[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.
* 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.