Written by: Howard Gordon
Directed by: Nick Marck
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.
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?”
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!”
“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: “From Keanu, my palomino, before the IRS took him away.”
“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
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
revised and rewritten on Sunday, September 17th 2000