[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: David Greenwalt | Director: David Greenwalt | Aired: 05/23/2000]
And at last, we come to the end of this fine season. “To Shanshu in L.A.” is, in every way, an amazing piece of work, as well as Writer/Director David Greenwalt’s finest offering on either Buffy or Angel. Since the series was co-created by Greenwalt (who took the reigns largely from Joss Whedon for much of S2 and S3), and Joss was left more involved with Buffy, it was only a matter of time before the bulk of the work was to be placed upon his shoulders and the requirement to fill the big fun was to be his. In a sense, “Shanshu” is a housewarming party for Greenwalt as he takes up shop in this brand new place of his, and gives us one hell of a tour.
Tour is probably an appropriate word to use as well. Since every season finale for Angel has been about setting up events to come (save for “Not Fade Away” [5×22] ), that word works when describing this episode since it’s a preview of Greenwalt’s world-to-come; the places he’s to take us in S2 and S3 by setting in motion what needs to be. This episode is massively important in retrospect of the series for the paths it sets for its world and its characters, and is impacting and important for that reason. But that’s only a piece of what makes it truly great, and what does that is its masterful ability to juggle not only these portents, but the best execution of the season’s main theme seen this season, the development of the characters, some excellent drama and rousing entertainment that even works on a standalone level. It may lack historical context, but this is an episode you’d want to show a friend to display the show’s best qualities. It’s a perfect episode in every sense of the word and by the standard I use when giving out that score.
“Shanshu” goes back to and brings us to the logical conclusion of this season’s major theme: Connection; what ties us to the world. Redemption is a perennial part of the show, and the life after high school theme was mainly used to generate the metaphors that carried this theme, so it’s no surprise that this was what the final episode went for. The entire episode bases its execution on this theme, and every string of dialogue – every action is rife with importance that links it all back in to the thematic outlet.
We open on the Fang Gang sitting around the office, Wesley irritably translating. Still scrambling to properly translate all the texts of the scroll of Aberjian which Angel took from the Wolfram and Hart vault in “Blind Date” [1×21], he soon concludes it is called Shanshu, and it states that the vampire with a soul is to die. But of course, in the Whedonverse, plot devices aren’t nearly as important as the places to which the characters are taken by them, and here it’s that Angel doesn’t seem to care at all. It’s the logical continuation to his frustration and despair about the state of evil in the world in “Blind Date” [1×21] (“No, it’s not my fault. I-I didn’t cause it, and I can’t fix it. I can’t do anything about it….It’s still their world, Wesley.”), as his actions here ring logical in that he’s given up caring about the greater outcome.
In “City of” [1×01] he gained allies and a mission, and thus a connection to the world. But throughout his first year in L.A. he has lost Doyle, watched the helpless and the innocent burdened by terror and demons of all kinds, and slowly lost his faith in humanity as Wolfram and Hart maintained the construct for that evil and ambiguity to roam freely and escape all retribution. Both of his major ties have been eroded and with only endless fighting for no good outcome to look forward to, he has become jaded about his own existence and placated into completely apathy. Not so long ago Buffy was his life; it hurts just imagining what losing the little else he’s gained in place of her is like.
For a great deal of time Angel has also felt out of place in the world, even as far back as BtVS’ “Amends,” wherein he nearly killed himself in despair over not knowing why he was back from hell, or exactly who he was supposed to be. Despite spending most of his own series’ first season trying to discover this, he’s not entirely sure himself. Kate rails on him, viciously accusing him of not even being a person, and he can’t bring himself to argue. In the scene directly after, Wesley conjectures that Angel isn’t even a part of the world because of what he is; how he can’t grow or change. The parallel (damn, how many times am I going to have to use this word throughout the series?) between these two viewpoints differs only in their sources, where Kate feels the desire to push Angel out of the world for what he is, and Wes clearly wants to bring him into it despite that. But they are, nonetheless, both correct.
How and why Angel changes, and what comes of it are some of the episode’s strongest qualities and also where the thematic metaphor is executed. Enter Vocah, a narcissistic teenage artist’s wet-dream-of-a-villain, who is summoned by Wolfram and Hart to, as we’re informed, to raise something terrible that is meant to drag Angel into the darkness. The makeup and sound departments do ample jobs in making him an intimidating force, however I was even more impressed that he proved to be as threatening as he looked; many of these show’s ‘scariest’ demons were also the most laughable. Vocah’s metaphorical function is to become the literal, physical evil that severs Angel’s ties to the world. Speaking to the W&H lawyers, he sternly declares that all avenues to the powers must be cut off from the ensouled vampire.
Firstly, he kills the Oracles – seers and messengers of the Powers That Be (previously seen in “I Will Remember You” [1×08] and “Parting Gifts” [1×10] ) – damaging Angel’s ability to seek counsel from a higher plane. We’ve seen that the Oracles can alter the time line of our dimension, restore beings to life and foresee the future, and above all else they are masters of their own little other-dimensionly domain. For a demon to be able to enter uninvited and so easily take them down is something huge, and I was in awe of the effective use of continuity here; Vocah’s raw power as a physical threat could not be clearer. Secondly, and even more important, he destroys Angel’s ability to be guided by the Powers’ visions, putting Cordelia into a traumatic coma that exposes her to all the pain of everyone in the world. This is also particularly impressive; rather than simply kill her, the demon locks her in a far worse fate and also renders her unable to transfer her gift to anyone else (in the manner Doyle did) leaving the powers quite permanently blocked from contacting Angel.
Lastly and most shockingly, Vocah places a bomb inside Angel Investigations that nearly kills Wesley. With his contacts out of commission and both his only true friends bed-ridden and in serious peril, Angel has become cut off from everything quite literally. One shudders to think what a foe like this could have done as a Season-long Big Bad (since W&H sat on their asses for so much of the season; that would’ve been a great idea). Now, when I rate the effectiveness of a villain, several things come into play, the foremost of them is the emotional connection with the hero and how well some aspect of the hero is counter-pointed. Despite being little more than a shadow as a character, the actions here make Vocah a tremendously successful villain, especially for a one episode stint. And as an opposite to Angel, a being dedicated to the ravaging of souls and the destruction of human togetherness, he is also very solid. Another credit to Greenwalt for the creative flare in this aspect.
To go back to my very first review: “City of” [1×01], you will see that for the first episode of the series I highlighted the key differences between Buffy and Angel’s characters. Both series’, in one way or another, look at heroes and what makes them and keeps them tied to the world; both rely on friends, family and a purpose, but what separates the two characters is how they react. I pointed out that Buffy’s personality was implosive, as evidenced mainly by BtVS : “The Gift,” where she chooses to die rather than see through life without her sister, having already lost her mother and boyfriend. Angel, on the other hand, is explosive. It’s looked at far deeper and darker in S2, but both in “City of” [1×01] and here there is much evidence.
The aftermath of Vocah’s attacks on his life, his home and his friends leave Angel frightened and vulnerable in a way I don’t think we’ve seen him before, even at his barest with Buffy. There is a moment which heralds this, of quiet brilliance, when Angel slowly passes through the stairwell doors with blank eyes, looking as though he could collapse down the stairs. He’s too drained to despair, and too uncertain of what could happen to even cry, since happiness and sadness are usually emotions that accompany outcomes; here, everything is in the balance. With this terror inflicted upon him, he decides to take action rather than give into this and collapse. This other moment of brilliance, which is not so quiet, comes when Kate storms up to the recently demolished Angel Investigations and attempts to stop him from leaving the scene.
She’s there to admonish him again and berate him for his very existence, using him as a focus for her hatred and lust for revenge against the underworld, and Angel is finally tired of it. With Xander, Buffy and Giles he had much to apologize for over what he’d done as Angelus, suffering through death threats, murder attempts, distrust and hatred with no bad will held against those people because, in part, he believed they were justified. As I mentioned earlier, Angel has felt out of place in the world since returning from the hell dimension, burdened further by guilt and willing to accept a world that doesn’t want him in exchange for what he’s done. But now it’s a matter of life and death, as he succinctly tells Kate.
What happened to her was not his fault, he owes her nothing, and yet he continued to take her abuse simply because of guilt and that lack of belonging. In this one moment Angel sees in his friends that he’s lost his simple sense of purpose; long-term be damned, he is loyal to those whom he loves (he tells a nurse that he is Cordelia’s family with no dishonesty) and in the face of their darkest hour he becomes sick of apologizing simply for existing, and begins to accept his purpose in the world, if only for the moment. Boreanaz is chilling and faultless in this scene: “You wanna be enemies? Try me.”
The final slice of development we get for him lies in his willing defiance of the prophecy during the attack on the raising ritual, and when Wesley finishes translating the scroll. By acting even in the shadow of what he believed was a kiss of death, and openly mocking the Shanshu scrolls to Lindsey (“don’t believe everything you’re foretold”) our hero shows he is surer of his purpose than ever, and not even the words of those above can change it now. This entire sequence was a fantastic and riveting climax to the episode as well, with Angel battling Vocah to the death as vengeance for his friends, Lindsey carrying out the ritual and the ‘thing of darkness’ materializing inside the box.
Lindsey’s appearance here was equally spectacular, his character coming full circle in preparation for next season in a few flawlessly executed minutes. Angel’s fury stands against him, knowing all he knows and having seen the lawyer return to his true ways, and Lindsey stands fiercely intent on keeping the power squarely where he feels it belongs. Nothing more can be said about the intensity of that stare-down, other than the tribute it pays to the effort of the episodes that preceded it to make it what it was. Lindsey acting in desperate self-preservation and standing up to Angel, threatening to destroy the scrolls and leave Cordelia in a permanent vision coma only vindicates what I said of him in “Blind Date” [1×21]: A man given this world of power, and promised the power to do what one sees as good will have no committable evil put beyond his range.
One last thing worth examining here is the scroll. Wesley translates Shanshu more conclusively to mean either Life or Death. “To Live or Die in L.A.” Wasn’t that a TV series (I kid, I kid)? Among hinting at some of Angel’s coming trials, the scroll promises a reward for his years of struggle to come: restoration as a human for the vampire with a soul, who is to play a pivotal role in the apocalypse. After all Angel has fought for and lost, and eventually gained, he is at last to be rewarded. Or maybe not? Following the philosophical ruminations of “Epiphany” [2×16], AtS becomes a series about fighting because one has to, and for no real outcome.
But I’ll get to that next season. For what it’s worth here, Angel gaining a true purpose to live and fight for, to truly grow and change for, is as beautiful as when he is to realize years later that the end purpose is not what is worth fighting for.
“To Shanshu in L.A.” is one of those episodes that strikes me with surprise every time I watch it. I often find myself thinking about how unique this show really is. People forget the thrill of a cliffhanger or a good shock because most shows don’t know how to produce them; what good is “certain death” when there is a completely predictable outcome, and we’re given no examples of true danger posed to the protagonist? Why fear for the characters if every villain only twirls moustaches and plots about “next time?” AtS pulls no such punches, and its great episodes like this that just keep proving it. It’s about life and death; Angel, the good, is promised life in return for his good, while Darla, the evil, is given life in spite of it, and I sit by and continue to be amazed (bringing her back really was a good shock my first watch through).
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ David Nabbit stopping by to ‘hang,’ and everyone acting all awkward.
+ Wesley making an insightful point with Cordelia’s doughnut, and then eating the doughnut.
+ Cordy adorably trying to get Angel to want things, and the idea of Angel owning a puppy.
+ Cordelia buying Angel presents just because.
+ Vocah sweeping in and out of the crowd, and through the offices; very creepy.
+ The explosion at Angel Investigations! It was done really well, and was quite unexpected.
+ Angel finally telling off Kate.
+ Vocah and Angel’s fight scene. Scythes rule!
+ Darla appearing and looking very bewildered. A world of hurt is about to be heaped.
* Vocah tells the W&H lawyers that he has arrived to raise a creature that will drag Angel into the darkness. We learn in S2 that it is Wolfram and Hart’s plan to use Darla not to make him soulless, but to drag him down into true darkness by forcing him to abandon his mission and see the idea of redemption as hopeless.
* Wesley says that to become human, Angel must face many trials, one of which is the “coming darkness.” In “Long Day’s Journey” [4×09], Angel faces The Beast, a demon who blocks out the sun over all of Los Angeles to create a harbinger.
* The scrolls contain the Shanshu Prophecy, which completes Angel’s tie to the world and the PTB’s and makes clear his mission in life. The scrolls have a dual purpose however, as they also bring forth Darla, brought back to tear him from all of those things (“Reunion” [2×10] , “Reprise” [2×15] ).