Rack is wack. That’s the message of this week’s “perils of addiction” episode of Buffy—an episode every bit as heavy-handed as I’d been warned, though not wholly without merit.
Because it’s Christmas Eve and because there’s not a lot of nuance in “Wrecked,” I’ll keep this brief. Plotwise, this episode is relatively simple; it’s mainly an hourlong “the next few days” epilogue to the wild events at the end of “Smashed.” Buffy wakes up next to a naked Spike in a crumbled building and once again insists that this is absolutely the very last time she’ll be doing any kind of sexy thing with him. For real this time. She means it. And after staying out all night magicking with Amy, Willow is feeling depleted and thinking she should ease off the spell-casting for a while (especially after she has an encounter with Tara, who looks wounded when Amy raves about Willow’s skills). But then Amy suggests they go see Rack, a powerful warlock who know spells that last for days, with very little burnout. The visit proves costly.
One of the things I respect about Buffy The Vampire Slayer is that the show’s writers are willing to take the time to explore the ramifications of major events in their characters’ lives, even if it’s not exactly an enjoyable chore. And so in “Wrecked” we get several long, nasty conversations in which Buffy belittles Spike (“You’re just convenient,” she says) and Spike cast aspersions on her true character (“I may be dirt, but you’re the one who likes to roll in it,” he says). Plus we get Willow all hopped-up on magic at Rack’s, pinned to the ceiling while she hallucinates verdant fields and freaky demons.
Both storylines are tough to take. In the case of Buffy/Spike, while her objections are valid and her trepidation understandable, the continued resistance is starting to feel forced. (Again, I’m referring to how it plays more than to the fact of it; I get why Buffy would find her attraction to Spike troubling.) And in the case of Willow/Rack, the blatant comparison of Willow’s behavior to a typically desperate drug-seeker comes off corny.
Sometimes TV fans and critics talk about episodes that are designed primarily to move the pieces on the board: to get the characters where they need to be, so that that the main story can proceed. “Wrecked” is more concerned with moving the motivations of the pieces: to establish the personal stakes for the characters, so that the main story will have more meaning. But though the intentions are noble, the work is no less labored.
That said, I found a lot of “Wrecked” very powerful—especially any scene involving Dawn. The episode opens with Dawn waking up next to Tara and worrying that Buffy and/or Willow has ended up in a ditch. (“Ditches are bad. … Mom always used to talk about the ditch.”) And the rest of “Wrecked” is rife with Dawn-neglect, from Buffy making up a lie when Dawn notes that she looks “all sore and limpy” after her night with Spike, to a logy Willow offering to take Dawn to the movies and then ending up ditching Dawn in Rack’s waiting-room while she gets high. Ultimately, Willow smashes up a car while fleeing from a demon she conjured, and Dawn ends up in the hospital. Buffy’s furious with Willow for being so irresponsible, but Buffy’s partly to blame for what happened. She hasn’t heeded Giles’ warnings about taking responsibility for Dawn, and she hasn’t been much of a friend to Willow either. When Willow begs Buffy for comfort and forgiveness, Buffy doesn’t offer a whole lot of either.
And as much as I may have cringed at all the “Willow on druggy magic” scenes, I still found Willow’s essential dilemma moving. As she explains to Buffy at the end of the episode, she’s having a hard time being “plain ol’ Willow” when she has the power to be “Super Willow.” I can buy that. It’s heartbreaking to watch Willow try (and fail) to close her curtains with magic or to see her animating Tara’s clothes to make them embrace her. After all, what is magic but a manipulation of reality? “Wrecked” may have hammered home the similarities to drugs too hard, but the analogy is still compelling. If you have the power to make the world conform to your whims, then, yeah, giving that up would cause some painful withdrawal. All the petty annoyances of the real world must now seem absolutely soul-crushing to Willow. That’s why I don’t buy her pledge of abstinence, any more than I believe that Buffy will be able to keep Spike at bay for long with her garlic and crucifixes.
Meanwhile, this week’s Angel picks up from the previous episode and continues what’s becoming a thrilling, thematically rich story. It’s also a well-designed episode in and of itself, with its own clever little plotlet.
Picking up immediately after the events of “Lullaby”—with Darla staking herself and Holtz letting Angel escape with the baby—“Dad” covers the homecoming of father and child. Angel and his cohorts return to their headquarters with the baby in tow, and Angel’s feeling especially anxious. The baby (whom Angel will name “Connor” by the end of the episode, so I’m just going to start calling him that now) already has a scratch on his cheek and is crying a lot, but Angel won’t let anyone else hold him or feed him or help in any way. Angel tries to get Connor to stop crying by waving a teddy bear at him and singing an Irish lullaby and making funny faces. (Angel finally has success when he vamps up.) Meanwhile, the rest of Angel Investigations prepares for the inevitable onslaught of demons, crooks and kidnappers out to seize the boy.
Most of the action in “Dad” takes place at the hotel—where everyone’s on edge as the threats mount—with occasional cuts back to the respective HQs of Wolfram & Hart and Holtz & Sahjhan. At the former, boss Linwood Morrow is annoyed that W&H’s pricey translators insisted that Angel’s child would “not be born” (though it turns out the translators were right on a technicality, since Darla dusted herself before actually giving birth). And at the latter, Sahjhan is annoyed that Holtz let Angel go and is even more annoyed when Holtz poisons all their minions, because he wants “warriors,” not “mercenaries.” To set that plan in action, Holtz borrows Sahjhan’s computer and Internet and finds a woman named Justine, whose twin sister was killed by vampires. Holtz has his first warrior.
I try not to compare Buffy to Angel because each show is doing its own thing at its own pace, with different endpoints in mind. Thus far, the action in the sixth season of Buffy is a lot more internalized, while Angel is developing into more of a rollicking epic adventure. I like both those kinds of storytelling, so I have no problem with either show’s direction at the moment. That said, I can’t deny that I found “Dad” more satisfying than “Wrecked”—at least on a visceral level—because of the way each develops the story. “Wrecked” shrinks Buffy’s world down to a few characters and a few locations, while “Dad” takes place all around the LA area—especially after Angel flees the hotel and heads to the desert—and introduces not just Justine but wave after wave of robed demons and biker-vamps and street toughs, making the world of Angel seem all the more immense and important.
Plus, “Dad” is just so badass, with its multiple villains and shots of Wesley and Gunn and all taking up arms against Connor’s enemies. (Just for the scene where Wesley says he’s pretending he’s in Rio Bravo and Gunn says he’s pretending to be in Assault On Precinct 13, I had to love “Dad.” Also: flamethrowers.) The plot twists nicely too, as Angel angers his partners by leaving them to fight while he takes off with a baby-bundle under his arms, then reveals later that the bundle doesn’t actually contain a baby, but a bomb. His retreat was a bluff, designed to fool the Wolfram & Hart surveillance equipment that new houseguest Lorne had sensed. The episode ends with Angel storming into W&H and threatening Morrow if he ever tries to harm Connor again. (“You just became his godfather, understand?”) But of course, that can’t be the end of hostilities between Angel and his many foes. Angel is moving with confidence and drive right now. It’s relentless. And awesome.
- Apologies if someone made the “Rack is wack” joke nine years ago. I’m new here.
- Willow introduces Tara to Amy The Rat, then apologizes for calling her that. (“No, that’s fair,” Amy says.)
- “It’s not what you think it is; it’s sage.” “That is what I think it is.”
- Anya informs Xander that Martha Stewart isn’t a demon, she’s a witch. And then that’s about all we see of Anya and Xander. Like I said, “Wrecked” shrinks Buffy’s world considerably.
- When the AI team gets back to the hotel, Fred sees an open cage and worries about what it might’ve contained. Then she sees a label that reads, “BABY.” It was a cage meant for Connor. Y’know, in case he skitters.
- It’s going to be awfully hard to baby-proof a heavily armed hotel.
- Angel does better with the old-fashioned diapers than the ones with adhesive tabs. He’s been around a while.
- Hey, it’s the Progressive lady! Stephanie Courtney plays a clerk in W&H’s vast archives.
- It looked a little like Holtz was watching Justine fight vampires in the Sunnydale graveyard.
- Linwood Morrow likes kids. (“The senior partners took mine before I really got to know him.”)
- Holtz, preparing to use Sahjhan’s computer: “We can find information using this box, right?” Sahjhan: “You won’t believe how fast my connection is.”
- I’ll be off next week, and then posting new installments on January 7th and 14th before I take two weeks off for Sundance. I considered taking all of January off, but it looks like the next two episodes for each series are pretty much standalones, so I’ll knock those out before breaking, then return in February for the back half of these seasons. Hope the stop-and-start posting won’t throw anyone off.