When I last wrote about Angel—nearly a month ago!—I expressed some impatience with the slowness and somberness of “Apocalypse, Nowish,” but said I was looking forward to embarking on one of the series’ breakneck action-adventure arcs. And even though it has more of the structure of a standalone, “Habeas Corpses” does get to that buckle-up-and-enjoy-the-ride place, albeit after a bit of set-up. (Hey, when the episode originally aired, Angel had been on hiatus for two full months, so I can excuse the writers for taking a breath before jumping right in.)
Specifically, “Habeas Corpses” has to dispatch some goodbyes: Cordelia tells Connor that he’s not going to be her boyfriend, despite the night of sexification they just shared; and Wesley tells Lilah that she can’t be his dirty little lust object anymore (and that even though he’s said that before, he really means it this time). Also, the big, generic horned super-demon that I guess we’re just supposed to call “The Beast” bids farewell to Gavin, breaking the poor corporate schemer’s neck. (Don’t cry for Gavin, though. I’m sure he’ll have a chance to redeem himself in the sideways universe.)
This episode is mainly about The Beast’s rampage through the offices of Wolfram & Hart. Though Lilah’s convinced that the firm can work with this demon—since they both seem to be pro-apocalypse—The Beast shows up at their doorstep making no demands, and paying no notice to Lilah’s efforts to recruit him. And The Beast’s not the only visitor to W&H on this evening. Connor drops by as well, to find out what Lilah may know about the connection between him and this super-powerful creature that emerged from the spot where Connor was born. (Disturbing Connor even more: when The Beast sees him, it calls him by name. And this is a creature that doesn’t talk much.) Then Wes shows up, provides Lilah with some first-aid after she gets gored by The Beast, and works with her to find a way out of a building now in lockdown mode. They end up using a secret passage in a supply closet, and after they get out, Wes tells Lilah to go underground and change her name, lest The Beast track her down and destroy her the way he destroyed all of her W&H colleagues.
Meanwhile, Connor’s still trapped in a locked building with The Beast and—and we soon find out—an army of Wolfram & Hart-ers who are rising from the dead. So “Habeas Corpses” becomes like an elaborate haunted house movie, as a sword-wielding Angel leads his team into a darkened, rubble-strewn office building, with zombie lawyers roaming the halls and an unbeatable devil-thing lurking behind some mystery door. Fun!
Well, fun for me, anyway. I’ll grant that the zombie stuff was less scary than in could’ve been, because as the AI-ers quickly realize, these zombies aren’t the conventional “bite you and infect you” kind, but rather just shuffling obstacles on the way to the real evil. But The Beast remains, well… a beast. Unlike the übervamp in Buffy, The Beast is not so easily beaten. He may end up being a stopgap bad guy—I have no idea, I’m just going by the usual structure of these seasons and the fact that The Beast doesn’t have much personality—but he’s no pushover. After the gang finds Connor, Angel suggests they make their way to The White Room at Wolfram & Hart, to get an extra-dimensional lift from the mysterious little girl who dwells within. But when they arrive, they find The Beast already there, drawing some kind of cloudy black spirit from the girl. (Apparently, she’s what he was really after at W&H.) The Beast heads toward Angel and the tension builds, but then the girl croaks out a few dying (?) words and the team materializes at The Hyperion.
Though I still wish The Beast was more three-dimensional as a character, I’m impressed by his insurmountability, which fits with the metaphorical place where the good guys find themselves right now. Though Fred and Gunn don’t behave as sourly towards each other in this episode as they have recently, surely those rough feelings remain. And though Wes is back on the team now, Gunn still doesn’t trust or even seem to like his old friend. (They have a funny exchange about zombies where Gunn says that if he’s infected, he wants Wes to kill him. When a visibly moved Wes says, “You’ll do the same for me?” Gunn immediately snaps, “Oh yeah.”) For the sake of unity, Angel tells Wes and Gunn to mellow out while they’re in the thick of the action. But after they’re safely back at HQ, Angel—who knows about Cordelia’s dalliance with Connor—tells Cordy to “take your new boyfriend and get the hell out here.”
These are dark times, friends. And no light in sight.
Now this I liked. Given the general attitudes out there about this Buffy season, I don’t know whether this episode is an aberration, or whether I’m cutting it some slack because it was nowhere near as dull as the two before it, or whether it’s as genuinely entertaining and emotionally engaging as I think it is. All I know is that after the last two Buffys, I was worried that the rest of season seven was going to be a total slog. But now, I have some hope. There’s “Potential.”
For the most part I think “Potential” works because it’s funnier than the last couple of episodes. The Potentials themselves get off some good lines during their training sessions with Buffy. When Spike fake-attacks and says, “These two are dead. Why?” Rona replies, “Because the black chick always gets it first?” When Spike twists Vi’s arm to prove a point, she assesses that point as being, “You don’t play by the rules and I have learned a valuable lesson of some sort,” later adding that what she’s learned about Spike is that, “Just when you think it’s part of the lesson, he’ll hurt your arm.”
Plus it helps that the acting is much improved in “Potential.” Felicia Day’s Vi was barely featured previously, but she gets a lot more of the dialogue in this episode. And Sarah Hagan returns as Amanda, who now isn’t just a Sunnydale student who asks Buffy for advice about a boy she both loves and hates (“We’re mean to each other, and we like each other,” Amanda says, describing a relationship with which Buffy can surely relate), but is also a Potential herself. Judging by the way she handles the vampire and the Bringers that go after her at the end of the episode, she may be the Potential with the most on the ball. (At the least, she’s a lot more skilled at demon-fighting than the average mathlete.)
Then there’s who the episode is actually about: not Amanda, but Dawn. I am on the record as relatively pro-Dawn, especially this season, and I feel like the decision to focus on how Dawn feels about having her home (and her sister) occupied by a bunch of other young ladies is smart storytelling for a couple of reasons. First, it gives us another perspective on what’s happening on the show, and one that we’re more likely to be sympathetic to, since we’re also inclined to feel like the Buffy we know has been usurped in some way. But it also puts a spotlight on what it means to be a Potential. When Willow casts a spell to find the latest Potential that supposed to be in Sunnydale—which is Amanda, as we learn later—the spell briefly pinpoints Dawn, who happens to be standing on the other side of a door from Amanda. Earlier in the episode, Dawn seems jealous of the attention the Potentials get, but when she thinks she might be one, she balks. (“Did you maybe say ‘potential sailors?’ Because I do like the water.”) Anya sums up the dilemma a Potential faces well: they’re either going to be in constant danger as a Slayer, or living a life where they never get to fulfill their destiny. Either way, the situation sucks.
“Potential” builds to nifty bit of cross-cutting between one of Buffy’s training sessions with the Potentials—which sees the girls locked in a crypt with a snarling vamp—and a scene of Dawn realizing that Amanda is the chosen one and pushing her to realize her destiny. And then at the end, there’s another contrast, between the Potentials bonding over their training success and Xander bonding with Dawn over being powerless. Well-realized character moments all around.
And well-realized thematically, too. “Everything is a potential weapon,” we hear Buffy say in voiceover while Dawn’s fighting bad guys. That means even a non-Potential like Dawn can make a contribution. And that means there’s also hope for Andrew, who provides an already funny episode its comic highlights. I don’t know which Andrew line I liked more: his mini-dissertation on how becoming a Potential is “almost like a metaphor for womanhood,” or his response when Buffy tells him that Spike gets to be part of the patrol team because he was unable to control his evil impulses in the past, unlike Andrew. Hearing that, our man heaves a big sigh and sounds off a lament that should resonate with anyone who’s not predestined to be a major player:
“I hate my free will.”
- How do we feel about Angel (specifically Angel himself) using the term “The Big Bad” to refer to The Beast. Isn’t that kind of a wholly owned Buffy thing?
- When Wes rescues Lilah, he indicates that he knew she was in trouble because he “has a man on the inside.” Did I miss something there? Is this information I should already know, or is this new?
- Gunn on Zombie Gavin: “I hate seeing someone I know like that. Even someone I know I hate.”
- Angel sounds very tender and caring when he refuses to let Cordy go on the rescue mission. Then he hollers at Fred to “get a move on.”
- Connor sounds a little like an annoying kid in the backseat of his parents’ car when he asks Angel what a zombie is. “It’s an undead thing.” “Like you?”
- Buffy is able to have all her training sessions with the Potentials because we’re told that The First is “regrouping” after the last attacks. Well, why wouldn’t it? That’s what Big Bads do at this point in a Buffy season.
- Buffy goes all Patton again in “Potential,” giving a big pep-talk/get-your-head-on-straight speech to her girls. I think mainly Buffy’s enjoying being able to talk about what it means to be a Slayer with people who are still impressed by it all.
- Nice (and amusing) bit of dual character-definition as Buffy refers to the Turok-Han as “the Chaka Khan,” and Dawn quietly corrects her.
- Speaking to Xander by phone, Buffy reminds him to close the door if he takes a shower at her house, because the Potentials… well, “of course they’re curious.”
- Another funny Andrew speech: “I’m reformed. I’m like Vegeta on Dragonball Z. I used to be a pure Sayan, and now I fight for the side of Goku.” (Making this bit even funnier is that a few minutes later, when he and Dawn are left behind at the house, Andrew asks her, “You want to play Dragonball Z?”
- More Andrew: “Killing pigs is just so wrong… and so hard.”
- Anya gets a couple of good riffs in this episode too, both directed at Dawn: “Wow, it’s like one second you were this klutzy teenager with fake memories and a history of kleptomania, and then suddenly you’re a hero with a much-abbreviated lifespan.” And: “You’re a part of something larger. Like being swallowed. By something larger.”
- Buffy attempts to make the demon bar look like a forbidding place where “not a being in here wouldn’t be glad to rip your throat out,” but is undercut when she runs into Clem, who greets her warmly and tells her about his TiVo troubles.
- Spike tries to get in on the “impress the Potentials” action, especially after he hears Buffy speak disdainfully about the nature of a vampire in her lectures. Griping about the bar, he says, “Prices they charge you could get human blood straight from the body,” and when he tries to describe what made his old crypt different from the norm, he says, “Well, I don’t know if ‘posh’ is the right word…”
- Another summer-travel-related hiatus next week, but then I’ll be back for four straight weeks! (Before I take two weeks off for the Toronto film festival.) See you on August 12th with two Angel episodes: “Long Day’s Journey” and “Awakening.”