[Review by Miscellaneopolan]
[Writer: Mere Smith | Director: Terrence O Hara | Aired: 03/19/2003]
Season 4 of Angel is nothing if not busy. The narrative has abundant twists, the character dynamics are in constant flux, and almost every episode has multiple threads running through it. “Orpheus” has the responsibility of bringing two of those threads to a close. This is the last we see of both Angelus, Angel’s sinister alter ego resurrected to mixed reviews back in “Soulless” [4×11], and Faith, who was busted out of prison in “Salvage” [4×13] in an attempt to bring him down. The episode has some of the weaknesses endemic to Season 4: there’s almost too much going on, some characters get the short shrift, and one can’t shake the feeling that the overarching plot just doesn’t make much sense. On the other hand, “Orpheus” shares in the season’s strengths: it rides high on narrative momentum, it’s thematically dense and it keeps the audience wondering what will happen next. It also benefits from a slightly slower pace that allows for more focus on the characters and finally brings this section of the season to a satisfying close.
Although this episode gives every character at least a little something to do, the stars of this show are Angel(us) and Faith. In the teaser, we see that Faith had injected herself with the mystical opiate Orpheus while Angelus was busy ripping Wes a new one during the big brawl at the end of “Release” [4×14]. We never find out exactly how the drug works or why one would want to take it, but we know from Lorne’s affecting bedside scenes that it’s a hallucinogen and that Faith is unlikely to survive it. And so Angelus and Faith go deep down into Angel’s mind, perhaps never to wake up.
Faith clearly used her time in prison to grow up. When Angel last saw her she was a lost, angry young woman bent on destroying herself. Angel gave her a reason to keep living and to take responsibility for her actions. Now we see that maturity, and that loyalty, in full force. “I’m dying, dumbass,” Faith tells a frustrated Angelus. “I rolled the dice. Paid even odds.” Faith is fully willing to die here so that Angel might live. That kind of selfless act would be unthinkable for her only a few short years ago.
But Faith’s newfound sense of selflessness might have an ulterior motive, something Angelus notes when Faith seems just a little casual about her impending death. “Thought those suicidal tendencies got squashed in the big enlightenment,” he tells her. Faith is almost too willing to die for Angel. She did horrible things, she served her time, and she’s ready to make up for all of it with one grand gesture. Once she dies fighting the good fight, the pain will end and it’ll all be worth it. In a way, she’s where Angel was two years ago in “Reprise” . There, Angel went in hoping to die in a blaze of glory and came out understanding that no gesture however grand could ever make up for his past transgressions. Atonement means fighting everyday, and that’s exactly what he tells Faith in this episode. “It hurts,” she cries. And it always will, and they’ll keep fighting anyway.
Of course, more than a few things have happened to Angel since he had his epiphany. With no eternal reward expected or sought after and Season 4’s long stream of catastrophes fresh in his head, he’s begun a backslide into despair that won’t fully crystallize until “Home” [4×22]. I imagine it was refreshing for him to articulate the comparatively simple morality of “Epiphany” [2×16] to Faith. For the first time in a while, Angel gets to be a hero, plain and simple.
And boy does that bug Angelus. Much has been made of this season’s decision to treat Angel and his sinister alter ego as though they are entirely separate beings rather than a continuum, a distinction on full display when the two literally beat on each other inside Angel’s mind. But if the distinction was at its most infuriating in “Long Day’s Journey” [4×09], where it was implied that Angel and Angelus have entirely different brains, then it’s at its most amenable here, where Angelus is treated as a separate being buried deep in Angel’s subconscious. “I’m always here, Faithy,” Angelus tells Faith, “deep in” (and why they didn’t have him say “deep down” is beyond me, but whatever). The scene in the restaurant, where we see a 1970s Angel drink the blood of a cashier killed in an armed robbery, is an important reminder that Angel is capable of evil acts even with a soul, and that Angelus, though suppressed, is never gone.
The writers still let Angel get off way too easy, though.
But all’s well that ends well. With Angel re-ensouled and their magical mind tour concluded, Angel and Faith share a quiet moment in the Hyperion garden in what is probably my favorite scene of the episode. “I’m sorry I didn’t get to see you,” Angel says. “Another time,” she replies. In this moment we’re reminded how much these two repentant murderers have in common, how well they understand each other and how far they have yet to go. Faith will take the lessons Angel has taught her to Sunnydale where they can be put to good use, and Angel will continue to fight the good fight knowing there are people like Faith out there who make it worthwhile.
At least that’s the idea until, at episode’s end, Cordelia descends the staircase wearing the most garishly evil maternity garb this side of Rosemary’s Baby. How any of the gang could look at her and NOT think that she was about to give birth to Satan is a mystery. While the most emotionally potent parts of this episode are devoted to Angel and Faith’s development, more screen time is probably given to the gang’s attempt to shove a soul back into Angelus and Cordelia’s attempts to stop them.
It seems that the more of this Evil Cordelia we see, the less convincing a villain she becomes. Seeing her kill Lilah at the end of “Calvary” [4×12] was shocking. Watching her mack on the Beast in “Salvage” [4×13] was just sorta weird, and seeing her ineffectually try and control Angelus with her big booming scary voice in “Release” [4×14] made me really start to doubt her credentials as an evil genius. Now she fails to prevent the gang from bringing back Angel, makes pop culture quips and is generally played as goofy more than anything else.
On top of all that, I still have no idea what her plan is, and knowing what will happen in the remainder of the season doesn’t help. Releasing Angelus was supposedly “crucial” for her, but all he managed to do was kill her minion, bring back the sun, and lodge a crossbow bolt in her thigh. Later, Angel will posit that it was all done to distract the gang from what was happening, but that seems like a hopelessly complicated plan for so simple an end. A more fitting explanation which begs consideration is that the writers began plot lines without knowing how to end them, with this as the result. When Wesley says of the Beastmaster that he’s “enormously powerful” I have to wonder if we’re not supposed to laugh.
That being said, Cordelia’s control over Connor is fairly creepy and believable. She plays to Connor’s weak points: his hatred of Angel, his desire for family, and her likely position as his first and only lover. Perhaps most importantly, she attempts to cut him off from the others by appealing to the very teenage belief that he and she alone are “special” and are therefore justified in committing evil acts (killing Angel) in service of the greater good. This philosophy is actually pretty similar to the one Faith herself followed back on Season 3 of Buffy when she justified her murders by claiming that she, as a slayer, was “better” than other people. Having seen all that play out, it’s very fitting and yet another sign of her growth that Faith is the one to kick Connor’s ass at the end, preventing him from tumbling down the slippery slope she herself was on not so long ago. That she does it without even breaking a sweat is just a fun bonus.
Faith continues to show her maturity when, after Connor admits to having “messed up,” she gladly forgives him, telling him that messing up “just makes you one of us.” In addition to being a very gracious thing to say, this has the added effect of including Connor within the fold of the group where Cordelia was working hard to exclude him. Much of Connor’s arc this season has to do with his identity constantly being torn between different sets of values. We know, of course, that he eventually chooses to give in to his despair and hopelessness, but I have to wonder whether that would have happened if Faith, a woman to whom he is clearly attracted and who holds a positive influence over him, had stuck around. With her gone, Cordelia has Connor more or less all to herself, with predictably disastrous results.
Outside of a few nice moments and bits of dialogue, the other characters are largely relegated to the background here. Willow visits L.A. and is used largely as a device, albeit a very sensible and natural one, to forward the plot. I enjoyed her babbling conversations with Fred; seeing the two characters side by side really makes obvious how they’re cut from the same prototypical cloth. Also fun is Willow’s lone scene with Wesley where his bad-ass persona deflates just a little when he compares his dirty deeds to Willow’s and finds himself lacking. Gunn has very little to do, but I liked how he took charge of the situation as Angelus and Faith were brought into the hotel immediately following the teaser.
While he doesn’t have a lot of screen time compared to some of the other characters, we actually get a decent amount of insight into Lorne in this episode. We’re used to thinking of Lorne as a perpetually peppy and cheerful guy, so the notion that he would be familiar with the effects of a drug as dangerous as Orpheus is at first surprising but makes sense when one considers what running a demon bar in L.A. must have been like; he probably saw stuff like this on a regular basis. His scenes at Faith’s bedside, where he weakly tells Faith that she’ll make it through her catatonia without sounding like he believes it himself, are touching and give us a preview of the tired and world-weary Lorne of late Season 5. The green guy’s carrying some pain.
Ultimately it’s this kind of focus on character moments, both large and small, that give “Orpheus” a bit of an edge over the episodes surrounding it. Season 4 is busy and “Orpheus” is no exception, but by focusing a bit more on the characters and a bit less on the plot, it comes out a real winner.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ There’s some very good editing in this episode. Many points for the opening sequence when Angelus and Faith are brought into the hotel as well as the moment when Lorne starts to sing ‘Macarthur Park’ to Faith only for the episode to cut to the restaurant where the same song is playing on the jukebox.
+ Has anyone else noticed how much Angelus likes to make literary references? He was making them left and right in “Soulless” [4×11] and here he makes reference to A Christmas Carol and Dylan Thomas.
+ Angel’s love for Barry Manilow reasserts itself here. And that hair he was sporting in the 70s: damn. Way scarier than Angelus.
– For someone so reticent about using magic back in Sunnydale, Willow seems more than willing to cut loose with the dark arts here in L.A.
* In this episode, Cordelia emotionally manipulates Connor such that he’s willing to kill his own father. Her control over him will grow to the point where he becomes an accessory to her murder of an innocent girl in “Inside Out” [4×17].