Cultural Catchup Project: Angel – “Heartthrob”


May 18th, 2011

You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.

There’s a bit of whiplash in covering “Bargaining” and “Heartthrob” back-to-back. Whereas Buffy seems to be heading into a period of intense transition, dealing with a whole lot of plot development that necessitates an eventful and complicated premiere, Angel is in a far more stable place without any of the same broad upheaval.

This may be considered a viable reason to watch the two series entirely separately, but for me it offers a nice juxtaposition that does much to highlight the strengths of both series, and the strengths of Angel in particular. While “Heartthrob” ends up being pretty simple, and more than a bit on the nose in regards to its central theme, I think there’s an economy to the storytelling that is equally matched with a certain swagger (which was understandably absent in “Bargaining”). While Greenwalt has to deal with questions of grief after the conclusion of Buffy’s fifth season, he’s far enough removed to be able to have a bit of fun at the same time.

Although “Heartthrob” may not have the same emotional resonance of “Bargaining,” it also feels more finely tuned in its shorter running time and in its thematically (rather than narratively) convenient standalone storyline which also proves a stealth transition into the budding mythology introduced at episode’s end. “Heartthrob” is in no position to become an all-time great episode of the series, at least based on what I’ve seen of the series thus far, but it quite comfortably lives in this particular moment while laying the groundwork for the season that comes.

It’s interesting to note how much both premieres function as prologues, scenarios that further set the stage for the season that comes instead of just jumping directly into the fray. Both see us joining our heroes in medias res, as they continue to fight evil as they have always fought evil, and both show characters struggling with returning things to normal. The difference, of course, is that for Angel this is entirely psychological rather than mystical: no one needs to be brought back from the dead to return Angel back to normal, which means that this has a much lighter tone than Buffy’s start to the season.

This is not to say that the psychology of Angel is all puppy dogs and rainbows: that brief scene between Cordelia and Dennis, for example, demonstrates the degree to which her visions are wearing on her and potentially even developing something of a dependence on prescription medication (although an understandable one, given the ordeals she has to go through). I really like the scene because it doesn’t end with some sort of twist, and it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to “reveal” anything. Instead, it just shows us what the simple passage of time has done to Cordelia given her visions, and lets us settle into that moment in a way that’s sexual without feeling exploitative. It’s the kind of quiet, plot-free moment that “Bargaining” never quite achieved for me, and did a nice job of dropping us in on Cordelia’s state of mind. A ghost proves to be ideal for exposition, someone for Cordelia to talk to in a private setting, and the novelty makes it flow that much better.

The real psychology here is for Angel, though, who returns from a failed spiritual journey to Sri Lanka – those pesky demon monks – still sort of tiptoeing around the issue of Buffy’s death. It’s a bit weird for the specter of Buffy to be hanging over this show, given that it sort of settled into its own groove during the Pylea arc, but this was set up by the gut punch of Willow’s appearance at the end of “There’s No Place Like Plrtz Glrb” and followed through on nicely here. What makes it work is that Angel returns fully functional but slightly off kilter. He’s not able to discuss Buffy outright, even as Cordelia tries her hardest to get him to talk about his feelings, but he has no issue rushing off to take care of the vampires who perpetrated the massacre at the college. Everything’s normal on the surface, but Buffy’s death still lingers in ways that are unquestionably present but simultaneously intangible.

The rest of the episode is one of those carefully designed procedural storylines that manages to connect to the show’s larger mythology (with Elisabeth and James proving to be vampires Angel ran into in Marseilles) while also happening to be a perfect parallel for Angel’s current position. It never pretends to be anything else, really: they wanted to use some flashbacks (to help foreshadow Darla’s appearance at the end of the episode), they wanted something that would force Angel to reflect on Buffy’s death during a climactic fight scene (as he does on the Subway car), and they also wanted something that could let them show a bit of Angel Investigations’ growing network of sources (which is really just Merl and The Host, but who doesn’t love Merl and The Host?).

It’s not exactly brilliant, but the poetry of Angel facing off with someone who chose revenge and death over living without his beloved is undeniable. I just sort of love that idea of living while feeling as though you shouldn’t be living, moving on while wondering if maybe you shouldn’t be moving on at all. Part of the whole point of Angel as a spinoff is the idea of moving on: by going to L.A., and leaving Buffy behind, Angel was forced to take on a new chapter in his life, despite the fact that numerous flashbacks remind him that there’s no getting past some parts of himself. Here, he finds himself stressing to Fred how she should try to put the past behind her and venture out of her room while simultaneously wondering if he should be the one locked up in a room writing on the walls in grief, and there’s a poetry in that.

Ultimately, the distinction the show makes resonates for me: while James and Elisabeth are depicted as pure romantics, even after their transformation into vampires, Angel is not that. While he was devoted to protecting Buffy, and she was the true love of his life, her death only makes him more likely to want to protect the other people in his life who he cares about (not unlike Spike’s response to Buffy’s death in “Bargaining,” actually). He does have something else to live for, and while here that is represented by Cordelia’s presence during his game of cat and mouse with James it’s also represented by Gunn, Wesley, and now also Fred. While none of this is defined as romantic, Angel’s sense of “love” is more broadly defined than that, which makes the parallel with the more romantic relationship between Elisabeth and James a valuable one.

It is, of course, hardly a subtle one. And yet I sort of like that “Heartthrob” doesn’t mess around with subtlety too much. There’s something very punctuated about this premiere: the way Fred’s storyline hits its comic beats (with Angel’s assurance of safety being followed by Cordelia’s scream, and then Fred finally coming out of her room just as James launches his attack) is pretty broad, but Acker is super delightful and the show owns that humor in a way that I enjoy. Similarly, while that coda with Darla was all about over the top details (like treating the bite as a shot) and reveals (the pregnancy), the audaciousness of it never felt campy. Something about the way these potentially problematic elements were handled really provided a sense of momentum while simultaneously dwelling on some key themes and relationships.

I don’t entirely know where this deal with Darla is going, and to be honest I didn’t immediately remember when we had last seen Darla when we first got to that conclusion (it was back in “Epiphany,” I believe), but that’s not what the entire season seems to hinge upon. This is a simple premiere, one that largely avoids largely mythology implications until that final scene, but there’s a sort of subtle complexity to how things are introduced which makes me excited and confident about the direction the show is heading. It just has a certain groove to it, “Heartthrob” does, and one cannot overestimate the power that has in setting the tone for a season of television.

Cultural Observations

  • I was disappointed that Angel did not comment on Wesley’s new hairstyle. I kept waiting for someone to mention it.
  • Wesley and Gunn sort of drew the short straws here, left without much sense of development compared to Cordelia. This isn’t too surprising, really, but I am interested to see how they’re worked into the fold from a story perspective in the episodes ahead.
  • The same goes for Fred, of course, but there’s more of a clear “arc” to her development which should provide some momentum and purpose. For now, I just love the easy chemistry that Acker has with Boreanaz, which was a highlight for me here.
  • I know why they went back to the flashbacks, as it helped remind us that Darla exists and all that jazz, but that accent (meaning Boreanaz) just isn’t getting much better, is it? Nice to see a recurring slot for Holtz, though – will be interested in whether he pops up more often in these flashbacks, or if it’s something the show is just sort of having fun with (which is not to say that it can’t be both fun and purposeful).


Filed under Cultural Catchup Project

30 responses to “Cultural Catchup Project: Angel – “Heartthrob”

  1. Pingback: A Cultural Comeback: The Return of the Cultural Catchup Project | Cultural Learnings

  2. “Nice to see a recurring slot for Holtz, though – will be interested in whether he pops up more often in these flashbacks…”

    Oh, Myles 😀 You’re right on the cusp. Season 3 is when it happens.

    Nice to have you back, btw.

  3. Susan

    Already I find myself in a position I became quite used to in previous analyses: with nothing unspoilery to really say. I agree with your reading of “Heartthrob,” Myles.

    I will note, though, that it’s about here that some aspects of the way Cordelia is written begin to irritate me. That exchange between Angel and her, wherein he explains what’s wrong, is important and engaging while at the same time gives me my first twinge of annoyance at “sage” Cordelia (“I’m Cordelia. I don’t think. I know. Okay?”)–while Cordy is hardly subtle or humble, and the sentiment is even true to her character, this line just feels totally wrong to me. I can’t explain it, but it bugs. I love Angel’s part in the exchange (Boreanaz does controlled grief really well), though.

    Boreanaz’s accent will improve consistently (oh so slightly) over time. But no one will ever be asking him to star in a period piece set during the Potato Famine or anything.

    • Seconded on Cordelia. I get why she goes the way she goes, but that doesn’t make it any less… meh. But we can beat that to death later.

      • Carlie

        Disagree completely. I LOVE Cordy in this season, and I found this development in her character to be perfectly natural. I love it more every time I re-watch the series.

        • morda898

          I agree with Carlie. Cordelia’s growth and change is one of my personal highlights of the Buffyverse. Her growing heroism this season is part of the year’s appeal is you ask me.

  4. tjbw

    …Acker is super delightful…
    Isn’t she though! Words cannot express how much I love her work in the Whedonverse.

    As for the rest of what you wrote, umm… ; )

  5. lyvanna

    Pretty much agree with everything you’ve written and find myself just trying to sit on my hands to avoid saying anything spoilery, so excited did some of your comments make me. The Darla pregnancy reveal is such a great WTF moment for the end of the episode.

  6. Myles, when you are THIS unintentionally hilarious, it makes it really hard to comment on your review! There is simply nothing I can say, except that I’m so glad you have no idea what’s coming, and I hope you go back and read this again at the end of the season. It will make you chuckle 🙂

    P.S. No, Boreanaz’s accent does NOT get any better with time.
    P.P.S. I sense that this will be the beginning of many heated arguments about how Cordy is written.
    P.P.P.S. If I ever have a little girl, I am naming her Winnifred.

  7. Carlie

    This is my favorite season. I can’t think of anything to say that isn’t spoilery, but I can’t wait for you to watch. I am firmly in the “I love love love Cordy this season” camp, which I think is one of the more divided/debated issues in the Whedonverse. Maybe not quite up there with the “Love Season 4/Hate Season 4” division (though I suspect the two are connected!), but up there.

  8. Bryan

    Thanks for starting this up again Myles – I was with you for a little while but couldn’t stop plowing through the episodes so I’m already well into season 4. Very excited to see what you think about his season, it is pretty great.

    And I saw your tweet: I don’t think it’s your naivete that prevents veterans from commenting, it just seems that most Angel seasons start out a little procedural before diving into the good stuff. @mothergunn above is right, it happens this season.

    I will say that I thought the James and Elisabeth story was pretty weak. It seemed like Angel moved on from Buffy as the love of his life a while ago, although her death would definitely warrant a television summer season of reflecting/demon monk fighting, so I don’t think the James/Elisabeth metaphor really works for Angel in his current state.

    P.S. I kind of thought Boreanaz’s accent wasn’t totally terrible – not nearly as bad as Gunn’s street accent.

    • Clearly I need more of a life. I can’t stop commenting.

      1) I think the idea was that Angel had been actively trying to address his grief head-on during the summer, but it didn’t work (“I should have gone to Vegas,”) and he was able to get some much-needed perspective from the James/Elisabeth thing.

      2) I blame all of Gunn’s bad dialogue on the writers. Really, I do. Episode x.x is pathetic and ridiculous and comes pretty darn close to being racist. (Looking forward to a discussion about whether it is racist or not.) White writers trying to write authentic inner-city black dialogue can be soooo painful.

  9. AO

    I absolutely wouldn’t say naive. When I first read this yesterday I immediately realized that it’s been too long since I last watched the show, especially considering all of the books and TV that I’ve read in the interim, and that I need a refresher. When you began this Project both shows were a lot clearer in my mind, but now I’m disappointed in myself that I have to go searching for some reminders.

    And then, as has been said, it can be tough to comment without bringing some form of spoilers into the conversation. Will Darla appear again? Will the show continue it’s “subtle complexity”? And so on.

    I enjoyed reading a lot of your thoughts on the Episode (especially lines like “I think there’s an economy to the storytelling that is equally matched with a certain swagger” and “there’s a sort of subtle complexity to how things are introduced which makes me excited and confident about the direction the show is heading. It just has a certain groove to it, “Heartthrob” does”), and look forward to your reactions as you explore whether or not the Season keeps it up, finds different ways to impress, or doesn’t.

    Ultimately, it may be tough for some of us to find ways to meaningfully reply, but I think that that is most likely a combination of a fear of spoilers, and that you are already saying so much, so well. 🙂

  10. Bryan and AO,

    If Twitter space had allowed it, I would have thrown in some emoticons in there to reflect the fact that I was exaggerating – appreciate everyone’s input, even if it’s just barely repressed spoilers!

  11. I do not wish to take on the role of Spoiler Police. But, for this season in particular, I think it is very important to be very discreet!

    I can’t call out anybody in particular, because that would give too much validity to the people or characters or themes they mentioned. But seriously, guys, if you quote a particular sentence or name, and then say “but I can’t say anything else!” — well, that’s a spoiler all by itself.

    I know it is insanely difficult, but can we keep anything even vaguely spoilery out of it? It is just so much fun to be able to follow along with someone who doesn’t know where the show is going.

    • A friend of mine suggested that we all post fake spoilers. His idea was, “And then isn’t it crazy when Wesley gets eaten by a bear later in the season????”

      • I agree. Discretion is key from this point forward.

        In that case, I suggest we not talk about how Wolfram&Hart is actually a cover for Google and that the internet gods are the ones who are actually trying to infect the world with evil.

        • I agree. It is very important not to mention the Google metaphor.

          And, along those lines, we should certainly not mention that Google is run by Sparkly Vampires (TM), because that would absolutely be a horrible spoiler, the kind of spoiler that ruins everything.

          I also think it would be very, very wrong to mention how Buffy becomes a piece of ethereal blue energy, or how Wesley puts his soul into a mystical sword in order to save mankind from (yet another) apocalypse, or how Spike leads the Scoobies to the top of Mount Everest in their quest to stop the Ultimate Evil, or how Giles turns out to have been a demon all along, or how Cordy becomes an empathic part-demon so that she can help Angel, or how Dawn discovers that she can manipulate the four elements, or how Xander goes into the wrong graveyard and suddenly he can control the zombies that arise from that graveyard…

          Yep, it would be very wrong to mention any of those spoilery things.

          • Absolutely agree. Even ‘oh you have no idea I can’t even’ comments are spoilers, or they are for someone like me at least. Although it is making me squee a little bit just how much some lines in that review show how much of no idea Myles has.

            Even about that part where Wolfram & Hart is revealed to be the latest incarnation of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, with Lilah as Joan and Peggy’s lovechild.

          • The DMG

            But those are things I want to talk about!! They’re all relevant to how we find out the Shanshu prophecy is actually a recipe telling us how to grow extraordinarily large beets. Nothing beats beets.

    • AO

      I agree. Even confirming that a particular character is still alive in the future is a form of spoiler. For all that Myles knows, the entire cast could die in the next Episode and Angel Investigations could have been continued on by someone hugely unexpected like Giles. Any mention of Season long arcs, or what happens with “x” in future Episode “y”, or any Episode generally, is probably bad.

      Obviously Myles hasn’t objected, which is probably some combination of his expecting it and his being a very nice guy, but I concur that we still should try to avoid that if we can.

  12. >.>

    I see what you did there.

  13. *looks around at other commenters*

    Hello, everybody. 🙂

    Also, on the review itself, I’m pleased that Myles has such a positive take on this episode. I think I went into it expecting it to be a bit weak based on something I’d heard, and whilst it’s certainly fairly standalone and un-subtle, it’s not actually a bad episode overall. I do kind of wish they could have ignored the Buffy news, both at the end of last season and the start of this one, since it doesn’t really tie into anything much in Angel’s arc otherwise, but it’s realistic that they didn’t and it’s dealt with well enough.

    Also, points to Susan above for describing the way they are starting to write Cordelia as ‘sage.’ That’s exactly why it grates on me – I don’t understand how the entertaining ball of fashion neuroses suddenly becomes this strong empathetic figure without apparently doing much to earn it (though I do love those scenes of her suffering through her visions, but they’re not enough to sell me on quite such a major character shift).

  14. DaddyCatALSO

    “I saw what you did, and I know who you are.”

    • garden gnome казва:I enjoy a well-written article like many other oinnle readers. I was surprised that this information was so interesting. You have given me cause to reflect on many aspects of your content. I like that.

  15. morda898

    Interesting how much you seem to like this episode. Personally, it’s my least favourite Angel premiere. I thought it was heavy handed and, well, kinda cheap to be honest. I guess I’m just so used to Angel being one of the more cineamtic shows out there so this episode was kind of disappointing I guess. Like the vampires not turning to dust at the car fight scene, for instance. For some reason that moment always sticks with me. Also, whenever Boreanaz’ gets his Irish on it ALWAYS cheapens the show :P. Literally, it brings the show’s production down by, like, ten fold.

    That said, this season is as delightful as Fred Burkle herself (who plays a big part in that, for me at least). ALOT happens this year. More, perhaps, than any other season, so it will be very interesting to see what you think about, well, everything. Also, this season is where my two favourite characters become my two favourite characters and where my third favourite character (Fredikins) joins the cast. So, yay! 🙂

    Darla doesn’t seem to have much resonance with you. 😛 I remember you saying you had forgotten that Angel had killed Darla in “Angel” (S1Ep07 of Buffy) and now you forgot the last time she appeared on the show. Shame on you Myles, she’s a very important character to the overall narrative. 😉

    I know you don’t like lists or rankings and whatnot, but who is your current favourite character? I’m very curious.

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