The other day, a friend of mine asked if I’d had a change of heart yet about Darla. I’ve been very open here about my indifference toward Angel’s occasional lover and former hunting partner. I’m not sure if it’s Julie Benz’s performance (all angst and meanness, very little wit) or the character herself (ditto), but while in the abstract I can appreciate what Darla means to Angel the show and Angel the guy, in reality I’ve only really enjoyed Darla in the flashback scenes and when she was ripping up L.A. with Drusilla. And never have I cared about her or been moved by her.
Until “Lullaby,” that is.
There are three standout moments for Darla (and Benz) in “Lullaby.” The first comes early, as Darla’s suffering from painful contractions in the backseat of Angel’s convertible, while the AI team hovers around, making suggestions. Cordy tries to get everyone to back off—especially Wesley, who worries about what will happen if he doesn’t have access to the prophetic scrolls. (“Women have been giving birth without ancient prophesies for years,” Cordelia sighs.) But then Wes makes the mistake of telling Darla how to breathe, and Darla responds by vamping-up and screaming, “I don’t breathe!” and then shoving everyone away so forcefully that they land on their backs, feet from the car. And then Darla starts to cry. It’s a funny image: the knotty-foreheaded Darla weeping uncontrollably. It also made me feel bad for the poor woman, in such obvious pain and unable to fully comprehend or end it.
I felt even worse for Darla later in the episode, when she’s alone with Angel, looking out over Los Angeles and contemplating the horrors of the world. It’s a standard pre-natal scene in some ways: a parent-to-be fretting over whether she can keep a child safe from evil. The twist though is that Darla is evil, and she knows it. She doesn’t have a soul, and she’s never loved anything before. But she loves this baby inside of her, mainly because he’s feeding her with his human soul. She’s afraid that once he’s born, she’ll lose that feeling, and then he’ll be unsafe around her. That’s some honest tragedy right there.
Similarly, there’s another standard “fretting parents” scene at the end of the episode, as Darla writhes in pain in a rain-soaked alley and tells Angel that the baby they made is “the only good thing” they ever did. She also says to Angel, “Our baby’s going to die right here in this alley. You died in an alley. Remember?” Then she says she wishes she had it in her to apologize for ruining Angel’s life, along with so many others. And just when the scene threatens to become way too heavy-handed, Darla gives birth—by staking herself and turning to dust, leaving the baby behind. Hell of an image.
There’s plenty of other action in “Lullaby” too, including Lilah swiping the prophetic scrolls and Wesley’s notes and bringing them to the W&H translator—“You highlighted an ancient scroll?” he says in horror—and Lorne putting the finishing touches on re-opening Caritas, which requires him to make sure the joint is protected against demon and human violence. And through it all, the gang continues to debate what Angel and Darla’s child will be. Is it a miracle? And if the baby gets killed before he even gets a chance to do anything in this world, is that a shame, or is it The Powers That Be stepping up to take care of a problem?
But for me, what makes “Lullaby” work so well is the comparison between Darla, a demon having pangs of conscience, and Holtz, a human striking deals with devils. Just as Darla doesn’t really understand what’s happening to her, so Holtz is confounded at every turn. Angel seems oddly penitent, and yet he’s still with Darla. Wolfram & Hart offers him aid in the form of Lilah, but though she’s a lawyer, she claims not to care about the law. The demon Sahjhan shows a familiarity with the ways of the ancients, but when he talks about how Angel’s changed, he’s very modern, saying, “His hair’s shorter, spikier … he’s using product.” It’s quickly becoming clear that Holtz is being used by these awful, awful folks—he just doesn’t yet know why or for what.
And in an inversion of Darla’s situation, “Lullaby” takes us back to Holtz’s past, to the day his family was attacked and shows us his young daughter with bite-marks on her neck. Darla’s worried that she’ll lose her compassion and kill her human child, while in the past, Holtz had to screw up his courage to kill his inhuman one. The title of the episode refers to the song he sings to his little girl once he realizes what she’s become, a few hours before day breaks and he can fling her into the sunlight to burn. It’s a chilling title in this context. Sometimes, lullabies are what you sing to children to calm them when you have no comforting words—when you’re not sure that everything’s going to be okay.
Speaking of standard-issue TV drama scenes, this week’s Buffy has a doozy. Buffy comes to Willow to tell her about what’s been happening between her and Spike—with the kissing and all—but she gets interrupted, and the moment passes, such that when Willow says, “So what were you going to tell me?,” Buffy tells her it was nothing. That’s one of my least-favorite dramatic clichés, those kinds of scenes. It’s so untrue-to-life. Has anybody ever started to tell you something important and then quit without you hounding them to finish?
That said, I liked a lot of “Smashed,” until an ending that for me went way off the rails. I even liked how the Buffy/Willow non-conversation began, with Buffy easing her way in with the broadly non-specific question, “You know how we all make choices?” Plus it was a special thrill to see Buffy at least trying to confide in Willow again, just like old times. But of course things aren’t as they once were between Buffy and Willow, or between any of these characters. I thought this episode handled that fact smartly as well, particularly in a later scene where Willow pulls out her laptop to do some research, just as she used to, but then interacts with her laptop using magic.
Why does Willow use magic on her computer rather than interfacing the old-fashioned way? Because she can. And what people can do versus what they ought to do is the major theme of “Smashed.” The episode opens with a forlorn, Tara-less Willow looking at her rat (and former witch-pal) Amy in her cage, commenting on how lonely Amy must feel and how she needs a companion rat to grow attached to (“until it leaves you for no good reason”). Then Willow decides to restore Amy to human form, and succeeds with no difficulty. Later, she explains her method and rationale to Buffy: “I just realized I could.”
The problem is that Amy—like Buffy—may not have been ready to come back, at least not without more prep. Amy’s initially skittish and queasy, and scared of the outside world, saying she “felt like I was in a cage for weeks.” Her biggest worry is whether it’s too late for Larry to ask her to the prom, so Willow has to inform her that: 1. Larry’s gay; 2. Larry’s dead; 3. High school’s kinda over. Depressed, scared and confused, Amy sits on the couch and demands “cookies … any kind … not cheese.” And once she’s feeling better, she coaxes Willow into a night on the town, where they can enjoy using their magic freely, with no judgment. Because they can.
Along the same “because they can” lines, The Trio re-enters the picture, as Warren, Jonathan and Andrew infiltrate a Sunnydale museum to swipe a big diamond, for potentially nefarious purposes. Andrew hitches himself to a fancy Mission: Impossible style rig for the heist, but while he’s suspended in mid-air, Jonathan and Warren walk right past him and make fun of him. “The security system here is a guy named Rusty,” Warren says. And when Rusty inevitably shows up, Warren has his boys get their homemade freeze ray—though it takes a few hint-droppings to get them to move—and blast Rusty into an ice-block.
Buffy is sure that the Rusty-freezing is a sign of demonic activity, so while the Scoobies hit the books (and the magical laptops) to do research, she goes out on patrol, where she’s hounded by Spike, who wants Buffy to acknowledge that the two passionate kisses they’ve shared lately mean something. To push him away, Buffy smacks him, and he smacks back, discovering in the process that when he hits Buffy, he doesn’t feel the debilitating pain he usually feels when he even tries to harm a human. And so we get another “because I can” moment, as Spike heads into town to start snacking on people again. (“Look at all the goodies!” he grins, as he surveys a Sunnydale street.) When he attacks a woman in an alley and discovers that the chip in his head still kicks in, Spike goes to Warren to get his chip examined and comes to the conclusion that since the chip is still functional, it must be Buffy who’s broken. “You came back wrong,” he sneers at her, as he brings her to an abandoned building and smacks her around.
It’s here where “Smashed” lost me, I’m afraid. I’m not opposed to Spike and Buffy hooking up. I like Spike, and I understand that Buffy’s turned on by danger. But while I appreciate the egalitarian spirit behind the Buffy writers’ decision to show women getting beaten just the same as men, it still creeps me out whenever there’s a prolonged scene of Buffy (or any female character) getting manhandled. I’m also not big on “violence as foreplay,” so I cringed as Buffy and Spike went from punching each other to writing around on top of each other. I found the scene painfully un-sexy.
Making matters worse, the Spike/Buffy sock-‘n’-smooch is cross-cut with a scene of Amy and Willow going nuts with their magic at The Bronze, first by making two sexist jerks dance in cages and then by wantonly transforming their surroundings. The whole sequence is a little too reminiscent of the Faith/Buffy dynamic from a few seasons back, and moreover, it just looks silly. To have Buffy and Spike grinding away while Amy and Willow sling spells at increasingly distressed Bronze patrons … well, it’s just not much fun to watch.
Of course, maybe that’s the point.
- “Lullaby” is a full-on auteur project, written and directed by Tim Minear (whom I think I’m going to call Terriers’ Tim Minear from now on or at least until my mourning ends).
- After Gavin worries aloud that the boss is going to “crucify” him and Lilah, she reassures him: “They don’t crucify here. It’s too Christian.”
- When Lilah first walks up to Holtz, he douses her with holy water, just to be safe. Later in that same scene, she fills him in on Angel’s backstory: “Vampire, cursed by gypsies who restored his soul. Destined to atone for centuries of evil, wacky sidekicks, yada, yada. I’d have him killed myself, except the people I work for have this ‘policy.’”
- Lilah tells Holtz that Darla doesn’t have a soul like Angel. She’s “free-range evil.”
- Nice nod to Miller’s Crossing in the scene where Holtz confronts Sahjhan about the demon not filling him in on Angel’s re-ensoulment: “Now you’re wondering if things are a little murkier … ethically speaking.”
- Also funny in that scene how Holtz asks, “You’ve kept nothing else from me, then?” and Sahjhan replies, “Uh … no.” Cut to: pregnant Darla.
- Fred to Darla: “You gave us quite a scare. But I guess you’re used to that.”
- It’s tricky to cast sanctuary spells that protect against humans and demons and human-demon hybrids. So Lorne has the AI gang test his system by asking Fred to slap Gunn.
- Lorne’s demon repairman is a stoolie, feeding info to Sahjhan. “I’ve got mouths to feed. Plus a family. Some of them have mouths too.”
- Lorne’s protection spells don’t do a lick of good if people attack from a distance. “It's a thing with the door and the stairs and the world and the thing,” Lorne tries to explain, before Gunn cuts him off and says, “Apparently you can be outside and shove stuff in.”
- A sad moment of revelation for past-Holtz, as his men look at the carnage in his house and blame the devil, to which Holtz says, “Not the devil. Just a demon.”
- I know I shouldn’t nitpick a miracle vampire birth but … no umbilical cord? Did that turn to dust along with Darla? And doesn’t that baby look awfully big for a newborn?
- While I’m nitpicking Angel, I may as well take a crack at Buffy. In the last Angel episode, Fred’s plan to bluff a vampire horde was thwarted because vamps have super-human hearing, and could hear Fred whispering to Darla that she was just pretending. So why didn’t Spike hear The Trio whispering about their plans when he came to see Warren in their lair?
- Spike leans on The Trio by threatening to destroy their Boba Fett action figure, even though Spike doesn’t seem to know who that character is. Has there been a definitive explanation for why Spike seems so pop-culture literate so often and yet doesn’t know jack-all about Star Wars?
- Buffy, on seeing Amy: “How’ve you been?” Amy: “Rat. You?” Buffy: “Dead.”
- Xander thinks he’s found the non-existent ice demon, but it turns out he’s been doing his research in a Dungeons & Dragons manual.
- Very sweet scene of Tara taking Dawn for a movie and a milkshake, to let Dawn know that she still cares, even if she can’t hang around where Willow might be right now.
- Willow describes Anya to Amy: “1000-year old capitalist ex-demon with rabbit-phobia.”
- Jonathan, telling Andrew why Warren gets to cut through the glass and steal the diamond: “I’m allergic to methane and you’re still afraid of hot things”
- “When I kissed you, you know I was thinking about Giles, right?”
- “What are you going to do: Walk behind me to death?”
- I had originally planned for this to be the last Buffy/Angel write-up of the year, but it makes more sense to continue on next week, since both series originally broke for the midseason after next week’s episodes. So even though it’s Christmas Eve, I’ll be posting. Hope you’ll be here.