“Don’t you know what you’re supposed to do?”
That’s Angel, querying Wesley as the latter stands over a crying Connor. But Angel’s question also gets back to what I was writing about last week, vis-a-vis “Loyalty.” Wesley’s whole problem right now is that he does know what to do. He’s read the ancient texts. He’s talked to the angry giant hamburger. He lives in a world where, more often than not, when an old book says something’s going to happen, you can bank on it. And right now, those books are saying that Connor is doomed to die at Angel’s hands (or perhaps teeth). If Wesley wants to stop that from happening, he’s either going to have to kill Angel or kidnap Connor. And what’s so exciting about “Sleep Tight”—as with “Loyalty”—is that Wesley doesn’t have to say much for us to know exactly what he’s thinking and to know how painful it is for him to be thinking it.
Because while Wesley might be inclined to hesitate more if Angel were acting like Angel—or at least like the cool, centered Angel that Wes trusts—the fact is that ever since the earthquake at the end of “Loyalty,” Angel’s been acting strange. He’s giddier, for one. More volatile overall. For example, at the start of “Sleep Tight,” Angel Investigations gets a new client: Kim, an acquaintance of Lorne’s who keeps transforming into a monster every time she sings one of those drippy modern-rock ballads that the staff at Mutant Enemy likes so much. Turns out Kim’s become an unwitting member of an entire demon band—demons called “Wraithers”—and when Angel, Fred, and Gunn go to check the band out, Angel goes nutzoid and kills the enemy savagely.
Later, when they get back to HQ, Angel flies into a rage over Connor’s constant crying, which prompts Fred to test the blood Angel’s been drinking and determine that there are trace amounts of human blood mixed in with the pig’s blood. Angel figures out the truth immediately: It’s Connor’s blood. (That’s why lately his son “smells like food.”) And even though Angel’s Connor-cravings are happening because of the machinations of Lilah and Sahjhan, that doesn’t mean that their deviousness wasn’t part of the prophecy.
Which raises an even more troubling question: Can Wesley really stop the prophecy from occurring? Won’t something intercede? It is a prophecy, after all.
That question hangs over what may be the most heart-stoppingly suspenseful scene on Angel to date. Wesley arrives at what appears to be an empty hotel, and gathers Connor’s gear to beat a speedy exit. But then Lorne shows up, so Wes explains that Angel said he could take Connor to the park (which is true) and that Angel also said it would be okay for Connor to sleep over at Wes’ apartment (which is not true). Then Connor cries and Wesley starts to sing him a lullaby—while I’m shaking my head in my chair, muttering, “No, Wes, no.” Sure enough, Lorne instantly “reads” Wes and knows the whole plan. Wesley has no choice but to clobber Lorne with a statue, to knock him out.
As if that’s not stressful enough, before Wesley can make his escape, Angel walks in. And while Wes is able to persuade Angel to let him take Connor, Angel asks him to hit the books first and check out Sahjhan, whom Angel met for the first time earlier that evening. Then Gunn and Fred show up, complicating matters further. Finally, Wesley is able to get away—after saying, “I’ll… see you tomorrow,” while I’m shaking my head in my chair, etc.—just before Holtz arrives with his commandoes. Angel, Fred and Gunn take care of the intruders, and then Lorne comes to and fills them all in on Wesley’s plan. The whole 10-minute sequence is an amazing piece of writing, directing and performance: tense, twisty, and explosive.
What happens next is just as surprising. While Wesley is in the process of spiriting Connor away, a wounded Justine appears, and Wes tries to help her. (Do I even need to say what I was doing in my chair at that point?) Justine slits Wesley’s throat and drives off with Holtz, and the two of them talk about starting a new life with Connor on a ranch in Utah. But then everything converges. Angel shows up. Lilah shows up, with Wolfram & Hart soldiers backing her. Sahjhan shows up and opens a portal to a hell dimension that he promises to widen unless Holtz kills Connor. Instead, Angel gives Holtz permission to take Connor away, and Holtz, rather than driving off as Angel had intended, jumps into the portal, effectively sealing it up. It all happens so fast that even Angel doesn’t have time to take it all in. He ends the episode weeping on the ground, saying, “Connor.”
As for me, I was left exhausted by “Sleep Tight” but in a good way. This is the kind of storytelling that TV frequently does better than any other medium (outside of maybe comic books): the kind where multiple long-range plots come to a head and everything goes sour all at once. The Shield used to excel at this. Breaking Bad and Sons Of Anarchy do it superbly, too. It’s a narrative technique that utilizes TV’s episodic format and its commercial-break structure well. It appeals that part of us that likes watching accidents happen—in slow-motion, if possible.
There’s still a lot to ponder here, too, beyond whether Wesley will survive his injuries, and what Angel will do once he’s on his feet again. For example, I still wonder about the prophecy. Has it been thwarted, or just deferred?
I also wonder about the differences between Wesley, Angel, and Lilah—the latter two of whom have a terrific scene together about halfway through the episode. Angel is a driven man, acting almost on instinct as a father and threatening to torture Lilah at length if she uses Connor to get to him again. (“With transfusions, I could keep you alive indefinitely.”) Wesley is a tragic hero, doing what he feels is right but hating every minute of it. It’s Lilah who comes off the strongest here, enjoying her own force of will and not giving a second thought to the evil she serves, because she’s able to compartmentalize and say, “It’s my job.” She knows what she’s supposed to do, and she doesn’t hesitate.
Well, hell’s bells, “Hell’s Bells.”
I don’t even know where to start with this one, so I’ll get the obvious gripe out of the way first: I hated the Xander/Anya break-up. Hated it. I can’t decide yet whether I hated it because I wanted to see those two crazy kids be happy or because this particular plot twist seemed so arbitrarily mean—to the characters and the audience—but I can’t change the way I felt about it. (Which is hateful. Full of hate. Have I mentioned that already?)
It may also be that I hated it because I have a weird reaction to movies and TV shows where an event gets cancelled. I’m the kind of guy who watches a scene where someone storms out of a restaurant and immediately worries about what’s going to become of their food. And since I’ve been through the wedding-planning experience myself, I’m especially distracted when a show stages a big nuptial ceremony and then has something happen to ruin it. (Which happens all the time on TV. We could probably do an entire Inventory about TV-weddings-that-weren’t.) I think about the expense. I think about all the guests who traveled to be there. I think about the food. (Seriously, what’s going to become of the food?)
But even if I didn’t have my particular quirks and biases, I think I’d have a problem with “Hell’s Bells,” for the following reasons:
1. We haven’t really seen enough of Xander this season to make this sudden case of cold feet work. Yes, we’ve seen Xander and Anya bicker—especially in “Once More, With Feeling”—and we’ve seen him worry that his marriage won’t be as cool as Riley and Sam’s, but even those scenes have largely been on the periphery of the story. There needed to be a powerful reason for Xander to back out of this marriage, and…
2. There’s not a powerful reason for Xander to back out of this marriage. Well, let me qualify that. The reason makes sense, but it’s dramatized poorly. The plot of “Hell’s Bells” has a man claiming to be Future Xander arriving on the wedding day to give Xander a glimpse of a future in which he drinks constantly and abuses his wife emotionally and physically. As it turns out, the man isn’t Future Xander at all; he’s a philanderer whom Anya cursed back in her vengeance-demon days, and he’s seeking revenge on Anya. But even after Xander learns the truth, he still decides not to go through with the wedding, because he’s seen the way his parents are—his dad a drunk, his mom a passive-aggressive victim—and he can see how that could happen to him and Anya as well. Like I said: makes sense. Except that Xander’s parents, as presented in this episode, are complete over-the-top cartoon versions of an unhappy couple. To me it doesn’t work dramatically to base a real, heartfelt decision on an example so unreal.
But perhaps my biggest beef with “Hell’s Bells” (beyond the outcome, of course) is….
3. Up until the last 10 minutes or so—when everything falls apart and Xander’s relatives start brawling with Anya’s demon pals—this is actually a pretty good episode. It’s funny, especially in any scene in which the demons interact with the straight world. (Xander’s relatives think they’re “circus folk.”) And it’s sweet, especially in all the scenes where the Scoobies reflect on this rite of passage in their lives together. Buffy praises Xander, saying that his maturation and true love for Anya gives her hope. Anya talks about how she wishes she could share her pre-wedding anxiety with Xander, her best friend, but how she’s still excited that she gets to be with her best friend forever. (I remember feeling exactly the same way before my wedding.)
Even the beginning of the downfall is poignant. There’s a moving sequence where Anya recites her vows in voice-over while we Xander walking off through Sunnydale in the rain, and there’s a nifty bit of plot-driving when Dawn spills the beans about Xander’s absence just as Anya walks by. Honestly, I think if “Hell’s Bells” had ended differently, with Xander coming back and marrying Anya after all, I’d probably like this episode a lot. (As it is, I did think Anya’s solo walk down the aisle to The Wedding March was lovely and that her invitation to be a vengeance demon again in the last scene was appropriately haunting.)
But while it’s unfair to keep comparing Buffy to Angel, it’s hard not to when they covering similar thematic ground in the same week. On one level, “Hell’s Bells” is also about fate and prophecy and whether people can change what is written. “Sleep Tight” takes that question seriously and lets it play out powerfully. “Hell’s Bells” treats it glibly and lets it play out abruptly. I hope there’s a decent payoff to this shocking turn of events down the road, because right now… well, it’s a bummer.
- “You look like hell. And not the fun one, where they burn you with hot pokers for all eternity.”
- Angel’s so hungry he could drink a horse.
- Texas doesn’t hate the black man.
- One nice thing about living in a hotel is that if a room gets damaged by an earthquake and you don’t have insurance to repair it, you can just move into another room.
- Lorne uses little beanie animals to relate a Rat Pack anecdote to Connor.
- Holtz is not enjoying drinking tea out of “cotton cups.”
- When Angel tells Lilah that her assistant pointed him to where she’d be, she says, “I’ll have his arms broken,” and Angel says, “Already taken care of.”
- Sahjhan shows up while Angel is threatening Lilah at the bar, and Angel is confused to find out that he’s Sahjhan’s “sworn enemy.” Which is something I hadn’t really thought about before: We really don’t know why Sahjhan hates Angel, do we? Must be something he does in the future, not something he did in the past.
- Curious Sahjhan comment after he closes the dimensional portal: “Have a good summer.” Is something going to happen after the summer ends?
- Funny Lilah comment at the end, where she complains that after all that happens in that last scene she’s “looking at a mountain of paperwork.”
- Really loved the score in “Sleep Tight,” which was very Romero/Carpenter, late ‘70s/early ‘80s, action/horror.
- Buffy and Willow treat Anya’s choice of bridesmaid’s dress as though it were a monster coming to consume them: “It’s hideous! Look at the arms!”
- Xander’s cousin asks of one of Anya’s “circus” friends, “If he could clear up the skin problem, do you think he’d date a woman with a kid?”
- Anya on her bridal glow: “It’s probably the blush of imprudent spending.”
- Dawn, chasing down a wriggly gift brought by Anya’s vengeance-demon cohorts: “One of Anya’s presents got loose!”
- Halfrek, baiting Dawn while asking about how she’s doing: “Nothing… um, nothing you wish was different?”
- Xander’s upset that he can’t get his cummerbund to fit, because if he can’t wear it then “the whole world can see the place where my pants meet my shirt!”
- Willow and Tara seem to be falling back together. So that’s nice at least.
- Another example of how “Hell’s Bells” would be good if not for what happens at the end of it: I loved the scene between Buffy and Spike, the latter of whom brings a date to the wedding and the former of whom admits that, “It doesn’t change anything, but it does hurt.” I appreciate that the Buffy writers aren’t just blowing past the aftermath of the Spike/Buffy break-up. I also enjoyed the terseness of their exchanges at the end, as Buffy asks if he’s going to take his date back to his place, and he explains, “Evil,” to which she nods, “Of course.” So very mature, these two.