One of the smartest decisions that Joss Whedon and his writing team made with the character of Angel—starting back in the Buffy days—was to make sure that this “vampire with a soul” didn’t spend all his time brooding. Sure, Angel broods plenty, and sometimes he descends into an all-consuming darkness indistinguishable from actual evil. But he cracks jokes, too, and shows genuine concern for others. If he didn’t, he’d be a difficult guy to get invested in, and to watch week after week. No matter how much the writers might urge us to care because Angel’s fighting to save the world, I don’t know how much we’d really care if we didn’t like the hero himself. “The world” in Angel’s case is just a TV world, after all. What we really want is for Angel to save Angel—and Cordelia and Wesley and Gunn and Fred and Lorne, of course.
Still, you can’t have drama without complications, and the Angel writers have always been very good at reminding us that even though Angel may talk about an old movie or flirt with a pretty lady, he’s still cursed and can’t be just another blithe action hero. In “Offspring,” for example, the season-long flirtation between Angel and Cordelia heats up considerably. While he’s training her, they’re touching each others bodies and using suggestive language, with a passion that’s so obvious that even Fred refers to their connection as “kyrumption” (a Pylean word referring to when two great heroes recognize each other) and “moira” (a gut reaction between two larger-than-life souls). Angel tries to talk to Cordelia about it, pushing past the more generalized love between them—cue the gang, off-screen, shouting, “We love you, Angel!”—and expressing that his feelings may run deeper.
And then Darla walks in. Pregnant. And pissed. Because Angel can’t just be a normal knight, wooing damsels. Angel has made some mistakes for which he will—always—have to take responsibility.
The remainder of “Offspring” has to do with Angel Investigations investigating exactly what Angel did to Darla, each in their own way. Cordelia, feeling betrayed for reasons she can’t fully explain, hovers over Darla, hissing at Angel that even if he hadn’t turned evil when he had sex with Darla, he did “go male.” Wesley pores over the prophesies about Angel to try and figure out whether there’s anything in there about an Angel, Jr., (and if so, whether the kid will turn out good or bad). And Fred tries to dispel the weary resignation of her friends, saying, “Destiny is just another word for ‘inevitable,’ and nothing’s inevitable as long as you stand up, look it in the eye, and say, ‘You’re evitable!’” (Cue Lorne: “I like her so much.”)
The more immediate problem though is that Darla’s inexplicable pregnancy has left her very explicably ravenous. (She is sucking for two, after all.) She even takes a bite out of Cordelia while Cordy’s weakened by a vision of Darla terrorizing children in an arcade. Angel goes after Darla, who flees to the arcade in Cordelia’s vision, where she and Angel duke it out in front of the mazes and games, in what makes for a nice visual metaphor: the joyousness of childhood turned into a battlefield for two spiteful parents.
In the end, Angel brings Darla back to the hotel, where she’s kept under guard by Gunn, while the team gets back to work figuring out just what the thing inside Darla really is. Angel senses that it’s a child with a heartbeat and a soul, but as with the Sanshu prophecy that makes it unclear whether Angel is doomed to die or whether that’s just the vampire part of him that’s doomed, so the prophesies are vague on whether Angel’s child is “born out of darkness to bring darkness” or whether he’s the chosen one who will stave off Armageddon. Was it Angel’s destiny to bring the true hero into the world or to kill the beast?
It’s a question that resonates all the way back to Rome in 1771, where “Offspring” actually begins. There, the vengeful vampire-hunter Holtz once tortured Angel, asking, “Can a thing such as yourself be made to pay for its sins?” and wondering, “If we beat and burn the demon out of your living flesh, will there be anything left?” Ultimately, what is it that makes Angel who he is? Is it the man in him, or the evil? (A similar question could be asked about what makes Angel the series that it is.)
At the conclusion of “Offspring,” Fred crunches the numbers on the prophesies and determines that something bad is crossing over into our world right about now. Cut to an underground lair, where a demon has brought the long-dead Holtz back, fresh as the morning and ready to go back to stalking our hero. But for me, the key part of that scene is the moment where the demon casts his spell and then has a cigarette and checks his watch while waiting for Holtz to appear. There’s always time for a small, human moment of levity on Angel. And then, inevitably, the shadows encroach.
“Once More, With Feeling”
There’s a lot to discuss about “Once More, With Feeling,” and probably no way I’ll cover everything that all of you find remarkable about the episode—or, alternately, that you dislike about it. This is arguably the best-known individual Buffy episode, and I’d go so far as to say that it’s also the most popular, though I know there are a vocal faction of fans who either think it’s just “meh” or who can’t stand it—either because they’re not crazy about musicals in general, or because they think the music here is lame, or because they think that Buffy had no business indulging this kind of radical shift in genre.
Me, I loved it. I thought “Once More, With Feeling” was funny, and moving, and—most importantly—necessary. At this point in Season Six, our characters are carrying secrets and worries and regrets and grudges galore, and just about all of those problems had to come to the light eventually. If Buffy had delivered an episode where everyone said everything that needed to be said, it likely would’ve come out stilted, like most heavy-baggage-lifting episodes tend to be. Put those same words into song though? Well, now you can express those sentiments precisely and directly, while evoking the emotions that underlie them through melody and arrangement. It’s a stroke of storytelling genius, really.
I’ll be frank: As a lifelong devotee of rock and pop, who broke into this business as a music critic exactly 20 years ago, I can’t say that I was blown away by the songs here, just on their own. If I got a CD in the mail out of the blue of some modern rock band performing the score to “Once More, With Feeling” and I’d never seen the episode before, I’d probably note the unusually witty lyrics, but I don’t know how often I’d play the disc. The melodies in Whedon’s score don’t develop in surprising or innovative ways, and the music trends toward the generic. I watched this episode a few days ago, and looking over the list of songs now, I can only remember the chorus for one. (That’s “Walk Through The Fire,” if you’re curious.) But then, over the run of Buffy to date, I’ve noticed that Joss Whedon has a higher tolerance for drippy modern rock ballads than I do.
That’s OK; it’s just a matter of preference. And anyone who spends a lot of time obsessing about music can—or should—be able to contextualize. Just as it matters when and how music was recorded, so it also matters why. The songs in “Once More, With Feeling” work in the context of this episode, because of the characters who are singing them and the circumstances they find themselves in.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the particulars of the plot in “Once More, With Feeling,” because there aren’t many. A zoot-suited demon is summoned to Earth—by Xander as it turns out, though even the demon doesn’t learn that until the end—and casts a spell that has all of Sunnydale breaking into song-and-dance routines, while expressing what’s actually on their minds. (And as if that’s not disruptive enough, the musical numbers eventually burn out the people performing them—literally.) The demon—named Sweet in the credits though not in the episode as far as I can recall—intends to take Dawn back to his hell-dimension to be his bride, because she’s wearing the amulet that Xander used to call him. Once Sweet realizes that all is not as it appears, he goes away, leaving behind a little bit of hell in the form of all that his presence has unearthed.
It’s that little bit of hell that’s the real function of “Once More, With Feeling.” After a happy, retro opening credits sequence, and a montage of everyday life in Buffyland, our heroine slays vamps and sings a funny/sad Sondheim-esque song (with lots of conversational asides) about “going through the motions,” and how she still feels miserable back in the mortal-sphere. Later, when Buffy tells Giles that she’s sure he did just fine in playing the father-figure to Dawn after her bout of rebellion last episode, Giles realizes just how fully Buffy has checked out, and after Sweet kidnaps Dawn, Giles demands that Buffy go get her by herself. (Though he eventually weakens and rallies the troops to follow her.)
Elsewhere, Xander and Anya perform a swinging retro number—with her in a fetching vintage sleeper set—about all the little ways they annoy each other and how petrified Xander is of marriage. And Tara—in a Disney princess dress—sings a happy song with Willow before she realizes that Willow’s been making her forget all of their little disagreements via an enchanted flower, at which point the song “Under Your Spell” takes on a new, more soul-crushing meaning. And Spike shout-sings at Buffy about how he’s had it with her numbness and how even as a dead man he feels more than she does.
In the climactic sequence, Buffy breaks the fourth wall and blames the audience a little for her continued, hellish existence, looking into the camera and cooing, “You can sing along,” before launching into the big number where she finally reveals to everyone that she was in heaven before they (and we) yanked her away. So even though Sweet leaves—and even though Spike rallies to Buffy’s side, convincing her that life is precious no matter how distorted it all gets—there’s little feeling of victory, for the Scoobies or the viewer. The best we get is Spike and Buffy realizing that their individual songs fit perfectly together, and finally sharing a kiss.
I’ll be very curious to see how the remainder of Season Six absorbs the ramifications of what was said and done in this episode. I’m hoping it’ll inform what comes next. But if not, “Once More, With Feeling” alone is justification for Buffy The Vampire Slayer returning for its sixth season after the finality of its fifth. Maybe it’s because Whedon has worked for almost his entire career in television, where narratives play on and on until they become unprofitable, but the dominant attitude of a Whedon show seems to be “light entertainment cut with inevitable tragedy,” and that’s rarely been as well-expressed as in “Once More, With Feeling,” where the heroine walks out on her team’s anxious final song to steal a little romance for herself.
Ordinarily, ending the episode with a kiss would mean that all is well. But this is Buffy, and this is Joss Whedon, who believes that any story with a happy ending is one that isn’t really over yet.
- It probably wasn’t intentional, but I like that “kyrumption” sounds a little like “corruption.” It ties in with the idea of “Shansu” meaning two possibly contradictory things.
- Cordelia brightens up Angel’s basement training room with fake flowers, saying, “Put something real in this hellhole, it’ll die.” She’s not wrong, but that was kind of an unintentionally cruel thing to say.
- Still feeling ashamed about how he treated Fred in “Billy,” Wes snaps at Angel when he thinks Angel’s being too brusque with Fred.
- When Gunn tries to explain to Fred just which formerly dead lover of Angel’s is Darla, Fred asks, “Do y’all have a chart or something?” (And Gunn replies: “In the files; I’ll get it for you later.”)
- Nice try at a dodge from Angel: When Cordelia asks, “Did you sleep with her?” he says, “Vampires can’t have children.” (“Not what I asked,” Cordelia glowers.)
- Lorne’s redecorating and re-sanctuary-ing Caritas. He’s even hired a demon construction worker, with plumber’s crack.
- When the gang arrives to ask Lorne for help, Fred gets excited. “Is Angel gonna sing?” Gunn and Wes just groan.
- The “Once More With Feeling” choreography was by Adam Shankman! Nice job, Shanks.
- I couldn’t tell exactly what Buffy was sketching in the opening montage, before she starts singing. Was it a grave?
- Xander apparently has just seen Magnolia, since he’s now holding up pastries and saying, “Respect the crueller! And tame the donut!”
- Anya’s digressive heavy metal song about bunnies is a tour-de-force. And nodded to amusingly later in the episode, when Giles, tired of hitting the books looking for answers, says, “I’m a hair’s breadth away from investigating bunnies at this point.”
- “It’s do or die!”/“Hey, I’ve died twice!”
- Some especially risque moments in this episode, like Willow levitating Tara in a shot that makes it look like something else is going on—an impression reinforced by the line, “You make me come … plete!” Xander and Anya’s song too is very double-entre-y, with lines like, “Right in her tight … embrace!” and “Your firm yet supple … tight embrace!”
- Hey, if anyone out there is connected to the lesbian community, I’m curious: Is Willow and Tara’s love song a thing now? Because it’s got a very “womyn’s anthem” vibe about it.
- The ever-money-conscious Anya is disappointed that her song with Xander is a retro pastiche and “never going to be a breakaway pop hit.”
- Disappointed that everyone already knows about the singing, Dawn tries to surprise them by saying, “I gave birth to pterodactyl,” to which Anya gasps, “Oh my God, did it sing?”
- Tara explains to Dawn that someone has summoned a Lord Of The Dance … “but not the scary one, just a demon.”
- Math seemed a lot cooler to Dawn when her class was singing about it.
- I like how they disguise the fact that Alyson Hannigan can’t really sing by giving her almost no significant lines in the songs, save for the very funny, “I think this line’s mostly filler.”
- Xander makes waffles for himself, but by California law, Anya gets to have half.
- The Sunnydale newspaper headlines report the craziness, but note: “Monsters Certainly Not Involved.”
- “If we hear any inspirational power-chords, we’ll just lie down until they go away.”
- You can’t have an homage to Hollywood musicals without a ballet interlude, and Dawn gets a nice one at The Bronze.
- Spike uses old-time noir parlance and tells one of Sweet’s grotesque life-size puppet minions to “sing.” The music swells, but then the puppet just explains the plot, normally.
- “I’ve seen some of these underworld child bride deals, and they never end well. Maybe once.”
- I like the way Spike sings of Buffy, “First I’ll kill her, then I’ll save her.” It’s part of a string of tangled words, but I’m sure in many ways, Spike would love to have Buffy be properly undead.
- There’s no room to enumerate all the other wonderful little touches in “Once More, With Feeling,” but I did like all the singing and dancing going on in the margins, like the woman pleading with the cop to get of her ticket, and the street full of people singing, “They got the mustard out!” I also liked Giles describing the scene of one of the spontaneous combustions and talking about the police “taking witness arias.”
- When I made the decision to bring these Buffy/Angel write-ups back in the fall instead of waiting until next summer, I knew there’d be some sacrifices, like cutting back the number of episodes I write about each week and taking breaks for holidays. (We’ll have another one of those coming up soon, by the way, so don’t get too comfortable.) But the sacrifice I dreaded most was losing my viewing partner, who has a grown-up job and can’t watch TV with me during the day. We both cover prime-time shows for TV Club too, and we have kids who interrupt our viewing frequently, all the way up to their lights-out time at 9 p.m. In the fall and spring, our evening schedules are too full of time-sensitive viewing and writing (the latter of which usually necessitates turning the TV off for an hour or so for concentration’s sake) to fit in even two more hours of TV a week. So before I re-launched this column, I told Donna that I’d probably have to start watching Angel and Buffy without her. She was okay with the former (even though she enjoys the show), but she forbade me to do the latter. She insisted that we make the time for Buffy. Her reason? “I want to hear Giles sing.”