Angel 3×11: Birthday

[Review by Ryan Bovay]

[Writer: Mere Smith | Director: David Grossman | Aired: 01/14/2002]

“Birthday” is the first Cordelia-centric episode we’ve had since S1’s “Rm w a Vu” [1×05], which was a quirky, entertaining little piece with solid, important character development and conflict. This episode without a doubt attempts bigger things, but it doesn’t succeed quite as spectacularly as it needs to to justify its main story gimmick. As with all “alternate reality/universe/timeline” episodes, the very introduction of the idea must be treated with great care. The story must answer the “why is this happening now?” question, which this episode does satisfactorily. But more importantly, this type of episode has to create a truly compelling alternate universe, and it must do so in some way that informs the present, ‘regular’ timeline/world that the show exists in.

It’s on those last two requirements that “Birthday” doesn’t do such a great job. The plot itself seems worthy when you read it: Cordy inherited visions from Doyle in “Hero” [1×09]. Doyle could barely handle them himself as a half-demon. As a human, her life has a set limit on it because of the use of the visions, and now the time is up. Given the choice to either die or take on an alternate life where she never even met Angel, Cordelia decides to try and spare herself death by going into this new reality where she is a famous movie actress. It’s ambitious, but so is much of AtS. The execution is where it falls flat.

The best reason to develop an alternate world is not only to ask “what if?” but to sharply rip the security blanket of the show’s structural formula out from under the viewers. It cultivates an air of unpredictability, so the viewer has no idea what to expect, and uses a fresh perspective to examine a new side of existing character traits. Buffy’s “The Wish” did this extraordinarily well by imagining an alternate world where Buffy had never come to Sunnydale. The difference between that episode and this one is that it had a compelling fantasy world. It painted the series in an entirely new colour with fearless conviction and a rich sense of discovery in every scene.

But what made that fantasy great was that one still got the sense that it was “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” just a different, darker side of it. With Cordelia’s alternate universe, it doesn’t feel like we’re in “Angel” at all, which is a serious problem when the series is called “Angel.” There are “Angel” characters and actors and actresses, but it feels like a bizarre sit-com existence. So while the alternate universe does provide us good ideas about the current “Angel” world and successfully informs the regular narrative, the point from which it does so doesn’t feel entirely genuine or organic. Maybe it’s just me. Or maybe making the alternate focus “Cordelialand” was simply a mistake, since Cordelia’s fantasy world would look nothing like, say, Angel’s.

It’s also just not that viscerally entertaining. Where huge resets like “The Wish” or “Battlestar Galactica’s” legendary episode “Occupation” ratcheted tension and uncertainty to the highest levels to keep you watching as well as thinking, this world seems to putter along far too slowly and with too few interesting events. Looking back there’s a good deal to think about, philosophically, but there are no scenes that jump out and grab you the way they should. And peaking of slowness, it’s also introduced far too late. The start of Act Three, which is the starting point for the second half of the episode, is far too late to just conjure up a new reality and then try to flesh it out.

What does work well in “Birthday” is the character drama before the reset and what comes out of Cordelia’s new realizations. Many fans will note with disgust that this is the point at which Cordy starts becoming “St. Cordelia” and her character stops being interesting at all. I don’t think that statement is really true until S4, but they have a point about this being a defining moment. In “That Vision Thing” [3×02] Cordelia had to stick up for herself to Angel and make him understand that no matter his heroic instincts, it was pure condescension for him to assume her defenseless. This is important here, as Angel’s lack of faith in her strength finalizes Cordy’s decision.

Making the step forward into a new life is a bold decision, because the alternative of death might seem preferable to someone who wanted to exhibit strength. But Cordelia doesn’t need to show it off; she merely uses it. The genuinely interesting part of actress-Cordy’s world is seeing how much like her regular self she still would’ve been had she not met Angel, and the point is that she was Cordelia before Angel and still would be after. She’s suffered in silence and even lied to keep her visions and protect her friends from worry so she could continue to help others with her powers. And when she changes the world around her she still doesn’t change herself entirely. Her desire to help the helpless and heal the wounded shines through.

Skip talks about free will and the manipulations of the Powers That Be, and he makes a point that I really liked which plausibly explains Cordelia’s ability to stay Cordelia: Determined futures shaped by the impact of other forces upon us can certainly decide things, but the power of one’s own will is stronger in some cases, such as with love: the ultimate irrationality. Because it makes no sense and defies all logic it can’t be predicted; wonderful things like love and family give one the greatest strength. And they are perhaps the only things we can freely choose with no leeway given to other forces that could be moving us.

It is this strange, illogical thing that allows Cordelia to break out of her alternate world and come back to the moment of choice, in which she makes an even stronger decision: to become half-demon so she can keep the visions and keep her family at Angel Investigations together. She becomes a champion. The last few minutes of the episode, I must admit, are moving, and the final scene in which she returns to her friends is as sweet as it is funny; Cordy has moved higher on the plane of existence, and just floats above everyone for a minute.

But since this is a turnpike that turns out to be crucial to the Tro-Clon prophecy and Jasmine’s return in “Inside Out” [4×17], my last thoughts lie with the future. What does the revelation of “Inside Out” [4×17] mean for this moment? Is it devalued by Skip’s confession that this was all pre-destined? That Cordy was made half demon so she could ascend and Jasmine could return to Earth in her body? I don’t think it really does. What Skip talks about in that episode is exactly what he talks about here: The effect of the world on the will. Jasmine’s “destiny” for Team Angel is only foresight about the choices they’ll be forced to make, but their convictions about those very decisions are exactly what will defeat her.


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ The Wonder Woman cake. Years after the episode would air, Charisma Carpenter became rumoured to be a top choice to play Wonder Woman in the new movie.
+ Skip’s taste in movies.
+ Re-visiting the memory of Doyle.
+ The ‘Cordy!’ theme song that David Greenwalt wrote and Marti Noxon sang. They must really like/hate “Friends.”
+ The wonderfully redecorated Hyperion hotel.
+ The re-use of the actor who played the Hyperion bellhop in “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?” [2×02]. Fantastic callback!


Foreshadowing

* Skip claims that the Powers That Be don’t have a hand in certain personal choices, like Doyle’s act of love in giving Cordelia the visions. Angel and Cordelia share a vision-kiss in this episode, and in “Waiting in the Wings” [3×13] their romantic entanglement begins, peaking in “Tomorrow” [3×22]. Ironically, it works out to Skip’s benefit, as it allows him to present her with the major choice in “Tomorrow” [3×22], and begin the bigger stage of Jasmine’s plan.
* Cordelia becomes half-demon, and also a champion. This new path puts her right into the fight against evil at Angel’s side later in the season, and in “Tomorrow” [3×22] it allows her o ascend to a higher plane as part of Jasmine’s plan (unbeknownst to her). After that, we don’t technically see her again until “You’re Welcome” [5×12].


[Score]

70/100

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19 thoughts on “Angel 3×11: Birthday”

  1. [Note: Tranquillity posted this comment on May 8, 2007.]

    See, i love this episode. Your review is very good, makes some excellent points about the use of alternate realities and makes me think i shouldn’t love this episode, but i can’t help it. I still do. I find it all the more poignant knowing all that is yet to come. and i never did mind Saint Cordelia.

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  2. [Note: Latoya posted this comment on May 9, 2007.]

    I hated Saint Cordelia.

    I was disappointed when I saw this episode. How did Cordy get her own tv show when she couldn’t act or sing or be tactful? I always thought that if she had gotten filthy rich again without having worked for the Angel Investigations Team that she would have reverted to the Snarky Queen C persona. It was being poor and seeing how the other side lived that helped make her realize that being a bitch was a bad thing. That is what made her realize that wanting the most expensive things “not because they are expensive but because they cost more” was stupid. I don’t buy that she would care so much about Angel suffering in the alternate reality. Back in Sunnydale she didn’t care about him. And when she thought Willow had been vamped her response was “they got Willow (to Wesley) want to go for coffee?”buffyholic

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  3. [Note: buffyholic posted this comment on March 7, 2008.]

    While I was watching this, I was afraid that Cordy would stick to her decision of being an actress. Thankfully, that didn´t happen. I´m glad how the episode ends, Cordy decides to continue helping people.

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  4. [Note: Leelu posted this comment on March 7, 2009.]

    @Latoya:

    Even at the beginning of Angel, Cordelia had already grown just from everything she had gone through in Buffy. So it’s not THAT much of a stretch that she could have retained that growth or gone through more growth without having gone into business with Angel, etc.

    Got a question, though:
    Why is it the alternative universe stuff is always related to Cordelia?

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  5. [Note: David Fiore posted this comment on May 15, 2009.]

    I must respectfully disagree Ryan–I think this episode (and this depiction of an alternate reality) is absolutely perfect.

    what Skip is asking Cordelia, actually, is: “Do you want to be a part of THIS show?” (i.e. do you believe in the kinds of conflict/questions dealt with on ANGEL–or would you prefer to operate within a completely different narrative context? something Mary Tyler Moore…)

    I just think it works wonderfully, showing us how powerfully determined this character now is to stay on the mission, even when Skip rewrites the playbook of her life along the exact lines she presumably would have liked, when she left BUFFY at the end of season 3…

    love reading these reviews!

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  6. [Note: Emily posted this comment on June 14, 2009.]

    Ryan, I agree with David Fiore. The writers are showing us what kind of show we’d be watching if the spin-off was Cordy’s, and she’d never bumped into Angel at that party. I personally loved how they did this episode, and I would give it at least an 85.

    The only thing I didn’t like was how easy it was for Cordelia to have a vision at the end. Doyle was born half-demon, and it wasn’t that easy for him. So how could it be so easy for Cordy, when the demon part was integrated only now? It doesn’t logically make sense.

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  7. [Note: Nathan.Taurus posted this comment on February 2, 2010.]

    If the ‘Cordy’ show was real you can bet the networks would keep it going for many years after it died and cancel good shows that actually contain a plot, just like real life.

    I did like this episode and it’s something to note that if Angel had not of purchased the Hyperion Hotel it would of been re-modelled and re-opened soon after.

    (The guy playing the front desk clerk was Max Baker. The bellhop in ‘AYNoHYEB’ was J.P.Manoux.)

    Looking at Skip here I don’t fully buy the revelation in Season 4 of his involvement with Cordelias possession. I kind of think it was just added on since Skip was a fan favourite as they wanted to shock the audience.

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  8. [Note: Elizabeth posted this comment on August 30, 2010.]

    I too, must disagree. This is actually one of my favorite episodes throughout the series. Mainly because Cordelia is my favorite character and I enjoy Cordy-centric episodes, but also because it was really interesting to see a world completely opposite of what we’ve previously seen. Also, I found I enjoyed the fact that Cordelia kissed Angel at the end, despite vowing to myself back at the end of S3 of Buffy that I would love Buffy/Angel forever. I think Cordy is the only person I could see him with at this point besides Buffy. Anyways, I really liked this episode and I would give it at least a 90.

    I also enjoy these reviews. Keep it up!!

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  9. [Note: Rob posted this comment on January 16, 2012.]

    Really bad aside from the alt-Cordelia segment. Loved the little Friends-esque Cordy bit.

    I don’t like the Powers-That-Be. I’m gonna take a stand and say their inclusion in the show is not good.

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  10. [Note: wytchcroft posted this comment on August 2, 2012.]

    i realise this is a Cordy episode, i mean d’uh, obviously! – all the same, re-watched this after talking about Wes and Gunn elsewhere.

    i love their balanced effort as comrades in arms (heh) here as they care for (albeit crudely) and interpret the fallen Angel.

    This may not be Bizarro World or the World-without-Shrimp but it is Fredless; it’s a pity that we don’t get more of a view of the FG’s lives in consequence.

    It is also the beginning of an unfortunate road for Cordy’s character but the episode itself is one of my favourites and, IMO, Charisma’s best post-s2.

    And Skip (pre-retcon) always a joy.

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  11. [Note: Oliver posted this comment on August 10, 2012.]

    Great review. The two things that really didn’t work for me in this episode: first, as you mention, we’re not given enough time to explore this alternate reality. I wouldn’t have minded this being a two-parter to do just that. Also, it didn’t make sense that getting the visions would completely unhinge Angel, turning him into a word-salad-spouting basket case. I understand that it had to be a very good reason for Cordy to risk getting the visions back and being all demony, but it was implausible, unearned and, frankly, not Boreanaz’s finest performance.

    The opening to Cordy! almost made up for it, though.

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  12. [Note: MrPrez posted this comment on September 6, 2012.]

    I believe the writer said on the commentary that it wasn’t having the visions that drove Angel crazy, it was not having Cordelia. I assume after losing Doyle and inheriting the visions (Does that mean Angel and Doyle macked on each other?) Angel was completely alone with no real link or connection to keep him going. It just goes to show how truly important Cordelia was and is to Angel. Without her, he’s simply lost. And in this case, crazy.I love this episode, BTW. I would’ve given it a 90.

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  13. [Note: Monica posted this comment on August 19, 2013.]

    I too would have given this episode a 90. Although it stings to read this review once I finished the series because I now understand it’s factor is creating one of my least favorite storylines in any series I’ve ever seen, I adore what it shows for Cordelia. The problems, in my opinion, aren’t that heavy to the episode and don’t hold back on it too badly.

    I also was under the impression that it was not only the visions that left Angel insane, but his lack of connection to humanity that Cordy provided him with. I don’t know, I just love seeing exactly how crucial Cordelia is to the gang and I wish that idea would have held strong to the fifth season…

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  14. [Note: EdwardH posted this comment on January 23, 2014.]

    It seems odd that in the alternate reality where Angel goes crazy that Buffy wouldn’t have called. She’d already helped Angel through his return from hell and it seems she would have come as quickly as she could considering how she felt about him.

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  15. [Note: Dom posted this comment on February 26, 2014.]

    Thanks for your wonderful reviews.
    I liked this episode way better than you did and I would rate it higher.
    I understand you would compare it to “the Wish” from Buffy, but actually there are fine “nuances” here, finde differences. The Wish shows us a parallel World that came out because someone wished for it, so here you can ask “what if”. This episode here on the contrary doesn’t provide a parallel fantasy world, but another time dimension. It’s best to understand when Skpi explains it to Cordy. How she could have taken another path there at the party. So the “real world” is still there, it would just alternate Cordys life and what she’s doing. This is a big difference to the Wish. And thats why it also makes completely sense that she knows Wesley and Angel from the Past (the time was only altered after Sunnydale). And it makes sense that she would find them and these two things (Cordys fame world and Angel and the guys) could co-exist.
    For me this was such a thrilling and beautiful episode. Also everything Skip said was wonderful and very philosophical, f.e. how the power that be are in all of us, in our intuitions etc.

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  16. [Note: Anna M posted this comment on March 7, 2015.]

    I totally disagree. You’re right that this isn’t as good as “The Wish”, but Angel is its own show. I resent this episode slightly as the start of the “saint Cordelia” arc, which in my opinion completely ruined her character, but it’s a strong episode in its own right. Angel’s speech to Cordy about how angry he was was a moving moment. Watching the (even more so than usual) mentally unstable Angel was compelling. Boreanaz did a fantastic job, and it was a revelation that they really do all need each other.

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  17. [Note: Parker posted this comment on April 23, 2015.]

    This is the last episode we get to know the real Cordelia. Everything after this is someone else. Having just finished a re-watch, this makes me sad because Cordelia became a much better character for me on this re-watch, so to see her get used like this, because she wants to do good, is tragic.

    In retrospect, there’s lots of foreshadowing here. Imagine the Cordy! Universe as a preview of Jasmine’s unlimited love universe.

    Also, I found it painfully apt that Cordelia’s fate is sealed with a handshake with Skip over her real body laying in bed, covered in blankets – much like she appears in a lot of Season 4.

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  18. [Note: Pandorita posted this comment on April 11, 2016.]

    I just realized there is no Fred in the alternate universe, because the only reason they went to Phylea in the first place was to save Cordelia.

    So, in that AU poor Fred is still stuck there in her cave 😦

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