The Disc Stands Alone
June 10th, 2011
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I’ve been falling behind a bit on my Angel catchup, although it isn’t without reason. After finishing the first disc of Season 3, I found myself confronting three very different episodes that were slightly more distinctive than I might have expected. Some offer standalone stories which gesture towards future developments, some look to focus on our supporting characters and their journey to this point, and some offer a more general thematic consideration as facilitated through a carefully designed monster of the week.
There just wasn’t any sort of hook for me to focus on which would unite “That Vision Thing,” “That Old Gang of Mine,” and “Carpe Noctem,” and the recent heatwave zapped away my energy to dive any further into the series to try to find that thread.
And so, while I would like to offer something more, here’s a fairly basis episode-by-episode rundown of the remainder of Disc 1.
“That Vision Thing”
Obviously, it’s not surprising that Wolfram and Hart continue to play a role in Angel’s business, or that they continue to serve as antagonists within the story world. And on some level, there’s something oddly perfunctory about this episode, focusing as it does on Lilah and Gavin each trying out their own strategies for destroying Angel.
But I think that’s part of the point the show is making. Although the episode is a bit surprisingly small-scale given the potentially damaging ramifications of allowing the prisoner to escape, I think it mostly establishes that Wolfram and Hart will also have an evil plan hatching, and that Angel’s goal can’t always be to destroy them forever. Here, in order to save Cordelia, he is forced to give them what they want, knowing that it might mean having to save the world again in the future. Wolfram and Hart isn’t a “Big Bad” in the traditional sense, which means that these types of stories can’t be treated as the start of a larger arc. It’s just life going by, evil being evil – they’re the L.A. equivalent of the Hellmouth, really, albeit with some interesting human agency at the center of it all.
I continue to enjoy Wolfram and Hart, and thought there were a number of strong scenes in this outing. The entire scene between Angel and Skip the guard was quite charming (even if the credits meant that I recognized David Denman immediately instead of enjoying the fun of trying to place the voice amidst the makeup), and there’s a few other humor beats that seemed like they really landed. They’re also continuing to walk that fine line between camp and suspense with Darla’s pregnancy, a storyline that could seem broad but has been effectively isolated in Darla as a character (and Julie Benz as an actress).
Indeed, the entire episode ends up taking what could seem like broad thematic work (the blurring of the line between good/evil, Wolfram and Hart’s latest plot, etc.) and letting it play out without shattering the very fabric of the series. Instead, all of the pain is focused on Cordelia, allowing her suffering (and the destruction of her world as she knows it) to be the only real consequence. It makes for a focused episode, one that might gesture towards future developments but isn’t beholden to those connections to land. It’s not a classic episode, as the low stakes sort of take some of the wind out of it, but I like the choice and think it bodes well for the season’s approach to both Wolfram and Hart and these types of stories in general.
“That Old Gang of Mine”
Okay, let’s get this out of the way: are Gunn episodes always going to seem so deflating?
It is possible that “That Old Gang of Mine” is actually better than some of the earlier Gunn fare, but just something about the episode rubbed me the wrong way. I understand what the episode was going for, trading off a Cordelia episode with a chance to investigate Gunn and Angel’s relationship. Now, the episode is not wrong that there is an interesting angle to this relationship given Gunn’s history of taking down vampires. However, the show only ever discusses this history in episodes about Gunn; on a weekly basis, Gunn is just a convenient supporting character who makes the sleuthing/slaying power of Angel investigations more logistically possible.
My biggest issue with “This Old Gang of Mine,” which was certainly one of the weakest outings I’ve seen from Tim Minear, was that it actually did nothing to improve Gunn’s standing within the group. It’s not as though we’ve been doubting his commitment to Angel in any way, or that we felt that the return of his friends could potentially unearth anti-Demon sentiments within his personality. Instead, Gunn’s past resurfaces without any sense of resonance, just a convenient threat of the week which I resented both for killing Merl (poor Merl) and for giving into a few too many gang clichés for my liking. They were perhaps a bit more subtle than they’ve been in previous episodes, but the extremist outsider spurning violence was just way overdone, and a few charming moments (“I wasn’t trying to sound snooty” is a delightful line) just felt washed out by the muddled nature of it all.
I agree that more needs to be done with Gunn’s character, and J. August Richards is solid if unspectacular when the show calls on him to do more. There just wasn’t any legitimate suspense here, relying on broad cliché and narrow history to justify a story without the kind of spark necessary to create actual character development.
While I don’t think this is a particularly strong episode, I will say that it is a particularly smart one. By creating a device through which Angel is taken over by a horny grandpa, the show is allowed to explore the sexual tension between Angel and Lilah (a fun sort of hypothetical, likely explored on occasion through fan fiction) while simultaneously reinforcing the inability for the show to explore the chemistry between Angel and Fred. The former is sort of indulgent, while the latter finds a way to allow Amy Acker to portray both sudden and complete heartbreak and a quiet understanding.
As the show explores Fred’s reconnection with the world she used to know, Acker really shines through. There’s something very playful about her demeanor in these three episodes, but there’s also those moments of naiveté which are only natural given the circumstances. Her crush on Angel certainly qualities in this latter category, and the show is smart to get that out of the way sooner rather than later. This isn’t a “Will They, Won’t They” relationship, or at least not in the traditional sense, so the show had to find a way to set them on a path to reconcile their respective understandings of their relationship.
While the somewhat broad nature of the episode’s setup works against a more complex understanding of this relationship, as great as that moment where Wesley is seen as Fred is, I think that it shows a real sense of control over this scenario. There’s an odd sort of parallel between the old man struggling to escape the confines of a retirement home as his heart begins to fail him and Fred struggling to re-enter society. In both cases, they see Angel as a way out, albeit one through magic and another through love. It doesn’t quite become poignant with the former, given that he is a bit too much of an evil cad for that, but the scenes with Angel struggling to escape identify the kind of life that drove him to this point, just as we could see in Angel’s previous scenes with Fred how she would logically be attracted to what is effectively her savior.
It had the potential to be a bit all over the map, but both Boreanaz (channeling the human equivalent of Angelus) and Acker (who broke my heart a number of times over) made it seem real even within the magical nature of it all. Probably my favorite of the three episodes, and likely a good launching point from a set of more standalone pieces into some more substantial fare in the discs ahead.
- We didn’t get a whole lot of focus on her, but I like the idea of Lilah Morgan simultaneously protecting Angel from Gavin while trying to find her own way to take him down. There’s a desire for control there, which is why her decision to give up that control and make out with him on his desk that much more interesting. Curious to see where her character goes over the course of the season.
- I would also expect that the focus on romance in “Carpe Noctem” also serves as a subtle nod towards Darla’s side story, which is likely on a collision course for Los Angeles in the episodes ahead.
- Sometimes my notes are too vague, and when I go to write a week later I don’t know what I meant. So, it took me until writing this bullet point that the humorous line about lapel pins was about whether or not they were killing good guys or bad guys. I enjoyed that.
- A fun appearance from Kal Penn, once again proving that Fezzes are both cool and useful for hiding enormous external brain capable of psychic torture.
- Based on previous Buffy conversations, it seems like I might be best handling the next episode of Buffy on its own given its role in the season – want to try to have that ready to post for Monday while I’m traveling.