I GOT YOU UNDER MY SKIN
Written by: Jeannine Renshaw and David Greenwalt
Directed by R.D. Price
In "City of…" Doyle introduced one of the major themes of ANGEL as being the saving of souls. But it very quickly became apparent that, whatever else this phrase meant, it had nothing to do with the metaphysics of the human soul. Somewhat surprisingly for a series whose principal character had every day to struggle with evil inside him the saving of souls wasn’t, in the beginning at least, intended to address fundamental questions of good and evil and their place within human beings (or demons for that matter). IGYUMS, therefore, represents something of a departure in this regard. This episode does raise some essential issues about the basic impulses in individuals to do good or evil and the implications the existence of those impulses have. Moreover it does so in a way that is, as far as I can remember, unique in the Buffy- or Angelverse (which for the sake of economy I will refer to simply as "the Angelverse").
It is a basic tenet of the mythology we have seen to date that the human soul has an innate sense of right and wrong. More than that it has a basic impulse to do what is right. Doing wrong is, therefore, supposed to go against our nature as human beings. On this is based the argument that, no matter what a human has done, his or her soul *can* at any time turn its back on wrongdoing. This implies that, in the final analysis, everyone is redeemable. But this episode is built around the idea that there exist individuals who are soulless and who are, therefore, by implication irredeemable. This revelation is not just an interesting supplement that adds a little color to the end of the story in IGYUMS. It is the story. Without it this episode is just another standard "exorcism", well enough handled but really without anything to distinguish it from any of the others. It is true that, for most of the episode, we see the drama unfold in those terms. Innocent humans are being victimized by a demon. But that is misleading. At the end, in the confrontation between the Ethros and Angel, Ryan’s true nature is revealed. This constitutes a "turning point" in the entire story. The conventional Angelverse POV is revealed to have been mistaken. Instead the real relationship between the Ethros and Ryan is, for the first time, revealed. We see the same events through different eyes and in doing so those events make more sense. The classic example here is where the marbles were used to spell out a plea for help. It did not make any sense that Ryan would be able to accomplish this feat; it made every sense that the Ethros demon would be able to do that. But we were not prepared to believe the implications behind that scenario so instead of interpreting the scene in line with the evidence we interpreted it in line with our prejudices. The fact that we are forced to adopt this new perspective for events we thought we understood, therefore, seems to me to be the whole point of the episode. And I think it must follow from this that the really important issues posed by this episode must also relate to the revelation around which the episode turns: the fact that Ryan has no soul.
The first thing to say here is that IGYUMS does not at any stage contradict or undermine the basic mythology of the Angelverse. That, of course, would be a very dangerous trap to fall into. Viewers have to continue to believe in the integrity of that basic mythology or it will loose any meaning. If we were ever to be told that a soulless vampire was redeemable or a human soul was not then we couldn’t continue to take seriously anything else we had been told. But while, as I have already said, the Angelverse holds that the human soul has an innate sense or right and wrong that does not necessarily mean that every person has a soul in that sense. By introducing us to Ryan the writers, therefore, add a further dimension to the rich mythology of the series while at the same time preserving consistency with it. To me that is important.
But the advantage of giving us this new dimension is that the writers have opened up a whole new series of questions to explore. And the implications of the answers are both thought provoking and disturbing. Perhaps the most fundamental question of all is what does the Ethros mean when he says Ryan has no soul? In this context the picture of Ryan given by the Ethros is very interesting:
This passage appears to confirm that the Ethros (and presumably every other evil demon as well) does have a demon soul and that this soul, in distinction from the human one, has a basic impulse to do evil. This first of all suggests that the human soul is more than simply a conscience or moral sense. But it also indicates that what essentially differentiates a human from a demon soul is their different moral orientation. This makes a great deal of sense in understanding the whole environment of the Angelverse. So, interestingly, the introduction of a soulless child helps define the difference between both. I like that. But the comparison between human and demon soul also helps us understand Ryan’s situation. The human soul is a spiritual entity with a basic orientation to do good. The soul of an evil demon is a spiritual entity with a basic orientation to do evil. Ryan, based on this analysis, must also have a spiritual entity to control his body but that entity is without conscience, fear or humanity on the one hand or a belief in evil on the other.
That is why the Ethros demon was afraid of Ryan and why it described him as someone without a soul. By making that its key plot point IGYUMS subverts one of the key elements of the Angelverse - outside supernatural creatures are used as the metaphors for the evil that happens to people in life. Here the supernatural creature was evil but it was not responsible for anything nasty that happened to Ryan and his family. Rather it was the human agent within their midst that was responsible for the evil. The implications of this scenario are profound. Ryan is clearly a rational individual. His actions in trying to kill his sister were planned. There is no sign of mental illness. He seems to have complete control of himself. But he still acted for evil without what could rationally be described as a reason. This was shown by the fact that what motivated him to try to kill his sister was that she got two more marshmallows than he did. This is a far more disturbing scenario than someone who kills for greed or revenge or even someone who commits evil for the love of it. Can someone like Ryan be helped? What reference point do you use to change his behavior? Does the fact that this is a child make any difference? Can a person without a soul be somehow "socialized"? Will he change with age or, more likely, will he simply grow into an adult version of the soulless killer? And what does this mean for the way he is to be treated both as a child and later? Here the dialogue between Kate and Ryan’s parents at the end is pretty hopeless:
The forgoing are questions that only arise because we are faced with a human without a soul. They are not relevant to evil demons. Nor are they relevant to "normal" humans who do evil for clearly understood motives. They are, therefore, much more awkward questions as to the true nature of evil and its place within us than the typical "Buffy" or "Angel" story. And we don’t get any easy answers to these questions. In fact there seem to be no answers.
If this episode may be said to employ a metaphor this is surely where we find it. One of the great questions facing modern society is why some individuals, especially children, kill or commit other evil acts in a random, motiveless way. All too often their actions defeat our attempts to rationalize them. Instead we are left looking helplessly for a practical response. Perhaps IGYUMS leaves us to ponder whether there is any rationalization or indeed any response.
Structure of the Plot
One of the most compelling things about the writers’ approach to IGYUMS is the way that the mystery of what is going on in Ryan’s family is revealed in incremental steps. First we have the sense that something is wrong; then we find about the possession. The next stage is to discover who is being possessed with suspicion conventionally falling first on the father. Then we discover that the Ethros was possessing Ryan. One discovery in turn leads quite naturally to the next and eventually we arrive at what we perceived to be the central confrontation of the episode – the exorcism itself. All of this is very well crafted. And it’s not only the structure here that works. I loved the dark, claustrophobic atmosphere that was maintained from the beginning to the very end. And there were moments that were genuinely tense and scary. There was real tension in the battle of wills between Ryan his parents while waiting for Angel's return from the Church. Could his mother in particular restrain herself in a palpably difficult and emotional situation? I also thought that the actual exorcism itself was very well done with the escalating battle of wills which ended Wesley's brave attempt, and then culminated in Ryan overplaying his hand and drove Angel into a quick and decisive coup. Then the demon was gone - ideal pacing. All of this is not only good from a dramatic point of view but it is very well suited to setting up the revelation I have already discussed. As each piece of information is uncovered or danger overcome we are carried along with a sense that Angel and Co. are making progress in solving the problem. Little do we know that the nature of the real problem has yet to be revealed.
And suddenly, after the exorcism, when all we are looking for is a little tidying up we are hit right between the eyes. We can easily identify with Wesley’s moral outrage in the following exchange:
Then the demon asks a simple rhetorical question: "What soul?" This could almost have gone unnoticed and it takes a while for the full implications to sink in. But it does. And so the writers reveal the twist, one that was very well hidden but not unfairly so. The clues were there that something was not quite right: Ryan’s near fatal accident and the trick with the marbles. It was our own conventional expectations that (along with the participants themselves) led us to ignore these. ANGEL has done this before, most notably in "Rm w/a Vu" and "Parting Gifts" but nowhere with greater effect than here. The whole story had led us, like Wesley, to adopt a moralistic stance in condemning the evil from without. When the source of the evil was revealed to have been the "innocent child" all the time we are left with no option but to confront the implications of the evil from within and not only for what we had already learned about the history of the family. The Ethros’ revelation about Ryan coincided with his attempt to kill his sister, leading to a classic race against time rescue. This worked not only as a piece of drama bringing the episode to a suitable climax but illustrated by demonstration the whole point of the episode. Here we saw the soulless monster at work, complete a striking visual of him framed in the bedroom door with the fires of hell leaping up in the foreground. I thought that was a chilling detail.
Another highly successful aspect of this episode is the way in which the story uses the characters of Angel and Wesley, in particular. So, for example, Wesley's development as a character continues apace. Here we have Wesley the inadequate. He can't replace Doyle, he can't please his father, he can't carry out his duties for the Council, and Angel won't trust him to carry out the exorcism. Even when he tracks down a knife with which to kill a Keck (sp?) demon, it turns out they are extinct. Yet he so desperately wants to be useful. He wants to do the exorcism so much that he even stands up to Angel and wins the argument (even at the risk of being vulgar). Of course he overreaches himself but I like that. It’s what people do when trying to compensate for feelings of inadequacy. As for Angel himself we are reminded at they beginning of his feelings of responsibility for Doyle's death and by extension his feelings of responsibility for Wesley and Cordelia.
But even outside the context of the plot itself the way Angel and Wesley related to one another was used in a very creative way. I think that there is a conscious effort to build up a picture of a family group with Angel not so much as "father figure" but perhaps as big brother. We have already seen how close Cordelia and Angel are and their talk about Doyle reinforced this. But Wesley’s integration into "the family" is taken one stage further in this episode. It is demonstrated partly by the family bickering at the beginning ("Angel tell her to stop it") and the little tableau at the end. But most significant was Wesley's reaction to Ryan’s taunts during the exorcism. He brushed off Ryan mocking his feeling of inadequacy. He coped less well when reminded about his father. But what made him loose it was the allegation that he was afraid of Angel and planning to kill him. Angel’s reaction to it ("I know you’re not planning to kill me, Wesley. But you’re willing to – and that’s good.") deliberately mirrored the understanding he had reached with Cordelia at the end of "Somnambulist":
It shows, I think, the developing personal relationship between them.
Thus IGYUMS (in a very typical way for ANGEL) picks up the various character issues which have run through the series and weaves them skillfully, indeed seamlessly, into the plot in such a way that is seems a natural and effortless fit. The actions of the characters are simultaneously dictated by the demands of plot but at the same time are true to themselves as individuals. . This is the way character should be used in the context of a plot – simultaneously advancing the action but at the same time exploring and developing the personalities concerned.
Finally, a few words on the humor. This was not an episode where it could have featured very heavily but I am glad it was not forgotten because even the best drama can benefit from the occasional lightening of the tone. I am also glad that much of the humor we had was character based. This is the best type of humor because it means the most. Refreshingly there was little of Wesley’s physical clumsiness on exhibit. We did, however, get full value from Angel’s now notorious social awkwardness. I loved the "roasty goodness" remark, not just for itself but for what it said about Angel. He had heard Cordelia's earlier defense of he brownies ("full of nutty goodness") and when he gallantly felt he had to say something in defense of the Paige’s roast he ineptly reached for a variation. Similarly we saw his lameness when asked about the brownies ("I use – uhm, chocolate. That’s why they’re brown – which gives them their name, brownies."). For a detective he ad libs very badly ("Angel Jones" anyone?). Interestingly, however, Angel interacts very naturally with the children, suggesting that for some reason he doesn’t need to be so defensive. This thought is reinforced by the following conversation:
Much of the rest of the humor came from Cordelia. There was one (all too brief) shinning moment when we saw the mature, level headed Cordelia who can cope with whatever tragedy and death comes her way and can help others – Angel in this case. I really liked the way she got him to open up about Doyle and was a little annoyed at the timing of the interruption. But for the rest we had the Cordelia whose "If I think it I say it" tactlessness and (at this stage) ambivalent commitment to Angel’s work comes into conflict with the seriousness with the situations she encounters. The tactlessness with Ryan’s parents especially is jarring so while it is perfectly in character it wasn’t just as enjoyable as the humor that came from Angel himself. I thought, however, the scene in the magic shop and the mix up over the Shorshak/Ethros box were very nicely done. There was an element here of the show sending itself up. This can be a dangerous thing to do but it was handled with a very light touch, as witnessed by the following exchange.
Cordelia: "Handcrafted by blind
Here you were just aware the show was poking a little gentle fun at itself without descending into the heavy handed parody that would have threatened the necessary suspension of disbelief. And in this context the use of Cordelia was ideal. Her business-like but slightly disdainful attitude towards Rick and his blandishments really made the scene. It is difficult to see it working as well with anyone else.
9/10: This episode may have been
originally conceived as a simple tribute to (a.k.a. rip-off from) "the
Exorcist" but in the end the idea underlying it was very much its own. That
idea of a human child capable of any cruelty because he was without any moral
direction at all is new, thought provoking and very disturbing. Not least it has
an all too disquieting resonance for today’s society. The plot itself is an
effective piece of storytelling in its own right but more importantly serves as
an ideal vehicle to develop this idea. IGYUMS also marks another stage in the
continuing development of Wesley as a character. He is already making a real
contribution to Angel’s work but he wants to make an even bigger one. But that
desire is the source of a conflict with Angel. And the strong character
interaction between them combines to play a key role in the development of the
story. Add the dark, serious atmosphere lightened just a little by effective use
of character based humor and I think we can say that all in all IGYUMS has some
very great strengths and no obvious weaknesses. I did, however, notice that at
least once in the episode, when Angel and Wesley arrive to save Paige from Ryan,
DB did break into a broad grin just as Wesley was beginning his Latin
incantation. I’m a little surprised that the scene wasn’t re-shot because it
is quite obvious and very distracting. Interestingly I thought DB also had some
trouble keeping his composure in the scene Angel had with Wesley in the party in
"She". Maybe AD really is as funny in real life as Joss Whedon claims.