[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: Mere Smith | Director: James A. Contner | Aired: 02/25/2002]
“Loyalty” is an episode of all-setup no-payoff like “Quickening” [3×08], but succeeds in every way where that episode failed by making the events meant to precede the barnstormer “Sleep Tight” [3×16] unexpected and powerful. With an engaging setup to begin with – the prophecy Wesley discovered at the end of [“3×14”] – the story starts off in quiet consideration and ends up in a place of complete desperation. Best about it is how well the audience is taken along for that ride, as the theme of loyalty and the validity of prophecies are both explored through Wesley, whose panic and isolation we sympathize with wholly. In his transformation here, we have the beginnings of the best element of S3.
And that’s not just a reference to the strong trio of episodes that starts with this one, but Wesley’s character arc in particular, which is the single most powerful aspect of this season, a huge mover and shaker for the series and one of the best arcs in the Whedonverse. Going back to his early appearances on this show, it was then that I first noted that Wesley had a classic hero complex. Though incompetent and lacking confidence in the early days of his stint with Angel Investigations, he always had in mind a hero’s crusade not unlike Angel’s: to do the right thing, serve justice and other such noble concepts. But the dangerous edge of that was that it always isolated him.
Wesley believes that a hero must act alone. Though he’s matured by giant leaps and bounds over the past couple of years in the timeline of the show, he’s still held by a deep admiration of Angel (which he expressed as recently as “Couplet” [3×14]) and classical notions of what a true hero is, something which has often defied who he is and defined what he wanted to be. And so it is with the discovery of the prophecy that Wesley is left in a very difficult situation and is forced to ask of himself: what is true loyalty? Would it be to act against Angel for the sake of the baby? Or to involve him no matter the risk?
Clearly the second option seems more reasonable, but given Wesley’s situation his choosing the former is not hard to understand. Wesley is a man who has dedicated his life to the study of the occult and has faith in his skills, so he has no reason to doubt the translation of the prophecy which foretells Angel killing his son. Dreams that seem real permeate his consciousness, and what he knows of Angel’s potential to change gears by mystical or social forces catalyzes his paranoia. When Holtz tells him that Angelus is in Angel’s nature, no matter the soul he possesses, Wes can’t help shake the feeling he may be right, and that the price of finding out would be too high.
For after all, what more pitiful, defenseless creature could a hero nobly rescue than a baby? Connor is a pure, innocent child who is quite literally a miracle and as foretold, important to the world. All of these things add up to Wesley making a bad, but not unequivocally wrong decision, at least not from his point of view. From where he’s standing he’s done the most loyal thing he possibly could: try and protect Angel’s son. This is the only thing he can arrive at, no matter how much time he spends trying to retain some sense of true loyalty to Angel by trying to prove the prophecy wrong. But it is as the Loa says: he knows the answer, he only seeks the question.
In this, we get a very strong contrast between Angel and Wesley. Since “Epiphany” [2×16], Angel has defined his mission as one of alleviating human suffering and acting in the best way he can. Where once he was focused on the objective end (redemption), it is now the means that preoccupy him, for he’s learned in the worst way possible how much the methodology of doing ‘good’ things can go so very wrong. Wesley is about to learn the same lesson. Though his goal is selfless and yes, loyal, the means by which he will come to it constitute a betrayal both on the surface level and deeper; by resorting to horrible means, Wes betrays everything Angel stands for.
To look at the series in retrospect, it’s even more powerful a contrast to see, for Wesley himself is the true engineer of the prophecy. As we learn in “Forgiving” [3×17], but see put into motion here, the prophecy is only Sahjahn’s personal manipulation at work, moving Wesley to action through the mere force of coincidence massaged to look like providence. If it weren’t for the prophecy Wesley wouldn’t have sought out Holtz, the Loa or seen the signs of Connor’s doom the way he did. It’s what’s famously referred to as a self-fulfilling prophecy: events that unfold due to the sheer expectation of their unfolding.
When I wrote about determinism originally in my review of “Quickening” [3×08] this is exactly what I referred to: a ‘created’ destiny, shaped by the predictability and alignment of events. As such, the prophecy becomes true only because it was seen as true, which makes Wesley’s tragedy all the more emotionally crushing. And we the audience, stand on the outside watching him trapped within himself, unable to help or set him straight, knowing the terrible fates that may lie ahead for Angel Investigations. Unnerving to watch. And it is this skilled, precise brand of characterization, careful planning and intelligent reflection that makes “Loyalty” so powerful to admire when a viewer considers the entire series.
What keeps it from attaining a straight A score is the lack of anything new or interesting on the periphery. While the forward events that put Wesley through the motions of his story work well, the sidebars they generate feel like distractions from a much more compelling set of events. Fred and Gunn’s plot is the worst offender, which feels over-light considering the power of the A plot. The only revelation gleamed from it is Gunn’s affirmation that he would fight for his relationship with Fred over his job, one that would be more powerful in a less important episode, and wouldn’t seem like such a tepid conclusion to a storyline if so much time hadn’t been wasted on it.
There are too many scenes of going to and from places with nothing substantial occurring during said scenes, and the fight sequence in particular wasn’t nearly kinetic or brutal enough to hold interest for as long as it lasted. Worse is that it feels like we’ve been here before just last episode with Fred and Gunn; the only moment of memorable note in this plot is where Wesley’s despair over losing Fred feeds his isolation. And even the scenes with Holtz’s new cult fail to inspire more than an admiration for the actors’ talents, as all we get is yet another retread of justice vs. revenge as ideas, which would be more interesting if the true answer was more vague to the audience.
But we know just as well as Wesley what Holtz really wants, and while it’s disturbing to see how intricately he’s developed his plan to achieve that goal, it’s not unexpected, nor does it develop him in any new or interesting ways. Justine’s honest admission of seeking revenge out of furious desperation is the only moment of new insight into her, Holtz or his Holtzians. Once again, however, its effect on Wesley’s story is not without its own merit, as he now knows where the enemy is and does not tell Angel; a concession to the validity of Holtz’s intentions and the origin of his pain.
For an episode of pure setup this hour succeeds extremely well. By allowing us to be both insiders along with Wesley’s pain, and outsiders, frustrated at our inability to share with him the greater context, strong emotion is elicited without the plot needing to get overly dramatic. There’s a world of subtext in even the slightest glance, and the final scenes leave us aching with uncertainty on a first watch through, and to despair in the inevitable on a rewatch. Some great dialogue from Lilah, Sahjahn and Angel in both funny and somber scenes keeps the episode feeling zesty as per Angel’s usual standards, and who could ever forget the talking prophecy-burger? The stage is set for the great tragedy of “Sleep Tight” [3×16].
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The dream sequence in the teaser. What an awesome mislead.
+ Angel’s joy at being Mr. Dad!
+ Wesley’s guilt at witnessing the same.
+ Lilah being sly to the bugging practices of Wolfram and Hart
+ The Jollyburger Loa. I never get tired of that gag.
* Holtz maintains the persona of a righteous crusader and wronged victim, even going so far as to say that things aren’t always black and white. But his actions, which culminate in the tragedies of “Sleep Tight” [3×16] and “Benediction” [3×21], are entirely about revenge, though he always claims to act for justice.
* Holtz says to Wesley: “Angelus is in his nature. The Beast will re-emerge.” This is some clever, though possibly unintentional foreshadowing of events in S4: A demon called The Beast emerges, seeking Angelus, in “Apocalypse, Nowish” [4×07], and in “Awakening” [4×10] Angelus is in fact brought back.
* Both Wesley and Holtz claim to be acting upon traditionally good ideals, and both do terrible things to achieve them (“Sleep Tight” [3×16] ).