Since some of you complained last week that I wasn’t effusive enough in my appreciation of Dark Wesley in all his ice-cold badassery, let me kick off this write-up of “Ground State” with an appropriate level of awe. How cool is Wesley? How cool is he when Lilah’s advising him in bed that she’s busy and needs to “go first,” and he growls, “If I let you go at all?” How cool is he when he tells Lilah that he had to raise Angel from the ocean so that he could fight “people like you?” How cool is he when he’s ignoring Angel’s attempt to bury the hatchet? Or leading his new team of demon-fighters? Or quietly giving Angel what he wants by handing over a file he’s compiled on Cordelia’s disappearance? Right now, Wesley’s sowing some wild oats, bearing a wicked grudge against his old friends, and taking care of business. What’s not to love?
I could say the same of the whole of “Ground State,” an episode that crackles from start to finish. It opens with a flashback to 1985—with appropriately retro ‘80s horror camera angles and filters—at a Wisconsin school for “gifted” children, where we meet Gwen Raiden, a sad little girl who has to wear thick gloves and a puffy red coat, lest she accidentally kill her new classmates with her uncontrollable electro-touch. In the present day, Gwen has grown into a foxy professional thief (played by Alexa Davalos) whose red coat has been replaced by a revealing red vinyl tank-top, and whose gloves are now slinky little arm-length numbers. She’s got a sassy attitude to match her new fashion sense. When a client, Elliot, complains that she’s not being discreet enough, Gwen purrs, “What, do you see nipple?” And when she finds out that Elliot isn’t paying hear anywhere near enough to steal the rare object he wants—The Axis Of Pythia—she melts his $12,000 watch and dumps it on the table in front of him, saying, “Now it’s surrealism.”
Then Gwen gathers her gear—grappling hooks, lipstick—and sneaks into Chandler’s Auction House, a black market for mystical wares. Once inside, she switches off the cameras and manipulates the security-lasers, all with the power of her touch. Her only real obstacle? Angel and Gunn, who are also after The Axis, since the object may allow them to contact Cordelia. Angel insists that he’ll let Gwen have The Axis back as soon as they’re done with it, but she’s not williing to play along. So she electrocutes Gunn, and kills him.
Gwen, by the way, is awesome. Like Wesley-level awesome. I know she’s an amalgam of multiple Stephen King characters and various X-Men—with a hefty sprinkling of Joss Whedon Girl-Power Dust™—but that’s a character type I respond to strongly. I loved Gwen’s combination of cockiness and deep woundedness: the way she self-identifies as “a freak,” the way she jokes “it’s fun for a girl and a boy” while Angel’s talking about The Axis, and the way she looks a little hurt when he finds out that Angel needs The Axis to find “her.”
It’s that sympathetic side that also leads Gwen to bring Gunn back to life shortly after she fries him. And then, in classic superhero fashion, she teams up with Angel, after they fight. Angel tracks Gwen to Elliot’s HQ, where she peels off her gloves—very sexily, I might add—and jolts him so hard that she briefly starts his dead vampire heart. They kiss a little, and then Elliot shows up and springs his special Gwen-trap. (“What are you, Lex Luthor?” she asks.) Working together, Angel and Gwen escape the trap and defeat Elliot and his goons.
Even more than the plot, “Ground State” works because of its plethora of spot-on character moments. I mentioned Wes, and Gwen, but Lilah has a couple of strong scenes in this episode: first with Wesley, and later with Angel when he catches her spying on Connor (who’s living on the street). He asks for her help with The Axis, but she smiles and says, “I don’t do errands unless they’re evil errands.” He fires back, “I can smell you and Wesley all over each other.”
Then there’s Fred, who has a mini-breakdown midway through the episode after Gunn is brought back to life. She confesses that she’s sick of being the upbeat, even-keeled team-member who’s holding it all together. And though Cordelia (or at least a “light made of pure joy” in the form of Cordelia) tells Angel that she’s happy as a celestial being, Cordy later demands, “Get me out of here!” Wesley, Gwen, Fred, Cordelia… so many people in this episode feeling the strain of who they’re pretending to be.
I thought this week’s Buffy was strong too, taking a tightly constructed story (with a twist ending!) and working it into the ongoing season seven set-up.
“Help” opens with a classic Buffy scenario: the Scoobies camping out in a funeral home so they can dust a vamp as she’s being born. (A sweet old-lady vamp, at that.) In an echo of the one of the season’s first scenes—the scene of Buffy training Dawn at the cemetery in “Lessons”—the gang spends as much time talking amongst themselves as they do on their work. Xander’s griping that their vamp-killing procedures are inefficient. (“Vampire-by-vampire… it’s the only way I know how,” Buffy sighs.) Dawn’s stressed out that Willow hasn’t fully rejoined the team. And Buffy’s worried about her first day on the job as a counselor for Sunnydale High’s troubled teens. “What if their problems are weird and tricky?” she asks, just before she stakes a rising corpse.
As it turns out, most of her kids’ problems aren’t that unusual. There’s a girl who’s being troubled by bullies, and a boy whose brother is in the military. Buffy gets some guys who try to hit on her—one by pretending to be gay—and Dawn drops by to complain about her. And then there’s Cassie Newton (played by Azura Syke), who hasn’t been doing her homework, because she knows she’s going to die on Friday. She’s not suicidal, nor has she been threatened by anyone. No, Cassie has precognitive tendencies—she knew well in advance that Buffy was going to stain her nice shirt, for example—and she has envisioned her demise, in someplace dark and underground, surrounded by piles of coins.
The Scoobies immediately begin working to unravel the mystery of Cassie. Willow finds Cassie’s website, full of dark poetry that would seem to indicate a troubled young lady. Dawn gets into gumshoe mode and says that she suspects a boy at school whom Cassie keeps turning down for dates. (“I’m thinkin’… lets collar him before he lawyers up!”) And when they uncover the tidbit that Cassie’s father is a drunk, Buffy and Xander go to confront the old man and see if he’s dangerous, while having a telling conversation on his porch.
Buffy: Buffy the vampire slayer would just kick down this door.
Xander: And Buffy the counselor…?
As it turns out, Cassie’s life is in danger, from a crazy, red-hooded teen cult that wants to sacrifice her to a demon in exchange for wealth. Buffy tries to get Spike to feed her any intel he might have about what’s going on in the Sunndydale High underground—its literal underground, where Spike dwells—but he initially seems not just reluctant but afraid to help. Ultimately he does come to Cassie’s rescue on that fateful Friday, and in return she sees his future: “Someday she’ll tell you.”
Then Cassie dies of a heart attack.
I was disappointed to see Cassie go so quickly, because she was an interesting character (and a White Stripes fan). But her death works thematically. There’s a lot in “Help” about the ways that our heroes try to help—or the ways, like Spike, that they carefully try to avoid helping, lest they make matters worse. And even though Cassie tells Buffy before she dies that Buffy will make a difference in the world, the lesson of “Help” seems to be that sometimes terrible things just happen, no matter how firmly our heroes stand in opposition.
- Fred has been trying to rent out Cordelia’s apartment, but has been having some trouble with Dennis The Ghost, who doesn’t seem to understand that Cordy’s not coming back.
- Wes leads Angel to a puckish spirit named Dinza, who points the way to The Axis. Angel asks Wesley how he can win her over: “Gift? Sacrifice? Unholy fruit basket?”
- Fred puts together a little hand-drawn presentation about The Axis (complete with a little ghost saying “boo” to illustrate its mystical qualities). Angel, meanwhile, tosses off drawings of The Axis and Cordelia that put Fred to shame.
- Fred’s little breakdown doesn’t come out of nowhere. Angel and Gunn leave her to draft the plan to swipe The Axis. (“I’m strong, if that helps,” Angel offers unhelpfully.) Later, at Chandler’s, Angel and Gunn listen carefully to Fred’s instructions, and then head off in the wrong direction. No wonder Fred mutters to herself, “Please let my cell mate be gentle.”
- Gwen says that “fibbing” is lying, only classier. Later, Angel calls back to that and says, “Don’t fib.”
- In the middle of springing his Gwen-trap, Elliot takes a call from home and complains that he had tuna casserole last Thursday.
- Welcome to 2002, part one: Gunn wonders if they can “eBay” The Axis, but Angel and Fred let him know that the object would cost 33 million dollars.
- Welcome to 2002, part two: In the Buffy episode, Willow asks Buffy if she’s Googled Cassie yet. (And Xander doesn’t know what that means. These were the days when thinking “Google” is a dirty word was still a funny joke on TV. )
- Xander is flattered that Willow’s love poems about him were posted on the internet back in high school. (“I’m over you now, sweetie,” she reminds him.)
- Nice metaphor from Xander about how when wielding a hammer, you have to sacrifice either power or control. Also nice to see him and Willow hanging out again, taking a trip to Tara’s grave. Just a very good scene all around.
- Hey, it’s Sarah Hagan as one of Buffy’s troubled students! I’ve missed her since Freaks And Geeks.
- Principal Wood grew up in the hood: Beverly Hills.