Wesley Wyndam-Pryce: Joss Whedon’s True Tragic Hero
From his debut on Buffy as a stiff, silly-ass buffoon to his eventual emergence as one of the most ruthless and competent demon hunters on Angel, few if any characters in the Whedonverse have had such a fascinating or varied history
Joss Whedon has created some of the most impressive characters in television history. From the iconic Buffy Summers to the redemptive Angel to renegade Captain Mal Reynolds, his protagonists are uniquely recognized as extraordinary, fully realized creations, and are acclaimed by critics and fans alike. Whedon’s characters are often used as vehicles to explore facets of life and the human condition. His super-powered heroes, like Buffy and Angel, always serve a greater metaphor or overarching message, and while Whedon creates fantastical realms in which to enact his perceptions of the world, his characters nonetheless echo the human plight. Through these characters Whedon explores love, loss, friendship, betrayal, vengeance, redemption, empowerment, familial relations, purpose, hope, failure, triumph, and sacrifice.
While some these themes may be realized, individually, in a number of characters, one character encapsulates them all. He is neither Slayer, vampire, nor futuristic space captain, but rather an ordinary human: Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. Former watcher, rouge demon hunter, loyal ally to the good fight, and morally mellifluous hero, he is the most intensely actualized character in all of the Whedonverse, and one of the few characters whose journey is most fully explored within the confines of the series. Whedon and his team of writers, such as Tim Minear and Steven S. DeKnight, write Wesley as the Biblical Job of the Whedonverse, repeatedly pushed to the brink of darkness, only to rally time and time again behind the forces of good. Wesley, portrayed brilliantly by Alexis Denisof, undergoes the greatest transformation of any character Whedon has written, facing challenges that mirror the enduring and conquering spirit of humanity, and in doing so becomes perhaps the best developed character of not only Whedon’s work but also television as a whole.
When Wesley Wyndam-Pryce is first introduced to the Whedonverse, he is little more than a comic foil for Rupert Giles, allowing the seasoned Watcher an opportunity to appear less stuffy, even progressive, in comparison to his “by-the-book” younger, less experienced counterpart. It is soon apparent, however, that even in his early appearances on Buffy he is willing to separate himself from the group for the greater good. He does this initially, however, because he sees the world as black and white. In his second episode, “Consequences” (3.15), he not only ignores Giles’s warning that Faith is in a fragile emotional state but tries to capture her in order to force her to return to the Watcher’s Council for rehabilitation. He is, in this episode, completely uncompromising in his role as a watcher.
The subterfuge and hard choices that he displays in the episode reveal, however, even in the earliest stages of his development, a duality in his morals that will continue through the remainder of his life. Wesley is initially equal parts annoying and awkward. He commands no respect from his Slayers and continually alienates himself by failing to recognize the dynamics of the group. He makes plenty of mistakes in this regard, such as suggesting that Willow be left with the Mayor so that the villain can’t receive the box of Gavrok (crucial for his ascension as a demon) or failing to help Buffy save Angel once he is poisoned by Faith, causing Buffy to quit the Watcher’s Council.
He is stiff and uncaring because he believes that that is what the situation calls for. He represented a rational option for any person that existed outside of the clique. This was an interesting role for Wesley, because by separating the character from the group, while simultaneously making us sympathize with Buffy, he was able both to make the viewer feel closer to their favorite characters and present to them a clear perspective on how internally flawed all of them were.
Throughout Wesley’s tenure in Sunnydale, he fumbles through existence. His first romantic entanglement shows his apparent lack of experience with women, when he is totally smitten by Cordelia. While he manages to charm her, their actual chemistry ends with their first kiss, which is a mess, much like Wesley’s life. His failures are, naturally, intentional on the writers’ part; it was essential that Wesley appeared to be an insecure human, yet to find his footing in the world.
It is known that Whedon and Denisof have a unique relationship in regards to Whedon’s writing of the character. At the end of Buffy Season Three, Whedon asked Denisof whether he would like Wesley to fight courageously or wimp out. Denisof suggested that Wesley be knocked out before he could do any real good. This is most likely because Denisof understood that the character had to be the one guy whose intentions were not realized in the finale. Little did Denisof know that the future of Wesley Wyndam-Pryce’s character would almost perfectly parallel the old adage: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
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Wesley’s good intentions slowly transform him from a babbling orator of textbook nonsense to the most competent of Angel’s allies. While he faces various instances of development throughout Season One of Angel, there are a few episodes that resonate more assuredly. In “Eternity” (1.17) Angel is drugged by a gorgeous, aging TV star who wishes to become immortal. The drugs, which induce synthetic happiness, break his curse and make him go evil. When Angelus attacks Wesley and Cordelia, Wesley steps up to bat—pummeling Angel and knocking him down an elevator shaft. This is the first instance in which we see that Wesley is not afraid to stand up to or even kill Angel if it means saving other people.
A telling example of Wesley’s character is in the pair of episodes “Five by Five” (1.18) and “Sanctuary” (1.19). When Faith brutally tortures him, we see how much more vulnerable he is than Buffy and Angel. When Wesley is beaten, he bruises and when he is tortured he acts in truly human fashion. He doesn’t have the luxury of attempting to redeem Faith, because he can be killed. When Faith taunts him to the point of near death, he doesn’t try to reason with he calls her, but instead merely called her a “piece of sh--”. When he later finds Angel coddling her after she shows remorse for her actions, Wesley is shocked and horrified. He sticks up for himself with wit and candor, telling Angel that he doesn’t see the point in Faith’s redemption, and that he is deeply dishonored by Angel’s prioritizing Faith’s rehabilitation over his and Angel’s relationship. All of these instances further show Wesley’s growing confidence. He is able to set his own agenda and not merely seek the approval and praise of others.
In Season Two of Angel, Wesley becomes a trusted colleague and the voice of reason for Angel. When Angel is plagued by the reincarnated Darla, sent to drive him mad by Lilah Morgan and Lindsey McDonald of Wolfram & Hart, Wesley confronts Angel about his actions and is soon fired along with the rest of the crew. The circumstances force Wesley into the role of leader, and he does a fairly decent job. His allegiance to the good fight is obvious when he takes a bullet for Gunn and his friends. He remains strong and vigilant throughout his recuperation, a far cry from the buffoon who lay babbling in a stretcher at the end of Buffy Season Three. He even confronts Angel, rising in defiance from his wheelchair, causing his stitches to rip out, when Angel attempts to steal from the new office. Later, when Angel seeks to reconcile with the gang, Wesley resumes his role of leader and seems finally to be poised for a good position. This of course is undermined by his continued degrading interactions with his father.
Season Three of Angel shows Wesley’s further development and it is in this season that Wesley begins to embrace the shades of gray. This season sets him down a path that is arguably the greatest story arc of any Whedon show. Near the beginning of the season, in the episode “Billy” (3.6) we see Wesley develop feelings for Winifred “Fred” Burkle. Just as he realizes these feelings, a demon takes him over, and all of his insecurities are manifested.
The demon is Billy, a chauvinistic woman-hater, whose mere contact with another man causes that person to experience a hatred of women that can only be expressed in violence. When Wesley comes in contact with Billy’s blood, he becomes extremely hostile and chases Fred through The Hyperion, intending to make her pay for his feelings for her. This total transformation of his persona is no doubt in direct relation to his constant need to bottle up his feelings. He has endured lifelong verbal abuse from his father and he constantly represses his feelings for Fred; by intelligently using his mind to maneuver through difficult situations, he has much more repressed rage than Angel and Gunn. Denisof’s harrowing portrayal of Wesley in this episode marks a clear turning point for Wesley’s character, breaking him down to show that he is far too human simply to get the girl and be happy. His feelings for Fred go on to define his character later in the series, just as his insecurities caused by his demanding father go on to plague him for the rest of the series. It is only when these two humans in his life seemingly interact with him simultaneously (in Season Five) that we see Wesley conquer his feelings for both Fred and his father.
Many of Whedon’s characters have either parental issues, or a lack thereof. Wesley’s issues are perhaps most difficult to watch because they are the product of a disapproving, disappointed father. Much of the role of a male in literature is usurpation of paternal boundaries, the outshining of one’s father, and much of the satisfaction in life as a man on earth is gaining the approval of one’s parents. Whedon shows how the lack of such a relationship can hinder a man’s growth, putting a damper on his confidence and leaving him emotionally insecure. From early on, we find that Wesley’s relationship with his father is one of muddled formalities, where the son’s continual degradation leads into an adult life wherein extreme effort is placed to gain approval; so much so that Wesley in essence fights literal demons in order to secure himself a place in the annals of history as a fighter for good. Whedon creates this background to give a relatable reason for Wesley’s early incompetency. Wesley’s biased opinions of fathers and sons therefore come into play when he finds a false prophecy about Angel and Angel’s son, Connor.
“The Father will kill the Son” are the words that lead Wesley into a downward spiral. Whedon’s theme of betrayal is never more confrontational, more interpretive, than in the case of Wesley stealing Connor from Angel in an attempt to save him from death. Again, there is a good intention, but a bad outcome. The audience is made to sympathize with Wesley. He believes himself to be doing the right thing, and yet what happens is heart-wrenching. He has his throat cut and is left to die alone, as Angel Investigations frantically searches for his whereabouts. When they finally find him, Angel tries to kill him for taking his son, who has now been dragged into a hell dimension by Holtz. Wesley is alone, alienated by the very people he hoped to protect, only to find all of his actions were in vain because the prophecy was a fake.
This whole series of events is Shakespearean in scope, a term that could be used frequently in reference to Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. We see once again that he is a flawed human. He betrays Angel in hopes of saving his soul, but becomes the victim of his own betrayal. When Wesley makes a horrific mistake, there is no welcoming him back with open arms, but instead condemnation and anger. Separated from his friends, he changes. No longer opting to suppress the darkness inside, he instead uses his pain and anger to transform himself. Without a support group to lean on, he is left in the dark, and surprisingly finds purpose in his pain. Whedon shows that even the most noble of efforts can be two-sided, as between Wesley and Angel there is no real good guy or bad guy in the situation.