[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: Mere Smith | Director: Marita Grabiak | Aired: 10/22/2001]
“Fredless” is the first episode to focus on the Fang Gang’s newest member, Winifred “Fred” Burkle, and it’s a perfect episode for her. I don’t say this to mean that the episode is perfect – far from it – but it’s definitely fitting for her character as she is now: jittery, uneven, random and not as deep as you might think. Fred, as a character, is fun, adorable, entertaining and has a good set up to start off her progression, but like Gunn, doesn’t become overtly interesting until S4. But that’s a long way off. So where do we go from here? As a Fred-centric episode, this installment takes on the task of dealing with Fred’s Pylea issues.
It’s the first and most critical step that she needs to make now that she’s back in ‘our’ dimension (you know, the crazy one with death and demons, not the other one with those things), and it’s a good starting point for her character to launch it to. But was it earned? One of my problems with the episode is that her freedom from her ‘demons’ feels a little too easily won. Like much of S3, the episode goes for the heavy emotional hit but sacrifices any penetrating depth or abundance of substance. Fred’s breakdown and heartfelt confession is moving, but much of what happens around it is largely uninteresting.
The side-plot with the Durslar demon and the insect – whatever-they-were’s – was certainly a good enough plot in terms of servicing the main plot of the episode and helping the characters arrive at their final destination. This much is true. But it lacks intrinsic value, which is uncharacteristic of a show of this caliber, and has too little a payoff for way too much screen time. Likewise, the main plot engages in misdirection about Fred’s parents far past the point of interest in the subject. We know very quickly that either there’s something very wrong with them, or nothing at all (because of the way the episode is forcing the scary WRONG! angle).
By the time we get to the big reveal it’s not all that big or all that potent, but we’ve spent a good chunk of the episode on it anyway. This is the problem at the heart of the episode: It’s three quarters of an episode of uninteresting misdirection followed by one very good last quarter (and a bit) which would’ve assuredly garnered a much higher score if what preceded it had been worthwhile. What redeems it is a fairly good payoff in the last stretch of the episode, some genuinely funny, human moments and Fred’s development which is good – or at least good enough. Although the best scene is definitely the first, in which Cordelia and Wesley give Fred a history lesson on Buffy.
The issue we look at in regards to Fred is, as mentioned, the Pylea issues in her life. To move on these must be addressed, and that the writers do so as boldly as they do is to their credit. Plain and simple, the truth of the matter is that for all her cuteness and resilience, Fred was trapped in hell for five years; enslaved, hunted, imprisoned, possibly tortured and left alone to rot in a strange world. For the inherently human social psyche this would be damaging beyond measure. That she survived as long as she did, even in the state she ended up in, is a testament to her inner strength.
But the lasting curse of Pylea turned out to be, in a nice throwback to the theme of “Through the Looking Glass” [2×21], her perception of that world. Because of the creatures of that place – the demons, the arcane rituals – her psyche was able to survive (mostly) intact by viewing it as a fantasy; a terrible dream full of monsters, and dangerous, but fantastical and unreal creatures. Up to this point in L.A. she’s been living another kind of fantasy by simply believing in the previous fantasy so as to cope, slowly facing the harsh, real world which sometimes seems scarier than the demon one. Bringing her parents into the mix destroys the very foundations upon which she’s constructed these fantasies.
Even though the mislead is stretched out far too long, the reveal of her parents being perfectly normal and nothing to be afraid of was definitely the best idea. As she so jarringly puts it, their re-introduction into her life makes the fantastical real; if they are in fact here and know that she was gone and are aware of what’s changed and how long and et cetera and so on, it means that Pylea can’t simply be forgotten as a fantasy. And as hard she’s tried to live with Angel Investigations and Angel, her white knight, who too lives a fantastical life, she can no longer deny what she’d like to. This leads to her ultimate decision to stay.
Working with Angel Investigations, because of her value to and friendship with the team, and because of the reality of their day-to-day fight against evil, is indeed the best place for her to recover. For all its own unreal properties, the personal struggles of the Fang Gang have a very sharp edge of real humanity to them; being with them and useful to them is, in its own way, the best therapy for a little recovering Fred. And what a Fred she is this episode; Amy Acker does some fine acting in her heartbreaking confessions and moments of critical choice. That little moment when she symbolically painted over the drawing of her and Angel was earned entirely by her graces.
I also enjoyed the performances of the actors portraying her parents. They nail the down-home country feel and have excellent chemistry with the main cast. The scenes of interaction following the story climax between them and the series’ characters are heartwarming and funny. They conquer fantasy even quicker than their daughter does and gain a parental affection for the entire gang almost instantly; Wes and Gunn arguing like brothers and Fred’s dad talking like he would with an elder son with Angel are wonderful little moments. And in regards to Angel, it was nice to see the continuation of his development from “Heartthrob” [3×01], too. He’s moved on past Buffy and the larger-than-life, tragic tribulations of his past; his own fantasies of old.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Fred being ranty and jittery again. I’d never get tired of her.
+ The Burkles’ aesthetic contempt of Lorne, and his complete indifference to the whole situation.
+ The reference to “Alien: Resurrection,” which Joss Whedon wrote.
– The cockroach bug demon things. Probably some of the poorest action scenes this series has seen.