My favorite character on Buffy and Angel, Wesley Wyndam-Pryce (played by Alexis Denisof) always tried his best, retained his inherently good nature, and kept his commitment to fighting evil—despite the unfair way he was treated and the bad luck he constantly suffered. This is someone who was locked under the stairs by his abusive father as a child, whose girlfriend broke up with him for getting shot, and who was abandoned by all his friends for trying to save a baby’s life. Anyone else would have most likely given up on humanity, but Wesley was determined to keep trying to make the world a better place.
When Wesley was growing up, his father continually berated him, convincing him that he could never be good enough. There are references to this damaging relationship scattered throughout Angel, though it’s in Season 1’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” that we learn about the hours Wesley spent locked under the stairs. Wesley attended the Watchers’ Academy, following in his father’s footsteps to become a member of the Watchers’ Council. He was eventually assigned to take over as Buffy and Faith’s Watcher in Sunnydale, after Giles was fired for caring about Buffy too much.
The deck was stacked against Wesley from his very first appearance on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in Season 3’s “Bad Girls.” The mere fact that he was there to replace Giles meant that the show’s characters and viewers alike resented him from the start—through absolutely no fault of his own. Admittedly, this was compounded by Wesley’s perceived cowardice and ineptitude. In “Bad Girls,” when Wesley and Giles are captured by the demon Balthazar and his vampire minions, Balthazar orders his men to remove their kneecaps. Panic-stricken, Wesley offers to tell Balthazar everything he knows, in an effort to save his knees. The instinct of the other characters (and most viewers) is to look down on Wesley with scorn—after all, Buffy, Giles, and the rest of the Scoobies would never give in to such threats.
This may be true, but Wesley had very little experience fighting demons at this point. Earlier in the episode, he reveals that he’s only faced two vampires “under controlled circumstances.” While this could also be seen as a failing of his, the truth is it’s the Watchers’ Council who failed to provide him with adequate training. Given his lack of experience, it doesn’t make sense to compare him to the rest of the Scooby Gang. By Season 3, they’ve already had plenty of practice dealing with evil creatures, and they’ve learned to take it all in stride. Arguably, Wesley’s reaction, rather than the reactions of the other Scoobies, most closely resembles the reaction most of us would have if we suddenly found ourselves facing a demon.
Beyond this, several of the Scoobies have mystical powers and abilities—Buffy has Slayer strength, Willow is learning magic, Oz is a werewolf, and Angel is a vampire. Wesley is only human. The other Scoobies also have each other. It’s emphasized again and again on the show that one of Buffy’s biggest advantages, and a huge part of the reason she manages to stay alive, is the fact that she has friends and family. Wesley is essentially alone. He doesn’t seem to have friends, he comes from a cruel, abusive family, and everyone in Sunnydale turns against him as soon as he arrives (well, except Cordelia), for no real reason. I would argue that Wesley is in some ways more heroic than any other character on the show, since he willingly fights evil without the experience, mystical powers, friendships, or sense of community that the others have to back up their efforts.
Fighting evil is Wesley’s priority throughout his tenure on Buffy and Angel—not his status, not whatever organization he’s working with at any given time, but the simple mission to make the world a better place. He proves this time and time again, never giving up when he’s let down by those around him. He always finds a way to keep doing good. When Buffy quits the Watchers’ Council, Wesley still insists on helping her in the fight against the Mayor. When the Watchers’ Council fires him, he becomes a “rogue demon hunter.” When Angel fires Wesley, Cordelia, and Gunn from Angel Investigations, they form their own organization, continuing to fight evil with Wesley as their leader. When Wesley has his throat cut and is abandoned by his friends, he still saves Angel’s life, and forms a new team to keep fighting the good fight.
Early on, Wesley understandably makes mistakes and frequently fails, but he keeps going—and his skills do gradually improve. There are also times when he’s right, but he’s frustratingly dismissed and criticized anyway. In the Buffy episode “Choices,” the gang steals the Box of Gavrok from the Mayor (something that’s essential for his upcoming Ascension), but in the process, Faith captures Willow. The gang decide to give the box back to the Mayor in exchange for Willow’s safe return. Wesley tries to persuade them to destroy the box, which would prevent the Ascension from happening, but everyone acts like he’s completely heartless for not wanting to trade it for Willow.
The thing is, at this point it’s assumed the Ascension will kill virtually everyone in Sunnydale. This includes, as Wesley points out, many of the gang’s friends and family members—and, crucially, Willow. Wesley’s suggestion would prevent thousands of deaths, and they would just need to find another way to rescue Willow from the Mayor. This hardly seems unrealistic. They should easily be able to sneak into City Hall again—or force their way in—to get her back.
Instead, the Scoobies make snarky comments about Wesley’s lack of humanity, the trade goes ahead, and the Ascension eventually takes place as scheduled. It’s worth noting that the decision not to destroy the Box of Gavrok does in fact lead to multiple deaths when the Ascension occurs in “Graduation Day,” including those of recurring characters Larry and Harmony (and Snyder, but I don’t think anyone’s sad about that).
When Wesley first appeared on Buffy, I initially dismissed him just like everyone else did. He was ridiculous. He was a poor replacement for Giles. But when I rewatched “Bad Girls” and “Consequences,” before the next episode even aired, I started to realize that he was actually a fun character. He meant well. It wasn’t his fault that he was there to replace Giles. You couldn’t blame him for wanting to keep his kneecaps. As his tenure on Buffy, and then Angel, continued, I only loved him more. The worse he was treated and the more unappreciated he was, the more protective I felt over him.
Wesley left Buffy at the end of Season 3, and showed up on spin-off Angel halfway through Season 1. Rather than getting a fresh start, he faced the same issues all over again. Instead of replacing Giles, this time he was replacing Doyle, who had just died a heroic death. So, Wesley was met with even more trepidation from characters and viewers for something that, again, wasn’t his fault. Though he struggled a bit to find his place, Wesley did fit in better with Angel and Cordelia (and later Gunn, Fred, and Lorne) than he had with Buffy and co., and he did become a valued part of the group. However, he still faced more than his share of hardships and harsh treatment.
In “Five by Five,” towards the end of Season 1, Faith comes to L.A., and is hired by Wolfram and Hart to assassinate Angel. She soon decides to up the stakes, and she accomplishes this by capturing and cruelly torturing Wesley. Later that night, she begs Angel to kill her (in a heartbreaking scene), and resolves to change her ways. The next morning, Wesley is understandably upset to find Angel bringing Faith donuts, while offering her friendship and redemption. Yes, it’s a good thing that Angel decides to help Faith, but there’s no sign of any loyalty to Wesley after what he just suffered at Faith’s hands. Nevertheless, Wesley remains loyal to Angel. He warns Angel about the Watchers’ Council’s plans to capture Faith, and helps him to stop them—in spite of his personal feelings.
In Season 2, things seem to be going well for a while, and Wesley even starts dating Virginia. Unfortunately, Wesley’s happiness never lasts for long. Later in the season he gets shot and almost dies while trying to protect Gunn and his friends. Then Virginia breaks up with him—because he got shot. I know this isn’t the only TV show to do the whole “I can’t be with you because your life is too dangerous, and I love you too much to see you get hurt” storyline, and I’m sure it’s something that happens in real life too. But given Wesley’s history of being hurt by people for ridiculous reasons, someone deciding to hurt him because he got hurt again just really doesn’t sit right.
By Season 3, things are going reasonably well again, and Wesley has fallen in love with Fred. Then, in “Waiting in the Wings,” Fred inexplicably chooses to be with Gunn rather than Wesley. Okay, just because I think Wesley is much more interesting and likable than Gunn doesn’t mean Fred has to think that, but Fred and Wesley do seem to be much better suited to each other. Fred and Gunn don’t really have anything in common, and they never seem to have any kind of connection or chemistry. Their whole relationship is kind of forced. On the other hand, Fred and Wesley are both intellectuals who love to read, research things, and use their knowledge to help fight demons. Still, everyone has different taste, and admittedly Fred choosing Gunn over Wesley is more a pet peeve of mine than an actual injustice.
Then Wesley tries to save Angel’s son’s life.
Obviously, Wesley trying to save Connor does not go well. Yes, it has disastrous consequences—Connor ends up being taken into a hell dimension by Angel’s enemy, Holtz, where he raises him to resent Angel. But Wesley couldn’t possibly have predicted that. Those responsible include Sahjhan and Wolfram and Hart, who tricked Wesley into believing a prophecy that Angel would kill Connor, Justine, who cut Wesley’s throat and stole the baby, and Holtz, who took Connor into Quor’toth. Wesley’s intention was only to save Connor’s life.
When Wesley is in hospital, recovering from having had his throat cut, Angel comes to see him. He blames Wesley for everything, tries to suffocate him with a pillow, and yells that he’ll kill him. Not long after this, Fred comes to the hospital and tells Wesley that Angel is right to blame him, and that he should never return to Angel Investigations. With that, Wesley is cut off from all of his friends. None of the others come to see him, reach out to him, or even try to change Angel’s mind about him. I can almost forgive Angel for trying to kill Wesley, because he’s dealing with the trauma of losing Connor. He at least has a reason for lashing out, for being irrational and unreasonable. But the rest of the team siding with Angel? Fred saying what she does? They should have more level heads. They don’t have any excuse.
This is another situation where Wesley is treated much worse than any other character in the Buffyverse, for no apparent reason. How many characters, on both shows, do terrible things—not by accident, but on purpose—and are forgiven with barely a second thought? Faith goes around murdering people, tortures Wesley, and Angel instantly forgives her. Angel obviously killed many people as Angelus, but even as Angel he fires his team and leaves a roomful of lawyers to be murdered by Darla and Dru, yet he’s quickly forgiven when he decides to return to his former team. Even Illyria is soon forgiven for her part in Fred’s death, as well as her (failed) attempt to wage war on humanity.
Over on Buffy, Willow flays Warren and tries to destroy the world, and Xander still wants to hang out with her while she’s doing it. Anya has not one, but two stints as a vengeance demon, and she’s still accepted into the Scooby Gang. Robin Wood is quickly forgiven for trying to kill the re-ensouled Spike. The list just goes on and on. By and large, these characters are all forgiven much more easily than Wesley, who…tried to save a baby’s life. It seems that on both shows, everyone is given loyalty, love, and forgiveness whenever they need it—except for Wesley.
Somehow, even this betrayal doesn’t deter Wesley from trying to do good in the world—though it does understandably make him somewhat bitter—and he puts together another organization to fight evil. This time though, there are no emotions or friendships involved. At the end of Season 3, Wesley starts sleeping with Lilah—a lawyer for the evil Wolfram and Hart—adding another interesting dimension to his character. It’s a great way to explore the fact that he’s disillusioned and angry, and that he’s leaning into those dark emotions—but he’s still not actually doing anything wrong. His arc here shows that you can be in pain, alone, in unrequited love, and sleeping with someone you don’t even like, while still refusing to give up on your values, your goals, or yourself.
When Connor traps Angel in a box at the bottom of the ocean, Wesley is the one who eventually finds and saves him. Wesley’s ability to see beyond his anger and sense of betrayal, and to still go above and beyond to do the right thing, is impressive. When he brings Angel back to the hotel, Fred and Gunn berate Wesley for no longer caring about any of them. Wesley simply points out that Angel will need more blood, since he’s fresh out—having fed Angel from his own veins to bring him back from the brink of starvation.
Eventually, Wesley is gradually brought back into the fold—more out of necessity than anything else, as Angel and his team try to fight bigger and bigger evils throughout Season 4. Wesley even grows closer to Fred—that is, until she finds out about his fling with Lilah. Fred is rather judgmental about this, and despite breaking up with Gunn and starting to fall for Wesley, she seems to use his past with Lilah as a reason not to be with him. It seems a bit rich that Fred is the one who rejected Wesley in the first place, and who told him to stay away from all of his friends, yet she judges him for wanting a superficial connection with someone when he was cut off from everyone he actually cared about.
As the blows continue to come for Wesley, he then has to deal with Lilah being killed. Their relationship wasn’t what either of them really wanted, they weren’t in love, but by the end it wasn’t just sex either. On some level, they did care about each other, and Lilah’s death clearly affects Wesley.
By Season 5, Wesley has essentially become part of the group again, and they accept an offer to run the L.A. branch of Wolfram and Hart. Wesley and Fred eventually do get together. While I don’t think Fred necessarily deserves to be with Wesley after how she’s treated him over the years, Wesley clearly wants to be with her, and I do think he deserves to be happy. Plus, when they go to work at Wolfram and Hart, everyone’s memories are changed to give Connor a new life and family, and to wipe Connor’s prior existence from the minds of everyone except Angel.
Therefore, it can be assumed that from Fred and Wesley’s perspectives, Wesley never took Connor, and Fred never told Wesley to stay away from her and all of their friends because of it. It’s never made clear what actually did happen in the version of events they remember, but presumably neither of them need to forgive anything quite as painful as what actually happened—so it makes a little more sense that they finally get together, now that they’re free from some of that baggage.
Of course, this is Wesley we’re talking about, so Fred promptly dies. While I’m not a huge fan of Fred, I do think Amy Acker is a great actress, and I’ve loved her in every other role I’ve seen her in. While it’s a shame that Wesley has to suffer yet again, in all honesty I’ve never been particularly sad about Fred’s death, not least because it brought us Illyria—the former “Old One” who now inhabits Fred’s body.
It’s great to watch Illyria’s relationship with Wesley develop as he tries to help her navigate the human world, feeling something resembling affection for her because she looks like Fred. Illyria is a wonderful, funny, and fascinating character, and her bond with Wesley is certainly complex. She’s simultaneously the thing that killed Fred (though not with any particular malice or intent) and all that’s left of her, and Wesley can’t seem to tear himself away from her.
Unfortunately, Wesley screws up one more time in “Origin,” by restoring his and Connor’s original memories—though in theory, this should have been the right thing to do. He knows that Angel has changed his and everyone else’s memories somehow and is hiding something from them, and Angel isn’t coming clean about what. Of course Wesley wants to find out the truth. It’s just a shame that this results in him remembering the fact that he tried to save Connor, had his throat cut, and was abandoned by all his friends.
The first time I watched the finale of Angel, “Not Fade Away,” I was angry that Wesley died. He was the only one of the group that failed in his mission. Did Wesley really have to fail again? The second time I watched it, I realized that Wesley’s ending was actually perfect. His death in Illyria’s arms—while she posed as Fred—was a reminder that in the end, Wesley had finally found with Fred the unconditional love that he’d been denied for so long. It’s tempting to think that if he’d succeeded in killing Vail, that would have somehow proved that he was worthy, despite what other people had always thought. In fact, his failure to kill Vail showed something much more important—that he didn’t need to succeed to be worthy of love.
At some point, in addition to me feeling protective of Wesley when I saw him facing hardships, the character began to be the one giving me strength when I faced hardships in my own life. If I ever felt alone, misunderstood, or like I was failing, I would think of Wesley and everything he’d been through. I would think of the fact that he kept believing in his own worth even when he was alone, that he kept doing good even when he was treated badly, and that he kept going even when he failed. He would give me the strength to carry on—just like he always did, refusing to give up, or to let his bitterness turn into destruction.