Wesley Wyndam-Pryce: Joss Whedon’s True Tragic Hero

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.

In Season Four, Wesley fully embraces his inner-badass.

In Season Four, Wesley fully embraces his inner-badass. He is no longer even vaguely reminiscent of the Wesley first seen in Sunnydale. He has traded his glasses for contacts, a clean shave for a perennial five o’clock shadow, and his genuine if unrequited love for Fred for a sexual “relationship” with Lilah. Wesley’s relationship with Lilah goes to demonstrate his complete turn in character. Where he was completely loyal to Angel before, he now goes genuinely rogue and fights the good fight on his own. There is no room for regrets with the new Wesley. He runs his own crew, and is now in complete control.

The only problem is that he has sacrificed his morals. Where his ambiguity assisted him when he was still on the good side of the fence, his actions have left him bitter and alone, and much darker than before. Wesley spends his time with Lilah because he needs to be in control, he hates that the man he was before wasn’t good enough for them, so he goes out to prove he doesn’t need Angel or their rules. Lilah will do things for him that Fred never would, namely entice his sexual desires. He doesn’t have to feel for her initially, because he has everything that he could want out of her. He doesn’t have to risk all of the feelings that Fred blew off, the friendship Gunn took for granted, or the loyalty that Angel couldn’t fully understand.

Wesley eventually leaves Lilah to face his feelings for Fred and salvage his relationship with Angel Investigations. He understands that in order truly to be happy in life it isn’t enough being fulfilled in mind and body, he needs the fulfillment of the heart. It is then that his darkness starts to fade and we come to see a more confident, yet shaded, character. Wesley faces his inner turmoil.

Wesley is nonetheless saddened by Lilah’s death, primarily because he knows that their relationship was one of passion and lust that could never become one of love. He hates himself for what happened to Lilah because he wishes she could have made it out alive, could have done better for herself. He even believes that their interactions might have been the purest thing in her life, however wrong they were. He moves on because he must, because as always, he will go for the greater good. While Whedon certainly explored the torrential depths of sexual, lust driven relationships (Buffy and Spike for example) in other aspects, Wesley and Lilah resonated because both of their characters were, again, human. In a show rife with the supernatural, the moments that hit closest to home are the ones that most closely resemble daily life. Wesley compromised his inner morals for satisfaction, and it isn’t good enough.

The awesome transformation that we see in Season Four shows how Wesley is now capable of seeking exactly what he wants, no matter the cost, which means he is ready to fight for Fred. Fred, like Wesley’s father, is one of the key relationships that define his character. It is Wesley’s love for Fred that initially causes him to reintegrate himself into the group, and her obvious feelings for him that lead him finally to kiss her. When this leads to an all out brawl with Gunn, Wesley actually takes the upper hand, landing the last shot. Naturally, in full Whedon fashion, Fred is put off by Wesley’s resorting to violence, despite the attraction that she seemingly has to his new persona.

Starting with the final episode of Season Four and throughout Season Five, Wesley’s relationship with Fred is slowly explored. The whole group has had their mind wiped, leaving everyone void of memories involving Connor. Therefore, all of the horrible things that happened as a result of Wesley stealing Connor are gone, making him part of the group again. While it is unclear how much of Season Four is actually known to the group, Wesley still remembers Lilah, as she introduces him to Wolfram & Hart. His only reason for joining the tour initially is to release Lilah from her contract with Wolfram & Hart, which turns out to be binding even after death. Wesley’s defining moments in Season Five are all a result of his relationship with Fred. The pair interacts flirtatiously throughout the season, until finally in the episode “Lineage” (5.7), his true feelings are finally revealed.

It is in “Lineage” that Whedon finally places Wesley’s love for Fred and need for approbation from his father at odds. Both of these things are highly symbolic of Wesley’s inner turmoil and personal progress, and also of the human need to find one’s own path in life apart from the “lineage” created by one’s father. For Wesley, the series of events in this episode symbolizes many things. When Wesley shoots a cyborg that he believes to be his father in order to save Fred, it is clear that his love for her outweighs anything, and that he has finally faced his father. By instinctually, without hesitation, murdering what he truly believed to be his father, he finally faces the man that had tormented every aspect of his life. He was willing to brush off the negative impact of Roger Wyndam-Pryce for years, until it directly impacted the one thing he truly wanted in life. He could have faced years more of torment as long as there was some hope that he would find love with Fred, proving that he was worthy of someone’s love that he could in fact love back; so when she was threatened, he did what he had to do to keep that future secure. At the end of the episode, however, he attempts to call his father and is again disapprovingly brushed off. Happy that he had not killed his father, he reaches out to the real man, and is once again rebuffed. He loves Fred, but until he can finally have her, he cannot prove his father wrong.

Wesley’s final tragedy occurs with the death of Fred. As soon as he finally expresses his love for her, she is gone, taken over by an ancient primordial force, the hell goddess Illyria. It is rewarding to the audience to see Fred finally fall for Wes, and the viewer is rewarded a temporary moment of hope for the couple. Then, before they could even begin their romance, she is gone. Wesley’s life is now aimless. He cracks, stabbing Gunn for his inadvertent involvement, before he kills Fred’s assistant Knox for choosing Fred as the vessel for Illyria. He clings to Illyria, because she looks like Fred. Later, he finds that Angel has wiped his mind, and smashes the Orlon Window, a device that built the reality. When things go racing back to him, he sees the things he has done, and retreats into his old self, ready to fight alongside Angel.

Whedon never allowed Wesley a happy ending, because the character is made continually to struggle. He had, for fleeting moments, perfect bliss with the love of his life. That was his happy ending. Everything afterwards was an Epilogue. However, by guiding Illyria, he finds a new purpose. He wishes to teach her how to interact with the world, but only on the condition that she never take on the persona of Fred. This shows that he is trying to deal with her death.

Finally, when the last fight comes, he is there to do his part; by taking on the demon Cyvus Vail, the man who created the false memories he had for a portion of his time at Wolfram & Hart. Whedon again, upon finding that Angel was being cancelled at the end of Season Five, asked Denisof if he wanted Wesley to live or die. Denisof chose death, giving the audience a sad ending to the character, but an ending nonetheless. Denisof’s choice was wise. By allowing the audience to see Wesley’s complete transformation from beginning to end, the audience is allowed to see the true tragic scope of the man’s life.

Wesley is fatally stabbed while taking on Vail, and in his dying moments Illyria arrives. Asking him if he would like for her “to lie” to him by transforming herself into the Fred that he loved, he replies, “Yes, thank you, yes.” His last moments are spent looking into the face of the woman he loves. Whedon gives us the perfect tragic hero through Wesley’s death.

Wesley Wyndam-Pryce is one of the best developed characters in the Whedonverse. His choices go to prove that even the best of men are often not rewarded for their actions. There is no shanshu for Wesley, and while Angel fights for the eventual rewards, Wesley does because he must, because somewhere in time he became the badass demon hunter he once dreamed of being. There are no big open questions about Wesley; the audience sees all of his development. With Angel, there are hundreds of years of unexplored backstory (the most obvious being What happened when he was in hell for 100 years?), but with Wesley, the viewer witnesses his complete rise and fall.

Where it was often difficult, yet feasible, to cope with Angel’s redemption due to his being a supernatural creature, an anomaly, Wesley was far more interesting because he was in fact completely human. When his throat is slit trying to save his best friend’s son, or when he begins sleeping with his worst enemy, or battles the emotional wounds of his father, he shows problems that while arguably hyperbolic are nonetheless representative of human possibilities. He doesn’t have an invulnerable body or Angel’s tortured soul; he has a shotgun and a purpose. His journey is painful because he doesn’t get everything he wants. Whedon only allows him to be with Fred end because he knows that soon she will die and Wesley will again be brought back to square one.

From “Head Boy” to badass, Wesley shows true human growth in Whedon’s work. If Wesley had lived, he would have continued fighting the good fight, despite the tragedies that plagued him; not because he is superhuman, but because he is man, and good men will always fight for what he believes in. Joss Whedon blessed the pantheon of pop culture with his creation of Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, and television will be hard pressed to find such a deep, evolving character. From keeping a girl in a cage in his closet, to weeping over his dead lover in his arms, the dynamic, chilling emotional portrayal of Wesley should be recognized as one of the greatest contributions Whedon has made.

Wesley is a man with issues, who ultimately dies. However cynical that may be, he is a perfect example of the human condition. He loves, hates, screws, kills, suppresses, fights, cries, and dies. He never receives the approval of his father, doesn’t end up in a white picket fence with his soul mate, and ultimately dies before his time. Wesley Wyndam-Pryce is Whedon’s truest tragic hero, always wanting, seldom rewarded, and eventually dead.

Nick Bridwell is a student of the written word, with a B.A. in English from the University of North Texas, with an emphasis in Creative Writing-Fiction. He currently resides in Austin, Texas, where he’s working on his first novel. His passions include singing and songwriting.