[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: Tim Minear and Shawn Ryan | Director: James A. Contner | Aired: 12/19/2000]
In my review of “To Shanshu in LA” [1×22], I started off by talking about how that episode functioned as a preview of David Greenwalt’s vision for the series. Co-creator Joss Whedon was no doubt heavily involved in the show as a producer, but the subtle shift from its sharp, snappy, Buffyesque tone of writing into a darker, noir world of softer aesthetic edges, more understated humour and vastly more complex moral considerations implied strongly that Greenwalt was more active at the wheel. He was, after all, there from the beginning; he co-wrote BtVS : “Angel.” This is his character as much as Joss,’ and this season we come to a huge turning point in the direction of the series that is to take it down his road into S3.
“Reunion” is that turning point; the penultimate episode of the three middle episodes of the season’s arc, it’s also by and far the best of those three and one of the very best of the season, if not the best. And of the four best episodes of this season (“Darla” [2×07] , “Reprise” [2×15] , “Epiphany” [2×16] ) it’s also the most gripping. We pick up near exactly where we left off at the end of “The Trial” [2×09]. Angel informs the gang that Drusilla’s back in town, and we empathize fully with their shock; Darla’s been re-sired, and Angel is determined not to let her rise by morning. We, the audience, are grabbed by the throat and not let go throughout this forty minute thrill ride.
While not as stylistic as “Darla” [2×07], or as intelligent as “Reprise” [2×15] and “Epiphany” [2×16], the character threads of the first half of the season are brought to a genuinely unpredictable close, and the second half is set up with the stakes unnervingly high. The focus is on the transformation of Angel as we review everything that’s happened so far this arc. Our minds can fondly recall a time when Angel thought nothing of helping the tortured souls around him, even those who viciously attacked those he loved (“Sanctuary” [1×19] ), and now we can hardly even remember the last time he did any such thing. “Judgement” [2×01], perhaps?
Before claiming a long term goal – his personal reason for existing – in “To Shanshu in LA” [1×22], little else existed for Angel but a seemingly hopeless mission. He felt unable to grow or change in a world that kept on turning without him, and being cut off from humanity in such a way made him feel different and inhuman. The one advantage of this mindset was that he was not as susceptible to human flaws back then as he is now (remember in “Somnambulist” [1×11] when Kate described him as likely considering himself ‘more than human?’). Attaching himself to the world and becoming more human (at least sociologically) brought with it its baggage of emotional and psychological problems; he is more in touch with these feelings, and is capable of arrogance, anger, vanity, obsession and love.
If those seem familiar in their order, it’s because they are; the nine episodes preceding this one have taken Angel to many places. Most important to note are anger, vanity and love, the first of which we saw in “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?” [2×02], in which we discovered a piece of Angel’s past where, when cut off and betrayed, he willingly allowed a paranoia demon to feast upon the population of a hotel. The second was from “Guise Will Be Guise” [2×06], a light but surprisingly insightful episode that dug deep into Angel’s perception of himself, breaking down the image of emotional impenetrability that he put up. It kept him from being fully human, as did his belief that he was a being split between his human and demon sides.
Angel’s acceptance of the concept of being a unified being capable of qualities of both sides of his personality was a very important step forward. Critical, in fact, as its realization is the reason that Angel is able to descend as he does in this episode. The third came from “The Trial” [2×09], in which Angel’s empathy with Darla’s plight leads him to choose the ultimate sacrifice for someone who has done nothing but evil to him for hundreds of years. It is at this point when Wolfram and Hart intervene, having Drusilla, a consequence of Angel’s own past, come back to re-sire Darla just as she becomes ready to accept her path to redemption; this episode where all of the planning Hell Inc. has done becomes clear in its intent.
They have no desire for the return of Angelus, but instead have set out to do something far more devious. Since the Shanshu Prophecy speaks of a vampire with a soul, Angelus would be no good to them; it is Angel they must bring to their side. And here, with their admittedly apt sociological understanding, they’ve pulled Angel away from his mission, driven a wedge between he and his friends, given him the means to connect deeply with someone and then taken it away, knowing full well of explosive and vengeance-ready persona. All through one woman. By removing that deep and important connection (and even more deviously turning her into a vampire, a mockery of what she was) at a critical moment, revenge and victory over W&H become his priorities, and his mission to save souls is left dusted.
Desperate to pursue Lindsey and W&H, he brazenly ignores the plight of a suicidal young man, dealing with him only out of appeasement. Even then he is condescending and inattentive to the root of the problem. Cordelia and Wesley are quick to point out that perhaps the powers are deliberately trying to shake Angel from his pursuit, but by now he is completely unable to listen; the concerns of his friends have been a nuisance to him for some time, but they’ve never before been obstacles. He can no longer be reached and we’re quite sure he doesn’t even want to be.
In the next-to-final scene in Holland’s wine cellar, Angel’s entire life in LA comes to a turn. When breaking into the offices he accused Holland of playing games and sacrificing lives to meet ends, and Holland responded he didn’t care. The chilling and damning echoing of those words from Angel is the tipping point for him; he’s ready to play by the same set of rules. Since “Blind Date” [1×21] he’s been guilt-wracked over having no place in the world of W&H and being unable to fight them, and after all that’s happened he’s prepared to change his modus operandi to be able to. This entire scene is what the season thus far has been built for.
The ironic use of Angel’s heroic theme music, the claustrophobic design and shooting of the wine cellar, and the acting from all parties (especially the vampires) delivers extraordinarily here. Writers Tim Minear and Shawn Ryan construct a simple and effective narrative structure and their dialogue is highly effective as the most shocking elements of the episode, lying with the character’s decisions, play out. Best is the final scene in which Angel willingly acknowledges what he has to do to fight Wolfram and Hart. He considers them inhuman and to play by their rules, he needs to be too, embracing darkness and severing all his remaining human connections he’s built up since “City of” [1×01], starting with the entire team of Angel Investigations. Wesley, Cordelia and Gunn are left frozen by their firing, and I was right there with them.
Its worth pointing out that here Gunn is chastising Angel as much as anyone else in the group, but has only been working with them since “Untouched” [2×04]. In fact, contradicting Wesley and Cordelia’s efforts, he aided Angel’s obsession with Darla and may have even done damage through that course of action. That’s precisely what he is, however: A man of action who does, but does not really think about it unless it involves him personally. However, he has still not dealt with the fact that he works for a vampire, a creature that he has fought since his youth. Both here and in “Epiphany” [2×16] he is quick and harsh with Angel purely because of his own personal feelings towards his kind.
The Lawyers, also, are worth a moment of consideration here. In the previous episode, Lindsey’s affection for Darla motivated him to spearhead the next phase in his firm’s plan by re-siring her. For him, this not only represented a chance to be with her, but a chance to take something important of Angel’s from him. But his ‘love’ for Darla is doomed from the moment she arose, as both she and Lindsey are characters concerned with power. His attraction to her human persona was because of the power that she lacked; a relationship such as this would have Lindsey as the dominant partner, which he would have savoured.
And, to go back to what I said of him in “Blind Date” [1×21], he is someone who believes that the consolidation of power is for the best, and no matter what is done with it, that it is in the right hands is a move for good. With Darla, he felt he could’ve used his power to help her, but now that she is no longer helpless and, in fact, able to snap him as easily as a twig, the dynamic that brought him to her is destroyed. The moment in which Darla clasps Lindsey sensually and smells his warm blood sums up everything: He believes she needs him, but she only needs what he has, and intends to feign anything necessary to get it from him (“Reprise” [2×15] ).
Not forgetting Holland, probably the most frightening villain the Buffyverse has seen since Angelus, I will say that despite my sadness to see him go (even though he does come back ‘dead’ in “Reprise” [2×15]), his removal was a good move. Darla’s human self lacked power, and her vampire self was none too happy with that fact; that she needed Lindsey meant the blame for her suffering needed to fall somewhere, and who better onto than the one who claimed to pull the strings? And it left us with a palpable sense of consequence concerning Dru and Darla’s actions, which is the most critical element for the potency of any twist ending.
With this episode, the project with Darla becomes a success beyond W&H’s wildest dreams, despite that it does come back to bite them in ass and neck. Looking over all of the episodes that I described in detail, it is clear that this season is about the humanization of Angel as a character and what it means to be human: making mistakes, dealing with a past, worrying for the future and eventually falling. The nine episodes before this one were all about common human error, and how even the best and most ensouled of human people can err or fall, or be manipulated into darkness. The episodes following are about Angel’s struggle with that humanity, and end with his deeper recognition of the meaning of such a life (“Epiphany” [2×16] ).
In a season (and a series) full of great consistency and some very strong standouts, this one managed to stand over near all of them. It resolved the first half of the year-long storyline with a well-earned and completely left field resolution that managed to make perfect sense nonetheless, and at the same time gives us great prospects for and expectations of the second half to come. Once again I must give credit to the pacing, which is unapologetically quick and rigid about its rhythm; it’s not hard to follow, but you won’t want to look away for even a moment.
Perhaps the only episode that manages to encapsulate such a flow better from start to finish is the single best episode of the series, “Not Fade Away” [5×22]. Best of all, in a TV wasteland of repetition and contrivance, it gives the loyal audience genuine surprise unrivaled by almost any episode in this show’s run.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Wes and Cordy’s fear at the mention of Drusilla.
+ Gunn’s ruminations on the familial traits of vampires.
+ Dru talking to the stars again, and Angel bringing up that fact from back when he was Angelus in Sunnydale.
+ Holland’s insistence on Lindsey finding healthy attachments.
+ Cordy’s mean look and holding a stake at Angel.
+ Angel smashing right the hell through the skyscraper window. So cool.
+ Drusilla and Darla’s chemistry; these two make a great villainous pair. I also loved it when Dru was ‘ringing.’
+ Angel apologizing to Darla.
+ The entirety of the last two scenes: never had I gotten such goose bumps from an Angel episode.
* Gunn chastises Angel for what he’s done, despite having helped him get there more than anyone else in the gang. In “Epiphany” [2×16], despite having been ignoring his old neighbourhood gang, he is still quick to criticize Angel for his divided loyalties with little comprehension of the reasoning behind the situation.
* Lindsey still feels he loves Darla, and believes that her needing his abilities means she needs him. It isn’t until “Reprise” [2×15] and “Epiphany” [2×16] that he realizes he’s simply been used.