[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: David H. Goodman | Director: David Grossman | Aired: 04/22/2002]
Here is another episode like “Forgiving” [3×17] with a large burden on it shoulders. The main arc of the season has been resolved, so now we need to ask the question: where do we go from here? “Double or Nothing,” for what it’s worth, does a superb job of answering the question and moving this new section of the season forward. It’s quite far from being a superb episode, but it’s overall a solid piece of character work that introduces and solves a good episodic conflict. The plot takes Gunn to an important new place while putting Angel in a situation that’s relevant to his current dilemma, and weaves it all together to form an entertaining, and sometimes surprisingly potent hour.
The setup is another from the monster-of-the-week library: A demon that runs a casino sends his repo man to collect Gunn’s soul; a deal which Gunn willingly made. This is, of course, the weakest part of the episode. Jenoff and his demons inspire no fear in us as an audience, and we can tell they’re headed for an unpleasant dispatching. Along with the episode’s too-quick dismissal of a major issue, they’re the major stain. But the fear they put into Gunn is what makes them worthy devices; worthy enough anyway. Seeing Fred’s ability to find an upside to everything (such as with the grumpy demons), to be unstoppably happy and affectionate, and just realizing how well they work makes Gunn realize for the first time in his life he sees a future for himself: Fred.
I’ve never been a particular fan of the Fred-Gunn pairing; its best use is in the conflicts it creates for Wesley, and neither Gunn nor Fred becomes terribly interesting until next season. But I’ve never hated them being paired up either, and here the relationship is portrayed as something loving, stable and having potential for a long life. These are some qualities you often don’t see on this show (especially stable), so the episode manages to earn my affections for these people based on that. And the horror of a being losing its soul is one we’re not unfamiliar with, so the general conflict is intriguing enough.
For as long as we’ve known him Gunn has been a man preoccupied with death, whether that be dealing it or suffering through it. His inaugural episode (“War Zone” [1×20]) showed him fighting a daily, desperate war against vampires, which had given him a fixation with death and had worn him to the point of even wanting it sometimes. We knew that version of Gunn well: dressed in a vest and du rag, ready to take on whatever stupid scheme came his way. He even carried on the latter ‘stupid-scheme’ trait into S2. But this season has seen him come to terms with his issues with Angel (“That Old Gang of Mine” [3×03]) and bond strongly with Wes and Cordy.
Angel Investigations has at last become a home. And with Fred now in the mix, he sees an entire life there. This is why his utter pain at having to so harshly deject her works well. In a heartbreaking scene, he flies off the handle at her to get her away, knowing the danger he’d put her in once he all but ‘died’ upon losing his soul. That he is willing to go so far to selflessly deprive himself shows a stark contrast between who he once was: a man who sold his soul for a truck. We knew that Gunn in “War Zone” [1×20]. His entire life was a desperate situation full of impossible decisions.
He barely had a childhood, and was forced to grow up as a soldier, which is why he had never been one for well laid plans, for a soldier thinks in the now only, or he or she is as good as dead. Given that, it’s not a stretch to imagine that he would trade his soul for something practically useful; a means to the ends of saving the lives of the people around him. A soldier is the most fearless when he already assumes he’s dead, and that was Gunn’s life. I feel the only problem with this is the ridiculousness of Gunn’s entire life being caught in the balance over a truck, and this revelation coming very late.
For the plot of the episode to be hinged on this we should’ve been informed of it as early on as possible, because by the time we get to the reveal we’ve been wondering so long about an answer it feels like a letdown, especially in an episode about love and hope. Moreover the episode should’ve taken greater steps to justify it, because unless you remember Charles Gunn the soldier from “War Zone” [1×20], you’d probably wince at this idea. I almost did even on my re-watch, which put the episode in a far more favourable light than my first watch through did.
But what really elevates the episode to a more relevant height is Angel’s plot, which takes up a significantly less amount of screen time than Gunn’s, yet does so much more with nothing but quiet stares. For the first three scenes Angel is in, he does nothing but quietly and painfully watch Connor’s charred crib. These scenes are heart-breakingly effective; with nothing but David Boreanaz’s misty eyes to go on, we can see into a man utterly destroyed and filled with hopeless longing. Angel sees his son, his prospect for a real future and a deep connection to this world gone. Cordelia reads at his side with the deepest understanding, and the two of them sitting, doing nothing, is so powerful.
I love that after all this time Cordy is the one who understands Angel the most, perhaps even better than Buffy ever could have, simply because of the point in their lives the two women have known him. Angel finally opens up to her somberly, his ability to pin the blame for Connor’s demise on someone in “Forgiving” [3×17] a failure, and confesses the extent of his pain. Like Gunn he thought he’d finally had a future. He’d built up a circle of friends around him and found a purpose, but in the existence of someone else Angel had found a far more potent way for him to really live on. And as a vampire, he’ll never have another child.
So his one and only chance for a real life beyond life, even his immortal one, was his son. With Connor he felt he could survive anything, and even got through losing Cordelia to the Groosalug in “Couplet” [3×14], but he’s rendered so inert now compared to the previous episodes that it’s shocking to see. This man of action has been reduced to almost nothing, and has no reason to go on. Until his plot intersects with Gunn. Angel makes a similar decision to the one he made last episode: selfishly indulge in his pain or overcome it for their sake. And even from his place of terrible pain, he’s able to burrow his way out.
The final scene at the casino is surprisingly potent as Angel lays his entire future on the line for someone else’s. And in a nice touch, Cordy, who has always been the most ready to stake Angel with the threat of Angelus’ return hanging overhead, instead is ready to stab Jenoff; the score has changed from the old days, and she knows as well as we do that Angelus is long gone. This is Angel, and he fights for his friends. Watching him chop Jenoff’s head off was such a balls-out moment that I think I jumped up and yelled out a ‘hell yeah’ the first time I saw it. The Angel of yore, who takes no prisoners and suffers no fools.
The episode ends with Gunn securely returned to his place of happiness, knowing firmly what he’s realized, and Angel ready to begin moving on. Again the lessons of S2 and his dealings with Darla inform his experiences; all he can do is move on. And cold, alone, in the dark, Wesley is left with no other option. He still has a lot of pain to come.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Groo taking over the front desk. “Hail to you, potential client!”
+ Wesley being absolutely destroyed in one scene. Poor Wes.
+ Pancake kiss!
+ Angel CHOPPING Jenoff’s head off. Pure awesome.
* Angel’s sheer-force and gutsy methods impress Jenoff as much as him having a soul. In “Not Fade Away” [5×22] Lindsey commends Angel, saying that his ‘big brass testes’ are worth just as much that soul of his.