Despite my best efforts to replicate the viewing experiences of Buffy/Angel fans at the time these episodes originally aired—by going in broadcast order, and sometimes with time off between shows—watching the final Buffys has reminded me of how much I missed by being out of the loop in 2003. How would I have felt back then? Nervous about what might happen in the finale? Frustrated by the direction of the show and eager just to get it over with? Knowing the way I tend to feel about shows like this, I’d probably have been a Buffy apologist, arguing for season seven’s good qualities even as it was unraveling. But who knows? Watching now, I’m working with the knowledge that some people like this season and some strongly dislike it, and though I try to remain objective, I can’t deny that expectation plays some role in how I watch.
I also can’t deny that any sense of anxiety I might feel about the long, winding story of Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Television Series drawing to a close is tempered by my awareness of Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Comic Book. Whatever ending I might be headed toward, I feel fairly confident that it’s not going to be an “everybody dies” kind of apocalypse. Had I been watching in 2003 though, I think that would’ve been an open question. Joss Whedon is the kind of creator who’s willing to kill characters—to punish characters, really—and to accentuate the negative. And yet I’m not that worried right now. For me, this whole experience is a little like watching a sporting event on the DVR after it’s been completed. Even if I muster all my valuable hoping skills, I can’t control the outcome. Heck, if I wanted to, I could fast-forward straight to the end, or could look up the final score on the Internet.
I wonder how the opening sequence of “Empty Places” would’ve played if I were more uncertain. As it is, there’s a melancholy that pervades this episode, starting with that opening, in which the citizens of Sunnydale evacuate the town, and Buffy hears her ol’ pal Clem say that he doesn’t think that anyone’s going to be able to stop what’s coming. (“I mean, I’m sure you’ll do fine.”) It should all feel more ominous and apocalyptic than it does, though—or at least more than it does to me.
The smallness of “Empty Places” might be intentional. After all, this episode is less about the big devastation than the small. One of the most heartbreaking moments during the entire run of Buffy comes when our heroine goes to visit the one-eyed Xander in the hospital, where he talks about how he’s waiting for his other senses to improve 50%, and where he jokes to Willow that all he needs is a parrot and an eye-patch, and that at least “no one will ever make me watch Jaws 3D again.” But Xander makes those last two comments after Buffy has already left, claiming meekly that she needs to get back to work. “Oh,” Willow says, surprised. “I thought we were gonna… There were gonna be card games….” That scene brought home for me the sense of how far we’d come, and how close to the end we are. Somehow I doubt there will ever be time for card games for this trio again (at least not in the TV version of this show).
There is some movement in The First/Caleb storyline in this episode. When Giles gets fed up with Andrew whining about someone stealing his meatball Hot Pocket, he sends the kid out on a mission with Spike—even though Spike grumbles that “sometimes our ‘missions’ end up with you trying to kill me”—to investigate a marking Giles has found in a photo. So we get the winning comedy team of Andrew and Spike, playing bad cop and goofy cop for an order of monks. (“‘Can’t’ is a four-letter word!” Andrew barks. Then later, “‘Run’ is a four-letter word!”) The monks reveal that they sheltered Caleb when they thought he needed help, only to see him rip through their mission looking for an inscription on the wall: “It is not for thee. It is for her alone to wield.”
But before Spike and Andrew can return with what might be good news—depending on who “her” is—the mini-apocalypse in the Summers house has already happened. While Buffy avoids contact with all her friends and followers—and gets the crap kicked out of her by Caleb yet again—Faith takes command of the Potentials, trying to boost morale with a night at The Bronze that ends with underage drinking and Faith beating up some some cops who are trying to take her in. The end result? Buffy comes off like a humorless scold yet again, while the Potentials rally around Faith as their cool new leader, whether Faith likes it or not.
All of which means that when Buffy finally reemerges and tells her crew “we’re going back in” to Caleb’s vineyard lair, none of them are willing to line up behind her. The Potentials think she’s putting them in harm’s way without a second thought for their well-being. Giles is still stung by Buffy’s rejection of his counsel, so he’s not willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Anya raises an excellent point when she says that Buffy assuming the mantle of leadership due to being supernaturally “chosen” is anti-democratic. Willow backs Kennedy, who thinks that Buffy’s reacting with emotion, not reason. Xander bitterly says, “I’m trying to see your point, but I guess it must be a little bit to my left.”
It’s traditional on this show for Buffy to become isolated from her support group just before the season finale, so none of these turns of events were exactly surprising. And I assume there’ll be some kind of rally over the course of the remaining three episodes, so Buffy’s exile from her own circle at the end of “Empty Places” wasn’t as emotionally affecting for me as her smaller, self-imposed separation from Willow and Xander at the hospital. Still, I found the ideas expressed in the final moments of “Empty Places” interesting. Buffy’s been trying to behave all season like a military commander, alone in her tent with her maps and charts, not like a team leader at the head of a conference table. And she keeps screwing up, and getting beat. One of my favorite recurring Buffy themes is the idea that broken people complement each other, and form a more powerful whole. Here’s hoping that the last three Buffys carry that theme through, and that our heroine has a revelation.
I hope that fans of Angel’s fourth season will forgive me, but part of me feels like the Jasmine arc peaked with “Shiny Happy People” and “The Magic Bullet.” I don’t mean this as knock on “Peace Out,” which is a mostly good episode exploring some compelling themes. But the emotional and narrative arc of “Shiny Happy People” was so perfect, starting out light and comical and then gradually becoming darker and scarier once Fred realized the truth about Jasmine. And then “The Magic Bullet” dealt smartly with the mix of pathos and liberty that comes with having the scales removed from your eyes—and then realizing you have a responsibility to remove them from everyone else’s. The episodes that have followed have been more about action and plot, as Jasmine has hounded our heroes while they’ve tried to figure out a way to defeat her. The conceptual heavy-lifting has already been done; now we’re in the reiteration phase, as the characters continue to debate amongst themselves whether it’s worth rejecting eternal happiness for the sake of stopping a worm-ridden super-being who eats the occasional human.
My main beef with “Peace Out” is that rather than developing these ideas through the journey of a character—as the earlier episodes did with Fred—this episode leans heavily on people talking them through. Granted, sometimes they’re fighting while they talk, so it’s not all dialectics. But at the same time, pairing physical aggression with intellectual aggression means that the acting is a little strained during the big confrontations in “Peace Out.” The tone is pitched too high.
Nevertheless, there’s a lot that works in “Peace Out,” including Angel’s trip to the dimension of bug-demons, where he finds a temple with a statue of Jasmine in bug-demon form, and he finds The Guardian Of The Word, a priest who won’t be tricked into giving up Jasmine’s true name. Angel also finds The Keeper Of The Name, a hulking brute with sewn-shut lips. While Angel takes his hacks at The Keeper, The Guardian taunts him, asking him what he’s fighting for. Honor? A meaningless virtue. His friends? They’re going to die anyway. His son? Killing Jasmine will push Connor even further away. Is Angel really fighting for a cause, or is this all just another case of him being a cog in a machine, just as Skip once suggested?
Meanwhile, back in Los Angeles, Jasmine is preparing to go national, delivering a speech to an international audience in which she proclaims they’re all partners with her in a venture to live in a harmonious world where they enjoy each other’s company. (“Doesn’t that sound nice?”) Of course, her dream didn’t quite work out as she’d planned in the bug-demon dimension, which she eventually abandoned, leaving them pining for her return. But she now considers that “a trial run” for what she intends to do on our Earth, to help us evolve.
Before that can happen though, Angel returns with the head of The Keeper. He cuts The Keeper’s lips open, and the beast breathes out Jasmine’s real name, causing all assembled to see Jasmine as she really is. Almost instantly, Los Angeles descends back into chaos.
There follows a fight between Jasmine and Angel that doubles as a discussion over whether you need to demand the fealty of others in order to provide them with your gifts. It’s a pertinent conversation, in the abstract. Jasmine and Angel both feed on humans—or want to. But Angel controls his impulses and tries to help in small, sometimes unrecognized ways. Whenever he’s over-reached, that’s when everything’s gone awry. It all goes back to what Angel learned about his mission back at the start of the second season: there’s no stepping through a warp zone to a higher level in this game. It’s just one good deed at a time.
Again, I found that chat more fascinating to consider after the fact than I did to actually watch. As played, the scene came off too blunt. I much preferred the arc of Connor in this episode. At one point, Connor is referred to as “merely a device” to bring Jasmine into the world, which of course has been the problem with Connor as a character all along. But just as Dawn on Buffy became more compelling after she stopped being “The Key,” so Connor becomes more interesting here, now that he’s not just a plot-driver.
Initially, Connor stands with Jasmine. Cordelia’s blood did affect him, as it turns out; he sees Jasmine as she really is, but since he grew up in a hell dimension, he doesn’t much care. Still, the more he thinks about what Jasmine might’ve done with Cordelia’s comatose body, and the more he realizes that she’s counting on him to follow her and not make his own decisions, the more the disillusionment kicks in. Connor ends up being the one who kills Jasmine, after acknowledging that he still loves her. Just brutal for this kid.
While Angel’s fighting on because he believes there’s some grander purpose—despite what The Guardian said to him—poor Connor has just realized that everyone is lying to him. Holtz was no good. Angel’s no good. And now Jasmine. Nothing’s pure.
- How odd that both Buffy and The First sound kind of hoarse in “Empty Places.” It’s almost as if they’re being played by the same under-the-weather actress.
- Some very funny scenes in this episode of Sunnydale’s police force trying to take control of an increasingly decaying situation that “needs some justice.” Fortunately for our heroes, the cops are still easily manipulated by magic. (“We don’t get a lot of contact with INTERPOL… ”)
- Clem doesn’t eat cats anymore. “Cholesterol,” he says. “Morals! I mean morals.”
- Xander isn’t hurt that they didn’t throw a party for his return from the hospital, because “parties in this house, I usually end up having to rebuild something.”
- According to Caleb, every high school in this country from one end to the other smells exactly alike.
- Anya’s awkward debriefing/pep-talk for the Potentials turns into an anecdote about her “break-up sex” with Xander. All illustrated—and badly spelled—by Andrew.
- When Giles orders Spike to take Andrew with him, he reminds them that Andrew’s supposed to be an expert on communicating with demons. (“He can bring his pan-flute thing along.”)
- Andrew and Spike do bond though over their mutual love of “those onion-blossom things.”
- Speaking of onion-blossoms, in the opening montage of Sunnydale shutting down, I could’ve sworn I saw someone locking up The Bronze. And yet it was open for business—and packed!—later in the episode. Did I misread, or was there a continuity error? (Or am I just underestimating the drawing power of Nerf Herder?)
- I liked a lot of the details of how Los Angeles had changed under Jasmine’s guidance. Her disciples wear Cordelia’s perfume, turning the myth of Jasmine into a form of idolatry. They rationalize her commands by noting how sweetly she orders them to do things. (“Well, not ‘order’ per se… ”) I think you all are right when you say that this Jasmine arc is largely a critique of religion.
- Oh, and the Lakers have disbanded. Sounds about right.
- When Connor goes looking for Cordelia’s body, he threatens a cop by hissing, “Tell me and I’ll crush your windpipe!” (“Don’t you mean ‘or’?”)
- I suppose I should mention that Lilah returns at the end of “Peace Out” and congratulates Angel for putting a stop to world peace. But I can’t wrap my head yet around how she returned from the dead or what this means. So I’ll save that for next time.
- We end Angel’s fourth season next week with “Home,” and we ease closer to the end of Buffy proper with “Touched.”