[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: Gary Campbell | Director: David Straiton | Aired: 05/09/2000]
“War Zone” is an episode when, upon my first viewing, I was surprised. Not entirely by quality, though; the idea of demon street fighters gave me the entice-ies, but I wasn’t sure what to do with what I had. This was something different than I expected, and my reaction was a well rounded ‘meh.’ I say this only as context for my statement that this is an excellent episode, and any viewing in retrospect of the entire series will solidify that opinion for you. It’s a solid piece all around, but most intriguingly there’s some frighteningly good foreshadowing going on here for Gunn’s character, even for the events that never happened (this knowledge in light of J. August Richard’s revelations about what S6 would’ve had in store for his character).
It’s what I like most about this episode: The writers of these fine programs tend to plan things out well, and episodes like these only vindicate that opinion (as a ‘critic,’ I enjoy being vindicated). And since the aftermath of S1 and all the events of S2 and S3 are precursors to larger event, it’s good to know that Skip may have been quite exact when he blabbered about these characters destinies in “Inside Out” [4×17]. I like that kind of stuff.
The theme that “War Zone” focuses on is yet another that can be attributed to Angel himself, and it’s about outcasts; societal and social. The two parties to be taken into consideration here are Gunn’s gang and David Nabbit, with Angel in the middle (someone who has experienced and actively does experience both of these types of alienation). Now, as you probably know, a favoured tactic for the writers of Buffy and Angel is to run a standard A-plot/B-plot, but use it to create thematic parallels or cohesion, depending on the episode and what they’re trying to say. It’s certainly better in this episode than the shows that simply use B-plots to fill time, but that the Buffy/Angel writers sometimes seem completely compelled to include them can be tiresome from time to time.
Take the David Nabbit plot, which was not poorly executed at all, only it seemed forced; put in as filler to both occupy space and give the mostly-useless-this-episode Wes and Cordy something to do. It managed to make a statement, ironically enough, but was still just stuffing. David represents the social side of alienation and living as an outcast; a “Revenge of the Nerds” style dream come to life, where the anti-social dungeon troll of an RPG gamer has grown into a successful business man, having made billions. However, he still can’t talk to girls. He pays people to attend his parties, has no true friends of his own and lives a fairly solitary life, driven to solicit sex workers and other unsavoury contacts. I felt a genuine touch of sympathy for poor David, a clearly decent man who is limited in life because of his own flaws.
In that sense he’s not unlike Angel, who is too right when telling the con-man in the alley how he’ll never have what he really wants. This is also the only scene that gives Nabbit’s plot a practical relevance, leading Angel to the kids and providing a parallel to the two plots that Angel carries when he leaps from one plot to another: the contrasting of these outcasts. Though I still don’t believe it necessitated the B plot, the message we’re getting here about the different kinds of hell alienation brings rang true enough; Cordelia puts it well, saying: “Twenty minutes from billionaires and crab puffs…kids going to war.”
And a war it is. Despite the fact that I found the idea of an ongoing war between a group of vampires and a group of humans a little far-fetched (can’t they just move somewhere with sun?), the concept worked like Nabbit’s plot: on another level. Gunn’s gang is a rabble of kids straight from the The Outsiders; more ‘modern,’ one concedes, but still a homogenous pack of people cast aside and forgotten by the cruel whims of society, ignored by those more fortunate and oppressed by those who hold the power. The vampires ruling their neighbourhood don’t even view them as worthy prey, looking down upon them as wretchedly as rats, speaking of good old days when ‘decent folk’ used to live there.
Like the rest of human society, they’ve been cast out and forgotten, a product of whatever societal mishap your political views may place the burden on. The point, and what works about the episode is that they’re there, and fighting their far-fetched war alone. Like Angel. What’s most compelling about the motley crew is indeed their commander-in-chief, Charles Gunn. Even on my first viewing I was interested in his character and his personal attraction to death; in some ways he’s more exciting here than when he becomes a regular in S2. What the writers do here is obviously done to set him up for this role.
He’s an interesting specimen, too; the focus on his fatal flaw of chasing death, and how specifically Alonna put it rang many a bell for me. His character arc was profoundly straightforward in this episode in how he learned the consequences of this chase by losing his sister, in what is easily the most shocking moment of the day. Since the gang is looked down upon by the vampires, and even ignored, it’s not unthinkable to imagine a truce existing even before Angel’s involvement, but Alonna succinctly points out that it was Gunn’s intention to lure the vampires out, and that it’s actually this action that stirs them into a killing fervor.
What brings the arc to a head is the vampirization of Alonna Gunn, who I actually thought was going to be simply killed; foolish optimistic me. Getting that close to what he views as death frightens Gunn in ways he’d likely never be able to admit to anyone, and what got me the most (as well as him, likely) was how similar the paths of the two groups were as she described; caught up in the hunt and the pursuit of the enemy. Constantly facing death and bloodshed, it became clear to him how close he had put himself to it and that perhaps she had been right about how much he liked it. How much this proximity scared him put him right in place to stake her, and big credit to J. August Richards for the look of absolute pain as he does the horrible deed.
Looking into S2 it’s not unclear that this experience does change Charles, as he’s both willing to work with Angel for good purposes and assist the Fang Gang, but Angel is still a vampire. This very fact plays a major part in their relationship and it will be many years before Gunn can come to trust Angel and view him as a friend, not a vampire. This is evident in his suspicions of Angel all throughout the first half of S2, and his righteous anger towards him in “Epiphany” [2×16] when, despite being wronged far less than Cordy or Wes, he gives Angel the worst of the backlash. All of this comes out in a big way in “That Old Gang of Mine” [3×03].
Since Joss’s shows tend to bring things back to the thematic beginning as they come to a close, it makes sense that it was rumoured Gunn was to become a vampire in S6. To look at it through that lens, we can see that he may even have been good and set up for it, being eroded by years of fighting evil and repressing his man-of-action instincts, especially in S4 and S5. And, especially in the case of his part in Fred’s death, we’re being given pieces to just why he’d want to touch death again. Too bad we’ll never know.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Expecting to see Angel, and pulling back to reveal Gunn.
+ David Nabbit’s nervous nice-guy demeanour.
+ No hands. Yikes!
+ Poor Angel and his stupid cell phone.
+ The stakes mounted on top of the truck. Paranoid and highly impractical. I love it!
+ Angel calling himself Angelus to threaten the vampires.
* Gunn, despite his alliance with Angel, still cannot accept the vampire aspect. In S2 he is a harsh element of chastisement for the noble vampire, being particularly nasty towards him in the wake of “Reunion” [2×10] and especially unforgiving in “Epiphany” [2×16] and “Disharmony” [2×17] for that very reason.
* The distrust over Angel’s vampiric side and history as Angelus comes to a head in a huge way in “That Old Gang of Mine” [3×03], when Gunn is forced to choose between Angel and his old gang. He chooses Angel, but only for the sake of the mission, telling Angel himself that there’s no way that they can really be ‘friends.’
* Gunn’s fatal flaw is the pursuit of death. After staking Alonna, he clearly has learned a lesson, though we see the effects of it fade over the subsequent seasons. According to J. August Richards, his guilt over his involvement in Fred’s death in “A Hole in the World” [5×15] would’ve led him to become a vampire in S6. Eventually he was to have an epiphany about death much like in this episode, and somehow stake himself.