“That Old Gang Of Mine”
When last I wrote about Angel, I noted the increasing ambiguity in the matter of which demons need killing and which are okay. “That Old Gang Of Mine” continues in that vein, and it ties up some loose ends vis-a-vis Gunn and his old demon-hunting crew. After this episode, it looks like we won’t have to suffer through the clunky “street” dialogue of Gunn’s periodic trips back to his base anymore. For that reason alone, I’m wildly in favor of “That Old Gang Of Mine.”
But I also feel like this episode—written by Angel all-star Tim Minear—takes what could’ve been a painfully corny, almost Afterschool Special-y idea and makes it a little more vivid, by tying it to the specific concerns of the characters, not the broad concerns of society. On the surface, this is an episode about bigotry: one that lays on a thick coat of irony by having the bigots be black. When Gunn finds out that his crew has been killing demons willy-nilly, without checking first to see if they’re harmful, he confronts his old friend Rondell and the crew’s new hotshot Gio. But they confront him right back, saying that all demons deserve to be killed, because, well… just look at them.
I wish the reasons for Gunn’s subsequent self-doubt—followed by his re-commitment to the mission—had been better articulated by Gunn himself. I would have liked to have heard Gunn explain a little more clearly why he’s annoyed at Angel and Wesley for investigating the mysterious deaths of hell-spawn with no mandate from the Powers, and why he feels like an embarrassment to the people he used to lead. The reasons are obvious, sure. But for an episode focused on Gunn, he doesn’t actually get to say that much, and his inability to articulate his feelings is frustrating to watch—especially when his crew is holding Angel at crossbowpoint and Gunn can’t even bring himself to say, “Um… this guy fights evil. Leave him the hell alone.”
Still, I liked the way Minear uses our own sympathies against us in this episode, first by opening with a funny scene in which Angel apologizes to Merl for mistreating him, right before a not-funny scene in which Merl gets murdered; and later by having Rondell and Gio raid Caritas and start splattering demon blood everywhere. The truth is that Caritas has as many bad demons as it has good ones—at one point, Gunn has to intercede on behalf of a baby-eater, for heaven’s sake—but because we’ve spent so much time there over the first couple of seasons, we’ve internalized the “no judgment, no violence” rules of the place. And when we see Gio take aim at Lorne, well… we know that’s not right.
I also liked the bizarre little interlude where Cordelia visits The Furies to get them to lift the “sanctuary” spell that keeps demons—Angel included—from committing violent acts in Caritas. It’s funny hearing the Furies coo over Angel and insist that he’ll have to repay them in some kind of sexual way. But is also adds to the “Boy there sure are some weird folks in Los Angeles” vibe that I appreciate about this show. It makes the mythology feel richer, and denser.
And while I was irritated with Gunn’s sudden inability to answer direct questions, I did like the way he worked through some of his conflicted feelings about Angel in this episode. The two started out as partners by necessity, and then Gunn became a willing and eager employee in Angel’s mission, until Angel started to harden and darken and exclude his friends more, at which point Gunn felt a little hurt, and gravitated towards Wesley. Plus, Gunn’s still mourning the loss of his sister, who was turned by a vampire. So when Gunn tells Rondell and Gio that Angel’s not his friend, he actually means it. And Angel knows he means it. The two clear the air a little at the end of the episode, with Angel saying he understands Gunn’s position, adding “You’ll prove you can trust me when the day comes that you have to kill me and you do.”
But the best moments in “That Old Gang Of Mine” belong to Wesley, even though he’s barely in the episode. His quiet confidence as he investigates Merl’s murder—a task he knows his right, however distasteful—impresses even Gunn, who directs his anger at Angel instead, sniping, “Did someone put you back in charge?” And when Caritas gets raided, it’s Wes who stands up to Rondell and reminds him that he was shot saving Rondell a few months back. And at the end, Wes takes a moment to tell Gunn that if he ever sandbags an investigation again—even for understandable personal reasons—then he’ll be fired on the spot.
Yep. I love Wesley.
I can’t say that “After Life” is a perfect Buffy episode, but at times it’s awfully close, especially in the first 20 minutes or so, before the plot kicks in. At the start, “After Life”—written by Jane Espenson—is a study in how a long-running TV series should deal with a major change in its characters’ lives. Buffy returns home, still wary and in shock, while her friends buzz around and fret over what they’ve done. “I think we screwed it up and she’s broken,” Anya says of their resurrection spell. “What if she never gets over it?” Willow worries. This isn’t some, “Hooray, Buffy’s back, we did it!” moment. (Although later Willow will hubristically say “We did it!” to Buffy, who shoots her a pained look that Willow seems to miss.) This is more of a deflated, “Now what?”
The “now what?” is especially poignant in the case of Dawn and Spike, who had no idea this resurrection was coming. When Spike sees Buffy come down the stairs, he’s dumbstruck, while she’s shy and ashamed. He’s empathetic, because he knows what it’s like to rise from the dead. When she asks how long she’s been gone, he doesn’t skip a beat, saying, “147 days yesterday. 148 today. Except today doesn’t count, does it?” Just a beautiful line.
Dawn, meanwhile, takes charge of telling everyone to back off Buffy, while she tries to reassure her sister. I have to say: I’ve been critical of Michelle Trachtenberg in the past, but she’s pretty terrific here, either because her character’s been better-written so far this season or she’s become better at her craft over time. It’s the little things that impress, like the way she delivers her lines when Dawn tells Buffy about Giles. “He’ll come right back. I’ll call him. Someone will call him.” She’s thinking through each sentence, trying to figure out what will make this not-all-there version of her sister feel better. Nicely written; nicely played.
There are some wonderful moments once the gang scatters so that Buffy can sleep, too. Like Spike sniping at Xander, saying, “I worked beside you all summer, and you didn’t tell me.” And Tara telling Willow that if she has worries, it’s okay to express them to her. “This is the room where you don’t have to be brave and I still love you.”
After all that, the horror plot seems a little like an afterthought. One by one, the gang is possessed or haunted by a demon that came back across along with Buffy. (Sort of a “gift with purchase,” according to Anya.) After the requisite hand-wringing, Willow and Tara cast a spell that turns the ethereal demon solid, so that Buffy can kill it. Not much to get excited about there.
Still, the demon is thematically relevant—as Buffy’s demons often are. Because even though the demon is dead, the problem the demon represents hasn’t gone away. There are still consequences for Buffy’s resurrection, and Buffy has to bear the brunt of them. In public, she tells her friends that she felt abandoned in the afterlife, and now she’s grateful to Willow and everyone for bringing her back. But Buffy lied. Back in the alley, she tells Spike that she was actually in a kind of heaven, where she felt finished, complete, and knew everyone was going to be all right. (Foreshadowing this revelation, earlier in the episode, Buffy walks past a tombstone and the shot makes it look like she has angel-wings.) When Spike asks, “Are you okay?” Buffy grits her teeth and says the only thing she can: “I’m here.”
And I’ll leave it there for now. I have some thoughts on Buffy’s existential predicament that I want to save for next time. It’s too esoteric and philosophical to get into today.
-When the Angel episode opened with Angel saying, “I’m ashamed of how I treated you, how I used you,” I knew were being set up for a joke, but I still liked the idea that Angel was reading his apology to Merl. (I also liked Cordelia’s defensive response to Merl’s irritation: “I hardly think it’s fair to blame it on the writing.”)
-Cordelia doesn’t care for Angel’s suggestion that she doesn’t like Fred. “What’s not to like? She’s sweet, and adorable, and… seems to be laughing at something that shrub just said.”
-Cordelia eventually talks to Fred about her anti-social behavior, saying, “Angel wants you to get out.” (Thereby confusing the poor girl, who thinks she’s being evicted.) But Cordelia does eventually get Fred to go to Caritas, where she sings “Crazy,” badly, and charms Gunn in the process.
-The agency’s list of possible suspects in Merl’s murder has Angel at the top. Even though they’re going alphabetically, Angel’s still offended. “Oh sure, I went ‘dark’ and killed Merle!” he says sarcastically, while Cordelia and Wesley look askance, not answering him. (Angel’s next line of defense: “Ask yourself this: If I’d killed Merl, would I have brought donuts?”)
-Meanwhile, back in Sunnydale, the episode opens with The Hellions still about. But they were on their way out of town, right? Or will we be seeing them around Sunnydale all season? (Or do I want to know?)
-Continuing the Dawn-love: I was moved by the scene of Dawn washing and dressing Buffy. A sweet role-reversal. Reminded me of my favorite scene in Rachel Getting Married.
-Nice Buffy’s-eye view of her friends hovering over her imposingly while she’s sitting on her couch.
-Willow, insisting that Buffy being tired does not mean that her spell was flawed: “She’s fine. Normal. She used to go to bed all the time.”
-Nice effect with all of Buffy’s photos of her friends starting to rot.
-Anya’s idea of fun bedtime play: “I’m going to describe a word with accurate but misleading clues, then you have to guess it.”
-Anya to Dawn, on the meaning of one demon-name: “That just means they prefer eating things with little bones. Like you.”
-Alone in his lair, Spike punches the wall until his hand turns bloody, just like Buffy’s.
-Spike can’t step out of the shadow in the alleyway when Buffy says she wants to be alone, because the sun’s still out. Another clever way to bind the characters together.
-What the hell is Willow wearing in the last scene? A sweater made from Viking beard?
-“You’re like a snail. A snail that is driving a car very slowly.”
-Next week: Angel, “Carpe Noctem” and Buffy, “Flooded.”