“Triangle” & “Checkpoint”
You know what? I liked Riley. I know a lot of Buffy fans never could stand him, but I liked that he was a different kind of boyfriend for Buffy and a different kind of presence on the show: more can-do and less weak and tortured (vampire brothels aside). That said, he hasn’t been much of a factor in Buffy’s life in Season Five, and as much as I appreciate the writers trying to give Riley his due by having Buffy and all the other characters deal with their shock and grief over his departure, “Triangle” verged on the ridiculous at times in the rending of garments. It’s one thing to have Dawn talking to Buffy about how she misses Riley, or Xander talking to Anya about the same, or everyone speculating over whether Buffy is doomed to a loveless life; it’s quite another to have Buffy so freaked out over the prospect of trouble in Xander and Anya’s relationship that she bursts into comical tears. I get that the scene between her and Tara is supposed to be funny; but it’d be funnier if I believed for a second that Buffy was genuinely upset.
Now, with that complaint out of the way, I have mostly positive things to say about “Triangle,” a very funny episode credited to the talented Jane Espenson. Granted, there’s not a whole lot on the episode’s mind, thematically or narratively. Giles heads out of town to consult with The Watchers’ Council about Glory, and Anya and Willow bicker about how best to manage The Magic Box, which is really just a way for them to cover their mutual jealousy over their respective Xander relationships. In the midst of one of their arguments, Willow accidentally conjures an angry troll (played by Abraham Benrubi, best known to me from his many years on ER), who pledges to “burn your crops and make merry sport with your more attractive daughters.” And off we go, with slapstick comedy and witty banter galore. “Triangle” is basically a mood-lightener, following several consecutive gloomy Buffy hours.
And though it’s a little too manic for me in the early going, “Triangle” builds up some terrific comic momentum once it’s revealed that the troll, Olaf, is one of Anya’s exes. When they were both human, he cheated on her—though he insists, “I did not cheat! Not in my heart! It was only one wench and I had had a great deal of mead!”—and she responded by cursing him and turning him into a troll, which is what got her the gig as a vengeance demon in the first place. Then some witches trapped Olaf in a crystal, turning him against all witches—including Willow. Xander stands up against Olaf to defend his two favorite women and gets duly clobbered, though Olaf admires his pluck, and gives him a choice: save Willow The Witch, or save Anya The Curser. One of them, though, will have to die. (“That’s insane troll logic!” Xander complains. “Go Xander, I love you,” encourages Anya.)
Ultimately Willow persuades Anya to distract Olaf by enraging him—“I have faith in you. There’s no one you can’t piss off.”—which she does by taunting him with insults like, “Your menacing stare is merely mildly alarming, and your roar is less than full-throated!” Olaf counters by dismissing Anya’s boyfriend as “ludicrous and far too breakable,” insisting that she and Xander will never last. (A claim that makes Buffy burst into comical tears for the second time in the episode… though this time it’s funnier.) Finally, Willow is able to cast a spell to send Olaf to an alternate universe called The Land Of Trolls—“He’ll like it there,” Anya says. “It’s full of trolls.”—though Willow notes that trying to send people to a specific alternate universe is like “trying to hit a puppy by throwing a live bee at it.” So it’s possible that Olaf ended up somewhere else, like Anya’s perennial fallback Alt-U, The World Without Shrimp. (“There’s a world without shrimp?” Tara enthuses. “I’m allergic.”)
The comedy MVP of “Triangle” though would have to be Spike, even though he barely appears in the episode. We first see him practicing a heartfelt decoration of love to Buffy by delivering it to a mannequin, though the speech takes a turn to the bitter and he ends up beating the dummy up. Later, at the Bronze, Xander confides to Spike that he’s dismayed that his friends haven’t warmed up to Anya, and Spike sympathizes, saying, “A lot of people never really got Dru.” (To which Xander says, “Well, she was insane.”) Then Olaf smashes in, demanding to know where he can find “plump, succulent babies to eat,” and without missing a beat, Spike turns to Xander and asks, “What do you think, the hospital maybe?”
Spike also rules “Checkpoint,” though again he’s only in about three short scenes. In one, he inadvertently prevents Buffy from taking out her frustrations with college on some vampires, then waits patiently for her “heartfelt gratitude.” In another, he allows Joyce and Dawn to stay with him for protection, and has a fannish conversation with Joyce about the bizarro soap opera Passions. (There’s a “Hey, it’s 2001!” moment for you.) And when The Watchers’ Council interviews all of Buffy’s team for insights into her methods, they talk to Spike while nervously keeping him at bay with a cross and a crossbow. (“I wrote my thesis on you,” one council-member says, shakily.)
The WC’s interviews are the most entertaining part of another highly entertaining episode—an episode with more narrative and thematic significance than “Triangle.” The Council has arrived with information about Glory, but the snippy Quentin Travers refuses to pass the intel on to Buffy until he’s sure that her methods are sound and that she won’t accidentally destroy the world while trying to save it. The WC is not encouraged by the Scoobies’ anecdotes about fighting alongside The Slayer. (“I was the heart part of a Super-Buffy!” Xander explains, describing the Season Four finale.) And they’re not impressed by Willow and Tara’s ignorance about their own status on the witchcraft scale. “What level are you at?” they ask. “On a… high level?” Willow says, before Tara blurts out, “Five!”
What I liked best about “Checkpoint” is that it answered a lot of the questions I was testily tapping out in my notes while watching it. Specifically, I’d been wondering what purpose the Council serves if there’s only one Slayer and they’re not Watching her anymore. When they showed up making demands on Buffy and threatening to close up The Magic Box and get Giles deported, I was thinking, “Didn’t they fire Giles? And isn’t Buffy essentially a rogue now? What power do they really have?” But then “Checkpoint” addressed those questions head-on, showing that while the Scoobies’ methods are unorthodox—and Giles’ carelessness with powerful magical objects may be irresponsible—Buffy and her friends are “trained to win,” and not just to put up a noble fight before perishing.
That’s an interesting idea—the idea that the ancient ways of doing things are outmoded and ineffective—and one that Buffy has been exploring well throughout its run. As Spike noted a few weeks ago, Buffy has survived for as long as she has in part because she’s bound to this world by her relationships. And as I noted a few weeks ago, even the demons in the 20th century have lost interest in ritual, and would just as soon watch TV and eat chicken wings. The real fight that Buffy has been staging for five years now may not be between good and evil, but between hidebound traditionalism and ingenious innovation, and between elitism and democratization.
Because while the WC has their training and tests, it’s ordinary, common old Xander who has “clocked more field-time than all of you put together.” And while the WC has mobilized its team of researchers to learn about Glory, other forces have approached Buffy directly, to tell her and her alone about The Key, and—in the case of the The Knights Of Byzantium—to threaten to kill her if she doesn’t relinquish it. This is all happening without the involvement or knowledge of the Watchers, which tells Buffy one thing: “Power… I have it.”
So Buffy leverages her power and gets the WC to reinstate Giles (and to pay him what they owe), and to tell her what they know about Glory: namely that she’s not a demon, but a god. And while I know that some Buffy fans are as stony to Glory as they were to Riley, I have to say that I like that character too, and even moreso now that I know more about what she is. What better symbol for the degraded state of The Old Ways than a mad god in stylish clothes, sucking the brains of postmen and walking right into the Summers house and staring straight at Dawn—the object she seeks—while remaining completely ignorant.
“Redefinition” & “Blood Money”
Both of this week’s Angels were mostly enjoyable too, though I find myself ready for the Darla storyline to take some kind of turn. In “Redefinition,” the newly fired Angel Investigations crew regroups over drinks at Caritas, as Angel prepares himself for the coming fight with Darla and Drusilla—while narrating his training in stone-cold voiceover—and though there are some humorous and some bad-ass moments in both halves of the episode, I’m having a little trouble buying the build-up. Are Darla and Drusilla really that hard to kill? And is Angel really so worked up by their reign of terror that he has to punish himself with thoughts like, “I’m not ready yet. Too many years sleeping in soft beds.”? Basically, I have the same complaint here that I had last week. In the abstract, I can appreciate how this is developing, but there’s a certain amount of “because we say so” to it all. We’re supposed to believe in what’s happening with Angel and Darla because of the words in the script, not because we’ve actually witnessed their evolution as lovers and enemies.
That said, I did find Darla and Dru more amusing this week, what with Darla sighing, “Recruiting an army of demons is stressful,” and Drusilla responding to Darla’s suggestion that Angel’s probably flogging himself in church by saying, “Ooh... Flogging! Eww… churches.” I also like their assessment of Lilah and Lindsey. (Dru: “I like the girl. She’s wicked.” Darla: “They’re sweet kids.”) There’s pleasure to be had too in seeing a stressed-out Lindsey and Lilah jump through hoops for their new bosses to replace Holland Manners as the new “Executive Vice-President Of Special Projects,” even if the episode cops out at the end by having them become “joint acting co-vice-presidents.” And even if I don’t fully understand the place Angel is at right now, it was fun watching him lure Darla and Drusilla into an abandoned warehouse, so he could set fire to them.
Also, I did appreciate that we got to spend more time with Gunn, Wesley and Cordelia, even if it meant enduring some strained attempts at drunk-humor. (If I never have to hear Cordelia call Wesley “Ass-pansy” again, I’ll be grateful.) A lot of the scenes at Caritas were pretty inspired, including Wesley ordering a “Bloody Mary… no blood,” and the gang going from screaming at each other to singing “We Are The Champions” in the space of one cut. I have to agree with Cordelia: “You know what’s really evil? Tequila.”
The Gunn-Wesley-Cordelia trio gets a decent subplot in “Blood Money” as well, as Cordy has a vision of a two-headed fire-breathing beast and Gunn and Wesley fumble through the sewers to do the absentee Angel’s job for him. Meanwhile, Angel is going after Wolfram & Hart the way old-school P.I.s do, by following the money. The money-trail leads him a shelter for runaway teens, managed by a plucky young woman named Anne Steele, who’s letting W&H raise money for her via a western-themed celebrity benefit called “The Big Hold-Up,” in which rich folks will pretend to have their donations stolen by the hot young stars of the hit show Life Lessons (after which W&H will hold back 95% of that money for themselves).
The concept of “The Big Hold-Up” allows credited writers Shawn Ryan and Mere Smith to throw in a few western homages, including a gunfight-like final standoff between Angel and his old demon enemy Boone. (They met in Juarez in the ‘20s, and fought to a draw over a woman.) But “Blood Money” also mixes in a few other genres as well, like the gumshoe genre (as Angel shakes down his informant, the weaselly Merle), and the sting genre (as Angel and Boone use Lilah and Lindsey and Anne to put a scare into Wolfram & Hart). Not everything works. I winced a little at the waifish Anne’s faux-toughness when she talked to Angel about “some 14-year-old girl sitting in her own blood after a rough trick.” But I loved the ending of the episode, in which Angel gives Anne all the money he and Boone stole from the benefit, and she’s taken aback by the dark ooze on one stack of bills. “What’s this?” she asks. “Blood,” he says. And she shrugs and says, “It’ll wash.” Very cool.
Also cool, in a different way: Wesley and Gunn defeating the fire-breathing demon, and then telling their war stories to an impressed Cordelia. (Wesley: “And Gunn hits him form behind, yelling, ‘Look at us when we kill you!’ And both its heads turn….”) I’m anxious for order to be restored in the universe of Angel Investigations, but I do see that this separation is serving a narrative function: to turn Angel’s sidekicks into an accomplished demon-fighting unit. Life lessons indeed.
-Y’know, Michelle Trachtenberg is really not a very good actress, at least not to this point in the series. I hope this isn’t going to be a major problem.
-Buffy’s starting a new semester. Will we see any more of UC-Sunnydale than we did in the first half of the season? So far we have seen her in a history class, where she challenges the professor’s hard-and-fast approach to facts, and gets roundly mocked. (“Well, I’m sorry that these facts are so boring for you, Ms. Summers. Maybe you feel I should step aside so you can teach your own course. ‘Speculation 101,’ perhaps. Or ‘Intro To Flights Of Fancy.’”)
-Where’s Riley? According to Xander, he’s in The Central Republic Of Where-In-The-Hell.
-When Xander wonders how Buffy’s handling the breakup, the episode cuts to her staking a vampire in a convent and then peppering a nun with questions. “Do you have to be, like, super-religious? How’s the food?” Later, she raves about the experience. “I met a nun, and she let me try on her wimple.”
-Willow compares Anya’s anxiousness about Giles’ absence to the scolding fish from The Cat In The Hat. When Anya doesn’t get the reference, Willow and Tara explains: “This cat does all this mischief when these children’s mother is away. … It’s so cute. He balances a bunch of stuff, including this fish in a bowl. But don’t try it for real when you’re six, because then no more fish for five years.”
-Anya, on driving: “I only just found out what the left pedal does. It makes it stop!”
-Willow explains why Anya doesn’t have to worry about her trying to steal Xander away from her: “Hello, gay now!”
-I would mark the appearance of Blur’s “There’s No Other Way” on the soundtrack as a “Hey It’s 2001!” moment, except that the song came out originally in 1991.
-Did The Bronze serve beer back when the gang was in high school? I don’t remember ever seeing any alcohol in the background.
-One thing you can say for The Bronze, though: “They’ve got this onion thing….”
-Anya is nervous that The Watchers’ Council won’t look kindly upon her. (“They don’t sound very ex-demon compatible,” she frets.) When they interview her, she dubs herself “Anya Christina Emmanuella Jenkins” and talks about he childhood, “When I was younger and therefore shorter than I am now.”
-Cordelia, on Angel’s Darla problem: “At least he’s consistent. It's always some little blonde driving him over the edge.”
-Virginia asks if Wesley can file a grievance with the union over Angel firing him. When Wesley looks askance at her, she explains that her father always used union conjurers.
-Even colder than Angel firing his staff in “Reunion”? Refusing to answer their phone call in “Redefinition.”
-Lilah and Lindsey’s bosses are a little irritated that Darla and Drusilla “ate the majority of our contracts department.”
-One of my least favorite kind of clichéd storytelling fake-outs opens “Blood Money,” as Gunn stares at Wesley and says, “I know you don’t have what it takes,” and it turns out they’re only playing a game of Risk. (The “playing a game” fake-out is almost as bad as the “only acting” fake-out.) That said, I did like Wesley’s meek “I’ve still got Kamchatka” after Gunn clobbers him.
-Lindsey, unsympathetic to Angel’s plight: “Let me wipe away my tears with my plastic hand!”
-Anne’s not freaked out by Angel, because she had a pretty dark adolescence. “I thought vampires were the coolest,” she explains.
-The W&H folks suggest to Anne that Angel’s borderline schizophrenic. They’re trying to scare her of course, but it’s still an interesting diagnosis, given his wild shifts in temperament over the years.
-Holland Manners survives ! (On videotape, at least.)
-And lastly, perhaps the biggest revelation of “Blood Money:” Wolfram & Hart has big plans for Angel, to play a role in the coming apocalypse. Um… yikes.