Sometimes I imagine what it must’ve been like to be a regular Buffy/Angel viewer back when the shows originally aired. How did fans respond to the new characters, or the more dramatic turns of plot? Were they frustrated, impatient, appreciative? And how did they handle a night like November 14th, 2000, when the mythology of the Whedonverse widened, deepened and lengthened over the course of two pretty terrific hours? Did their brains leak out of their ears, overwhelmed by the awesomeness?
Buffy’s “Fool For Love” and Angel’s “Darla” make for a marvelous diptych, filling in backstory for the shows’ core vampire quartet: Angel, Drusilla, Spike and Darla. The episodes span centuries, while still remaining firmly rooted in what matters to these characters now, and while incidents recur and overlap between “Fool For Love” (which primarily deals with Spike) and “Darla” (which primarily deals with you-know-who), the two episodes merely complement each other, they don’t require each other. It’s an admirable piece of television craftsmanship, really, how “Fool For Love” and “Darla” stand alone, yet grow in meaning when taken in one after the other.
I’m going to go both ways here: first recapping the episodes as though they were one chronological story, and then pulling them back apart to see what each does well on its own.
The full arc begins in 1609, in the Virginia Colony, where the woman who would become Darla is an anonymous prostitute dying of a social disease, before she defies the community’s religious establishment and is revived by The Master. (“God never did anything for you, but I will,” the vamp-lord promises.) Yet by 1760 in London, the woman The Master has named Darla has fallen for Angel, who mocks all the fussiness and ceremony of The Master’s underground lair and devoted minions—“We lurk below and give tribute to the old ones!” The Master insists—and wins Darla’s heart with his flouting of convention. (Darla’s never been one for any religion, even if it’s a demonic one.)
A century-and-a-score later, after Angel has complicated his relationship with Darla by siring Drusilla, Dru resolves some of that romantic tension by plucking a foppish romantic poet named William from the crowd and making him hers. Previously, William had been a mumbly lad, unlucky at love. (“I know I’m a bad poet, but I’m a good man,” he insists to the lady he adores, who responds by telling him he’s not worthy.) When Drusilla corners him in an alley, William’s so burning with passion that he lets her take him easily, though not without a few “ow”s. “Getting killed made me feel alive for the first time,” he later says, and indeed William gets so fired-up about being a vampire—now dubbed “Spike”—that he launches a reign of terror that Angel worries will bring them all bad publicity and drive them back underground. So Angel tells Spike a cautionary tale, about the Slayers who come for cocky vampires.
For Angel though, it’s not a Slayer that gets him—well, not yet anyway—but a gypsy curse, which prompts Darla to seek bloody vengeance on the tribe that tormented her man. Angel and Darla next reconnect in 1890 in China during the Boxer Rebellion. (“You never could resist a religious war,” Angel says to her.) There he pretends that he’s still an evil, soulless bastard, while she tempts and teases him and determines that he’s lying. Meanwhile, Spike confronts the Slayer in China and kills her, developing such a taste for it that he kills another Slayer in New York in 1977 (in the episode’s bad-ass homage to blaxploitation). But just as Darla’s viciousness can’t win her the eternal devotion of Angel, Spike’s can’t protect him from heartbreak either. In the last flashback, in South America in 1998, Spike deals with Drusilla throwing him over for some literally drippy antler-festooned demon. (Which leads to one of the funniest sight gags of the whole series, as the camera cuts to the enormous, freaky-looking creature muttering, “Okay, you guys… obviously have a thing… going on here…”)
The range of the story in “Fool For Love” and “Darla” is damned impressive, covering hundreds of years of human history as seen through the eyes of four intertwined inhumans, each coming to terms with what it means to be undead. Heck, some fascinating issues arise just in the scene in “Darla” where Darla takes Angel to meet The Master. When Angel mocks how he looks, Darla says, “The Master has grown past the curse of human features.” And when Darla chooses Angel over him, The Master hisses, “It won’t last. I give it a century, tops.” There’s something more here than just pride and jealousy. The Master represents Vampire traditionalism, while Angel and his gang—Spike especially—are becoming more and more like humans, rather than embracing their own culture. That kind of modernization has lasted, at least in the world of these shows. But Angel eventually realizes—after Spike one-ups his own brashness—that re-integration into human society comes with a price.
I was slightly less wowed by “Darla” than I was by “Fool For Love,” if only because Darla’s not as sympathetic a character as Spike. (And the subplot about Wolfram & Hart’s Lindsey being bewitched by Darla is nowhere near as compelling as the “Fool For Love” subplot, which I’ll get back to in a minutes.) That said, there’s a rich sense of romantic tragedy in “Darla,” as the episode reveals a formerly fairly blank villainess to be a nameless, remorseless misanthrope who’d rather be dead than be human. In Darla’s eyes, siring Angel was her gift to him, freeing him from a society in which neither of them belonged. But Angel has the capacity for change, and he ultimately rejects her worldview, saying, “You think you did me a favor? You damned me.”
“Fool For Love,” meanwhile, has two strong ideas in play. The episode kicks off with Buffy getting stabbed by her own stake and contemplating her own mortality. All the Slayers before her have died, with no record of how and why that happened, or whether their fate could’ve been prevented. So Buffy goes to Spike to hear his story, hoping to find out how he killed two of her kind. There’s a subtext to Buffy’s inquiries though, in that she’s also worried about her mother’s mysterious malady, which has prompted her to take proactive steps to prevent terrible things from occurring in her life. Because of that, she’s appalled by Spike’s glibness as he tells his story, and by the way he seems to relish the details of his Slayer-kills. It doesn’t even help when he tells her that, “Every Slayer has a death wish,” and that she’s survived for so long because she has ties to the world. Because when Buffy gets home, she finds out that her mom’s getting even sicker, and needs to check into the hospital. One of those major ties to the world may be severed soon.
The second strong idea in “Fool For Love” has to do with the title character, Spike himself, who got turned into a vampire because of his boyish desire, and then was dumped by his centuries-old lover because she sensed he might have a thing for Buffy. Which in fact he does, though it’s taken him a few years to realize it. When Buffy spurns Spike’s kiss, telling him he’s “beneath” her—the same words the object of William’s affection said to him back in 1880—he decides to kill her once and for all, no matter how much it literally and figuratively pains him. But then he comes upon Buffy sobbing over her mom, and he lowers his weapon. “What’s wrong? Is there something I can do?” Ever the gentlemen, our William.
There’s less depth to the episodes of November 21st, though both have their high points—the Buffy episode especially. The Angel episode, “The Shroud Of Rahmon,” is one where a great idea on paper falls short in execution, despite the best efforts of all concerned. It’s structured well, starting with Wesley being grilled at a police station and describing a case that went “horribly wrong.” Cue a flashback to Angel with blood-red lips and a vamp-face—which is a circumstance I would definitely describe as “horribly wrong.” Then cue a flash-even-further-back, to explain how Angel took a job to stop the heist of the title artifact, by impersonating a swingin’ vampire named Jay-Don and infiltrating the demon gang doing the heisting. The problems begin when Angel discovers that Gunn’s already undercover with the same gang—since it was Gunn’s cousin who brought the case to Angel in the first place—and that festering resentments between the two of them are continuing to erupt even when they’re “in character.” And it doesn’t help that the item they’re ultimately trying to protect induces a strong delirium that may turn Angel evil.
I was excited about “The Shroud Of Rahmon” at the start, because I thought it was a bold move to follow up the intricately woven (but heavy) historical tapestry of “Darla” with another kind of genre riff, playing off the good-old-fashioned “men on a mission” caper story. But the bickering between Angel and Gunn gets more annoying as the episode plays on, and even the late arrival of Wes and Cordy on the scene proves less comic than intended, as their Shroud-altered state turns them more goofy than funny. Still, the episode ends well, with Detective Kate arriving at the crime scene while the action’s still hot, and having Angel save her life by biting her neck and pretending to kill her. (Hence the image that starts the episode.) But how much pretense was really involved? In the final moments, Kate lets Wesley off the hook while thinking back on Angel biting her. And Angel, brooding in his room at the hotel, is thinking about the same thing. Chilling.
“Shadow,” meanwhile, is essentially a rubber-monster movie in short-form, with Buffy fighting off a cheesy-looking snake-thing conjured by the now-officially-named Glorificus/Glory. She uses a complicated, ingredient-laden spell to transmogrify a cobra at the Sunnydale Zoo until it’s big—though “not Mayor big”—and capable of tracking down “The Key.” Buffy, who spends most of the episode at the hospital looking after her mom, intercedes at the final hour and proceeds to chain-choke the snake-thing before it can reach Glory and inform her that Dawn is The Key.
Glory, meanwhile, has made her presence known to rest of The Scoobies. While they’re researching her, and discovering that she may be an evil so old it predates the written word (and thus the reason for the Dagon Sphere, “to repel that which cannot be named”), Glory walks right into the shop and buys the items she needs to complete her spell. When Anya discovers the exact combination of items Giles sold, she yells, “Are you stupid or something?” (Giles: “Allow me to answer that question with a firing.”) Giles tries to keep his mistake from Buffy so as to to worry her any more, but the group proves bad at keeping the secret. (“If it’s any consolation,” Giles tell Buffy. “I may have overcharged her.”)
There’s a good blend of overt goofiness and real pathos in “Shadow,” again recalling Joss Whedon’s affection for Marvel Comics. When Buffy’s asking Giles whether she can save her mom with a spell—and being told that “the mystical and the medical aren’t meant to mix”—it’s like countless Marvel adventures where the personal can’t be reconciled with the powers and responsibility of heroism. Add to that a strong bit of metaphorical development with Glory herself—who now lurks as a presence who could show up anywhere in Buffy’s life—and an already solid episode strengthens considerably. There’s real tension as we watch Riley and Dawn have a casual conversation by a carousel in the park, and we wonder whether this is the moment Glory will strike. Because ight now, Glory’s an unpredictable unknown. She’s like the malignancy revealed on Joyce’s X-rays. “Just a shadow,” yet so much more.
-Both “Darla” and “Fool For Love” cut between eras niftily, especially towards the end, when the flashbacks and the framing device begin to bleed together.
-One identical scene in both episodes, but with different meanings: the gruesome foursome walks in slow-motion through a chaotic China, and Spike hops over a little bundle in his path, looking like the happiest vampire ever. Meanwhile, Angel looks like he’s being crushed by the weight of the world. The shot’s the same in both episodes, but the focus is different, just because of what’s come before.
-Spike makes a good point about his Slayer-killing prowess: “A Slayer must always reach for a weapon. I’ve already got mine.”
-A good bit of involuntary acting by Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy flinches when Spike reaches for his pool cue.
-A good bit of voluntary acting by James Marsters as he sobs and gathers the money Buffy throws at him after she tells him he’s the lowest of the low.
-Perhaps sensing that Buffy’s feelings for her have turned, Dawn’s less bratty this week, even covering for Buffy when her sister gets injured. Though when Dawn asks, “When do I get to patrol?” Buffy shoots her down: “Not until you are never.”
-The Scoobies lend a hand when Riley patrols on Buffy’s behalf, though their assistance mostly consists of standing at a distance and admiring Riley’s military precision. (When he makes a signaling gesture, Anya says, “It probably means to follow him. Or stay here and wait for him.”) And speaking of solo Riley, is it wrong for me to be a little nervous when he walks into a nest of vampires all by his lonesome? Isn’t he decidedly weaker now?
-Anya begs off Riley’s patrol in the next episode, saying, “I for one didn’t want to start my day with a slaughter. Which shows just how much I’ve grown.”
-Glory’s spell-broker kowtows to her, coming up with increasingly elaborate honorifics. (For example: “Forgive me, shiny special one.”)
-Riley walks in on Spike smelling Buffy’s sweater. “It’s a predator thing,” he explains. “Nothing wrong with it.”
-Giles congratulates a customer on his purchase of a Weeping Buddha. “Deeply mystical. And it makes a lovely paperweight too,” he suggests.
-Has Buffy told Riley about Dawn being The Key? If not—and I’m betting she hasn’t—that makes the scene between Riley and Dawn at the carousel doubly sad. She’s talking about how she had her tenth birthday party there before she’d made any friends in Sunnydale, and he’s nodding along, not realizing that Dawn’s entire story is an implanted fiction.
-Another Ben The Intern sighting, in “Shadow.” He sees how tired and stressed-out she is and urges her to take a break, which for Buffy means strangling snake-things and foiling the plans of ancient evil. Thanks Ben!
-Xander inadvertently freaks out Anya when he says, “Just once I’d like to run into a cult of bunny-worshippers.”
-That vampire slut that Riley spoke to a couple of episodes back at Willy’s Place returns in “Shadow,” and Riley goes back to the alley with her, lets her drink a little of his blood, and then stakes her. Pretty kinky.
-In “Darla,” The Master make-up looks a lot better than it did in Buffy’s first season.
-Dru, after killing a sailor in London: “When I bit into him, I could hear the ocean.”
-Is it me, or did David Boreanaz have trouble keeping his accents straight in “Darla?” I get that Angel’s Irish accent has been fading over the years, but in some of the modern scenes in L.A., Angel slipped into a bit of the old brogue occasionally.
-I’m hoping Spike and Darla get to meet again in the modern day. They’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
-Wesley and Angel both notice Cordelia’s new hairstyle… ten days late.
-Gunn complains about being left out of an adventure, griping, “What am I supposed to do, sit home and knit?” To which Angel quips, “I could use a sweater. Something dark.”
-Kate taunts Angel: “I don’t suppose you’d want to testify… in a blindingly sunny court of law?”
-Wesley spilled cocktail sauce all over Cordelia at a fancy Hollywood party, right in front of Chow-Yun Fat. Heartbreaking all around.
-Angel gets rid of Jay-Don fairly easily, by coming up to him as a fannish lackey, and then just staking him. (Y’know, vampires really should be more cautious. They’re dangerous folks, but they’re not so hard to kill, really.)
-Angel, now posing as Jay-Don, asks one of the demons in the mob if he shops at “Ed’s Big & Spiny.”
-A not-entirely-pretending Angel snaps at Gunn for his persistently bad attitude, saying, “I’m getting pretty tired of this ‘vampires killed my sister so now I’m all entitled’ song. Don’t you know anything else, like say ‘MacArthur Park?’”
-Valid pet peeve by Cordelia: “People, you gotta keep your tombs earthed.”
-I’ll be off next week, by the way, taking a short vacation from my DVD player. (I suppose I could still watch the episodes on my Netflix player, but I think I’ll swim with my kids and play board games with my folks instead. Hope you understand.) If you need your Buffy/Angel recap fix, you should check out Myles McNutt’s blog, where he’s been working his way through the series too, and at a faster clip than I. He started a couple of months ago and is already up to Buffy’s fourth season and Angel’s first.