“First Date” (season 7, episode 14; original airdate Feb. 11, 2003)
If you’d told me a few weeks ago that I would enjoy a Buffy episode that largely consists of our heroine out on a date with Principal Wood, I would’ve been highly, highly skeptical. And yet “First Date” kind of disarmed me, in large part because of its Xander subplot. I don’t know that Xander’s demon date Lissa had to be played by early ’00s pop star Ashanti (continuing the season seven trend of having one-named performers in bit parts), but I’ve been enjoying the restoration of Xander to full Scooby status this season, complete with sarcastic wisecracks, sweet bumbling (“rope can be useful in various ways” is one of his pick-up lines to Lissa in the hardware store where they meet), and, yes, his having romantic encounters with ladies who turn out to be evil.
The big night out between Buffy and Wood provides a lot of comic fodder too, including Buffy being caught sneaking through Wood’s office and lying, “I want to write on a file folder with a mechanical pencil!” and then Wood awkwardly asking Buffy out before realizing he might be violating some laws and quickly adding, “I may have to make a document saying I didn’t say that and have you sign it.” Buffy’s very funny while preparing for the date as well, suffering through the gibes of Willow—who notes that Wood is 10 years older than her, which is “like 100 years younger” than her type—and listening to Anya gripe about Xander while she primps in the bathroom. (Anya: “Leave me here to stew in my impotent rage. I’m also gonna pee, so you should probably go.”)
I certainly wouldn’t call “First Date” one of the best of this season, because there’s not a lot to it beyond the punch lines and the eventual rescuing of Xander. But it’s an enjoyable episode, one that serves a function inasmuch as it lets us know who Wood really is. The reason the principal creeps around graveyards and keeps an arsenal is because his mother was the Slayer long ago, and he’s come to Sunnydale to fight vampires and maybe avenge her death. The problem? The vampire who killed her was Spike—as seen in “Fool For Love” as I recall—and Buffy has recently de-chipped Spike, and has told him, “I’m not ready for you to not be here.” So now we have a “free-range Spike” under Buffy’s protection, and we have a champion for good who’s probably not going to understand Buffy’s philosophy of coddling certain demons. (Buffy’s new “can’t beat evil by doing evil” policy probably won’t make any more sense to Wood than it did to Giles, especially since it’s the kind of policy that basically allows Buffy to do whatever she wants, so long as she deems it as “not evil.”)
On the other hand, Buffy’s acceptance of murderers and broken souls is beginning to pay dividends with Andrew, who gets visited by The First (in Jonathan guise), and is urged to use Willow’s gun on the Potentials. Andrew appears to go along with First-Jonathan, but is actually the point man in a kind of a sting operation organized by Willow. Sure, Andrew blows his cover by being too obvious about his attempts to get The First to reveal its weaknesses—“Kryptonite?… Allergies?… Are you made out of the evil impulses of humans, so if everyone was unconscious at the same time, you would fade away?”—but still, he’s clearly one of the good guys now. It’s just that whether “the good guys” are actually doing good is still a matter up for debate.
“Calvary” (season 4, episode 12; original airdate Feb. 12, 2003)
“Calvary” is sort of the Kill Bill: Volume 2 of Angel episodes, continuing the mini-arc that began with last week’s “Soulless.” If you liked all those scenes of Angelus playing head games with the Angel Investigations crew (and I personally found them thrilling, and found “Soulless” to be one of the best episodes of the season), well… here’s more. Here’s Angelus going round and round with Gunn, and Lilah, and Fred, and Cordelia, revealing more secrets and playing to the insecurities of each character.
There’s some juicy stuff in “Calvary,” yet the episode struck me as a little fatiguing in the wake of what came immediately before. It wasn’t as tense as “Soulless,” or as revelatory, given that we’d just seen a half-dozen scenes a lot like the one that make up the first two-thirds of “Calvary.” Plus, this week’s Angel builds to a twist that I can’t quite wrap my head around yet.
I’m not down on “Calvary” by any means, though. For one thing, “Soulless” sort of shortchanged the Angelus/Gunn interaction, while “Calvary” most definitely does not. While Gunn tests his flamethrower and talks to Fred, Angelus eavesdrops on their conversation with his super-hearing, and taunts them through the closed-circuit monitor, teasing Gunn about his smacking Fred in the last episode, and telling Fred that if she likes men with accents, Angelus would be perfectly happy to bring back his Irish brogue “while I rape you to death.” Later he tells Gunn—mockingly—that he admires how he doesn’t try to change or better himself, dropping racially charged comments about how Gunn “knows his place” and how unlike Wesley, Gunn isn’t “dark enough.” For good measure, Angelus needles Fred by revealing Wesley’s secret affair with Lilah. I’d call these moments like deleted scenes from the “Soulless” DVD, except that they’re vital to the development of the characters and the plot. (It’s not the scenes’ fault that they arrived an episode too late.)
“Calvary” also brings Lilah back from exile, looking ragged and spooked now that she’s the last Wolfram & Hart-er that The Beast hasn’t slaughtered. Lilah is very Lilah-y in this episode. She suggests they let Angelus out to tackle The Beast, adding that she knows he’ll “kill you all in a bloody shower of violence, but hey… greater good.” She also explains to Wesley her philosophy that “being in it for yourself… you always end up on the winning team.” But Lilah does provide valuable information for unraveling the mystery of The Beast, since she has a copy of Rhinehardt’s Compendium that includes information about the demon, while Wesley’s copy does not. Wes determines that someone must’ve cast a spell that wiped Angel’s memory clean of The Beast, and erased the info from Wesley’s book to boot.
Angelus is oddly helpful too, suggesting to Wes that The Beast is just a minion (a suspicion confirmed when we see The Beast offer a knife up to his master, who’s out of frame). And Cordelia has a vision of some items that could restore Angel’s soul, which leads Gunn and Connor out on a short but very cool-looking adventure involving grave-digging and them trying to fight a dart-like, shadowy soul-eater.
Everything goes wrong in the end, of course. (Angelus even predicts that it will, scoffing at the team’s continued faith in black magic.) Cordelia’s suggested spell seems to bring Angel back, but it’s just a trick. Angelus feigns goodness, and even demands to be kept in his cage just in case, but then Cordelia chastises him for his cowardice and lets him out, at which point he knocks her unconscious and heads into the night. He’s not gone long though before he returns, wounds Cordelia, and goes after Lilah, who seems to be holding her own against Angelus until… Cordelia re-emerges, kills Lilah, and claims she let Angelus out for a reason.
I was doing my best Hubert Farnsworth “Whaaaa?” in my easy chair during this ending, and I still can’t make sense of how Cordelia went from hero to heel so abruptly, given everything else that happens in this episode. But I’m sure there’s an explanation, so as always, I’ll reserve judgment until I know what it is.
On a (possibly) unrelated topic though, I’ll say that I’ve been impressed by how in “Soulless” and “Calvary,” everything Angelus has revealed that has torn the team apart has been information that he didn’t gather through some villainous superpower. It’s all just stuff Angel already knew. All season long we’ve seen Angel learning about Wes and Lilah, and Cordelia and Connor, and all the other little secrets that his friends have been hiding with varying degrees of success. Which means that Angel himself could’ve done everything Angelus has done, at just about any time, if he’d so chosen. The question is: Does Angel’s silence on these matters make him more noble? Or has he just been fostering the atmosphere that Angelus is now exploiting?
- At the opening of “First Date,” we finally get to see the end of the concluding scene from “Sleeper,” and see that Giles turned and deflected the oncoming axe-blow of the Bringer. Giles tells the Potentials he relied on “instinct and reflexes,” but he later admits to Buffy was that he was saved because the Bringer’s shoes squeaked.
- I know not everyone will agree, but I enjoyed the subplot of Giles trying to bring the non-English-speaking Chao-Ahn up to speed. He takes her out for ice cream, and when she says in Cantonese, “Like many from Asia, I am lactose intolerant,” he translates it as, “She’s grateful to be in a land of plenty.” Later, Giles makes some “Hush”-esque drawings to explain about vampires and slayers and First Evils, which freaks Chao-Ahn out so much that she locks herself in the bathroom. When she finally emerges and finds the Scoobies sitting around and worrying, she asks, “Are flashcard monsters attacking?”
- “Wear hoops, they’ll catch on something, rip your lobe off. Lobes flying everywhere.”
- Since the Hellmouth is below Principal Wood all the time, he’s not really being “showered” with evil. It’s more like “a bidet of evil.”
- While preparing for her date, Buffy finds the blouse that Dawn stained with pizza in “Conversations With Dead People.” As Dawn predicted, Buffy assumes it’s blood.
- Buffy: “He’s good-looking, and he’s solid. He’s smart, he’s normal. So not the wicked energy, which is nice, because I don’t want to only be attracted to wicked energy. Or what if he is wicked, in which case… Is that why I’m attracted to him?” Willow: “I’m gonna wait for that sentence to come around again before I jump on.”
- Xander texts a special code to Willow which either means he’s about to have sex or he’s in mortal danger. Willow can’t remember which is which, but suggests that if they play the percentages… “Something’s eating Xander’s head,” Giles finishes.
- Fed up with demon-dates, Xander asks Willow to “gay me up… let’s gay.” He then tries to get into the right mindset by mentally undressing Scott Bakula, which prompts Andrew to sigh, “Captain Archer… ”
- When Angelus leaves the Hyperion, lying, “I have to go save the world!” he sounds a lot like Faith when she switched bodies with Buffy.
- I finally got my wish to see more of the ravaged post-Beast L.A. Angelus walks through streets in chaos, where nearly every person he grabs is a vampire. (“What happened to pedestrians?” he grumbles. “Is there no fast food left in Los Angeles?”)
- I would’ve liked to have seen a little more about Connor’s reaction to Angelus being on the loose. Connor seems excited to be given the green light to kill his old man at last, which is consistent with his usual attitude. But does he really want Angelus dead? The kid’s kind of confusing.
- It’s been hard to write “Calvary” each time (as in the hill where Christ was crucified) and not “Cavalry” (as in “Here comes the… ”). I hope I didn’t cross it up at any point.
- Next week’s another double-Buffy: “Get It Done” and “Storyteller.” And then I’m off for two weeks at the Toronto film festival, which means it’ll be three whole weeks before I find out what the hell’s going on with Cordelia on Angel, in the next episode, “Salvage.” Some may say that this is exactly the wrong way to watch the show, but y’know what? When “Calvary” and “Salvage” originally aired, there was a three-week break between them. Inadvertently, I’m honoring tradition.