“Gimmick” is an unfortunately weighted term, but I think of no better term for that special class of Buffy and Angel episodes where the premise dominates the narrative. Gimmick’s aren’t necessarily bad things, they gave us some of Whedon’s best work, but they do tend to define their stories: the silent episode, the musical episode, etc. “Waiting in the Wings” may not quite be up to the level of those heavyweights but it does do a far better job of integrating its premise into the show’s universe. Do get me wrong, this story’s a delightful departure from what qualifies as normal in Angel’s world, but it gets there far less abruptly than the other gimmick episodes. The shift into a more theatrical version of Angel is almost seamless and keeps the central conceit from overshadowing the characters.
Things start off normal enough with Angel being a bit of a dick when he buys tickets to the ballet instead of Gunn’s favourite band. It’s a small thing, played for comedy, but it roots the setup for this week’s adventure within the character dynamics of the team; this is an event the crew seeks out rather than a client coming to them. The distinction’s not insignificant as gimmick episodes normally start off by upsetting the status quo while here it’s asserted. Angel just being himself is what sets events in motion and the rest of the pre-game is spent reminding us of the various relationship issues currently at play. Naturally, this normalcy is a feint, as the opening act also serve to set up the theatrical trip that follows. On a basic level, this happens with simply costume change as the gang gets dressed up to go to a show, but we’ve also go some theatrical tropes appearing in secret affections and a love triangle fraught with misunderstandings.
The relative normalcy of the opening serves as a gateway for the heightened drama that follows with the team (and the audience) primed to enter the theatrical world well before Angel and Cordy cross the literal gateway to backstage. The first possession continues to use the familiar to ease us into things as “I love you but I can’t be with you” has to characterized all of Angel’s romances. The obvious difference here is that sex isn’t a problem in this relationship but the less obvious difference is that all this melodrama didn’t have me rolling my eyes. The key here is that we’re now operating in a norm where over the top emotions are conventional. Much like “Once More, With Feeling” before it, this shift allows the characters to express themselves more directly, but the change is far more subtle.
There’s a similar immediacy to how the Fred/Gunn/Wesley love triangle plays out. Fred and Gunn get together without the complication of a possession, although there are still plenty of theatrical trappings as she tends to his wounds. Gunn helps this go down smoother with just a touch of self-awareness. It’s Wes that gets the mystical treatment and, once again, the nature of this episode allows the emotions to be a lot bigger than they normally would be. After seeing his best friend and the woman he loves together, Wes collapses as the score rises. Things are capped off by only being able to see his reaction in a mirror and, once again, the melodrama that would push us out of Angel’s usual universe pulls us into this new one.
What’s so great about the parts the AI team is playing this week is that we can’t be entirely sure of where the roles end and the people begin. Wes is probably my favourite example as he bitterly explains the count’s betrayal, “I hit a pocket too.” While some of these feelings are clearly his own, they aren’t enough to make him take the count’s track as the bounds of friendship win out and he works to protect Fred and Gunn. That said, things still aren’t all rosey in the end, based on the look he gives them. “Waiting in the Wings” may not be as flashy as Whedon’s other gimmick episodes, but that’s a deliberate choice that gives the characters more room to breathe.
Summer! Now I miss Firefly 😦
Ouch to the Grusalug return just as Angel was about to confess his feelings. The guy really can’t win, can he? It was a nice fakeout for him to arrive while Lorne was home alone
Lousy as it is for Angel to buy ballet tickets instead of those Gunn requested, I do love the fact that he ends up loving the show.
I left it out of the main review, but if you’re looking for how much the Count and Wes overlap, this was pretty much the beginning of Wesley’s downward spiral.