Wesley doesn’t get enough credit. Through Alexis Denisof’s beautifully layered performance, and great writing from the likes of Tim Minear, David Greenwalt, and head honcho Joss Whedon, Wesley’s journey from greenhorn Watcher in the third season of Buffy to grizzled bad-ass that dies in Illyria’s arms in Angel is one of the most compelling character arcs in the Whedonverse. Taken at the start and
the end of his story, the Wesley of Buffy, and the Wesley at the end of Angel couldn’t be more different. Luckily Joss Whedon has given fans a brilliant way to track how Wesley has changed since he hooked up with Angel Investigations: the season four episode “Spin the Bottle, which Whedon wrote and directed.
In a nutshell, “Spin the Bottle” has Angel and co participating in a spell that Lorne found that can give Cordelia her memory after returning from her higher beingness (season four was not a season in which you could dip in and out). Of course, since this is Angel, and magic always has a price, the spell works after a fashion. Cordelia does get her identity back, but she and the rest of the group, barring Lorne who very stylishly narrates, regress to their teenage selves. The episode is absolutely hilarious, with each character’s teenage-self adding layers to their personalities, and in some cases very much explaining their current behavior.
Wesley at this point in the show is an outcast: when Gunn asks him what happened to make him this way he neatly sums it up: “I had my throat cut and my friends abandoned me.” Wesley has been on the outs with team Angel after a false prophecy that stated that Angel would kill his son manipulated him into trying to steal baby Connor. What “Spin the Bottle” does so cleverly with Wesley is, while bringing him back into the fold to help Cordelia, as he says “if it works then it’s worth doing”, the episode also reverts Wesley back to a time where he felt like he had some authority.
Wesley has a pattern as a character. In Buffy he came to Sunnydale to become the official Watcher of both Buffy and Faith. He was highly intelligent, quite cowardly, but also had a pragmatic way of thinking. The problem was that he represented an organisation that Buffy didn’t trust anymore, and his handling of Faith done more damage than good, leading the Watcher’s council to banish him.
Through Angel he found a new sense of purpose by helping fight the good fight, eventually become the leader. Yet the addition of Fred to the team became his undoing. His infatuation with her lead to him isolating himself from his colleagues, especially after Fred and Gunn got together. It’s this isolation, and a hefty dose of father issues, we can’t forget that, that leads Wesley down the wrong path.
For a second time he is banished by those he was devoted to, even having Angel try to murder him. All of which leads to the dark Wesley in season four. “Spin the Bottle” shows us these two sides of Wesley, but also how they are intricately connected: just look at Alexis Denisof’s credits montage of two frames of his former bespectacled self, to the last shot of his brooding, stubbly persona. Joss Whedon has said about the episode that he wrote it in part so he could have the slapstick Wesley back, and we get our money’s worth of that (no one touch his arms), but slapstick Wesley and grizzled Wesley are very much the same man. The teenage Wesley who, prior to his disastrous stint in Sunnydale, is still confident in his own abilities; immediately taking charge of the situation and trying to come up with answers to their predicament. In a delightful touch, and very much like the spell, the group are close to the answers they need but muddle the translation.
It’s true that “Spin the Bottle” works this way for every character but none are as enlightening as Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, who worked very hard to become Head Boy.