It can be tricky to introduce a guest star to a tightly serialized drama. On the one hand, we fans tune into the same shows week after week presumably because we’re interested in the actors and characters that we’ve come to like over the years, which means that the more guests that are crowded into an episode, the less we’ll get to see of our favorites. (This is one of the major sources of annoyance with “The Potentials” in Buffy’s seventh season: that they take away screentime from Xander and Willow and Anya and all.) On the other hand, sometimes writers get into a rut when dealing with the same core group of characters week after week, and either fall back on a reliable set of rote jokes and behavior or radically change the characters without really thinking through the ramifications. In those cases, bringing in a guest star can stave off some souring, because it gives the regular characters someone new to react to, and it gives the writers a chance to add new flavors as a garnish, without completely ruining the dish.
All of which is just my rambling prologue to announcing that it’s guest star week here in Buffy and Angel land! And not just any guest stars, but Gina Torres and Nathan Fillion, who at the time these episodes were shot found themselves unexpectedly unemployed after Firefly failed to launch. So how do these two Whedon favorites slot into these shows: as frustrating distractions from the main cast, or as invigorating additions? I’d say that for these two episodes at least, it’s unequivocally the latter. Maybe it’s because they’re both playing villains, or maybe it’s because they’re both such charismatic performers. Whatever the reason, Torres and Fillion made this a fun week overall. Here’s why:
“Shiny Happy People”
It’s astonishing to me how quickly the arrival of Torres as an unnamed deity (later dubbed “Jasmine”) changes the tone and meaning of what’s gone before in this often difficult fourth season of Angel. I still can’t be wholly enthusiastic about the long road it took to get to this place, and I remain skeptical about the tangled “everything that’s ever happened on this show has led to this moment” explanations. That said, when Jasmine gathers the team and tells them the story of how before the time of man, great beings walked the Earth, I was rapt. And as she goes on to explain the origins of good and evil, and how the gods let the humans down by becoming little more than observers, I found her version of past events pretty resonant. There’s a theme there, tied to a recurring Angel (and Buffy) dilemma: Are you just going to sit idly by and do nothing? Or are you going to charge in heroically and make the situation worse?
In “Shiny Happy People,” the crew at Angel Investigations are more than willing to charge in, especially with Jasmine telling them to. She enchants them all instantly, making them feel calm, happy and loved in her presence, and despondent when she leaves the room. So when she gently commands them to take to the streets to clean up the demon infestation, they remind her that they are unworthy and should be punished, and then they take up arms and kick supernatural ass.
“Shiny Happy People” is frequently a very funny episode, with the comedy stemming from how completely transformed our heroes are by Jasmine. When Connor returns to the hotel and picks up a knife, Fred freaks out, while Connor smiles, prompting Fred to ask, “Are you still… evilish?” The answer? Not at all. Instead, Connor is now supportive of his father—“You gotta stop torturin’ yourself, Dad”—and helpful to his friends. And when Fred meets Jasmine, she at first understands, then bursts into tears when Jasmine leaves because, “When she’s not around, I hurt.” The general beatific tone is consistently amusing.
That is, until “Shiny Happy People” turns into Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. One of the other reasons I was so gung-ho about this episode is that I’m a Fred fan, and while Fred has been underused for much of the back half of this season, she becomes the linchpin to the plot here. There are signs early on that the birth of Jasmine might not be as blessed an event as it immediately seems. The aftermath leaves Cordelia in a coma, for one. And when Angel goes after a man who tries to kill Jasmine, he beats him savagely and irrationally. Then Fred walks into Jasmine’s room and sees her as all withered and maggoty, while everyone else is still utterly bewitched by her. Fred goes looking for the man who tried to assassinate Jasmine—a man named John Stoler—and finds him in the psych ward of a hospital, where he tells her that whether she likes it or not she’s been “called to the mission” to rid the world of this beast.
This sets up a classic Body Snatchers scenario, where Fred returns to the Hyperion—now full of Los Angelenos who followed Jasmine home—and tells Wes that she believes Jasmine to be bad news. The camera then shifts perspectives, showing Gunn looking on suspiciously while Fred and Wes are talking, and then Wes and Gunn exchanging looks, and then Gunn and Lorne, and then Wes and everyone, until it dawns on Fred that she’s made a huge mistake and that she’s only seconds away from Donald Sutherland pointing at her and screeching. She takes a crossbow shot at Jasmine—which Angel intercepts with his shoulder—and then takes Lorne hostage so that she can escape.
I’ll have more to say next week, I hope, about how this Jasmine plotline connects to what I’ve written before about the Angel characters bringing many of their problems on themselves. (I want to see how the story plays out a little more first.) For now though, I’m just savoring the way these new developments are allowing for a superb Angel-ian balance between humor and horror. On the one hand, it’s funny to see how nonchalant the team is as they sigh, “I can’t believe Fred’s evil.” On the other, when Jasmine appears on Good Morning L.A. and a diner full of people fall to their knees while Fred looks on, that’s some serious creeping dread.
And then there’s Caleb. Ah, Caleb. Played by Nathan Fillion with a gentlemanly southern accent and a priest’s collar, Caleb arrives in Buffy The Vampire Slayer looking like a savior. He picks up a Potential who’s being pursued by Bringers, and asks her, “Did you ever think that maybe they’re chasin’ ya because you’re a whore?” When she tries to escape, she notices that there’s no handle on the door, and he chuckles, “That there door’s problematical.” He’s an evil, evil man, our Caleb: a cunning, super-strong agent of The First who amuses himself by getting his master to take the form of all the women he’s killed in the past.
I don’t know that Caleb needed to be yet another Buffy mega-misogynist—not so soon after Warren, anyway—but I’ve always liked the Buffy villains who have a measure of oily charm about them, which is a note that Fillion plays well. And Caleb’s clearly no pushover, either. Tired of waiting for the fight to come to her, Buffy decides to lead an attack on Caleb once she hears he’s arrived in Sunnydale. But he knocks her over easily, smirking, “So… what else you got?”
In a way, the entirety of “Dirty Girls”—from Buffy’s plan to the Scoobies’ humiliating defeat—repeats the arc of that opening scene in which Caleb takes in a waif and then reveals himself to be a wolf. Caleb seems so beatable: just an affable man o’ God. Even though Giles suggests that Buffy take the time to study her foe before making a run at him, Buffy is dismissive, telling him to “help the girls that still need a teacher.” Xander has Buffy’s back, helping to bring the Potentials up to speed on where to strike at a demon, and giving a rallying speech so moving that it brings Andrew to tears. But once the Scoobies and the Potentials are inside Caleb’s lair, guess what? That there door’s problematical. They get whomped. Potentials are killed. And Xander gets an eye poked out, right before the big retreat. As the episode ends, there’s a voiceover from Caleb, in which he says that “there is nothing so bad it cannot be made better with a story.” One-eyed Xander—who may think twice from now on before he gives any pep talks—would likely disagree with that.
Again, as with Jasmine on Angel, I feel like the arrival of Caleb on Buffy has brought some focus and clarity both to the overall narrative and to the style of the storytelling. “Dirty Girls” is an exciting episode, with humor and pathos in the best Buffy tradition. And it shows that the cocky Buffy that I’ve found troubling this season isn’t as infallibly right about everything as previous episodes seem to have made her out to be. Certainty doesn’t give her any edge in this battle. The same old Buffy themes of maturation, tough choices, and the pros and cons of loyalty are still very much in play.
Mostly though, I think I liked “Dirty Girls” so much because it had the feel of everything starting to come together. Specifically, the arrival of Faith in Sunnydale—and her conversations with Spike about which of them has reformed the most—is an example of something I appreciate in serialized dramas even more than a good guest star. I like it when the writers remember who they still have on the bench, and they put those characters into play. Even though they get trounced, it was still a kick to see Buffy, Faith, Spike, and Xander fighting together, while Willow and Giles held down the fort back at the house. So many strong characters on this show, now girding up for battle. It’s like The Avengers or something.
- Before they meet Jasmine, the team speculates on how she might look: Eight legs? Two heads? Horns? (Lorne’s offended by that last remark.)
- Another example of how strong “Shiny Happy People” is comedically: Jasmine and Fred sit and talk at a vampire-infested bowling alley while the team fights on, moving in and out of frame around the two still ladies. That’s good staging.
- Human heads don’t make good bowling balls, by the way.
- When trying to come up with a name for Jasmine, Fred wanders into the room talking about Clorox, which prompts Wes to muse: “Probably best we avoid brand names… ”
- I wonder how much of Fred’s resistance to the notion that she’s been called to fight Jasmine has to do with getting the message from a man in a psych ward. Fred’s been crazy herself, y’know. It may be hard for her to believe that she’s not just insane.
- Alexis Denisof kills it in this episode as pleasant, placid Wesley. He gives just the right quietly cheerful tone to lines like, “There’s no reason to cry. She’s right there.”
- “I’m as tickled as someone so tickled they’re out of similes.”
- Xander has a funny fantasy involving multiple lingerie-clad Potentials engaging in pillow fights and cooing that they’ve never been with a man, and have never been with another woman in front of a man. Then he wakes up and finds out that one Potential has the stomach flu and the toilet is broken. Xander has a rough time of it in this episode.
- Spike says that smoking is still bad for vampires. No cancer, but your teeth get yellow for eternity
- Faith is intrigued by the idea that an ensouled Spike might be like Angel, even though Buffy and Spike both insist he’s not like Angel at all. Buffy meanwhile seems a little perturbed by the idea that Faith helped save Angel by entering his mind.
- Wood fires Buffy, because she needs to focus on the impending apocalypse, and because no one’s coming to school anymore anyway. I guess that about wraps up our time at Sunnydale High, huh?
- Andrew is dumbstruck by Amanda’s suggestion that Matthew Broderick killed Godzilla, and that therefore Godzilla is no big deal. Xander races to Godzilla’s defense, further endearing himself to Andrew.
- Andrew also has the funniest scene in “Dirty Girls,” as he recounts the origin of Faith—“The Dark Slayer”—and how before she reformed she “wrapped evil around her like a large, evil Mexican serape.” Then she fought a Vulcan. Or a volcanologist. Whatever.
- Back to double-Angel next week with “The Magic Bullet” and “Sacrifice.” Only four more Angels to go this season. Only four more Buffys to go ever.