[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: Tim Minear | Director: Fred Keller | Aired: 10/08/2001]
“That Old Gang of Mine” is a frustratingly underrated episode. Many fans of AtS are often angered by the idiocy of some of the characters in the central plot and project their frustrations upon the episode. Those who hold intelligent grievances against it aside, people who label this episode idiotic because of idiotic actions fail to miss the point. In fact, I find this to be one of my favourite little episodes of the series; a well-constructed, intelligent piece of character work that results in scenes of aching tension and strong drama. Sure, Gio is a moronic man of men to hate, but that’s the point. And that he and Rondell actually have some good points to make is to the episode’s credit.
It’s primarily a Gunn episode, and addresses the long overdue issue of where he belongs and how he relates to the demon world, specifically to Angel. As a man who’s fought a sustained war in poor neighbourhoods against vampires for much of his life, he’s always been justifiably wary about working with Angel. As I’ve mentioned before, he’s always been less trusting and less amicable towards Angel than anyone. He’s had trouble seeing him as anything but a vampire and no matter what good Angel did, he was nothing but a set of teeth waiting to slip onto someone’s neck. When Angel came back from his dark streak in “Epiphany” [2×16], Gunn was the hardest on him of anyone.
It was most hypocritical considering Gunn had abandoned his neighbourhood gang in the exact same way Angel had abandoned his friends, but the thought didn’t even enter the man-of-action’s mind; he was a vampire who had acted according to that design, and deserved what he got for it. Pylea began to bridge the gap between them as he saw Angel fight and conquer his darker impulses, but the issue of Gunn’s trust in remained unfinished business. Not unlike his issues of belonging, a conflict which he faced in a more literal manner than anyone during the group’s Pylean holiday; as a soldier who acts with no foresight, Gunn found himself torn between Angel Investigations and his old neighbourhood throughout S2.
His mindset is understandable given his history of fighting a ‘war’ (where quick action saves your life and over-thinking kills you), but it’s one that now has to change. Gunn loves both his old and new crews. Cordy and Wes have both saved his life (“First Impressions” [2×03] and “The Thin Dead Line” [2×14]) and his old gang have been comrades in arms for years, so in the first act Gunn finds himself torn yet again. But where late last season he was leaning towards Angel Investigations, some moral questions make him start teetering back the other way. He begins to think and to question the purpose and the worth of the work he’s doing. With the luxury of continued survival, he’s becoming more cerebral.
It’s not the most intelligent one can ask, but the question begs consideration especially for a man in Gunn’s situation. More importantly, he’s stopping to ask it. Merl and some of the other demons slaughtered by Gio and Rondell’s crew were harmless, but not all of them were. The episode is clear in condemning random killing but is not so quick to let us off the hook about the truly evil demons. Even for the sake of peace and sanctuary there are some that one cannot justify tolerating, and as much as you may personally like Lorne, the specifics of his clientele’s personal lives are stomach churning; one demon admits to eating babies. The act of letting such a creature live knowing what it does can be considered accessory to murder.
And from this consideration on the episode gets smarter: it draws a subtle metaphor to the issues of race and culture in our modern society. Now, the idea of racism has very little meaning in a biological sense simply because all humans are the same species. “Racism” as we understand it may involve certain physical characteristics (notably skin colour), but more often than not has to do with culture. People who hold prejudicial opinions about black people usually refer to the ‘gansta’ culture of greed, murder, irresponsibility and poor lingual habits. More truthfully, we deal in ethnocentrism. The physical characteristic may trigger an individual’s reaction to the perceived cultural stereotype, whether or not the individual discriminated against fits the bill.
But it is the perceived culture – the set of behaviours, beliefs and languages – that feeds the ‘racism’ that causes that reaction in the first place. With this definition in mind, consider what the episode offers. If you consider demons a biological race the way humans are, then you can break them down as cultures rather than sub-species just as you can with people. Not many would argue that a skin colour defines a sub-species of humanity, even if there are notable physical differences. Assume that for demons, and you can roll with the episodes’ punches. It’s true that some of these demons have evil practices, even if they themselves don’t consider them evil. But is slaughtering them so clean cut?
Consider that many human cultures have similarly barbaric practices (honour killings, religious vengeance, blood owed) and you enter complex territory. Truly these are horrible practices and on an individual level must be prevented. But does it give you the right to attempt to exterminate that entire culture? That type of demon? Don’t be too quick to answer. Trying to fix or eliminate cultures, however horrible they are, has disastrous consequences for anyone involved, and eventually you find yourself unable to make distinctions and fighting everything from all sides. Like Rondell and Gio’s new crew. Their intentions are noble, but in attempting to destroy certain demonic ‘cultures’ they lost themselves and began targeting all demons.
Having lost so many friends on the frontlines in the fight no doubt adds to this. While some, if not many, of these demons deserve to be destroyed, the point to which the crusade has gone could be considered akin to targeting ethnically Arabic people for the actions of certain isolated fundamentalist cultures who have committed terrorist acts in recent years all over the world. And when ‘noble’ actions extend to hurting the good or the innocent, one has to take a stand, because that noble crusade has lost its way. When Rondell and Gio’s spree targets Lorne and Angel, Gunn knows he finally has to take a stand, and he finds out where he belongs as well.
The stress of continuing to fight the sustained war against demons has clearly given way to outright anger among the old gang, which has allowed them to become blindly ‘ethnocentric’ in how they target demons. It’s something we’ve seen again and again in modern times; Japanese-Canadians were interned after Pearl Harbour and Arabs have faced discrimination in North America and overseas (in how foreign policy has been handled by the US) since 9/11. No doubt the death of George in “Belonging” [2×19] weighs as heavy on Rondell’s conscience as it does Gunn’s, and it was probably what led him to go down the path he did. But what makes Gunn different is that he works for a truly heroic vampire.
Angel defies all the stereotypes of the perceived ‘culture’ of vampires (in that metaphorical sense), so when the decision comes down to the old gang or him, Gunn finally chooses Team Angel. Even if he still can’t let some of his own ire go because of what Angel is and how he perceives what vampires are, Angel is clearly the right choice, especially now that he’s seen what fighting the ‘war’ has done to his old crew. This decision is a huge step forward for Gunn’s character, and at last ends the arc that left his character progression hanging incomplete at the end of S2. From here he can and does move on and by the end of the season is as tight with Angel as he is now with Wesley.
But Angel does leave him with a warning: “You’ll prove that I can trust you when day comes that you have to kill me – and you do.” For what he’s learned here, Gunn will always have to remember what Angel can be, something he and the gang have to deal with in S4 with Angelus.
Looking back over what I’ve written here it’s clear that there’s a lot going on. Like all Tim Minear episodes, ideas are mixed with character developments for an excellent cocktail. While some of the execution is admittedly blunt and the tension generated by the ‘box’ situation in Caritas a little overwrought, the show more than makes up for it with is profound statements and long-term importance. There were also a lot of little things I enjoyed; Fred finally getting out of the Hotel and picking the most ironic karaoke song possible, and Wesley showing his protective instincts and also his leadership skills. Angel showed a bit of growth here too in his understanding and forgiveness of Gunn and, to a lesser extent, his apology to Merl.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Angel’s apology scene to Merl playing like reparations to an exploited semi-girlfriend/boy-toy.
+ Fred chatting with plants.
+ The contrast of snarky Cordelia to the fairy tale-like furies.
+ Gio bringing up the Alanna situation from “War Zone” [1×20]. Seeing Gunn behave now is very telling about how far he’s come since then.
+ Gio’s funny demise. WHOA DID YOU SEE THAT DEMON?!
* Gunn’s development here finally solidifies him as a member of the Angel Investigations crew. In the wake of Wesley’s demise later this season this new closeness with Angel puts him into a position of co-leadership and trust that becomes important in S4.