[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: Tim Minear and Jeffrey Bell | Director: David Grossman | Aired: 10/29/2001]
“Billy” is another episode like the late-into-S2 standalones such as “Disharmony” [2×17] and “Dead End” [2×18] in its solid characterization and theme but lack of excellence or striking originality. Not that any of those things are always necessary to enjoy an episode, but they do help, don’t they? What we have is by the numbers conflict, drama, and resolution with just enough of all of it as well as some lasting character impact to make the whole thing worthwhile. The fact that it’s co-written by Tim Minear (with Jeffrey Bell in tow) also helps, as we get a dash of darkness to the themes and situations throughout the show.
We continue with the season-spanning theme of responsibility, which gets blended in with the main theme of feminine strength. We also get resolutions to what began in “That Vision Thing” [3×02], when Billy Blim was freed from a hell dimension by Angel in order to save Cordelia from Wolfram and Hart. As we begin, Angel is training Cordy to fight and defend herself by herself. A lot of times we’ve seen her put in rough spots, and having accepted her mission and place at Angel Investigations at long last, it’s no surprise she’d want to learn some skills. Angel, her closest emotional confidant and so-often the hero guy, trains her only in avoidance rather than counter-attack, because ‘he’ll always be there to save her.’
It’s an idea that’s sweet in theory but condescending in practice, a point which Cordy articulates right away. Angel can’t always be around to save her (remember “Guise Will Be Guise” [2×06] when a fake Angel barely did the trick?), and the suggestion that she shouldn’t know how to save herself isn’t a good one. Even though he’s moved away from the ‘champion’ phase of his life, Angel still feels responsible to look after those who he cares about. Since Cordy often suffers under the visions and was very recently attacked by that very channel, his need to look out for her is especially strong. But there’s something to be said for one’s independence, self-control and power, which is what Cordelia’s speech to Lilah is about.
Throughout the episode, we see examples of men patronizing or belittling women both intentionally and unintentionally, from Angel’s protective treatment of Cordelia to Billy’s psychotic treatment of everyone. You have the man on the street that makes a snide comment about yappy women, Wesley who literally tries to kill Fred because of his own insecurities (obviously accentuated) and Gunn who tries but fails in protecting her. In the end, it is the victimized women themselves who are more inventive, quick-witted and strong when it comes to punch time than their affected male counterparts. The message isn’t as simple as ‘women are plainly smart and perfect and men are piggish and sexist,’ however.
It’s more about strengths and being secure in them. Wesley feels insecure around Fred, and Angel’s insecure about Cordelia’s safety. Billy feels that the world is impious, even greedy, and can’t do anything about it, so he takes pleasure in sadistically contributing to societal entropy by both exposing weakness and causing pain. What gives the women the upper hand in this episode is that they all come to a place where they possess confidence in themselves and their ability to live independently as human people. To have that ripped away is a terrible violation to suffer for any person, especially when it’s taken for so petty a reason as gender. Cordy is the avatar of the struggle against such violations, having suffered more than any woman on the show.
She was made powerless by Wolfram and Hart in “That Vision Thing” [3×02], a chain of events that led to Billy getting freed in the first place, something for which she feels responsible. Her helplessness and her insecurity – a damsel-in-distress complex – actually created the problem. The solution for her can only lie only in always being secure in her strength. But when she confronts Billy, he makes one decent point. Comedian George Carlin suggested that the problem with modern feminism is that there is no real concern about issues, only protecting reproductive rights and pocketbooks. Billy’s comment about mimicking the behaviour of men is in that vein. Cordelia’s transformation into a stronger being is no doubt for the better, but is it unequivocally positive?
Is modeling the violent behaviour of aggressive men really that feministic? She feels destined to be alone, and her attitude when it comes to her training is that that is what she needs to be prepared to be. Being confident in ones abilities is one thing, but putting stock into cold solidarity is not necessarily good, despite the fact that Cordelia is justified in feeling the way she does. The episode hints at greater complexity but fails to achieve it in ignoring this important ambiguity. We see it reflected in Lilah, who has taken feminist drive to the extreme and ended up cold, vicious and immoral. That we’re supposed to sympathize with her because ‘a man’ beat her when many would’ve likely cheered if anyone else had simply killed her is a weak play.
We love to hate Lilah, and at this point in the series would love to see her killed. But her beaten face evokes battered wife images and goes for a cheap emotional punch (forgive the terrible pun), rather than taking the bolder path in portraying the duality of independence. Fortunately, the B plot doesn’t skimp on such dark ideas. Despite a bit of bad dialogue, the sequence with Wesley hunting Fred and its ramifications is the best part of the show. Alexis Denisof portrays a psychotic side of Wesley that feels dead on and plausible, and Amy Acker as the terrified but ingenious Fred delivers. The writing contributes considerably as well, making the enraged Wes a genuine threat to beat.
But best of all it proposes some good ideas in its considerations of the psyche. Despite Fred’s protests that Wesley is a good man, he can’t deny that his psychotic explosion at her came from something that existed. It’s not as simple as the fact that he doesn’t want to kill Fred. He likes her a lot, in fact. But the truth is that he is terribly insecure and frustrated about his issues with women, and sees the potential of such bile actualized by the Billy effect; a terrifying revelation. Even if you don’t believe in a Jungian philosophy of certain tendencies and knowledge being innate in human beings, you have to wonder just what any person can be pushed to by their own fears.
Angel feared pulling his team down into the darkness with him, and that insecurity resulted in his harsh firing of them in “Reunion” [2×10]. For Wesley, the emerging frustration with his romantic life is important to his tragedy later on this season, as is his losing Fred to Gunn in “Waiting in the Wings” [3×13] and slipping into some bouts of ugly jealousy eases the decision to abandon his friends. Overall such character insights do make the episode worthwhile and engaging, if not particularly great. They don’t save it from its limitations either, though. None of them are really bad enough to rag on for a great period of time, but they do hinder it from being more than it could.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Cordy using cheerleader moves to fight.
+ Wesley’s intimate get-together for five.
+ Lilah’s apt comparisons of herself to Lindsey.
+ Cordelia and Lilah having girl talk between threats.
+ Wes’ use of the ‘you’ve already told her twice’ joke. It’s hard to mark it as a ‘positive’ but it’s just so odd and sick and tritely overdone a joke that it works here.
* Cordelia shows the signs of a more hardened, independent warrior here. This development strengthens all season as she becomes as a genuine champion and eventually ascends in “Tomorrow” [3×22].