[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Brent Fletcher | Director: David Boreanaz | Aired: 01/21/2004]
Eyeing the numerous cryptic dream sequences scattered throughout “Soul Purpose”, one could hardly be faulted for thinking of the classic Buffy episode “Restless”. Nevertheless, “Soul Purpose” is most distinctly an Angel episode, one which fits well with the stretch of episodes that preceded it. This is not to say that it’s a great episode, but rather to note that it fits into its niche, containing many of the merits – as well as the flaws – that can be seen throughout much of the first half of Season Five.
The episode can be seen as an inauguration of sorts, as it’s the first television script Brent Fletcher ever wrote. It’s also the first TV episode that David Boreanaz ever directed (though I think he may have been involved with the show beforehand). I’m tempted to cut this episode a bit of slack for that reason, since initial attempts are usually hard to come by. Then again, Whedon’s writers are usually able to hit the ground running – look at the amazing job Drew Goddard did on his first-ever TV episode, “Selfless”.
And “Soul Purpose” is not unworthy of commendation. There is, for one thing, the clever way in which it succeeds in developing Spike. Now once again corporeal, free of the Initiative’s chip, and no longer suffering from the effects of his soul, Spike is finally capable of being his own man. But that quickly changes when he’s approached by a newly-returned Lindsey.
The driving force of the Spike storyline clearly parallels Angel’s story in “City of” [1×01]. A vampire alone in L.A., having recently left the Slayer he loved dearly, is now fearful of returning to her. He’s approached by a man introduced as Doyle, who receives head-splitting “visions” of people in danger, with a proposal to become a helper of the helpless.
It’s an intriguing step for the writers to take with Spike, whose acts of heroism in the past were primarily borne out of his love for Buffy. But Buffy is nowhere to be seen in this episode. (Well, except for a brief moment where… you know, I’d rather not talk about it.) So the question lingers: Can Spike fight evil… purely for good?
Given how much Spike changed over the course of Buffy, another shift in his moral outlook doesn’t come as too surprising. And his decision to become a defender of the night is helped along by the prospect that by doing so, he’s in fact flaunting his goodwill in the face his arch-rival. Angel is now running what Spike feels to be an unchangeably evil law firm, so why not take the opportunity to give the nancy-boy vampire a lesson in heroism? (The effects of “Destiny” [5×08] can’t be ignored here, either. Although the Cup of Perpetual Torment was ultimately a fake-out, Spike’s physical victory has still left him feeling morally superior to Angel.)
Angel, meanwhile, has his own issues to cope with this episode. Troubled by the prospect that he may not in fact be the ensouled vampire the Prophecy is referring to, Angel has begun to have serious doubts about his current position at Wolfram & Hart. When Wesley and Gunn bring a group of warlocks to his attention, Angel brushes past the legal ramifications involved in the situation and simply states, “Let’s kill ‘em all.” His frustrations, compounded with the sudden fear that he lacks a higher purpose, have made him long for the simple days of yesteryear when fighting evil didn’t involve filing paperwork.
Such troubles will be more directly addressed in later episodes of the season. “Soul Purpose” concentrates more on Angel’s personal concern that he is no longer “relevant”. Having been beaten – in his mind, decisively – by Spike in their fight from “Destiny” [5×08], Angel is subconsciously concerned that he has no purpose in the grand scheme of things. These concerns manifest themselves in the form of haunting, cryptic dream sequences which plague him throughout the episode. And it’s these dream sequences that present “Soul Purpose” with its biggest hurdle.
Enigmatic dream sequences are tricky narrative devices. If handled well, they can impart information to the viewer, subtly and informally, without actually spoiling any future developments of the series. More cleverly, they can give us a glimpse into the mind of the dreamer, providing us with a rich milieu of suppressed thoughts and unspoken desires, drawing upon the character’s past experiences without actually invoking them. If not handled well, they can serve as convenient plot devices for the writers to unburden some information while side-stepping the need for actual exposition, or – in the worst of cases – they can just come off as muddled psychobabble.
Buffy succeeded wildly at creating a “dream-sequence” episode with the ingeniously crafted “Restless”. That episode worked not only due to the way in which it quietly laid groundwork for several of the developments the later seasons would herald, but because it immersed its characters in a vivid dreamlike reality, so tangible within its extremities that watching it felt like an otherworldly experience. Although very little of the episode featured the real-world characters interacting with one another, their subconscious conversations spoke immeasurable volumes.
“Soul Purpose” doesn’t have nearly the same depth or ingenuity that “Restless” did. (Though in its defense, what does?) Its dream sequences are lucid and more concrete, which means the goings-on are not as immersive, but which gives them a sense of likability and fun. Angel’s dreams are pretty amusing to watch, as they throw a refreshing light on some rather dark material.
The problem is that they don’t tell us much of anything that we don’t already know about him. Much of the hallucinatory material stems from Angel’s own feelings of inferiority towards Spike. This issue was brought to the surface at the end of “Destiny” [5×08], and “Soul Purpose” only restates Angel’s problem, albeit with greater emphasis. Unfortunately, nothing that occurs in this episode’s dream sequences is quite as affecting as the moment two episodes ago when Angel asked, “What if it means that… I’m not the one?”
Take, for example, the fantasy which occurs at the start of the third act, in which Spike is rewarded for averting the Apocalypse by being turned into a human, while Angel can only watch the celebration dejectedly from the sidelines. The scene plays out as parody, lampooning many aspects of the Prophecy as it was first established in “To Shanshu in LA” [1×22]: the world is depicted as a crystalline, Disneyfied utopia, and Spike receives his gift through the magical dust of a Blue Fairy. It’s amusing stuff, but it’s not especially relevant, although Angel shown pushing a mail cart draws a nice parallel to the titular has-been hero from “Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco” [5×06].
The other issue with the dream sequences is that at times, their strangeness serves as nothing more than pure strangeness. The segment where Fred cuts open Angel’s chest and begins removing his innards is pretty creepy and discomforting, and some humorous callbacks are made regarding some of the things she pulls out. (“There’s your heart! Hey, whaddaya know? It is a dried-up little walnut.”) But pretty soon, the scene tips entirely into bizarre territory, as Fred starts pulling out beads, raisins, and a rusty old license plate. And to top it all off, she hands Angel’s “soul” (a bowl with a dead goldfish) to a friggin’ bear. At this point, I half-expected the Cheese Man to pop out of Angel’s chest.
So the dream sequences are more than a little redundant, and there’s not a whole lot to explore in them. They are, however, quite entertaining, thanks to clever visuals and some good humor on the part of the actors. (I crack up every single time Wesley points emphatically at Spike and proclaims, “Yes! Your reward!”) I only wish, though, that they had been instilled with a little more seriousness, the better to heighten the suspense. Unfortunately, some of the suspense actually seems to slacken in the later acts – the quick cutaway the episode does after Lorne (or “Honky-Tonk”) does a spit take strikes me as a sign that even the show itself was getting tired of the tongue-in-cheek fantasies.
So it’s a relief – and a pleasant surprise – when Spike tears the vision-inducing parasite off Angel’s chest and returns things to normal. What would normally be a happy ending is turned uncomfortable as Angel sees his worst fear throughout the episode come true – he was the victim in this instance, and it was Spike, of all people, who ended up rescuing him. Adding insult to his internal injury is Spike’s follow-up statement, which echoes a sentiment of Angel’s past: “No need to thank me. Just helping the helpless.”
The conflict between Angel and Spike is far from over, but this episode marks a turning point in their relationship: For the first time, Angel sees Spike do something truly noble, and, though he’ll refuse to admit it, gains a bit of respect for his greatest rival. As for Spike, he will continue to forge a heroic path for himself in later episodes, and I’m willing to overlook his mildly amusing but overall meaningless stint as Wolfram & Hart’s resident ghost.
Despite its promising premise and some good development on Spike’s part, “Soul Purpose” doesn’t leave the impression it should. Plotwise, it functions mainly as a bridge between the advancements in “Destiny” [5×08] and “You’re Welcome” [5×12]. Throughout this episode, Lindsey and Eve are shown pulling the strings, hatching their own behind-the-scenes plan to take down Wolfram & Hart. The scenes between the two of them are among the episode’s least compelling, mostly because their romance feels completely contrived. And kind of boring, for that matter.
“Soul Purpose” is an interesting experimental episode which, unfortunately, fails to fully deliver on its potential. For what it’s worth, though, it does succeed in advancing Spike’s arc, and while its fantasy scenes don’t always hold up, they do provide the episode with some genuine laughs. While it pales in comparison to some of Season Five’s later offerings, it has enough good material to make it a pretty entertaining experience.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The nod to the first scene from “City of” [1×01] when Spike fights a pair of vamps in an alley and uses wrist-stakes to dust them.
+ I love how Harmony is extra vain and unabashed in this episode. She’s clearly picked up a thing or two about self-image from her little adventure in “Harm’s Way” [5×09].
+ The final scene, where Angel uses keen observation to deduce that Eve coming into his room was, in fact, not a hallucination. It’s a nice throwback to his detective image from the early days of the series.
+ Okay, I concede – the bear is awesome.
– The… “thing”… which Eve gives the Fang Gang to decipher so that they’ll be too distracted to help Angel. Plain lazy writing.
– That awful fantasy sequence featuring Spike and “Buffy”. The blatant SMG double is bad enough, but the painfully obviously looped dialogue from “The Prom” at first made me think the scene was actually a joke. Upon closer inspection, I’m convinced that it was meant to be a serious scene. Oh, dear.
* Given what will happen to her in just a few episodes from now, it’s kind of depressing to see Fred look into Angel’s chest cavity after removing all his innards and remark that all that’s left is “just a shell”.