I know that Angel fans generally—and rightly—have a high opinion of the last stretch of episodes in season five, but for those of you who were watching at the time, I’m wondering if there was much grumbling about “Time Bomb” and “The Girl In Question.” Not because of the quality of the material, but because of the placement of the episodes. I know from skimming comments that “The Girl In Question” is a divisive episode regardless, but after the plot-driven intensity of the last few Angels, and with just two more to go before the show is over forever, it is strange for the Angel team to spend so much time on adventures seemingly only tangentially related to the main story? And in such disparate styles, too: one episode experimental and fractured, the other more of a frivolous romp.
Though I suppose that “Time Bomb” may be more essential than it initially appears, when all is said and done. After all, this is the episode where Illyria rescues Gunn from his extra-dimensional suburban torture basement, and the one where Wes uses a kind of disperser ray to inhibit Illyria’s powers, and the one where our heroes learn that Marcus and the Senior Partners are made uncomfortable by Illyria’s existence in this plane of reality, and the one where Angel baffles Gunn by agreeing to honor the firm’s commitment to deliver a baby to a demon cult that plans to sacrifice it. All of that is surely significant.
But when I think of “Time Bomb,” I think more of Illyria lecturing Wesley and Angel about what it means to rule. She describes human beings as “motes of dust,” and “mayflies,” and “the ooze that eats itself” (“Now now… manners,” Wesley interjects), and tells Angel that while a strong king destroys all that isn’t his, the weak Angel is a slave to this “insane construct” known as morality. Even when she finds out that she’s “leakin’ oil” and may explode, Illyria says that she’d prefer oblivion to being reduced to even approaching the level of petty humanity.
This is all relevant to what’s going on at Wolfram & Hart, where our heroes are once again grappling with where their responsibility lies. To retain access to the firm’s formidable evil-fighting resources, they have to keep the business afloat, which requires them to do evil, to at least some degree. (Of course, ’twas ever thus for the staff at Angel Investigations, even before they became lawyers.) Angel himself defines the dilemma well to Gunn, when he asks his old ally whether he made any kind of deal to get out of his dimensional prison. Gunn tries to reassure Angel, saying that he’s not into making deals anymore, but Angel says, “Well, that’s gonna make it tough to be a lawyer.” It’s no wonder that Illyria’s worldview sounds so persuasive: Raw self-interest is so much easier than trying to adhere to some kind of impossibly complicated code of behavior.
The other memorable element of “Time Bomb” is its structure, which takes its cues from what’s happening to Illyria. As her power swells and begins to crack the container that is Fred’s body, Illyria keeps slipping back in time, reliving conversations and moments of action, and sometimes taking the people around her along for the ride. For example, we see Illyria kill Wes, Lorne, Spike, and Angel, then slip back to a moment before that all happened, thus giving Angel a chance to prevent it. This is also relevant to what’s happening to our heroes, who have been weighing every option and considering the consequences, and to some extent over the the past few episodes have been getting chances at a do-over. Stuck in a suburban hell, Gunn doesn’t make a deal to get back what he had; while Wes does essentially make the same bad decisions regarding Connor that he did before. Even the character of Illyria is something a repeat, in that she’s like a meaner version of Jasmine.
“Time Bomb” isn’t all narrative loops and navel-gazing; the subplot about the baby and the demon cult is fairly straightforward, and often funny. The “Fell Brethren” demons who are trying to get the paperwork in order for the pregnant Amanda (played by Jaime Bergman, David Boreanaz’s real-life wife) are all hideous-looking, but quite cordial, as they ask Harmony for an organic cola and talk casually about the consecrated urine they’re going to be using in their sacrificial ritual. As much as I wish that this season of Angel had been more of a left-field legal drama, the show has excelled at getting across the banality of evil in this setting. Think of that funny little image in “You’re Welcome” of Angel making racquetball plans with a guy who looks just like the popular image of Satan. And think of the amusing little exchange from this episode, when Marcus walks in on Wes while he’s looking through a microscope:
Marcus: Curing cancer, Mr. Wyndam-Price?
Wesley: Wouldn’t be cost-effective. I’m sure we make a lot from cancer.
Marcus: Ah, yes. The patent holder is a client.
As I mentioned up top, “The Girl In Question” more or less reverses the balance of light and dark in “Time Bomb.” The heaviest element in this episode is Wesley’s reaction to Illyria pretending (quite credibly) to be Fred, in order to fool Fred’s visiting parents. Amy Acker is amazing in these scenes, turning on a dime between her Fred-self and her Illyria-self, but their real purpose is to register once more what a messed-up individual Wesley is. Even more than Gunn willingly putting himself onto the slab in the torture basement, Wes seems to invite pain, as though punishing himself is the only way he can feel anything. He doesn’t want Illyria to behave in a Fred-ly fashion, but he does want her around, ostensibly to keep an eye on her but also to remind himself of what he’s lost. Wes is a weird dude.
The rest of “The Girl In Question” is pure spun candy, with Angel and Spike teaming up to save Buffy from an old nemesis of theirs known as The Immortal, while also retrieving the corpse of a demonic mob boss so that it can be revived within 26 hours and thus prevent a damaging supernatural-gang war. But when they arrive in Italy, Angel and Spike find out that Buffy is willingly dating The Immortal, and that the corpse—which is actually just a head, in a bag—isn’t such an easy thing to hang onto.
The pleasures of “The Girl In Question” are many. There’s the banter between Angel and Spike—most of which is so rooted in the comic timing of Boreanaz and James Marsters that it would be hard to replicate properly here—and their ongoing argument over which of them is more important, both to Buffy and to the world. (Spike notes that Angel’s main contribution to Buffy’s world-saving was being killed by Buffy, with Spike’s help, though Angel insists that, “I signaled her with my eyes.” Angel argues that Spike’s merely sleeping with Buffy doesn’t constitute a relationship, though Spike insists that, “It is if you do it enough times.”) There’s the appearance of Andrew, in his Strong Bad T-shirt, making references to calamitous misadventures that we’ve never seen, then grinning, “Cultural misunderstanding. Let us speak of more pleasant times. Entrate pure. I part my threshold. I mean, my apartment. Obviously.” There are all the flashbacks to Angel and Spike’s past experiences in Italy and with The Immortal, from Spike’s Angel-free romp through a Fellini-esque Rome, to the two of them being strung up in “The Room Of Pain” in 1894 while The Immortal had his way with Darla and Drusilla, not in succession but “concurrently.” (Angelus was also mad at The Immortal back then for giving some nuns safe passage in Frankfurt, when everyone knew that nuns were Angelus’ “thing.”) There’s the bosomy liaison to W&H’s Italian branch, who greets our heroes warmly and spits when she speaks of the gypsies who cursed Angel. And, most of all, there’s this episode’s marvelous use of editing and sight gags, from Angel and Spike’s slow-motion fight to Dean Martin, to Angel riding on the back of Spike’s slow, puttering motor scooter, to the cuts between Angel and Spike getting blown up and them being outfitted with new jackets, to all the quick cuts back to Angel and Spike at the door of Buffy’s apartment, where they ever-more-desperately ask Andrew if she’s back from her date.
Not everything in “The Girl In Question” works. Some of the jokes don’t land, and the overlap with Buffy’s ongoing, but unseen, story raises a lot of questions that are frustrating to contemplate, given that her show is off the air. (Though why Buffy would be romping around with someone as reportedly shady as The Immortal is no real secret, which even Angel realizes when he starts to criticize her for taking up with “a centuries-old guy with a dark past who may or may not be evil.”)
Still, throughout this episode, I kept thinking about some friends of mine who love Joss Whedon, and love Buffy The Vampire Slayer, yet have never really watched Angel. I’ll have more to say about this next week in my finale review, but it’s a shame that Angel so often brings up the rear in conversations about all things Whedon. I know some Buffy fans who checked out Angel in its first season, but then lost interest quickly, and then had that lack of interest compounded by Buffy still being on the air (and in decline, to some degree), followed by the emergence of Firefly, which seemed to many like the place where the real Whedon action was occurring. Yet I’m pretty sure that these friends of mine would love “The Girl In Question,” if they ever got around to it. It’s characters they already like, doing funny stuff in a foreign land. What’s not to enjoy?
- How to make the most of a slim budget: Though “Time Bomb” leaps around in time, it doesn’t really travel far in space. Aside from two scenes in the torture basement, pretty much the entire episode is set at Wolfram & Hart, and mostly in the same couple of offices. Similarly, “The Girl In Question” travels to Italy, where Spike and Angel spend time in a W&H branch that looks just like our own, only with a lot more smoking in the hallway.
- Nice, metaphorically loaded image: Illyria rips Gunn’s necklace off in the torture basement, and puts it on the torturer, forcing the demon to stab himself. Is this foreshadowing of the way Angel and company will halt the apocalypse?
- I like Illyria’s powers—whether she’s moving very fast or slowing everybody else down—because they look cool and because they represent her worldview well. We’re all pokey little slugs compared to her.
- A little meta-criticism from Gunn, when he hears Illyria described as monumentally self-possessed: “So she’s like a TV star?”
- Not much for Lorne in either of these episodes, though the writers try to reclaim his comic edge a little in “Time Bomb” by giving him a faulty walkie-talkie and having him tail Illyria. Not the funniest business, though I did enjoy Lorne muttering, “Blue Bird is wise!” and chastising Angel that, “You gotta keep your thingy on for this to work.”
- I’ve enjoyed all the scenes between Spike and Illyria in W&H’s version of the Danger Room. I especially liked Illyria waxing rhapsodic about the time when the world “shuddered” and “groaned” at her feet, to which Spike cracks, “Dear Penthouse… ”
- The W&H mentality in a nutshell, in Spike’s answer to Illyria’s accusation that Wes is trying to murder her: “It’s not murder if you say ‘Yes.’”
- Or maybe this exchange sums it up just as well: Illyria: “I blame this on the weakness of your species.” Wes: “Fair enough.”
- Next week: The (probably) long goodbye.