[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: Tim Minear | Director: Tim Minear | Aired: 05/13/2002]
“Benediction” is another one of those excellent character pieces that often gets overlooked because of episodes with more bang or plot focus. Not that some of them aren’t deserving of the attention – such as with barnstormers like “Reprise” [2×15] – but it’s disappointing how forgotten episodes like this or “Through the Looking Glass” [2×21] can be despite their many superb qualities. Yet another Tim Minear classic (and the second last episode he would ever write on the show), it’s emotional, shocking, and at times almost perverse. There are layers upon layers at work throughout the episode and as the true intentions of Holtz become clear in the final scene, I found myself riveted and gasping. This is everything the season finale “Tomorrow” [3×22] should’ve been.
In fact, the cliffhanger this hour leaves us on only hurt the finale’s performance, as I went in with high expectations. I would’ve been perfectly happy if season three had ended right here, even if this isn’t quite 100-level material. We start relatively close to where we left off at the end of “A New World” [3×20], with Holtz and Connor now back in our dimension. We learn that the slusk demons from “The Price” [3×19] were from Quor’toth, and apparently came here because Connor had scared them when he forced them to let him through the dimensional tear. Nice continuity touch. More importantly, we learn that Connor came back to kill Angel on behalf of Holtz and his long dead wife and daughter.
But Holtz followed him, and instead of guiding Connor to vengeance, he instead tells him to go to Angel and to learn from him about our dimension. He says that Quor’toth was never their home, and appears to want Connor to find a new and happy place in LA. Keith Szarabajka plays this new Holtz as an old sage, his rough edges worn down by the passage of time. As the episode goes on we learn what he claims has changed him so over these years: he loves his son, a thing he didn’t expect to happen after he stole Connor from Angel in “Sleep Tight” [3×16]. Because of this he seems to want Connor to find peace and let go of the pain of Quor’toth.
As the central character of the episode Connor is a maelstrom: fierce, unrelenting, and eventually revealed as empty. Though he may seem idiotic and hard-headed, the more we look into him the more we see a boy poisoned by the place he was forced to grow up in. The writers quickly establish a dichotomy within him, with the two worlds represented by each of his ‘fathers.’ With Holtz he was in a place of constant fear, anger, pain and hatred. Like that father he lived only for vengeance because it was all that could keep him going through the literal hell around him. In a quiet moment they rationalize their lives by claiming God has guided them, and it’s unsettling to see just how warped Connor has become.
This is Holtz’s doing as much as Quor’toth’s as Holtz took him there and had only hatred to raise him with. Yet he claims to love his son, and throughout the episode acts like a man ready to send his child off into the world by giving him to his sworn enemy. After “Stephen” returns to the Hotel, the moments of bonding he has with Angel are so genuine and so utterly sweet that we the audience become convinced Holtz has good intentions. With all the pain and suffering Angel’s endured since “Sleep Tight” [3×16], watching him be truly and absolutely content once again is deeply affecting all on its own, and it’s been fully earned. It melts the heart.
But Connor remains torn, and even refuses Holtz’s implication that Angel is not Angelus. His own father rejecting the hatred on which he was brought up drives him to such a frayed rage that he tries to kill Cordelia, leading to another heartbreaking moment in which her powers somehow wash away some of the pain of Quor’toth. Though he’s left empty and still can’t call Angel his father, he’s calmer and more accepting of what’s happening around him. It leaves him with no sense of a home, but with a chance to start over in LA with Angel. And this is where the turning point for all three characters emerges so sharply and horribly.
He has every chance in the world now to have a happy life and Holtz uses the opportunity – and his ‘son’s’ new bond with Angel – to poison the well in one last, evil act. As a relativist I’m loathe to use the terms good or evil as they tend to be blinds to the deeper complexity of human situations, but Holtz’s final vengeance is so perverse, so deeply devoid of anything loving that I can’t see it as anything but evil. He’s honest in only one thing: his admission to Justine that hate keeps you alive when nothing else does. Her words, but a shared sentiment nonetheless.
Maybe then he saw it as an act of love; his son could live on in this world only so long as he hated Angel, he may have thought. Regardless, what transpires on screen is another tragedy of Shakespearian proportions like “Sleep Tight” [3×16]’s, brought to its full dramatic potential by Angel’s own hatred for Holtz, which makes him willing to lie to Connor. This mistake is what will have him sunk to the bottom of the ocean at the end of “Tomorrow” [3×22]; Angel should’ve listened to Cordelia. Connor is left in despair, Justine without the leader and friend she desperately needs and Angel as a marked man. Holtz’s ‘suicide’ poisons these people.
For all he lacked in complexity, I must admit that the writers have done a fantastic job in this and a couple of other episodes of making him evil in a profound and uncommon way. The voice-over-reading of the letter he gives to Angel is a masterfully written sequence as the scenes of horror and tragedy play against words of love and sacrifice. It’s sad, happy, desperate, resolute and haunting all at once; just watch as Connor nimbly dodges fleets of cars running through the streets, where last episode he could barely even navigate his way across a two lane road. Meanwhile, Angel sits, unburdened at last, with no awareness of how much pain is yet to come.
If I must, before I wrap up, harangue this episode for one small thing it is the continual under-use of cast regulars. Throughout all of S3, Lorne, Fred and Gunn have been playing decreasingly important roles in the main story and it’s getting more apparent than ever. Even Lorne’s one powerful scene with Connor didn’t justify his appearance, and Fred and Gunn could’ve been written out of the episode with little or no effort, as all they really did was report back on Holtz’ location to Angel; an A-to-B thing that could’ve easily been done another way. This has been a problem all throughout the season and it’s not getting any better. Say what you will of S4’s flaws, but it succeeds where S3 fails, and where it fails it does so in more interesting ways. And these failures result only from the huge risks it takes. For that alone I respect it more, which you’ll see in my upcoming S4 reviews.
So, as a precipitating character event for the major players of that upcoming season, this episode is wildly successful. Its portrayal of characters motivated by hatred is not only convincing, but damning and revealing. Do we act as we would like to be, or in spite of how we feel we shouldn’t be? Angel, who again apologizes to the man who terrorized his family, is the only one who acts out of love.
Best is that Connor works as a complex character and carries the story and the people around him with great ease. Anyone who’s seen S4 knows that this is something that doesn’t last, so I appreciate it a great deal while it’s here. We need only suffer through the season finale now to get to a better place.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Vincent Kartheiser as Connor. His equal parts anger and desperation play seamlessly thanks to Kartheiser’s work here.
+ Fred noting just how many people around the office have actually been in a hell dimension.
+ The Groosalug’s depressing double entendre.
+ Lorne’s utter disgust with Connor, and how it turns to complete empathy as Cordy ‘heals’ him.
+ Cordy being so tight with Angel that she totally knows she can skip the arguing with him now.
+ Cordelia encouraging Angel to kill Holtz.
+ Connor ‘hearing’ Fred and Gunn. One word: cool.
+ Angel’s final line: “Connor.”
* The dichotomy between Quor’toth and LA that Holtz permanently installs in Connor is one that will drive his character for entire his duration on the show, until Angel finally ‘sacrifices’ him for a better life in “Home” [4×22].