Just past the halfway mark and we get the template that will be followed for the next two and a half seasons of Buffy/Angel romance: I love you but I can’t be with you. Sadly, the show hasn’t yet developed the self-awareness that helped me tolerate this relationship. The fact is that I never really liked Buffy and Angel as a couple. Not only did it fail to hook me, but the two just seemed to circle each other for forever without their relationship ever making any real progress. It’s hard to set that aside and look at “Angel” in itself, which is unfortunate because there’s actually a lot to like here.
This episode works best when seen as a battle for Angel’s soul waged between Buffy and Darla. Obviously, the two represent virtue and temptation respectively, but it’s interesting how closely those positions are linked to sexuality. When forced to spend the night at Buffy’s after the two of them escape “The Three,” Angel presents a whole lot of bare-chested temptation before spending a chaste night on the floor. The two of them are locked in the adolescent mold of PG-sexuality: palpable tension without any real possibility of consummation. Contrast this with Darla, the ex-flame who’s into cos-play and S&M. Angel resists her advances, though it’s clear he hasn’t done so in the past.
The reminder of the vampiric association of sex and violence is important stage-setting for the three-way showdown in which everyone’s wielding a phallic symbol of some kind. There’s never any chance that Buffy and Angel are going to kill each other here, but they both seem to know it. They go through the motions without ever getting close to sealing the deal. Darla, on the other hand, quickly shoots Angel and then has Buffy back on her heels. It was great to see how Buffy’s crossbow was built up over the episode and then revealed to be primitive and ineffective next to Darla’s dual-pistols. Angel, however, proves to be our Alpha as he impales Darla in order to save Buffy. It’s a nice bit of ambiguity which elevates an already strong episode. In an apparent definitive choice of Buffy, Angel actually consummates with Darla. The virtuous relationship he wants is tarnished before it even begins.
The battle for Angel’s soul is kept from being an A-list episode by the many, many wrinkles that are still here. Most notably, the frame-job of biting Joyce: “You tried to kill my mother, but I’m gonna give you a chance to explain.” Really? Oh, and “The Three.” Low budget shows should never, ever, put someone in armour. It just looks awful when done poorly.
As the premise for an episode, the Angel/Buffy pairing works well. As a multi-season arc, it’s crap. For adolescents, sex is both desired and feared. These two encapsulate that perfectly, so much so that their relationship can NEVER go anywhere. It’s a dynamic I quickly grew tired of as the show progressed.
Reviewing this episode is doubly hard given that these events become much more significant later on. Angel would devote a whole season to the relationship between Angel and Darla, and so her death felt a little hollow. That being said, this show (and Angel’s character in particular) still doesn’t have the credit to give Darla’s death the attention it deserves. The death works as an isolated event, so I can’t really deduct many marks.
Requisite True Blood Comparison: See above, re: Gran’s Death.