[Review by Fray-Adjacent]
[Writer: Joss Whedon | Director: Joss Whedon | Aired: 11/10/2002]
“Spin the Bottle” breaks the fourth wall. This happens through Lorne, who addresses the audience, tells the story, and comments throughout on themes and moments of irony, tragedy, and humor. Thankfully, the episode doesn’t explicitly draw attention to the fictitious nature of the story, except in one funny moment when Lorne makes fun of TV commercials. Breaking the fourth wall is a popular gimmick in postmodern storytelling, though it dates back further than that. It’s common enough in the work of Shakespeare, who Whedon admires and even references at the end of this episode, when Lorne sarcastically says, “all’s well that ends well.” Like “Spin the Bottle”, the play that Lorne referenced is one that combines both tragedy and comedy.
At its best, breaking the fourth wall can be funny or can add extra dimensions to themes, expand on the audience’s connection to characters, and so forth. At its worst, it’s a cheap excuse to fall back on overused tropes while making jokes about them, allowing the artist to avoid the risk of delving into real emotion. Fortunately for us, in this case the breaking of the fourth wall heightens the emotion of “Spin the Bottle.” For most of the episode, it simply adds to the humor. But in the final scenes, the lighting, music, and filming of Lorne’s narration give the viewer a sense of looming tragedy despite the largely humorous story. As usual, Andy Hallet does a hauntingly beautiful job portraying the solemn Lorne who’s in over his head with the pain, suffering, and constant conflict that his relationship with Angel Investigations (AI) brings him. These moments provide some excellent build-up to the Season 4 arc, although unfortunately that arc fails to deliver in many ways.
Whedon also seems to use the narration scenes to comment on the serialized structure of Season 4 as a whole. At the end of Lorne’s tale, when he’s hinted at a dark ending awaiting our characters, a member of the audience shouts, “finish it!” Lorne solemnly responds, “always leave ‘em wanting more.” Indeed, Season 4 has at this point already become a series of cliffhangers.
Like much of Season 4, the episode picks up (after Lorne’s introduction) where the previous one left off: Angel and Cordelia, talking in the courtyard. Cordy, suffering from amnesia, just asked Angel if they were in love before she left at the end of Season 3. His answer, “I don’t know,” begins to dig up the tragic unfairness of “Tomorrow” [3×22]. I find this short scene pretty moving, in large part because the writers don’t lean too heavily on the Angel/Cordy romance, but instead on the total loss of their friendship since her ascent to a higher plane and his descent the sea floor. Angel tells Cordy, “all I know is that you were my dearest friend. And I hope that—I just— I want that back. That much, at least.” Angel never got to find out how Cordy felt about him. He will at the end of this episode, in a bitter moment that mirrors the beginning of the episode and caps off his isolation and betrayal from all sides. This isolation, and the unfairness of it all, is a prominent theme in “Spin the Bottle.”
Since “Sleep Tight” [3×16], Angel has lost one loved one after another in a dizzying sequence of losses and betrayals, each of which, from his perspective, came out of nowhere. First Wesley kidnapped Connor who, upon returning, hated Angel and referred to Holtz as “father.” After Holtz’s death, Angel believed that Connor had finally come around to accepting him. Instead, Connor attacked him and sunk him to the bottom of the sea. After Wesley rescued him, Angel discovered that Cordy had gone missing, and even when she returned she had no memory of Angel and even rejected him, choosing to stay with Connor instead and accusing Angel of being a stalker.
The post-spell events in “Spin the Bottle” capture this feeling through Angel’s experience of discovering that he is a vampire, trying to hide it initially, and dealing with everyone’s reactions once they find out. Lorne introduces this theme in his narration, asking the audience “is there anything worse than feeling like you’re all alone?” When Angel first discovers that he has no reflection, then feels his bumpy vamp face, he says, “I’m a vampire. They’re gonna kill me.”
Angel tries to hide his true nature from the group, but eventually everyone turns on him. This is when he begins to change and goes on the offensive. He calls the AI crew hypocrites for attacking him. Once again, everyone is turning on him even though he’s done nothing wrong. Angel deals with the injustice of it all by turning on them and, once he rediscovers his vampire strength and speed, he actually becomes threatening. This leads to the brief Cordelia chase scene and his confrontation with Connor, who Angel doesn’t know is his son. Angel tells Connor that he “didn’t ask to be attacked,” once again drawing parallels between the events in this episode and the larger attacks and betrayals from friends and family that Angel has been coping with for the past year.
This scene also draws parallels between Angel’s relationship with Connor and Liam’s relationship with his own father. The full line that I quoted from above was, “I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t ask to be attacked. I didn’t ask to be a freak. Hell, I didn’t even ask to be born.” All of this certainly resonates with Connor, as does Angel’s complaints about his father being “a self-righteous #######.” However, this is about as deep as this episode goes in exploring the father-son dynamic between Angel and Connor.
There’s another interesting line in this little scene. Angel tells Connor, “Truth to tell, I’m not much for fighting. I’d rather be satisfying my sinful urges with the Chase girl.” This reminds the audience that Liam was lazy and self-indulgent, and that this trait expressed itself in Angelus through his pursuit of easy and pleasurable kills. Even after getting his soul, Angel spent the first 100 years brooding, revolting against his previous self, but rarely fighting. The few times that he tried ended badly, and he gave up easily. It was only through his relationship with Buffy and subsequent lessons in the first couple of seasons of Angel that Angel became a true fighter. This short line is a nice reminder of how far Angel has come, and links thematically back to Lorne’s singing of “The Way We Were” at the beginning of the episode.
This contrast between how the characters are now compared to how they used to be is the primary theme of “Spin the Bottle.” This is why resurrecting their seventeen year-old selves, while making no sense plot-wise, is a decent move character-wise. The spell-gone-wrong gives the writers and viewers a chance to reflect on how the characters have grown and changed over recent years. After the spell starts, the viewers see many of the same character conflicts play out even though the characters are behaving very differently.
The effect of these conflicts, both season-wide and within “Spin the Bottle”, is to isolate the characters. The spell itself accomplishes this too, since afterward none of the characters knows each other. The isolation the characters experience in this episode resonates thematically throughout this season and the series as a whole. The Angel Investigations crew falls apart, or nearly does, multiple times throughout the series because its members fail to turn to each other for help when they have a problem and instead seek to solve it on their own. This happens on Buffy as well, but on Angel our characters reach a whole new level of isolation and resulting group dysfunction. And Season 4 is the time when this isolation is at its peak. By the end, every character has grown more distant from the others, with the exception of Wesley, who has rejoined the group but still is never as close as he was in the early days.
For Gunn, this episode marks the beginning of feeling relegated to the role of “muscle.” After he figures out that Wesley helped Fred work out her plan to kill professor Seidel in “Supersymmetry” [4×05], he tells Wesley “killing takes brains.” Gunn’s insecurities around education come up again after the spell, when he rolls his eyes after Wesley asks him what school he attends. Seventeen year-old Gunn was homeless, eating trash, and living in constant danger of being killed by the vampires that he and his crew fought. Now, seventeen year-old Gunn reacts angrily against what he calls “[waking] up with a bunch of insane white folks trying to tell me what to do. The day I take orders from guys like you is the— day I—not even gonna happen. “ This moment connects Gunn’s emerging angst about being the “muscle” to his prior conflicts about abandoning his old crew. It’s easy to imagine Season 4 Gunn, reflecting on who he used to be, and wondering how he could have left his own people only to become the “muscle” taking orders from people who he increasingly sees as devaluing his abilities.
The first open confrontation between Gunn and Wesley over Fred gives us the (in?)famous Wesley line, “I had my throat cut and all my friends abandoned me.” “Spin the Bottle” offers a marked contrast between the Wesley that Buffy the Vampire Slayer introduced and the one we see now. The contrast is most stark in the second confrontation between Gunn and Wesley post-spell, a moment that reflects back on their first standoff earlier in the episode. They face each other in the same way, with Gunn standing threateningly over Wesley. But instead of drawing a weapon and forcing Gunn to back down, Wesley comically performs some decidedly unthreatening karate until the knife pops out again, surprising himself more than anyone. The mirroring of these two moments in “Spin the Bottle” highlights Wesley’s series-long development. However, that’s most of what happens for Wesley in this episode – his character isn’t developed so much as reflected upon.
Similarly, for Cordy, this episode doesn’t offer much in the way of development, but we do get a refreshing jolt of the old Cordelia. In fact, this is arguably the only episode in all of Season 4 where the audience sees the real Cordelia, and even then it’s a Cordelia who only existed in the first season of Buffy and never on Angel. However, we do also see a hint of her old personality before the spell, when she tells Angel, regarding whether they were in love, “now, I think that’s the sort of thing I’d remember. Hey, maybe you wrote it down somewhere—a note on the fridge, maybe?”
This brings me to the topic of comedy in “Spin the Bottle.” Much of the comedy is situational and loses its fun on multiple viewings. This is where “Spin the Bottle” loses many of its points: for a comedy, it’s just not that funny. Still, the humor is a welcome respite from the drama and tragedy of late Season 3 and most all of Season 4, most notably with Alexis Denisof’s fantastic physical comedy. He easily resurrects the Wesley of Buffy Season 3 and Angel Season 1, and adds on another layer of seventeen year-old silliness. Denisof most definitely carries the comedy of this episode. It’s also a little fun to see Charisma Carpenter bring back teenage Cordelia’s acerbic character. She’s got some hilarious moments, which (unfortunately for the quotes section of this review) are great primarily for her delivery rather than for the writing itself. The same goes for Angel/Liam’s reactions both to the 21st Century and to being a vampire.
“Spin the Bottle” offers much in the way of character reflection – we see just how much the characters have developed and changed over time. It also offers a new angle on many of their conflicts by recreating them through the interactions of their seventeen year-old selves. However, apart from initiating Gunn’s “muscle” angst, which propels much of his development for the rest of the series, it doesn’t do a lot to develop the characters. It does develop the season’s plot in an important way by enabling Jasmine to begin to take control of Cordelia (though how this happens never gets explained). As far as comedy goes, it definitely isn’t Joss Whedon’s best work, though as usual I enjoy watching his unique directing style. It also does quite a nice job of setting up a feeling of doom and even tragedy in this opening volley to the Season 4 arc. It’s too bad that, like the early episodes of Buffy Season 7, the potential opened up here doesn’t get the follow through it deserves.
“Spin the Bottle” ends with a final haunting reminder of the characters’ aloneness. The episode’s last spoken line is Cordelia confirming to Angel that they were in love – but that time is long gone. The final shot however, is Lorne walking through the bar, away from the stage. Though we still hear the mumbled conversation of the bar guests, we see now that all the tables are empty, and perhaps were all along.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Brief but important follow up on the events in “Supersymmetry” [4×05] from Fred, Gunn, and Wesley’s perspective.
+ Seventeen year-old Cordelia says “hello salty goodness” the first time she sees Angel – the same thing she said in Buffy’s “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date” .
+ The decision to keep Angel’s American accent instead of forcing Boreanaz to do a bad Irish accent for most of the episode.
+ Seventeen year-old Fred was a paranoid stoner! Ha ha!
+ I appreciated the reference to Buffy’s “Helpless” .
– We never really get a full explanation of why the spell went wrong or why it had the specific effect that it did.
– I’m not amused by the joke where Angel thinks cars are demons. However, his delivery of the line describing the demons to Wesley (“shiny”) saves this joke from total failure.
– I don’t buy that seventeen year-old Fred would trust Lorne enough to untie him and eat his magic powder.
* When Connor saves a prostitute from a vampire, she at first offers to “repay” him, but then rejects him when he doesn’t have any money. She says, “You still don’t ride free, junior. Why don’t you run home to mama? Maybe she’ll give you a special treat for being such a good boy.” Especially in combination with a similar moment with Cordelia later in the episode, this foreshadows the ickiest sex in the Buffyverse, which takes place in the next episode, “Apocalypse, Nowish” [4×07].