“The House Always Wins” (season 4, episode 3; originally aired 10/20/2002)
“The gang takes a trip”-type episodes can be tricky for long-running TV series to pull off, though I thought Cougar Town’s delightful Hawaii-set finale this past season proved that it can be done well. Angel’s Vegas-y “The House Always Wins,” on the other hand, gets on a decent hot streak at the start, and then just sort of… craps out. And I blame this mainly on the location. The script seems jiggered to make sure our heroes get photographed in front of multiple Vegas landmarks, and the plot works in a gambling motif that doesn’t appear to have been thought through.
First, the good news: Lorne’s back! On their way into Las Vegas—for a staff “retreat”—Angel, Fred and Gunn see huge billboards for the still-alive-in-2002 Danny Gans, followed a just-as-big Tropicana marquee touting “the green velvet fog,” Lorne. For two shows a night, Lorne delights the tourists—even Fred, who squeals during his performance—singing songs like “It’s Not Easy Being Green” and “Lady Marmalade” while surrounded by sexy, emerald-skinned showgirls. We get to see a lot of Lorne’s show, which I’m sure was fun for Andy Hallett and a headache for the people who clear music rights for home video. We also get to see what life is like for Lorne offstage, where he’s being kept behind bars in his suite by crime boss Lee DeMarco, who forces Lorne to read the fortunes of his audience and then pass on what he learns, lest DeMarco put a bullet in the head of one of the “Lornettes.”
So Lorne’s in trouble, and our heroes don’t know it, because by all external evidence, he’s fabulously successful. (Later, Lorne will explain that when he said “make sure Fluffy’s getting enough love” a couple of episodes back, that was meant to be “universally recognized code for, ‘I’m being held prisoner, send help.’”) Nevertheless, Angel and company stick around, hoping they’ll at least find a way to get past Lorne’s bodyguards and say hello and maybe get him to do a reading and see how Angel Investigations can get back on track. Angel uses his vampire charm on a Lornette, which alerts casino security and gets Angel tossed out. (This all happens in the background while Fred and Gunn keep playing blackjack, in an amusing bit of staging.) And then, in a scene that almost justifies the entire episode, Fred paints herself green and dons one of the Lornette’s skimpy outfits, so she can sneak past the guards, who assume she’s there for a quick “diddle” with a demon.
Up to this point, “The House Always Wins” is rolling along just fine. The rest of the episode, though, is pretty much one ill-conceived scene or idea after another. Gunn angrily confronts Lorne and calls him a sell-out, without getting his side of the story first, in a scene that does properly underscore how Gunn tends not to give his friends the benefit of the doubt but still kills the momentum of the team’s run from DeMarco’s goons. Angel falls under DeMarco’s will-sapping spell and becomes a dead-eyed slot-jockey but is helped from above when Cordelia sends him a jackpot in a scene that’s goofy on multiple levels. And then there’s the whole DeMarco scheme itself, which involves inviting the people that Lorne sees great futures for to a special Spin To Win game, where their destinies are imprinted on a chip and then sold to the highest bidder. I don’t really have a problem with that dastardly plot in and of itself, but I found the end result of the destiny-sucking—that the victims become drones with no future or ambition—to be pretty silly, both in concept and execution. And when Angel snaps out of his stupor and goes after DeMarco, Lorne’s explanation for why—“You were fighting for your friends’ destinies”—is awfully corny.
The episode’s cliffhanger is intriguing though. After Lorne smashes the mystical globe holding all the destinies and helps restore order, the foursome returns home to the Hyperion and finds Cordelia in the lobby, asking, “Who are you people?” At least I assume it’s Cordelia. It sure looks like her. Then again, I’m not entirely convinced that Angel spoke to Cordelia last week, given that he said that the person he spoke to was doing great when we know Cordy’s actually not. If this is Cordelia, what wiped her memory? (Next week’s a double Angel week, so I imagine I’ll find out then.)
If we are done with glowy celestial Cordelia, watching from above, I won’t miss the occasional interjections from on high, which never fit in seamlessly with the rest of the show. That said, I did like the layers of “watching” that Cordelia’s presence allowed, as seen in the opening scene of this episode, which has Angel keeping an eye on Connor and Cordelia keeping an eye on Angel, none of them aware of each other. Throw in Lorne being imprisoned in Vegas without his chums realizing it and Angel beginning the season lost at sea, and you’ve got an interesting recurring theme in Angel’s fourth season of people stuck in impossible traps while their friends press on, oblivious.
“Selfless” (season 7, episode 5; originally aired 10/22/2002)
Once upon a time—long ago and far away, in the ninth century in Scandinavia—there lived a young lady named Aud, who passed her days caring for her husband Olaf and raising rabbits, which she gave to her fellow villagers, not in exchange for goods and services but in the spirit of goodwill. But while Aud appeared to be happy, all was not well. Her neighbors found her wide-eyed questions and literal interpretations of their answers to be “irksome.” And her husband spent a lot of time chasing a barmaid, though he claimed not to care for her hips, which were “large and load-bearing, like a Baltic woman.” (Aud, meanwhile, had hips “like a Baltic woman from a slightly more arid region.”) Finally, Aud snapped and cast a spell that turned Olaf into a troll. The imagination, determination, and skill of her magic impressed a demon named D’Hoffryn, who offered to transform her into “Anyanka,” an immortal beast like himself, to wreak vengeance on those who deserve it. “They all deserve it,” Aud said coldly. To which D’Hoffryn added, “That’s where I was going with that, yeah.”
There’s so much to like about “Selfless,” but the highlights of the episode are clearly the often fanciful flashbacks to Anya’s past and the way they’re contrasted with the grim future she faces when the episode begins. From a comic glimpse at the year 880, we jump to Anya covered in blood, having fulfilled a college girl’s wish to rip the hearts out of a bunch of frat guys after a cruel prank. Her fellow vengeance demons are excited about the viciousness of the attack—which Anya accomplished via a giant spider—but Anya is clearly having trouble taking pride in what she’s accomplished, even though she acts defiant when first Willow and then Buffy confront her about what she’s done.
A lot of “Selfless” is taken up by a feisty debate between Buffy, Willow, and Xander about whether Buffy should kill Anya—a choice that Buffy feels is a no-brainer. Ordinarily I’d be a little impatient with so much chitchat, but I feel like these are important conversations for the Scoobies to be having. What about Angel? What about Spike? What about Willow? Why do they kill some rogues and not others? Buffy argues that each case is different, and though to my mind she doesn’t really make the case for why she had to kill Anya and not Spike, I appreciate that everyone talked it out. And I liked how Buffy takes care of business, by walking up into the frat-house, apologizing to a confused Anya (“Is this like one of your little pop culture references that I don’t get?”), and then stabbing her in the chest with a sword.
While this is going on, Willow is helping in her own way by summoning D’Hoffryn, who’s happy to see her again, since he’s felt since “Something Blue” that she’d make a great vengeance demon. (He refers to her flaying of Warren as “watercooler vengeance,” and says that one of his fellow vengeance demons has “a sketch of it on his wall.”) D’Hoffyrn accompanies Willow to the frat-house—“It’s like somebody slaughtered an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog,” he cracks—where they find that Anya is still alive, thanks to her demon side. She tells D’Hoffryn that she wants to “take it back,” and reverse the vengeance. She offers up her life in exchange. Instead, D’Hoffryn summons Halfrek and kills her, reminding Anya, “Never go for the kill when you can go for the pain.” (Besides, he adds, there’s no hurry to kill Anya. After all, “From beneath you, it devours...”)
Like I said, the sometimes jarring shifts between the dark business in the present and Anya’s lighter-toned backstory were superbly handled, giving both their due. The faux-scratchy images in the 880 scenes, the villagers shouting “Hide your babies and your beadwork!” and “Hit him with fruits and various meats!” when Olaf is turned into a troll, the “Once More With Feeling” musical reprises in 2001 (“mustard on my shirt!”)… it’s all so fun that whenever the episode cuts back to blood-spattered, joyless Anya, we feel the lack.
And this is doubly true after Anya sings her song about marrying Xander and gaining an identity—a self. At the end of “Selfless,” she asks Xander, “What if I’m really nobody?” and then the two walk away from each other, sadly. But we’ve seen more of where Anya came from now and know that she’s not a non-entity. She’s Anya, with her own set of quirks and hopes. Each case is different; Buffy’s right. And Anya’s special enough that her case deserves just as much careful consideration as any of their other friends.
- Angel has been to Vegas a lot over the years. He knew Bugsy Siegel; he hung out with The Rat Pack; he went to Elvis and Priscilla’s wedding. When he points out that “they’re used to be dunes over there,” he means actual dunes, not The Dunes casino.
- Angel isn’t surprised that Lorne made it big in Vegas, despite his skin tone. The thought of it though makes Fred gasp, “You don’t think The Blue Man Group…” (Angel: “Only two of them.”)
- The Vegas action takes up the bulk of the Angel episode, which means we only get a couple of minutes with Wes. But in those minutes he attempts to steal Angel’s clients and talks dirty on the phone with Lilah. You can pack a lot of badassery into a short period of time if you’re Dark Wesley.
- Spike barely appears in “Selfless,” though he has a very strong scene where he talks to Buffy about how he can’t trust what he sees anymore and how Dru also used to hallucinate, which leads her to reassure him that, “It’s me, and it’s you, and we’ll get through this.” Of course, he’s hallucinating Buffy, too… something that didn’t occur to me until I realized she was being way too nice to him.
- Dawn also barely appears in “Selfless,” except to advise Willow on how to behave on her first day back at college. (“Do exactly what everyone else does, all the time,” she says. “They may say something like, ‘My protein window closes in an hour.’ Just nod and smile.”)
- Until she runs into a bloody Anya, Willow’s having a great day. She’s wearing a spiffy outfit, and her professors are happy to see her. “They even said they’d give me periodic surprise quizzes,” she gushes.
- That said, after Willow finds out what Anya’s done, there’s a scary moment where she nearly gets bitten by that giant spider, and then she turns on the college girl who wished the spider into existence in the first place, flashing her Dark Willow eyes.
- And how about that spider, huh? That’s some terrifying kinda beastie, especially when it gets right in Buffy’s face… yikes! I’m with Xander: We’re going to need more swords.
- When D’Hoffryn says, “Isn’t that just like a Slayer?” it reminded once again how strange it is that everyone in the supernatural community seems to know so much more about what a Slayer is and what it means than the actual Slayer does.
- “Everyone is so considerate today. I should’ve slaughtered people weeks ago.”