[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: David Fury | Director: Marita Grabiak | Aired: 10/20/2002]
The last time I had the pleasure of describing the way a bad episode of TV can feel like a screwdriver being pulled out one ear from the other side of one’s head, “Provider” [3×12] was on my review docket, vomiting its banal themes and ridiculous plot all over a good forty-odd minutes of my day that I might‘ve spent staring at a wall. Following in that proud tradition is “The House Always Wins,” which has the distinction of being the only episode in the series to trip into the same mudhole “Provider” [3×12] joyfully flopped in last season.
Since you’ve shared with me with me the misfortune of stumbling upon “The House Always Wins” in the wake of stunning season opener “Deep Down” [4×01], and the trifle but inoffensive “Ground State” [4×02], you’ll know that I’ve reserved my critical ire for a truly deserving episode. Here is a story so faultily conceived and so poorly thought out that reviewing it has brought me unapologetically to vomit imagery in my opening paragraph. And I think that’s an achievement.
So where do we begin? The idea with “House” is that Angel has lost direction and needs to find a new path. This is a valid thesis, to be sure. He hasn’t done a whole lot of saving or helping of the helpless lately; he’s lost a good friend, a son, and the woman he loves. Last episode (“Ground State” [4×02]) he gave up the search for Cordelia altogether. That’s a whole lot of loss for one person to experience in the span of a few months.
His response has been to retreat and focus solely on personal concerns. Last episode it was Cordelia, and when the episode opens we find him spying on Connor from a rooftop. It’s good he’s maintaining some kind of emotional attachment to the people he still cares about (showing that he remembers the lessons of season two), but it’s also revelatory of the fact that his detective work has lapsed, and therefore the entire mission, the very raison d’etre of Angel Investigations, in fact, has also lapsed. In “Deep Down” [4×01] he reaffirmed his commitment to fighting evil but he still needs to realize that commitment.
When the gang arrives in Vegas, they discover that the very very evil Lee DeMarco (and you know he’s evil by his scowl and his suit, you see) is using Lorne to identify people with significant destinies so that he can direct them to his “Spin to Win” game. The game is magically rigged to steal the destiny of anyone who plays and, more importantly, never to pay out. The point of the episode is that even after falling into this trap and becoming a slot-playing zombie lacking direction in life (very cheeky), Angel can still motivate himself to heroic action. When he sees Fred, Gunn and Lorne put to the barrel of a gun, he realizes what’s really important to him; what really matters, even with everything else gone; his real mission in its entirety: his friends.
However, if I ignore the after-school sentiment that permeates this development it stands as a fine message. What really earns “House” its ####-kicker status (and this is where the screw-pulling starts) is with the logical contradiction at the core of its plot, one deeply stupid in its obviousness, that destroys any chance for this realization to mean anything.
Let me philosophize. The episode’s central message is that Angel has to find his direction by taking action on his own, with or without his much-a-do cosmic destiny. He has to find his own way back out of the wilderness. He has to “Play to Win” (his way to the win being focusing on his friends).
But the idea that a destiny can be commoditized (and thus stolen and transferred as though it were a garment) implies that the person to whom the destiny originally belonged was merely a hollow vessel placed on Earth to act out the series of events that the determining force wanted played out. It implies that their practical circumstances and personal choices have no real bearing upon their actions or direction in life. But that can’t be right if you have to “Play to Win.” It can’t be right if we’re to consider anything that has happened in the entire series up to this point as valid, or any of our characters’ choices to be their own.
If there’s a point here about how fate is merely a framework for choice (Cordelia’s manipulation of the slot machine gets Angel into the room with DeMarco, but it is Angel who must make the choice to fight, for example), the way that the episode muddles the point makes minced development of Angel’s realization.
Think forward to “Inside Out” [4×17] when Gunn, having just learned from Skip along with the gang that they have all been cosmically manipulated by a rogue higher power for years, tells Fred that even in spite of this revelation, he still thinks they should act as though their choices are free simply so that they can live meaningful lives. Or at least feel like their lives have enough meaning to be worth living. Otherwise what’s the point? If you’re at a place in your life where deluding yourself is the only way to lead a good life, then living a lie could possibly be the right thing to do. This complex interplay of fate and choice in season four’s thematic stew surfaces in almost every episode.
Perhaps foreshadowing the truth of this interplay was the writers’ aim with “House,” but the logical chink in DeMarco’s scheme turns that web into a steel contradiction of downright stupid that I just can’t reconcile. The idea that Jasmine is manipulating the Fang Gang into making certain choices for themselves (choice within the framework of fate) and the idea that our destinies can simply be peeled off like an old layer of snake-skin are two very different things.
If I nitpick I only do so out of love. On any other show this would be the order of the day, but on AtS this kind of puerility is profoundly disappointing and highly annoying. In a season – on a show, damn it! – this intelligent, I’m baffled that the writers could overlook such a big, damn hole in the earth. Since there is no real character development for anyone besides Angel, and Angel’s development results in almost no actual ongoing change in behaviour (he was focusing solely on his own friends and family at the start of the episode, wasn’t he?), the flaw stands out all the more.
I’m not even saying that you need to significantly change a character every single episode. That would be too much. You can have them reflect, or you can reveal something new about them. You can test what’s in them. You can have them simply act like themselves for entertainment value. But there’s not enough entertainment here to redeem the flaws. Taking logical leaps for the sake of storytelling is always a game where you weigh risk against reward (watch Battlestar Galactica for spectacular successes and failures). If the authorial intent behind the logically problematic “Spin to Win” plot device was motivated by such thinking, then it would seem that the writers merely miscalculated how much dislogic the nitpicky among us would accept.
It barely needs saying that Lee DeMarco was as uninspired an episode villain as this show has ever seen, leaving the show without a sense of credible or unpredictable danger. Did anyone not see Angel leaping to his friends’ defense at the zero hour coming from a mile away? If your hand is raised you’re not allowed at my next review.
What works in the episode is that Angel has a legitimate problem to solve, so there’s good character insight to behold (before the plot shoots any notion of profundity to pieces). There’s also a slight hint of the melancholy and war-wary demon that emerges from the once-happy Lorne in late season five. To take a person who has dedicated their entire life to being a peaceful mediator and maintaining a modicum of kindness towards every creature, no matter how vile, and then to coerce him into situations of life and death, as Lee DeMarco does to Lorne – that’s a very sick thing to do.
To consider Lorne’s predicament in this episode, one in which he must watch people die if he refuses his captor’s whims, makes for a tragic thought. Unfortunately the episode doesn’t go for an angle that stresses the more interesting aspects of Lorne’s conflict; his entrapment in Vegas is just another plot device contrive to get us to Vegas to waste time and have a “fun” standalone episode. Not that I have anything against fun standalones. If they’re…fun. These positives elevate it slightly above the utter, gutterish dreck of “Provider” [3×12] but in the final view there is little to nothing of substance here.
One final comment. I’ve abstained from talking about Cordelia’s virtual absence from the show for the last two episodes because of her return in this episode and her prominence in the next. The fact that she’s a footnote at the end of a trilogy of reviews should point to just how under-used she’s been. They find her at the end of the episode. The end. Can we get to the good part of season four, please?
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Cordy: “Oh, for crap’s sake!”
+ Gunn vindicated as the gang arrives in Vegas: “WHOOOOOOOOO!”
+ Angel’s stories about running with the rat pack. These harken back to before Angel met Buffy, which was the most directionless time of his life.
+ “Lorne, The Green Velvet Fog.” Hah!
– Everything else.
* In the opening teaser Cordelia is watching over Angel, who himself is watching over Connor. Both Connor and Angel think they’re alone at this moment. The whole idea of being watched and coached from afar by a higher power they don’t know about (Angel is on a rooftop above Connor, and Cordelia is on a higher plane) hints at the truth about Jasmine, who appears late in the season, having manipulated everybody from on high.
* Connor to the vampire when asked what he is: “Don’t know yet.” Connor’s demonic parentage creates confusion about his identity for him. This is an awesome metaphor to base a teenager character off of and his uncertainty drives him throughout the season.
* The conceit of the Spin to Win game is based on the metaphor that life is a rigged game in which a capricious and detached force interested only in its own agenda (DeMarco, in this episode) uses people up for its own ends. This is exactly the conceit behind the character of Jasmine, a rogue higher power who appears late in the season to reveal that she has…well…used people for her own ends.