[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: Mere Smith | Director: David Grossman | Aired: 10/13/2002]
“Ground State” is one of the most wholly unremarkable episodes of the season, so timid and – may the Gods of punnage strike me down – emotionally grounded that it feels like it’s trying to be inoffensive. If this criticism seems callous, consider its location in the series: it floats amongst the philosophical excesses of season four, the show’s most thematically insightful and morally challenging set of episodes. While season four lacks the consistency of two and the dramatic highs of five, it still manages to make some incredibly powerful statements for a television show – the kind of unconventional insights more common to great works of literature. Thus insipidity doth not contrast well.
Not that it’s an offensively bad outing, mind you. Its worst mistakes aside, it’s highly watchable and has the sharp, entertaining dialogue characteristic of the series. Gunn even mentions Vegas again. And who doesn’t love Gunn throwing in a pitch for Vegas (though the fact that he pimps it three or four times in the series makes me think product placement)?
We pick up shortly after where “Deep Down” [4×01] left off. Even though Angel has returned to the land of the living there’s hard work yet to be done. The hotel is running down, Connor is out on the streets, the Fang Gang lacks paying clients (as usual) and Cordelia is still missing.
To find her, Angel tries mending bridges with Wesley. In one of the episode’s few memorable scenes he puts himself face to face with his betrayer for the first time since “Forgiving” [3×17] . We might expect sparks or some bloody satisfaction for one of these two larger-than-life figures, but what we actually get is far quieter, and yet somehow even more devastating, than any fight ever could be: Wes barely regards Angel at all. No anger, no sadness. Nothing. He says what he needs to and then coldly dismisses the man he was once willing to follow into hell. It makes the point crystal clear: Angel can reach out to Wesley, and he can try to bring back Cordelia, but he can’t wipe the slate clean just because he wants to. The way Wes walks out on him after shrewdly serving Angel’s purposes speaks volumes about the utter antipathy he’s developed for the old gang. It’s heartbreaking. But then, Angel did try to kill him. He is understandably bitter.
Then there’s Gwen. Gwen in tight pants. Yes. Oh yes. Guest character Gwen Raiden functions as the episode’s thematic focal point, and despite not doing too much in the episode proper she is a fascinating character to consider. Gwen is a woman whose capacity for passion has gone completely untapped throughout her life because of her unique condition. This is a polite way of saying that if she touches people they die. For her this has made all human contact a moral line not to be crossed. A cruel state to say the least.
In flashbacks to her early childhood we see Gwen’s parents bundle her in puffy clothing and watch her teachers forbid her from even the most congenial of social contact. An adult in the episode’s present-day timeline, she wears scant clothing to attract the “interests” of men; the only attention she can really enjoy. Just imagining her as a kid, trying over and over to make a friend and learning over and over that even the attempt is murderous breaks the heart as much as Wes’ situation. She is understandably bitter.
Is she justifiably bitter, though? That’s another question entirely. In keeping with season four’s exploration of choice and free will versus determinism and circumstance, the episode hinges our sympathy for Gwen on whether or not we feel like she’s justified in being an emotionally-gutted bounty hunter with a predilection for roasting people who offend her.
When she kills Gunn it’s…wait a minute. When she kills Gunn?! That’s right: “Ground State” features a character death. As a death it plays lighter than any other in the Whedonverse – maybe even too light to be taken seriously (did anyone think he would die? Anyone?) – but for a fine point nonetheless. When Gwen looked back and saw the little boy from school in her near-murder of Gunn I felt a real spark of the impossible conflict within her. In that one moment the defining trauma of her entire life came rushing back, and I thought “now this…this works.”
These positives, however, are trifling next to the story’s crippling flaws. Very little more than a razor-thin plot contrived to motivate the characters towards the Axis of Pythia drives the episode. The majority of scenes exist solely to move Angel and Co. towards that end without attempting character or thematic significance in their own right. Not the least among the flaws here is a completely foregone conclusion that tells us nothing new about any of the characters. The fact of it reveals more than just a flaw, actually. It reveals downright structural deficiency. Unarguably poor writing.
When Angel and Gwen confront each other over the Axis of Pythia their shared sense of alienation lends them an understanding of one another, but their interactions (and the entire main plot for that matter) climax not with a revelation that changes their characters. No, the writers don’t go for a, you know, compelling angle, but instead go for a steamy kiss supposed to hint at a romance that’s really not…because in this moment of excitement Angel’s dead heart starts beating and the first thing he says is “Cordelia.”
Since we already knew Angel loved her, this amounts to nothing more than re-stating the painfully obvious about his character. But since this point makes for the episode’s dramatic climax I’m doubly unimpressed. Why take an entire episode just to re-state the obvious? If the implication of Angel’s true feelings was not obvious by mid-S3 it was blunt-force in “Deep Down” [4×01].
The end result of this episode would’ve been a foregone conclusion even if the episode had never been written. Strip away the main plot and you get maybe a quarter-episode of interesting character material, and only for a couple of characters. Fred and Gunn are largely set dressing and Gwen fails to develop beyond the basic premise of her concept as a character (which is a particular problem given the aforementioned lameness of her dramatic “climax” with Angel). From a writing standpoint the dearth of substance is inexcusable, especially on a show as character-driven as AtS.
Angel’s motivations are problematic too. The simple motive for finding Cordelia – his love for her – would never be questioned by the audience, so the one the writers try to inject into this episode – of Angel feeling like he has nothing without her – comes off as over-written and disingenuous. Gwen and Wesley were well positioned to demonstrate the theme of how coldness follows from a lack of intimacy, but with them the point was that coldness follows from a lack of familial and fraternal relationships.
Angel ignoring the value of Fred, Gunn and Connor (not to mention Wes, whom he forgives – rather conveniently – just in time to look for Cordelia) by holding Cordelia up as the relationship most essential to his heart doesn’t ring true to anything in the series. It rings shoddy characterization; a poor dramatic conceit contrived to lend a sense of urgency to Angel’s quest.
Perhaps the most insulting contrivance, however, comes in the final minute of the episode when Angel, the undead king of obsession himself, just gives up on Cordy because the Axis of Plot Devices informs him that “she’s happy where she is.” The fact that the episode back-tracks on itself before it even ends says enough. Angel giving up on the grounds of altruism would only be believable were it a well-drawn out and timely development, not the result of a cheap plot device pulled out of the god machine in 40 simpering minutes.
An emaciated resolution to a full-bodied emotional issue. In the tapestry of the series that’s about as grounded as it gets.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The final (dis)appearance of Phantom Dennis!
+ Finding out Wesley still went and looked for Cordelia.
+ If you didn’t crack up at Fred’s ghost illustration (“Boo!”) you have no soul.
+ Lilah’s complete shamelessness: “I don’t run errands. Unless they’re evil errands.” No wonder Wes likes her. Rowr.
* Angel keeps a watchful eye over Connor in spite of their distance. Even though they stay at each other’s throats throughout the season, Angel is constantly taking his side, usually at his own expense.
* The strain of managing Angel Investigations and its worsening problems creates a small rift between Fred and Gunn in one scene. A disagreement over responsibility for Siedel’s murder in “Supersymmetry” [4×05] proves to be the catalyst for their breakup.
* Wesley and Lilah continue their steamy sexual head games. Lilah takes it as a sticking point that Wes lied to her about Justine’s imprisonment and Angel’s rescue, which hints at there being more than a sexual relationship between them. Though Lilah fights against admitting it, a real romantic relationship later develops between them.