[Review by S. van Houten – “Iguana-on-a-stick”]
[Writer: Joss Whedon | Director: Joss Whedon | Aired: 02/25/2004]
It is very hard to pin down “A Hole in the World.” I have struggled with this review for months and I still suspect my experiences will diverge widely from what others have seen. So much depends on the angle you’re watching from. So much changes if you buy in to the episode’s premise, and if you do not.
It certainly is a big episode. It aims to change the game on us and start the final arc of Angel‘s final season. It aims to be a classic Whedon gut-blow, the kind that will rip the viewer’s heart out like “The Body”, “Seeing Red” or “The Gift.”
It’s the last episode written and directed by Joss Whedon himself.
On many levels it succeeds. It does change the game on us. The scenes where Fred slowly dies and wastes away are immensely painful to watch. The acting is superb. The writing abounds with Whedon’s trademark wit and sparkle. Stylistically it is a triumph. In short: this is an episode you pay attention to. Few people will forget or skim through it. Many love it even though it tries to break their hearts.
I, however, find large parts of “A Hole in the World” very hard to stomach. Why?
The sick woman looks up blearily at the six men standing by her bedside. She is weak, croaking in a little-girl voice but smiles to keep a brave face. The men struggle to keep their expressions and their words uniformly warm and reassuring. She almost certainly notices the patronising tone they strike, but accepts their words for she knows they love her. She knows they will do their utmost best to cure her. “Handsome man saves me,” she croaks. “That’s how it works,” confirms the leader.
One by one the men file out of the room, many pausing to exchange a last few gestures or heartfelt words. The woman gives them her blessing and remains behind. The camera likewise leaves her and shows the men decisively striding down the hall in one of the show’s iconic power-walks. They pause at the bottom of the stairs to discuss the true severity of the situation; the facts they kept concealed from the victim. She’s dying. The group’s jester and maverick speaks, for once without a trace of levity or irreverence: “No. Not this girl. Not this day.” They each decide on an avenue of investigation to pursue. The music swells, the camera spins dramatically around the group in an agonisingly long shot. The worried lover: “You don’t need to say it.” “I’ll say it anyway,” intones the leader. “Winnifred Burkle. Go.”
This, as best I can describe it, is how the episode’s pivotal scene came across to me. The word to describe it is ‘melodrama.’ This is not a failing as much it is a design choice. “A Hole in the World” aims to be the biggest melodrama of the Whedonverse, and to this end it shamelessly plucks at the heartstrings, manipulates emotions and laces overblown dialogue and over-dramatic character-reactions all the way through the story. It does this quite effectively and no doubt has caused many a tissue box to run empty in households across the world, yet it is not a format I like or a style I appreciate. I found myself longing for the stark realism of “The Body”, which moved me so much more precisely by leaving out the bag of tricks so commonly deployed by television to make its viewers weep. This episode deliberately aims for the other extreme.
That’s not to say there aren’t light-hearted or funny elements in “A Hole in the World.” There are. It’s more a matter of how seriously this episode takes itself. The scene I described above shows not a hint of irony or self-awareness. We are meant to take everything at face-value and cheer these guys on as Angel makes his ridiculously pompous statements. I find it hard to accept lines like “Let’s save the day.” I find it even harder not to roll my eyes.
To an extent this is a matter of taste. Many will have no problems with this approach and some no doubt enjoy it. A more objective problem is that sometimes “A Hole in the World” makes some of its characters behave extremely oddly in the name of furthering the melodrama.
The episode tries to justify this with the love these characters bear Fred. That in itself is something I take issue with; throughout Season 5 Fred has seemed less and less like a living, breathing human being, with strengths and weaknesses, and more like a universally adored icon. Wesley and Gunn obviously always cared for her, but now even characters like Lorne, who never used to interact with her much, or Angel, who never was that close to her, and even newcomers Spike and Knox seem to regard her as the most important thing in their world.
I expected them to care. I expected them to leap into action, if there was action to be leapt into. Gunn obviously is guild-ridden and desperate. He knows on some level that he caused this. Wesley understandably is teetering on the brink of a breakdown as he sees his shot at happiness suddenly slipping through his fingers just when he finally thought it was within his grasp. Angel always did have a hero-complex a mile wide and an ocean deep. (However, it is strange to see him reacting so much more extremely to Fred’s death than to Cordelia’s coma and subsequent death. He certainly did not move heaven and earth to save the woman he supposedly loved.)
But here we have Lorne — peace-loving, apolitical, really-just-wants-to-be-an-entertainer Lorne — punch a defenceless and somewhat innocent woman in the face without any provocation because, apparently, he just loves Fred that much. Or so he informs us retroactively by means of an anecdote about how Fred once babbled about liking his green skin. That’s bad writing. If you want to set up a character for extreme, otherwise out-of-character behaviour you have to establish the motivation beforehand. You can’t justify Lorne’s extremely uncharacteristic actions after the fact by referring to a supposedly crucial relationship with Fred that we never saw on-screen. The characters hardly ever even interacted. And now Lorne is making death-threats? Wasn’t it just three episodes ago in “You’re Welcome” [5×12] that the far more ruthless Angel was too scrupulous to hit Eve when she actually was concealing vital information?
On a similar note I didn’t exactly appreciate Spike suddenly spouting lines like “No. Not this girl. Not this day.” Since when does Spike say things like that? His whole modus operandi is to be irreverent. He is by no means stoic, and when he’s in pain he can break down and cry, but he never engages in pompous speeches. The character was conceived precisely to subvert other vampires’ tendency to do that. (And indeed he continues to subvert this in parts of this episode and the rest of the series, thankfully.) Yes, Spike liked Fred and unlike with Lorne this was established in previous episodes, but not even Buffy’s death or resurrection made him say things like this. Again, characters are reacting in too extreme a fashion because the episode wants to be more dramatic than anything that came before.
I’d even file Wesley shooting his employee for wanting to do his day-job under this heading. Yes, Wesley is obsessed and was somewhat unhinged last season, but this seemed too extreme even by his standards. I might have bought it near the end of the episode when he was truly desperate, but not just after she fell ill.
Even though the episode is about her, Fred herself isn’t served well by this story. She has always been an underused and underdeveloped character, used mostly to provide a convenient point of conflict for Wesley and to serve as the object to be fought over in two separate love-triangles. She has had her moments, to be sure. In episodes like “Billy” [3×06], “Supersymmetry” [4×05] and “The Magic Bullet” [4×19] we saw glimpses of a far more fascinating character who was actually showing the scars of her five-year ordeal of slavery and fugitive life in Pylea. Regrettably, “A Hole in the World” shows no such glimpse.
Instead we get more of the Fred of Season 5: universally beloved and largely inactive. Not even Amy Acker’s amazing performance can conceal it: this is thirty minutes of her suffering and dying. Fred vomiting blood all over Wesley. Fred suffering horrible pains. All the guys comforting Fred in her hospital bed and trying to outdo one another in their determination to save her. Fred being hollowed out from the inside. Fred used as a vessel for the birth of an ancient god. Fred crying on her death-bed with a devastated Wesley comforting her. Fred insisting “I am not a damsel in distress” during an hour that is nothing less than the pure distillation of the damsel-in-distress storyline at its most tragic.
Note how none of this says much about Fred. Note how none of this is the result of anything Fred did or any choice she made beyond curiously touching a magic box. There is nothing she could have done to avoid it. It is heart-breaking to watch, but I find it very unsatisfying. As a matter of personal taste I also dislike the extent to which the camera dwells on Fred’s suffering. It makes me feel almost voyeuristic.
Another thing I find peculiar about this, though it does not necessarily affect the quality of the episode as such, is that all this occurs on a Joss Whedon show. As a writer and showrunner he has prided himself on his feminist credentials and well-written, capable female characters ever since Buffy turned the stereotype of the helpless blonde horror-movie victim on its head. Now on his second television series, he has managed to kill off both his female leads over the course of four episodes. Fred’s death giving “birth” to Illyria is quite similar to the way Cordelia died from the after-effects of giving birth to Jasmine, and can be counted as the fifth dangerous mystical pregnancy, and the third fatal one on this show. All in all, Fred is used as a plot-device, a way to let the other cast members (incidentally all men) show how much they care, how determined they are and how much grief they suffer over her death. It is, like I said, peculiar.
By now it should be clear that there are a great many things I dislike about this episode. Yet for all that, I cannot deny just how good an episode this is the rest of the time. It has easily as many aspects that I love. This perhaps explains why “A Hole in the World” is quite controversial among fans. I could even say that I am so harsh on this episode’s flaws because it comes so close to achieving greatness.
There’s the beautiful opening segment with Fred’s family back in Texas. Unlike certain other scenes I could name it doesn’t just serve to make her subsequent death more heart-rending, but also does a beautiful job of showing what kind of people these are. I include Fred, since this is a Fred we haven’t seen before: one who has not been a slave in Pylea for five years.
There is the scene at the start with a happy Wesley and Fred bonding over killing and dissecting horrible aliens. There’s classic Angel and Spike banter over not-so-accidental stab-wounds and airplane alcohol. There’s Spike’s battle of wits with Drogyn and his “don’t ask me any questions!” rule ending with Spike’s hilarious breakdown: “And what’s your favorite color? What’s your favorite song? Who’s the goalkeeper for Manchester United? And how many fingers am I holdin’ up? (Spike flips him off the English way) You wanna kill me? Try. But I don’t have time for your quirks.”
There’s the entire cavemen-versus-astronauts debate. It is a bit over-the-top at first but is still immensely funny. Then, much to my surprise, it turns out to be actually thematically relevant, with Fred starring in the role of astronaut and Illyria as the caveman. (And there are plenty of other ways to interpret it, no doubt.) Mostly though, I just like Wes’ incredulous reaction when Spike and Angel tell him -this- is why they’ve been yelling at one another for an hour, only for him to get drawn in as well.
On the more serious side, the scenes with Wesley and Fred at her sick-bed are genuinely touching at times and both actors do an impressive job of selling it to us. When, near the end, she asks Wesley if he could have loved her, even I forget to be annoyed with this episode. It’s an interesting note to end this relationship on and yet another blow for Wesley: it drives home the fact that though he’s been pining after her for years, they only started seeing each other a mere few days ago and hardly had the chance to build an actual relationship. He’s losing her before he even got the chance to see if it could have worked between them long-term.
Wesley’s response is telling: he claims he’s loved her since he met her. “Maybe even before.” I wonder if Fred appreciates this sentiment. If he ‘loved’ her before he met her it seems he loved the idea of her rather than who she is, and indeed fits the behaviour we have seen Wesley exhibit over the years quite well. Would he have been able to handle her death better if he’d gotten the time to truly know her as a person instead of as an ideal, worshipped from afar? Her death just makes him idolise the idea of her more, and Illyria’s physical resemblance leaves him unable to forget and move on.
Gunn also has a few good moments when he starts to realise he is in part to blame for this whole sequence of events. This will feature more prominently next episode.
The plot itself is rather thin: Fred touches a magic box and dies. Angel and Spike fly around a bit to look for another random magic thing only to discover it can’t save her. Everybody is very upset. Still, the sequences at the Deeper Well are entertaining, and Drogyn is a fun minor character. (Mostly because the show does not expect us to take his posturing seriously. And neither does Spike.) The trapped Old Ones are an interesting addition to the mythology of the show that fits with what we’ve been told before about demons ruling the earth in ancient times.
Meanwhile, on the character side, this is a very important episode for Spike. When he’s not suffering sudden attacks of pomposity he’s finally making a choice and getting a motivation to stick around Angel Investigations, rather than just being there to annoy Angel and because the network wanted him to be on the show. Some might say it’s a little too late in the season and that Spike’s motivation should have been dealt with earlier, but better late than never.
This episode also starts Wesley on his final spiral downwards to self-destruction and forces Gunn to face the lies he had been telling himself. I may quibble with the way Fred is killed off to further the development of other characters, but I can’t deny that it results in some very good stories in the rest of the season.
Finally, this episode results in the advent of Illyria. This is a very good thing indeed.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ There is a literal hole in the world: the Deeper Well. However, the title also refers to the hole Fred’s death leaves in the group and their world.
+ It’s great to see Fred’s parents again.
+ Only Spike would run Angel through with a sword to “save” him from the bug on his back.
+ Gunn sings a tune from a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta only to pretend he was rapping when Wesley walks in.
+ The song Eve sings to prove her innocence to Lorne actually is the same song Lindsey sang in Caritas back in “Dead End” [2×18]. He must have played it for her at some point. Nice continuity.
+ Spike’s questions to Drogyn hint that he’s still a Manchester United fan. Man U was one of his stated reasons for wanting to save the world even though he was a soulless monster all the way back in “Becoming.” Again, nice continuity.
– Fred and Wesley got together just one episode ago, in “Smile Time” [5×14]. It felt forced then, and this episode coming immediately after makes it far too obvious that their relationship only happened to make Fred’s death here even more tragic and painful.
– It’s nice that Wes and Fred get a (very) few brief moments of happiness before things go pear-shaped, but if it had gone on much longer I would have found them annoying. Some may find them cute. I live in fear of more pancake-kisses.
– If everyone is so devastated by Fred’s fate, why has hardly anyone remarked on Cordy’s coma/death all season?
* This is the turning point for Gunn. He can no longer lie to himself about what he’s done, and to whom he’s done it to. Right now he’s taking his anger out on Knox, but his devastated expression hints at the lengths he’ll go to do penance for his deeds.
* Fred’s last request to Wesley is for him to talk to her parents and tell them it was quick and she wasn’t scared. In “The Girl in Question” [5×20], Wesley will betray her in this because he cannot bear the pain, instead letting Illyria pretend to be Fred, thereby deceiving her parents.
* There is speculation that if Angel had gotten a sixth season, Fred’s memories and personality would somehow have started to bleed together with Illyria’s, resulting in something of an identity crisis for the Old One. We got a hint about this possibility in the scenes where Illyria pretends to be Fred, which I referred to above. If this had happened, the events of this episode could have ended up being an actual evolution of Fred’s character rather than just tossing it out with the trash. It was not to be, however.