“Older And Far Away”
I sometimes worry that I’m doing a disservice to both Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel by reviewing them in tandem. Early on, when Angel was finding its legs and Buffy was enjoying a creative peak, I might’ve underrated Angel because from week to week, its writing wasn’t as strong as Buffy’s. And now, we’ve reached a stage where I’m looking forward to each new Angel more eagerly than each new Buffy. I’m enjoying the narrative sweep of this Angel season and the places that the characters find themselves in right now. This season of Buffy is working on a much smaller scale, with characters who are more than a little miserable.
But I don’t want to give the impression that I’m not enjoying Buffy’s sixth season. I’m just enjoying it less than I’m enjoying Angel’s third. And really, if I weren’t writing about these Buffys, I’d probably be more enthusiastic overall. My wife, who just gets to watch Buffy and doesn’t have to have an official opinion about it, has been having a great time. For me, though, knowing the mixed reputation of season six and seeing it in contrast to Angel every week… well, it’s hard not to nitpick and overanalyze.
As a result, I may have undertouted last week’s ending, which I mentioned in passing as “very moving” but which many of you rightly pointed out in the comments was pretty devastating, with Buffy begging the Scoobies’ last remaining wholly good person to tell her that what she’s been doing with Spike is unforgivable.
To keep from making that mistake again, let me start this week by talking up the plotting and staging of “Older And Far Away,” credited to writer Drew Z. Greenberg and director Michael Gershman. Another season six episode that was probably designed as a budget-saver—given that it takes place almost entirely in one location—“Older And Far Away” finds our heroes trapped inside the Summers house, where they’ve gathered to celebrate Buffy’s birthday. Earlier, Dawn had complained in front of her guidance counselor about how no one’s ever around for her and how, “I wish I could make them stop going away.” But what Dawn didn’t realize was that she was making that idle wish in front of a vengeance demon, Anya’s friend Halfrek, who had been looking for an excuse to punish all those people who’ve been making Dawn’s life so crappy. So Halfrek cast a spell preventing everyone inside the Summers house from stepping outside.
It takes a while for the prisoners to figure out that they’re prisoners and even longer for them to figure out why they’re prisoners. In the interim between the first revelation and the second, they try to come up with a way to escape, and a few of them try to pressure Willow to make an exception to her abstinence pledge and use a little magic of her own. Willow wavers—and confesses that she does actually have a few magical items stashed away in the house—but holds strong because Tara’s at the party, and she doesn’t want to disappoint her.
Instead, Tara tries on her own to work up a spell of “release,” but it goes awry because our heroes aren’t the only ones trapped. On the previous night’s patrol, Buffy had fought a slippery demon with the power to disappear into solid objects, and had defeated it by piercing it with its own sword, binding it to the weapon. When Tara casts her spell, the demon is freed and promptly slips into the walls at the Summers house, where it slips back out periodically to slash away at the party guests.
I do have a few complaints about “Older And Far Away.” (Sorry, it’s hard to switch that part off. It’s kind of my job.) The party begins with the core group of Buffy, Willow, Xander, Anya, Tara, and Dawn, who are joined by an uninvited Spike, his affable demon pal Clement, Buffy’s skittish work-friend Sophie, and Xander and Anya’s pal Richard, whom they’re hoping will be a potential romantic partner for Buffy. But the extra guests don’t add much to the episode, aside from a few funny moments from Clement and Sophie and some tension when Richard gets stabbed by the demon. The guests serve more of a symbolic function than a narrative one (in ways I’ll get back to in a moment).
Also, while I’ve been a staunch Dawn-defender in this season so far, this episode brings back her worst character trait: turning any impossible situation into a referendum on whether everyone even cares about her. I know that’s intentional on the part of the writers. I know they want us to be annoyed with this self-centered brat. But it’s such an over-the-top version of petulant teenagerdom that it throws the whole episode out of whack.
That said, there are some strong Dawn moments in this episode too, including her look of deep disappointment when Buffy responds more enthusiastically to the weapons-chest Xander made for her birthday than to the leather jacket that Dawn stole for her. Also, just when Dawn starts to turn it around and explain to Buffy’s what’s bothering her, Anya uncovers all the loot that Dawn has swiped from The Magic Box (and elsewhere), thereby putting an uneasy truce at risk.
What’s so effective about “Older And Far Away” is that its narrative device—whether imposed by budgetary limitations of not—forces the characters to spend time both with each other and with their darkest secrets. Buffy’s stuck in a house with Spike, who keeps trying to corner her for a romantic liaison, risking the exposure of their affair. Both Willow’s and Dawn’s secret stashes are uncovered. Anya’s insensitivity to and frustration with her friends exacerbates the tension. The attempt to bring outsiders into the circle goes awry. Over and over, longstanding problems pop up, like that sword-wielding demon, ready to slash.
Even the resolution of the episode is on-point. Buffy re-ensnares the demon, while Anya figures out that Halfrek is responsible and summons her to account for herself. Halfrek announces her intention to leave everyone exactly as they are, as just punishment for ignoring Dawn, but then she realizes that because of her spell, she’s now stuck right there with them. So she removes the spell and allows everyone to leave. How apt: the villain of the piece, like the heroes, trapped by circumstances that are self-created.
Angel, meanwhile, continues to bull ahead with another entertaining episode, full of humor, pathos, and a disturbing plot twist. Set in the aftermath of “Waiting In The Wings,” “Couplet” finds Angel and Wesley dealing with their respective heartbreak. There are lots of shots of Wes trying to work while stealing glances at Fred and Gunn acting all couple-y—and one sweet shot of Wes moving his head a little so that he can see Fred without Gunn—along with scenes of Angel not-so-subtly trying to position himself as a preferable alternative to The Groosalugg. The problem is that Groo’s a genuinely good guy: nice-looking (especially after Cordelia gives him an L.A. makeover), friendly, and courageous, and (because he’s not a vampire) he's able to go after demons in the daylight and woo Cordy at night.
But not all is well with our power-couples either. Cordelia’s is worried that if she performs “com-shuck” with Groo, then the Pylean prophecy will come to pass and her gift of visions will pass from her to him. (She’ll lose her “vision-ity,” in other words.) Angel suggests that there might be other ways for the two to relieve their tension—“Jogging could be the thing!”—but Cordy is sure that there must be some way that they can “com without actually shucking.” So she does some research and discovers a demon brothel run by a madam who sells a potion that will protect her powers. Then she withdraws all her money and sends Angel and Groo to fetch it.
Meanwhile, Fred and Gunn are so busy making goo-goo eyes at each other that they botch an assignment to keep an eye on a client’s boyfriend (whom the client suspects of canoodling with a witch). When the boyfriend disappears, Fred and Gunn snoop around the big tree where they last saw him, and they’re promptly dragged under the ground by sentient roots. Down below, they’re bound by a demon with fleshy tendrils and an internet connection—one that it uses to lure horny men via chat-rooms, so it can drain their life-forces. While it’s waiting to have a go at Fred and Gunn, they call Angel and ask him to come quickly and bring Groo. When Groo attacks the demon, it spears the hero in the chest, so Angel steps up and taunts both the demon and Groo, asking, “Is he really better than other men?” while punching his romantic rival in the face—thereby weakening Groo and making him less of a power-source for the demon. So the demon taps Angel instead, and finds that trying to drain a vampire is fatal.
I love the funky villain in “Couplet,” but even more, I like Angel’s transformation over the episode from comically defensive to nobly suffering. Early on, he’s trying to convince himself that Groo’s smaller and weaker—“Clearly the guy shrank,” Lorne says helpfully, “All over, probably”—while dealing with the indignity of Groo wielding a big broadsword instead of his own tiny axe. Angel’s also pining for Cordelia, going back into his closet to smell her perfume on his formal jacket. But by the end, Angel’s giving Cordy her potion and a wad of cash and urging her to take off for a few weeks with Groo to somewhere nice. (“Somewhere where there’s… sun,” he adds, in one of the most crushing lines I’ve yet heard Angel speak.)
Wes, too, does his best to bear up, calling Gunn into his office at the end of the episode to concede defeat gracefully and give him the ol’ “you’d better take good care of her” speech. But Gunn either misreads Wesley’s intentions or doesn’t think much of them, because he recoils a little from his boss’ words, hissing, “What are you, her brother?” To which Wesley answers, “Apparently” (in one of the most crushing lines I’ve yet heard him speak).
So there they are, Angel and Wesley, united in unwilling bachelorhood. Except that Wesley’s been doing some research about Angel’s baby boy Connor, and he’s discovered something shocking: a prophecy that reads “The Father Will Kill The Son.” I have a feeling it’s going to put a serious damper on their best-bud male-bonding when Wesley reveals to Angel just how alone they both may really be.
- Watching Dawn in class made me think how if Whedon and company had wanted to, they could’ve returned Buffy to being a high school show, by featuring Dawn more than they have so far. I don’t think that would’ve been preferable to the choices they actually made, but it would’ve been an interesting direction.
- Speaking of which, the past couple of episodes, Willow has been more like the Willow of old, which has been nice to see, even if it’s only happened because she’s painfully insecure again.
- On the flipside, Xander hasn’t been much of anything lately: not comic, not heroic, not pathetic. He’s mainly just a line-deliverer and a foil for Anya. Very disappointing, given what that character used to mean to the show. I miss him. I also miss Spike being a full part of the team, as opposed to being Buffy’s shameful secret sex toy.
- Funny smash-cut from Buffy insisting, “We’ll be out of here soon,” to it being about 12 hours later and everyone still stuck in the house.
- Another nifty piece of plotting as Anya summons Halfrek, who’s promptly stabbed by the demon. She doesn’t die of course, but one of the great things about Buffy is that you can’t be sure that the writers won’t just kill someone like Halfrek off at random. I know some fans hate that about Whedon shows, and I’ll admit that the body-count can get ridiculous at times—as on Dollhouse down the stretch—but you can’t deny that it keeps us on our toes.
- Halfrek apparently knows Spike from when he was William. (I know you guys have explained before that the actress playing Halfrek is the same actress who played a character in “Fool For Love,” and that the implication is that she’s the same character, but I’d forgotten all that before I saw this episode.)
- “We prefer Justice Demon.”
- Groo explains that when he was deposed from his post as the ruler of Pylea, the more radical element “did the dance of revolution.”
- Wesley asks a book store owner for a copy of Grammaticus’ Third Century Greek Commentaries, and the owner replies, “Of course, the G.T.C.G.C.” Later, as Wes is trying to cheer up Angel by saying, “You’re like one of these rare volumes: one of a kind,” the owner returns and says, “I got three of ‘em.”
- Sweet moment between Angel and Cordelia, as she asks for a favor and calls it “one more thing for the list,” and he interjects, “There’s no list… you know that.”
- A nifty bit of physical comedy as Angel and Cordelia are talking and in the background, Groo is miming a great battle for Wes.
- Cordy dresses Groo in Angel’s clothes, mainly as a matter of convenience, but could it also be a subconscious attempt to replace the man she really likes with the one she can actually have?
- “Your coat is singing.”