July 21st, 2010
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The road to redemption is a rocky path.
There is no question that the conclusion to Angel’s first season, “To Shanshu in L.A.,” was a bridge to the second season, with the return of a figure from Angel’s past and a prophecy which indicated that there might be, to quote Angel, “light at the end of the tunnel.”
However, it’s important not to mistake momentum for structure, and “Judgment” makes it extremely clear that not everything is as clean as it seems. The show doesn’t abandon the ramifications of the first season finale, but it does indicate that moving on isn’t an immediate process: rather than clearly establishing a path to salvation, providing the series with a distinct sense of direction, the premiere instead focuses on how the characters are confronting their new reality, and how they will continue to confront it for the rest of the season.
“Judgment” is not interested in turning the series on its ear so much as it desires to establish that nothing has changed but the determination of our lead characters, which sets the stage for an engaging, and unpredictable, second season.
I think my favourite element of “Judgment” is easily the white board erected in Cordelia’s apartment, where Angel Investigations keeps track of their various cases and their conclusions. At first, it seems to signal that the group is simply more organized, that they are carefully doing their research and working as a team to systematically confront evil. However, when Angel discovers that he has murdered the very person he was supposed to help, you realize that the board is instead a signal that the group is going at things all wrong: we have learned in the past that few cases are identical, and that few cases conveniently fit into a set of categories. The board is their way of keeping score, of turning each case into a linear narrative, but as “Judgment” demonstrates this is woefully inadequate to capture the dynamism of supernatural forces.
One of the common issues with any drama engaging in serialization is the notion of a “Check List,” a set of dominos that a show sets up and knocks down in succession. Check lists create expectation, which in turns breeds disappointment: while the initial mystery can draw viewers in, the series can become so focus on solving that mystery that, upon its resolution, the show struggles to find a new direction. As much as I enjoyed Battlestar Galactica, the final season was so organized around knocking over dominos from earlier seasons that I felt it never quite found its proper pace. BSG started as a series built around the Quest Narrative, creating a clear goal (finding Earth) and then exploring how the journey affected the surviving remnants of humanity. However, when it came time to knock down the dominos in its final season, it was so focused on knocking them down that it didn’t have time to stop and consider the broader ramifications, rushing headlong into a conclusion which I personally found satisfying and yet which divided fans who had been analyzing the check list from their own perspective.
It’s why I enjoy the ultimate looseness of “Judgment,” unwilling to create some form of goal for Angel to achieve in order to reach the point of salvation. His goal is to help people in need, and to treat each of them as their own journey rather than as part of the big picture. It’s as if Angel was trying to force procedural structure into becoming part of the serialized storyline, making each case a step towards the light at the end of the tunnel even if there is no connection whatsoever. The series may be heading towards a more complicated world, what with Darla’s arrival and the presence of the Shanshu Prophecy, but it does not mean that Angel will start living his life or doing his work differently. He may need a new office, and he may have brought in a new partner in Charles Gunn, but the message of “Judgment” is that one cannot force prophecy, just as a series cannot force serialization.
This is not to say that Angel, as a series, isn’t changing. Cordelia, for example, has lived up to the character transformation in “To Shanshu in L.A.,” having switched her priorities from what we saw early in the series’ run. At first, she was working for Angel as a way to support her dream of becoming an actress, but we open with Cordelia abandoning an audition (or a rehearsal, it’s unclear) to help Angel stop a ritual sacrifice. She says that she still wants a day job earlier in “Judgment,” but she will always be there to help Angel, and this is now her priority. Wesley doesn’t need any sort of transformation, as the end of last season firmly established that this is his own path to redemption: after failing as a Watcher, his work with Angel allows him to put his training to good use, and so while his lack of an outside outlet beyond beating people at darts could become a story point in the future it isn’t as if he needs to rediscover something. Throw in Gunn’s arrival as a new member of the team, and all Angel Investigations needs is a new home for them to appear set to face any challenge which might arise.
And the central case in “Judgment” is such a challenge, as Angel kills a pregnant woman’s protector and places her in danger from some sort of medieval demon tribunal of unknown origin. The story doesn’t actually make a great deal of sense: we never learn why she and her baby are in trouble, and more importantly it’s not clear why the Powers that Be would send Angel to help them if the fierceness of the demon protector was already scaring away the various street thug demons who were looking to collect the bounty. However, the central conflict reveals how Angel is confronting his potential return to humanity being strung in front of him like a proverbial carrot, how killing the wrong person feels like a stupid mistake reflective of being on auto-pilot, looking too far ahead of himself with each case. I still don’t entirely understand how the psychic karaoke M.C. is able to know things that Angel himself has no knowledge of, but the idea of baring one’s soul speaks to the episode as a character study, and manages to combine unquestionable humour with a pretty meaningful moment for Angel as a character.
It’s why the episode ends with Angel’s visit with Faith in prison, rather than with a scene of the group banding together. Faith, more than anyone else, knows what Angel is going through, both in terms of this specific instance (killing an innocent being) and in terms of dealing with a form of salvation. While before Faith and Angel could understand each other due to their shared experience of living with regret for their past actions, now they share the experience of committing to salvation and yet losing track of themselves along the way. It takes resolve to live as Faith does, dedicated to reforming herself and yet living in an environment where she is threatened at every turn; she needs to defend herself, but she can only go so far. You can’t rush reform, which means she has to sit and wait through the various tests and challenges which she will face, just as Angel has to continue to help people as he did before rather than trying to reach a certain quota or try to force his way towards the end of the tunnel by being particularly heroic. That final scene really captures the unique sort of momentum the series has: it’s clear that the stakes have changed, and yet the characters are forced to keep their lives on a steady path lest they lose their way.
There’s every chance that this will all break open, “Surprise” style, in the weeks ahead: we still don’t know Darla’s motivations, or Wolfram & Hart’s plans for her, or what role the Powers that Be might play in the coming season. However, by resisting radical reinvention at this early stage in the season, “Judgment” nicely focuses on how each individual character or scenario is affecting the core of the series’ structure, which will allow any further changes to have that much more impact.
- We only get a brief moment with Lindsey and Lilah as they keep Darla company with classical music and fancy globes, not enough to really go on. However, it is confirmed that Darla does remember Angel killing her (which, to be honest, I didn’t even remember), so we can presume that she doesn’t have an entirely peaceful reunion in mind.
- Of note in the Wolfram & Hart scene: unless I’m mistaken, they specifically avoided showing Lindsey’s missing hand, instead hinting at it through his struggles with opening the CD case. I presume this was a cost-cutting measure, to avoid having to use makeup or special effects.
- I got a kick out of the karaoke sequences, although following the pattern of “She” and its dancing montage so directly gave me unfortunate flashbacks to the rest of that S1 episode. When you think about it, singing quite that horribly is actually quite a challenge, so Boreanaz gave quite a strong performance there: “I think it’s pretty” was just the icing on the cake.
- Always glad to see Ghost Dennis show up (not that he shows up, but you know what I mean), if only for a brief moment as he tries to help with the research by flinging a book at Wesley.
- Justina Machado, who moved to Six Feet Under soon after this was shot, was fine as the pregnant woman, even if there really wasn’t much subtlety to be found. She never really got to evolve into a character, but the story was useful enough for the series thematically speaking that I’ll allow it.
- Some fun stunt work in the Jousting sequence – you might normally expect green screen in a scene like that, but a premiere budget allowed them to really capture the intensity of the sequence without adding to the silliness of demon jousters in the middle of a city street.
- The one moment in the episode was completely fell flat: the riff on Gunn’s last name being misinterpreted as “gun” and Cordelia and Wesley acting all weird upon his arrival. It wasn’t clever, it wasn’t useful, it was just lame.