I’m going to go in a different order this week, because I want to hold “The Body” until the end. (This is also the order I watched these episodes in, for the same reason.)
“Reprise” & “Epiphany”
Okay, I’m in. I’ve been resisting this season’s main Angel storyline for weeks, appreciating it only in the abstract, but with these two episodes—a two-parter, really—everything clicked not just on an intellectual level, but an emotional one. The themes of this season—and perhaps the series—resonated like a church bell. Let’s take them one-by-one:
1. The Big Test
This season opened with Angel stepping in to replace a woman’s guardian and enduring a trial on her behalf, and then a few episodes ago, Angel offered to sacrifice himself in a series of challenges to save Darla. Ever since he learned that he could regain his full humanity if he makes a positive effort to thwart the coming apocalypse, Angel has been struggling with what’s required of him. Is it quantity that the Shanshu prophesy requires? Or quality? With his efforts at positivity yielding few apparent tangible results, Angel has been modifying his approach: working alone, getting more vicious, trying to force the issue rather than being patient. In “Reprise” and “Epiphany,” Angel’s tests—many of them self-inflicted at this point—come to a head, and correspond with two other tests. Detective Kate is facing an Internal Affairs review board over her bizarre behavior and unsolved Angel-related cases. And over at Wolfram & Hart, Lindsey and Lilah are sweating out the firm’s 75-year-review, and wishing they’d had children, so they could offer them up in ritual sacrifice. (Lilah warns that the last time they had a review, nearly half of middle-management was sacked… “and they use actual sacks.”)
2. The Shadow L.A.
I also noted early in the season that the show seemed to be using its location more: jousts in the street, haunted hotels, abandoned reservoirs where cults gather, demon karoke bars, etc. In “Reprise,” Angel goes to visit Lorne at Caritas and sees all the W&H employees gathered there, staring holes in him (like they were dream-projections or something). But Lorne’s code of ethics won’t let him divulge what he sees in the W&Hers minds, so after a stop by the new Angel Investigations office—more on that in a moment—Angel hooks up with his old buddy Denver, the beatnik bookstore owner from “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been,” who tells him that he needs to obtain a special glove in order to kill a demon in order to steal its dimension-spanning ring in order to travel to the W&H home office. (“Okay, now you’re making this up,” Angel says.) Once Angel follows all the steps—and subsequently falls 15 stories—a door opens where there was no door before, leading to elevator manned by Holland Manners, whose contract with the firm extends beyond death. Holland promises to take Angel down to the home office—in Hell—but when the door opens, they’re back in Los Angeles, and Holland explains that evil is real, and dwells within all humans, because that’s what makes the world work. Hell is all around us, if we know how and where to look.
3. What You Need
When Angel reconnects with Denver, the old beatnik talks about how Angel changed his life back in the ‘50s by showing that even a creature as evil as a vampire could behave nobly and compassionately—humanely. Then Angel admits that he ultimately left the denizens of his old hotel to die back then, and that he’s become just as cold-blooded again. In fact, before he goes to see Denver, Angel goes out of his way to be a jerk, storming into the AI offices to grab a book he needs and glaring at Cordelia and Wesley when they try and protest. (Wesley literally stands up to Angel, which rips his gunshot wound back open.) And it’s a rough time for the people at Angel Investigations too. They did a great job on their last big case—removing a demon-eye from the back of a little girl’s head—but their clients are refusing to pay, claiming that demons aren’t real. And poor Cordelia is fretting that her job has killed her social life, leaving her with no friends. (When Wesley pipes up, she smiles and says, “You don’t count.”) The arc of this Angel season and the last has been in large part about showing how, much like Buffy, our hero needs human connections to stay in the right frame of mind for his mission. But apparently Angel’s friends need him—and each other—just as much.
“Reprise” and “Epiphany” are superbly written (both by Tim Minear), and are paced and performed with an intensity that belies their moments of melancholy. The first of the pair is exciting, but also profoundly sad as all the main characters retreat into despair and isolation. The episode ends with Angel giving up all hope and having sex with Darla, in hopes of losing his soul again. But then he wakes up and finds that nothing has changed, aside from him feeling his true purpose renewed. (Quoth an insecure Darla: “Was it not… good?”) “Epiphany” provides the payoff Angel fans have been wanting—or had been wanting I guess, since the episode aired nine years ago—as Angel seeks to mend fences with his old friends, just in time to save Cordelia from the same clan of demons who gave the little girl the extra eye a couple of episodes ago. (“You destroyed our spawn!” they complain. Moan, moan, moan.)
As frustrating as it was to deal with the scattered team over the past few weeks, it’s fun to see them reconnect one by one: first Angel checks back in with Lorne, who says he’d been waiting for Angel to come around and be a champion again, and warns, “If all you’re going to do is switch back to brood mode, we’d rather have you evil.” Then he swings by Wesley’s in time to kill some demons—“In I invite you!” Wesley says hastily—and endures Wesley’s scorn, which isn’t that tough, because Wesley is clearly happy to see him even though he knows he needs to be angrier. Still, the two have a funny exchange in the car, as Angel tries to make conversation (“Hey, guess who stabbed me!”) while Wesley acts all steely.
In the end, Angel saves Cordelia, then makes an unexpected proposition to his old team, saying he’d like to be their employee rather than vice-versa. Thus completes the humbling process that began withe Episode One of Season Two. And while I still wonder if we needed this many episodes to reinforce an idea introduced neatly in the season’s first, I can’t argue with the emotional impact or entertainment value of these two hours. I look forward to seeing how the writers build on this for the last six episodes.
“I Was Made To Love You”
I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this relatively light Buffy episode, what with “The Body” lurking down below and all, but I don’t want to shortchange it either, because I think credited writer Jane Espenson explores some powerful ideas in a comedic context, and even achieves an emotional payoff that sets up some of what “The Body” will do next.
The plot is simple: A robot named April has arrived in Sunnydale looking for her creator, a thoughtless dweeb named Warren. (That’s Warren Mears. Not Beatty. Or President Harding.) When she finds that Warren has a new girlfriend, her programming kicks in and she switches to Combat Mode, making life miserable for Warren, his girlfriend, Buffy, and even Spike, whom she throws through a window at The Bronze. Meanwhile, Joyce goes on a date, Buffy contemplates a romance with Ben The Intern, and Spike gets dressed-down by Giles, who tells him, “We are not your friends. We are not your way to Buffy. There is no way to Buffy.” Spike though is undeterred, and decides that if he can’t have the real Buffy, he’ll get Warren to build him a robot version.
The theme of “I Was Made To Love You” is right there in the title: What does it take to attract another person and then hold their interest throughout a long-term relationship? Warren built April to meet his every need, the discovered that when he got exactly what he wanted from a woman, he was bored with her. In a way April is a walking, talking critique of all those terrible romance-advice books for women that were popular around the time this episode aired. She’s such a sad little figure, sitting on a park swing while her batteries run down, telling Buffy that “good girlfriends don’t cry.” She’s primped and perfected, and she’s still been dumped.
There’s something moving too about April’s attempts to understand the oblivion of non-existence, as when her systems shut down and she frets, “What if he comes back and doesn’t find me in the dark?” Or when she beats up Warren’s girlfriend and says, “This girl kept lying to me, and then she went to sleep.” The line between love and disinterest may be hazy, but the line between life and death is more clear.
Or is it? That’s a question better asked by this episode’s epilogue. More on that right… now.
I’ve experienced two major deaths in my life. In 1996, one of my best friends was murdered out in Los Angeles, where he was in the early stages of a promising acting career. I hadn’t seen him in a while or talked to him in months, and I got the news the night before I was supposed to leave on a vacation with my fianceé’s family to the Atlanta Olympics, so I didn’t go the funeral. In the years since, I’ve realized that I probably could have rearranged our schedule and found a way to go, but I was 25 years old then and insecure about almost everything, so I didn’t assert myself. Instead I spent the hours after I got the news babbling nervously and incessantly to my fianceé about my memories of my friend. I didn’t know how to process his death. I didn’t know what was appropriate.
Four years later, my dad died. It seems like a much longer stretch of time, because in the interim I got married, bought a house, moved to Arkansas and started writing full-time. And when I look back, I have to remind myself that I didn’t have any kids yet, and that I’d only been a home-owning grown-up for a few months. My friend’s death feels like ancient history to me now, but my dad’s death feels like fresh news, even though it happened a decade ago. My dad died suddenly—a heart attack, while he was taking an afternoon nap—and I didn’t have any real responsibilities after it happened, beyond driving up for the funeral. My stepmother dealt with all the arrangements, and because my dad was the pastor of a small-town Episcopal congregation, our family had plenty of support. And it wasn’t like I was that close to my father. We talked on the phone every few months, and I’d just seen him at Christmas, but there was always a little distance between us, for various reasons. Still, my most abiding memory of that time was my physical reaction. That whole week, I felt as tired as I’ve ever felt, almost like I was wearing a weighted vest. I felt like something was pressing down on me.
The remarkable thing about “The Body” is how well Joss Whedon captures those particular, eclectic reactions when a loved one dies. The episode opens with a reprise of the final scene in “I Was Made To Love You,” in which Buffy comes home on a sunny morning and finds her mother laying dead on the sofa. Joyce’s body is cold and motionless, and appears slightly out of focus in the back of the frame for a moment before Buffy sees her. Once Buffy realizes what’s happened though, Joyce’s body becomes a hard reality that Whedon keeps returning to, by cutting to shots of her on the floor, or at the morgue. The second-cruelest cut comes after a flashback to a recent holiday dinner, which ends with Joyce and Buffy dropping a pie, followed by a cut to Joyce’s corpse. The cruelest comes after Buffy imagines the paramedics reviving Joyce and everything being okay, before she realizes that it’s not. That’s the way it goes when something terrible happens to us—be it a death in the family or even something as mundane as a bad grade at school. These things preoccupy.
Whedon takes a lot of chances with “The Body,” some of which may have been ill-advised, albeit in a way that’s in keeping with the episode’s subject matter. There’s no “right” way to react to a death, or even to document one. Whedon drops the music entirely (outside of the opening and closing credits), and employs multiple techniques to replicate Buffy’s disorientation. When she rushes to call 911, Whedon goes handheld. When the paramedics arrive, the camera zooms between Buffy and Joyce as Buffy tries to determine if her mother looks presentable. (Buffy ultimately reaches over and tugs Joyce’s skirt down a little.) When a paramedic explains that Joyce probably died of an aneurysm, Whedon only shows the man from the nose down. When Buffy tells Dawn that their mom is dead, Whedon shows them at a remove, through a window, with the sound muffled. When Xander frets, he walks in and out of frame. When the Scoobies arrive at the hospital, Whedon records their sympathetic hugs with quick dissolves. Some of these shots and edits come off a little gimmicky, but the ones that work are so effective that it seems petty to complain that Whedon overdoes it at times. (Besides, different moments are likely to move different people.)
Similarly, Whedon tries different ways through dialogue and action to convey how people grapple with the meaning of “lifeless.” Some of those ways are fairly blunt, as with Dawn’s mini-arc, which sees her go from being emotionally distraught at school over some petty insult, to cheering up when she has a conversation with a boy she likes, to being so distraught over her mom that she needs to touch Joyce’s dead body in order to understand what happened. (“Where’d she go?” Dawn asks, as if wondering how her normal teenage ups-and-downs took such an unexpected turn.) And some are more subtle, as when Dawn’s art teacher asks her students to explore the negative space around their subject—a body, as it happens—just as Whedon does with this episode, showing Buffy’s characters with a Joyce-sized hole in them.
My favorite sequence in the whole episode though is one that’s a little more down-to-Earth. It takes place in Willow’s dorm room, where she frets over what to wear to the morgue—“Why do all my shirts have stupid things on them? Why can’t I dress like a grown-up? Why can’t I be a grown-up?”—while Tara, who’s gone through a death in the family before, tries to be helpful, and Xander gets so frustrated with his feeling of impotence that he punches a hole through Willow’s wall.
And then there’s Anya.
I was holding it together fairly well while watching this episode, until Anya started saying inappropriate things on the periphery of the scene, like, “What will we be expected to do?” and “Xander cried at the apartment; it was weird,” and “Am I supposed to be changing my clothes a lot? Is that the helpful thing to do?” I finally lost it when Willow blows up at Anya for not acting like a human being and Anya yells back that as a recently re-mortaled person dealing with the real meaning of death for the first time in centuries, she just doesn’t understand.
Here’s the whole speech:
I don’t understand how this all happens, how we go through this. I mean I knew her and then she’s… there’s just a body. I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid. Xander’s crying and not talking and I was having fruit punch and I thought that Joyce would never have any more fruit punch and she’d never have eggs, or yawn, or brush her hair, not ever and no one will explain….
Yes, that speech does spell out the whole point of the episode in bolded, capitol letters, which ordinarily would be a bad piece of writing. But damned if Emma Caulfield doesn’t make Anya’s frustration real. And damned if there aren’t some times when even witty fictional characters need to say exactly what’s on their minds, even if it’s “writerly.” Besides, Whedon earns the speech with all the ways he emphasizes the physical aspects of life and death throughout “The Body:” Buffy cracking Joyce’s ribs while administering CPR, and Joyce feeling no pain; Buffy grabbing some paper towels to mop her own vomit, and watching the stain spread; Dawn being stalked by in the morgue by a vampire, a creature who is dead and yet animate.
This is going to sound strange, but it’s the vomit-stain I find most compelling. Here’s this warm, oozing essence of Buffy, seeping into a neat stack of Bounty; while in the next room an entire adult woman is sprawled on the floor with a broken bone that’s not bothering her in the slightest—because the “her” that was is no more, and persists only inasmuch as she’s seeped into the people who knew her. There’s the corpse—inescapable, inconvenient—and then there’s the spirit that has completely vanished. To make out its shape, you’ll have to look at the people gathered around where it used to be. At one point in “The Body,” Dawn’s crush-object Gavin asks, “Negative space… what’s that all about?” This episode is the answer.
-Funny opening to “Reprise,” with Angel coming across a couple of W&H employees in a room full of goats, reading an instruction manual on how to do a blood sacrifice.
-Wesley gives the de-oculated little girl a lollipop. When her mom refuses to pay their bill, Cordelia notes, “We didn’t even charge you for the mandrake!”
-The Lindsey/Darla relationship takes an interesting turn in these two episodes. He helps nurse her back to health (off the W&H books), and brings her cold blood because refrigerating it is the only way to keep it fresh. (“Not the only way,” Darla says suggestively.) But then she betrays him by sleeping with Angel. Lindsey already takes a shower every day when he gets home because his job makes him feel dirty. There won’t be enough showers in the world to wash away the Darla-stink.
-Holland Manners inadvertently helps provoke Angel’s epiphany when he explains that apocalypses come and go, and that Wolfram & Hart has “no intention of doing anything so prosaic as ‘winning.’” Initially Angel’s sense of hopelessness drives him into the arms of Darla, but surely it also plants a seed in his brain. If he can’t “beat” W&H in a conventional way, then clearly his turn towards brute force and heartless cunning is unwarranted.
-Virginia never thought that Wesley’s battles with demons would leave him with a gunshot wound. Wesley comforts: “The gun was fired by a zombie if that makes you feel any better.”
-Cordelia’s so mad at Angel that she mumbles his name when she answers the phone for Angel Investigations.
-Wesley tells Angel that Cordelia has changed since The Powers started giving her visions, and is no longer vain and carefree. (“Well, not carefree,” he hastens to add.)
-I failed to mention that at the end of “Reprise,” Detective Kate tries to commit suicide, and at the start of “Epiphany,” Angel saves her. My lack of interest in Kate probably speaks to how squandered she’s been as a character.
-Speaking of Kate, I didn’t quite get the significance of her not inviting Angel in, but him entering anyway. Does this mean that the old vampire rules may not apply to Angel anymore?
-Anya on April, ironically: “She speaks with a strange eagerness and selects her words a shade too precisely”
-Xander, feeling outnumbered by women when he makes a crack about sex: “I miss Oz. He’d get it. He wouldn’t say anything, but he’d get it.”
-Tara shocks everyone by swearing, then explains, “Just tryin’ a little spicy-talk.”
-Dawn, on hearing that there’s a robot around: “Was it Ted?”
-Buffy, on April and Glory: “I’ve had it with strong powerful women who aren’t me.”
-Among April’s key programming directives: Sex, praise, neckrubs. Also, when crossed, she growls. (“You made her so she growls?” Buffy asks, disgusted.)
-I don’t know if it’s just a “fashions of the times” thing, but lately there’s been a confusing samey-ness to the looks of characters. April looks a little like Dawn. Gavin looks a little like Ben. I find it distracting.
-Anya explains that Santa is real, and has been around since the 1500s. He disembowels children.
-I love the little bit in “The Body” where Anya discovers that she’s sitting on the blue shirt that Willow has been looking for and she shoves it into a drawer, not realizing its significance. That sums up so much about the character and the situation.
-Not sure what to bring Buffy to eat or drink, the gang show up with armloads of food. “We panicked,” Willow says. “The sandwiches are meat!” Anya enthuses.
-I’d been wondering what I was going to do when Buffy ends for me and Angel continues, and it looks like I have my answer. The Buffy “Season Eight” comic book is being converted into a motion-comic. It’s trickling out on iTunes now, and will be on DVD next January. I think I’ll write about it when I’m done with Season Seven.
-I also think I’ve figured out how I’m going to balance the crunch of new TV in the fall with my desire to continue on with this column (rather than waiting until next summer). I’m going to take a break in September and come back around mid-October, and when I do, I’ll just do one episode each of Buffy and Angel a week, rather than two. Even at that, I might still take frequent breaks for holidays and the like, though nothing too long. I’d like to press on to the end as best as I can. I’ll keep you posted on the details.
-And speaking of breaks, did you know that after this week’s episodes, both Buffy and Angel took almost two months off before airing new episodes? That makes sense in Angel’s case, but it must’ve been tough for Buffy fans. Anyway, in the spirit of that lull—and because next week’s very busy for me—I’ll be taking next week off from this column. Then I’ll tackle the last six episodes of each over the last three weeks of August. See you in two weeks!