[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: Jeffrey Bell | Director: Turi Meyer | Aired: 04/15/2002]
“Forgiving” is a gripping and memorable follow up to the major tragedy of Wesley Wyndam-Pryce and Angel Investigations in “Sleep Tight” [3×16]. It has a large burden on its shoulders: to pick up the pieces from the cliffhanger that the last episode left us on and move forward in a way that’s not only unpredictable and interesting, but does justice to everything that was set in motion before. On those two fronts it succeeds, and just to watch Angel’s descent is as unnerving as it was in the S2 episodes “Reunion” [2×10] and “Redefinition” [2×11]. But the real challenge for the writers here is seeing how well they use the lessons learned in those times past.
This episode, while not quite a spiritual successor to “Reunion” [2×10], shares some important similarities. It has a different set of players, but has the same basic setup of Angel having been betrayed and lost someone he dearly cares for. While this season’s arc isn’t nearly as well done as S2’s, the betrayal featured in it is greater than the one in S2, and the loss heavier and more personal. So now the question becomes: How is Angel going to deal with this? One presumes it certainly won’t be with hugs and puppies. Knowing what we know about his explosive personality and having seen the extent of his capability for vengeance and obsession, the question is an uneasy one.
The story’s search for an answer focuses directly on the theme of responsibility, but more intriguingly blends in ideas about irrationality and blame. Angel sets out at the start of act one with the intent of finding his son and then punishing those responsible for his capture. But we, the audience, know even before he does that the baby is gone, will not be coming back, and a happy ending will not be had; this is a Joss Whedon show after all, and since suffering forces growth for better or worse, the more painful route will always be more interesting. So the real focus is finding out who really is responsible.
There’s a list of names we could assign the blame to: Sahjahn, Holtz, Justine, Wesley, Lilah, Linwood, and even Angel himself. They all played a part in the demise of baby Connor somehow, but can any single one of them be given more blame than another? Angel begged Holtz to take Connor, Lilah’s interference exacerbated his need to do so, Justine slit Wesley’s throat, Wesley stole Connor in the first place and Sahjahn brought Holtz back for the very purpose of disposing of the child. And Linwood is the (however incompetent) puppet-master behind W&H’s goal to acquire the baby. Who is a vengeful vampire to kill first?
Everyone? Or no one? Angel sets out with the goal of finding his son but quickly abandons that as he learns the truth about the Quor’toth dimension and the improbable odds of finding Holtz in it. But that doesn’t stop him, because it’s not what he really wanted anyway. In a truly frightening scene he prepares to torture Linwood, and in no uncertain terms do we doubt that he would. That’s the power of a show with excellent development and character context. What Angel really wants, as the girl in the white room surmises, is someone he can ‘sink his teeth into.’ Connor is gone, he’s been betrayed and his world is in shambles. Someone has to pay.
While most of the people on the above list are deserving of some form of punishment, none of them are singularly responsible. Even the truly detestable Holtz is that way because of what Angelus did to his family. Which brings it all back to Angel. If it seems like I’m going in circles here, keep reading. The episode’s message is that we need accountability to be a factor in everything. Someone has to be held responsible for even the most complex and impossible of situations or our world becomes chaotic; the wicked cannot be punished, the righteous cannot be rewarded and worst of all, we have to recognize that the world is a place where random, horrible things can happen without any good reason or closure.
With Connor gone, Angel has to do something about his pain. And to admit the randomness of the world would be too horrible, so he begins to go down the list: Tying up Linwood, nearly killing Lilah….and so on. And underneath all of this is the belief that his past as Angelus is the single most likely thing that can be traced back to the origin of this horrendous pain he’s feeling. He basically hates everyone in this, including himself. But the truth as the episode purports it is that nothing is that simple, and Angel needs to let go of his hatred for people like Holtz, and learn to forgive himself and Wesley. One of these two things he manages to do.
During the climactic (and nicely shot) battle with Sahjahn we’re given a very accurate microcosm of his overall conflict: abandon his friends or accomplish his mission. He can kill Sahjahn at the expense of those he cares about or save them and pass up his one chance to satisfy his own want for vengeance. This is where the lessons learned in the past come in handy, because Angel makes the better choice and holds off to help his friends, knowing the pain his selfishness cost them during his pursuit of Darla. He moves on from his hatred, as there’s nothing else he can do with it, but he’s far from ready to forgive anyone yet.
In his last desperate act to find a rational order in the way of things, he attacks Wesley in what is another iconic moment for the series. Even knowing what he knows about Wesley’s noble intentions he tries to kill him anyway because of the deep extent of his pain; someone has to pay. And it may as well be Wesley, who made a serious and honest mistake, but was in an impossible situation. The difference between Wesley and Sahjahn/Holtz/Lilah is that Wesley’s still around to have the shit pinned on him. And since he’s the guy who actually tried to save Connor, it’s painful and deeply disturbing to watch. This is the scene that makes this episode.
What keeps it from a better score, something I would’ve definitely liked to offer it given the unwaveringly dark execution of its theme, is Sahjahn himself. Though we get a sense that he is a powerful physical threat to be feared, he’s little more. The answer to the great mystery that the writers have been dangling in front of us to keep us watching all along is not as interesting as the story arc had promised us (nor is the revelation about the prophecy, which I talked about in “Sleep Tight” [3×16]. This is often the case with “mystery” plot points, as evidenced by the show “Lost”, which has long crumbled under the weight of its questions. AtS never gets that bad, but this is still a disappointment.
If the arc had pertained specifically to the theme of survival or Sahjahn had been a more desperate, sympathetic, human(like) character, wanting to destroy baby Connor to save his own ass would’ve been a more powerful answer. As it is, it just sucks. Sahjahn’s developed no real depth and as such should’ve been only a side player. But neither he nor Holtz ever attained more complexity than their first couple episodes offered, and that’s a serious flaw considering they’re the main antagonists of the season. But again, this is almost always the case when you have an ongoing mystery: when it’s built up for so long, no answer will ever be good enough.
We should’ve either been told that this was Sahjahn’s motive from the get go in “Dad” [3×10], or not told at all, in keeping with the episode’s ideas about the random horror of the world. But then you would’ve had angry fans demanding answers, which they deserve after all this waiting. Nothing is good enough, unfortunately. Aside from this, the only other complaint I have is that the episode’s pacing sometimes feels a little off, usually during the Fred/Gunn scenes in which they search for Wesley. Granted, they’re important moments of both character and plot work, but given how excited we enter into the episode about the Angel/Holtz/Sahjahn story, it cuts in and slows things down too much.
But it doesn’t hurt the overall package all that much. And the theme is such an interesting, intellectual piece of work that had the story had the seamless execution and emotional power of “Sleep Tight” [3×16] that it could’ve seriously had a shot at a 100 score. These difficult moral dilemmas in which very human people do good and bad things, make mistakes, help each other and face impossible situations remain the best kinds of episodes. They show true humanity and human character, and when they’re willing to show the ugly side of that too, you know you’re watching something brave and extraordinary.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Gunn and Fred sticking up for Wesley.
+ Angel being completely aware of the score on W&H: “They’d kill you (Linwood) before they’d kill me.”
+ Angel almost BREAKING Lilah’s neck.
+ The final scene in the hospital. Yikes. Poor Wesley.