[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Ben Edlund (Story) and David Fury (Story and Teleplay) | Director: James A. Contner | Aired: 10/08/2003]
Where do you begin when talking about Spike? Introduced as a temporary villain in Buffy’s second season, he went on to become one of the show’s most interesting and well-developed characters. At times evil, tragic, and hilarious, Spike went through more changes than any of the others around him, and became a fan favorite along the way.
So it comes as little of a surprise that when Buffy completed its seven-year run, network heads requested that Spike be brought over to Angel. Who wouldn’t want to see more of our favorite platinum-haired vampire? There was just one problem, though: Spike had been killed off in the series finale of Buffy.
Well, I suppose it’s not such an issue. In the last scene of “Conviction” [5×01], just as Angel finishes telling his friends to be prepared for anything Wolfram & Hart may throw at them, Spike is suddenly resurrected before their very eyes. A dead character is reborn. And fans… rejoice?
Well, it’s hard to say. Spike’s story, for all purposes, reached a sense of closure with the Buffy finale. “Just Rewards” needs to come up with a heck of a reason to justify bringing him back for another round. Furthermore, for the sake of character continuity, it needs to follow up on his story arc from Buffy. Difficult tasks, to be sure. And unfortunately, the episode doesn’t fully succeed at either of them.
Before I really sink my teeth into this episode (pun not intended), I should probably clarify a point that you may have guessed from this review’s opening paragraph: I love Spike. He may be my all-time favorite Buffyverse character, with the possible exceptions of Anya and Wesley. His struggle for redemption, his undying love for Buffy, and his often painfully hilarious dialogue — all this and more add up to one truly amazing character, who became more and more fascinating as the show progressed.
But as soon as he moves over to Angel, Spike hits a wall.
For the last four seasons, Angel has been following its own path, and has been almost completely unrelated to its parent show. The occasional Buffy crossovers were primarily confined to single episodes, and served to progress the story and characters on Angel. So to suddenly bring a former Buffy character aboard, and to focus the entire episode almost exclusively on him, feels forced and at odds with what the show has given us in its earlier years. It doesn’t feel like Spike was brought in for the sake of the storyline – it just feels like he was brought in for the sake of Spike.
Furthermore, it appears the writers thought that Spike’s character arc was too large and complicated to carry over to Angel and explain to viewers. Although the basic facts of his past and recent history are stated up front, the prime goal here is not to utilize Spike for drama, but for comedy. This wouldn’t be such a problem if the comedy wasn’t used to deconstruct his actions in Buffy’s “Chosen” [7×22] and so obviously set him up as a foil for Angel.
The closest thing to an emotional issue the episode gives Spike to cope with is the sudden revelation that he has returned to life as a ghost. This unexpected twist gives us a brief shock, but within a few minutes, it is affirmed as a mere gimmick. Suddenly, Spike has a new problem to deal with. All the fascinating developments that we have watched him go through over six seasons of Buffy now become obsolete, giving way to the new problem of restoring Spike’s corporeality.
The most interesting moment in the show’s first act occurs during the verbal spat between Spike and Angel. Angel chose not to tell Gunn, Fred, and Wesley that Spike was given a soul. It’s easy to understand why they’re apprehensive of him. Already, Angel has made the questionable move of taking over Wolfram & Hart. Now, he’s held off crucial information from them about a presumably deadly vampire. He will only grow more secluded from his friends as the season progresses, especially after Fred’s death in “A Hole in the World” [5×15].
It’s no secret that Angel hated Spike when he was evil, but times have now changed, and Spike must be looked at from a considerably different perspective. Now, he does not need physical restraint, but merely tolerance. And tolerated he must be, because, thanks to one of the episode’s many gimmicks, he can’t leave Los Angeles. This detail only emphasizes the point that Spike is being forced into the show.
And soon Gunn, Fred, and Wesley – much like the viewers – are beginning to question whether Spike’s being around will do more harm than good, voicing their opinions to each other in hushed tones. As he was during much of the later seasons of Buffy, Spike is an outcast, with no allies to confide in. Harmony may offer sympathy and a chance to open up – clearly, she still has feelings for him – but Spike merely waves her off in annoyance. What little attraction he still has toward her is only physical, and he has no chance of acting upon it now.
Well, short on character insight “Just Rewards” may be, but as I’ve said before, it is certainly not devoid of comedy. In most situations, Spike would happily work his way out of a problem by beating something up. Here, though, he can only just walk around and make dry, sarcastic remarks. I’ll admit, some of these lines are pretty funny – particularly the ones he shares with a harried, hard-working Angel. It’s a nice, light-hearted change of pace for a show that often felt too dark and serious during its previous season.
Had “Just Rewards” kept this light, carefree tone for the duration of this run, then I could easily end this review by calling it a “fun little episode that’s short on depth but long on laughs”, and probably give it a decent, if unremarkable, score. Unfortunately, “Just Rewards” wants more than to be just a simplistic episode of “The Vampire Brothers Comedy Hour”, and halfway through, it takes an abruptly serious – and critical – turn.
Magnus Hainsley is not a terribly engaging villain, but his ability to transfer demon souls into human bodies has an eerie feel. Demons are easily recognized, and thus easily avoided, due to their strange colors and pointed horns, and taking away that recognition factor will present some fearful and imminent dangers. The problem lies with the concept’s development. Put simply, there is none. Instead, his operations are defeated rather quickly (albeit humorously; see “Pros” below) so that we can shift the focus onto – surprise! — more Spike. And here’s where the episode makes its biggest mistake.
Does Spike hate Angel? Sure. Does he enjoy tormenting him? Definitely. Does he hate being incorporeal? Signs point to yes. Would he be willing to kill Angel just to regain his corporeal form?
Hold on there. The evil, murderous Spike we once knew is a thing of the past. We saw what he went through over the course of Buffy. We saw him change from a fanged menace into a soulful hero. We even saw him save the world!
And don’t forget: By agreeing to Hainsley’s plan, Spike would be forced to spend the rest of his immortal life in Angel’s body. I doubt he’d be a big fan of that.
For much of its second half, “Just Rewards” toys with the idea of Spike returning to evil, before finally revealing that he in fact has been squeaky-clean all along. It’s not a very surprising twist, especially given the context. Why are we led to believe – twice – that Spike is faking someone out? We see his loyalties switch from Hainsley to Angel to Hainsley to Angel. The episode needlessly complicates itself and tries to pull the rug out from under us one too many times. Consequently, the final reveal comes off as weak.
Furthermore, it’s downright frustrating. Spike is faced with a moral crisis here, and we are cheated out of the chance to see it from his perspective. At several points, the episode wants us to buy into his inner conflict, but it keeps his genuine motives in the dark right up until the end. You can’t have it both ways, guys. I’m not a fan of Angelus’ return in Buffy’s “Enemies” , mostly because of the aggravating fake-out. That episode would have benefited from being told from Angel’s point of view; “Just Rewards” would have likewise been better off told from Spike’s.
In fact, the one scene where “Just Rewards” excels is the one which finally gives us a genuine glimpse into Spike’s inner turmoil. Realizing that his incorporeal existence is only temporary, and that he will soon cease to exist forever, would surely be enough to shock Spike out of his sarcastic demeanor. But even more shocking than this is the realization that he is being pulled not toward Heaven, but to Hell.
Spike has committed a number of minor heroic actions in the past, all leading up to his greatest act at the end of “Chosen”. His resurrection, one would assume, was a reprieve, granted by the Powers That Be as a reward for his heroism. But fate cruelly reminds us that Spike’s two or three years as a champion in no way compensate for the many, many decades he spent reveling in torture and slaughtering innocent victims. Now, he faces eternal punishment. Here, the episode does not lie to us. It tells us exactly what we don’t want to – and must – hear: Spike deserves to die.
Faced with this realization, we genuinely feel for Spike when he appears at Fred’s lab, begging, “Help me”. We’ve seen that he can change, and that he is willing to do so. Once he overcomes his incorporeal obstacle in “Destiny” [5×08], Spike’s story can truly begin.
Despite that great final scene, “Just Rewards” is glaringly flawed. It’s a character drama that doesn’t invest much drama into its character. It diverts all available attention from Spike to Angel, and even he can’t sustain interest throughout the episode, being played as the butt of Spike’s numerous wisecracks, and then as the butt of his plan to fool Hainsley. Angel’s best moments in the episode (apart from the aforementioned humorous banter with Spike) involve his stoic refusal to abide by Wolfram & Hart’s former policies. His adjustments to the firm’s policies are expected and unsurprising, but they get us wondering: Will the Senior Partners tolerate his changes to the firm? Or did they hire him with the full knowledge that he would begin making changes? Just what are they up to, anyway?
Season Five is only starting, so it’s no surprise that “Just Rewards” leaves these questions unanswered. A shame it couldn’t be a good enough episode on its own to compensate.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Spike standing in middle of Angel’s desk.
+ Harmony’s disgusted reaction to learning that Spike was involved with Buffy.
+ Angel finding Spike inside his car. “I knew you’d choose the Viper.”
+ Angel defeating Hainsley through “legal” means.
+ Spike disappearing in middle of his mock phone call.
+ Spike continuing to beat Angel up even after Hainsley is killed.
– The inclusion of Spike’s death scene in “Chosen” is unnecessary. Plus, its emotional effect is cheapened by the sudden cut to his return.
– How does Spike sit in Angel’s chair? And prop his feet up on the desk? Something isn’t right there.
– Angel killing the butler with a spoon. Funny on paper, awkward on screen.
* Angel begins shutting down Wolfram & Hart’s more questionable divisions as a way of enforcing his new policy. He will soon take this a step further, as we see in “Harm’s Way” [5×09].
* Spike’s ignorance of Harmony will only last until he regains his corporeality in “Destiny” [5×08], when they will briefly renew their relationship.