Not Particularly Charming

by Purple Wyrm on April 12, 2003

Well, it looks like they finally vanquished Cole. About time!

Now, at this point most readers will be thinking “Huh? Is he making some kind of cryptic reference to Saddam Hussein?” while the rest will be thinking “Oh, don’t tell me he watches Charmed!”. Well, the second group has it. I do watch Charmed. So there.

Why? Well, it’s a series featuring supernatural powers, a well defined and thought out mythological structure (or it used to have that anyway) and three quite attractive female leads often dressed in the latest virtually non-existent Hollywood fashions (“I know! Let’s make a top out of an embroidered handkerchief and see if anyone’s stupid enough to buy it for $230!”). C’mon, I’d be a fool not to watch.

Anyway, originally it was really good television. Most episodes were well though out, pretty well scripted and added on to the mythological structure in a consistent fashion. Not to say there weren’t occasional bad episodes (for instance the one where Piper gets savaged by a “Wendigo” in a phone booth and turns into a werewolf), but on the whole it was good stuff.

But in the five or so years since I think the series has seriously lost it. In fact when comparing recent episodes to ones from the first and second season I’d go as far to say it’s jumped the big toothy fish. And I think I can pinpoint the exact moment when.

Things started to go downhill with the advent of season 4. Previous to this the series had been building up a detailed and internally consistent supernatural structure and mythology. In season 4 they started to throw this out the window with increasingly wide variations from established facts in order to support plot ideas that wouldn’t work otherwise. For instance the nature of the Source*[The Source is ‘the Source of all evil’, the head Demon. Presumably this is supposed to be the devil, but they can’t call him that because it would upset people in the Bible Belt 🙂 ].

At the end of Season 3 we get to see the Source. He’s a big scary guy in a hood, festooned round with chains and with wings sprouting from his back. He speaks in a deep raspy voice and basically looks like the source of all evil should. However when he shows up again the next season he’s a fairly unimpressive human-looking guy with curly hair. Then later on he shows up again as an ex-wrestler*[The series went through a stage of hiring ex-WWF wrestlers to play demons – culminating in one episode where they actually wrestled in a demonic WWF ring. I’m not making this up!] with half his face missing. What the…?

This wasn’t good. But if I had to pick the exact moment when Charmed well and truly jumped, I think it would have to be when Cole absorbed the Hollow.

Cole/Balthazar*[And there you were thinking Balthazar was one of the three wise men.] (played by Australia’s Julian McMahon – oddly enough the son of 70’s Prime Minister Billy McMahon) was a demon contracted by the Source to kill the Charmed Ones. He was actually half-human half-demon, which apparently made him the most effective demonic assassin of all time. Rather than go bursting into the manor shooting fireballs in all directions (a tactic adopted by most demons – generally resulting in their messy vanquishing) he decided to go for stealth. After some study he concluded that the youngest of the girls – Phoebe – was the weakest link, and that the best way to gain the Charmed Ones’ trust would be to get her to fall in love with him. To that end he got a job as a District Attorney and after “accidentally” bumping into her a few times asked her out*[Or she may have asked him out. I can’t remember every little detail damn it!], thus getting his plan underway.

The plan worked and Phoebe fell for him big time. However predictably enough (since the alternative wouldn’t offer anywhere near the same number of plot complications) Cole started to fall for Phoebe too. Before long he was struggling between his human side (which was the bit in love with her – full blood demons aren’t meant to be able to do that sort of thing) and his demonic side (which just wanted to get on with the job and kill everyone). This made for a number of entertaining episodes where you were never quite sure if Cole was going to hug Phoebe, or break her neck (which at times – given the variable quality of Alyssa Milano’s acting – might have been a relief).

In any case the girls eventually discovered that he was a demon. There was a lot of soul searching and angst from everyone involved, and in the end Cole decided to try and control his demonic side, and use his powers only for good. This meant that for a while there the Charmed Ones were able to kick some serious demonic ass – backed up not just by a White Lighter*[Look, if you really need to know what a White Lighter is, go and find a Charmed website!], but one of the most powerful demons around. Even more so once Prue died*[Shannon Doherty apparently got fed up and walked out. What about? C’mon! It’s Shannon Doherty, she doesn’t need a reason! 🙂 ], and Paige joined the team (2 Witches, 1 White Lighter, 1 Demon and 1 Half Witch/Half White Lighter – [keanu]woah![/keanu]).

So, for a while there they had this really interesting (archetypal even) character. Equally pulled between light and dark, trying to be good even though he really has no idea what he’s doing (even when on his best behavior he’d tend to forget and blow people up). Eventually though he gave in to evil*[Or something] and it became necessary for Piper and Paige to destroy him by deploying the vanquishing potion they’d kept in reserve (they never trusted him as much as Phoebe did).

However much to everyone’s surprise, only Balthazar, Cole’s demonic side was vanquished*[Something about his love for Phoebe giving him a soul. Oh please!. Cole was left behind, completely human, free of the lure of evil and all ready to give up his homicidal tendencies. Congratulations and drinks all round!*[Apart from Paige who doesn’t drink. Could she be cooler? 😉 ]

So, we have a few episodes where Cole is all angsty about being perfectly normal. Then, apparently not content with the redemption of the character and satisfactory conclusion of the whole Cole/Balthazar story arc, they bring in the Hollow.

The Hollow is (apparently) the opposite of magic. Any magic you throw at it isn’t just negated, it’s destroyed. Forever. It’s so dangerous in fact that the powers of Good and Evil teamed up to defeat and imprison it millennia ago. However the Source (or someone anyway) decided to release it in a rather ill-explained plot to finish off the Charmed Ones once and for all. This almost worked, but just as the Source was about to kill Phoebe, Cole threw himself in front of the energy bolt having just absorbed the Hollow – resulting in the Source’s powers being destroyed and consequently the Source being vanquished. The Hollow was re-imprisoned and once again it’s drinks all round.

Except for some poorly-explained reason the Source’s powers weren’t destroyed. They went into Cole instead. In fact the Source himself somehow managed to hitch a ride with them, and began trying to take over Cole’s body and re-attain his position in the Underworld. Cole struggled to resist, but the Source soon had him – if not completely crushed – certainly under control most of the time.

Or at least this is what happened for about three episodes, with the Source making occasional comments about how hard it was to supress Cole’s love for Phoebe. Then they apparently decided to dump this story element completely – and suddenly it wasn’t good guy Cole possessed by and resisting the Source anymore, Cole was the new Source, and completely evil along with it. They didn’t even bother coming up with a halfway decent psuedo-magical explanation for this, it just happened. Suddenly Cole was all evil again and plotting away behind everyone’s back. The old Source possesing Cole just seemed to vanish completely.

It was about here that the sloppy and self-contradictory plot tangles really started showing up. Many of them revolved around the plots of “The Seer” a sort of advisor to the source played by a woman with scary eyes and a really annoying accent. Phoebe and Cole get married (although it’s a “dark marriage” performed by a “dark priest” so the marriage is evil) then she gets pregnant with some kind of demonic child who will destroy good forever – and starts turning her evil. This is a plot that could not be resolved in any kind of sane way, so eventually the Seer decides Phoebe is too unreliable and uses magic to transfer the pregnancy to herself (I said it gets stupid didn’t I?) but then she gets vanquished. Nonetheless there follows on an overly complicated story arc about Phoebe becoming Queen of the underworld so she can be with Cole, but still trying to be good (about the best thing that came out of this development was a nicely choreographed scene where the girls and Leo teleport into an alley – Phoebe in a pillar of demonic fire, Piper and Leo with standard top-down orbing and Paige with her unique sideways orbing – very cool :).

Then Phoebe changes her mind. Cole gets vanquished again, but apparently because he has a soul he ends up in the “Demonic Wastelands*[Whatever those are.] intact (as opposed to a splat of demonic energy) and is able to aquire a whole load of new powers after killing a sand-worm which has presumably escaped from Arrakis. So he comes back. Again.

From this point on the Cole story arc really got stupid*[Or even more so.]. One episode he would be good, trying to win Phoebe back – even convincing her that she shouldn’t become a mermaid just because of him*[They were really running short on story ideas at this point.]. Then the next he’d be all evil again. Eventually he went “mad” and started trying to kill himself in a variety of amusing ways (by this point he was completely invulnerable – for some reason never adequately explained), so they all failed. Then he got some demon to turn Phoebe into a mummy – for reasons never adequately explained. Then he tried to become ruler of the Underworld again – for reasons never adequately explained. Then he used his powers to get the girls into legal problems and seize the deeds to the manor from them – for reasons never adequately explained. And so on.

Anyway the end finally came this week when he made a deal with some beings called “The Avatars” which gave him the power to do almost anything. He used this power to alter reality so that Paige was killed before she could meet Piper and Phoebe (not completely unreasonably he blamed Paige for all his problems). Unfortunately for him Paige happened to be in mid-orb when the change took place and so was unaffected*[Apart from not having her powers. Because she never met her sisters and was dead. Or something like that.], ending up stranded in this parallel reality with no-one knowing who the heck she was. With Leo’s help however she managed to get Piper and Phoebe back together and knock up the good, old fashioned Balthazar vanquishing potion they used the first time. And – here’s the clever bit*[They used to have clever bits like this all the time. These days they’re far and few between.] – since the events that made Cole invulnerable never happened in this reality he wasn’t invulnerable and was vanquished complete with the requisite flashy special effects. With him gone the spell was broken and everything turned back to normal.

So, Cole is dead. I hope he stays that way because maybe with the whole Cole storyline resolved the series will be able to get back to the good old-fashioned storytelling it used to do back in seasons 1 and 2 – as opposed to being a supernatural version of The Bold and the Beautiful. I’m not holding my breath though, the very fact that they did a story arc about Phoebe turning into a mermaid*[There was even a Sea-Hag. Why Disney didn’t sue I don’t know.] shows they’re running seriously low on inspiration. But, nonetheless I’ll keep on watching.

Why? Two reasons.

The first is that occasionally they can still pull a rabbit out of the hat and come up with a good episode. Like one a few weeks back where Phoebe fell for a guy who was fated to die, but kept intervening to save him with potentially disastrous consequences. I won’t spoil the ending, but that’s the kind of storytelling Charmed used to produce on a weekly (or at least bi-weekly, they’d naturally stuff up now and then) basis.

The second reason? Rose McGowan looks even more insanely cute as a redhead than she did as a brunette 😉

Over and out.

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