[Review by Alexandra Jones]
[Writer: Joss Whedon | Director: Joss Whedon | Aired: 10/01/2003]
A change is as good as a rest, or so the saying goes. When your show’s nearing the end of its fourth season and things are starting to feel a little worn out, perhaps a change of scenery would be just the thing to breathe some new life into the series. And as far as changes go, moving your heroes into the headquarters of their formers enemies has to rank pretty highly in the ‘shaking things up’ stakes.
I’ll be completely honest: I hated Season Four of Angel. From everything that happened to Cordelia, to the messy execution and conclusion of the Jasmine arc, it just fills me with emotions ranging from disappointment to full-blown anger whenever I think about it. Don’t get me wrong, it was a long way from being the worst thing I’d ever seen on TV. But, in my opinion, it was still a horrible mess.
So when Lilah popped up at the end of the season to make Wolfram and Hart’s bizarre little offer, I was relieved. Not that I don’t agree with Mike (“Home” [4×22]) that it was pretty nonsensical and out-of-character for the gang to agree to the deal. But as I watch “Home” [4×22], I find myself thinking ‘character continuity be damned, just take the deal and get us out of this horrible rut.’ I’m slightly ashamed to admit this, since character continuity is something that Whedon and co. normally excel at, and I’d never usually ask for it to be thrown out of the window in favour of some exciting plot development. But in this case… yes, I’m really OK with it.
Well, I got my wish. And so Season 5 opens, and here we are at the W&H offices. Angel and his team now have a vast array of resources at their disposal, but they soon discover that they need to tread a fine line between good and evil in order to keep hold of those resources. And… actually, I can stop there now, because I think I’ve accidentally just summarised this entire episode in two sentences.
I’m kidding, of course. Well… sort of. While there’s still plenty to talk about in this episode, there’s no escaping the fact that it’s pretty plot-light and very exposition-heavy. What little plot we have is mainly designed to illustrate the above point, about the moral compromises that Angel now has to make as CEO of Wolfram and Hart. This is important, because it sets up one of the most important themes of the season. But that plot, which I’ll discuss later, is very badly executed. And sadly, once you get past the immediate message, there’s little else of any worth actually going on here.
This episode almost feels like a pilot, as it tries to draw in new viewers and set up a brand new season without requiring too much backstory from the previous four. And while I guess it might work for new viewers, I personally think that it’s just a little boring for those of us who’ve been following the show from the start. For example, we were already given the tour of the Wolfram and Hart offices in “Home” [4×22], but this episode pretty much gives us that all over again. And there are just a few too many scenes where someone seems to feel the need to explain the whole plot to us. Fred’s “run-on sentence” at the start of the episode might be cute, but it’s a pretty transparent attempt to lay everything out for newcomers to the show, and it just doesn’t work for me. Like I said, there’s just way too much exposition for my liking.
Not that there aren’t some fun moments in this episode. The opening scene is one of them; I really appreciate this amusing little sequence. For a moment, we’re teased with the possibility that Angel has changed his mind and gone back to his old “Dark Avenger” ways, lurking alone on rooftops and helping the helpless. But the overblown music, serious overuse of slow-motion, and a fight sequence that goes on just slightly too long are a pretty big hint that we’re not supposed to take this seriously. And sure enough, we’re treated to a truly hilarious moment when Angel discovers that his new employees have been tracking him the whole time, and have followed him to the scene to deal with the legal complications of his heroism.
One thing I love about this show is its ability to poke fun at itself. For every scene where Angel’s being his dark, brooding, serious self, we seem to have one where someone’s laughing at him for doing so. I’ve lost count of the number of times that this has saved the show from seeming too ridiculous or melodramatic. And here we have one of the best examples. In typical, clichéd “Dark Avenger” style, Angel tells the damsel in distress that his name “doesn’t matter,” only to have his new cronies show up and say it five times. Despite his heroic intentions, he ends up just looking a bit silly, and we get a good laugh at the absurdity of the situation. Similarly, I can’t help but smile at Angel’s girlish excitement over his new cars. We won’t get to see him happy very often in this season, so it’s nice to see it once in a while.
I also really like the way that the Wesley/Fred/Knox love triangle is so neatly set up in just a few moments, and that it all comes down to Fred’s box of office supplies. Wesley – oh, bless him – really, really tries. He offers not once, but twice, to carry Fred’s things for her, but he’s trying so hard to be respectful and gentlemanly that he won’t actually just take the damn thing. Knox, on the other hand, just casually saunters up to say hello, and after Fred gives him an ever-so-subtle hint, he ends up getting to carry the box. It’s a small victory, but it’s got to hurt.
Later on, there’s some further awkwardness between Fred and Wesley as they discuss Angel’s seemingly disproportionate reaction to the Corben Frys problem. Unfortunately, though, this is one of the first scenes where I really start to question the effects of the memory-wipe that took place in the last episode. Fred and Wesley obviously don’t understand why Angel’s taking the Frys situation so personally, which reminds us that they’ve had all memory of Connor erased from their minds. But it then gets me wondering what else they don’t remember from the last season, and that’s a question which we’ll never really get the answers to.
This is my biggest problem with the memory wipe. Although it was obviously invented as a convenient plot device, it could have worked pretty well if we’d actually got some proper follow-through from it. But apart from the events of “Origin” [5×18], it’s hardly addressed at all. Sure, I don’t need to know every minuscule detail of what was and wasn’t erased. But I do feel that, to buy into this twist of events, I need to eventually get some kind of resolution, or at least a little more information about how the wipe affected the characters themselves. It’s not quite fair to criticise this episode for the points that subsequent episodes fail to address, but I do feel disappointed knowing that the questions raised here won’t ever get answered.
Apart from his interactions with Fred, Wesley takes a bit of a back seat in this episode. We establish that he’s now the head of the Magical Department, and we learn that he’s having some doubts about why he’s at W&H. Again, this is fairly problematic. When Wesley says “I’m still stuck at ‘why are we here’?” I find myself asking the exact same question. Why are you here, Wesley? We’ll never really get to the bottom of that, and I feel like the writers are skirting around the issue a little too much. It’s all very well that they chose to acknowledge the characters’ doubts, but in doing so they just remind us of our own, and actually make it more difficult to understand what on earth their motives actually are.
Now Gunn, on the other hand, is a whole different story. At the beginning of the episode we might be confused about why he agreed to join W&H. But, for those of us wondering what Gunn stands to gain out of this arrangement, we’re actually given a real, tangible motivation for his decision here. For me, this is very important. While I can just about make excuses (however feeble) for the others joining W&H, I can’t reconcile Gunn’s compliance with my prior knowledge of his character… unless he happens to have a big fat secret reason for taking the deal. And, thankfully, he does.
However, Gunn’s transformation here leaves me in two minds. On the one hand, it seems perfect. Like several other characters, Gunn had kind of run out of steam a bit in Season Four, and I’m struggling to see how he could have fitted in at Wolfram & Hart without this big change. Plus, it’s a law firm, and it makes sense for Angel to have an actual lawyer on his side. And I don’t object to seeing Gunn in a suit. He looks really, really good in a suit, after all.
On the other hand, I can’t help noticing that this is a big fat cheat on the part of the writers. I’ve already talked about how the W&H move benefits the show more than the characters, and how character continuity had to be sacrificed to get everyone to where the show needs them to be. This has to be the biggest, most brazen example of that. Gunn needs something to do: let’s make into a lawyer! Who cares that he’s not a lawyer but a Rogue Demon Hunter? Let’s just stick some electrodes on his head and turn him into one!
It’s most definitely cheating. It’s already pretty bold to move your characters to a completely different environment – the home of their former enemies, no less – when you’ve exhausted their current situation. But to take the characters who don’t fit into that environment, and essentially reprogramme them so that they do fit? It’s just a bit too cheeky for my liking. And why stop there? You might as well just kill off the character completely, and have something else – like, oh I don’t know, some kind of ancient power or something – walking around in their body…
Moving on, I have to take a moment to express my excitement over the re-introduction of Harmony in this episode. If you’ve read my review of “Harm’s Way” [5×09], you’ll know that I’m a big Harmony fan, and I love the way she’s introduced in this episode. Again, she highlights the morally ambiguous nature of Angel’s new role. In “Disharmony” [2×17], Angel was immediately dismissive of the newly-vamped Harmony as an evil, soulless vampire who couldn’t be trusted. Now, he’s forced to accept her as his secretary. At the same time, throughout the series, Harmony’s attempts to be one of the good guys invite us to question whether good vs. evil, when it comes to vampires, really only comes down to the presence or absence of a soul. Angel would have us believe that it does, but personally I’m not so sure. All in all, I think that bringing back Harmony was a brilliant decision and, although she’s mostly used for comedic effect, I think she’s got plenty more to offer the show too.
Harmony isn’t the only new girl, though. I’ve ranted and raved several times on this website about how much I dislike Eve. So, since this is the episode where she’s introduced, you might expect that she’d be my least favourite thing about it. But actually, she’s not. I’ll come to that in a moment. In fact, in this episode, I have to say that I don’t really have that much of a problem with Eve. And I understand why she’s needed here. In previous seasons the Big Bad has been represented (no pun intended) by W&H’s lawyers: Lilah, Lindsey, Holland, Gavin. But now that Angel and co. are W&H’s employee’s, we need to bring in someone else to remind us that the Senior Partners are still lurking in the background, and that the gang haven’t fully assimilated into W&H’s wicked ways. So that’s why we need someone in Eve’s position.
In fact, my real problems with Eve don’t come until later in the season, so I won’t spend too much time complaining about her here; I’ll simply limit myself to a single complaint about her awful lines. With terrible writing like “and what would you like passing through my lips?” I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that she really does get some of the worst lines in the show. It seems like a horribly misguided attempt to force us to find this new character sexy and alluring. The same can be said for her exit at the end of this episode, when she slowly sashays out of the room, swinging her hips. I think it’s supposed to be sexy and seductive. Instead, to me, it just looks ridiculous. Okay, that was two complaints.
So now let’s talk about what I really don’t like about this episode.
I think that Joss Whedon has always had a knack for giving us some great bad guys. My all-time favourite is probably The Mayor of Buffy, but there are plenty of other examples of brilliant, charismatic villains in the Buffyverse. Actually, Angel himself is one of them (or “Angelus” if you believe in separating the two that way). And, very soon, we’ll have another former Buffy villain in the title credits of this very show. Now that we’ve moved to Wolfram and Hart, we’re gearing up to see Angel tread the fine line between the good guys – the ‘helpless’ that he’s been endeavouring to help – and the baddies that make up the W&H client list. These are the people that he must now try to keep happy, in order to retain his delicate position at the top of the W&H ladder and, hopefully, gain some positive outcome from it.
So, as the first real example of this nasty, complicated little arrangement, surely we could have come up with something better than Corben Frys?
Don’t get me wrong; the idea of the baddie implanting a lethal weapon inside his own son is suitably horrific. And, of course, it ties in very well with Angel’s own emotional baggage: he has to deal with a client who’s prepared to sacrifice his child, all the while dealing with the knowledge that he has just recently given away his own son. But why exactly does Frys need to talk and act like some kind of 1930s TV mobster? With lines like ‘bye-bye California,’ delivered in his arrogant, swaggering tone, is this guy really supposed to be some kind of sinister, threatening, occult-dealing mastermind? I just find him extremely unconvincing, and more suited to a crappy daytime TV soap than a show that I’ve spent five years growing to love and respect. Quite frankly, Angel, I expected far better from you.
But while Frys is an extremely lame villain, what’s impressive is that even he isn’t my least favourite thing in this episode. No, that distinction would have to go to Agent Hauser.
Firstly, no part of his role in this story makes anysense to me. Why does Hauser want to kill Matthew in the first place? It seems to be partly because he wants to impress the new boss, and partly because of ‘tradition,’ whatever that means. Neither of these seems, to me, to be a particularly great explanation for his actions. But for whatever reason, despite Angel’s orders not to do so, he’s decided to take matter into his own hands and kill the kid anyway.
Along comes Angel. Who, by the way, somehow managed to a) get into the school during the daytime and b) convince everyone to evacuate, but someone apparently just decided to gloss over that important plot point. And now it’s Hauser’s chance to really impress the new boss. Oh, scratch that, apparently he’s now just going to try to kill him instead. By shooting him a lot, which is of course a vastly stupid way to go about killing a vampire. Can someone explain to me what on earth is going on here? Nothing about this ‘special ops’ team (who, by the way, we’ll never see or hear of again after this episode) makes any sense to me.
Later, Hauser tries to explain his motives, calling Angel a “pathetic little fairy” in the process. And apparently it all comes down to his being ‘pure’ and ‘believing in evil.’ So then I have to come back to my original question – why exactly was he trying to kill Matthew and everyone else at the school? Why not either let Angel isolate the boy, as he was going to do, or let evil run its course and destroy the entire state? If anyone can make sense of any of this, please let me know, as I’d love to hear a coherent explanation of all this. To me, it just feels like drama for drama’s sake, without much actual thought put into it.
And finally, we end this episode with the dramatic arrival of one of Buffy‘s most popular characters: Spike. I could talk at length about my thoughts on his move to Angel, but since he’s only in this episode for a few seconds I’ll restrain myself and leave that for another reviewer. But I think it’s fair to say that this radical move is another example of the big series shake-up that started with the move to W&H, and that the combination of these things is really supposed to get us excited about the upcoming season, whether we’re loyal fans who’ve been tuning in since “City of” [1×01], or complete newcomers to the show.
This episode makes some impressive promises about what we can expect from the season ahead. Whether the season actually delivers on those promises is another matter entirely, but I’m sure that most people’s curiosity will at least have been piqued at this point. So, in that respect, this is a reasonably solid outing which probably achieves what it was intended to do. Plot-wise, “Conviction” is sorely lacking in intelligence. But as a whole, I’m kept from judging it more harshly by its thematic relevance, and because of the foundations it successfully lays for the rest of the season.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The agent who shows up to assist Angel at the beginning of the episode refers to the just-dusted vampire as a ‘hostile’ – a nice little callback to the Initiative in BtVS.
+ The funny “no burning up” dance that Harmony does in front of the necro-tempered glass.
+ The categories that Lorne sorts the employees into. “Okay”, “On the bubble”, “Evil”, “To be fired” and “Yikes!”
+ Fred’s Dixie Chicks poster.
+ Normally I’m quite rude about Boreanaz’s “I’m trying not to laugh” face, but his expression when Mercedes McNab pops in to say “Blondie Bear?” is just hilarious.
+ Have you listened to the DVD commentary? If so, you’ll know that Alexis Denisof was suffering from Bell’s Palsy on the left side of his face throughout filming of this episode. Once you know it’s there, you can definitely see it, but they did an astonishing job of filming around it.
+ Thanks to Faith (“Sanctuary” [1×19]), I simply can’t take Corben Frys seriously when he repeatedly demands that Angel “get me off”. Snigger.
– Angel biting into Eve’s apple. It’s just so cheesy and unnecessary.
– Fred being turned into the Token Hot Girl for the season. Skirts that short are really not appropriate office attire.
– “I have no problem spanking men”, delivered without a hint of irony. I think a brief glimpse of Angel looking a bit sheepish after saying it would have made the line funny. But as it stands, it’s just one of those “did he really say that?” moments for me.
* The tracking monitor in Angel’s lapel proves that W&H are keeping tabs on Angel at all times. He’ll become increasingly paranoid about this as the series goes on, eventually having to resort to magic spells in order to talk to his team in private.
* Wesley’s first words to Knox are ‘how long have you been evil?’ He may be joking, but he’ll turn out to be right.
* Angel’s treatment of Hauser marks the beginning of the zero-tolerance policy he’ll adopt towards his new employees.