[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: Tim Minear | Director: Winrich Kolbe | Aired: 01/18/2000]
The first half of AtS’ first season roars across the finish line with “Somnambulist,” an important, impressive, and hugely entertaining episode. It’s the second episode to receive a Perfect score so far, and despite some early doubt, full consideration gave me the answer that this episode was indeed fitting. Why?
Well, my criterion for a perfect episode is as such: Firstly, the episode must be technically flawless, or have problems insignificant enough that they don’t affect my enjoyment. Secondly, it must have a good deal of development for the characters or story arc, and have consequences that affect the series and leave an impact. Thirdly, it requires a piece of its execution to do something amazing; I need to be blown away. With this episode, I was. Very tightly constructed, it provided everything you could want from this kind of a show and then some. And while it isn’t quite as powerful or deeply impacting as some other episodes, even ones whose flaws couldn’t bring them above a 95 (the most prominent that comes to mind being “I Will Remember You” [1×08] ), it deserves every percentage point it in its score.
The episode is composed of three major conflicts, all of them woven with masterful care throughout the story. The first is the simplest: Angel versus Penn. Of course we know that Angel can’t be performing the killings that occur in the teaser in his dreams, and he soon realizes which of his ‘apt pupils,’ which of the vampires he sired, are behind the murders. The second is more important, and is the main point of the episode: Angel versus Angelus.
Penn’s existence, as it is so bluntly pointed out by Angel, is because of him. It is him (and Angelus having been my favorite Whedonverse villain of all time, it’s why I like him so much). Penn as a character isn’t all that deep or new and revolutionary, but what he does as a device is superbly effective is that he necessitates Angel’s mission for redemption brought into the present. In BtVS S2, mainly in “Becoming, Part I” and “Becoming, Part II” we got hints and flashes of who Angelus, the true Angelus (the one who ravaged across Europe for a century) was, but it was done solely for the effect of the final fight and to give us what we needed to know for the context at hand.
With Angel now the main character on his own show, this became too little. There’s only so much talk about puppies nailed to crosses and “I was so evil, I must brood” that can get the point across, since Angel’s feelings on his sins have been clear for some time. The purpose of Penn was to personify the horrors of Angelus, to show us why he needs redemption as opposed to just telling us, and he does this very well. Much like his mentor, the apt pupil is very personal about his kills. He’s a master of the human animal, capable of cleverly manipulating situations and emotions for his gains (demonstrated when he tricks Cordelia into revealing Kate’s identity). Finally, he also happens to be a particularly brutal #######, who takes death to a mortifying artistry.
Penn is Angelus’ reflection, and that’s the conflict. Angel must face everything his student is doing, has ever done and plans to do with the knowledge that he made him, taught him and was him. This duality of his nature and the threat of the demon inside re-emerging is something he has learned to live with, but the appearance of it in the bold and bright present shakes him to the core; he admits to Wesley and Cordelia that he enjoyed the killing dreams explicitly. From start to finish, his demeanor is one of raw fear as he senses his alter ego stir. What’s more than just the cruel irony of seeing his crimes in another are the crimes of the other themselves. Just as with Drusilla and Spike, Angel is, by extension, responsible for everything they’ve done and every moment they exist is more blood on his hands.
It’s no wonder he’s so shaken; the effects of Penn’s return speak for themselves. This conflict isn’t one that finishes within the episode, or even the series, either. Rather, it’s featured here to let us and the characters know how close we are to Angelus’ return at any time. To treat him as a potent threat in every moment makes the history that the series explores through to S5 much more relevant to the present, and does it undying justice in that none of it becomes unimportant. And, critical to our understanding, this episode gives us a valuable piece of information on what Angelus did for Angel to need redemption in the first place. This is explored in “The Prodigal” [1×15] as well.
As for Wes and Cordy: They both react spot-on throughout the episode and some development even comes of it. Kudos to Wes too, as his ‘powers of deduction’ were on the money. As aware of Angel’s duality as Angel is, he is willing and prepared to take on the demon the moment it re-emerges. Cordy too, informing Angel that she’ll “kill him dead!” should the day come. It’s exactly why they can and quickly do become as close to the dark avenger as they do (the events in this episode particularly important to their bond), while characters like Charles Gunn take a lot more time to. In “That Old Gang of Mine” [3×03] Angel tells Gunn: “You’ll prove that I can trust you when the day comes that you *have* to kill me – and you do.”
Throughout S2 and into S3, Gunn’s history fighting vampires renders him incapable of properly accepting what Angel is, (which is why he’s particularly harsh on him in “Epiphany” [2×16] ), and it takes a long time before they reach a proper place in their dynamic.
The vampire Penn isn’t just a device though. Going back to the first conflict, I have to say I liked the small but well-used side story that rounded out Penn’s motivations for his murders. There is the possibility, that like a type of addict, Penn has spent his life trying to recapture that one immeasurable moment of killing his family (something the mythology purports is a vampire rite of initiation). Angelus telling Penn “savor the moment, you’ll not recapture it,” followed by a quick cut to his wall of news clippings about the murders suggests this is possible.
More likely, however, is that it’s all in the family: He killed those whom he supplanted as his family, using all eternity to continue to get revenge on his disapproving father. Secondly, after becoming a vampire, he was taught proudly by his sire Angelus in the art of death, and constantly sought his approval, having lacked his real father’s in life. In that, Angelus became the father he could never have made proud, and the repetition of the deaths over two centuries show that his hatred for one father was as strong as his admiration of the other.
Penn doesn’t really care about Angel’s soul, what’s happened since the early 1800’s or why it matters; he’s never even informed. All that matters is when the dad he hasn’t seen in nearly two centuries appears before him changed, disapproving his actions, he appears to Penn as the one he’s spent forever getting back at. So of course, killing him is no question, but as a student of Angelus he doesn’t just kill. He gives Angel a brutally ironic taste of his own BtVS S2 medicine, exploiting and threatening Cordy and Wes, and then going after Kate the moment gets a whiff of Angel’s compassion for her. This was a really great place to take the story, and the final fight was all the more dramatic for it.
The third conflict is the toughest for the viewer to go through and is the most important in the immediate wake of the episode: Kate versus Angel. Or rather, Kate versus Angelus. Up to this point Kate has represented part of Angel’s tie to the human world. She’s played the part of the outsider, not aware of Angel’s past, vampirism and has functioned as both a potential romance subject and a connection to the world not rooted in Sunnydale. This episode changes everything. Within this story, brought on by her discovery of what Angel is, and who Angelus was, she becomes someone entirely different to herself and Angel.
Her part now transforms into another piece of Angel’s quest for redemption. Indeed, Angel, Kate and Penn are a triumvirate here. Penn is the sin, Kate is the guilt, and Angel is the reconciliation. Angel tells Holtz in “Lullaby” [3×09], “there’s no justice for what I did to you.” He knows his own history and that making up to it is going to be more than saving souls; there’s the guilt. Kate becomes this now, unaware of Angel’s history or the context of his ensouled life, her discovery of both his identity and his past leave her with confusion and hatred. When Angel confronts her at her door she’s well aware of what he is and isn’t all too happy about it. She’s read about his sins, and the constant price the ensouled hero has to pay is racked up again at the cost of their friendship.
Not all’s lost however. When all these threads come together for an amazingly well built-up fight sequence at the end, the payoff is incredible. Angel comes face to face with both demons he has to fight, and Kate makes the right choice in the heat of battle. Their relationship is never the same again, and Kate will always be, in part, a mouthpiece to read back the monstrosities of Angelus whenever Angel gets too high on himself or too close to his old path (see “The Thin Dead Line” [2×14] ). But her decision to stake only Penn is a step forward following the massive regression that took place in a split second this episode, as she clearly recognizes Angel has something to offer the world. She’s seen his bravery and his strength, and can’t deny the value of those things.
As I said, though, nothing ends here. Kate and Angel’s relationship is drastically altered because of these events, all the way up until their final time together in “Epiphany” [2×16]. And Angelus, certainly, is never going to go away. The strength of this episode goes well beyond the strong writing, frightening villain and cool fight scenes. The Angel Investigations team are all the tighter too, and I like how Wesley’s being slowly integrated into a part of their new family. He can’t replace Doyle, but he’s part of something new and that’s great too.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Cordelia talking to an empty chair.
+ Angel’s quick takedown of Wesley.
+ Chains. Ha!
+ Angel making his point to Kate while the cross burns his hand.
+ Us believing Cordelia’s talking to a chair again, and then we see Penn is in it.
+ The ‘stalking the killer’ montage.
+ Penn appearing inside the police station. So totally Angelus of him.
+ Kate using a giant stake.
– Penn not hearing Kate pull out her bottle of Holy Water. Aren’t vampires supposed to have great hearing?
* In the flashback, Angelus instills his ‘family values’ in Penn, speaking of the unmatchable pleasure of family blood. In “The Prodigal” [1×15] we learn just how he murdered his family after being sired by Darla, and how he ‘savors’ the experience.
* Wesley has a hero complex, believing he alone is the one who must act in times of crisis. Here, he is instantly prepared to go up against Angel when he believes he has turned evil. In S3, he betrays his entire life at Angel Investigations when he thinks that Angel is going to kill his son. Both times he works behind his friend’s back, and both times he is wrong.
* Wesley’s investigative skills usually put him in the place of bad-news-messenger. In “To Shanshu in LA” [1×22] in L.A. he transcribes the scroll, mistaking it as a prophecy of Angel’s death. Cordelia also acts the same way in both cases, defending Angel loyally.
* Both Angel and Penn claim Angel’s responsible for all Penn’s transgressions and psychotic traits. This is the same with any Angelus took undre his wing; Spike, in “Destiny” [5×08] says to Angel: “Drusilla made me a vampire. You made me a monster.”