[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: Tim Minear | Director: David Semel | Aired: 10/03/2000]
“Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?” is a unique and memorable piece of work; a universal fan-favourite never given anything less than adoration, it is a marvel of production design, photography and atmosphere. In my opinion (which – let’s face it – you’re here to read), it can’t be viewed as simple entertainment. No matter its qualities, it’s not the kind of episode you view repeatedly or for the simple pleasure of it. Much in the same way one doesn’t watch films such as Sin City or Schindler’s List to “enjoy” them. One immerses themselves in such works; in the artist’s vision, which is meant to pull you into the story so effectively that it enriches you, rather than merely sates.
This, unfortunately, is also the episode’s only weakness: Its strict attention to detail and secondary function as a period piece in Angel’s life often makes for some tiring pacing. Filmmaker Woody Allen once said of pornographic films: “For the first thirty minutes all you want to do is have sex, and after that you never want to have sex again,” and watching this episode is much like that: it can be a bit too much of an experience. That said, my initial comments stand. The writing is an intelligently subtle cocktail: The information on Angel’s past is interesting to learn, helps further the season’s theme at a relevant and early point, and contains a world of imagination in its use of the Hyperion Hotel as a character.
Early on in Angel’s first season and even from the start of Angel’s story in “Buffy,” we’ve had one thing told to us to describe how he is different from other vampires, why he is neither human nor monster: his soul. We have been taught that, despite the innate nature of any being in possession of a soul (be they human or half demon), the simple possession of this one key thing is what makes it capable of considering others in its decisions, and being inclined towards selflessness. In this episode, we meet a good deal of people with souls, all of whom, deep down, possess that instinct to do right: To expose evil where they see it, to fight it and take a moral stand. These people have always existed, and this desire to do right can be exploited.
In the 1950’s, an era when racial prejudice, hatred of homosexuality and deep fear of the Communist threat loomed over Western Civilization, Senator Joseph McCarthy and other like minded individuals exploited these fears in a witch-hunt against possible communist spies in America (early in the episode we see one of these “trials” taking place on a television). People were made to walk in fear of one another. Any and all suspicious behaviour was reportable, and accusations flew wildly from the mouths of those who had had their desire to act morally right manipulated, and others who had been accused were always encouraged to turn on others to spare themselves.
We see a microcosm of this social phenomenon unfold via the modus operandi of the Thesulac Demon’s influence over the hotel. It whispers to people slowly and over time, exposing their insecurities and playing off of them, promising them safety and freedom from these fears if they will merely seek out the ‘guilty ones’ around them. This metaphor could’ve easily fallen flat, but what Tim Minear does here is gives us honest and real people for the demon to feed on: Everyone in the hotel is hiding a sin or a secret: something about them that society fears and hates.
This is the world in which we meet a version of Angel we have not seen before. He’s not who we met in BtVS “Becoming, Part I” , though he has progressed from the state we saw him in in “Five by Five” [1×18]. He is empty; a wholly unfeeling nihilist who has shut down his emotions so they can’t hurt him. He’s done chasing after Darla and trying to re-attain his old life as a murderous monster, but giving her up has left him with nothing else. Minear paints us a portrait of a completely different Angel. The Darla arc of this season asks us fundamental questions about the nature of our hero, among them: How horrible a sin can you commit before you’re unforgivable, and how can an ensouled being, with the urge to do right, make the mistake of committing that sin? In essence, the first four episodes of S2 are foreshadowing and thematic setups for the Darla arc, and where “Judgement” [2×01] looked at what one does in the light of ones mistakes (errors in judgement), “Are You Now,” through the characters of Angel and Judy, looks at how ordinary ensouled beings can fall into those mistakes.
Judy is a woman with a dangerous secret that if publicly let out, would result in humiliation and harm (in fact, it already has for her). She’s a half-black woman passing for white who has been rejected by the world at large, and is unwelcome on either side of her family for what she is. This is a conflict Angel knows well, and it is why he decides to help her against all his present instincts at this point in his life. He’s more interested in privacy than helping Judy when the P.I. comes to his door (and he initially only helps out to keep his affairs private), discourages Judy from returning the money and walks akin to an ignorant shadow through the Hotel and all its problems, willfully cut off from the pain of the many people there. Angel senses the Thesulac creeping and does nothing.
Judy, on the other hand, is in an opposite place in her life. She’s almost where Angel was at the start of the series. Torn between two worlds and scorned by them both, she is nonetheless repentant for what she has done, seeking forgiveness and possessing the capacity for it. She too is cut off, but is searching to re-establish herself emotionally, and it’s why she tries desperately to reach Angel. However, he still can’t hear her, nor does he forgive. Judy is a good person in a bad position, and out of fear and the Thesulac’s manipulation, eventually gives Angel up to do what she thinks will save her.
Angel has always been an explosive character that reacts outwards and dramatically when he experiences a great loss (I’ve pointed out that this is the major difference between he and Buffy, who acts implosively in similar situations, as evidenced by her will to die in “The Gift”). The true surprise is what it convinces him to do. Jostled around, manipulated and lied to, he’s been pulled in to a situation he didn’t ask for and had his deepest feelings touched. That’s not something he’d just forgive. The heart-wrenching betrayal provokes a reaction that haunts the soul when it plays out again in “Reunion” [2×10]: Angel tells the Thesulac demon to “take them all.”
The connection to “Reunion” [2×10] is especially worth noting. It is followed by “Redefinition” [2×11], in which Drusilla herself notes that the new creature hunting her and Darla is neither Angel nor Angelus. What he is in the present timeline, however, is a being that has learned to live with himself. The events of S1 led to him accepting himself and his place in the world. In one touching scene towards the end of the episode, he is able to forgive Judy at last and give her peace. I also liked the final scene where Angel acknowledges that the hotel was once a house of evil, but is now free to be something greater that can help people: the new home for Angel Investigations.
Before I finish, I feel obligated comment on the beauty of the visuals. There were a lot of shots that I really enjoyed, from the first transition (from 2000 to 1952), to Angel’s journey from the lobby up to his room as the patrons talk about the deaths, to the chilling hanging scene and the appearance of the Thesulac. Much of the atmosphere here is thanks to the director’s eye and it is particularly noteworthy that the script and the camera were able to mesh creative visions so well, as dialogue-based shows such as these often rely strongly on the word alone.
In a lesser series the musical swells, long steady shots and low, creeping lighting would’ve been used as a shallow exhibition of directorial ‘talent,’ but here it is not only well in place, but it takes the episode to a deeper and more meaningful level, doing something incredibly visual with the written word. It is easily one of the best looking episodes of this show’s 110 episode run. In the end, it’s not hard to see why it is a fan favourite, and is sometimes even placed in fan’s Top 10’s. There’s little not to love, and I actually find myself wishing that it had been the season premiere; save for Faith’s appearance, the previous episode was competent, but not really noteworthy.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The bellhop’s paranoid reactions to seeing Angel on several different occasions.
+ Chris Beck’s music; much like Buffy’s “Hush,” the episode is low on action, and the eerie interludes and crescendos help mold the atmosphere.
+ Cordelia messing with Wesley, pretending she discovered the demon.
+ The appearance of the shop-keep Denver. His use again in “Reprise” [2×15] makes for excellent continuity.
+ Angel looking terrified for Judy as he approaches in the corridor – and the subsequent look of shock when she betrays him.
+ The emergence of the Thesulac in both time frames; this scene is wonderfully shot.
* The main theme of the episode, much like the plot of “Judgement” [2×01], is a parallel to the season’s main arc, focusing largely on one aspect of this major theme: How beings inclined to do good can fall into or be pushed into making terrible mistakes.
* Angel’s character circa 1952 is very similar, if not exactly the same, to the person he is to become later in the season due to Wolfram and Hart’s manipulation of he and Darla.
* Wesley is called “especially paranoid” by the Thesulac demon. While many fans are not exactly sure what this means, it may refer to his hero complex, and how in S3 he becomes fearful of the truth of the prophecy and acts behind Angel’s back.