[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: Steven S. DeKnight | Director: Terence O’Hara | Aired: 10/06/2002]
“Deep Down” is an episode relentless in its portrayal of a landscape made bleak by the absence of its hero. For all the flaws of the season three finale “Tomorrow” [3×22] , the situation it promised our protagonists was rife with intriguing darkness. Season four’s premiere is testament to AtS being the kind of show that keeps its promises. Things have gone to hell at Angel Investigations; Gunn and Fred are completely in the dark, stretching themselves thin as they struggle to uphold the business while searching for Angel. Wesley has been firmly cleaved from the group and seems intent upon embracing that separation. Meanwhile Connor is holding the hand-basket that took them all there. Not that anyone would know it, of course; seemingly guiltless, he soaks in Fred and Gunn’s affections even as he deceives them.
This is an episode loaded with riveting moral conflicts. How do you move on from a devastating loss when you have nothing left but pain? And say the need to forgive and forget is so overwhelming that you manage to do so. What then? Where do you go from there? And how do you live with forgiving someone who has betrayed you, especially when they might do so again? While AtS has never been the kind of show to shy away from dark questions, never before have all the answers seemed like devils bargains. Never before have the wrong people seemed so right. See how Justine talks sense to Wes. Watch how Lilah cuts through the ######## (figuratively and literally!). The whole episode is such an uncompromising display of how people can fail in the face of their own suffering that it never fails to stun me anew.
It’s a welcome return to form from season three, which favoured emotion-laden gut-punches over the more philosophically agile kind of storytelling that propelled seasons one and two. “Deep Down” is just a taste of season four’s labyrinthine complexity. If its sprawling, season-long plotline fails in places, it fails only due to over-extension; the entire season is one big gamble that attempts to pay-off everything that came before it. And I mean everything. Darla, Connor, Cordelia, fate, destiny, the prophecies and the Powers That Be. All of it. Everything.
I don’t know how specifically the writers devised the overarching framework of the show, but their attempt to bring everything full circle is as impressive in its ambition as it is provocative in its insistence upon challenging the audience with its conclusions. If you think we actually have free will, for instance, watch, and think again.
What makes “Deep Down” so compelling is the sheer head-crushing depth of the moral conflicts it presents. There are few things more relevant to the human experience than the question of what the “right thing” is for any given situation. Stories about morality, well executed, tap the deepest wells of emotion and sometimes, with a bit of luck, the brainiest ideas about what “the right thing” even means. When the wrong thing starts to seem right for a character on a show as smart as this you just know you’re in for some shenanigans.
We open on Fred and Gunn in the first act. To say they’re outmatched by their problems would win you an award for understatement. Not only are leads on Angel and Cordy coming up short, but Gunn and Fred fallen inadvertently into the role of Connor’s surrogate parents. Raising a teenager is tough enough when he isn’t the offspring of two vampires and the hidden source of all your misery. Never mind the bills and the lack of paying clients; being able to take care of those issues would be a luxury now. Fred and Gunn struggle just to run on empty, and their frustration is palpable.
Then there’s Connor. One of the more interesting choices the writers made in contriving the post-Angel landscape for this episode was in not sending him off on his own, but making him part of a new family unit with Fred and Gunn. His decision to shack up with them after betraying Angel provides insight into just what an ordinary teenager he really is, despite his inter-dimensional baggage and cosmic destiny. He needs to fill the hole left by Holtz’s death, and he needs boundaries to test, and a stable household to come home to. But like any other kid, his boundary testing always comes at the expense of his guardians, and this adds to the weight on Fred and Gunn’s shoulders.
When you think about the whole series up to this point, everyone on this show has suffered some pretty awful stuff over the years. The grand point, it seems, is that the world is harsh and cruel, and it turns all of us to dark thoughts at one time or another. The variable between us is the way we deal with this fact.
Fred deals it with it rather poorly. When she finds out what Connor did to Angel, she turns to deceit and violence almost unnervingly fast. It’s not just about neutralizing Connor as a threat either; she’s so consumed by rage that she tazes him again after he’s been tied up. “All these months,” she gasps, horrified, “you knew.” She wants to hurt him for that. Gunn relishes Angel’s coming return: “That’s right, sparky. Daddy’s coming home, and I’m guessing there’s gonna be a whooping.” Even if we agree with the general sentiment here (and I’m guessing a large majority of the AtS audience, which hates Connor, does), we have to stop and look at the impulse. It’s violent, and it’s ugly.
When Angel forgives Connor, it’s a reminder of why he’s the “champion.” Throughout the series Angel probably experiences more pain most other characters in the Whedonverse put together. He lost Buffy, spent eternity in hell, lost her again, moved to LA, started a new life, and lost again: Doyle, Darla, Connor, Cordelia. Here’s a guy for whom living must be a daily chore, and yet he soldiers on. His ultimate realization is that the world is harsh and irredeemably cruel no matter what he does; the value of champions then, is in setting an example for others by embodying the mere possibility of a better world. He forgives Connor merely to live up to that example, even in spite of the violent impulses deep inside of him.
But there are limits to his moral triumph. The fact that he could even consider killing his son is a disturbing turn for him. What I find most revealing about the way he confronted Connor at the end is that he put the point of no return squarely before Cordelia, rather than some principle or general course of action. Had Connor admitted wrong-doing towards her, I have no doubt Angel would have killed him.
This got me thinking about what I said about Angel in my review of “Lullaby” [3×09]. He came to realize that redemption was ultimately unattainable, following from his earlier realization in “Epiphany” [2×16] that working towards too big an objective was a recipe for failure. He’s been a day-to-day, means-over-ends kind of guy ever since. Seems like a good way to live, but at the same time that very transformation laid the foundations for a backslide that begins right here.
Without faith in the attainability of redemption, and failing to see any finite end to his immortal life of suffering, Angel has started shrinking into a defensive position where his primary concern is the welfare of his family at Angel Investigations. Season four features a slow erosion of Angel’s will to help the helpless in the grand scheme of things, and his conflict in this episode between doing the right thing and giving into his own impulses – with his impulses very nearly winning – casts the shadow that shapes his deal with Wolfram and Hart in the season finale “Home” [4×22].
Throughout “Deep Down” our heroes are smacked with difficult truths about the ugliness and brutality of the world, and the choice must fall to them to accept the world and run with the cruelty it inspires, or reject it and strive for something better. The theme of choice is a dividing line that runs right down the episode. On the one side you have Angel, who takes the high road by rejecting the world-as-it-is, even if he acknowledges its influence over his actions. Yes, the world is cruel, but it need not be. We need only live as though the world were better than it is. It may be a self-imposed delusion on Angel’s part, but when the truth does nothing but hurt, is it worth its weight as a principle?
On the other side of the line you have Wesley, who accepts the cruelty and brutality of the world. He’s become the perfect anti-Angel in that regard. He’s an ends-over-means kinda guy, which means he does whatever it takes to get the job done. He still fights demons, and he spends the entirety of the episode fighting to rescue Angel, but at the end of the day he holds to philosophical and moral differences that set him starkly apart from his old friends. What he lacks now is the delusional thinking that made him play the hero to such disastrous results. The rock-bottom he hit in late season three was such an overwhelming wake up call that it forced him to make a choice: he could either let pain overrun his life, or he could simply accept himself, warts and all.
Justine’s taunts wound him, but only superficially. He knows she’s right; the pain of his failure and loss of love from his friends still causes him daily anguish. But at the same time he has simply and unspectacularly come to terms with who he is. Note his body language: he has the measured walk and hundred-yard-stare of a man whose mind is peaceful with certainty. Alexis Denisof’s subtle tweaking of the way he plays Wesley produces a believable result. This is a changed man.
You have to feel sorry for Justine, who certainly hasn’t changed. It seems that in life that there are some people who are more comfortable being told what to do by somebody else, and she’s one of them. Now that it’s Wes telling her what to do she has yet another convenient target for her rage. His weird enslavement of her also says something about his blooming capacity for doing whatever a mission requires (such as going all the way with Lilah while Justine listens from her cage in the closet. Creepy, or…creepy?). But in a moment of twisted kinship, he offers Justine her freedom and some insight: “You can continue to be a slave, or you can life your life. Your choice.”
If there’s one thing that diminishes my enjoyment of “Deep Down” it’s that the episodes following it pale in comparison. The season is too quick to re-establish the show’s old dynamic and restore a sense of normalcy. Why stop piling on the layers of deceit and intrigue when you could thoroughly explore each one of them? I could see at least four or five episodes coming out of an Angel-less AtS. But I suppose David Boreanaz had a contract. And a lawyer.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Lorne’s consistency in bashing his family: “so long as it’s not my mother!”
+ Fred with wrist-mounted stakes! These are just awesome on anyone, but on the lovely Amy Acker? Very yes.
+ Lilah and Gavin still totally hating each other.
+ Wesley pulling the knife on Justine: “Oh, screw you!”
+ Linwood finally doing something useful by dying.
– Wesley and Justine’s “banter” during their first scene together on the boat. This is some seriously bad exposition. I understand the need to get lapsed viewers up to speed on complex events they might have missed, but having characters spit out a re-cap like they’re reading a script is not good writing, writers! Bad writers!
– Spanish stereotyping. I see it extends even to vampires now! “Esse,” “homie,” “hermano.” Come on. Most major TV is made in LA, which is chalk-full of Mexican immigrants and other Spanish-speakers. You would think the writers would know a few who weren’t complete caricatures.
* An interesting little thing happens during Connor and Angel’s confrontation: Connor obeys Angel’s order to sit down and listen. Some part of Connor acknowledges Angel’s authority as his father in this moment. Being of such a conflicted mind about his demonic parentage and what it means about the kind of person he is drives Connor’s identity crisis throughout the season.
* Lilah takes Wesley’s word when he tells her he knows nothing about Angel. The fact that she trusts him at all means even at this early point their relationship goes beyond sex. Something in Lilah respects Wes, and this may be part of why they later grow to care for each other.
* Gunn is forced by his leadership role to be more forward thinking when it comes to searching for Angel, while Wesley is forced by his failures to take more decisive, outward action. This role reversal of their old personas will bring them into conflict throughout the season.
* Cordelia is barely present this episode. ‘Nuff said.