One Past, Two Perspectives
July 26th, 2010
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Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter has said that he has no intention of ever using flashbacks for the FX series, which some might find odd considering how much of the series is based on an earlier generation of conflict regarding SAMCRO’s founder, John Teller. However, each season of the series has a tightly constructed arc, and so much of its drama depends on capturing the intensity of the Sons’ daily lives that flashing back would likely disrupt any sense of momentum.
And yet, for network series with similarly complex backstories, flashback episodes are almost a necessity: with 22 episodes to deliver each year, as opposed to the 13 offered on cable, flashbacks are a good way to kill some time between major story arcs, or fill in some necessary exposition heading into a new story arc, or to simply have some fun by featuring a character who everyone seems to enjoy. “Fool to Love” and “Darla” are both flashback episodes, and even flash back to the same scenes in two instances, but they represent two distinct types of flashback episodes, which becomes clear when watched together (as they would have originally aired).
I want to talk a bit about how each series uses its respective flashback episode as a standalone piece, but I also want to look at how they work as parts of their respective seasons: while “Darla” is very clearly part of the series’ narrative arc, “Fool for Love” has a unique relationship with the momentum built by “No Place Like Home” and “Family” which offers a different take on the potential function of flashbacks.
Spike and Darla are both essentially marginalized from the core group of characters on their respective series, and so in both “Fool for Love” and “Darla” there is a desire to emphasize that despite not being part of the Scooby Gang, or the crew at Angel Investigations, these characters are intricately connected to the overall themes of the series. It isn’t exactly news to us: as noted in my last post, “Dear Boy” laid out Darla’s thematic place in the season pretty successfully, and Spike’s realization of romantic feelings towards Buffy has been ongoing since “Out of My Mind.” And so while the flashbacks show us how Spike’s connection with Buffy broke off his connection with Drusilla, and Darla’s flashback shows us how her role in Angel’s post-soul period now connects with Angel’s role during her transition to humanity, this largely reaffirms what we’ve already seen rather than revealing something substantial about each character’s past.
In the case of “Fool for Love,” the episode is a thinly-veiled excuse to turn James Marsters into the star of the show, having Buffy nearly lose her life while patrolling and then turning to Spike for knowledge about the circumstances surrounding the two slayers he has killed; it sets up a pretty simple storytelling device, with Spike unnecessarily going through his entire life story before revealing that the only way for a Slayer to die is if they have a death wish. Now, first and foremost, here’s my question: did Kendra have a death wish? I guess you could argue that seeing Buffy, with her friends and her family, may have driven her to doubt her place in life and want to escape from her destiny, but we never really got to see that, and I was surprised that Buffy didn’t think to ask her friends about the Slayer who died in front of them before she went to talk to Spike. However, if she had gone that route, we wouldn’t have seen the origins of William the Bloody, which is really what “Fool for Love” is trying to accomplish. We may learn more about what it means to be a slayer, and that Buffy’s support system is what could potentially keep her on that path, but really this one is all about Spike.
And frankly, while he remains marginalized in terms of not being part of the Scooby Gang, it’s not as if we as the audience consider this a problem. Since his chip was introduced in Season Four, the series has wonderfully balanced his antagonism with his growing dependence on the group for financial support, and his newfound feelings for Buffy have taken that a step further. I love the climax of “Family” in this regard, as we get Spike going from gleeful spectator to concerned defender as Buffy faces her invisible attackers, followed by Spike’s delightful disassociation from the group when everyone starts banding together behind Tara. While he may be marginal in terms of the central Scooby Gang activities, the writers are so obviously in love with the character that it’s not as if anyone really needs to see his past as a vulnerable poet for us to relate to him. It’s interesting to return to Spike’s past, and the bit with the Slayers is nice and all (the Subway scene, intercut with Spike sparring with Buffy, was particularly evocative), but in the end the episode flashes back to Spike’s past because the writers like Spike, we like Spike, and we’re going to be seeing more of Spike in the future.
By comparison, “Darla” is a much more calculated flashback, a clear attempt to shed light on a character who is not half as developed. While we have spent a lot of time with Spike, who more or less leaps off the screen at this stage, Darla is relatively new (in terms of being a full-fledge character), and her conflict with Angel was largely confined to the margins until “Dear Boy,” and then more or less dropped again in “Guise will be Guise.” “Darla,” then, is the episode where Tim Minear makes the pitch for why Darla is important to Angel as a series, emphasizing not only her influence on Angel but also Angel’s influence on her within their shared past role so that the audience can perhaps better understand why he finds it so difficult to let go. In that sense, rather than a fun jaunt into a character’s past, there are expectations that the flashbacks will justify time spent for those fans who perhaps haven’t found Darla as interesting as I have. And so we see her final days before becoming a vampire, and we see the moment where she chooses Angel over the Master, and we begin to better understand who Darla is beyond being Angel’s sire; they can talk about the strength of that connection all they want, but we’re not vampires, and so we desire to see that relationship in more detailed terms.
This is the main difference between the two sets of flashbacks in these episodes: while Spike’s flashbacks are focused on action when in China, for example, Darla’s flashbacks are more subtle, based in character interaction and conversation. It’s like the period shortly after Angel was cursed, when Darla looks to bargain with the gypsies only to discover that Spike has already murdered her leverage: while Spike is all action, Darla has lived a more complicated life, and so we see more of her relationship with Angel, and how it changed once he had his soul. While Angel is a show which is certainly capable of action, its second season to this point has featured more episodes built on emotional or psychological foundations (“Are you now…”, “Untouched,” “Darla”). The series obviously still has its action climaxes, but that is not where the series’ interest lies, which is apparent in the types of scenes chosen from Darla’s past. Note that, unless I’m mistaken, there are actually no scenes in which we see Darla in vamp mode (I’d have to go back and check, but I certainly don’t remember any, which is still meaningful considering her humanity in the present); the foursome is important to both sides of the story, but the areas of interest for each show is ultimately different, and the parallel flashbacks bring this to the surface nicely.
“Darla” feels like a necessary step in the season’s arc, and a successful one to my mind, but by comparison “Fool for Love” isn’t so necessary. It’s really simple when you actually think about it: while Buffy is somewhat part of Spike’s past due to her position as Slayer, Angel was directly a part of Darla’s, and so those flashbacks are his history as well. Buffy knowing more about Spike’s past is helpful, and it certainly contributes to their bonding moment over her mother’s illness, but it is a secondary rather than primary flashback. It’s sort of like the flashback equivalent of what we learn about Tara’s family in “Family”: it helps build Tara as a character, and it helps solidify her relationship with the group (which is a concern she raised in the premiere), but ultimately it doesn’t change trajectories or really influence Buffy and her personal journey. It is episodes like this one, however, which make Buffy more than just Buffy, which allows the show’s ensemble to grow and develop in a fashion which enriches rather than diminishing the core narrative. In the abstract, it may seem strange for Whedon to take on this episode himself, but it’s really a key piece of the puzzle even if “No Place Like Home” is the more important episode as far as season arcs go.
I think “Family” is very effective if not particularly subtle: the introduction of Tara’s family is pretty straightforward even if Kevin Rankin and Amy Adams elevate things substantially, and the business about trying to avoid the demon inside of her comes a bit out of nowhere (although I do appreciate how this was set up, in terms of explaining why Tara would sabotage the demon-finding spell in the fourth season). As much as I like Tara as a character, the episode sort of suffers in how much of its drama surrounds characters we’ve barely met (her family), and how much their behaviour seems exaggerated to justify how quickly the Scooby Gang gets behind her. The eventual conclusion it reaches feels like a smart statement about her character which brings everyone else around to what we’ve been seeing as viewers, but getting there doesn’t feel as natural as it could have felt. I think, however, that it’s a necessary step for Amber Benson’s future on the series, and in that sense Whedon navigated the situation quite effectively.
As for “No Place Like Home,” we have the answer we were looking for: Dawn is a key, given human form in order to ensure her protection, and everyone’s memories have been adjusted so that the yet unnamed evil (who Wikipedia informs me is known as “Glory?”) won’t be able to get to Dawn. While I know this is a huge turning point, I honestly don’t have a lot to say about it: Glory seems to be quite a fun villain (presuming she’s the quasi-Big Bad), Buffy’s turmoil upon realizing that Dawn isn’t her sister was well-handled, and the burden of harbouring the secret regarding Dawn’s identity is a nice addition to Buffy’s current set of problems (tying nicely into “Fool for Love,” in that unlike other Slayers she has been given someone very specific to take care of and who ties her to this life). However, the episode is actually startlingly simple, largely serving as exposition and introduction which will be elaborated in future episodes. What makes the episode work is that it is just the right level of poetic: when you solve a mystery like this one, there needs to be something left to sustain the story, and while we are no longer wondering why Dawn is present there still remains dramatic potential in her presence (especially considering the Big Bad is after her, and no one but Buffy and Giles know her true identity or lack thereof). As noted, I was pretty on board with Dawn from the beginning, but even as her function in the narrative shifts the season is still on a really strong path in terms of narrative momentum.
And none of that momentum feels sidetracked by the flashbacks: no, we didn’t need to learn about Spike murdering slayers for the season to come together, but “Fool for Love” manages to use the past to inform the future even if its importance to the present is merely tangential. By comparison, Angel is more interested in using the past to fuel the present, more logical for the series considering Angel’s extended lifespan and the weight he carries with him on a daily basis. While Spike’s flashbacks feel like a purposeful digression, Angel’s flashbacks feel like an organic part of the ongoing narrative extension, and I’ll be curious to see how each show uses flashbacks in the future and whether this dichotomy remains.
- I guess you could call Riley’s story in “Fool for Love” a B-Plot, but it lacks anything in the way of real content: we see that he’s not one for the whole “team dynamic” side of things, returning on his own and using a grenade to take out the nest, and while I think the rest of the Scooby Gang were being a bit too obnoxious I do think that there are still reasons to be concerned about Riley’s current trajectory (especially considering the drinking alone in “Family”).
- I have NO idea what to do with antlers dude. Nonewhatsoever.
- Anya as the Magic Box’s other employee, after Giles was more than a bit overwhelmed by the store’s success, is just delightful.
- While I do have to wonder whether we can trust Spike’s chip wholly, I did love his use of his fist as a demon detector with Tara – a really sharp little comic turn there.
- As noted, I thought “Family” wasn’t perfect by any means, but that final shot was truly lovely – I thought Whedon was going to pull the trigger on the kiss there, but it was perfect without it.
- As for “Darla,” intrigued to see where Wolfram & Hart takes this one, and to once again see Lindsey’s human weaknesses be exploited by the agency – he’s in too deep to truly step away, and so at this point they’re using him much as they desire to use Angel, and I really like that dynamic. Holland is obviously evil, but Lilah and Lindsey are only complicit, and I’m excited to see more from them in the future.
- I know that not everyone is following both sides of the project (which I can see in both stats and comments), so I do plan on avoiding lumping the two shows together when possible. In this case, I thought the paired flashbacks were interesting enough to compare the two series, and figured that I should talk about the previous Buffy episodes at the same time so that we get back to an even playing field heading into the third discs of the respective seasons.