Buffy / Angel: “Harm’s Way”/“Soul Purpose”

Buffy / Angel: “Harm’s Way”/“Soul Purpose”

Did I need an entire Angel episode about the daily life of Harmony Kendall? Probably not. Did I enjoy “Harm’s Way.” Mostly, yes. But more to the point: I appreciated it. One of the things that makes Joss Whedon’s shows special is that they’re populated by all these colorful, funny side characters, with enough backstory and quirks to hold down an episode or two all to themselves. It’s part of how Whedon and his collaborators make epics on a budget: by hinting and implying, and by using the relative cheapness of words and performance to do what sets and special effects otherwise might.

What’s been interesting to me over the course of my few years of writing about Buffy and Angel is how divided you longtime fans often are about these characters. Some are understandably disliked (Connor, Dawn, Eve, Kennedy). Some are more controversial (Andrew, Spike). Some you run hot-and-cold on depending on the season (Xander, Cordelia). In some cases, it’s the acting that bugs you; and in other cases—for reasons that kind of elude me given that this is all fiction—you dislike the characters for moral/ethical reasons, because they’ve committed terrible atrocities and yet seem to be getting a free pass from the writers. So I never know from week to week who’s going to be on the outs with you folks. Really, pretty much the only characters that everyone seems to universally love—and rightfully so—are Wesley and Giles.

(By the way, I’m sure someone in the field of Whedon scholarship has written something about the fact that the two most awesome characters in Buffy and Angel are essentially bookish nerds who “watch.” Like looking into a mirror, perhaps.)

The risk of giving such an overly comic character as Harmony her own showcase is that if some viewers don’t like her—perhaps because she’s too one-note, or perhaps because she’s a murderess—then the episode has already lost those people, and will have a hard time getting them back. Me, I thought this episode served some of the same purpose as “Storyteller” for Andrew, adding human dimension to a walking punchline. Harmony’s more pathetic than tragic, but still, when she’s taking care to vamp-up and brush her fangs in the morning, or when she’s enduring W&H’s regular blood tests (to make sure she’s not eating any humans… Angel has instituted a zero-tolerance policy), or when she’s out for a pity-drink with Fred, then credited writers Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain really get across the gap between what Harmony goes through every day and what our main characters perceive about her. Angel, Wes, Gunn, Fred… they barely know (or care about) Harmony, while she knows quite a bit about them. It’s pretty sad.

“Harm’s Way” embroils Harmony in a mystery, as she wakes up next to the corpse of a man that she had been flirting with in a bar the night before, and she fears that she lost control and killed him. (Talk about your walk of shame.) In the end, Harmony learns that she was framed by another secretary, Tamika, who has roughly the same kind of relationship with Harmony that Harmony has with Angel and company. Tamika—who’s also a vampire—envies and resents Harmony for getting the most important secretarial position in the firm, while Harmony barely remembers that she and Tamika used to work side-by-side in the steno pool. Harmony feels better about her life, knowing that her very existence has made someone else feel like crap. Justice!

In addition to the insights into Harmony, I appreciated the sense of Wolfram & Hart’s evolving corporate culture in “Harm’s Way.” There’s still an extension for the curses department, for example, but it’s now frowned upon to dismember virgins, even for religious reasons. What keeps me from fully embracing this episode is that it relies overmuch on a bit of comic shtick that I find tiresome: a character thinking that someone’s figured out her big secret, only to realize that the other person is upset about something else entirely. This happens over and over again in “Harm’s Way,” with Harmony believing that she’s about to be canned, killed, or otherwise implicated in the murder of her one-night-stand, until there’s a sudden reversal. I liked Harmony herself in this episode, but not that gag.

Similarly, I was hot-and-cold on “Soul Purpose,” mainly because of the variable quality of the dream sequences. In this episode, Eve slaps a Black Mercy-style creature onto Angel’s torso, and suddenly our man is knocked into woozyville, confined to his bed as he imagines a world where he’s a big zero and Spike is the savior of the universe. As often happens with these “dream” episodes, the reveries range from the comic to the poignant, which means that some of the former fail for not being funny enough and some of the latter fail for being too maudlin. For me at least, a few of the dreams didn’t work because they were too long (I’m thinking here of the one where Fred roots around inside Angel’s chest-cavity, though I did like the part where she handed Angel’s dead-goldfish-soul to a bear) or too weird (I think we can all agree that Spike having sex with a partially obscured Buffy was kind of icky).

But though the dreams are hit-and-miss—and give “Soul Purpose” a lumpy shape—they do serve a function. Narratively, Eve incapacitating Angel helps advance the scheme she’s been hatching with Lindsey. We’re not yet told the full extent of their plan, though we know now it involves a hunk of rock covered with the same kind of runes that Lindsey has tattooed on his body and scrawled all over the walls of his apartment. And we also know the plan involves Spike. Lindsey corrals Spike at The Peppermint Stick and introduces himself as “Doyle” (!), a representative of the Powers, there to pass along his visions of people in trouble. Lindsey sets Spike up with a basement lair, and guides him to back alleys where demons are threatening humans. And so Spike relives the first part of Angel’s Los Angeles adventures, even dropping familiar lines like “I’m the hero” and “helping the helpless.” (The difference is that Spike kind of resents the humans he’s helping for being stupid and allowing themselves to become demon-food.)

Thematically, Spike’s new vigilante gig puts the crisis of conscience at Wolfram & Hart into context. Before Angel takes ill, he listens to Wes and Gunn debate how and when they should take out a child-enslaving warlock, and wonders whether it would be ethical—or cost-effective—to use the W&H orbital micro-cannon to wipe out the bad guys before they do anything bad. (“It’s a gray area” is the only answer he can seem to get from his staff on these matters.) Then when Wes and Gunn offer to back Spike in his new endeavors, he rejects them, saying that so long as they’re working for Wolfram & Hart, they’ll always be a little corrupt. Back at the office, Fred counters that they’re changing the system from the inside, to which Gunn mutters, “When you say it out loud it sounds really naive.”

That’s partly what Angel’s dreams are about: this sense that he’s made a bad choice and is being consumed by corporate bureaucracy while Spike effortlessly claims the triumphant destiny that was meant to be Angel’s, and that he’s spent so many hard, mostly fruitless years trying to claim. My favorite of all the dream sequences in this episode is the one where Spike saves the world and gets turned into a real boy, while Angel works as a mailboy (complete with short sleeves and a necktie). Because even when the dreams in “Soul Purpose” come off as silly or pretentious, they do a fine job of mapping out the hero’s mental space, all while using existing locations and characters, with just a few additional props and costumes. That’s yet another way that Whedon and crew work around the limitations of their budgets, by exploring new areas within the world they’ve already built.

Stray observations:

  • I can’t say that I ever expected to hear The Detroit Cobras on Angel. I’m trying to think whether that would’ve been obscure even in 2004, of if that was the heyday of the whole neo-garage/Detroit thing.
  • The dead man Harmony wakes up to was working as a “demon’s rights” advocate. Not much is made of this—beyond it being generally amusing—but it adds to overall idea that the notion of “good” and “evil” is getting increasingly complicated for our heroes.
  • Even if “Harm’s Way” had been 40% scenes of Harmony mistakenly thinking she’d been busted, I’d still give the episode high marks just for the opening Wolfram & Hart commercial, featuring an uncomfortable Angel pledging, “If you don’t kill, we won’t kill you.” Now that’s a slogan!
  • Also, remember: Every life and unlife is as important to our new management as their own.
  • When Spike dusts a vampire, he winces when he gets a little bit of the debris on him. Nice touch.
  • In Angel’s dream with Fred, she hollows him out. More foreshadowing for a certain episode coming later this season?
  • I’ve kind of forgotten that Cordelia Chase was ever a character on this show. Is that bad?

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