[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: David Greenwalt and Jeannine Renshaw | Director: Robert David Price | Aired: 02/15/2000]
“I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” while not quite being Top 20 material, and admittedly, unable to crack the coveted Perfect Score either, is quite memorable for its many merits. Fantastically shot and slithering about in its cool and unnervingly creepy atmosphere, it is also pointedly written and downright shocking. Angel, even thus far, has been a series that looks beyond the spectrum of the average. After all, it’s a show about a noble vampire who is a better man than most actual men. It purports that not all demons are evil, and that even some that are aren’t just mindless killers, but are amoral beings inclined towards evil, acting out against their own faults
What juicy material for a relativist. Here, in what’s probably one of the very best “monster of the week” episodes in the series, it challenges us again. Vampire with a soul? Sure. Now try a human without one. This episode, more in line with the first few of the series as opposed to the most recent, gets back to the film-noir detective concept of the show, and pays tribute to the feature film “The Exorcist.” Its ingenuity keeps it from being a rip off as well, mostly by the first of the episode’s two twists, when the priest turns up dead and they’re left to do the exorcism themselves.
All the initial set ups are where we get the most ‘borrowing’ from the film, and we get some nifty misdirection too. Thankfully, and unlike say, “She” [1×13], it’s done for a good logical reason as well, rather than downright insulting the viewers. Cordelia gets a vision, a rather vague one at that, and Angel goes to the house it indicates. His initial reaction is one of suspicion, as both his eye and the camera’s lead us to believe that something shifty is going on with the father, and that he may be the danger.
But of course, the expected is kicked out the door and we find in Seth, the father, a man torn by horrible circumstances simply trying to keep his family from falling apart. It is Ryan, his son, who is to be feared, as they discover the demon to be possessing him, and not the father. I very much enjoyed this, since the lording, scary and drunken father is too often used and is an easy and predictable threat on television. Also smart of the writers was how it connected Angel to Seth; the point of reference for Angel’s behaviour. Indeed a good man, Angel is still often very dark and shady, presenting a stone face and intimidating presence to most of whom he encounters.
However, we know Angel. We did not know Seth, and how we, the audience, were made to perceive this type of dark and shady attitude as worthy of suspicion, and even a possible sign of evil, is a good part of the major theme here: Everything’s deeper than skin. The other large one, family, ties them tighter together; Angel too is a man fighting from within a corner, trying to keep his small, broken, but ultimately good family together. Surely I’m not the only one who noticed Wesley and Cordelia’s argument cutting away to Ryan and Stephanie’s, with both fathers present to try and keep the peace.
As the exorcism commences, Ryan’s parents obviously worry for their child, but it’s more interesting how Angel worries for his. He’s seen reason, but still does not accept putting his friends into great danger since Doyle’s death in “Hero” [1×09]. Reluctant from the start about letting Wesley perform the process, his feelings are even more clear when the demon beings taunting him; “Guess who’s here, Angel. He’s talking to me right now. Doyle wants to ask why you couldn’t protect him.”
What’s most compelling about this episode is its gusto in exploring the depths of the soul in the mythology of the Whedonverse. Since Angel’s mission is to save souls, it is especially important to explore exactly what that means. So far it’s functioned as a companion to the metaphors used to explore life in one’s early twenties, as this season focuses on those experiences. For Angel to have any hope of longevity as a series, there had to be more than this. Up to this point our primary experience as an audience in relation to the soul has been Angelus in S2 of ‘Buffy,’ and to a lesser extent, Mayor Wilkins in S3 of ‘Buffy.’ Angelus was a fine study, but more akin to a blunt instrument compared to other examinations of the topic. Angel lost his soul, and reverted to his alter-ego, completely evil and ultimately terrifying. This hardly plumbs the depths, save for telling us that a soulless creature is inclined towards evil. Mayor Wilkins also purported this, though his choices seemed more conscious and human.
The mythology as a whole, both Buffy and Angel taken in entireties, tells us that a soul is essentially a determinant of the capacity of the will to do good, and to be selfless. Soulless creatures are primarily self-serving. They are capable of good, but only for selfish reasons (Spike being a magnificent case study on soullessness, even as early as BtVS “Becoming, Part II” , when he helps Buffy to save the world merely because of his jealousy of Angelus and enjoyment of human blood). Combined with a demon’s inherently primal nature, evil is often the result. However, as AtS often suggests, nature can have a lot more to do with it than souls do, as many demons, still lacking said soul, are non-violent or assimilated into our culture. A comment on the violent nature of humanity perhaps? Maybe it’s why vampires are always instinctively evil, whereas certain demons may not always be.
At this point in the timeline this piece of the mythology was still comparatively unexplored and so this episode is an important piece of the puzzle. The twist of Ryan being the true evil, lacking a soul, was shocking and amazingly well done. I particularly enjoyed the thematic cuts between the demon in the caves and Ryan setting back about his evil activities back at home; chills were had by my spine. But where does it fit in the mythology? It’s a pretty critical piece of the puzzle in S1, telling us that indeed, a creature capable of evil by its nature is instinctively drawn to it by lacking a soul. Possessing one of these fine things is the only key to what makes us human.
This gives us our clearest bearing thus far on what Angel’s mission truly is, and why saving souls is important. We’re set to get a lot more of these types of episodes in S2 which, in addition to having similarpisode-to-episode consistency, has one of the finest arcs in the Whedonverse. The span of episodes from “Dear Boy” [2×05] to “Epiphany” [2×16] is AtS’ best execution of an arc.
Only one thing didn’t sit too well with me about this episode, which was the introduction of Wesley’s father. The theme of family was relevant and well used, but this felt forced and unnatural in an environment of perfect fits, shuffled in a bit offhandedly. It doesn’t bother me a great deal, as we see that these hints about his past with his father are a big part of who he is later on. This isn’t really much of a problem though. And, were this episode to have a more lasting impact on the series, I do say it would certainly cross the border into Perfect. It’s not quite as close episodes like “Sanctuary” [1×19] or “I Will Remember You” [1×08], but it’s not all that far. One thing it isn’t is forgettable. I’ve seen many fans list it on their top 10, and it’s not too hard to see why.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Angel accidentally calling Wesley ‘Doyle,’ and everyone’s reaction to it.
+ Wesley’s take on Lizzie Borden.
+ Brownies. In all their forms.
+ Seth’s proclamation: “Maybe you really are an Angel.”
+ The Ethros’ chilling account of possessing Ryan (see quotes).
* This is the first time Wesley’s father is mentioned. We learn that their relationship was strained, and trauma was inflicted upon a young Wesley by his overbearing father. In S2 it is further established that his father sees him as a failure, and in “Lineage” [5×07] we ‘meet’ him, seeing his harsh criticisms and complete contempt for Wesley in the flesh.