[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Rob Des Hotel and Dean Batali | Director: Bruce Seth Green | Aired: 11/10/1997]
“The Dark Age” is thematically on point, but poorly directed and edited. It sports far too many scenes that feel very awkwardly stitched together. Thankfully, the writing helps curb what otherwise might have been a complete disaster of an episode. There are some relevant themes vying for attention in this Giles-centered outing.
Despite how flawed “The Dark Age” is, it remains important in the scope of the season. Two relationships are given a hard look here: Giles/Buffy and Giles/Jenny. Since “Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01], the former has been largely a teacher/student dynamic, but I really think “The Dark Age” marks an important shift to that of a surrogate father/daughter dynamic. The latter — Giles/Jenny — is, of course, one of friendship and budding romance. There’s also a third relationship to take into consideration: that of Giles with his past.
Learning about Giles’ rebellious youth, thus revealing him to have a duality of spirit, furthers the echoes of Janus from “Halloween” [2×06] even more. Buffy’s last word to Giles in “Lie to Me” [2×07] was “liar” — quite foretelling of what happens in “The Dark Age”. It turns out that Giles had quite the youth, one in which he dropped out of school and experimented with mystical forms of drugs (“it was an extraordinary high”) with a group that included Ethan Rayne, our cheery chaos worshiper.
The metaphor of Eyghon — the demon the group would summon into one of them — is brilliant, really. Phonetically, it reads as ‘I gone’, meaning the loss of self. When Giles describes his past he says that one member of the group “lost control,” which is how Eyghon took control of and ending up killing him. This is a fairly mature look at the cause and effect of hard drugs, but done through metaphor, which is what Buffy generally does very well when it manages to avoid being too transparent (i.e. heavy-handed) — something “The Dark Age” mostly succeeds at. The great thing about “The Dark Age” is that it’s not content to hold its gaze on the drug metaphor — it digs much deeper by exploring how poor decisions in the past end up haunting Giles throughout his life and are now negatively impacting those closest to him.
Although this information certainly makes Giles a more complex character, it also serves as a lesson to Buffy: don’t ever lose complete control of yourself. It’s both dangerous and a distraction from her calling to mature into the best person she can be. Buffy will suffer soon because she doesn’t fully absorb this lesson. As we will increasingly see in the coming episodes, Buffy begins to lose herself in Angel. The loss of self, whether from loneliness, sex, drugs, puppy love, or anything else, is never good, particularly outside the confines of childhood.
This message is greatly enhanced by the demon’s characteristics: Giles doesn’t know how to get rid of it without killing Jenny and it can only enter people when they are dead or unconscious, thus mirroring real life (i.e. when something takes over, consciousness, or a sense of self, inevitably vanishes). How they defeat Eyghon is smart: they force the demon into Angel, a guy who’s been there before, wrestles with a guilty past, and has a demon inside of him every day. Only he has the strength of self and history to control the demon within. Very cool!
As I hinted at before, another key message is that actions can have unforeseen consequences that may only become revealed later in life. In this case, Giles’ past is literally coming back to haunt him. It’s interesting that he did this to rebel against his “destiny” of being a Watcher. Perhaps this is why he often overcompensates with Buffy about duty, and will come to be very concerned about Willow’s dive into magic soon (thus very subtly setting up their conflict in Season 6). We see Giles drinking too much and slacking off his responsibilities — the latter being the very thing he often criticizes Buffy for. Even worse, his old problems end up transferring onto people her cares about, such as when Eyghon jumps into Jenny and Ethan tattoos the symbol onto Buffy.
Speaking of Jenny, who began “The Dark Age” poking at Giles’ stoic exterior but hinting at something a little more sexual, she discovers that Giles isn’t entirely the man she thought he was. As much as people would like to wash away their past, it informs who they are and where they came from. This is vital information to absorb during the early phases of a relationship, so I entirely understand why Jenny needs to space to determine whether Giles is right for her. (If only Buffy would take a little more time to absorb what she learned about Angel in “Lie to Me” [2×07].) We know, in retrospect, though, that Jenny’s not being entirely honest either.
Putting aside the complications Giles and Jenny have for a moment, I’m the first to admit that they make a fun couple to watch. Even considering the fact that these two are taking things refreshingly slow — and it’s a good thing they did — discovering these hidden truths is still a huge disappointment. When Eyghon perverts Jenny’s affections (“sexy fuddy-duddy”) into something grotesque and purely carnal, Giles knows his past has caused a rift in this relationship. It’s interesting that when Jenny is possessed, Giles slumps even further into helplessness. It’s not until he gets a vision of Buffy in danger that he forces himself out of his slumber to help. This restates just how important Buffy is to Giles — more so than anyone else — despite their apparent differences.
The teaser, with Buffy “aerobicizing” to what Giles characterizes as “noise” (I can sympathize), is meant to re-emphasize how these two are from different worlds. This is very purposeful because it sets up how “The Dark Age” humanizes Giles in Buffy’s eyes — it makes him seem less robotic and gives her some perspective. This is strengthened shortly afterward when Buffy, Willow, and Xander all joke about how Giles must have “lived for school” when he was young. No matter how frustrated Giles can get with Buffy sometimes, “The Dark Age” enlightens us to what he was like as an adolescent, which helps him be more warm and patient with her going forward.
Thematically, Buffy seeing Giles at his worst is akin to finding out that a parent isn’t the flawless hero they are often thought of as a child. Giles has been so rock-solid to this point that seeing him unkempt and forgetful is scary to Buffy, as his what she learns of his own adolescence. No child likes seeing their parents becoming unhinged, and coming face-to-face with this is yet another milestone of adolescence for most people.
In order for a parent to be a good role model they have to demonstrate healthy ways to deal with adversity and be humble enough to actively work on their flaws. This quality is present in the best parents out there. ‘Not being perfect’, though, isn’t an excuse for refusing to improve, just as ‘being an adolescent’ isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a get-out-of-jail-free card for behaving immaturely. (As a side note, I wish more adolescents would realize that being “rebellious” at that age is ironically one of the biggest clichés out there, which makes the whole endeavor almost comically self-defeating and hypocritical.)
By the end of “The Dark Age” Giles isn’t sure if Jenny can forgive him, or if he even should be forgiven. Buffy gracefully gives him permission to forgive himself. This is a healthy response, because forgiveness is often required to heal, learn, and move on. This entire exchange will become prophetic come “Innocence” [2×14] and especially “I Only Have Eyes for You” [2×19], where forgiveness begins to become more central to the season’s themes. The final scene in “The Dark Age” is a really nice grace note to end the episode on: Buffy is beginning to see Giles as more than just an authority figure — she’s beginning to see him as a person and as a surrogate father, but with faults and flaws all of his own.
As much as there is to appreciate in what “The Dark Age” has to say, its basic execution is simply too flawed for me to excuse — nearly everything feels really sloppy, despite the solid script. For most of its running time, “The Dark Age” also suffers from brutal pacing that brings back memories of Season 1 and its attempts to create suspense by dragging out scenes that showcase cheesy and impotent villains. Some examples of this include Phillip in the teaser and the scene where Eyghon takes control of Phillip in the morgue. Why is everyone so scared of a demon that walks about as fast as a single old-school staggering zombie? Rather than suspense, all it ends up generating is the occasional eye-roll and the thirty-second yawn.
Giles’ flashback nightmares are schlocky as well, what with the on-the-nose music cue and constant flashes — these really needed to come off as genuinely unsettling. There are several instances of really sloppy editing, such as the scene where Eyghon jumps into Jenny through the liquid that magically disappears between cuts. The whole episode feels disjointed and unprofessional, which really hurts what “The Dark Age” is trying to get across and occasionally pushes its themes to spill into heavy-handed territory.
Despite all of these flaws, “The Dark Age” is sharply written with yet more excellent moral lessons for both the characters and the viewer to chew on. It also deepens our understanding of Giles and his relationship with Buffy and Jenny. Additionally, the themes will again prove to be quite resonant in the episodes to come. This is a tough one to evaluate, but overall it’s a mixed bag. Great writing; poor execution.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Giles quoting Shakespeare — “and the rest is silence” — when Buffy turns off her music. Then Phillip gets killed!
+ Willow, speaking of Jenny and Giles, saying, “Can’t you imagine the two of them getting together?” The reaction quickly morphs from ‘totally’ to ‘ewww’ in less than a second. Heh.
+ Cordelia’s all smiling and ready to help Giles, but Buffy doesn’t know how Cordelia can help. While funny, it’s also a reflection of Buffy’s feeling of helplessness to deal with Giles’ situation.
+ Every time Willow gets excited over research, I inexplicably get excited too. Go Alyson Hannigan!
+ More Xander and Cordelia tension. They’re one step away from kissing each other. Oh, yeah, “What’s My Line? Pt. 1” [2×09] is next.
+ Willow showing off the recent confidence boost she got from “Halloween” [2×06] by putting Xander and Cordelia in their places. Awesome.
+ Angel more actively puts himself in the fire here, which further ingratiates him to the Scoobies. This will end up making his upcoming change hurt all that much more.
– Phillip’s incredibly lame lack-of-an-attempt to escape Eyghon or fight back in the teaser.
– Buffy’s self-narration over what’s happening outside the hospital. Is that really necessary?
– The only students having to attend Jenny’s Saturday computer class are Xander, Willow, and Cordelia? Really?
– Buffy hitting Ethan in the face does next to nothing to him. Huh?
– That one hit from a small plank would knock Buffy out is simply inconsistent from what we’ve seen before and will see later.
* Eyghon, while possessing Jenny, asks Giles “was it good for you?” Angelus will ask a very similar question to Buffy — on a wall, written in blood — in “Innocence” [2×14].
* Angel grabs Jenny’s neck to get Eyghon out of her. In “Passion” [2×17], Angelus will snap that very same neck.