“The Replacement” & “Out Of My Mind”
Early in Buffy’s Season Five, a theme of sorts is emerging, having to do with how the characters perceive themselves, how they’re actually perceived, and a truth buried so deep that it’s practically undetectable. And though Dawn barely appears in this week’s episodes (outside of a cameo in “The Replacement” and a couple of big scenes in “Out Of My Mind”), she embodies the season’s developing theme, given that she’s been accepted by the other characters as as a entrenched part of their collective world, even though we know that she doesn’t belong.
Of this week’s duo, I preferred “The Replacement,” which is now on my short-list of favorite Buffys. For one thing, it’s a Xander-heavy episode, from a Buffy era where Xander isn’t getting as many chances to be as likable as he once did. Plus the episode is hilarious, with sharp comic business in just about every scene. It also moves some pieces of plot along—like making sure that Xander has steady employment, a decent place to live, and prospects for the future—and throws in a from-left-field final scene as bracing as Dawn’s debut in “Buffy Vs. Dracula.” And it doesn’t spare the pathos either, though that pathos is couched in humor, as in an opening scene that has Xander entertaining Buffy, Riley and Anya in his basement pad and trying to pretend that the drunken row his parents are having upstairs is the work of clumsy burglars.
Xander’s embarrassment drives him to look for an apartment—something roomy and “above-terranean”—and when he finds a classy flat with a microwave for “hot-and-cold-running popcorn,” Anya insists that he pay anything for it, unaware that Xander is on the verge of having his construction job end and his income reduced to zero. Then an unlikely fix emerges: a demon called Toth arrives, with plans to destroy Buffy. He comes first to Giles at the magic shop, and though Giles stumbles to find a curse or totem to vanquish the demon—finally settling on a fertility god, which he uses as a head-conker—Toth really only means to send a warning. The Scoobies take a proactive stance to said warning and hunt Toth down at the town dump, where the demon’s zapper strikes Xander instead of Buffy. And unbeknownst to the gang, the zap splits Xander in two.
New Xander seems to have more on the ball than Old Xander: he dresses snappier, and comes to Buffy with a plan to vanquish his double, and seals the deal on his new apartment and an extension on his job contract (plus promotion and raise) with minimal effort. He also plays idly with a highly reflective coin, which convinces Old Xander that he’s using some kind of demonic hypnotizing trick. So while New Xander is currying favor with Buffy, Old Xander comes to Willow to plead for help and to prove he’s the real deal. (Method of proof: desperate Snoopy Dance.)
Here’s the nifty twist in “The Replacement:” New Xander isn’t a demon, or even a duplicate, per se. He is Xander. As is Old Xander. (To quote The Prestige: “They are all your hat.”) Toth’s Buffy-zapping plan was intended to remove the essence of The Slayer from Buffy Summers, then kill the weaker Buffy, which would simultaneously kill The Slayer. Instead, he split Xander into the strongest version of himself and the weakest, and in the words of Buffy, “If Xander kills himself, he’s dead.”
“The Replacement” has a weirdly disjointed pace (as a lot of the best Buffys have, frankly), and explains its own premise maybe once or twice too often. But I love the idea that New Xander isn’t getting any advantage that Old Xander doesn’t already have. It’s Old Xander who earned the promotion at work, and Old Xander who’s actually attractive to women. (Although that doesn’t stop Anya from wanting Old Xander to go away so that she can spend more time with New Xander; or, barring that, to take both boys so home so that they can all have sex together.) As for that flashy coin? It’s just a nickel—one that New Xander found flattened on a railroad track and liked. Old Xander likes it too. “Hey, it is cool. Washington’s still there, but he’s all smooshy. And he may be Jefferson.”
“The Replacement” then ends with a surprising little coda, in which Anya and the reconstituted Xander share a warm couple-y moment, after which Riley sympathizes and talks about how lucky he feels to have found someone like Buffy, before adding, wistfully, “But she doesn’t love me.” This sets up the next episode, “Out Of My Mind,” which is all about Buffy trying to prove how she feels about Riley by saving his life. “Out Of My Mind” is also all about showing that no matter the outward appearance, all is still not well, either between Buffy and Riley or in Buffy’s life in general. There’s a malignancy growing.
The episode opens with Buffy patrolling—slaying vamps before they even get out of the grave—and having her groove disrupted by both Riley and Spike, who are in killing moods for different reasons. Spike just wants “a spot of violence before bedtime,” while Riley is amped-up because—as it turns out—the soup of Initiative chemicals in his body are boiling especially hot, and cooking his heart, which is beating so fast that it’s in danger of bursting. So Buffy contacts The Initiative—via their secret listening devices in Riley’s room—and tries to get them to help her find her boyfriend and drag him to the doctor for a normalizing operation. Only Riley doesn’t want to be normal, because he’s afraid that his being just some ordinary slob will drive Buffy even further away.
Complicating matters is that when Spike finds out why Buffy is looking for Riley, he decides to hijack the golden boy’s neurology appointment, with the help of fugitive Harmony. (“Didn’t you hear? I’m totally her arch-nemesis,” a skittish Harmony says of Buffy.) Spike wants the Initiative’s chosen specialist to remove his inhibitor chip, but instead the doctor just pretends to remove it, leaving Spike just as powerless against humans as before. In the end, Riley gets his treatment, and gets reassurances from Buffy that she cares for him. From all outward appearance, all is as it was.
Except that it’s not. Riley’s doubts persist, and it doesn’t help that one of his old Initiative buddies has put a bug in his ear that it may be time to leave Sunnydale. Spike has a sexy dream about Buffy, and wakes up with a look of cold realization on his face. And Joyce collapses out of the blue, asking Dawn “Who are you?” as she falls to the kitchen floor. The doctors can’t figure out what’s wrong with Joyce. From the outside, she looks okay. But something… something’s not right.
“First Impressions” & “Untouched”
I was looking forward to “First Impressions,” since it’s the first credited Angel script by Shawn Ryan, the creator of one of my all-time favorite shows, The Shield. I find Ryan’s career fascinating: he worked on a few sitcoms in the ‘90s, then was a writer on Nash Bridges before signing on for one season—this season—as an Angel writer/producer. He followed that up with The Shield, then co-created The Unit with David Mamet, and spent a season running Lie To Me while getting two new series ready for this coming TV season: Fox’s Ride-Along and FX’s Terriers. I love The Shield so much that I’ve been looking for “the Ryan touch” in his other projects, but while The Unit and Lie To Me are plenty entertaining, they’re nowhere near as powerful as The Shield.
I can’t say that much for “First Impressions” either, an episode that had a few high points but otherwise veered between awkward and obvious. The story’s fine: Gunn asks for Angel’s help tracking down a demon named Deevak who’s terrorizing his neighborhood, but Angel’s feeling logy thanks to Darla (who’s been inspiring and infiltrating his dreams), so Gunn has to rely primarily on Cordelia, who has a vision showing Gunn in grave danger. Along the way, Cordelia borrows Angel’s car, which is promptly stolen, leading to Angel being forced to wear a pink helmet when he rides on the back of Wesley’s motorcycle. And Cordelia makes an ass of herself over and over in front of Gunn’s friends, but does in fact help him bring down Deevak (who turns out to be a big ugly mug who’d been disguising himself as a low-level gangster). But she confesses to Gunn that Deevak wasn’t the threat she saw in her vision. “It’s you, Charles,” she says. “You’re the danger.” (Did I groan at this line? Yes I did.)
I appreciate Ryan and the rest of the Angel crew making an effort to give Gunn more definition and backstory, but his hard-knock life didn’t impress me as being remarkably different from any other “poor kid who had to grow up too fast” on TV or in the movies. And I found the bickering between Gunn and Cordelia fairly annoying, if less strained than Cordelia’s foot-in-mouth-banter. (The routine where she tries to explain to one of Gunn’s friends what she meant by “I’m a working girl” was painful to watch.) Still, “First Impressions” furthers the Darla storyline by revealing that she’s been hanging around in Angel’s room while he’s in his delirium-state, and it features some good scenes with Angel and Wesley, especially when Angel questions a flustered young girl and then head-butts her so that she reverts to her vamp-self. A total Vic Mackey move there.
I liked “Untouched” much more, though I feel it squanders a potentially interesting character in Bethany Chaulk, a telekinetic being recruited by Wolfram & Hart attorney Lilah Morgan for the firm’s own nefarious ends. Bethany’s path crosses Angel’s after she fights off two would-be assailants in an alley, and he offers to help her control her powers. She resists at first, but then takes him up on the offer, and along the way Angel finds out (thanks to Wesley’s intuition) that Bethany’s been sexually abused by her father. Lilah eventually tries to use Bethany’s father to get her back under control and into the fold—or at least to freak Bethany out enough that she goes ballistic and shakes Angel up—but instead the move convinces Bethany that she needs to forge her own path. From the clichéd abuse story to the early exit, I felt like “Untouched” didn’t do enough with Bethany, a character worthy of an arc of her own. (Does she come back, or is that the last we see of her on Angel? Or do I really want to know?)
That said, “Untouched” was directed by Joss Whedon himself (from a Mere Smith script) and it had a lot of snap. I loved Lilah telling Bethany, “You’re special… in the old, non-retarded sense of the word,” and Wesley trying to impress Angel and Gunn by repeating the textbook definition of telekinesis over and over. I also loved the scene where Angel is blocked from entering a stranger’s apartment until the moment the stranger dies, at which point he falls right through the door, and the scene where Cordelia explains to Bethany that she can’t use her power to squash people and she can’t sleep with Angel. That’s a much more balanced and witty Cordelia than the one in “First Impressions.” (Especially when W&H’s goons come to kidnap Bethany and Cordelia shouts, “You can squash those guys!”)
Mostly though, I liked that the episode played like one long homage to The X-Men, from the struggle between Angel Investigations and Wolfram & Hart for the soul of a powerful young girl (shades of Kitty Pryde, who was recruited by Professor X and Emma Frost when she debuted in the comic) to the Jean Grey-like powers of Bethany. If Angel turns into a show about good and evil mutants (or demons) choosing up sides, that’d be okay by me.
I won’t get in the habit of comparing the two shows each week, but Buffy was remarkably stronger than Angel in this group of episodes, largely because it makes good use of all of its existing characters (outside of maybe Tara), while Angel is still adjusting to its expanded cast. Plus Buffy really seems to have a handle on where it’s going with its season arc, both thematically and narratively. Angel’s still setting up the pieces.
-The whole “watching kung fu in the basement” scene of “The Replacement” is a comic gem, from Xander apologizing for his broken, urine-stained hot plate and suggesting that they could warm up some Spaghetti-Os on the dryer—to which Riley demurs, “I had dryer food for lunch”—to Anya wriggling away from Xander’s attempt to rub her neck, complaining, “I have a dislocated shoulder! I’m trying to concentrate on the kicking movie!” It ends well too, with Buffy complaining about the fighting style in the movie, and saying that Willow would do the same if she saw a cauldron in a movie about witchcraft. Cut to: Toth’s bubbling cauldron.
-Xander, contemplating moving out: “Buffy you’ve been to Hell. They had one-bedrooms, right?”
-Riley, saddened by the town dump: “People say they’re recycling. They’re not recycling.”
-The gang runs into Spike at the dump, who sarcastically says he’s there because, “There’s a charming lady vampire who set up a tea room over by the next pile of crap.”
-Buffy has all the weapons she needs to fight Toth, from “axe” to “z-other-axe.”
-As I’m sure most of you know, New Xander was played in some scenes by Nicholas Brendon’s twin brother. I wonder how long the Buffy producers had wanted to do a Xander doubling episode?
-Great stuff too in the scene where Old Xander asks Willow for help, from Willow reassuring her friend that he’s not just some idiot that Buffy has to save—“Sometimes we all help to save you!”—to her surprised expression when he says that he needs Anya in his life. And again, the scene ends great, with Xander sniping, “Wait ‘til you have an evil twin, see how you handle it,” and Willow muttering, proudly, “I handled it fine.”
-Anya, on her relationship with Xander maturing: “When do we get a car? And a boat! No wait, I don’t mean a boat. I mean a puppy. Or a child? I have a list somewhere.”
-Old Xander and New Xander have a lot in common, including their love of Star Trek (“Kill us both, Spock!”) and their favorite number to call out in the pick-a-number game. They both yell out, “Eleven-and-a-half!” to which Willow says, “Wrong! Oh, but see!” (Giles’ take? “He’s a bad influence on himself.”)
-At the start of “Out Of My Mind,” Spike vows that, “I will know your blood, Slayer. I will make your neck my chalice and drink deep.” Then he falls into an open grave.
-Giles is busy organizing his magic shop, though not to everyone’s specifications. Anya freaks out when she finds a monkey head by the Styx water (“Do we want to pick exploded monkey out of our hair?”) and Willow’s disappointed that Giles is stocking salamander-eyes instead of newt-eyes (“If you ask me, the newt name still means something.”).
-Tara’s lone contribution to these two episodes is to tell Willow she has nice hands. Sweet, but surely the character has more to offer.
-I’m usually too much of a gentleman to comment on such things, but early in “Out Of My Mind,” Sarah Michelle Gellar looks quite, um… nipply.
-When Buffy thanks her friends for building her a workout space and compares them to Q, she’s quick to note, “Q from James Bond, not Star Trek.”
-Dawn eats Sugar Bombs, which I believe is also the cereal of choice for Calvin. (It’s becoming more apparent now that Dawn was originally supposed to be a younger character, as you folks told me last week. In these two episodes she acts more like a 10-year-old than a teenager.)
-Nice reveal on Riley’s heart problem, having Dawn discover it while she’s playing with Ben The Intern’s stethoscope. (Though I half-expected her to check her own heart and hear nothing.)
-Harmony acts tough when the doctor asks her to put put her cigarette, snarling, “Oh yeah, says who?” Then when the doc points to the no-smoking sign, Harmony apologetically says, “Oh God, sorry… I didn’t see the sign.”
-In Angel’s first dream in “First Impressions,” he’s just finished singing “Send In The Clowns” and “Tears Of A Clown” at Caritas. But he couldn’t come up with a third clown song to complete the medley. (My suggestion: “Death Of A Clown,” by The Kinks.)
-Geeky millionaire David returns to help Angel Investigations fight demons, but all Angel really wants is some financial advice.
-I liked the aftermath of AI’s first tussle with Deevak’s minions: tired heroes and piles of dust.
-Cordelia tells Gunn that if he wants answers from people, he’ll need to be “more Guy Pearce in L.A. Confidential and less Michael Madsen in Reservoir Dogs.” Gunn replies that he hasn’t seen a movie “since Denzel was robbed of the Oscar for Malcolm X.” (Which he totally was, by the way.)
-Angel’s car keys end up covered in demon blood or demon pus “or possibly both.”
-Angel breezes his way into a crime scene in “Untouched” by pretending to be a police detective. How far the character has come from the brooding guy of early in Season One, who wouldn’t have been so clever or nuanced.
-Angel doesn’t get the cop’s reference to Mr. Bill. Vampires probably don’t stay home on Saturday nights.
-Just as Willow knows what it was like to have an evil twin, Cordelia can sympathize with Angel being impaled by a steel bar. (Hey, it happens to everybody in the Whedonverse eventually.)
-Angel inverts The Hulk, deflecting Bethany’s sexual advances by saying, “You wouldn’t like me when I’m happy.”
-“You can’t fire me. I’m vision girl.”