[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: Jeffrey Bell | Director: Bill Norton | Aired: 10/01/2001]
“That Vision Thing” is an episode with a good deal of emotional strength and a pretty competent plot that manages to impress a good deal more than the season opener “Heartthrob” [3×01]. It also manages to accomplish the same ends in a thematic sense. Although, due to the necessity of dealing with the Buffy issue, it couldn’t possibly have been the season opener. Unlike the last episode, it’s an installment that has some good material that, while not necessarily in reach of a high point, has no real flaws and is a solid, standalone piece of work. Cordelia’s visions have always been central to Angel’s mission as has her bond with him, and the idea of toying with that made for a worthwhile showing.
The trouble starts right away. Cordelia’s visions have been getting worse for a long time now, both in their emotional and physiological impact. In “Birthday” [3×11] we find out that she’d been popping serious painkillers to deal with them since around the time of “Redefinition” [2×11]. Then the damage took a huge step up in “Dead End” [2×18] when we saw how they were starting to cause serious and lasting pain in both of those ways, in which the feelings of the suffering in the visions stayed with her for unbearable minutes afterward. In S2 Cordy finally accepted the worth of these visions, even if she still bemoaned the pain that came with them.
Where once she made out with a demon to try and get rid of them (“Parting Gifts” [1×10]), she’s now desperate not to lose them. Seeing what was over the rainbow for her in a prospective acting career and getting to literally be a princess in Pylea (“Belonging” [2×19] and “Through the Looking Glass” [2×21] respectively) exposed the shallowness of such pursuits for this emotionally mature woman, who saw the value of being recognized more for accomplishment and making that accomplishment something worthwhile. Now, even in spite of the increasingly horrid pain, she can’t separate her identity from the visions. It allows her to be accomplished, to be important, but to be that way in a worthwhile and immaterial way; a direct contrast to her character two seasons ago.
Again the plot asks us to take a look at the theme of responsibility, but in a different way this time. We’re asked exactly what directly or indirectly constitutes it. Is Angel the most responsible party, having killed do-gooders and freed an evil man? Is Cordy, whose life motivates the actions, or Lilah, who orchestrates it all? Is it all of them? The film Minority Report touches on something that I was reminded of in considering Lilah’s manipulations. It featured a world where murder was non-existent because of a ‘pre-crime’ police unit that arrested murderers before they killed. The characters justify this system by arguing a form of determinism: Just because it was stopped doesn’t mean it wasn’t going to happen.
If we can’t do anything other than what we would choose to do when confronted with a situation because of what informs our personalities, then all that is required to master human destiny and, in a sense, play God, is an understanding and apt manipulation of the people you require moved into place. This validates the claim that everything is pre-determined; not necessarily because of a higher power, but because of prior causal forces that make it impossible for us to do anything else than what we do when confronted with a choice. It means we really have no choice, only the illusion of it. It means Lilah’s the one responsible. But Angel certainly doesn’t believe in a pre-determined world, and neither does the show.
As outlined in “Epiphany” [2×16], he believes that actions are what define us. This is held true in determinism as well, but in a different way. Angel, however, is most definitely an indeterminist; choices made are actualizations amongst a sea of other possibilities. The truth is that Angel did kill those on the side of good and did free an evil man. And he believes that he’s responsible, in some part, for making the choice to do so even if he didn’t come to the moment of choice voluntarily. Lilah’s definitely responsible as well, but not solely. As he so astutely observes, it was the wrong choice to make, but for good enough reasons, for which he’ll eventually have to pay the consequences.
Cordelia’s visions are important to his mission and having them compromised or the infallibility of them challenged threatens him and many others, as this episode demonstrated. That’s not something he can tolerate and is most definitely something he will take dark measures in order to protect. But what’s even more is that Cordelia and Angel share a special bond, one that we see starts turning into something even deeper this episode (to become love later this season). Cordelia was his first real link to humanity when he came to L.A. in “City of” [1×01], and she’s the very first life and soul he ever saved. She’s believed in him more than anyone and been a closer friend and confidant, even in the worst of times.
His devotion to her here, with all this strong past behind it, is completely genuine in its strength and all of the things Angel does to save her feel completely in character because of the bond we understand between them, becoming only stronger now. This is good character work, earned with years of careful plotting and foresight on behalf of the writers. The episode balances this type of development well with its moral considerations a la S2’s and S5’s better standalones. Along with some fairly good dialogue and a few genuinely funny moments, it strikes a very likeable chord even in between the drama and the pain that is watching Cordy suffer. One simply has to adore Skip, who’s just too cool a guy.
It’s also a good first entry into the Whedonverse for writer Jeffrey Bell, who’d go on to become a Co-Executive producer and actually does a lot of the showrunning for Joss Whedon in S4 (who at the time was doing also Buffy and Firefly). Although, one can note that the dialogue in this and some of Bell’s other early episodes (“Quickening” [3×08]) does feel a little forced. But it’s a problem that gets fixed pretty quickly. And it certainly doesn’t hinder him here. Considering the importance of Cordelia’s ascension to hero and her relationship with Angel later on in the season, this episode was a necessary first step and I quite enjoyed how it was handled.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Fred being jittery again. I particularly empathize with her love of peanut butter right out of the jar.
+ Gavin Park’s anti-Angel tactics. It’s the little things in life that really piss us off, no?
+ The strengthening bond between Angel and Cordy. This is still my favourite dynamic on the show.
+ Skip, the most truly frightening looking demon we’ve ever seen on this show, being as cool and friendly a guy as a Wal-Mart stock monkey.
* The direct theme of direct and indirect responsibility here comes up again in “Billy” [3×06] in which Angel and Cordy track the man they freed here.
* Cordelia views the visions as an integral part of her now. Later in the season this becomes literally true as she’s made half-demon so as to better use them (“Birthday” [3×11] ) and eventually transcends to become a higher being that’s, in a way, becoming them (“Tomorrow” [3×22] ).