“Listening To Fear” & “Into The Woods”
For reasons too complicated to get into, I spent some time on vacation last week reading Charles Willeford’s marvelous 1960 pulp novel The Woman Chaser (one of the first books The A.V. Club did for our book club), and I found myself thinking about that book’s protagonist as I watched this week’s episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. In The Woman Chaser, a bored, jaded used car dealer named Richard Hudson decides to make a low-budget movie to express his contempt for modern America. In one short, stirring chapter, Richard describes the making of his movie—explaining how he tried to show instead of tell, and how he manipulated his cast and crew to get the most for the least—and then he breaks down the editing process, in which he whittled the story down to a perfect 65 minutes, even though he knew that his bosses at the studio were going to force him either to add back in 20 minutes of padding or cut it down to 50 minutes for TV, effectively marring his vision.
I thought about The Woman Chaser this week because while there’s a lot to like in “Listening To Fear” and “Into The Woods”—and a lot that’s important in terms of the season’s plot—I felt like a lot of the choices made by the writers didn’t serve the story as well as they could’ve. Telling a story right on TV or in film is a tricky process, and one that’s easy to fumble. “Listening To Fear” in particular is too much of a hodgepodge, encompassing Riley’s descent into the scuzziest part of Sunnydale’s underworld (in tandem with his rekindling of interest in government work), Glory’s continuing efforts to find The Key, Dawn’s continuing lack of awareness that she is The Key, Joyce’s brain surgery, and—loosely tying all of the above together—a monster from outer space.
It’s the monster from outer space that most throws this episode askew. Its name is The Queller, and it’s been summoned by Ben The Intern (!) to “clean up Glory’s mess” by killing everyone who’s been driven mad by her powers. Except The Queller’s not too discriminating, so it goes after anyone who seems crazy, including Joyce, who’s been behaving erratically because of her tumor. I get that The Queller’s presence is partly metaphorical—as with a lot of the M.O.W.s this season, the alien is representative of the malignancy growing inside Joyce, and thus in our heroes’ lives—and I respect that credited writer Rebbeca Rand Kirshner and the rest of the Buffy staffers are trying to bring some episodic structure to a season packed with long-range serialized plot-lines. But by and large, the notion of the gang fighting an extraterrestrial demon feels like it belongs in another, lighter episode, not woven into all the heavy stuff going on in Season Five. Anya actually sums up my feelings about “the killer snot-monster” when she says, “It seems like we’re always dealing with creatures from outer space except that we don’t ever do that.”
Still, the arrival of The Queller does lead to some terrific moments: like Joyce freaking out when she sees the thing on her bedroom ceiling and screaming for it to stop staring at her (while Buffy ignores her cries, thinking she’s just having another tumor-related episode), and the scenes of Riley grappling with his weaknesses and enjoying being back in the loop with the military. (The shot where the helicopter descends next to one of The Queller’s crime scenes is especially awesome, especially given that it foreshadows the end of “Into The Woods.”)
I preferred the quieter moments in “Listening To Fear” though, like Willow and Tara’s idle-yet-meaningful conversation about how some of the stars we gaze upon at night don’t exist anymore. The exchanges between the two of them are really nice, from Willow asking, “You know what’s weird?” and Tara replying “Japanese commercials are weird,” to Tara coming up with her own name for the constellations, like “Moose Getting A Sponge Bath” and “Little Pile O’ Crackers.” That whole back-and-forth is well-scripted, revealing both the increasing ease of the Tara/Willow relationship and the idea that our individual perception plays a major role in how we view reality. (One of this season’s key themes, I think.) We give objects names. We determine what they mean to us. And yet our cataloguing and judging doesn’t necessarily change the nature of the object itself.
For example: Dawn. In a moment of clarity brought on by her tumor, Joyce perceives the truth about Dawn and says, “You’re nothing. You’re a shadow.” (There’s that word “shadow” again, which was so important the last batch of episodes.) In my other favorite scene from “Listening To Fear,” a pre-surgery Joyce asks Buffy, “That Dawn… she’s not mine, is she?” And after hesitating for a moment, Buffy tells her mother that Dawn is not, in fact, a real biological member of their family. Then as Joyce is wheeled away down a long corridor—in a very powerful shot—she tells Buffy, “What would I do without you?” Which leaves our hero gutted.
“Into The Woods” picks up shortly after the end of “Listening To Fear,” with Buffy and the gang waiting for Joyce's surgery to end. Right before the credits, we see the doctor walking down the hall with the news—a very cruel bit of suspense on the part of the Buffy writers—and then after the credits, the doctor says that, “Barring complications in recovery, your mother’s going to be fine.” Buffy nearly crushes the doctor with a hug, then heads home to enjoy a night of passion with Riley, inverting the title of the episode by telling her boyfriend, “Mom’s out of the woods.”
“Into The Woods” starts really well, but again it’s kind of a clumsy stitch-up of two of the season’s major plot elements, and practically lurches from Joyce’s apparent recovery to the real story of the episode: Buffy finding out that Riley’s been paying vampires to bite him. She finds out because Spike finds out. Spike cajoles her out of her bed—still all warm and post-coital—so she can see what Riley gets up to after lovemaking. (“We only came here because we care about you, friend,” Spike says to Riley, disingenuously.) And Buffy’s gut response is to do what she knows best how to do: to lash out with pointy things. She informs Giles about the den of vampire/mortal decadence and about her plans to flush it out. Giles, in response, urges her to think it through—and talk it out—before she does anything rash.
My main problem with “Into The Woods” is that there’s a lot of talking it out. The conversations are interesting, granted. Giles talks to Buffy about the addictive powers of the illicit and whether it’s worth punishing victimless crimes. Riley talks to Buffy about how inadequate she makes him feel, and how he’s still steamed about her whole Dracula fling. Xander talks to Buffy about how she takes Riley for granted. This is is all fairly cathartic, since it deals with emotions and ideas that are fundamental to what’s been going on with the characters. But I don’t know that a series of heated arguments was really the best way for the show’s creative team to get all these emotions and ideas on the table. It was a little too shortcut-y for me.
By contrast, consider Riley’s farewell scene, which has him leaving Sunnydale in a helicopter as Buffy runs after him, unheard over the roar of the rotor. The music rises to a lovely crescendo, and the moment is perfectly poignant: clear, uncluttered and devastating. I think even Richard Hudson would approve.
“The Trial” & “Reunion”
The two Angels this week are in some ways stronger than the Buffys, in that they’re more focused about the story they’re telling and the direction they’re heading. The trouble I’m having though—as I mentioned last week, regarding “Darla”—is that while I can respect what this season’s doing in an abstract way, I haven’t really been as drawn in emotionally as I’d like. And the reason is that I don’t find the relationship between Angel and Darla all that compelling, no matter how fine the shading has been. (And it’s been exceptionally fine, I admit.)
I preferred “The Trial” to “Reunion” on the whole, because while the latter has a greater impact, “The Trial” is fuller, with a more varied tone. It has some wild twists and turns too, with Darla being yanked back-and-forth between the evil clutches of Wolfram & Hart and the more helpful arms of Angel—and being unsure which she prefers. It also yanks the audience back-and-forth between the present day to another Angel/Darla flashback (in France in 1765, where the pair are cornered by a vampire hunter), further establishing the length and depth of their romance. It’s also a funny episode, with some good Wesley/Cordelia banter up-top, and an amusing scene where Darla tries to get a loser vampire with a skin condition—one who’s only been “doomed to walk the earth, that kind of deal” since 1992, and doesn’t really understand the rules of vampirism—to bite and turn her. And it’s an exciting episode, culminating in Angel fighting shirtless in another dimension (and cutting a demon in half!) to win the mortal, syphillis-ridden Darla a second chance at life.
But of course Darla’s already had her second chance, and in the end, Angel endures the trials of “The Trial” for nothing. That’s a poignant moment, as conceived. Also poignant (again, as conceived): Darla telling Angel that she always picks “the stupid ones” to sire; Darla singing at Caritas and revealing herself as unsalvageable to Lorne; and of course the ending, in which Angel and Darla almost reach a level of mutual peace regarding her destiny to die as a mortal, before Drusilla walks in and bites Darla, re-vamping her.
Compared to Buffy’s “Into The Woods,” the lengthy soul-searching conversations in “The Trial” are more effective, because they’re balanced better with the action, and in fact lull the audience into a false sense of calm in that final scene between Angel and Darla. (It looks it’s going to be a sad yet sweet scene, and then… wham!) But I used the words “as conceived” twice in the paragraph above because I just don’t have as much invested in Angel and Darla as I do in Buffy and… well, just about everybody in Sunnydale. So right now I’m admiring Angel’s storytelling bravado at a little bit of a remove.
That’s doubly the case with “Reunion,” which tells the story of Darla and Drusilla’s rampage through Los Angeles, and Angel’s increasingly desperate attempt to rein them in (with the unexpected help of Detective Kate and W&H’s Lindsey, both of whom reluctantly concede that they need him). “Reunion” is undeniably intense, but I’m no more gripped by Darla and Drusilla’s very weird relationship than I am by Darla and Angel. If anything, over the past few episodes I almost feel like I’ve been dropped into the middle of a different show, and have been scrambling to catch up. In fact, I wonder if I might like these episodes more if I hadn’t seen all the Angels and Buffys that led up to it, because then I could imagine the intricate, slow-building story that doesn’t actually exist.
That said, “Reunion” has such a stunner of an ending that even I couldn’t help but be stirred by it. At a party thrown by Wolfram & Hart honcho Holland Manners, he raises a toast to the film’s “much larger, greater plan,” but before he can reveal what that is, Darla and Drusilla arrive, looking fashionable and hungry. (They explain that Holland’s wife invited them. “Very sweet she was… like clover, and honey….”) It’s a turn of events as surprising and savage as Drusilla arriving at the end of “The Trial,” and one that neatly reveals the danger of doing business with beings of pure evil. Then Angel shows up and Holland begs him to save them, but instead Angel leaves the whole party to be slaughtered. After all, he’s there on Earth to fight evil, right? What’s the difference ultimately if he allows evil to fight itself rather than intervening?
That take on Angel’s mission—far closer to the point-scoring Angel at the start of Season Two than the “we have to do this the right way” Angel that he’s been trying to become—doesn’t sit well with Wesley, Cordelia or Gunn, who tell him that he has to let them help him stay focused. In response, Angel fires his whole staff. And at that moment, I realized why I’ve been hesitant to embrace these last few episodes of Angel, no matter how well-crafted and pulse-pounding they may be. There just hasn’t been enough Wesley or Cordelia in any of them. Those are the people whose relationship to Angel has been developed over hours of screen-time, and those are the people I care about. Here’s hoping that in the back half of Angel’s second season, the writers figure out a way to tell stories every bit as strong, but featuring the people who are the actual stars of the show.
-So Ben’s working for Glory, huh? That’s a twist I wasn’t expecting for that character. I felt like the big reveal was kind of thrown away, though—lost in all the other action of a crowded episode. I assume we’ll find out more about Ben’s role in the weeks to come. I’m curious to know more.
-Xander, staring at a model of the solar system: “Look how teeny Mercury is, compared to, like, Saturn. Whereas the cars of the same name…”
-Dawn continues to recount poignant stories of her youth that never actually happened. Boy, those monks were thorough.
-Anya, making everyone’s moviegoing plans for the evening: “There’s a chimp playing hockey?”
-I loved Giles’ all-holiday banner. No faith un-celebrated.
-I know Riley was just delivering a warning to Spike with his synthetic stake, but I still don’t get why he wouldn’t just ice the dude for real. I love Spike as a character, but I hope the writers come up with a compelling reason soon for him not to be a pile of dust.
-When Angel appears in a much better mood at the start of “The Trial,” Wesley claims responsibility, saying smugly, “We had tea.”
-Very nice of Gunn to recount the entire story so far at the start of “Reunion.”
-Dru stalks Lilah and the W&H party, telling her she has beautiful skin. “I moisturize,” gulps Lilah. “That was very thoughtful of you,” purrs Drusilla.
-I saw it coming, but it was still cool when Holland starts to say, “We won’t have to worry about Angel” only to have Angel come smashing through the window at Wolfram & Hart. Some dramatic conventions will never be uncool.
-I want to close this week by saying that while I’ve been a little nitpicky about these four episodes, the nitpicks come from a place of love. I’m still really enjoying the experience of watching these shows for the first time. It’s just that I know what they’re like when they’re at their best, and none of these episodes—in my opinion—represent Buffy or Angel at their best. Good, yes, but not great.