Bewitched, Bothered but Familiar
May 19th, 2010
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As viewers of television, we value the element of surprise: we like to be shocked, to see things we didn’t expect and get that surge of adrenaline that comes with the best kind of storytelling. However, at the same time, we want to feel as if things are familiar: we may not want to be able to predict precisely what will happen, but we do want to have some sense of how things would play out should something unexpected unfold. In short, the best television delivers familiarity within the unfamiliar, going beyond our expectations without shattering our understanding of these characters or this universe.
With a show like Buffy, the greatest challenge is separating the intense fan responses to the series from the characters themselves. When Angel suddenly returned from the realms of Hell and struggled to reconnect with his past life, I was pleased: he’s an interesting character who complicates the protagonist’s life in fascinating ways, so why wouldn’t I want him to return and bring with him the baggage from “Becoming?” However, I realized in “Revelations” that the rest of the show’s characters wouldn’t be quite so pleased to see him, their own reactions to Angel as a character separate from their enjoyment of complex serialized narratives.
Angel’s return was unpredictable (except for the decision to keep him in the opening credits, of course), but the way in which characters respond feels familiar, continuous with what we’ve seen in the past two seasons. And when the show turns over the spotlight onto the character’s past in “Amends,” as he becomes weighed down by the intense guilt pervasive within his soul, it manages to capture the unique qualities which make the character so difficult to relate to and thus so easy to empathize with – this is not a show with one-dimensional struggles, and Angel’s return manages to be both dramatic and intriguing without turning any of the show’s characters into single-minded archetypes in the chaos surrounding his mysterious return.
“Revelations” isn’t really an episode about Angel, but rather about how everyone else views Angel: Buffy trusts him because she loves him and feels responsible for his current state, but the rest of the show’s characters have plenty of reason to think otherwise. It isn’t really a “revelation” that Giles doesn’t cheer about Angel’s return considering that he last saw Angel when he was being tortured by the guy, and Xander has always held a grudge against Angel which was only confirmed when his actions placed both Willow and Cordelia in trouble towards the end of the second season. And if you consider the basic facts of the matter, there’s no reason Faith would trust Angel both considering her love of killing vampires and her severe trust issues when it comes to her relationship with Watchers.
None of these responses are particularly surprising, but that’s the point of the episode: the revelation is not the way they respond but rather the fact that Angel is alive at all. We’ve known this for a few episodes, and had time to figure out what it means to us as viewers and to Buffy as a character, so we suddenly have to put ourselves in the shoes of everyone else. The show often asks us to relate to Buffy as a primary protagonist, but the episode forces us to question whether she’s making a rational decision, and prompts us to consider whether Angel really can be trusted. Personally, I think I trusted Angel upon his return because of the fact that we saw Willow’s spell work and because we saw in “Becoming” the ways in which the curse changed Angel’s persona, but only Buffy was able to see those final moments, and if I hadn’t seen them I don’t know if I would have believed Buffy either. Accordingly, while they may be acting against our own sense of where this story is heading, I understand the characters’ reluctance to believe Angel, which is why the episode works well in terms of getting them on board: Angel saves Willow’s life, endearing him to pretty much all involved, and his efforts to destroy the glove help Giles at least open up to the idea of it all.
However, his return is not without consequence: while the episode smooths over the group’s view of Angel, it does nothing to solve his crisis of identity, nor does it help Faith learn how to trust in others as everyone learns to trust in Buffy. Eliza Dushku has some great moments as yet another role model in her life is torn away from her (this time due to her hidden motives of world domination), and it makes sense that Faith would be collateral damage in this situation. She struggles to trust Buffy because she doesn’t want to trust anyone but herself, and because trusting Gwendolyn Post placed her life in jeopardy and proved yet another mistake that nearly got other people killed. As much as you could argue that “Revelations” comes to a positive conclusion, Faith is evidence that it is never quite that easy, a lesson which Angel continues to learn throughout this section of the season.
“Amends” is an episode which isn’t important narratively so much as it is important emotionally: yes, this show has enough stories focusing on love and tragedy that you can’t necessary separate narrative and emotion, but The First Evil are not a villain we’ve seen before nor do they have any particular personality. Rather, they are a clever excuse for Angel to become haunted by his past, as victims from his distant past and his recent exploits (Jenny Calendar, in particular) appear to him and serve as the world’s least effective psychologist. What Angel wants is to be able to be with Buffy, but he knows this is impossible, and so the First traumatizes him to the point where he chooses to sacrifice himself to end the suffering after rejecting the suggestion that killing Buffy would be easier.
Willow and Oz reunite within the same episode, and we’re meant to look at their hangups (her infidelity) as something that can be worked through with the sense of trust and love that we saw such a focus on in “Revelations.” The problem with Buffy and Angel is that they can’t just “work it out,” which leads to the sort of broad character actions (Angel’s attempt to kill himself to stop the pain) that could become too big for the show to handle. However, while Willow humorously overplays her side of the reunion in an effort to win back Oz’s trust through sex and Barry White, Angel’s actions are much more internal and wonderfully played by David Boreanaz. This episode, unlike “Revelations,” is definitely about Angel, and Boreanaz is really tremendous as he captures the character’s inner pain without chewing the scenery in the process.
And it all culminates, of course, with that scene on the hill overlooking Sunnydale. While it events with the magical snowfall which allows them to enjoy the remainder of the evening together, the scene is filled with raw emotion that I honestly didn’t expect. While Boreanaz and Sarah Michelle Gellar have had some strong scenes, they really brought something different to the table here: Buffy isn’t willing to see Angel leave her life all over again, and Angel isn’t willing to keep suffering this personal struggle, and both actors captured the intensity of those emotions without going over the top. I say that I want things to seem both surprising and familiar, and this scene is really the ultimate test of that: I’m surprised that they were both able to pull it off with such nuance and emotion, but yet the way those emotions surfaced felt perfectly in-tune with their characters and the journeys they have taken.
Angel’s return started out as a mystery, but over time it became a catalyst for these sorts of emotional episodes that speak to the other characters and their struggles. The show went back to the character because of just how complicated his existence became, and rather than ruining the impact of the tragedy of “Becoming” it has extended its impact on the show’s characters rather than allowing it to remain isolated within Buffy. There are some risks involved with this particular decision, but the show (and in particular Boreanaz) stepped up to the plate to deliver a continuation of Angel’s story which feels like a revelation while remaining familiar in ways that tie it into past storylines and continues to build future potential.
- In another connection between the two episodes, Faith arrives at Buffy’s house for Christmas Eve in “Amends” despite her trust issues which played out in “Revelations” – the beat really only allows Buffy to leave Faith at the house to protect her mother, but it’s still a nice turn for the character that Dushku handles nicely.
- There’s something interesting in the way that the First influences dreams – while we’ve seen dreams serve as prophecy in the past, here they became a sort of living trauma, reflecting the increased dynamism in the series as a whole at this point in the third season.
- It’s been too long since I’ve seen the episodes to really comment on small details (forgive me!), but I do remember that this series of episodes has led to the “throw your hands in front of the screen and blindly press Play Episode to avoid seeing clear spoilers in DVD menu images” strategy being mandatory.