[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: David Greenwalt | Director: David Greenwalt | Aired: 09/24/2001]
“Heartthrob” is another competent but flawed season opener, following in the footsteps of “Judgement” [2×01]. It has a lot going for it in the way of characterization for Angel and in some ways, actually took a very brave approach on a tough subject for the show’s titular character. And, like all David Greenwalt episodes, it’s full of zesty dialogue and barrels along in the interest of fun. The end of the hour hasn’t taken us anywhere particularly miraculous, but it’s definitely worthwhile and, even if deserving of a similar score, a lot more fun to watch than “Judgement” [2×01] was. The introduction of Fred to the regular character roster also adds something new and interesting to the mix, as actress Amy Acker adorably plays up the stutters and nervousness that is post-Pylea Fred.
This episode, like the season openers that preceded it, deals with the main theme of the season head on in anticipation of episodes to come. For Season Three, it’s responsibility. Angel has become more a part of the human world than he ever has been, and living a human life requires fulfilling certain responsibilities. Many of those come at Angel in S3, particularly in the form of his son Connor, whom is he left to raise after the death of Darla in “Lullaby” [3×09]. “Heartthrob” deals with another kind of responsibility, though: responsibility to the dead, particularly the dearly departed whom we’ve loved. The episode’s strongest attribute is how well it applies the new central theme to dealing with a serious and necessary character issue.
What’s more is that Angel deals with it a way that’s interesting and unpredictable, while still making perfect sense in light of his development last season. I liked how Greenwalt made fun of the fact that Buffy and Angel were now on separate networks and crossovers had been made forbidden; no one in the episode actually says the name Buffy, but they all know she’s dead. Angel spends the hour dealing with this. Or does he? Rightfully so, you may expect Angel to be fully grieving throughout the entire show, yet when he returns from a very non-peaceful retreat, acts out of character for a man who’s lost the love of his life.
The other characters recognize it; particularly Cordelia, who’s always been Angel’s closest friend and strongest emotional tie to his mission. But the truth is that Angel has moved on, and the show defies our expectations by making it clear just how far he’s come. Buffy’s memory, dragged up by the confrontation with James, pains him, but he’s above obsessing over it, while James isn’t. Angel has grown, James has not. In James, we get a portrait of the man Angel once was: Starting out in a new life (a vampiric one, in James’ case), his growth as a person became tied to someone else’s, resulting in a close, and unassuming bond of love unparalleled by any other kind of relationship one can have.
Losing that connection has destroyed James, as it once nearly did Angel. However, he shows no signs of any such devastation. He brings gifts to his friends, chats warmly with them and forges on in helping Fred regain her sanity and confidence. The lessons Angel learned in “Reprise” [2×15] and “Epiphany” [2×16] inform all he is now: He knows he can’t save everyone in the world, and he knows he couldn’t’ have saved Buffy. And no matter how much he still loved her, he’d now spent years building his own life and purpose, becoming his own person. Like Angelus once did, he knows that ‘love’ as James experienced it can be as harshly debilitating as it is wonderful, and the obsessions that it can spurn are nothing but self-destructive.
For James, who undergoes a procedure to render him invincible at the cost of his unlife (after a certain number of hours), this is literally true. Without his great love, he’s nothing: literally, and he gives his unlife to try and destroy the person who took his love. If one thing bothers Angel, it’s that he doesn’t feel this way; he can and has already moved on from Buffy, having no interest feeling responsible or attacking those who are. But as Cordelia lovingly points out, it’s a sign of his strength and character. His ability to carry on with his heart intact, filled with Buffy’s memory and love, makes him stronger and better than James could’ve been even if he had had a soul.
The act of surviving to properly honour the dead in our lives shows greater respect for them than anything else could. Angel’s moved on to the ‘new place’ in his life, as Lorne advised him to in “Epiphany” [2×16]. The whole show seems ready to move on to a new place as well: The sets are brighter lit, moods are cheerier and bonds are closer than they’ve ever been. However, the simple and easily avoidable issues that plague the episode keep it, disappointingly, from being among the stronger premieres. It lacks the more crippling issues that S3 has as a whole, thankfully, but overestimates its ability to engage; a rare flaw for this show. Much of the last act simply holds little interest.
The fights and chase scenes, especially in the sewer, were uninteresting and attempted substituting tension for substance. One such case is the idea that not knowing how long James has until he ‘runs out’ creates said tension, all because Cordelia’s cellphone has cut out a critical moment. With the show nearly over and the villain being a one-shot, this attempt falls flat. And while I appreciate the in joke that cellphones in the Whedonverse never work (remember “She” [1×13]?), it was too cliche. The quick and dramatic resolution aboard the train did relieve and was well earned, but seemed too little too late. As is true of the whole story, there seemed to be patches of thin shallowness between the scenes of entertaining interaction and real progress, especially in the second half.
The other major issue is the simple and lazy insertion of James and Elisabeth conveniently into Angel’s past. Considering we’ve never seen or heard of these two before, the group can’t have been together long; it’s unnecessary ret-con. And seeing how it turned out, it makes you wonder why Angelus and Darla ever bothered forming a new group with Spike and Drusilla. However, unlike the previous flaw mentioned, there are reasons to forgive it. Firstly: It strengthens S2’s character statement about Angel as someone capable of being both human and demon (Angelus) at once, as Angel/Angelus share the same opinions, in some ways, in this episode. Secondly, it allows Julie Benz’s presence on the show to seem as simple as yet another flashback role when, waiting in the wings, the writers have a major plot twist ready to throw at us.
Beyond this, there’s not much to discuss, an issue prevalent with much of S3. There’s always a great deal of drama, foreboding and long scenes of tension, but not as much substance as the average episodes of previous years. Even the season’s best episodes, with very few exceptions, boast more of a visceral gut punch than smart, intelligent social examination. It’s particularly disappointing since S2 proved that both can co-exist exceptionally well in an episode. In admittance of that, though, there’s still a great deal to enjoy as we dive into this new season, in which much of what we’re promised pays off pretty well.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Fred being cute and jittery.
+ Cordy remembering the Ring of Amarra from “In the Dark” [1×03].
+ The re-use of the subway train set from Buffy’s “Fool for Love.”
+ Cordy sticking her tongue out at James.
– The fight sequences. The cuts between punches in this episode are pathetically obvious.
* Cordy’s speech to Angel is telling of his development this season. As Angel gets closer to his team and eventually has a son, he becomes less and less a champion and more of a regular human being with an odd, demon fighting job; a ‘good guy.’
* Wesley shows more shades of his newly developing ‘man of action’ persona which leads to his tragedy in “Sleep Tight” [3×16]. Where last season Wes bended easily to Merl, this time he’s rougher on him to get the job done. Also: when Angel gives him the new knife as a gift, he’s excited about getting out there and killing something with it.