Wesley in Sunnydale
When Wesley was introduced to BtVS in the middle of season 3 he was a sort of anti-Giles. He was a Watcher. He was an upper-class Englishman who was uncomfortable with the Southern Californian lifestyle. He was also stuffy, pompous and overbearing. These were all traits that, to a greater or lesser degree, he shared with Giles. But what balanced all this out in Giles’ case was his undoubted courage, competence, wisdom and above all his personal commitment to his friends – especially to Buffy. If you had asked almost any viewer of the series whether the Scooby gang could have done without Giles you would have got a resounding “no”.
The whole point about Wesley was that he lacked these very qualities that made Giles so indispensable. His character therefore not only created tension and dispute within the Scooby gang, it also acted as a sort of counterpoint to Giles, emphasizing just how important he was and why. The introduction of such a character is generally a sign of weak writing. First of all, a strong character such as Giles can be appreciated for what he or she is and not because of a contrast with someone else. But secondly the conflict engendered is both predictable and flat. Because Wesley replaced Giles as Buffy’s Watcher he became the authority figure the Scooby Gang could challenge without feeling conflicted about it. Indeed the writers hit us over the head with the “Wesley is the wrong person in the wrong place and is just wrong” idea by having Giles constantly support Buffy is her rebellions against him, something that seems to me to be out of character for him.
Wesley: "Buffy... I must ask you to remember that I am your Watcher. From now on, anything you have to say about slaying you will say to me. The only thing you need discuss with Mr. Giles is overdue book fees. Understood?"
Buffy: (turns to Giles) "We'll talk."
Giles: "Of course."
Wesley: (to Giles) "You're not helping."
Giles: "No. I feel just sick about it."
Wesley was therefore the easy target. Would it not have been far more interesting to create a rift with Giles on one side of an argument and the other members of the Scooby gang on the other? That, however, is a topic for a different occasion.
It is hardly surprising therefore that Wesley quickly degenerates into a caricature. Perhaps the worst single example I can identify in this context comes in the very first episode he appears in – “Bad Girls”. When Wesley and Giles are brought before Balthazar the demon threatens them to get information about an amulet he wants. Giles, as you would expect is brave and stoical. Wesley is cowardly:
Wesley: "Now, hold on. We-we-we can deal with this rationally. We have something you want. You have something we want."
Balthazar: "Hmm... A trade. Intriguing. No. Wait. Boring. Pull off his kneecaps!"
Wesley: "Nooo….! No, no, no! The Slayer g-gave it to someone. A tall man, a friend... a friend of hers. I can tell you everything."
Giles: "Quiet, you twerp! They'll kill us both."
Wesley: "But I'd like to have my kneecaps."
Balthazar: "You will tell us everything!"
Wesley: "Yes! Sir."
But while this was extreme, it is no exaggeration to say that, at least in the first few epsiodes he appeared in, in virtually every scene in which Wesley features he is made to look bad. When we first see him he is showing off to Giles:
Wesley: "Of course, training procedures have been updated quite a bit since your day. Much greater emphasis on field work."
Wesley: "Oh, yes. Not all books and theory nowadays. I have, in fact, faced two vampires myself. Under controlled circumstances, of course."
Giles: "Well, no danger of finding those here."
Indeed, compared to what Giles and the others have actually experienced, Wesley’s boastfulness rings very hollow.
Then in “Consequences” Wesley and his team kidnap Faith from Angel who is actually trying to help her. But not only does he manage to sabotage a genuine effort to rehabilitate Faith, he can’t even bring her back to the Watchers’ Council He has to release her to prevent her from killing one of his men. So, rather than being this new modern effective Watcher as he claims he is a “by the book“ one - and incompetent to boot.
Even when he saves Cordelia from VampWillow in “Dopplegangland” it is in a highly comedic way. Wesley appears from inside a bathroom stall holding up a cross, then fumbles to reach for his bottle of holy water. It looks as though VampWillow only leaves because she can’t be bothered to kill him and on top of that he screams with fright after Cordelia touches him on the shoulder.
Indeed Cordelia provides us with one more example of his foolishness. He has a highly inappropriate crush on her and in “The Prom” when Cordelia enters in her new dress, his only response is to be is struck by a coughing fit. He has to ask Giles for permission to dance with Cordelia and provokes him to this cutting response:
“For God's sake, man, she's eighteen. And you have the emotional maturity of a blueberry scone. Just have at it, would you, and stop fluttering about.”
But above all, we are supposed to see in Wesley a lack of the same personal commitment to members of the Scooby Gang that Giles always showed. When in “Choices” the Mayor captures Willow Wesley says that while he'd like to save her, their main priority is destroying the Box of Gavrok in order to prevent the Mayor's ascension. This makes Xander ask for someone to hit Wesley, and prompts Buffy to ask if Wesley is even made of human parts.
In each and every respect we are clearly intended to look at Wesley and contrast his incompetence, cowardice, foolishness and inhumanity unfavorably with Giles and his qualities.
On the other hand, given the inauspicious way in which the character was introduced into the Wheedonverse, it is odd to record that Wesley eventually became one of the darkest, most complex (psychologically and morally) and interesting of all the supporting characters created by ME. Indeed the irony is that he became the character that perhaps “Ripper” Giles should have been but never quite was. Moreover the keys to his character – the experiences that shaped him – were all either present in plain sight or implicit in Sunnydale. First of all there was his keen sense of duty. He had obviously dedicated his life to being a Watcher, knowing the risks of what he was doing. And when he was fired as Buffy’s Watcher he volunteered to stay in Sunnydale to help her. Then there was his inexperience. He had only encountered vampires before in brief and controlled circumstances. Now he was being thrown in at the deep end – the Hellmouth. This explains why he was very much a “do things by the book” Watcher and he handles himself poorly in combat. For example in the climax of season 3 – the battle against the Mayor’s minions - he is knocked out by one blow. But above all there is his sense of insecurity. The way he tried to boost himself in he face of Giles much greater experience, his insistence on doing things his way and on being the one in charge and unwillingness to ask for help or advice were all symptomic of this. The source of that insecurity was not apparent, especially the key role that his father played in it. But it was there nonetheless,
Finally his apparent inhumanity can also be regarded as the product of a strong moral courage. He knew the stakes and he knew that preventing something like the mayor’s Ascension would involve making hard decisions. And he was quite prepared to do so. It would not have been easy as the new man in Sunnydale to face Buffy and all her friends and tell them it would be wrong to give up the Box of Gavrox to save Willow’s life. It would have been easier to give in. But that would also have been the wrong thing to do and Wesley to his credit stuck to his guns.
Season 1 Angel
These then were the core elements that could be identified in Wesley. The question, when he was introduced to Angel Investigations, was whether the writers on the new series would be more successful in using them to create a character than the writers on BtVS. Not that the Wesley we saw in “Parting Gifts” gave any hint that they could. In fact, it is probably true to say that no character can have been introduced into a series with more against him. Not only was he replacing the much-loved Doyle but he was also carrying a lot of baggage from Season 3 of BUFFY especially from “Bad Girls” where the words “arrogant, gutless fool” hardly seem adequate to describe him. And the writers did themselves no favors by overplaying his physical clumsiness in “Parting Gifts” and one or two other episodes. At one stage it looked as though we were in for a heavy dose of slapstick humor courtesy of Wesley. We had already seen a lot of this in BtVS. I have already mentioned the scene near the end of Graduation Day Part II where he is knocked out. This was a deadly serious occasion in which popular characters like Larry died. But in Wesley’s case his big moment was played for purely comic relief. So, when in “She" Angel Investigations has to rescue the female refugees from Oden Tal, Wesley is the writers' choice of the one to behaves like an idiot.
Now, slapstick humor is not a personal favorite of mine. But the real mischief here is rather more serious. ANGEL as a series is character driven or it is nothing. It is about our protagonists, who they are and who they want to be. Their characters shape their stories rather than being moulded by the needs of the plot. A caricature would be completely out of place in his environment. And while the occasional slapstick moment does no harm a character who is seen by the audience primarily as some sort of a clown will not be taken seriously
Fortunately, after “She” the emphasis began to shift towards exploring some of the elements in Wesley’s character that I have already mentioned. It is in this context that we can appreciate how Wesley’s sense of failure over what happened in Sunnydale fed his already strong feelings of insecurity. This was an intelligent use of his background in Sunnydale and a healthy sign that Wesley as a character was to be treated in a thoughtful fashion.
For example in IGYUMS not only is Wesley anxious to perform the exorcism in the face of Angel's objections but when he confronts the Ethros demon he takes Ryan's possession very personally:
Wesley: “You great – putrescent – bully! Pick on an innocent child! You think you’re impressive?”
This hints at some pretty harsh treatment by his own father. And it in turn encourages us to think of Wesley as a man trying to overcome a past in which he was forever being judged and found wanting. At times this led him to try too hard but in doing so he only had the best of intentions. This was important because we could now begin to see his behavior in Sunnydale in another light. Rather than trying to crudely retcon his actions there (especially his failed abduction of Faith) we could be more understanding of the background to them and therefore more sympathetic.
And this humanization of Wesley was reinforced when we were allowed to see another side of him altogether. In Sunnydale he had often seemed a little priggish. And in “Expecting” the judgmental attitude he showed towards Cordelia at the beginning was all of a piece with that. But when Cordelia was in real trouble, when she needed support and help rather than criticism, then Wesley came though for her. Indeed he could hardly have done any more. It was almost as if the writers were saying that his prudishness was a surface veneer. Wesley was behaving the way his father and the Watchers’ Council would have wanted him to behave. But the Wesley who was there for Cordelia when she needed him was the real Wesley.
And at the same time another great change came over Wesley. The writers quietly dropped the physical comedy. Instead they started to concentrate on his acknowledged strengths – research and knowledge of the occult. All featured heavily in “Expecting”, “She”, “the Prodigal” and IGYUMS. At the same time they began to develop other sides to the character, such as his bravery and loyalty. “The Ring” was in many ways a breakthrough episode because it showed him taking on villains in a physical confrontation and winning without Angel. This was followed up in subsequent episodes, especially “Eternity”. He was very quick to understand the nature of Angel’s difficulties over Rebecca and this intuitive understanding of Angel was also to come out in “To Shanshu in LA”. Interestingly enough this gave him a much more clearly defined role in the series than either Cordelia or Doyle had. He was not only the one who filled in the background information. He was the one who was able to editorialize, to comment from a sympathetic but objective standpoint on Angel’s situation whether that was his fear of becoming involved with another woman or his lack of place in the world. As we saw in “To Shanshu in LA”, Wesley himself didn’t have all the answers and had to struggle to work them out. But in doing so Wesley was being used to help put Angel and his struggles in a wider context. This was a less obvious but for that reason more effective approach than having a Whistler-type figure simply tell Angel and the audience what he should be doing.
Through these contributions, Wesley leaves behind the bumbling klutz of “Parting Gifts” and “She”. We now began to see a character that was competent, indeed highly useful and that is always a very important characteristic for anyone. It is almost essential in gaining respect for a character and it is hard indeed for an audience to relate to someone if they do not respect him or her in some way or other. Not that this change to Wesley happens overnight. That was one of the best ways the transition was handled. We still have adequacy issues for Wesley in, for example, IGYUMS. There his grasp exceeded his reach. He wanted desperately to help but in the end he failed. But that is realistic. That is what happens when someone is trying to prove themselves. The important point is that he did not give up and eventually he did prove himself in episodes like £the Ring" and "Eternity". And through this simple expedient of making Wesley competent most of the problems with the character vanish. But as yet we still only had hints and impressions about the character. There was no real depth to the writers’ exploration of him and what made him tick. That was something that later seasons would remedy.
Season 2: The Leader of the Gang
As we have seen in season 1 in the writers hint at difficulties Wesley had with his own father. But it was in the season 2 episode Belonging” that we see at first hand just how his father must have made him feel:
Wesley: "Yes, mum. Yes, well, put him on. Right. You too. Hello father. Happy Birthday. How are you? Good. No! It's going quite well actually. Yes. I have news. I've been put in charge of our group. Yes, as their leader. No, it's a permanent position. Well as permanent as these things... No, I certainly won't be fired. Ah. Well, yes, I was that one time, yes. Again... No, you're right. I see how... . Yes, I'd forgotten, thank you. Yes. Ah, just recently. Uhm, it's going quite well so far. No, I think this time... I hope it will be different. No. No, you're right. I see how... I just thought you'd be... I thought you'd want to know, that's all. Right. Well again, happy birthday. Okay."
It was easy to guess how Wesley felt growing up in the face of an obviously powerful and intimidating figure. And such an insight helps reinforce the idea of Wesley as someone at the mercy of long-standing and deep-rooted insecurities. These feelings must have made his feeling of failure over the events in Sunnydale all the worse. It left him at one and the same time even more eager to show he was of use but fatally short of confidence that he can be. In the course of the later half of season 1 however we saw him recover much of that confidence, starting with his undoubted research skills and latterly branching out into more physical confrontations. Here his essential characteristics of bravery and loyalty could come to the fore. But it is easy to believe that, especially in the face of an overpowering personality like Angel’s, even this new found confidence has its limits. And what we saw in season 2 therefore was a continuation of his internal struggle against the demons that had haunted him since childhood.
When Angel is in the early stages of his obsession with Darla, Wesley in always on the point of standing up to Angel to tell him when he is wrong but can never quite do it. In “Shroud of Rahmon” he is in many ways a peripheral figure but the way he acts under the influence of the shroud suggests that it is his own fear that he is ineffectual that is keeping him back from locking horns with Angel. He seems to fear that if he does so he will be exposed as being weak. Certainly his interview with the cops at the beginning of the episode does suggest a feeling of powerlessness, a feeling that he was a helpless bystander:
Wesley: "She shouldn't have been there. She didn't know. I had to warn him. He didn't know what he was getting into. None of them did. If they'd known of them wouldn't... You didn't bring it here, did you? No. No, then it'd be too late for all of us. He grabbed her hard - very hard. I'm quite good with the ladies myself, you know."
And certainly this inability or unwillingness to stand up to Angel when he knows that he is wrong is one of the key features of the collective failure of Angel Investigations in the first half of the season. But the real story of Wesley in season 2 is the gradual growth in his self confidence to the point where he realizes that he has leadership qualities. We get hints of what he was capable of in episodes like “Untouched”. There it came as no surprise that he was able to work out what Bethany’s problem was. But of much more significance was that he didn’t go and explain things to someone else but took the demonstration of her psychological frailty into her own hands.
The episode which most explicitly dealt with Wesley’s attempts to overcome his own frailties was, if course, “Guise will be Guise.” That was an episode that dealt with perception and reality and the way that the one can affect the other. Wesley started out in that episode with a low opinion of himself but found the experience of pretending to be Angel an empowering one. He began to assert himself more naturally, even beginning to assume a little of Angel’s own mantle of authority. And at the same time he was able to prove to himself that he was after all a capable fighter. We can I think in this episode see foreshadowed the real developments for Wesley in the aftermath of “Reunion”.
If I were to use one word to describe the state of mind Wesley was in at the mid point of the season, it would be “confusion”, caught between the feeling that he should be doing something more (and perhaps the first glimmering of the sense that he can) and his fears that he would fail if he tried. Hence the squabbling and bickering between himself, Cordelia and Gunn in “Reunion” over who was to blame for their predicament. This is the characteristic reaction of the directionless, unwilling to take responsibility for their actions and preferring to dwell on the past rather than face the future. Moreover, Wesley in particular had hero worshipped Angel and felt let down. He had always been an auxiliary for Angel in his fight. Relying upon his leader to provide direction and purpose. To the extent that he had recovered any sense of confidence in himself and his abilities it was (as indeed he more or less admitted in “Sanctuary”) as a result of Angel’s influence in his life:
“In point of fact I've confronted more evil - slayed more demons - in short, done more good while working with Angel than I ever did while in the Council's employ."
Now he had lost that vicarious sense of direction, he went to Caritas, to try to discover one for himself. Here the message from The Powers That Be was that the good fight goes on with or without Angel and if needs be then he, Cordelia and Gunn had to carry that fight on themselves. They were put in a position of choosing whether to abandon someone in need or put their own lives on the line even without Angel. Their choice says something about them. And from this point onwards we see yet further progression for the ex-watcher. Up until now he has always had the safety net of Angel there for them. He was ready, willing and able to come to the aid of those who needed it at any occasion and in the face of any threat. Taking part in the good fight in such circumstances is one thing. But now he has to do it without any back up at all. That must indeed have been scary for someone with his lack of self-confidence. And yet that is the mission that he accepts.
And while all three former members of Angel Investigations accept the challenge, it is Wesley who takes on an unmistakable leadership role. In particular he is the one who stakes out the mission of the team without Angel:
Wesley: “We’re not waiting for him to call. The man fired us. We’re on our own now. A separate unit, fighting the good fight.”
He becomes the centerpiece of the new Agency as shown by the way in which he takes the lead in solving the Agatha Christie style mystery in “Happy Anniversary”. And when Angel does get back into the fold the relationship between them is unrecognizable. In “Epiphany” scolds his former leader him for not paying attention to Cordelia. At the beginning of “Disharmony” we see Wesley in mid-lecture like a teacher and errant pupil who needs correcting for his own sake. And in the same spirit Wesley provides Angel with a clearly subordinate workspace and sets him the menial task of making coffee. And very noticeable now is the way in which Wesley takes charge in that episode. Both in the park when looking for the blue robed vampires and also in planning the entry of the team into the Vampire Cult’s headquarters, Wesley directs operations telling everyone else (including Angel) where to go. And Harmony calls him “Boss”. Indeed in his general management of the firm he exudes an air of competence and even more telling of confidence.
The interesting thing here is however that this new dynamic des not remain static. It is a characteristic of everyone who suffers from low self-esteem that even when things are going well, when they seem to be doing a good job, they cannot believe that it will last. It is only a matter of time before they mess up again. And perhaps deep down Wesley still believes this as, in a crisis, when Cordelia disappears in “Belonging” he refuses do anything without a plan, exhibits a tendency to indecision and shows poor judgement. Worst of all he starts deferring to Angel again. But just as in season 1 he found his salvation, in part at least, in his books here too when faced with this crisis of confidence his intellect was his salvation. When a solution was needed to the problem of getting Cordelia back, everyone - including Angel – turned to him. Moreover, when the situation in Pylea got tense and Gunn in particular was threatening to get out of control it was Wesley who calmed him down. Here we return to an earlier trait that Wesley exhibited in Sunnydale – the voice of calm, unemotional reason. He was the person who is most likely to understand the realities of a situation and not to lose his head or act simply out of a misplaced sense of pride or (as we later discovered, when he took control of the attack on the castle) out of emotions like pity. The Wesley we see here is far from a complete leader. He isn’t particularly practical. He and Gunn get lost because he forgets that there are two suns in the Pylean sky. And even more importantly he is still not very good at understanding what makes people tick. He completely misreads the likely reaction of the rebels to news that he is personal friends with the princess. But what made the difference in Wesley case, what transformed him from well intentioned failure to mastermind of success was that he was able to develop a plan to attack the Covenant. He was able to put all that study (which naturally would have included a lot of military history) to useful effect. And then he was able to put that plan into action because it was the right thing to do and he would not deviate from that no matter what the cost. It was this that very naturally and very simply made him a leader. He was a very different individual from the person we saw in “Shroud of Rahmon” and yet the transformation was entirely believable. The changes we saw were each natural responses to the circumstances he was faced with. It was a classic example not of unheralded strengths emerging from nowhere but rather of the established and understood strengths of Wesley overcoming his weaknesses. And that is both highly intelligent and interesting characterization. In Wesley we see a struggle between conflicting human traits which we recognize in ourselves and others. We see those traits used to tell a story that is believable. We can understand where his sense of self-confidence came from and we can understand why it in the end prevailed And because of this it is a struggle that engages out sympathy.
Season 3: Disappointments and Reactions
By season 3 it had become very hard to associate Wesley with the bumbling idiot we first saw on ANGEL in “Parting Gifts”. And here I am not referring only or even mainly to his demonstrable competence and even self-confidence. No, I am referring more to the tone of the character, which by now had become increasingly dark. In the latter part of season2, as we have seen, he began to assert himself more naturally, even beginning to assume a little of Angel’s own mantle of authority. And at the same time he was able to prove to himself that he was after all a capable fighter. But there remains a problem with Wesley – he does not relate to people at all well. This may seem an odd thing to say when he clearly bonded so well with Gunn in the aftermath of “Reunion”. And he was perhaps the most sympathetic of all of Angel’s former colleagues in the aftermath of “Epiphany” in spite of the fact that he nearly died in “The Thin Dead Line”. But remember his plan to attack the Castle of the Council of Trombli in “No Place Like Plrtz Glrb”. The remarkable thing is that in the implementation of the plan he is not only decisive, he is ruthlessly so:
Gunn: “I'm only gonna say this once. The guys you send to create the diversions here and here... are going to die.”
Wesley: “Yes they are. You try not to get anybody killed, you wind up getting everybody killed. Get ready to move out.”
This not only shows extraordinary cold bloodedness but great self-confidence in his judgment about the plan. The cold-bloodedness is an inherent part of the self-possessed rationality that Wesley has shown from very early on and indeed echoes the very intense exchanges he had with Buffy over the fate of Willow and Angel in respectively “Choices” and “Graduation Day 1” on BtVS.
But it is also here that we see the darker side of Wesley, a side that is if anything made more dangerous by his newly found self-confidence because now there is nothing to restrain any excesses committed in the name of “the bigger picture”. There is an even greater likelihood that he will be inclined to overlook the people involved. And we get a very good example of this in “That Old gang of Mine.” Admittedly there Gunn does lie to his friends but Wesley’s reaction is very harsh:
"If you ever withhold information or attempt to subvert me again, I will fire you. - I can't have any one member of the team compromising the safety of the group, no matter who it is. If you do it again you will be dismissed, bag and baggage, out of a job onto the streets."
As I have already said, in the aftermath of Angel’s rejection of them in “Reunion” Gunn and Wesley became very close. But here there is no sign of any human sympathy for what Gunn went through, the conflict of loyalty that he endured or any recognition that ultimately he made the right choice by himself. There was instead a sense of self-righteous indignation.
And we get an even clearer glimpse of the emotions boiling beneath the surface when Billy Blim affects him in “Billy”. Even though we must accept that Wesley had no control over what he did to Fred, there is nothing to suggest that this wasn’t actually Wesley. Indeed may of the things he says to Fred are for him very character specific. For example when he warns her about being evasive and lying to him there are echoes of the warning he gave to Gunn. And it is not hard to see in his words here an echo of the way that his father treated him. When he complains about her provocative outfits and the way that she brushes up against him he seems to be reflecting his own attraction to her. And the sense that she is humiliating him by saying things behind his back is no doubt due to his own sense of insecurity. Indeed the way he taunts her about being cleverer than she is also hints at an insecurity about his intelligence. All that seems to have happened is that the normal social inhibitions repressing his impulses were removed. But something else will have the same effect – pressure. Pressure will find out anyone’s psychological weaknesses; and it was a very intense pressure indeed that Wesley found himself under when he believed that he had discovered that Angel was going to kill his own son.
Even after the kidnapping of the child had gone horribly wrong, he had his throat cut and Holtz had disappeared with Connor into Quortoth, Wesley retained no doubt but that he had acted for the best:
Wesley: “I was dying. I knew it laying in that dirty field, life pouring out of my throat. Do you know why I fought to stay alive?
Gunn: “Wes, I don't have time…”
Wesley: “I needed to live to see my friends again. To explain to the people I trusted... and loved... my side of what happened.”
Gunn: “We know what…”
Wesley: “You don't know anything.”
The fact that he sees himself as acting responsibly while Fred, for example, when faced with exactly the same facts regards him as having betrayed them all is important. When people faced with exactly the same information reach entirely different conclusions like this we must conclude that their reactions reflect their own personal bias or prejudices more than the objective circumstances of a case. I am reminded that at the Oracle of Delphi there was an inscription
The Oracle was famous for making ambiguous pronouncements in response to requests. These had to be interpreted by those who made the request in order to guide their actions. The classic example was King Midas who asked what would happen if he attacked the Persians. The reply was that he would destroy a great empire. He assumed that the victim would be the Persians when in fact it was his own Kingdom. If Midas had been less greedy and less ambitious he might have asked himself whether the Oracle was referring to Persian Empire or his own. The inscription was therefore a warning that when we try to understand something we have to be careful to be aware of the extent to which our own needs and wants might influence our views of the evidence.
That is what happened with Wesley and the fact that the Moa was Delphic in its prophecy is I think very significant. Wesley was clever. But he was never given due credit for that and as a result was both insecure and determined to prove himself. This itself is a very dangerous combination: believing you have all the answers but that you have always to prove it to others because they will never give you your due. Then there was the fact that he was never at his best in dealing with people. He had no real empathy for them, no understanding of what made them tick. So again you have someone who feels confident in trying to understand obscure texts but who has no real feel for how people behave. Then there is the wounded pride – yet one more rejection in a life full of them. We had been aware for some time – not least by Wesley’s own reaction in “Billy”- that Wesley was attracted to Fred. And clearly by “Waiting in the Wings” he seemed to have convinced himself that he had a chance with her. But then he finds out that Fred only has eyes for Gunn. Wesley’s reaction to his disappointment is, on the face of it, rather controlled. At no stage does he give in to the same rather juvenile bouts of overt jealousy Angel was prone to over Groo in “Couplet”. But the disappointment is just as real. And whereas Angel is finally able to find some peace with his disappointment, Wesley remained unreconciled. This leads to some fraught confrontations in the workplace as we see yet again the fact that it isn’t possible to separate the personal from the work-related. For someone like Wesley who, as we have seen, had difficulty in getting close to other people anyway it would be the most natural thing in the world for him to resent the way he was treated and because he could not open himself up to talk through these feelings they would fester. And this had a devastating effect when he was faced with a dilemma about what to do over the threat to Connor.
He is haunted by his fears of Angel, in particular of Angel’s past and the beast that lurks inside him. Of course Angel would not react well to the idea that he was a threat to his own son. But because he did genuinely love Connor it was entirely possible, indeed probable, that he would have put those feelings aside to protect the child. But whether because of his own negative experience of fatherhood or because his recent experiences had brought his feelings of distrust to the surface, Wesley obviously felt that he could not trust Angel. Gunn and Fred could have reacted in a number of different ways to his news. But again because of his own recent disappointments he probably convinced himself that they would disbelieve him or tell Angel or both. After all in “Loyalty” we have already seen that he was quite prepared to believe the worst of Gunn and Fred. When Fred in all innocence approaches Wesley about dating Aubrey, we can tell a lot from his reaction:
Fred: "And working so hard, staring at all those books. And as a book-starer myself I know how crazy making that can be. You should get out of here for a while. Go for a walk. You deserve it. I was thinking: maybe you could call Aubrey. She is real attractive and her paperwork says she's single. She probably needs a friend."
Wesley: "Fred, we're not here to date. We're here to do a job. Now why don't you go to the pier and do your job."
No, as far as Wesley was concerned, he had the answer to save both Connor and Angel and telling anyone else would only endanger his chances of success. His assessment of the way in which they would react was determined by his own psychology – a combination of his own intellectual vanity, his insecurity and distrust of others – and not an objective assessment of the facts. And this was why in spite of all evidence to the contrary he insisted that he was right and that his friends were wrong in holding him responsible for what went wrong.
The next question he faced was whether, given the pain of separation from and anger at his friends, he would embrace the despair and hopelessness. This is what Wolfram and Hart wanted. Lilah tried to tempt him into darkness. She mentioned the example of Judas as he appeared in Dante’s “Inferno”. By killing himself Judas rejected God’s salvation and ended up in Hell without hope. And the end of the season saw Wesley engaged in just this sort of internal struggle. Does he similarly abandon hope of his own salvation or does he try to keep on fighting to good fight? Lilah herself is a test for him. He knows he should have nothing to do with her. He admits as much again and again. When she asks if if he minds if she joins him he replies:
“On many levels and with great intensity”.
Yet he keeps on seeing her and they even end up sleeping together. And she tests him in other ways too. She offers him a chance to watch while Justine dies. By giving him enough prior warning of the attack, she gave him the opportunity to save her from it. But in order to do so he would have to actively intervene on her behalf. Lilah knew that Wesley's anger at Justine would make it very hard for him to do so. She was therefore making it as hard as possible for him to do the right thing, thus bringing him ever closer to the Wolfram and Hart school of ethics.
As we have seen when face with difficult or ambiguous situations Wesley like the rest of us takes decisions on mainly subjective grounds. And as we have also seen Wesley’s own psychological baggage means that the decisions he takes will be uncertain. That is why Lilah keeps on pressing him about how he will react in difficult situations like the trap for Justine or indeed what he should do about Connor:
"So, if the kid's the next Stalin, do you kill him? You can't! He's Angel's son. But on the other hand, if you just watch while he up and kills Angel or somebody else - that cure girl from Texas, say? - Wow, times like this? Glad I don't have a conscience."
In spite of all of this he does try to maintain his sense of decency and integrity intact. As he says to Lilah:
“You don’t know me very well do you.”
But, as we shall see, season 4 is essentially the story of the struggle within Wesley not this time between his insecurities and his sense of purpose. Rather it is a story of the struggle between this sense of decency and his darker impulses.
Season 4:Winning is All
In the end Lilah never put Wesley to the ultimate test over Justine and let her escape from the trap set for her. But as it turns out Wesley was capable of rising above a need to revenge himself on her. Of course in “Deep Down” he clearly meted out some fairly rough “justice” to Justine herself by keeping her chained and gagged in his closet. And it’s not hard to guess how he persuaded her to betray Holtz and reveal the secret of his death and Connor’s revenge on Angel. But Wesley was not acting out of a spirit of revenge. Certainly, as he reminded Justine, he had every reason to hate her for the way she betrayed him and slit his throat. But as things turned out all he wanted to release Angel. And while he was willing to do whatever it took to do so, once his mission was accomplished he had no further interest in Justine. Equally he seems to have had no great desire to help Angel out of any sense of friendship:
Wesley: "I have no idea where Angel is, Lilah, or what happened to him. And I really couldn't care."
Lilah: "Wow. That was cold. I think we're finally making progress. Come on. Doesn't it bother you just a little bit? The not knowing?"
Wesley: "That part of my life is dead. Doesn't concern me now."
But he made very considerable efforts to rescue him nonetheless. Moreover he allowed a hungry vampire to feed from him and that was a very considerable risk to take for anyone. His reasons for doing so were far from personal. He was not interested in getting back into Angel Investigations or any other sort of “happy ending”. His reasons are summed up in his challenge to Justine:
"You can continue to be a slave, Justine or you can live your life. Your choice."
Wesley accepted what had happened between him and Angel. It was wrong and it had tragic consequences all round. But he wasn’t going to spend his life a slave to those events. He rescued Angel because it was the right thing to do and when it was done then so was he with Angel and the rest of his former friends. And herein lies the fascination with the character.
In seasons 2 and 3 we had become only too well aware of the two sides to Wesley’s nature. We saw him become the loyal, courageous, intelligent and decisive individual he had the potential to be. But all of this has been checked by the insecurities, distrust and emotional repression that remained inside him. Increasingly now the writers focused on the question of whether his decency and morality would ultimately guide his path or would it be the darker side of his character? The events in “Deep Down” in many ways showed the best in him. Late in season 4 we were to see the darker side come to the fore, triggered by his pursuit of Fred, regardless of her wishes. This led him first of all to cynically use her desire for revenge to ingratiate himself with her. Here we see a Wesley who had an agenda of his own, a need to bolster his own self-confidence and self-esteem by winning a prized possession away from Gunn. And perhaps even more significant were the lengths to which he was prepared to go in order to achieve these goals. These lengths included in “Supersymmetry” being the willing participant in murder – albeit the murder of an evil man. Wesley knew that encouraging Fred along the path of revenge would have serious consequences for her but he encouraged her actions essentially to make himself look good in her eyes, hoping to use this as a basis for establishing a relationship with her. And it was this ruthlessness in Wesley that we again see in “Release”.
At one point in the episode Wesley reminds Faith that her past actions were destructive:
“I remember what you did to me, Faith. The broken glass, the shallow cuts so I would remain conscious.”
Of course he isn’t saying this just to be malicious. He is using her past to challenge Faith. He is suggesting that it is in that past that we find the real Faith:
“Because you're sick. You've always been sick. It goes right down to the roots rotting your soul. That's why your friends turned on you in Sunnydale, why the Watchers' Council tried to kill you. No one trusts you, Faith. You're a rabid dog who should've been put down years ago! “
And when in response to this, she pushes him violently against a fence he is pleased:
“See, that wasn't so hard, was it? It's what you'll need to beat him.”
Later he elaborates his thinking by saying:
“Angelus is an animal. The only way to defeat him is to be just as vicious as he is.”
Wesley is only concerned about winning and he believes that, in order to defeat Angelus Faith has to be prepared to do whatever it takes for the purpose. This reflects his own approach. When Angelus seizes Wesley and threatens to break his neck in Faith attacks him, Wesley encourages her to do it even if it cost him his life. Later he takes a shotgun to hunt the vampire, saying he doesn’t want to kill him (a shotgun isn’t going to do that anyway):
“but if we get another chance, I want slow him down long enough to tranq him.”
Fred’s incredulous reply says it all:
“By blowing his legs off?”
And most telling of all is Wesley’s treatment of the drug addict. He stabs her in the shoulder and twists the knife to get information out of her. Of course he is equally unsparing of himself. When Angelus was face to face with Faith and holding Wesley helpless in his grasp, he tells her:
“Take your shot, and save the world. Come on. What're you waiting for? It's all about choices, Faith. The ones we make, and the ones we don't. Oh, and the consequences. Those are always fun.”
Wesley is far from being immoral and is certainly not weak or cowardly. He believes in certain things and he is prepared to lay himself on the lines as well as others to achieve what he believes in. But at the same time he is driven by his own desire for self-fulfillment.
In this context let me refer to “Spin the Bottle” which as the season progressed served as a constant reference point in our understanding of the demons driving each of our characters. There we saw the surface differences between AdultWesley and TeenWesley. The former was confident, capable and controlled. The latter was insecure, incompetent and rash. But by looking at TeenWesley and what drives him we became increasingly aware that AdultWesley’s behavior is simply his way of coping with exactly the same insecurities that plagued his younger self. TeenWesley was someone who wanted to do the right thing but pretended to knowledge and skills he didn’t have because he was afraid that people did not value him. In other words this was very much the same Wesley we saw in Sunnydale. And it is this same insecurity in AdultWesley that Angelus homes in on in the interview between then in “Souless”:
Wesley: “You must hate it—that Angel fights evil.”
Angelus: “Eats you up inside, doesn't it. Seeing all those idiots flock around him, calling him a champion. Anyone ever call you a champion?”
Wesley: “I do my part.”
Angelus: “Right. Like letting Lilah suck Lorne's brain. Or, here's an oldie but a goodie: Faith. Good job being her watcher. She turned out to be a peach.”
Wesley: “And you managed to get your soul back, not once, but twice, saving the world several times in the process. Nobody's perfect.”
Angelus: “Then there's kidnapping the fruit of my loins. Smooth.”
Wesley: “He survived.”
Angelus: “I guess you just can't understand that special bond between dad and son, given that your own father's ashamed of you…”
For everyone, Angel is the Champion and Wesley the loyal sidekick. And Wesley’s father especially seemed to have held him in something approaching contempt. And indeed it was his desire to prove he was more than just a sidekick and to prove his father wrong that led Wesley to embrace so strongly the idea of bringing Angelus back. At the end of “Apocalypse Nowish” he was the one who most readily leapt to the conclusion that Angelus was the key to unlocking the mystery of the Beast’s agenda. Not only that but he promptly went and fetched Wo-Pang, a dark mystic, to the Hyperion for the purpose of extracting Angel’s soul. As the latter remarked somewhat incredulously:
“You brought a dark mystic here without talking to me?”
But in spite of Angel’s evident unhappiness Wesley persists in his plan:
Angel : “We're not bringing Angelus.”
Wesley: “You don't have a choice.”
Angel: “Actually I do. That was it. You want to hear it again? Not with the bringing.
Of course if asked why he would simply say that this was the best way of dealing with the menace of the Beast.
But the fact remains that by bringing back Angelus Wesley ensured that he rather than Angel resumed leadership of the team. In addition he would be the obvious candidate to wring the necessary information from Angelus. And by discharging these important functions well, he could at last receive the credit he felt was due to him.
That is not to say that Wesley was acting out of vainglorious motives. No, the problem was more complex than that. Always there was this voice within Wesley that continued to nag away at him about his failings. As Angel pointed out, he did ultimately fail with Faith, far from saving Connor he was the cause of his banishment and Lilah did trick him. His own internal doubts even began to manifest themselves over his decision to bring back Angelus. Under the surface confidence about his ability to control the vampire we see at the start of “Awakening”, Wesley seems full of uncertainties.
“Watch the monitor when I go down. Pay attention to everything he does, everything he says. He'll try to confuse you, to play on your emotions so you drop your guard. If he succeeds—even for an instant—we're all dead. I spent my life training for this, and I'm still not ready. He's smarter than I am, and a great deal more focused. He'll exploit everything Angel knows about me and go for the jugular.”
It is because these doubts exist that Wesley feels impelled to show his qualities, to ensure Angelus returns, to go ahead with his interrogation and significantly to do so alone. The truth is that this is typical of the way that Wesley deals with his insecurities: it is yet another example of his willingness to make rash judgments such as kidnapping Connor and his refusal to accept that he could be wrong about that.
Just as in season 3 here too we see his lack of empathy with people. Because of that (in an interesting echo of Angel in season 2) he lost sight of the real purpose of his mission – to help others And it is because of this that he has difficulty distinguishing between those actions which are driven by genuine desire to do good for others and those which are driven by what he needs. It is also because of this that he is prepared to sacrifice others in order to achieve his goals and prove himself right.
It is very instructive that we see the best of Wesley when his emotions are engaged with someone else and he does act out of genuine concern or affection for another. Most telling of all in this context was the way in which Wesley reacted to Lilah. Of course we know what she wanted out of the relationship. She wanted him to allow his anger and bitterness to dictate the rest of his life and that way to tempt him into Wolfram and Hart’s clutches. But even though she is a self-possessed and self-centered materialist who would do whatever she needed to achieve her goals, Wesley does seem to have developed a genuine relationship with her. This clash between his understanding of the evil she does and his attraction to her has made him positively schizophrenic towards her. Again we are conscious of how emotionally immature Wesley can be, his genuine difficulty in understanding what makes people tick and how to really connect with them. He never, for example, trusted Lilah. But at the same time he appeared genuinely hurt by her use of him in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” He hated what she stood for but never made any attempt to lay down certain ground rules, telling Lilah that if she wanted the relationship to survive she had to change. And these mixed up feelings are all too clearly evident by the mind games that they play with one another. This was never going to be a stable state of affairs and in "Habeas Corpses" we see Wesley try to end it, saying to her:
“There is a line, Lilah. Black and white, good and evil."
But Lilah for her part all too accurately summed up Wesley’s constant struggle:
”Funny thing about black and white - you mix it together and you get gray. And it doesn't matter how much white you try and put back in, you're never gonna get anything but gray.”
What we see again and again in “Habeas Corpses” is the darker impulses of human nature thwarting good intentions. In particular we see in Angel Investigations a team which cannot focus on the task at hand – be that fighting the Beast or rescuing Connor. Instead its members seem to be worrying about their own injured feelings or intent on picking fights and settling scores with one another. But while Wesley plays his full part in this, when it comes to Lilah he is unselfish in risking his own life to save her.
And when she is eventually killed, it hurts. But the reason why it hurts says a good deal about Wesley too. In many ways he has confused feelings about her. He clearly felt something very strong for her as witnessed by the fact even after she was dead, he continued to keep a certain 10 dollar bill as a token of what had passed between them. Yet he continued to view her as a servant of evil and he never trusted her. It was in fact his lack of trust that Lilah exploited to get to Lorne in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” And ultimately it was the fact that Fred represented a degree of moral clarity that Lilah could not that led him to finally choose against her. Yet ironically for Wesley, choosing Fred was the cynical move. There is no evidence he had the same depth of feeling for Fred that he had for Lilah. In fact the writers hint a number of times that he simply regarded Fred as is a prized object for the possession of which he was engaged in a competition with Gunn. Winning that competition was all about making Wesley feel better about himself. Hence his willingness to see her sacrifice her own morality in “Supersymmetry”. Hence the different ways in which he and Gunn react to Angelus' threat to Fred in “Soulless”. Gunn’s reaction is highly emotional. Wesley’s is cool, calm and collected; almost looking with detachment at the danger Fred was in. And then there is the scene in the same episode when he forcibly kisses her. She is trying to tell him that there is nothing wrong with the way he feels about her but he says:
“Yes there is.”
as he moves in almost to take control of the situation and certainly showing scant respect for her wishes. On the other hand for all his distrust of Lilah, for all his conviction that she was the enemy he genuinely wanted to help her. In “Salvage” her apparition described his feelings for her like this.
“Wesley, you know that's not what I'm talking about. You couldn't save me from me…..For all your supposed darkness, edge of the razor mystique, there was always a small part of you that thought you could pull me back from the brink of my evil, evil ways. Help me find redemption.”
And of course in “Home” he tried his best to free her from her standard perpetuity clause. In that attempt he was of course unsuccessful. But that is rather beside the point. That was that Wesley was thinking of her, not himself and he was trying to help her in a genuinely moral way. That, I think, does reaffirm that even in the moral morass that he has dug himself into, Wesley is still essentially a good man. But at the same time without that connection with another to remind him why he was in “the good fight” he is someone who, while convincing himself he is acting for the best, is capable of actions which ruthlessly disregard other people’s interests and lives. Of course, even in this because he will not spare himself there is something about this that compels respect. At the same time because we understand that the motive for him to act so callously lies in his need to prove himself in the face of his own insecurities he is also capable of evoking feelings of sympathy and understanding even from those who feel his actions are wrong. And finally he is in fact capable of redeeming his flaws if he can only find that human connection.
Ironically, however, it was the fact that he did in fact eventually find a human connection with Fred that doomed him.
Season 5: Lessons Not Learned
Season 5 in one sense hit the reset button. Because of the deal Angel made with Wolfram and Hart everyone forgot that he had a son. No Connor meant no kidnapping; no kidnapping meant no break between Wesley and the others. But this wasn’t simply a convenient plot device to ensure that the team stayed together. It was something which had a direct consequences for Wesley and who he was.
Because Wesley is denied knowledge of his past actions and their consequences he is denied even the opportunity of learning from past mistakes. In “Origin” there is a debate between Wesley and Illyria about memory:
Illyria: “You are a summation of recollections. Each change is simply a point of experience.”
Wesley: “We are more than just memories.”
Illyria: “And yet Fred changed the moment her memory did.”
Wesley: “Fred's memories were changed?”
Illyria: “In places.”
Wesley: “Can you see what they were before?”
Illyria: “No. They're gone. Does this change your view of Fred? Is she still the person you thought she was?”
Wesley: “No. None of us are.”
Wesley doesn’t deny the importance of memory. Indeed, in his last comment, he implicitly accepts that our memories condition us in a fundamental way. He has just seen the contract in which Angel agreed to become CEO of Wolfram and Hart. He has also just realized that, in consideration for that agreement, the Senior Partners arranged for his memory, as well as that of Gunn, Fred and Lorne, to be altered. That is why none of them are the persons they thought they were. This confirms to Wesley that he cannot trust Angel. Indeed his behavior here is eerily reminiscent of his behavior in “Loyalty” and “Sleep Tight”. He has some information but it is far from complete and may be misleading. He knows that Angel made an agreement with the Senior Partners. He suspects that Cyrus Vail was involved and he knows what that means in the context of a Wolfram and Hart operation:
“Yeah. Looks like he was one of their go-to warlocks when it came to the magical mojo. Specialized in memory restructuring, mind control, temporal shifts.”
He infers that memories were altered at the instigation of the evil law firm. But on the basis of that he jumped to baseless conclusions:
Angel: “He's my son, Wesley. Connor's my son.”
Wesley: “Did you trade her? Did you trade Fred for your son?”
Wesley: “Everything that's happened since we took over Wolfram & Hart, everything that's happened to…her. Did you know? Was Fred the price?”
Here Wesley is repeating his own mistakes in ignorance of them. When the truth emerges, Wesley is devastated:
lllyria: “You betrayed Angel. You stole his son. He tried to kill you.
Illyria: “Are these the memories you needed back? Does this now make you Wesley?”
Wesley: “At least I know what happened.”
Illyria: “Do you? There are two sets of memories. Those that happened and those that are fabricated. It’s hard to tell which is which.”
Wesley: “Try to push reality out of your mind. Focus on the other memories. They were created for a reason.”
Illyria: “To hide from the truth?”
Wesley: “To endure it.”
The interesting point here is that he accepts that he did betray Angel by kidnapping Connor. As we all remember, even after his plans went horribly wrong in “Sleep Tight” Wesley still regarded his actions as justified and the reactions of everyone else as themselves a form of betrayal. Not here. Here he seems to have concluded from his willingness to make the same mistake twice that the fault really did lie in the darkness within him. Indeed, it is very noticeable that such was his remorse that he appears to have dropped a perfectly well-founded allegation against Angel. It was certainly false that Angel made a deliberate trade-off in which Fred was sacrificed for Connor’s sake. But the bargain that he struck with the Senior Partners did indeed lead to her death and so, albeit indirectly, he did bear a degree of responsibility for it. The fact that Wesley didn’t seize upon this to justify himself shows a degree of self-understanding that was previously absent. But his reaction gives no hope that he has fundamentally changed. He had before him two sets of memories – the fantasy one and the real one. He knew the difference between them but he chose to dwell on the fantasy ones because he could not cope with the reality about himself otherwise. Wesley’s choice showed that he could not change.
In “Lineage” we see what Roger, his father, was really like. We see in him an ego that had to be fed, even if that meant sacrificing his own son to do so. And his own lack of trust in Wesley was the result of his own insecurities, the need to prove that he was right and that Wesley was wrong. What is so striking about Wesley is the way in which his own behavior and the reasons for it mirror the actions and attitudes of his own father. In season 3, as we have seen, Wesley’s own insecurities had been reawakened by his disappointment over Fred and that led to a corresponding distrust of all the other members of Angel Investigations. In season 5 in episodes like “Life of the Party” we also saw the way that he resented Fred and Knox working together. Just how close they had become is shown by the fact that Knox is the one who turns up to escort Fred home at the end of the episode. I suspect very strongly that despite his protestations of having a good reason for doing so, it was a more personal motive that led Wesley to involve Fred in the undercover operation at the start of Lineage. He just wanted to work with her because of his feelings for her. And this is what led him to beat himself up when things went wrong. Wesley’s lineage is indeed all to evident.
He wants to do the right thing. But in making difficult judgment calls in darkened times all too often he is thwarted by his own demons. The combination of his insecurities and the lack of trust that goes with them (the need to prove he was right and that others were wrong) is bad enough. But when allied to a cold-blooded ruthlessness it's no wonder Eve says to Angel:
“Are you worried about the next time Wesley betrays you trying to do the right thing"?
In “Lineage” despite the fact that Angel just chewed him out he remains very loyal to him and is quite willing to sacrifice his own life for him. He may have been bluffing the cyborg when he threatened to blow up the building but it is clear he was in deadly earnest when confronting Roger over the Staff of Devosynn:
Roger: “I will kill you for it. Please believe me.”
Wesley: “Oh, I believe you. I was raised by you, after all. But I drop this, the crystal shatters, and Angel is restored. So I reckon whether I live or die, your plan has failed.”
But just as his willingness to sacrifice himself for the higher cause in “Sleep Tight” has echoes here, so too does his ruthlessness in the service of that cause. In order to escape with the child Wesley hit Lorne as hard as he could with the heaviest object that came to hand. He may not have had the specific intent to kill, but at the very least he was reckless about whether he did or not. In the cold blooded ruthlessness of his torture of the cyborg (the calmness with which he exploited that already tortured creature was just chilling) we see a reflection of his attack on Lorne. And the latter is in turn also a reflection of Roger's own attack on his son. And let us not forget that while that attack wasn't especially deadly, killing Wesley was, as Roger later admitted, a line he too was prepared to cross.
And this thought brings us to the climax of the episode – Wesley’s own cold blooded execution of Roger. There had been a stand-off between the two of them over Angel. Wesley had gained the upper hand but the final result was still in the balance. At that point Wesley was prepared to die for his Angel but he was not prepared to kill his father for him. He had in fact so arranged things that he did not need to do so. Then Roger threatened Fred. His purpose in doing so was to put pressure on Wesley. That would have complicated matters but did not of itself so upset the equilibrium that it needed immediate action. But that’s what it prompted. Almost as a reflex Wesley shot his father nine times, not to wound, not to prevent his escape but quite deliberately to kill. Nor was this I think an expression of anger or hatred for past hurt. Wesley was as cool and calm as ever. In threatening Fred, Roger had crossed a line. And for Wesley the line that he had respected to date, the line that had marked Roger out as his father and therefore someone to be treated differently to a cyborg, that line too disappeared. He shot him as he would have shot a cyborg. This was not to help Angel and not to foil the cyborg plan. This was the result of Wesley’s own passions and desires. And it bears repeating here but this was Wesley’s reaction to Roger for just threatening Fred. He didn’t know how serious the threat was, whether Fred may have been able to save herself (as she insisted once already that she could do) or how he could have responded without killing his father. He couldn’t even say he was protecting Fred because killing Roger may not have been necessary. That is what is chilling about Wesley’s actions here.
It is, however, important to understand that Wesley’s darkness was always purposeful. In “Lineage” A conversation between Angel and Eve discusses him in the following terms:
Angel: “He can be careless.”
Eve: “Focuses too much on the big picture? Overlooks the people involved?”
Angel: “Something like that.”
Eve: “Willing to risk anything... or anyone... for the greater good.
Faced from an early age with a powerful and intimidating father for whom nothing he ever did was quite right, he overcompensated. He became anxious to convince others of his knowledge or skills but often overreached himself and failed, thus re-enforcing his own insecurities. We could see this in his behavior in Sunnydale and the disaster that he experienced there obviously left a mark on him. As he grew older and more experienced he became more and more willing to embrace the idea that any means were acceptable to achieve his goals; he found it increasingly difficult to tell the difference between what served his own personal goals and what was objectively for the good of all. And in wrestle g with these issues he increasingly trusted himself and distrusted others. But even with all his demons, Wesley’s life still had a purpose, it meant something.
Then Fred died.
As I have tried to argue, the idea in season 5 that what Wesley felt for Fred was genuine love is problematic. Even in Lineage the cold blooded way he shot Roger is reminiscent to the passionless way he rescued Fred from Angelus in “Soulless”. So, to an extent the flowering of their relationship in the second half of the season does raise issues of continuity. But we need not doubt that Wesley was certainly capable of genuine love. So, while it would certainly be better of the writers had taken a bit of time and trouble to show us how and why this change in Wesley had developed, it is probably enough at this stage to say that in “Hole in the World” we can recognize the Wesley we see there has a very different attitude to Fred than he had in, for example, “Souless”. For the present Gunn says it all. Not only does he feel able to joke with Wesley about Fred having feelings for Gunn, but he can actually implicitly criticize Wesley’s reaction to his original romance with her. When Wesley asks if he is alright with the situation he responds:
“Last year, you wouldn't ask me that question. The man becomes civilized. It's cool. Our thing's long done, and I know how you feel about her.”
And indeed, during the remaining course of the episode we mainly see the how much he does love Fred, even to the point of staying with her to the bitter end, an action which took as much courage and determination as anything Angel or Spike showed in this episode.
But when she died it was as if the sense of purpose was drained from Wesley and all that was left was the darkness. The episode following Fred’s death is called “Shells”. The title refers to the casing, something empty left behind when the thing it housed leaves. When in that episode Illyria saw her temple destroyed and her army turned to dust something within her died:
“It can't be. It's gone. My world is gone.”
That is why Wesley says:
“Now you know how I feel.”
For Wesley nothing has meaning anymore. Here he begins by equally irrationally attacking Illyria. She may very well be dangerous but it was by no means clear to what extent Fred’s death was by her choice – as opposed to Knox’s. More importantly, however, a rational Wesley could not have believed that swinging an axe at her was going to do any good at all. This was blind, purposeless hate. Indeed the same forces were at work here as were at work when Wesley stabbed Gunn and shot Knox. There are some who would argue that Knox especially got what he deserved. But that is where the comparison between Wesley and Angel is especially important. When he learned of the stabbing Angel asked Wesley:
“Is that supposed to make it all right?”
And when Wesley shot Knox Angel had just finished telling Illyria how important each human life was – even Knox’s. As with the attack on Illyria, revenge serves no purpose and revenge on a human is directly contrary to everything that Angel Investigations were meant to stand for. Even Wesley admits as much to Illyria:
Illyria: “You killed the Qwa'ha Xahn in defiance of your leader.”
Wesley: “He murdered the woman I love.”
Illyria: “And that made it just.”
Wesley: “No. It wasn't just.”
There is therefore something within Wesley that still understands right and wrong. Perhaps it was this that stopped him actually killing Gunn. But for Wesley such rational considerations now have no meaning. Intellectually Wesley knows Fred is gone. But he cannot make himself accept it. We get the best idea of his state of mind in the last scene between himself and Illyria. She starts by confessing her own state of emptiness:
“There's so much I don't understand. I've become overwhelmed. I'm unsure of my place.”
Then she asks for his help in finding a way to walk in this world. What follows is important, though, because of Wesley’s reaction:
Illyria: “If I abide, you will help me.”
Illyria: “Because I look like her?”
“Illyria” We cling to what is gone. Is there anything in this life but grief?
Wesley: “There's love. There's hope...for some. There's hope that you'll find something worthy... that your life will lead you to some joy... that after everything... you can still be surprised.”
At one level Wesley was describing his own mental state before Fred’s death. Then he did have love and hope. Now when he says that these things exist for some he implies for someone else. But why then agree to help Illyria. Why, in particular, do so because she looks like Fred? The only explanation is that he is clinging on to an irrational hope that somehow Illyria can still be Fred, just because of the physical resemblance. And it is in this that he seeks his sole remaining purpose in an otherwise endless sea of grief. But the point is that this is not a purpose at all. It is an illusion. If Wesley had decided that the best thing he could do for the world was to teach Illyria how to co-exist with humans, that would have been an important purpose. Instead he was just trying to be with her so that he could maintain an illusory hope – a hope without any real substance. And in clinging on to this he shows his own hollowness.
And the story of the rest of the season for Wesley was the story of a losing battle against his need to cling onto an illusion. Illyria in Fred’s form is a constant reminder to Wesley of what he has lost. In fact she is such a strong reminder that he cannot dissociate Illyria from Fred. He knows that is wrong. But he cannot help himself. That is why Illyria as Fred sickens him and that is why, for example, in “The Girl in Question” he tells her so sharply never to appear as Fred again. That form taunts him with his own inability to move on. We see the sorrow, anger and bitterness that is within him and the only thing he can do in the face of this is to close himself off from the reminder of what he once loved. This is indeed a man for whom the words “move on” have no meaning and it is destroying him.
The second half of season 5 is essentially about Angel finding his own purpose and taking control of his own destiny. As we have seen throughout Angel’s story the dominant handicap under which he has labored is his sense that he was not in control of what happened to him. In “Not fade Away” he took control into his own hands. This is something that Wesley now cannot do. He knows the truth about Illyria:
"The first lesson a watcher learns is to separate truth from illusion. Because in the world of magics, it's the hardest thing to do. The truth is that Fred is gone. To pretend anything else would be a lie. And since I don't actually intend to die tonight, I won't accept a lie. "
But there is another truth here too. Wesley cannot make himself accept the reality of the situation. He cannot break free of the lie. He cannot find the same control of his destiny that Angel did. That is why, when he must decide how to spend his last day on earth, he does so with the creature who looks like Fred. Nothing else means anything to him and it is a lie. And this is perhaps why Wesley had to fail in his mission and die before the final confrontation. For him personally the attack on the Black Thorn meant nothing. Perhaps he went through with it out of a sense of duty. Perhaps he felt in his heart that it was a suicide mission and that this was, for him, the best way out. Regardless, like Angel and Gunn Wesley’s time at Wolfram and Hart had resulted in him losing himself, in his case because of what had happened to Fred. But unlike Angel and Gunn he had not, indeed he could not, find his sense of self again. Nothing in his life had any real meaning. All that was left was the lie. That lie was what he finally allowed Illyria to comfort him with as he lay dying. But that lie, as he himself understood only too well, could not give a meaning to his life. He had already faded away. Wesley’s greatest tragedy therefore was that he had no part to play in the final battle.
Wesley is a complex, perhaps even unique, individual. He is possessed of many fine qualities. He is brave, clever, determined and highly competent. He is above all committed to doing the right thing; to helping others. But at the same time he has glaring weaknesses. He relates very badly to people, which leads him mainly to see “the big picture” in any given set of circumstances and to ignore the more personal concerns of others. But chief among his flaws is his sense of insecurity, an insecurity that gives him such a powerful need to prove himself to others that it leads him to see everyone and everything through the prism of that need. This in turn leads him to behave in a way that often defeats the very purpose he is trying to serve – helping others. For example it was for his own personal reasons that he convinced himself that the situation in season 4 needed the return of Angelus and all that did was to make matters worse.
Not the least of the strengths of the writing here is the way in which we see him slowly learn to deal with his flaws while at the same time having the reasons for them gradually disclosed. In season 1 we see the bumbling clumsiness in Wesley slowly give way to competence and even more. And in season 2 we see his inability or unwillingness to stand up to Angel replaced by the confident assumption of leadership. But even as he grew as a character before our eyes there were hints about why he had he difficulties in the first place; hints that we could glean from the conversation with the demon in IGYUMS and with his father in “Becoming” among other things.
In a very classic way, therefore, it is the underlying tension within the character of Wesley himself that drives his actions. And it is a dynamic tension with the balance between the different sides of his character constantly shifting. At first his insecurities are more obvious - hence the Wesley in Sunnydale and his early appearances in ANGEL. Later we see developing as a character who is more self-confident and competent only for his problems to reassert themselves, as they did in seasons 3 and 4, in a slightly different way. The competence and decisiveness is not lost. Rather his insecurities manifest themselves in his need to prove himself right and in his suspicions of others. But above all, whether we are talking about his kidnapping of Connor, the selfish way in which he behaves in season 4 or the way he self-destructs in season 5 it is his character that determines his actions rather than the needs of the plot. And that is characteristic of first class writing.
But there is more to admire in this than the way in which Wesley’s characterization drives plot rather than the reverse. That characterization is both coherent and truthful. We can easily understand why Wesley grew up with such feelings of insecurity and why those feelings led him to behave in the way he did. We can readily understand why they are not susceptible to easy solution. His insecurities were serious and the result of a traumatic childhood. And in his reaction to these we can readily see and understand a person’s fundamental need to feel comfortable with himself and to fulfil his deepest needs as a person. These problems are neither trivial nor superficial. We can’t say to him – come on man shake yourself out of this, as I certainly felt like saying to Angel for most of the first part of season 4.
Of course at the same time his better qualities are highly admirable. He is determined to help others. He wants desperately to achieve great things. And he possesses all the abilities necessary for the purpose. The struggle between these finer qualities and his flaws is deadly serious, and not just for Wesley. It has a readily understood purpose – determining whether all of Wesley’s undoubted abilities will be used for constructive or destructive - including self-destructive – purposes. We never know whether he is going to succeed or not and we are always conscious of the fact that his failure would have devastating consequences both for himself and others. We can perhaps see this best from his crisis points. These were real and agonizing - Connor’s kidnapping, his flirtation with Lilah and Wolfram and Hart and his decision to try to regain Fred in season 4 no matter what the cost. In all of these he threatened to split apart Angel Investigations, materially assist Wolfram and Hart (or Jasmine) and as a result cause harm to countless others.
That is not to say that the writers’ treatment of Wesley was flawless. One misstep was his joining Wolfram and Hart in season 5. On the face of it he was interested in their proposal because it offered an opportunity to help Lilah. But in this he failed; so why not reject them outright as he had done with Lilah’s overtures to him in season 3? There is an interesting comparison between him and Sirk in “Home”. Both are English, both ex-watchers and both skilled researchers. Lilah says:
“I think you'll find you two have a lot in common.”
But the similarities are superficial. Sirk is obviously simply out to do the best he can for himself. Despite his protestations about lines becoming blurry, Wesley doesn’t doubt but that he did cross the line, especially when he stole the codex from the Council and handed it over to Wolfram and Hart. From this fact alone we see they have nothing important in common. Why then would Wesley follow on the same path? It lacks conviction, unlike Angel’s decision to save Connor.
Also I have some difficulty with Wesley’s collapse in purpose and morale after Fred’s death. I simply do not believe that Fred was as central to Wesley’s sense of himself or his purpose as that requires. Thoughout seasons 3 and 4 his attitude to her seems to have been driven more by his own bruised ego than anything else. And, as I have tried to show, this is entirely consistent with his whole psychological makeup. To now believe that central to Wesley’s life was love for Fred rather than a need to show he was a strong and respected fighter in the cause of right is not only an entirely new idea but is actually contrary to everything we have learned about him.
But these problems cannot detract from the overall success of the character. He is an individual we can be deeply ambivalent towards. We can sympathize with his over his childhood, the scars that it left on him or his sometimes heroic efforts to cope with them. At other times his selfish drive to attain his goals regardless of the cost, his own lack of human sympathy and distrust of others alienates us. But one thing we can say with certainty – the character of Wesley always engages our attention.