Monday, June 28, 2010

Oh, Joss Whedon

WARNING: If you have not yet seen Season 5 of Angel, and care about such things and don't want any spoilers, you should likely skip this blog post.

Oh, Joss Whedon. The other morning I woke up very, very early and couldn't fall back to sleep, so I got up, made coffee and ate breakfast. While doing so, I turned on the TV and an episode of Angel was on TNT, so I watched that. It was from Season 5 and I'd seen it once before.

Okay. This is the episode where Fred dies. She was always a character that I found to be tolerable at best and a complete annoyance at worst. I don't know if Joss Whedon fell in love with his own creation, or if he was in love with Amy Acker, the actress who played her, but he really did over-play his hand. When she was introduced, all the men on the show pretty much fell for her, so there was an absurd amount of blather regarding the wonderfulness and adorableness of Fred. What is interesting is that Joss Whedon's dramatic sensibilities are strong enough that he made Cordelia, the other female character, simultaneously irritated, baffled and impatient of her friends' fascination.

Back to the episode I saw this week. I don't have much feeling for Fred in a general kind of way, but there was one moment of this episode that made me burst into tears. I mean, I was sobbing. And it happened both times I watched the episode. Even when I knew what was coming. And then when I fast forwarded through the DVD to draw the screen cap, it happened again.

Fred is lying in her bed essentially dying. Wesley, who has loved her for years is with her, looking for a cure or a solution in a book that is really a conduit for calling up every book that has ever existed. Alexis Denisof (who is married in real life to Alyson Hannigan who played Willow on Buffy) is a wonderful actor, and I don't understand why he doesn't work more. The point comes where she is clearly gone, and there isn't going to be anything he can do. Denisof's work here is really lovely. The character he's playing is desperately trying to keep it together as he watches the love of his life die in front of him. She finally asks of the mystical book he has with him: "Can that be any book in the world?" Then we cut to Wesley reading this:
"She was such a little girl that one did not expect to see such a look on her small face. It would have been an old look for a child of twelve, and Sara Crewe was only seven. The fact was, however, that she was always dreaming and thinking odd things and could not herself remember any time when she had not been thinking things about grown-up people and the world they belonged to. She felt as if she had lived for a long, long time."
This is what sent me over the edge. The above quote is from Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess. I'm not sure when I first read it, but I couldn't have been older than six or seven, as I don't remember a time when I didn't know it, and I think I was around the same age as Sara when the story started. To say it was my favorite book is an understatement. For a while there, it was the only book.

Burnett's The Secret Garden gets most of the attention, which I think is a shame, as A Little Princess has so many things going for it. In particular, something I realized embarrassingly recently, is that as much as anything it's about the creation of a writer. It's one of the two great Victorian novels by female novelists about the creation of a female writer. The other being, of course, Little Women, that wonderful and problematic book by that child of Transcendentalism, Louisa May Alcott.

Jo gave up the writing life to marry that German professor and become a teacher, which to so many women and girls was an extremely heartbreaking turn of events. We don't follow Sara Crewe into adulthood, so we don't know if she continued to tell stories, but I choose to believe she did.
"She did not care very much for other little girls, but if she had plenty of books she could console herself. She liked books more than anything else, and was, in fact, always inventing stories of beautiful things and telling them to herself. Sometimes she had told them to her father, and he liked them as much as she did."
How on earth could the girl described above not become a writer?

I think Joss Whedon is the only man I've ever heard of who has read A Little Princess. Girls are viewed as embarrassing creatures in our culture, so boys mostly avoid books that are too closely associated with them. Fred wasn't a writer, but she was a physicist, a hard scientist who was much more comfortable with books than with people, so her attraction to this book makes sense. It's about story-telling as an instrument of healing and a conduit to understanding the world. Joss Whedon likes morality plays and putting his characters in impossible situations full of difficult choices. He also has written a wonderful and vast array of female characters of distinctly different personalities which is, to say the least, rare. I think this scene (or really, it was just one cut) affected me so immediately and unthinkingly because I am so unused to being presented in our culture with things I actually care about.

Oh, Joss Whedon.


That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Fred's death is sort of terrible, in that it's both not well set up and too long. It's sort of amazing that Whedon, who usually has such a flawless sense of how to get you off-guard for a character death (like Tara) could muck it up so badly here. I suspect it had to do with the timing of their cancellation.

Caviglia said...

I agree. In the last half of that season, everything just seemed ridiculously compressed and poorly paced.