It’s Aftermath Week here in Buffy-and-Angel-land, as our heroes deal with the repercussions of the heavy business that went down in last week’s episodes. Well sort of, anyway. In Buffy, the immediate aftermath of Xander leaving Anya at the altar is covered only in passing. Buffy and Willow start to worry because Xander’s nowhere to be found and he hasn’t even e-mailed them to say where he is, but then Xander shows up on Buffy’s doorstep, feeling ashamed, saying that he should have handled the whole affair differently and at least explained to Anya that he still wants to be with her, if not as a husband. “Hey, we all screw up,” Buffy says. And that’s the extent of the “Hell’s Bells” aftermath in “Normal Again.” (Although since Anya doesn’t appear in this episode, I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of it.)
In a way though, “Normal Again” is an aftermath for the entirety of season six to this point. It’s a heavily meta episode, about what has become of Buffy’s world over the past year, and whether its still a place that viewers want to hang out, let alone our heroes. Some of it worked for me and some didn’t, though after talking the episode over with my wife, I at least appreciate what it might be trying to say.
The episode opens with Buffy on the hunt for The Trio, and getting close to finding them when the nerds’ security system tips them off that she’s outside their new lair. So Andrew plays what looks like a didgeridoo, summoning a demon with needle-like appendages that pierce Buffy’s skin, causing her to slip periodically into hallucinations (?) that she’s in a mental hospital. Her mother and father are there in the clinic with her, working with a doctor to convince her that her vampire-slaying Sunnydale life is just a delusion. Meanwhile, in Sunnydale, the periodically lucid (?) Buffy explains what’s happening to her and encourages her friends to track down the demon and find an antidote to her condition.
There are some elements of “Normal Again” that are exciting, such as Buffy’s decision to destroy all her friends in order to regain her sanity, which leads her to stalk them in her house like a horror movie villain. And there are some elements that are annoying, including Sarah Michelle Gellar’s performance as the near-catatonic Buffy (Gellar doesn’t play “glum” very well in my opinion, which has been a persistent problem this season) and Dawn’s snippy attitude when learns that she doesn’t exist in Crazy Buffy’s life. (Leave it to Dawn to make Buffy’s existential crisis all about her.)
And then there are elements to “Normal Again” that are just… curious. Like the heavy doses of self-criticism on the part of the show’s writers. Here’s an episode that says flat-out: Sunnydale isn’t as fun as it used to be; the big villains are more pathetic; Buffy’s behavior over the past few years doesn’t make any sense. It’s all an inversion of the usual Slayer myth, which holds that Buffy has survived longer than her predecessors because she has a base of support. In this episode, Buffy hears that her friends are dragging her down, binding her to a dangerous fantasy. And given the way those friends have behaved lately, the case made by Crazy Buffy’s doctor seems pretty sound. (The doctor even refers to Buffy’s “death” at the end of the fifth season as a “temporary awakening” from which her Sunnydale friends dragged her away.)
Then there’s the ending of “Normal Again,” which on first glance is a sucker-punch to the fans. Unable to watch her friends in danger—danger she put them in—Buffy snaps out of her funk and saves the day, then asks Willow to re-create the antidote that the more confused Buffy had previously dumped out. But the episode doesn’t end there; instead it ends back in the institution, where Crazy Buffy has been “lost.” We learn earlier in “Normal Again” that the clinic is real, and that Buffy spent some time there early in her vampire-slaying days. Could it be that she’s been there ever since, and that everything that’s happened on the show for the past six years has been in her head? (Leaving aside the larger point that this whole show is a work of fiction, of course.)
My wife Donna doesn’t see it that way. She shrugged off the implications of the ending, saying that to her it wasn’t that important. To her, what matters is that Buffy made a conscious choice. Buffy had to wrestle with where she’d rather be, and she chose Sunnydale and her friends. If her delusions were purely and clearly demonic in origin, that choice would’ve been meaningless. Instead, by showing both realities as viable, the writers make Buffy’s choice to stay in Sunnydale a significant one. This wasn’t her being dragged back from “heaven” against her will. This was her saying, “This is my home.”
I like that reading. I wish it had been dramatized more effectively—maybe in a Last Temptation Of Christ “getting back on the cross” kind of way—but in the larger arc of this season, it fits with Buffy’s growing awareness that she needs to get out of her own head and start taking care of the people around her.
My wife was on something of a roll this week, because before we even started watching Angel, we rehashed last week’s episode, and Donna made a pertinent point regarding Wesley’s predicament. I was feeling sorry for poor Wes, abandoned in the park with a slashed throat and no friends, all because he tried to do what he knew was right. But Donna had less sympathy. While I argued that Wesley was doing what the prophecies demanded, Donna shook her head and insisted, “You should not give the dead more power than the living.”
Turns out my wife was very wise, since we find out in “Forgiving” that Sahjhan actually went back in time and tampered with the prophecy, which originally was about how he’d be killed by Connor. By trusting his old books, Wes made a grave error.
I don’t have a whole lot to say about the plot of “Forgiving,” which was relentless and nail-biting in the best possible way. (As I’ve said before, one way that Angel differs from Buffy is that Angel has a lot more moving-from-point-A-to-point-B episodes, which makes the show more thrilling at times but less open to episodic analysis.) “Forgiving” cross-cuts between multiple planes of action. While Wes lies dying, Fred and Gunn search high and low for him, and Angel looks for Sahjhan. During Angel’s hunt, he nabs Lilah and her Wolfram & Hart boss Linwood, and learns that Sahjhan didn’t open a portal to the Quor’Toth dimension, he ripped a hole in the fabric of reality. Angel and Lilah take a trip to W&H’s mysterious “White Room” and learn Sahjhan’s origin story, of how he became non-corporeal. They then work a spell to re-corporealize him, and fight Sahjhan before Justine comes in with the jar that Holtz had obtained—the one designed to trap the demon.
What matters most in “Forgiving” are the small touches: the way Justine stakes the practice vampires when she storms in to take over the command of Holtz’s army; the way Angel immediately moves to snap Lilah’s neck when the little girl in W&H’s “White Room” orders him to; the way Lilah moves towards Linwood with a knife in her hand when she learns she’ll need human blood for her ritual, then cuts herself instead; the way Sahjhan regains his physicality and is immediately hit by a truck; the way Angel says he needs to find Connor because Cordelia will be back soon, with presents for the baby; the way a homeless man finds Wesley, then takes his wallet and drags him out of sight; the way the encroaching dawn threatens to stymie Angel’s own search for Wes; and so on. There are so many wonderful details in the script of “Forgiving,” that either ramp up the tension or reveal what’s going through a character’s head through action, not speeches.
And it all builds to one hell of an ending. After Lorne reassures Angel that both he and Wesley “did everything you could with the knowledge you had,” it seems like Angel’s going to have a moment of self-realization and forgive Wesley for doing what he felt he had to do. Instead, Angel goes to see Wesley in the hospital, tells him that he understands what happened, but adds that Wesley needs to undersatnd too that Angel would never have hurt Connor. “It’s important you know that,” he says. “This isn’t Angelus talking.” And then he tries to smother Wesley with a pillow.
If my wife wasn’t sympathetic before the episode began, she sure was then. Holy jeez.
- When Andrew pulled out his demon-calling instrument, I briefly wondered if he was calling The First Slayer, given the aboriginal overtones. Alas no, though given what Buffy goes through due to the demon that Andrew does call, it’s an intriguing motif.
- Meanwhile, in Trio-ville, Jonathan is looking more and more like an outsider. Warren and Andrew appear to be hatching plans behind his back, and then openly tormenting him when he complains.
- Buffy tells Spike the news about Xander and Anya, and Spike pointedly replies, “Some people can’t see a good thing when they’ve got it.” He also throws some psychoanalysis her way, suggesting that she’s not addicted to danger, she’s addicted to misery.
- Very funny/sad scene at the top of the episode as Willow imagines talking to Tara in the halls of UCSD, then stops short when she sees Tara talking to and kissing another woman.
- Whatever the circumstances, it was nice to have the old Xander back in “Normal Again,” fighting bravely then tossing out quips like, “I altered his reality!”
- Sahjhan wants us to know that when he flitted back and forth in time he “flitted in a manly way.”
- I hate to do it, especially since Angel’s really heating up right now, but circumstances dictate that I take next week off. The good news is that when I’m back in two weeks, it’ll be a double-Angel week, with “Double Or Nothing” and “The Price.”