[Review by Brachen Man]
[Writer: Steven S. DeKnight and Drew Goddard | Director: Terrence O Hara | Aired: 02/11/2004]
The fifth season of Angel could almost be considered an anomaly. Watching it in retrospect, one doesn’t get the impression that a grand story arc was planned out for it from the very beginning. This isn’t a bad thing of course, as more standalones often mean more variety in the writing, which is essential to holding the viewer’s attention. One of Season 4’s main failings was that it was basically a 22 part story. That was a big factor in Season 5’s popularity. It felt like a breath of fresh air from the never-ending plot of the previous year. Standalone episodes are a mixed bag however, and for every “Lineage” [5×07], there is an “Unleashed” [5×03]. (Apologies to fans of “Unleashed” [5×03].) One of the best qualities a standalone can have is a thematic connection to the larger goings-on of the season. Episodes that fail to have any connection to the themes and character arcs of the season or indeed the series itself are more often than not complete failures. If anyone has any idea what theme “Double or Nothing” [3×18] was trying to accomplish, I’d love to hear it.
This brings me to “Why We Fight”, which is in my opinion one of the most thematically connected standalone episodes of Season 5. We begin in World War II, which almost always makes for good drama. Angel is in the thick of his self-imposed isolation that began when he was cursed with a soul in 1898, and will end when Whistler finds him in the 1990’s to show him his destiny. This period of Angel’s life was explored only once before, in “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?” [2×02]. The two episodes are interestingly similar, on a character level. Angel has flashbacks to past events that have come back to haunt him, and in the process he learns a lesson about himself and humanity. In “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?” [2×02] it was about the inherent good and evil that lies in every human, and here it’s about the natural human need to have a purpose. Also in both cases, Angel somehow forgot said important lesson around eight episodes later. In “Reunion” [2×10] he completely forgot about how important it is to care about and understand humans, and in “Not Fade Away” [5×22] he completely forgot how important it is to have a real purpose, going out in a blaze of glory notwithstanding.
What else was “Why We Fight” about if not purpose? Angel has no purpose during the flashback sequences. He just wants to be left alone and let his sorrow consume him, instead of trying to do some good in the world. This somewhat factors into how he was acting in the first episode of Angel, “City of” [1×01]. He was fighting evil, but wasn’t making human connections, regressing to his self-imposed exile from 1898. That time, it took true love to help him become proactive and a better person. The second time around, it took the support of his friends to get him to stop his self-destructive detachment from people. Both times, he had to find a purpose in order to live. Yet, unbeknownst to Angel, he is sinking into the blackness yet again, because he has lost his connections to the Fang Gang. Who knows if he would’ve been rescued from this depression in the hypothetical Season 6, but we have to work with what we were given, in this case “Not Fade Away” [5×22]. More on that later.
Sam Lawson serves as a disturbing, yet accurate parallel to Angel. He lost not only his purpose in life and his connections, but his humanity. Lawson became a vampire, the very antithesis of what he once was, a soldier who fought for freedom. Angel himself became the CEO of Wolfram & Hart, the very thing he spent the last four years fighting. They are also both trapped, in a sense. Neither can be completely good, or completely evil. The differences come about when we look at how they handled the cards they were dealt, so to speak. Angel ultimately got the better hand because he has a soul. Not just part of someone else’s soul, but his own. Angel became more of a force for good as a result, while Lawson a force of evil.
As the story progresses in World War II, Angel takes command of a captured Nazi submarine on behalf of the U.S. government, (Don’t worry, it makes sense in context. Sort of.) and clashes with the crew, who understandably have some doubts about him. Lawson and Angel continually argue, with Angel being cold-hearted, wanting nothing more than to finish the mission. This is in part, I believe, why Angel sired Lawson. Just because Angel has a soul and doesn’t sadistically kill people anymore doesn’t mean that he actually cares about people. In fact, the only time he actually cared about someone enough to help was in “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?” [2×02], and that resulted in a public hanging. Even if the siring was somewhat justifiable, as he had to save the crew and the submarine, and Lawson was the only one who could do it, what is unjustifiable is Angel not staking him afterwards. He knew full well that as soon as Lawson reached dry land, he would start a killing spree. He just didn’t care enough, and he doesn’t care now either. Angel is in a repetitive cycle that changes players every few years, but the dilemma is always the same.
Now we flash forward to the present, and Lawson decides that it’s time for payback. Angel however, couldn’t care less. Just look at the lack of guilt on his face when Lawson tells Angel that he did indeed kill many people. Sure, he flinched a little, but he wasn’t horribly inconvenienced or anything. Angel most likely expected it, but he is the reason for those deaths. He set loose the vampire he sired onto humanity. If you think about it, Sam Lawson is more of an annoyance to Angel than a tragedy he created. But now, completely the opposite of his optimistic ideology from late Season 2, he can’t be bothered with the small stuff, as he is too worried about the big picture. What he has yet to understand is that all the small stuff combined makes the big picture.
Angel eventually does kill Lawson, a major reason being that his friends were in danger, which is a vital component to his character. Even in his darkest times, Angel has always valued the lives of his friends, even somewhat during the ‘Beige Angel’ arc. After “Epiphany” [2×16] it should be near impossible for Angel to be completely sucked into depression again, because he has so much to work for, and work toward. A part of him still knows that, which is why he is able to understand Lawson’s mindset, and reflect on his own. He has enough knowledge to understand his own mistakes, but he isn’t really motivated to fix them yet. In the final scene with Spike. Spike asks what he wanted, and Angel responds “A reason.” Angel too needs a reason to go on living, but hasn’t found one yet, and won’t find one, even by “Not Fade Away” [5×22] when the best he can do is find a reason to go out fighting. That is truly a tragedy, in every Shakespearean sense of the word.
If this episode was completely devoted to being a character study, then it would have been near perfect. However, a plot has to enter into it somewhere. Grumble, grumble. Spike, while always a welcome character, feels out of place and simply there for comic relief. That’s not to say he doesn’t serve that purpose extremely well, because he does, just that it felt contrived to have Angel and Spike meet on the same submarine in 1943. Spike was a great addition to Angel’s main cast, and at his best he had episodes like “Just Rewards” [5×02] and “Destiny” [5×08] going for him. Yes, I consider “Just Rewards” [5×02] a high point for him in this series, what of it? At his worst, Spike was forcibly crammed into the A-plot of an episode when it clearly didn’t need him. There was not a single reason, from a storytelling perspective, to have Spike in the World War II scenes. Still, James Marsters is a great comic actor, and he clearly has fun in the role when in comedic situations. At least the plot accommodates his appearance, which is better than simply having him show up for no reason. Let’s all pause for a moment and give thanks that plot accommodation for characters is a given for a Joss Whedon produced series. It’s a scarce thing in television these days.
The plot itself is not bad. It won’t win a writing award, but it is far from horrendous. The idea of the US and Nazi Germany trying to make vampire soldiers in World War II isn’t touched upon a lot, which is probably for the best, because it isn’t the most serious of set-ups. Only having it mentioned briefly lets the willing suspension of disbelief stay suspended. In addition, it’s a fun B-movie sci-fi premise that can be enjoyed as the plot equivalent of set dressing. There are certain episodes that are hard to consider as a serious reviewer because the aesthetics are so… neat, for lack of a better word. I know that Spike saying he ate a Nazi and took his jacket is an odd joke with no real relevance to anything, but it made me laugh, and that has to count for something. That is why I won’t be too harsh on certain aspects of the plot. Yes, it wasn’t thematically important, but it was funny.
Something I won’t forgive however are cheap gimmick characters. Take for instance, Nostroyev and The Prince of Lies, two extraordinarily old vampires who are also lured onto the submarine to be experimented on. Instead of giving these characters an aura of mystery and danger, they are treated as comic relief, and literally nothing else. It’s not even that funny. Nostroyev is staked almost instantly, and The Prince of Lies doesn’t actually lie once, as his name would suggest. He’s basically a stereotypical sitcom grandfather, and that is not something a vampire should be.
Sam Lawson was intriguing in his own right, and it’s a shame that the ‘Vampire with part of a soul’ concept wasn’t explored in greater detail. I could see that being the main focus of its own episode. The side characters on the submarine are sadly less than one-note, but it really isn’t that noticeable. Angel and Lawson were the focus, and a good supporting cast can’t always be accomplished in episodes like this.
The biggest flaw in this whole episode was that it completely failed to stick with a tone. It was dark and contemplative one moment, and funny the next. Good shows have comedy moments along with the serious ones, but here, some, if not most of the comedy, felt undeserved and not funny. I stick by my comments above that non-relevant material is forgivable if it’s at least well written, but there is a line. This episode’s successes are worth focusing on more than its flaws though. Angel is at a point in time where the Wolfram and Hart setting is slowly but surely starting to crumble down around him, and the season would have suffered without this episode. Not terribly so, but we needed a detour into Angel’s past at this point in order to give us perspective on just what kind of downward spiral he is on.
That is also a major question to ask of any episode. Is it needed at this time? Does the content mesh with what the greater plot is trying to accomplish? If it does, it still has to be placed at the right time. “Why We Fight” is really a theme piece more than anything. Themes of purpose, belonging, and loneliness are all explored here to great effect, and in my opinion it comes at exactly the right time. During the calm before the storm, due in about two episodes. Other ‘theme piece’ episodes like this include “Darla” [2×07], “Deep Down” [4×01], and of course “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?” [2×02]. Notice how close all of those are to the beginning of their respective seasons. If season five can be faulted for anything, it can be faulted for not starting a real plot arc until “Underneath” [5×17]. That was most likely a side effect of premature cancellation though.
The other nagging problem here is that it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that no one from the main cast was in this other than Angel and Spike. This wouldn’t be a problem if every other episode didn’t share it. I know the show is called Angel, but try showing off your magnificent cast once in a while. David Boreanaz and James Marsters complement each other greatly, and it’s not bad when intermingled with other character-focused episodes, but this is the fourth episode in a row that has focused mainly on either Angel or Spike. One of the things Buffy always did better than Angel was showcase the supporting cast more often, which is a shame since there were so many great characters here in need of spotlight. Lindsey, Lorne, and Wesley just to name a few. Still, that isn’t a problem of this episode in particular.
“Why We Fight” pulls off a great mix of standalone and thematically relevant material when it comes to the character interactions and basic set-up. The comedy is far from Whedon-level quality, but it was okay for the most part. Arc based episodes are great, but good characters are more essential to a good series than big, grandiose master plans and plot schemes. When an epic event happens like “Not Fade Away” [5×22], it has to be believable within the fictional universe the writers have constructed. It has to be built up to and not seem out of character. “Why We Fight” is just that: a building block to a larger goal that manages to be good all on its own as well.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ I love the meeting with the gang near the beginning of the episode. It’s the happiest they’ll ever get working for Wolfram & Hart. Plus, Jenga!
+ The government sponsored “Demon Research Initiative” is an obvious precursor to Maggie Walsh’s failed agenda in Season 4 of Buffy. I just love little continuity nods like this.
+ Angel and Spike each foreshadowing their troubled futures in one hilarious rant. See quotes section.
+ Angel not being surprised that Lawson managed to break into Wolfram & Hart.
+ The ‘Steve Rogers is Captain America’ joke, especially in light of Joss Whedon’s current project.
– The fact that no effort is made to include a period-appropriate style of speaking and slang in the flashback sequences.
– The Prince of Lies has no elaborate dusting sequence, even though he’s probably older than the Master, who left a whole skeleton behind in “Prophecy Girl” from Buffy.
– The submarine crew accepted Angel way too quickly. Knowing a secret code word doesn’t seem like enough of a verification process to me.
* Gunn has a bit of trouble remembering his legal jargon in the beginning, hinting at his implant failing, which can be easily fixed by paying with the life of your dear friend. See “Smile Time” [5×14].
* Angel sees in Lawson a disturbing possible outcome for his own life which, while not an entirely accurate portrait, does somewhat come to fruition in “Not Fade Away” [5×22].