The Canon is a recurring feature where I look back on movies, tv episodes, albums, books, etc. that I love; inducting them into my own imaginary canon of all-time favorite things. (Inspired by the podcast, Extra Hot Great)
Television writing is a very collaborative medium. Although there are some writers; like Aaron Sorkin, David E. Kelley, and David Milch; who prefer to take up most of the scripting duties on their own, for the most part, the writing of episodes in a season is shared amongst a room of writers. Creators and showrunners tend to only step in a few times per season, usually for the premiere, finale, and any other "big" episode in the middle of a season. Before I started watching any Joss Whedon show, I was always aware of the reverence that people had for episodes that were written by him. Look at any discussion of Buffy and you'll quickly see somebody say that all of the best episodes of that show were the ones written by Whedon. Many of his episodes are the best of a given show, but even when they're not, the one mark of a Joss Whedon episode is that it "feels" different than the rest of the episodes. In particular, they always feel very cinematic, an early indication of the huge directing career he'd eventually have. While a number of them can be described as "gimmick episodes," a script credited to Joss always manages to be interesting and high-concept, while also packing in so much story and character, moving things forward substantially. In that case, "Waiting in the Wings," the 13th episode of the 3rd season of Angel, is a textbook Joss Whedon episode.
One of the dominant themes in all of Joss Whedon's work is that he loves to explore the inner-workings that exist within a large group of people. Where the Scooby Gang on Buffy functioned much like a makeshift family, the Angel Investigations crew on Angel had the rhythms of a tight-knit workplace. As is the case with all workplaces, whenever you spend all that time together, relationships are bound to develop. By the time "Waiting in the Wings" rolls around, the crew is right at the point of combustion with all of the relationships that have been bubbling under the surface. There are so many layers of romantic entanglement going on in the middle of season 3 -- Angel likes Cordelia, Cordelia likes Angel, Gunn likes Fred, Wesley likes Fred, Fred likes Gunn, Cordelia thinks that Fred likes Wesley -- and Whedon understands the tension that comes from characters not saying what they truly feel. Stories come to a climax in his shows when everything finally boils over and the truth reveals itself. When Angel gets tickets to a ballet show and the group gets all dressed up to go together, passions run high, and it's pretty clear that the furtive nature of these affections will soon come to an end.
But in true Whedon fashion, things get much stranger from there. Angel quickly realizes that the dancers that they're watching on stage are the same ones from the last time he saw the show...but the problem is that that was over a hundred years ago. Seeing that something fishy is going on, he and Cordelia go to investigate, and they find themselves backstage in an endless hallway where there is no exit. Adding to the mystery of this ballet company is a room where they begin to feel the feelings and thoughts of people from long ago. The scene between Angel and Cordelia in this room is electrifying, serving as a bit of a redux of a scene at the end of the season 2 Buffy episode "I Only Have Eyes For You," but stretched out even longer. What makes the villain plot in "Waiting in the Wings" so masterful is that this transference of emotions only serves to heighten what's already there. Angel and Cordelia may be acting out the lust of former lovers, but it blends in with their own buried feelings and neither can hardly tell what's real.
As Angel and Cordelia find out from the room of transference, the leader of the ballet troupe loved one of the ballerinas, but his affections were unrequited, so he put a spell on everyone, forcing them to perform the same routine for eternity just so he can watch his love dance. The intensity of love is a connective thread throughout every story in the episode -- once Fred, Wesley, and Gunn notice that Angel and Cordelia have been gone for a while, they decide to look into it, and their tensions only get intensified once they sneak backstage too. The love triangle between the three of them is a classic bit of storytelling, and it plays out with all of the weight that comes with unrequited affections.
But it all comes back to the ballet. "Waiting in the Wings" is peppered with scenes of the trapped ballerina (Summer Glau, in a role that eventually got her cast on Firefly) performing onstage, adding to the graceful beauty of the episode. And just like ballet, which communicates through opaque non-verbal movements, all of these characters are elegantly dancing around one another instead of confronting each other head on. Love often renders the loved as nothing more than an object; they only exist as a performance on a stage for you to enjoy. With such thinking, and a set-up as intricate as the Angel Investigation crew's, there could never be a solution where everyone wound up happy. Although Fred and Gunn get to experience love as a two-person dance, Wesley is left the odd man out, and Angel's inaction leads him to losing Cordelia at the last second, as Groo returns from Pylea before the episode closes.
"Waiting in the Wings," doesn't receive the overwhelming praise that many other episodes written and directed by Joss Whedon do, and that could be caused by the fact that it feels like a bit of greatest hits collection of his more popular episodes. On top of that, it doesn't have the repeat value of something like "Hush," the season 4 Buffy episode that's similar in terms of theme and tone, but is a bit more fast-paced. However, it makes up for those shortcomings with its laser focus, resulting in a very insightful and moving exploration of the notion of desire. It takes something as juvenile and melodramatic as secret crushes and love triangles and elevates it to the level of poetry, and the result is a funny, sexy, and thoughtful episode of television.