Wesley and Angel, despite their hesitations, change fate for the better. As the third cog in the wheel of destiny for the Fred-Gunn-Wesley triangle, Wesley does what Kurskov didn’t have the strength to do: to truly love his object of affection. Where he could’ve intervened and possibly won over Fred, he encouraged her to stay with the person she chose of her own volition, and in addition to that avoided risking his friendship with Gunn.
And Angel and the Prima Ballerina finally summoned the courage to let go of their reservations and by so doing, changed the paths they were on, even if their triumphs were only partial. To what heaven, hell, or nameless oblivion the Ballerina goes we don’t know, and Angel didn’t win Cordelia. The philosophical answer to the question of the episode is the classical answer to the question of the destiny issue: no matter what may be unequivocally true, to act as though we are free is the only way to live. To submissively accept fate is to echo. Angel, Wesley and the Ballerina don’t appear to come out on top, but bravely move forward nonetheless.
While this answer to the thematic question isn’t a new or bold idea, how potently Whedon explores it through these characters gives us a genuine example to emotionally relate to. Many say we put faith in free will over determinism as a pat emotional response to a tough dilemma; a lullaby sung to help us sleep easier. But the dramatic construct with which the episode makes its point is so well done that it made me reconsider that thought. I’m a fan of philosophy, so this was my favourite thing about the episode. Along with some extremely sharp dialogue and memorable exchanges, “Waiting in the Wings” is a tremendously enjoyable hour, even if it doesn’t rise to greatness.
It’s also a very important part of this season’s tapestry for Angel and Wesley. Losing Cordelia to the Groosalug is a key piece of Angel’s descent following the tragic events of “Sleep Tight” [3×16], just as Wesley’s losing of Fred important to his own personal tragedy. This is but the first of a few terrible failings (or happenings of fate, depending on how you look at it) of theirs that allow them to be moved to doing terrible things, a fact which makes you wonder if the ‘destiny’ Sahjahn has planned for them is already in motion simply because of the way of the world. Interesting thought.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Dennis and the loofah. Uhmm…
+ Gunn’s trust issues.
+ Cordy and Fred having girl talk.
+ Lorne’s pastry talk.
+ Gunn looking ‘pretty.’
+ The first TV appearance of Summer Glau, who would go on to star in “Firefly.”
+ Cordelia: “Hey! Do you like bribes?!”
+ The Spinal Tap reference. Nice one, Joss.
* Wesley’s jealousy over Fred and Gunn becomes a sticking point for him. In “Loyalty” [3×15] he is harsh to both of them about their relationship, and in “Soulless” [4×11] he and Gunn come to blows over Fred, as well as Wesley stealing Connor in “Sleep Tight” [3×16], something which the loss of Fred made him more willing to do.
* The Groosalug seems to merely distract Cordelia from Angel. This is symbolic of their relationship, which Cordelia realizes is hollow and static in “Tomorrow” [3×22].