The dark turns of events toward the end of season six of Buffy and season three of Angel have got me thinking about what we look for from serialized adventures. These kinds of stories require a certain amount of tension and strife to be effective, and if we care about the characters at all, we’re bound to get anxious whenever they’re backed into a corner. That’s what makes a show thrilling and emotionally involving; we have to see what’s going to happen next. But because we care so much, we also don’t want to see the characters in so much trouble that they’re never going to get back to any kind of normal.
That’s the gamble that Buffy’s been taking with this season. Spike and Willow have both crossed lines that are hard to retreat from, while Buffy has been a fitfully functioning human being since she was dragged back into the land of the living. It makes for exciting television at times—especially in the first half of this week’s episode, “Villains”—but the further the writers go into the darkness, the harder it’s going to be emerge unstained.
But let me start by focusing on the “exciting television” part of the previous sentence. “Villains” opens where “Seeing Red” left off and races forward, white-knuckle-style, for about the first 20 minutes. It even starts off with a little pulse-pounding, ER-style music on the soundtrack, as the paramedics race to the Summers' house to rescue a hemorrhaging Buffy. And while Buffy heads to the hospital with Xander, Willow begins to take decisive action in the wake of Tara’s death. She starts by invoking Osiris and asking that Tara be brought back to life, but the spirit refuses, because Tara died by mortal means, not magical. So Willow stomps down to The Magic Box and commands Anya to show her the black arts books. Then she plunges her hands into the texts, absorbing the words and turning her hair black (which is a cool effect, by the way). Finally, she heads to the hospital, bursts into the OR, dismisses the doctors, and telekinetically pulls Warren’s bullet out of Buffy. “So small,” Willow says, in a soft, heartbreaking moment.
Meanwhile, The Trio is in trouble. Andrew and Jonathan are stewing in jail—the former certain that Warren is coming up with a plan to free them, while the latter knows they’re cooked. In fact, Warren’s not thinking about them at all; he’s buying booze for vampires, boasting that he’s killed The Slayer. When he finds out that Buffy’s still alive, he heads to see Rack, the warlock/magic-dealer, offering money in exchange for mystical protection. Warren thinks he’s in danger from Buffy, but Rack warns him, “If I were you, I’d worry about the witch.” Indeed, after Willow retrieves Buffy and Xander, she leads them into the desert in pursuit of a passenger bus. When they catch up to the bus, Willow orders Warren out and squeezes his neck until his eye pops out. Turns out it’s not Warren at all, just a Warren-bot that’s been magicked-up to trick the Scoobies.
Up to this point, “Villains” is a terrific episode: gut-wrenching and relentless. But the moment Xander and Buffy start questioning Willow about what she’s going to do when they catch the real Warren, “Villains” starts to flounder. It’s not that the philosophical musings on what the Scoobies can and can’t control isn’t relevant—it absolutely is—but compared to the similar musings the gang has engaged in before in previous seasons, these conversations aren’t as bracing or provocative. Any momentum that the episode has built up just fizzles.
The momentum picks back up once Willow turns Tara’s blood into a map to find Warren in the woods and the two of them tussle: he with an ax to her back and a series of force-bubbles; she with the ghost of his ex and a binding spell. But the none-too-subtle way that Willow’s revenge against Warren is cast as a feminist issue—he being the evil chauvinist usurped by the women he’s wronged—was badly mishandled, in my opinion. It’s not that I disagree with the sentiment, but it comes out of nowhere in this episode. Warren’s comeuppance as a chauvinist creep was a story from last season. This season, his misogyny hasn’t been as big of an issue. He’s still been a raging misogynist, yes, but that hasn’t been the story the show’s been telling lately. Bringing it up at this late date diminishes the tragedy of Tara’s death a little. It takes away from the real poignancy of the situation and the idea that, “One tiny piece of metal destroys everything.” Instead, it turns Tara into symbol.
“Villains” gets back on track at the end, at least in terms of its intensity. Willow sews Warren’s lips shut, telekinetically presses one of his spent bullets against his body, then mutters her old catchphrase, “Bored now,” and rips his skin off. As Buffy and Xander look on, horrified, Willow absently says, “One down.” The name of the next episode? “Two To Go.” Bad news for Andrew and Jonathan. (Or perhaps Buffy and Xander, if they try to stop Dark Willow.)
Still, I feel like “Villains” squanders an opportunity to get deeper into what, to me, has been the real takeaway from the recent, painful plot twists. When Warren walks around Sunnydale saying, “The Trio! You’ve heard of us!” and finds out that no one knows who he is, it emphasizes how much these characters have been living in their own dramas and assuming that what’s happening to them is more important than what’s happening to anyone else. See also the way that everyone assumes that Willow’s enraged about Buffy, not realizing that Tara’s dead. Or see the way that Tara’s body is left unattended on the floor while Willow goes on her rampage—the corpse left for an out-of-the-loop Dawn to find. Or see the way that Tara’s death itself is accidental, caused by a stray bullet through a window that nobody thinks to look into. It’s one of the major themes of this season: carelessness and thoughtlessness. If our heroes are going to make it out of this mess, they’re going to have to start paying more attention to each other.
On Angel, meanwhile, the characters are in just as much trouble, but the tone is entirely different. Though Wesley has been exiled from Angel Investigations, the show has never indicated that Wes has done anything unforgivable. Last season was the one where the characters willfully alienated each other and indulged in amorality. This season, they’ve been behaving more nobly, if occasionally at cross purposes. And yet, here we are in the season finale, with Angel’s son scheming to punish his old man for a murder he didn’t commit.
What’s unusual about “Tomorrow” is that the heroes are blissfully unaware that they’re so close to the brink. Angel’s giddy about Connor coming to live at the hotel and is going from room to room trying to find just the right spot for his son to stay, while worrying about buying the kid a TV and clothes and giving him an allowance. (“He’s gonna love you,” Cordelia says to settle him down. “Because you’re you. You have the biggest and best heart of anyone I’ve ever known.”) While that’s happening, Connor is out in the middle of nowhere with Justine, disposing of Holtz’s corpse in a spot that resembles the ranch in Utah where Holtz and Justine had planned to take baby Connor—a ranch that Connor heard Holtz talked about a lot in Quor’toth. And in a disturbing bit of irony, because of Justine and Holtz’s deception, Connor is worried that Holtz will rise as a vampire, so he dismembers and burns his guardian’s body.
Then Connor arrives at the hotel, ready to hatch his revenge. He smiles a lot and trains alongside his dad—“Stake! Vampire! Civilian! Protect her!”—and goes to a drive-in action movie, where Angel reassures him that, “It’s just make-believe,” not realizing that the same could be said of his newly warm relationship with his son. The only real sign of trouble from Angel’s perspective is that Lorne’s leaving for Vegas, where a buddy “needs a singer and a seer.” Though when asked if Connor’s a reason for Lorne’s departure, he admits, “Not gonna lie; kid’s in the mix.”
Before Lorne leaves, he tells Angel that Cordelia loves him. Then Groo leaves, telling Cordelia that her obvious affection for Angel is the reason he has to go. Cordelia has a long talk with a spectral version of herself, projected onto a wall—thus furthering the episode’s theme of illusion—and decides that she needs to arrange a meeting with Angel so that they can discuss their mutual feelings. The prospect of being with Cordelia makes Angel so happy that he starts singing and humming (while Fred pokes him with a sharp stick, to make sure he’s “not perfectly happy”).
And that’s when everything goes “kerfloo,” as my son used to say. While Cordelia’s driving to the meet, she begins to glow, and time—and traffic—freezes. Skip arrives, and tells her it’s time to move on to a higher level, away from the earthly plane. She’ll have to leave Angel behind. Meanwhile, Connor shows up at the meeting spot, and he and Justine wrangle Angel onto a boat and into a metal coffin. (In my experience, it’s never a good thing when a boat emerges out of the darkness in a season finale.) Connor explains that he’s not going to kill Angel. “You don’t get to die,” he smirks. “You get to live… forever.” Underwater. In chains. Yikes.
This is a different kind of tension, to quote the Buzzcocks. Nerve-wracking, yes, but in a more conventional adventure-storytelling kind of way. Our heroes’ souls aren’t at risk, just their lives and livelihoods. They’re scattered and the situation is dire. And so the episode—and the season—ends on a matched set of gorgeous-looking but heart-breaking shots. Cordelia ascending and Angel descending. To be continued.
- I was so rattled by Tara’s death last week that I kind of blew past Spike’s attempted rape, which became a hot topic in the comment section, as near as I could tell. (I’m sure I’ve said this before, but as a reminder: I do look at your comments every week, but I tend to glance across them, checking to see if anyone’s addressing me directly. I try to avoid spoilers, so I do appreciate your diligent warnings.) I have complicated feelings about Spike, perhaps born of the fact that I’ve been watching these episodes for the first time, unaware of any unforgivably evil Spike behavior in this season—or to come. I know Spike’s always been a bad guy. But he started out as an adorable bad guy, on a show where morality’s not always so cut-and-dried. (No matter what the show’s characters seem to think.) So I rooted for Spike and Buffy as a couple, and though I hated the way it came to pass this season, I was still sympathetic to Spike. But now I’m just kind of baffled over what I’m supposed to think about the character. His behavior last week was explicable, but indefensible, if you see what I mean. Anyway, this week he’s in Africa, trying to fix himself or something. I’m going to reserve judgment until I see where this is going.
- Complicating the “How do we feel about Spike?” confusion, Buffy decides to ask him to watch Dawn, even after what happened last week. (Like I said, I’m baffled.) Instead, Buffy has to settle for eager-to-please Clem, who suggests that he and Dawn can play Parcheesi, watch The Wedding Planner, and have some refreshments. (“I was just about to mix up some Country Time.”)
- “I miss Ferris Matthew. Broadway Matthew? I find him cold.”
- “I was going to eat you myself during the commercial.”
- “This isn’t the evil laugh of victory, is it?”
- The Wes/Lilah story in “Tomorrow” ends fairly ambiguously. Lilah finds Wes drinking in a bar and offers him a chance to keep researching on Wolfram & Hart’s dime, so he can play the hero if anything turns sour between Connor and Angel. Wes gives a speech about how lots of different texts support the notion that the birth of Connor isn’t such a big deal after all and how every child carries “the possibility of salvation or slaughter.” So he claims not to care what happens to Connor, and he turns down Lilah’s offer. However, he does go to bed with her, and in the morning when she says, “Don’t go making more of this than it is… Don’t be thinking about me when I’m gone,” he answers, coldly, “I wasn’t thinking about you when you were here.” Man, Wes is mean.
- Groo tries to make a version of his calming native drink, Mockna, but he doesn’t have all the ingredients—besides mud and water—so it’s “mock Mockna.” Cordelia politely drinks some and says, “I can feel the tension draining. And sediment.”
- Angel critiques Fred’s performance in their training exercise. “You’re a vampire; you’re not in Cats.” Fred replies by giving an adorable little kitty grrrr.
- Lorne has a CD: Songs For The Love Lorne.
- What do you with a woman’s shlugtee again?
- Goodbye, Groo. It was an honor making sex with you.