[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: Jim Kouf and Shawn Ryan | Director: Scott McGinnis | Aired: 02/13/2001]
Here we come to what is probably the worst episode of the season and, in consideration of the score, that’s quite a fine thing. Even the show’s fifth and final season can make no such claim about having such tepid lows. “The Thin Dead Line” is thoroughly enjoyable, if somewhat contrived and choppy in terms of its plot. For every bit of character fun and smart-### line we get we’re left with a hole or convenience still a bit too tough to overlook. But, this is the first episode of the arc that leans the amount of story time in favour of Wesley, Cordy and Gunn and does to so with swift purpose and lasting effect.
We also get a significant appearance for Kate whose development here, like the Gang’s, functions as a prelude to the events of the thundering two-part conclusion to the Darla arc just ahead. The two stories are tied together by Anne, whose teen shelter Angel took advantage up but then helped in “Blood Money” [2×12]. Anne’s kids begin complaining of brutal police harassment and Gunn, being an old regular of hers, puts Angel ‘it’s just a name’ Investigations on the case while Angel, his concern for his old friends starting to shine through, inadvertently follows them into it. The smaller aspects of how this occurs, such as Angel happening to run into one of the zombie policemen while lurking around the teen shelter, don’t irk me.
What’s worth identifying as a negative immediately, however, are some key turnpikes in the plot similar to that instance, but more critical to the story and done in even lazier fashions. The first comes in Anne’s initial interactions with the team, in which she brings up how Angel scammed her, but failed to mention how he also redeemed that act by taking a near-deadly beating to get her money back. In contrast to her character in her last appearance, in this episode she’s far more timid and easily intimidated with no ideas on what to do. Even her prior association with Gunn himself seemed a bit too convenient, even if it didn’t stretch believability.
The ideas of the episode are strong, but much of what is done to carry out the critical events feels forced for the events’ sake. Any viewer of the show who has ever handled Internal Affairs for any organization would know the implausibility of there being no public outcry about a rogue police force operating in such a violent fashion for three whole months. Since the zombie police officers act randomly, violently and without discretion it’s hard to imagine that they didn’t at some time attack someone who wasn’t poor or in a gang and who wouldn’t have made a large public case about it. Are we to reasonably believe that only gangster and street kids can live in area so populated with buildings that someone has to own and maintain?
Or perhaps ‘whitey’ owns them all and pays his employees to maintain them. In an episode abound with racial themes, I could’ve bought even the simplest of explanations about how the Captain was singling out street kids and thugs with his zombie force, but no such explanation existed. We’re left with a gaping implausibility; not a common characteristic of this show. And yet, what we get out of the moments these holes exist give us almost makes me want to forgive the weaknesses: Wesley’s pain, Gunn’s fury, Kate’s sorrow, the Gang’s tight unity and Cordelia’s rejection of Angel are the emotional spikes common of this show’s better episodes.
The theme here is centered on justice. The Police Captain believes that his officers were needless victims; though they were prepared to lay down their lives, how they were taken and why repulses him. By re-animating them he may be creating abominations, but he views it as a just retribution against selfish thugs who’ve terrorized many just like his people. Then there’s Jackson, one such thug who’s hardly a poster for self-reflection and feels he should be free to do as he pleases and his opposite Gunn, who sees the injustice of the police crackdown but can’t deny its just intentions. Remorseless criminals like Jackson have made the streets feared and the neighbourhood reviled.
If your average news-watcher can’t be shaken out of apathy by images of Darfur and Rwanda, than one can’t expect them to care about police brutality in a neighbourhood known for slaying cops. Hell, they may even cheer it on. Jackson’s version of justice enrages Gunn because of how it hurts everyone, personified by Wesley’s gunshot which he took trying to help Gunn. That particular aspect of it weighs heavy on him; remember in “First Impressions” [2×03] when he nearly broke down because of his failure to help an old fling? His anger and desperation here are many times that; he and Wesley have fought battles side by side and with Cordelia have begun a new mission to help the helpless, something very important to him.
Kate has something to say about it, too. When the zombie cops are defeated she’s hardly joyful; she expects high murder and rape rates to return as Jackson’s breed returns to the street. Can what the Captain did be considered all that reprehensible when he prevented so much horror? Well, yes. Innocents were attacked and nearly killed by a band of undead under the control of an emotionally compromised man. The moral arguments for him aren’t particularly strong or complex (another weak point of the episode), but the reality of them is important to the characters and that’s what’s important. As aware as Kate was of the injustice of it, she’s given her entire life to the law, and more recently to fighting the undead type of criminal.
Now that the ends of those two objectives are conflicting (creating more human injustice by stopping the non-human variety while aiding the non-human Angel who she suspects of murdering many humans), her descent becomes even steeper. She’s been demoted because of her paranormal obsession that’s fueled by the grief over her father’s death (“The Prodigal” [1×15] ) and she’s clearly getting closer to the edge, as evident in her near breakdown when she worries if her father is among the walking dead. Her entire existence has been defined by his death and the mission that filled that hole is all she has left.
Angel knows how this feels, doubtlessly. He’s been stripped of a good deal of his reasons to exist, but fighting for a good cause, seeing his friends in the flesh and hearing of Wesley’s pain brings him briefly back to the land of the living. The Host’s recognition of Angel’s death wish in “Happy Anniversary” [2×13] clearly raises a self-awareness in him about how bad things have really gotten. Now that even Merl and Kate, two figures who have been antagonistic or at least pesky forces in his life can quickly recognize his selfishness and most baleful traits, he’s starting to re-think how cut off he’s making himself. Would he have still gone down the warpath to Wolfram and Hart?
I believe he would have until the minute Darla had been made dust, even if he reconnected with his friends here. But the final piece to his darkest moment yet to come in “Reprise” [2×15] is only put into place here when both plots collide for the episode’s finest scene. Cordelia’s outright rejection of Angel’s attempt to visit Wesley is a harsh and honest product of what they’ve been forced to endure without him. They’ve fought enemies together, gotten a new office, established a clientele and proved that they’re there for each other in the most horrific of circumstances. Angel may be ready to come back to them, but Cordy’s not wrong in saying that they don’t need him anymore; it’s a truth she knows.
Her brashness in stating it and her complete unwillingness to give Angel a chance is a culmination of the pain they’ve been forced through by his betrayal. The best moral question this episode asks is: Is that just? I’m not sure about it myself. But every action here is believable, and the consequences won’t disappear, as the next two episodes will show. It’s in the moments like these that I want to like installments like this a great deal more than I do and that urge alone is a mark of something worthwhile.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Angel sneaking up on Merl. How did he get so damn good at that?!
+ Gunn joking around with the shelter kids and George and Rondell.
+ Cordelia seeing her old blouse at Anne’s shelter.
+ Anne’s ideas about having an extra eye: “That’s handy.”
+ Angel’s bluntness with Kate: “I just killed a cop.”
– The Zombie cops. Lame and unfrightening.
* Angel tries to reach back out to his friends but is outright rejected, giving him further conviction to continue on the warpath to W&H and no reason not to go through with his suicide mission in “Reprise” [2×15].
* Kate is shown at one of her lowest points here yet; all she has left is the mission of the law she’s been left with in her father’s death as that comes apart, so does she. In “Reprise” [2×15] she is fired and then attempts to kill herself.
* Gunn is chastised by George and Rondell for not being around for his old neighbourhood crew. In “Belonging” [2×19] this comes full circle as he realizes he’s let his new bonds tear him away from his responsibilities, and that he’s been a hypocrite in berating Angel for abandoning his friends when he’s done the same.