[Review by Iguana-on-a-stick]
[Writer: Jeffrey Bell and Steven S. DeKnight and Mere Smith | Director: Bill Norton | Aired: 02/12/2003]
The early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer featured an uncomfortably large number of scenes where the Scooby Gang was sitting in the library listening to Giles explain the mythology of the latest Monster of the Week. Exposition such as that is an unfortunate necessity in a fantasy show where the audience does not implicitly know what rules govern the world. The problem with exposition is that it just is not inherently interesting to most of us. Why would we care about the weakness of a fictional demon to certain high-pitched noises? It is a testament to the acting talent of Anthony Steward Head and the writers’ skill in interspersing this dry and dull material with Scooby-irreverence and witty Buffy-speak Buffy didn’t collapse under the weight of its own exposition.
Unfortunately Season 4 of Angel has no Anthony Steward Head to shoulder this burden. Worse, it is not about a single Monster of the Week whose strengths and weaknesses we need to know. The season features the longest, most complicated over-arching plot any of Whedon’s shows ever attempted, building on and resolving many events and plot-points from as early as Season 1 (e.g. Cordelia’s visions). No wonder the “Previously on Angel:” recap at the start of the episode spans more than a minute and reminds the viewer of no less than 18 different plot points. Early in the season there was still the occasional episode with a more stand-alone side-story or two, but since “Apocalypse, Nowish” [4×07] plot has reigned supreme in Angel Season 4.
In this vast and complicated story of unborn gods, false prophets and apocalyptic disasters “Calvary” is one of the keystones, a turning point in the slowly unravelling mystery. We learn that the Beast is just a minion, that (presumably) its master has erased all references to and knowledge of the Beast from this dimension, we see Angelus escape from his containment. Finally, and most shockingly of all, we discover that the oddly-behaving Cordelia is in fact the true villainous master-mind; presumably possessed in some fashion. It’s hard to claim that “Calvary” does not keep the plot moving.
As a rule I do not mind television that builds on the strength of its plot and events. I can be enthralled by a mystery full of surprising twists even if it comes at the expense of character-moments and cinematography. Unfortunately plot has never been the strength of Whedon’s shows. The revelations may have been surprising on first watching but as plot developments go they don’t exactly dazzle the audience with their inventiveness. Moreover, the way in which they are delivered tends to be pedestrian. More than almost any episode, “Calvary” is filled with exposition. A typical scene shows the following: Between three and five members of Angel Investigations are standing in a rough clump taking equal-length turns to speak little pieces of exposition, sometimes with a bit of diction more typical to the character but generally just feeding the audience lines so things can keep moving forward at an acceptable pace. It feels dull and stilted in their mouths.
GUNN: Lilah or not, something is doing the Beast’s dirty work.
CORDELIA: It would explain how giant lava boy could tiptoe past us to take out Manny.
CONNOR: And butcher that family, those priestesses.
FRED: Even though Lilah’s evil, I don’t see her hacking up all those people.
GUNN: OK, maybe it’s not just her. Maybe…maybe the big bad Beast had minions doing his dirty work.
ANGEL(US): Morons. The big rock doesn’t have minions. It is the minion!
The information may be new and important, but the way it is learned is very artificial. As a mental exercise, swap the names in front of these quotes around. Imagine it is Cordelia talking about the beast’s dirty work, Gunn talking about giant lava boy. Can you tell the difference? Do the character voices suddenly sound off? In my opinion it makes no difference. Only Angel’s line has to be said by him, the rest is utterly generic. The scene is also contrived. Why are they even discussing this in front of Angel’s cage? Why does he even volunteer this information? With material like this, it is no wonder that the actors sometimes seem tired and uninspired this season.
I blame the material rather than (most of) the actors because when “Calvary” allows for some character scenes they shine. It is in this episode that refers to the love-triangle plot with Wesley, Fred and Gunn. I was never too fond of this story and it has been dragging on longer than I’d like, but when the latter two actually break up the emotion feels real and believable. These two never were a world-shaking love, but they had a rapport that has long since been lost. The scene where Wesley makes his move on Fred is even better. He conveys a somewhat off-putting intensity that Fred doesn’t really know how to deal with. Later, when Fred learns about Wes’ relationship with Lilah, her nervous and confused discomfort is again nothing like the apathy that reigns in the exposition scenes and goes to remind us just how good an actress Amy Acker is. It is also conveyed almost entirely by non-verbal cues, a welcome change in an episode that has an awful lot of people standing around talking. Wesley likewise never comments on his lost chances, but we can clearly read his anger and disappointment in the odd unguarded facial expression.
Performances aside, the episode paints none of these characters in a flattering light. Wes is ruthless and manipulative in pressing his suit, Gunn is insecure, defensive and aggressive in defending his relationship and Fred is passive, expressing no real opinions, making no decisions and mostly just existing as a prize to be fought over by the boys.
There is of course nothing wrong with characters behaving badly, and in part it works here quite well. Wesley’s depiction is part of the arc that started in “Waiting in the Wings” [3×13] and reveals important information about his character. We know where he’s coming from and can understand why he acts like this. It’s rather less clear where Gunn is getting his new-found insecurities, though with hindsight we at least know Gunn will go on an interesting journey because of them in Season 5. Fred, finally, seems to get no development at all past “Supersymmetry” [4×05]. Rather than analysing Fred’s character-flaws we’re left analysing the writer’s characterisation-flaws. Both Fred and Gunn sometimes seem like pawns in the unfolding story of Wesley’s struggles and trials.
Between the turgid exposition barrage and the criticism of the love triangle it would seem I have little good to say about “Calvary.” Fortunately, there is one very significant up-side that makes this hour of television memorable: Lilah Morgan. Though by no means her last appearance, this is the last episode she is alive, the last time she is the independent, active figure we’ve come to know since “The Ring” [1×16]. “Calvary” is her swan song, perhaps the largest amount of screen-time and character-development she’s gotten since “Billy” [3×06]. She uses every second of it.
Lilah’s attitude is the proverbial breath of fresh air stirring up the over-solemn ranks of the protagonists. She drifts through the halls of the Hyperion like a fool at a medieval court: at liberty to say the things and voice the thoughts none of the others can admit even to themselves. Her cynical attitude and barbed comments provoke just about everybody (except Wesley) and spark much needed fire and energy as everyone deals with her in their own way. The quotes at the end of the review are telling enough, but even they are only half the story. The other half is told by Lilah’s vast assortment of knowing looks, smirks and sceptically raised eyebrows, mellow tones, slightly obvious sarcasm and barely concealed amusement. And yet this is only the surface layer: it is all a mask, her final clutching attempt to maintain at least a façade of superiority. Underneath she is a lost woman, one who has lost everything she held dear and is now forced to take sanctuary with people who justifiably hate her. The mask breaks in one very memorable and raw outburst of bleakness and despair:
“You don’t get it, do you, twinkie? I’m what I believe in. And you think I got this far by sticking my head in the sand? The Beast that eviscerated me has a boss, and that boss is going to end life as we know it, and nobody is coming to save us! Not Angel, not the Powers that Be, and not the forty-damn-second cavalry! So if anybody has scales on their eyes— it’s you.”
Stephanie Romanov’s face transforms in this scene. Her voice breaks with passion and an ugly sneer replaces her usual control. Yet it is equally true to the character she plays. This is the Lilah we have come to know and hate (or love) in her years as a recurring villain on the show, in all her aspects. It is a worthy farewell, and a sheer joy to watch.
However, where Lilah’s personal arc – such as it was – comes to an end in this episode, her relationship with Wesley does not. In fact, the two most significant developments and revelatory scenes from his side of the story are still to come. Lilah had already made her position clear: she loves him, but wasn’t going to change for him, and wasn’t going to abandon all her pride and throw herself at his mercy after he made his choice.
It is Wesley who is shaken most by the developments here. We learn in “Salvage” [4×13] just how conflicted he is about Lilah and their relationship. He was the one who chose to pursue the (pure, noble) girl he thought he ought to love instead of the (evil, unrepentant) woman he had been having a relationship with. He thought he could save Lilah from the Beast and send her off into the sunset (or sewer) to tidily wrap up that chapter in the story of his life. It turns out reality doesn’t comply with his script.
For a couple who just came out of a messy break-up they’re curiously comfortable with one another. There is the odd moment of awkwardness, and some of the distrust and resentment is still there. When they are alone they are subdued, a bit melancholy perhaps. Yet for the most part they turn to one another in understated but telling ways, acting as a team without seeming to think about it or even realise it. The scene where they return to the hotel shows this best: the whole of Angel Investigations is unpleasantly surprised to see her – they are hostile and suspicious. Yet Wesley defends her against all accusations and Lilah carefully deflects attention away from him when the others are getting too close to truths he does not want revealed. Curiously enough this is probably the first time they have stood together like this in public.
The relationship is over. It was an unlikely beast to start with, as they regretfully point out in the sewers at the start. But unlike Fred and Gunn, their rapport is anything but lost. In “Salvage” [4×13] Wesley will have to decapitate Lilah’s dead body. “Calvary” shows us clearly why he will have such a difficult time doing that.
So far I have talked very little about Angel. The reason should be obvious: he’s still locked in a cage for most of the episode. Soulless Angel – or Angelus as he’s being called now – remains far less compelling than his Buffy incarnation. Yes, there’s malice here. Yes, David Boreanaz still hams it up. Yes, he still says things that are beyond cruel. But the feel of freedom, the glee, the sense of fun that pervaded Angel when he went on his rampage in Buffy Season 2, are all missing. Perhaps it is the lack of Spike and Drusilla to act as his foils. Perhaps it’s the fact that he’s locked in a cage and not allowed to do anything except spout the same kind of insults over and over. Except that’s not true. He escapes at the end of this episode and still accomplishes next to nothing. No, in the end I think that the evil Angel(us) worked on Buffy precisely because it was Buffy’s story, and he made an amazing antagonist and foil. It was the hero of the story he was striking out at with those lethally aimed barbs. It was Buffy’s story of ‘true love’ that was suddenly, shockingly turned on its head.
Angel Season 4 tries to recreate the dynamic, copy the trick that worked so well the first time around. But it falls flat. I’ll just let the character speak (from Buffy Season 2’s “Passion”): “It hurts sometimes more than we can bear. If we could live without passion, maybe we’d know some kind of peace. But we would be hollow. Empty rooms, shuttered and dank… Without passion, we’d be truly dead.”
That’s what missing in this appearance. Angel doesn’t have a motivation. He is the protagonist of his own story now. The series is about his journey of redemption, so without his soul he just drifts about; aimless, passionless. Sure, he’ll kill his former friends and co-workers if he gets the chance — it’ll be fun. But I never get the impression he cares much either way. It is entirely unlike the situation with Buffy, where the passion remained just as strong but was turned against her.
The execution here is flawed as well as the concept. It’s mildly funny to see Angel ranting and raving at the lack of victims on the darkened streets of Los Angeles. It doesn’t, however, make him feel like a very effective threat. Physically, he’s a disappointment. When he first revealed himself Cordelia actually managed to knock him back with a few punches so she could get to safety from the cage. Even when he goes after Lilah, who seems to be holding her own in hand-to-hand combat, it isn’t nearly as scary as when he’s chasing down Jenny Calendar. Yes, Lilah is a survivor and yes, Lilah has come a long way since we saw her play second fiddle to Lindsey back in Season 2, but if she manages to kick your scary super-villain down some stairs and throws a bookcase on him, something is wrong. Verbally, the comparison is equally unfavourable. When Angel tears into Buffy for being a lousy lover not worth his time it cuts to the bone. In comparison, his threatening to rape Fred to death seems just crude and makes him seem disgusting rather than actually threatening.
Lorne and Connor are limited to a few cameo appearances this episode and Cordelia as we know her doesn’t really exist anymore, which leaves us with no more characters to discuss. There is, however, quite a lot of plot left.
The fake-ensoulment spell works well as a plot-device and gives the side-characters something to do. Cordelia’s vision is timed awfully conveniently and the whole thing smacks of a deus ex machina, so the revelation that it was all a trick makes the whole sequence far more appealing in retrospect (or, as Lilah succinctly puts it: “Dud ex machina. There’s a surprise.”). Angel pretending to have his soul back is a lot of fun, especially when he manages to do it convincingly. His motivational speech to the crowd is actually better than anything the “real” Angel has managed this season. His scenes with Fred, on the other hand, are the one point in the episode where he truly feels creepy and threatening.
The final scenes following the discovery of the ruse don’t work quite so well, unfortunately. While going after him immediately makes sense, it was awfully sloppy (of the characters, or the writers?) to just leave Cordelia (and Lilah) behind without any way of defending herself. They could just have dropped them off at someone’s home where Angel was not invited. It feels particularly contrived that Fred joins the posse, something she almost never does on this show. Likewise, the big shocking revelation-scene at the end where Cordelia/Jasmine stabs Lilah seems off. It is far from clear what Cordelia/Jasmine’s motivations are. Why kill Lilah in the first place? Is it because her cynical speech about self-reliance goes against everything Jasmine stands for? Using the Beast’s dagger to do the deed is even stranger and harder to justify as being in character. One could posit that it is for the purpose of some ritual but this is never stated. I’m left with the impression that it was just done to make clear to the audience that Cordelia is in fact the Beast’s master.
In the end, “Calvary” showcases much of the best and the worst of Angel Season 4. On the up-side Wesley’s character arc continues to impress on all levels, Lilah’s last hours of life are a true highlight and the plot continues to be highly complex and multi-layered. There are a number of shocking revelations, a few surprising twists and the episode is very important to the seasonal arc. On the downside the episode threatens to collapse under the weight of its own mythology, it reeks of turgid exposition that sap the life out of the plot and the characters, and Angelus’ second major appearance continues to disappoint.
Is it a good episode? A bad one? It is hard to say. It is either. It is both. One final thing speaks in its favour: the writers were not playing safe with this season; they were not making episodes by the numbers; they were trying to do things on a truly grand scale and would end up going down some highly unorthodox but daring roads. At times the episode bores me and I am always aware of its flaws, but even discounting the great character-work for Lilah, Wesley and Fred I cannot actually dislike “Calvary.”
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Continuity: The Soul Eater was apparently buried by the Chumash. We’ve seen them on Buffy in “Pangs” .
+ The opening scene with Wu Pang the Shaman chanting and ignoring the sound of his guards being beaten up in the background almost exactly mirrors the one in “Awakening” [4×10]. His exasperated mutter: “Must acquire better guards.”
+ Gunn and Connor work well together, they have a certain kind of understated easy camaraderie as they deal with the Soul Eater — a nice moment for them in an episode that doesn’t give them much content.
– The title of this episode seems rather contrived. “Calvary” was the hill the crucifixion took place; the “place of the skull.” But how does that bear any relevance to the story we see here? Usually Angel episode titles make more sense than this.
– Wesley implies that ‘Angelus’ is much smarter than ‘Angel.’ How does that make any sense? Even if their personalities are different they have the same brain.
– The scene where the Beast presents Cordelia with the dagger (all 22 seconds of it) felt very much tacked on.
* The dagger the Beast gives to Cordy here is the weapon Angelus will use to kill it. Chekhov’s knife?
* Angel mocks Gunn by implying he’s just the muscle. “You know what I like about you? You play to your strengths. You know what they are, and you stick to ’em. You don’t find that much these days. Everybody always trying to expand their horizons, actuate their potential, and all that other touchy-feely crap. But not you. You don’t try to change… because you know your place.” Of course, in Season 5 this is exactly what Gunn does. He’ll end up regretting it deeply.
* Cordelia goes white-eyed and possessed just as Lilah is finishing her speech: “So if anybody has scales on their eyes— it’s you.” Her words take on a number of different meanings because of it: Cordy literally looks like she has scales on her eyes while possessed. And she is possessed by the bad-guy of the season, so the shocked delivery of “it’s you.” is really apt.