[Review by S. van Houten – “Iguana-on-a-stick”]
[Writer: David Fury | Director: James A. Contner | Aired: 05/12/2004]
That [is what] you learn when you become a king. You learn to destroy everything that’s not utterly yours. All that matters is victory. That’s how your reign persists. You’re a slave to an insane construct. You are moral. A true ruler is as moral as a hurricane, empty but for the force of his gale. But you… trapped in the web of the Wolf, the Ram, the Hart. So much power here, and you quibble at its price. If you want to win a war, you must serve no master but your ambition.
-Illyria, “Time Bomb” [5×19]
“Power Play” is an episode born of necessity. Joss Whedon received the news of Angel‘s imminent cancellation in February 2004 at a time when he and the rest of the team had been all but convinced they were going to get a sixth season, leaving them scrambling to not only tie up the season as planned, but to resolve all outstanding plotlines and to come up with a finale momentous enough to be a fitting capstone for the entire series.
All things considered, the second half of Angel‘s fifth season succeeded beyond expectations. Some things were rushed, of course. The very sudden and extremely short-lived relationship between Wesley and Fred in “Smile Time” was probably the biggest offender. From that point onwards, though, no time was wasted and episode after episode moved the characters forward in seven-league strides. Angel’s unresolved issues with Connor, Gunn’s succumbing to the lure of Wolfram & Hart and his subsequent search for redemption, the consequences of the memory spell, Wesley’s relapse into depression and despair following Fred’s death, and of course Illyria’s introduction and continuing development were all dealt with efficiently, engagingly, and satisfactorily.
There was a price, though; resolving all these sub-plots did not leave an awful lot of time to set up a series-ending crescendo. Season 5 had been more about stand-alone episode-length plots than the previous few seasons, so there was not much in the way of existing storylines to utilise. The writers did have one thing going for them: Wolfram & Hart had been the series’ main villains ever since the pilot, with the Senior Partners as an illusive, oft-mentioned but rarely seen threat for almost as long. Season 5’s major theme was the group’s seduction by the power and possibilities the law-firm offered them. It only made sense for the finale to be all about fighting the Wolf, Ram and Hart. But how do you deal with something so vague and intangible as the evil represented by that law firm?
“Power Play” is the episode that has to come up with an answer to this question. This is largely a thankless task and it does not result in one of the season’s best or most memorable episodes. It does, however, provide a workable solution to the problems I outlined above and lines up the dominoes perfectly for the grand finale by setting up a group of villains tangible enough for Angel to fight.
It’s just a pity that it makes for such a clunky episode in practice. It’s not as bad as some of Season 4’s exposition-stuffed episodes, but watching “Power Play” still leaves you with the faint headache that comes with being hammered with the same theme over and over and over again. Gee, do you think this episode is about power and how it corrupts and how nothing is possible without it? We have Angel explaining power to everyone. We have Illyria explaining corruption. We have Lindsey explaining the Black Thorn. We then have Angel explaining his master plan again, only this time the real one. Oh, and from the flash-forward teaser where Angel murders Drogyn until the last five minutes where he explains his master plan, the whole episode is one big attempt to trick the audience into believing Angel’s gone off the deep end again. There’s very little room for character-development and the vast majority of scenes feel workmanlike, getting their point across clearly but doing so with all the grace and elegance of a rockslide.
Right from the start this episode is dedicated to setting up support for Angel’s fake-turn-to-Evil, presumably to try and ramp up the tension. Angel hints to Nina that he has “plans set in motion” and that he is “close” to something, though this is probably news to the audience as well as to her. Then, he’s shown breaking all his principles by ignoring the helpless, helping the corrupt, and running rough-shod over his crew’s objections. If this seems sudden, that’s because it is, though it actually began two episodes ago in the final minutes of “Time Bomb” [5×19] when Angel sided with the Fell Brethren. (Here’s another reason why “The Girl in Question” [5×20] is so unfortunately placed in this season: by putting it in between these two episodes, the continuity is lost and Angel’s apparent turn to the dark side is even more abrupt and difficult to believe than it would otherwise have been.)
Subtle this is not. Angel and the episode are both working very hard to make him look like the exemplar of the evil corporate executive stereotype, to the point where he’s ordering the brain-washing of a decent guy into thinking he’s a paedophile so as to let a demon-senator win her re-election. Later on they step up the game by having Drogyn accuse Angel of having attacked him and dropping hints that Angel had something to do with Fred’s death, as well as introducing the concept of the Circle of the Black Thorn as a possible explanation for what is going on.
Does the fake-out work? The episode certainly relies on the characters and the audience doubting Angel. I don’t think it manages to achieve this, though. For one thing the audience knows it’s the penultimate episode, not exactly the right moment to turn your protagonist’s characterisation on its head. At worst the developments here made me doubt whether the writers knew what they were doing for a second; not exactly the reaction they were aiming at. The suggestion that Angel deliberately released Illyria from the Deeper Well to sacrifice one of his own people simply makes no sense at all, and wouldn’t even if he -had- turned evil for some reason. On the other hand, there is quite a bit of precedent for Angel going off the deep end and doing unspeakable things in the name of pursuing a goal that matters to him more. Still, in this case it’s not convincing. Spike sums it up best: “You’re wrong about Angel. Not that I don’t think the sod could end up being a megalomaniacal bastard. It’s just that if he did… I’d know it.” So would we, Spike. If Angel was about to fall from grace and it had been set up properly, we’d know it.
Part of the problem is David Boreanaz: the plot requires him to play Angel pretending to be like beige-arc ruthless Angel but secretly still being himself. Unfortunately, that’s one layer of subtlety too many for the actor. What we get instead is a lot of smirking and smarmy behaviour. This in turn makes it harder to believe either his own crew or particularly the Black Thorn ever buy his “switch to the dark side” for a second. (The latter at least are shown to have a healthy distrust for Angel still in “Not Fade Away” [5×22]) It’s a real shame that if the writers were going to spend half their penultimate episode on fake-development, it couldn’t at least be convincing or thrilling fake-development.
His scenes with Nina provide a welcome contrast, though. Nina herself is a character who’s quite likeable, even if she’s not terribly well developed, and it’s nice to see Angel having a normal relationship for once. Even if it ends in a provisional breakup here, it’s a fairly normal one for a change, rather than ending in someone’s death or damnation. (It’s still unilateral on Angel’s part without any real explanation offered, though. But that’s classic Angel.)
More importantly, in the context of the episode, the scenes with Nina let us see Angel acting like himself — a further clue, if we needed one, that his “I’ll sell my grandmother’s soul for corporate profits” shtick is a pile of crap. He even comes out and tells her: “I know I’ve spent years fighting to get somewhere. To accomplish something. And now that I’m close to it… I don’t like what I see. Who I am.” Likewise, he rejects Nina’s labelling him as a “hero.” This is an Angel who is far more self-aware than he’s been in the past.
Another scene that fortunately works quite well is the first confrontation in Angel’s office, where he dismisses his lieutenants (“Friends” doesn’t seem the right word to use, at this time). At first he continues to spin the ”We’re in the business of business” corporate line and it remains weak. But when the others do not accept this, he launches into a speech on power that rings far more true because he actually believes a lot of what he’s saying. Angel may not have become “evil” in the normal sense of the word, but his speech actually foreshadows a lot of what he’ll do to execute his Black Thorn plot.
ANGEL: There is one thing in this business, in this apocalypse that we call a world that matters: Power. Power tips the scale, power sets the course, and until I have real power, global power, I have nothing. I accomplish nothing.
WESLEY: And how you get this power…
ANGEL: Isn’t pretty. Isn’t fun. You think it’s Wolfram & Hart getting to me here, and maybe you’re right, because they’ve shown us what power is. From day one, they’ve been calling the shots, and all we’ve done is get shot at. I have a chance to change that.
Killing Drogyn certainly “isn’t pretty” and “isn’t fun.” Nor is orchestrating a mass-assassination of some of Wolfram & Hart’s most influential agents, clients and power-brokers. Even if Angel is faking most of his turn for the cartoonishly corrupt, his lieutenants have plenty of reason to be concerned.
A real weakness of the plot is that it leaves the other characters with very little to do except talk about how concerned they are about Angel’s actions. Illyria is the sole exception. The writers only had a handful of episodes to tell her story, and fortunately they wasted none of them. In this episode she has to face the consequences of the events of the previous two. Firstly, she finds herself on shaky ground with Wesley all of a sudden. He will no longer speak to her after she impersonated Fred last episode. Worse, she finds this actually upsets her. She may bluster about how the “intricacies of their fates are meaningless” to her, but where Wesley is concerned this clearly no longer is the case. The finale will demonstrate just how far this change in our favourite ancient god-king goes.
Secondly, the reality of her dis-empowering in “Time Bomb” [5×19] hits home full force at the end of this episode. Hamilton, in his role as the Senior Partners’ proxy, doesn’t just beat her, but humiliates her, battering her down without even breaking a sweat in one of the most brutal and violent sequences this series has shown us. Suddenly, Illyria looks all too mortal, and there is very little left that truly separates her from humanity.
Finally, Illyria’s increasingly flimsy attempts at projecting scathingly superior indifference continue to provide a lot of funny moments. She’s a definite highlight in an otherwise quite pedestrian episode.
Illyria aside, the characters are essentially left treading water until the final few minutes of the show. At that point, though, things start happening with a vengeance as Wesley, Gunn, Lorne and Spike go and confront Angel. Now I may not really buy how easily they come to believe that Angel killed Fred (Except Wesley. Mentioning Fred’s death is like waving a red flag in his face that shuts down all rational thought) but either way it’s good to see them take Angel to task. And land a few well-earned punches on him.
Exposition about the Circle of the Black Thorn aside, the only truly important part of the episode is the plan Angel outlines in those last five minutes. And frankly, the audacity of it all goes a long way to mollify my earlier annoyance. It’s brutal, it’s daring, it’s a rare example of the heroes acting rather than reacting. Angel is re-writing the rules to the game they’re playing and I well remember how shocked and pleased I was to realise it the first time I watched this scene. After spending forty minutes doubting more and more this was going to lead to a finale worth its salt, that last scene where one by one the group raises their hands and volunteers for Angel’s suicide mission left me barely able to contain my anticipation.
But once the adrenaline dies down, and all the awkward misdirection and rushed set-up is out of the way, and Angel’s master plan is finally revealed, the million dollar question we’re left with is: Does it work? Does it make sense? Is this a good enough plot to culminate the series with?
For the plot to be fully satisfactory, it needs to work on three levels. Firstly, the plot has to make sense in-universe. Whedon shows have never thrived on their deeply intricate plotting and world-building, and when Angel tried in its fourth season it fell flat in many ways, but the audience has to buy in to a story and deem it believable for it to have the desired emotional impact. This is the level where the final couple episodes of Buffy really fell flat. Many people just couldn’t believe the plot-contrivances like the Guardian, the scythe or the world-saving Liz-Taylor jewel that kept dropping out of the sky when the plot needed them, and to me these things robbed the finale on that show of much of the impact it should have had.
Plot consistency is also the weakest point where the Black Thorn is concerned. An organisation this powerful and plot-critical emerging from the woodwork and being defeated over the course of two episodes remains a pill almost too difficult to swallow. Still, when all’s said and done I’d say the Black Thorn serves its purpose well enough. It’s a bit convenient that all the major players are people we’ve met earlier this season, but at least they are characters we already know and, in some cases, are already invested in hating. (Vail, I’m looking at you here.) More importantly, the Black Thorn fits with the things we’ve learned about Wolfram & Hart’s modus operandi in previous seasons. We know they are invested in controlling our world through exploiting and encouraging veniality and corruption. We know that although the Senior Partners are rarely-seen extra-dimensional entities, they regard this world as their home office. We know they mean to end the world and that Angel’s prophesied to play an important role in this.
Earlier this season, we learned that the way they mean to end the world isn’t through some blatant demon-invasion, but by encouraging and increasing human corruption from behind the scenes, until this world turns into a hell on earth. Considering all these things, it makes sense to me that W&H would depend on very powerful earth-bound evil powers to keep the earth on its long-term course for damnation. Likewise, it makes sense that assassinating these people would cause a serious hitch in their plans, even if it wouldn’t be enough to derail them in the long run.
Secondly, the plot has to make sense on a thematic level. Angel has always had a very strong focus on its themes, so consistency here is even more important than it is on a plot-level. Fortunately, the Black Thorn concept scores full marks as far as I’m concerned. Angel always was about finding one’s place in an overwhelmingly huge and hostile world that we’re powerless to change. (Which is why it was set in the big, impersonal city of L.A. instead of the comfortable suburbia of Sunnydale.) It was about accepting personal responsibility, and doing the best we can, even while recognising our powerlessness, as well as the absence of any external rewards for doing so. It was about how sins cannot be undone and redemption does not consist of making up for the unchangeable past, but is about taking responsibility in the here and now. If Angel the series can be summed up in a single quote, it’s: “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.”
The Circle of the Black Thorn plot truly encapsulates that quote. Angel isn’t going to save the world. There will be no prize at the end, there will be no happily ever after. There isn’t even the hope of any definitive victory. He’s buying the world time, yes. He foresees his actions will slow down and disrupt Wolfram & Hart’s plans to corrupt it. But even with all that power he kept lecturing about he doesn’t really believe his actions by themselves will change things in the long term. No; Angel is making a statement, and he’s doing it because he believes it’s the only thing he can do, and so he does it despite the dire personal consequences he foresees.
Some might protest that this is just about the opposite of what he thought he should do back in “Epiphany” [2×16]. Back then Angel’s hard-won answer to the meaninglessness of existence was: “If there is no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.” That’s not what the series finale is about at all. Instead of taking satisfaction in doing small kindnesses, Angel wishes to make a dramatic statement shouting his defiance to the unfeeling powers that control his world in a way that uncomfortably recalls his self-destructive “beige” period in Season 2. Is this a better answer? I’d argue it’s not. And perhaps, had the series lasted longer, Angel would have come around from it again. But Angel at the end of Season 5 is not the same man he was back in Season 2, and it would not be fitting if he simply re-tread the ground he did back then despite his vastly differing personal circumstances.
That brings me to the third, final and most important level on which the plot has to work: that of the characters. We watch Whedon’s shows because of the characters, and character-development always has been the most important aspect of the stories he and his staff have told. One of the reasons “Not Fade Away” [5×22] works so well is that it recognises this fact by fully dedicating itself to exploring the characters and their states of mind one last time. For now, the Circle plot can only work if we find it credible that these characters at this point in their lives would agree to this plan.
I for one do believe this. In the end, it makes sense to me that these people we’ve been watching, over the course of four to eight seasons, would agree to go on this suicide mission with Angel. Note that I do not say “for Angel.” With the exception of Spike, who is the first to volunteer, their personal connections have been frayed to the point of complete absence. Gone is the Wesley who believed in Angel so strongly he’d defy his people and his father without a second’s hesitation. Gone is the Wesley who’d take a bullet for Gunn. Instead, we have a bitter, broken shell of a man who agrees because he has nothing left to live for. If anything, his fey smile in this scene hints that he relishes the chance to do something as gloriously suicidal like this.
Gone is the Charles Gunn who worked with his community to make the best of an impossibly bad situation. Gone is the Gunn who allied himself with a creature who should have been his mortal enemy and made a family for himself out of the unlikeliest people he could have imagined. Instead we have a man came to loathe his perceived limitations and is consumed with the guilt over the things he did to overcome them. Is it any surprise that the man who agreed to get his heart cut out by a demon every day doesn’t think much of throwing his life away on Angel’s mission?
Spike, unlike the others, isn’t doing this out of despair. If there’s one thing I learned from his bickering rivalry with Angel, it’s how strongly and deeply they are actually bound together by their shared past and shared nature. Moreover, over the course of the season he’s come to terms with the consequences of his past crimes, the likelihood of his eventual damnation, and the need to take personal responsibility for his actions. Add in his dare-devil nature and love of doing the outrageously risky and I’m not surprised he’s the first to sign up, with his body language stating: “I can’t believe I’m doing this, but what the hell.”
That leaves us with Lorne. Always the observer, the outsider, the hanger-on, he has finally recognised that there is no place for him amongst these bloody-minded crusaders. Throughout the episode we see him flinch, demur, and try to keep his profile low. For now he goes along for old times’ sake, but we’ll soon learn just how little stomach he has left for these violent people and their struggles, and how much his involvement in their fight has cost him.
Finally, we have to consider Angel himself. Does it make sense that he has come such a long way from his original statement about small kindnesses being the most important thing in the world? Does it make sense that he’d come up with this desperate all-out attack on the Powers that Be, all in the name of defiance? Would he really compromise his morals to the extent of murdering Drogyn in cold blood and sacrificing his comrades on a suicide mission, just to get a chance to hurt his enemies? When I first watched this series I was unsure, and I remained so for a long time. After much reflection, though, I have come to conclude that yes, I do believe Angel would do these things.
The Angel we see at the tail end of Season 5 is not as obviously broken as Wesley, Gunn or even Lorne, but he is not well either. Over the course of this season, we have seen his lack of purpose addressed again and again. After losing Connor and Cordelia and being reinvented as a corporate leader he found himself unable to effectively continue on his chosen path. He has more power than he’s ever had, but was afraid to use it. He lost the trust of forces like the Watchers and Slayers who should have been his allies, and found he had neither the knowledge nor the experience to leverage the resources he commanded. Even worse, it seemed like his decision to take his people to Wolfram & Hart was destroying them one by one. With Fred and Cordy dead, Wesley broken and Gunn corrupted it must have seemed to Angel that he was only adding to the tally of his sins.
Angel always was about redemption, but back on Buffy and in the preceding seasons of his own show he only had to deal the crimes he himself committed, both with and without his soul. Now, it’s not just the people he murdered who haunt him, but also the loved ones who died fighting for his cause. The plan to infiltrate and then destroy the Black Thorn certainly counts as “having purpose,” but more importantly it is what he needs to do to justify the price others have paid for his decisions. He needs to make sure the final vision Cordelia gave him makes a difference. He needs to make Fred’s death matter, make it be something other than just “another random horrible event in another random horrible world.” Of course, Angel did lose Doyle back in Season 1 which did not sit easily with him either, but Doyle wasn’t a woman. Angel’s forever trying to save the girl, a cliché the show often pokes fun at, and it’s no big surprise he takes their deaths harder than he did Doyle’s. Likewise, this explains why he has no problem signing up the rest of his former friends for a suicide mission. The only person he still thinks he has to protect is Connor, whom he thinks is well out of the way of the fray.
We should also consider the state of mind Angel was in when he made that oft-quoted statement about kindness: he had just started to climb out of the pit of despair he’d fallen in after Holland Manners convinced him of the perpetuity of evil in the human heart. It wasn’t Angel’s first or natural response. That’s typically to either smash something, or to sit in the dark and brood about it. No matter what he preached, doing small kindnesses has never actually been that strong a point of his.
Now, after running W&H L.A. for a season, Angel no longer is so convinced passive resistance to Holland’s creed and the demonic forces that espouse it is the best way to go. As he states in “Not Fade Away” [5×22]: “I keep thinking that once this world was theirs and now it’s not.” He knows there will always be power and corruption among humans, he knows the demons hold a lot of sway in the world. But his first statement isn’t wrong either. Holland Manners proved to him that Angel cannot single-handedly stop the demonic influences on the world. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be fought. The difference between Angel’s assault on the Wolf, Ram and Hart in Season 2 and the one he plans now is that this time he only means to set an example, to strike a first blow. He expects to do a lot of damage, but not to gain any ultimate victory. He knows, however, that the fight will go on after he is gone, and thinks it can ultimately be won.
Does all this make his actions right? I do not think so. I think the price he pays is far too great for a gain far too ephemeral, and that he is dragging far too many people with him to their doom. But I understand why he would do this. Trying to change everything with one grand gesture? It’s a very Angel thing to do.
At the end of the day, Angel looks out over the world he has created for himself and sees it is in ruins. But instead of turning from the path he’s on, he embraces it. He does not reject the power Wolfram & Hart offered, but starts using it. He may have failed to turn their offices into a significant force for good, but he can turn his position into a weapon to use against its masters. Unable to accept the sacrifices others have made in his name, he has ceased caring about the immediate consequences of his actions or the collateral damage he’s about to cause. Angel will have his shining moment of defiance and avenge his fallen, and damned be all who get in his way. And what will happen to the survivors or the city afterwards? He does not seem to care. Après moi le déluge.
In the end, “Power Play” accomplishes what it sets out to do. It gives us a believable plot that will end the series in the grand style it deserves. It does so without much grace or subtlety, and the ride itself isn’t that much fun, but at least it gets the dull stuff out the way in time for the finale. I just wish they’d found a better way to get us there.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Drogyn and Illyria trying to figure out Crash Bandicoot
+ Nothing sums up the weirdness of the W&H concept better than the image of Angel playing racquetball with Izzerial the Devil.
+ Even while pretending to be evil, Angel insists to the Black Thorn that he’s still Angel, and hasn’t lost his soul. This is interesting. And it makes sense: the Shanshu prophecy is about the vampire with a soul, so that’s who Wolfram & Hart want on their side.
+ Harmony thinks the Black Thorn symbol is a tattoo design. Wesley scoffs at this. She was pretty close, though: when Angel is initiated in the Circle, they brand him with the symbol.
– Opening an episode by showing the hero doing something wildly out of character followed by a lengthy flashback explaining how he got there is an overused and lazy storytelling technique. Guess how this episode begins.
– Worse: We later find out that Drogyn already believed Angel had been trying to kill him at the time the opening teaser takes place. So why does he react with such extreme gratitude when Angel pulls the mask off? Surely he’d have thought Angel in league with his captors? It really feels like they put that in just to make Angel’s actions more shocking. Weak.
– How come Angel beats all four others so easily in the fight at the end? Particularly with Spike there? It reeks of contrivance.
* Everybody keeps treating Harmony like crap. Dismissing her, snapping at her, ignoring her. No wonder she-of-the-short-attention-span ends up throwing in with Hamilton in the finale.
* We see Hamilton in action for the first time. The way he brutally beats Illyria (albeit a weakened Illyria) is a good set-up for his role in the finale as W&H’s heaviest hitter, the one Angel has to fight.