“Lies My Parents Told Me”
I know from reading your comments and from being alive in the world that Buffy fandom was thriving on the Internet not too long into the show’s run, and that during the last few seasons there was a fair amount of grumbling and debate over the tone and message of the show, the choices the characters were making, and the general direction of the plot. Part of me wonders is this seventh season was partly intended to answer those complainers. That would explain all the debate and speeches about “the mission” and who’s expendable and who’s not; it’s as though the writers are trying to go back and justify old story points. If so, that’s kind of a shame. Honestly, Buffy doesn’t need to explain why she’s keeping Spike alive, or Andrew, or Anya. The more she tries, the more arbitrary her lines seem—which would be fine, if the show didn’t seem to be endorsing its heroine’s slippery-slope self-justifications.
“Lies My Parents Told Me” has a doozy of a conversation between Buffy and Giles on this very subject. Giles is ostensibly distracting Buffy by taking her out on a vampire-hunt/training-exercise, while Principal Wood brings Spike to a remote location to kill him. But Giles also tries to lead Buffy down a path of logic, asking if—knowing the stakes as she now does—she’d let someone she loved die if it meat saving the world. Buffy says she would, even if it was Dawn, whom she risked the world to save a couple of seasons ago. But she won’t make the next logical leap and agree that the erratic Spike needs to be put down. He’s one of her best warriors, she insists, and she needs him.
While it was satisfying to see Buffy finally see the light on the Dawn issue (a point I argued back in my write-up of “The Gift”), I don’t know that she needed to. I disagreed with her point of view back then, but I could still buy it as a character choice. Buffy has the right to make dumb mistakes, up to and including giving Spike a pass and risking apocalypse.
So no, I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about the extended symposium on morality in “Lies My Parents Told Me.” But I still thought this episode was a good one, because there’s a larger theme at work—one explored fairly cleverly. The story is anchored by two flashbacks: One brief, showing young Robin watching his mother fight Spike in a rainy Central Park, and then hearing her tell him that although she loves him, “the mission is what matters;” and one extended, in which the young William/Spike tries to help his beloved, sickly mother Anne by turning her into a vampire, only to find that once he does, she becomes cruel and dismissive.
Cut to: Today, where Spike and Wood have come to an unsteady alliance, in which Spike doesn’t trust Wood because the principal seems to lack a killer instinct, while Wood, ironically, waits for the right moment to kill Spike. To a large extent, “Lies My Parents Told Me” is about how these two men were shaped by their respective upbringings. Robin, raised mostly by a Watcher and told repeatedly that he matters less than what his mother has been charged to do, believes himself to be a man with no ego, in service to the cause. “No story,” he tells Spike. “Just trying to do what’s right. Make a difference.” Our William, on the other hand, had a doting mother who turned on him viciously, leading him to outwardly say that he’s “not much for self-reflection,” when we know there remains a sensitive soul (accent on the “soul”) beneath his bad-boy exterior. Wood buys the Spike myth, such that he uses The First’s psychic trigger—a song Anne used to sing to him—to turn Spike into a raging killer again, thus allowing Wood to avenge his own mother by slaying a beast, not the man inside.
I find all this compelling because it considers how the moral codes discussed in the Buffy/Giles debate may derive from nurture. In that context, it’s noteworthy that there are two scenes in this episode in which characters get distracted during a fight. In the first, young Robin makes a noise behind a park bench that throws Spike off, and allows his mother to get the upper hand right when she’s in danger of being bitten. In the second, Buffy is fighting a vampire while talking to Giles about her willingness to sacrifice anyone, when Giles says, “And yet there is Spike… ”, which throws Buffy off and lets the vampire get the upper hand.
Implication? It’s not “the matter of Spike” that’s standing in Buffy’s way right now. It’s Giles’ harping on it that’s proving to be a drag. (Especially from a meta standpoint, speaking as a fan of the show.) At the end of the episode, Spike’s shed his trigger mostly by working some things out in his own head, while Buffy’s let Robin know that Spike’s not to be ambushed by him again. She also lets Giles know that she doesn’t appreciate his little lessons, saying, “I think you’ve taught me everything I need to know,” before shutting the door on him. Since Giles is a father figure to Buffy, and since he lies to her in this episode, it could be argued that title refers largely to him. But it also speaks to the idea that at a certain point people have to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong by themselves, becoming spiritual orphans.
“Orpheus” is a fine Angel episode on its own—minus one major stumbling block—but it’s even better when set alongside “Lies My Parents Told Me.” Both episodes are flashback-heavy, and both feature vampires struggling with their soul-issues before remembering and recovering who they really are. It all reinforces the idea forwarded over and over on Buffy and Angel: People conjure their own evil most of the time, and have to dispel it on their own, too.
We begin where we ended last week, with Faith being bitten by Angelus. But then in brief flashbacks, we see that Faith has injected a poisonous psychedelic drug called Orpheus into her bloodstream, which incapacitates Angelus, allowing Angel Investigations to chain him up back at HQ. So while Faith hovers near death, her spirit walks with the similarly tripping Angelus, guiding him through his own past. We see Angel arrive in New York in 1902, we see him rescue a puppy in early ’20s Chicago, and we see him fail to save a diner clerk from armed robbers in the ’70s. Angelus sees all this too, and rants to Faith about what a simp he was back when he had a soul, missing opportunities left and right to feed on the weak. The lone exception is the incident with Disco Angel at that diner. Then, Angel gave into his hunger, and fed on the clerk after he’d been shot and killed. (“I love this episode,” Angelus smirks.)
As with “Lies,” the core of “Orpheus” is a philosophical debate, though the one in “Orpheus” is more one-sided. Angelus tries to get under Faith’s and Past-Angel’s respective skins, wondering if Angel chose to be slow on the draw in that diner so that he’d have a chance to feed, and seething at his former self for spending the next two decades after that slip-up living in trash-strewn alleys. (“His fingers never smelled of anything but rat.”) Angelus insists that when it comes to ordinary human beings, “They suffer, they die… that’s what they’re there for.” But Angel knows—and tries to impart to Faith—that it’s not that cut-and-dried. Everybody suffers for what they do, even when they try to make it right later. There’s no turning point; just the mild satisfaction that comes from trying to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. And with that, Angel is re-ensouled, and Faith overcomes the effects of the drug.
Of course, they have help. While all this flashback-ing is going on, Willow is up from Sunnydale (or down… I’m never sure which), and working a variation on the first spell she ever learned, to get Angel his soul back. Willow was called in by Fred, and the two of them get along so well—tittering happily over their interest in mystical research—that I started thinking about how fun it would be if Willow could join the team full-time. (Willow nips this in the bud though. She likes Fred, but when Fred starts getting too chummy, Willow nervously croaks, “I’m seeing someone.”)
Willow’s re-ensouling efforts are fought by the bed-ridden Cordelia, with the help of Connor, whom she’s manipulating by exploiting his hatred of Angelus and his yearning to be a good father and boyfriend. This is the “stumbling block” I referred to above. Having Cordelia fight Willow psychically from another room within the Hyperion is a nifty way to pit the two old friends against each other without Willow or the rest of Angel Investigations realizing who their adversary is. It also leads to some strong moments, as when Cordelia cradles a knife under the covers while listening to Willow explain her re-ensouling plan, and also when Cordelia projects a “huge floaty head” into the lobby to freak everyone out. But the whole “Cordelia as Big Bad” thing is still so weird and under-explained that it works against the tension of the episode. Plus, the scenes between Cordy and Connor are so creepy (and, frankly, poorly acted on both sides) that they distract from the exciting, dramatic material happening elsewhere in “Orpheus.”
On the other hand, the weakness of the main season-long storyline does produce an unexpectedly (and unintentionally) powerful effect at the end, as Angel returns and tries to reassure his friends that everything will be okay now, just before the very pregnant Cordelia walks down the stairs and reveals herself. “Oh yeah,” I thought to myself. “This crap’s still going on.”
- Giles is appalled by the state of the library in the new Sunnydale High. So many computers.
- Giles reports back from his trip abroad that “war is inevitable.” Cheerio!
- Giles also brings back a mystical object called The Prokaryote Stone which Willow magics into Spike’s head to root out the First’s trigger and possibly disarm it. This leads to the freaky image of the Stone dripping out of Spike’s eye after one especially intense flashback.
- Always good to see Drusilla, who pops up in Spike’s flashback and looks suitably appalled when Spike speculates on how wonderful it’ll be when his mother joins the two of them out on the prowl.
- Anya’s annoyed that Spike always gets a free pass for his evil. “I mean, he could slaughter a hundred fratboys… ”
- Not much Andrew action in this episode, aside from taking the call for Willow from “somebody named Fred… the guy sounds kind of effeminate.”
- When Connor hears about the effects of Orpheus, he snorts, “Magic! This is what it gets you.” We get it, man. You’re not so keen on the hoodoo.
- I like Faith and I like Eliza Dushku, but in this episode, Dushku plays Faith a bit too much in her “Jo from Facts Of Life” mode.
- No matter the era, Angel loves “Mandy.”
- Faith describes the effects of Orpheus: “Like I did mushrooms and got eaten by a bear.”
- The distraction theme of “Lies” extends into “Orpheus,” where Connor bursts into Cordelia’s room, causing her to lose her focus just long enough for Willow to psychically smash the container containing Angel’s soul.
- More examples of how Willow fits in well on Angel: She greets Connor by saying, “You must be Angel’s handsome-yet-androgynous son.” When she asks Cordelia how she’s been doing, Cordy says, “Higher power. You?” to which Willow replies, “Ultimate evil. But I got better.” And she can sympathize with Dark Wesley, as they compare notes over whether it’s worse to flay someone alive or keep a woman chained up in a closet. I’m guessing that Willow won’t move to L.A. when Buffy ends, but a boy can dream, can’t he?
- Double Angel next week: “Players” and “Inside Out”