Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Angel”

April 21st was a bye week for Buffy, which was handy, as it gave me some extra time to think about “Angel” (and also I was busy making Buffy references in my Magicians season finale review. Do you watch this show? You should. Anyway). The truth of the matter is that I want to blow past “Angel” to get to “I, Robot… You. Jane,” because I have a lot of thoughts about the internet in the ‘90s.

And also because Angel is kind of boring, this time around. I’ve been there for Buffy and Angel, though I never came down firmly on one side of the Angel vs. Spike wars. I’ve sobbed my way through “I Will Remember You”—the Angel episode, not the Sarah McLachlan song—more times than I’m likely to admit. But Angel the person is not as interesting as Angel the symbol, and the purpose he serves in this show.

He complicates the morality. Vampires, as far as Buffy—and Giles, and the whole goddamn Watchers Council—know, are simple. They’re bad. You kill them. Stake, heart, dust. They might’ve been good people once, but they’re demons now, and they just want to kill you anyway, so poof it is. They are bad guys, and bad guys are just bad.

Angel, when it comes right down to it, introduces the complexity that eventually leads the show to season six and the trio and the horrible problem of monsters who are also just people. We’re a long way from that, at this point. But he’s a bug in the system, in the Slayer mythology that says what she does is right and what they do is wrong. He’s helped her and cared about her and sure, been mysterious and annoying, but generally, it’s seemed clear that he’s a good guy.

Just a good guy with fangs.

Season 1, Episode 7, “Angel
Written by: David Greenwalt
Directed by: Scott Brazil
Original airdate: Monday, April 14, 1997
Rewatch date: Monday, April 17, 2017
Blame the lateness on: FAMILY, still. Listen, April 14 was very important this year, ok? I’d only been waiting for it for two years.

“With power comes … responsibility”

What happens: Some bad guys come to town to work for the Master, but it doesn’t exactly work out. Angel and Buffy get closer, Darla sets up a thing where it looks like Angel bit Buffy’s mom, and a whole lot of vampire skeletons come out of the closet. With feelings. So many feelings.

(For all my thinky thoughts about Angel and moral complexity, I did have a couple of beers before I watched this episode, and I might’ve gotten a little punchy. We’ll see how that carries over.)

The extremely forgettable thing about “Angel” is the entire subplot involving the Master and Darla and the Annoying One, who gets his first line—”I’d annihilate her,” the tiny evil says. The Master is going to send three real fun guys after Buffy, because his plans to kill her have worked so well so far.

Meanwhile, the Bronze is having a fumigation party, which is a level of realness that I very much appreciate. The Bronze is Exposition Stage, as ever, and tonight it’s for Buffy to talk about how with some guys, it’s like the lights dim, which is a cue for Willow to look at Xander, dancing like a dying muppet, and for me to wonder, again, what she’s supposed to see in him, and for Xander to once again make a totally sexist crack in the name of “humor”:

“I don’t know what everyone’s talking about, that outfit doesn’t make you look like a hooker!”

Direct from my tipsy self’s notes: XANDER THAT IS NOT FUNNY get an insult that isn’t about a woman’s sexuality you tool

(Xander is not likely to take my advice.)

Dead bugs and bad jokes aside, Buffy admits she’s attracted to Angel just in time for him to lurk at her from behind the stairs. They get into a fight with some actual bad guys and have to take turns saving each other, so that everyone can be properly worked up and ever so slightly injured enough for Buffy to bring Angel home and invite him in and everything to go delightfully awry when Joyce appears, as parents are wont to do.

Joyce somehow doesn’t comment on the classic ‘90s style Angel’s sporting—a white t-shirt under a blazer—but simply asks, “What do you do, Angel?” as he’s clearly too old to be in high school. The entire setup here feels only half thought out, because this is just a fakeout, a chaste, innocent post-fight moment built for Xander to freak out about.

Shut up, Xander.

Giles, on the other hand, is concerned about Buffy in a way that makes sense: He still doesn’t have a handle on this girl who is not like other slayers, who has friends and a family and a knack with a quip. (“Goodbye stake, hello flying fatality!”) When he trains Buffy, this early, it’s about him. He wants her to start slow, to wear pads, to go through the motions. She just wants to keep moving. You can see it in her face as she processes the new weapons: What’s this? Oh, I’ve got it.

She’s really fast with weapons, with figuring out a situation with monsters, but not so fast with Angel. That scene where she babbles about how he shouldn’t have read her diary—it’s their relationship, in a nutshell. Angel is near a thing happening; Buffy assumes the worst. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But now, here, this early, this awkward, all the stumbling is believable, and so is the way their first kiss builds to that reveal: TA DA! VAMPIRE! We all should’ve known, right? We should’ve known that a relationship that starts with a kiss this fraught can only go to darker places.

(Husband: “Why did he vamp out?” Me: “Because he had feelings.”)

“Can a vampire ever be a good person? Could it happen?”

This is the episode’s central question, and what makes it work—all my glibness aside—is that it’s not just Buffy and her gang asking it. Darla shows up to give Angel a little pep talk about vampirism, and about what he is not:

“You’re living above ground. Like one of them. You and your new friend are attacking us. Like one of them. Guess what, precious? You’re not one of them. Are you?”

Angel is the focus, but Darla is the problem. Sneaky, sly Darla, always playing the schoolgirl, sugaring her way into the house to bite Joyce and pin it on Angel. He has very bad control over his vamp face, this early on. And the problem with him and Buffy, as ever, is communication. He never explains. She never asks the right questions. It’s not until Joyce and Giles are discussing whether Buffy’s applying herself in school that Joyce said it was Darla who came over that night.

There’s a funny girls-competing aspect to all of this. Darla wants Angel to be who he used to be; Buffy represents the person Angel wants to be. But Buffy herself doesn’t have any delusions about what Angel is, even if she doesn’t know the whole story. And it’s a story Angel is so slow to volunteer. He killed his own family; what difference does it make if he didn’t hurt Buffy’s mom?

But eventually, she gets the story. The restored soul. That he hasn’t fed on a person since then. It complicates Buffy’s world again: How does a vampire not kill people? How does he make that choice? And how can he love Buffy, like Darla says? “You love someone who hates us.” Already? That might be iffy, but Angel makes his choice clear when he stakes Darla.

It’s par for the course for a relationship like this to mean more than the narrative has established. Angel slinks into Buffy’s life, slinks out again, and somewhere around all the slinking, feelings get real, even if mostly he’s just watching her from the shadows and offering cryptic advice. They have a peculiar chemistry, and attraction doesn’t always make sense. If the story doesn’t sell it, the actors sure do:

I just gotta walk away from this.
I know, me too. One of us has to go.
I know.

Not that Buffy and Angel have a monopoly on bad romantic choices. Oh, Willow. I felt for her so much back then, when I first watched this, and now I just think, Why does such a smart girl throw her affections away on such an undeserving guy? But then, that was why I felt for her, right? That was why we all did. Who hasn’t wasted some part of their heart on a person who was never going to appreciate them properly? It’s hard to watch Xander being insufferable because it hurts Willow, who doesn’t deserve it. But we almost never do.

MISCELLANY
Buffy’s crocheted pillow looks really uncomfortable.
“Later there was an ick factor” is a great Willow line.
“Well, you weren’t here from midnight until six researching it.” Giles, honey, get some sleep, ok?
Darla saying to Angel “Remember Budapest” invented a whole new Darla/Black Widow Angel/Hawkeye headcanon for me.
“No speaking up! That way leads to madness and sweaty palms.”
The delightful moment when Joyce doesn’t understand why the librarian is in her hospital room. “The teachers really do care in this town.”
There is more shooting in this episode than in all other Buffy episodes combined.

DOES BUFFY GET INJURED? Not really? I forget? Did I mention there were beers? Angel gets hurt as a plot point, which is silly, since it should heal so quickly.
IN HOW MANY WAYS DOES XANDER NOT DESERVE WILLOW’S AFFECTION This is going to be very hard to track.
WEIRD THINGS EATEN OR DRUNK AT THE BRONZE Let’s not think about this in relation to the fumigation, ok? Let us never speak of it again

Previously: “The Pack” | Next: “I, Robot … You, Jane

Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Angel”

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