The Solute Review: Buffy Season 5 and Angel Season 2

The Daily Grind Of Being A Good Person: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five and Angel, Season Two

I was genuinely astounded by how tightly woven these two shows were. During Angel‘s first season, the crossovers came across as experimental and playful; initially, the joy of seeing Spike and Oz immediately drive from Sunnydale to Los Angeles, and then watching Faith turn from an irredeemable monster to a change for Angel’s redemption just through a change in perspective. The ambition immediately accelerates here.

On a plot level, we see some technical marvels; crossovers are times exactly when characters could and would plausibly cross, with my favourite being that Joyce passes away exactly when Angel fixes things up with his crew. I’ve decided that Whedon’s most underrated skill as a writer is his infinite patience – planting seeds now without giving the audience so much as a wink that it’ll matter later. This culminates in the elegance of the final minute of Angel.

More than that, though is the themeatic crossover.

Angel is about a man learning to live his life by dramatic principles. Despite the flashbacks (which drop in frequency as the second season goes on), the show is much more dramatically structured than its parent show; the stories are more stripped down and characters divided by agendas that bring them into and out of conflict more often. There’s also this spiritual sense of echoing consequences; I didn’t want to make a big deal out of Shawn Ryan joining the writing team, but there really is a Shield sense of mid-term plotting in how plots are single actions that echo out into time until they fade away.

Angel isn’t just one dramatic character within this show – he’s deliberately, consciously fashioning himself into a pure dramatic figure. One of the essential aspects of drama is the removal of things; options, motivations, characters, until you’re eventually down to one room alone. The most powerful arc in the show is when Angel fires his whole staff to become a lone creature of the night playing by his own rules (none).

One a basic entertainment level, it gives a pleasing effect in which Angel and his team are operating in separate stories, letting us jump from idea to idea that occasionally intersects. But it culminates in Angel finally getting what he thinks he wants: sleeping with Darla. Now, Angel has always dismissed happiness as a goal out of hand, because he’ll turn into the rampaging monster Angelus if he does, but he’s surprised to find that after he gets to finally have sex with the woman he always pined after, he remains Angel.

This leads to the single best episode of the show (so far), in which Angel delivers that famous speech, “if nothing we do matters, all that matters is what we do.” This is one principle of drama; what will people do? My favourite scene, though, is the one where he’s gleefully beating the shit out of a guy while explaining all the motivations he though he had and dismissing them.

He threw out happiness as a motivation a long time ago; he had the possibility of repairing the evil in the world taken away from him by Hollis; he tosses out redemption or revenge or power or even satisfaction in that scene. He strips it all down to a single action; he’s going to help people. That is to say, motivation and action have become the same thing. It’s not about the world, it’s not about the outcome; it’s about what he’s going to do.

What really moves me – just as in all drama – is how he follows through. He comes back to the team and not only swallows his pride, he obliterates it. The fascinating thing about Angel and Angel is that he’s not at all a traditional male power fantasy; he’s socially awkward and fails about as frequently as a Cowboy Bebop character. I genuinely struggle to think of many characters who would comfortably submit to the humiliating experiences the team puts him through when he wants to come back.

The way he puts himself through these experiences is fascinating, admirable, and even morally revealing. One of my favourite scenes in the season is when he meets a guy he asked for help once, and he casually admits that not only did he fail to save anyone, he basically let that demon have the run of the place. This is what a complete lack of pride and complete indifference to self-image looks like. What do you care about – what people think of you, or your goal being achieved? Sometimes you have to pick.

This is the most ambitious season of Buffy yet. On a basic level, it’s juggling way more plots, right from the start. On a conceptual level, it’s delivering one of the strangest and most potent emotional arcs I’ve ever seen. The first savvy move it pulls is establishing that everybody is stable and comfortable with the situation they’re in, only to throw a wrench in the final seconds of the first episode with the sudden appearance of a little sister we’ve never seen before.

This exists to set Buffy on the path to destroying the mask she wears. The fundamental difference between Buffy and Angel is that Angel is anti-authoritarian – to the point that he doesn’t even believe in his own authority – and Buffy is resolutely authoritarian. This makes sense to me as part of their respective fantasies; Buffy is a teenage girl, and Buffy exists to counter just how passionately the world hates and punishes teenage girls for the crime of existing and being vulnerable.

Buffy believes it is incumbent on her to fix every problem and that she should never have problems herself. There’s no room for Buffy to be weak or vulnerable; the moment that happens, she stops being the hero. Throwing Dawn into the situation shakes this up a bit; it’s interesting to me that Buffy doesn’t feel responsibility for her until she stops being her sister and becomes The Key, but that makes sense to me in that I recognise sibling rivalry (having engaged in that myself).

With siblings close in age, you’ve got a genuine equal who can challenge your authority and self-image. Once she is revealed as the Key, Buffy can comfortably see her as a victim and not a rival. It’s when her mother dies that we really see the mask Buffy is always wearing and how it slips.

I don’t think Buffy every really thought of the possibility of her mother dying, and it’s as if a pillar of her world has come crashing down. Whatever she might have said or did, her mother was ensconced in her mind as an Icon – something she could return to whenever she needed. It’s interesting to me that if I’d watched this when I was younger, I wouldn’t have gotten it; not just because I’m going through the process of watching my own father slowly die, but because I’ve seen my own personal icons crumble and decay, and found myself drawn to replacing them.

Buffy had found herself thrust in the position she really always craved – an authority figure turned to in order to make all the big decisions – and has found she doesn’t really want it. I always enjoy fantasising about authoritarians being thrown off their high horse and then I always feel bad for them when it happens; Buffy finds herself desperately wanting to go back to someone else being able to cover for her.

So, I’m gonna make a big deal out of Shawn Ryan joining the writing team. As any person of reasonable taste and sophistication knows, Ryan was the creator of The Shield, and it’s impossible not to project qualities of that show onto here and vice versa. Ryan’s first episode as writer has a very Shield plot where Gunn is moving through a poor black neighbourhood, solving a mystery by following chaos, and it has Cordelia make a very Vendrellian error.

Here’s some wild speculation: the biggest influence Whedon had on Ryan was introducing him to the idea that characters are who they are, even when it’s inconvenient for everyone. The dramatic instincts are something he would have found anyway; the love of cop shows was all him; the style was something honed through experience. But I think about Claudette continuing to investigate even with pressure from Vic and Aceveda, and I think, he wrote that scene because he saw Whedon do that kind of thing.

What is it exactly that people don’t like about Xander? I’ve seen him held up as an example of a toxic Nicy Guy, and that is a very accurate description of him in the first season and absolutely nowhere ese. He does cheat on Cordelia in the second season – and that romance was ill-advised in the first place, coming off as if Whedon paired them off so they had something to do – but after that he comes off as a regular decent dude.

I like that “The Replacement” hints at its big twist – the eerily confident Xander is, in fact, an aspect of the real one rather than a demon – early on when his boss remarks that he’s shown a lot of competence the past few months. On top of this, it makes sense to me that Dawn likes him the best because he treats her as a person with her own wants and desires, because of course he does because he does that all the time for everyone.

Xande evolves into the most practical-minded of the cast; the one who uses simple and reliable methods to solve problems. In a way, he’s been that guy ever since he told Angel he was the only person who could save Buffy back at the end of season one. it reaches its apex in my favourite scene in the show (so far), where it’s he who confronts Buffy about her moping over Riley with the question that every adult ends up asking a child: who cares if it’s fair?!

So why do people dismiss him as a Nice Guy and not a nice guy? It’s possible he’ll do something shitty in the next two seasons, of course, but I think it’s something much different: people formed a preconception about him based on season one and then wouldn’t fucking let it go.

I’ve read and heard in a lot of places that people form an entire view of someone in the first ninety seconds of meeting them. I don’t think this applies to me, and I don’t really respect it. First of all, I don’t see how you can judge someone based on almost zero information. Secondly, isn’t it more fun to allow yourself to be surprised by someone? Isn’t it pleasurable to see how radically different Xander is and the path he’s travelled?

When you get right down to it, why should I care that he was a douche in high school? Maybe there are unpardonable sins, but is that really one of them?

Like may Angel fans, I fell in love with Lorne from the first frame of his face. He speaks Whedonesque dialogue with the charisma of the coolest queer in the drag club, and he gets to deliver stunning insights into people because he says them both kindly and in a matter-of-fact way. There are a lot of demons in both Buffy and Angel that are basically ‘what if a regular dude also had brightly coloured skin and horns’, but Lorne gets to be all that and more.

I really love that he gets the final arc of the season, and especially that it’s a typical John Carter kind of story – an extraordinary man leaves his boring existence on Earth for an exciting dimension – but with the aesthetics perfectly reversed. On one level, it’s a fun exploration of a different angle of Angel’s story; Angel finds himself much happier in this world where violence is easy and consequence-free and morality is black and white (and also, he can stand in the sun – David Boreanaz is adorable, in general but especially when Angel is joyful). Lorne, for his part, prefers a world where he can indulge aesthetics and use his literally magical empathy to an end.

I also like the way this interacts with the queer coding. I’ve notices that the last couple of decades of speculative fiction (both fantasy and sci-fi) have had an interesting relationship with the Hero’s journey; the point of that story structure is that the hero starts out weak, goes out into the magical world, learns things, then comes home to use what they learned to improve the world.

One of the big complaints about this structure is how predictable it can be. A lot of stories over the years have worked to subvert the Hero’s Journey in order to create a refreshing experience – the treatment of The One in the Matrix sequels being a theoretically interesting take on it – and a big side effect of that is how may stories are about going into a magical world and then staying there.

The big and helpful one to point to is Harry Potter – it’s become quite commonplace now to point out that Harry enters a strange magical world, sees hundreds of social injustices, and decides to become a cop, but few people point out how irrelevant the normal world becomes. Harry doesn’t use magic to cure cancer and he doesn’t use his experiences to improve things back home. The closest he comes is making peace with his childhood bully (“I don’t think you’re a waste of space.”).

Lorne is interesting in this context. He went on a magical journey to a faraway land and he stayed there, because home fucking sucks and he was right to do so. It helps partially that the world he escaped to is a facsimile of our world and enormously that he built a business and a community in which he is a mover and shaker. The fantasy worlds of Harry Potter and the MCU feel childish; Lorne feels like someone who chose responsibility that he liked. Over the one at home that he hated.

The intense sophistication of the storytelling here is marvelous, and I especially love that the shows reward you for keeping up with them. It’s incredibly cocky to throw Dawn at us and choose not to explain for, like, eight episodes, and that kind of thing is all over these shows. “The Body” is a particularly potent moment of ambition for Buffy, going out of its way to show us things we’ve never seen before and making sure it all makes sense.

Obviously, there’s a lot of cool shit going on with the sound design and editing. Whedon holds on shots too long, emphasises every sound down to the scrape of the carpet, yadda yadda yadda. What really interests me is how much time he lingers on Joyce’s body, far beyond what most people would consider good taste (it started to resemble how corpses are treated in comedies). It pays off so powerfully in those final seconds, when he silently cuts a moment of catharsis short.

It pays off even better in the very next episode, “Forever”, which for my money is the best episode the show ever did (so far), It ends with a moment ripped straight from “The Monkey’s Paw” and it works because I care about these characters. Kristine Sutherland managed to generate pure kindness; Joyce was a woman without a malicious bone in her body. It was a Whedonesque character moment when Spike said he genuinely liked her for her decency.

It makes sense that Dawn would be naive enough to think you can bring back something dead with no consequence, and there was a time that I would have done the same thing. But there are no circumstances in which I want to see whatever was behind that door. The very thought of its shadow cast on the window sends a chill down my spine. It’s better to keep the spirit of Joyce alive then to watch her corpse shamble about.

Buffy dies taking responsibility for something. The funny thing about all the teen melodrama is how irrelevant it feels at the end – all the characters are reduced to their essential cores, and for all of them, that core is the job they’ve chose. Willow is a witch. Xander is a husband. Giles is a Watcher. Buffy, of course, is the Slayer.

When Giles kills Ben, it isn’t just a moment of awesome ruthlessness, it’s foreshadowing the end. He has his job, Buffy has hers. This job we pick – or have thrust upon us, in more ways than one – is what defines us. Emotions come and go (“Every man’s conscience is vile and depraved/You cannot depend upon it to be your guide.When it’s you who must keep it satisfied”), but whether a job is done or not is an objective marker.

This is what makes Buffy a great Coming of Age Via Genre story; it’s the slow, painful process of choosing the role one has in the world and choosing to fulfil it. It’s one final metaphor, and it;s the ultimate and oldest one: death as a metaphor for change. Her life as a child is over and now it;s time for the next life.

Hang on, there’s two more seasons? What the hell? Where could they possibly go wit

Original article at The Solute

This article has been reproduced for archive purposes, all rights remain with the originating website.

Author: Cider

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