[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: David Fury | Director: James A. Contner | Aired: 10/12/1999]
The theme of connection continues in “Lonely Hearts,” the second and sadly overlooked episode of Angel’s first season. Since it follows such a bang of a series opener and doesn’t exactly plot a point in a season long arc (despite its dominant theme, S1 lacks an arc) it is often forgotten, but is, really, a good piece of work. Written by Buffy regular David Fury, one of the top Whedonverse contributors, this episode is also the second in a collection of S1 episodes that extend the “High School as Hell” metaphor from BtVS into the world of the big city when you’re in your early twenties. This episode’s offering is a particularly gloomy but quite realistic look at the singles scene; it’s also one of the series’ better ‘monster of the week’ episodes.
Also, in the aftermath of “City of” [1×01], it helps to establish what Angel’s mission is first and foremost: Helping people as a sort of a night-time-only detective. Finding him sitting around in the dark, still in what we assume to be his Buffy-mourning phase, Doyle has a vision sent by the PTB, and the trio of Angel Investigations take off into the night on their first case. The writer’s viewpoint on the night-life singles scene is established right away, when Doyle describes his vision to Angel and Cordelia: “No faces really popped out at me…just the feeling….”
The vision itself, of a bar with people dancing and partying, is shown to us at a blitzing pace, too fast to focus on or describe with everyone blending together. Not necessarily clever, but topically spot-on. Essentially, the episode’s take on the singles scene is that it just plain sucks, and in fact, it goes well beyond that to say that getting trapped in a bar night after night looking for ‘the one’ presents only misplaced trust setting people up for betrayal, and reflects a desperate need to connect in an environment designed to keep people alone in a crowd.
Thematically the episode captures the viewpoint quite well, most notably in the form of the demon called “The Screech,” who is the aforementioned monster of the week. It’s an eviscerating demon that moves from body to body after it has sex with each of its victims, taking the body of the one it seduced and moving on to find the next victim. This is actually a pretty good idea by the way, as it makes for some interesting herrings to be led on in the first half of the episode, elevating the plot beyond mediocre in light of the revelation about the demon.
After all, what are we to think? We see a woman named Sharon leave with a good looking man as Angel and Co. arrive. Sharon’s man subsequently turns up dead, as we see her at the bar the next night on the prowl again, looking strangely more predatory.
Next thing: she turns up dead, and the man she was after walks away. By then we know the truth, but it’s kept us hooked nice and tight. However, this still remains the secondary function; primarily, the demon serves as a metaphor for the average man or woman out on the singles scene. It is fated to move from person to person forever, as it cannot allow itself to settle on one. It wants to connect and find a ‘body’ to stay with, but can’t because of its own inescapable nature, betraying everyone it can convince to trust it. On the metaphorical level, this is a pitch perfect personification of the territory it stalks and feeds on.
Another thing that makes what could’ve been a mediocre episode really good is the quality of the B plot, which is exceptional in both its execution and how well it meshes with the main plot line. We also get to see Angel try and flirt, again; funny stuff. Trying to hone in on the soul in danger at the bar, known as D’Oblique, Angel begins chatting up different people, one of whom is a blonde (no surprise there) woman named Kate. Surprisingly, they seem to hit it off pretty well.
Despite what’s to come, they’re both there looking for something, and their brief connection feels genuine. Angel is still searching for deeper ties to the world, even though he now has friends. Aside from the moment at hand; dealing with cases, the soulful vampire still feels purposeless with no long term direction to go in (he beautifully realizes this direction by the end of the season).
But no matter his needs he’s still “putting up walls,” fearing his own nature only a little over a year since dying as Angelus. Kate invites him out of the bar with her, but all he can say to it is ‘I can’t. I have to stay here.’ He is on a job, but the statement runs deeper than that for him. Like the demon, his own nature keeps him from the connections he wants most.
Kate, of course, takes all this as an insult, seeing him flirt with other women only minutes later, still searching for the soul that needs help. But in another twist, Kate turns out a policewoman on the case of a string of murders surrounding D’Oblique’s patrons, and confronts Angel at the scene of the Screech’s most recent victim. By now we know the truth of the murders, but, ah, it’s kept us hooked this far. Fun stuff.
The scene is tense and Kate appears hard-headed, but underneath is still as she appeared in the bar: Like Angel, she’s seeking more, like the Screech and the patrons of D’Oblique. No matter her wants when talking to Angel (trying to track down the killer at the bar), her needs were still present. This brings us to trust, another facet in the episode’s theme, as we see its various doings and subsequent undoings in not only Kate and Angel, but the Screech and every trusting victim it betrays. And, just as distrust is the key to the demon’s life, trust brings it to its end. When at last Kate puts her faith in Angel and stops working against him, the two work together seamlessly and take down the fiend, who by now has made its way into the body of the bartender (another good twist).
One thing that does hurt this episode, however, is that Doyle and Cordelia are largely left out. It was forgivable in the series opener and it wasn’t even noticeable like it is here; I would’ve liked to see what they would’ve done through all of this. This may only be the second episode, but it’s still kind of disappointing and detracts from the overall experience.
They still have a few moments, thankfully. Doyle’s crush starts to develop as he tries to socialize with Cordelia, and at one point punches a guy who insults her, taking a decent beating for it. They also reminisce about dating in their youth and the comparable brutality of the big city scene. They, and Angel, have come from close environments where people knew and trusted each other, and shared something in common.
Doyle tells Cordelia, “you’re in the big, bad city now, huh? Where everyone’s a stranger – hiding behind walls, keeping secrets.” This in response to her comment about High School having been so much easier, while Angel fondly recalls his human youth at the local pubs in Ireland. The statement ‘High School is over’ from “City of” [1×01] continues to play its tune as Angel and Cordelia really begin to “grow up,” having left Sunnydale and the safety of the Scooby gang behind.
It’s also an interesting point to note that Doyle couldn’t pick out any single person who needed their help in his vision, and Angel finds himself questioning the point of the trip to the bar at all for the same reason; in reality, most of these people need help, since the Screech is everything they are. They’re disconnected, “hiding behind walls – keeping secrets,” alone in a crowd with nothing more than the desire to meet that someone but failing to look in the right place. And since Angel is in the business of saving not just lives, but souls, it makes sense that the PTB would send such a vision.
Overall, this episode does deliver the goods. Like “City of” [1×01], the dialogue is sharp, entertaining and significant, and the metaphor of the week as well as the demon behind it is done superbly. There’s some important development here too, and the establishment of Kate and Angel’s dynamic is both interesting and worthwhile.
Furthermore, episodes like this are what make the ‘big’ episodes like “Not Fade Away” [5×22] (in my opinion, one of the ‘biggest’ feeling episodes in the Whedonverse) matter; seeing the heroes in their every day suits and at their moments of communion. It’s just a bonus when these episodes are this good.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Angel and Doyle’s reactions to the business cards.
+ Kate and Angel’s bar banter, especially the “self flagellating hypocrite slut” line.
+ The Screech’s montage played out to Vast’s “Touched.”
+ Kate’s reaction to the business card; “is this a lobster?”
– Doyle and Cordelia not getting much to do, besides the D’Oblique scene.
* The key to Kate and Angel’s partnership is trust. When it weakens (“Somnambulist” [1×11] , “The Prodigal” [1×15] ) and finally snaps (“The Prodigal” [1×15] , “The Thin Dead Line” [2×14] ), they not only grow distant, but work against each other (“Sanctuary” [1×19] , “To Shanshu in LA” [1×22] , “The Thin Dead Line” [2×14] ) as we see Kate does in this episode before she decides to trust him.