One Faith, Three Narratives
July 8th, 2010
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When I wrote about the first crossover between Buffy and Angel, I wrote that it wasn’t so much a crossover as it was ancillary elements (a returning Spike, the Gem of Amara) crossing between the two series and created largely independent stories which happened to share a basic foundation. However, Spike was a fun villain at that time as opposed to a neutered anti-hero, and the Gem of Amara was a simple MacGuffin without much meaning, so the episodes were meaningful less for what crossed over and more for the stories which those elements created for each series’ respective arc.
As we arrive at the final crossover event (stretching, technically, over five episodes) of the season, what’s clear is that the rules have changed: while the awakened Faith is, like Spike, a character-based connection between the two worlds, it is a connection with much more baggage than Spike’s villainy, and one with wide-reaching complications for both narratives. Whedon is very interested in Faith’s story, which remains diverse and compelling over the course of these episodes, but he is acutely aware of the different role her story plays in each series: while there is technically a clear thread which charts Faith’s behaviour over the course of the four episodes in which she appears, there is a distinction between how much each series focuses on her story as opposed to the story of those around her.
The result is three separate stories, unquestionably connected but distinct in terms of their sense of momentum. While a single narrative of Faith’s awakening stretches over both series, and Buffy and Angel travel back and forth between the two shows working out some of their lingering issues, Faith’s impact on Buffy’s narrative (in “This Year’s Girl” and “Who Are You”) is very different from Faith’s impact on Angel’s narrative (in “Five by Five” and “Sanctuary”), her story finding the series in two very different places which result in unique consequences.
For Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Faith’s return is a continuation of a past storyline and a thematic reminder for the series’ ongoing arc; for Angel, Faith’s return is a turning point for the series’ sense of narrative momentum and character dynamics. Throw in Faith’s individual narrative, and you’ve got the sort of television event that you don’t see every day, and one which helps justify the decision to watch the two series simultaneously even in its quasi-fractured structure.
“This Year’s Girl” and “Who Are You” are about Faith to a degree that isn’t necessarily seen in “Five by Five” and “Sanctuary.” While the two Angel episodes continue the character’s storyline, the Buffy episodes are more intensely linked to the character’s past, and when she arrives to Angel she is a particularly complicated client for Angel Investigations as opposed to a part of that series’ ongoing story arcs. At this point in their reflective runs, the two shows are in very different places: while Faith’s return brings to light various questions of identity which have been an integral part of Buffy’s fourth season, it also has to deal more explicitly with Faith’s recurring narrative from Season Three, which makes the episodes more intensely personal for Faith as a character. This is not to suggest that the Angel episodes don’t have meaning for her character, but rather that her impact on Angel has less to do with her character arc (which some Angel viewers wouldn’t have known) and more to do with how her arc impacts the show’s characters as they deal with similar, but more integral to the show’s future survival, questions of identity.
Partially because of this burden for the Buffy episodes to deal with Faith’s return, “This Year’s Girl” and “Who Are You” are largely devoid of any sort of plot-driven connection to the season’s ongoing storylines, capturing the current state of affairs without really trying to push things forward. You get a few moments where it seems like a big storyline is going to happen for the Scooby Gang, as Buffy plots to spring Riley from his hospital prison, but then he shows up in Xander’s basement, and everything goes back to relative normalcy. The gang is simply going about their normal slayer business fighting demons and searching for Adam, and so Faith returns in an episode that focuses entirely on the world she lost and the world she has woken up in. “This Year’s Girl” is the very definition of a setup episode, giving Faith and Buffy a chance to get reacquainted, giving Faith a chance to come to terms with what happened to her, and then giving Faith a device which sets the action of “Who Are You” into motion.
Poorly balanced two-parters are something I’d normally frown upon, but I think this one is justified: the show had to get Faith out of a coma in order to play out the action of “Who Are You,” so the various dreamscapes were an evocative way to reintroduce the character and her psychological trauma which went beyond function. The dreams demonstrate that Faith is truly alone now: she turned to Wilkins because he offered her the unconditional support she desired and didn’t judge her for her mistakes, but with his death and Buffy’s willingness to murder her and place her into a coma there is nothing for Faith to grab onto but the desire for vengeance. What the dreams nicely capture is that it also makes her more vulnerable, her grief over the loss of Wilkins an honest beat amongst what is otherwise a pretty nefarious plot to harm our protagonist. It says a lot that the show managed to make me feel bad for a murderer getting emotional over the death of an evil maniac who turned himself into an enormous demon and threatened to destroy the entire town, but I think “This Year’s Girl” achieves just that, which keeps it from seeming too inconsequential.
“Who Are You” threatens to seem inconsequential, as a body-switching plot is not necessarily the most sophisticated of narrative devices. In fact, even though I quite liked the episode, sophisticated isn’t a word I’d use to describe it: the show gets the expected mileage out of the mistaken identity, finding humour in situations like Faith not knowing who Anya is, drawing subtle conflict from having Tara’s first interactions with “Buffy” take place during the episode, and drawing major conflict with Riley proving unable to figure out something was wrong and sleeping with “Buffy.” None of this is particularly surprising when the plot is introduced, and it represents the extent of the episode’s meaning for Buffy’s story arc (and the Tara situation is glossed over as soon as it’s clear that they switched bodies). While this is a pretty substantial event in Buffy’s life in that she’s nearly killed or shipped to England by the Watcher’s Council, and Adam ends up causing trouble to give Buffy and Faith a reason to converge in the same location, this isn’t an episode about Buffy.
It is, however, an episode about identity, which plays a key role for Riley (who’s struggling to discover who he is without his role in the Initiative), Spike (who questions whether he’s truly a vampire if he can’t bite anyone) and Faith herself. It’s also been playing a key role for just about every other character on the show, so there’s great meaning even in Tara and Willow confidently using a spell to assist Buffy in her efforts to return to her rightful body (despite the fact that the characters’ questions of identity have played out in a very subtle fashion). Whedon effortlessly works a standalone and gimmicky structure into the existing framework of the season, doing a little bit less plot-driven work than in “Hush” but balancing it out with a sort of status check on the psychological position of the various characters. And while the episode touches on character who will be sticking around, a lot of it hinges on Faith, who starts out enjoying abusing Buffy’s body before eventually discovering that she feels compelled to live up to the world’s expectation of her blonde counterpart, better understanding the pressure Buffy faces as the Slayer, and experiencing once again the same kinds of pressures which haunted her after murdering the Deputy Mayor and which sent her down her dangerous path in the first place. While other characters ponder what their lives would be like without that which defines them, Faith gets to experience the definition which she rejected all over again, and the result is some really effective dramatic television, and certainly a more compelling view into identity than Adam’s on-the-nose philosophizing in “Goodbye Iowa.”
And yet, I sort of prefer the way Faith’s story plays out in Angel, if only because it seems to create so much more momentum for Angel as a series. “Five By Five” is almost bizarre coming from the conclusion to “Who Are You,” as we find Faith in her basic psychotic murderer phase without any of the subtexts provided by “This Year’s Girl” (which would have aired weeks previous, and which some viewers might not have seen). However, her psychotic behaviour allows for two important things to happen: Wolfram & Hart gets to take an active role in trying to take Angel out of the picture by bringing in a rogue slayer to finish off their friendly neighbourhood vampire, and the central premise of Angel gets to be tested in a major way.
In the former case, I like seeing further inside the belly of Wolfram & Hart: to this point, they’ve remained dangerous but shadowy, so Angel’s infiltration takes what has to this point been an indirect battle and brings the two sides closer together in a way which gives the series some considerable momentum in the “big bad” department (even if they remain more annoyed than threatened by Angel’s presence at this particular stage). However, the latter point is even more interesting, as Wesley and Angel argue around the central question of the series: can Angel save everyone? The young kid that Angel convinces to testify in order to sink Wolfram & Hart’s defence proves that Angel can be persuasive, but should they be helping people who have done something terrible and yet show some signs of remorse? Faith is clearly damaged, and has obviously done some pretty terrible things, but Angel still believes there is good in her, a belief which Wesley (who lost his job because of her) does not in any fashion share. The flashbacks to the days before and after Angel became a vampire with a soul offer us a reason for why Angel believes that people can change, why he believes that a person is not necessarily defined by their actions once he or she is forced to live with the consequences: his instinct was to keep killing once his soul returned because he didn’t know what else to do, but eventually he realized that he couldn’t do it. It’s a great bit of storytelling, as it provides more back story for Angel while also connecting to Faith’s story for fans of Buffy who know the entire saga from beginning to end – while Faith had some thematic and character relevance to the ongoing storyline in the Buffy episodes, it wasn’t this substantial, nor did the show get to follow through on it to the same degree.
“Sanctuary” is smart in that it doesn’t resolve any of the tension from “Five by Five”: that final moment, with Faith breaking down in Angel’s arms as she struggles to fight against her guilt over her past actions, is incredibly moving stuff (and the best work I’ve seen Dushku put on screen) but only solidifies Angel’s view rather than changing Wesley’s mind. Wesley remains just as conflicted as he was before, trapped between his growing trust in Angel (who has come to be his friend over the course of the previous nine episodes) and his continued distrust in Faith (who did just tie him to a chair and torture him). Throwing Buffy into the mix is almost unnecessary, even if it does ratchet up the tension that one extra degree: now Angel is fighting against pretty much everyone in his life (Wesley, Cordelia, Buffy, Kate) in harbouring this fugitive, and eventually everyone places their trust in Angel above their reservations about Faith: Wesley thwarts the Council’s plans, Buffy helps them fight off the Council’s extraction team, and Faith even shows her own bit of trust by turning herself in. I don’t think Wesley forgives Faith so much as he suggests that his trust in Angel is more important, which is an integral bit of team building that helps solidify the way in which their relationship has evolved over these nine episodes. In two episodes, the show successfully transformed an extension of a Buffy storyline into a key turning point for its spinoff series, making this yet another crossover which is less important for what connects the two series and more important for how each show transforms the crossover elements for their own purpose.
There are some important moments for Buffy and Angel here, as there’s a great deal of emotion behind their physical and verbal confrontations in “Sanctuary,” but I don’t really find it that worrying even if I do find it very intriguing. At this point, I’m ready for the crazy kids to get on with their own shows, which isn’t to say that I don’t welcome these crossovers but rather that I don’t necessarily have any vested interest in their relationshi[. It’s not just that I’m not a shipper, but I sort of like the ways in which they’re growing apart, and how Faith comes between them and shows them the different lives they lead and how their approaches to life are different now that Angel is a protector (or no longer her protector) while Buffy is a slayer (the former prioritizing defensive actions, the latter prioritizing offensive ones). In fact, I thought that “The Yoko Factor” (which I’ll talk a bit more about when I get to the episodes leading up to “Restless”) sort of lost some of the subtlety of their arguments, with Angel seeming too much the jealous ex-boyfriend upon his arrival in Sunnydale and never quite picking up on the ways in which “Sanctuary” put his character in a compelling place. It’s kind of want Angel to stay in his own series, where I feel like he’s finally coming into his own as a character independent of Buffy (which was not a priority for the spin-off in its early episodes).
These episodes represent a single story for Faith, of a damaged girl waking up having dreamed of vengeance, living that dream in a fashion which makes her aware of some difficult realities, acting out in an effort to repress those emotions, and then facing the weight of her actions falling onto her shoulders all at once – that story is beautifully told by Whedon and Co., well-acted by Dushku – and, in “Who Are You,” by Gellar – and another gold star for the Buffyverse. However, at the same time, these episodes represent two separate stories for the two series: Faith’s arrival and departure are a thematic stopping point for Buffy, clarifying certain characters and their motivations in a post-Adam world, while Faith’s struggles become a window into how Angel views his cases and how his hope for humanity is the lynchpin of his operation even when his colleagues may disagree with his optimism in this particular case. Faith’s story is the most effective emotionally as a result of our history with the character, but Angel’s story feels the most significant considering how it solidifies the series’ dynamics moving towards the conclusion to the first season. While I like “Who Are You” quite a bit, the Buffy side of this story is the least significant, not because it lacks any sort of connection to ongoing storylines but because there aren’t really any major storylines to speak of (more on that in the near future), and the character connections are mostly stating the obvious in a compelling fashion rather than introducing new ideas (which is what “Hush” did so effectively).
This being the final of the season’s crossovers, I think that it’s the ultimate example where watching the two series simultaneously is important: while I don’t necessarily need to know the specifics of Buffy and Angel’s interactions (since those gaps are more or less filled in), Faith’s story would have been incomplete had I not seen how it evolved, and I am attached enough to her character (as I am to Cordelia, Wesley and Angel) that to know her story continued and not seeing it through would have been tough to swallow. Like the crossovers before, Faith creates two separate stories with two separate functions, but the fact that she is a living, breathing person as opposed to an object makes this a dynamic crossover event unlike anything I’ve experienced in television before, and a very good bit of momentum creatively for the two series as they head towards the conclusions of their respective seasons.
- Whedon shares a writing credit on “Sanctuary” and wrote “Who Are You,” but it’s his direction of the latter which really stands out here: Gellar and Dushku both do a great job stepping into other characters, and the scene in the mirror is really evocative of the episode as a whole.
- Really enjoyed the “Eliza Dushku as Buffy” credit on “Who Are You,” which I hadn’t expected (although which is quite logical) – and yes, I was on the lookout for the similar bit of credits tomfoolery to come in “Superstar.”
- Clever bit of introduction with Lilah Morgan popping up so incidentally in “The Ring” and then popping up here in a more substantial capacity – I really like the way Wolfram & Hart have sort of stayed on the margins, so I’ve very curious to see how their role evolves.
- I liked how Whedon and Greenwalt acknowledged that Angel is not entirely convinced that Faith has reformed with the brief flash of a potential scenario where she attacks him at the start of “Sanctuary”: it’s important that Angel doesn’t seem too saintly in his “faith” of sorts, and that bit of uncertainty goes a long way to showing him as compassionate rather than gullible.
- This review has actually taken quite a while, so I don’t know if I have too many small details to really pick up on (as my memory isn’t quite that good), so feel free to (as always) share your own memories and moments from the episodes.