[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: Tim Minear and Joss Whedon | Director: Michael Lange | Aired: 05/02/2000]
“Sanctuary” is another impressive stand-out; a superb standalone that can engage casual viewers and readily rewards those who have cared to pay attention for many seasons. Most impressive about this showing is how expertly it juggles and interweaves the many conflicts and threads that occur throughout the episode; a lot of things come to a head. Angel’s quest for redemption is personified in a figure we know and understand, the final answer to the Buffy question is decided, Wesley makes his hardest decision yet, and a secondary character gets a story of her own. And all of it, with great credit to the writers, flows evenly throughout a plot tied together by Faith’s crisis, which leaves no one unchanged. It’s one of those episodes that remind you what a uniquely exceptional series you’re really watching when years-long histories and well illustrated characters can be called on for such a satisfying union.
Now, the most important part of good writing is that everything moves with a purpose. This is, among other things, obvious, but relevant to this review of this episode in particular because of how much it has going on. The material here was too juicy to be terrible, but in less capable hands this could’ve had certain characters as slaves to the situation, serving the writer’s purpose only. Going into this episode my first time, I was worried it would be Angel, since Faith’s story begged a great deal of time, as did Wesley’s struggle. Throw in Buffy and Kate, and it’s getting a little crowded.
But Angel’s mission persists most importantly here. In my very earliest review (“City of” [1×01] ) I surmised that the theme of S1 was connection: that for Angel to carry on as an ample hero he would need ties to the world. Up to this point he’s been saving lives and souls of many, but is prone to old-fashioned noir heroism; no association with the saved, no face to present. He’s just a good deed and a stalk away into the night. But to create deeper ties, this too must change, and because of this Faith’s redemption is as important to him as it is to her. Her repentance is his success, the key to his belief in humanity, and it’s something he’s able to see and feel; tangible proof of the importance of his mission. My favourite moment in “Judgement” [2×01] was when Angel visited Faith, because it just proves it.
Though, at the start of the episode they’re not quite there yet. We begin with a somber moment, and I was pleased to see that we didn’t skip to the next day, but saw the immediate aftermath of Faith and Angel’s battle as they quietly descend in the elevator. One could call it sobering, and rightly so, as Faith has just hit ‘rock bottom.’ It’s a term often used by recovery groups that support drug or alcohol addicts, and it’s meant to describe the lowest point one can get to when they’re deep into their problem. An addict has gone so far down that they’ve lost everything; usually themselves. We join Faith at this point, having reached the lowest place possible which spurs the desire to change. She’s cold, ashamed and finally aware of everything she’s done more than ever.
To carry on with the addiction metaphor, her journey through this episode exists to bring her to ‘Moment of Clarity.’ Preceded by ‘rock bottom,’ this is when an addict comes to a light of sorts; the realization of what one must do to make things right. But the actual theme of the episode is the perennial one of redemption, and, more specifically: Earning it – meaning it. Angel’s already gotten to that place by beginning his quest to save the souls of others, and as we saw in “Five by Five” [1×18] he too hit rock bottom once, and has come a long way since (hitting it a few more times in between too. See: “Orpheus” [4×15] ). So just like last year, his empathy for her is genuine as is his desire to help as he remembers going through everything very alone.
To indulge my inner fan-boy, I do have to say that I’ve always tremendously enjoyed Faith as a villain. She’s complex, dark, interesting and well-written. She made a great foil of darkness to Buffy in S3 of BtVS, and was a sexy symbol of female empowerment in all the ways Buffy was not. So to see her go down the path of good was a little disappointing just because I always kind of hoped to watch her go down with guns blazing. Since she was a remarkably well-written villain, I always despised her in a way I have few others, which was why I always liked watching her. But as far as the alternative to that goes, this episode did very well at giving us Faith a la BtVS “Revelations” and then some.
She has four big moments here: Trying to run, asking Angel ‘how this works,’ killing the demon assassin, and confronting Buffy. Returning again to addiction, the first is her acknowledgement of her need for help when Angel stops her. She has anger, and as Wesley says: evil, and the will to use it. She fears this power; the complete lack of control over it (as we see when she strikes Angel, and as she later describes to Buffy). The second scene shows the active will to change, but is also funny; I loved the melodrama followed by humour, but the scene was quite potent too. For those of us with doubts, this is genuine proof that Faith has the will and determination to change. This is important to stress, since we saw last year how easily she could go off the rails. The third, featuring the demon, is of particular note, as it ties Faith to Angel even more so. Faith, like her savior, is now going to have to fight an ever-eternal struggle between herself and the demon inside.
The death and the blood on her hands represent this, as does the demon itself (both of them being assassins, which Lee Mercer later stresses in a very funny scene). The final and indeed most important scene relates to Buffy, who shows up at Angel Investigations after hearing of Faith’s arrival in L.A.
I was reminded of “Inside Out” [4×17] watching Buffy, where everything is the opposite of what it should be, or what we’d expect it to be. In this episode the figures of past and present evil (Angel and Faith) are the champions and carriers of burdens, with the desire to do good for others and the utmost belief in redemption. Maybe the latter is in self-interest, but that’s not always for the worst, as we see the belief in humanity it’s instilled in Angel. Then on the other side, we have the traditional figures of heroism and good (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Kate the Police woman) wrapped up in self-interest and hell-bent on revenge.
Buffy’s not unjustified in wanting it, but Angel is damned accurate when he tells her she doesn’t have a right to it. But first I’ll discuss her and Faith, for whom she appears as the embodiment of every cruel deed Faith has done to the innocent. This entire episode is essentially about ‘sorry;’ meaning it, not saying it, and in the minds of most, meaning it constitutes owning up to your actions, and taking steps to never let them happen again. When the mortified and shaking Faith summons the courage to actually say sorry it’s moving, since we the viewers have followed her in every step. But Buffy hasn’t; furious and unaware of the change that’s occurred in her enemy’s life, she threatens to beat her right to death in response in what’s probably the most chilling moment of the episode.
It’s in this confrontation and her stand-off with Buffy on the roof that Faith realizes no amount of sorry will ever be good enough, and has her moment of clarity wherein she realizes the ultimate way to do her penance, and own up to her actions: by confessing to the cop hunting her.
Although, that she made it that far was a miracle, as on my first watch I wholly expected Buffy to exact that revenge. What a thematic switch it would’ve been from the Angel/Faith fight in the previous episode and an epic end too, but what we have is still done incredibly well; the Buffy and Angel material particularly. I doubt I’m solitary in declaring that Buffy was something of a bitch this episode (Faith brings that out in her), but I was never in confusion about where she was coming from. What I liked most about her standoff with Angel was how perfectly it summed up the total loss of control that was their relationship. Throughout S3 of Buffy they were on and off, and when they were on, very unable to restrict their passions. When off, they only pined for each other.
It’s no coincidence that they’re having this control issue right alongside Faith’s, and we’re meant to see their passion is just as dangerous and unpredictable a beast (remember what happened last time they got way too passioned?). How quickly they came to blows, their rage selfishly simmering over everything happening around them, was the final answer to any question about their post-relationship relationship. Following “I Will Remember You” [1×08], or at least Buffy’s memory of it, the two agreed to stay away from each other and much like with Faith, now was their time to do it, not just say it, and it’s only ever the clearer why after this standoff.
The most profound moment between them occurs following Faith’s confession, when Angel wants to run to her so very badly, but doesn’t. This speaks for what he’s learned from all of this, and perhaps what Faith has helped him learn in turn by her being strong herself. People often accuse David Boreanaz of poor or wooden acting (see his new show “Bones” for further proof against this), but in this entire exchange, especially when he exploded at Buffy, he was dead on and all the pain radiated right off onto the viewers, to his credit. Chalk some of it up to Joss & Tim though; their dialogue is right on point here as they write the truest final scenes of Buffy and Angel’s love.
Before I wrap up, I’ll touch on Wesley, who occupies what constitutes the B plot today. First, I loved that we get to see the Council’s Elite soldiers from BtVS “Who Are You?” again. Continuity, eh? I also enjoyed the unsettling feeling the sequence produced when I found out that charming, decent and helpful Wesley actually knew these people. His development in this episode is both potent and key. If everything is opposite today, with Angel and Faith on the side of righteousness and Buffy and Kate on the side of wickedness, Wesley is the wild card; undecided, and straddling both sides. His conflict raises serious questions, and in credit again to Tim & Joss, has no predictable outcome. In “Five by Five” [1×18] he was steadfast in making the case for Faith’s redemption, as adamant as Angel in the belief that a human soul makes one redeemable.
His attitude has shifted now, however, after being brutally and sadistically tortured. He demands Faith be bound and gagged, calls her an evil animal and is shaken in his very belief about her potential for good as a human being. In the span of an episode, he’s almost completely jumped onto Buffy and Kate’s side. So what makes him different? The Council Elite offer him his position as Watcher back in England restored in exchange for bringing in Faith. His attitude, as well as his compulsive need to play hero make his struggle and the third act all the more tense, as we’re never sure what he’ll do. Even – especially – on a re-watch, I would’ve expected him to take Faith down, since he often feels it is his burden to do what is right, and often decides what is ‘right’ on his own.
But in the end he chooses the righteous path, though not because of Faith. Kate and Buffy feel anger, and have a great distrust of Angel for their own reasons, leading them both to their selfish and ignorant actions here. Of course they can’t trust Faith either, and what eventually leads Wesley to his decision is his trust for Angel. Not unlike Doyle in “Hero” [1×09], he’s seen his friend’s strength and capacity for good in a way that neither Buffy nor Kate could have, and gives this friend of his the utmost confidence. Faith may still be a monster to him, but he knows that Angel can deal with monsters. That, and despite his anger, he also remembers the previous year and how poorly harsh measures work on the unstable Faith.
Undoubtedly one of the most memorable unions in Buffy and Angel’s world and a definite fan favourite, this episode pleases on all corners. Aside from the fantastic secondary character development we get for Faith, we also get significant participation from several guest players that work perfectly and add well to the mix. Kate could’ve been easily left out, but her brief inclusion gave us an important piece to her feelings for Angel now (ready to murder him? Yeesh). The same goes for Buffy, who only elevated the material. And even with all of this we’re privilege to some remarkable and important development for the main characters that works thematically within the bounds of this new show, weaved together by an attention-holding plot that takes absolutely no prisoners, and gives you no easy answers.
If one thing did disappoint me here, it’s that Buffy didn’t get to stay in the basement during the third act to see what a fighter Wesley’s become. At least Faith will get to in the future; Wesley a la S4 would be able to take down even the most furious Rupert Giles.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Faith having mental flashes of her reactions. Nice to see they carried this trick over from Buffy.
+ Angel’s long response to a question about a microwave.
+ Angel’s reaction to Faith mentioning Buffy’s boyfriend.
+ The long zoom out in the W&H office, building tension, to show us just a slobbering dog-like demon.
+ Lee Mercer’s “assassin” rant.
+ Lindsey showing up at the police station. Yikes.
+ Buffy’s infuriated glare at Faith.