A Case of Deja Vu
July 3rd, 2010
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As I get closer to the end of Angel and Buffy’s first and fourth seasons, respectively, the two shows are suffering from opposite problems when it comes to writing about them. While Buffy has gone through a lot of plot development which makes it difficult to write about a single episode as opposed to an arc, Angel is so devoid of plot development that nothing is really jumping out at me. It’s not that either show is depreciating in quality, but rather that Buffy is barreling through while Angel remains in the logical first season holding pattern (albeit with a twist, due to the events of “Hero”).
And so, while it isn’t ideal, I figure it’s best if I offer some quick comments on a large series of episodes for each show as opposed to trying to review them individually. These aren’t really thematic pieces, but more a grab bag assortment of comments regarding particular episodes. Now, I have some reservations about doing this for Buffy, and when that piece goes up later in the weekend I can assure you that it will go a bit more indepth with the growing arcs and some of the character work ongoing in the episodes leading up to the two-parter – however, for Angel, these episodes standalone in such a fashion that a quick paragraph on each seems like a nice way to capture the series’ progress of sorts.
If we can call it that, considering how much of it feels like a case of Deja Vu.
Angel is making progress only insofar that they’ve gotten to the same point with Wesley that they were with Doyle earlier in the season – while “Hero” shook up the narrative, and I’ve been pleased to see some of the after-effects play out (Angel calling Wesley Doyle in “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” is the most obvious example), the fact remains that Angel’s momentum is built entirely around character as opposed to plot, and Wolfram & Hart remains as ambiguous as it was at the beginning of the season even if we get a glimpse of Lilah Morgan in “The Ring.” This isn’t necessarily a problem, but I think that “Hero” was ultimately a meaningful setback more than it was a legitimate momentum builder. It’s not a problem that the show is starting over with Wesley, but it does mean that this string of episodes doesn’t feel particularly purposeful.
“Expecting” isn’t a terrible episode: everyone loves a good spontaneous parasitic pregnancy, and there’s meaning in the ways in which the problem derives from Cordelia’s struggles to make it on her own in L.A. However, this isn’t particularly news at this stage in the series (both “City Of” and “Rm w/a Vu” played similar notes), and while I love any “appearance” from Ghost Dennis the episode seemed sort of straightforward in terms of bringing this new family together. The episode allows Wesley and Angel to work as a team to save Cordelia, which is helpful at establishing their group dynamic, but the isn’t particularly subtle about it – yes, these standalone episodes will work towards long-term goals in the way they play out, but as functional as the episode is it seemed a bit strange to be going through the same types of motions we saw in previous episodes just because Wesley has arrived. It’s a smart decision long term, but the lack of subtlety makes for a less “enjoyable” episode.
“She” isn’t particularly subtle either, which is apparently part of Bai Ling’s standards when she signs up for a guest appearance (see also: “Stranger in a Strange Land”). If I remember the earlier comment sections correctly, the (wonderful) dance sequences are considered the episode’s redemptive factor, and I think that’s a pretty safe bet. This is your typical Angel episode, to some degree, but everything seems off: the presumed sexual tension with a female adversary/ally feels forced, the comic relief has a bizarre element of deja vu (since Sean Gunn appeared both as the Resort owner and as Doyle’s kin in “Hero”), and the whole alternate dimension thing feels underdeveloped rather than purposefully mysterious. I see the genital mutilation parallels, but there’s not much nuance to the ways in which it was deployed, and we knew too little about these people and their world for it to seem like anything more than shock value (which isn’t quite to the level of “Hero” in that department, but the lack of any emotional connection makes it seem equally problematic).
“I’ve Got You Under My Skin” is one of the strongest episodes (and probably my “favourite”) in this particular set, for a number of reasons. The first is that I like the way we sort of slowly integrate into the world of Ryan’s family, as opposed to the story being presented as an outright mystery: Cordelia’s vision gives them the address, but the story plays out in a surprising fashion right up to the final twist, which is a nice bit of commentary on the inherency of evil and how we contain or manage it (which plays in nicely with Angel as a character). However, the story also has plenty of small moments, like an extremely brief window into Wesley’s familial past and Wesley struggling to perform the exorcism and find the strength that the Watcher’s Council didn’t believe he had. I like the ways in which the demon brought out those insecurities, and while “Expecting” seemed like it was building character in an entirely expected fashion, I felt “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” surprised me a bit more, which I really appreciate.
“The Prodigal” is probably the most “important” episode in this string, largely because of the flashbacks to the period directly before and after Angel was sired by Darla (a scene we saw as part of “Becoming”) and the latest segment of Kate’s story arc. Elisabeth Rohm remains too uninteresting for me to really connect with Kate, and I didn’t really care enough about her relationship with her father to truly buy into the story arc. In fact, it seemed strange that the show was really building towards something new with Wesley but then reverts back to the Kate storyline, and it seemed kind of sudden for me. The flashbacks to the Liam -> Angelus transformation were not bad in theory, but I found the execution let them down: while Angel’s actions were horrifying, the images were by comparison quite tame, so trapped within the “periodness” that they had no style, no substance. I like the theme of the episode: that vampires are supposed to spend their lives playing out their very first vendetta (which was key to “Somnambulist”), and that Angel’s soul has made that both readily apparent (in his feelings of guilt as Kate goes through a similar experience with her father) and transcendable (in that he now uses that guilt for good as opposed to evil), is an intriguing element of the series that I think was well-stated. I just felt there was potential to go darker with Liam’s transformation, and the Kate stuff just did nothing for me.
“The Ring” is very much in the Burn Notice mode, Angel finding himself caught up in a pre-established scenario and integrating himself into their community in an effort to stop injustice. It’s not a bad story, but once the opening switcheroo goes down it’s a bit too predictable: I haven’t seen that many Gladiator movies, but the way this played out seemed really familiar even with demons in place of humans, and so this didn’t seem to be taking the show in any particularly exciting directions (even the brief glimpse of Wolfram & Hart was just a tease, nothing more). Seeing Wesley prove himself capable with a crossbow is nice to see, and he and Cordelia working to save Angel is a nice companion to Angel and Wesley teaming to save Cordelia in “Expecting,” but there’s a lack of meaningful thematic connections in the episode as a whole.
“Eternity” is eventful in so much that we get the first appearance of Angelus within the series’ present, but I think the drug-induced vampirism dilutes its impact: the idea that we can be chemically tricked into feeling true love is one of those ideas which the show uses as an excuse to create this particular story, but which it doesn’t really dissect beyond that point. I understand that it’s important for Wesley to actually see Angelus so that he better understands that side of his personality, and that there is meaning in the way Cordelia shrugs off Angelus’ appearance and understands that their friendship is more important than any past associations, but I still think that having that lesson be learned outside of the context of Buffy makes it seem like a parlour trick compared to what Buffy viewers are used to seeing. The Rebecca story offers a few insights into star culture, but it became a bit too campy once it was clear that it was all a tabloid ploy, and I never cared enough about her career to really buy into her sudden desire to turn herself into a vampire: we either needed to see more of her stardom (perhaps even seeing the show she used to be on to understand its appeal), or see more early signs that she could potentially move in this direction. She buys into the vampire side of things way too quickly to service the story, and it led to the episode suffering as a result.
These episodes aren’t terrible (“She” probably comes close, though), but they seem to be treading the same ground or at the very least treading expected ground. The show isn’t really expanding its world so much as it’s reintroducing itself with Wesley’s arrival, which means that things are moving more slowly than one might normally expect. Now, I know the two-parter is up next, so it’s not as if I’m growing impatient; rather, I’m simply observing that the show remains pulled in a lot of different directions, making it quite an interesting (if uneven) viewing experience.
- Is there a specific celebrity that Rebecca was supposed to represent? There were a few moments that seemed to satirize (albeit dramatically) the industry, but they ultimately felt generic to me.
- Great to see a young-looking Ken Marino as Cordelia’s baby daddy of sorts in “Expecting,” as well as Julie Benz returning into her role as Darla – I remember watching the early days of Buffy (boy that seems like a long time ago) and wondering why Benz was so memorable considering how quickly she died, but then “Becoming” cleared that up, and it was quite nice to see her again.
- I didn’t keep watching Starz’s Spartacus (which I guess you could claim as an extension of the Whedon-verse with Jed/Maurissa connected to its second season), but I wonder if some of the stories which played out in “The Ring” came up within their depiction of Gladiator culture.
- The series likes its codas (both “The Ring” and “Eternity” get humorous play-offs akin to Buffy’s “I Robot, You Jane”), but that they don’t help the show’s procedural feel (as they’re a hallmark of USA’s staple of procedurals, although Angel predates all of them) – they work in some situations to help connect the story to the character, but I thought the end of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” did a much better job than a coda would have.
- Since I’m not offering much in the way of thoughts, do add your favourite scenes, or your biggest problems, with the above episodes in the comments – that’s where much of the good stuff on these pieces comes from anyways, but that’ll be particularly true in this instance.