[Review by Miscellaneopolan]
[Writer: Jeffrey Bell | Director: Jeffrey Bell | Aired: 11/05/2003]
A cursory look at the plot of “The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco” reveals that it was surely a labor of love. It’s about a masked Mexican wrestler (known, for those understandably unfamiliar with the type, as a “luchador”) who long ago gave up his crime-fighting ways to work for an evil law firm in L.A. where he would one day cross paths with and give hope to a repentant vampire turned corporate CEO. To call the episode odd would be an understatement. It’s the kind of pitch that would get most television writers demoted to doing sock puppet theater, so that it got made at all proves that someone on the Angel creative team, probably writer-director Jeffrey Bell, really loved it. That love sometimes leads the episode astray, but it also leads to some scenes that stay on the right side of whimsical, and it all works surprisingly well with the underlying themes of this young season. Put it all together and you’ve got a weird but worthwhile little tale.
The repentant vampire turned CEO is, of course, Angel, and he’s feeling “disconnected.” His complaint is multilayered. For one thing, Angel misses life on the front lines. He used to fight the forces of evil with his bare hands; now he signs legal forms and sends Gunn into court to enforce them. When Wesley informs him that a demon is tearing out the still-beating hearts of innocent civilians, it’s no wonder that Angel hops right into the company car to find and fight the monster himself rather than send some of his many staff.
But Angel’s disconnection runs deeper than that. He’s not just cut off from life in the trenches; he’s forgotten why he’s fighting the war in the first place. At the beginning of the series, Angel was given a mission to fight evil at the behest of the Powers That Be. However tough the going got in the years to follow, Angel could generally rest assured that he was a hero with a noble destiny. And in the back of his head he could nurse the distant hope given to him by the Shanshu Prophecy: that after every battle had been fought and won he might, just might, be made newly human.
Now, over four years into his mission, pretty much everything has turned to crap. His contact with the Powers That Be, Cordelia, lies in a coma. What’s more, she’s there because a former member of the Powers That Be possessed her in an attempt to take over the world. That conflict shook Angel, but at least he knew he was on the right side. Now he’s working for his sworn enemies and very much unsure of his place. As for prophesies, Angel’s experiences in Seasons 3 and 4 have convinced him that they can’t be trusted. We can hear the bitterness in his voice when he engages Wesley on the subject. “The prophecies are nonsense. You know that. Oh, come on, Wes, after everything we’ve seen the past couple of years? ‘The father will kill the son.’”
Wesley’s response is probably the saddest moment in the episode. “What are you talking about?” Angel’s disconnection is thus complete: he’s cut off from the hero’s lifestyle, he’s cut off from his mission, he no longer believes he can regain his humanity and he can’t talk freely to his friends about these things because he erased their relevant memories in “Home” [4×22]. What’s worse, he doesn’t have hope that the situation will improve. This is Angel at a loose end.
Enter that masked Mexican wrestler, the titular Number Five. Angel visits the luchador’s apartment to find out more about Wesley’s demon and stays long enough to hear the old man’s tale of woe. Like Angel, Number Five once had a mission. He and his brothers (Numbers One through Four, incidentally) fought the good fight against monsters, gangsters, and “vampiros.” They protected the weak and “helped the helpless,” a turn of phrase that hits both Angel and the viewer right on the nose. But after his brothers were killed by the demon Tezcatcatl, the same demon currently ripping the hearts out of unsuspecting Los Angelinos, Number Five lost hope and sold out to Wolfram and Hart where he now stalks the halls as the perennially depressing mail guy. When the mighty fall, they fall hard.
Number Five’s story is told largely in flashbacks, and it is here where Jeffrey Bell’s obvious affection for the material gets a bit out of hand. During these interludes, Bell turns up the salsa music, switches to sepia-cam and shows us fairly lengthy and carefully choreographed sequences where “Los Hermanos Numeros” engage in professional wrestling, battle shotgun-toting gangsters, and work out in a dark, smoky barroom. All while wearing their wrestling masks. They had to be ever-vigilant, you see. I don’t mind a little whimsy in my fiction, and the world of Angel is certainly flexible enough to absorb it, but this is a little too weird. It gets points for novelty, and a few moments are funny in a what-in-the-world-just-happened kind of way, but it’s probably a tad too quirky for its own good.
More successful are the ways the episode uses Number Five’s story to comment on Angel’s own. For starters, it’s hard to look at Number Five’s drab little apartment and not remember Angel’s subterranean bachelor pad from Season 1. The life of a hero, the episode seems to be telling us, is circular. Number Five toiled in obscurity and he returned to obscurity. Angel began the series disconnected from humanity; remember Doyle encouraging him to form human connections way back in “City of” [1×01]. Years later and he’s as disconnected as ever, although his disconnection has taken something of a different form. Even Tezcatcatl is back, stalking the streets and relieving people of their internal organs fifty years after being killed by Number Five and his brothers. Number Five looks at all this and despairs. “Why did we bother?” He asks. “What difference did we make?”
To his credit, Angel has an answer for him. “We do it because we can…” he says, “We do it whether people remember us or not, in spite of the fact that there’s no shiny reward at the end of the day… other than the work itself.” Angel, of course, is reciting the lesson he learned back in “Epiphany” [2×16]; if nothing he does matters, then all that matters is what he does. But the problem is that he doesn’t really believe it anymore. Angel’s little speech isn’t just for Number Five’s benefit; he’s trying to convince himself that his work still has value. But as Wesley will later point out, Angel’s heart just isn’t in it anymore.
But at least his heart isn’t with Tezcatcatl. After Number Five walks out in the middle of Angel’s pep talk, our downtrodden disconnectee has a run-in with the armor-clad demon, who we discover has been ripping out the hearts of… wait for it… heroes. Tezcatcatl overpowers Angel, throws him onto the hood of a car, stabs him, and then… walks away, leaving Angel’s non-beating heart securely in his chest. Not getting your torso ripped open would normally qualify as a win for the home team, but Angel seems to take it as a cosmic diss. “Am I honestly supposed to believe that it had no problem sticking a sword in my stomach but then decided, ‘Oh, wait, his heart’s not heroic enough’? Ha! I don’t think so.”
The narrative and thematic threads come to a head in the final confrontation. It ends up that Tezcatcatl cut a mystical deal back during his days as an Aztec warrior which allows him to return from the dead every half-century until he finds a golden talisman, kept by a hero, who will make him “supernova powerful.” Number Five is the talisman’s current guardian, and he’s using it to lure Tezcatatl to his brother’s graveside in the hope that the demon will give him the heroic death he can no longer come by honestly. Angel shows up to collect the talisman in a typically despondent mood, more sure than ever that his heroic days are behind him. “[Tezcatcatl] won’t kill you. Or me. Missing the secret ingredient.” And then the zombies show up.
They’re the zombies of Number Five’s four brothers, of course, and they’re back to lay the smack down on Tezcatcatl by pinning him to the ground and asking a grateful Angel to shove a rebar through his heart. Like other fight scenes in the episode, this sequence overcomes some obvious budgetary constraints with energetic choreography and a dash of absurd comic styling. Thematically, it underscores the point that however hopeless Angel feels, he is still a hero at heart. The champions of the past have chosen him as a partner, and as long as Angel remembers that he can avoid ending up embittered like Number Five. The episode ends with a lovely sequence wherein Angel walks into Wesley’s office, picks up a reference book, and reads the Shanshu prophesy for the first time in what must be a very long while. Hope, for the moment, is kept alive.
The episode, then, is made up of sly character insight, sure-footed writing, much in the way of whimsy, and some pertinent thematic rumblings. All in all it’s a pretty kicky cocktail. However, the central idea of exploring Angel’s disconnection, while relevant and well-done, is perhaps too slight to fill out a whole episode. It’s an important point, but it’s really the only important point the episode has to make. This results in a slow pace toward the beginning and a reliance on the off-the-wall luchador story to fill out the time. But ultimately that story provides some good gags and that pace yields up some interesting ideas, and each play their part in making “The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco” a tale worth telling.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ It’s nice to see Gunn actually using some of that legal knowledge Wolfram and Hart packed into his head. He’s having Angel “lock and load” some legal documents at the beginning of the episode and later finds information on Tezcatcatl by finding the contract it used to come back from the dead.
+ When a Wolfram and Hart lawyer approaches Number Five during a flashback sequence to recruit him, the lawyer’s card identifies him as Holland Manners — a nice touch.
+ Spike sees the answer to how to kill Tezcatacatl (stab it in the heart) not in the science but “in the poetry.”
+ I like the melancholy Mexican string music the episode occasionally uses. Considering that the show is set in Los Angeles, it was probably overdue for a little Latin influence.
– Lorne shows up near the beginning of the episode, makes a few quips and is not heard from again, which wouldn’t be so irritating if it weren’t so common during Angel’s fifth Season.
– While discussing the things that he cannot do in his ghostly form, Spike laments that can longer “diddle [his] willie.” Ew. Maybe it’s just because we’ve never seen him around so many guys before, but I don’t remember Spike being this vulgar.
– While I realize that they more-or-less had to include it, everything involving the mythology surrounding Tezcatatl is quite boring.
* Angel’s not the only ensouled vampire thinking about the Shanshu Prophecy. Spike has clearly realized that it could just as well apply to him. This conflict will explode rather violently in “Destiny” [5×08].
* When speaking with Wesley, Angel makes a passing reference to the latter’s kidnapping of Connor. Wesley, of course, doesn’t remember it. The tension between what Angel knows and what Wesley suspects will be touched on in “Lineage” [5×07] and come home to roost in “Origin” [5×18].