There are few things more satisfying for a TV fan than when a good show happens on story idea that its creative team clearly enjoys exploring. “Quickening” proceeds almost directly from the previous Angel episode “Offspring,” with Angel/Darla-hater Holtz revived in modern times by a demon who’d like him to resume his mission of 300 years ago, and with Darla convalescing at Angel Investigations HQ, her belly full of a baby that may be a long-prophesied dark lord. The action intensifies in “Quickening”—and ends on a cliffhanger—but mainly, it’s fun to see the Angel writers and cast increasing the pressure on the characters, just to see what pops.
First up: Holtz, whom we meet back in the 1700s, still reeling from the slaughter of his wife and kids when the demon Sahjhan shows up and offers to bring him to the future to fulfill his destiny to kill Angel and Darla. But the future’s not exactly what Holtz expected. Sahjhan insists that people are basically the same as they ever were, in that they still work and fight and form families. But there have been changes too, like “American revolution, manifest destiny, westward expansion, The Beach Boys.” And for his part, Sahjhan seems awfully comfortable with the compromises required by the new era. He has a human form that lets him fit right in among the Los Angelenos, and when he tells Holtz he can get him some minions, he brings Holtz to a den of nasty-looking demons. To get his revenge, Holtz is having to make some associations that may defeat the whole righteous purpose of his mission.
Meanwhile, at Wolfram & Hart, the news is out that Darla’s back in town and great with child, which is distressing to the firm’s higher-ups, since none of their staff’s psychics saw this coming. Knowing that the very existence of the spawn of two vampires must mean it’s Freaky Mystical Business Time, W&H plans a military-style extraction of Darla from Angel Investigations, and they’ve even hired Dr. Felanovich, an expert in paranormal obstetrics, to aid with the delivery. (“I look forward to dissecting both the mother and the child,” the doctor says, oozing good bedside manner.)
As for the staff at AI, they’re huddled around Darla, trying to figure out what to do about the baby. Darla has explained that the child’s under some kind of supernatural protection, because all her past efforts to get rid of it have failed. Wes suggests that they wait for it to be born and then chop its head off. Fred wonders if it’ll even have a head. Cordelia thinks that they should use a really big mallet to kill it. Gunn notes that “if it skitters we should have a net or something.” But Angel doesn’t want anyone to plan any kind of infanticide until they all know who’s actually inside what Gunn calls Darla’s “vampire girl parts.” So they sneak into a hospital to borrow some medical equipment, to take a look.
But no sooner does Angel learn that Darla’s about to have a normal human boy than the entire operating theater fills with vampires, who intend to worship the baby, after they kill all the humans to nourish mother and child (and then kill the mother). Fred tries to trick the vampires by holding a blade against Darla’s belly, but the keen hearing of vampires allows them to call her bluff, since Fred whispers the truth to Darla.
From there, mayhem ensues. The gang fights their way out of the hospital—in a very exciting sequence with lots of movement and freeze-frames—and head back to the hotel, where W&H’s armada is waiting. But the armada gets taken down by Holtz and his minions, who also do away with Dr. Felanovich. So while Darla is going into labor outside in an alley, Angel is inside the hotel, facing down Holtz.
There’s not much to analyze in this episode, thematically. There’s a little bit of an internal arc for Angel, Darla, and Holtz, as the former two get used to the idea of having a child, and the latter gets used to the idea of embracing evil to fight evil. But mainly, “Quickening” is a case of the kids in the Angel writers room playing with these toys they’ve so carefully constructed over the last few seasons. And that’s okay by me.
I’ve written quite often over the course of these Buffy/Angel write-ups about stories that sound good in theory but just don’t play so well once they’re off the page and being performed by actors. Initially I was worried that “Tabula Rasa” was going to be one of those episodes, but after a shaky start, it rallies and gets on a good roll in the middle, before arriving at an ending that for me didn’t work—again, not because of what happened, but because of how it was staged.
In a way, “Tabula Rasa” is a sensible follow-up to “Once More, With Feeling.” Last week everyone was singing the truth, revealing their deepest feelings about each other and raising painful questions about why they’re even friends. At the start of this week’s episode, Buffy’s trying her best to shake off Spike, even though he reminds of her of how they recently kissed, “with the rising music and the rising … music.” The rest of the Scoobies are in the dumps because they now know they dragged Buffy out of some kind of heaven-like dimension. (Although Xander’s trying not to be too depressed, because, “I just feel weird feeling bad that my friend’s not dead.”) Giles has decided he needs to head back to England again, because his presence is keeping Buffy from taking responsibility for her life. And Tara’s miffed at Willow for using witchcraft on her, saying, “When things get rough, you don’t even consider the options, you just do a spell.” Tara’s disappointment has made Willow so penitent that she promises Tara she’ll go a week without magic. But she cheats on the first day, casting a spell intended to make all her friends forget their recent woes. Instead, the spell knocks them all out and erases their memories—Willow included. So now we’ll find out: If our heroes were thrown together with no recollection of their personal histories, would they even like each other?
The immediate aftermath of Willow’s spell was painful for me to watch, and I don’t mean that in an, “Oh no, I care about these people so much and now what?” way, but in a, “Jeez, this is some bad writing and acting” way. It’s a difficult task, I know, to write a scene where the characters’ memories are wiped just enough that they don’t know who they are, but not so much that they’ve forgotten how to breathe (or don’t recall the name of the host of Candid Camera). Still, the lengthy, fumbling sequence of, “Yah! Who are you?” “No, who are you? “Wait, who am I?” all but killed any momentum the episode had built to that point.
But “Tabula Rasa” gets better—and funnier—when the gang starts using the clues around them to piece together their possible identities. Once Giles realizes that, “I seem to British … and a man … with glasses,” Spike first makes fun of him, but then figures that since he has a British accent too, they must be father and son—so he instantly starts resenting his daddy. Willow thinks that since she’s wearing Xander’s jacket, they must be boyfriend and girlfriend and that Tara must be their “study buddy” from college. Anya discovers that she and Giles co-own The Magic Box and assumes that they’re husband and wife. Buffy and Dawn get on each others’ nerves instantly, so they know they must be sisters, but since Buffy has no ID, she decides to pick her own name, and settles on “Joan.”
There’s something both funny and poignant about these characters starting afresh, with such enthusiasm for their new identities and—Spike and Giles aside—no immediate animosity towards each other. It’s a reminder of how much fun Buffy can be at its core. Hey, it’s magic! And young people! And vampires!
As if to exacerbate that fun-feeling, “Tabula Rasa” then brings in the vampires: a gang of enforcers for a shark-headed, Jack Nicholson-esque demon whom Spike owes forty Siamese kittens. When the vamps storm The Magic Box, Giles suggests, “As the proprietor of a magic shop, I propose we fight back. We can use things here in the shop. Magic … tricks or whatever they’re called.” Buffy, meanwhile, is indignant, asking who these jerks think they are. (Anya: “Bloodsuckers that kill by sucking blood. Take it easy, Joan.”) Then when they enter, Buffy acts on instinct and starts slaying.
Everyone else falls back on instinct to varying degrees too. When Willow and Tara are thrown together in the sewers, they eye each other with curiosity and real chemistry for a long time—touchingly so, given where they were at the start of this episode and where they’ll be at the end. When Spike feels the adrenaline of the fight, his vampire side comes out, though he’s quick to presume himself to be a “good guy” who “helps the hopeless,” and perhaps even “a vampire with a soul.” (Joan finds this idea “lame.”) And when Anya pushes Giles aside, trying to take charge of the magical research and spell-casting—saying, “My insight is that you’re not so much the magic guy and more of a paperwork type”—and she accidentally conjures a bunny, she freaks out, as Anya is wont to do. (She also swats Giles with a book, saying she was “compelled to take some vengeance on you.”)
So yes, “Tabula Rasa” definitely picks up steam once it gets past the halting introduction of the premise. But then it lets all of that energy dissipate in a closing montage of the characters—their memories restored—dealing with the sour aftertaste of their experience, while Michelle Branch sings, “Goodbye To You.” Tara leaves Willow, Giles leaves Sunnydale, and—on an up note—Buffy kisses Spike. Like I said, I have no problem with any of that as a narrative direction. But I wasn’t feeling the montage or the song. Perhaps if closing musical montages hadn’t become such a TV cliché over the past decade, I’d be more forgiving. Or perhaps I would have dug it if the episode used music I enjoyed more. Hard to say. All I know is that sometimes you can appreciate something in the abstract and then find it irritating in reality. Sort of like how it goes with friends.
- We meet a new character in “Quickening:” the Wolfram & Hart mailrom sycophant Cyril, who presents Lilah with video of her being mauled by Angel during the events of “Billy.” Lilah assumes that he wants to blackmail her into sex, but he says, “I respect you way too much to be attracted to you.”
- Later, Cyril calls to pass along the news about Angel and Darla’s baby to his true master, and hears the following message: “Hi, you've reached the Tittles. We can’t come to the phone right now. If you wanna leave a message for Christine, press one. For Bentley, press two. Or to speak to or worship Master Tarfall, Underlord of pain, press three.”
- “Guys, we’ve got to figure out what’s inside of her now, before it skitters out.”
- Another reason why the post-memory-wipe scenes of “Tabula Rasa” fumbled for me is because so much of it takes place in the dark, confined space of The Magic Box. I read some of you complaining last week that “Once More, With Feeling” sucked up a lot of the budget for Buffy’s sixth season. Is this a consequence of that? Can I expect a lot more episodes that dwell for an unusually long time in one location?
- “I’m with Miss Psycho Pep Squad.”
- I like Anya assuming that it must be nice for her and her husband Giles to be spending time together, even if she doesn’t actually feel anything for him. Foreshadowing of married life for Anya and Xander?
- Giles fights off a Harryhausen-esque skeleton in a room full of bunnies. For that reason alone, it’s hard not to feel warmly toward “Tabula Rasa,” whatever its failings.
- After her stare-a-thon with Tara, Mind-Wiped Willow says, “I think I’m kinda gay.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but weren’t those the exact same words she used when she met her doppleganger a few seasons back?
- “Sorry, I just got back the memory of seeing King Ralph.”