Thursday, December 18, 2008
**warning- contains spoilers**
On a second viewing of the Buffyverse I've had differing opinions of just about all the seasons. Apart from Buffy Season 3, which remained almost entirely constant, I've found new things to love and new things to criticize. Occasionally my opinion differs drastically, with Angel Season 3 representing likely my biggest change in opinion.
The first time I watched the season, I was completely enraptured. As I was still watching Buffy seasons concurrently, I liked the Big Bad concept and, while I loved "Angel" very much, I missed the sense of a season-long arc. So when I sat down and finally saw the darkness of "Angel" mixed with the structure of "Buffy," I was over the moon. However, a re-run pointed out glaring quality inconsistencies and empty tension.
The season starts out with unquestionably the worst season premiere in the Buffyverse, "Heartthrob." After Tim Minear plunged us into the despair and mutual defeat of Angel and Darla's relationship throughout the big middle arc of the last season, the writers decided that apparently we all didn't get it and make this shambles of an hour. Basically, they show a vampire couple that traveled with the two who were truly in love, and in the present the surviving male provides a contrast to Angel's conflicted feelings for Darla. The problem (apart from vampire Romeo's acting)? The writers retcon the Angelus timeline for the sake of haphazardly inserting this couple, ostensibly showing a disregard for continuity that I'd never expect from Mutant Enemy.
From there the main plot sets in: Darla, despite the impossibility of vampiric conception, is pregnant with Angel's child. The ripple effect of this event will completely change the tone of the show yet again, and leads to numerous unexpected developments. The season takes a few episodes to get going (apart from "That Old Gang of Mine," which is reviled by its writer, Minear, but is the best look into Gunn until the middle of Season 4). Fred is still (quite understandably) disturbed by her experiences on Plyea, and the first few episodes show her very slowly coming out of her shell. Then we get "Fredless," which inexplicably wraps the whole thing up in a single hour.
As Darla gets closer and closer to term, the season heats up. She alternates between not just hormonal anger but rage that she shares the baby's soul. This leads to one of the most shocking, best written, and utterly moving decisions in the series. As the child's soul influences her (or infects, depending on your point of view), she comes to truly love something in the world. It all comes to a head in "Lullaby," in which she sacrifices herself because she knows that once the baby leaves her, she'll be soulless again and will likely kill him. It's a stunning end to one of the most understated and brilliant character arcs in the Whedonverse.
The birth of Connor sends Wolfram & Hart into a frenzy. Unfortunately, when Lindsey left and Holland Manners died the collective intelligence of the firm seems to have gone with them. While Stephanie Romanov is still wonderfully sinister as Lilah, the additions of Gavin Park and Linwood seem like almost parody. While Lindsey and Lilah always feared for their lives and warred with each other for power, they never came off as cowardly or petty. Linwood and Park, on the other hand, are incompetent one-note dolts; it's as if they took those two Team Rocket morons from "Pokémon" and made them lawyers. Park, thankfully, would become more calculating and devious by the end of this season and into the next one, but it doesn't excuse the fact that the writers took Wolfram & Hart, argubaly the single greatest entity in the Whedonverse and made it into a cartoon. It wouldn't recover its unsettling glory until the gang moved into their HQ in the final season.
So with Wolfram & Hart more or less out of the picture, we need a new villain; not necessarily a Big Bad, but someone more important than a MOTW. Enter Holtz, a demon hunter revived after over 200 years by a demon named Sahjahn with a personal vendetta against Angelus. If we can't have the insidious scheming of Wolfram & Hart, then Holtz is about the best possible substitute you could have. Though he is steadfast in his hatred of Angelus, even upon learning of his foe's re-souling, Holtz is a complex figure. We see that he has every reason to hate Angel, and we're left wondering if Holtz really is the bad guy. However, when he settles on young Connor as the avenue to his revenge, we see how vengeance can turn even a good man into a beast.
Holtz's desire to take the baby from Angel receives support from a prophecy Wesley translates, which states that "The Father will kill the Son." This simple sentence results in what is inarguably the most unforeseeable, shocking, and complex development arcs in Buffvyverse history: the fall of Wesley. People throw out the term "Shakespearean" too often (I myself am a bit too liberal with it), but you'll be hard pressed to find a story arc on television that comes closer to classic tragedy than Wesley's.
When we first met him, Wesley was a craven, inept, friendless Watcher who used his position to (try to) coldly boss around a teenage girl, likely as an outpouring of his own forceful father. If Alexis Denisof hadn't been so damn funny Wes could have been downright loathsome, but you couldn't help but love the goof. Then, he went to Angel Investigations and grew into a new man. Slowly leaving his nervosa behind, he becomes a surprisingly capable fighter and forges close bonds with these new friends. After years of fantasizing about being the hero, Wesley had finally become heroic. But his unrequited crush on Fred began to separate him from the crew, and the knowledge that Angel was prophesied to kill his own son drove him to make a bold decision.
In "Sleep Tight" the tragedy explodes. Wesley steals Connor, gives him to Holtz, and gets his throat slashed by Holtz's right hand lady Justine. He has truly reached rock bottom, where he will reside for quite some time. When Holtz takes Connor into an alternate dimension, he destroys his nemesis. Angel completes Wesley's fall from grace by attempting to smother him as he lay recovering in a hotel room.
In all honesty, the season should have ended here. It would have left a lot of questions unanswered while not feeling like your usual cliffhanger. But it carried on. Just when you thought it had gone as far as it could, Connor returns as a teenager. As much as I wanted the season to have ended, I admire this last leg, strangely enough because of the actions of maybe the worst character in either Buffy or Angel. When Connor returns after only a few weeks worth of Earth time, he has spent a lifetime getting brainwashed against his father by Holtz. Holtz's final victory is what cements him as a true villain; in his quest for revenge, he ruined not only his foe's life, but that of an innocent child. Connor's barely suppressed rage generates almost as much tension as Wesley's agonizing choice.
Sadly, my fears were confirmed when "Tomorrow" ushers in the close of the season with...a cliffhanger. Come on, man; the whole reason I took such a shine to Whedon's work in the first place was that it played so far outside of the usual conventions. It's all setup and no payoff, which I have no problem with...provided that it's followed by the kickass season finale. But this is the finale. I'll concede that it sets up a killer episode in the form of next season's premiere, but what must it have been like to have to wait five months just to get to the goddamn point?
Apart from my nitpicks at the end, you're probably wandering when all this new criticism is supposed to kick in. Well, looking back, Sahjahn, though a wildly entertaining character, fails to let us all know why he's here until after Wesley commits his dasterdly deed. It turns out that the dreaded prophecy originally stated that Connor would kill him, so he went back in time and rewrote it to say that Angel would kill Connor. I don't get it; does this point out the inanity of prophecies? I could get on board with that, but knowing what I know now about the events of Season 4 and what they meant to the show philosophically, this turn of events is out of place. Also, we should have learned about these events before Wesley made his choice. Imagine how much more suspenseful, it would have been to see Wesley slowly come to a conclusion that he knows is right even as we know that he's being played.
And that's the chief problem of the season: the tension has no foundation. Upon a first watch, we're being jerked around so much on a leash that we have no time to question. Every time you stop and wander aloud "Are Fred and Gunn going to go anywhere?" they toss a bone with yet another Wesley development or some crazy new happening. When I plowed through this again, I was almost excruciatingly bored at times. Whereas the last season mixed impossibly deep character and story advancement wrapped up in thoughtful yet entertaining episodes, Season 3 suffers from a notable disconnect between the episode plots and how the characters move forward. You still have to watch the episodes to see how the characters grow, but it's too often a chore.
Still, there are some strong episodes. "Billy" is total MOTW material, but it's one of those immensely unsettling and memorable ones along the lines of "I've Got You Under My Skin," while the aforementioned "Lullaby" and "Sleep Tight" are some of the most affecting and thematic in the show's run. A surprising treat is the metaphorical "Waiting in the Wings," in which the gang sees a ballet that's been repeating for a hundred years under the spell of a perversely lovelorn patron. The final stretch, though very much tacked on, is mostly superb, except for the finale.
Upon a first watch this was my favorite season until I got to S5. By then, Season 4 had purged me of my need for a big arc and it's mammoth run in its second half blew away everything I'd ever seen. But now, this rests near the bottom of the Buffyverse, along with S4 of both shows and Buffy's first season. It's still entertaining in a number of places, but apart from Darla and Wesley and, occasionally, Angel, we get too little character development. Holtz is a great villain, but Wolfram & Hart take a severe blow. If you haven't watched it yet (and I hope you have since I threw a spoiler tag at the top), then you'll likely find a lot to love about this season. But eventually you have to face the facts and admit the emperor has no clothes.