Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Whedonverse Classic #11: ANGEL's "Hell Bound"

The penultimate post of Whedonverse Classic brings season five's "Hellbound" into the spotlight. Steven S. DeKnight's "Hellbound" is moody, dark and philosophical. The action's centered around Spike, who believes he's being pulled into hell, as Fred tries to re-corporealize Spike before he finally descends into hell. Spike's been a spectral presence, though not a ghost, since he came back from the dead after sacrificing himself to save the world from destruction. Now, Spike walks through walls and has no tangible presence on earth; he's trapped in Wolfram & Hart until someone makes him human again. Mysteriously, Spike continues to disappear randomly. "Hellbound" reveals that Spike's slowly been going to the place no one wants to go when they die: hell.

Steven S. DeKnight is one of my favorite writers from the Whedonverse. DeKnight used to teach English abroad in Japan before he returned and found work on MTV's Undressed, where he worked alongside future Chasing Amy writer Damon Lindelof (Lindelof later worked on LOST, of course). Joss Whedon and Marti Noxon brought him onto Buffy for the show's depressing sixth season, and he wrote the harmless "All The Way," the dark "Dead Things," and the controversial "Seeing Red" where Spike attempts to rape Buffy and Warren kills Tara. I imagine the fandom took notice of DeKnight rather quickly. I became a fan of DeKnight's from his work on ANGEL, the sister show of Buffy and the most ignored Whedon show; his work on season four and season five of ANGEL ranks among my favorite works of any TV writer. I still need to watch Spartacus, though.

"Hellbound" is DeKnight's second episode as a writer/director. The dude got his hands dirty with #417 ("Inside Out") in season four. The season four DVD has a commentary track in which DeKnight talks about his experience directing for the first time. "Hellbound" is a departure from "Inside Out." The latter was the 17th episode of the season, post-evil Cordelia reveal, and wildly ambitious as it attempted to connect every single thing we've seen to that point to the impending arrival of Jasmine. The former uses a couple of locations, the core cast, and is mostly concerned with the Spike mystery. DeKnight had fun with colors and lighting; the episode is dark. There are scenes similar to the Matthew Lillard picture Thirteen Ghosts. An eerie quality pervades "Hellbound," especially when Spike walks through darkened rooms or when he speaks about the loss of warmth he feels as he descends further into the unknown.

The visual style and horror-like quality of the episode is very cool and a contrast to DeKnight's directorial debut. Aspiring filmmakers always want to be the next Woody Allen or Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese or Clint Eastwood. I always wanted to match the quality of "Hellbound" or an episode of LOST, so DeKnight and Bender and Williams and Petrie and Minear were the directors I wanted to emulate. "Hellbound" is a favorite of mine because of the story. The episode has quintessential ANGEL scenes about helping the hopeless, doing good because what else will they do, and an unwavering belief in the human condition that a person is worth saving.

Fred is the woman with an unwavering belief in Spike. Angel, Wes and Gunn don't perceive Spike the way Fred does. Angel meets with Fred about the science department's overspending. Upon learning of the reason for the overspending, Angel warns Fred about trusting Spike too much or falling for his act. Fred's not a stupid school girl with a crush, she recognizes Spike's charm, but she's going to help him because the team's mission statement is helping the helpless and doing what's right because it's right. Angel doesn't argue and allows her to do her thing. Alone with Spike, Angel offers little sympathy for his condition. The two bicker about the past and how they don't like each other, though Angel admits he liked Spike's poetry; but when Spike disappears, the gang bands together to figure out what's going on.

The scene between Angel and Spike happens after Spike learns of the Shanshu prophecy that prophesizes a vampire with a soul will become human again once the Apocalypse is averted. Angel dismisses every prophecy, including the Shanshu, stating his belief that nothing is predetermined or fated. Every day is a fight. No one knows what will happen. Just keep doing good day after day because it's the right thing to do. Spike wonders why continue living if no reward is given when one's time ends on earth. Angel responds, "What else is there to do?" Joss' existential beliefs ring loud and clear in this scene, drawing up images of Sisyphus. Spike's a question mark. Angel expects him to split for Europe when he's corporeal again, which is why he tries to stop Fred from getting hurt. The effect of the Shanshu prophecy on Spike isn't immediately known.

Spike's intense journey through the spirit world of Pavayne is quite important for future episodes as they relate to 'doing good because it's the right thing to do' mantra of Angel's, and to the Shanshu prophecy.
Spike went through torturous trials to get a soul during the two part season six Buffy finale, but his past hangs over him. No one trusts Spike because of his past. Fred's the only one who works night and day to re-corporealize him. It seems pointless to write that Spike needed to endure Pavayne's reality-bending wonkiness to earn some measure of trust with Angel and friends when he endured torture and strife to get a soul after nearly raping Buffy. Lisa Simpson told her brother that some believe one earns a soul through strife and personal struggle. Spike's a compelling character because the existence of his soul doesn't transform him into a brooder like Angel. After all, every human has a soul, and some human beings commit horrible acts. Dostoevsky thrived (well, thrive is a risky word to use considering the author's financial difficulties, but his writing thrived, and he produced some of the most thought-provoking and intense fiction in literary history) writing about characters like Spike. The problem for Spike, and the other Whedon characters who were bad then good or good then bad then good, is reconciling the past with the present and then the future. Spike killed a lot of people, but he saved the world, so what does he deserve when he turns to dust and is no more?

The Angel investigations team accept Spike's destiny to spend eternity in hell because, you know, he's Spike. Fred informs her friends of the situation. Wes and Gunn react like the viewers would react, but they're okay with it, whereas the most insane diehard Spike fans probably wouldn't be because he needs to find Buffy and be with her forever. Regardless, the team tries to figure out what's going on after Spike's disappearance moments after he spoke crazily to people the gang couldn't see. Spike makes his way through parts of Wolfram & Hart while being haunted by tortured souls who warn that "he" is coming, the Dark Soul. The Dark Soul is Pavayne, a brutal 18th century doctor who murdered for pleasure and has spent two centuries avoiding hell by throwing other souls in his place. Pavayne preys on Spike's past, reminds him of the murder and pain he caused, and essentially takes him to a place where Spike gives up and sends himself to hell. Control is gone in the spirit world. Spike's a pawn of Pavayne. Spike sits on the floor, naked and defeated, until he remembers the control he used to communicate "REAPER" to Fred, and that Pavayne basically admitted any spirit can touch if he or she wants to touch. Spike wants to punch and defeat Pavayne, so he does.

Fred and the gang figure out how to make a spirit corporeal again. The intention is to save Spike from The Reaper; however, when Spike's a foot away from the magic machine, he chooses to throw Pavayne in to save Fred's life. Pavayne freaks out because his power is gone. Angel and Eve lock Pavayne in permanent storage, which a place Wolfram & Hart's unmentionables go so they'll forever be unmentionables. Spike told Angel not to kill Pavayne because he'll become a ghost and torture other spirits. Pavayne will live forever, unable to move, trapped in a wall. Angel welcomes him to hell.

Spike exhibited unselfishness during the climatic scene with Pavayne. Angel's warnings about Spike's self-centeredness were moot during the moment of truth when Spike decided between himself and Winifred Burkle, which was the point of Spike's journey; he couldn't let Pavayne hurt any more souls. Spike then admits he deserves to go to hell for the murders he committed when he's alone with Fred. Fred sees Spike differently, though. In her eyes, Spike's decision proved what she always thought of him: that he's worth saving. Fred's words affect Spike deeply. ANGEL is about those moments when a character touches the soul of another to say, "I believe in you, I'm going to help you, and if needed, I'll save you too."

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Originally, I titled the blog Jacob's Foot after the giant foot that Jacob inhabited in LOST. That ended. It became TV With The Foot in 2010. I wrote about a lot of TV.