On “A Hole in the World” and Death in the Angel-verse

Spoilers, Sweetie! In our new spoiler-ific subset of blog posts, well consider interesting units of our favorite media tv episodes, comics issues, single podcasts, songs, etc. Well dive into these pop culture favorites and, in doing so you have been warned well be spoiling them. This week, Emily looks at the Angel episode A Hole in the World,in a sequel to her earlier post about Buffy the Vampire Slayers The Body. This post, then, spoils heavily episode 15 of season 5 of Angel, makes some comments about episode 16 of season 5 of Buffy, and alludes to the end of Angel. Caveat lector!

About two weeks ago, I wrote about the iconically sad and beautiful Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “The Body,” an hour of television which embraces the incomprehensibility of mortality and the intense feelings of powerlessness that may accompany the death of a loved one. “The Body,” I said, is gorgeously crafted in its very refusal to find a narrative forward motion or to follow the general Monster-of-the-Week formula that defined Buffy as a show. When Joss Whedon returned both to the extended Buffy/Angel-verse and to the central conceit of human mortality, in the Angel episode “A Hole in the World,” he gave himself a completely different — and in some ways, more conventional — narrative project. But in this markedly more action-packed, frenetic story about mortality, Whedon crafts an episode which elegantly reframes some of the thematic concerns of “The Body” within the more adult world of Angel’s L.A.

I honestly love both of these episodes of television — and I’m fascinated by just how different their narrative structures are. So, in this second part of my ramblings on mortality in the Whedon-verse, I want to (1) pull apart what “A Hole in the World” is doing and how it’s structured as an episode of television and (2) talk about how it works as a sequel/companion/response to “The Body.”

I know, I know — these are particularly heart-wrenching episodes, and probably not ones you were planning to revisit, as you bask in central air conditioning or sit around fashioning makeshift fans during these oh so August-y dog days of summer. But if you’ve also hit the point of your summer where you’re looking for some media to really sink your teeth into, I think that these two episodes absolutely hold up to re-watches, semi-academic scrutiny, and lots and lots of fangirling.

In its opening moments, “A Hole in the World” already presents itself as a Fred-centric episode. We get an ADORABLE flashback to the summer day when Winifred “Fred” Burkle left her charmingly quaint Texan parents to go off to grad school at UCLA. They’re adorable. And she’s wonderful. And we cut — fantastically — from Fred promising her mother that she’ll learn a lot and stay safe to see her battling weird bug demons with the rest of the Angel Investigations gang.

Im gonna study, Mom. Im going to learn every damn thing they know up there and then figure out some stuff they dont. And Ill be careful. Ill even be dull. Boring. Cross my heart.

She’s the best. Then Fred and Wes kiss (!!!), Angel and Spike grump at each other, and our status quo is wonderfully, comfortably, established. After the bug demon things are appropriately vanquished, Whedon lets us cavort around with our main cast as they amuse themselves and pester each other through a regular day at the office. It’s mundane and silly and TOO charming. (I DESPERATELY want to see the Michael Schur sitcom version of Angel season five.) The pièce de résistance of this act is the epic fight between Spike and Angel about who would win in a fight: cavemen or astronauts. (No, the astronauts don’t have weapons.)

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(Source: http://sunnydales.tumblr.com/post/24906718617)

So everything is as happy-go-lucky as it possibly can be for our cast of broody vampires and physicists and whomever. And we watch the whole core cast get invested in the cavemen vs. astronauts debate. But then — cue creepy music — a sarcophagus is delivered into the science lab. And Fred inhales something from it. And then falls dramatically down a flight of stairs coughing blood. It’s horribly stressful. (It’s also, for what it’s worth, beautifully shot. This is a surprisingly cinematic episode of television).

We open Act Two with Fred in a hospital bed, surrounded by the rest of our main cast. While death in “The Body” was distinctly natural and mundane, Fred’s ailment is obviously supernatural, so everyone gets to work trying to save her. The episode almost seems to decide that it’s a thriller, and we get lots of suspenseful music and action and wonky camera angles. This is not the helpless passivity that plagued the Scoobies a few years earlier. Wesley researches, while Lorne, Spike, Angel, and Gunn all go out searching for answers. Fred herself even gets up from her hospital bed to help, in a wonderful moment that both shows the awesomeness at the core of Fred and tips a hat to Whedon’s awareness of the potentially problematic gender politics of killing off the show’s main female lead.

I am not the damsel in distress. I am not some case. I have to work this.

Sidebar on that: By season five, Angel had picked up the unfortunate tic of sidelining interesting lady characters with comas, deaths, etc. and using said events to motivate character development in the male leads. Honestly, I do have issues with how this trope was handled with regards to some of the lady characters on the show, and I wish that the show had a few more female main characters so that killing off Fred didn’t effectively make all of our good guys male. (Harmony’s not quite a main character or a good guy, right?) But I like what Whedon’s story allows Amy Acker to do, both in this episode and in the rest of the season, so this one doesn’t bug me as much as it would otherwise.

Anyway, there’s a clear sense of purpose in these scenes as the team works to save Fred: the music is insistent, and there’s a ticking time bomb that keeps everyone on track. Eventually, we figure out that a truly ancient demon called Illyria is working as a parasitic agent within Fred, killing her in order to turn her into the host of the now disembodied demon power. But things are still looking okay: this team’s been fighting demons for years, so what makes this one any different? Angel and Spike head over to the Cotswolds then, because apparently, in addition to having lots of sheep and cream teas, the Cotswolds is home to the Deeper Well that serves as the resting place for all of the ancient demons.

From my understanding, the Cotswolds  just have lots and lots of sheep:

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So please, make up your head canons about Spike and Angel squabbling with each other about sheep as they make their way to the Deeper Well.

Because Illyria is looking like an eminently defeat-able bad guy, we’re still reveling in Whedonian silliness and the friendly rivalry between Spike and Angel. (Neither of the vampires are comfortable with flying, but they are looking forward to being back in the home country.)

Hey. After we save Fred, we should hit the West End. Take in a show.

Ive never seen Les Mis

Trust me. Halfway through the first act, youll be drinking humans again.

But here’s where the episode really turns. Yes, Spike and Angel could exorcise Illyria from Fred and save Fred’s life. But, they find out, doing so would turn Illyria “into the mystical equivalent of airborne,” infecting the tens or hundreds of thousands of people between Fred (in L.A.) and the Deeper Well (in the Cotswolds). In a devastating anti-climax, Angel and Spike recognize that Fred would never want that. And that they cannot justify that to themselves anyway. They will not exorcise the Ancient One, Illyria, from her host. Because while Fred’s death has a clearly supernatural cause — one they can fight against — the cast of Angel needs to recognize that their actions have consequences. They cannot operate solely based on their own, selfish, microcosmic points of view. Spike and Angel are left passively contemplating this Deeper Well of demons that cuts through the center of the planet. It is, of course, horribly representative of the corrupted world in which they live, in which they cannot be the big damn heroes (if you will) who save Fred’s life.

Theres a hole in the world. Feels like we ought to have known.

Throughout, we’ve been cutting between Angel and Spike in the Cotswolds, and Fred and Wes in her home. And now, as Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof both give stunning performances, Fred dies in Wes’s arms — and makes one last, sad volley in the argument of cavemen vs. astronauts.

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(Source: http://whedonverseappreciation.tumblr.com/post/92554897526/whedonverse-appreciation-winifred-burkle)

Then Fred’s eyes frost over and her body spasms, throwing Wes across the room. And as the episode ends, Illyria rises.

Okay. Illyria is amazing. And her awesomeness is the reason that I’m surprisingly okay with Fred’s death. Illyria is an unbelievably kick-ass (and very amoral) demon monarch and warrior, and, for the rest of the series, she’ll end up kind of stuck with the Angel Investigations gang. In fact, Illyria ends up taking on a role that’s very much parallel to Star Trek’s Data or Five-of-Nine or (perhaps more so) Battlestar Galactica’s Number Six: inhuman characters who, assimilating into human society either by choice or by chance, become the lenses for f/sf considerations of humanity, society, relationships, community, and — ultimately — redemption. Amy Acker is stunningly good in this role, and the introduction of Illyria is spot on.

So what do we do with this episode? Well, perhaps most obviously, it fits into the canon of Whedon episodes in which no one gets to have a happy ending. Whedon’s become known for his habit of puncturing happy endings, and this episode, in which Fred and Wes get together and almost immediately get ripped apart, is a textbook case of Whedon’s tic. But honestly, I think there’s a lot more happening in this episode, and what’s happening is arguably a lot more complicated and interesting than Whedon (perhaps) thumbing his nose at his fans.

Instead, what we get in “A Hole in the World,” in direct counterpoint to “The Body,” is a bad guy that we can fight, but must choose not to. Death has a supernatural cause here, specifically because Angel and Spike must choose to not fight it. The Angel crew has to take a long view of time and to understand that saving Fred is not ultimately a moral decision. So the anticlimax of Spike and Angel’s journey to the Cotswolds ends up echoing the passivity of “The Body,” but for a very different reason.

Whereas “The Body” is Buffy’s consideration of the helplessness of human mortality, “A Hole in the World” is less interested in the literal reality of death: instead, the episode uses mortality to create a situation in which the consequences of characters’ actions are undeniably real. And massive. In fact, we find out that Fred’s imperiling and subsequent death was not a freak accident — in the corrupt world that Angel Investigations inhabits, characters’ actions had consequences that set off chains of events that led to Fred’s death.

…Did anyone else just get Into the Woods stuck in their heads?

So when Spike and Angel have to deal with the potential consequences of saving Fred, “A Hole in the World” becomes an episode about taking responsibility and making hard choices. (And yes, I do wish that we had another lady character, so that it wasn’t just un-dead white guys having this moral conundrum, but what are you going to do?)

As has undoubtedly been said by many people in the past decade or so, but perhaps most recently by Lani and Alastair on last week’s Dusted, Buffy is a story about BECOMING an adult, whereas Angel is a story about BEING one. That reading holds very true when you consider these shows’ separate treatments of death: death in the Angel-verse is not as immutable as death in Buffy. Instead, death has to be beatable so that our protagonists can choose to not beat it. “A Hole in the World” has a more conventional narrative structure than “The Body,” because we — like Spike and Angel — have to be sure that Fred’s death can be averted right until the moment when we understand that it won’t be. While Buffy desperately tries to reestablish her heroic role by finding action in the face of incomprehensible mortality in “The Body,” “A Hole in the World” establishes the heroism of inaction.

In “The Body” and “A Hole in the World,” Whedon writes two episodes with remarkably similar premises. But their differences reflect what is at the core of each of these two shows: Angel exists in a darker world, one in which sometimes the good guys can’t win the fight. But Fred’s death doesn’t mean that evil actually wins.

Fred dies saying that the cavemen win, but I don’t think that the episode agrees with her. After all, our airplane-flying vampires (a conglomeration of the astronaut and the caveman if there ever was one) are able to avert the apocalyptic threat of Illyria conquering all of humanity. When Angel first makes his argument in favor of astronautic victory back in Act One, he says that the astronauts have teamwork and rationality on their side. And he’s right: our metaphorical astronauts were able to make the decision that prevents the prehistoric power of Illyria from taking over humanity itself, and — by the end of the season —  the power of their teamwork will even bring Illyria to join the good guys. Fred has died, but the war against evil has not ended in defeat. Rather, our protagonists saved most of the United States from demonic possession, good still exists, Fred and Wes loved each other, and we’re about to meet a fascinating demon character who will open the possibility of even the most amoral and cruel creatures fighting the good fight — and having fantastically blue-streaked hair.

Okay. So while I think that “A Hole in the World” isn’t as bleak as Fred would make it out to be, it’s certainly sad. So please enjoy the trailer to Whedon’s (fantastic) Much Ado About Nothing and that time that meta-casting allowed Fred and Wes to end up together:

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