[Review by Fray-Adjacent]
[Writer: Jeffrey Bell and Sarah Fain and Elizabeth Craft | Director: Michael Grossman | Aired: 03/26/2003]
“Players” is a decent if imperfect exploration of Gunn’s character. It both explains and motivates his Season 5 arc more than any other single episode prior to Season 5 itself. In this way, it encompasses both the strengths and weaknesses of Gunn’s characterization throughout the series: while the show usually does a good job when it focuses explicitly on Gunn, lack of attention to his character over large segments of the series causes some problems in motivating his arc.
This episode explores two related but distinct aspects of Gunn’s character that directly relate to his choice to join Wolfram and Hart at the end of the season. The first is his insecurity in being the “muscle.” Some fans complain that this is introduced out of nowhere in early Season 4, but Fred referred to him that way as early as “Fredless” [3×05]. I always thought that was weird, actually. Yeah, Gunn’s a good fighter, but obviously Angel is better. It’s interesting to look back on Fred’s statement: she identified Angel as the leader, Wesley as the brains, Cordy as the heart, and Gunn as the muscle. In that moment, she decided she didn’t belong because she didn’t have a unique role to play in the group.
Over the long haul though, this actually applies more to Gunn than to Fred. Her scientific training proves to be of great value many times — Wes may be smart, but he doesn’t think like Fred or have her knowledge base. Gunn, on the other hand, doesn’t really have any knowledge, abilities, or skills that none of the other characters has. He’s good with clients, but so is Cordy. He’s a good fighter, but Angel is better. He’s an experienced leader and strategist, but so is Wesley. The point isn’t that Gunn doesn’t have many valuable skills that he brings to Angel Investigations, but that none of those skills is unique.
(One unique thing Gunn could bring to the group is a more thorough knowledge of the city, since he is the only character who’s actually from there and the only one who has any real connections to a community there. However, I do not recall the show ever depicting Gunn helping though social or geographic knowledge, and his community connections are rarely used.)
I think this ends up getting Gunn relegated to muscle because the group generally needs more fighters than it does leaders or strategists. Usually their strategies are pretty simple (find out who/where the bad guy is, try to kill it), and the group is so small that Angel and Wesley are already semi-competing for leadership. But of course relegating Gunn to “the muscle” is racialized — both real life and television are full of black men who are called upon for manual, not mental, labor, under the intellectual leadership of white people. Gunn knows this well. Angelus underscores this in “Calvary” [4×12] when he tells Gunn, “you know your place.”
But it’s also personal. Gunn views his breakup with Fred and his related jealousy of Wesley through this lens. He casts himself as “the muscle” in opposition to Wesley’s role as intellectual, strategist, and leader, fearing that the latter is what Fred really wants. What’s complicated — and compelling — about this issue is its many facets. Obviously Gunn has overblown the “muscle” thing in his head. For god’s sake, in “Supersymmetry” [4×05] he’s even insecure that he doesn’t understand cutting edge theoretical physics! But there is evidence that, to some extent, other characters do see him as “the muscle.” Angel refers to him as such in this episode, and note how dumb Gunn behaves in Angel’s imagination in “Awakening” [4×10]. And, finally, there is the issue I mentioned before: Gunn’s lack of unique skills. Though he’s an important, valuable member of the group, he might actually not be as important or valuable as anyone else. That’s a tough prospect to face.
So when Gwen shows up requesting him for a different skill set – not to mention giving him a much-wanted escape from apocalyptic, quasi-incestuous melodrama – it’s no surprise he heads out with her. Of course, Gwen is (probably unknowingly) playing on Gunn’s insecurities by calling him a “suave guy;” she just needed a non-vamp to get through security. But to Gwen’s delight, Gunn turns out to have just the kind of ability to walk in many worlds that she needed for her “mission.”
This relates to the second reason why Gunn ultimately goes with Wolfram and Hart. Some part of him is genuinely attracted to their lifestyle. His ability to fit in with a number of different social circles – something he’s always been better at than anyone else in the cast – plays an important role here. Once he’s able to show that he can fit into this environment – in this case by smoothly impressing Morimoto, in Season 5’s case with the knowledge upgrade – they don’t just embrace him, he embraces them. For someone who complained loudly about “middle class white folks” in “Spin The Bottle” [4×06], and who seems to live a fairly ascetic lifestyle, this is a surprising and somewhat confusing development.
It’s this side of Gunn that we see for the first time in this episode: the side who will abandon his principles to feel cool in a nice suit. This is followed up on pretty thoroughly in Season 5, so I can’t exactly say it’s out of character, but it’s certainly a side we’ve never seen before. It frustrates me that this comes out of nowhere. The moment when he stays with Gwen despite her treachery – at which point he actually believes she is stealing a covert ops invention on behalf of some unspecified government or corporation – is played lightly, but prior to this I would never buy that Gunn would be so unconcerned about what she did and the role he played in it. Even when he learns she’s stealing LISA for herself, he goes along with her even after she’s likely killed Morimoto and several guards. When, before this, have we ever seen Gunn use others and disregard innocent people’s safety just for personal gain? Perhaps this is meant to illustrate just how unhappy he’s become at Angel Investigations, but it feels unearned.
What’s especially frustrating about this is that I like Gwen, I really like Gunn, and they make a pretty good pair. I like their chemistry, and the way the two relate to each other as outsiders would have been interesting to explore. I just don’t love how this was introduced. And I’m also disappointed that this is the last we ever see of Gwen. Still, I gotta admit: it was fun to see them dress up and go on a heist together.
A final note about Gunn: the episode simultaneously raises the theme of “helping the hopeless” throughout his scenes. When he believes he’s helping rescue a kidnapped child, he tells Gwen, “feels good to be doing some good.” Later, when Gwen asks him why he stays with Angel Investigations if they just see him as the muscle, he responds, “I’m a fighter. Born and raised.” This is why Gunn sticks around, as he articulated in “That Old Gang of Mine” [3×03]: it’s about the mission.
Now, of course, there has been very little helping the hopeless for some time. This was set up as Gunn’s initial motivation for joining Gwen, in addition to his growing resentment of being the muscle. By emphasizing Gunn’s ongoing desire to “do some good,” “Players” sets up and foreshadows not just his fall in Season 5, but his redemption as well, where he, more so than any other former Angel Investigations member, reconnections with the mission.
In addition to setting up Gunn’s Season 5 arc, the episode also plays a pivotal role in the ongoing Season 4 plot, and as such it delivers reasonably well. Coming between Cordelia revealing her pregnancy in “Orpheus” [4×15] and the birth of Jasmine in “Inside Out” [4×17], this aspect of the episode notably furthers Connor’s growing uncertainty about Cordelia’s scheming – an uncertainty that comes to a head in the following episode. As Miscellaneopolan pointed out in his “Orpheus” [4×15] review, Connor questions Cordelia in large part because of Faith’s positive influence, which helped bring him back into the group somewhat and temporarily loosened Cordelia’s hold on him. Connor accurately recalls that, in “Orpheus” [4×15], Cordelia told him to kill Angelus and stop Willow from re-ensouling him. As he points out in a moment of refreshing insight, Willow’s magic was helpful, not harmful, and re-ensouling Angel was much better for the group than killing him would have been. Manipulating Connor is what possessed-Cordelia does best, but even so she is only partially able to rope him back.
Speaking of soulless Angel, “Players” also begins to handle the fallout from his “Angelus” stint, notably when he addresses Lilah’s death. He tells everyone the startling news that he did not kill Lilah but found her dead. From a plot perspective, this is more evidence that one of their own may be acting against them. Combined with Cordelia’s new mystical pregnancy and overall weird behavior, it’s not surprising that Angel suspects her.
From a character perspective, the scene where Angel reveals that he didn’t kill Lilah is interesting. Angel doesn’t tell Wesley, “I didn’t kill Lilah.” He says, “Angelus didn’t kill Lilah.” Usually Angel refers to his past self in the first person, not the third. What does his word choice suggest here? That he recognizes that his friends view Angel and Angelus as two different people, and it’s less awkward in the moment to play along? Or is he himself beginning to think this too? I suspect the former. Angel of all people understands just how much he and Angelus are one, but he also sees that his friends cope by compartmentalizing the two, as evidenced in numerous comments since “Long Day’s Journey” [4×09]. Furthermore, throughout the series we’ve seen that the only way Angel can move forward with his life and his mission is if he refuses to be held responsible for the acts of his soulless alter ego.
Angel’s current mission is figuring out who the Beast’s master is, and by the end it appears that he has suspected Cordelia for some time – at least since she revealed her pregnancy donning “the most garishly evil maternity garb this side of Rosemary’s Baby” in “Awakening” [4×10], if not earlier. When, later in the episode, Cordelia comes to his room to ascertain what Angel has figured out about the Beast’s master, he tells her, “anybody as daredevily as this guy will slip up sooner or later. When he does, he’s dead.” This indicates that he’s already working out a trap – or at least a test – for Cordelia, who does indeed slip up pretty stupidly.
To go on a brief tangent, there’s some amusing meta in this scene between Angel and Cordelia. Angel tells Cordelia, “[the Beast’s master] spoke to me in this cheesy, self-important voice. I bet he doesn’t even have a master plan—he’s just making it up as he goes along.” The writers are definitely hanging a lampshade both on those cringe-inducing bar scenes from “Release” [4×14] and on the overall incoherence of this season’s plot arc. Funny though it is, it’s certainly not enough to make me overlook those flaws, especially the latter. However, since the season plot takes a back seat in this episode, I won’t discuss my issues with it – plenty of other reviews from this season cover that territory well.
Angel’s investigation and setup of Cordelia takes up most of the time not spent on Gunn this episode, and it’s marginally interesting to watch. The best part is definitely the final scene, which is my favorite of the episode. Lorne’s singing is some of his loveliest on the series, and along with the lighting, set, and lack of other sound creates a tense yet sad and even lonely atmosphere. Lorne is looking really troubled. I think it’s because he doesn’t want to be setting up Cordelia, he doesn’t want her to be evil. And the reveal is really well done. There’s still no music, just the slightly satisfying shock of seeing the team finally confront Cordelia in a very atmospheric moment. This final scene alone probably adds about 5 points to the score.
There are a few other nice moments in “Players” too. Wesley and Fred share an interesting moment when their discussion of Connor and Cordelia’s disturbing relationship turns into an awkward conversation about Wesley and Lilah. This is where Wesley tells Fred that “it’s not always about holding hands.” Wes’s line here is actually kind of condescending – once again he, like everyone else, seems to view Fred as an innocent school girl with no notion of the real world. Recognizing that “it’s not always about holding hands” is not the same as accepting that someone you care about and work with was in a relationship with someone who regularly arranged for people – including other people you care about! – to be murdered and tortured. Still, it’s an interesting scene, and Wesley doesn’t act condescending when he says it – he mostly just looks really uncomfortable.
I like “Players,” but I definitely don’t love it. I like that we get a character-focused episode in the midst of the “turgid supernatural soap opera.” I like that it’s focused on Gunn, who has been sorely neglected since “That Old Gang of Mine” [3×03]. I like the ways it sets up his arc in Season 5, though that set-up suffers from lack of previous development. Similarly, the ongoing season arc is fairly well-executed here; better than in some other mid-S4 episodes, though Charisma Carpenter’s uninspired acting is an ongoing problem. All in all, the episode accomplishes what it sets out to do well, but it’s by no means a high point in the series. Having a couple of beautifully directed scenes definitely elevates my enjoyment, but not enough to overcome the problems of discontinuity in some aspects of Gunn’s characterization or the ongoing problems with the Season 4 plot.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Lorne’s magic 8-ball. In any other character’s hands it would be corny, but it works well with him.
+ Gunn in a suit; always a pro.
+ The fight scene over Aiko Morimoto is a lot of fun, even if it’s ridiculous that the guards fight with poles.
– Gwen’s comic book outfits. I don’t care if it’s L.A.; she is making herself visible and memorable – both bad in her line of work.
– Mr. Morimoto’s bodyguards: stuck in the Edo period.
– Cordy standing over Lorne with the knife is a little cliché looking, though overall I love the scene.
* Morimoto says, “I can’t help but feel something wonderful’s coming,” foreshadowing the birth of Jasmine in “Inside Out” [4×17].