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Buffy / Angel: "Slouching Toward Bethlehem"/"Supersymmetry"

Illustration for article titled Buffy / Angel: "Slouching Toward Bethlehem"/"Supersymmetry"
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“Slouching Toward Bethlehem” (season 4, episode 4; originally aired 10/27/2002)

There’s a striking contrast in styles between our two Angels this week. “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” is an unusually quiet episode, dealing almost exclusively with an amnesiac Cordelia trying to piece together who she is—or at least who she was. Since we don’t really know yet where Cordy ascended to at the end of last season, or what she did while she was there, or why she returned with no memory (or why she returned at all), the focus on the inherent mystery that is Cordelia Chase struck me as a little odd, and maybe even unnecessary. But I liked “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” anyway, just for the way it maintained such a steady, low tone. To me, the signature shot of the episode is of Angel in his office while Cordelia watches him through a window, standing in unsteady silence.

I also appreciated the problem that a spooked, confused Cordy creates for our heroes. To keep from freaking out and fleeing, Angel decides to hide the full nature of who they are and what they do, which requires hiding Lorne, and sneaking Angel’s blood supply around the hotel, and pretending that the clients leaving messages on the answering machine are asking for help with “demons” strictly in a metaphorical sense. But who and what the crew of Angel Investigations are so pervades every aspect of their lives that it’s impossible to conceal for long. Cordelia sees a stray weapon on the floor, and a drop of blood on the reception desk. And when she ducks down below that desk, she sees Gunn and Fred come back from a mission toting axes stained with purple blood. It’s all but impossible to  make this environment less demon-y.

The demon-iness seeps into Cordelia’s investigation of herself, too. She hears her own voice on the answering machine, and reads her old Sunnydale High yearbook, which is full of signatures from friends who wrote greetings like,“Homeroom was fun, too bad it burnt to the ground.” And when black-clad operatives from Wolfram & Hart come to kidnap her, her martial arts training kicks in and she fights them off. Between the chopsocky skillz and the pictures she finds of herself with multiple hairstyles, Cordy begins to wonder: “Was I a spy?” Then as she explores some more, and sees the dress she wore to the ballet with Angel, and the picture of her and Angel with Baby Connor, she changes course: “So I’m not a spy. Am I a mom?”

As mentioned in the first paragraph, the mistake I think that the Angel writers made with “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” was putting so much narrative weight on Cordelia’s identity crisis. (Maybe if we’d spent more than five minutes with amnesiac Cordy, I’d have felt differently.) That said, the reintroduction of Cordelia to Angel Investigations works as a reminder of how weird Angel’s world is. For  example, I loved the sequence where Cordelia tosses one of the rosaries she finds into Angel’s hands, and it burns him, which freaks her out and sends her fleeing into the hall, where she runs into Lorne at last. And it also works as a way into what looks to be a long, involved, potentially devastating Cordelia-related story arc. After Angel comes clean about what AI is really all about, he has Cordelia sing for Lorne—she chooses “The Greatest Love Of All,” which she warbles wildly off-key—and he’s overwhelmed by the devastating vision he sees. “I haven’t read the book of Revelations lately,” Lorne says. “But if I was searching for adjectives, I’d start there.”

That vision is apparently what has W&H so hot to nab Cordelia. When they fail initially, they work a different angle. Lilah takes advantage of Wesley—who’s willing to admit that they’re in a relationship—by letting him “accidentally” overhear a phone call about another Cordy-abducting mission. But the mission is just a decoy; the real plan is to pull the Angel team away from the hotel so that Wolfram & Hart can extract the details of what Lorne saw straight from his horned skull. Now they know more about what might be coming than even Lorne does.

As for why the team has to leave the Hyperion to save Cordelia, it’s because she’s taken off with Connor, who saves her from a demon that corners her in the hotel lobby and then invites her to stay with him in his little makeshift lair (which seems to be in the attic of a taxidermy factory). There’ll be more about this strange relationship in the next episode—and not necessarily for the better—but in this episode it leads to a really nice moment between the two of them where Cordelia laments all that she doesn’t know about herself (“What’s my favorite food?”) and he reassures her that she’s awesome. It was enjoyable to see Connor to spend time with someone who doesn’t know enough about him to pre-judge him. It softened his edges a little. And whatever my qualms about the amnesiac Cordy storyline, it was worth it hear Connor say to her, “You like shoes and donuts, and you’re very brave.”

“Supersymmetry” (season 4, episode 5; originally aired 11/13/2002)

“Supersymmetry,” on the other hand, is a much more action-packed Angel, even though it barely deals with the “what rough beast” prophecies of the previous episode. Instead, this one’s all about Fred, as she makes a spectacular return to her old life by getting an article published in Modern Physics, and then discovers that re-entering the world of academia means confronting the circumstances that led to her being shanghaied to an alternate dimension where she went bonkers from being treated as a cow-slave. It’s telling that Fred reacts to the news of her publication by shrieking like she’s about to be murdered. In Fred’s world, scholarship can be deadly. (Publish and perish!)

Sure enough, while delivering her paper at a conference in front of her former mentor Oliver Seidel, Fred almost gets sucked through a dimensional portal again. Smells like a mystery! One possible suspect: Lilah, who shows up at the conference to stalk Wesley, who gave her the cold shoulder earlier in the day when she tried to make one of her usual booty calls. (Apparently, Wes didn't take too kindly to Lilah’s dupe-job last episode.) But when Angel goes after Lilah in the parking garage, she seems not to know what he’s talking about—“Tragedy struck Gidget?” she smirks—and he determines that she’s innocent. Of this crime, at least.

So Angel reconstructs the crime scene in the Hyperion lobby, which leads him to his next suspect: a comic-book nerd who seemed unusually interested in the near-abduction. Gunn backs the nerd against a rack of Dark Horse comics, and threatens him in language that comic book geeks everywhere understand: “Think Daredevil #181. I’m Bullseye, you’re Elektra.” So the nerd confesses that we was there to see Fred because he’s part of an on-line community obsessed with the disappearance of Fred and several other women, all of whom were mentored by Professor Seidel. (He also says that they talk about Angel a lot on what Angel calls “the chatty rooms.”)

The comic store scene is interesting, because intentionally or unintentionally, “Supersymmetry” nods to comics elsewhere. The visual/editing design of the episode almost equates to panel-to-panel transitions at times, with one character beginning an action at the end of one shot and another character completing it in the next. (This is also in keeping with the whole “symmetry” thing.) And then there’s the way that Fred finds out that Professor Seidel is responsible for her time in Pylea: she finds an occult book hidden under a non-occult cover, just like a kid would hide a comic behind a textbook.

“Supersymmetry” is also very Buffy-like in the way it briefly turns into a debate over the morality of vengeance. (Though Angel tends to be less ponderous and hand-wring-y than Buffy.) When Fred finds out what Professor Seidel did, she wants to do to him what he did to her, arguing, “We kill monsters every day.” And when Angel won’t go along with her plan, she sneaks off and goes to Wesley. “Vengeance?” he says. “Sounds good!”

What I like most about “Supersymmetry” is that it revisits the backstory of a major character, adds details we didn’t know before—but which now seem essential to our understanding of what happened to her—and yet still moves the character and the series forward. (Whedon shows tend to be very good about this; they rarely circle back around just to kill time or do fan-service. Modern superhero comics could learn a thing or two from this.) In this case, Fred’s thirst for vengeance reveals some cracks in her relationship with Gunn, who’s already on shaky ground because, unlike Wes, he doesn’t have the academic background to understand her article. He also seems unwilling to torment the professor for his lady. “Gunn doesn’t have it in him,” she says to Wesley. “That’s part of what I love about him.” Except that he does have in him, sort of; he doesn’t let Fred banish Seidel to hell, but he does kill the old bastard. Did he also just kill that part of himself that Fred loves?

Stray observations:

  • I’m working without my laptop right now, so I don’t have easy access to all my usual sources for quote-, character- and plot-checking. Apologies for any errors.
  • For example, I jotted this down in my notes: “Black Russian? That’s a drink.” I remember the exchange from the episode; the first part is a skeptical Cordelia’s response when the AI team points to Gunn as proof that they’re not KGB. But I don’t remember who said the second part, or if I have the quote right. It was a funny moment though; I do know that.
  • It’s interesting to watch Angel’s new demeanor with both Wes and Connor. He’s much mellower, almost as though he’s asking them to warm back up to him without actually asking.
  • Look, lying is bad. You shouldn’t lie. I’m pro-honesty; I want that to be clear. But what is it about movie and TV writers that makes “You lied to me!” both the most egregious sin and the ultimate character motivation? “You’ve saved my life a dozen times, you nursed me back to health, you’ve given me everything I ever could’ve wanted. But when I was in a daze, you lied to me momentarily about where I was, so I can’t trust you now. Goodbye!” People in Hollywood seem a lot more worked up about “trust” than people in the real world.
  • Exciting opening to “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” with Connor trying to help some stranded motorists fight off vampires with the help of their car’s cigarette lighter. I’ve enjoyed this little stretch of Angel where “The Tales Of Connor” has been a little five-minute interlude in each episode.
  • Alas, that stretch seems to be over now that Connor is sheltering Cordelia and helping her with her demon-fight training. He’s also trying to smooch her, which makes sense, since he is a teenager, but is still way-creepy. It also underlines a problem with the Connor and Cordelia storylines. We don’t really know Connor, since we missed that three-month period when he was fighting alongside Fred and Gunn; and we don’t really know this Cordelia, since she’s come back from the beyond with no memories. So what’s our stake in what happens between these two characters we don’t know?
  • “When you’re a cow-slave, you don’t want anyone to see you at all.”
  • Angel helps Lorne recuperate from the Wolfram & Hart attack, though Lorne can sense that Angel really just wants to pump him for more info on his Cordelia-vision. “I wasn’t going to ask you that immediately,” Angel says. “I was building up to it.”
  • The comic-book geek offers to be an intern at Angel Investigations, which made me wonder whatever happened to that rich nerd who used to help out on cases sometimes back in season one.
  • I’m off next week, for the first of several breaks I’ll need to take during the run of this season, due to vacation or other obligations. If everything falls the way I expect it too, I’ll also be off on July 8th, August 5th and September 9th and 16th. Then, unless something else comes up, I’ll be done with this batch on November 11th, after which I plan to take a long hiatus before starting Angel season five, sometime in early 2012. Just FYI.