Angel 4×03: The House Always Wins

[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.

Barf.

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.


Foreshadowing

* 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.


[Score]

40/100

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28 thoughts on “Angel 4×03: The House Always Wins”

  1. [Note: Josh posted this comment on July 7, 2009.]

    I totally agree with this review… this is one of the worst episodes EVER, and it makes me want to barf as well.

    And I can’t wait to get to the good part of season 4 and see what you have to say about it!!!

    Like

  2. [Note: buffyholic posted this comment on July 8, 2009.]

    I agree. This episode is just bad and very weird. I feel uncomfortable watching it.
    Ryan, have you listened to the commentary? It´s worth it and better than the episode.

    Like

  3. [Note: Arouet posted this comment on July 8, 2009.]

    Ok, this is a bad episode, but paradoxically, it actually made me appreciate Angel more. On any other supposedly “good” series, this would be half-decent or below average. On Angel? Utterly inexcusable. It’s not until you watch this and Provider that you realize how high the bar has been set. You actually have a right to be mad at a bad Angel episode, instead of saying “well that’s bound ot happen sometimes.”

    Like

  4. [Note: wytchcroft posted this comment on July 8, 2009.]

    yes, your review is better developed and more fun that the episode irtself – but still, it aint sooo bad (not, y’know, dollhouse: stagefright bad).

    it’s well filmed and has some good screen-time for Lorne at least.

    sorry to be commenting on such a minor ep, but i’m just glad to read a new review here:)

    Like

  5. [Note: Ryan-R.B. posted this comment on July 9, 2009.]

    @buffyholic What’s the specialness of it?

    @Arouet It makes me feel happy, for sure.

    @wytchcroft Never be sorry. I’m just glad you’re enjoying the reviews. 🙂

    Like

  6. [Note: Jason posted this comment on July 9, 2009.]

    I always loved the part where Lorne jumps off the stage and fred claps and screams, but then notices she’s the only one. Hilarious! You are spot on (as usual) about the rest of the episode.

    Like

  7. [Note: buffyholic posted this comment on July 10, 2009.]

    It´s just funny and both David Fury and Andy Hallet complement each other very nicely. Andy was truly a great guy.

    Like

  8. [Note: DarthMarion posted this comment on July 11, 2009.]

    Nice review! Made me thinking about the ep, which I never did!

    Otherwise, I like this ep, I’m never tired to see Lorn sing. So when it’s with the Lornettes, I find it awesome! It’s rare when I stopped on details but this, I just love this. ^^

    However, you get the perfect point about the lack of exploration of Lorne’s paradox. It’s one of the few regrets I have about the series, and there was an occasion on this ep.

    Any spoilers about the changes on the site? (yeah, I know, spoilers are WRONG, but these days I avoid any Epitaph One spoilers, I need compensation!)

    Like

  9. [Note: Ryan-R.B. posted this comment on July 11, 2009.]

    @DarthMarion Spoilers? I do plan to kill off both Mike and SuperJer in the final act. Is that helpful?

    Like

  10. [Note: NoCaution posted this comment on August 10, 2009.]

    OK – So maybe it’s not that great, but any chance to see Amy Acker in that little “Lorne-ette” outfit… I’m there.

    Like

  11. [Note: Dale posted this comment on August 26, 2009.]

    I really enjoyed seeing Lorne do a big stage show thing, and the gang hanging out and having fun in Vegas. Them being happy or having fun is so rare this season. It’s just the entire plot that sucks

    Like

  12. [Note: Kate posted this comment on September 13, 2009.]

    Okay, so this episodes lacks plot, substance and everything else that makes an episode good- but I liked it! Am I a bad person for that- considering Somnambulist bored me out of my skull?

    Like

  13. [Note: Nathan.Taurus posted this comment on February 6, 2010.]

    Not the best episode of the series, but still doesn’t deserve a 40.

    I watched it once with the commentary and heard about the long distance move between the escape and being at Fremont Street.

    I didn’t take much notice until I visited Las Vegas last September and stayed opposite the ‘Tropicana’ and on my last night I caught the bus down The Strip to see the Fremont Street Experience and realised just how far it is between them. So I laugh now when Lorne, Fred and Gunn run out of the Tropicana and end up time jumping down The Strip.

    Notice so far this season that Fred calls Gunn, Charles. Angel so far has been the only person to call him, Gunn.

    Like

  14. [Note: gus posted this comment on February 10, 2010.]

    I didn’t think it was all that bad. Lorne is always fun to watch and the whole episode was just light hearted fun. Also the commentary track was great too, definitely worth a listen.

    Like

  15. [Note: Durandal_1707 posted this comment on August 20, 2010.]

    A slot machine wins *once*, and he gets all freaked out about it? That guy’s gotta be the worst casino owner ever. If the machines *never* pay out, how does he keep the zombies playing them? A real casino has to let someone win every once in a while — not often enough to make it statistically worthwhile to play, of course — in order to give the rest of the patrons the illusion of having a chance. This guy would probably be out of business in 5 minutes if he didn’t rely on soul-stealing magical devices as a crutch.

    Like

  16. [Note: G1000 posted this comment on September 7, 2010.]

    This is, for me, the only “Angel” episode that sinks to the level of “Buffy’s” worst. It’s just boring, stupid, and pointless. Nothing happens, and even the brief Wes-Lilah stuff is dull.

    Like

  17. [Note: Wulvaine posted this comment on September 23, 2010.]

    I have to agree with NoCaution; Lornette Fred has to be some justification for an overall pretty poor episode.

    Like

  18. [Note: Seán posted this comment on December 21, 2010.]

    While this was by no means a very intellectual episode, I did enjoy it for the change of scenery and comedic affect! And Lornette Fred! Its official I am now in love with every female series regular on Buffy and Angel.

    Like

  19. [Note: Jared posted this comment on May 6, 2011.]

    As dumb as most of it was, I really enjoyed Lorne’s singing and Fred’s reaction to his performance… Is that reason enough to give it a pass? 🙂 I’d still consider ‘She’ to be the worst episode of the series, if only for that one scene. Ignoring the obvious plot contradictions as they speak for themselves, the awful scenes with Cordelia surrounded by light as a ‘higher being’ are almost enough to cancel out any remaining positives. Borderline embarrassing to watch and have brought down each of the three episodes of this season so far just by existing.

    Like

  20. [Note: Keaton posted this comment on October 15, 2011.]

    “This is, for me, the only “Angel” episode that sinks to the level of “Buffy’s” worst Can’t repeat it enough, no episode of Buffy is worse than the worst Angel episodes. 😛

    And this one here pretty much hit the bottom. I mean, what’s sadder than a comedy episode that isn’t funny? At least Lorne and Fred were ok, saved it from being a total desaster, but the story itself was incredibly stupid.

    Like

  21. [Note: Xavier posted this comment on June 1, 2012.]

    I feel that if I say that I actually enjoyed this episode, I might be attacked! But, it was nice to see the gang go on a trip to somewhere other than LA. And Fred was too cute in her Lornette outfit!

    Like

  22. [Note: Firewalkwithme posted this comment on October 6, 2013.]

    Terrible episode. I also don´t get why Lorne would be able to find out about these people´s destinies? I always thought he was only able to look into their soul and tell them how they feel, what they long for, what they´re trying to supress and so on?

    Like

  23. [Note: FlyingPenguin posted this comment on April 27, 2015.]

    Wow. I just don’t get it. I mean, I do agree that this episode is not all that great. But one of the very worst of the entire series? No way! The very next episode, for instance, is much worse. (And don’t even get me started about people’s hatred of “Provider” on this site; I understand that even less…)

    For me, I think the biggest problem with this episode is the way it makes it look as though the series is really meandering, dramatically. Lorne leaves at the end of the third season–seemingly for real…and then, three episodes later, they go and get him back, and he’s a regular again. What was the point? The experience didn’t even noticeably change him in any particular way, either. One is just left wondering why this sequence of events happened at all.

    That said–and throwing into the mix also that the Vegas setting just doesn’t really do much for me–I have always enjoyed the moment at the beginning of this episode where Angel decides the team needs a “retreat” and this time, to Gunn’s delight, it actually is Vegas. And there were other incidental bits of fun along the way as well. The episode is not especially deep, but it’s also (in my view) relatively inoffensive. I just don’t understand the F grade and all the hate; I’d probably give it a C or so.

    Like

  24. [Note: Pathbeyondthedark posted this comment on April 27, 2015.]

    Meh. The thing that bothered me most was that how could your destiny be stolen unless it was part of said destiny to have it stolen. Your destiny is supposed to come to pass no matter what decisions you make, actions you take, or what befalls you along the way. It can’t be your “destiny” if it can just be negated so easily.

    But the episode is extremely fun in my opinion regardless. It’s a guilty pleasure. Besides, the lore in this universe is so inconsistent I barely care on the dozens of occasions I notice said inconsistencies.

    Like

  25. [Note: FlyingPenguin posted this comment on April 28, 2015.]

    Well, sure, that doesn’t really make much sense–but I tend to lump that kind of stuff under the category of “it’s magic, so it would be silly to expect it to make total sense”…

    Like

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