[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: David Greenwalt | Director: Terrence O Hara | Aired: 03/04/2002]
The word ‘tragedy,’ like almost every other word in the English language, has become over-used to the point of being devalued these days. Anything from the loss of the family pet to a school shooting is solemnly referred to by news media as a ‘tragedy,’ it seems. Since I’m a staunch relativist it’d be fairly hypocritical of me to go on a tirade about impregnable meaning, yet ‘tragedy’ remains a word which, to me, holds a lot of power when used in its originally intended context. This meaning is also the context I personally believe it should most closely be associated with as well. Tragedy: A person coming to ruin as a result of their own flaws.
An unfortunate accident in which a steam-roller crushes someone as they pick a penny up off the ground is certainly a sad thing, but it is not a tragedy. Not by this definition. However, if this person failed to notice the steam-roller’s approach because of their obsession with shiny objects, it would fit the bill. With “Sleep Tight,” co-creator of the show David Greenwalt has created a true tragedy in the most epic, Shakespearian sense. Wesley Wyndam-Pryce’s exodus from Angel Investigations and the shake up that follows it is so powerful, dramatic and important that it’s a shame that the episode isn’t better overall. The events that unfold here change the series in a way on par with “To Shanshu in LA” [1×22] or “Epiphany” [2×16].
After this, things are never the same. Ever. Like I said in my review of “Couplet” [3×14], AtS is a show divided into three acts, and this is the start of the third, which I lovingly label ‘the pain era.’ And while it doesn’t thematically re-define the philosophy of the show like “Deep Down” [4×01] will at the start of next season, the paths it puts everyone on are critical in getting us to that place. In addition to that, this is unarguably one of entire series’ most effectively dramatic episodes. There are many smarter, better, a few more important and a bunch more powerful, but there’s very few more heartbreaking.
We begin like we did last episode with the focus on the Nyazian prophecy: “The father will kill the son.” Wesley has only gotten more worried and rough with however much time has passed, and fate and the world, whatever else you may call them, have him convinced that it’s only a matter of time until Angel tries to kill his infant son. As we later find out, this is a false prophecy concocted by time traveling demon Sahjahn, who hopes to push Wesley to action against baby Connor by making him see the prophecy as true through expectance of its fulfillment. I discussed at length in my review of “Loyalty” [3×15] what this is: a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Such a thing leads to the expectance of certain events and motivates people to act based on the future they anticipate. As such, a prophecy like this can come true by at least some interpretation because people can only act as they do; Wesley is Wesley, and can act like no one else. And down the road his decision leads to a long chain of events that do indeed see Connor (presumably) killed by Angel in “Home” [4×22] as part of a blood ritual, before assuming a new ‘life.’
An action like that is without doubt one of selflessness, even though it may constitute a betrayal. One day down the road Angel will take a knife to his son’s throat, a terrible burden for any decent person to bear, let alone a parent, to save his life the only way he knows how. And that’s Wesley’s dilemma. What makes it so powerful to watch is that Angel Investigations is the only family he’s ever really known. They may squabble, fracture and hurt one another, but what family doesn’t? They’ve grown together and had an impact on each other’s lives for the better, something we know Wesley’s own biological family couldn’t do with him because of his father’s soul-crushingly high standards.
Though he finds himself jealous of Gunn, pained by the sight of Fred and terrified by the presence of Angel, Wesley loves these people and knows that they love him as well. And yet he’s ready to sacrifice all of this for an infant incapable of such affection. Why? Well, as I noted in “Loyalty” [3×15] and as far back as “Somnambulist” [1×11], Wesley’s hero complex – his tragic flaw – leads him to believe that such a burden can’t and shouldn’t be burdened by anyone else but the one who must act. Beyond that, he simply believes it’s the right thing to do. By betraying his own family Wes believes that he will spare Angel from inevitably doing the same as foretold by the prophecy.
Given the power of his internal conflict, he knows how terrible this would be and his actions seem noble in that light. But they’re tainted by his unwillingness to involve anyone else in saving the child. Either he doesn’t trust them or believes that they wouldn’t trust him, and that distance, as well as having lost Fred to Gunn, puts him over the edge to take the final step. In a strong parallel to Holtz, Wesley places the abstract ideal over basic human dignity, and though he claims not to, lies to himself by thinking his actions are at all just. After having ‘seen’ the signs foretelling Angel’s actions in “Loyalty” [3×15] he could act no other way. For he’s Wesley.
So then it almost feels like providence when he, so staunchly himself, collides with the fates of Holtz and Justine, who use different parts of their personalities to manipulate him. Neither of them lie; Justine about what Holtz really wants and Holtz about what Wes feels bound to do. But in a show about the means over the ends, it’s brilliant that truth becomes the greatest tool of betrayal. When Wesley steals Connor he says nothing in falsehood to Angel, and actually reveals himself to Lorne in a way. Watching horror overcome each one of these characters as they realize the true depth of the situation’s context makes for a sequence of affecting emotional moments.
Watching Wesley in quiet anguish as he leaves his life forever is heartbreaking in its quiet introspection. No doubt he knows Angel will one day be coming for blood. But of course, this is the Whedonverse, and it doesn’t take that long for everything to go wrong. Justine slitting his throat is the one of the most dramatically cathartic moments of the series, and as a plot point it is probably the most definitive short of Angel’s elevator ride in “Reprise” [2×15]. No words can do justice its power; suffice to say that if you’ve seen it, you’ve shed a tear and/or taken a quiet minute to absorb the shock. We leave Wes at rock bottom; he’ll never play the ‘hero’ again.
And then there’s Angel who’s an innocent victim in all of this. Prodigiously Lilah tells him everything she’s about when she says “it’s all about making the rest of your eternal life miserable.” More damning truth. And coming from the only personwho actually lies in the episode. Lilah’s been around for awhile but this is the first insight we’ve gotten into her since “Untouched” [2×04]: she lives a lie and enjoys the hell out of being that person. As someone who’s hidden behind an image for much of his life (see my review of “Guise Will Be Guise” [2×06]) Angel understands and even spares her because of this, even though she tried to change him by spiking his blood.
In contrast to everyone else in the episode, his motivation is simple: his son. What’s good for Connor comes first. Lilah, Sahjahn, Holtz and Wesley all have varying ideas of justice, heroism and necessity. The first two act for unapologetically selfish goals, while the latter two deceive themselves. Angel is simply interested in the welfare of the baby. Though his blood ‘comedowns’ reveal a frustrated and violent edge to him, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before (“Reunion” [2×10]). What’s different now is that Angel knows that violence is a natural part of him like any human being, and he can control it. Which he does. He goes so far as to deprive himself of holding his son.
And when the confluence of events that have built throughout the episode finally come together for the last stand outside the Quor’toth portal, Angel is willing to hand over the child to his sworn enemy rather than see him harmed. Holtz even makes him beg for it and he does so without hesitation. These heart-wrenching final moments are what make the episode’s case for a perfect score so attractive, despite the fact that there’s not enough intellectual material or enough high-stakes development in the first half. Nonetheless, we end on a note of raw pain and tragedy as Angel and Justine are left without their reasons to live, Lilah without her ass covered and Sahjahn with his mission at last accomplished.
Angel lying amongst heaps of wreckage and fire is truly an iconic moment. All of these qualities add up to the quintessential S3 episode: its focus on the characters, tension and emotion, despite a lack of deep thematic exploration when compared to the greats of S1 or S2. But that doesn’t matter when you sit down and watch. This is a skillfully constructed piece of character work – and a classically effective tragedy – that is used to peak the story to amazing dramatic heights. I only lament the lack of a perfect score because with just a little more, it really could’ve gotten there.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Fred and Gunn on California vs Texas.
+ Angel’s funny blood ‘highs.’ Love the flying nun ramble.
+ Holtz offering Wesley a bite of apple.
+ Angel being too scared of himself to hold the baby.
+ Lilah being able to ‘sense’ Angel.
+ Sahjahn. In general. This guy is always funny.
* Angel’s first action after learning Connor has disappeared is to torture one of Holtz’s men to find out who is responsible. In “Forgiving” [3×17], with Connor gone, Angel focuses heavily on punishing the guilty, abandoning any hope of rescuing his son.