“Blood Ties” & “Crush”
About 10 minutes into “Crush,” the second of this week’s two Buffys, my wife turned me and said, “When is Spike just going to declare his love for Buffy already? That’s what I’m waiting for.” As it turns out, she didn’t have to wait long. By the end of “Crush,” Spike has declared himself over and over, via words (“It’s not so unusual. Two people. In the workplace. Feelings develop.”), via deeds (by turning the tables on a visiting Drusilla and offering to kill her on Buffy’s behalf), and via a creepy shrine that turns Buffy off more than it wins her over. And then at the very end of the episode—in a demonstration of the other meaning of “Crush”—Spike learns that Willow has cast a spell to deny him entry to the Summers home. Ouch.
But I’ll get back to “Crush” in a moment, because the episode before it, “Blood Ties,” is just as bold about dealing with one of the season’s major storylines. In fact, if you include last week’s “Checkpoint,” this makes three Buffys in a row that tackle the big questions of Season Five—“Who Is Glory?” “When Will Buffy Find Out That Spike Is In Love With Her?” and “When Will Dawn Find Out That She’s The Key?”—and dispatch them, bang-bang-bang.
In the case of “Blood Ties,” Dawn discovers her Key-ness through a series of mishaps and coincidences. Buffy decides it’s time to tell the rest of the Scoobies the secret of Dawn, even though that means dealing with her friends’ usual complaints that she doesn’t trust them with her secrets. (Buffy tries to explain that she was shielding them from Glory, saying, “I didn’t want to put you into that kind of danger,” to which Xander bitterly replies, “As opposed to the other kind we’re always in?”) As a result, everyone acts skittish toward Dawn at Buffy’s birthday party—Anya, for example, sees Dawn and blurts out, “You make a very pretty little girl!”—and since Dawn’s already noticed Buffy and Joyce whispering about her in secret, she gets suspicious.
So she slips out of the house, and runs into Spike, lurking outside. (“Wasn’t lurkin’,” Spike protests. “I was standin’ about, it’s a whole different vibe.”) Dawn tells him, “I’m breaking into the magic shop… to steal things,” and Spike goes along with her, partly to protect her and partly to advance his larger Buffy-winning strategy. Dawn digs Giles’ notebook out of the place in The Magic Box where she saw him hide it earlier in the day, and reads his notes about The Key, learning that it’s an energy-matrix, and that crazy folks and animals can sense it even when others can’t. And as if that wasn’t enough to cue her in to what’s what, she then reads that The Key was sent to Buffy “in the form of a sister.”
Last week I remarked that Michelle Trachtenburg wasn’t such a great actress, and I stand by that at least as far as the first 12 episodes of Season Five go. But she has one incredibly real moment in “Blood Ties,” as harrowing as any scene I’ve yet scene on this show. After she learns she’s The Key, she cuts herself and sobs, “What am I? Am I real? Am I anything?” There have been some heavy scenes on Buffy before—and many, many well-acted moments—but there’s nearly always been an element of theatrical to the performances. This is going to sound like a backhanded compliment, but Trachtenburg hasn’t proven herself to be a good enough actress to fake her way through that “Am I real?” scene. I think she really went to that place in her mind—really terrified herself—and it was riveting to watch.
Following that, Dawn returns to being petulant, burning her diaries and refusing to go to school because “blobs of energy don’t need an education.” She sneaks out of the house again too, and heads down to the hospital, where she has a conversation with Ben The Intern about her Keyness. Which turns out to be a huge mistake, because…
…BEN THE INTERN IS GLORY! (So now I know what Glory meant last week when she said of Ben, “Of course he’s attractive!”)
We also learned this week that Glory came from a dimension she shared with two other gods, and that she’s immortal, invulnerable, and insane. The upside to her condition? She’s not exactly a master sleuth. When Ben transforms into Glory, she/he doesn’t remember what Dawn just told him/her. (Ben, it seems, is a reluctant transformer, and wants Dawn to be safe from Glory, so that’s a help.) Instead, Glory smirks and snarls at Dawn, demanding her Key, and describing it as “a bright, green, swirly shimmer” that’s only evil depending on your point of view. The Scoobies bust in just as Glory’s about to try and suck Dawn’s brain, and Willow saves the day by casting a spell to teleports Glory into mid-air, though it takes a lot out of her to do so. (An episode later, she’s still having headaches.)
“Blood Ties” is an extraordinarily tense episode, and one that moves easily from the melancholy of Buffy’s birthday to the sweetness of Dawn hanging out with Spike to the despair of her learning the truth about herself and then finally to the humor and threat of Glory’s confrontation with Dawn. That’s just superior plotting and scripting there from credited writer Steven S. DeKnight, all the way up to the final scene where Buffy mixes her blood with Dawn’s as a gesture to show that she’s still family. Buffy has often been about how people make their own families, but rarely has that theme been made so overt—and so poignant.
And speaking of poignant and tense, that brings us back to “Crush,” which in addition to being a tragicomic romance (accent on the “tragi”), is also one of the spookiest episodes of Buffy in a while. When Drusilla returns to Sunnydale from Los Angeles—and tells Spike what she’s been doing on Angel, handily filling in any Buffy viewers who might not have been watching—she arrives by train, and slaughters everyone on it. Buffy and Xander investigate, on a foggy day, and in one of the coolest-looking exterior shots I’ve seen on Buffy in a long time. (I’m going to monitor that in the future, because I have a theory about the use of exteriors on TV shows that I’ll save for another day.) Later, Drusilla and Spike dance at The Bronze and she offers the perfect solution for his neutered vamp-state: she’ll kill, he’ll eat. And even though Spike’s promised Buffy that he’s not evil anymore, when Drusilla throws him a fresh corpse, he can’t help himself. Like I said… poignant and tense.
“Crush” is another masterfully scripted episode (this time credited to David Fury), though much of what makes it work can be traced back to “Fool For Love,” from earlier this season. At one point, Dawn goes to see Spike because she feels like they have a connection, and he tells her not to worry about not being human because he used to be human himself and “got over it.” Having seen in “Fool For Love” just what kind of human Spike used to be—sensitive and sappy—it’s all the sadder when he invites Buffy on a stakeout that he hopes will turn into a date. And towards the end of the episode, when Spike offers to kill Drusilla for Buffy and Buffy replies, “The only chance you had with me was when I was unconscious,” Spike yells, “What is wrong with you bloody women?” and it’s clear that he’s not just talking about the people in that room at that particular time.
Poor Spike. Over a century after he got vamped and he’s still, in his non-beating heart, that same sap who women ignored. All he wants is a chance to show Buffy what kind of boyfriend he can be, but as Tara says about The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, “You can tell it’s not gonna have a happy ending when the main guy’s all bumpy.”
“Happy Anniversary” & “The Thin Dead Line”
In the comment section last week, somebody asked me whether I was ready to rank Buffy and Angel yet, and I said that I wouldn’t dare until I’d seen all of both, but that my general impression is that Buffy has a stronger hold on me emotionally, while Angel is impressing me more with its narrative sophistication—by which I’m referring to its wider demonic universe, and all the flashbacks to Angel’s past. I also promised in the comments that I’d offer a theory on why that is. My presumption—coming to this years after the fact, mind you—is that Angel both benefits and suffers from “second series syndrome.” That’s what happens when the creators of one successful series launch a new one, intending to correct all the mistakes they made the first time around, only to find that a lot of those “mistakes” were what made the first series so beloved. I don’t know that I’d care as much as I do about Xander or Willow if there hadn’t been a lot of trial and error involved with telling their stories—and thus more of an organic progression. The symptoms of “second series syndrome” usually involve over-planning, as the writing teams tries to build the kind of world from the beginning that it took years to build the first time around. And so we end up with Angel, which is richer in detail than Buffy, but often feels a little forced in the way it imposes that detail.
That said, there’s been plenty of trial-and-error on Angel as well, with characters coming and going and plotlines left aside—sometimes to be picked up again later, and sometimes gone for good.
I’ve said before that Angel firing his staff is problematic to me in that it marginalizes characters who’ve been a part of the show longer than Darla or the villains at Wolfram & Hart, but that I could also see how it could be useful in the long run, by turning Cordelia, Wesley and Gunn into compelling, self-sufficient characters. And while I still think the separation is more than a little forced (there’s that word again), I’m glad it resulted in an episode as charming and pointed as “Happy Anniversary.”
Roughly two-thirds of “Happy Anniversary” follows the adventures of Angel and Lorne as they track down a meek genius named Gene who’s planning to stop time so that his girlfriend won’t be able to break up with him. Lorne hears Gene singing at Caritas one night and immediately passes out from a powerful vision, showing no future for anyone. (When Lorne walks into Angel’s hotel, he says, “What’s today, Thursday? Tomorrow night, the world’s gonna end. Thought you might like to know.”) Angel and Lorne use their gumshoe skills to find the university where Gene works, but they’re opposed by a couple of demons who want to use Gene’s time-stopping invention to hasten the apocalypse. Lorne helps fell the demons with a high-pitched shriek, then he and Angel talk Gene through his romantic woes and get him to downgrade from “mad scientist” to “heartbroken scientist.” (“You guys like beer?” Gene asks. “Beer sounds great,” Angel enthuses.)
As much as I don’t like having Angel cut off from his friends, the Angel/Lorne partnership is all kinds of fantastic. I love Lorne’s flip-but-heartfelt reactions to everyone he meets—like, “You keep pluggin’ away at that novel, F. Scott. Art is its own reward.”—and how Angel tries to explain away Lorne’s bizarre appearance by calling him the new school mascot. (When one student protests, Lorne says, “Not your school, silly.”) And Lorne’s insistence that Angel is a one-of-a-kind champion and not the ruthless avenger he’s trying to remake himself into leads to something of an emotional outpouring from Angel, as he explains where his head is at these days, and admits he may have been unduly cruel to Cordelia and company in the name of sheltering them from the harsher aspects of his mission.
Yet as the other third of “Happy Anniversary” proves, the former Angel Investigations employees aren’t doing so bad out on their own. Wesley’s socially connected gal-pal Virginia is helping them land lucrative cases, including one involving a wealthy family and their demon problem. After they get the case, we don’t hear another word about it until close to the end of the episode, when we see Wesley pacing in a parlor, Holmes-style, saying, “This demon was a puppet, acting under the control of someone else… someone in this room!” (Meanwhile, Cordelia’s scoping out the hors d’oeuvres, asking, “Are these for everyone?”) All very funny stuff, and with a great payoff when a new client approaches the team while they’re celebrating their success and asks them which one of them is the “Angel” in “Angel Investigations.” Wesley looks at his partners, then shrugs, “It’s just a name.”
As fun as “Happy Anniversary” is though, “The Thin Dead Line” is pretty much a complete bummer, dragged down by some clichéd cops-and-gangster business. It starts well, with another moneyed client walking in to the new agency looking for help with her daughter, who has an eye in the back of her head. (“We should be able to de-oculate her,” Wesley says. “I mean, just the one in the back.”) But then the zombie policeman show up, and while Angel works that case with the help of Detective Kate—whose appearances on the show now seem like a sad reminder of the semi-major role she used to play—Gunn comes at it from a different angle, with the reluctant help of his former buddies and some teen shelter administrator whom I’ve never seen before. (Yes, that’s a joke, folks.)
Here’s what I liked about “Happy Anniversary:” The nod to Night Of The Living Dead when the teen runaways build barricades against the zombies; Wesley risking his life (and his well-paying case) to save Gunn; and Angel coming to see Wesley at the hospital and getting told off by Cordelia. Here’s what I hated: a non-zombie cop from the zombie force explaining that he went along with the new policy because before “the scumbags” ruled that precinct; Gunn’s multiculti “street” chums giving him a hard time for abandoning the ‘hood; and strained dialogue along the lines of, “She speaks true, G.” It’s hard to believe that the same Shawn Ryan who’d go on create The Shield worked on this episode, which plays like the backlot ghetto scenes from some cheesy ‘80s buddy cop movie.
I get that there’s a larger theme at work here, about the moral vagaries of how to battle the forces of darkness, and how that reflects Angel’s own dilemma. I’m sure it all sounded great in the writers’ room. But on the screen, it’s labored.
-So next week is “The Body,” huh? I hope I’m ready for this.
-Willow is scared of those trick birthday candles that don’t blow out.
-The writers continue to pile on the cruel ironies vis-a-vis the Dawn situation, whether she’s dealing with a school assignment to write a letter to her future self, or giving Buffy a photo of their non-existent past as a birthday present, or explaining to Ben that she doesn’t eat marshmallows because when she was 5, Buffy told her they were monkey-brains. (Seriously, how did the monks do all that?)
-Willow and Tara buy Buffy a dress for her birthday, figuring she might like something “less killy more frilly.”
-Anya, on her sex life with Xander: “Sometimes we pretend stuff. Like, say, there’s a fireman, or a shepherd.”
-When Xander and Giles go searching for Dawn and talk about her being The Key right out on the street, I was half-expecting for Glory’s minions to hear them. Either way, that was pretty stupid on their part.
-“Who’s been using The Urn Of Ishtar as an ashtray?”
-A nice action sequence in “Blood Ties” when The Knights Of Byzantium clash with Glory’s postulants, and they get medieval on each other’s respective asses. I also like Spike’s dismissive attitude toward this whole chess match: “Brown-robe types are always protecting something. Only way they can justify giving up girls.”
-Why do I love Glory, that super-stylish “God from the bitch dimension?” Because she says things like, “What I’m trying to noodle…,” and, “Two birds, one stone and boom! You’ve got yummy dead birds.”
-Glory is stopped before she sucks Dawn’s brains, but could she have done it? Or would Dawn’s Keyness have stopped Glory?
-An episode after Glory almost kills everybody, she’s nowhere to be seen, outside of a brief glimpse of a clueless Ben at The Bronze. But unlike the Adam storyline in Season Four, I do feel like the writers have come up with a compelling reason to keep Glory sidelined for weeks at a time: she’s kind of scatterbrained.
-We get our first look at the repaired and remodeled Bronze in “Crush,” in a bittersweet opening scene that has everyone dancing with a partner, save Buffy. Spike tries to chat her up, but she’s not interested. Then Xander comes along and snaps, “Hey Evil Dead, you’re in my seat!” Poor, poor Spike.
-Spike’s also annoyed that The Bronze has raised prices—“It’s not my fault that their insurance doesn’t cover Act Of Troll.”—and that they’ve taken his beloved onion-thing off the menu.
-I felt bad for Harmony this week, whether she was pretending to be Buffy to arouse Spike, or sobbing, “I gave you the best bunch of months of my life,” or insisting, “No threesomes unless it’s boy-boy-girl, or Charlize Theron.” She also got thrown around a lot, and even though she’s a vampire, I confess that violence against women makes me squeamish.
-To Dawn, Spike’s chip is equivalent to Angel’s soul. Me, I’m not so sure.
-It doesn’t impress Buffy much when Spike says he lies awake at night thinking about her. “You sleep during the day!” she shouts.
-Drusilla, schooling Buffy on vampire emotions: “We can love quite well, if not wisely.”
-Cordelia, trying to stay positive after bumping her head: “Dead plant… not symbolizing our future!”
-Lorne wakes up Angel by singing the national anthem, loving the acoustics in the hotel lobby.
-Lorne starts to say about Wesley that “he’s going to be playing a huge…” but he doesn’t finish his thought. Color me intrigued.
-Lorne on learning to drive: “So there’s another gear after that Number 2 thing?”
-Lorne makes some lusty comments about women in “Happy Anniversary,” which took me aback, because I had assumed he was gay.
-Cordelia suggests they drum up business by looking for Steven Seagal’s house. (“You’re telling me he got to be a movie star without a little demonic assistance?”)
-Cordelia, on Gunn’s dumb plan being a lot like one of Angel’s: “He sat at the feet of the master and learned well how to plan dumbly.”
-Cordelia sees the blouse Angel donated on her behalf on the torso of one of the teen runaways.
-Angel to Merl, after the latter asks that he knock first before entering: “You don’t make that funny expression when I knock. Or if you do, I don’t see it.”