[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: Tim Minear | Director: James Whitmore Jr | Aired: 02/20/2001]
“Reprise,” the first episode of the two part conclusion to Season Two’s main arc, begins in a dark place and ends even darker. Save for “Release” [4×14], this is quite possibly the darkest episode of the show and it’s an extremely close second at that. Despite the hope for change the last two episodes presented, this one takes that inkling and shoots it to pieces in a glorious culmination of all the character developments that have, let’s face it, befouled the major players since “Reunion” [2×10]. Each scene is dimmer and dimmer lit as time goes on and as each sequence gets more intense, writer Tim Minear ratchets the tension to unbearable levels only to let it all untwist in the most shocking and unpredictable of ways through the return of a character thought dead; brought back to deliver Wolfram and Hart’s true message in what is one of the single finest scenes written for television that I’ve ever witnessed.
Holland Manners has been complex and nearly as terrifying a villain as Angelus since he first appeared in “Blind Date” [1×21]. He’s been a human symbol of the philosophy of Wolfram and Hart since that time, and his ruminations here allow the Senior Partners’ plans to exceed beyond their wildest dreams. Like his particular scene, all of “Reprise” is carefully crafted and meticulously scripted; every single word counts. Listen closely, or you may miss the most important things this series has to say yet (as you may be able to gleam, episodes of this manner are to my liking). Even aside from the flawless final act, there’s a lot to appreciate and dissect.
The director finds the big, dark cloud in every silver lining and puts it firmly atop the show’s head, and the foreboding in the first half of the episode matches as the whispers of reviews, partners and claynachs slowly build suspense and wonder. On the writing side there’s a whole lot going on as well: the Gang begins to sink after their last two episodes of big success (gunshot wounds aside) and Angel’s unsettling progression from suicide warrior to an all out soul-destroyed being is attentively mapped out, all of it falling under Holland’s vision of the true home office and ending in bleak, utter despair for everyone. This is not a field of happy, bouncing bunnies (unless you’re Anya, in which case that imagery is perfect).
Originally, I thought I might begin with the Fang Gang, but in full evaluation it’s best to go to the end and examine what that means concerning how we got there. Holland Manners, sent as an emissary from hell on behalf of the Senior Partners has a simple and disarming piece of wisdom to impart: Evil endures. It endures because it must. It endures because it’s an idea, and ideas are bulletproof. ‘Evil’ as a concept that humans understand is, like anything, entirely subjective and is more like a spectrum with which we can judge actions, not a large net to be cast over all unsavoury acts. But what Holland speaks of is not ‘evil’ in the sense that we typically judge things. We might call marketing or advertising evil, but that’s on the spectrum, isn’t it?
What he’s getting at is something far more primal: The darkest urges of human existence, from wherever they may originate (our sociology, psychology or biology), that spawn actions of selfishness, destruction; an undeniable form of evil that only causes pain and contributes to the world’s system of entropy. It has no reason and needs no reason, it simply is suffering, malice and greed, all ideas we have words for, yes, but all things we know exist in some form outside subjectivity and the words that we associate them with. Whether or not this evil is intentional is irrelevant, because it’s in all of us, according to Holland. And that’s what Wolfram and Hart is: Evil for evil’s sake. It is the formal organization and physical representation of the worst things humanity has to offer, made of those who choose to actualize their dark ambitions.
Its exemplary employees, like Lindsey, are brought into the fold by the human desires they have and the destructive human sins they commit to fulfill them and are kept there by the promise of either the consolidation of power being for a greater good, or simply by their greed/power lust. All of those are purely human things. And yet, who knows? Perhaps it is all for a greater purpose; without our understanding of evil, there could not be what we define as good. In “Power Play” [5×21] Angel hypothesizes that evil exists so that human beings can oppose it, and that that’s what makes them truly great. As an avatar and practical organization of the inevitable evil that humanity generates in its worst of intentions, W&H can’t be destroyed further than its physical appearance because of the ideas behind it.
That is why Angel can’t ‘win;’ it’s why Holland so delightfully calls the very thought of winning ‘prosaic.’ Wolfram and Hart can’t win or lose, because as long as there are people, there will be evil, and there will be Wolfram and Hart, even if the Senior Partners aren’t the ones pulling the strings. They are the evil, and the name W&H is just the title humans have given them to represent it.
This means everything for Angel. Following “To Shanshu in LA” [1×22] he became more or less human in how he interacted with people, worked, lived and operated due to having a probable future to work towards and friends to help him get there. His entire character arc of season two up to this point has been about the highs and lows of human existence; human triumph, but mostly human fallacy (Joss Whedon shows usually aren’t happy). Even in his worst moments where he was actively trying to transform himself into a soul-dead machine of destruction, he had resurging moments of humanity: Helping Anne in “Blood Money” [2×12], showing remorse for firing the gang in “Happy Anniversary” [2×13] and trying to reach out to them in “The Thin Dead Line” [2×14].
However, none of that would’ve mattered until Darla became dust; his inability to save her destroyed and redefined his mission. As The Host put it, he went “from helping the helpless to hunting down the guilty.” For Angel, redemption has no longer held meaning in helping people, but in destroying what he believes hurts them the most and because of W&H’s involvement in destroying Darla’s redemption, he has pegged them as that agent. His entire mission for redemption, for sacrificing his ‘human’ life and committing horrible and reprehensible acts became destroying that evil. That became the key to the Shanshu prophecy and to preventing the apocalypse. When Holland illuminates the truth for Angel it utterly destroys him for many reasons.
That truth means he can’t win, or beat them, it means he can’t ever save the world from evil, it means he fired his friends and did terrible things in the name of good for nothing and that inevitably and no matter how hard he tries to deny it, he is human. And as a human, he is as bound to do things as terrible as anyone else and nothing can stop that so long as his humanity exists. Angel gives into perfect despair at this, dropping the glove for which he was ready to give his life to use like it was nothing and wandering hopelessly home where he finds Darla. Giving into her advances he believes Holland is entirely right; how couldn’t he be after all he’s seen and done?
Evil can’t be defeated and people can’t be saved from it. Darla, his friends, Kate (who will be discussed in great detail in the next review) and Denver the old shopkeeper were all symbols of the impact of his noble mission and their hope and bravery did nothing to save them and nor could he. Even Angel’s one grand attempt to save the world from that forever yielded only more pain. Terrified and hopeless he gives into Darla with every intention of losing his soul because after all this, Angelus seems the better option. Angel has finally hit rock bottom in the most tragic of ways; this is where Wolfram and Hart has truly succeeded. They don’t need to beat their enemies, they need to convince them that they’re right, which is tremendously worse for the world.
To wind down a little, I’ll talk about Lindsey and the gang, who are also prey to the cycle of evil. I explained in my review of “Reunion” [2×10] that the Darla/Lindsey relationship would never work for one simple reason: They’re both about power (see “Blind Date” [1×21] and “Darla” [2×07] ). Lindsey was attracted to her because of her human helplessness and need for his power and after she became a vampire again, he was only further endeared by her unmatched hunger for it. But as a vampire concerned with power, she would have no concern for him and resorts to entirely using him; for shelter and to get into Wolfram and Hart, interested in going to the Home Office but for a very different reason than Angel. But there is something surprising to her here and to the viewer as well:
Lindsey’s power-lust has been dulled by Wolfram and Hart’s inaction against Angel and their constant mind games with him. He’s clearly still interested in his personal advancement, but is beginning to realize that they are not the way to go. Due to this and his misplaced affection for Darla he helps her in spite of her betrayal, an immoral act committed with noble, affectionate intention which spins Darla’s compass completely off balance. She’s become a vampire again to rid herself of a soul and live immorally to gain power; true, selfless actions from someone who shows love for her is so incomprehensible that all she can do is run to Angel and hope he’s Angelus again; her lucky night.
Finally, there is the Fang Gang, who experience human evil in a much pettier and more annoying form: the Sharps. Clients who refuse to pay because, clearly, demons don’t exist and Angel Investigations is a scam. It’s a slap in the face after all the progress Wes, Cordy and Gunn have made that fighting demons isn’t their biggest worry, it’s dealing with the humans in the process. Gunn is disheartened, leaving to go back to his old neighbourhood and Wesley goes home to the arms of Virginia, only to be abandoned because of her fear of human violence and her weaknesses. And Cordelia, because of her human greed (however justified) is lured into what appears to be certain death by the Skilosh demon tribe whom they cured the Sharps’ daughter of.
In closing, perhaps my favourite thing here is how the curtain is pulled back to show the grand crusade against evil a waste and the true enemy living right at home in our hearts and minds. Few shows would have the courage or the intelligence to so frighteningly portray evil this accurately; these aren’t the black-clad overlords that Star Wars or Narnia or a thousand other simple-man’s stories tell. These are the people who work in our office towers, whose children go to our schools and the people who run our countries and live next door.
For this statement alone it is profound, and that it works on every level (as a human drama, as great character development and a cautionary tale) is just a huge bonus. This is one of the very best episodes of the series, and perhaps its very most important to real life. Its counterpart, “Epiphany” [2×16], acknowledges the truths learned here but offers hope in the wake of discovering them.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Goats. So many goats.
+ Kate finally making the connection between Angel and the wine cellar.
+ The re-use of Denver the shopkeeper. Writer Tim Minear also wrote “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?” [2×02] and it’s nice to see he remembered that character.
+ Darla playing Lindsey so deviously, and her ‘appearance’ at Denver’s shop. Ow.
+ Angel’s heated conflict with Wes and Cordy.
+ The fight at Wolfram and Hart. The frightening Claynach, both Angel and Darla charging the place and Angel’s legendary leap through the office window to the ground below.
+ Holland Manners. One of my favourite Whedonverse villains; dead, and kicking, and with one of the best written single scenes this show’s ever seen. Great to have him back one last time.
+ Angel appearing to ‘lose’ his soul. Knowing what comes next in 2×16: “Epiphany” [2×16] makes this all the more interesting.
* Having learned the truth of Wolfram and Hart’s M.O. here, Angel realizes many years down the line in Season Five and particularly in “Power Play” [5×21], that the purpose of all the horror they exist to represent is so that humans can fight back, and that that’s what makes humanity ‘remarkably strong;’ better than the demons Holland makes them sound like here.