[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Sarah Fain and Elizabeth Craft | Director: Skip Schoolnik | Aired: 04/14/2004]
I’m going to say it right from the start: “Underneath” rocks. Even if it didn’t come right on the heels of the strongly written and starkly powerful “Shells” [5×16], it would still be an incredibly well-crafted and thematically resonant episode of television. It locks its characters into their darkest corners, and pulls none of its punches. And most importantly, it kicks off the final arc of “Angel” on a terrifically entertaining note.
From the start, Angel has always focused himself on the mission. Fight evil. Kill monsters. Avert the Apocalypse. When he began headlining the offices of Wolfram & Hart, he did so with the full intention of continuing that mission. But now, his crucial decision has snaked around and bitten him in the back. One of his closest friends has been killed by the law firm’s machinations, and the rest of the team has now drifted apart.
It is in the aftermath of Fred’s death that Angel’s motivations in fighting the good fight become clear. He realizes that it was his choice which brought her to Wolfram & Hart in the first place, and which ultimately led to her loss. He acknowledges to himself that Fred’s death could have been prevented. But Angel will respond to her senseless demise not with grief and sorrow, but with atonement. He has fought long and hard to make up for the sins of his past, and will only continue to do so in the future. “Underneath” shows us that Angel still has a great determination and willingness to continue fighting… by showing us that no one else in his group does.
Well, except for Spike. Then again, he’s only been a part of the team for a short time, and as we’ve seen in the past, he uses fighting as a diversion to get over many of his personal issues. He makes for an entertaining exception, and is well-used within the context of the episode.
The rest of Angel’s friends, sadly, lack his personal goal of atonement, and so they must resort to grief. No character expresses this more poignantly than Lorne. Over the last year, Lorne has provided little more than short bursts of comic relief to the group, and never finds a real footing. His one prominent role, in “Life of the Party” [5×05], only emphasized his complete lack of purpose in the grand scheme.
And as Lorne now stares at the bottom of an emptied beer glass, he finally acknowledges how little he has brought to the fight – and even more bitterly, he acknowledges that at this point, there is nothing he can do to change his status. In the past, Lorne has merely been a singer, a joker, an entertainer. And most likely, he always will. Fans sometimes complain that Lorne has never been a very deep or complex character, and here the show finally uses his lack of development to say something relevant about him. It’s sad and disheartening, although I would’ve preferred him being developed more in the earlier seasons to begin with.
Lorne’s pain, like Lorne himself, is fairly simple. But Gunn’s sorrow is far worse. He’s had a wound burning in his chest even before Wesley plunged a knife into it, and can we blame him? Wesley’s action only confirmed to him what he’d been trying to hide from himself earlier – that he is fully responsible for Fred’s death. He cannot face the world after committing such an atrocity, and so he chooses to simply lie sullenly in his hospital bed.
Angel comes to the rescue, or so the vampire thinks: “The thing about atonement is, you never run out of chances… but you gotta take ’em. You can’t hide in some hospital room and pretend it’s all gonna go away… ’cause it never will.” Here, Angel foists his own view of atonement onto Gunn, in the hopes that it will urge him back into the fray. He initially appears to succeed, and Gunn is soon back as his head-shaven, street clothes-wearing old self. He’s always been a sort of “rebound” man to the group, and so it’s fairly easy to accept him returning to form. However, we soon learn that Angel’s speech has worked on him far too well.
The character most visibly – and disturbingly – affected by Fred’s death is Wesley. In contrast to the bright colors which dominate the rest of the episode (and more on those in a moment), Wesley resides in darkness, quietly contemplating over his former love interest. And in all honesty, is there anything he can do but contemplate?
Back in the early episodes of Season Three, Wesley saw Fred as the picture of perfection – an object of sweetness, beauty, and intelligence unlike any he had known before. From the start, he wished to attain her, but only for this purpose alone. The interest he showed in her was never embellished beyond this concept. And in that lies the tragedy. When he and Fred finally shared a kiss in “Smile Time” [5×14], Wesley felt like he had finally accomplished something. And now that something is gone. He and Fred never shared any but the most basic connection. He hasn’t lost a beloved colleague, but rather an “object”, and the pain he now feels is not for Fred, but for himself.
All this is beautifully captured in Wesley’s cryptic and haunting dream sequence. The “joke” he tells Fred mirrors his own conflict – he is falling, and falling fast, but there is no one he wishes to latch on to, to pull him out of his bottomless pit of grief. Moments later, DreamFred moves in close to him and whispers, “This is only the first layer. Don’t you want to see how deep I go?” Her meaning is clear. Wesley never stopped to think of Fred beyond her surface layer, and now – as he wakes up – it’s too late for him to do anything about it.
Fred may be gone, but Illyria remains. After the events of “Shells” [5×16], she clings to Wesley, having no place else to turn. He was willing to accept her then, but mainly because of her physical resemblance to Fred. And now, he begins to wonder if even that was reason enough, as Illyria’s cutting remarks regarding his “emotions” torture him even further.
Illyria has just lost the thing which mattered most to her, and is now stranded in a cold, dark, meaningless world. In this way, her plight is ironically very similar to Wesley’s. The difference between the two is what fuels their outlooks. Illyria knows nothing about the world, and thus finds it meaningless; Wesley knows all about it, and so feels the exact same way.
And Wesley lashes out at Illyria, asserting her beliefs that the world is a terrible place and using them in an attempt to chase her away. By doing so, he is only digging his own pit of despair even deeper. Yet it’s clear at this point that this is exactly what he wants. Wesley murders two birds with one stone, making Illyria suffer and wedging himself firmly into self-doubt.
This, then, is their connection. At last, Wesley and Illyria discover that the other recognizes the world the same way they do. At last, Wesley latches on to someone.
What makes his scenes with Illyria in this episode so fascinating is that there is never a distinct moment of revelation. The realizations are made seamlessly, as if they were there from the start. Is the world really as cruel as the two of them make it out to be? No other characters interact with them throughout the episode, so no tangible evidence is given. But that is not the point. What matters is that Wesley and Illyria state and confirm their thoughts within each other’s presence, and walk away scarred but connected.
While “Underneath” effectively showcases Wesley’s drama in shadowy darkness, some of its most unsettling material occurs in the cheerful light of day. Lindsey’s hell-dimension doesn’t look very hellish – it’s peaceful, charming, gentle, and serene. Lindsey himself has a well-kept house, a beautiful wife, and a loving son. His day-to-day life has no pains, no worries, and no conflicts. He is living the perfect dream. But is his life actually “perfect”?
Perfection is humanity’s ultimate goal. But despite our efforts to reach it, it’s still just a goal. We do our best in life to fix problems and be content, but how many of us can say we’ve achieved perfect happiness? (I’ll pause while you make an Angelus reference.) What makes us strong as a civilization is our endless perseverance to overcome an impossible obstacle. Lindsey’s holding dimension shows us an example of what would happen if we ever did overcome it. It is a crystallized utopia, to the point that each day is just a bland, unfeeling – and yes, perfect – rehashing of the previous one, offering no progression to its populace, for the simple reason that no more can be made. At once, the dream becomes a very vivid nightmare.
In the context of the episode, thankfully, the message behind the parallel setting is never pushed to the surface. Instead, its docile tone is used to emphasize the one aspect of the dimension that doesn’t taste candy-coated. By confining Lindsey to a world of utter idealistic bliss, the Senior Partners infinitely magnify the few moments of gruesome torture he goes through each day. Compared to the rest of the house, the cellar – and the heart-cutting demon lurking within it – is pure nightmare fuel. It also serves to complete the prevalent theme of this holding dimension – in a world filled with unfeeling, practically robotic individuals, a heart is completely useless.
Even the reason that Lindsey’s “wife” uses to send him down to the cellar feels flimsy and fabricated – you’d expect a better excuse from an eight-year-old explaining why he didn’t clean his room. But this only emphasizes the dreamlike state of the dimension, and the nightmarish turn it forebodes every time Lindsey begins descending the stairwell.
Angel’s rescue of Lindsey leads to the most shocking moment of the episode – Gunn choosing to stay behind. Now his motive in helping Angel in the first place becomes completely clear. Gunn lacks Angel’s sense of greater purpose, as well as the strength to continue living with his sin, so he makes the ultimate sacrifice, allowing his own mind to be wiped clean and atoning in the most eternal of ways. It speaks highly of his character that he acknowledges his crimes and is willing to take such full responsibility for them. That he is rescued from this torment two episodes later does not in any way detract from the power of his actions.
“Underneath” ends with Angel finally realizing how Wolfram & Hart have been distracting him from his primary goal. He has long accepted that good and evil are naturally balancing forces in the world – this was how he deflected Holland Manners’ view of humanity soon after hearing it in “Reprise” [2×15]. Now, however, he realizes that evil is the only natural force, and good is simply a remedy to it that willing people can produce. Angel has spent much of the season preventing evil at Wolfram & Hart, but at the other extreme, he has not done enough pure good. This was why the Senior Partners brought Angel to Wolfram & Hart in the first place. And this, more importantly, is why he decides to fight back.
Before I end this review, I should point out the one thing in the episode which didn’t work for me – the introduction of Marcus Hamilton. While Adam Baldwin certainly plays him well as a mysterious and menacing presence – and forms a clear, distinctive line between him and Firefly’s Jayne Cobb – Hamilton’s drawn-out chase after Eve feels too much like a trick to generate unnecessary suspense. Also, the twist that he is not trying to kill her, but merely obtain her signature, is rather lame, especially since Eve has already been a nuisance to the team all season long. Fortunately, Hamilton becomes more intriguing in the show’s final episodes, so I’m pleased to look over his debut as a minor misstep.
Above all, “Underneath” is a spectacular episode. It moves everything in place for the show’s final days, and does so with much more flair than most shows can muster so close to their finales. It is solidly plotted, and contains some of the deepest characterizations this show has ever portrayed. Even the title hints at the depths the episode plunges its characters into. Reach down into the episode’s heart beyond the underlying, wonderfully relevant themes and messages, and what’s underneath that?
Just the soft, chewy center.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ After 7 years and 26 guest appearances, Harmony’s finally in the opening credits!
+ Spike hoping that Angel doesn’t call his group the “Scoobies”.
+ Illyria mentioning a “world with nothing but shrimp”.
+ he music which plays when Lindsey first steps out of his house.
+ Lindsey’s wife and kid opening fire on Angel.
+ Angel commenting on how well-dressed Hamilton is.
– The makeup on the demon who sings to Lorne. He just looks like a regular human with horns and a couple of prosthetics. Was the budget in Season 5 really that bad?
– Why does Hamilton kill one of Wolfram & Hart’s security officers? I know the guard was trying to stop him, but it seems a little over-the-top.
* Lindsey’s point that heroes fight to change the world hints at Angel’s upcoming statement in “Power Play” [5×21].
* Lorne acknowledges his lack of purpose in the group, leading to his departure in “Not Fade Away” [5×22].