Thursday, March 7, 2013

Character Study: Wesley Wyndam-Price

Over the past couple of months I've been watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer all the way through, and re-watching its spinoff, Angel. This re-introduced me to one of my favorite characters, Wesley Wyndam-Price. Wesley has a wonderful arc across his time on both shows, not only developing and evolving but somehow also managing to stay true to himself.

Significant spoilers for both shows are coming. You've been warned.

We first meet Wesley, played by Alexis Denisof, in season three of Buffy. After Rupert Giles is deposed as Watcher (read: mentor) to slayers Buffy and Faith, Wesley is sent by the Watcher's Council as replacement. In those early days he serves a foil for Giles. Where Giles is often stuffy and forced into the roll of restraint and experience, Wesley is new, but very arrogant. As head boy he exhibits every preppy, academic nancy boy trait to the maximum. Giles is often reserved and shy, Wesley thrusts himself in to the forefront, only to gloriously fail out of clumsiness or inexperience. In Wesley we are introduced to a smart, but insecure fellow who is constantly trying to prove himself.

Over the course of his arc, Wesley will make many mistakes, but almost always from trying to do the right thing. First we see him struggling to assert his position of superiority over Buffy and Faith, neither whom have any notion of falling in line with anyone, let alone a nerdy pretty boy from across the pond. Wesley comes into the situation seeing that Giles has given Buffy to much leeway, and he's not wrong in that assessment, but over compensates. Buffy ignores him in favor of her old teacher, and Faith goes inevitably rouge. Faced with losing control of a super powered teenager, Wesley conspires with the Watcher's Council to abduct and reform Faith. This goes less than smoothly.

We next find Wesley in the Buffy spin-off Angel. After his numerous failures in Sunnydale, Wesley was fired from the Watcher's Council and drifted to L.A. to become a 'rouge demon hunter.' He wears a leather coat, carries weapons and tries again and again to be a bad ass, only to fail miserably. After yet more miss steps he joins Angel in his detective agency, serving as resident occult expert and the brains of the early group.

This is where most shows would have left him. In the office with his books and manuscripts, serving as a nice vehicle for exposition when the plot demanded it. But the writers of Angel decided to push the character farther, putting him in situation after situation just to see how he'd act. We soon see his loyalties pitted against each other when the Watcher's Council offers Wesley full reinstatement if he will only betray Angel and allow them to recover the wayward slayer, Faith. Wesley refuses, turning his back on his past and stepping out into a new future, one about helping people rather the accolades of the Council or his father.

Soon after we see Wesley sliding into a position of leadership at Angel investigations. His old clumsy ways recede as his natural leadership abilities and overall competence takes center stage. His countless scrapes with demons and Watcher's training mold him into a capable fighter. Friends with their own issues help him break out of his shell and become more confident. We see the character truly growing.

Again, this is where many shows would have left him. A valid arc of growth, from the bumbling British rich boy, arrogant and inexperienced, to a true instrument in the fight against evil. Then comes one of Wesley's most defining moments. When a prophecy declares that Angel will kill his son, Wesley does everything he can to disprove and discredit it, but sees time and again that it must be true. With no other options he enlists that aid of Angel's enemy, Holtz, not to betray or hurt Angel, but to protect his son. Once more Wesley's best intentions end in tragedy. Holtz (not surprisingly) betrays Wesley, has his lackey slit Wesley's throat and runs off with the kid.

Wesley is expelled from the group of heroes. After recovering from his injuries, Wesley strikes out on his own. He becomes a true Demon Hunter instead of merely fancying himself one. He even puts a loose crew together, often taking care of jobs that Angel's group missed, and working with them, albeit reluctantly, several times. It serves as a particularly interesting conflict because both Wesley and his former friends at Angel Investigations have equal reason to feel betrayed and wronged by the other party.

During this period we also see Wesley's relationship develop with the evil lawyer, Lilah. What starts out as an affair of self loathing and comfort develops into genuine affection as Wesley's pure heart can't help but grow attached. It is in this moment that we realize how far Wesley's come. From insecure comedic relief, to a tortured and troubled soul. One that has been darkened by multiple conflicts and twisted by his constant attempts at doing the right thing turning to ash in his hands. This isn't helped when Lilah is fed upon by Angel, now once again Angelus (long story,) and Wesley is forced to chop of her head to prevent her from potentially becoming a vampire.

Eventually Wesley rejoins Angel and his group, albeit as a completely different person. The boyish naivete is long gone, replaced by a collapsible sword wielding badass with little light to hold onto after chopping off his girlfriend's head and his true love, Fred, still dating Gunn.

Time goes on and in the final season of Angel we see the team taking over the evil law firm, Wolfram & Hart. Wesley fights against the places corruption along with the rest of the team, but almost seems more comfortable there, maybe because of his flirtations with the dark side, or his relationship with Lilah. The idea of boyhood, insecure Wesley is permanently put to rest when Wesley's Father comes to visit. Wesley is reverted to his clumsy, weak self and unable to adequately preform in front of his Father, even accidentally activating a bomb (or so he thinks.) His father betrays him, leading to one of my favorite scenes in the entirety of the show.

Wesley and his Father have a stand off on the roof. They argue and vent built up rage at one another. Wesley's Father demands his son to hand over a powerful artifact that could be used to mind control Angel, and Wesley refuses. In a desperate move, his Father attempts to take Fred, Wesley's long love, hostage. He never gets the chance. The second he moves toward her Wesley opens fire, gunning down his Father without a second thought. It turns out to actually be a robot, but Wesley had no idea of that when he shot him. (Again, long story.) This cements Wesley's rise as a truly remarkable individual and forever severs his ties with his past.

At the end of the show, Wesley and Fred finally admit their love for one another, only for Fred to get a serious infection and quite literally be destroyed from the inside out. She dies a very painful death in Wesley's arms, only for a powerful demon to walk around in her body. (And you thought the robot thing was weird.) Wesley is forced to not only see a constant reminder of his one true love, but also to deal with her killer. How does he react, what does he do? This man who had been through so much, who had his throat slit and several of his dear friends die? The man who started out as a pompous book worm, turned want-to-be demon hunter, turned actual demon hunter?

He helps her. He helps the demon after she has lost everything, after her kingdom has been turned to dust. He helps her find her way in a world that confuses and frightens her. Does he do this out of some desire to see Fred again? No. He is told point blank that her soul is gone. And when the demon adopts Fred's appearance, Wesley challenges her for the first time, warning her to never do it again.

So why? Why does he help the twisted evil thing that burned the love of his life from the inside out?

Because it's the right thing to do.

This a quote from the episode "Lineage."

Wesley: "The perception is that I'm weak. That's why they went for me."

Angel: "They're wrong. You do what you have to do to protect the people around you. To do what is right, no matter the cost. You know, I never really understood that. You're the guy who makes all the hard decisions, even if you have to make 'em alone."

Doing what's right, no matter the cost. Alone.

That is Wesley Wyndam-Price. From Head Boy, to Watcher, to Rouge Demon Hunter.

He was a character who fought the good fight, when he had nothing to show for it, when it cost him everything. Various jobs, his friends, even the love of his life. For no other reason, than because it was right.

I hope you enjoyed this article.

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Characters, Dialogue and a House of Cards

Today we're going to talk about a new show on Netflix called House of Cards. The political drama starring Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and Kate Mara was originally a book and then a British miniseries. Now its America's turn, and if you haven't already watched it, do so. But don't worry, this won't contain any spoilers (I haven't finished the show myself) Instead I wanted to break the show down and look at what makes it so good in the first place.

For those not in the know I'll quickly sum up the show by saying it's a political drama about a man who gets betrayed and decides to get his revenge. I resonantly described it a friend as Game of Thrones without the fantasy if Lex Luthor was the main character. That doesn't quite do it justice, but it conveys the notion that this is a show about bad people, clawing and biting at each other to get ahead. One of the things I love most about the show is that they''re all so damn good at it.

The show's writing is outstanding, the directing and cinematography superb and the acting top notch throughout. But the thing that really ties this show together isn't the wonderful performances or the whip smart dialogue, with every line polished to near perfection, it's the characters. Every character in House of Cards is a multifaceted bag of strengths and weaknesses constantly churning against each other, struggling within each of the characters for dominance. This not only adds tension in their own lives but serves as constant reminder of how fragile their high stakes game truly is.

Take the main character for instance, Francis Underwood. Francis helped the President get elected on a promise that he would be the next Secretary of State, and as the show demonstrates again and again, promises in the world of Washington politics is everything. People are only as good as their word. How else could you sort through all the flattery and lies? However when the day comes, the White House goes with someone else, completely breaking its promise. To further tear open the wound they even steal Underwood's chosen slogan without giving him an ounce of credit.

In hindsight, not a very smart thing to do to a man like Francis Underwood. A man who seems to live only for power and the games that bring it. Francis spends his time building connections, forging tools and setting up favors to be called upon in an hour of need. His whole life is geared toward achieving ever more power for no reason other than he likes it, even going so far as to use his wife as simply another extension of himself, another tool to be used.

This is Francis' greatest strength and in many ways, his most crippling weakness. Though he's accustomed to pulling off miracles, all his mistakes can be attributed in one way or another to his own hubris. Over extending, pushing allies to far until they inevitably become enemies. Even his beloved wife, so accustomed to the game, chafes under his constant needs and the blow back from his adversaries.

Speaking of his wife, what a fascinating character she is. Claire Underwood, played by the stunning Robin Wright is a mess of tangled contradictions. She runs a growing charity to help people, yet has no problem with discarding her workers, crushing their lives when they serve no more use to her. In the early episodes she takes a trusted friend, one she's worked with for years and makes her fire half the staff. After a day of dealing with crying, angry and betrayed people, what is this loyal worker's reward? She too is fired. Claire, like her husband constantly manipulates those around her to get more, seeming to consider them only as resources to be mined until the vein is tapped. However, unlike Francis, who seems to come more alive with every battle, who thrives on the smell of blood in the air, Claire seems to be slowly dragged down by it, to question the choices she's made.

The relationship between her and her husband is also far from simple. They genuinely seem to love and care for each other. What at first appears to be a marriage of mutual benefit, a cold calculation of strengths gained gives way to show a marriage of two people who not only care for one another, but know every facet of the other person. They understand one another's strengths and weaknesses completely, a total knowing of the other person that serves to only cement their bond. Early in the show one gets the impression that either maybe cheating on the other, and this turns out to be true. But instead of exposing a twisted web of lies and deceit, we see that this too is known. After spending the night with another woman, Francis returns home and tells his wife exactly who it was with. Claire's only concern is how much they, as a couple, gain from the arrangement. Just another tool, another connection in a web of lies and intrigue.

The list goes on. Kate Mara's character, Zoe Barns, fights to be a prominent, respected journalist but gets her big scoops by her affair with Francis. But like so many other things in this show, it goes beyond that. Francis and Zoe seem to love their cat and mouse game more than the work benefits they gain from one another, and Zoe herself is less the naive younger woman being taken advantage of, and more a serious player in her own right. One that could pose a serious threat to Francis.

There's Doug Stamper, played by Michael Kelly. He acts as Francis' right hand man setting up meetings and taking care of the dirty jobs that Francis can't be tied to. In the beginning I got the impression that he was there for many of the same reasons as Francis, for his own success. But later on we see several other sides to him, sides that show this is not a cartoon henchmen blindly serving the interest of his master, but someone with his own twisted world view of right and wrong.

Peter Russo, played by Corey Stoll. A weak man plagued by self doubt, weakness and addiction. A fly that the gets caught up in Francis' wicked web. First smacked around, used and discarded, then forced to break a promise to his home town. The promise not only crushes his supporters back home, it destroys Peter himself. Then when it seems Peter will spiral out of control, Francis swoops back in to build him up. Not because he cares, but because Peter could prove useful down the road.

House of Cards is delicious mix of evil, competence, and boardroom drama that tickles all the right parts of the brain. The characters, so well built and fleshed out serve to remind us that life is more than simple good and evil, and that one's hands are never clean. All this work into the characters is constantly reinforced by the brilliant lines of dialogue and beautiful directing, many parts of a complicated whole that brings the entire enterprise to live.

Much like the characters themselves.

You can watch House of Cards on Netflix.

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