[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: Mere Smith | Director: Joss Whedon | Aired: 10/17/2000]
“Untouched,” the final of the four standalones that precede the Darla arc, is a finer piece of work than you’d expect. It’s definitely better than 2×01: “Judgement” [2×01] and “First Impressions” [2×03], and though it does fall short of “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?” [2×02] it remains a solid and intelligent examination of an important subject. The foreshadowing for the main arc continues, as well as the solid character examination that leads us into it. This prelude is no doubt meant to help lure new viewers in too, but in the same vein of episodes like “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” [1×14] it exists in its own world; through the looking glass is a subject worth thinking about, and episodes like this are bound to make us think.
The premise, despite appearing initially bleak, actually manages to pan out. This could’ve easily been another “She” [1×13], but luckily we get something far more interesting in the character of Bethany Chaulk, who is made interesting, frightening and sympathetic all at once. As an exercise in standalone entertainment, this is a resounding success. The plot revolves around Bethany, a young woman who possesses dangerous telekentic powers and encounters both Wolfram and Hart and Angel Investigations in her time in L.A. We open with Darla talking about dreams (see quotes below), and she mentions they are the key to control. I was reminded of BtVS “Restless” , and what those dreams revealed about those characters. Dreams give us representations of our desires (what we want), perceptions (how we see ourselves/others) and our hopes and fears.
Theoretically, to invade or manipulate one’s dreams could open the door to all of these things for the neural conqueror. One could attain complete control of someone through such manipulative means. Darla certainly has. She’s slowly pulling Angel from his mission, (successfully) encouraging him to lie to his friends about his dreams, and wandering unchecked through the very halls of Angel Investigation’s base with a complete all-access pass. She views this as control over Angel, and to some degree she is correct in this point of view. Lilah would certainly agree with it, as we find her searching Lindsey’s private office for clues on his latest project.
She and Darla create a parallel to Angel in their views on the definition of control. Lilah represents Wolfram and Hart’s ideals: the consolidation of power. Lilah wants to know everything Lindsey is doing so she can react favourably to any given situation, and she and Holland want Bethany’s powers adequately developed to suit their purposes. To aid her in unleashing her powers, they hire paid men to attempt to rape and possibly kill her. By so doing, she claims to be giving Bethany the strength to harness her abilities.
The difference between this philosophy and that of Angel’s is primarily where it comes from. Wolfram and Hart are interested in the consolidation of their own power and their control over the situation, while Angel’s interest is in providing Bethany the strength of will she needs to control herself on her own. Having experienced the same issues with his power and his inner demonic nature, his philosophy is not to unleash her powers recklessly, but to properly contain them by instructing her to direct the abilities she has, and to show her the choices that exist preceding their use. This gives her true strength, the episode purports.
As I mentioned, this episode’s greatest attribute is that we see all the sides of Bethany, for better or worse. Sexually abused as a child, her powers developed as a result of the traumatic mental scarring of the acts committed against her by her father, and the complete desperation and lack of control she felt as a result. The metaphor relating to her powers is centered on this: she’s been left in a situation that makes her feel isolated, worthless and utterly powerless. She holds fear and distrust for people in general and distances herself from her own existence. Bethany hates to be touched, and yet so very often allows it to happen anyway (going so far as to call herself a slut) because, just like with her powers, she feels helpless in her own skin.
Abuse victims often have a negative connection with casual sex, yet they are much more likely to engage in it. It’s the only form of gratification they know (especially if the abuse came from a parent, who is supposed to gratify with love). But the point that Angel and Cordelia aid her in seeing is that she is not helpless; she does indeed allow men to lay with her, even if she dislikes it, no differently than she allows and chooses to react violently towards those she feels threatened by. Bethany is her own person and can and should control her capabilities. Cordelia sums it up best when talking to her, bluntly explaining that she could’ve floated the rapists away, rather than nearly killing them.
She basically illuminates that no matter how tragic or terrible the circumstances are, you can almost always make a choice, and that Bethany’s reluctance to acknowledge this fact is not only destructive, but dangerous to Cordy and her friends. This strikes a chord in her, and after Angel saves her from Wolfram and Hart’s grab-team, she decided that he is someone she can trust in. From here, the minor B plot, which involves the conflicting philosophy of Lilah and Holland, collides with the A. Up to this point, Lilah has not received nearly as much development her male counterparts at the firm (and this doesn’t change a great deal until S3, either), but this episode gave us a better idea of what she’s about.
My favourite scene of the episode was her conversation with Holland Manners, who digs into her spine as deeply as he did Lindsey’s in “Blind Date” [1×21]. I particularly enjoyed his commendation of Lindsey’s ‘improvement’ in his work. When Holland later threatens her directly, we get a full sense of what Lilah is about: Control? Well, yes. She’s interested in manipulating as many angles as possible for her advantage. But the larger truth of it is that she is first and foremost interested in self-preservation. No doubt being a woman in a traditionally male field drives one to be competitive, but at the firm of Hell Incorporated the drive is likely to be massive.
A tight and well sustained death race of such a caliber has made her into a survivalist, and her first loyalties are always to her advantage. At the drop of Holland’s dire suggestion, she is prepared to risk the destruction of the entire project, and initiates the plan she and her superiors discuss as the ‘trigger.’ This is where the plots collide, bringing Bethany’s father to Angel Investigations. As far as evil plans go, it doesn’t entirely suck, but it is a gamble; it may unleash Bethany’s abilities to W&H’s content, but at the same time it could backfire by killing everyone. What transpires, however, is entirely different from either of those scenarios.
I will stop and give special credit to the writers and producers here, as this sequence in its entirety was incredible (it helps the episode earn its 85 rather than an 80). Bethany faces her father, and nearly loses complete control. But with Angel at her side and all she’s faced, she manages to conquer his influence – Wolfram and Hart’s control – and exert her own (with which she uproots herself and begins a new life).
Like the three S2 episodes preceding it, this episode is chalk-full of foreshadowing. Bethany’s origin and her story neatly parallel Angel’s origin and his path ahead. They were both created by destructive fathers, they both let things get out of control with power far beyond their comprehension. They both have to deal with the threat of that power everyday. And like her, Angel will soon be faced with some very difficult truths about what he can and can’t control in the world (in “Reprise” [2×15] ).
Some final things to note: This is the only episode of Buffy, Angel or even Firefly that Joss Whedon directed, but did not write. There wasn’t a great deal to directly distinguish him from other directors visually, but his talents are usually in the written word and the context of those words. The implementation of the dialogue here is very sharp and Whedonesque, and I imagine this is no coincidence.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Wes and Cordy arguing: “Advanced bosoms?”
+ Holland Manners’ appearance; Sam Anderson is as cold and frightening as ever.
+ The first appearance of Gunn’s hubcap axe.
+ Angel’s little nod to the Hulk: “You wouldn’t like me when I’m happy.”
+ Bethany completely losing control when her father arrives, and then showing complete control directly after.
– The gypsy girl. Wasn’t she a much skinnier brunette in “Five by Five” [1×18]? Continuity, no? Well, no.
* Bethany’s troubles began and ended with her family. We see a link to that through Angel and his dreams with Darla, as we are to later learn that the classic-age vampires worked and hunted akin to an incestuous family unit (see:”Darla” [2×07] )