[Review by Fray-Adjacent]
[Writer: David Fury and Steven S. DeKnight | Director: James A. Contner | Aired: 01/29/2003]
“Awakening” is a very simple episode. It serves two purposes: to kick off the Angelus arc and, more interestingly, to illuminate what “perfect happiness” looks like to Angel. My review will focus on this last part. Notably, after the first few scenes, this episode has no relevance for any character apart from Angel, except insofar as it illustrates how he views them.
In a season of bizarre and confusing plot twists, the plot of “Awakening” is remarkably simple. Actually, I should clarify. There are two plots in “Awakening” – one in which the characters seek Wo Pang to take Angel’s soul, and one in Angel’s fantasy. Both of these are simple, and the second one’s simplicity is a direct comment on Angel’s character. In his fantasy, how is the Beast defeated and happy normality restored to the good people of LA? Well, first he finds a sword. Angel’s dialog reflects the humorous simplicity of this notion and how it fits with his own “hacksaway” tendencies: “You hear that? There’s a sword.” Then there’s a series of riddles and booby traps leading to the sword – obstacles that, Harry Potter like, play to the various strengths of the different characters and force them to cooperate. Then Angel and his superhero son reunite just in time to defeat the Beast together.
Angel wants to be the Champion of the old days. In fact, the quest for the sword that will kill the Beast sounds more like something out of Pylea than out of LA of late. This episode recalls “Through the Looking Glass” [2×21] in its tension between the traditional notion –which Angel shares in – of what a hero should be and the often contradictory reality that he faces in himself, his friends, and the world around him.
What’s more, we see that Angel doesn’t just want to be a champion. He wants to be part of a family. That precious family dynamic that we saw in most of Season 1 and the earlier parts of seasons two and three is long gone, and Angel, like many viewers, longs to restore it. One thing this episode shows, which wasn’t necessarily apparent before, is that Angel is quite ready to forgive Cordy, Wesley, and Connor if they were to ask for it, so that he can have the gang back. Of course, what we know is that that dynamic is in fact never fully restored in the series. None of those characters ever asks for forgiveness, just as Angel never seeks Wesley’s for trying to kill him in the hospital. In fact, Cordy is pretty much already gone for good, and even the mind-wipe doesn’t bring Angel and Wesley back to the friendship they had prior to “Sleep Tight” [3×16].
This is a good thing in the sense that the writers never stoop to such extreme fan-servicing that they just restore the good ole days. In many ways this episode feels like a (preemptive?) response to fans who just want things to go back to the way they were. “See how hokey that would be?” they seem to be telling us. And I agree, for the most part. I’m glad that the writers had the nerve to allow real emotional fallout from the mistakes, the betrayals, and the trauma of the last four years. Still, I do find myself wishing that the writers had equipped the characters with enough emotional maturity and relationship skills to be able to navigate their problems a little better than they did – I mean, did every single damn relationship in this show have to be completely shattered? Anyway, I digress. (And by the way, when I say “relationship,” I’m not restricting myself to romance, but am including friendships and working relationships among the core characters as well.)
Speaking of shattered relationships, Angel actually tries to make amends specifically with Connor before the spell. He tells him to “just keep in mind that whatever Angelus says, whatever he does—remember, he’s not your father. I am. No matter what happens—or, happened—I—I love you.” Making amends is a key path to perfect happiness for Angel, which is what Wo Pang’s spell needs in order to take his soul. In the course of Angel’s fantasy, he makes amends with Wesley, Cordelia, and finally Connor. Or, to put it more accurately, they make amends with him. In all three instances, Angel feels he is the one who was wronged – and for the most part in this case, I agree – and he waits for them to come around and apologize. But, like I said before, when they do, he readily accepts.
But it takes more than simple apologies to make things better, and it takes more than amends to bring Angel perfect happiness. Angel actually has to earn it through trials and tribulations. He has to win battles; prove himself. In this “Awakening” nicely parallels Buffy’s “Surprise”. In fact, the reconciliation scene with Cordy is somewhat similar to the “I thought I’d lost you” scene in “Surprise,” where they both open up emotionally after having nearly been killed in battle together. Cordy tells Angel, “What if we’d been deep fried trying to save the world again, and I—and I didn’t have the chance to tell you.” This moment somewhat mirrors Buffy tearfully telling Angel, “I feel like I lost you… You’re right, though. We can’t be sure of anything.” In both of these cases, the act of fighting evil, side by side, directly led to the declaration of love.
Furthermore, in this scene Cordelia expresses the same desperate desire for forgiveness that has so often haunted Angel. First, she affirms his own atonement for his evil past: “you need to know that I can look back and see every horrible thing you’ve ever done as Angelus, and it doesn’t matter anymore. Because when I’m with you, all I feel is the good you’ve done as Angel.” Then she mirrors his own fear that he isn’t worthy of forgiveness: “I know I’ve hurt you. I know I don’t deserve forgiveness.” And Angel offers her it in kind: “Cordy, I don’t care what you’ve done in your past either.”
The symmetry between the two characters’ feeling of guilt and need for redemption is striking, and I think this part of Angel’s hallucination serves not just to bring him closer to Cordy, but to show him why he can forgive himself. Like Buffy before, Cordelia symbolizes redemption. In both cases, their ability to love Angel shows him that he is worthy of forgiveness. But in this case, Angel’s ability to forgive Cordelia also allows him to forgive himself.
This actually represents some of the better, more consistent character development in Angel, particularly for the titular character. For Angel, happiness is redemption, forgiveness, and, through that, finally earning love by being enough of a good guy. This basic character trait lasts throughout the series, coming up time and time again, and I have to give the writers props for tending that trait from the seeds planted in Buffy Season 2.
And the love that Angel wants isn’t just romantic. He wants a loving relationship with his son. He wants a community of friends and evil fighters. He wants big group fights followed by big group dinners like the one he hallucinated in “Deep Down” [4×01]. One can actually imagine such a dinner happening in this episode’s hallucination as well. He doesn’t just want to restore his old friendships – he also wants Gunn and Wesley to stop fighting. (And hey, so do I – their Season 2 friendship was great.) Angel’s speech sums up his broad desires for the group:
“I have to do this. You made a difference. Each of you—not just to me, but to the world. We’ve been pushed to the edge so many times, done things we’re sure can never be forgiven, but we’re always there for each other when it counts. We’ve never let the darkness win. And it’s not because of the Powers That Be, or the super-strength, or the magical weapons. It’s because we believed in each other. Not just as friends or lovers, but as champions. All of us. Together.”
In “Awakening”, Angel creates a world that’s the way he’d like it to be. In this world, Connor says, “Nothing in this world is the way it ought to be. It’s harsh and cruel.” Angel’s response is this: “It’s not all about you. What you want isn’t always what other people need.” This, of course, speaks even more to Angel and his current fantasy than it does to Connor. His deepest, strongest desires, which this episode expresses, aren’t necessarily what the other characters want or need. In Angel’s dream, Wes and Gunn make up with a handshake, but in reality their rivalry touches on personal insecurities that something so small isn’t going to undo. In Angel’s dream, Wesley asks for Angel’s forgiveness, but in reality it’s not clear that Wesley even wants that. In Angel’s dream, Connor overcomes his jealousy and anger in order to save the world with his father, but in reality Connor doesn’t even think of Angel as a father, not in the way Angel wants. This is something Angel doesn’t fully learn until “Home” [4×22]. And Cordy is possessed, so what she needs is kind of moot.
But of course, this is Angel’s hallucination, so the refrain to his statement is that when all the fighting’s over and everything’s forgiven, he can finally say, “Everything is the way it’s supposed to be. For once.”
And, this being Angel’s hallucination, the characters don’t act quite like themselves but rather how Angel sees them. In some cases it’s clear this was the intention – Cordy is pretty quickly acting more warm and open toward Angel, more her old self. She’s also quicker with the sarcasm than she’s been since “Spin The Bottle” [4×06]. In other cases this is my charitable interpretation of what might just be minor instances of bad character writing. Fred (yes, the same Fred who survived Pylea) gets embarrassed about looking at the tattoos on Wo-Pang’s butt, and Gunn accidentally smashes some furniture in his enthusiasm for a new sword. Perhaps this last one is an attempt to show that Gunn’s growing belief that Angel (and everyone else) sees him as all-brawn-no-brains isn’t entirely unfounded. I mean, when have we ever seen Gunn act like that? It would only happen in the hallucination of someone who hasn’t bothered to see much of who Gunn really is. Or in a season where writers aren’t giving the care that they should to their full cast. Which is it? I’ll let you decide.
On a final note, I have to say that I find this episode pretty boring on rewatch, and in particular watching it multiple times while writing this review got a little painful. Besides a much-welcome reflection on the nature of the curse and what “perfect happiness” means – and this episode confirms that it’s a lot more than an orgasm — there just really isn’t that much to “Awakening” – hence the somewhat short review. The plot is very simple and the only interesting or relevant character action is for Angel himself. That being said, “Awakening” does some nice character building for Angel, and the plot is largely in service of that.
I do find the final scene quite effective in moving the audience from the relief of all the seemingly positive turns the episode has taken to the hauntingly creepy laugh of Angelus once the soul is gone, and we are forced to realize that nothing is better, and in fact it just got much worse. How an audience reacts to that probably depends on how much they bought the earlier parts. For many, all the forgiving and forgetting would seem like too much, and indeed it is meant to be unbelievable. In this case, the switch back to reality is both a cold wake up and a welcome indication that the writers haven’t just gone back on a season’s worth of development and fall-out. And, ambivalent as I am about Season 4 as a whole, that’s one thing I’m quite glad of.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Connor acting like a stereotypical teenager: “you’re the reason my life sucks.” Okay, it can be annoying, but that part makes me laugh.
– The teaser is almost entirely boring exposition. Even Wesley’s scene finding Wo Pang is only marginally interesting.
– Angel and Angelus as different people. ANNOYING!