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Buffy / Angel: "Gone"/"Birthday"

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I’m finding it strange—though not unappealing—the way Buffy’s sixth season keeps lurching from tragedy to comedy. In “Wrecked,” Willow hit rock bottom, alone and addicted, while Buffy literally flirted with danger, and left her little sister in the care of an incompetent. This week, Willow goes back to some old-fashioned Scooby-in’, while an invisible Buffy romps around Sunnydale. And all the while, credited writer-director David Fury maintains a light tone, from the sprightly “Happy Hollywood” music on the soundtrack to the abundance of near-slapstick sight gags. Buffy has always woven funny dialogue and moments into even the most dramatic episodes, but this new mix is a little different. Both the melodrama and the jocularity seem heightened, and not even remotely integrated.


But I repeat: not unappealingly so. I can’t call “Gone” a wholly successful episode—I’ve got at least one major issue with it—but did I laugh while I watched it? Yeah, I did. Often.

The episode opens with our heroine feeling harried. For Willow’s sake, Buffy’s trying to purge the house of anything even remotely witchy, even tossing out the candles—“To witches, they’re like bongs”—and thus frustrating Dawn, who feels like she has no say in preserving the mystical trappings that she likes. Buffy’s also trying to keep Spike away, lest they be tempted to launch into another spirited round of sexcraft, but her willpower gets tested when Spike drops by in the morning to retrieve his lighter. And then, to make matters worse, the Summers home gets a visit from Doris Kroeger of social services, who takes one look at the punky vampires and mopey lesbians and boxes full of supernaturalia (“I swear it’s not what it looks like… it’s magic weed!”) and decides to put Buffy on probation, now in danger of losing Dawn unless she can demonstrate that she’s not some wastrel.


To take her mind off her troubles—and to spite Spike—Buffy goes to the hairdresser and demands “just make me different.” And after a quick cut (during which the hairdresser removes the fairly obvious wig that Sarah Michelle Gellar wears for the first 10 minutes or so of “Gone”) she emerges with a kicky new ‘do, which promptly gets erased when The Trio accidentally zaps her with an invisibility ray.

“Gone” serves at least one major purpose, in that by the end of the hour, the Scoobies are aware of The Trio. “We’re your arch-nemesises… ises!” Warren proclaims, after he and his invisible mates fight with the invisible Buffy at an arcade. Willow uses their ray to re-visibilize everyone, which leads to a funny moment when each member of the group is revealed in turn: Jonathan! Warren! And… Tucker’s brother.


Willow’s involvement in cracking the case is also significant. It exhausts her, and more than once she’s tempted to use magic to levitate a book she needs across the room, or to speed up the horribly slow computers she’s using, but she sticks with the process, and it’s satisfying to watch Willow piece the clues to Buffy’s invisibility together, the way she used to.

It’s also revealed in “Gone” that there may be rift among The Three. Jonathan and Andrew had planned to use their invisibility to get rich and sneak peaks at naked ladies—on the day they zap Buffy, they were on their way to bikini wax joint—but when they discover that the invisibility ray eventually causes objects to deteriorate, they want to warn Buffy while Warren wants to expedite the process. Apparently, Warren’s not just a creep, he’s an evildoer.


There’s a lot of funny bits in “Gone,” including Buffy’s initial reaction to her invisibility, which has her roaming around The Magic Box using skulls as puppets and orbs as eyes. I also liked how Buffy defused her Kroeger problem by haunting the social worker at her office, making her coffee mug whisper “kill, kill.” But the big climactic inviso-fight doesn’t really work, visually, and while I was pleased to see that Buffy treated her condition as an unexpected delight instead of a burden, I was creeped out by her decision to sneak into Spike’s crypt and jump his bones. Her motivation is reasonably well explained—she’s feeling liberated, and acting on her desires—but after all the “Spike is bad news” build-up of “Wrecked,” I felt like treating Buffy’s relapse into Spike-lust as something lightly comic just didn’t scan. I return now to my familiar refrain: I respect this plotting in the abstract, but don’t think it works as presented.

For a while I was also bothered by what seemed to be a lack of a clear theme to the episode. When Xander asks “Have you been feeling ignored lately?” in relation to Buffy’s invisibility, he’s making a reference to an old episode, but he’s also raising a good question. On Buffy, freaky things rarely just happen unless they’re tied to what’s going on in the characters’ lives. (Think of it as the supernatural world’s version of having a bad dream that’s just one long metaphor for your waking-life anxieties.) The problem with “Gone” is that it doesn’t seemm to have a peg.


Except that it does, really. Later in the episode, while Buffy’s trying to delight Dawn with the tricks she can do when she’s invisible, Dawn snaps at her sister, saying, “How can I talk to you if I can’t see you?” And she doesn’t just mean that in relation to Buffy’s temporary invisibility. When it comes to Dawn and what she’s been going through lately, Buffy’s long been the invisible woman.


After several weeks in a row of breathless action, Angel was due for a respite, and “Birthday” is a very clever one, even if it deals with a recurring subplot that I’ve begun to find tiresome—or perhaps because it deals with that subplot, and appears to have resolved the parts that bug me.


Specifically, “Birthday” seems to have brought an end to “Cordelia almost dies from the pain every time she has a vision.” The episode opens with Cordelia getting knocked unconscious by a vision during her surprise birthday party, and then having an out-of-body experience in which she gets to watch her friends fret over her—often with a tinge of anger. They’re mad that she’s been hiding how awful she’s been feeling, and has been stashing the heavy drugs that she’s been taking to mask her symptoms. While Fred and Gunn go snooping around Cordelia’s apartment for evidence of what’s ailing Cordy, Angel stews and watches her limp body, while Lorne and Wesley look for mystical help. Soon, Lorne is able to get Angel an audience with The Powers, where Angel begs them to take Cordelia’s visions away from her because she’s “too weak.”

The problem? The spirit-Cordelia sees Angel make this plea, and it pisses her off. “Birthday” is a little slow-moving at first, with all the worrying and blaming, but then, out of the blue, our favorite chilled-out demon Skip arrives, and offers to take Cordelia on a tour of what her life is and what it could be—including showing her that little scene between Angel and The Powers. Skip’s goal is to convince Cordelia that she was never meant to be given the visions, by showing her the previous mortals who were destroyed by the gift, and by showing her that if she’d never re-met Angel, she’d have become a big TV star with a hit sitcom: Cordy! But it’s not too late. While The Powers won’t turn back time—“They don’t do that… much”—they will write over history and make it so that Cordelia fulfills what her destiny should’ve been.


Once Skip shows up, “Birthday” becomes less broody and more zippy, from Skip’s use of a sports-television “telestrator” to diagram Cordelia’s past mistakes to the fun opening credits sequence to Cordy!, which looks like a cross between Friends and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Cordelia also gets a glimpse at what Angel Investigations would be like if she weren’t around: the Hyperion would be a working hotel, not AIHQ; Wesley would be a scruffy, one-armed sourpuss, working alongside Gunn; and Angel would be fielding the visions and gradually going insane from the guilt of his past misdeeds. (“Sometimes he sends us out to save the people he killed 200 years ago,” Wes explains.)

Ultimately, Cordelia chooses to save Angel by taking the visions back and re-writing history yet again. Skip explains that the only way she’ll be able to handle this is if she becomes part-demon, a process that is initially painful and then wildly unpredictable. She decides to go through with it anyway, and wakes up by her friends’ side, re-born as a part-demon on her birthday. Both she and I are relieved to discover that she can get visions now without doubling over clutching her head. Of course, now she levitates, but hey… we all go through changes as we age.


Stray observations:

-How would you find your invisible clothes?

-Buffy’s wicked discrediting of Doris Kroeger kept the episode from having to deal with a question I had: Would Dawn be so mad at Buffy that she’d risk being removed from her home by social services, or would she play nice with Kroeger if she had to?


-Similarly, given how unsympathetic Spike was to Buffy’s Kroeger woes, I was all the more dismayed to see her rush to his bed after she was turned invisible. I liked Spike as a love interest for Buffy when he was something of a supplicant to her—if only because it made him such a tragic figure—but this new “I can hurt you” Spike is very hard to warm up to. It’s a weird relationship.

-Andrew, on their unwieldy invisibility ray: “I was picturing something cooler. More ILM, less Ed Wood.”


-A prime Buffyverse-style tease in “Gone,” as a worried Xander asks, “What happened to Buffy?… she’s gone,” before the camera pulls back to reveal that he’s looking at wedding seating arrangements with Anya. (“I put her here. At Table Four.”)

-Another Buffyverse-style tease in the opening of “Birthday,” which has Cordelia professing her love and appreciation… to an imaginary audience at an imaginary awards show.


-That superhero cake that the gang got for Cordelia was pretty cool.

-When Fred and Gunn show up at Cordelia’s apartment, Dennis throws confetti at them, thinking that it's Cordelia coming home.


-Some funny bits of Lorne business in “Birthday,” as he goes to talk to The Powers and comes back with his horn knocked askew and under a spell that prevents him from saying anything about his visit.

-Skip tells Cordelia that Doyle wasn’t meant to pass the visions on to her, but The Powers couldn’t predict that he’d do it, because they’re bad when it comes to emotions like love. Is this a set up for the Angel/Cordelia romance that the show has been teasing all season? (No, don’t answer that. I’d rather remain unspoiled.)


-Skip is a big movie buff. When he makes a disparaging reference to Gladiator, Cordelia starts to say, “You saw that?” but he cuts her off with a curt, “Didn’t love it.”

-When I hear the final descending notes of the Angel theme song, I always sing “you dear friend who talk so well” in my head. I can’t really explain why. I don’t think it’s even the same notes as the My Fair Lady song.


-Next week: “Provider” from Angel and “Doublemeat Palace” from Buffy. And then a two-week break.

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