[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: David Greenwalt | Director: Scott Brazil | Aired: 04/14/1997]
Now this is refreshing! What we have here is a rare Season 1 episode that reaches beyond the now. This actually feels like an early Season 2 episode that is saddled with Season 1’s spotty production values. “Angel” is simply bursting with romantic excitement and nascent sexuality, so much so that I can feel it come to life through Sarah Michelle Gellar’s understated, yet potent, performance as a teenager experiencing the pangs of first love. This is one of the few Season 1 episodes that I consistently felt — despite not being able to personally relate to it, mind you — and it also serves as an excellent setup to Season 2’s focus on adolescent romance and moral complexity.
One of the more successful recurring elements of Season 1 so far has been the growing romantic tension between Buffy and Angel. Buffy verbalizes how powerful her feelings are to Willow: “When he is around… it’s like the lights dim everywhere else.” As their relationship continues to evolve, though, several road blocks – both direct and indirect — do as well. The Three — the lame group the Master summons to take Buffy out — serve their purpose in swiftly getting Angel into Buffy’s house, thus freeing up the whole episode to explore Angel’s background and his connection to Buffy. Once inside, the mutual attraction between these two (and the actors’ chemistry) is quite palpable. The dangerous side of this attraction is expressed through the look on Joyce’s face (“uh huh…”) when she sees her daughter hanging out with this attractive older guy; thus begins the tangled dance of young romance, risky decisions, and the associated fallout of it all. Again, this is a beat Season 2 will dance to all night long.
Early in Buffy’s room, after sneaking Angel upstairs with her, Gellar acts the hell out the moment; you can feel her excitement, but also the innocence in her eyes. This excitement builds when that unfiltered giddiness at sleeping right next to a very polite Angel is shared with her friends the next day. Willow swoons over Buffy’s tale by transposing her own feelings for Xander over it. Meanwhile, Xander reacts as we’d expect: not pleased in the slightest with what he sees as his strong competition for Buffy’s affections.
All of this build-up comes to a head during one of the best ‘first kiss’ scenes I’ve ever seen. Rather than feeling like a generic television kiss, it instead ends up being quite memorable. It’s so good partially because the show has earned the moment by subtly building its foundation in the prior three episodes. The other reason is the fabulous acting from Gellar, who runs the gamut of Buffy’s emotions within a very short time period. This is precisely why the reveal that Angel is a vampire — during the kiss — still works even though I know ten times over that it’s going to happen. Angel’s reveal is a great example of the difference between a cheap one-off shock and an earned character-based shock. This quality will become a staple of Buffy, and it’s wonderful to see the show beginning to figure out how to execute something like this correctly.
Angel being revealed as a vampire has huge implications for the whole show. Buffy asks Giles a loaded question: “can a vampire ever be a good person?” Giles gives her a very one-dimensional answer that – while not entirely false – belies the whole truth. It’s not that I think Giles is lying, or hiding the truth from a delicate Buffy, but rather that he’s simply misinformed and tainted by the very simplistic view the Watchers’ Council holds — even putting aside the whole soul issue. The landscape is a lot more complex than the Watchers’ Council wants its watchers and slayers to be thinking.
Remember how Giles instructs Buffy to slay in “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date” [1×05]? He tells her, “I’m not saying that your methods are without merit, it’s, uh, you’re spending too much time and energy. It should simply be: plunge, and move on.” Spike, Drusilla, Angelus, Wishverse Willow, Holden Webster, and many other vampires will spark a lot of debate and interpretation over the nature of the vampire, soullessness, and personhood in the seasons to come, which will make for quite an exciting ride. Right here, though, Angel is the very first kink in the gears towards what we thought was the show’s take on demonic nature. Maybe this wasn’t the show’s perspective as much as it was the Council’s perspective, filtered through Giles. You can bet that I’ll be revisiting this topic when we get to Season 2!
Everything comes to a head when Buffy heads out to kill Angel after she thinks he attacked her mom. Buffy gets the edge on him, but decides to spare him and simply asks “Why? Why didn’t you just attack me when you had the chance? Was it a joke? To make me feel for you and then…” Angel explains the curse, and Buffy clearly feels he’s being genuine. The fact that Buffy’s willing to risk being bitten to confirm Angel’s story not only builds a layer of trust between them, but it also speaks volumes to both her instincts and the depth of her feelings for him. It also speaks to her ability to offer someone with a troubled past an opportunity for forgiveness and redemption – an ability that will lead to some personal pain, but also big rewards down the line. Admittedly, I can’t help but think she digs the mystery surrounding Angel too.
While “Angel” is definitely focused on Buffy, it doesn’t shy away from shedding more detail on Angel himself. A lot of this information is exposition-y and not all that interesting when one already knows the details, but seeing the world from Angel’s perspective was needed. We can see that while Buffy’s trying to balance slaying, school, and romance, Angel’s juggling his demonic nature, desire for amends, and becoming romantically invested in someone for likely the very first time in his soul-having existence. Right now the thing both Buffy and Angel have in common is their mutual attraction and newfound investment in each other. As their relationship evolves, it’ll end up in a much more aware and mature place in which Buffy comes to understand and help Angel through some of his core struggles. Of course the moment Angel finally starts understand who he is and begins to believe in his own potential, it becomes strikingly obvious that he no longer belongs in Buffy’s world, which goes to show that these two were never compatible, as people, in the first place – romance blinded them. Before we can reach that point of reflection (in Season 3), though, reality is going to come crashing down on them (in Season 2).
Although the central plot of “Angel” is certainly intriguing enough, there are also some nice subtleties that shouldn’t be overlooked. For one, there’s that super fun training sequence between Buffy and Giles. Beyond just being awesome, it’s also interesting in its point that becoming “proficient with the basic tools of combat” is trivial compared to becoming proficient with the basic tools of life, which is something that all of the characters will have to confront in the years ahead of them.
There’s also this fabulous little scene where, in the hospital, Joyce asks Giles why Buffy struggles with history so much. Giles’ response is as metaphorical as it is literal. He tells Joyce that Buffy “lives very much in the ‘now,’ and history, of course, is very much about the ‘then.'” I really feel this speaks to who Buffy is as a person — someone who always has her own way of getting things done, and has a tendency to subvert what’s expected of her. In light of this trait, Buffy often ends up ditching old or ineffectual methods of getting things done.
Everything builds to the sublime final scene, where Buffy and Angel both admit that their relationship can’t happen, yet they can’t pull themselves away anyway. This unstoppable attraction will only grow between now and “Surprise” [2×13], where the other shoe drops. For now, though, both the viewers and the characters get to enjoy being washed over by this blissfully naïve romanticism, with a tone-setting and aptly titled song, “I’ll Remember You,” playing in the background – a song that alludes to this relationship being a very finite endeavor.
“Angel” is one of the only episodes of Season 1 that puts it all together. While it’s definitely still held back a bit by many of Season 1’s usual suspects (music, effects, direction, etc.), thereby creating a few rough edges, the episode succeeds despite these flaws thanks to an electric Sarah Michelle Gellar and an improving David Boreanaz. The episode also sports a lasting, relevant story that will have character-based and thematic implications for a long time to come. “Angel” gives us an appetizer of the kind of Buffy magic that lies ahead, and I can’t help but kind of love it for that.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The Cockroach Fumigation Party!
+ Willow getting all doe-eyed over Xander dancing like a complete freak.
+ The Master’s talk about the importance of family, one of Buffy’s major themes. I enjoy how this can and will apply to the villains as much as the heroes.
+ Xander wanting Buffy to stay at his house while the Three lurk outside.
+ Buffy’s freak-out when she thinks Angel read her diary.
+ The Cordelia dress-double moment. Buffy: “And to think we have problems….”
+ The show’s more complex portrayal of Darla (although it still could be better).
+ Darla looking not all-too happy hearing Buffy swoon over kissing Angel, which makes sense based on what we will learn later.
+ Darla toying with Joyce, and Buffy freaking out over seeing her mom injured on the ground, which turns out to actually be mildly creepy due to the fact that Buffy will much later (Season 5) find her mom dead on the couch. Also, Darla is a lot scarier in retrospect thanks to her Season 2 stint on Angel.
+ The awesome beat where a moment of silence is followed by Buffy throwing Angel our of her living room window.
+ Buffy shooting a stake at a “Smoking Sucks” poster. Haha! And doesn’t the crossbow being her special weapon seem so quaint in retrospect?
+ Angel’s annoyance at Darla pestering him. When he says “I want it finished,” I almost assume he’s talking to her.
– The Three are lame, come out of nowhere, and quickly go away.
– The Master seems to have fond memories of Angelus, which is incompatible with what we find out about their history in Angel‘s “Darla” .
– Xander and Willow conveniently show up at Buffy’s back porch the moment after she finds her injured mom. There was absolutely no reason for them to be there other than plot convenience.
– Buffy saying that she let Angel into her home after she knew what he was. Wait: huh?
– Darla with dual pistols: fun. Darla with dual pistols that she never has to reload: not fun.
* When Buffy kisses Angel, his vampirism is revealed for the first time. This is a rather ominous warning of the future. When Buffy sleeps with Angel in “Surprise” [2×13], he will lose his soul. (Thanks to Ryan ONeil and Iguana for pointing this out.)
* Not being able to kill Angel here hints to us that she’ll also be unable to kill him in “Innocence” [2×14], despite it being within her means both times.
* The song at the end, “I’ll Remember You,” shares a title with the Angel Season 1 episode “I Will Remember You” . In the former, we get hints at the eventual end of their relationship right as it begins, while in the latter we get a forgotten (for Buffy, that is) last hurrah that puts the nail in the coffin.