The second episode of the second season of Angel may not be entirely perfect, but it’s reallyreally beautiful; visually, musically, thematically. As if there weren’t enough backstory dragging behind a 240 year-old vampire, this episode loops a single thread of his shameful past from the present through a lyrically assembled series of events that localize crucial choices, filmic allusions and shame-based behaviours to a personal emotional disaster frozen fifty years in his past. It does this without the jarring, unpredictable, blinding flashes and ear-splitting noises that make most of the episodes in this series remarkably difficult to watch — even though I know that these interstitial transition story-devices mark the inevitable approach of Jasmine, two seasons down the vampire’s steeply-uphill path to redemption.
I suspect the 8 minutes trimmed for time, and moments removed to appease Standards & Practices might make this episode still more sublimely satisfying than the produced version already is, but putting them back wouldn’t alter the look that comes over Angel’s face at the very end of the episode as he gazes kinda-lovingly around the lobby of the haunted, insecurity-riddled hell of an old hotel he’s just liberated from the fascinating/abhorrent paranoia demon. It’s a legible look of homecoming that foreshadows Malcolm Reynolds’ first, enraptured visual study of Serenity, at the end of Out Of Gas, my favorite episode of Firefly (also written by the same remarkable guy).
Tim Minear’s fine-toothed commentary doesn’t go much out of its way to itemize each of the chewy allusions he wrote into this episode, beyond the mention of Chinatown. I noticed/imagined quotes from a host of hotel-based horror/noirs; The Shining, Barton Fink, Psycho with fond nods to Rebel Without A Cause, The Defiant Ones, Ox-Bow Incident, Pinky, Advise and Consent, and possibly The Manchurian Candidate, with strong tonal resonance with Bad Day at Black Rock and Shock Corridor — but then, the content and the context of this episode is steeped in still-topical issues that bleed from most episodes of The Twilight Zone; prejudice, self-interest served at cost to others, alienation, mob violence, lethal secrets, insupportable shame and manipulated insecurity — it’s as though Tim Minear were Serling’s unsung son. Temporal variations in our collective sociocultural attitudes toward racism, homosexuality, miscegenation, communism, lynching, scapegoating, crowdsourcing, and bullet-headed stupidity play tacitly, deep in the viewer’s imagination without crowning The Present Day with bullshit awards for enlightened, progressive platitudes (except for one unfortunate line that Minear explicitly regrets). It’s an amazingly tidy, nonlinear, meandering, complex and contradictory, yet beautifully-managed, profoundly-disturbing episode. HUACpaTooie!
In the interest of candor, I might as well report that I find Angel (one of my favorite television series) a real chore to watch because of the
- aforementioned, blinding and deafening interstitial transition thing,
- mumbled/whispered dialogue alongside BIG musical score and (industry-standard bogus) violent sound effects,
- the increasing prominence of the Cordelia Chase character,
- 80% of the Pylea excursion,
- most things involving Connor,
- and the mercifully-rare instances of crossover in which the hit&miss chemistry of Geller/Boreanaz usually leads me to gag on the smarm.
But it’s worth it because these shows are almost always about something real and pending that deserves to be re-evaluated regularly. And Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been? is certainly one of the best of them, right up there with The Monsters are Due on Maple Street. And there’s Billy, Skip and the indescribably delicious Alexa Davalos.
Jasmine’s the personification of the internet, the singular server of an ever-widening social network, the adversary of oldschool privacy, free will, and both the highest ideal and the ugliest dreads of humanity. The interstital transitions persist more intermittently after Jasmine’s vanquished (in the Whedonverse, where death isn’t necessarily terminal). Jasmine’s termination may have been instrumental in the liberation of Illyria, lest two monumentally-powerful higher largely-female powers converge on Earth kinda simultaneously to vastly overshadow the vampire from whose name the show derived its title.
Given the vicissitudes of unexpected preganacy (in season four), network anti-seriality notes and series cancellation, Mutant Enemy ground the standalone form of season five to an incredibly satisfying halt. Perhaps its a little more accurate to say they modified the course of a streaking killer-asteroid into a stable orbit.
My first pass through this series this weekend moves the first season of Treme toward the top of my list of favorite entertainments, for all of the reasons enumerated elsewhere:
- Powerful, ringing, ferocious performances by a brilliant ensemble cast;
- Vibrant, engaging music created and performed with an authenticity that comes directly from and goes directly to the heart;
- An intimate immersion in the soul of a profoundly alien culture;
- Interlocking stories about interlocking, deeply-engaging people, woven from miniature realities that encapsularize and vivify enormous, abidingly-human, irresolute real problems…
My first pass through the first season of Treme has generated an insatiable, immediate hankering for one hell of a whole lot more! I recognize in myself a degree of need I haven’t felt since discovering-and-losing Firefly — which, upon reflection, I realize was ABOUT things, like;
- the intimate presentation of the personal lives of people caught in the negligent and incompetent machineries of a corrupt and interfering complex of bureaucracies;
- the literal preservation/restoration/creation of Traditional American Values in absolute spite of the obscene abuses that subverted phrase has been used to justify;
- and We, The fuckin’ People, Jack.
I’ve always suspected that the continuing mission of the tramp freighter, Serenity, a vessel desperately dedicated to enterprise, was to boldly go (with fathomless stores of humor and character) to explore the future of inequality in sex, finance, influence and race; projecting present-day pathologies forward through centuries of morally-degenerate tomorrows. And I truly believe that in Treme, I’ve found the logical/emotional/spiritual successor to Firefly. It’s primary interest is in (its and us) people; leaving ratings, political correctness, sociopolitical issues and universal popularity to sort themselves out in the fullness of time. Or not. I love these show. They nourish conscience (by example).
The commentary track of Lullaby (Angel 3.09) is provided by Tim Minear, who co-wrote and directed the episode, and Mere Smith, writer and script coordinator. It’s the funniest and most insightful 43 minutes of focussed conversation since Lem Dobbs and Steven Soderbergh argued their way through The Limey.
Lullaby is a pivotal episode in the development of the saga that brings a final end to Darla and introduces Connor, but Minear and Smith somehow manage to kill (one another and me) in the course of a stand-up/sit-down, microscopic leer behind the scenes of the making of M.E. product. (I really believe that Darla became the soul of the franchise [and Connor was the stake in its heart]). Plymouth Cock landed on Darla in a way that permitted her backstory to drop dimensional shadow on the whole whore of American history. Mutant Enemy barely utilized that exquisitely beautiful teaching aid.
Late in the lively frivolity, derisive mention is made of That Old Gang of Mine (3.03) in which Gunn’s loyalties are divided between his old crew and his new one, while black characters perpetrate violent acts of indiscrimate racial intolerance against a local minority population (of dangerous and harmless demons). I mentioned the rarity of media insight into black racism in an earlier post on Lakeview Terrace, which leads me to marvel at Tim Minear’s (and Mutant Enemy’s) courage in exploring that special brand of darkness that doesn’t seem to win awards or even lift many eyebrows. (District 9 tried to go there too, but it overdosed on Stupid and Brutal before it succumbed to Moronic.)
I wonder that a white guy from Whittier (Nixon Country — 43.2% white, 1.2% black, 1.3% Indian in 2000) even took a sympathetic shot at addressing the black experience, let alone an intriguingly clear, equivocal one. Apart from the unambiguously negative regard with which Tim remarked on That Old Gang of Mine, I’d really like to know how it was meant to fit in the M.E. product line, and how it failed to make the more satisfying statement he obviously intended.
The purpose of this post, however, is to mention a kind of alternative interpretive overlay in which I see significant similarities between Charles Gunn and Malcolm Reynolds.
Gunn’s pickup truck is introduced in War Zone (1.20), bristling with a stake-throwing, bed-mounted machine gun, and Reaver-style Wash-stickers, strongly resembling “the boat”, late in the BigDamnMovie. I see another similarity in the gradual raising of Gunn from the heartbroken leader of a streetgang (“muscle”) to the stature of a diplomat in the struggle against overpowering and nearly-immortal sanctioned corruption…which (to my mind [vampire/empire]) resembles the evolution of Malcolm Reynolds from the ungenteel son of an independent rancher to heroic soldier, outlaw, bearer of bad news for the established Allied government, and (ultimately) a leader and diplomat in a subsequent war for interplanetary independence. I even wonder whether J. August Richards was eyeballed to play the role that was given to Nathan Fillion. No telling, but there’s room for speculation.
One of many latent conflicts deeply embedded in Firefly is the distinct possibility that slavery and indentured servitude remained to be explored in later episodes/seasons, foreshadowed by Badger’s inspection of the teeth of a woman as Mal enters Badger’s office all the way back in the pilot episode, and Badger’s insistence, in that scene, on the importance of his elevated place (above Reynolds) in the wider social hierarchy in which a businessman on a border planet like Persephone ranks significantly higher than the captain of a Ford F-100. I think the poignancy of a black Capt. Reynolds, veteran of a war of independence against a culture dependent upon the institution of slavery, would have provided the writers additional leverage in telling tales of biting contemporary relevance by means of the microscope of American history and the telescope of speculative, character-driven fiction. Tag Glory, buzz Ali, circle The Hurricane and honor The Killer Angels by citing George Pickett’s parable of a gentlemen’s club from the point of view of someone who would not or could not belong to a society that would love to have him as a member; choice/no-choice; states’ rights versus federal obligation (to obliterate slavery). We just can’t seem to put that pesky slavery thing to bed.
Sexual and racial imperfections in the American character were masterfully massaged in the course of the first two series, and what’s coming from the brand I most admire (Mutant Enemy) remains to be seen repeatedly and reinterpreted to death…the overdue death of obscene and obsolete institutions.
Can entertainment production companies teach, change unquestioned practices? Can television teach? Where’s Murrow?