[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Steven S. DeKnight, Sarah Fain, and Elizabeth Craft | Director: James A. Contner | Aired: 03/12/2003]
Oh Angel Season 4, how you toy with me. A moment here to make me celebrate; a moment there to make me weep. If I were to summarize what I thought of “Release” without actually getting into any details, it would go something like this: Faith yay, Angelus nay, and Cordelia yawn. How we can go from a crackerjack scene involving Faith ‘waking up’ in a shower after her beat down in “Salvage” [4×13] to Angelus impotently posturing to a crowd of demons, while getting some moustache-twirling Cordelia in his head, is beyond my understanding. “Release” just can’t stop oscillating back and forth, from interesting to irrelevant, like a ball bouncing between two walls until eventually there’s no energy left and everything just stops.
So I think it’s safe to say that this one’s a bit of a mixed bag. On the up side it sure starts out well. Faith got pummeled by the Beast in “Salvage” [4×13] and, at first, shows little emotion when returning to Wesley’s place — she’s numb; beaten. This feeling originates from a place of confusion about who exactly she is as a person now. Before his demise the Beast looked down on Faith, physically broken, and said, “This is all you are.” In a way, he was right. We had previously discovered that once you stripped away the ‘bad girl’ identity — built from her introduction in Season 3 of Buffy and exhausted in “Sanctuary” [1×19] — Faith becomes directionless, still, and confused. When Wesley asks her if she’s okay, her response — “I’m sticky” — confirms this confusion. While Faith may be right in claiming no permanent physical trauma, the same cannot be said for her identity.
Being in prison for three years has certainly given Faith plenty of time to do some heavy self-reflecting, but it’s not until she’s really gotten out in the world again that all this soul-searching has been put to the test. It’s all too easy to fall back into old patterns and habits. In “Salvage” [4×13] Faith tried to just slip into the fray of things with an air of confidence. Unfortunately, the Beast strips all of that away. This forces her to begin the long process of figuring out just what she’s made of in the world outside her head, and to face just how much she’s really grown.
When Faith shakes off that numbness in Wesley’s shower with a torrent of screams and punches, it provides a very necessary dose of catharsis for her — it reawakens this very sense of self, even though she still has a ways to go to find out what’s next. The scene is not only important, but it’s also able to get some real emotion out of me. It’s the kind of raw, intimate moment that I feel Buffy reaches more often than Angel, but is well done here in “Release.” It really brings together great directing, acting that Eliza Dushku can be really proud of, music that weaves from blocked out tranquility to silence to the harsher sound of reality, and character insight. This is actually one of my very favorite smaller scenes of Angel altogether, believe it or not; I absolutely love it.
Considering how much I love the opening scene, imagine how deflating it is to see the scene that comes after it. In everything I know of Angelus I never got the impression that he was the type to go talking up a storm about his deeds to a random audience, let alone talking up something as wholly unimpressive as stabbing a walking rock in the back. In Buffy‘s “Fool for Love” we see a flashback where Angelus says, “a real kill, a good kill: it takes pure artistry. Without that, we’re just animals.” He didn’t need anyone’s approval or applause for his actions and he never killed because “destruction is its own reward,” as the Beastmaster implies, but rather to satiate his desire for creative torture, both physical and psychological. At least he still doesn’t like being yanked around, even if that’s exactly what happens to him.
Where the Angelus of Buffy was simultaneously charismatic, depraved, and scary, the Angelus of Angel is pretentious, fluffy, and impotent in comparison, not to mention excessively cartoony. This does a great disservice to an altered character that was once quite the spectacle to behold. For what was a long time coming on Angel (outside of flashbacks), Angelus really couldn’t have been much more of a disappointment. The fake charm he shows Fred says it all: “Made in China,” just like Angelus seems to be — a product that looks real from a distance but on close inspection is much shallower and far less functional than the real thing.
Putting aside Angelus not being Angelus for a moment, much like Cordelia isn’t Cordelia this season, the Beastmaster’s fake booming voice having conversations in his head isn’t exactly thrilling either. Since all of the Beastmaster’s scheming adds up to a big pile of nothing, and we never even really find out why it has any interest in Angelus in the first place, all of the voice-in-head stuff rubs off as annoying and ultimately pointless.
In the scene with the shopkeeper, which features more cartoony posturing from Angelus, the Beastmaster tells something to him — which he appears to agree with — that really bothers me. The Beastmaster implies that Angelus is a conscious entity always awake and living inside Angel, but simply not in control of his body. Can I just say that this explanation is, to borrow a term from England, bollocks? Not only does it not make very much sense, and not only does it not track with what we’ve previously seen of both Angel and Angelus, but it’s also just a whole lot less interesting than having to really explore what it means to have, and not have, a soul.
What I’ve always felt Angelus to be is Angel himself, but without any conscious and with an additional primal demonic impulse for evil. This is precisely why Angelus was infinitely more interesting in his stint on Buffy: even after losing his soul, he clearly still had a warped sense of love for Buffy, but instead of wanting to share that love and sacrifice for her, he used it as a weapon to get into her head and almost destroy her psychologically. He didn’t lose the love he felt for Buffy after losing his soul, but rather felt a little shame in retaining those feelings, even wanting to punish Buffy for making him feel them. This is a much more complex exploration of Angelus and what he’s capable of.
Angel Season 4 tries to sell this notion that, yeah, Angelus has Angel’s memories, but he’s really this entirely separate consciousness that is just forced to put up with Angel when the soul exists. The idea that Angelus is awake while Angel exists is ridiculous. This is not only less interesting, but it’s also a colossal letdown over the personalized fireworks Angelus has given us in the past. Here, I never get the feeling that any part of Angel is actually in there – Angelus feels like a random vampire with a book of facts about the gang accessible to him.
Swinging the pendulum back to interesting is the duo of Wesley and Faith as they appear at the hotel. When Angelus appears and briefly takes Wesley hostage, Wesley is dead serious about Faith taking her shot regardless of the consequences to him. Faith shows hesitancy in pulling the trigger. While it’s understandable, considering that Faith has spent the last three years trying to control her violent impulses and come to some kind of peace with herself and what she’s done, Wesley’s not wrong in needing to push her into regaining at least a little bit of that fire so she can beat Angelus. With that said, being “just as vicious as he is” probably isn’t strictly necessary or right. Also, while I know the stakes seem high for the characters, the fact I know Angelus doesn’t (and hasn’t) accomplish(ed) anything kind of lowers my emotional investment in Faith’s choices. Angel Season 4 really badly needed a “Passion” (Buffy, 2×17) of its own.
Faith’s struggles spill over into a later part of the episode when she does a make-shift interrogation of a girl drugged out in the back of the bar Angelus was boasting in earlier. Not pushing the girl hard enough to get information, Wesley takes over and shocks Faith in just how detached from others he’s become. The death of Lilah has pushed Wesley to be even more ruthless than he even was coming into the season. I find it fascinating to see Wesley and Faith in very different places than they were in back in Season 1. Wesley has become quite the lost one and Faith is the one speaking restraint. I particularly enjoy Wesley being quick to remind Faith of how she tortured him and using that to access her inner anger. Does she really need that anger in order to beat Angelus though? Not really, but I understand why Wesley thinks she does. And I like that Faith now has enough self-awareness to say no to Wesley’s assertion. Faith says, “I’m not going to kill Angel, not after what he’s done for me. There’s got to be another way.” Glad to hear it, Faith!
The huge fight sequence at the end of the episode is entertaining, for the most part, although I think it goes over the top a bit with the extreme jumps through the air and the loud ‘swoosh’ sound constantly playing. I guess it takes a shotgun to make Angelus a little bit scary now, because having it makes him the most dangerous he’s felt the whole season. It’s also great to know that all those reflective years in prison have, indeed, lead to some growth for Faith – she doesn’t want to die anymore, which is obviously a big improvement for her! Sadly, this insight just leads Angelus to some more posturing and even some token maniacal laughter.
The one big problem of Angelus’ taunting of Faith is that it isn’t entirely viable information anymore. His jabs would have likely cut a lot deeper had this been a few years ago, but Faith is clearly a different person now. Instead of being insightful or cutting, Angelus is just repeating what we already know. The dialogue isn’t clunky as much as it’s just kind of pointless, which I can’t help but feel is yet another waste of what Angelus is capable of and causes the episode to fizzle out a bit at the end. The actual ending, with Angelus biting Faith, is a somewhat surprising moment, but we quickly find out in the next episode that it’s all part of a plan. That kind of takes some of the fun out of the moment in retrospect.
There are a couple other character threads that are slipped into the episode: the ending of Fred and Gunn’s relationship ‘drama’ and Fred feeling pathetic letting Angelus intimidate her. In my review of “Habeas Corpses” [4×08] I made it clear how uninteresting I find Fred and Gunn together, and it just boils down to the fact that their relationship hasn’t shown us anything new about these people. As for Fred’s concern over being mousey, well, I can understand a little bit of this, but the writing has Fred go overboard with it. How did Angel “let” her live, for example? He had a fake charm and couldn’t touch her. I do like Gunn’s advice though: “look, if you really think you did something wrong, don’t do it again.”
To wrap this one up, “Release” has a few great character moments but is sadly bogged down by an underwhelming Angelus and a sluggish plot yanking the characters around like toys. Faith’s presence is incredibly refreshing and welcome, and it provides the platform for some nice character development and insight. Angelus, on the other hand, is a posturing cartoon for most of the episode and never even comes close to the frightening figure he once was. In the background of all this we have a cardboard Cordelia-as-Beastmaster pulling all the strings while ‘thrillingly’ sitting on a bed for most of the episode. In the end, Wesley (per usual) and Faith salvage an otherwise fairly mundane episode.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Gunn slipping in that no one’s getting the ‘warm and fuzzies’ lately.
+ Fred accidentally hitting Lorne with a tranquilizer dart, but then correcting herself by almost getting Angelus spot-on.
+ Connor checking himself for fangs in the mirror, after getting rejected by the sanctuary spell.
+ The show remembering that Faith really likes her knives.
– Speaking of cartoony villains, how about Cordelia in this episode? If only she had a moustache to twirl. And her relationship with Connor is still gallons of yuck.