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5x17: "Underneath"
Review by Jeremy Grayson (Jeremy G.)
Posted on November 15, 2012 / Last Updated on January 3, 2014
Writer: Sarah Fain and Elizabeth Craft | Director: Skip Schoolnik | Air Date: 04/14/2004

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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.
Review

I'm going to say it right from the start: "Underneath" rocks. Even if it didn't come right on the heels of the strongly written and starkly powerful "Shells" [5x16], it would still be an incredibly well-crafted and thematically resonant episode of television. It locks its characters into their darkest corners, and pulls none of its punches. And most importantly, it kicks off the final arc of "Angel" on a terrifically entertaining note.

From the start, Angel has always focused himself on the mission. Fight evil. Kill monsters. Avert the Apocalypse. When he began headlining the offices of Wolfram & Hart, he did so with the full intention of continuing that mission. But now, his crucial decision has snaked around and bitten him in the back. One of his closest friends has been killed by the law firm's machinations, and the rest of the team has now drifted apart.

It is in the aftermath of Fred's death that Angel's motivations in fighting the good fight become clear. He realizes that it was his choice which brought her to Wolfram & Hart in the first place, and which ultimately led to her loss. He acknowledges to himself that Fred's death could have been prevented. But Angel will respond to her senseless demise not with grief and sorrow, but with atonement. He has fought long and hard to make up for the sins of his past, and will only continue to do so in the future. "Underneath" shows us that Angel still has a great determination and willingness to continue fighting… by showing us that no one else in his group does.

Well, except for Spike. Then again, he's only been a part of the team for a short time, and as we've seen in the past, he uses fighting as a diversion to get over many of his personal issues. He makes for an entertaining exception, and is well-used within the context of the episode.

The rest of Angel's friends, sadly, lack his personal goal of atonement, and so they must resort to grief. No character expresses this more poignantly than Lorne. Over the last year, Lorne has provided little more than short bursts of comic relief to the group, and never finds a real footing. His one prominent role, in "Life of the Party" [5x05], only emphasized his complete lack of purpose in the grand scheme.

And as Lorne now stares at the bottom of an emptied beer glass, he finally acknowledges how little he has brought to the fight – and even more bitterly, he acknowledges that at this point, there is nothing he can do to change his status. In the past, Lorne has merely been a singer, a joker, an entertainer. And most likely, he always will. Fans sometimes complain that Lorne has never been a very deep or complex character, and here the show finally uses his lack of development to say something relevant about him. It's sad and disheartening, although I would've preferred him being developed more in the earlier seasons to begin with.

Lorne's pain, like Lorne himself, is fairly simple. But Gunn's sorrow is far worse. He's had a wound burning in his chest even before Wesley plunged a knife into it, and can we blame him? Wesley's action only confirmed to him what he'd been trying to hide from himself earlier – that he is fully responsible for Fred's death. He cannot face the world after committing such an atrocity, and so he chooses to simply lie sullenly in his hospital bed.

Angel comes to the rescue, or so the vampire thinks: "The thing about atonement is, you never run out of chances... but you gotta take 'em. You can't hide in some hospital room and pretend it's all gonna go away... 'cause it never will." Here, Angel foists his own view of atonement onto Gunn, in the hopes that it will urge him back into the fray. He initially appears to succeed, and Gunn is soon back as his head-shaven, street clothes-wearing old self. He's always been a sort of "rebound" man to the group, and so it's fairly easy to accept him returning to form. However, we soon learn that Angel's speech has worked on him far too well.

The character most visibly – and disturbingly – affected by Fred's death is Wesley. In contrast to the bright colors which dominate the rest of the episode (and more on those in a moment), Wesley resides in darkness, quietly contemplating over his former love interest. And in all honesty, is there anything he can do but contemplate?

Back in the early episodes of Season Three, Wesley saw Fred as the picture of perfection – an object of sweetness, beauty, and intelligence unlike any he had known before. From the start, he wished to attain her, but only for this purpose alone. The interest he showed in her was never embellished beyond this concept. And in that lies the tragedy. When he and Fred finally shared a kiss in "Smile Time" [5x14], Wesley felt like he had finally accomplished something. And now that something is gone. He and Fred never shared any but the most basic connection. He hasn't lost a beloved colleague, but rather an "object", and the pain he now feels is not for Fred, but for himself.

All this is beautifully captured in Wesley's cryptic and haunting dream sequence. The "joke" he tells Fred mirrors his own conflict – he is falling, and falling fast, but there is no one he wishes to latch on to, to pull him out of his bottomless pit of grief. Moments later, DreamFred moves in close to him and whispers, "This is only the first layer. Don't you want to see how deep I go?" Her meaning is clear. Wesley never stopped to think of Fred beyond her surface layer, and now – as he wakes up – it's too late for him to do anything about it.

Fred may be gone, but Illyria remains. After the events of "Shells" [5x16], she clings to Wesley, having no place else to turn. He was willing to accept her then, but mainly because of her physical resemblance to Fred. And now, he begins to wonder if even that was reason enough, as Illyria's cutting remarks regarding his "emotions" torture him even further.

Illyria has just lost the thing which mattered most to her, and is now stranded in a cold, dark, meaningless world. In this way, her plight is ironically very similar to Wesley's. The difference between the two is what fuels their outlooks. Illyria knows nothing about the world, and thus finds it meaningless; Wesley knows all about it, and so feels the exact same way.

And Wesley lashes out at Illyria, asserting her beliefs that the world is a terrible place and using them in an attempt to chase her away. By doing so, he is only digging his own pit of despair even deeper. Yet it's clear at this point that this is exactly what he wants. Wesley murders two birds with one stone, making Illyria suffer and wedging himself firmly into self-doubt.

This, then, is their connection. At last, Wesley and Illyria discover that the other recognizes the world the same way they do. At last, Wesley latches on to someone.

What makes his scenes with Illyria in this episode so fascinating is that there is never a distinct moment of revelation. The realizations are made seamlessly, as if they were there from the start. Is the world really as cruel as the two of them make it out to be? No other characters interact with them throughout the episode, so no tangible evidence is given. But that is not the point. What matters is that Wesley and Illyria state and confirm their thoughts within each other's presence, and walk away scarred but connected.

While "Underneath" effectively showcases Wesley's drama in shadowy darkness, some of its most unsettling material occurs in the cheerful light of day. Lindsey's hell-dimension doesn't look very hellish – it's peaceful, charming, gentle, and serene. Lindsey himself has a well-kept house, a beautiful wife, and a loving son. His day-to-day life has no pains, no worries, and no conflicts. He is living the perfect dream. But is his life actually "perfect"?

Perfection is humanity's ultimate goal. But despite our efforts to reach it, it's still just a goal. We do our best in life to fix problems and be content, but how many of us can say we've achieved perfect happiness? (I'll pause while you make an Angelus reference.) What makes us strong as a civilization is our endless perseverance to overcome an impossible obstacle. Lindsey's holding dimension shows us an example of what would happen if we ever did overcome it. It is a crystallized utopia, to the point that each day is just a bland, unfeeling – and yes, perfect – rehashing of the previous one, offering no progression to its populace, for the simple reason that no more can be made. At once, the dream becomes a very vivid nightmare.

In the context of the episode, thankfully, the message behind the parallel setting is never pushed to the surface. Instead, its docile tone is used to emphasize the one aspect of the dimension that doesn't taste candy-coated. By confining Lindsey to a world of utter idealistic bliss, the Senior Partners infinitely magnify the few moments of gruesome torture he goes through each day. Compared to the rest of the house, the cellar – and the heart-cutting demon lurking within it – is pure nightmare fuel. It also serves to complete the prevalent theme of this holding dimension – in a world filled with unfeeling, practically robotic individuals, a heart is completely useless.

Even the reason that Lindsey's "wife" uses to send him down to the cellar feels flimsy and fabricated – you'd expect a better excuse from an eight-year-old explaining why he didn't clean his room. But this only emphasizes the dreamlike state of the dimension, and the nightmarish turn it forebodes every time Lindsey begins descending the stairwell.

Angel's rescue of Lindsey leads to the most shocking moment of the episode – Gunn choosing to stay behind. Now his motive in helping Angel in the first place becomes completely clear. Gunn lacks Angel's sense of greater purpose, as well as the strength to continue living with his sin, so he makes the ultimate sacrifice, allowing his own mind to be wiped clean and atoning in the most eternal of ways. It speaks highly of his character that he acknowledges his crimes and is willing to take such full responsibility for them. That he is rescued from this torment two episodes later does not in any way detract from the power of his actions.

"Underneath" ends with Angel finally realizing how Wolfram & Hart have been distracting him from his primary goal. He has long accepted that good and evil are naturally balancing forces in the world – this was how he deflected Holland Manners' view of humanity soon after hearing it in "Reprise" [2x15]. Now, however, he realizes that evil is the only natural force, and good is simply a remedy to it that willing people can produce. Angel has spent much of the season preventing evil at Wolfram & Hart, but at the other extreme, he has not done enough pure good. This was why the Senior Partners brought Angel to Wolfram & Hart in the first place. And this, more importantly, is why he decides to fight back.

Before I end this review, I should point out the one thing in the episode which didn't work for me – the introduction of Marcus Hamilton. While Adam Baldwin certainly plays him well as a mysterious and menacing presence – and forms a clear, distinctive line between him and Firefly's Jayne Cobb – Hamilton's drawn-out chase after Eve feels too much like a trick to generate unnecessary suspense. Also, the twist that he is not trying to kill her, but merely obtain her signature, is rather lame, especially since Eve has already been a nuisance to the team all season long. Fortunately, Hamilton becomes more intriguing in the show's final episodes, so I'm pleased to look over his debut as a minor misstep.

Above all, "Underneath" is a spectacular episode. It moves everything in place for the show's final days, and does so with much more flair than most shows can muster so close to their finales. It is solidly plotted, and contains some of the deepest characterizations this show has ever portrayed. Even the title hints at the depths the episode plunges its characters into. Reach down into the episode's heart beyond the underlying, wonderfully relevant themes and messages, and what's underneath that?

Just the soft, chewy center.

Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
Minor Pros:
+After 7 years and 26 guest appearances, Harmony's finally in the opening credits!
+Spike hoping that Angel doesn't call his group the "Scoobies".
+Illyria mentioning a "world with nothing but shrimp".
+he music which plays when Lindsey first steps out of his house.
+Lindsey's wife and kid opening fire on Angel.
+Angel commenting on how well-dressed Hamilton is.
  
Minor Cons:
-The makeup on the demon who sings to Lorne. He just looks like a regular human with horns and a couple of prosthetics. Was the budget in Season 5 really that bad?
-Why does Hamilton kill one of Wolfram & Hart's security officers? I know the guard was trying to stop him, but it seems a little over-the-top.
Foreshadowing
  • Lindsey's point that heroes fight to change the world hints at Angel's upcoming statement in "Power Play" [5x21].
  • Lorne acknowledges his lack of purpose in the group, leading to his departure in "Not Fade Away" [5x22].
96/100A
High

DEPTH
Medium

EMOTION
High

CHARACTER
Medium

PLOT
Quotes
LORNE:I think I'm tired. I think I'm sick and tired of wearing bells on my toes and making like everything's gonna be OK. I think it's pathetic that lately I'm too scared and sad to tell people the truth so I just say what they wanna hear instead. Most of all, I think the term "Happy Hour" should be banned from the English language… There's nothing happy about this hour or any other. What I know is I started drinking the moment that I found out that a girl I loved was gonna die. Every time I get to the bottom of the glass, I hope that that last drop is gonna take me the distance… A simple plan that failed utterly, which is why I'm gonna heave my tuchis off this stool, strap the bells on, and with a smile and a quip, go back into the belly of a very ugly beast and pretend like I can help. Hmm. 'Cause that's what the green guy does.

FRED:Tell me a joke.
WESLEY:Two men walk into a bar. The first man orders a scotch and soda. The second man remembers something he'd forgotten, and it doubles him over with pain. He falls to the floor shaking.... and then through the floor and into the Earth. He looks back up at the first man, but he doesn't call out to him… They're not that close.
FRED:Yeah. You always know where you are.
WESLEY:It's my particular skill.

LINDSEY:We're all gonna die.
ANGEL:Not today.
LINDSEY:Every day.

ILLYRIA:All I am is what I am. I lived 7 lives at once. I was power and the ecstasy of death. I was god to a god. NOW... I… I'M TRAPPED... ON A ROOF. JUST ONE ROOF... IN THIS TIME AND THIS PLACE, WITH AN UNSTABLE HUMAN WHO DRINKS TOO MUCH WHISKEY AND CALLED ME A SMURF.:

LINDSEY:It's here. It's been here all along. Underneath. You're just too damn stupid to see it.
ANGEL:See what?
LINDSEY:The apocalypse, man. You're soaking in it.
SPIKE:I've seen an apocalypse or two in my time. I'd know I one was under my nose.
LINDSEY:Not an apocalypse. The apocalypse. What'd you think, a gong was gonna sound? Time to jump on your horses and fight the big fight? Starting pistol went off a long time ago, boys. You're playing for the bad guys. Every day you sit behind your desk and you learn a little more how to accept the world the way it is. Well, here's the rub... heroes don't do that. Heroes don't accept the world the way it is. They fight it.


Comments (8)
All Comments | Link1 | Iguana-on-a-stickNov 16, 2012 @ 4:55am
This is an excellent review. Very insightful, lots of analysis.

I do not, of course, -agree- with you on all of it. But nonetheless. ;-)

Your analysis of Gunn's actions and how Angel is using his own experience with and view on atonement to try and motivate Gunn was especially interesting. I hadn't quite seen it that way, but I agree. Your take on the Wesley/Fred/Illyria scenes is also very well done. (On another note, I just love Wesley's "joke" in the dream. It reeks of despair.)

I don't agree that the holding-dimension Lindsey is in making any sort of comment on humanity's strive for perfection. I think it simply shows that the idyllic trappings of perfection are by no means to be confused for the real thing. Plus, as you say, the whole dream-like aspect of it all with the terrible monster hiding in the basement and the victim knowing something is coming but being unable to avoid it.

Nor do I agree that Angel now sees evil as "the only natural force." Nor even that he thinks good and evil are naturally balancing forces in the world.

Holland Manner's lecture and Angel's ensuing epiphany indeed taught him that both good and evil are inherent to humanity and that it is useless to try and destroy all evil in some grand gesture, but that every individual act of good still is relevant and important even if in the grand scheme of things it won't make a permanent difference. The famous "If nothing we do matters, all that matters is what we do." Balance, though? I don't see it.

He indeed has forgotten this lesson over the course of later seasons, mostly because Connor redirected his priorities. And this episode indeed makes him realise that by trying to change Wolfram & Hart from within he instead has become ineffectual and some of his friends have been corrupted. And indeed from this point on he will try to fight back.

(Unfortunately for most concerned, he does so by regressing to his season 2 mentality of trying to destroy the forces of evil rather than by doing good. But that's for later reviews.)

But I don't think he learns any new lessons about the nature of evil here. He learns that W&H's goal in general is the corruption of all of humanity and the entire world and that this slow process is their way of making the world end the way they want it to. (Which is entirely in keeping with Holland Manner's speech back in season 2.)
And he learns about his own limitations and how Wolfram & Hart was so much bigger than his group of misfits that it swallowed them up without changing its course. The problem is not so much with preventing evil instead of doing good, but with the compromises they made along the way with all of W&H's evil clients in order to get them to lessen their depredations. Preventing evil is fine. Becoming complicit in committing lesser evils to prevent greater... not so much. (Or that's how I read the themes of Angel season 5, anyway.)

Oh, and a final nitpick: Illyria mentions a world with -nothing but- shrimp in it. "I tired of that one quickly."

Still, like I said, a very good review that obviously made me think quite a bit. Good job.
All Comments | Link2 | buffyholicNov 17, 2012 @ 4:31am
Very good review and I have to say that when I saw this episode for the first time, I didn´t quite get how impressive and juicy it was. This episode is one that grows on you and the Illyria/Wesley scenes are just amazing.

btw, is it in this episode that Wesley and Illryia have that talk in the roof, with Illyria claiming that she can´t breathe in that room?
All Comments | Link3 | JeremyNov 18, 2012 @ 8:12pm
Thanks for commenting, folks. Glad you liked the review.

Iguana: Thanks for the heads-up about the "shrimp" error. I notified MikeJer to correct it.

I like your analysis of Angel's perceptions of evil. Obviously, we're looking at it from very different perspectives, but I see where you're coming from. However, my view is that the end of this episode ultimately serves as the transition between Holland's "evil exists in all of us" speech in "Reprise" and Angel's "evil is not meant to be beat" speech in "Power Play". Lindsey's speech in this episode calls back on the former while planting the seeds for the latter.

Buffyholic: Yes, I love that scene. It so perfectly captures Illyria's turmoil. She looks down on humans and thinks of herself as superior, yet she suffers from being trapped in their small, simplistic creations. No wonder Wesley is conflicted over her.
All Comments | Link4 | seagullNov 19, 2012 @ 11:08pm
Just wanted to add that I love that scene on the roof with Wesley and Illyria too. For me, it's one of the most haunting scenes in all of Buffy and Angel.
All Comments | Link5 | Buffylover15Nov 20, 2012 @ 12:14pm
This Is just an amazing and insightful review . I really enjoyed reading it and can't wait to read mor reviews from Jeremy .
All Comments | Link6 | JeremyNov 20, 2012 @ 4:57pm
Well, I'm working on "Damage" now, so it should hopefully be up soon. Thanks!
All Comments | Link7 | nathan.taurusJan 21, 2013 @ 10:00pm
I think Gunn went with them to save Lindsey in equal parts to pay for what he did to Fred and also forget what he did. He knew before leaving that someone had to stay behind and most probably knew that it would mean forgetting his past.

Illyria: "With an unstable human who drinks too much whiskey and called me a smurf." And then Wesley actually chuckles! He smiles for a moment.

I am sick of Angel and Spike's jackets getting stabbed and shot and yet remaining perfect. They are not magical coats.
All Comments | Link8 | BiogirlAug 23, 2013 @ 3:00pm
"Illyria knows nothing about the world, and thus finds it meaningless; Wesley knows all about it, and so feels the exact same way." That was said very beautifully Jeremy.

Interesting idea that Fred is talking about layers of her personality in the dream sequence when she says "Don't you want to see how deep I go?". I always thought she was referring to depth of grief.

Nathan - that bugged me about the coats too. Maybe Angel has a closet full of identical coats, but Spike's coat holds too much sentimental value for it to be anything but the same one.
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