“Fredless” isn’t just my favorite episode of the season so far; it’s one of my favorites of the series. It’s funny, moving, and well-plotted, and it answers a necessary question for Angel as it proceeds through Season Three. As Fred notes, everyone at Angel Investigations (and thus Angel the TV show) has a role. Wesley’s the brains, Cordelia’s the heart, Gunn’s the muscle, and Angel’s the champion. But where does Fred fit in?
Fred poses this conundrum to her parents, Roger and Trish Burkle, who hired a detective to find their daughter after she sent them an “I’m OK!” letter in an unaddressed envelope. (Gunn finds this bit of snoopery very impressive.) When Roger and Trish show up out of the blue, Fred freaks out and hurriedly tries to erase all the crazy scrawling on her bedroom wall. When that fails, she flees the hotel, leaving her parents very agitated. Meanwhile, Angel and the rest of the team are all pretending that the weapons and demon-parts strewn around the place are for a movie they’re making. A worried Trish thinks these movies might be, y’know, movies … but Angel reassures her that they’re on the up-and-up. Still, the fact that an ostensible detective agency can’t locate one of their own friends doesn’t fill the Burkles with a lot of confidence.
As it happens, when Fred flees, she goes to see Lorne, who’s shuffling around a still-wrecked Caritas, feeling surly. Fred arrives in a panic, singing, “Row Row Row Your Boat,” but Lorne stops her before she gets past the first line, saying that he can read her psyche even without music. He knows she wants to escape and tells her, “You haven’t run far enough.” So she resumes running, just before the people she’s running from arrive with Angel and company, who all try to explain Lorne to the Burkles by saying he’s in make-up, though Lorne doesn’t feel like pretending, and Roger doesn’t feel like playing along either, saying accusingly, “In Texas, we don’t get a lot of guys wearing eyeliner.”
That’s when “Fredless” takes an unexpected turn. While Fred’s sitting in a bus depot, talking to herself, trying to screw up her courage to get on a bus and leave town, her parents walk in, and Fred embraces them, saying, “I didn’t mean to get so lost.” Whaddaya know? Roger and Trish aren’t so bad. In fact, when the bus depot gets attacked a weird bug-creature—a spectacular effect, by the way—all the Burkles step up, with Fred taking a swing at the beast with a club, and Trish, a school-bus driver by by trade, getting behind the wheel of a nearby bus and squooshing the critter.
Fred worries that her bug-slaying attempts only made the situation worse, so she decides to leave town with her folks. But on the way out, she has a revelation. Noting that the bug-gut-splattered shirt she takes as a souvenir of her time with Angel has turned into a crystal-encrusted shirt, she intuits that the bug-creature has ties to a demon Angel slew earlier in the evening, a demon with a severed head full of bug-eggs. Fred returns to the hotel and uses a special axe-throwing weapon she designed to obliterate the head, freeing the tiny bugs inside and warding away the mega-bugs. (Later, she explains how she came up with the device; she thought to herself, “What if you had to do battle with your arms cut off?”)
Up to this point, Fred has mostly been a cutesy character, amusing in her gentleness and sympathetic in her bruised emotional state. Even in “Fredless,” she risks coming off too quirky, as she describes her feelings about leaving Angel Investigations as “Oh, ah, fizzy. Kinda weird and … fizzy. But excited. And a little sad. Thankful. Sorta cautiously happy. Relieved and worried at the same time. Slightly nauseous while still bein’ … hopeful?” But Amy Acker sells the line, just as she sells the moment when she walks Angel through the writing on her wall, showing him the part that’s the fairy story of how he saved her from a cave, and how she “built another cave, hoping he’d save her again.”
Acker’s performance and the level of depth brought to Fred in this episode makes it that much more triumphant when she saves the day at the end, saying, “It was nothing. Just a stunning revelation of my true path in life.” And it that much more bittersweet when she grabs a roller and paints over her drawing of her and Angel riding off together. Fred has a place now: It looks like she’s going to be the mad scientist of the group, cooking up gadgets and such. But Angel will not have a place beside her. Or at least not the one she was holding for him.
“Everyone’s in a hurry.” That’s what Tara says about the rude person—Warren, of The Trio—who brushes past Buffy in the halls of UC-Sunnydale. It’s also Buffy’s reaction to a device pinned on her by Warren during that quick shove: a tiny machine which makes Buffy feel like the world’s on fast-forward while she’s standing still. And it describes Buffy’s reaction to the personal place all her friends are in now, with lives full of purpose and plans. They even eat dinner without her when they’re not sure when she’s going to be home. And who can blame them? They’ve got things to do.
“Life Serial” stays in the “But What Shall Become Of Zombie Buffy?” mode that’s been prevalent since the end of “Bargaining,” but it’s easily the funniest episode of the season so far, and the cleverest. (Even though some parts don’t completely make sense. More on that later.)
“Life Serial” follows the basic structure of a children’s book, with Buffy trying one thing after another to find out who she should be. (Can she quit being a bunny and be a bear instead? Does she like haycorns? Is that Snort her mother?) Buffy starts back at UCSD, where she intends to audit a few classes with Willow and Tara, but finds the subject matter to be over her head even before Warren’s device makes the world around her into a blur. She eventually returns everything to normal after she flicks the machine off her sweater. (“Maybe it was lint. Maybe it was evil lint.”) But she still decides that college isn’t the answer.
Next stop: Xander’s construction job, where Buffy irritates the sexist hardhats with her ability to lift heavy beams—partly because she’s making them look bad, and partly because she’s finishing the job too fast—and irritates them even more when Andrew-summoned demons crash in and Buffy wrecks a bunch of stuff while fighting them off. So Buffy moves on to The Magic Box, where she has trouble retrieving a frisky, animated mummy hand that a customer wants for a prosperity spell. First she stabs it with The Dagger Of Lex, but the customer isn’t impressed by Buffy offering her “The Dagger Of Lex for free!” So the scene repeats, Groundhog Day-style, thanks to a spell by Jonathan that requires her to stay in a time loop until she satisfies one customer.
The editing and pacing and quickie slapstick gags of The Magic Box scene makes it a wonderful little comic interlude, matched well by the next vignette, which has Buffy joining Spike on a bender. She accompanies him to a backroom poker game in which the participants bet kittens. (A broke Spike asks if someone can stake him, to which Buffy says, “I’ll do it!” Ha-ha!) Then Jonathan poses as a demon and goes after the drunken, weakened Buffy, but even with no sense of balance or force, she hurts him with her blows, because according to Jonathan, even as a demon “I actually have the proportional strength of … me.”
The Trio’s Buffy-tormenting throughout “Life Serial” is part of a bet between them, to see who make her the most miserable. Jonathan thinks he’s won, because his time-loop takes all day, but since it’s the shortest from the perspective of actual elapsed time, neither Andrew or Warren are willing to give him credit. Which brings me back to the “not completely making sense” thing. I know it’s “magic” and I shouldn’t think about any of this too hard, but I couldn’t help but wonder how Tara perceived Buffy when the former was “hurrying” and the latter was not or how The Trio watched Buffy’s time-loop all day when everyone else in Sunnydale experienced it as a just a few minutes.
Anyway, like I said: I shouldn’t think too hard about it. The various Trio-traps were all entertaining and also compelling as a follow-up to the end of the previous episode, where Buffy was sitting in a wrecked house and The Trio was sitting in a tricked-out lair. They’re pestering Buffy because they think she’s the biggest impediment to their ruling Sunnydale like kings but also because they think of her they way she was in high school: as someone who always knew what she was doing, while they suffered from self-doubt. And as we know, that’s not the case at all. They’re trying to exact a measure of revenge on someone who’s already suffered a tremendous lot.
Even Buffy’s moments of relief look to be short-lived. At the end of “Life Serial,” Giles gives Buffy a check to get her out of debt and back on her feet. And when Buffy says that the best part of the gift is “knowing you’re always gonna be here,” Giles has a look on his face that says, “Uh, yeah … about that.” Alas, the trials never end for our heroine.
- So, as you all warned me, neither Buffy nor Angel directly dealt with their reunion in these episodes, outside of Buffy calling it “intense” and Angel refusing to talk about it. That’s kind of weird, honestly. Why bring it up in the first place? But at least Angel included a scene of Cordy and Wes acting out how they imagine the meeting went. (Wes: “I love you so much I almost forgot to brood.”) And I liked the irony of Fred calling Buffy, “That girl with the goofy name.”
- Just as the Buffy-meet takes place off-screen, so does Angel’s first big battle against the Durslar demon (the one with the bug-eggs in its head). For a moment I thought that was going to be a recurring theme, this idea of all the action happening elsewhere. But no, it was probably just a budgetary thing. Anyway, it was fun to hear Fred tell the story of Angel’s fight:
"This has been the best night ever! First there’s you taking me to ice cream, then there is the ice cream, then that monster jumps out of the freezer and you’re all brave and 'Fred, watch out!,' and then we get to chase it down into the sewers, which are just so bleak and oppressive and … homey. And, and … I could build a condo down here."
- Lorne would just as soon Gunn stayed outside while everyone else consults with him. The trashing of Caritas by Gunn’s former pals does not sit well with the big green guy.
- Some interesting flirtation between Angel and Cordelia in “Fredless,” first in Angel’s eagerness to have Cordy attend to his wounds and then in Cordy responding to Angel calling Fred “soothing” by purring, “I can be soothing. I could soothe your ass off.” Is this going to be the season of the bizarre love triangle?
- Roger isn’t bothered at all by demons because he loves all those Alien movies. Except the last one. He fell asleep during that one.
- Roger hits it off with Angel. They bond over golf, and Spiro Agnew being a demon.
- Cordy’s envious of Fred, both for leaving and for having nice parents.
- “I have a heart. Granted, it’s located in my left butt-cheek, but it’s still a heart. And that heart is broken!”
- How do they get those pimentos in the olives?
- Willow, picking out her piece of fried chicken: “I’m a breast girl myself, but you already know that.”
- Willow’s favorite class is a sociology taught by “Mike.” It’s one of those only-on-TV University classes where the professor is cool and funny and the students are tossing out ideas about “the social construction of reality.” I wish I had gone to ol’ TVU.
- Andrew airbrushes a Death Star on The Trio’s van, making it more conspicuous. He also uses the Return Of The Jedi design, which Jonathan finds to be flawed.
- It’s hard for The Trio to work spells because they have to hold hands, which is really gay. (Also: “Stop touching my magic bone!”)
- “I wonder I should’ve done more … Like make her kinda itchy.”
- “This mummy-hand has ceased to be. It is an ex-mummy hand.”
- On The Magic Box name-tag: “Ask me about curses!”
- Next week: Angel, “Billy” and Buffy, “All The Way”