[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Jeffrey Bell | Director: Skip Schoolnik | Aired: 01/15/2003]
Season 4 of Angel is frankly a bit of a mess. It’s at times an ambitious mess, particularly from a plot and theme perspective, but it still doesn’t really hold together very well. “Habeas Corpses” encapsulates elements of this mess, which ends up being a nice illustration of the season’s larger problems. The one element that comes through this jumble unscathed is Wesley, a character who single-handedly manages to sustain my interest in Season 3 and Season 4 when little else will.
Before getting into the character stuff, though, let’s start with the plot for a change. The happenings in “Habeas Corpses” are both epic and utterly mundane at the same time. The plot is epic in the sense that the newly arrived Beast tears apart Wolfram & Hart (W&H), injures Lilah, kills Gavin (okay, nothing involving Gavin could be considered epic, but it’s hilarious nonetheless), and even sucks the life-force out of the little girl in the White Room! At first glance seeing W&H torn apart like this is pretty shocking, but upon deeper reflection it is instead representative of the downward slide of this once intimidating organization both as a threat and as a remotely interesting presence on the show. This slide began in late Season 2 with the exit of the charismatic Lindsey McDonald and the fascinating Holland Manners, only leaving Lilah to hold our interest and investment in the organization. And I feel the writers even vastly underutilized her.
So while there is some novelty to seeing a once intimidating organization so easily brought down, it doesn’t really surprise me one bit in the grand scheme of things. When you take away the novelty, though, all that’s left is your basic slaughter-fest, zombie flick double feature. The only tension and excitement that exists is built on top of the mystery surrounding the Beast. Once we know all the answers, though, there’s not anything else this plot exists for. This highlights my biggest issue with “Habeas Corpses:” it mostly services the larger plot of the season rather than either theme or character. It’s not like the Beast himself has any kind of personality – the guy’s a giant rock with a face! He makes for some pretty damn sweet fight scenes, but even those get repetitive after the first few. Besides, nothing’s going to top the exhilarating rooftop fight in “Apocalypse, Nowish” [4×07] anyway.
I find the plot of “Habeas Corpses” to be competent enough in moving the pieces of the season forward and being able to hold my attention, but its lack of purpose beyond these goals is troubling. The character work fairs better but is sadly also a mixed bag. Where Wesley and Lilah are concerned, I’m quite interested – thrilled even. Where Connor’s concerned, I’m somewhat interested. Everything else is uninteresting (Cordelia/Angel), shallow (Fred/Gunn), redundant (Wesley/Gunn), or non-existent (poor Lorne).
A big problem that plagues all of Season 4, on a character level, is Cordelia’s possession. There’s just no way around addressing the problems this creates for the entire season. For one, we’re robbed of any further development for what was once a vibrant and exciting character (at least until “Birthday” [3×11]). Furthermore all of Cordelia’s interactions with everyone are all lies. This becomes the most problematic when it comes to Angel, who still harbors love for her (which was always unconvincing to me, but that argument is for another day).
Here in “Habeas Corpses,” this problem is reflected in Angel’s anger and confusion towards Cordelia after seeing her sleep with Connor the previous night. Angel’s feelings and reactions about this are all very believable but I, as a viewer who knows what’s up already, have a hard time caring. None of these feelings have a lick of lasting relevance outside of moving the plot forward, despite how it appears on first viewing. There are no repercussions for Cordelia for anything she does because that’s not Cordelia. There are no repercussions for Angel’s interaction with Cordelia either because… that’s not Cordelia. And since the villain uses Cordelia’s voice and memories in making us think it’s Cordelia, we’re even robbed of a villain with a unique personality! All in all: argh!
A specific scene to illustrate this problem is when Angel leaves Cordelia behind at the hotel when going into W&H after Connor. Angel’s motivation has nothing to do with her safety, as inviting Fred to come with them proves, but is rather steeped in anger towards to her. With the retrospective eye, though, we know this anger to be misplaced and actually fairly pointless. With the element of surprise gone, all that’s left is seeing a character I used to care about being used in the service of an extremely uninteresting villain (until Jasmine’s arrival).
Although “Cordelia” doesn’t make for a very compelling villain, I will admit that her psychological manipulation of Connor does intrigue me to an extent. Before I get into that, though, I want to firmly state that the entire Connor/Cordelia relationship is messed up beyond belief and I would have vastly preferred the show not go this route at all. With that said, it is totally believable that a possessed Cordelia would do pretty much anything it wanted and that Connor, not remembering ever being taking care of by Cordelia the year before, would find himself easily swayed into bed with her. While ‘believable,’ it doesn’t change how contrived the purpose of this act is, but that’s more of a discussion for “Inside Out” [4×17]. Putting aside all my concerns regarding why all of this happening, how it affects Connor does offer some pretty significant relevance to where he ends up in “Home” [4×22].
Connor, a boy raised in a hell dimension by a man displaced in time and consumed by vengeance, arrives back in the world a confused teenager with a built-in hate towards his real father. By the kid’s very nature it’s bound to be difficult to relate to him and reality certainly reflects that. With that said, I do have some real sympathy for Connor here. Pretty much from the outset of getting her memories back (thereby activating the Beastmaster) Cordelia targets Connor with deadly precision, preying on his troubled history, insecurities, and sexual naiveté. In “Apocalypse, Nowish” [4×07] she uses the Beast’s arrival and connection with Connor — which she completely manufactured — to bring the kid closer and closer to her. Once the rain of fire began, her performance was enough to get Connor to do the deed she needed him to do.
With the deed done, we see Cordelia immediately pull away from Connor physically but not emotionally, continuing to call him “special” and that it was “something we both needed.” No, Cordelia needed it happen but Connor doesn’t know any of this and is simply being used. This maneuvering on Cordelia’s part is really the first shot in an upcoming volley of brainwashing to get the kid to protect her at all costs until Jasmine is born. Connor puts his faith in Cordelia, despite all his internal reservations, because he feels he can’t ever give his full faith to the vampire father he was raised to despise. This is why, when the little faith he still had was wilted away by the end of the season, Connor has nothing left to believe in and opts for suicide (“Home” [4×22]). It’s actually quite a tragic ride for the kid, albeit one in which he could have turned around at multiple points. It’s hard to place too much blame on him, though, as his life has been built on a foundation of manipulation.
If there’s one extremely compelling aspect to “Habeas Corpses” it’s definitely the saga of Wesley and Lilah. Their scenes together have consistently been a highlight thanks to how they tie together a compelling story with great acting, writing, and character development. Their relationship, as we knew it at least, comes to an end here. This ending, though, is a key moment of growth for the both of them. When Lilah comes over to Wesley’s place, first seeming to show genuine concern for his well-being in the light of the apocalypse and second for another night of rough passion, he turns her away. The main question is why? Why now? Wesley tells her that a “day of reckoning has arrived” in which he has realized it’s time to draw a line between good and evil. That’s a plausible motive, but there’s a lot more to it than that and Lilah knows it. She rebuttals, “and the girl of your dreams just happens to be on [the side you’re choosing].”
Wesley claims his choice is not about Fred but about “right and wrong,” but I only partially believe him. Wesley’s always had his own insecurities, jealousies, and trust issues that often influence his motives. It’s these very flaws that led him down the path to where he is now. This is why Wesley cannot be considered a white knight by any definition: he’s been tainted by black and as Lilah so eloquently puts it “Funny thing about black and white — you mix it together and you get gray. And it doesn’t matter how much white you try and put back in, you’re never gonna get anything but gray. And I don’t see your Texas-gal-pal wearing that color.” Wicked, Lilah, but wickedly true. I will say, though, that I do believe in the possibility of redemption and forgiveness to the point that, while you’ll never be completely white again, you have enough white to where the gray is no longer noticeable and is only a part of your history rather than what defines you now. That’s what I feel Wesley (and, heck, even Lilah) should be striving for. I think Angel knows something about this subject too.
While for Wesley this “break-up” is a turning point towards an overall healthier (although perhaps lonelier) direction, it’s initially the opposite for Lilah. In losing her connection with Wesley Lilah has failed both professionally (getting him to join W&H) and personally (as they had a real connection). What the Beast does to W&H, though, fundamentally changes her outlook on everything. When the Beast strolls in, tears apart her career, and then hunts her down, all that she has left is possibly the only real connection she’s ever known. Oh, she’s still as self-determined, independent, and feisty as ever, but without all the material trappings to cling onto anymore she can no longer deny that she does care for Wesley. This change is not lost on Wesley when she tells him that Connor is still trapped in the building. At this point Connor is meaningless to her, so why bother even telling Wesley unless she knew that it mattered to him and cared enough to share? The answer shows us a spark of new life in Lilah, and perhaps the first spark of a redemptive path that she sadly won’t have much time left to explore.
What ultimately makes me rejoice so much about Wesley and Lilah is the influence they have on each other. Before being with Wesley, a case could be made that Lilah was nearly soulless in her pursuit of career, power, and materialism. If we take the white and black metaphor further and figuratively place white as Wesley and black as Lilah, their union made a whole bunch of gray. Now that they’re no longer together that gray doesn’t just disappear — they can’t simply separate back into black and white. No, now they’re both gray and closer to each other than ever. There’s no denying that Wesley has rubbed off on Lilah and that she’s a better person for it after that sewer scene. Unfortunately for Wesley, I think the opposite can be said of him. Tragic though it may be, it sure makes for one hell of a story. At the very least, this experience gives them both new insight into who they are as people. In this regard, I actually see some parallels with Buffy and Spike’s tumultuous relationship in Season 6 of Buffy.
“Habeas Corpses” touches on other character dynamics too, but these are far less interesting. First there’s the continued road bump in the Fred/Gunn relationship that arose out of the events of “Supersymmetry” [4×05]. Am I the only one who has absolutely no investment in this relationship? It hasn’t shown us anything new about either character, let alone actually evolving them. The bulk of their interaction is simply empty mush and, with the recent Professor Seidel snag, some empty irritation. Their relationship has more relevance to Wesley than it does to them! I think this is largely due to how underdeveloped both Fred and Gunn are as characters in general. I admit that I liked the subtle reference to their tension in the scene where Gunn’s repeatedly tapping his pencil on a book. It’s a small thing that ends up annoying Fred only because she’s annoyed with Gunn altogether in the moment. This is well presented, but that doesn’t change the fact I don’t really care about the source of that tension.
To round out our character dynamics, we’ve got Wesley and Gunn. While their conflict is more compelling, as it’s steeped in a lot of history (the whole kidnapping saga front and center) and mutual jealousy (surrounding Fred), “Habeas Corpses” thinks we need to be reminded of it every time they’re in the presence of each other. I counted at least four times Gunn barks at Wesley – two of which were after Angel told him to can it. The episode totally fails at having Gunn’s resentment seem natural and well integrated into the story. Rather than forward or enlighten these issues, the episode is content to wallow in them ad nauseam.
Although I don’t feel that “Habeas Corpses” has a very strong uniting theme, I will say that it makes a clear point that when it really matters this group of people, with all their selfishness, jealousy, resentment, confusion, and anger towards each other, still come together when it matters. When Wesley delivers the news of Connor’s situation in W&H, the group still manages to rally together enough to rescue him. As Angel said, “we’re here for Connor,” sidelining his current emotional preoccupation. I think it all boils down to the conversation between Wesley and Lilah about white and black, good and evil, selflessness and selfishness. All of these characters are able to show us both sides of the coin, which reinforces the point that they’re all tainted – they’re all gray.
At the end of the day I think it’s obvious that I’m not wild about “Habeas Corpses,” but it is a reasonably fun episode to watch and does sport a few fantastic character beats involving Wesley and Lilah, so it’s certainly not without merit. Unfortunately, though, its disparate character threads only loosely tie together, most of which aren’t terribly compelling to begin with. Beyond the plot pieces being moved forward and said character beats, the rest of the episode lives in the irrelevant, redundant, and uninteresting.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The pre-credits teaser is awesome. Angel’s reaction to Cordelia and Connor sleeping together is exactly what the audience’s is – it sums up my feelings about this development in ways that nothing else could.
+ Great acting from Stephanie Romanov when Lilah pauses to consider if she really wants to make another pass at Wesley after being told it’s over.
+ The completely irrelevant and uninteresting Gavin getting a death befitting him… twice! We’ve got him covered in toilet rolls for the human death, and then Gunn finishing the job on Zombie Gavin. This gave me quite the chuckle.
+ Lilah’s last stand against the Beast with a handgun, and Wesley being there to help her out with a grenade. I’m not sure how Lilah let the slow-moving Beast corner her like that though.
+ The moody lighting in W&H during the Beast’s siege.
+ How imposing the Beast looks compared to the gang in the White Room.
+ Lorne looking into his drink and wondering if he’s imagining everyone suddenly appearing in front of him.
+ Angel’s matter-of-fact bluntness to Cordelia about her new relationship with his son at the end of the episode. I’d like it even more if any it had lasting implications for anyone but Connor.
– Gunn asks out loud, “What the heck was that?” Wesley responds, “Zombies.” Gunn snaps back, “Thanks for that, Captain Obvious.” Uhh, what? Is this piece of dialogue as weird to you as it is to me? If it was already obvious, why did he ask the question? A bit of sloppy writing there.
– Why did Gunn stay back to fight off the zombies after Fred got the door open? Then, after staying behind in the middle of a bunch of zombies, how did he survive that many of them? Then, how did he open the door with a table locking it down? I’m confused by the logistics and, ultimately, the point of all of this other than failing at manufacturing an action sequence with the threat of collateral.
– I know Fred’s smart in physics, math, and such, but I still don’t buy her being able to do stuff like knowing a manual bypass to a shut-down command for a W&H elevator via its circuit board.
– The whole “answer is among you” tidbit isn’t really all that interesting once you already know what’s going to happen. It’s a plot device that allows Angelus to come out, prance around, and do nothing other than conveniently rid the gang of the Beast. Yawn.
– The White Room girl sending them all home is awfully convenient.