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4x02: "Ground State"
Review by Ryan Bovay (Ryan-R.B.)
Posted on June 8, 2009
Writer: Mere Smith | Director: David Grossman | Air Date: 10/13/2002

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Spoiler Warning!
This is a retrospective review and may contain spoilers from anywhere in the series. Read at your own peril.

"Ground State" is one of the most wholly unremarkable episodes of the season, so timid and – may the Gods of punnage strike me down – emotionally grounded that it feels like it's trying to be inoffensive. If this criticism seems callous, consider its location in the series: it floats amongst the philosophical excesses of season four, the show's most thematically insightful and morally challenging set of episodes. While season four lacks the consistency of two and the dramatic highs of five, it still manages to make some incredibly powerful statements for a television show – the kind of unconventional insights more common to great works of literature. Thus insipidity doth not contrast well.

Not that it's an offensively bad outing, mind you. Its worst mistakes aside, it's highly watchable and has the sharp, entertaining dialogue characteristic of the series. Gunn even mentions Vegas again. And who doesn't love Gunn throwing in a pitch for Vegas (though the fact that he pimps it three or four times in the series makes me think product placement)?

We pick up shortly after where "Deep Down" [4x01] left off. Even though Angel has returned to the land of the living there's hard work yet to be done. The hotel is running down, Connor is out on the streets, the Fang Gang lacks paying clients (as usual) and Cordelia is still missing.

To find her, Angel tries mending bridges with Wesley. In one of the episode's few memorable scenes he puts himself face to face with his betrayer for the first time since "Forgiving" (3x17). We might expect sparks or some bloody satisfaction for one of these two larger-than-life figures, but what we actually get is far quieter, and yet somehow even more devastating, than any fight ever could be: Wes barely regards Angel at all. No anger, no sadness. Nothing. He says what he needs to and then coldly dismisses the man he was once willing to follow into hell. It makes the point crystal clear: Angel can reach out to Wesley, and he can try to bring back Cordelia, but he can't wipe the slate clean just because he wants to. The way Wes walks out on him after shrewdly serving Angel's purposes speaks volumes about the utter antipathy he's developed for the old gang. It's heartbreaking. But then, Angel did try to kill him. He is understandably bitter.

Then there's Gwen. Gwen in tight pants. Yes. Oh yes. Guest character Gwen Raiden functions as the episode's thematic focal point, and despite not doing too much in the episode proper she is a fascinating character to consider. Gwen is a woman whose capacity for passion has gone completely untapped throughout her life because of her unique condition. This is a polite way of saying that if she touches people they die. For her this has made all human contact a moral line not to be crossed. A cruel state to say the least.

In flashbacks to her early childhood we see Gwen's parents bundle her in puffy clothing and watch her teachers forbid her from even the most congenial of social contact. An adult in the episode's present-day timeline, she wears scant clothing to attract the "interests" of men; the only attention she can really enjoy. Just imagining her as a kid, trying over and over to make a friend and learning over and over that even the attempt is murderous breaks the heart as much as Wes' situation. She is understandably bitter.

Is she justifiably bitter, though? That's another question entirely. In keeping with season four's exploration of choice and free will versus determinism and circumstance, the episode hinges our sympathy for Gwen on whether or not we feel like she's justified in being an emotionally-gutted bounty hunter with a predilection for roasting people who offend her.

When she kills Gunn it's…wait a minute. When she kills Gunn?! That's right: "Ground State" features a character death. As a death it plays lighter than any other in the Whedonverse – maybe even too light to be taken seriously (did anyone think he would die? Anyone?) – but for a fine point nonetheless. When Gwen looked back and saw the little boy from school in her near-murder of Gunn I felt a real spark of the impossible conflict within her. In that one moment the defining trauma of her entire life came rushing back, and I thought "now this…this works."

These positives, however, are trifling next to the story's crippling flaws. Very little more than a razor-thin plot contrived to motivate the characters towards the Axis of Pythia drives the episode. The majority of scenes exist solely to move Angel and Co. towards that end without attempting character or thematic significance in their own right. Not the least among the flaws here is a completely foregone conclusion that tells us nothing new about any of the characters. The fact of it reveals more than just a flaw, actually. It reveals downright structural deficiency. Unarguably poor writing.

When Angel and Gwen confront each other over the Axis of Pythia their shared sense of alienation lends them an understanding of one another, but their interactions (and the entire main plot for that matter) climax not with a revelation that changes their characters. No, the writers don't go for a, you know, compelling angle, but instead go for a steamy kiss supposed to hint at a romance that's really not…because in this moment of excitement Angel's dead heart starts beating and the first thing he says is "Cordelia."

Since we already knew Angel loved her, this amounts to nothing more than re-stating the painfully obvious about his character. But since this point makes for the episode's dramatic climax I'm doubly unimpressed. Why take an entire episode just to re-state the obvious? If the implication of Angel's true feelings was not obvious by mid-S3 it was blunt-force in "Deep Down" [4x01].

The end result of this episode would've been a foregone conclusion even if the episode had never been written. Strip away the main plot and you get maybe a quarter-episode of interesting character material, and only for a couple of characters. Fred and Gunn are largely set dressing and Gwen fails to develop beyond the basic premise of her concept as a character (which is a particular problem given the aforementioned lameness of her dramatic "climax" with Angel). From a writing standpoint the dearth of substance is inexcusable, especially on a show as character-driven as AtS.

Angel's motivations are problematic too. The simple motive for finding Cordelia – his love for her – would never be questioned by the audience, so the one the writers try to inject into this episode – of Angel feeling like he has nothing without her – comes off as over-written and disingenuous. Gwen and Wesley were well positioned to demonstrate the theme of how coldness follows from a lack of intimacy, but with them the point was that coldness follows from a lack of familial and fraternal relationships.

Angel ignoring the value of Fred, Gunn and Connor (not to mention Wes, whom he forgives – rather conveniently – just in time to look for Cordelia) by holding Cordelia up as the relationship most essential to his heart doesn't ring true to anything in the series. It rings shoddy characterization; a poor dramatic conceit contrived to lend a sense of urgency to Angel's quest.

Perhaps the most insulting contrivance, however, comes in the final minute of the episode when Angel, the undead king of obsession himself, just gives up on Cordy because the Axis of Plot Devices informs him that "she's happy where she is." The fact that the episode back-tracks on itself before it even ends says enough. Angel giving up on the grounds of altruism would only be believable were it a well-drawn out and timely development, not the result of a cheap plot device pulled out of the god machine in 40 simpering minutes.

An emaciated resolution to a full-bodied emotional issue. In the tapestry of the series that's about as grounded as it gets.

Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+The final (dis)appearance of Phantom Dennis!
+Finding out Wesley still went and looked for Cordelia.
+If you didn't crack up at Fred's ghost illustration ("Boo!") you have no soul.
+Lilah's complete shamelessness: "I don't run errands. Unless they're evil errands." No wonder Wes likes her. Rowr.
  • Angel keeps a watchful eye over Connor in spite of their distance. Even though they stay at each other's throats throughout the season, Angel is constantly taking his side, usually at his own expense.
  • The strain of managing Angel Investigations and its worsening problems creates a small rift between Fred and Gunn in one scene. A disagreement over responsibility for Siedel's murder in "Supersymmetry" [4x05] proves to be the catalyst for their breakup.
  • Wesley and Lilah continue their steamy sexual head games. Lilah takes it as a sticking point that Wes lied to her about Justine's imprisonment and Angel's rescue, which hints at there being more than a sexual relationship between them. Though Lilah fights against admitting it, a real romantic relationship later develops between them.




ANGEL:(about looking for Cordelia) How about the police?
GUNN:Uh, let's see
FRED:No signs of violence, no plans for travel…
GUNN:"Please file a missing person's report…"
FRED:"And have a nice day."
GUNN:But hey, that was only first time. The next seven times they left out the 'nice day' part.

FRED:(about Angel and Connor) Sure. Banished to the ocean depths by your ungrateful snot of a son.
GUNN:Not that she's bitter.
ANGEL:I appreciate you guys looking out for Connor all summer. It's just that he's confused. He needs time. That's all.
FRED:Right. Time and some corporal punishment with a large, heavy mallet. Not that I'm bitter.

DINZA:They think that you should join them. That I should never let you out. (laughs) But who listens to the dead? The Axis of Pythia rests close by. What you seek can only be found inside the axis.
ANGEL:The axis.
DINZA:An ancient power bridging all dimensions. Find the Axis and find your lost one.
ANGEL:Why should I trust you?
DINZA:(grabs Angel by the throat) Because I'd love to keep you – but you have so much more to lose.

GWEN:What? Do you see a nipple?

GUNN:(climbing fence) Damn. This is so much harder than it looks on Batman.

ANGEL:I think you'll run this one.
LILAH:Why? What's in it for me?
ANGEL:Just this once I'll ignore the fact that you're within fifty yards of my son. (leans in close and whispers to her) Just this once.

Comments (28)
All Comments | Link1 | DarthMarionJun 10, 2009
Great review!
I never really thought about this ep, and I guess I'v just read why!

Completely agree about the poor characterization, and the kiss, what was that for?

Anyway, keep going! I want reviews! I think I'm developing a dependance to yours and mike's reviews! Oh that's bad ^^
All Comments | Link2 | RickJun 10, 2009
“Ground State” is one of the most wholly unremarkable episodes of the season, so timid and – may the Gods of punnage strike me down – emotionally grounded that it feels like it’s trying to be inoffensive. If this criticism seems callous, consider its location in the series: it floats amongst the philosophical excesses of season four, the show’s most thematically insightful and morally challenging set of episodes. While season four lacks the consistency of two and the dramatic highs of five, it still manages to make some incredibly powerful statements for a television show – the kind of unconventional insights more common to great works of literature. Thus insipidity doth not contrast well.”

-I would wholly disagree with the proposition that season 4 is the most insightful and challenging season of the series. Season 5’s are equally complicated and profound without the blatant inconsistencies and insulting insinuations of season 4’s Angelus arc. Another problem with season 4’s themes vis-à-vis those of Season 5 is that they are sometimes overwrought, as if to rub our noses in the complexity that becomes that much less complex when, well, we get our noses rubbed in it.

“An emaciated resolution to a full-bodied emotional issue. In the tapestry of the series that’s about as grounded as it gets.”

-I see what you did there.
All Comments | Link3 | buffyholicJun 12, 2009
Good review, Ryan and I agree with everything you said but the score could be a bit higher. Sure the plot is lame but what goes on with the characters is very good. Three scenes that really brighten up this episode: Wes and Angel´s little and a bit cold reunion, Fred finally breaking down in front of Gunn and of course, Lilah and Wes.
All Comments | Link4 | ArouetJun 12, 2009
You review is dead on, except you seriously underrate the scene where Fred breaks down in front of Gunn and says he died and left her all alone. IMO it establishes the burden and loneliness Fred was carrying through between S3 and S4 better than all of her scenes in Deep Down, and it took all of thirty seconds of dialogue. Plus we get to see some tenderness between Fred and Gunn that needed to be shown before Supersymmetry (and I think you horribly underrated that episode your first go through, btw. The way Gunn and Fred's decisions played out in Seidel's death scene was just brilliant characterization). And nobody cares about the house always wins. Can we please go straight to Slouching Towards Bethlehem? Pretty please?
All Comments | Link5 | DarthMarionJun 12, 2009
Oh....I care! I prefer this episode to Slouching Towards Bethlehem...ok I don't like no memory Cordy (actually I hate too much full of memory Cordy, I don't like no memory Cordy, I like full memory Cordy and I loove only high school memory Cordy ) and I hate "Oh Cordy you're back I love you" Angel.
But I like Lorne, so go on to The House always wins.
All Comments | Link6 | Ryan-R.B. | WRITERJun 12, 2009
I do remember you calling for more passion in my reviews, Arouet.

Rest assured that "The House Always Wins" will receive the full brunt of my "passion." You won't want to miss that.
All Comments | Link7 | RickJun 12, 2009
Ya, you'll huff and puff and dust off the brick.
All Comments | Link8 | TaraJun 14, 2009
I second the severe underrating of Amy Acker's performance in that brief scene with Gunn ('You died and left me all alone!). Acker conveyed more in twenty seconds than Boreanaz managed with pages of dialogue.
All Comments | Link9 | KittyJun 15, 2009
Yeah, Wesley...being so indifferent in this episode actually made me dislike him even more, which I've done ever since "Sleep Tight" and continued doing until season 5.

I mean, seriously, HE's bitter about the Angel-trying-to-kill-him thing? What, he feels like he was treated unfairly? Please. If someone kidnapps MY son, hands him over to my worst enemy, which then results in him growing up in hell dimension and becoming a psycho-killer who hates me, then I wouldn't just TRY to kill him. In my opinion, Wesley should be grateful for Angel's remarkable restraint. And if he doesn't get that...well. I certainly don't feel sorry for him, even though the episode is clearly tyring to get the viewers to feel just that.
All Comments | Link10 | DarthMarionJun 16, 2009
That's true, but Wesley was trying to do for the best.
Angel can't deny he was a danger for his son, especially with W&H manipulations.

That's not JUST a kidnapping... And Wes was a Holtz'victim exactly like Connor.
All Comments | Link11 | ArouetJun 16, 2009
If a friend I'd been through thick and thin with tried to kill me, and then all my friends abandoned me, when I was trying to save that first friend from killing his own son, then regardless of whether I botched the rescue or not, I'd be pretty bitter. Especially if my faith in my ability to be a hero was totally obliterated, along with any confidence in the craft I had trained my whole life for, and it was all for nothing.

And especially if it meant I got to sleep with Lilah. ;P
All Comments | Link12 | ArouetJun 16, 2009
Good lord did the writers botch Gwen's character. Never would happened if Minear and Greenwalt had still been around. Although she thankfully gets one great scene in Players where she puts on a device that absorbs the electricity in her skin and she gets to touch and kiss someone for the first time. I actually wanted her to stay around after seeing that, but then again I'm a horrible sap.
All Comments | Link13 | buffyholicJun 17, 2009
Wes has every right to be bitter, as well as Angel. This is what I like in the whedonverse, the moral issues are very complicated. I mean, I sympathise with both of them and I see their points and motives. There are no easy answers, no right and wrong. Just gray and confusion.

btw, I am glad I am not the only one to see that Fred´s breakdown is amazing and it´s one of her finest moments.
All Comments | Link14 | Ryan-R.B. | WRITERJun 19, 2009
@Kitty I'm way on Wes and buffyholic's side. Trying to murder your former friend in cold blood might not be as bad as stealing your former friend's child, but it's damn close. Angel not only turned his back on Wesley with violence and a dearth of understanding, he denied his former friend any opportunity to explain himself or be forgiven. He denied him even a shot at forgiveness. When you take into account all they went through that's damned cold. That's taking away the man's family.

If you want to call Wesley a bastard, than you're going to want to call Angel a bastard for committing the exact same trespass.

@Rick Love you!
All Comments | Link15 | Iguana-on-a-stickJul 2, 2009
I think that the actions taken by themselves are pretty damn close.

But there's a world of difference between Angel and Wesley's motivations here. Wesley was making an agonisingly hard decision to try and protect his friend's son against himself. Yes, he misjudged and screwed up. Yes, this was because of his arrogance, his hubris, his refusal to seek help directly, his attempt to solve everything by himself. Yes, it's something that's pretty hard to forgive.

But in my opinion it does not even come -close- to trying to murder a close friend in cold blood for no more than vengeance, without even allowing him to explain his actions first. Vengeance /= protecting a friend in the worst possible fashion.

So my sympathies in most of season 3 and 4 remain quite firmly with Wesley. And it should also be noted that whilst Wesley talks a tough game of not caring anymore, his actual -actions- for the most part involve... well, helping Angel & co when they need it. Not graciously, but he does do it.

However, partisanship aside, I do agree one of the great aspects of this show is the complexity of situations like these, and how both characters -do- have strong reasons for their actions, how both can be sympathised with. It makes me love the entire arc even if it's painful to watch sometimes.Rosie
All Comments | Link16 | DevnetSep 1, 2009
Sorry. Challenge is a dragon with a gift in its mouth?Tame the dragon and the gift is yours.

I am from Arab and learning to speak English, please tell me right I wrote the following sentence: "The indexing is an probability stock that was learned conviction, iceman stock picks."

Thank you so much for your future answers :(. Devnet.
All Comments | Link17 | MiscellaneopolanNov 22, 2009 @ 5:32pm
It's interesting that so little of the heated discussion above concerns the main thrust of this episode, Angel's search for the axis and the introduction of Gwen Raiden. I think this highlights what an odd, silly character she is, especially when introduced in a Season that, even at this early stage, was already full to bursting with thematic and character issues. I mean, the writers have to deal with, in no particular order: a main character who had become a God, the emotional fallout from Wesley and Angel's joint betrayal of each other, a homeless Connor being preyed upon by Wolfram and Hart, the status of Fred and Gunn's relationship and more besides. So they decide that now is the best time to introduce a hot-pants wearing electric ninja who pulls off heists on big corporations? Guh? I remember how surreal my first viewing of this episode was, like I was watching some other show entirely.

None of this is to say that I don't enjoy hot-pants wearing electric ninjas, but I think Gwen adds very little to a show that had a lot on its plate already. How much more interesting would it have been if Angel had to work with Wesley to get the axis, or if Wolfram and Hart had it, or if the entire episode had just been Wesley and Lilah's pillow talk, or SOMETHING?

What a weird episode.
All Comments | Link18 | Nathan.TaurusFeb 6, 2010 @ 6:45pm
The demon, Dinza, was as creepy as the Gnarl demon on the episode of 'BtVS' that is close to concurrent with this one. (Same Time, Same Place) They even speak similar.

I would rate this episode in the early 80's. The Wesley/Angel scene was great and seeing how Wes just walks away after giving Angel the files.....getting back at Angel for all the times he just disappears while they are still talking.
All Comments | Link19 | powertrashMar 2, 2010 @ 2:56am
I'm on Wesley's side. I don't think the way he acted towards the AI team was cruel at all--they made it clear that they had no interest in helping or seeing him. They let him go home from the hospital, alone, with a slit throat. And yet they continually have the gall to come ask him for help, their only attempts to make amends when they need something? Wesley was excommunicated from the first real family he ever had because he was trying to protect them.

His ends-based attitude is such a nice contrast to Angel, sometimes, too.


I am curious as to why, Miscellaneopolan & Arouet, you don't like Gwen or don't think she adds anything. I found her startlingly refreshing and I wish she was around more. It was nice to see Angel go hand-to-hand with a female character and her dynamic could have added a lot to the show...especially because she was a human with weird powers that, strangely, didn't know about lions and tigers and vampires oh my.

Beyond the hotness factor, she's engaging.
All Comments | Link20 | Ryan ONeilSep 16, 2012 @ 10:37am
"Perhaps the most insulting contrivance, however, comes in the final minute of the episode when Angel, the undead king of obsession himself, just gives up on Cordy because the Axis of Plot Devices informs him that “she’s happy where she is.” The fact that the episode back-tracks on itself before it even ends says enough. Angel giving up on the grounds of altruism would only be believable were it a well-drawn out and timely development, not the result of a cheap plot device pulled out of the god machine in 40 simpering minutes."

Ah, but what about Angel's offscreen conversation with Buffy between 3.04 and 3.05? If she told him that she felt like she was in Hell after spending so much time in Heaven (which maybe she felt she could do because she wouldn't see him again to deal with the fall-out), then Angel would sure as Hell not want to do that to Cordy.
All Comments | Link21 | DaveNov 11, 2012 @ 11:09pm
God I love Lilah and Wesley. Hot and informative.
All Comments | Link22 | Miss JayFeb 2, 2013 @ 6:38pm
Am I missing something? Why does Conner's taser incapacitate Angel, but Gwen's electricity doesn't hurt him at all?
All Comments | Link23 | Ryan ONeilFeb 2, 2013 @ 7:17pm
Replying to Miss Jay (#22)
Easy, because it
All Comments | Link24 | Miss JayFeb 3, 2013 @ 11:41am
Because it what, what?

The suspense is killing me!
All Comments | Link25 | Ryan ONeilFeb 3, 2013 @ 3:28pm
Replying to Miss Jay (#24)
Because I have absolutely no idea, and I thought that saying it like that would be funnier.

All Comments | Link26 | Jeremy G.Feb 3, 2013 @ 3:45pm
What a relief. For a moment, I thought you'd been kidnapped by Candlejack.

Anyway, I think that since Gwen's electricity is organic in nature, its properties are different than power-generated electricity. Ergo, it affects Angel differently.
All Comments | Link27 | Miss JayFeb 3, 2013 @ 7:40pm
Replying to Jeremy G. (#26)
I guess the nature of her power must have had something to do with it. But she does tap into regular electricity or metal or something to access it at least sometimes right? That's why they rigged the elevator? I don't nec. need stuff spoon fed to me, but since Angel got tasered 2 episodes prior, a little explanation from the writers would have been nice. Maybe that's what they were trying to do when Angel first meets her during the theft? (Too lazy to go back and rewatch that scene)
All Comments | Link28 | Jeremy G.Feb 3, 2013 @ 8:35pm
Replying to Miss Jay (#27)
I think her powers have all the properties of regular electricity, but in addition, they contain regenerative abilities. We see this from the way she's able to "restart" Gunn's heart and even temporarily get Angel's to start beating again. That's the most sense I can make of it. But you're right, the writers could have explained it better.
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