Angel 4×04: Slouching Towards Bethlehem

[Review by Ryan Bovay]

[Writer: Jeffrey Bell | Director: Skip Schoolnik | Aired: 10/27/2002]

“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” represents both the greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses of season four. On the one hand it is chalk-full of deeply contemplative ideas and ironies that get the ball rolling on the season’s main themes. It’s a wonder to consider. However it is not so much a wonder to behold. Like season four this episode is deeply flawed in terms of a malfunctioning plot. Even more flawed is the treatment of Cordelia’s character; a season-long ill that rears its ugly head for the first time here. In a way, it’s appropriate to consider this episode the blueprint for season four, warts and all.

So what works? The episode is rife with unsettling portents, intriguing in their ironic and deceptive presentation. The episode’s basis in William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” a poem that depicts the ascension of a sphinx from the desert rather than the son of god, as the title would suggest, makes for a thickly foreboding air about the story. “I have this horrible feeling something bad is going to happen,” Cordelia tells Connor. She might as well be Obi-Wan Kenobi for the accuracy of this prediction.

Yeats’ poem depicts the world as we know it coming apart. He wrote “The Second Coming” in 1919, when the First World War and its ruinous aftermath were still fresh in the lives and minds of the world’s peoples. Millions had died in Europe, and millions more perished after soldiers returned home from the war, bringing influenza with them. With old systems of power breaking apart in Europe and the Bolsheviks’ revolution shaping a new Soviet Union in the east, it would have appeared to most observers to be a dark time of terrifying, even cataclysmic changes.

In the poem, the speaker observes that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity.” Thus the Second Coming must be at hand, for Christ was prophesized to return at humanity’s darkest hour, shortly after the appearance of the Anti-Christ. Yet what the speaker sees a vision of rising from the desert is not the redeeming son of god, but rather a dreadful beast. At the time humanity’s faithful anticipates their salvation, they meet with palpable doom.

If we look ahead to “Apocalypse, Nowish” [4×07] and the rise of the Beast, we can see the characters’ worlds crumbling under more than a few cataclysms: the Beast disables Los Angeles, blots out the sun, and ultimately necessitates the return of Angelus. Even now at the time of this episode, the gang is straining to keep itself together having lost Connor, Wesley and Cordelia since “Sleep Tight” [3×16] .

The episode is filled with characters confronting irony-clad danger. Cordelia returns to Angel in a flowing white dress; seemingly a blessing. But we the audience know in retrospect that she has returned with Jasmine riding metaphysical piggy-back somewhere within her, biding her time and moving the pieces into place for her overtaking of our world. Lorne warns Angel to be wary: “the phrase ‘Slouching towards Bethlehem’ mean anything to you?” We have to wonder if the devil might choose to appear in white.

Angel tends to be a sucker for taking care of women in need, after all, a trait that Cordelia described as sweet but condescending in “Billy” [3×06] . This leads him to conceal the truth about what he is and what Angel Investigations does from Cordelia, arguing that she needs time to adjust to the real world again before being bombarded with its ugliness. But protection turns out to be a danger in this case, because the lies leave Cordelia in the dark; when she overhears conversations between Gunn and Fred about killing babies, she misconceives them as evil butchers and nearly turns on them. Later, one of Lorne’s demon clients catches Cordelia unawares and nearly kills her.

Thus the truthful Connor appears to be a boon of security to the amnesiac Cordy. Angel’s desire to protect Cordelia from the dangerous but necessary truths of her former life make Connor’s brutal and almost unearthly degree of honesty seem like a beacon cutting through smoke. Knowing in hindsight as we do that Connor was created precisely for the purpose of being pushed into the arms of Cordelia (so that her possessed body could be used to give birth to Jasmine), the danger Connor and his truth represents appears that much more starkly. Here the truth turns out to be both a necessary good and an unlikely evil. Ironies upon ironies.

AtS has always portrayed truth, even the most unpleasant, inconvenient kind of truth, as important to living a good life. The hard truth that Angel learned about the world two seasons ago was that people have the capacity for evil in them, even if it seems convenient to point to organizations like Wolfram and Hart as the source of all evil. Learning that human beings were the source of their own misery allowed Angel to focus his quest for redemption on helping those people rather than obsessing over institutions like W&H. That truth had practical value that helped Angel change his life for the better. In this episode, the truth would’ve earned him Cordelia’s trust and better re-connected her to her identity. It may have spared us all the horrors of The Beast and Jasmine. Or was it all too fated?

Some more foreshadowing: Just as the people of Los Angeles are drawn to Jasmine, Cordelia is drawn to Connor; both Jasmine and Connor represent hidden and unlikely danger once the clarity and truth they represent are pushed aside. Cordelia might feel safer with Connor, but there’s clearly a pre-destined downside to her choosing him over Angel. We also see this with Jasmine: she eats people to sustain herself, and causes religious wars of blind devotion over how to best worship her. But does this downside really outweigh the upside of Jasmine’s peace-inspiring influence? Are the dark designs being sketched in this episode really leading us somewhere evil?

In spite of these lofty, season-spanning considerations and troubling moral questions, the episode itself is a slow and shoddy piece of work to sit through. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is all intellect and no heart. Certainly there are a lot of fascinating ideas at work, but: “execution, execution…”

The story fails to create a sense of immediate danger or suspense. Lorne’s warning that Cordy’s return means darkness doesn’t come until late in the episode, much like Wolfram and Hart’s play to capture her. The threat posed by the demon client of Lorne’s early in the episode isn’t all that scary and is dealt with quickly anyway. Most of the episode is just Angel trying to hide the truth from Cordy and doing a bad job of it. None of it is very gripping, and the episode feels dry and all-setup as hell.

In addition to this problem, none of the characters develop. Cordelia ultimately latches onto Connor, and Angel, feeling guilty about his mistake, lets her go without a fight. His conflicting desires to protect her, honour her wishes and simply reconnect with and love her ultimately fizzle to this. His final scene standing alone and worried struck an slight emotional chord in me, but aside from that closing shot of Angel paralleled with Connor the episode lacked any powerful beats. Once again Fred and Gunn were reduced to scenery, while Connor’s role in the story was simply to fight with Angel. This time through Cordy. It’s an interesting thread, but it isn’t taken to any interesting conclusion in this episode. No payoff.

And it is just me or does it seem like a lot of people are using Cordy to pick their own fights this season? Connor and Angel do their in-fighting through her here, and Jasmine hijacks her body. When you consider the way Cordelia’s character is used up this season – reduced to a plot device – it seems reasonable to conclude that Cordelia has simply become just a use-object for the writers to throw around.

She is deprived of genuine character development throughout the season; for a few episodes she has no memory, and even after she gets it back she just turns out to have been under Jasmine’s possession all along. They effectively reduce her to being one big plot device. A near non-character.

While Cordelia has never been the most interesting character on the show, she has always been essential to Angel’s journey and to the tapestry of AtS; would Angel’s constant brooding and dramatic baggage ever have been bearable without her false enthusiasm and amusing materialism? Watching her mature has been a pleasure, so to know that we don’t technically see the real her again until “You’re Welcome” [5×12] is rather hurtful knowledge for a fan. This is a problem I have with both the season and the show as a whole, but I bring it up here because this is where it all began. In exchange for a plot device, the writers traded away an entire character. Rest assured I will have more to say about this trade.

The only part of the episode that completely worked for me was Wesley and Lilah’s continuing tryst. Lilah not only enjoyed manipulating Wesley, she enjoyed his reaction, demonstrating the growth of an emotional attraction, I think. I’ll talk more about what underlies their relationship in my next review, since that episode (“Supersymmetry” [4×05]) starts prying at what really connects them. I’ll finish with the question Lilah more or less poses to us, a question that’s at the heart of Jasmine’s years-long manipulation of Angel Investigations: if you set up all the possible boundaries and outcomes for a choice, can that choice still be considered free?

 


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Lilah’s signed dollar bill.
+ Gunn: “I am not a sidekick.”

– Cordy, Cordy, Cordy…
– Lame demon, demon, demon.


Foreshadowing

* After saving the family in the teaser, Connor returns to the hotel. He is searching for a semblance of the togetherness he saw in that family, and that search will be very important to his arc this season.


[Score]

60/100

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29 thoughts on “Angel 4×04: Slouching Towards Bethlehem”

  1. [Note: DarthMarion posted this comment on August 28, 2009.]

    Eh, I missed your reviews!
    I really appreciate the way you’re linking the weaknesses and strentgh of the ep with the overall season’s ones.

    Otherwise, I’m not familiar enough with this season (just watched it twice, a long time ago) and I hardly remember this ep, except for the Wes/Lilah.
    However, I’m on a rerun of the show (and always coming for the review of the ep I just watched, so thanks for the previous reviews!), so… soon.

    Like

  2. [Note: buffyholic posted this comment on August 29, 2009.]

    I agree with your review. What they do to Cordelia is unforgivable and frankly this episode is somewhat weak. Wesley/Lilah is still a delight and Gunn is becoming interesting to me.

    I don´t know about you, but this season is starting a downroad spiral for Gunn that continues throughout the final season, the feeling he has of being treated just as the muscle and hating being called that.

    Like

  3. [Note: AnonDK posted this comment on August 29, 2009.]

    “I don´t know about you, but this season is starting a downroad spiral for Gunn that continues throughout the final season, the feeling he has of being treated just as the muscle and hating being called that.”
    That’s the beauty of a show like this, though-they seriously did not know what to do with Gunn, so he seemed to be relegated to ‘the muscle’. Not only was this addressed on the show, it was turned into a very relevent character arc that carries Gunn throughout the rest of the series. Instead of making it a weakness, they turn it into a plus, which a worser show just would not do.

    I’m glad you’re back, Ryan, as I really enjoy your reviews-I agree with this episode. It has some interesting ideas that are executed well, but for the most part it’s a hollow, standard, rather forgettable episode, which unfortunately this season has a LOT of (season 4 has waaaaay too many set-up episodes, with slightly interesting but disjointed pay-off).

    Like

  4. [Note: Kate posted this comment on August 29, 2009.]

    Hi, i just read your review for the top Angel episodes. And while I totally agree on your number one choice, I am a bit suprised that ‘You’re Welcome’ is not on the list. For me, that is my second favourite episode and it hurts not to have it on the list. Along with Smile Time! That was a gimmick episode, but give it some dues- anything that makes you laugh like a crazy maniac is worth some credit. Maybe you are afraid of praising Season 5 too much.

    In this episode, Cordy sings ‘The Greatest love of All’ the same song she sang in ‘The Puppet Show’ WAY back in Buffy season 1! Is this the opposite of foreshadowing or What?

    Like

  5. [Note: Ryan-R.B. posted this comment on September 2, 2009.]

    @AnonDK

    I remember an interview Vincent Kartheiser did for the premiere of Mad Men’s second season in which he was asked about his role on Angel and why he left. He said with little tact that in spite of everyone’s talents, much of the writing staff and main cast had burned out heavily by that time and just didn’t care. Greenwalt had left, Joss was busy with Buffy’s final season and Firefly’s inauguaral year and Angel got the shaft. Particularly Jeffrey Bell’s shaft, since he took over most of the showrunning duties.

    Not that I’m bitter…

    Like

  6. [Note: AnonDK posted this comment on September 3, 2009.]

    That’s a pity, coz I love a LOT of season 4’s intentions, it just fails in its execution. They could have pulled off something brilliant. Instead we got great high points, amazingly strange and somewhat deleriously bad low points. Most of all for their treatment of Cordelia-I mean, seriously, WTF??

    Lucky Firefly got shafted (well, not really-I liked that show), so there was more attention given to season 5, where the show really picked up in quality.

    Like

  7. [Note: Ryan-R.B. posted this comment on September 4, 2009.]

    When you run three shows at once at least one corner of the triangle is going to get cut now and then.

    Interviews with showrunners almost always feature the cautionary warnings that go – like a chorus: “You have to be insane to do this job.” Joss had thrice the regular mania.

    I wonder what would’ve happened if he’d saved his energy for after Buffy finished and run Firefly and Angel S5 at the same time.

    Like

  8. [Note: Arouet posted this comment on September 5, 2009.]

    “…writing staff and main cast had burned out heavily by that time and just didn’t care…”

    Really? I always felt the writer’s attempt to keep S4 from falling apart completely, after they failed to think the plot through well enough, to be an almost heroic effort. I mean, they made a couple of really bad decisions, but at no point did I feel they were lacking in effort.

    Season 4 of Angel is the season that even though it infuriates me sometimes, and I try to hate it, I just can’t. I have too much affection for it, the flawed bastard that it is. Contrast that with S5, which I tried so hard to like, but I just couldn’t get over the misgivings I had with it, aside from a couple of undeniable masterpieces like Underneath.

    And personally I’m a hell of a lot more bitter over the departure of Greenwalt and Minear than anything else (which might have completely ruined the series if DeKnight hadn’t stepped up to the plate in a big way in their absence).

    Like

  9. [Note: buffyholic posted this comment on September 10, 2009.]

    I agree with Arouet. S4 irks me sometimes, but I love it because of the effort and risks they took.

    Like

  10. [Note: excel52 posted this comment on September 13, 2009.]

    Speaking of foreshadowing-Cordy singing “The Greatest Love Of All” seems to be a huge piece of foreshadowing to me, since she is carrying Jasmine, who’s whole schtick is overwhelming love.

    Like

  11. [Note: llinnae posted this comment on September 18, 2009.]

    Great review, Ryan! I never made the connection between Yeats’ “The Second Coming,â€� and this episode so I’m really glad you pointed that out. As Arouet said, Season 4 has its shortcomings but in some ways (emphasis on SOME) its my favourite season of all. Like Buffy season 6, having the staff changes enables the writers to try something new and daring which may or may not work right away. I agree that the season’s plot is fucked up but that was needed in order to take a different route with the show. I don’t see any signs of the writers not caring anymore.

    Like

  12. [Note: Ryan-R.B. posted this comment on September 20, 2009.]

    @excel52 that is an obsessive, and AWESOME observation. My kudos and two pence toyou.

    @Ilinnae & Arouet Well, I was just posting Kartheiser’s thoughts on the matter. My thoughts on the possibility of a burnout?…Dunno.

    Certainly the first time I watched S4 I thought it was fairly full of holes, but at the same time it had a grand vision and captivating ideas that I really enjoyed. I always interpreted its flaws as a result of the writers trying too hard – over-extending themselves with big ideas and lacking the genius plots to support the ideas – rather than laziness. S4 is a fairly grand construct when you look at it as a totality; you don’t make grand constructs with only half an ass.

    BUT, Kartheiser could be right about the cast and crew sans writing staff. You don’t have the big showy performances that you had in previous seasons when characters developed (Wes, Lilah and a couple others excepted). You did have characters like Fred and Gunn undergoing some solid changes as a result of the writing, and there were definitely some subtle tweaks to the performances, but subtly brilliant? Wes-level? Nope.

    Like

  13. [Note: Thrupcat posted this comment on October 7, 2009.]

    Ryan, I am totally impressed and in awe – what an amazing review. Thanks especially for pointing out “The second coming”; that will give me food for thought for more time to come. Keep up the excellent work! I’m just happy that I have so many of your reviews to read and accompany my rewatch of Angel – thank you!

    Like

  14. [Note: buffyholic posted this comment on October 25, 2009.]

    Honestly, i have been following your site for ages and in that time you have posted a measly three reviews. If you can’t hurry up and at least produce a review at least once a fortnight like mikejer does can you just close down your website so we don’t have to shake our heads at your slowness?

    Like

  15. [Note: Thrupcat posted this comment on October 27, 2009.]

    I think we should all give Ryan his time. Why should he shut down his website? Why should I shake my head at his slowness? I know what it takes to write reviews of Ryan’s Angel quality, and I shall be ready when he is again. Mikejer also had a long break in his writing.

    Like

  16. [Note: William B posted this comment on December 4, 2009.]

    I think it was at Tea at the Ford a long time ago that someone mentioned that the song Cordy sings is, in addition to a callback to her Buffy days (and we’ll be seeing Old Cordy again in two episodes) is also explicitly about self-love–“Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.” So there’s Jasmine’s having everyone love her shtick, her own vanity (“A temple…would be nice”), and, importantly, Cordelia’s own vanity. The one that was there in Buffy season one, and the thing that maybe convinced Cordy that she was a champion in season three, accepting that she has earned the right to be a higher power at the season’s end without questioning why she has. The song packs in quite a lot for a few seconds.

    As to the cast/crew this season: it really is a shame, because I do kind of believe that the cast were, to a certain extent, burned out; the only person whose performances were to my mind absolutely consistently memorable were, yes, Denisof’s (well, and Romanov’s), although the various guest stars (Dushku/Torres) helped, and Acker owns “Shiny Happy People”/”The Magic Bullet.” Writing-wise, I tend to agree that the year looked like a massive effort for the writers to hold themselves together. The year isn’t actually terrible, but it’s definitely a mess, but a valiant effort all the same.

    Ryan: I really like what you mention about Connor’s offer of truth, and how that feeds into the whole season long. Delicious that Connor’s gift of truth is returned with lies, once Cordelia gets “her” memory back.

    Like

  17. [Note: buffyholic posted this comment on February 4, 2010.]

    Ryan, I wanna clarify something. The comment earlier about shutting down the site wasn´t made by me. I don´t know if there´s another buffyholic or not, but that comment wasn´t made by me. Just want you to know.

    Take as much time as you need. But let me just give you an incentive: I am dying to read your upcoming reviews because 1) they are gonna be great and 2) I am dying to see how our opinions will differ or be alike because I am rewatching S4 right now and aside some glaring flaws, it is a fascinating season.

    Like

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

    I believe the Cordelia in the first episodes is her. On the Higher Plain was the real Cordy and now back again-no memory Cordy is still her. I don’t think she becomes body jacked by Jasmine until the Beast awakens in ‘Spin The Bottle’ because Lorne attempts that memory spell.

    The following are excerpts from “The Second Coming” by W.B.Yeats.

    “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drownded;

    The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

    “The darkness drops again; but now I know that twenty centuries of stony sleep,

    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, and what rough beast,

    It’s hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”

    Things come to mind here for the season; not just the episode title. Anarchy loosed upon the world. Worst full of passionate intensity (Angelus). The darkness drops. Stony sleep (The Beast is stony). Rocking cradle (Connor). Rough beast (The Beast). And of course the being born part (Jasmine).

    Maybe they did just get the season story from an old poem.

    Like

  19. [Note: MrB posted this comment on July 5, 2010.]

    It is a true shame that this is not a better episode, just because I like the source material (WB Yeats’ “The Second Coming”). All they had to do was do a really good voice-over of the poem and run with it from there…. Here is the final stanza. Just imagine it being read aloud Angel-style:

    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

    Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    The darkness drops again; but now I know

    That twenty centuries of stony sleep

    were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

    Like

  20. [Note: Jonny posted this comment on December 20, 2010.]

    Completely agree with Ryan’s comments about how the character of Cordelia is done over this season. My partner is watching Buffy and Angel for the first time and loving them both and Cordy is one of her favourite characters so she was excited when Cordy comes back after the big ascension scene. I had to warn her not that she might not like the direction the character goes – suffice it to say that she is starting to see what I meant after watching Apocalypse Nowish last night.

    It’s a real shame the reviews haven’t been finished because I love reading them after re-watching the episodes.

    Oh, and I meant to thank Kate for reminding me where I had seen Cordelia sing that song before, it was really bugging me how familiar the scene was.

    Like

  21. [Note: SueB posted this comment on December 6, 2011.]

    Spot on again. High concept, underwhelming pacing and action.

    I did like the fight in the loft and “Tell the boys it’s 4th and 10”. SR and AD rock Season 4.

    Unfortunately I think Kartheiser is right about the burnout. There are moments of brilliance which demonstrate what the show could be but there are other moments of pure laziness in the writing/directing/production that are like the fly in the Chardonnay.

    Still, I love S4 with all it’s flaws because it does have an overall cohesive arc with substantive topics.

    Like

  22. [Note: Monica posted this comment on January 6, 2014.]

    I actually really like this episode. I feel like it was great build-up for what was to come.

    One thing that stuck out to me was the pace. It was slow, sure, but that caused it to focus primarily on the character interactions between the main cast instead of some outside force or recurring character. It was also an unusually quiet episode, which I found to be nice. The music was minimal and never swelled dramatically, a lot of what was revealed about the characters and storylines was conveyed through subtle acting and expressions. It was so interesting and unique, and was a perfect way to show the strength in these characters.

    I liked Cordelia in this episode as well, for a very specific reason. Yes, the amnesia story arc obviously doesn’t develop her character in any way, since it really makes her unable to react in her usual way to what was going on, but I felt it was almost a reflection on her and her journey. Seeing her as basically a blank slate was an interesting way to show exactly how much she’s changed. This episode emphasizes that Cordy has gone through a lot over the past six years, referring back to many character-changing moments in her life. She’s done a number of things since we’ve first met her and I personally loved how all that was dealt with here.

    I also felt that Cordelia’s reactions to how everyone was acting was pretty funny, Wes and Lilah’s “relationship” was very interesting, and I was genuinely frightened and intrigued about what was coming.

    The episode had its weak points, sure. I hated the first scene with Connor, and Ryan’s point about Cordelia becoming a plot device is particularly sickening and sadly true. Thinking about the truth in that observation is really upsetting. Had the fourth season handled Cordy is a better way (could they have done it any worse?), I may have actually loved this season, since I’m aware of and invested in its many strengths.

    Like

  23. [Note: FlyingPenguin posted this comment on April 27, 2015.]

    I pretty much agree with Ryan’s review of this one (though I’d grade it far more harshly)–but I feel compelled to add my own two cents regarding what was wrong with it.

    First, even the basic premise–Angel’s dilemma between scaring Cordy off with too much truth vs. keeping things from her, and how the latter supposedly pushes her toward Connor–was mishandled, because by the time she goes off with Connor, Angel & co. already have told her the truth–and, just as they feared it would, said truth freaked her out! So, the whole thing is just a muddled mess.

    Second, on top of the larger issues discussed by Ryan surrounding the show’s poor treatment of Cordelia, the latter’s behavior also doesn’t even make sense in this episode from the perspective of a first-time viewer. I mean, even if I were okay with the body-jacking plot (which I’m not), the audience doesn’t know about it yet at this point–so for the episode to work, there either needs to be a way to make sense of her behavior based on what the audience does know, or how she behaves at least needs to be treated as a mystery. And frankly, memory or no memory (and weirdness/delayed-truth-telling from Angel or no), I just do not buy Cordy’s running-off-with-Connor behavior here–yet the episode clearly expects the audience to believe it. I find the whole Connor-and-Cordy thing that starts here so unpalatable, implausible, and just irritating to watch that it makes this whole section of the season difficult to enjoy. The first time I watched the season, I was actually relieved when it was finally revealed that it “wasn’t really Cordelia”–because at least it explained her behavior. Of course, when the “real” Cordelia then never actually came back, and it became clear that the show hand underhandedly dispensed with her long before, all in service of an unpleasant plotline…well, there are reasons why I’m not a huge fan of this season…

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