[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: Shawn Ryan | Director: James A. Contner | Aired: 10/10/2000]
“First Impressions” is another episode like “War Zone” [1×20] that focuses on Charles Gunn. It’s much like the earlier of these two episodes (and the character himself) in that I appreciated it more my second watch through. Gunn always struck me as two things upon my first impression of him: AtS’ Xander’ character (the comparably non-skilled outsider), and the show’s attempt to introduce a token black character into the Whedonverse. As the less-than-subtle title suggests, this episode is about the falsehoods of the apparent exteriors of people, and the events that shape and motivate that exterior.
And so it’s with a greater amount of fondness that I look at this episode in retrospect of the series. Not only because I like Gunn more, but I also have a clearer understanding of where he’s coming from and the future that lies ahead of him. There really are no black, straight, white or gay characters in this fictional universe, just characters, and episodes like this affirm that.
Also appearing in this episode is the first instance of Angel’s dream sequences with Darla, which give us more foreshadowing for the main story arc ahead. I’ll start with the first sequence in the episode, which has the old pair rendezvousing in Caritas, a place not chosen coincidentally for their meeting; a place of sanctuary, where burdens are forcibly laid down between man and demon for the purpose of pleasure. The Host sings of carefree and fantastical romance – a dream world of impossible and lusty expectations – while Angel and Darla dance. It’s made clear right away that Darla’s goal is to drive a wedge between Angel, his friends and his mission of helping people, in that Darla further coaxes him into keeping their meetings secret, and we see the crowd on screen disappear from around Angel as Darla enters the picture.
In the following dream, her influence has him ignoring his (phone) call to duty altogether, and the consequences of leaving her side provoke Angel to anger and indiscriminately violent action. I remember in “War Zone” [1×20] when Angel sardonically talked about how he wanted love, a place in the world and family. And I wonder if, here, those desires are part of his willingness to slip into these fantasies. After all the suffering he’s experienced with Buffy and on his own, Darla’s suggestion that he’s saved enough souls, and that those very souls are ungrateful and unworthy, seem to ring sweetly in his worn ears.
At this time the writers intended for us to believe Darla was still an average everyday vampire: soulless, and intent in her mission on convincing Angel to give up his world to return to her pleasure and lust. By the time of “Reunion” [2×10], he does just that for the ensouled and suffering Darla, yet in the name of honour and love. That tearing Angel from his mission could be possible in either scenario is interesting, but that the latter route is chosen is simply brilliant. Angel would likely to destroy a vampire Darla, but is even more likely to risk everything to give a human Darla another chance, much like the one he was given. Wolfram and Hart clearly understood this in raising her. I’ll talk more about it in “Dear Boy” [2×05].
The A plot, which is the surprisingly entertaining meat of the episode, focuses on Gunn and Cordelia. A classic ‘odd couple’ pair, they actually make a pretty entertaining team in how their cultural contrasts sharply divide them. On the surface, they both have less than redeeming traits. Cordelia is brutally honest, vain and sometimes worrying. Gunn is snappy, violent and defensive, as well as hostile to those dissimilar to him (he’s a bit of an ### to David, who actually turns out to be genuinely helpful). The point of this episode’s plot is to dive beneath these exteriors, which are easily breached by man’s truest test: conflict.
We already know why Cordelia is the way she is: Her sharp honesty comes from her great dislike of concealment and falsehood, two things she encountered a great deal of in High School with the popular clique, and even more of in the real world (Doyle hiding his demonic nature or the events of “Expecting” [1×12]). Her vanity is an unfortunate result of her upbringing, and her tendency to worry for her friends is a result of the burden that’s been placed upon her with the visions; she’s quick to call for help when she feels Gunn is in trouble, but when help is not available sees no better option.
This is the reaction of a good person who generally cares for others, and the point of Cordy’s involvement in Gunn’s world is to show him that these somewhat annoying traits stem from a good place; without her help, Veronica would have died. Her best moment was demanding Desmond return her car, the one driven by those who help the helpless.
Gunn’s eventual acceptance of Cordy’s worth at his side speaks for itself. We don’t know him very well yet, but we’ve seen his fascination with death, and witnessed some of the events that are driving him. Every character to pass through the doors of AtS has something to atone for, and for Gunn it is, at least at this point, the death of his sister in “War Zone” [1×20]. Directly addressing this was a smart move, especially since Gunn is now to become a regular character.
He’s always staked first and asked questions later, but in his demeanour towards Jameel and others he seemed increasingly cruel. But why should that give us pause? Every time he’s slipped up or gotten soft, something terrible has happened, beginning with the death of his sister and continuing now with the near-fatal vampire attack on the party. Having maintained a sustained war against vampires in his neighbourhood for what appeared to be years, he is not unlike a soldier: protocol is key, questions are intolerable, time is always short and no compromises can be made. Gunn often speaks of demons broaching into his territory, and describes his mission like a war. In another Gunn-centric episode, “That Old Gang of Mine” [3×03], we even get to see the internal issues with how that war is handled.
Fighting wars for prolonged amounts of time tends to give one a system of self righteousness, and with a time-is-life attitude you’re left with little of it to use to justify yourself to others. There becomes less of a limit to what one is willing to do to survive, and it has taken Gunn to a place where he’s willing to beat apparently helpless snitches and engage in deeply stupid behaviour. Cordelia’s advice helps him with that, if only a little, serving as a reminder of what that life got him and what it will continue to reap for him if he continues. The fight with Deevak was another blunt example.
All in all, this hour managed to deliver situations that developed the characters in a fun and realistic way. Getting some depth on Gunn was both necessary and at least mildly interesting. With a good pace and a lot of fun jokes, it definitely proved itself enjoyable. And I will never forget Angel’s amazing bike ride with Wesley.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ David Nabbit’s latest and last appearance. It’s a shame he couldn’t have made more appearances later on, as he could’ve been of use to the gang, and is pretty entertaining.
+ The gang’s discussion on film: “Who doesn’t love Denzel?”
+ The “where’s your car?” cutaway, and Gunn mocking Cordy.
+ Wes taunting Angel over the pink helmet.
+ Gunn choking up at the hospital. In a largely light episode, this was a well done scene of surprising impact.
– Deevak during the fight sequences. There was no believability, and he appeared made of flimsy paper mache, judging by his movements.
* The Host explains to Angel that he now has the motivation he needs (following the events of “To Shanshu in LA” [1×22] and “Judgement” [2×01] ), but he is at a critical turning point where his choice is key. Angel’s is to face difficult choices in the upcoming episodes “Darla” [2×07] and “Reunion” [2×10].
* Darla continues to drive a wedge between Angel and reality — his friends. After she becomes a vampire again, Angel completely severs all his ties to Wes, Cordy and Gunn, and abandons Angel Investigations.
* We continue to get a picture of Gunn as a man who lives as nothing but a soldier, and his risky behaviour seems entirely ignorant of any future or good life he could ever have. In “Double or Nothing” [3×18] we learn that he sold his soul years back, and has long planned on never even having a future.