[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: Tim Minear | Director: Tim Minear | Aired: 11/19/2001]
Now this is what I like. “Lullaby” is everything that embodies the best of S3, and is probably also the best episode of S3. When the competition from other seasons are “To Shanshu in LA” [1×22], “Reprise” [2×15] and”Not Fade Away” [5×22], it’s tough to compete, but this episode does (even if not quite to those heights). Unfortunate then that S3 never again sees such heights, and that its arc fails to deliver on the great promises made in this episode. Sahjahn’s true motives aren’t all that interesting, Holtz never develops much more complexity than he possesses here and the average standalone episode in between this episode and the arc enders “Sleep Tight” [3×16] and “Forgiving” [3×17] aren’t all that good. Perhaps “Lullaby” simply set the bar too high.
While it’s not as good as some of the other episodes I mentioned from other seasons, it has one thing that all of S3 has more of than any other season of Angel: raw, effective, visceral character drama. This is a genuinely moving hour of television on the same level as the heartbreaking “Sleep Tight” [3×16], but with all the thematic complexity, character intricacies and deep moral considerations that that episode lacked. Alongside Darla’s moving sacrifice and the haunting images of fire and rain in the alley outside Caritas, we further plumb the depth of the season’s major themes of personal responsibility and the question of free will. Writer/Director Tim Minear delivers once again. But has he ever given us reason to doubt him?
Well, no. This marks Minear’s fifth entry into the realm of 100-scored episodes, and going down the list of his credits is like reading a fan favourite list: “Sense and Sensitivity” [1×06], “Hero” [1×09], “Somnambulist” [1×11], “The Prodigal” [1×15], “Sanctuary” [1×19], “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?” [2×02], “Darla” [2×07], “Reunion” [2×10], “Reprise” [2×15], “Epiphany” [2×16], “That Old Gang of Mine” [3×03], “Billy” [3×06], “Couplet” [3×14], “Benediction” [3×21] and “Home” [4×22]. The only episodes that score below an 80 are “Sense and Sensitivity” [1×06] and “Couplet” [3×14], and including these, there are only three episodes that fall below 95. Having seen the series several times, I feel safe in declaring that Tim Minear is probably the only writer on Television who is as intelligent, original, consistent and compelling as Joss Whedon himself. But enough gushing.
At the core of his latest dark and memorable piece is, ironically, a story about love. Pure, unconditional and undebatable love; the ultimate irrationality and the reason for living for so many people, even the undead people. Darla is the central figure in this, even moreso than in “Offspring” [3×07] and “Quickening” [3×08], and right at the start we see that something is different: she cries. Not angrily, or desperately, but sadly. As we learn later, she is now sharing the soul of her human baby, and is beginning to feel selfless human emotion: She loves her child. The soul it shares with her allows her to be a mother, someone who gives life.
And it allows her to, for the first time, lament her existence as a vampire, a creature that can only give death. In beautiful callbacks to previous episodes, she refers to the child as her darling boy like she once did Angel, whom she sired because she saw the potential of his corruptible, youthful innocence. Now as her child dies she thinks only of protecting of its life to preserve such innocence, as it is the only thing she has ever been able to love because of the soul it gives to her; the only good thing she’s ever done. She killed the innocent Liam, sired Angelus and ravaged the world for centuries, causing untold pain and suffering.
So it’s a poetic justice for Darla to become a mother. She’s in love with something living for the first time and thus comes to realize the scope of the pain she inflicted. Her struggle is entwined with Angel’s, who comes literally face to face with his past crimes in Holtz. Right from the opening scene his presence is at once compelling, sympathetic and fear-inspiring. Not since Vocah in “To Shanshu in LA” [1×22] has a villain managed to become a terrifying force against the protagonists so quickly. He too is motivated by love, or rather his loss of it. In one of the episode’s most potent scenes, we see the tremendously perverse and horrifying fate of his family.
With few words these scenes illustrate the depth of his convictions. Here is a family man so deeply wounded by death that he has become a mindless, cold, force for it while Angel has taken his old place as the noble crusader against evil, fighting for the purity of life and the life of his child. Angel loves his human existence, his surrogate family at Angel Investigations and his unborn baby but even as everything hangs in the balance, he still tells Holtz what he’s come to realize since “Epiphany” [2×16]: He can’t ever make up for what he’s done. Angelus and Darla didn’t just steal human lives from him, but the very compassion that made him human, and that is a much worse crime.
Darla knows this just as well as Angel does. After all the suffering she’s caused she’s finally capable of recognizing her sins (her child’s gift to her), and makes the ultimate sacrifice: she uses death, her vampiric nature, to create life. Before she does this she says the same things to Angel that he said to Holtz: Whatever redemption may be achieved will always be insufficient. The cost of lives and souls can’t be measured against others saved, and all one can do is what one does. To those wronged it will never be enough, and Holtz is a prime exemplar of this if there ever was one.
His soul needs saving more than anyone’s, and yet those with the mission can never help him. Angel will always be a demon to him, soul or not. Holtz cruelly cast his own daughter into sunlight to destroy her upon concluding that she was just a demon. It’s as sick an act as what was done to her by Angelus and Darla. Just the same way, Holtz labels anyone who stands in his way as worthy of God’s wrath as Angel. He is willing to kill Wolfram and Hart’s human commandos, threatens Lilah and any human justice, uses demons for soldiers and has no qualms about killing every last one of Angel’s human friends. They’ve all become demons in his eyes.
He’s allowed himself to be used for sinister purposes, but has crossed still a worse line that even Angel doesn’t see. But Angel saw he and Darla were as responsible for this manifestation of Holtz’s existence as they are their own child’s, and I loved the exponential parallels the situation gave us: Holtz was a force of life that was made into one of death by a creature who has now taken the side of life. And this creature who stole his life (his family) has now created a new one that may exist to better the life of Earth’s people or destroy it. In S4, Connor’s role in the Tro-Clon prophecy does both. But how reliable are prophecies really? On the metaphysical side of the episode we have the scrolls and Darla.
The scrolls are originally interpreted to foretell a birth, but are re-interpreted to foretell death. Darla’s choice is the first outright defiance of prophecy on this show. Where Angel’s movement away from his champion, reward-seeking existence marked a departure from his desire to fulfill the Shanshu Prophecy, the value of action in the face of pre-destination is openly practiced for the first time by Darla. It’s an indeterminist stance in the face of a determined outcome; where the prophecy is a straight line with events colluding based on the forces that motivated them to their destination, the choices the characters make recognize the prophecy as only one of many possible outcomes.
That the prophecy is rendered true is only by a warped interpretation of it. It only appeared to be fulfilled from a certain perspective, as destiny is effective only so far as you believe it is. It’s completely possible that our wills are inevitably driven to fixed outcomes by other forces in the world, but to believe we hold so little control in our own lives would be pessimistic to the effect of neutering the will to live. Darla’s choice was one of the most beautiful sacrifices I could ever conceive of because of its sheer conviction. With it, the writers have moved us to a world where prophecies are real and demonstrable, and also defiable. I love this show.
Like all of Angel’s best episodes, these ideas are blended well with the character development, but this is likely the most effective mix in the show’s run. You may not even catch a lot of things the first time through, as the plot barrels on at such a tight pace, punctured by several iconic moments of drama for the series. Darla’s confession of love and her last apology are two of the best individual moments in the show’s run, both of them at once oppressively dark and hopeful. In the vein of “Reprise” [2×15], this is an episode that stays with you in your heart and stomach long after your screen fades to black. As it should.
Because from here on in things are never the same. The Connor/Holtz arc of this season only strengthens the statements made here about destiny and prophecy, particularly concerning Wesley, who is manipulated by the very prior causal forces I discussed. And the tone of the series’ existentialism takes a darker turn with the theft of Connor in “Sleep Tight” [3×16], foreshadowed here, in that Angel not only gives up pursuing an objective end in his mission, but suffers so terribly at the hands of those he feels are justified that he comes to believe that the objective end is impossible to achieve. One can only act, never attain. Like the philosophies of “Reprise” [2×15] and “Epiphany” [2×16], these are grand ideas to try and purport.
Much of our society is designed according to the objective goal: The American Dream, the life where we are given our due for our work and an afterlife where we are rewarded or punished ultimately for our actions. AtS’ viewpoint is far braver and more difficult to comprehend in its increasing nihilism, as even those who believe in meaning as a purely personal thing independent of some objective arbiter (usually referred to as G O D), struggle between those ideals and the objective ends that we are told will make us happy. But if we can defy those and still be great, even if we’re unhappy, that’s something remarkable in a league of its own.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Angel’s brutally honest admission about his crimes against Holtz.
+ Holtz sprinkling the water at Lilah.
+ Darla’s mental freak out in the car.
+ Angel’s “what are we looking at?”
+ The flashbacks to Holtz’s past. Here the man becomes a real threat as his motivations become clear; Darla and Angelus’ cruelty is perverse beyond comprehension.
+ Everyone smacking Gunn to test the sanctuary spell.
+ The terror of watching Holtz non-chalantly entering the club, only being able to imagine what’s coming.
+ The beautiful contrast of fire and rain in the final scene. This is probably the most amazing photographic moment of the series.
* Holtz makes no distinction between those with souls and those without them in who he classifies as demons. In “Sleep Tight” [3×16], he is prepared to kill all of Angel Investigations and even Justine for showing any sympathy, or even morally grey understanding of Angel.
* Angel believes that he can no longer achieve any real redemption because of the magnitude of what he’s done. This theme is deeper explored in S4 and S5 and becomes the mission statement for the show, as he begins fighting the fight despite the impossibility of ever ‘earning’ his soul back.