I know a lot of you like “Billy,” so maybe my hopes were too high this week, because while I found the premise of this episode solid, the execution let me down. “Billy” means to explore gender dynamics and misogyny—both overt and covert—by bringing back Billy Blim, the man Angel was forced to rescue from a hell dimension back at the start of the season. Billy is the nephew of a congressman—“Had his own private room in hell. Family connections.”—and he has the power to persuade others with his touch. Specifically, Billy persuades men towards violent rages against women, because he likes to see women get beaten up. He’s so into it in fact that he allows himself to get arrested so that he can spread his malice further, starting with a cop and continuing through the populace at large … including Wesley.
The arrival of Billy prompts two key crises of conscience within our heroes. The first is with Wesley. Wes begins the episode pining for Fred, but once he gets infected with Billy’s misogyny, he piles on Fred, blaming her for being so cute. And because Fred’s polite by nature, she takes his abuse. It’s a poignant, painful moment between the two of them … at least at first. Later, when she’s fleeing Wes and he’s making sick jokes and pontificating about The Garden Of Eden and menstruation, the scenes between them become less affecting and more over-the-top. I confess that by the end, I was groaning quite a bit. (Though I did think that the final scene, with a restored Wesley unable to face Fred, was pretty powerful.)
Similarly, the second crisis of conscience—involving Angel, Cordelia and Lilah’s shared guilt that they helped unleash Billy’s evil—wound up in what was to me a place of contrived symbolism, as Cordelia and Lilah in turn stand up to Billy and prove that women are capable of taking care of themselves. Don’t get me wrong: I approve this message. My wife is an inspiration to me daily; my mother and grandmother are personal heroes of mine; and I have a daughter that I’m trying to raise to be the most awesome woman who ever lived. But when a valid idea is conveyed with a heavy hand, it does that idea a disservice—almost like the people expressing it don’t really believe what they’re saying, and so feel obliged to oversell.
To my mind, the entire point of “Billy” is made much more strongly in the opening scene, which has Angel training Cordelia in good defensive fighting techniques, as Cordelia gets increasingly annoyed that he’s not teaching her how to fight-fight. Cordelia proves that her cheerleading experience has honed her athleticism more than Angel thinks and that she can learn quickly how to put Angel’s moves into action. It’s a funny-but-barbed little moment between them, revealing Angel’s biases and Cordy’s strength. I wish the rest of the episode had been as sly.
“All The Way”
On the flipside, maybe because so many of you warned me about “All The Way,” I enjoyed it far more than I was expecting. It’s not a great episode by any means. The dialogue is extra-punny, and it runs out of story about two-thirds of the way through, filling out the space with a long fight scene. But the plot twists in a way I wasn’t expecting, and after an extended run of Buffy episodes that examine the post-mortem psyche of the heroine, it was fun to watch an episode that made fuller use of all the characters and their environment. We get to see more of Dawn’s life outside the Scooby circle. We get to see the group’s reaction to Xander and Anya’s engagement announcement (along with Xander’s sudden, mortified understanding of just what getting married is going to mean). We get to see Buffy and Spike flirt and Giles fret over his purpose and Tara and Willow bicker about the latter’s use of magic. All the serialized elements of season six are in play.
Plus, I have to say, I’m still digging the season six version of Dawn. My problems with Dawn in season five had largely to do with the inconsistency of her maturity level and the weakness of Michelle Trachtenberg’s performance, but Trachtenberg has remarkably improved, and establishing Dawn firmly as a high school freshman gives the writers more to do with her. In “All The Way,” for example, Dawn lies to Buffy and Giles about sleeping over at her friend Janice’s house and instead sneaks off with Janice and two older boys—Justin and Zack—to engage in some Halloween-inspired vandalism. The youthful rebellion, the thrill of the illicit, the possibility of romance … I could relate to all that for Dawn.
I also liked the surprise turn that Dawn’s evening took. The episode sets us up to believe that Dawn and her friends are going to run afoul of a crazy old man, Mr. Kaltenbach, whom we see brandishing a knife and planning “something special” for the kids this Halloween. When Dawn is about to smash Mr. Kaltenbach’s pumpkin, he stops her and invites the teenagers in for treats, while he talks about his former career as a toymaker. But instead of Mr. Kaltenbach unleashing some kind of toy-based trap on our young heroine and her pals, the episode heads in a different direction. Justin slips into the kitchen and kills Mr. Kaltenbach. Because he and Zach are vampires, planning to feed on Dawn and Janice later.
This sets up a very nice scene with Dawn and Justin parking in the woods, where she shares her first kiss with him. He claims she’s “not like the other girls,” and legitimately seems to mean it. But he still tries to bite her before he’s stopped by Giles and Buffy. Justin calls in reinforcements, in the form of nearly every other would-be lothario/vampire out parking with their ladies that night. And so the battle ensues. And ensues. And ensues.
Like I said, I could’ve done with a tighter last act. Still, unlike some of the more contrived situations that Dawn has found herself in before, the danger in “All The Way” struck me as much more organic. She’s out with a boy. The boy is a demon. She recognizes the danger, and ultimately kills the boy, while only getting a little bit defensive about her mistake. The Dawn of last season would’ve been way more petulant—insufferably so.
Apparently this season, petulance and defensiveness are going to be the provenance of Willow, who is getting increasingly cranky in regards to Giles and Tara’s warnings about her overusing her magic. When Willow casts a spell to decorate for Anya and Xander’s impromptu engagement party, Tara asks why she’s using magic for something she could do naturally, and Willow argues that if the spell is harmless, saves time, and wears off in a few hours, why not do it? I have to say, at that point in the episode, I was in the Willow camp. But then Willow plans to zero-in on the missing Dawn’s location by shifting everyone who isn’t a 15-year-old girl into an alternate dimension for a split-second, and, yeah, that seems a bit extreme.
The title “All The Way” is a winking reference to teen sexuality, and perhaps a bit of misdirection too, implying that Dawn might not just have her first kiss with Justin, but might go … well, you know. But it also refers to Xander and Anya taking the plunge into full-on adult couplehood—and how that terrifies Xander. And it refers to Willow making the transition from dabbling in witchcraft to willfully and routinely crossing ethical lines.
So what happens at the end of the episode is significant. Giles, who grumbled earlier about being left out of the loop of what Buffy and Dawn were up to, sits Dawn dawn for a paternal chat, and Dawn suffers through it, knowing that she deserves Giles’ anger and disappointment. But Willow? She casts a spell to make Tara forget that she’s annoyed. Yep … all the way, all right.
- When Angel’s holding Cordelia from behind, showing her the defensive moves, he tells her, “Don’t stiffen up,” and she counters, “Yeah, you either.” As Cordelia well knows, men, too, have some inherent weaknesses.
- Lilah plays a major role in “Billy” and not just at the end when she shoots the bad guy. She resists Angel and Cordelia’s entreaties that she help them catch Billy, saying she’s “not Lindsay” and won’t switch sides, even though Billy’s responsible for Gavin beating her black-and-blue. But Cordelia sees through the tough exterior, noting that Lilah was crying earlier—“There’s nothing about badly reapplied mascara that I don’t know”—and that, “I was you … with better shoes.”
- Angel is disgusted that neither Billy’s associate Dylan nor Cordelia knows the proper meaning of the term “melodramatic.”
- Some amusing tidbits at the start of “All The Way” regarding the Halloween costumes sported by our heroes and their customers at The Magic Box: Anya wears hot-pants, roller skates and feathered hair, going as “a special kind of Angel called a Charlie.” Xander dresses as a pirate, and promises to teach Anya a game called “Shiver Me Timber.” (Tara, on hearing this, notes that she’s “not really much for the timber.”) Meanwhile, a little kid tells Xander that “real pirates live on boats and don’t look stupid,” and Giles dreams of “a parallel dimension inhabited by a 50-foot Giles who squashes annoying, teeny pirates.”
- Buffy, after Anya asks her to go the Magic Box basement to fetch something: “Don’t blame me if we have this conversation over and over …”
- Spike puts Burba weed in his blood, to make it spicy.
- Anya is so giddy over Xander finally announcing their engagement that she hands Dawn a stack of cash, saying, “Here, have some money …”
- When Dawn says she wants a tattoo, Buffy says, “Over my dead body … the kind that doesn’t come back.”
- Anya doesn’t want a June wedding, because they prompt the highest percentage of calls for vengeance.
- Nice handheld camera shot following Dawn as she wanders off to her “sleepover” with Janice (played by Amber Tamblyn!).
- I could really go for a Huge Glug right now.
- When Dawn explains to Buffy that, “I didn’t know he was dead,” Justin corrects her. “Living dead.”
- “Great Pumpkin’s on in twenty.”
- Next week: Off for Thanksgiving. Back December 3rd with Angel’s “Offspring” and Buffy’s “Once More, With Feeling.” I understand that people have some opinions about the latter.