[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: Joss Whedon (Story) and David Greenwalt (Story and Teleplay) | Director: Michael Lange | Aired: 09/26/2000]
“Judgement” is an episode that follows in the footsteps of season premieres past) by functioning as a theme vehicle; putting most of its effort into establishing the characters for the season ahead and, more importantly, giving us hints and clues about what’s to come via the new themes it establishes for itself.
If you’re a Joss Whedon fan, it’s your personal obligation to pay good attention to even a dullard of a premiere, as it usually holds clues about the future. This episode is no different in that respect, and despite some weak plot links and the lack of a strong kick, it’s quite entertaining. Sharpest about it are its strong self-awareness concerning its characters and its dialogue, which are at a witty height with both of the series creators contributing to the script. Angel and Co. have come a good ways since the end of the first season, but haven’t forgotten what’s transpired. They’ve grown from the events that took place, and the writers don’t forget it either.
Angel has long resigned himself to an endless existence of pain, suffering and self-torture, but now (post-the discovery of the Prophecy) actually stops and wonders about the future and the possibility of life as a human. He’s generally better tempered, and moves with the haste of a purposeful man, where towards the end of the last season his demeanor resembled someone marching to his own funeral. The Fang Gang are as strong as ever, working together effectively to solve the latest crisis at hand, while still being very clear and open about the personal concerns that surround their mission. Best of all, they bicker and work together like a little family; confident in and knowing of each other (Wes and Angel are quick on the draw when Cordelia’s about to have a vision, for example).
After Angel kills a Prio Motu demon in defense of a pregnant woman, he becomes wracked with guilt as he learns that the demon was actually a champion in service of the woman, there to fight for her life in the Tribunal. An otherworldly court based on ancient laws of ‘might’ and ‘honour,’ the Tribunal was to offer her protection under some higher power if the demon was to defeat an opponent. The plot is sort of a classic story, and it’s why it feels both familiar and a little boring; the concept of some archaic court with barbaric laws has been played out in the realm of fantasy before, and here it’s annoyingly vague.
Its metaphorical basis is not entirely uninteresting: In an episode about pre-judgements and their dangers, it functions well as an institution that is harsh and unfair in its ancient ways and mindset: it judges without due consideration, and requires someone who has thought clearly and lengthy to deliver fairness and justice (by the end of the episode, that person becomes Angel).
However, the Tribunal and the laws surrounding it evoke no fear, interest or care from the audience in general, and it’s the major weakness of the episode. An adequate emotional device to earn our tears is missing as well; the mother and her unborn child are cheap sympathy tokens put in place of real heart, and it doesn’t help that they’re annoying too. It’s also a tad disappointing for a series of this caliber, as it is often particularly effective in establishing emotional sympathy for one-shot characters (see “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” [1×14] ). Furthermore, since Angel is to fall from grace with the PTB’s this season, largely abandoning the mission they have tasked him with, far more interesting material could’ve been explored as a prelude to that descent.
If the Tribunal had functioned as representatives of the Powers’ will, a sort of mortal gateway to higher protection for those deemed worthy, Angel may have (by some twist) become unwilling to play their game and openly defied them in protection of the woman. This would not have only been a good way to foreshadow coming events, but would’ve led to some very interesting dialogue on the nature of omniscient interference and non-committal (which gets addressed in the Jasmine arc of S4), as well as lending Angel a key piece for his willingness to abandon his mission later on in “Reunion” [2×10].
One positive aspect of the plot that shines through is the nature of the Prio demon which Angel slays: a noble demon tasked by a higher order to protect a helpless person; Wesley himself is dumbstruck by the sheer coincidence. It functions not only as an effective twist, but a point of examination for Angel, who gains insight into how others see him through this. Especially in his anger he can be quite terrifying despite the fact that he’s a champion. For what he is, he’s often judged improperly. His capacity for good aside, this experience is a large part of why Angel forgives Kate for her hatred in “Epiphany” [2×16], and is willing to give Gunn the benefit of all doubts in “That Old Gang of Mine” [3×03]. They may have judged him too quickly, but it’s a mistake he knows deserves a chance for rectification.
Season Two has a healthier and larger mix of themes than Season One had and this is what the premiere introduces to us first: learning from one’s mistakes. Pre-judgements are being made all over in this episode, from the man who runs from Gunn’s gang, to Wesley jumping the gun on his conclusions on the Prio, and to Angel, who makes the most critical error of all. Angel falls from grace in his mission and has to undertake a terrible penance for it, as is the way of the arc of Season Two, defined best by the episodes “Reunion” [2×10], “Reprise” [2×15] and “Epiphany” [2×16]. And while facing off against Darla, Lindsey and Holland may seem terrifying, the only propsition more frightening is singing. In public.
Angel takes the stage for Caritas’ and The Host’s first appearance, singing Barry Manilow’s “Mandy.” Sometimes Joss Whedon can be cruel. The idea behind The Host’s powers is one of my favourite running metaphors on the show, as one can often tell something about a karaoke singer based on the song they pick; a demon who can literally see into the futures of people based upon this is brilliant. What it does for Angel is the trick, though, as the utter humiliation of this act takes him to a place where he can face his fear to make up for what he’s done. He made a terrible mistake, but what’s important is that he took responsibility, dealt with the consequences of it and in the process, faced danger and death. And karaoke. Which is worse? You be the judge.
One could hardly ask for more sacrifice from someone who’s made an error. I mentioned earlier that this episode shows a great deal of confidence in its characterization, and this is held true by the future in that these experiences are not forgottem. At the start of the show we see the Fang Gang strong, confident and almost full of themselves. In the end, the curtain falls over a deeply humbled Angel sitting and talking with Faith, someone who last season had an equally sobering experience with invincibility and redemption.
In the first four episodes of this season, we’re given a structure that closer resembles the modus operandi of S1, and much like S1 itself, they function as the important pieces to the puzzle: critical set-ups for the worthy payoffs that are to come. Angel’s ability to forgive himself and others is made stronger here, and this is important down the line.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The entire teaser segment; from the scary-fake-out with the Host to Angel’s nonchalance in dealing with the demon: “Stop that.”
+ Seeing Wesley play darts again; he’s gotten better since “Sanctuary” [1×19], except for when he hits the other player.
+ Wes and Angel thinking Cordy’s going to have a vision, and then it turning out to be a sneeze.
+ The confusion over Gunn’s name. “A demon with a gun?”
+ The use of the hotel even in the episode before it’s featured. Nice continuity.
+ Faith’s appearance. This was a surprise and a treat.
– The Knight…demon? This guy was annoying and I wasn’t even sure what he was.
– The Tribunal demons/powers/judges.
* The Host says to Angel: “I know you’re feeling smooth — in the groove… isn’t that the thing that comes before a fall?” This is some pretty obvious foreshadowing for this episode, but also for the huge pitfalls in Angel’s mission that he’s to experience this season.
* The plot of this episode is a smaller version of the Darla arc that stretches from “Dear Boy” [2×05] to “Epiphany” [2×16], with the main characters making critical mistakes and learning hard lessons from them. The experiences are also necessary, and they come out a stronger group for it, much like here.
* Darla makes it clear to Lindsey she wants to go after Angel. However, as we learn in “Dear Boy” [2×05], she now has a soul, and wants less revenge and more of a return to her old ways of the game of passion and betrayal with Angel. Her soul doesn’t start to weigh on her until much later, but even at this point, it’s clear her intent is not to actually harm him.