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The Soulful Spike Society - Nan Dibble’s Review of Angel Episode 5.1 "Conviction"

Saturday 4 October 2003

Angel Episode 5 :1 Conviction

written and directed by Joss Whedon

Introducing the Apple

There comes a time when youthful idealism-the notion that life’s problems can somehow be "fixed" with sufficient effort and good intentions-comes smack up against the intractability of the Real World. One then is confronting the Establishment of Powers and Principalities and the fact that the world, while not wholly Evil, is certainly not inclined to Good and will set stumbling blocks and field opposition to anything that threatens the status quo. Anything that challenges those in power. Because it’s still all about the power.

Usually, the world wins. The erstwhile young idealists are co-opted, corrupted, and find their niche and as much power as they can clutch. Then, they’re in the tooth-and-nail battle to keep it against their entrenched competition.

That seems to be what Angel and the Fang Gang, late of Angel Investigations, are confronting in the new season whose first episode purports to be about "conviction." In many ways, this episode is more like a pilot than a season opener. All the familiar characters (true, some are missing) are, with the viewer, having to discover who they are and what their purpose is in the new setting of this microcosm of all that’s wrong with the world-the Evil law firm of Wolfram & Hart, the L.A. branch of a "multidimensional" corporation-an actual evil empire over which, for a price only in part yet disclosed, they have been given dominion, to do with it whatever they please. As long as the bottom line is served.

That’s the first stumbling block with which Angel is presented by new liaison with the "Senior Partners"-apparently the equals and opposites of the vaguely godlike "Powers That Be"-that Angel and Co. may foil its evil operations however they choose…as long as the firm continues to be profitable. If it isn’t, it will fail, they’ll lose their investment (whatever that may ominously mean), and Evil will simply go elsewhere. They’ve been given a powerful tool…for doing Evil. Both its means and its ends are Evil. So the question implicitly posed is, Is it possible to pursue Good ends by Evil means ? Because that really is all W & H has to offer. Yet Angel hopes to use all the monolithic and intractable resources of W & H to serve what’s been his aim ever since the beginning of the series : "To help the helpless."

The contrast between oldstyle and newstyle is highlighted in the episode’s opening minutes. We see Angel responding to a cry of fear and alarm-a lone anonymous girl is being attacked by a lone anonymous vampire in an ally : a typical scenario in the Jossverse. Angel comes swinging and leaping to the rescue and dusts the vamp after a brief fight, then prepares to leave the girl with a terse reassurance and warning and without identifying himself. With no expectation of reward for his actions except the doing of them. Each of these three individuals is alone, without ulterior motive or agenda beyond their present actions : the vamp, to feed ; the girl, to escape harm ; Angel, to dust the vamp and prevent harm to the girl. Enter then the several cadres of minions of Wolfram & Hart : a heavily armed and uniformed Special Ops squad that proceeds to secure the area and whose leader, Hauser, informs Angel that he’s being constantly monitored by a tracking device hidden, without Angel’s knowledge, in Angel’s clothing. Then the legal squad shows up, complete with a heavy sheaf of releases for the threatened girl to sign, absolving W & H and its CEO of any liability for the rescue, including damage to her immortal soul. Worse, a P.R. type reveals that the vamp was in the employ of a W & H client, and dusting him was therefore neither noble nor prudent but a species of corporate oops, forgivable because Angel’s so new on the job. The rescued girl is indignant at the notion she’s been rescued merely as a publicity stunt. Angel stands bewildered and helpless at the encumbrances that have flown out of the woodwork to distort a simple, good action into a complex, wrong, and rather embarrassing one.

He’s encased in the ponderous armor of a gigantic corporation and learning that although wearing such armor grants power, it also makes it nearly impossible for him to move.

We see the other members of the erstwhile Fang Gang being similarly encumbered, bewildered and slowed, if not paralyzed, by the tools and powers they’ve so unexpectedly come into. Gunn, formerly the human muscle of the team, first shown here seeking to choose which of two ostentatious offices will make him feel "17% less completely out of place," gets tips on "dress for success" tailoring and a crash course, downloaded directly into his brain, in human and demon law. The basketball-toting black streetwise dude of the opening moments is, by the end of the episode, transformed into a tailored, wily lawyer who has defused a dangerous legal situation by dubious means-making an apparently honest judge declare a mistrial by what amounts to blackmail, however technically legal. Fred-who categorizes herself, "Not the running things type : more the running away from things type"-has inherited the Practical Science Department and finds herself trying to force her team into producing an antidote for a ravenously contagious and deadly virus the team itself created. The team, including Fred’s new assistant Knox, are under her direction but compromised before she even steps into the leadership role, Dixie Chicks poster and all. Wesley has taken over the Research and Magic Department (name approximate) and so far seems to only act in the role of advising Angel which already-burning fire needs attention most immediately. Lorne, however, is the proverbial pig in clover as the head of the Entertainment Division and seems the most comfortable in his role. Demon, after all. Show biz, after all. Lorne also doubles in Personnel, screening out the truly evil by listening to them sing and reading their auras and destinies-his special gift.

From the first, all of the Fang Gang are both entranced and a little in awe of all the pretty toys-the temptations of power and material wealth designed to attract, corrupt, and finally enslave them. So far, Evil seems to have the edge. When Angel demands, semi-rhetorically, "We’re doing the right thing, right ?" the Fang Gang respond with an equivocal and exhausted silence.

Their tools continually work against them. Angel, fumbling with his new phone, gets an automated W & H Ritual Sacrifice line that hilariously offers options concerning the sacrifice of everything from goats to loved ones and pets. His new secretary/assistant, hand-picked from the typing pool by Wesley, is a vampire acquaintance, ditsy Harmony, making good in corporate life in this huge building with its "necro-tempered" glass that admits sunlight but doesn’t set an incautious vampire ablaze. So much for creatures of the night. The Special Ops squad, ostensibly there to enforce W & H policies and protect its interests, first attempts to impress Angel, the new CEO ; then force their services on him in collecting and questioning "Spanky," who offers dubious services, magical and otherwise ; finally, their function completely usurped by Angel, they attempt to kill him, armed with holy water as well as gas and automatic weapons to take out a classroom of schoolchildren. Angel ruthlessly kills them all, except for one left injured (perhaps as both witness and warning). What does it say about Angel’s capacities for violence and destruction that he, all alone, can effectively replace and supplant a fully manned, equipped, and trained Special Ops squad ?

Well, from this episode, we learn that he doesn’t draw the line at spanking men….

So far, the homosexual flavor is both explicit and being played for laughs. Accused by Hauser of being a "pathetic little fairy," Angel protests indignantly, "I’m not little !" And Lorne, clothed in his usual violent clash of colors, shows glee when handed the address of one "Spanky." It will be interesting to watch how this thread develops with the addition, at episode’s end, of Angel’s vamp-also-with-a-soul nemesis, Spike, to the cast, with second billing.

The central problem of this episode illustrates the whole predicament nicely. An all-round lowlife, Corbin Fries, a W & H client, is about to get what he deserves per the justice system. He expects W & H to get him off and threatens the destruction of the population of California if they fail. So the Fang Gang’s problem is threefold. (1) They’re not on the side of the angels here, but defending a nasty, wicked man ; (2) they must find out what Fries’ threat of a bomb really constitutes and end that threat ; and (3) they must do so without losing sight of their own ideals and aims. Fred comes out of this the best. She whips her scientific team into line and discovers that the bomb contains a virulent virus with no antidote. Post sinister sci-fi brain-boost, Gunn finds precedent for forcing the judge in the case to remove herself and declare a mistrial for financial dealings she had no knowledge of and sound pretty cooked up for the purpose. And Angel treats "Spanky" to a bit of his own medicine and literally beats out of him the information on the bomb’s magical container-concealed within the body of Fries’ own son. Then Angel successfully races the Special Ops squad to the child’s school, has the children removed to safety, and wipes out the squad barehanded. Pretty brutal, and to a purpose at least compromised by the fact it’s in aid of keeping a felon out of jail, at least temporarily. It only delays the problem without providing a real solution.

The conflict and lack of contrast between Angel and Hauser, leader of the Special Ops squad, highlights the ambiguity of the episode’s title. The issue is conviction-in both its senses. Conviction as the act of being convicted for a crime, and conviction as being committed to a belief or faith. They’re fighting to forestall Fries’ conviction. And Hauser declares that he’ll win because he has conviction : he’s wholly committed to Evil, which he believes the strongest force there is. Implicitly, this demands a corresponding declaration from Angel, and it gets one : Angel declares that the only force stronger than Evil is Mercy-presumably Angel’s conviction. He then slaughters Hauser. Asked by an injured squad member where the mercy was in that, Angel says, "You just saw the last of it."

If the wholesale slaughter of the opposition, hand to hand, face to face, is Angel’s level of conviction about mercy, and he’s the purported leader of the good guys, he’s already in trouble…even if he wins. He’s in severe danger of corruption from fighting fire with fire. Becoming the thing he hates…and already partly is, as that walking contradiction, a vampire with a soul.

This paradigm is presented by a new character, the aptly-named Eve, Angel’s liaison with the wholly demonic and maleficent Senior Partners who govern the whole firm and all its branches, including Angel’s. As a visual aid to their first meeting, she brings an apple, blatantly symbolic of her namesake’s fruit from the Garden of Eden which, when eaten, gave knowledge of Good and Evil…which constitutes Original Sin. She tosses the apple to Angel as an implicit challenge. His reply is to fiercely bite into it. By this symbolism, Angel has already "fallen" by accepting the bargain to take over W & H in return for "un-Dawning" son Connor into a new life, with new and appropriate memories set magically in place for everyone except the Senior Partners, Eve, and Angel himself. He’s already made a "devil’s bargain." The question is not only whether he can successfully divert W & H’s L.A. branch from Evil, but whether he is already corrupted beyond retrieval, having touched pitch and been defiled.

And for good or ill, into this precarious mix, by as-yet unknown magical means, comes Spike-reconstituted by the Champion’s amulet that consumed him, Sunnydale’s Hellmouth, and ultimately Sunnydale itself, that new, enormous city-sized hole in the ground ; the amulet that mysteriously arrived on Angel’s desk in a hand-addressed padded mailer with no return address and no postage. Spike, hero and villain-with Angel, Buffy’s other vampire lover. Somehow doubly undead and not any more happy about it, by his expression, than Angel is, by his sour word of recognition : "Spike." What this intrusion portends, perhaps the second part of this season opener will reveal…and the rest of the season as well.

"Conviction" is an episode with a lot of groundwork-laying chores to do. It introduces and redefines the characters. It establishes a new milieu different from the familiar Hyperion, the usual hot action in alleys and darkened back streets. The field of battle has moved to daylit classrooms, boardrooms, and courtrooms, and more of the weapons are words. Fewer of the enemies are quaint demons of unusual appearance and more of them are demonic on the inside, in ways that don’t show as plainly to the casual eye. Humor is intact in Harmony’s self-involved prattle, the vagaries of technology, like the Ritual Sacrifice line, and Angel’s innocent guy-joy in having a whole fleet of muscle cars at his disposal and his willingness to make and tolerate the occasional quip at his expense. But the series has taken a turn for the older, the less idealistic, the more cynical. Now that the groundwork-laying has largely been taken care of, it can settle down to the real story stuff. And I guess we’re all along for the ride.

Going down !


Memorable lines :

Keogh (a W & H lawyer) : The jury is tamper-proof. Literally. I think one of the D.A.’s shamans has conjured a mystical shield around them.

Wesley and Gunn discussing office arrangements.

Wesley : Feng shui (correcting Gunn’s pronunciation)

Gunn : What does that mean ?

Wesley : That people will believe anything.

Hauser to Angel : You pathetic little fairy !

Angel : I’m not little !

Angel : I have no problem spanking men.

Hauser : I am something you will never be. I’m pure. I believe…in Evil. You and your friends, you’re conflicted, you’re confused. We’re not. That is why you are going to lose. Because we possess the most powerful thing in the world : conviction.

Angel : There is one thing more powerful than conviction-just one : mercy. (Kills Hauser)

Ops agent : What happened to mercy ?

Angel : You just saw the last of it.

Fred to Knox : Do you do anything besides pretending you’re running an evil Radio Shack ?

Gunn : I saw the man in the White Room. He does a lot of scary things, but lying isn’t one of them.

Fred to Fang Gang : Is this going to be our lives now ? Fighting our own employees ? Our own clients ? Are we really going to do any good ?

Things of Note :

Wolfram & Hart is apparently located at 1127 Spring Street Cordelia, post giving birth to Jasmine last season, is still in an unseen coma, offstage. They’re still attempting to revive her. Only Angel, Eve, and (presumably) the Senior Partners know about Connor Angel’s movements are continuously monitored and tracked, initially without his knowledge, by W & H by means of tracers inserted into his clothes ; his phone is tapped by the Special Ops squad. Gunn had his implanted lawyer training done without asking or telling any of the Fang Gang…just as Angel made the initial bargain with W & H without consulting any of the others. A pattern ? Oddities :

Wesley, who’s never met Spike and has no reason to expect to find him materializing in Angel’s office, recognizes him first. Why would Wesley pick Harmony as Angel’s assistant ? How did the padded mailer, whose movements go through the entire episode, arrive without postage ? How was the amulet, presumably at the bottom of the crater-that-was-Sunnydale, retrieved ? Why is Angel opening his own mail, in the middle of a meeting, anyway ? Why, having released a cloudy and presumably harmful gas in the schoolroom, do the ops goons remove their masks while fighting Angel ? Gunn appears as a lawyer in the Fries case…apparently without having passed the bar. You’re not a lawyer just because you have the knowledge and somebody calls you that. Not legal, children. However, per Eve, he does have forged degrees. Maybe that makes all the difference. Spike, who as a vampire (is he still ?) doesn’t need to breathe, arrives complete with duster, panting heavily. Questions that will probably be answered :

Why and how was Spike contained in the amulet ? What is Spike ? Why did he come back…to Angel ?