[Review by Sue Carter]
[Writer: Sarah Fain and Elizabeth Craft | Director: Sean Astin | Aired: 02/05/2003]
Angelus is back and he’s making his presence felt, even from the inside of a cage. It’s a compelling performance by David Boreanaz as Angelus rips apart Team Angel with words rather than fangs. This is a character driven piece with very little forward motion on the plot. Instead we are left wondering how the team is going to continue to function with all the bad blood in the air.
The episode starts with Connor in the role of Boy Wonder taking out vamps while going solo on patrol. After some nifty stunt work and three dead vampires, it’s clear that the city is overrun with out-of-town undead taking advantage of permanent night. Unlike Sunnydale, which is usually completely unaware of an impending apocalypse, Angel fully engages Los Angeles with this arc. The first city-wide event was the rain of fire, the next blotting out the sun, and now it’s overrun with vampires and creatures of the night. The city tries to dismiss it as both natural phenomenon and a crime wave, but even Sunnydale would have to start wondering.
The real action of the episode is Angelus taking apart each of the team members by preying on their emotional weaknesses. Cordelia called Angelus diabolical, but this Angelus is far more intelligent than any previous incarnation we’ve seen. This isn’t Angelus the mean-spirited blowhard, this is Angelus as Hannibal Lector. All the conversations are designed to sow the seeds of dissent, to agitate someone into slipping up so he can make his escape. It’s arguably a continuity error but it’s so engaging I find it easy to overlook. If we ever saw Angelus again, I’d want this version. What I find so engaging is the brutal honesty. “He lies with the truth.” But are they really lies or just observations Angel (not Angelus) has had, dished up with shocking language and embellishments to hurt? The teaser ends with Angelus creepily singing “Teddy Bear Picnic.” Like many children’s fairy tales or traditional songs, they can be pretty scary, depending on context. It’s a nice setup as each of the main characters step into the emotional woods with Angelus.
Wesley’s well-known weakness is his insecurity, but Angelus spends most of his time focusing on his infatuation with Fred. He’s particularly vulgar when it comes to Fred and fixates on her intimate relationship with Gunn. This does get under Wesley’s skin but Angelus is also playing for the camera as it rattles Gunn and Fred as well. Fred is on an innocent pedestal for many, especially Wesley, and Wesley doesn’t like the verbal pictures Angelus is drawing. Angelus’ sudden loud movements are effective in startling everyone as well. Trying to steer the conversation back to the Beast, Wesley mentions Cordelia. This allows Angelus to give the big reveal to Team Angel that Cordy slept with Connor. It’s the shock of a sordid “discovery” that further unsettles the team. Hearing it from Angelus makes it a greater betrayal. Having done enough damage for now, Angelus dismisses Wesley by asking for blood to drink. This rapid topic change shows exactly who is in charge. Angelus gave them just enough to ponder but not overwhelm. And the effect is immediate as everyone looks at Connor like he grew a second head when he comes back from patrolling.
Next up is Othello and Desdemona. Again he draws lurid verbal pictures and it’s such a drastic change from Fred’s vision of Angel as a white knight. As Angel talks about their sex life Fred is likely to wonder in the future, can Angel avoid listening? Although individual words passed the censors, the descriptive language is shockingly explicit for network TV. For Gunn, it’s not only the objectification of Fred that puts him on edge, it’s also Angelus poking at him taking orders from others. This idea of Gunn as dumb muscle has been a season long thread and Angelus pulls on it cruelly. And Angelus’ plan appears to work. He knocks Fred figuratively and literally off-balance causing both Fred and Gunn to be within Angelus’ arm reach. Wesley shows up just in time to tranquilize the demon, but the damage is done. Angelus makes them feel foolish, while testing out their defensive plans. The score is 3-0 for Angelus at this point. Later, when he hears the brawl between Wes and Gunn, Angelus is predictably pleased with himself.
Before Connor has his match with his demon father, he asserts a little independence with Cordy. She’s trying to mother him and he resents it. This dovetails nicely into the conversation he has with dear old dad. Angelus draws first blood by taunting Connor about Darla staking herself. Apparently no one had explained this to Connor before, so again it’s a shocking reveal designed to do the most damage. He then picks at the wound of Holtz’s suicide. But it’s Connor who hands Angelus the most effective weapon. Connor thinks he’s scoring a point when he says that Angel is just a mask the demon is forced to wear, but he knows Angelus is really his father. The subtle shift on David Boreanaz’s face is perfect as we see Angelus absorb this little juicy tidbit. Connor, apparently, thinks of himself as demon spawn. As someone who is potentially inherently evil. It’s a pity the show never lets Angelus exploit this further because he could have done some real damage to Connor with this knowledge. For now, Angelus is just hoping to get the hothead Connor to physically engage him. Connor is his biggest threat and he needs to take him out. But Cordy steps in and embarrasses Connor as she shoes him out. The score is now 4-0.
Realizing that a lot of damage has been done, Cordy cuts the negotiations short. Since this review has 20-20 hindsight, you have to wonder about Cordy’s motivation. She already knows that Angelus has nothing because she’s already killed the priestesses. But she needs to send Team Angel on that goose chase to further demoralize them so she tricks Angelus into thinking she’s stupid enough to offer herself as a sacrifice. Surely Angelus knows Cordy is not going to go through with it. Perhaps he relents to telling about his encounter with the Beast because he’s realized that they are not going to make another mistake to allow him out so he’s looking to change the dynamic. But it’s still one of the more clunky exchanges in the episode. Yes, hurting Cordy or Connor would be the most effective way to damage Angel but her logic really doesn’t withstand scrutiny and Team Angel knows she’s made a bargain right from the get-go.
Meanwhile the Wes, Fred, and Gunn love triangle has fully exploded. Why did Wes kiss Fred? It’s a remarkably foolish thing to do at that moment. Wes knows Angel is upsetting them. Is it because this is the first time Fred acknowledges Wes has feelings for her? Did he get a measure of hope when she wanted a one-on-one conversation without Gunn around? We know he’s lost respect for Gunn, but did he really think Fred would respond positively? I suspect the answer is yes. He wanted to see what her instinctual reaction was. Although his timing is poor, he apparently gets enough encouragement, in his mind, to blister Gunn with some harsh words when Gunn realizes something is going on. In fact, Wes appears to feel like he now has enough positive feedback to actually challenge Gunn. The fist-fight was a long time brewing and showed just how effective Angelus can be.
In another nice continuity nod, they continue to reinforce character roles as they divide up the team tasks. Gunn is left behind to guard as the third strongest warrior (behind Angel and Connor) while Connor escorts Wes and Cordy to Pacoima. It’s also classic Whedonesque writing to have all-powerful priestesses (Svears) living in a quiet L.A. suburb with a funny-sounding name. The slaughter scene had a few distracting errors (Connor should have smelled death the minute they walked in, the artful minimal blood spattering, and Wesley driving the SUV out of frame when the fight should have been right in front of where they parked). Regardless of these errors, it once again establishes that the Big Bad is one step ahead of them and that Connor has sensitivity around families. When he reacts to returning Angel’s soul, is he upset that Angel will be around or that his family is so dysfunctional?
The episode ends with the score Angelus 5 and Team Angel 0. The final exchange between Cordy and Angel is a little off, with and without hindsight. Without knowing Cordy is possessed, her dialog isn’t snappy enough to make us think she somehow outsmarted Angel. It just looks like she never really meant to go through with the bargain. With hindsight, we know her threats are for show as she has already stolen the Mou Ping with Angel’s soul. As the season progresses, possessed Cordy gets more and more humorless. It’s not a choice I particularly like and it doesn’t get better. We are also well into the second act of this season long arc and there is no victory for our heroes in this episode.
Actor/Director Sean Astin does an outstanding job at making this a creepy and disturbing episode. The lighting, in particular, is superb with Angelus often retreating into the shadows as he observes his opponents. Watching Angelus through a closed-circuit TV is bad enough, entering into the arena with him to do verbal battle is downright terrifying and having the closed-circuit view brings that into sharper focus.
In terms of season long arc, this episode shines a light on the problems of Team Angel. The true Big Bad is Cordelia and she is having a field day with this group. Their teamwork is nearly shattered and their leader is now a major problem. Once again Wesley tries to carefully orchestrate a plan but it goes to hell. Gunn sees his problems with Fred getting worse. Fred is confused by the kiss and probably has some long term questions about what Angel thinks about her. And Connor is spiraling further away from normal as he compares his demonic family with that of the slaughtered Svears.
This episode also contributes quite a bit to the lore regarding Angelus. This Angelus is not Liam without a soul. He’s matured well beyond Liam. Quoting 20th century poet W. B. Yeats (“foul rag and bone shop of the heart”), he’s been paying attention as Angel self-educated over the last 100 years and is a far more formidable foe. The nature of Angelus is often a hot topic for debate. Is Angel responsible for anything he does? Later on in “Players” [4×16], when Angel doesn’t apologize, the implication is “no, he’s not himself” but this episode really undermines that concept. Here we understand exactly how much Angel is observing his companions on a daily basis. Is Angelus an entirely separate personality drawing these conclusions or does Angel see the weaknesses in his friends but stay silent? It’s hard not to presume that some amount of the nasty snark coming from Angelus may also be the opinion of Angel.
Perhaps Angel doesn’t dwell on these thoughts and would never phrase his ‘truths’ so uncharitably, but it would be hard not to wonder whether or not Angel is always giving his honest opinion or just keeping his more divisive thoughts to himself. Angelus, however, has no filter and takes delight in verbally twisting the knife. This is a master vampire with a talent for torture. Limited by the cage he delivers a master class in manipulation. The episode maintains a consistent characterization of self-importance and not being a team member. The cruelty based in the truth is still very present. Although I do prefer this diabolic Angelus, he doesn’t last long as we see the blowhard who dreamed up the Acathla scheme come back in later episodes.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Ex post facto we see evil Cordy working the lines right along with Angelus without him knowing. She practically taunted Angel in Awakening to let Angelus loose, knowing what a mess he would make. She offers no qualifiers to her indiscretion with Connor. She continues egging Connor on to continue to compete with his father by giving him Angel’s shirt. Later she says nothing while Wes and Gunn come to blows. Cordy would normally have stopped that argument but she hangs back and lets it spiral out of control. At this point she’s pregnant so now she needs the team distracted from the bigger picture while she comes to term. Her plan is working well.
+ An outstanding outing for David Boreanaz as he channels the evil of the demon. The non-verbal facial acting and sudden movements elevated the episode.
+ Wes making a move on Fred and coming to blows with Gunn was satisfying. He’s been rather milquetoast in his interest in Fred but in this episode he blatantly, and successfully, makes a move. Fred and Gunn will never be the same.
– The road trip to Pacoima was distracting. It had the requisite fight scene and showed a potential resolution for the episode but I found myself wanting to get back to hearing what Angelus had to say.
– “Cordelia” is starting to act more out of character. Although the surprise reveal still worked in “Salvage” [4×13], Cordy’s offer to Angelus was clunky and her passiveness during the mini-brawl was off.
– The Yeats quote was a bit off target as the quote really wasn’t talking about the refuse of unrequited love. It seemed as if the writers were trying too hard to make Angelus look smart.
* We see the seeds of Connor’s eventual claim in “Home” [4×22] that he has never been loved. Angelus sows them by claiming Darla staked herself because she hated him squirming and Holtz killed himself because he was disappointed in Connor.
* Angelus also reminds us that he is not a team player and nobody’s minion. Evil Cordy fails to appreciate this fact. This foreshadows Angelus’ eventual somewhat capricious killing of the Beast.
* Well Othello DID kill Desdemona, but Gunn’s role in Fred’s death in “A Hole in the World” [5×15] is not quite so direct.