[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: David Greenwalt | Director: David Greenwalt | Aired: 10/24/2000]
The central arc of S2 kicks off with “Dear Boy.” Its plot line is referred to as the “Darla arc,” and its story, which encompass twelve episodes total (from this ep to “Epiphany” [2×16] ), is one of the single best in the Whedonverse, both in terms of its fictional quality and the real-world relevance one can take away from it. I mentioned in my review of “To Shanshu in LA” [1×22] that that episode was Executive Producer and Co-Creator David Greenwalt’s arrival as the dominant showrunner of AtS, replacing Joss Whedon. And here we’re getting exactly what “Shanshu” promised: dark, potent and highly cerebral material.
The revelations we come to by the time of “Reprise” [2×15] and “Epiphany” [2×16] make this Angel’s smartest season. Even S5 only reaches such these heights in 5×15: “A Hole in the World” [5×15] and after. “Dear Boy” begins with the gang assembling to take down a demon which has cult followers under a spell; having them fight over how to best worship it. Angel, Wes, Cordy and Gunn (who now is becoming a big part of the group) all fight its worshippers, yet Angel cuts himself off from them; the frustration from Darla’s nightly manipulations cutting deep into him even in the real world.
Now fully in league with Wolfram and Hart, Darla has been haunting Angel’s dreams with magic since “First Impressions” [2×03], making him fondly recall his whirlwind days of murder and pleasure with her. From what we gather, this has been going on for many weeks, and Angel is slowly becoming more tired and on edge, making Wolfram and Hart successful (for the moment): He’s been lying to his friends, keeping secrets, and by the time of this episode is completely indifferent to the fate of a client. In a scene that foreshadows his complete ignorance of a suicidal man’s plight in “Reunion” [2×10], he is crass and uncaring, and ends up costing his team money.
When it finally becomes impossible to hide it, Angel reveals his secret. He’s convinced Darla is alive, and is a human too. But what is ‘alive,’ and what is ‘human?’ And what is a big talking hot dog? Never mind the last one. The story asks such heady questions about our existence in a way that is neither pretentious nor obvious. Darla is alive and Angel is sure of it, but the story does such a good job of misleading us that I even began to wonder if there really was a ‘Darla.’ All Angel has to go on for most of the episode are his senses: he sees her, he smells her, and so he ‘knows’ it is her. But does this make a human a human?
Certainly the nature of the question changes when you have vampires in your world; creatures that can sense things in a different way. But their senses are not alien, only heightened. And if sensory experience is really all we have to order our world with, then perfume and extensive plastic surgery could theoretically re-define humanity; an assertion to which no one would agree. So what does make Darla human, then? The episode never takes a firm stance. Like Darla herself, it prefers to put insidious questions in our mind and let us spin over them ourselves. As a prelude to a story arc that eventually comes to resolutions about the question of humanity, it’s fitting that it leaves us hanging for now.
Only Darla’s admission that she is human is convincing for us as viewers. However, the episode does make one fine point: our senses may be all we have in the end. If we can be made to doubt those, then what? This is not a comforting thought, and Wolfram and Hart’s plan is rather ingenious when you consider it. First, this plan will make Angel doubt himself; Darla’s performance is so convincing, as I mentioned, that at times even I was wondering if perhaps we the audience had been dreaming too; if the writers hadn’t been playing some greater trick on us and there was no Darla.
Second, it will push Angel further away from his team, as his insane behaviour and ruthless pursuit of someone who appeared to be an ordinary woman would not only make them doubt him, but also bring Angelus to their minds. Gunn’s not yet had this experience, but Wes and Cordy aren’t likely to forget the events of “Eternity” [1×17] any time soon. Third, the situation involving the faux-Kramers will further turn Kate against Angel. She is let known by Lindsey’s anonymous letter of Angel’s new dwellings, and is brought into the “murder” case of “Stephen Kramer,” which only justifies her opinion of Angel as a lawless animal in need of caging.
Wolfram and Hart were aware of Angel’s connection to her in S1, and in this episode they use their power to help make her Angel’s enemy. This situation is particularly volatile because Kate is just looking for an excuse to be his foe, as is Angel hers (he even said so in “To Shanshu in LA” [1×22] ). Both Angel and Darla theorize that the master plan is to turn him soulless, but it’s already clear the intent is to invoke the dark half of what the Shanshu scrolls held for him: to tear him from his human ties to the world, to his mission to save souls and to anything that makes him human.
The prophecy said that a vampire with a soul would play a role in the apocalypse, and so Angelus will do them no good; W&H needs Angel on their side, morally speaking, and to do that they need to convince him it’s the right side. In the long run, that’s their plan with Darla: to convince him redemption is hopeless, and to give up caring about others. Their victory in this by the time of “Reprise” [2×15] is masterful,
However, their success isn’t total in this episode. Kate may have been set on the warpath, but now Angel Investigations is aware of Darla’s existence. The team stands behind him stronger than ever with an enemy on the march towards them.
Remember “The Prodigal” [1×15], in which we learned of Angel’s human past as Liam, and of his father? He was a deeply religious man who saw his son Liam as a worthless sinner. He loved him, but because of his personal failings he could not express it. Liam, who was to become Angelus, went to his grave and into his unlife with the belief that his father hated him, and as all vampires do, Angelus lived to defy what he was in life.
Liam was an artless, drunken slacker, and Angelus was an artist of death who no doubt kept in mind the sense of pride that stemmed from the religious purity his father attempted to instill in him. As early as BtVS “Innocence” , we saw that his goal went far beyond murder; it was his mission to taint the pure, to steal innocence from them before he sent them to their deaths (if he chose to be that merciful). In the flashbacks we get in this episode, we see more direct examples of this: his obsession with virgins, convents and – oh yes – Drusilla.
That the site of an old convent is chosen for the staging ground between Angel and two different demons of enthralling power (Turfog and Darla) is no coincidence. Before siring the maddened Drusilla, Angel and Darla had passionate sex in the convent that saw host to a massacre at their hands. This is the kind of darkness Angel is dealing with every day. For as long as he has been ensouled, he has fought his own inner darkness, and it was touched on in a very direct way in “Somnambulist” [1×11], but it has yet to be resolved. S2 addresses the hard questions about Angel’s demonic tendencies. They nearly explode at Darla’s prodding.
Angel furiously drags her to the water tank that used to be a holy site, where at the start of the episode obsession had gripped a group of ordinary humans so tightly that they were willing to kill each other. Greenwalt writes Angel and Darla’s first true reunion with a dark wit that oozes from every line. It is a release, a catharsis, for both characters: Angel finally has the truth, and Darla finally has him. And she has a soul. This excellent twist is what the scene in the water tank was built for. Although it’s uncertain why her soul isn’t affecting her yet, it does now make her prone to the physical weaknesses of humanity.
When its effects kick in, she will be prone to human emotion as well. She will have the capability – the option – of acting selflessly. It won’t necessarily incline her to good, but she will be able to see the world from a perspective other than her own. Angel has come very far since gaining his own soul, and tells her as much: he says they never had love, because they never had the capability of understanding it. She can’t quite grasp this. And what’s worsst for her about it is that with the emotional component removed from their history, all they have left is the sensory pleasures they experienced together: the sex and death. Separating romanticism from their past means Darla was never anything more than his whore.
She can’t face this, and in the best moment of the season yet, presses a cross onto Angel’s chest and shrieks “God doesn’t want you – but I still do.” This is the challenge that lies ahead of Angel: redemption through good deeds for a world that won’t have him, despite the temptation of a damned world that wants to love him.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Angel’s dreams crossing over into his waking world. The scene in the teaser where Darla appears in the lobby is great and creepy.
+ The battle against the thrall demon. This was very well staged and looked marvelous, as did the cavernous water tank set.
+ Cordelia thinking Angel was talking about Buffy.
+ Darla being frustrated with Angel; “God, I could eat his eyeballs.”
+ Angel’s reaction to his client: “Is my wife cheating on me?” “Probably.”
+ David Boreanaz’s acting. At Angel’s various stages of apparent insanity, he absolutely nails the necessary subtleties.
+ The scene at the “Kramer” house. The plan unfolding and Angel’s rage were great to watch.
– Darla’s soul. It’s never really explained why she takes so long to feel the effects, though one could guess it has to do with how she was brought back.
* In the battle against the demon, Angel separates himself from the group, forcing them to work together while Angel fights alone. This is all done under demonic thrall, as will be Angel firing his friends because of the influence of Darla and W&H.
* When speaking with Darla, Lindsey indicates complete indifference about the success of W&H’s plans for Angel, so long as Angel gets what’s coming to him. This is concordant with his actions in “Darla” [2×07], “The Trial” [2×09], “Reprise” [2×15], and “Epiphany” [2×16].