Angel 5×17: Underneath

[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].




16 thoughts on “Angel 5×17: Underneath”

  1. [Note: Iguana-on-a-stick posted this comment on November 16, 2012.]

    This is an excellent review. Very insightful, lots of analysis.I do not, of course, -agree- with you on all of it. But nonetheless. ;-)Your analysis of Gunn’s actions and how Angel is using his own experience with and view on atonement to try and motivate Gunn was especially interesting. I hadn’t quite seen it that way, but I agree. Your take on the Wesley/Fred/Illyria scenes is also very well done. (On another note, I just love Wesley’s “joke” in the dream. It reeks of despair.)I don’t agree that the holding-dimension Lindsey is in making any sort of comment on humanity’s strive for perfection. I think it simply shows that the idyllic trappings of perfection are by no means to be confused for the real thing. Plus, as you say, the whole dream-like aspect of it all with the terrible monster hiding in the basement and the victim knowing something is coming but being unable to avoid it.Nor do I agree that Angel now sees evil as “the only natural force.” Nor even that he thinks good and evil are naturally balancing forces in the world.Holland Manner’s lecture and Angel’s ensuing epiphany indeed taught him that both good and evil are inherent to humanity and that it is useless to try and destroy all evil in some grand gesture, but that every individual act of good still is relevant and important even if in the grand scheme of things it won’t make a permanent difference. The famous “If nothing we do matters, all that matters is what we do.” Balance, though? I don’t see it. He indeed has forgotten this lesson over the course of later seasons, mostly because Connor redirected his priorities. And this episode indeed makes him realise that by trying to change Wolfram & Hart from within he instead has become ineffectual and some of his friends have been corrupted. And indeed from this point on he will try to fight back. (Unfortunately for most concerned, he does so by regressing to his season 2 mentality of trying to destroy the forces of evil rather than by doing good. But that’s for later reviews.)But I don’t think he learns any new lessons about the nature of evil here. He learns that W&H’s goal in general is the corruption of all of humanity and the entire world and that this slow process is their way of making the world end the way they want it to. (Which is entirely in keeping with Holland Manner’s speech back in season 2.) And he learns about his own limitations and how Wolfram & Hart was so much bigger than his group of misfits that it swallowed them up without changing its course. The problem is not so much with preventing evil instead of doing good, but with the compromises they made along the way with all of W&H’s evil clients in order to get them to lessen their depredations. Preventing evil is fine. Becoming complicit in committing lesser evils to prevent greater… not so much. (Or that’s how I read the themes of Angel season 5, anyway.)Oh, and a final nitpick: Illyria mentions a world with -nothing but- shrimp in it. “I tired of that one quickly.”Still, like I said, a very good review that obviously made me think quite a bit. Good job.


  2. [Note: buffyholic posted this comment on November 17, 2012.]

    Very good review and I have to say that when I saw this episode for the first time, I didn´t quite get how impressive and juicy it was. This episode is one that grows on you and the Illyria/Wesley scenes are just amazing.btw, is it in this episode that Wesley and Illryia have that talk in the roof, with Illyria claiming that she can´t breathe in that room?


  3. [Note: Jeremy posted this comment on November 18, 2012.]

    Thanks for commenting, folks. Glad you liked the review.

    Iguana: Thanks for the heads-up about the “shrimp” error. I notified MikeJer to correct it.

    I like your analysis of Angel’s perceptions of evil. Obviously, we’re looking at it from very different perspectives, but I see where you’re coming from. However, my view is that the end of this episode ultimately serves as the transition between Holland’s “evil exists in all of us” speech in “Reprise” and Angel’s “evil is not meant to be beat” speech in “Power Play”. Lindsey’s speech in this episode calls back on the former while planting the seeds for the latter.

    Buffyholic: Yes, I love that scene. It so perfectly captures Illyria’s turmoil. She looks down on humans and thinks of herself as superior, yet she suffers from being trapped in their small, simplistic creations. No wonder Wesley is conflicted over her.


  4. [Note: seagull posted this comment on November 19, 2012.]

    Just wanted to add that I love that scene on the roof with Wesley and Illyria too. For me, it’s one of the most haunting scenes in all of Buffy and Angel.


  5. [Note: Buffylover15 posted this comment on November 20, 2012.]

    This Is just an amazing and insightful review . I really enjoyed reading it and can’t wait to read mor reviews from Jeremy .


  6. [Note: nathan.taurus posted this comment on January 21, 2013.]

    I think Gunn went with them to save Lindsey in equal parts to pay for what he did to Fred and also forget what he did. He knew before leaving that someone had to stay behind and most probably knew that it would mean forgetting his past.

    Illyria: “With an unstable human who drinks too much whiskey and called me a smurf.” And then Wesley actually chuckles! He smiles for a moment.

    I am sick of Angel and Spike’s jackets getting stabbed and shot and yet remaining perfect. They are not magical coats.


  7. [Note: Biogirl posted this comment on August 23, 2013.]

    “Illyria knows nothing about the world, and thus finds it meaningless; Wesley knows all about it, and so feels the exact same way.” That was said very beautifully Jeremy.

    Interesting idea that Fred is talking about layers of her personality in the dream sequence when she says “Don’t you want to see how deep I go?”. I always thought she was referring to depth of grief.

    Nathan – that bugged me about the coats too. Maybe Angel has a closet full of identical coats, but Spike’s coat holds too much sentimental value for it to be anything but the same one.


  8. [Note: Iguana-on-a-stick posted this comment on January 26, 2015.]

    Yeah, I know. That’s why Jeremy put it in the minor pro section. Otherwise it’d just be random.


  9. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on January 26, 2015.]

    My original review had me mistakenly referring to Illyria’s line as “a world without shrimp”. Iguana’s original comment was a correction to that, and I had it changed.


  10. [Note: Noah posted this comment on August 1, 2015.]

    It seems to me that everything that happens after “A Hole in the World” revolves around that premise: there is a hole in the world. Each of the characters reacts to the loss of Fred by being swallowed by the empty places in their lives that they had previously been ignoring. In “Origin”, Illyria asks Wesley if the lies that Angel had put in their heads were there to help them escape reality? He answers that they are to help endure it. There is a gnawing hollow in these people’s souls. That’s why I can’t agree with this statement:

    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.

    To me, Lindsay’s holding dimension is not representative of perfection, but rather of a lie, the lie we tell ourselves in order to enable us to endure a world that is hollow (meaningless and indifferent). But of course, the lie can never be perfect. We try to ignore it by practicing naming things with our children. Note that the child’s answer about the center of the earth is the truth in this case: nothing; the soft chewy center is the lie, the joke that prevents us from having to think about the emptiness of suburban life that yawns underneath our fabricated bliss. We try to ignore it by establishing a routine (Illyria: You imprison yourselves in rooms, in routines), hence the holding dimension metaphor, but we can’t forever. Deep down, our hearts are being cut out every day. We’re not happy, we’re not content, and this is not perfect: it is a lie we are telling ourselves because we can’t handle the truth (Illyria: Truths that would burn us). Repressed things don’t just go away. In order to escape from the hollowness you have to fill the void (Cordelia: the work I’m doing, it’s like its filling up these air pockets inside (Disharmony)), not just ignore it.

    I think perhaps my strongest disagreement is with the statement that human beings strive for perfection. Perhaps some do. But what this episode suggests to me is that most people really just want to get by (holding dimension). Striving towards perfection is hard work, and a lot of people can’t imagine working that hard at it in the world because they’re too busy trying to ignore the emptiness of their lives, the hollowed out places where dead loved ones used to be and trust and justice used to fill. I say this, not as an accusation, but as the product of observation and introspection. I’m no different.

    So we have choices as to how to react: we can ignore the void, or the absurd (suburbia); we can be swallowed by it (Wesley, nihilism, which means either suicide or murder); or we can work to fill it (“If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do”, which is rebellion in Camus’s philosophy, and describes Angel in “Epiphany” and Anne in “Not Fade Away”). Trying to decide which choice Angel ultimately makes is an interesting task. I’m tempted to think that he succumbs to nihilism, but I’m almost through with my most recent viewing, and I’ll have more to say after I’m done.


  11. [Note: Noah posted this comment on August 1, 2015.]

    Also, from a purely technical standpoint, this episode is extremely well written. Structure, theme, dialog, monologues, foreshadowing, parallels, ambiguity, mirroring… Every facet of this episode is superb. I find it very hard to believe that the same writers behind “Unleashed” and “Harm’s Way” wrote this. The difference in quality is unbelievable.


  12. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on August 2, 2015.]

    I think that by “perfection”, I was in fact referring to “getting by”, in the way of saying that getting by in life without any problems is the human equivalent of perfection. (Or what we feel perfection is.)

    Unfortunately, at the time I wrote it (this was my second online review ever), I wasn’t quite as good at translating my thoughts to paper as I am now. Either that, or I was in a really depressed period of my life where “perfection” meant getting to school on time.

    Nice going, 18-year-old me.


  13. [Note: Noah posted this comment on August 2, 2015.]

    Yeah, nice going 18-year old you. Seriously. Nice going! I can’t imagine what my review of this would have looked like at 18, but I guarantee you win. I didn’t mean to imply that you didn’t write a good review. Now that you put it in that light, it’s very interesting to think of getting by as a kind of perfection for those who don’t want to or don’t have the wherewithal to seek another kind of perfection, one involving growth etc. I wouldn’t have thought of it that way.


  14. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on August 2, 2015.]

    Yeah, I know what you meant. It’s just that looking back at some of my early reviews, I was a little more concerned with making sure the reviews were well-written and cohesive than with whether the analysis itself was fully logical and clear. Nice to see how far I’ve come, though.

    Also, thanks!


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