Angel 2×09: The Trial

[Review by Ryan Bovay]

[Writer: David Greenwalt (Story) and Tim Minear and Doug Petrie (Teleplay) | Director: Bruce Seth Green | Aired: 11/28/2000]

In my last review (“The Shroud of Rahmon” [2×08] ) I began by explaining that that I was pleasantly surprised by the episode; it took a mediocre premise and turned it upside down, using the Whedonverse’s strongest qualities (sharp dialogue, unexpected twists, smart character developments) to inject its own brand into an over-used mold and do something greater than it appeared it might. “The Trial,” while actually better than that episode in some ways, is quite the opposite. The synopsis of Angel taking on certain death for Darla’s chance at redemption through a dangerous mystical challenge was not only intriguing, but invited into our homes the potential for some perfect-score material.

Unfortunately, it does not deliver so highly. This episode is probably one of the most disappointing not only of the season, but of the series, since when set-ups like these are used in the Whedonverse they are often pulled off spectacularly; despite the strength of the character development, some obvious problems sincerely hurt my enjoyment of this otherwise commendable episode. The plot of the episode itself is the main jab, which the execution drives painfully into us with many a-splinters. My major problem with it is the nature of the mystical trials themselves, which come off as cliche, poorly conceived and end with a twist that cheapens the entire sequence.

Two of them are ancient, coliseum-like tests of raw strength, and the third and more interesting is the prospect of the end of existence itself. Seemingly designed to do nothing more than cause great physical pain to Angel, the first two are uninteresting and waste time, as does the stuffy exposition with the equally stuffy Guide of the Trial. The questions of his existence, such as ‘what is he?’ and ‘why does he appear in the form he does?’ are not even addressed, let alone answered. I was reminded of “Judgement” [2×01] in which a similarly arcane proceeding took place, and it seemed that everything that happened there happened not for a specific reason, but simply because that’s what we expected from the standard situation, and because the writers needed a gimmick to move their characters along.

However, this is the Whedonverse, and we’ve come to expect a lot from our ‘gimmicks.’ Like “Judgement” [2×01], Angel is meant to endure great tests because men fighting for honour absolutely must, and we’re given exposition by a stuffy British man given that stuffy British men usually deliver it. These are hardly mortal sins in the realm of fantasy, but from a series as unpredictable and risk-taking as AtS I expected more. Most insultingly, the plot ‘twist’ that occurs after the final trial is treated as little more than an afterthought; the writers had a clear bearing on where the characters were going, however, as the entire Trial segment of the episode indicates, they were unable to conjure a more genuine or well foreshadowed method in which to get them there.

Where the characters are taken by these events is quite interesting, though, and all of this episode’s material outside of the trial sequences is A grade that could’ve built to perfection with just a little help. As it stands, it is entertaining and at times, genuinely shocking, and it’s why this episode still receives considerable merit. To put it simply, the episode deals with death and all its sides: its inevitability, the denial and acceptance of it, and its unpredictability. Darla discovers she is dying of the same illness that was killing her in 1609, and desperately attempts to be re-made by a random vampire in a seedy bar. Whether or not W&H and Lindsey’s medical reports were honest, both she and Angel believe them (if a little too quickly), and it drives them to extremes.

In “Darla” [2×07], she spoke of a soul being a cancer (which is funny on Angel’s show, since his is a curse) and now we learn how oddly appropriate that diagnosis was. Darla may have a soul, but she’s more or less in the same place Angel was in the era of “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?” [2×02]: restless and introverted; ensouled, but not necessarily moral. Faced with her end she’s willing to resume a damned, sinful unlife which will no doubt leave many more dead and cause more pain and suffering. And given her view of this second chance as the true form of damnation, tugged mercilessly about by manipulative forces, it’s not really a surprise that she’s in a hurry to leave the mortal coil.

Angel’s quest to save her is, of course, completely in his nature. It is his duty to save souls, but the emotional resonance of his sacrifice goes to a deeper place than his duty, and it’s important to note why. For him, Darla represents his own quest for redemption in every way possible. By protecting and advising her, he is giving her the aid and needed companionship he never had in his early years ensouled. To save her soul and encourage her towards noble action would atone, in his feeling, for his staking of her (for which he clearly feels remorse), and more deeply validate the purpose of his redemptive mission; after all W&H has thrown at him, his feelings of powerlessness have only grown.

Tearing Darla from their dark purposes to lead her to her own would represent a victory on all three of those levels. But it’s clear they have other plans for him. We’re never sure whether or not the medical records are genuine, and as Darla is to die we’ll never really know. We do know that she was dying in her previous human life and we, the viewers believe she will as the characters do. In Lindsey, who makes Angel believe, we find a belief opposite of Angel’s: that death is Darla’s only salvation. Holland’s comment that she is their responsibility seems to be Lindsey’s strongest feeling here; he helped bring her back, cares for her and sees a way to end the suffering he feels at least partly responsible for.

Lindsey believes death is Darla’s only option, while Angel believes she can live. In facing the trials Angel faces his own death for the reasons I discussed, and the potent irony that comes to him is that death is indeed her best choice. She is already living her second chance and her redemption is not a noble path like his, but a humble one, in which accepting the powerlessness and inevitability of human life’s end (something the vampire Darla could never do). Desperate still to save her, Angel is still partly willing to offer her Lindsey’s ideal way out, but his own nobility has shown her the value of a soul, and she becomes willing to live with hers even to her end.

However, the truth is that she does live in a Joss Whedon show, and fans are smart enough to know exactly what any happiness is built up for. Darla’s re-siring at the teeth of Drusilla is the final irony in an episode with many opposing statements about the nature of death, and the most redeeming quality of a flawed but enjoyable episode. In “Darla” [2×07] Holland expressed his deepest faith in Angel’s duty to save Darla’s soul, and in this one moment, the purpose of that becomes entirely clear. Angel has established a deep tie to the world in the human Darla, and Wolfram and Hart is incredibly aware of what ripping it from him will mean.

My final comments on this episode require me to address the rest of the gang briefly. Gunn in particular is of interest, as he ignorantly continues to feed Angel’s obsession at the start of the episode. He’s far from a part of the gang yet, and as Angel becomes even further split from Wesley and Cordelia, it’s no surprise he would turn to the non-cerebral Gunn for aid, despite their problems in “The Shroud of Rahmon” [2×08]. This is only temporary, however, and his tolerance of Gunn has only extended to his need to deal with Darla while avoiding the conscience that Cordy and Wes represent.

Gunn’s attitude towards Angel’s vampiric nature has never been stable, and with the events of “Reunion” [2×10] just ahead, the fragilities of their dynamic which we saw exposed in “The Shroud of Rahmon” [2×08] will come crashing to a head (which they do later this season in “Epiphany” [2×16] and in S3 with “That Old Gang of Mine” [3×03] ).

 


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Wesley’s radiant delight in the power of ‘tea.’
+ Angel losing himself in silky clothing to distract himself.
+ Angel’s surprise at being invited in by Lindsey.
+ Darla having called Angel Angelus up to this point, and after the Trial calling him Angel.
+ Darla singing. Julie Benz has a magnificent voice, and I liked hearing some soft jazz in Caritas when it’s been almost all pop music so far.

– The British guy and the entire trial segment of the show. Could have done without.


[Score]

85/100

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13 thoughts on “Angel 2×09: The Trial”

  1. [Note: buffyholic posted this comment on February 19, 2008.]

    I always laugh when Holland says she´s (Darla) their moral responsibility because it´s such a lie coming from him. He knew exactly what was going on and what was gonna happen.

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  2. [Note: Nathan.Taurus posted this comment on January 23, 2010.]

    Darla: “Into an empty pool?”

    Angel: “Sure! ’cause if you had water you’d get all wet and miss out on all the skull crushing.”

    Julie has a good voice but I don’t think Darla would try to sing as good as she did.

    Lindsey telling Angel that Darla could be helped today, but that they are only one month and 400 years too late.

    And in the final human moments of Darla, I actually finally like her.

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  3. [Note: Shamrockr posted this comment on May 20, 2010.]

    A wonderful site to come upon!

    This is also my first posting upon joining, so pls. forgive me for working a bit of my background re: the series in to this episode’s commentary :).

    I would dare say that I might just be one of the “older” members here, but will hold off judgment just yet (certainly, not for any reasons re: the quality of the writings or insightful opinions of any members); simply enough, I was teaching high school while my juniors and seniors were watching the series the “first time around.” 🙂

    I TRULY look forward to reading further reviews. For now, I would like to say a few things about THE TRIAL. Episodes seem to go up and down regarding their placement in my top ten, but at the moment, I would have to say that this one is around four or five at the top of my queue. HOLE/WORLD will always be number one!

    I adore Julie Benz, and feel her acting improved so much from the brief early appearances on Buffy and then throughout the series that I was truly drawn into her character motivation, in every way, during this season’s arc. I’ll state right now I watch the two hour block daily, and have done so for several years now (taping the ones I sleep through…early riser!). Therefore, I guess I’ve seen every episode…hmmm? Okay, too embarrassed to admit!

    I read a few interviews J. Benz did regarding her singing of “Ill Wind.” She stated how unbelievably nervous she was performing in front of an audience (“sound crew,” whatever), and was just happy to have made it through intact :). I do feel she did an extraordinary job, but, quality wise, it is far from being “vocally” perfect.

    In a rather lengthy, though thoughtful, thesis a student wrote regarding both the Buffy and Angel characters’ singing (context/content wise, talent, or lack thereof, etc…), many interesting points were made about the song choices and the vocalizations of each character relative to where they fall on the evil vs. good side of the scales. Sorry, don’t have the link, but it is an interesting piece of work. If anyone is interested, I’ll try again to find that particular thesis paper.

    I.e., During “Ill Wind,” Darla fails to hold the notes towards the end of each verse. Personally, I can’t “carry a tune in a bucket,” yet could sense a blues number even “bluesier” than most re: her affect on stage. At first, I erroneously thought Lorne’s “ew,” was in reference to that. Nah. I didn’t “truly” believe it, anyway…she could sing the telephone book and I wouldn’t care :).

    Of course, nothing is “unintentional” in Whedonland. Darla’s weariness, sense of defeat, and, (not to mention) the choice of the song, are all elements which show her despair in the face of Angel’s continued hope, however slim, of “saving” her. It’s that “inperfection” that makes the song “perfect,” at least, to me.

    She simply cannot “hold” on long enough to complete those notes…among other things, having just left a “hell dimension” and, not to discount, preceded by four hundred years of death, destruction, mayhem, etc…. Plus, valid or not, the tertiary stage of syphilis affects the CNS to such an extent it literally drives one to “madness.” Since she was no longer a vampire with the corresponding “constitution” of one, a good argument could be made that she might not have been “sick” at all, though I tend to believe she was.

    And, as far as an ending? However difficult and challenging the few remaining months for Julie’s character would have been, at least she would have been allowed to truly “feel” remorse (to what degree of success will never be known, though “Liam” certainly was no “pillar of society” when he had HIS soul…ya’ never know); at least there would be the chance for atonement, however, slight, just by being by Angel’s side to give HIM comfort, for a change (his “turn towards the darkside” had already begun, in increments, before this episode even transpired).

    Darla’s chance to “be there” for Angel, or, in essence, “to come in from that darkness” (words said to Faith in SANCTUARY), would be a “luxury” sought, yet never received from her at any point (as was pointed out), upon Angel’s receiving of his soul. And, though Buffy may have been the love of his life, Darla meant far more, in my opinion, than he ever lets on.

    One of my ALL TIME fav scenes was in a prior episode when Darla states, “God doesn’t want you, but I still do.” GREAT LINE! Angel tried to “blow off” (overcompensation) any mutual feelings, but who bought that? (Maybe he just has a thing for blondes? Don’t think so.) Or, much more likely, he just didn’t want to remember the extent of how much they literally “fed off” each others’ evil natures during those undead years spent together. A tortured soul can really influence one’s psyche :).

    Juliet Landau is brilliant as Dru, but I’ve never regretted seeing that crazy “kid”‘s face so much as in those final minutes. And, Lyndsay? ‘Til then, I really could go back and forth regarding my feelings towards him…not “so much” after that episode :).

    Sorry if I digressed a bit. There are so many other points I should’ve addressed, but will simply enjoy reading the present reviews before commenting again…just wanted to introduce myself!

    Danielle

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  4. [Note: Miss Edith posted this comment on August 8, 2010.]

    I think this episode is brilliant, there’s a few really meaty scenes to enjoy with this one. Firstly, the bar scene with Darla and the inept vamp is so funny, and it’s even sweeter to relish because she’s so tragic and evil she rarely gets a scene that’s heavy on the fun. Secondly the scene right after, with her and Angel’s conversation, they really got the feel right for two exes arguing away. Thirdly, the scene after the Trial with Darla accepting her death and Angel considering siring her shows some incredible development in such a short time, and is one of the most heart-breaking scenes of the series. And, fourthly, the sudden re-introduction of Dru is one of the biggest shocks in the Buffyverse IMO.

    Also, another big plus for this episode (and the ones before it) – yet more screentime with topless Angel @:P

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  5. [Note: nitramneek posted this comment on December 24, 2011.]

    This is my first “pass” with AtS, this is the first episode that made me break down and cry.

    DARLA: Maybe this is my second chance.

    ANGEL: To die?

    DARLA: Yes. To die – the way I was supposed to die in the first place.

    May I just say: Wow!

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  6. [Note: Laurentiu posted this comment on August 28, 2012.]

    The ending left me speechless. I was saying stuff like ” brilliant” and “fuckin hell” at the screen.

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  7. [Note: Dave posted this comment on November 8, 2012.]

    To Nit and Lau:Totally agreed. I love Joss for doing that to me, to us, being able to bring out those emotions.

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  8. [Note: Other Scott posted this comment on December 1, 2012.]

    I really like this episode, but it does have a major problem that is kind of common in both Angel and Buffy.The fact that the British guy couldn’t heal Darla because she had already been brought to life was sort of illogical. It should be completely unrelated. If Darla’s brought back to life with the same condition she was going to die from, is it really being brought back to life? If yes, then healing that condition is not at all the same as bringing someone back to the dead. If no, then we have no problem bringing Darla back to life again, because she wasn’t brought back to life the first time.The arbitrariness of this sort of reverse Deus Ex Machina is bothersome and kind of undercuts a lot of emotional resonance this could have had.The entire last scene is the motel is pure brilliance though.

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  9. [Note: Alexis posted this comment on January 3, 2013.]

    I agree that the trials were a bit hokey and could have been written much better. I honestly wish that the trial had succeeded, we had hope for Darla’s future, and then it was ripped away from us by Dru. That would have made the trials less of a time waster and the moment of joy for Darla to terror would have been more staggering. Love the reviews!

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  10. [Note: gko2k posted this comment on May 27, 2014.]

    This is a emotional episode for me and apparently for many people here too. I have to say Darla, in the end, realized she did receive a second chance. Before she became a vampire 400 yrs ago, she was dying with some illnesses. Her soul (or goodness) was then taken away from her and she walked on earth as the devil’s instrument. Now she is brought back as a human, her sickness followed her back. Naturally, she wanted to “live” even if it means to become a vampire all over again.
    With the sacrifice (the trial) Angel made she finally realized that her second chance is a gift of peace that can finally release her from this tragic life.

    Sorry, I am kind of stating the obvious. I enjoyed the jokes and clever dialogs but the poetic and emotion aspect of the story resonate with me long after.

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  11. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on June 28, 2016.]

    Seemingly designed to do nothing more than cause great physical pain to Angel, the first two [trials] are uninteresting and waste time

    Okay, the cross-walk (har har har!!!) is dumb but the first trial strikes me as hugely relevant to Angel: he defeats a demon by cutting it in half and forcing the two halves of that demon on opposite sides of the room. I took that as kind of a metaphor for the entirely artificial Angel/Angelus divide?

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  12. [Note: Uni posted this comment on August 26, 2016.]

    I agree that the Cross-walk was stupid, and I also agree that the first one was symbolic. Kind of a pointless comment, just wanted to reply to someone whose comment wasn’t posted a couple years ago.

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  13. [Note: Sabrina posted this comment on February 2, 2017.]

    I just love that the green screen techs missed a bit when Angel is dragging the top half of the demon. You can see the actors’ green suited torso. Joss Whedon and his fantastic luck at getting studios to give him actual special effects budgets.

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