[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: Tim Minear | Director: Thomas J. Wright | Aired: 02/27/2001]
“Epiphany” is the second part of the arc-ending two-parter following “Reprise” [2×15], but is really more of a counterpart than a direct continuation. It’s much lighter, more upbeat and in certain terms, more bearable than its other half. “Reprise” [2×15] is an episode so penetrating with its darkness and despair that one may actually long to jump headfirst into this episode right away just to wash the bitter taste out, no matter how good it is. And “Epiphany” delivers in that cleansing. Where before there was despair, it is replaced by hope and where there was a world devoid of meaning and full of evil now we’re given one with the potential for greatness and the possibility of benevolence watching kindly over us.
It’s a great episode, but if it’s not quite as great as the last one it’s only because the bar was set impossibly high. It feels a bit thinner on big events and is definitely lighter on the action and huge “holy crap did you see that?!!” moments, narrowing its scope from the world entire to the old-time gang of Angel Investigations. But the broader implications are still there, as the lessons learned from the long and dark period stretching between “Reunion” [2×10] and “Reprise” [2×15] are reviewed and taken into consideration by our brooding hero and what they mean for the worth of the world he lives in. And even if there isn’t as much “wow!” there’s a lot of sobering and heart-warming moments that make up for it.
What makes it a direct counterpart to the last episode is that it has a simple philosophy: Nothing matters. There’s no winning, no losing, only existing. It’s why Holland Manners claimed Wolfram and Hart couldn’t be defeated: It is the world’s evil, and as long as humankind exists, W&H can exist because humankind has evil in every one of its people. Angel gave into complete despair because, try as me may to deny it, he had become part of humanity and what Holland said meant that not only could he never succeed at destroying evil, but that he was forever doomed to do evil as a human and therefore eternally damned and incapable of redeeming himself; gaining his ultimate reward as promised by the Shanshu Prophecy (“To Shanshu in LA” [1×22] ).
What we’re offered here is surprisingly similar, but moves in the opposite direction. It’s summed up by what’s probably the most iconic piece of dialogue the show has produced: “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.” It’s an existentialist’s perspective on the world. It always surprised me that creator Joss Whedon was an agnostic, due to the spiritual (if vaguely so) nature of Buffy. But this episode establishes Angel’s world as, despite having the Powers That Be, one largely without a God. But that’s not a bleak thing; if humans are full of undeniable evil, so too must they have good, for without both we would have no relative definition of the other.
The philosophy Angel espouses is one of personal responsibility and great moral consequence. If there’s no greater plan, no master entity, endless design for the world or pre-destined fate, then there is no greater judge above us. All we’re left with us is ourselves on this Earth and all we can be measured by is our actions. Good or evil doesn’t matter in a cosmic sense but are the most important things in the world because of who they help or hurt. When Angel began his mission to help the helpless in “City of” [1×01] it was about saving souls, not lives; helping people to make their lives worth living. Something much harder and more worthwhile. He carried that on into S2, where he was fighting because he believed he was working towards a pre-destined reward: being awarded humanity by saving the world.
Darla’s resurrection and re-siring changed all that. It made Angel angry with the powers and redefined his mission to one of destroying evil; a simpler, vengeance-rooted pursuit. But the utter failure of that made him realize the fallacy of all his actions going as far back as “Judgement” [2×01]. Redemption is not about chalking up a count of souls saved and weighing that against how many one needs to save to get the prize, nor is it simply throwing oneself down into fire to battle demons and stand atop a mountain of triumph. Those are selfish and useless paths, because there will always be more demons and more evil no matter how many mountains you take. Redemption is a part of Angel’s life, which is not something that can be won or lost in the end; it’s about distance traveled and time spent. Life and redemption are about the journey and what you do on it.
Your acts of good or evil are what you are measured by and in a world where only our actions and the intentions behind them count, even the smallest act of kindness means the world because you stopped to do it. When Angel convinced Rachel to have strength in herself in “In the Dark” [1×03] or made lonely nerd David Nabbit feel useful amongst those ‘cooler’ than him in “First Impressions” [2×03] he did tremendous and amazing things because what those people took away from that made their lives better, if only for a time. And that is what Angel resolves to do here: Help. He can never win, but he can make the world a better place and one day end his (un)life knowing that what he did mattered to the people he helped, which is far more profound and selfless than any great crusade against evil forces ever could be.
Realizing all of this is the key to everything for Angel. Because of all the chances stolen from her, he is merciful to Darla and allows her a chance to leave town. When he has the opportunity to kill Lindsey (which he rightly should) he gives him another shot both to symbolize how he’s leaving behind his grudges to put his priority back on his friends, and to show his remorse and willingness to give second chances the way he’s been given one. The scene where he apologizes to Lindsey for so many things is one of my favourites; the man clearly needs a violent wake up call, but still has a potential for redemption that Angel sees and because of his failure, like he failed with so many things, to help Lindsey in “Blind Date” [1×21] when he wanted to be helped, he lets him go.
Lindsey’s been scorned and is rightly angry, but is angrier for what he’d allowed himself to be led into than anything, and like Angel, he’s going to have to deal with it (“Dead End” [2×18] ). Angel is also willing to forgive Kate, who has been less than kind to him on too many occasions. All her life, this character who has been a cop finally lost that in “Reprise” [2×15] and blamed it on Angel who, in some part, must bear the blame. But they both come to a place of forgiving one another for all their misdeeds because they both need second chances to start their lives over and recognize that other people are going to be the only ones who give that to them. Or maybe there’s more than that.
I don’t take away too much from Kate’s ‘faith’ more than an interesting ‘what if,’ but it’s a pretty strong one: she never invited Angel into her house and yet he managed to get in and save her. The faith that she’s truly not alone gives Kate the strength to forgive Angel who saves her, and at least begin to let go of the death of her father which has made Angel the representation of the otherworldly forces which she then became obsessed with destroying. Like Angel, she’ll probably go on to fight the good fight, but now it’s for a reason unto itself, not a selfish end. Not that we’ll ever know; actress Elisabeth Rohm moved on to a role on “Law and Order” and this was her last appearance on the show, which was a disappointment as she would’ve been a great season three character.
However, it would only be too easy for Angel if everyone could forgive him that easily. Wesley, Gunn and Cordelia are surprised to see Angel and are more than ready to admonish him. Given all that Angel’s gone through it seems more than a little harsh knowing what they know and having been through what they have, it’s also entirely understandable. The Host, in a delightful scene, tells Angel a truth that is proven by the showrunners as we move into S3: You can’t go back, you have to move on to the new place. That’s pretty obvious, though. Wesley, once a stalwart believer in Angel’s mission and motives says that he has his head up his ass. He’s had to take the leadership role and knows what it means now, and knows how Angel failed it.
Gunn, who himself has abandoned his old neighbourhood gang for Angel Investigations, chastises Angel for that very act. Perhaps it’s because he’s still hung up on Angel’s vampiric nature, a fact which he has to deal with in “That Old Gang of Mine” [3×03]. Even though he’s committed the same act, it stings harsher for Charles because of his personal history with vampires. In S4 he becomes a man of thought and planning, but right now he’s simply a man with no capacity for self-reflection, only action; capable of comprehending only what’s before him now, which could also be why he doesn’t see the truth of what he’s done until “Belonging” [2×19]. Finally, there’s Cordelia, who’s had to bear the weight of Angel’s mission in his absence, too.
Yet for all her suffering all she’s interested in is doing what she can to help the helpless. She’s grateful and at least a little forgiving, as shown by her happiness to see Angel, but her problem with him is simple: he ‘really hurt her feelings.’ His bond with her is one of trust that he’s going to have to earn back. But there’s ground gained; Angel taking brutal beatings to save his friends and offering to follow Wesley’s lead extended an olive branch that showed clearly what he’d learned from his time alone. As for trust: he’s just going to have to earn it, and for the gang that’s enough. Now, as the Host said, they move on to the new place.
Looking back at this arc, which began with “Dear Boy” [2×05], there many many unforgettable moments. The fact that there are four perfect episodes within a span of twelve says something truly remarkable about the amount of planning and finesse that went into it. Beyond the fantastic character arcs, gorgeous production design, well-done action and shocking plot twists there’s a huge deal of substance too, and it’s that deeper level that makes this arc so engaging. The brave and unique outlook on the definition of humanity, the nature of good and evil and its true forms and what it really, truthfully means to be a hero are built up, de-constructed, re-assembled and then paid off like hell by the time we reach this end. In twelve mere episodes, the world has been re-painted in different colours, top to bottom.
Best about this particular episode is its refreshing message of hope and its faith in the general goodness of humanity itself. Too often we’re bombarded by images of war, messages of corruption; we forget to stop and look around at the love and friendship that binds everyday society together and what the smallest graces are worth. That’s what this episode really is about. Humanity is terrible, but it certainly doesn’t suck, and it can be great on occasion when we take responsibility for our own actions, and do more than say a prayer and drop $5 in the collection basket to consider ourselves ‘good.’ From here we move on to a very different stage of the show’s existence, and getting there’s been one hell of a time.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Darla’s reaction to Angel not losing his soul. Scary, and then also funny.
+ Lindsey’s anger with Darla and wanting to know every detail.
+ The Host’s chipper attitude towards epiphany-Angel. Also: leather pants. Ha!
+ Cordy’s most useless vision ever.
+ The Skilosh calling Wesley “wheel-ed.”
+ Angel trying to connect to Wesley through his “gut wound.”
+ Kate’s redemption, and Angel’s apology to the gang; two of the most sobering, potent moments of this season.
* Angel’s new belief in the immediacy of life, the lack of a higher power and the fallacy of a predestined design begins to erode his doubt in the truth of the Shanshu Prophecy. Due to the horrors he experiences, by the end of S4 he comes to loathe the very term ‘Champion’ and has absolutely no belief in the prophecy at all.
* The new philosophy presented by this episode becomes the mission statement for the show. In the series finale “Not Fade Away” [5×22], Angel and the gang go head on against the Senior Partners knowing full well they’ll lose and be killed because they believe that taking the stand is what matters.