[Review by Debisib]
[Writer: Steven S. DeKnight and Drew Goddard | Director: David Greenwalt | Aired: 05/05/2004]
It is very easy to get excited about an episode like this just by reading the plot synopsis. It has all of the tools one needs to make a great Angel episode. At this point in the series, the characters are already fully developed (except Illyria), so the focus is more on the characters engaging each other and using their personalities, which we already love, to create new and interesting situations. It’s always great to see Spike and Angel interact, but, with the addition of a brand new backstory complete with flashbacks, a “Big Bad,” and the returns of Drusilla, Darla, and Andrew, it has the potential to be spectacular. It’s not, though. That doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable or worth watching. Unfortunately, those are the best adjectives I can use for this episode.
David Greenwalt, who directed this episode, once referred to it as “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Go to Italy.” First, I’d just like to say that I am a big fan of Buffy’s “The Zeppo” . The way the main plot – involving Xander’s wacky misadventures — is treated so seriously is what makes it work so well. The upbeat and comical tone contrasted with the serious moments to create an irony that added a whole new layer of intricacy. Both of these episodes bury the important plot in order to give focus to the humorous, secondary issue. We get an A-plot revolving around the Capo Di Famiglia needing to be retrieved from Rome so a demon civil war in L.A. can be averted. However, instead of concentrating on this catastrophe in the making, we have our heroes running around Italy, searching for a woman who, most likely, does not need or want them there.
There seems to be one primary theme represented throughout the episode, and a secondary theme that ties into it. The main one is specifically geared toward our Champion, Angel. This season has been heavily focused on the idea that he has lost track of his mission. This is clearly shown in the very first episode of the season, “Conviction” [5×01], when Angel saves the blonde in the alleyway. This is a call back to Season 1 when Angel first began his quest for redemption. Only, this time, his act of heroism comes with an asterisk called Wolfram and Hart. This law firm, which has been a thorn in Angel’s side throughout the entire series, has now manipulated its way into every aspect of his life. Angel had spent his time at Wolfram and Hart just struggling to not despise himself. Time and time again, he and his team have justified their business at the firm, stating that they are doing more good than bad. That’s not the point of the mission though, and until he sees Cordelia in “You’re Welcome” [5×12], he’s able to push that notion aside. Once she comes back, it all triggers in his mind. He hates where he is and what he’s doing. Everything this business represents is against everything he fights for. He spends the next three episodes feeling depressed, and trapped in the decision that he made to take over the company. Still, it is not until the death of Fred that he truly understands that he needs to get out, for good. Here in “The Girl in Question,” the whole concept of losing the mission is revisited and, in this case, is represented by the combination of chasing former lovers and regressing in personal relationships.
Let’s take a look at Spike and Angel’s relationship first. They obviously don’t like each other very much and therefore are probably prone to bicker. However, we have already dealt with this! In “Destiny” [5×08] we witness a brutal battle between Spike and Angel to see who gets the cup of Mountain Dew. They mess with each other throughout the episode while they chase down their own pride. Here in Italy, they do the same exact thing, but in a much more pointless fashion. In “Destiny” [5×08] they thought they were searching for something important, while here they are using this wild goose chase as an escape. That is not to say that Buffy is not important to them, because, of course she is; but she’s not what is important now. They are both using Buffy as a crutch. She was something that was stable and touchable to them. She saved them both from the darkness and they will forever put her on a pedestal, but, they are just using her as an excuse, in this particular situation, to avoid real life. The Buffy issue had to come up eventually but it should have been cleared up before “A Hole in the World” [5×15] when Spike decided he was going to stay and fight alongside Angel for the good of the world.
Speaking of Buffy, her being integrated into the story was a nice twist. So, the story is that Buffy is in danger at the hands of the morally ambiguous Immortal and the guys want to go to Rome so they can save her. They spend the majority of their time running back and forth between Buffy’s apartment and attempting to retrieve the Capo, all the while embarking on cartoon-styled adventures. The fact that Spike and Angel would get on a plane and immediately drop everything else for her is actually very believable, in my opinion. I’ve gotten the impression that some people that think it is far-fetched to believe that they would ignore their own responsibilities for Buffy with the amount of emotional and physical damage that had taken place over the last couple months in L.A. I dispute that with Angel by saying that the entire reason he went to L.A. was because he couldn’t trust himself to be around Buffy — in the Buffy episode “Amends” Angel admits that he is weak, and has always been weak. The entire premise of their relationship is that it is so powerful that it can’t exist without destroying everything they love. Regardless, he would still do anything for her because of those intense and passionate feelings. Spike got his soul for her. Then, he died for her (or at least partly for her). Not only that, but this is just one example of this episode portraying the characters as unable to let go and just move on, which will continue to shine through.
All season long we’ve witnessed continuous growth in the relationship between Spike and Angel, but this episode throws all of that out of the window for some laughs. Even if there were still issues between those two, they should have been dealt with a long time ago… not as a random nonsensical pit stop on the way to the Buffyverse finale. That leads to what is, by far, my biggest problem with the episode: its placement within the season. This is what brings this episode’s score down drastically for me. Everything involving Angel and Spike could have been copy-and-pasted straight into one of the first ten episodes of the season and still made sense. That is not a good feature when you are three episodes from the end of the entire series. We, as the viewers, are about to conclude this amazing 12 (7 Buffy + 5 Angel) season journey. Our anticipation levels are at their highest right now, and we’re taking a break for fun with the odd couple. The one scene that has any relevance when it comes to progressing the season’s plot is the very last one in Angel’s office. This scene, quite obviously, represents Spike and Angel letting go of their petty differences, and realizing that they have a job to do. These two will never be true friends, as is proven when Angel moves ever-so-slightly away from Spike when he sits next to the boss on his desk. It’s not about the friendship or the nostalgia; it’s about doing what is right for humanity. While it is nice to finally see them, so blatantly, acknowledge that they need to let go of their baggage and move on, it still feels like a repetitive statement. The only part of this episode wherein the placement didn’t bother me, were the Wesley/Illyria scenes.
Ah, some positive aspects finally take the stage. Every segment involving Wesley and/or Illyria has an aching notion of depression and heartache. Did I say positive? Well, negative for the characters usually equates to positive for us viewers. Now, the two of them have been able to convey this emotional tone since Fred had her amazing death scene while being held in Wesley’s arms in “A Hole in the World” [5×15]. However, once Fred’s parents enter the picture, it adds an eerie, almost disturbing aura. The Burkles are so friendly and upbeat that it just breaks your heart to know what they are about to hear from Wesley. They are from such a different world that even though they understand that there is a threat of death, I’m not sure if they ever fully understood to what extent it was. Just at that moment before Wes opens his mouth, it would be impossible not to have compassion for the Burkles, but Alexis Denisof had come so far as an actor at this point in the series that it’s hard to focus on anyone else. His expressions are so intense and beautifully portrayed. Post Fred, he was able to find this happy medium between emotionally tortured and socially apathetic. In this scene, you can see that he has obviously lost a lot of motivation to live just by how emotionless he is when confronting the problem at hand. As terrible as the situation was, he was still very blatant and less than welcoming. The irony is that his cold appearance is governed strictly by his overwhelming emotion on the inside. This episode is actually filled with very good acting, but I’ll get to that later.
Queue Illyria. Wes being obviously thrown aback and visibly heartbroken when he sees ‘Fred’ walk in is a great moment. The chemistry between Acker and Denisof was always good, but only got better when they proved they could give Acker a totally different character, and have just as much intensity, but in a totally different way. Illyria is a quality character. My immediate impression of her in “Shells” [5×16] was intrigue mixed with anger. The loss of Fred made me biased against Illyria, and with good reason, but I got over that pretty soon because of how interesting Illyria was. She had her own deep story which resulted in us being able to slightly sympathize with her; just enough that we don’t want her dead anymore. Once she found out her empire had been destroyed, she was no longer the same threat and, therefore, was more relatable. Also, she’s made it clear that she wants Wes to help her learn to live in this world. This is precisely why her morphing is so intense here. If Illyria was still just a big bad, appearing as Fred would be a nasty reminder of how evil she is. It would just be like kicking Wes while he’s down. However, because she has that hint of humanity left, appearing as Fred carries the whole idea that there may still be something left of her in there, somewhere. At the end of the episode when Illyria approaches Wesley, again as Fred, we start to learn a little about her humanity. Whether it is that Illyria is just adapting to the new world or that there’s still some semblance of Fred left in there, we know she’s feeling something. From that point on, Illyria was not only fierce and destructive, but a person as well.
Illyria’s morphing is also a perfect example of the secondary theme of this episode which I briefly mentioned earlier. Each character is dealing with their own separate issues, but they all deal with it in the same way. They all use the past in order to distract themselves from the issues they are dealing with in the present. For example, Wesley had the opportunity to take one step closer in moving on from Fred by saying what happened out loud to other people that cared about her just as much as him. Even though he is shocked by the appearance of Fred, he still allows it to happen. Sure, it was easier for him to avoid that awful conversation with the Burkles, but I also think he’s holding on to a small sliver of Fred by keeping her parents out of the know. In turn, Illyria is doing the same thing. Illyria can learn to integrate herself into society if she wants to fit in. She has proven that she knows how to act normal, or as normal as Fred ever was, when she poses as her. Instead of trying to create her own, new persona, she chooses to reference the past by posing as Fred again to convince Wesley to help her explore her feelings. Here, Wesley does the mature and rational thing by telling her to refrain from ever taking Fred’s form again, although, just keeping her around at all is an obvious sign of holding onto the past.
Spike and Angel take this whole concept to the next level. Not only do they use the whole Buffy-chase as an avoidance tool, but they also latch onto the past within their own personalities. It was as if they refused to acknowledge the recent events which they had to deal with, and instead, regressed to their 1998 relationship and acted like bickering little children. A lot of the time when people deal with traumatic things, they will lock themselves in their childhood room, in their parents’ house, just so they can remember that life wasn’t always this hard. All of this comes back down to the original theme of losing track of the mission.
In fact, I’ll even take it one step further and say that the theme extends past the characters and onto the writers, as well. Drew Goddard and Steven S. Deknight seem to have lost the mission and distracted themselves with nostalgia during this episode, too. Instead of moving further into the heart of the series, they want to take a moment to revisit the glory days. Darla and Drusilla, two of the most personalized villains on the series, get brought back to make some sex jokes and disappear. While it is absolutely hilarious to watch jealousy irradiate from our heroes, it seems like the writers bunted when we really needed them to swing for the fences. It just feels like a wasted opportunity to add a little more impact and emotional content to the end of the series.
Seeing Andrew in Buffy’s apartment was a nice addition to the episode. He was used a bit more appropriately than the vampire girls were considering he actually had a purpose more than random laughs. He didn’t say anything profound, per se, but he did confirm what was already in the back of Angel’s mind. Andrew was here to show that Buffy has moved on, and that the guys need to do the same. That idea seems to be the final motivation for the guys to realize they are being foolish and that they need to stop chasing the past. I have no issue with Andrew’s message, but I’ve got to say, I’m not too fond of how his own personal changes are portrayed. So, because he has two women on his arms, he has now changed for the better? The only reason this bothers me is because Andrew Wells has clearly been represented as a homosexual in the past. It seems a little judgmental and maybe even insulting to insinuate that Andrew has gone through some positive life changes, and then show us that those life changes seem to represent him being straight. Why is the fact that he is now into women a positive change? Apparently, the original script called for one man, and one woman, on Andrew’s arms but, for whatever reason, that idea was nixed. Interestingly enough, Tom Lenk was actually just a fill-in for this episode as they were unable to get Michelle Trachtenberg to come back, so it is interesting to speculate on what the scene would have looked like with her in it instead.
The entire Rome plot is very mediocre to me. It is an interesting idea, and the comedy parts were executed pretty well, but there were definitely times when it just felt flat. Ilona, the C.E.O of Wolfram and Hart: Rome is forgettable aside from her one (or two) gypsy line. The car and scooter chase scene was not only ridiculous, but had terrible dubbed over dialogue between Spike and Angel. Although, the good parts were top notch, grade-A, character driven comedy. I would like to mention that my absolute favorite part was when Spike and Angel were debating who had saved the world more times. The entire conversation was a comical masterpiece. The dialogue between them on the airplanes is also brilliant. From Spike making fun of Angel’s relationship with Nina to the admission that Angel is still stalking Buffy, only from a distance. Everything feels real and true to the characters. This is not only because of the dialogue, either, but also because of the acting. David Boreanaz got a lot of heat in Buffy for being an extremely ‘green’ actor, but I watch his interactions with Spike here and feel proud. Marsters was good from the beginning, but the chemistry they have here seems flawless. Marsters is definitely playing a more in-your-face version of his previous self, but that only makes Angel’s demeanor seem that much more justified.
The most interesting part of the entire Rome plot has nothing to do with Buffy or the Capo, though. Spike and Angel both lose their personalized coats in an explosion! When I first watched this episode I saw this as nothing but a comical way to move into the next scene. However, a friend of mine clued me into what this change in attire actually symbolized. First, Spike is immediately distraught over losing his coat. He stripped this coat off the body of a dead slayer, which he killed! In Buffy’s “Get It Done” [7×15], he refused to fight until he had retrieved his coat — it was his ‘mojo,’ in a sense. Keeping that in mind it’s interesting to note that he refers to his coat as a “jacket” here. The word ‘coat.’ in many cases, refers to a covering which can meld with what is underneath, such as a ‘coat of fur’ or a ‘coat of paint.’ A jacket typically refers to “an outer casing,” and always remains a separate object such as a ‘dust jacket’ for a book. With the theme of finally moving on still strong, it’s not surprising that Spike would be so okay with his new, replacement, identical ‘jacket.’ That old coat was, and always would be, tainted with the blood of the innocent, but his new one symbolized something of a fresh start.
Angel, on the other hand, is presented with the most ridiculous alternative one could imagine. At first glance, this jacket looks like a random jacket chosen to look as foolish as possible. However, upon further evaluation, the pattern on it (not the colors) bears a striking resemblance to Number Five’s mask from “Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco” [5×06]. Wolfram and Hart have been using Angel as a puppet all season, both literally and metaphorically. Could the similarities in the jacket and the mask represent how Angel is not considered a real hero outside of his circle? Could this imply that Angel, himself, does not feel like a real champion? No matter how you look at it, though, he’s obviously still conflicted. While he wants to move on, he knows he can’t while he’s still under the roof of Wolfram and Hart. It’s very interesting how much a visual prop gag can have so much underlying thematic meaning.
If this episode had taken place earlier in the season, I would give it a higher rating. The Wesley and Illyria stuff was at the right point, but the Spike and Angel scenes were very hit-or-miss. The only part of that storyline that seemed necessary at this point in the season was Angel’s increasingly bad attitude. With only two episodes remaining after this one, it feels like the time for one-off comedy episodes is long gone. However, judging this on what it is, it’s very funny. If I had a trophy for second-funniest episode of Season 5, I would give it to “The Girl in Question.” It actually has quite a few endearing qualities. Interesting continuity-based conversations are always good. As Whedon fans, we expect our characters to remember the past and this episode does a good job of that. Angel’s “cookie dough” reference and the aforementioned world-saving conversation are good examples of that. Unfortunately, some (extremely) funny segments are not enough to recover from the terrible seasonal placement or the underuse of Buffyverse favorites Darla and Drusilla. This all results in a funny, yet underwhelming episode, which sets up very little in regards to the end of the series.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Spike still playing video games.
+ The musical score, especially in Rome, is very good.
+ The slow motion fight scene.
+ Getting the Buffy stuff out in the open, finally.
– The “Jeeves” butler-type demon and the little old lady demon. Silly, but not really funny.
– The cartoon-like explosion.