With all the complicated story and character arcs on Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel, it’s easy to forget sometimes that these shows originally sprung from the realm of horror fiction and movies. Then Count Dracula suddenly shows up, or fish-monsters, or zombies, and the genre roots are so plainly evident that it’s clear Joss Whedon and company could’ve produced 100 episodes of John Carpenter and George Romero riffs if they'd wanted to (and if the network was game). Still, I’d be lying if I said that I’d ever expected Angel to pay homage to those freaky old DC war/monster comics starring The Creature Commandos.
I have no idea if “Why We Fight” is an intentional homage, or just a case of the writers (led by Whedon all-stars Steven S. DeKnight and Drew Goddard) deciding that it would be fun to flashback to what Angel and Spike were doing during World War II. Certainly David Boreanaz and James Marsters seem to be enjoying themselves, with the former slipping easily into “world-weary but reliable soldier” mode—doing his best Bill Holden, in other words—while the latter slouches around a submarine in the Nazi overcoat of a soldier he just ate, and demands to be called “Captain.”
The reason for this flashback is the arrival at Wolfram & Hart of Sam Lawson (played by Eyal Podell), who met Angel and Spike on that submarine back in 1943. Angel had been drafted by a special branch of the U.S. government called the Demon Research Initiative (which would later go on to make Buffy lame or super-awesome, depending on which fan you ask) to help the military retrieve a German prototype U-Boat from the ocean floor; Spike was on the sub because he’d been captured by the Nazis as part of their own demon-army experiment; and Lawson was there as a Naval officer on the original team assigned to seize the vessel.
Given that the Lawson who shows up at W&H in 2004 looks exactly like the Lawson we see in 1943—and given that he seems righteously pissed as he roams the halls and ties up all of Angel’s pals—it’s not too hard to figure that something dire and supernatural happened on that sub. Toward the end of the episode, we get the scoop: Lawson was mortally wounded by one of the Nazis, and since he was the only one capable of piloting the U-Boat, Angel “sired” him—the only person he ever sired since his ensoulment—so that Lawson could save them all from a watery grave. Since then, Lawson’s been walking the earth, feeding joylessly and aimlessly. He comes to Angel looking for some kind of retribution (or direction), and Angel stakes him.
Here’s what’s interesting to me about “Why We Fight” (besides its Weird War Tales elements): Broken down, it’s not too different from the two episodes that come before it, in that again one of Angel’s old acquaintances shows up and demands that Angel justify his existence; only Angel’s reaction has changed since “You’re Welcome,” in that he now seems much more comfortable with who he is and what he does. The message of this episode is that we do terrible things in wartime, and that when “evil’s spreadin’,” sometimes the best response is to create an army of monsters, even if that means those beasts will remain unleashed—and looking for any orders to follow—after the peace treaty’s been signed. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take responsibility for those monsters later, and try to do what’s right, however belatedly.
As deep as all that is though, I don’t want to undersell the trashy hilarity of demons at war. Buffy and Angel have always done well with the comedic culture clash of the ancient and the modern, and that’s certainly the case here, as Spike introduces his fellow captives: Nostroyev and the Prince Of Lies. (Nostroyev, breaking down his resume for Angel: “I was Rasputin’s lover!”) “Why We Fight” establishes something of a new baseline for our hero, re-establishing him as a man who understands the practical realities of a battle against evil. But it also combines suspense, action and comedy in entertaining ways.
The same can be said of “Smile Time,” which is hilarious and—at times—genuinely scary. From the opening scene in which a TV kid-show puppet entices a youngster to touch the screen, leaving the boy limp and twisted on the floor with a rictus grin, “Smile Time” achieves “Hush”-like levels of skin-crawlitude and Beanie Baby levels of cuteness.
The premise of “Smile Time” is that beloved puppeteer Gregor Framkin—played by David Fury!—has made a deal with demons to boost the rating of his sagging Smile Time show, and now he and all of his creations are possessed, and using the show to steal the life forces of children. (Apparently this isn’t all that uncommon. “You seen the last few seasons of Happy Days?” Gunn asks.) While Angel is investigating the studio where Smile Time is produced, he steps into the room housing the giant grinning egg that contains all the soul-power, gets zapped, and is turned into a puppet. And not some ugly, disturbing ventriloquist’s dummy or marionette either, but a plush, cute, Muppet-y puppet.
It’s the cuteness that makes “Smile Time” so funny. Broad puppet gestures are adorable in and of themselves, but especially when delivered by the usually steely Angel, who here has to deal with Spike snickering, “You’re a wee little puppet man!” and ends up shouting “I do not have puppet cancer!” when Lorne suggests reasons for his condition. (Gunn and Wes on the other hand dismisses Angel’s tiny fury, saying that he has “the proportionate excitability” of a puppet his size.) It’s hard not to chortle when Puppet Angel vamps up, or when Wes and Fred fight with the oversized Smile Team beast Ratio Hornblower, who ends up getting shot, emitting a cloud of stuffing and sad beeping noises as he goes down.
“Smile Time” is one of the few Angel episodes I’d heard a bit about before I finally saw it, and it did not disappoint. At times I even thought that this could be Angel’s “The Trouble With Tribbles”—an episode so funny and clever that even someone who’d never seen the show could watch it and enjoy. But alas, no. “Smile Time” is too tied to the rest of the season in too many ways for newcomers to hop full on board. And I don’t mean this is as a knock; if anything, it’s a measure of how well Whedon and co-writer/director Ben Edlund constructed “Smile Time” that it advances three larger stories while also being an effective freak-of-the-week episode.
Two of those stories are tied to each other, even: Angel’s budding relationship with Nina Ash (the Werewolf Lady from earlier this season); and Fred’s efforts to get Wesley to understand that she recognizes and reciprocates his attraction to her. It’s Wes’ mooning over Fred that pushes Angel toward Nina. Wes tells him not to worry about what’ll happen if he finds perfect happiness, insisting that most relationships are just “acceptable happiness.” He also says that if Angel has someone who “doesn’t just view you as a sexless shoulder to lean on… you have to do something about it.” The problem is that Angel puppets out during Nina’s monthly visit to the W&H werewolf cage, and he first hides under a desk so that she won’t see him, and then when he does go by her cage, he fails to pay attention to her transformation and gets his stuffing ripped out. (Again: very funny.) Meanwhile, Wes fails to take the hint when Fred says she needs a ride home, and he calls for a driver. And when Fred says that her ideal man is one who can make her laugh, Wes sighs, “You’re looking for someone funny,” and cuts Fred off before she can say “looking at.” Finally, at the end of the episode, she breaks through his wall and just kisses him.
This is all satisfying character business for longtime Angel-watchers. Plus, all the talk of “missing signals” connects to the main plot, which is about evil folks who reach their prey through electronic transmission. And there’s something significant too in the way the Angel and Wes subplots are about people so caught up in their own perception of themselves that they can’t see their value to others. All of these ideas come together well in Gunn’s storyline, which follows through on a brief moment in “Why We Fight” where he seems to fumbling with his legal implant. Gunn goes to see the doctor, who suggests that if the senior partners wanted Gunn to have all that expertise, then they must now want him to go back to the way he was. But Gunn doesn’t want that, because he sees himself now as a big brain, not just as muscle. So he makes a deal to get his knowledge back.
The nature of that deal remains unknown at the moment, but this episode makes one thing ominously clear: Smile Time isn’t free.
- At the start of “Why We Fight,” Gunn makes a point to note that Eve has vanished. So I’m guessing we’re not done with that character.
- Good advice from Nazi Spike: “Don’t ever go to a ‘Free Virgin Blood’ party. Turns out it’s probably a trap.”
- Angel insists that he’ll never end up trapped at the bottom of the ocean, while Spike says he’ll never be held captive by government scientists. Not exactly Nostradamuses, these two.
- Lots of comic book references in these two episodes: First Captain America and his alter ego Steve Rogers in “Why We Fight,” and then in “Smile Time,” Knox suggests that The Joker could be behind the attacks. Hard to believe it’s taken this long for Whedon to be handed the keys to a big comic book movie franchise. (I’m looking forward to The Avengers. Though I still haven’t seen Cabin In The Woods, and won’t get to go this weekend either, so by the time The Avengers comes out I’ll be way behind on movies I need to see.)
- The brief glimpse of one the original iMacs in the Smile Time offices takes me back. I bought one of those, right when they first came out, and right when we moved to Arkansas and I started freelancing full time. (It was a business expense, I told myself.) By the time this episode would’ve aired, I’d moved on to a different, less colorful model of iMac, so I can’t remember whether the iMac in this office would be representative of an organization using old equipment, or cutting-edge gear.
- One of the Smile Time puppets is working on a song about the difference between analogy and metaphor, because even though their mission is to eat children’s souls, he also feels they should uphold a certain standard of children’s edu-tainment.
- The scene where the pre-puppet Angel investigates the Smile Time offices at night is so wonderfully creepy, even with cute felt creatures everywhere. I’ve always been disturbed by public buildings—such as schools—when they’re dark and empty, and though these offices aren’t public, the cutesy characters make it feel like it should be warmer and friendlier than it actually is after hours.