The Buffy audience learned before the end of season two that Angel was getting his own spinoff show. This wasn’t just the secret insider info of the superfans, either, but commonplace knowledge discussed in the TV Guide. The audience knew as they watched season three that Angel would be gone by season four. Buffy and Angel can’t end up together, because they are going to be on different television shows, and there’s no fate more final than that.
Has there ever been another romance on TV that went down like this? The Buffy-Angel relationship was central to the show as it reached its greatest heights of public awareness and broke through to become a critical favourite. The show was on the WB, so there had to be yearning and makeouts and two beautiful people hot for each other. It was also a Whedon show, which meant emotional tragedy, so the two lovers were pitted against each other against their will. Everything else in the show – and yes, there was a lot of everything else – revolved around the central fulcrum of Buffy/Angel. The show had not overplayed its hand with these characters either, taking its time to bring them together, making sure there was plenty more to explore between them. And now, with this love story at the peak of its importance to the narrative of the show, and not even close to being exhausted, the decision is made to end it?
Splitting up a show’s central relationship to give one of the characters a spinoff – why would you do that? Even if you had faith that Angel could sustain a new show (and based on what we’d seen thus far, it was hard to see how this would work), how do you make sure you don’t wound Buffy in the process of extracting him? What if you end up with two broken shows and no working ones? And what the heck do you do with Angel in the meantime?
The show’s central romance becomes in season three a kind of slow unraveling, and the viewers can only root for them to find the least painful way to their separate futures. The characters already seemed to have a sense of what was before them, with both Buffy and Angel reluctant to resume their romance early on. This came to a head in Lovers Walk as Spike got under their skin with his claim that they couldn’t stay together without destroying each other. But the chemistry and history between these characters can’t be undone by a single speech, no matter how potent it is; the point needs to be made over and over again before it feels real. And, as ever, emotional reality is key in this show.
This episode’s purpose is to continue the unraveling, to pull a few more threads loose from the Buffy/Angel relationship, but to ensure each movement and change feels authentic. The episode (a Whedon joint) puts a focus on Angel, an important move to ensure the coming separation is mutual and thus sustainable. (Also, a bit of a test run for giving Angel the narrative focus ahead of his solo debut.) Angel is haunted by nightmares of his past sins and visions of his victims. He is being tormented by something called The First, or The First Evil, which no-one else can see, and slowly he is losing control of himself. The First seeks to drive him to kill Buffy, but even in his disoriented state he cannot do it, and resolves to kill himself instead.
What is the First? Giles knows it as an ancient power of evil. By its own account it is “something that you can’t even conceive… Beyond sin, beyond death. I am the thing the darkness fears. You’ll never see me, but I am everywhere. Every being, every thought, every drop of hate.” Angel decides to kill himself instead. “You’re not supposed to die. This isn’t the plan. But it’ll do.” Note that word, “plan”. The First claims that it (in concert with unidentified other powers, it uses the word “we”) brought Angel back from the hell dimension, and wants him to transform back into Angelus. Is this a reasonable goal for the First Evil, to bring Angelus back? And if it is – why is Angel’s suicide an acceptable alternate?
There is no attempt to make this aspect of the plot make any particular sense. Perhaps it is simplest to return to the metafictional lens. This positions the show itself as an entity with motives in the fiction, namely to make Buffy and her friends suffer. For example, Angel returned from the hell dimension precisely at the moment his return would cause the most harm. The First’s motivations suddenly make sense if we understand it as an expression of the show’s own need for antagonism and pressure. The show can freely threaten both Buffy and Angel, knowing that it needs both of them to headline their shows the following season – of all the characters to pick on, these two have absolute plot immunity. It doesn’t therefore worry that either of them will die, because they cannot. What matters is they are both pushed to a point of absolute breakdown, so they can split apart. Angel becoming Angelus and Angel trying to end his own life both work to collapse the Buffy/Angel relationship, so they are both acceptable to the First.
As things transpire, Angel attempts to kill himself by facing the sunrise, and Buffy runs to stop him. The conversation they have is extraordinary. Angel says he is too weak to resist his darkness and it is better for everyone that he die, but Buffy refuses to accept that he should give in. When Angel calls his self-destruction an act of strength, Buffy’s reply gives him pause: “Strong is fighting! It’s hard, and it’s painful, and it’s every
day. It’s what we have to do. And we can do it together.” This is as good an expression of the core ethos of the Buffy/Angel cosmology as you’ll find. And to underline the point, it starts to snow.
The snow is something of a controversial moment in Buffy. Whedon suggested it as a potential act of God, but certainly not necessarily the Christian God; a higher power, saving Angel from the sunrise, and giving him a sign of absolution. It was too crazy, too inexplicable, too sickly-sweet, too deus ex machina for many viewers. For me, it feels like the perfect ending. If the First is the show itself expressing its need to harm the characters, the snow is the show’s compassionate love for them. Angel and Buffy walk through the snowfall holding hands, their romance in a strange and breaking place, their world unsteady and uncertain, but the moment abundant with beauty and connection and meaning. Fighting is hard and painful and every day; but sometimes, if you’re lucky, it might just snow.
* What would the show be doing if Angel wasn’t spun off? Would the storyline be working out the same way? It is very hard to say. There is always pressure in an ongoing television show to avoid settling into a comfortable pattern, and Whedon has already shown his eagerness in this regard, casually throwing out patterns almost as soon as they get established. A sustained happy-ever-after for Buffy and Angel was never a possibility. At the same time, Angel was an important part of the show and a big drawcard for the audience, and it’s hard to see him getting written out – even if Whedon wanted to, the producers might have balked. The way most shows handle these twin pressures is to end up playing mix-and-match with relationships, giving every combination of established cast a chance to have a romantic connection with each other until the possibilities are exhausted. Thanks to the Angel spinoff show, Buffy manages to (mostly) escape this phenomenon (although Angel itself won’t do quite so well).
* Some cracking scenes in this one. Angel going to Giles for help, and the sudden appearance of Jenny Calendar; Cordelia’s justified coldness; the return of Willy’s demon bar (and Xander as comedy goofball again); Willow’s attempted sexytimes with Oz.
* But also some stuff that doesn’t quite land. The flashbacks never quite work, and the First doesn’t come together as a foe. The whole episode feels unbalanced structurally, which I think is a sign of ambition rather than carelessness but it still doesn’t feel right to me.
* Nice to see Faith again, and to see her joining Joyce and Buffy for Christmas.
* There’s some interesting juice in the idea of Angel’s ultimate weakness being his sexual desire for Buffy, given the association between vampires and rape culture that the show gestures towards on a regular basis.
* Buffy says to Angel: “You have the power to make amends. On your own series.” (slight paraphrase)