Character Analysis: Wesley Wyndam-Pryce
While famous for irreverent comedy, blending a given demon of the week with quips and a tight cast, the transition from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Angel lent itself to surprising depth. In shows that continue on for a while, logically there is the opportunity for side characters in one setting to gain prominence, and all too reasonable to see those who deal with the disgusting and the darksome to become harder and uncompromising.
A mixture of backstage influences and the writing certainly did this for Angel, and I would argue it’s most intriguing character of all things is not even the protagonist. Spotting the bumbling Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, the uptight, clearly replaceable substitute for Giles become an example of how storytelling can rob a character of humour, prissiness, and add to their agency as they teeter on new peaks of helplessness and nihilism gives a potent lesson on the human ability to empathise, and a detailed sight into the warm bedrock of ‘fighting the good fight’.
I find his development in the change of his humour, appearance, the employment of his intellect and especially his perspective to be one of the greatest changes I’ve seen in television. It’s honestly compatible to a benchmark of the medium like Walter White, and this was well over a decade years before. His humour works well in Buffy and Angel (I still chuckle to myself that these cheesy shows going back were surprisingly good), well the man becomes some monster hunter, a torturer with some House style psychological warfare.
Befitting such a character, I like that unlike a lot else with the sudden gainax ending it feels totally complete. After so much despair, actually fulfilling his death wish and staring into the face of a monster wearing the face of the woman he loves, knowing intellectually it’s a lie and tucking that fact away before dying eyes wide open? That’s an incredible moment, tragic and sad to a degree I honestly did not anticipate at all. It leads into another tear jerker moment, in that Wesley dead causes Illirya to flatly say that his death causes her to grieve for him and desire more violence. In a show about monsters and those who face them, Wesley is a very memorable example of a well-developed character enjoyed on the screen as a wit, as someone to laugh at and with, and in time to be impressed with his cynicism and brutal pragmatism.
His unwillingness to trust, sense of pride and recklessness are in many ways arc themes and tragic flaws of the entire Angel cast, much of the drama revolving around vices, addictions and obsessions they cannot control. The constant onset of demonic hordes is not unlike the alcoholism, the mistrust that bites at Wesley as he stares far too deeply and far too long. I’ll say this for the writers, they got a lot of mileage out of what spawned the phrase “buffy-speak”, and the decisions that turned a joke character Giles replacement during season 3 into arguably a more developed man than his foil is artistically admirable.
Alexis Denisof’s portrayal of Wesley steadily, slowly adapts, and then warps into Angel’s Los Angeles in much the same way I imagine a character in Masquerade: Bloodlines does, or something like Alice: Madness Returns. Darksome surrealistic settings, mixed with the edges of malefic creatures has a certain deadening to the system, and a fascinating. When exploring the depths of the aether, it follows that systems of efficiency, not so much a belief system, but tools and resolve enable one to layer themselves with mental fortitude. An excellent example of this would be Richard Matheson’s novel I am Legend, and there is certainly interest and discussion to be gained when we contemplate the possibility of how repeated battle with the psyche changes us, to the point of terrifying the enemy.
Where modernity and postmodernity asks ‘is this worth it’, the heroic and most positive depictions of the anti or superhero find the greater struggle to certainly be worth it, although there is an implicit cost to perpetual battle (unless one is the Doomguy from the popular DOOM series). Though he has his moments, like Anthony Stewart Head Mr Denisof does not have the physique of a warlord or battler, but his manner changes, and quite impressively. It reminds me of the biggest example in both these series, the teenage girl/horror heroine archetype. I would argue the greatest horror heroine is Heather Mason, herself an excellent showcase of how it appears a psychological inevitability, that enough confrontation leads to more reflexive actions.
While moral choices remain perfectly viable, in a story where conflict and violence is constant, ever more effective and self-possessed engagements are the most visible depictions of said characters fighting them. Wesley becomes more and more adept at the harsh action or option, but pays more as increasingly insidious demons think less of breaking him in half, than of stealing the body and soul of the woman he came to fall in love with. They consistently strike at the heart, a more precious refuge considering that his humour and positive sarcasm are already sacrificed long before the final season, and the comfort of friendship also is a perceived as a luxury he cannot afford.
Change is the defining characteristic of Wesley as a character, change in voice due to scarring, change in combat ability as he turns from a bespeckled hapless academic archetype into an almost amusing parody duel wielding pistols and carrying hatchets. His character comes not from backstory or being the same character observed in different puzzle situations, but observing and becoming more engaged with hi new approaches to life and watching the natural result of a man fitting the mould of a responsibility he will not abandon. It’s cathartic and rewarding to see someone fight for good. But there’s a definite quality, admiration and sympathy to be found in someone suffering loss of their joviality, their affability and naivety to follow the warrior’s path of right, fighting brutish and conniving evils that hurt him body and soul, especially given he shows a bit of an inferiority complex to begin with.
Ultimately, Wesley’s tale is that of the entertaining transition from innocence and experience turning on its head. The abandonment of affability while retaining spirit, and the desire to manipulate and be lied to in order to alleviate further pain.
By J.W.H Hobbs.