“The Harsh Light of Day”/”In the Dark”
June 22nd, 2010
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I don’t think the crossovers were really a huge part of my decision to watch Buffy and Angel simultaneously at the end of the day, but they certainly helped justify the decision. The idea of doing crossovers is logical for the two series, airing back-to-back as they were, but I’ll admit that watching “The Harsh Light of Day” and “In the Dark” makes me wonder just how crucial watching this particular crossover together really is. In fact, I’d go so far as to call it highly unnecessary, although I’ll admit that there’s some interesting storytelling within the connection.
I want to talk a bit about how the Gem of Amara serves as a crossover element, but I also want to discuss how each show’s respective seasons are shaping up a few episodes in. At this point, Whedon needs to be careful about crossovers, as Angel needs to be establishing its own identity rather than relying on its connections with Buffy. As a result, “In the Dark” is less a continuation of “The Harsh Light of Day” and more a spin-off of its central plot element in order to tell a different story with more weight for Angel and the future of his series. The result is two episodes that are connected, yes, but are primarily continuations and introductions of key themes moving forward into independent, rather than connected seasons.
This doesn’t mean that there’s no value in watching them together, but it does mean that I don’t consider it a necessity.
In “The Harsh Light of Day,” the Gem of Amara is a MacGuffin: it’s an ancient vampire myth of unknown power which Spike wants to use to destroy the world and which Buffy needs to stop him from finding in order to save that same world. It really isn’t that much more complicated than that for most of the episode’s running time, until the point where we find the ring and learn that it grants its wearer (provided they’re a vampire) eternal life. Then, it becomes a convenient reason to shoot Spike and Buffy’s altercation during the day (which has a certain novelty to it), at which point the ring is captured by Buffy. Really, the Gem has nothing to do with the episode’s central function, which is its glimpse of three women (Buffy and the returning Harmony and Anya) dealing with the sting of rejection within the (you guessed it) harsh light of day.
There’s no big surprises in the episode: we know that Spike simply views Harmony as a plaything, we know that Xander isn’t comfortable with Anya’s awkward salvos, and as soon as we met Parker it was pretty easy to tell he was going to end up being a douchebag. But for Buffy the notion of being burned in this fashion plays nicely in terms of tying in with her past with Angel – while I don’t think the show can go quite this dark at all times, college isn’t a shiny happy place so this sort of rejection will help harden the character to the challenges it will bring (even if she remains a bit lovestruck at the end of the episode, with Willow having to explicate the poopface principle). And there’s a lot of inspired dialogue in Harmony’s turn as a vampire and in Anya’s struggles to deal with dratted human emotions: Harmony expected that life as a vampire would be all fun and games but discovers that her vapidity is similarly unwelcome in non-living circles, while Anya naively believes that having sex with Xander will cure her rather than make her more attached. While they’re still secondary characters, they offered a nice glimpse into expectations that played out well in Jane Espenson’s script.
“In the Dark” ostensibly continues the story of this episode, but in reality all it does is take the established MacGuffin and turn it into a more substantial plot device. Now that we know from the beginning what the ring is, and now that the stakes are entirely clear in terms of what Spike could do should it fall into his hands, the ring has greater value to the story, in particular considering the notion that for Angel the ring would forever change his life. It’s a clever bit of storytelling which makes these more or less standalone stories: the function of the ring is clearly explained as soon as Oz arrives with it, and Spike’s desire to hurt Angel isn’t so much an extension of the previous episode as it is a deployment of a great series villain in a logical fashion. The episodes don’t so much represent a two-part story as they represent the same story being told twice, although on Angel the value of the story shifts since the ring means more to Angel and has potentially more dangerous consequences. The story is more personal and tangible, the ring’s power both resonating with Angel and being put in the hands of a vampiric pedophile as opposed to simply threatening the end of the world. It’s an intelligent bit of storytelling, as Buffy has enough of an established base to handle a basic MacGuffin storyline while Angel could use the more tangible structure to help build its world moving forward.
Early on in a procedural (which, at this point, Angel most certainly is, even if it evolves into something more in the future), these kinds of personal stories are necessary to be able to handle substantial character development within standalone stories. While Angel is starting to develop its own sense of identity, as Doyle and Cordelia’s dynamic with Angel is starting to feel more like a team albeit a fairly makeshift one, it is at that stage where it wants to remind us how complex Angel is as a character beyond his inability to socialize properly, and “In the Dark” is working a mile a minute on such areas. Rachel’s little runner, for example, is simply a reminder of what happened with Buffy: Angel tells her to leave her boyfriend behind, as it will hurt for a while but she’ll be better off in the end. And so the Gem of Amara is a convenient way to force Angel to reflect on whether he wants his life to change, and in this instance he chooses to enjoy a sunset before destroying the ring and remaining in the shadows.
Watching these two episodes together certainly has some value: seeing Buffy’s emotional (and instinctive) decision to send the ring to Angel makes her passive influence on Angel’s struggles more potent, and Spike’s less than pleasant experience with Buffy makes his behaviour in “In the Dark” slightly more logical. However, Spike isn’t transformed by his earlier experience, and it’s not as if Harmony or any other specific plot points were mentioned in the context of his attempts to force the ring out of Angel. And while Buffy’s decision might make that part of the episode resonate more, it’s not something which needs to play out directly, and because of how clearly the Gem’s abilities are laid out there’s nothing to really forget should you come back to it later.
As a result, I’d presume that this is one of the less important crossovers, one which is nice (in that you get double the James Marsters) but which is certainly not a necessity. However, the episodes are engaging and entertaining not only because of the crossover appeal or Spike’s general greatness, but also because they nicely reflect where the series are in their current trajectory. Just as Buffy getting burned by Parker gives her a life experience to use in the future, so too does Angel’s choice of destroying the ring show us his own path moving forward. Neither season has fully come together: Buffy and Willow may be rooming together (which should have happened to begin with, but they got a story out of it) but the season lacks an antagonist, while Doyle has become more engaging but remains stuck pining for Cordelia (I have no expectations that Angel will have a full-on season structure a la Buffy at this early stage). What is perhaps most impressive about the crossover is that it relies in part on the series’ shared history, but it feels like the episodes remained building blocks for separate series at the same time, which makes the crossover an added bonus for fans without damaging each series’ respective momentum.
- Watching with all of your comments has made this experience very interesting, and I’m particularly enjoying your vague non-spoilers: for example, a number of people mentioned that Harmony would pop up later without any real context, so even though I wasn’t shocked to see Harmony show up here I was nonetheless surprised to see her become a vampire, making it both a fun surprise and a nice reinforcement of my experience with the Cultural Catchup Project. Mercedes McNab had a great deal of fun with this one, so I’m looking forward to her return.
- As discussed on Twitter, when Parker first emerged I felt as if his name just screamed “jerk,” for reasons I can’t entirely explain. As many of my followers pointed out when I asked, there have been plenty of characters named Parker who haven’t been quite so reprehensible, but there’s something about the name that proved bizarrely associative. Either way, no shocker that he turned out to be a complete douchebag.
- One downside of filming fight sequences during the day: the stunt doubling is much, much more apparent.
- Really great stuff from Charisma Carpenter in “In the Dark,” as Cordelia reconnects with Sunnydale and puts her foot in her mouth numerous times in the process.
- Some really effective direction in “In the Dark,” including some great use of shadow (fitting, considering the title), from Bruce Seth Green, who also directed a number of episodes of Buffy.
- In terms of “Living Conditions,” I thought the episode went a tad bit too far into the comic realm. The show obviously had to get rid of Kathy (as noted, Willow and Buffy rooming together should have been there from the beginning were it not for the desire to make her experience in “The Freshman” that much more disorienting), but the ongoing battle between Buffy and Kathy became slightly too passive aggressive at a certain stage, bordering on slapstick. Thankfully, I thought much of the execution on that slapstick was a lot of fun and I laughed quite a bit, but it seemed like Noxon’s script took things a bit too over the top.
- One more note on “Living Conditions”: if this were a decade later, there was a great spot for a “There Will Be Blood” reference during the milk-drinking scene.
- As for “Lonely Hearts,” Angel’s second episode, it was alright; I spent way too much time making silent jokes to myself about Elisabeth Rohm’s character suddenly revealing she was a lesbian and claiming discrimination, which tells me that the episode wasn’t particularly exciting or interesting. That being said, it was a solid little procedural, and the case came together nicely: Fury’s script nicely shifts our focus from male to female before revealing that the Burrower can change hosts, and leaving it with the bartender gives the Police a logical reason to presume he was the killer thanks to his connection with all of those involved (although I would tend to believe he would have an alibi for some of the killings considering his employment, but I’ll let that one slide).
- Commenters were talking about the Angel/Batman connection in the last episode, and then “Lonely Hearts” opens with a specific mention that Angel doesn’t have some sort of signal to call him into action – I saw it in the pilot (in the shot above the skyline in particular), but they were clearly self-aware of those efforts, especially when discussing vigilantism.