[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Steven S. DeKnight | Director: Steven S. DeKnight | Aired: 10/22/2003]
If the past has been any indication, most of the episodes of Buffy and Angel that I remembered being kind of awesome remained kind of awesome after I looked closer – in some cases, they became even more awesome. This was the setup going into “Hell Bound,” arguably (see [“5×02]) the very first Spike-centered Angel episode. Sadly, it didn’t end well. I still maintain that this is a generally entertaining and creepy little episode, but what I’ve come to realize is that there’s not much more going on beyond this. A struggle to survive under the analyst’s knife is now the life it faces.
I think the root problem of “Hell Bound” boils down to the fact that in an episode entirely about Spike, we really learn nothing new about him. Spike had a ridiculously glorious run over on Buffy, and by the end of it was a very complex multi-faceted character. Bringing such a rich character onto a new show is bound to have its challenges, but early in Season 5 I can’t help but feel Angel fails at not only picking up where Buffy left off, but even more so at moving Spike forward. I absolutely loved the character of Spike by the time “Chosen” rolled around (although I had always enjoyed his presence), but let me be frank: he should have stayed dead. Those of you that have been following my reviews for years know very well I tend to frown upon the resurrection of dead characters. If you’re going to do it, then you’re going to have work damn hard to earn it or it comes across as a cheap fake-out and/or a ratings grab. Whereas Season 6 of Buffy earned what happened, Angel Season 5 does not – Spike being stuck as a ghost for a while is not much of a price for freaking body/soul reconstruction. At best Spike’s resurrection on Angel is a desperate ratings grab, and at worst it’s artistic sloppiness.
Now, with my distaste out of the way, I will point out that Spike’s presence throughout the season is generally an entertaining addition; although, it’s only rarely one that does the character much justice. In theory, Spike fits into the whole core of redemptive themes swirling around the show quite well. In practice, though, not nearly enough use is made of him outside of (admittedly hilarious “wee little puppet man” type) comic relief. “Hell Bound” is one of the worst offenders in avoiding Spike’s inherent complexity, instead parading the Cliff Notes version of his story to us for what the writers seem to precariously think is a ‘new audience’ for the character. I’m sure Spike would come off better here had I not seen much or any of Buffy, but as it stands, everything feels overly simplified.
The result of this over-simplification is that “Hell Bound” is more intent on telling us things about Spike we already know rather than offering new insight into his state of being, or evolving him into something new. This is not to say that “Hell Bound” is an awful episode – it’s not. I still enjoyed it quite a bit, albeit from a more from a casual, disengaged perspective. Yet despite its passing pleasures, it never actually satisfies. It does have at least a few revealing moments that pertain to the season as a whole, but these moments all center on Angel.
Angel has a talk with Fred about quarterly projections, which works its way to being a discussion about the value of saving Spike. First off, it’s interesting how quickly the good-times vibe Angel seemed to have in “Unleashed” [5×03] has disappeared. This is the first episode in Season 5 where he really felt like a corporate shill. I know he has absolutely no fondness for Spike and couldn’t care less about his future, but his tone to Fred was notably stern and a little condescending. It was nice to see her stand up for herself and show that, even if she might be having a little fun with Spike’s charms, she’s not crushing over him like a crazed fangir… err… schoolgirl – she simply knows it is right to help him.
This growing lack of motivation reflects Angel’s blasé attitude towards redemption and damnation, which is certainly a seedling for “Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco” [5×06] and, of course, his arc throughout the season. The one slightly meaty scene in the episode takes place between him and Spike on this very issue, in which he answers Spike’s question of “then why even bother?” with “what else are we gonna do?” Inspiring stuff, huh?
Spike’s so desperate for a connection in this new environment that he actually turns to Angel for a little casual conversation. It’s interesting that Angel still isn’t quite sure how he got out of the hell Buffy sent him to in Buffy‘s “Becoming Pt. 2.” Is this comment maybe a little nod to fans who have wondered about that? In “Amends” it was implied that the First Evil brought him back so that he could kill Buffy, but maybe it was just taking credit for whatever did (Powers That Be? Patrick Swayze?). It would have actually been nice if a bigger deal was made about that at the time, actually, and it’s interesting it’s brought up again here.
The bitter comedy between Angel and Spike this season is definitely a highlight, as we can see on display already here. At times it almost makes me think it was worth bringing Spike back, even though I know it wasn’t. I also love how, in the beginning of the episode, most of the ‘evil manifestations’ that appear to Spike seem to be pulling him down to the basement, which quite fittingly represents a place of fairly recent insanity for Spike and a nice little nod to Season 7 of Buffy. It’s just a shame that all the barbs Pavayne throws at Spike about his past self-discoveries aren’t anything we don’t already know, and even sillier is that they’re all things Spike already knows! So beyond enjoying the fun ghost fight, what’s in it for the viewer?
Even despite all my character qualms with “Hell Bound,” I still get quite a thrill when Spike takes control of the ghostly plane and starts beating on Pavayne. Although Spike’s choice to re-materialize Pavayne instead of himself is no surprise to those of us who watched Season 7 of Buffy, it’s still a nice re-affirmation of what this soulful Spike is all about. This is also an important realization for the rest of the characters, particularly Angel; the realization that, hey, this Spike guy really does give a #### nowadays.
To wrap this one up I’ll just say that I casually enjoyed most of “Hell Bound,” but its simplistic character display and occasionally sluggish pace just guts any staying power it has for me. Of the themes that are briefly touched on, none of them are exactly new or revelatory – not even within the confines of the first three episodes of Season 5. This is definitely filler material at work, but at least it is palatable filler.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Fred not being remotely scared by Spike’s attempt to give her a little spook. This reminds me of his attempt to scare Anya into giving him money in Season 4 of Buffy.
+ The finger sawing scene in the basement: definitely creepy.
+ Eve actually scaring Fred from behind. I can understand the sentiment.
+ The lady with her arms chopped off begging Spike to hold her is yet another genuinely creepy image.
+ The mystic spitting blood onto Fred (see the Foreshadowing section) is yet another creepy image the episode can add to its list.
+ The shower scene where Spike figures out he can touch things if he concentrates hard enough. It’s just kind of fun while maintaining that creepy vibe.
+ Fred running out of whiteboard space. Oh how I know the feeling.
+ That final chilling shot of Pavayne being locked up in stasis for eternity. That might be worse than hell itself.
– If Spike can’t touch anything, how can he sit on a couch? I suppose I can hand-wave it as just ‘appearing’ to sit on a couch, except for the fact that the couch itself is clearly moving. Gotta love ghost logic!
– The third ‘evil manifestation’ in the basement is far less effective. The silly singing with the glass in the eye strikes me as cheesy rather than creepy. From this point on, they overuse a couple of the stock manifestations too.
– I’m not remotely aware of why the Conduit would so casually help Gunn and Angel. I don’t see any particularly reason why it would want Spike re-corporealized, or care at all. Maybe they knew Pavayne would be the one, not Spike?
* While Fred passes Lorne in the hallway you hear him saying if he can’t straighten out an entertainment deal, he’ll take the pills meant for a client himself. This subtly hints at his impending breakdown in “Life of the Party” [5×05].
* Fred takes Wesley’s comment, “dinner,” as if he were asking her out. Her hesitation really hints at a complete disinterest in him romantically. Yet, come “Smile Time” [5×14], all that abruptly changes for no reason. Can I call this anti-foreshadowing?
* The mystic spitting blood onto Fred’s face is a (likely very unintentional) hint of the fact that she will die this season, as Fred does the same later in the season (onto Wesley… who also dies this season. Hmm… I’m sensing a pattern involving spat blood. Yay?).