Angel: “Heartthrob” / "That Vision Thing"

Angel: “Heartthrob” / "That Vision Thing"

 Welcome back, Whedonites! As I mentioned at the end of this past summer’s run of Buffy/Angel reviews, I’m going to be taking a different approach to this column for the near future. I’m going with two-episodes-per-week rather than four, and I’m watching in chronological order by airdate. This week: the first two Angel episodes of Season Three (which aired Sept. 24th and Oct. 1st, 2001). Next week: the first two Buffys of Season Six (which aired back-to-back on Oct. 2). You can find the running order here, though I’ll also post a reminder of what’s coming next at the end of each column. I’ll also let you know in advance when I’ll be taking time off, because of holidays or other distractions. By and large though, I’m planning to forge ahead until both shows are done. So let’s start forging.

“Heartthrob”

Because I wasn’t watching when these shows originally aired, I have no idea what the buzz was like leading into Angel’s third season, though I do know that these episodes would’ve been the first to air on a now-Buffy-less WB Network, which maybe explains why “Heartthrob” in particular feels like it was made for non-fans. Though it’s written and directed by Angel A-lister David Greenwalt, “Heartthrob” is something of a hodgepodge: An attempt to re-introduce the characters and the concept in a way that to me shortchanged both.

The episode opens with Cordelia, Wesley and Gunn returning from a mission and lamenting that so many civilians are obsessed with demons—and not in the good, let’s-kill-them-all way like the staff of Angel Investigations. Then they recap the state of their lives: how Angel’s in mourning because of the death of Buffy; how Fred’s still skittish and antisocial after returning from her accidental exile in Pylea; how none of them have social lives and they’re all a little miserable. Aside from the epilogue to the opening scene—which shows Angel fighting demon monks and mumbling, “Shoulda gone to Vegas”—“Heatthrob” gets off to a dreary, tin-eared start.

Things improve once Angel comes home, bearing gifts for his friends: a shrunken head for Gunn, an ancient dagger for Wesley, and a pendant for Cordelia. (“It’s gorgeous! And look how it brings out my breasts!”) Then Cordy gets a vision of vampires slaughtering co-eds at a college party and the gang is back in action. They find the vamps and dust them, but just as Angel’s killing a lady vampire, he snatches a familiar looking locket off of her neck and hears her say, “Angelus?”

Flashback to Marseilles in 1767, where Angel and Darla are in a gang with that now-dusted ladyvamp, Elisabeth, and her paramour James. There we see James buy the locket that Angel will later snatch from Elisabeth’s disintegrating body. We also see the four vampires scatter after being cornered by a vamp-hunter named Holtz. Then, back in the present day, we see the still-living James visit a demon doctor (who’s in the middle of his monthly skin-sloughing) and undergo “The Cure,” which involves cutting out his heart. The advantage? A “cured” James can’t be killed. The disadvantage? He’ll die on his own, and soon. But then he wants to die, because a life without Elisabeth is worthless.

There’s a lot to like about “Heartthrob,” especially down the stretch. The episode has a more “heroic” look and feel than past Angels, with pulse-pounding music and action-sequences that are more kinetic and exaggerated than usual. And I appreciated that the episode was designed to deal with Angel’s feelings about Buffy’s death: specifically that he feels guilty about how quickly he’s getting over it. James comes to kill Angel because Angel killed Elisabeth, and James think that because Angel was so callous in the past about Darla, that means that Angel has no idea what love means. “I lived; you just existed,” he says to Angel before he dies. And while Angel insists that he has known love, the fact that the loss of Buffy hasn’t made him suicidal is a worrying thing. (To Angel, anyway.)

Still, I was disappointed—as I often am—that Angel introduced a potentially interesting new character only to kill him off by the end of the hour. And I was disappointed that Wesley and Gunn spent most of the episode on the sidelines, and that the writing was often so remedial. I understand the reasons for all this (or at least I think I do).  This is Angel reinventing itself as a stand-alone show, not as something to kill time with after Buffy. But the episode was so crowded that it reminded me of Fred, holed up in her room, scrawling ideas on the walls, waiting for “the click.” This episode doesn’t have “the click.”

“That Vision Thing”

The second Season Three Angel is much better, largely because it starts out just as unfocused and then reveals that it’s had a lot more on the ball all along. An encouraging progression.

In “Heartthrob,” we were reminded that Cordelia’s visions are increasingly leaving her in excruciating pain. In “That Vision Thing,” the pain spreads in horrifying ways. When she has a vision of five-clawed Chinese demons protecting a coin, she ends up with slash-marks on her abdomen; when she sees a boil-covered demon clutching a key, her skin erupts; when she sees a man trapped in a fiery prison cell, she spontaneously combusts. Something has to be done.

It’s Fred who comes up with a bright idea. Since The Powers That Be are transmitting these visions into Cordelia’s head, maybe there’s a way to trace the transmission back to their source, so that they can ask The Powers why they’re torturing their human emissary. The team enlists Lorne, who determines that these particular visions aren’t coming from The Powers; they’re coming from a demon with an exposed brain (played by Kal Penn), who’s working for Wolfram & Hart. They want Angel to retrieve one of their assets from an extra-dimensional dungeon, and they’re punishing Cordelia to motivate him. So Angel puts the key into the coin and steps through a portal to a dark, dark place.

Early on, when Cordelia’s deeply wounded and Angel’s going on seemingly unrelated missions, “That Vision Thing” seems a little lost, but once we learn how all the action of the first half is connected, the episode gets a lot stronger. And it peaks with the scene in the other dimension, where Angel descends a staircase and comes upon a demon jailer who looks at him, smiles thinly, nods hello and says, “You know you’re not supposed to be here, right?”

The scene between Angel and the demon—a low-key dude named Skip, played by The Office’s David Denman—is classic Angel, at once funny and surprising and pertinent. Seems Skip works for The Powers too, and can’t figure out why Angel would want to free a bad guy. (“Long story; involves a girl,” Angel replies.) As was explored in some depth last season, the business of being a champion requires compromises. When Angel knocks out Skip and frees W&H’s asset, he returns to our dimension and turns over the prisoner, but only after Exposed Brain Demon cures Cordelia. And once that’s done, Angel kills Exposed Brain Demon, and threatens to kill Lilah if she ever tries to get to him through Cordelia again. 

That’s playing awful rough for someone who’s supposed to be “good.” One the one hand, the creature he killed was a demon, and Angel’s job is to kill demons. On the other hand, Skip’s a demon too, and seems to be an okay guy. To quote our hero: “Damn. So hard to tell these days.”

Stray observations:

-I guess I need to deal with the epilogues of both these episodes. In “Heartthrob” we see that Darla’s pregnant, and in “That Vision Thing” we find out that she can’t get rid of whatever’s growing inside her. She’s apparently been roaming the Earth, trying to find a way out of her condition, and now she’s headed to Los Angeles to confront Angel. I’m maintaining a “wait and see” attitude on this, since I’ve never been a huge Darla fan. More comment as events warrant.

-Amy Acker makes the opening credits, but Andy Hallett does not, even though the  latter is a little more prominent in these two episodes than the former. Hallett will officially become a regular at some point, right?

-Early in “Heartthrob,” Cordelia chastises her colleagues about saying Buffy’s name aloud. Was that partly an in-joke, referencing the WB’s split with Buffy?

-I could’ve sworn that we’d either seen Holtz or heard him referred to before, but I could find no confirmation on-line. Is “Heartthrob” really the first time Holtz appears on either Angel or Buffy? Wasn’t there some vampire-hunter stalking Angel in previous flashbacks?

-“Where’s my hurling axe? This is all different.”

-I like that Dennis has been a more significant part of the season thus far, but the floating scrub-brush in the scene with Cordelia in the bathtub just looked silly.

-Cordelia wonders if James could be invincible because he’s gotten hold of The Ring Of Amara, from back in Season One. When Angel reminds her that he destroyed that ring, she asks, “Did the Amara people make cufflinks or belt-buckles?”

-I read that Angel started working with a new effects shop in Season Three, which probably explains why the show suddenly looks more action-adventure-y. (For example: the high-kicking martial arts demons in “That Vision Thing.”) Also: Lorne looks greener. And I don’t know if this has anything to do with the effects shop, but Cordelia looks curvier.

-Fred emerges from her room in “That Vision Thing” and eats her dinner with the gang, albeit from under the table. 

-The boys tiptoe around Cordelia when she hasn’t had a vision for a while. It’s like she has PMS, but the visions version.

-I thought Wesley and Gunn’s chat about private eyes being called “dicks” was pretty lame, but I did like that it ended with them driving to the Chinese herbalist Van Hoa Dong.

-“That Vision Thing” marks the return of Gavin Park (a.k.a. Jin-Soo Kwon, a.k.a. Daniel Dae Kim), who arrives at Angel’s hotel with a list of 57 code violations. While Lilah has grand, demon-involved plans for bringing down Angel, Gavin’s planning to do it with some good ol’ fashioned lawyering.

-Next week: Buffy S6.1 and 6.2… “Bargaining,” parts one and two.