Thursday, 3 October 2013

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, 4.16 – 'Who Are You?' & ANGEL, 1.16 – 'The Ring'

Thursday, 3 October 2013
Spike: You know why I really hate you, Summers?
"Buffy": 'Cause I'm a stuck-up tight-ass with no sense of fun?
Spike: Well... yeah, that covers a lot of it.
"Buffy": 'Cause I could do anything I want, and instead I choose to pout and whine and feel the burden of Slayerness? I mean, I could be rich. I could be famous. I could have anything. Anyone. Even you, Spike. I could ride you at a gallop until your legs buckled and your eyes rolled up. I've got muscles you've never even dreamed of. I could squeeze you until you popped like warm champagne and you'd beg me to hurt you just a little bit more. And you know why I don't? Because it's wrong.

The conclusion of "This Year's Girl" was a really entertaining and resonant episode, that gave Sarah Michelle Gellar and Eliza Dushku some really great moments as they played each other character. In retrospect, this 'body-swap' episode can be seen as a trial run for both actresses—as Dushku headlined Dollhouse 9 years later, and Gellar played twins in Ringer 11 years later. Oddly, both of those later shows suffered from the fact the actresses were ill-equipped to do justice to the idea, whereas they managed it surprisingly well in "WHO ARE YOU?" I guess that's because they were asked to play established, well-defined characters that are clear polar opposites.

As a fan of the Faith arc that's been playing out for a few seasons now, and someone who enjoys a good 'body-swap' tale, "Who Are You?" was a clear highlight of this fourth season. Joss Whedon seems to reserve the best ideas for himself, so it's little surprise to realise he both wrote and directed this hour. While it wasn't as sublime as "Hush", it was an effective story that explored Faith's character in an interesting way—as she began to see her true self, by inhabiting the body of her mortal enemy.

At a basic level, this hour delivered a lot of entertainment from simply watching Gellar play Faith and Dushku play Buffy (the credits were even amended to reflect this change). Gellar had the more enjoyable role, as it's simply more fun to see the sweet all-American girl transform into a wild child in tight leather trousers and red lipstick. Her attempts to blend in amongst her friends (including an amusingly creepy sequence with her practising her Buffy-ness in a bathroom mirror) were great, and I loved the inevitable moment when Faith managed to trick Riley (Marc Blucas) into sleeping with her. This tends to happen in such tales, but the impact wasn't lost by the time the real Buffy realised her nemesis had sex with her boyfriend as a final sting in the tale.

Dushku had less to do, mainly because her character was imprisoned for much of it—first by the cops, then the intervening Watcher's Council (who have been transformed from bookish nerds to scholarly English gangsters). It's inherently less interesting to see a "bad girl" behaving like a "good girl", but nevertheless Dushku was convincing enough to make it work on-screen.

The episode also presented a significant development between Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Tara (Amber Benson), which is something only the Whedon-written episodes are doing much of this season. Their bedroom chat, where Willow revealed she enjoys having Tara as someone special and separate to her other life with Buffy and the gang, was a really nice moment between the pair. The show is clearly edging towards a lesbian romance for them, and it's doing so in a sensitive and engaging way. Losing Oz from the show appears to have opened up a far more interesting avenue for Willow.

As told, "Who Are You?" was a terrific episode and several scenes are still swimming around in my head—like the tremendous moment between "Buffy" and Spike (James Marsters) where it became very clear he's besotted with her. Or, perhaps more accurately, Faith?

written & directed by Joss Whedon | 29 February 2000

Lilah: How do you feel?
Angel: Like I was hit by lightning after the truck ran me over.

One thing I've found lacking in Angel is a sense that this show's taking place in a dark suburban underbelly. "THE RING" changed that with a story revolving around a bloodsport where captured demons were forced to fight each other to the death, until a 21st victory in the ring that grants them freedom. Angel (David Boreanaz) was drawn into a trap set by Darin McNamara (Douglas Roberts), who runs fights with his brother Jack (Scott William Winters), and duly captured to be their latest fighter amongst the other demons they've been snatching off the streets.

It wasn't hard to see where this episode was going. I've seen many versions of this story before. Angel played Spartacus to his fellow slaves, who had become institutionalised by the McNamara's regime, and received no help even from alpha male Trepkos (Juan A. Riojas). Meanwhile, Wesley (Alexis Denisoff) and Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) spent much of the episode investigating the disappearance of their boss and, after realising his desperate situation, quickly devise a rescue plan.

Written by Howard Gordon, who perhaps took some inspiration from Fight Club (which has been released just four months earlier), I found "The Ring" to be very entertaining despite its adherence to formula and cliché. The general arc of this episode was never in question, and yet this story's template was a really good fit for Angel. It helped that there was no weak link in either storyline (they even found a way to make Wesley feel like less of a fool), and this episode finally gave us more of an insight into Wolfram & Hart via the character of Lilah Morgan (Stephanie Romanov). One gets the feeling W&H are supposed to be this season's Big Bad, and yet beyond the very occasional name-drop it hasn't really felt that way. Perhaps now this whole storyline is being allowed to come to the fore, but I can't help but think it needed to be much more central before now. I'm not sure why Angel's producers didn't learn the obvious lesson from Buffy the Vampire Slayer that these shows work best with a serialised element percolating in the background.

This episode was nominated for an Emmy for its make-up effects, which didn't look particularly special to me. The demons looked nice, but it's the kind of work Star Trek was doing every week around the same time. Mind you, I guess Angel was airing post-Deep Space Nine, so what else on US TV was being nominated back in 2000?

Overall, I had a lot of fun watching this. Angel felt cooler and nobler than he's been in a while, the whole setting was appropriately dingy, guest-star Juan A. Riojas lit up the screen despite having few actual lines of dialogue, and there were enough wrinkles in the journey to make you forget this story's an old chestnut. I recall a Star Trek Voyager episode doing something very similar a few years before, and even these days similar plots have become genre show bread-and-butter. Didn't Being Human do something along the same lines, in both incarnations, too?

written by Howard Gordon | directed by Nick Marck | 29 February 2000