The Ring
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Written by: Howard Gordon

Directed by: Nick Marck

The Structure

As I have noted elsewhere, episodes of ANGEL tends to consist of a single, unified plot.  Sometimes, however, an episode will depart from this norm.  In “the Prodigal” we had two different stories running in parallel, linked by the person of Angel and his need to prevent the same thing happening to Trevor Lockley as happened to his own father.  In “the Ring” we have a variation of this structure.  There is one basic story but it consists of two parallel lines of action: one involving Wesley and Cordelia, the other Angel himself.  These two lines do not intersect until the very end.  One advantage of  this technique is that it allows the writer to use the counterpoint or the parallels between the two plots to explore a theme or idea.   That is what happens here.  The two lines of action are unified by a common theme best put by Benjamin Franklin on the signing of the Declaration of Independence:  “Now we all hang together or we all hang separately”.   But that theme works out differently in the two plots.  In the one where Wesley and Cordelia try to find a way to rescue Angel they do manage to work together and, as a result, make considerable progress.  On the other hand Angel’s attempts throughout most of the episode to persuade his fellow captives to co-operate fall on deaf ears.  Because of this they remain trapped and some even die.  I think the counterpoint between the two sides to the plot, therefore, delivers a fairly clear message. 


Wesley and Cordelia

At the start of “the Ring” we see Cordelia and Wesley bickering.

Wesley:  “For your information – I lead a rich and varied social life.”

Cordelia:  “Oh, I know.  Every night it’s Jeopardy, followed by Wheel of Fortune and a cup of hot cocoa.  Look out girls, this one can’t be tamed!”

 Wesley:  “I’ll admit it may not be as intoxicating as a life erected on high fashion pumps and a push-up bra.”

Cordelia gets up:  “Hey, if anyone is wearing a push-up bra around here it’s (Sees Angel coming in) - Angel.”

Angel:  “Did you two need to see a counselor?”

 Even after they discover Angel has been kidnapped tension between them remains and at least once this tension threatens to get in their way – when they impersonate police officers to obtain tickets for the fight.  But when they work together and complement each other’s skills they are really effective.  Wesley traces the fight venue through Ernie the bookie and then Cordelia (who was born to be an undercover policewoman) carries off the bluff needed to obtain the tickets with aplomb.  Once inside Wesley identifies the significance of the bracelets:

Wesley:  “These Octavian matches date back to the Roman Empire.  I’d heard rumors of a revival.”

Cordelia:  “Couldn’t they have just done Westside Story?  What’s with the bracelets?”

Wesley:  “If they cross the red line while wearing one – they disintegrate.

But he cannot do anything until he gets his hands on one.

Cordelia:  “We’ve got to get Angel out of there!”

 Wesley:  “I know.  And to do that we have to get him out of those wrist-cuffs.  No mean feat.  They were forged by ancient sorcerers.”

Cordelia:  “So get an ancient key!”

Wesley:  “I might be able to make one myself – if I could get my hands on one of those cuffs.  Which isn’t going to be easy (Cordelia pulls a cuff out of her pocket and holds it up) unless you happened to procure one while I wasn’t looking.  Well done!”

And then Wesley can only produce the key after Cordelia brings her own brand of practical thinking to bear on the subject.

Wesley:  “I don’t know what else to try.  We need something supple enough to thread the locking mechanism, but strong enough to spring the release.”

Cordelia:  “Horsehair.”

Wesley:  “Horsehair?”

Cordelia:  “From Keanu, my palomino, before the IRS took him away.”

Wesley:  “Horsehair.”

Cordelia:  “Well, we tried just about everything else.” (Wesley touches the horsehair to the cuff.  There is a short zap and it springs open.)

Thus the message is how effective people can be when they pull together for the common good.  And I must say how much I like the way Cordelia and Wesley made a team here.  I do not detect any hint of romance there (thankfully) but we do get sparks flying between the prissy, serious Englishman and the wannabe American princess who are nevertheless building a healthy mutual respect.  Wesley in particular was excellent.  He was rogue demon hunter (with the bookie), watcher (with the key) and naïve klutz (loosing the key to Cribb).  He has now clearly established beyond argument his own importance in the team.

Unfortunately for poor old Angel his experience in “team building” was very different.


When Angel first wakes up after being kidnapped the first thing he finds is that the demon next to him won’t even talk.  This is quickly followed by the discovery that the gladiators prey on each other and all of them (even the weaker ones who have most to loose by this mindset) are focused on just winning the next contest and being one step closer to freedom.   The reason for this is quickly made clear.  As Jack McNamara explains it:

Jack: “Stay inside the red.  That wristband will make sure you do.  I know what you’re thinking.  You want to tear my throat out.  But you won’t.  Because there is only one way out of here: when that band comes off.  And the only way that band comes off, is after your 21st kill.”

Angel:  “I’m not killing anyone.”

Jack:  “Then you’ll be killed. 

 This situation is tailored to make each of the captives think of themselves alone and  forget about everyone else.  And that is just what they do.  In contrast, the message Angel brings is “we can fight them but only if we stop fighting each other”.  No one listens; not when Angel stands up for the weaker against the stronger and not even when he seems to get an advantage by capturing Jack McNamara.  No one helps and the advantage is lost.  There is an interesting sidelight here.  Angel assumes that one brother will not sacrifice the other for his own selfish reasons.  But Darren does just that. 

Angel:  “Come on Darin!  We both know there is only one way to let this play out.  So let’s just get it done.  He’s your brother.” (Darin pulls a gun and shoots Jack three times)

Darin:  “Now he’s my dead brother.”

 I guess its not only demons who ignore the “brotherhood spiel”.  Those were Jack’s own mocking words to Angel and provide a suitably ironic counterpoint to the message of co-operation. 

Where Angel first makes an impression is when he refuses to accept freedom and voluntarily returns to “the Ring”.  Trepkos says almost with incredulity “he was free”.   Still, however, even this is not enough.  Something more is needed.  When Wesley turns up with the key and the offer to “band together”, his offer is spurned and the key stolen.  This is the point where the two lines of the story intersect.  The good thing here is that Wesley tries to pick up the point that (unknown to him) Angel has been trying to make all along.  He  fails but, in the key, he provides Cribb with the means of actually putting into effect Angel’s message and, when Angel spares Trepkos who, in turn, refuses to fight on all the other demons really do band together.  Of course the credibility of the whole episode rests in this one moment.  Each step Angel has tried to convince the others to join him, even giving up his own freedom, has failed.  Does it make sense therefore that, by his act of sparing Trepkos, Angel finally gets through?  If it doesn’t then whole story of “the Ring” falls apart.  Happily I think that it does make sense.  This is partly because the effect of Angel’s actions is cumulative.  He is faced with progressively  more difficult tests of character and – with one exception when he kills Baker – he passes each.  More important, however, was the inter-reaction between Angel and Trepkos.  The latter was shown to be a largely silent witness to Angel’s actions.  The most powerful of the demons there he was also closest to the 21 kills he needed to escape.  So he had the most to gain by following the rules.  Also he did not seem too bright.  His conformity is therefore believable.  But so too is his change of heart.  He was no sentimentalist but he was essentially an honorable man, as shown by his quick kill of Malish.  He had lost fair and square to Angel and had his life spared.  His opponent was now not even defending himself.  To kill him in such circumstances would not have been honorable.  For someone as feared and respected as Trepkos to join Angel would certainly have made an impression on Cribb and the others.   When taken together with the advantage possession of the key gave them and the opportunity to wreak revenge on their oppressors then, yes the “slave revolt” does become believable.

As a theme constant reiteration of the need to work together is coherent and professionally executed.  It runs through both lines of action in different ways. The way Cordelia and Wesley work together counterpoints the failure of the demons to do so and this difference in the end brings both lines together in a dramatically satisfying way.  Yes, it is a simple message but that does not make it trite.   Aesop’s fables or Christ’s parables usually have simple messages but they work because they speak to common human experiences.  Most of us do not know what it is like to be deprived of freedom or used for other people’s entertainment.  But we can identify with a message that preaches co-operation.  Human beings are prone to take a short-term and selfish view of their self-interest at the expense of their fellows.  It is a tendency which, I am sure, we can all see in ourselves.

Having said that, the impact of this message cannot help but be weaker than one that deals with more fundamental questions such as the nature of freedom and what effect its deprivation has on individuals.   Captives held together and treated as property for the entertainment of others is the perfect medium in which to explore some of these fundamental questions.  This has been done in films such as “Spartacus”, but not here.  The desirability of freedom is assumed; the nature of freedom and what it really means to be a slave are ignored.  I think that is a pity.


The Plot

All the gladiator comparisons that were flying around ATS Newsgroup after the episode aired distracted attention from the fact that from, a dramatic perspective, this was basically an old fashioned rescue story: hero falls for sucker punch, hero finds himself in trouble and sidekicks have to get him out of it.   As such it may be compared more to “In the Dark” than “Spartacus”.  The plotting was perfectly good.  The way in which Cordelia and Wesley found Angel and then planned how to get him out was quite plausible.  Indeed as a piece of detective work “the Ring” worked rather better than “In the Dark”.  The problem is that, as a piece of drama, it is not quite as successful.

The first criticism is that, unlike Spike and Marcus, the villains in “the Ring” were rather anonymous.  They carried little air of threat.  Perhaps they were an example of the banality of evil but that has always seemed to me to be a dramatically weak theme.  In “In the Dark”, Angel was in real trouble.  Here the threat was much less.  Angel was certainly in  a trap that was difficult for him to get out of.  But you were never given the impression that he was in real danger.  I mean would anyone have trouble believing that Angel could have fought his way to freedom?  And one of the strengths of “In the Dark” was that there was something at stake besides Angel’s life.  It wasn’t enough to save him.  Spike had to be stopped from getting the Ring of Amara.  Here there was nothing really comparable at stake in “the Ring”.  I for one would not really have cared very much if the other demons had not escaped.

Another problem is that, after Angel had been kidnapped, the plot itself was too straightforward without very much by way of a twist.  From the very beginning of his captivity Angel’s sole agenda was in convincing the other slaves to co-operate in overthrowing the McNamaras and the normal dramatic conventions being what they are this dictated some sort of slave revolt at the end.  The only question was how to overcome the effect of the bracelets.  And in this context there was one structural difficulty.  How did Angel intend to solve the problem posed by the bracelets.  Unless he had something in mind (and there is no evidence that he did) how would leading the other demons to band together allow them to gain their freedom?  That required Wesley’s key.

None of this is to say that “the Ring” was without dramatic tension.  Far from it.   As I noted previously, as the episode progressed, we had a sense of increasingly more difficult tests of character for Angel to pass.  But even when he did so he made no impression on the other demons.   That  was itself well thought out because it led to a ratcheting up of the tension each time.  What next does he have to do to change the demons’ minds? The tension here was paralleled by Wesley’s increasingly desperate attempt to make a workable key.   Would he succeed in time? 


Other Aspects

Moreover,  there are a number of other elements to this episode that I really did like.   The plot did have one significant twist to it.  Jack McNamara wasn’t a victim.  It was all a trap.  This was at least one way in which the episode tried to confound our expectations and I always like that.  Secondly, we have seen a lot of Angel/Angelus as a killing machine, chopping down the enemy.  Here we had the best of both worlds.  There were some terrific fight scenes but it was the force of Angel’s moral example that won in the end. I took the “it’s about saving souls, not just lives” theme to mean just this sort of thing: helping people to see what was the right thing to do.  This was one more episode that redeemed that promise.  The whole story fitted around Angel’s willingness to stand up and be counted by always doing the right thing and his abhorrence of unnecessary killing in a very natural way.  “The Ring” was the perfect story in which to both  illustrate and use those aspects of his character.  It was not what Angel says that won the other demons round.  It was how he acted in the face of extreme temptation and provocation.  No-one else would stand up for Malish; no-one else would stand up to the McNamaras; no-one else would spurn their own freedom and no-one else would have declined to make a kill they had earned. 

 But I always like being reminded that he is a vampire and no matter how noble his intentions he sometimes fails to cope with his vampiric nature.  Hence, when injured in the fight with Baker he vamped out and killed before he could stop himself.  I only wish we had seen a little more of the aftermath of that.  As it was this aspect of the story too is a perfect illustration of the duality of Angel’s nature and the very fine line he continually walks.

I also like the fact that we are now getting a strong idea of a complete demon sub-culture in LA that humans are aware of.  This is not without its difficulties.  Why doesn’t the story break on the mass media?   But it provides a very interesting setting in which to explore the differences between “evil evil things” on the one hand and “not evil evil things” on the other and also the difference between the latter and humans with souls.  And this brings up a very interesting point about “the Ring”.  Firstly we see that humans can be as brutal and vicious as any demon and that as a result of their evil Angel engineered the escape of demons.  The show’s writers are obviously aware of the moral ambiguities involved in both propositions.  Hence the “I think we did a good thing” and “didn’t we let a bunch of demons go?”  lines at the end.  “The Ring” didn’t make an awful lot of this but perhaps something is being flagged up here for the future.

Finally, a minor point I know but I just love this show’s attention to detail.  Cordelia called Kate and she doesn’t even care where Angel is.  I guess Trevor’s death really did cause issues between those two.



7.5/10   This was workmanlike episode.  There was a solid plot with our hero caught in a seemingly impossible situation.   The way he got out of it was believable and gave a strong dramatic focus to the theme of the episode.  But perhaps the best part of it was the way in which all the main characters were used to their strengths and how their complementing skills illustrated this theme. It was especially interesting to see how well Cordelia and Wesley worked as a team without Angel.  Wesley grew a little more in “the Ring” in the way he fearlessly and competently took on Eddie the bookmaker.  But his main contribution lay in his use of “watcher skills” which perfectly complemented Cordelia’s combination of chutzpah and practicality. Then there was the way in which Angel’s character was used. The idea that you solve problems not by strength but by force of moral example is a very attractive one for me and Angel is the ideal person to illustrate it.   Overall, however, the story was pretty uninspired.  Men being imprisoned and forced to fight against their will is a well-established plotline and can be used to illustrate many powerful themes.  It has been used to explore the essential brotherhood of people or the importance of freedom.  The BUFFY episode “Anne” used a not dissimilar situation to look at the question of personal identity.  Compared with these, the choice of theme in “the Ring” (the desirability of co-operating to attain a common goal) lacked any real impact.  It gave us in particular no reason to welcome the escape of the demons at the end.  In this context, the characterization of the gladiators never rises above cliché.  There is Trepkos the strong silent type who eventually sees the light and refuses to kill and Malish the young and week one who quickly dies to prove how brutal everything is.  Finally, the dramatic quality of the episode was a little short.  The plot was really too straightforward and there was little uncertainty as to the outcome. 



Review revised and rewritten on Sunday, September 17th  2000