I’m not sure whether this was planned or not, but both this week’s Angel and this week’s Buffy show our heroes stressing out over money, and putting themselves in danger because for the want of it. In “Provider,” Angel’s worried about Connor’s future, so he’s putting money in a piggybank and the piggybank in a vault, while the rest of the AI team focuses on launching a website and passing out fliers to let the community know that if they’ve got paranormal problems—and ready cash on hand—then they have heroes standing by, ready to help. Only Cordelia is worried that re-focusing on the business side of their business will distract Angel from pursuing his mission as the champion of the helpless, or keep him from tracking down the vampire-hunter who’s trying to kill him. But Angel lets Cordelia know that, “Helping the helpless, finding Holtz and making money are our three #1 priorities.”
So in no time, AIHQ’s lobby is full of humans and demons seeking service, as the gang scrambles from potential client to potential client, getting Lorne to help them with the beasts who don’t speak English. Ultimately, they take on three cases right away, which divides the team, Justice League-style. In one part of the city, Wes and Gunn help a woman who’s being stalked by her undead boyfriend (though Wes reassures her that her zombie ex won’t eat her, because “zombies merely mangle, mutilate, and occasionally wear human flesh”). In another part of the city, Angel helps a man (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, The Comedian!) who claims to be a wealthy businessman looking to get a mob of racketeering vampires off his back. And in still another part of the city, Fred and Lorne have been drafted to help some math-obsessed demons solve a three-dimensional puzzle for their prince.
“Provider” is a straight-up action episode, with some clever twists: Wes and Gunn learn that their client actually killed her now-zombified ex, who’s not such a dangerous beast after all; Angel learns that his client is just posing as a wealthy businessman, and really only wants Angel to clear out the vampire nest so that he can raid their treasure-pile and get back a watch that belonged to a friend they killed; and Fred and Lorne learn that the puzzle-demons only want Fred to prove herself worthy of being decapitated, so that her head (and brain) can take the place of their dying prince’s.
My only real problem with “Provider” is the problem I have with any Angel episode that burns through characters and storylines so quickly: I feel like the writers (in this case Scott Murphy gets the credit) may have squandered some ideas that could’ve been special if nurtured a little more. As it is, while I enjoyed all three stories in “Provider,” none was developed enough to have much meaning beyond their fleeting thrills. The main idea the episode gets across is only that the team makes potentially fatal mistakes when they follow their mercenary instincts instead of pursuing causes they really believe in.
And this is key mainly in the way it synchs up with the main subplot in “Provider.” Very briefly, we see Holtz, who has recently killed the hired guns who had been working for him and is now looking for committed, soul-damaged demon-fighters like himself (and his first recruit Justine) to go after Angel. Holtz has already learned the lesson that Angel and his friends are learning now. The foes remain evenly matched, and are circling each other slowly. I’m pleased to see that the Angel writers know that this particular story need not be dispatched so quickly. It’s one to be savored.
Once again I find that after being peppered with dire warnings about a Buffy episode, the actual experiencing of watching said episode is nowhere near as rough as I’d been led to expect.
Don’t get me wrong: “Doublemeat Palace” is problematic. Director Nick Marck and credited writer Jane Espenson go for a broad, satirical tone that’s never been a Buffy specialty, and though the story holds a surprise or two, none of them are quite as surprising that I’d hoped they’d be. That said, there’s a seed of a good idea in “Doublemeat Palace”—the idea of Buffy joining the minimum wage work force and finding it even more horrific than vampire-slaying—and that seed does sprout occasionally. I laughed at the training video that Buffy is forced to watch when she joins the Doublemeat team: a video that asks, “What happens when a cow and chicken come together?” followed by the hideous sound of grinding implements and faint animal cries. I enjoyed the weird alien vibe of “Manny the manager” and his fierce defense of the dehydrated pickles. I liked Buffy’s co-workers explaining the way the restaurant works in a cultish drone, as though they’d long-since stopped thinking it was strange to have so many automated processes in food-prep. And I loved the way Buffy gets mesmerized by the chicken-slicing and meat-grinding, finding the rendering of flesh, muscle and fat eerily beautiful. (I could go even further and suggest that there’s a connection between Buffy’s bloody mission and her attraction to industrialized chopping, but I doubt that connection was intentional.)
Still, there’s a moment in “Doublemeat Palace” when Xander suggests to Buffy that her suspicions that something odd is going on at her job is just her projecting her misery. “I think you’re seeing demons where there’s just life,” he says. And I wish that had been the case, honestly. True, Buffy does find out that the weird behavior of Manny and his crew has nothing to do with demon-possession, but instead is just due to service-economy ennui; and she also finds out that the Palace’s secret “meat process” involves vegetables, not (as Buffy had suspected) humans. But there is some evil afoot at the restaurant. One of the regular customers has some kind of demonic snake attached to her head (under her wig), and the beast has been eating the employees because their increased consumption of Doublemeat Palace products means they “slide down smooth.”
I know there’s always some kind of baddie on Buffy—even in “The Body,” which was about as non-traditional a Buffy episode as ever there was. But I feel like Espenson and company missed an opportunity here to sell the idea of real life itself as a kind of horror, by introducing an actual horror. In a way, the point of “Doublemeat Palace” is made more strongly by its subplot, which sees Willow still dealing with her magic withdrawal—exacerbated by the recent takedown of The Trio HQ, which was full of sweet magic contraband—when Amy decides to “gift” her with an unwanted spell. The uncontrollable magic spilling out Willow impedes her efforts to investigate Doublemeat Palace for Buffy, but investigating without magic isn’t much better. Later, when she’s surrounded by bubbling beakers and colorful fluids, Xander cocks an eyebrow at her, but Willow sets him straight. “It’s not magic, it’s chemistry. You can tell by how damn slow it is.”
-Funny gag at the start of “Provider,” as the team waits for their first customer, while out in the street, a man flees a demon, finds the AI flier and scrambles to a pay phone, only to discover that the phone number on the flier has been mistyped. (It actually connects to a pizza place.) The gag’s also pertinent, since it sets up the theme of the episode: In a rush to make money, mistakes get made.
-The budding love triangle between Gunn, Wes and Fred continues to develop into an issue in “Provider,” as she compliments them both and their happy reactions tip each other off that they’re each other’s competition.
-Lorne on the search for Holtz: “I got rats looking all over this town. Not actual rats. Except two of them.”
-Cordelia tries to entertain Connor by making herself float, like she did at the end of “Birthday.” But alas.
-The other big subplot in “Doublemeat Palace” involves the arrival of Anya’s vengeance-demon pal Halfrek, who thinks she’s been summoned to curse Xander, but has actually been invited to the wedding. Her first appearance is very amusing—from menacing Xander to squealing like a teenage girl when Anya shows up—and makes for a nice inversion of the main storyline. Here it’s the demonic that behaves normally, not the normal that behaves demonically. (At the same time though, Halfrek’s very vocal doubts about Xander are wicked in their way, in that they seem to be weakening Anya’s resolve, vis-a-vis her impending marriage.)
-Anya to Buffy: “We’re here to support your subsistence-level employment.”
-Anya to Dawn and Willow, after they explain that they’re doing chemistry: “So sorry I hurried.”
-Anya to Xander: “I’m opposed to using demon meat no matter how much money it saves. Does that surprise you?”
-It suddenly occurs to Dawn—as it has to Buffy in the past—that her sister’s calling means that she’s never going to be able to get a real, demanding job. So Xander makes a good suggestion to her: Why doesn’t she study hard and get a good job, so that Buffy doesn’t have to work at all? Dawn brushes off the idea, but I hope she at least gives it some thought.
-Spike shows up at Doublemeat Palace to offer Buffy still more temptation. He can do bad things and get money, and then Buffy can quit this job she so clearly hates. She shoos him away, but really? It might be harder for her to refuse that offer as the weeks and months at Doublemeat grind on. (No pun intended.)
-There’s something telling about Amy dropping by the Summers house to retrieve her old rat-cage. Old habits and all that.
-Amy, sniping at Willow: “I forgot a lot while you were failing to make me be not a rat.”
-Oh God, training videos. I watched so many training videos in my late teens and early twenties, all of which painted a wildly over-rosy picture of the minimum wage job I was about to start. Do training videos still exist? If so, how do new employees watch them now? I saw them all on VHS back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Are they all on DVD now, or on a computer?
-I must take my leave now, folks. Got some Sundancing to do. Back with you the first Friday in February.