[Review by Alexandra Jones]
[Writer: Steven S. DeKnight | Director: Vern Gillum | Aired: 11/17/2002]
Before I start this review, there’s just something I have to do: Ewwwwwww!
Okay. I think that’s the customary reaction to the ending of this episode, so now that I’ve got that out of the way, I can get started.
Yes, this is indeed the episode which is most often remembered for its last couple of minutes, where Connor and Cordy get it on. In fact, I have to wonder whether that particular scene is the reason why it was one of the last unclaimed episodes in the ACP (Angel Completion Project). I hope not, because whatever your thoughts on Connor and Cordelia are, this episode has a lot more to offer than its final scene. And so, before I try to tackle that tricky subject, let’s first give the rest of the episode the attention it deserves.
This is actually a pretty tough episode to review, and that’s not just because of the final sex scene. We also have to examine Cordelia’s behaviour throughout the episode, and this is difficult because in a retrospective review we all know that this is in fact not Cordelia at all. Actually, that might be debatable; there are some viewers who believe that Jasmine’s control manifests gradually, rather than immediately taking hold of Cordelia at the end of “Spin The Bottle” [4×06].
Personally, I’m still undecided on this. I do feel that by the end of the series we’re supposed to believe that Jasmine has been in control the whole time. But I’m not sure that it was written that way in the first few episodes. Perhaps the writers hadn’t completely made up their minds at this point, because if Jasmine is completely in the driving seat then many of Cordelia’s scenes become uninteresting, confusing, or just plain nonsensical. This is particularly true of the scene at the beginning, which turns out to be a dream sequence. But whose dream is it? Jasmine’s? Cordelia’s? Did any of it actually happen? It’s frustrating to watch a fairly mundane scene which lasts several minutes, only to have it end with Cordelia waking up from a bad dream. Since it’s all apparently a dream, what am I supposed to make of all the boring talk about chocodiles and old movies? And if this is actually Jasmine, then why would she be dreaming about The Beast anyway? I have to admit that I have no idea what we’re supposed to take away from this scene.
Another minor point which I find quite inexplicable is Angel’s reluctance to speak to Cordelia at the beginning of the episode. He won’t go to see her until Connor actually begs him to do so. I suppose that he’s meant to be feeling awkward after the ‘were we in love?’ moment at the end of “Spin The Bottle” [4×06], but to me it just feels like rather a contrived way of keeping him and Cordelia apart and forcing her closer to Connor. Cordelia was one of Angel’s only friends for a long time, and was shaping up to be a lot more than that right before she disappeared. Now that she’s back, with her memory restored, I just can’t believe that Angel wouldn’t be absolutely desperate to see her as soon as possible.
However, once they do meet, things get much more interesting. I think it’s a fascinating idea to have Cordelia reject Angel for the reasons she gives. Of course, this is all happening under Jasmine’s influence, and she’s most likely just trying to push Angel away so that she can move closer to Connor. But, at least from Angel’s point of view, this is still Cordelia speaking. Even if she’s completely under Jasmine’s control, her words still have to be believable as something Cordelia would actually say. Would Cordelia really turn Angel down after experiencing his chequered past for herself? Either way, I can well imagine that watching someone commit countless acts of brutality in their past would change your perception of that person, no matter how you felt about them before. But at the same time, it’s probably one of the worst things that Angel could hear, and it’s therefore a very effective way of severing the bond between them.
We know just how much Angel wants to distance himself from his actions as ‘Angelus’ (it says a lot that he actually gives his soulless self a different name), and he’s spent over a hundred years trying to do just that. For his former friend to push him away because of those actions must be incredibly difficult for him to take, and yet he can’t really argue with the reasoning. I really like this conversation, since it’s one of those rare scenes which makes sense whether you think it’s Jasmine or Cordelia talking. Unfortunately, these kinds of scenes are few and far between. Once Cordelia starts convulsing and having bogus ‘visions’ of the Beast, I’m back to feeling rather dissatisfied with the whole thing. I just can’t reconcile these ‘visions,’ or a lot of other aspects of Cordelia’s behaviour, with my knowledge of Jasmine.
However, we do at least get a couple of possible nods to Cordelia’s possession in one of her conversations with Connor. First, she tells Connor that she’ll be fine walking around town by herself, because: “I was a higher being.” Connor repeats the word “was” while Cordelia has her back turned to him, and we get a very deliberate shot of her face, which Connor can’t see. It’s such a brief moment that it’s difficult to read anything into her facial expression here. Is she sad? Thoughtful? Gloating? Scheming? I think she could be thinking pretty much anything here, but it’s so specifically timed with Connor’s words that it feels very deliberate: we’re supposed to pay attention to what’s being said here. I think this could be our first hint that Cordelia might be hiding something.
Her next words are also very interesting once you’ve seen the whole of Season 4 – she says “I remember wanting to come back home… to be able to touch, to feel… to be human again.” In “Shiny Happy People” [4×18], once Jasmine’s escaped from Cordelia’s body and is now in her own human form, she says “to be able to bleed, feel things, anything—even pain—is a gift.” Again, this is very subtle, but I like to think that it was intentional, and that Jasmine’s hinting about her desire to manifest in a human body. Although I generally think the Cordelia/Jasmine continuity is deeply flawed, it’s moments like this which allow me to hope that the whole thing wasn’t being completely made up on the spot.
Meanwhile, back at Angel Investigations, we previously heard Angel say “it’s not like the world’s going to end right this second,” and this of course means that things are about to get extremely messy. I must admit, I do love all the scenes with Lorne-the-Receptionist. I think this is a brilliant use of Lorne’s character, but sadly this is something of a rarity in the later seasons of Angel. In the later episodes I always felt like the writers just ran out of ideas for what to do with him; for most of Season 5 he just pops in every now and again to make an amusing quip. But in this episode, his role as receptionist gives him two important jobs. Firstly, he gives us a good laugh. Perhaps I’m just immature, but I never fail to giggle when I hear him say “…and they came out of your what?” And secondly, he effectively conveys some essential plot details for this episode. As we listen to his charming banter with Angel Investigation’s clients, we quickly get the message that something big is going on in L.A.
Gunn and Fred are the first to respond to one of these calls, as they head out to Hancock Park to deal with a supposedly haunted bathroom. I really like the way that, while this scene adds to the general toll of ‘weird things going on in L.A.’ it also allows us to peek into the couple’s troubled relationship. One of the things I love most about both Buffy and Angel is the way that they can take extraordinary, fantastical situations and turn them into something that many of us can relate to in some way. While it’s unlikely that any of us have tried to send our former professors to a hell dimension, I think there must be a lot of viewers who can recognise the uncomfortable awkwardness of a couple trying to act ‘normal’ after a big fight. It feels completely real to me, no matter how supernatural the underlying circumstances might be, and I think this is down to some great work by both writers and actors alike.
Gunn is just trying to carry on as before, acting like nothing’s changed, while Fred is becoming increasingly distant and uncomfortable. It feels like Gunn’s trying a little too hard, in fact. He clearly knows that things aren’t normal between them, yet he makes comments about how they might get their own place some day, and assumes that he can join Fred in the bath when they get home. This only serves to make Fred even more uncomfortable. Yet while she is obviously very closed-off, she’s still making some effort to act as if nothing’s wrong. She tries to backpedal and invite Gunn to take a bath with her when it’s obvious that it’s really not what she wants, because she’s desperate to avoid talking about the real problems. But they can’t put it off forever, and they end up having the conversation they’ve been avoiding for weeks.
Initially, it seems like Fred’s simply wracked with guilt over Professor Seidel’s murder. However, as the conversation continues it’s hard to tell which she’s feeling more: guilt at her own part in the murder, or anger at Gunn’s. Firstly, he took an important decision away from her, and her feelings on this are made quite clear when she says “it wasn’t your choice.” However, I’ve always felt that part of the reason Fred didn’t want Gunn involved in the murder was because she wanted to keep it completely separate from her personal life. Although she tells Wesley in “Supersymmetry” [4×05] that Gunn “doesn’t have it in him,” I don’t think that’s the real reason. I feel that it would have been much easier for her if he had stayed away, since she would then have been able to come home to him and lean in him for support afterwards. But because he got involved, she now has to go to bed with a murderer every night. It’s hardly surprising to hear that the couple haven’t touched each other since then, and although their actual break-up doesn’t happen for a few more episodes, it’s hard to imagine how they could ever come back from this.
While there’s no touching going on between Fred and Gunn at the moment, there’s a lot of touching happening over at Wesley’s place. I think the scene between Wesley and Lilah is truly fantastic, but I should probably state upfront that I’m a big fan of both Wesley and Lilah as individuals, and that I think they make a fascinating (not to mention extremely hot) couple. Lilah dressing up as a caricature of Fred is incredibly twisted, but I’m actually not sure that she expects the reaction she gets. I think she’s trying to tease Wesley and show him that she’s completely aware of his ‘crush,’ but I don’t think she really wants him to get turned on by her ‘Fred’ outfit. This is evident in the fact that she tries to remove the glasses before things really get going and her expression when Wesley barks “leave them on” shows that she’s both surprised and hurt by his reaction. This is quite uncomfortable to watch, and I feel that Wesley is actually being rather cruel here. While Lilah’s trying so hard to show him that she doesn’t care about his feelings for Fred, the fact that she’s gone to the trouble of procuring this outfit suggests the exact opposite. Wesley knows this, and he calls her bluff. If she really doesn’t care, then she won’t mind if they have sex while he’s clearly thinking of the other woman, right? Of course, she does mind, but she can’t show it because she can never allow Wesley to win. Wesley and Lilah’s relationship has never seemed particularly healthy, but this is a real low point for them. After watching this, it’s almost a relief when we see him call things off in the next episode.
So far, I’ve mostly focussed on the character-driven parts of this episode. But there’s a lot of important plot development here, too, with the most significant part being the appearance of the Beast. We first see this gigantic brute ‘clawing his way up from the bowels of the earth’ – or rather, smashing through some tarmac. Let’s take a moment to appreciate just how unbelievably cool the Beast looks. I have to say, I think that Angel consistently outstrips Buffy when it comes to the costumes and makeup of its demonic bad-guys. I often find the demons on Buffy a little silly-looking, but even on a really good day I don’t think they’ve ever given us anything as impressive or imposing as the Beast. And it’s not just the costume. Thanks to some well-timed slow-motion and an impressive musical score, the overall effect is completely terrifying. And although I do think it would have been even more effective if he’d stayed silent, when he speaks he also has a suitably sinister, booming voice. All in all, a great bad guy. And to top it all off, he’s put to great use with one of my favourite fight scenes in the whole series.
Admittedly, the fight scene at the nightclub is not perfect. It falls into a fairly clichéd rhythm where the guys all take it in turns to attack, facing the Beast one at a time rather than working together. There’s an amusing moment where Wesley and Lorne fumble about for ages trying to reload their crossbows, which seems to have been slotted in just to explain why Angel’s currently fighting without any backup. And, by the way, why did they bring crossbows in the first place? It seems pretty dangerous given the risk of Angel getting hit by a stray arrow – which is exactly what happens – and it doesn’t make a lot of sense for Wesley to be using one when he’s brought an assortment of more powerful firearms with him. However, I can put all of these doubts to one side, because this scene is simply great fun to watch. I think it’s the first time we’ve seen the gang face such a powerful adversary. We’ve become quite used to seeing them easily overpower all kinds of scary monsters, of all shapes and sizes, and it’s a big shock to see them take such a pummelling from a single opponent, who leaves without even a scratch on him even after Wesley fires a shotgun in his face. It leaves us with no doubt that the Beast is a seriously dangerous enemy.
Okay, so I’ve made it clear that I think the Beast is pretty cool. But unfortunately, I do still need to ask the obvious question: why exactly is he here? In this episode, as I understand it, he performs a ritual involving the ‘Eye of Fire’ made from dead bodies, which brings about the rain of fire. Which is very pretty, but I’m struggling to see any actual point to it. Is it just supposed to be a big distraction to throw everyone off the scent, or to bring about the release of Angelus? That seems to be the explanation later on, but it’s a deeply unsatisfying one. With so much happening all over L.A. in this episode, I really think we deserve a better explanation for it – if not right now, then at some point down the line. There’s also the possibility that it’s supposed to drive Connor and Cordelia into each other’s arms. But I don’t buy that explanation either. Cordelia’s already under Jasmine’s control, and Connor clearly doesn’t need the excuse of an apocalyptic rain of fire before he’ll jump into bed with her.
And now I don’t think we can put it off any longer, so let’s talk about that scene.
Firstly, I think we can probably all agree on one thing. Connor and Cordelia having sex is just… gross. I wish I could come up with a more sophisticated word for it, but that’s just the one I keep coming back to. And it seems that I’m not the only one who would describe it that way, since when I type ‘Connor Cordelia’ into Google, the third autocomplete suggestion in the list is ‘Connor Cordelia gross.’ It’s good to know that there are so many people out there who agree with me. However, what’s interesting is that we might not all agree on exactly why we find it so gross. There’s certainly a lot to choose from.
For starters, there’s the simple age difference. This is an 18 year old boy having sex with – no, losing his virginity to – a 23-year old woman. Now, this is actually not that strange. I’m sure that there have been many healthy relationships between people of similar ages. However, I think it’s fair to say that this is still fairly unusual for a TV sex scene – especially one where the woman is the older party. What actually makes it seem worse, though, is the fact that the age gap between the actors is considerably larger. Kartheiser is 23 here, while Carpenter is 32. Not only that, but Carpenter is also visibly pregnant. While we can just about believe that Connor’s 18, I don’t think anyone really thinks of Cordelia as being in her early twenties any more. She both looks and acts like someone much older. Even in her early days on Buffy it was a bit of a stretch to see her as a 16-year-old high school student, but here the combination of a much shorter haircut and some extra baby weight makes her look much older than 23. This just adds to the creepiness of a generally very creepy situation.
If the age difference doesn’t bother you, though, then how about the fact that Cordelia very nearly had a relationship with Connor’s father? And that she claims (even in this very episode) that she’s still in love with him? The bizarre love-triangle is highlighted throughout the episode, just to hammer the point home. First, we have Connor coming to Angel and saying “she’s staying with me now – you know that, right?” Angel interprets this quite innocently, but to the viewer it’s clear that Connor is quite protectively staking his claim on his father’s former love interest. When Angel comes to see Cordelia, Connor skulks away as soon as he sees the pair holding hands, showing that he’s clearly aware of the connection between them and that it makes him jealous. And, just to really confuse things, Cordelia comments twice on the similarities between father and son, showing obvious affection for both of them. This is all pretty twisted, and I still haven’t even mentioned the fact that Angel ends up watching the entire spectacle from the rooftop. It would be creepy for Angel to be watching anyone have sex, but here he’s watching his own son having sex with the woman he’s in love with. If the goal is to make this horrible love triangle seem as wrong as possible, then I have to say that I think the writers have done an excellent job.
Still not finding it gross enough? Well then, maybe the Oedipal overtones will fix that for you. Actually, I think that’s a little unfair on Connor. As far as he’s concerned, he doesn’t have any kind of filial relationship with Cordelia. Of course, we saw several scenes of Cordelia looking after him as a baby, but that’s not going to be something he remembers. In “Soulless” [4×11] Angelus makes the Oedipal connection most explicit when he says “the first woman you boned is the closest thing you’ve ever had to a mother. Doing your mom and trying to kill your dad. There should be a play.” But I don’t actually agree with this assessment – in particular, I question the statement that Cordelia is the closest thing Connor’s ever had to a mother. I actually think Fred fills that role more than Cordelia – at least as far as Connor can actually remember – and I think Connor would find it much weirder to sleep with Fred than with Cordelia.
Fred spent time looking after him as a baby, just as Cordelia did, but she also spent several months looking after him as a teenager with Gunn, while Angel and Cordelia were both missing. It’s Fred we saw bringing him a sandwich in “Deep Down” [4×01], with the suggestion that this is something she does regularly. It’s Fred to whom Connor makes a quip in “Shiny Happy People” [4×18] about how she’s always after him to clean up after himself. But that’s not the kind of relationship he has with Cordelia. The only thing which really makes Cordelia a maternal figure to Connor is her relationship with Connor’s father – which, in itself, is undeniably twisted. But other than that, Cordelia is just a mysterious, attractive older woman sleeping in his bed. So let’s not be too hard on Connor about the whole thing.
Of course, we can’t let Cordelia off quite so lightly. But again, we come back to the problem I stated at the beginning of this review – it’s not really Cordelia. This makes it too easy just to brush the whole thing aside – we don’t really have to find a meaningful motivation for her actions, since she’s currently possessed by a higher power. But this also makes me feel very sorry for Connor, especially when we pay attention to Cordelia’s words as she seduces him: “you never had a childhood, or a family or friends, or anything that’s real. And if this is the end… I want you to have something that is.” She’s right – Connor does deserve to have something that’s ‘real.’ But this isn’t real. Rather than experiencing a ‘normal’ teenage relationship, he’s just being manipulated into a very unhealthy situation which can only end badly. And for this reason, I always like the fact that in “Home” [4×22] we find out that Connor now has a girlfriend his own age. It’s a nice little detail.
Setting aside the context of the scene, I also think the way that it’s filmed is designed to make the viewer quite uncomfortable. I personally find it difficult to watch, and it just makes me cringe every time. I think that sex scenes in Buffy and Angel are usually pretty tasteful. If it’s a romantic scene (e.g. Buffy and Angel), we usually get some soft music while the camera cuts from lots of kissing to the odd shot of a hand here or there. If it’s a little more animalistic (e.g. Wesley and Lilah) we generally see some passionate kissing, with the lovers throwing each other onto the bed before the camera cuts away, or we see them rolling over and panting afterwards. We don’t generally get a prolonged scene like the one here, which just refuses to cut away even when we’d really, really like it to. Even though there’s a sheet covering most of what’s happening, we get a pretty full-on depiction of the whole thing. And this is before we even realise that we’re watching the scene through Angel’s eyes. As I’ve already said, it all seems designed to be as disturbing as possible.
I’ve now spent a long time talking about Connor and Cordelia, but I think it’s justified given the strong reactions that this scene rouses in its viewers. It deserves our attention here. I think that it was always the intention for this plot twist to shock us, and I think that it succeeds very well. I’ve explored the ways in which the scene itself, and the build-up to it, are carefully constructed to have a big impact – nobody’s trying to pretend that this situation is in any way okay. However, unfortunately, I think that the aftermath of this event is pretty badly handled. The next two episodes aren’t mine to review, so I won’t dwell on this too much, but I do have to say that I’m very disappointed that Angel’s reaction is mostly one of a jealous ex-boyfriend. The fact that his friend has slept with his teenage son doesn’t seem to come into it very much. Now, I’m not a parent, but I think if I found out a friend had taken my child’s virginity, I would be far more angry than Angel ever seems to be. And when we later find out that the whole thing was just orchestrated by Jasmine, it feels like a bit of a cop-out. Why go to so much trouble to highlight every twisted detail of this event, if you’re later just going to wave it all away with a convenient excuse?
As you can tell from reading this review, the thing which really stands out in this episode is the Connor/Cordelia encounter – and it’s certainly given me a lot to talk about. However, given that the whole episode’s really been leading up to this, it’s impressive to think of everything else that’s been packed into this single instalment. We’ve met the Beast, seen exactly what he’s capable of, and still found time for some interesting character interactions and developments. All in all, while not perfect, this is a pretty solid outing which is often great fun to watch, and which gives us plenty to think about.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Gunn completely freaking out over all the rats. I guess everyone has a phobia of something.
+ Lilah pointing out that Angel appears to be able to stroll into Wolfram and Hart whenever he wants. “Vampire detectors my ass.” It’s fun to see that Angel complains about the very same thing when he eventually becomes CEO.
+ Connor demonstrating that he’s good with words by saying “complete sentences… I’ve been working on it.”
+ Angel using one of Wesley’s trademark weapons – a stake which pops out of his sleeve.
– Gunn and Fred just leaving the rich lady with her rat-infested bathroom, telling her to call an exterminator. Rats which can smash through mirrors clearly aren’t normal, and probably need more than regular pest-control measures.
– Why does Lilah have her hair styled like a model from a 1950s hairspray ad for most of the episode? I guess I could try to come up with some clever explanation, but really I just think the stylist was having a bad day.