Angel was off the air for three weeks between “Calvary” and “Salvage,” and while watching this week’s episodes, I wondered if the show also had an extended production break pre-“Salvage.” The tone of these episodes is a little different from the two that preceded them; they’re a little less apocalyptically despairing and a little more run-of-the-mill mopey. It also seemed like the writers were feeling their way through a narrative that’s become crazy-complicated. After the confined staging of “Soulless” and “Calvary,” “Salvage” and “Release” sprawl out into multiple locations, and separate the cast (and the storytelling) as a result.
But what was most glaring to me this week was how different Vincent Kartheiser looked and acted. Perhaps I’m misremembering after my own long layoff, but Connor’s hair appeared to be longer and more oddly styled in these episodes. Or maybe that stood out because Connor is such a major player in “Salvage” and “Release”—at times obnoxiously so. It’s not like the Negative Nelly version of Connor has ever gone away exactly, but he was much more of a full-force dillhole this week, whether sniping about the team’s efforts to ward off Angelus through mystical means—“Magic again… you people rely too much on that junk”—or insisting that he’d kill Angelus if he had the opportunity no matter what his teammates command.
Who can keep Connor in check? How about Faith, whom Wes visits in prison shortly after she was almost stabbed by a fellow inmate (with one of those Slayer-killing daggers from the current Buffy storyline). Faith initially doesn’t want to help, until she hears that Angelus is on the loose, at which point she tells Wesley to step away from the glass in the visitor’s area while she smashes through. (“You okay?” she asks him after. “Five by five,” he replies, Faithfully.) Because Faith owes Angel for giving her a shot at redemption, she takes command of the Angelus hunt, dictating that it’s “a salvage mission, not a search-and-destroy,” and saying that no one should make a move without her “okay.” Connor resists, but falls into line eventually because he thinks Faith is kinda neat. (“A weakness for Slayers,” Cordelia sighs. “You’re definitely his son.”)
Besides Faith’s arrival—and another twist I’ll get to later—the big narrative development in “Salvage” involves Faith confronting The Beast, getting the crap kicked out of her, then watching as Angelus kills The Beast with its own knife, thereby restoring the sun. The reasons why Angelus would help humanity in this way aren’t immediately clear, though I have some thoughts about it I’ll hold for now.
First though, there’s a lot if other business going on in these episodes, all tied to what’s below the surface of an increasingly crowded plot:
- Wes finds the murdered Lilah (with Angelus standing over her, which leads him and Gunn to jump to the wrong conclusion), and as he prepares to dismember her as an anti-vampirism measure, he has a conversation with his imaginary version of her, in which “she” suggests that no matter how “dark” he pretended to be, he really did want to pull her back from the side of evil.
- Lorne gets advice on how to cast his own stripped-down “sanctuary” spell, preventing demons from harming anyone while inside the Hyperion. The spell keeps Lorne from smashing Connor over the head—unfortunately—but it also keeps Connor from attacking Angelus. Shaken by the thought that the spell has counted him as a demon, Connor retreats to the bathroom to stare at himself in the mirror with typical teenage self-loathing (and to try to make himself look more vampire-y).
- Fred—whom I miss, since she hasn’t been given a lot to do lately—gets cornered by Angelus, who asks for her help researching who might’ve been behind the summoning of The Beast. Fred tries to shoo Angelus away by telling him about the sanctuary spell, but Angelus wields a phony trinket that he says circumvents the spell. And Fred falls for it.
What do these three items have in common? They all show how our heroes continue to be motivated more by what’s inside their own heads than by the external threat facing them. Wes reaffirms his own good-guy-ism, putting words in the mouth of a villainess. Connor sulks, sure that he’s no good. Fred is frightened by the mere notion that she could be overcome, even though she’s in no real danger. In keeping with the theme of the last several episodes, it’s what’s inside these characters that is proving to be their greatest obstacle.
And yet also, maybe, their secret weapon. At first I was a little put off by how weak and silly Angelus seems in these episodes: soaking up the adulation at a vampire bar (where he insists that “I’m no different than the next guy… I put my victims’ skin on one leg at a time”), and showing no urgency to commit evil deeds. But when Evil Cordelia suggests to Angelus that he’s the true nature of Angel, always lurking below the surface, I thought back on Angelus dusting The Beast, and him dispatching a vampire skank at the bar, and now I wonder if the reality here is entirely the opposite of what Evil Cordelia is saying: that in fact Angel is working from within Angelus, to achieve the team’s goals unconsciously. I’ll be keeping an eye on that in the episodes to come.
I’ll also be keeping an eye on Evil Cordelia, a plot point that for now is still more an “Ummm, okay?” than an “Oh, I get it!” We know that she manipulated The Beast, and that she’s working on Angelus, but we don’t yet know why. Oh, and we also know now that she’s pregnant with Connor’s baby, which… well, I think “Ummm, okay?” still suffices with regard to that. I will say that the way Evil Cordelia uses her pregnancy to appeal to Connor’s yearning for family and normalcy is pretty sinister and creepy, and enhanced by the “’70s horror movie”-style piano on the soundtrack as she whispers, “We’re connected now… forever.” But since I don’t yet know what the deal is with EC or her rapidly growing fetus, I hesitate to weigh in beyond that.
On the whole, I’d call these two episodes a mixed bag: some poignant thematic development undercut a little by a surplus of plot and an overemphasis on the characters’ self-pity. Even Faith, who jump-starts “Salvage” when she appears, gets into the “woe is me” spirit in “Release,” as she chastises Wesley for the way he roughs up a human witness at a demon hangout, and as she listens to Angelus tell her that deep down she’s just like him. (Right before he bites her on the neck. To be continued.)
On the one hand, the “we suck” vibe of these Angels is a little bit too much like the dispiriting wallow that Buffy has lately become at times. (Though I hasten to add that I’m still enjoying both of these shows’ seasons overall.) On the other hand, the questions Angel raises about what really holds people back are the kind that Whedon’s shows have nearly always asked, and to good effect. The Buffyverse characters would like to be more like Gunn when he tells Fred, “If you really think you did something wrong, don’t do it again. That simple.” But they’re really more like Gunn when he refuses to talk about his problems and harbors resentments against all of his teammates. That, as much as any demon, is what’s left our heroes scattered and on the brink of defeat.
- It’s not like Faith’s appearance was a big “holy crap” kind of plot-twist, but it was still a bummer to have it spoiled by Eliza Dushku’s name in the opening credits. (And her picture in the DVD menu.)
- After Lorne casts the sanctuary spell, nothing appears to happen. Nifty bit of writing there: How can our heroes know if what they’re doing is having any effect?
- A fawning fan to Angelus: “Could you sign a little something for my hellspawn?”
- Angelus to a non-fawner: “[I want to] rip out your windpipe so it stops making that annoying talky sound.”
- Angelus believes that people who work in occult shops are obliged to help him.
- I like it when the Angel universe intersects with the Buffy universe, though Connor’s comment that he knows a little about vampire slayers left me trying to imagine that part of Connor’s demon-fighting education. Honestly, it’s hard to picture Connor in the same reality as the Scoobies. (The Potentials, maybe.)
- Next week: Buffy, “Lies My Parents Told Me,” and Angel, “Orpheus.”