[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!
* 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].