[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: Joss Whedon (Story) and David Greenwalt (Story and Teleplay) | Director: Vern Gillum | Aired: 10/26/1999]
One of the few slight dents in S1’s almost perfect quality consistency is “I Fall to Pieces.” It’s no doubt a solid episode all around and has more entertainment value than an episode like “She” [1×13], but is kind of a sag in the overall scheme when compared to the preceding episodes. In fact, it’s probably the only episode from “City of” [1×01] to “Expecting” [1×12] that doesn’t really enthrall me. But, there is still some fun to be had so let’s look at it.
First and foremost there’s some pretty good dialogue here with Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt behind the writer’s pen (well, word processer), and the actual concept of the Ronald Meltzer character (a surgeon who can supernaturally detach his limbs and move them to his will) shows that a good deal of thought went into this episode. What I liked most about it is how Meltzer’s psyche gets the episode to tap into the bigger theme of the entire series: Redemption. And since redemption deals with consequences and the past (two things which frequently haunt Angel throughout the series) the parallel drawn between the protagonist and the antagonist hits home both for Angel and the viewer.
It hit me biggest and best in how Kate described the psychology of a stalker’s victim to Angel: “Then you better help her get mad, because that is the only way she’ll be able to fight him…this guy could go to jail tomorrow, Angel, and still kill her in her dreams every night. I’ve put a few of these creeps away and the hardest thing is to know that he is still winning. She’s still afraid. He took her power away and no one can get it back for her but her.” My suspicions were confirmed when Angel expertly impersonated a wealthy client at Meltzer’s office, asking him: “Do you know what it’s like to be so much a part of someone that you don’t know where they end and you begin?” And a yes to this can reflect pure, unadulterated love when the sentiment is shared by two people, but when harbored by only one reflects a dangerous obsession. The context in which Angel confronted Meltzer with this statement, and how he (Meltzer) responded about his ‘love’ for Melissa solidified the point of parallel the writers were trying to get across: He is like Angelus.
Granted; it’s no real secret the way it’s presented, though if you’ve never watched BtVS and simply started watching AtS on its own you probably won’t get it. But what we have in the character of the good doctor is a man obsessed, his small pool of affection magnified by time and a self-encouraged fantasy. Now, at this time we don’t have any of Angel’s real back story except for what we’ve seen in BtVS’ : Becoming, Part I and : Becoming, Part II. AtS itself doesn’t really begin to explore the past all that deeply until later this season with “Somnambulist” [1×11] and “The Prodigal” [1×15]. So the parallel here is to the Angelus of Buffy S2, a (more or less) man who was even more obsessed with a girl.
The similarities are there between Melissa and Buffy (the victims) as well. These men changed their lives in a big way; destroying them on the inside, filling them with fear. They fear even doing what they used to love, and their trust in people is shattered. Angelus’ character, like Meltzer’s, was created as a supernatural, metaphorically-based extension of an every day kind of creep, so the existing comparison is fairly easy to see. It’s Angel’s realization of their similarity that brings it some relevance. “I know how this guy thinks; I just don’t know how he’s doing it.”
It’s in this understanding that Angel learns how to fight his enemy; it’s not about powers. He has to take Kate’s advice and teach Melissa to be brave. And much in the same way Buffy could only heal herself by letting go of Angel, removing her fear of destroying Angelus, Melissa too realized that her strength was her stalker’s weakness. Watching her stand up to her stalker, and seeing him literally fall apart as a result was a well earned climax to the story, and gave the metaphor some relevance too (the episode title isn’t exactly cryptic).
But, one of the episode’s better aspects is also a big weak point. The parallel between the two villains doesn’t entirely work. I understand and appreciate the basic concept and the idea of the consequences of Angel’s past visiting him in the present, as it usually leads to something interesting on the show (see the characters of Penn, Darla, and Spike to start). But here, with no personal tie to Angelus, any real impact that could’ve existed never occurred, in fact, and it seemed almost pointless because it didn’t do as much to advance any of the main characters in the way that the previous three episodes did, save for Angel continuing to learn how to save a soul (which, I fanboyishly admit, is still very sweet). Melissa’s ascension from victim to victor was a bright spot in all this.
And just like in “Lonely Hearts” [1×02], we’re confronted with a unique type of villain that could not have existed in Buffy’s simpler world, but only here in Angel’s L.A.: One who is not a mindless killing automaton, but a flawed and self-conscious being that’s capable of feeling its own insufficiency. But, that’s where the comparison itself falls apart, as Angelus was a killing automaton, no matter how ‘artistic’ he was, as he certainly wasn’t mindless; but he existed only for pain and death, rather than giving into it as a result of his ‘relationship’ problems (which is funny when you think it out loud: Angelus’ relationship problems. Ha!). The only line to be drawn between them is that they were both psychotic, supernatural stalkers.
I suppose that here the writers were still getting comfortable in a new kind of skin, and as a throwaway episode this isn’t all that bad. And it’s not as though they didn’t learn to get it right, as some of the best episodes in the series feature a scenario like this; “Somnambulist” [1×11] and “Destiny” [5×08] are both very good episodes wherein the tortured hero’s past and present are explored through his reflection in another. But it just doesn’t work that well here.
However, I did say there were a few positives. The music was pretty good; blended nicely with the epic theme that follows Angel’s character into the night was some appropriately shady detective/investigation type sound that suited the creepy atmosphere well. Much of S1 has this musical tone, but since Angel doesn’t stay a show permanently focused on the ‘detective’ concept, this is the only season you’re going to really hear it. The plot itself was pretty standard, but once again, the dialogue was sharp and relevant. Both the writing and directing give this episode a very eerie atmosphere and the doctor himself, in his stalking and his disgusting molestation of Melissa was skin-crawlingly creepy, and the maximum effect was well reaped.
All in all, this episode was good, even if inconsequential, with the possible exception of the further development of the Fang Gang as a close-knit unit; their interactions here were very enjoyable.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Cordelia confronting Angel about his discomfort in charging clients; “well, get over it!”
+ Angel actually scaring someone by walking out of the shadows with an offer of help. You’d think he’d get that reaction more often.
+ Doyle’s bodyguard work with Melissa.
+ Angel’s quick thinking and pretending to be Jensen.
– The doctor’s mentor. The scene was awkward, and a little hokey.
– The fight scene near the end is rather cheesy.
* Angel, like Buffy, usually avoids killing humans. Here we see the first display of the exceptions he is willing to make to protect the lives of his friends and the innocent, as he “kills” Meltzer by locking his body parts away separately, despite Meltzer’s humanity.
* Meltzer is represented by Wolfram and Hart. This, like “City of” [1×01] , gives us more clues about just what kind of a ‘law firm’ they are.