[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.