I FALL TO PIECES
Written by: David Greenwalt
Directed by: Vern Gillum
Meltzer and Angelus
In many ways the subject of a stalker and his victim was a natural for ANGEL. Stalking first of all involves some form of covert action and for that reason usually takes place at night. But it is intrusive and it does put the victim into a state of distress or fear of violence. It is also quite likely to end in some form of violence directed at the victim. The potential for incorporating the supernatural into this type of behavior in the Angelverse is all too obvious. I am afraid, however, that in this respect "I Fall to Pieces" promised more than it delivered.
Part of the difficulty was the way in which the basic idea for this episode was presented. Meltzer and his detachable body parts and especially what happened to him was intended to be used as a metaphor for the way stalkers and their victims related to one another. In presenting this metaphor the writers relied upon a parallel between Meltzerís stalker activities on the one hand and Angelís first hand knowledge and experience of stalking on the other. This parallel was intended to explore and explain Meltzerís motivations and actions and his ultimate fate. Thus we were to be helped to understand the metaphor. The problem lay in the fact that, for me at least, the parallel between Angel and Meltzer just did not work.
Let us start with the following conversation between Cordelia and Angel.
I think we have to conclude from this that the writers were referring specifically to the parallels between Meltzer and Angelus rather than Angel. Textually the reference to Angelís "bad vamp days" makes this fairly clear. There are, of course, some similarities between these two. They both share a desire to control their victims. But their motivations are fundamentally different. The quote above reveals what I think is intended to be the true nature of Meltzerís interest in Melissa. It is born out of inadequacy and frustration. He wants all the normal things out of life like a family. But because of his own shortcomings he cannot have them. So he substitutes a fantasy relationship. This can be seen from the way in which he unhesitatingly accepts "Brian Jensenís" description of his love for his "wife" as a picture of his own relationship with Melissa.
But there was never a relationship there. There was instead a control system which Meltzer fooled himself into believing was a relationship. The true nature of Meltzerís relationship with Melissa is evidenced by the realities of his actions: the covert surveillance to ensure she follows his instructions, changing her pin number etc. It may well be that Meltzerís difficulties with women stemmed from his feelings of inadequacy that are reflected in his need to control them. That is, of course, speculation. Nevertheless it seems quite clear that Meltzerís behavior is the direct result of his failure in being able to have an ordinary relationship.
And here is where we come to the metaphor. Here I will quote from something Angel said to Melissa:
These were words that she herself took up and turned on Meltzer:
The message we are being given is that inadequacy can turn to violence but when confronted by strength, both moral and physical, it just "falls to pieces" both literally and metaphorically. As Meltzerís weapons in stalking Melissa literally fell apart so his true weakness was metaphorically revealed. The application of this metaphor for stalkers generally is too obvious to need laboring here. And it is a very clever one. It encapsulates a fairly sophisticated idea about the lack of moral strength in someone who is essentially a bully into a nice, easily understood thought.
But this very metaphor reveals pretty clearly the fallacy of the method chosen to reveal it. There is no real parallel between Angelus and Meltzer. Neither Angel nor the viewer can claim to understand the latter through the actions or motivations of the former. Angelus did not want to be loved. He didnít want a relationship. He just enjoyed inflicting pain. Even by vampire standards, Angelus was a "particularly brutal bastard". We have not yet got an especially clear idea of his activities in the 18th and 19th centuries. But there are enough hints that he set out to torture and kill simply for pleasure. As the First Evil in the guise of Margaret said in "Amends" -
His stalking of victims represented a collection of refined techniques for inflicting the pain Ė killing loved ones, nailing puppies for Valentineís Day etc. Just compare the roses he sent Buffy in BBB (complete with the message "soon") to Meltzerís gift of flowers to Melissa. The former was a threat; the latter really was a misconceived gesture intended to show affection. In fact love repelled and sickened Angelus. The only occasion when his stalking of someone could be said to be as a result of more personal motives was when he went after Buffy. Even there it was not because he wanted love. Rather he wanted revenge. In "Innocence", Drusilla guessed fairly easily what Angelus had in mind for Buffy -
"You don't want to kill her, do you? You want to hurt her. Just like
you hurt me."
So on this most basic level the similarities between Angel(us) and Meltzer just did not work for me. Remember Meltzer only became violent when his efforts at showing affection were frustrated. Violence was Angelusí whole life. I could not believe in Angel looking into the dark, soulless evil of the demon and finding these human inadequacies there that allowed him to diagnose both the problem and the solution. It is one thing to take back control of your life in the face of an inadequate who "falls to pieces" at the first sign of serious opposition. I wouldnít give very much for your chances of pulling of the same trick if the stalker was Angelus (unless of course your name happened to be Buffy Summers).
Having said all that, the depiction of the actual stalking itself was well done, both from a dramatic point of view and in terms of its compatibility with the metaphor. It started off with the flowers Ė innocuous enough. We then saw the bathroom scene and we only learned the significance of that later. Meltzer changing Melissaís pin number was the first sign that something wasnít quite right and from there on the obsessiveness gradually became clearer until it culminated in very intrusive behavior and eventually violence. So, Meltzerís actions (including the way he became unhinged by his failure) matched closely the predicted pattern of behavior and thus added weight to the analysis. In addition, however, the level of threat escalated bit by bit, which from the dramatic point of view is usually a good thing.
Development of the Plot
In the same way I liked the way the writers held back for a while before revealing Meltzerís "special abilities". That added to the suspense. I canít help feeling, though, that they could have waited even longer. The ideal would have been to structure the episode so that the revelation came immediately after Angelís visit to Vinpur Natpudan. The conversation between them could have been left open ended with a cut away scene in which Meltzer revealed his stalking techniques by demonstration. That would have maximized the surprise and the final revelation would have had a more coherent feel to it. The explanation as to how Meltzer got his special gifts would have been linked directly to the disclosure of what they were. The way it was structured we knew what Meltzerís secret was long before Angel went to see Vinpur Natpudan. Because of this the only purpose served by that visit for us the viewer was to reveal the method used and by this time I certainly had little interest in that sort of exposition. Worse than that, the explanation that was given made so little sense that we would actually have been better off without one. As best I can make out the suggestion was that Meltzer had managed to tap into the unused potential of the brain (one of the great clichťís of SF) in some unspecified way. Yogis may be able to shut down their "somatic system" (no, I donít know what that is) by doing so but how the brain allows the physical separation of a hand from an arm is beyond me. The writers might just as well have shown Angel putting down the telephone and telling Cordelia he had just found out from Vinpur Natpudan what Meltzerís special abilities were.
This, however, leads me to another part of the episode that was handled well - the detective work that went into identifying the nature of the threat. Admittedly this was one of the simpler problems for Angel to solve in that Melissa had given him the name of the perpetrator and described what he was doing to her. All he had to do is figure out how he was doing it. Nevertheless, he went about it in a logical manner. He went and talked to Kate, got police protection for Melissa, searched Meltzerís office, made covert contact with him and interviewed colleagues. All were logical moves and each contributed towards solving the final puzzle. What I liked most, however, was the way in which the results of these moves were brought together to set up the final confrontation. Meltzer had already met "Brian Jensen". Angel getting police protection for Melissa led to Meltzerís first kill and to him seeing Angel and Melissa together. This not only confirmed he was out of control but helped him identify who his enemy was, thus leading to the attempt to kill "Brian Jensen" and so to the final confrontation in Angelís apartment. All very neat and tidy.
The same cannot, however, be said for the final confrontation itself. Here there were several fairly basic problems. Not the least of them was trying to decide how the conflict was to be resolved. This may sound a strange thing to say but in many ways the real point of the story was to implement the advice Kate gave to Angel when she said:
So, after some prompting from Angel, Melissa did stand up to Meltzer and
dared him to kill her. That, I assume, was intended to be the moment when she
got back power over her own life. But Meltzer still had physical power over her.
He could have killed her and her demonstration of independence wouldnít have
been very much help to her then. It needed Angel to come and kill Meltzer for
her to be truly free. But once Angel had killed Meltzer her willingness to
strand up to him became largely superfluous. There does seem to be some conflict
here between the old fashioned "hero to the rescue" approach and the
"saving souls" agenda. The two involved quite different solutions to
the problem and do not easily co-exist.
In the physical sense at least the central confrontation was between Meltzer and Angel. In order for this to have any dramatic impact Meltzer, therefore, had to be a credible opponent. I really didnít think he was. I accept that shooting Angel full of drugs almost allowed him to make an end run around him and kill Melissa. And I have to say that sequence of Meltzer paralyzing Angel and then trying to break into the apartment were well done. But once in the apartment Meltzer showed no real interest in either Doyle or Cordelia and quite frankly I could not get particularly worked up about Melissa or her fate. I think this is one of the fundamental problems of having a "victim of the week". So, in the end, there was no real suspense attached to the sequence. And once Angel appeared on the scene the danger was, in any event, as good as over. Meltzer had apparently no more physical strength than an ordinary human. I think that this was demonstrated when the most dangerous way he could take on Angel was to shoot out his teeth at him. So, what was supposed to be the climax of the whole episode ends very quickly and very tamely in anticlimax.
Another problem lay in the special effects. The idea of detachable body parts was very creepy and, for obvious reasons, fitted metaphor perfectly. To see Melissa in very private moments (such as getting undressed for bed) being stalked by eye and hands was very disturbing indeed. I thought the special effects here worked very well; especially the scenes where the hands reattached themselves to Meltzerís arms. But the weaknesses in the special effects were shown up very clearly by the action sequences at the end. They simply could not convey the necessary fluidity and ease of movement that were necessary to hold their own in inter-reaction with the live action participants. In the end they seemed slightlyÖ. ridiculous.
It would, however, be very unfair to conclude without drawing attention to some of the undoubted strengths of the episode. It contained two very good ideas about the way Angel related to his clients. The first was the way he scared Melissa. This emphasized his separation from people as well as his usual modus operandi. It therefore made a very serious point. But, in conversation with Cordelia, it was viewed in essentially a humorous way which actually made it more effective. The only pity is that more hasnít been made of it subsequently. Secondly the way Doyle related collecting a bill from clients to the need to help them retain their independence could only be described as ingenious. I love it when writers take a mundane point like Angelís reluctance to ask people for money (which I have to say was very endearing) and find a new and interesting angle in it. Presenting the business side of "Angel Investigations" in this new light made of look like one more step in overall design to save souls. And most important of all both ideas were very well integrated into the plot.
It was also very good that both Doyle and Cordelia got a lot more to do then in, for example, "Lonely Hearts". This episode had far more the ring of a team exercise to it. Both played their parts in the detective work and in baby-sitting Melissa. And they took part in some very nice individual scenes, both between them and separately. Cordeliaís interviewing technique hasnít really improved much since "Earshot" ("So he is good at the cutting and the sewing. Did he ever strike you as a big dangerous creep?") and Doyleís idea of reassuring clients leaves something to be desired ("But protecting young women such as yourself? Yeah, thereíve been Ė ah Ė 4. And 3 of them are very much alive."). In fact the dialogue in this episode was sparkling and pretty much all in character. I was very entertained by the fact that Cordelia especially just could not get over the fact that Meltzer was a doctor:
5.5/10 This was the first ANGEL episode to really disappoint. It wasnít actually that bad but it did seem to me to fail in a number of crucial respects. The metaphor of a stalker falling to pieces was a good one. But the parallel between Angelus and Meltzer, which was intended to illustrate it, was basically misconceived and I usually regard that as a more serious matter than a well conceived parallel which fails in its execution. I think that there was a degree of confusion over how the doctor was to be defeated - by Melissa standing up to him or by Angel physically. There was no real explanation as to how his limbs became detached. Finally, as an opponent, Meltzer just didnít carry a sufficient threat. The detachable body parts was a suitably creepy idea which unfortunately worked badly in the final fight scene. Having said that the actual depiction of Meltzer was (regardless of the failure of the parallel) a convincing one and was entirely consistent with the metaphor for the stalker. The execution of the plot (the stalking, detective work and engineering of final confrontation) was thoroughly professional. Finally the dialogue was well up to David Greenwaltís very high standards and provided a lot of amusing and entertaining moments. In the end, however, while these mitigate the failure they cannot quite rescue the episode.