Written by: Shawn Ryan
Directed by: James A. Contner
Who looks after the strong?
As I have previously observed, ANGEL has to date offered us no real story arc. Instead, with the exception of the Faith two-parter, each individual episode has comprised a single, self-contained story. I have also noted the comparatively sparse use that the writers of these stories have made of sub-plots. They have preferred to focus on developing a single line of action in a logical sequence. These two factors have meant that each episode has been very cohesive; able to concentrate on a single idea or theme developed through the one storyline. On the other hand BUFFY episodes often use a sub-plot as a parallel or counterpoint to the principal plot, thus throwing additional light on it. This technique adds rather than detracts from the focus of the episode concerned. ANGEL itself has, on occasion, done same thing to good effect. If you regard the story of what happened to Angel after he regained his soul as the sub-plot of "Five by Five", powerful use was made of it to explain and explore the journey Faith made some one hundred years later. And when a sub-plot can, while performing this function, simultaneously be used to advance an arc, then so much the better.
This is what we see in "First Impressions". In this episode there is a clearly defined "A" and "B" plot. The former follows Cordelia Chase as she struggles to save Charles Gunn from himself. The latter concerns Angel's disturbing yet, for him, oddly pleasant dreams of Darla. At first sight there appears no thematic connection between them. But at the end it is made obvious. Both plots pose the same question: who looks after the strong? By seeing how the "A" plot in particular approaches this question we can better appreciate the point that the "B" plot is trying to make. And the bonus is that the "B" plot also launches ANGEL into its first fully fledged story arc by revealing exactly how Darla is to be used to undermine Angel's mission on behalf of the Powers that Be.
Gunn and his quest for self-destruction
The "A" plot is little more than a thinly disguised character study of the most under-developed member of the quartet: Charles Gunn. Since "WarZone" he has been an ever-present character but he has really only been used as a plot device. Here we get some really serious character exposition. And the really good thing about this is that the writers have taken up the threads we first saw in WarZone and used them to flesh out his personality. In doing so they have created a three dimensional individual who was recognizable as the character we were introduced to in "WarZone" and whose strengths and weaknesses are credible both in themselves and in someone who was a product of the sort of environment he came from.
In "WarZone", Gunn and his little band are fighting what seems to be a loosing battle. Angel himself seemed certain of it and he said it several times. “Some of you will die, maybe all of you”. The interesting thing is that no one contradicts him. None of the gang members, least of all Gunn, seem to harbor any illusions. They all appear to be quite fatalistic about their future. When Angel says he can help them:
Gunn’s only reply is that he is always on his own. It is better to die than to accept help from a “some middle class white dude that’s dead”. But this sense of fatalism wasn't only driven by the street kids' sense of being alone. Gunn's sister, Alonna, at one point said that Gunn was only in it for the fight. It did indeed seem that he didn't care what happened to him because he did not fear death. The death of Alonna, however, did seem to change his attitude in this respect. Gunn was no longer willing to throw away the lives of his people. But the sense of being on their own remained as strong as ever. This is shown by the exchange between them at the very end:
Gunn: "I don't need no help."
Angel: "I might."
In our very first view of Gunn in "First Impressions" he reinforces this idea of a clear gulf between himself and the members of the Fang Gang. He treats them all with suspicion, even Angel for whose help he has come. The whole scene between himself, Cordelia and Wesley and latterly Angel and Nabitt is a wonderful example of Gunn's distrust of the outside world. You can, I think, get a flavor of it from the following exchange:
Gunn: "Whatcha doin' man, we need to move on this.
Angel: "Relax, we'll make it."
But at least he can just about bring himself to work with Angel because he recognizes his power to help and, after the events in WarZone, he was the one doing the favors. This obviously appealed to the sense of pride he had in what he was doing. His attitude now seems to be that he is calling in a marker. On the other hand, for Wesley and Cordelia (C-3PO and the Barbie stick figure) he seems to have little or no time, either as individuals or as members of a team:
Angel: "Cordy, you're drivin'."
Cordelia: "Me? Drive you're car? So cool."
Wesley and Cordelia are not just outsiders. they are liabilities and Gunn has no time for people like that. He is openly dismissive of them, without apparently knowing very much about them at all.
The picture we get here is of someone who is suspicious of outsiders but self-assured in himself and his own abilities. He will accept help but only on his terms. In this respect we have considerable continuity between "WarZone" and "First Impressions". But the writers only use this as a starting point. This is the surface Gunn only and the rest of the episode is spent getting past the upper layer and into the real man. For this purpose the most effective scene was when Gunn and Angel started to interrogate the supposed stool pigeon, Jameel. Both Angel and Buffy have often used violence in a very deliberate way to extract information from people. That was not, I think, what we saw here. When Jameel refused to talk I think Gunn just lost it. He didn't grab him and start exerting increasing pressure or pain to convince him to co-operate. He struck out in anger. Angel is certainly not the squeamish type when it comes to inflicting pain to get results. But he felt obliged to step in because he could see that Gunn was not acting rationally. As he asks him:
"What are you doin'?"
It was the suddenness and unexpectedness of Gunn's action that made it so effective. He is supposed to be one of the good guys yet here he was acting as a bully. His violence was uncontrolled. The man he was beating up was much smaller than he was and wasn't a bad guy (at least so we thought). He was just frightened. We were brought up short and forced to ask what is wrong with Gunn? This was the defining moment for the "A" plot. It set the basic direction of the story and everything else flowed from it.
There was nothing else in the episode quite so shocking but, as we followed Gunn in his search for Angel's car, more and more things started to fall into place adding to and explaining this initial outburst. First of all there was Gunn's attitude towards his neighborhood and to the outside world. In the scene in the parking lot he was quite relaxed about crimes against outsiders, especially affluent outsiders. Stealing cars from his own people was a very different matter:
Then there was the scene at the party where he got very defensive when Cordelia (insensitively it must be admitted) asked him whether he was friends with every criminal in town. He immediately jumped to the conclusion that she was saying that all "brothers" were criminal. He himself is only too ready to assume that David Nabbit must have been a criminal to become a billionaire and is openly scornful of Cordelia's protestations about his charitable works. These exchanges help identify even more strongly than the earlier ones in the Hyperion just what Gunn knows as home and who his people are.
And over "his people" he exercises an almost imperial authority. He orders the car thief to leave neighborhood cars alone and when he doesn't get the answer he wants from him he is very forthcoming with the threats:
As the car thief later tells Deevak:
"He's under the false impression that he runs this town."
When he met one of his gang who had ignored his orders and went to a party instead of patrolling he is equally tough. This prompted even Cordelia (who herself can be somewhat high handed) to protest:
For her pains she was effectively ignored and Gunn started to give orders to her. In all of this he is appears arrogant, sure of himself, sure of his abilities and sure of his power to compel obedience. It is a very hard, even harsh exterior. But it is not too long before we begin to see just how brittle that exterior is.
There is another side to Gunn's attitude. In the way he took offence at stealing cars from the neighborhood we already got a glimpse of his protectiveness of his people. But the aftermath of the fight at the Party showed just how deeply he feels. In particular the scene in the Hospital where he beat himself up over the near death of Vanessa:
Gunn: "She almost died."
Cordelia: "But she didn't."
Gunn: "No thanks to me."
Cordelia: "It wasn't your fault."
Gunn: "I let my guard down and she's the one...".
This, I think, is the key to understanding Gunn. Yes, he is hard on his "subordinates". But that is because he doesn't want them dead. As he says himself:
"Some people need discipline to survive."
He also doesn't want them getting other people killed through negligence or what he would see as cowardice. When challenged about his treatment of Jameel, Gunn's answer is direct. He was doing what he had to. He had people dying. He wasn't going to stop at anything to save them. And no matter how hard he is on others he is always twice as hard on himself:
This was a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. And this sense of responsibility extended even to Cordelia. I do not need to waste time describing just how much of an irritant she was to him. From his point of view she didn't have a clue about what he was doing or why he was doing it. Worse she knew nothing about his life or that of others in the neighborhood. And yet she was continually free with her advice. Worst of all she had come to him on some wild goose chase, hurt one of his men and ended up by getting her car stolen. Nevertheless he felt sufficiently responsible for her to use an entire evening of his valuable time, when I am sure he had better things to do, helping her track it down.
And because of his feelings of responsibility, he can allow himself no weaknesses. This is why he has to he has to show the flint-like exterior to the world. That is why he is so brutal to anyone who lets him down. That is also why he has to constantly deride what he perceives as weakness, whether that be in the form of the prissy English ex-Watcher or the "Barbie stick figure." It is also why he resents help. Even when he accepts it from Angel he isn't happy about it. But what really annoyed him was when Cordelia tries to save him. As he says sarcastically:
Above all this explains why he doesn't understand concepts such as team work. The idea than an individual needs to rely on others to complement his strengths with their own is totally foreign to his way of thinking. It is because of this that he was so unwilling to see Wesley and Cordelia go with himself and Angel to see Jameel. Wesley's remark that he was riding "shotgun" passed right over his head. And in this context it has to be said that the pathetic performance that the Fang Gang put up against the first Vampire attack would have, if anything, reinforced his prejudices.
But, just as in "WarZone" he cannot escape the feeling that no matter how hard he fights or how careful he is, he is loosing. As he says to Cordelia:
" I can't stop 'em. I can't ever stop 'em."
When Cordelia was trying to convince Gunn he was in danger, she told him:
His reply was:
But the truth was that he was scared, not for his own life but because of the fact that events were out of his control. His people were dying and there wasn't a thing he could do about it.
It is all of this, but especially the
feeling of helplessness and the anger within him that it generates, that leads
him to the recklessness with which he behaves at times. In single combat he
didn't have a chance against Deevak. But that didn't stop him. Angel himself
But Gunn took him on single handed. And it was only because he had the Fang Gang there to back him up that he survived. Even so he seemed less than grateful. Here I find very strong echoes of "WarZone". I almost got the feeling that Gunn would welcome his own death because it would bring an end to the pain he experiences through seeing "his people" die nightly, without being able to do a thing about it.
I have to say I found this picture a compelling and convincing one. Yes, the idea of a leader who takes his as responsibilities as seriously Gunn does and holds himself to blame for everything that goes wrong is a little hackneyed. And certainly Cordelia's little speech to him at the end did constitute hitting us over the head with the message, as if we couldn't be trusted to pick it up ourselves.
But in context the characterization we see in "First Impressions" seems just right for someone like Gunn. It preserves continuity with everything we have seen about him before but adds considerably to our knowledge of him in a very coherent fashion. It shows him as a real individual with real strengths and real flaws. And what I always like most about such a development is that the weaknesses are the obverse side of the strengths. Moreover the fact that Gunn still "ain't buyin' none of this Dionne Warwick crap" is, as usual, the ANGEL writers refusing to take the easy or quick way out of the corner they paint their characters into. Gunn was given an object lesson in the advantages of teamwork. Even so this and the way Cordelia followed it up by challenging him to look into himself was still not enough to produce a change of heart. This is good and realistic writing. It is exactly the way someone with those sort of deep seated anxieties would react. All in all I would say this bodes very well for Gunn as a character.
Cordelia as mother hen
In all of this, the part Cordelia plays should not be forgotten. The "A" Plot is, of course, principally about Gunn and it would be unnecessarily distracting to try to do too much with her character in it. Nevertheless the part she plays here shows her character off to very good advantage.
It is of course a dramatic convention that characters who are intended to fall in love start out hating the sight of one another. This allows the audience to explore and understand the growing mutual attraction at the same time as the characters themselves. And admittedly the way that Cordelia and Gunn sparred together throughout this episode fits this convention very well. I have to say, however, that I do not see anything here which suggests to me that the writers are going down that road. There is nothing in her attitude towards Gunn that isn't a reflection of the attitude she has towards Angel - a friendship borne out of shared dangers, mutual dependency and a compassion for the fact that the other has personal demons to deal with.
Cordelia is the most balanced individual we see on ANGEL. Of course she has had her share of problems. But thwarted material expectations are not in the same league as the insecurities and fears driving Angel and Gunn, for example. And in any event Cordelia is the most self-possessed and self confident of individuals. She has a hard, practical streak to her that allows her to cope with almost any difficulty. This was the girl who, after being hung upside down and nearly sacrificed in WSWB, could only complain about her inability to get the stains from her dress. All of which makes her the ideal foil for Gunn.
At first, her only interest in him seems to be a sense of duty. She saw a violent vision of him in danger and her newly honed empathy with a humanity in fear and danger took over. As she said to Gunn:
"The things I've seen; sometimes I get downright terrified and right now I'm scared for you."
But at this stage she didn't think much of him. He seemed brutal, rude and unfeeling. For his part she was a liability getting in his way. She and the way she thinks were also entirely alien to him and just how alien is shown by the way she behaved like a fish out of water at the party he brought her to. On a social occasion like this she should have been at her best but every time she opened her mouth she put her foot in it, even down to asking for the hors d'oeuvres. Nevertheless she was not intimidated by him and she would not be put off by him. That was why they sparked off one another so effectively throughout the episode.
But there is another side to Cordelia's practicality. It allows her to make the most accurate observations of people. Remember she was able to read Angel acutely after Doyle died. She sees things and people as they are, not as she would like them to be. While her initial impression of Gunn was not favorable, she did see below the surface to the real person inside; someone who is damaged but someone who is of real substance. And, as we found out in "Bachelor Party" and later, she also recognizes and appreciates substance in a person. In particular she would see self-destructiveness in Gunn as an unforgivable waste. Moreover, just as with Angel's feeling of isolation in "To Shanshu in LA", she is also the sort of person who would want to do something about it.
And in this context one thing did change. Gunn may not have bought what Cordelia was saying to him but I think his attitude towards Cordelia certainly did change. It wasn't so much her evident good intentions towards him as the way she proved that there was more to her than he bargained for. While I suspect that Gunn himself was close to panic when Vanessa was injured (and certainly he wasn't that much help to her) Cordelia was in her element. She was cool, calm and collected as she did the right thing at the right time, right down to the way she whispered to Gunn that she had to be taken to the hospital "now". Even then she was thinking about not causing panic to Vanessa. Then there was they way she refused to abandon Gunn to Deevak and helped Angel to kill the demon. It was all very impressive and the lesson was not, I think, lost on Charles Gunn. The relationship between these two will indeed be very interesting to watch.
Angel goes on Holiday
The "B" plot no less than the "A" plot was an exercise in characterization, this time for Angel. Again, as with Cordelia, the writers wisely did not try to do too much. Instead they concentrated on setting up what is evidently going to be the first major story arc of ANGEL as a series. But the truly clever part about the writing was that they were able to do so in a way which fitted thematically so well with Gunn's story. At first it didn't seem so. Indeed, initially Angel's behavior in "First Impressions" seemed inexplicable.
Angel has come a long way since Whistler found him in the gutter in New York 1996. He has endured enormous physical and psychological suffering, great disappointments and undergone huge tests of will and nerve. He has passed through them all. He has made great sacrifices. And because he was willing to do this he has now, for the first time in his existence, gained a purpose, something he can take pride in. Remember how in "the Prodigal" Liam's father said:
Well, Angel has long since disproved that with a vengeance. And because he has done so he has the most important, the most eagerly desired goal of his life before him. He is now on his way to his own redemption and with it the promise of humanity.
What then is he doing with Darla? What is disturbing is not that he sees her in his dreams. It's his attitude towards her in those dreams themselves. He has evidently been having them for some time but doesn't tell anyone about them because he wants her to himself. Having her back feels "so strange...but good". And the reason it does feel good is the way they behave together. It is as if they were lost in an idyll of their own with slow romantic dances, sensuous bathing by moonlight, and the comfort of domesticity with Darla there to welcome a tired Angel home from his labors and comfort him.
Yet this was the woman who made Liam a vampire in the first place, who supervised Angelus' first kill and who shared so much in his life as he cut a swath of destruction throughout Europe. She was in short the reason for everything that the ensouled Angel hates about his past. They were the most natural of enemies. But the fact that he was having those dreams about Darla didn't disturb Angel in the least. In fact he can't wait to get back to them. As he said to Cordelia after the first fight with the Vampires:
"I just need to get some sleep."
But that was only a few hours after he had got up. As she herself observed:
"That seems to be all you've been doing lately."
And when Wesley woke him in the middle of a dream he was actually annoyed that he made Darla go away. From this we can only imagine that his attitude towards Darla in the dream was an accurate reflection of what is going on in his own mind. By that I do not mean that I think he is in love with Darla. Indeed in this context I am very struck by the similarity in all of Angel's dreams between her and Buffy. Rather I think that it means that Darla is filling some genuine need for Angel.
In his little fantasy world she is always there for him when he comes home from a hard day's work. She notices when he is tired. She appreciates what he does for others when everyone else takes it for granted. She flatters him. She looks after him, meets his needs for comfort and pleasure. In short she takes the weight of the world of his shoulders:
"Now, you just relax and let Darla take care of you."
He has to strive for his own redemption by saving others; but who is there to look after him? Sure, he has friends in Cordelia and Wesley. But friendship sometimes isn't enough. They have their own lives. They can't make him and his needs the center of theirs. And this is what Darla is offering to do for Angel. In his naive response to her offer we get a clear idea of what loneliness really means and what responsibility does. And here too, especially in the last couple of scenes, the parallels with Gunn are made clear. Angel too feels the crushing burden of responsibility. And what we are being invited to do here is to look at how this burden affects both of them. In one way they and their responses are different. Gunn is a driven man. He clings on to ideas of duty, discipline and strength. He takes control and holds himself individually and personally responsible for everything that goes wrong. Angel's reaction is to retreat into a fantasy world where he doesn't have to take responsibility, where everything is done for him.
But their different responses have one thing in common. they both represent the road to self-destruction and the destruction of all they hold dear. I have already dealt with Gunn. Angel is, if anything, the more interesting case.
We know almost instinctively that nothing good can come out of a dalliance between him and Darla. Right at the very beginning of the episode in his conversation with the Anagogic MC what is at stake for Angel in his dream world is made clear:
And the truth of this statement is to be found in what happens in the rest of the episode. Patently his mind is only half on the job. His main preoccupation is with sleeping and dreaming, a preoccupation that led him to ignore the calls for help by one friend and almost to kill another. But this was only the outward and visible sign of an even more insidious attack, that on his resolve. Darla wasn't just making Angel feel safe, wanted and valued. She was quite deliberately drawing a contrast between that feeling and what he is getting from his battle with evil:
And then there was an even more explicit attempt to get him to choose between his fantasy world and his mission:
Angel: "What are you thinking about?"
Darla: "You. Us."
Angel: "You seem sad."
Darla: "It's just...I have to go."
Angel: "I'll go with you."
Darla: "You can't. I'm in danger."
Angel: "I'll protect you."
Darla: "You're too busy protecting everyone else."
It seems to me that the groundwork is being laid here for the most testing challenge to Angel's resolve and commitment. Truly Vocah was right when he spoke of Darla's raising in "To Shanshu in LA" as being:
And the degree of success that Darla has had to date shows just how very real a threat this is. And the interesting thing is that the events at the very end of the episode suggest that she is no longer just in Angel's dreams but actually present with him in his bedroom. From this it seems that this danger is becoming ever stronger.
It is not a point I intend to pursue in any detail. But I wonder whether in all of this there may indeed be a metaphor for life. Responsibility is a fact for a lot of people and sometimes it can be a quite crushing weight. It affects people in different ways. Some react like Gunn by imitating the mighty Oak in the tale. When faced with the wind it refused to bend but stands firm and strong against the wind until eventually it breaks. Others, like Angel here, choose retreat from reality until perhaps they loose all contact with it.
The interesting thing is that in all of this it is the title which proves misleading. When I first heard it I thought we might have an episode about how appearances were deceptive. And so we did. The episode is full of examples of this type. Gunn misjudges the effectiveness of both Wesley and especially Cordelia. Cordelia initially sees Gunn as brutal and unfeeling when his problem is actually that he feels the weight of responsibility too much. David Nabbitt first appears a complete dork but his financial acumen stuns everyone. Gunn thinks he is a crook until Cordelia puts him right about the good things he has done. The vamp masquerading as the distressed partygoer fools Wesley. And of course the insignificant and innocent stool pigeon turns out to be the alter ego of Deevak. If that were all the episode were about then it would not be at all interesting. The truth, however, is that the "first appearances can be deceptive" angle is simply a device used with great effect to cloak what the episode is really about - how the seemingly strong can buckle under the weight of pressure put on them, how they try to cover up their weakness and how in the end putting up that front can lead to their destruction.
This is in effect another "first appearance". Right from the beginning the whole plot was set up so that Deevak would appear to be a mortal danger for Gunn in particular. The meeting in the Hyperion was called for the purpose of dealing with the demon. And then, after Cordelia had seen a vision with Gunn in trouble, Deevak turned up and made a direct threat against him; following this up by an attack on the party Gunn had joined. But this was all an elaborate red herring. It left us watching for one story when something very different is happening. In this sense it is very like "Eternity" with its faux stalker plot. All the time we were looking for the threat from Deevak to materialize we are actually watching the writers explore the character of Charles Gunn before our eyes. And I think that this worked very well for a number of reasons. First of all the set up generally seemed to make perfect sense, with an aggressive and self confident Gunn posing a danger to creatures like Deevak it would only be natural for him to try to kill him. And Deevak's fearsome reputation was established by the fact that Gunn had to go to Angel for help and Angel too showed him great respect. The stool pigeon's fear of him underlined this. Then, although the major part of the action seemed to be taken up with Gunn and Cordelia looking for Angel's car, Deevak or his cronies keep on popping up at regular intervals just to remind us of the threat they pose. It all looked as of it is leading up to the big attack on Gunn that Cordelia foresaw.
But because there was so much attention on exploration of character there wasn't really a sustained build up of tension or threat. Most of the time there was no sense of imminent danger. Even in the fight scene at the party Deevak was notable by his absence and Gunn didn't look to be in much trouble. It was, therefore, a strength of the plot that it was packed full of entertaining individual scenes and incidents which kept our attention. I have already mentioned the way that Cordelia and Gunn sparked off one another. There was very effective use of humor throughout. I loved the way that Cordelia kept on sticking out like a sore thumb but battered on regardless. Some of the scenes between Wesley and Angel were even better. The embarrassment all round when naked Angel landed on top of Wesley and then tried to choke him, the way Wesley clearly got the upper hand over his employer with the pink helmet and then the sly and totally unexpected head but of the party goer were all gems.
In the end, however, we did reach the expected showdown between the Fang Gang and Deevak. The fact that the latter eventually burst in on Gunn and Cordelia was no great surprise, although I have to say the precise timing of it was. This was a very nice piece of writing because our attention was so taken up by the sparring between Gunn and Cordelia that we forgot about the danger they may be in. This leads to a satisfying climactic battle in which Deevak and his gang are destroyed. It was , however, only then that we began to appreciate what the story we had just seen was all about. And it was not about Deevak who was in fact about as colorless, unthreatening and badly made up as Adam in Season 4 BUFFY. In fact aside from the cathartic battle the only significance of the defeat of Deevak was that it drove home the lesson of teamwork and the need to rely on others.
8/10: Like mush else of Angel this season the centerpiece of this episode was an in-depth piece of character study. The writers took a good, hard look at Charles Gunn. What they showed us was consistent with what we had seen before but went much deeper. Like Cordelia, we can see many aspects of Gunn's character that are on the surface hardly admirable. He is arrogant, rude, dictatorial and brutal. But through this episode we came to see why. We saw into the darkest corners of his soul, into what he really fears and the crushing burden that these fears impose on him. And because of this we began to sympathize with him, without any of his less attractive qualities having been minimized in any way. I think this is a very considerable achievement. Hardly less so is what the writers achieved with Angel in a very much smaller amount of time. Almost unbelievably and out of a clear blue sky there has developed in an entirely credible manner an enormous crisis for our hero. True, it has not yet manifested itself for all to see but the signs are there. He is at a crossroads in which his smooth upward progress and his seemingly inexhaustible resources of determination and resolve will meet their sternest test. The set up is literally mouthwatering. And all of this is presented to us in a thematically unified form where we can see in the respective crises which both Gunn and Angel suffer a reflection of the burdens on the other. Add to this the humor and the wonderful character inter-reaction between Angel and Wesley on the one hand and Gunn and Cordelia on the other and the thin plot is simply not a problem.