[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: Tim Minear | Director: Tim Minear | Aired: 11/14/2000]
Written and directed by Tim Minear, probably AtS’ single best writer, “Darla” is an episode with classically strong character writing at its core and a striking visual style lining it. No one quality about this episode (character development, direction, acting) is the strongest in the series or even the season, but more so than most other episodes, all are at a significant plateau of the utmost quality, and the rich atmosphere that permeates the important events that unfold before us give “Darla” an epic feeling. Throw in its skillful continuity link with the Boxer Rebellion scene from BtVS “Fool for Love” this is a memorable and rewarding experience, especially for die-hard fans.
One of the strongest points of its writing, like with “Dear Boy” [2×05], is how it toys with our expectations; Wolfram and Hart’s plot becomes thicker this episode, and yet by the end of it we’re left less sure of their ultimate intentions. S2, with its rich blend of themes, uses its many literary tools to take a look at the dark side of Angel that was only touched upon in S1. In my previous review, (“Guise Will Be Guise” [2×06] ), I noted how the fake T’ish Magev advised Angel to think of himself less as a being split in two, but as a being with positive and negative traits that are mixed into a whole (he is not one part Liam, one part Angelus, but Angel; a result of those two existences). And so S2 examines just what being that person means, and what that person is capable of.
Wolfram and Hart comes in as the precipitator, and this episode makes a critical distinction about their plan: They have no desire for Angelus, as the Shanshu prophecy speaks of a vampire with a soul. They want Angel as he is, and we’re not yet sure why. W&H already know he is a single entity (a fact he is only just discovering), and they know that like anyone else, that entity is mostly human, and has a very human dark side. As does Darla. Like the season, this episode is about what these two intertwined vampires are and were; what their pasts and presents make them and how they are defined.
Lindsey finds her with her hands bloody and her wrists slit, all the mirrors in her penthouse smashed as she feels her soul inside her. Through much of S1, before accepting the worth of his existence, Angel held a dislike for mirrors; he often avoided them for the horrible truth of his existence they held by not showing him. It’s appropriate now that Darla, ensouled, can’t stand to look at them either because of what she can see in them and how it equally appalls her. She now remembers everyone she’s killed, and she has a conscience about it (we’ve seen exactly what this does in “Five by Five” [1×18] ).
In the single most revealing statement of the episode, she calls her and Angel soulmates, referring to the fact that now, not only do they both have souls, but that they are inescapably connected. Because of Wolfram and Hart’s manipulations and the prophetic forces at work, they’re now connected, being pushed together by the wills of those working around them. They’re connected because of their past, because of Angel’s understanding of her burden, and most importantly, they’re connected because of their present. Angel’s mission is to save souls, and it’s what he must do (as Holland puts it so well).
Darla may never have made him happy, and may have damned him, but together they ruled the world, created a family, stood up to the Master and even attempted to defy the human soul. As it is, there is no question in regards to what she was as a vampire: Passionate, sensual and motherly. We’re given little about Darla’s life as a human, but since vampires in this fictional universe are painted as defiance of their human traits, we can surmise that Darla’s life as a prostitute made her cold and detached. One could guess that she was like a bitter, loveless woman driven to that life; the Master remarked upon meeting her that she was known for being a woman with no husband or money.
With Angelus, her romanticism was free to roam wildly, as her ‘skills’ were put to use in a way they never could’ve been in her dreary human life. Though it wasn’t love, she also cared for her sired boy deeper than most vampires can care for anything, having (presumably) had no love or family in her former existence. This is easily why Angel’s statement to a Darla who had not yet felt the effects of her soul, the statement that she had never made him happy (in “Dear Boy” [2×05] ), would have wounded her so deeply; all it would leave her was her legacy as a whore.
That was who she was, and Darla (which we find out meant ‘dear one’) the vampire was what followed. The crisis she experiences in this episode is a large part of what connects her to Angel, and drives her throughout the story. Her scene at the office with Lindsey speaks for itself as she desperately tries to lock on to who she is; she kisses Lindsey emptily as her human self would have, and yet longs to feast upon him or snap him in half as Darla would’ve loved to. In this desperation she seeks out Angel.
Through the effective use of the flashbacks Tim Minear masterfully tells us the story of the two vampires, interconnecting their fates further as we re-live Angel’s similar experience. It is defined by the crossover scene with “Fool for Love,” in which an ensouled Angelus (who is not yet Angel) is attempting to re-enter his old gang because of his lust for Darla. He learns that Spike has killed a Vampire Slayer, and from the “Buffy” point of view we see Spike ascending; Angelus has willingly ceded the title of alpha male to his grand-sired, and the younger vampire gleefully eats it all up.
AtS side gives a deeper edge to Angel’s side of the scene; he has a soul, but doesn’t know what to do with it. He’s feeding, but only off of the morally contemptuous, and at that very moment was debating protecting a group of fearful missionaries hiding in an alley. It is at Spike’s soulless pleasure in killing a protector of good that he knows he can’t continue what he’s doing no matter his feelings for Darla. All of these things he continued doing for her, and he tells Wesley just that, knowing fully the pain and hollowness that awaits Darla without his help.
But, can she be helped? Holland thinks so, and so does Angel (yikes. What does that tell you?), but Darla herself does not. The fantastic scene in which she meets the Master gives us the few – but vital – clues about her opinion of human existence. Up until the very end she remained unrepentant and felt owed by God and by the world, and the Master himself comments on how she cried out for him. As he so bluntly puts it, he is her saviour and is not God’s forgiveness, but the salvation that she truly longs for. Unlike Liam and Drusilla, and much like William, she was a very willing and knowing victim. Of course she couldn’t exactly conceive what a vampire’s life would be, but she openly accepted damnation.
By becoming a vampire, she simply got a more pleasurable form of it. All the talk about the whirlwind and the view were simply part of the concept of her view of a carefree unlife in which she would not have to be pitied for being a whore and lacking a husband. It represented power, and a freedom from that life. It’s subtle, but this episode is connected to “Fool for Love” in some thematic ways; consider what Spike said of his death: “Getting killed made me feel alive for the very first time. I was through living by society’s rules. Decided to make a few of my own.”
Spike viewed his eternal damnation as salvation from mediocrity, and Drusilla the one who gloriously delivered him from it. This is not all that different from Darla’s experience, whence she warmly cried out for death and took the Master’s teeth as a gift. The major difference between her experience and Angel’s is starkly visible in the final scene between the two of them at the Hotel when she begs for him to sire her again. Both were given their souls by interfering parties (the gypsies and W&H’s raising) and they see them quite differently.
Angel views his curse as a gift, and Darla sees her gift of life as a cancer as he sits horrified that she views her siring of him as a favour. In the end she’s determined to be rid of her gift, and runs as Angel did so many years ago in China, seeking something very different than he did. Although we all know exactly where it’s going for our hero now: this episode shows a progression in that he’s completely ignorant of his friends’ support, and brutally strings up Lindsey in his explosive reaction to a crisis.
He’s not at the most critical juncture yet, but if these are the kinds of decisions being made now then the path of vengeance and righteous judiciousness he is approaching is dark indeed (one he walks willfully in “Reunion” [2×10] ).
I mentioned earlier the quality of the directing and I’d like to address that before I wrap up. Tim Minear may not have directed “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?” [2×02], but it seems all the episodes he writers mesh well with rich visuals and the macabre. The tone of “Darla” struck me as noir, with a lot of soft edges, vivid shadows and dim set pieces.
The dramatic punctures it assisted in, such as the many cuts between the flashbacks and the modern day (my favourite being Darla declaring “Act!” and Angel showing up to save her) were also exceptionally stylized. However, just like “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?” [2×02] what I liked best about it was how well it fit the script. Once again, Minear’s words and characters served to inspire the camera, rather than just make it dally around to show off and, in fact, the environment created by the direction was the most skillful trick performed (going far beyond the shots themselves).
But again, this episode’s best quality is that it’s a through and through fan experience. Viewers unfamiliar with the intricate history of the fearsome four vampires would be left in the cold by this storyline, whereas those of us who viewed their history from its terrifying start in S2 of Buffy likely felt chills. The deeply striking chords in the Boxer Rebellion scene sent tingles up my spine. Great confluences of well planned events executed so well, and with such affinity for canonical accuracy shows not only respect for the long-time fan, but admission from the writers that they’re fans too. They love this stuff as much as us.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Darla’s deepening madness. Julie Benz is wonderful here.
+ Wes admitting Cordelia had a point.
+ Cordy’s suggestion on how to use Angel’s smelling abilites.
+ Darla and Angelus’ defiance of the Master.
+ Spike’s belching. “What?”
+ Lindsey calling to get help from Angel. This is another demonstration of how he constantly defies W&H for what he wants. In this case, it is Darla.
+ The boxer rebellion scene. The added context it gives to “Fool for Love” from BtVS is magnificent, and I loved seeing the other side of this wonderfully shot sequence.
+ Darla begging Angel. This scene was deeply heartfelt and well performed.
* In the scene between Darla and the Master, Darla speaks of her inescapable damnation. In “The Trial” [2×09] we learn she has a terminal illness, which would’ve killed her even if Drusilla hadn’t sired her again (“Reunion” [2×10] ). When speaking with Lindsey, she also remarks that she can ‘feel her body dying.’
* Cordelia tells Angel he’s not alone, but it goes completely unnoticed. As he unravels further into his obsession with saving Darla, he becomes split from his friends at Angel Investigations, leading to their firing in “Reunion” [2×10].
* While in England in 1880, Drusilla says to Darla, “I could be your mummy.” In “The Trial” [2×09], it is Drusilla who sires Darla, and amongst vampires, a sire can be considered a parental figure.