Written by: Meredith Smith
Directed by: Joss Whedon
A return to "the victim of the week"?
The original concept for ANGEL as a series was that it should be an anthology. Angel was intended to achieve his own redemption by saving the souls of individuals in trouble. The most interesting part of this concept was that "saving souls" in this context was to mean far more than saving a person from physical harm, though that was a necessary part of the exercise. Each "victim of the week" was intended to be damaged in some way by his or (usually) her experiences. Angel was meant to "get into their lives" and by doing so help them overcome their personal demons as well as the actual dangers facing them. The best example of this approach was the case of Melissa in "I Fall to Pieces". Angel helped her not only by killing the man who was stalking her but by showing her how to reclaim control of her life in the face of his threats. About halfway through season 1, however, ANGEL moved away from this concept and began to explore the basic themes of evil, responsibility and redemption much more through the experiences of Angel himself.
In "Untouched" we see a reversion, in some respects at least, to the earlier concept. The operative words here though are "in some respects". In this episode we had in Bethany a young woman who had been messed up by her history of abuse and Angel helped her to put her life back together again. But the treatment of her case by the writers represented a level of sophistication that go well beyond "I Fall to Pieces". Just like "First Impressions", "Untouched" features an "A" and a "B" plot. While the "A" plot follows Angel's attempts to help Bethany, the "B" plot deals with his continuing dreams of Darla and the effect these are having on him. As we follow these two plots the parallels between them become increasingly obvious. And these are intended to illuminate for us the writers' message about Angel's experiences at Darla's hands and what these mean for him.
The interesting thing here is that Darla's attempts to "open the chambers" of Angel's dreams represent a very significant stage in the developing arc relating Wolfram and Hart's efforts to win Angel over to the Dark Side. You can, therefore, make out a very credible case for saying that in "Untouched", the "A" plot (Angel's attempts to save Bethany's soul) was actually subordinated to the "B" plot.
Taking Control of Your Life
The theme that "Untouched" explores is control. In particular it looks at the need to take control of your life rather than allowing your past experiences to control it for you. It is through Bethany, her experiences and the effect they have on her that we see the detailed exploration of this theme. When we first see her she is about to be attacked by two men but saves herself by crushing them against the wall with a 2 ton dumpster. The extent to which she had control over this phenomenon is not obvious at the time. But the situation is clarified almost immediately when Angel meets her. She is upset and goes to leave but when he tries to stop her he is impaled by a metal rod. Her reaction is to say:
"Oh my God. I told you. I tried to tell you."
and to run. This suggests that he stabbing of Angel wasn't deliberate and she subsequently explains that neither were her actions in the ally.
"I didn't meant to. They followed me from the club. It wasn't...."
The fact that she is visibly upset and has no reason to lie lends all of this an air of credibility. But confirmation is not long in coming. In a few crucial scenes we see:
Angel: "Does it hurt?"
Bethany: "Yes...no...it's just for a second then I'm back."
Angel: "And you only feel it when you make things move."
Angel: "You've never done it on purpose."
Bethany: "Of course not."
Bethany: "It's not a parlor trick! It's a disease."; and
We don't really need much help in putting these incidents together. As a child Bethany was abused by her father. This led to the development of her extraordinary mental abilities. These are capable of producing episodes of extreme violence but are not under her control. Instead they are triggered by fear or anger caused by being attacked, by dreams of past abuse or even by the mere mention of her father's name. Wesley later explains the situation to Cordelia in a nutshell
And here we get into the most interesting and moving aspect of Bethany's plight. This lies in the clear link between her lack of control over her telekinetic power and a lack of control over her life. This was brought out most poignantly by the scene in the bedroom between her and Angel.
She came in looking for an excuse to seduce him, not because she was grateful to him, not because she was attracted to him but because she felt impelled to continue the cycle of abuse that her father had started. For her, people (essentially I suppose men) are "pathetic". They are really only interested in her for one reason.
"Do you think they'd notice or care I'm not there? Would you?"
And she had been taught through her own childhood experiences that sexual attraction was the only thing she had going for her, especially the way she looks "fragile and innocent", the defining characteristics, it should be noted, of a child. So she doesn't seem to think she is good for anything beside that. The shocking thing is not so much the invitation she gives Angel but the flat emotionless tone in which she does so:
For her sex is where someone else does thing to her. When Angel uses the words "make love" she is incredulous:
But she cannot finish the sentence. The truth is that she doesn't know what she wants to do. Her attitude towards her own body is precisely the same as that towards her powers. It is something that she has no control over. The language she uses to describe the former is uncannily similar to the way she described the latter:
This is her defense mechanism. She retreats from control of herself and her powers. Both she hands over to others. So in her sex life she speaks of men doing things to her. When it comes to her powers
It is as if she was a spectator in her own life. Things happen and things are done to her. She does nothing. That way she avoids not only the power of control but the responsibility also.
But the paradox is that it is because she gives away control over her powers, her life, even her body that she is unhappy. She fears and distrusts others. That is why, when she was in turmoil, she chose to hide somewhere where she could be alone - in a deserted warehouse or a high and isolated room in an abandoned hotel. That is why she doesn't like being touched. On three separate occasions Angel moves to do so and in all three occasions she recoils or resists, on two occasions violently. But while this proves her power to prevent others touching her, as she demonstrated on that scene in the bedroom, she gives up that power. She lets herself be touched even though she hates it and instead retreats from the reality of it somewhere within her mind. The result is that instead of doing something about her unhappiness she is making herself a victim. And the results are terrible. There is within her a build up of fear and anger that, on occasion, explodes unpredictably and violently. So, her behavior is not only destructive of herself but of those around her.
It is this picture of misery that Angel sets out to break. He dos so in a number of different ways. First of all he tries to convince her that he view of the world is too negative. When Bethany describes people as pathetic he replies:
and later he says:
"I don't think everyone is as bad as you'd have them be".
Indeed, his own behavior in the bedroom with her proves the point. This is a classic theme with ANGEL - the power of our eponymous hero's own moral example. As Cordelia later said:
This may well have convinced Bethany that her previous attitude may not have been entirely fair. Perhaps some men at least are not only interested in her for sex and perhaps that isn't all she is good for. The interesting thing about this is that it is that after talking to Angel she does begin to control her powers, as the levitation of the scarf proves. And again by showing her that she can control her powers Angel is showing her the open door to the control of her life. But I think the crucial breakthrough comes, not with Angel but with Cordelia. I reproduce the important conversation here:
Cordelia here is addressing the one issue that Angel has not - responsibility. When Cordelia said she came over as all helpless; she continued to identify herself as a victim and was , therefore, abdicating responsibility for her own life and for the way her powers impacted on people, including innocent people who were only trying to help her. Cordelia was being sympathetic but she was also telling the cold, hard truth (a Cordelia specialty) and she wasn't about to let Bethany dodge the issue. She was making Bethany think.
The fruits of both her and Angel's efforts were seen in the crisis that was precipitated by the attempted kidnapping. At first Bethany reverts to past form. She behaves in many ways like a helpless child, refusing to confront reality and accusing Angel of playing with her. The inevitable consequence is another telekinetic episode. But Angel confronts her. He tells her she is the one in control. She is the one with the power. This is the message he repeats over and over again. She is the one who can stop others from touching her. But he also confronts her with the responsibility of her powers by asking:
"Are you gonna kill us? Are you gonna die? Then they win."
This does seem to have an effect on her but the real test is when Lilah did indeed "pull the trigger". and she opened the door only to see her father standing before her.
This moment was all about control. It was the defining moment in the whole episode. Lilah's agenda all along was to exert control over Bethany and her powers. She pretended friendship and instead tried to manipulate her by gaining her trust, all to one aim as revealed by Holland:
Lilah's expectation seemed to be that, confronted with the reality of her abuser, Bethany would do what she had always done before - lash out in an uncontrolled and directionless manner, killing everyone in range. That seemed to be the extent of the "control" she desired. At first it appeared that this is what would happen. But then after hearing an echo of the words her father utter in her dream to invite her downstairs "just you and me" she does indeed take control of the situation, being very selective indeed about her target. And once she had done so Angel then spoke the crucial words:
"You've got the power. Use it. Finish it."
Bethany had never deliberately killed. She had only killed when she abdicated control over her powers and allowed her inner anger and fear free reign. Angel wasn't inviting her to kill her father but to use her powers to take back control over her own life. This is what she did. She didn't exactly float him away but what she did to him was cold and deliberate. You could see it on her face. This was not a helpless child any more but someone who had indeed taken back control over her life and in the face of the reality of her abuser. This I thought was of great symbolic importance.
It is a criticism (often well justified) of "victim of the week" episodes that the victims are largely anonymous, little more than faces and names and that their fates are therefore largely meaningless. This does not always have to be the case. Rebecca in "Eternity" was one individual who did come across as a real and fully developed individual. But even more than Rebecca, indeed more than any other one episode character on ANGEL, Bethany in "Untouched" is a living, breathing individual. Showing a character as having been abused can sometimes be used as a lazy way to get sympathy. What we see here is very different. We see the reality of Bethany's plight not in a superficial "damsel in distress" kind of way. Rather we see it in fear and anger, the sense of upset and confusion, the self hatred and neglect, even in a degree of self pity. These are difficult, challenging emotions but they come across as so real, so powerful that they make the picture of abuse and its aftermath live for us. And once that happens then your sympathies can only be engaged. And in all of this the writers were greatly aided by a quite wonderful acting performance by Daisy McCracken, a name with which I am unfamiliar but of whom much more will I have no doubt be heard. She ran through almost the full range of emotions and in all of them carried conviction from the flat emotionless way she invited Angel to have some "fun" to the near hysteria after the kidnap. But perhaps the greatest strength of the episode is the concept underlying it.
There isn't a complete metaphor here in the sense that we are shown supernatural events intended to be compared to sexual abuse. Instead the episode takes the sexual abuse as its starting point and uses metaphor to explore the consequences of that abuse. In particular it suggests that the manifestation of Bethany's telekinetic powers were a direct result of the abuse she suffered. Clearly, therefore, her ability (or otherwise) to control those telekinetic powers is used to parallel her control or lack of it of her own life because of the abuse that she has suffered. Because of the lack of control over her own powers her subconscious feelings of anger and resentment lead to destruction and death all around her. She does kill two admittedly not so innocents. But on separate occasions she also proves a deadly threat to Angel (three times), Wesley and Cordelia. In parallel with this her own life is in a mess. Again her inner feelings of self hatred lead her to self destructive behavior of the sort she described to Angel in the bedroom scene, not to mention putting herself in a situation where she could be so easily manipulated by Wolfram and Hart. In effect what had taken over her life was this rage and fear caused by her treatment at the hands of her father. Conversely when she confronted her father she proved she was stronger than he was. She was now able literally to prevent him from touching her again. She demonstrated that by throwing him out the window under perfect control. Once she had done that then he ceased to be any threat to her.
It seems to me that the point being made was that the anger and resentment that a victim of abuse feels towards the abuser can often amount to a continuation of the abuse because the victim continues to dwell on that abuse and on the harm that it has caused. He or she thus unwittingly continues to give the abuser control over his or her life, even when the abuser is no longer is a position to take that control. But when the victim no longer allows thoughts of hatred and revenge to dominate them, then he or she is on a position to take back control over their life and to move on, thus truly consigning the abuse to history and depriving the abuser of any further power over them.
I cannot claim to be able to judge how perceptive this is as a picture. What I can say is that, on both an intellectual and emotional level, it makes perfect sense to me. The depiction of the aberrant behavior and the diagnosis of the underlying problem were both believable. The parallels between that behavior and the lack of control over Bethany's powers were exact. About the one difficulty I have with the scenario lies in the completeness of Bethany's recovery, down to the ease with which she used her powers to collect her suitcase, as if she had been doing it all her life. I recognize the emotional need for a sense that she had put the past behind her. And certainly the depiction of the stages in her recovery of control over her own life made, for me, a great deal of sense. The final confrontation with her father was, indeed, the perfect catharsis. But I am traditionally suspicious of overnight "cures". These were enormously deep rooted problems. In real life people struggle with rage and with feelings of inadequacy for years, perhaps for the rest of their lives. The sudden ability of a person to put problems of this nature behind him or her cannot but trivialize them. I would much have preferred to see Bethany on the way to a recovery rather than being presented as of she had made one.
If this had been all we saw in "Untouched" it would still have been a more than worthwhile exercise. But as I have already said this episode possessed another great strength. It represented another important step in the development of the Darla/Angel arc. Moreover it helped us understand the nature of the developments in that arc by reference to Bethany's experiences. In "First Impressions" we saw Angel slowly being sucked into a dream world which came to be more important and perhaps more real to him than reality. This was because of the innocent sense of pleasure it gave him. Here, however, we have left that pleasant interlude behind. The dreams are quite different in nature. They become more and more disturbing. Gone are the images of domestic comfort. Instead we see images of urgent, often violent sexuality and inextricably mixed up in these scenes are images of blood and death, with vampires feeding from one another and from a human victim. This is a fierce, animal passion without tenderness or love.
The purpose of Darla inflicting these dreams on Angel is clear. She stated it out loud at they very beginning of the episode:
But how does she intend to use the dreams to control Angel? The answer to this question comes in the parallels between his case and that of Bethany. First of all, as Angel himself says:
Here he is talking about the vampire within and the need to keep it safely under control. And in controlling it Angel must deal not only with his past but the viciousness of the creature within. Bethany's inability to control her life and her powers comes from her feelings of helplessness in the face of her father's abuse and the lack of self worth that engendered. That was what led to her self-destructive behavior. Interestingly her dreams of that abuse dovetail with Angel's own dreams of sex with Darla. Only in those dreams it isn't Angel but Angelus. That is why we see the emphasis on violence and passion. He is being reminded of just who is there within him and what that creature has done, including the killing of the gypsy princess. When Lilah asks:
"And what's hidden in Angel's chambers?"
Darla provides a one word answer: "Horrors". Unlike his previous dreams, these provide no comfort. Indeed Angel refers to them as nightmares, but he still seems drawn almost irresistibly to them. He goes back to them only after a few hours awake and yet, as Wesley notes he is getting more sleep but is less rested. These dreams seem to me to be clearly intended to parallel Bethany's own experience of abuse. Darla is using sex to control Angel. What he experiences is disturbing and frightening, yet he seems powerless to prevent it. Indeed by returning to bed so frequently he is in fact helping to perpetuate the pattern of abuse on himself. And here we see, in the scene between himself and Bethany in the bedroom, the final parallel between the experiences of the two of them. When she interrupts yet another one of his nightmares we see in her behavior an indication of where Angel might be headed as a result of his experience of abuse at Darla's hands - a feeling of helplessness and a destruction of his belief in himself. With that what happens to his ability to control his own power within? Might he not also unleash an awesome destructive force?
For both Angel and Bethany the message is clear. There are sometimes episodes in our past that cause us pain, perhaps even frighten us. But we must control them. By doing so we escape their shadow. But if we do not they will control us. And then we will simply be perpetuating the pain and suffering of the past into the present.
The first thing to say here is that in its treatment of Angel, "Untouched" gives the whole Darla arc a very clear sense of direction. We can, I think, for the first time begin to see where she and Wolfram and Hart are going and it is at once frightening and riveting. In Angel we have a character of enormous discipline and self control. Indeed when we saw him in "To Shansu in LA" he was for the first time ever seized with a clear sense of mission and a belief in his own redemption. For the writers showing how such a hero could be seduced to the "Dark Side" was always going to be an enormous challenge. As the story arc has progressed over the last two episodes I think they have proved equal to it by creating a clear and believable possibility that he will do so.
In "Untouched" we are left with a very powerful sense of someone who is a sitting target. He is in his enemies sights but doesn't even know she is there. He knows something is wrong but does not understand what and because of that he cannot change things. This gives rise to tension within him. You can see this when he is more than usually snappy with Wesley and Cordelia. He is perhaps even a little frightened. This is powerful and credible characterization. Putting a hero under pressure like this and asking how he will react creates enormous dramatic tension. Even if we do not believe he will succumb we are left asking how he will cope with the strains on him and what will resisting those strains cost. We will have to see where the writers take us on this one.
Wolfram and Hart
As I have already mentioned the theme for this episode was control. And one thing I loved about it was that it exploited an angle (yes I did spell that correctly) that would have been so very easy to overlook. One of the things that I enjoy most about Wolfram and Hart is the fact that it is a collection of individuals. And even when individuals co-operate for mutual advantage, they can't help but act on the basis of their own unique agenda. This leads to conflicts and rivalries. And while Wolfram and Hart has a power structure that should control these it actually tends to exacerbate rather than reduce them as each member of the firm struggles to promote him or herself and hinder the promotion of rivals. This was spelled out right from the beginning when Lilah was discovered in Lindsey's office. She was quite unabashed about her reason for going through his desk:
But "control" here is more than just the usual corporate power play. The stakes in Wolfram and Hart are very high. When Lilah tells Holland that Bethany is missing his reaction is very instructive. By telling her about what "some people" are saying he is, in a very understated way, laying down for her exactly what she has to do. In the second interview Holland is even more direct. He gives Lilah an unmistakable signal as to her relative lack of standing compared to Lindsey. He understands the "big picture", something Holland evidently approves of. This certainly suggests that he has taken very much to heart the little talk that two of them had in "Blind Date". But it leaves Lilah out in the cold, all the more so as her mishandling of Bethany (and that is clearly what Holland thinks of it) is now interfering with Lindsey's plans. The warning is unmistakable:
The civilized, quiet veneer of Holland covering a cold and ruthless heart make him one of the scariest and creepiest villains on Angel. This is not a man who bluffs. And we can, I think, take him to be a barometer for the way power and control flows as between Lindsey and Lilah. The way their two pet projects conflict with one another, the apparent success of Lindsey and failure of Lilah and the evident preference Holland shows for Lindsey is a clear demonstration of how individuals compete within a corporate structure and how the competition is resolved. It takes no great imagination to guess how this particular corporation deals with "failures". This adds yet another layer of subtlety and interest to Wolfram and Hart. It was a very nice touch.
Like a lot of Angel episodes this season "Untouched" is primarily a character study. We establish the fact of Bethany's powers almost from the outset. And once that happens we are only left with four basic questions to be answered. The first two are linked: who is she and where did she get the powers from? Secondly why (since she was evidently capable of defending herself) did TPTB call on Angel to intervene? Finally what is her connection with Wolfram and Hart? But we cannot really call any aspect of the plot a mystery. Finding answers to these questions was not the purpose of the exercise. Rather we were left with things to find out as a way of keeping our attention on the character of Bethany while the writers set out all the information we need to understand the character and her motivations so that they could properly explore these for us. And here I have to say I really do like the way that the information was fed to us in a way which led up to a precipitating crisis. First we were told of the connection between telekinesis and emotional distress. Then there was the revelation about the abuse and finally the cathartic moment which made plain in an explosion of violence the connection between the abuse and Bethany's powers.
I only have one reservation. From a strictly plot point of view I would have preferred not to have seen the dream in which we were given an overwhelming clue that Bethany's father was abusing her before Wesley put the clues together. This did sort of pre-empt the climactic scene in which he confronted her about her father. However in order to establish the parallels between Angel's dreams and Bethany's history of abuse I think this was unavoidable.
Another thing I like is the fact that, at this stage, we are still unaware of the real nature of the problem. What Bethany had disclosed was that she was a danger to anyone in range of her powers. The issue at this stage therefore simply looked as if it involved teaching her to control those powers. The unexpected twist here was her behavior when she wandered into Angel's bedroom and had that creepy conversation with him in which she revealed for the first time the true nature of her problems. That was totally unexpected and really gave the remainder of the story its driving force.
I have already mentioned the ways in which both Cordelia and Angel tried to help her but the crisis which resolved the episode was precipitated by Lilah. This was a plot thread which had been bubbling under from very early on. Initially it looked as if the important question was what Wolfram and Hart wanted Bethany for. With the first reference to Lilah controlling her as an assassin I thought we might see a conventional plot where Angel raced to stop her being used to kill someone against her will. It was much more subtle and interesting than that. The reference to her being an assassin was merely a plot device to explain Wolfram and Hart's involvement. The real importance of that involvement lay in the mysterious reference to "pulling the trigger". This was what set up the real resolution of the episode. Wolfram and Hart's attempts to control Bethany (the ambush by the thugs, the false friendship Lilah offered and the kidnap attempt) all gave us a perfect counterpoint in this final scene to Angel's repeated message to Bethany that she had to power to control her own life. And when Lilah pulled the trigger it created the crisis. This was another strength of the plotting. I would never have guessed that "pulling the trigger" meant sending her father to see her. It was the perfect surprise.
The whole theme of the episode was then distilled into the one question of what Bethany would do when confronted by her father. And the answer to this question remained in doubt to the very end. Would she yield to his control? Would she give in to her own anger and fear as she had done earlier? Both outcomes were at one stage indicated. It was in fact only when we thought that she had decided to kill her father and the issue seemed past the point of retrieval that the real outcome became clear. I thought that this was an object lesson in how to write a climax.
I will be brief here but there are one or two other matters I think I must touch on. I have already mentioned Cordelia. Wesley and Gunn fared less well. Wesley was important in establishing Bethany's history but was summarily dismissed, almost in the same way as Cordelia was written out of "Sanctuary". I don't regard this as a criticism. It is better for a character to do something important and then leave than for him to be kept around just for the sake of an appearance. This seemed to be the fate of Gunn this week. He had some very nice interaction with Angel during the visit to the hired thug's apartment and that whole scene was worth it just for the moment when Angel fell through the door and Gunn's subsequent comment:
"You're a very graceful man. Have I ever mentioned that?"
But aside from that he didn't have that much to do.
On the other hand we had perhaps the most explicit attempt to reinforce the "family" atmosphere of the Fang Gang that we have seen this season. So we have Wesley and Cordelia sniping at one another throughout the episode yet when Cordelia thinks Wesley is being unfairly fired she stands up to Angel for him. And then there was of course the way she angled tirelessly for Gunn to be paid for his efforts.
The real villain in all of this was Bethany's troubled history. And there is no more powerful or irresistible demon than a purely internal one. But the person set up as principal adversary was of course Lilah. In this role she did not carry a very powerful threat. She never really seemed in control of the situation. But oddly enough I think that is what made her so effective in this episode. We have already seen the cold eyed ambition and ruthlessness as well as the subtle maneuvering to gain an advantage over her colleagues. But here we get a clear picture that things are not going as well as she had planned. She is clearly loosing to Lindsey and worse still is being evaluated unfavorably on her performance. In her final telephone call of the episode, the one in which she pulled the trigger, she is less controlled and more angry than we have ever seen her. There is even a hint of desperation about the precipitate way she set Bethany's father up. Things are beginning to look very interesting here.
Finally the action sequences were spectacular. The moving bodies and objects were all very well done. The explosion of the top floor of the Hyperion was brilliantly conceived and great to watch. But my own favorite was the car chase in which Angel leapt from the hood of his own car to the moving van.
9/10: This episode tacked a topic of undeniable importance and did so with great sensitivity. At no stage did it resort to cheap sentimentality. Nor did it give a sanitized picture of a helpless victim. It was much more subtle than that. It made Bethany a very real and believable figure. She was someone who had very real problems and weaknesses and the writers were not afraid to show these. But at the same time we eventually got to see the her inner strength. As a result they created a sympathetic character the hard way, by making her human and giving her a human interest story that really was interesting. Whether the metaphor really did capture the truth of the experience of victims of abuse I will leave to others to judge. For my part all I can say is that it came across to me as a convincing picture. More than that, however, the parallels between her experiences and those of Angel were, I think, inspired. Together they produced an atmosphere that was genuinely scary and creepy. This was adult fare in the best sense of that phrase. Apart from Angel there was once again very good use of Cordelia as a character. Her practical, down to earth style suited the message she gave to Bethany perfectly. And in the case of Lilah we are beginning to get behind the controlled, ruthless master manipulator. There was indeed the hint of some very interesting times ahead for her. Add in a very well structured plot with an explosive climax and it is the complete package.