[Review by Iguana-on-a-stick]
[Writer: Drew Goddard | Director: Jefferson Kibbee | Aired: 11/12/2003]
Roger: “What did you just do?”
Roger is cool, slightly exasperated but resigned that his son has messed up again and that he will need to undo the damage.
Wesley: “Maybe I know what I’m doing. Why can’t you trust that?”
Wesley is frustrated, trying to prove himself harder and harder, trying to get through to Roger, trying to get him to see who he is today, not who he was ten, twenty years ago. He must realise this is futile, but he cannot stop trying. Together, these two little lines, variations on which occur throughout “Lineage,” neatly frame the main conflict of this episode.
Fathers and sons on a Joss Whedon show. This is not going to be pretty. It is one of the oldest and most common subjects in literature, but even then Whedon’s take has a reputation for being a bleak one. There are a few good mother figures in the Whedonverse, but only Fred has a truly warm and loving father. For the rest we have Buffy’s Hank (neglecting his children even after the death of his wife, so he can be with his secretary in Spain), Xander’s Tony (drunken and abusive) and Angel’s unnamed father (whom we only ever see criticising his son). And then, of course, we have Roger Wyndam-Pryce.
“I’ve Got You Under My Skin” [1×14]: “All those hours locked up under the stairs and you still weren’t good enough. Not good enough for Daddy, not good enough for the Council.”
This is the first thing we learned about the past of Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. Some more details have followed, but Wesley’s troubled relationship with his father remains the defining influence in his life. When he first showed up on Buffy he was an arrogant buffoon, but even then one might guess at the insecurity this is meant to conceal. On Angel we see how it is Wesley’s lack of confidence in himself that is his biggest stumbling block.
Roger Wyndam-Pryce himself remained a shadowy presence behind the scenes throughout the series. He was never seen, but occasionally Wesley would drop a revealing hint, and in “Belonging” [2×19] we heard Wesley’s end of a telephone conversation with him. If we regard the Roger appearing in this episode as just a robot, he never features on the series at all. Many viewers must have wondered for four seasons what he was really like. I know I did.
So when Roger first steps on the stage in “Lineage” he carries with him a certain weight of expectation. Though this is Wesley’s episode, Roger is the second-most important character in it and as such he has the power to make or break the episode as a whole. Fortunately, Roy Dotrice pulls it off with assured ease. Roger himself is not fleshed out in any great detail, and the character we see is in many ways the stereotypical overbearing upper-class English father, but Dotrice depicts Roger with such conviction and Alexis Denisof’s reactions are so true to life that their interactions not only work in this episode but do justice to the entire arc of Wesley’s father-issues.
At this point it should, of course, be addressed that the Roger we see actually is a cyborg. I feel that for all intents and purposes we can assume that Roger-the-Cyborg is the same as Roger-the-man. Firstly, his own son is convinced this is his real father. Secondly, otherwise the entire episode would be pointless. This is about Wesley and his father, the cyborg bits are there to avoid upsetting the network or some such concern. Ultimately I do not think the cyborg-revelation weakens the episode in any significant way, not like it did in the Buffy episode “Ted.” “Lineage” works where “Ted” didn’t because the writers make it very clear that Wesley did think it was his father, and sees his actions as completely equivalent to killing the real Roger. If anything, the cyborg reveal robs Wesley of any closure he might have gotten from killing the tyrant that dominated his life, and leaves him with all the guilt and none of the release.
Because this plotline was abandoned, we can only speculate on how the cyborgs could imitate Roger so perfectly. Psychological profiles, as they put forward on the show, don’t cut it. Those would have given us the BuffyBot. Magic was involved in some way, and the cyborgs are human enough to be able to act, but I cannot help but feel that Roger himself or at the least people close to him who knew him very well must have been involved in some way. The old Watcher’s Council seems like the prime candidate for a force of indiscriminate evil-eradicators. It is a pity this was never explored on the show.
Though Roger’s interaction with Wesley is the body of the episode, there are a few other plot-lines here. A few minor scenes aside, these too are about Wesley. This truly is his episode, and that is a good thing. So far he has spent Season 5 unsuccessfully flirting with Fred and providing generic back-up for Angel. Here, we not only get to see his background explored in far greater depth, but we also see important developments in his relationships with Fred and Angel.
Fred and Wes make a good team in the opening, his failure to provide her with a gun aside (though she could have brought one herself if she wanted to be self-sufficient). For the rest of this episode, however, Fred mostly appears to be uncomfortable. She tries to be a supportive friend to Wesley, but she hates to be put between him and his father or between him and Angel, and twice she takes the first available excuse to extract herself from the conversation. Thrice, if we count her leaving with Knox at the very end. She only appears confident and at ease in the opening scene and afterwards when she’s berating Wesley’s parroting of Angel’s patronising “Keep Fred Safe” attitude. I do not think “Lineage” marks any great change in Fred’s relationship with Wesley. She stays close to Knox, likes Wesley as a friend but is generally uncomfortable around him. In fact, in this episode Fred has no real development of her own at all. In what gets to be an unfortunate pattern she is merely used as a device to increase Wesley’s pain and provide a point of conflict between him and Roger and Angel.
Angel’s distrust of Wesley after the mind-wipe has been hinted at in a few episodes before. In “Lineage” it comes to a head. We see how much their relationship has changed since the early seasons: Angel acts like a boss berating a recalcitrant and untrustworthy employee. Even back in Season 1 when Wesley was new and unproven Angel would never have talked to him like that. In Season 2 and 3 Wesley was nominally Angel’s boss. Season 4 Wes would never take this kind of treatment from Angel; in all their confrontations there Wesley holds the upper hand with ease. Now, with his memory gone, Wesley is the loyal and trusting follower again, but Angel still has all the resentment and anger over Connor’s kidnapping and treats Wes accordingly. Counterpoised with his father’s appearance this does not make a pretty picture. Angel is treating Wesley just like Roger does, blaming him and criticising him unfairly, and Wesley takes it without complaint because this is what he is used to. It is interesting that Angel never questions the mind-wipe, never seems to feel guilty for what he did to his friends. It takes Eve of all people to point out how unfair it is for Angel to hold the actions Wesley has forgotten against him.
Angel’s key development in “Lineage” is that he sees first hand Wesley’s determination to do the right thing and loyalty towards him. He always knew that Wesley meant well, but here for the first time since “Sanctuary” [1×19] perhaps he sees Wesley make one of those hard choices and have it work out in Angel’s favour. Unlike Roger, Angel makes a real effort to put aside his resentment and accept Wesley again near the end of the episode, although his speech sounds a bit like he is trying to convince himself as much as Wesley. Still, it is a nice moment, though the lasting impact does not seem to be that big.
Unfortunately, though this plot-line is important in the larger scheme of things and the juxtaposition of Angel and Roger as the authority-figures in Wesley’s life makes for a very interesting theme, the execution of Angel’s part of the arc leaves something to be desired. Eve’s speech to Angel and Angel’s speech to Wesley at the episode’s end feel rather heavy-handed and unsubtle. Fortunately it is very much a secondary part of the episode.
This all brings me back to Roger and Wesley. Unlike Angel’s speeches, their interactions feel very realistic and true to life. Mystical texts and evil law-firms aside, the general flavour of their scenes will be instantly recognisable to many viewers. From the point Roger walks on to the stage (at the most awkward moment possible) we see Wesley thrown off his equilibrium. Literally; he stumbles and bumps into people from sheer nerve, just as he used to back in Season 1 or on Buffy. But where there it was played for slap-stick comedy, here we feel his awkwardness and embarrassment.
We immediately see confirmed that Wesley can do no good in his father’s eyes. His mistakes are pounced on, his justifications are ignored, and his achievements are belittled. Some of Roger’s criticism at least makes sense. Some is completely spurious (“What do you think you’re doing? I had attack priority.”). All of it is intensely petty. Roger is one-upping his son in a way that probably reveals some insecurity of his own, some need to prove himself wiser and stronger, but that does not reduce its effects on Wesley. In fact, it is Roger complimenting Wesley that puts the latter sufficiently off-guard for Roger to strike him unconscious with a single blow. I cannot help but conclude that the uncharacteristically kind words must have been deliberately out of character as a distraction.
Before that blow, the entire middle half of the episode is taken up with relatively low-key exposition and character-scenes. One might expect that to make the episode feel slowly paced, but this never is the case. The conflict in the middle half may be mundane in origin, but it remains more compelling than any Aztec warrior demon could be. Still, once Roger’s true colours are revealed and the conflict between him and Wesley becomes externalised the tensions racket up for the final act, culminating in the pivotal rooftop scene.
It is one of the best on Angel; one of the most tense and powerful in the entire Whedonverse. Stark and harsh: no scenery, hardly any colours. Everything comes together here. Just picture the actors as they are placed in the scene: Angel lying down, powerless, needing the people around him to keep him from being a helpless plaything of the parties seeking to control him. Fred kneeling by him, not actually doing much of anything as is unfortunately all too common on this show. Roger being just as smoothly competent enslaving the CEO of Wolfram and Hart from his own headquarters as he was dressing Wesley down in front of his friends. (”It is, by the way, a pleasure to meet you, too.”) And finally Wesley himself, gun in hand, the tension running through him only matched by the strength of his control as he confronts them. (”Not Quite. Hello, Father.”) Over it all is the sound of the helicopter coming to take Angel away, its searchlight strafing over the characters and giving it all an even colder and more forlorn look.
Wesley still pleads with his father, and it is not about Roger’s actions either. What Wesley wants, even now, is his father’s trust. What hurts Wesley is not Roger’s betrayal, but that he did not trust his own son enough to even consider asking for his aid. Even though it was Roger who treacherously used his son to get at his son’s friends, Wesley is the one who has to justify himself, the one who can’t be trusted. It is yet another telling moment. Clearly this is not about Angel at all, but about father and son.
The scene is reminiscent of a Mexican stand-off. Only in this one none of the parties seem ready to kill, not quite yet. Cyborg or no, Roger argues with his son, continues to belittle him, threatens him, but does not just attack, no more than he killed Wesley down in the library when he had the chance. He says he is prepared to kill Wesley and no doubt he is, but he does not do so. Likewise, Wesley pleads and moves to counter Roger’s plans, but rather than attacking his father he makes sure to foil Roger in a way that only places his own life at risk. He never even threatens his father, not even at the very end. No matter what side they are on, he remains Roger’s son. Until, of course, Fred enters the picture
Wesley shooting his father is one of the most powerful, visceral scenes I have ever watched on television. For the past 35 minutes we have seen what this man is to Wesley, we have seen the pattern of their relationship laid out in painful detail. All that time, Wesley has only weakly argued against his father, offered the occasional sarcastic retort, but never any threat of violence, never any overt show of hatred. Even in defiance he never sought to dominate his father. And then this.
We are conditioned by the television and films we watch. We have seen endless confrontations such as this, endless guns being pointed at hostages, endless terse negotiations held and threats spat out under the threat of violence. This is different. The moment is not spun out, we hardly have the chance to realise just what new low Roger has sunk to when Wesley has already opened fire. It takes a mere few seconds, but it feels measured, deliberate, each shot ringing out clearly and distinctly. After the first few shot the camera turns to Wesley. It is his reaction that we see, not Roger’s death-throes. That he is dead cannot be doubted. This is Wesley killing his father, deliberately, in cold blood, by ten shots to the torso.
The morality of this action of course is subject to debate. The show offers no judgement save the characters’ own: Fred and Angel try to tell him he did the right thing. Wesley is disgusted with himself. We see him stumble off to vomit as soon as the enormity of what he has done hits home. His control collapses only then, when the danger is over and his father is dead. This is typical of who Wesley has become: a man who will allow himself no weaknesses, and is thereby rendered strong, but brittle.
For myself, I think Wesley was more than justified in killing Roger. In the scene itself I cannot help but be swept up by the power of the moment, feeling Wesley’s catharsis along with my own as he shoots Roger again and again. It is a unique blend of violence and control, a cold-bloodedness and practicality that is very rarely seen in TV heroes. This scene leaves me awe-struck every time I see it. I also like the decisiveness. Our television usually celebrates moments of red-hot passion and shows endless botched killings in the interest of increased dramatic tension, the villain resurfacing again and again because the hero did not simply make sure to do a thorough job. All too often I have mentally shouted at a character to just kill his enemy and be done. In this regard the scene on “Lineage” is a breath of fresh air.
At the same time I very much understand Wesley’s disgust, because the taboo of patricide aside, he will never be certain just what motivated him in that decisive instant. The threat to Fred, yes. That was the trigger. But how often must he have thought about this? How often did that little boy locked up in that closet under the stairs think of his father dead? How often during this visit did Wesley yearn to prove himself stronger than this man whose weight has so long tried to crush his life? I do not believe Wesley would ever have harmed his father had Roger not threatened his friends, but the very violence of Roger’s execution, the sheer volume of fire, these things hint at tensions long held in check finally breaking free. Or, alternately, something feared for so long that when you finally lash out it is with overwhelming panic-fuelled force.
The episode does not end on that roof-top. Had it not allowed time for a suitable denouement “Lineage” would not have ended nearly so well. Wesley has to come to terms with what he has done. It does not happen in these last 6 minutes, but we see him try to make a start. Knowing Wes, it will be a long time before he forgives himself, if he ever will.
Taken as a whole, Lineage is a strongly character-centric episode with great tension running through it, good action scenes, some very dramatic confrontations, very good acting, good cinematography and the occasional bit of scathing wit. The plot, in typical Whedon vein, serves the characters and not the other way around, but this hardly matters. A few niggling details aside, this character-study of Wesley is as good as it gets. More disappointingly the Cyborgs are never followed up on, though the series being cancelled must have had much to do with that.
“Lineage” still exerts its influence on things to come, but more than a foundation for future developments it is a capstone episode. In many ways it finishes Wesley’s back-story. From Wesley’s initial regression to nervous fumbling to that final confrontation on the roof, it shows us where Wesley came from, and how far he has left that behind. It shows us clearly what an immense and destructive influence Roger was on Wesley’s life. It shows where Wesley’s hard and ruthless streak originated. It puts into perspective how much of Wesley’s efforts to prove himself over the seasons were in the end about proving himself to his father. And finally, it shows how all of Wesley’s efforts are ultimately for naught.
Wesley is a better man than his father ever was. He is more competent and more determined, having lost everything and achieved success from nothing time and again. Though both can be ruthless and both can focus on the big picture, Wesley is never petty, never cruel without a reason. Just like his father, Wesley is not terribly empathic, but he still manages to show more caring and compassion than Roger ever did. Wesley has no doubt achieved more in the battle between good and evil than any dozen Watchers back in England. But Roger is still his father, and as long as his father does not see his accomplishments, does not acknowledge them, Wesley will on some level always be in his shadow.
Nothing shows this better than the beautiful final scene. Wesley, with some effort of will, picks up the telephone and calls his father, wanting to just talk to him for what must be the first time in years. Like that other conversation back in “Belonging” [2×19] we only hear Wesley’s side of it, but it is clear that he is immediately subject to a barrage of criticism and suspicion. Wesley’s tone is conciliatory, he tries to reach out, but he cannot get a word in edgewise.
Wesley has just shot his father.
And nothing has changed.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The first scene does a great job of reminding us how far Wesley has come in terms of competence and self-possession. It makes for a marked contrast with what follows as soon as Roger shows up.
+ Wesley’s first reaction on seeing Roger is to ask if his mother is well. When he calls, both his mother and his father ask him if something is wrong.
+ Roger covers all the clichés of parental visits: he tells embarrassing childhood stories to Fred and asks Wes about his love-life.
+ Only for a Watcher would such an embarrassing childhood story involve attempting to resurrect a bird. Roger’s derision to the contrary, the story is actually rather sweet.
+ Wesley only ever refers to Roger as “Father.” Every time they speak his greeting is “Hello, Father.” He calls his mother “mum.”
+ When confronted with a dead parent, Wesley stumbles off to vomit in a scene eerily reminiscent of Buffy doing the exact same thing in “The Body.” Eerie, because the circumstances could not be more different.
+ Continuity: Spike suspects Pavaine when the power fails. Apparently he still bears some mental scars from that episode.
+ Continuity: Lilah and Wesley’s collapsible swords are referred to.
+ Continuity: Wesley tortures the cyborg in the same way he did the bookie in “The Ring” [1×16] or the junky in “Release” [4×14]
– Spike’s lines ring false in half his dialogue. Why on earth would an upper-middle-class Victorian Englishman, either the product of or highly familiar with the public school system, find the concept of “Head Boy” surprising or amusing?
– His line at the end about killing his mum after she tried to shag him is a particularly dire offence against characterisation.
– Fred once again serves as a male-angst-generating plot-device.
* Roger calls Angel a puppet of the Powers and Wolfram & Hart. In “Smile Time” [5×14] Angel gets turned into an actual puppet.
* According to Eve, Angel expects Wesley to betray him again the next time the greater good appears to require it. This happens in “Origin” [5×18] where Wesley goes against Angel to break the memory spell, and to a lesser extent in “Time Bomb” [5×19] where Wes works to save Illyria without Angel’s permission.
* Though it is never explicitly referred to again, Wesley’s trauma here must have contributed to his eventual collapse and death.