May 18th, 2011
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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.
- 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).