[Review by Sue Carter]
[Writer: Ben Edlund | Director: David Straiton | Aired: 04/23/2003]
Lines are drawn and difficult choices are made in “Sacrifice,” as the Angel Investigations team goes on the run to escape Jasmine. There are a few compelling scenes and some interesting dynamics, but the heavy-handed themes, continuity errors and overused tropes undermine it all.
“Sacrifice does successfully move the season’s plot forward towards resolution. Team Angel, minus Connor and Cordelia, are now united and have a clear purpose for the first time this year. Against all odds, they need to stop Jasmine from spreading her mind-control mojo and taking over the world. They have no weapons, technology, leads, supplies or gas but by the end of the episode they have a chance for success. To get to that point, however, requires an unambiguous deus ex machina in the form of an insectoid true believer who has the key to bringing down Jasmine. It’s not unreasonable that Jasmine might have tried world domination elsewhere; it’s not unreasonable that her followers would feel bereft and try to find her. What is unreasonable is that the sole alien trying to get her attention is in the very same sewer system the fugitives stumble across. And the alien conveniently lets slip that Jasmine’s power is broken by speaking her true name. He also provides the means to obtain that true name. It’s clumsy at best, and appears to be a massive shortcut.
Another shortcut is the paint-by-numbers trope usage. The “I Know Your True Name” solution is an overused trope. It’s almost as if the writers boxed themselves into a corner, and then just pulled out a bag of tropes to get to the end of the season. Other tropes used are “You Will Be Assimilated” and “Refuge with the Scrappy Survivors” used in so many dystopian future stories. We can forgive the use of the “Blood is the Key” trope, as this is basic to the Buffyverse and to be expected. They lampshade themselves with Gunn yelling “time for the big fight scene!” as Connor and the National Guard start to break down the door, so at least they recognize that they are doing a paint-by-numbers plot. What’s disappointing, however, is that after a compelling and massive arc through all of Season 4, which has been arguably building all the way back from Darla’s resurrection in “To Shanshu in LA” [1×22], they leave the mechanics of the solution to Tropes 101.
It’s not hard to see the root cause of the problems in this episode. The writer is Ben Edlund, one of several Firefly refugees used on Angel in the months immediately following Firefly’s cancellation. Although he goes on to write more Angel episodes, this is his first for the series. The director is David Straiton who had two previous Angel episodes under his belt a few years prior, but feels more like freelance support than a member of the Mutant Enemy team. With all the behind the scenes disruptions in the Mutant Enemy productions, “Sacrifice” seems to have gotten very little attention from long-term players. This is also evident in the very heavy handed use of the “sacrifice” theme. Watching the episode, we see Edlund use the drumbeat of “sacrifice” for most of the major players over and over again, almost as if he was given a brief outline of the show, told to write a thesis paper on the concept of sacrifice, and given only a few days to do it. It’s a little obvious. Still, it’s not a complete failure. There are some interesting insights to be pulled out and, with the exception of one debatable continuity issue, Edlund gets the point across that to beat Jasmine they must all be prepared to sacrifice something.
Running through the characters, in order, we see this sacrifice theme hammered home. First up is Connor. He sacrifices his dysfunctional and often hostile family to cling to the sense of belonging with Jasmine and Cordelia. We don’t find out until the next episode that he already knows it’s a lie, but this choice to sacrifice his connection to Angel for a more comfortable lie is pretty significant in retrospect. Angel, of course, first offers to sacrifice himself so the others can escape. More important is his decision to sacrifice Connor and Cordelia to the Jasmaniacs. Angel didn’t understand that Connor wasn’t under the same influence that the rest were.
The decision to leave Connor behind is debatable from a continuity perspective. Angel moved “heaven and targna” to get Connor back, stormed the zombie infested Wolfram and Hart to rescue him, and now he leaves him with Jasmine? Angel is not a very good father from a practical perspective; he appears to focus on physical safety with no clue about preventing the emotional damage being done. But there is no doubt that Angel is utterly devoted to Connor, even when he fumbles in some of his decision making. Furthermore, when he leaves Connor behind, he brutally pummels him until he’s unconscious, and then unceremoniously throws his body out of the window and drags it off the hood of his car.
It’s likely Edlund was trying to portray Angel’s brutality as a sign of how traumatic this was for him, but to the casual observer it simply looks brutal, and probably contributes to Connor’s disbelief that Angel loves him. So while the decision makes sense from a practical perspective, Angel has shown in the past that he’s willing to sacrifice the world, and all his morals, for both Connor and Cordelia. Although Angel somewhat explains his rationale later, it seems like either having dialog specifically saying he made the choice to put the world ahead of those he loves, or that this is the best chance his loved ones have, would have synched up better with previous episodes. It’s similar to Buffy’s inexplicable comment in Season 7 that she would now sacrifice Dawn to save the world. If the main protagonist is going to change their primary motivation, we need a little more rationale.
A more interesting sacrifice is what Fred and Gunn experience as they go after Matthew. They actually hunt down and knock an innocent kid unconscious in an effort to protect the team. Furthermore, when Angel said that they might have to kill innocents, Gunn responds with “Believe me, I’m there.” This is some cold-hearted decision making that, while understandable, nudge the characters further down a dark path in terms of what they are willing to do. The action thankfully causes Fred and Gunn to take a moment to evaluate these doubts. They also effectively link the dilemma they’re facing to guilt regarding Professor Seidel in “Supersymmetry” [4×05]. It was about time that was brought up again, and Fred’s statement that she’d take gnawing guilt over being an uncaring shell is the right counter argument to Angel’s “shut down your emotions” plan. Ultimately they drag Matthew back, but at least they know what they are doing is fundamentally not what the good guys are supposed to be doing. Angel gets that it’s wrong but seems to have accepted that he does wrong things for the right reasons. In fact, Angel proves this again as he later mind-rapes everyone in “Home” [4×22] to save Connor.
The insect creature’s sacrifice, however, is more literal. It is also extremely reductive, but still a somewhat sly parody of a central Christian religious belief. We first have to endure the broken English alien ranting about missing Jasmine and trying to get her back. Wes, no stranger to the broken English trope, is able to successfully engage the creature to reveal his secret regarding the significance of Jasmine’s true name. The gory vampire torture in the background is fairly humorous under the circumstances (as the vampire is not screaming in pain and just seems mostly annoyed), and it breaks up an exposition heavy scene. It’s also showing a literal sacrifice, just in case we forgot the title of the episode. Once again it’s all about blood. Blood magic is much more powerful than “talky word magic.”
That’s Buffyverse canon and Wesley is quick to see how this may support finding a solution to their problem. The parody comes with the insects’ final words, “Devourer this meat I give unto thee.” That’s pretty close to the intent and words of the Last Supper, and having an insect perform the same function seems designed to trivialize central Christian beliefs. It plays well in the overall theme of Season 4, which has Jasmine icons being put up in Catholic Churches and the Jasmaniacs being mindless worshippers to a god walking among them. Whedon rarely directly confronts religion, and in Buffy Season 7, when Holden asks if there’s proof God exists, Buffy says “nothing solid.” The Jasmine arc clearly uses parody to suggest that people are looking for something divine to make their lives more meaningful, and are easily led. Sure he puts the characters under mind control, but the message seems reasonably clear. Accepting or rejecting the parody is left as an exercise for the audience again.
Despite the overused tropes, deus ex machina solution, and constant hammering of the episode’s theme, there are some excellent character insights in this episode along with the usual funny gems of dialog. All of Team Angel stumbles through “Sacrifice” still suffering from the loss of Jasmine’s love. Wesley states it best: “I miss the warmth and knowing what’s right.” These characters have all had too much misery, and giving up those good feelings and taking back their misery is very difficult. Conversely, Connor’s plight is that he can’t give up his misery in the first place. When Jasmine senses this, it’s obvious Connor is sincere in his desire to give up all his pain and just be happy with Jasmine. This is a kid so dead inside he barely flinches when she gouges her nails into him. It seems for a moment that she succeeds when he later speaks with her voice, but we find out next episode that this is not the case. It’s also confusing when he seems to respond to the glowy Jasmine effect. It’s almost as if he feels something, but yet not enough for it to take away his reality. Connor also shows how alone he is when his main source of comfort is to sit next to a comatose Cordelia. This is his family now: Jasmine who is busy taking over the planet and Coma Cordy. He doesn’t seem to have much use for the rest of the Jasmaniacs.
Jasmine’s characterization really suffers in this episode. The dissolve from mullet-head laughing to Gina Torres cackling like Snidely Whiplash is all wrong. It’s a clever turn of events to have the apocalypse be a world takeover plot which brings world peace. The cleverness is ruined when the Big Bad does an insane laugh for 30 seconds. This is repeated at the end when Jasmine takes on and heals the wounds of her followers while once again laughing maniacally. Character continuity is lost from “The Magic Bullet” [4×19] as Jasmine looks petty, not powerful. Except for the knowledge that Jasmine can remotely heal her followers, there’s no value-added to this scene.
The dialog gems will be covered below but this episode is another example of why Lorne is vital to the show. Without Lorne’s constant bon mots to give us a chuckle, the Sturm und Drang is overpowering in Season 4. And Andy Hallet does so well in this role. We understand Lorne is neither a fool, a drunk nor naturally bubbly. Lorne is an entertainer and keeps everyone going, but also lets us know he’s feeling some pain. If any crew needed a cruise director, it’s Team Angel.
The production value of this episode is not up to par with much of the rest of the season. Most of the episode takes place in an improbable cavernous sewer. The insect creature is very well done but the final shot of the alien world is 1950’s B-movie horror film bad. And it’s not a scene meant to illicit laughter. Team Angel has made the final sacrifice in the episode to hold off an overwhelming force, while Angel leaps to this place that only he can go to. Like Buffy’s big reveal of the massive army under the Hellmouth, this shot is supposed to inspire awe. Instead it takes the viewer out of the action because it’s just so cheesy. This is one of those directing/editing choices that was a misstep. If you can’t pull off the CGI, use a different approach. Take Angel out of the shot and use a matt painting or end it with a look of horror on his part and push it to the next episode’s reveal. It undermines the ending of the episode to have an obvious green screen fuzzy alien landscape with CGI monsters be the big cliffhanger.
Ultimately the episode services the season long plot by providing the solution to defeating the Big Bad. The team-on-the-run story is not particularly engaging nor is the hammered home theme-du-jour. This episode looks like it was handed off to people generally not involved in the show, and they did their best with the notes provided. It lacks the finesse of many of the previous episodes, but still provides the setup for the major events in “Peace Out” [4×21]. A few character insights are supplied, but in general this is not an episode that warrants multiple re-watches for entertainment value.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The Fred and Gunn conversation regarding Professor Seidel, and the morality they are struggling with, is excellent. After the difficult-to-watch love triangle, this feels like a better resolution to their love story. They are back to supporting each other on a personal level as friends and doing what is required for the mission.
+ Jasmine as Oprah continues, along with the some relationship moments with Connor. She’s wooing him with words and ideals, not just mojo.
+ Everyone speaking with Jasmine’s voice is a very nicely done creepy touch, especially when it comes out of the mouths of children.
+ Having a group of people still suffering from permanent midnight and unaware of the regime change was a nice continuity nod that reminds us how rapidly this season progresses.
+ Although somewhat out of character, the brutality of Angel beating Connor unconscious and the way his body just splats onto the roof of the car is effectively shocking. It neatly sets up Angel going stone cold for the rest of the episode.
– The gas station visit is irritating. The dystopian future trope playbook says you siphon gas from other cars, not make a splashy move to get gas from a gas station and thus draw the attention of the enemy. It’s annoying when Team Angel is dumb.
– Of all the sewers in all of L.A., Gunn runs into someone he knows?
– With all their blood lore, they didn’t see Connor being unaffected as a likely outcome? They seem to ignore that he’s Jasmine’s father. And why didn’t it occur to them to tie him up and take him in the trunk, since obviously there was something different about Connor’s blood? Team Angel is pretty slow on the uptake here.
* This foreshadows Lorne’s self-appointed role as permanent cruise director in “Life of the Party” [5×05].
* Connor’s different relationship with Jasmine is foreshadowed here as he noticeably hesitates to follow her direction, debates her strategy and struggles with giving her his pain. Connor also tells Angel “You’re wrong Dad” after Angel says Jasmine is controlling him. Team Angel is clueless.
* Given the events of “Shells” [5×16], listening to Fred talk about not wanting to be an empty shell is painful.
* Team Angel against the world, making the hard calls and sacrifices to save the world from overwhelming evil, sets the stage for them later deciding they can take over Wolfram and Hart in Season 5. They think they’ve walked this moral grey line before, based on “Sacrifice,” and that they are qualified to make these decisions.