Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Some Welcome Themes in "Gingerbread"

(Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes I've seen so far: From the beginning of Season 3 through "Gingerbread", with the exception of "Faith, Hope & Trick" and "Amends".)

I found out while I was still watching Angel on TNT that I have a particular knack for missing episodes that are either crucial for establishing storylines or otherwise hold special significance for me. With my MTV scheduling fiasco from yesterday, I unfortunately missed one of those episodes I absolutely couldn't wait to see, which was "Amends" from Season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

This particular episode featured the "Christmas miracle", in which a rare cloudy/snowy day in Sunnydale prevented Angel from immolating himself by walking directly into the sunlight. Other themes that attracted me to "Amends" were strong Christian symbolism, a strong foreshadowing of later appearances of The Powers That Be in Angel: the Series, the fact it was an Angel-centric episode, and Willow's and Oz's early attempts to rebuild their relationship.

Although I'll have to wait to see "Amends" at a later date, today's airing of "Gingerbread" (written by Jane Espenson and Thania St. John) went a long way towards comforting me. First off, I've become a huge fan of writer Jane Espenson ever since I heard her DVD commentary for Angel's Season 1's "Rm w/a Vu". She's a well-spoken, intelligent woman who not only described the on-screen action, but taught me a lot about the entire TV production process. Although Espenson only wrote two episodes for Angel, they were both quite memorable: Season 1's "Rm w/a Vu", (with David Greenwalt's aid in writing the story), where Cordelia ended up with Phanton Dennis as a roommate in her new apartment, and Season 2's "Guise Will Be Guise", where Wesley was forced to impersonate Angel and ended up winning the lovely Virginia Bryce as his reward.

"Gingerbread" not only featured a great story in its own right, it also touched on a lot of great themes that I enjoyed exploring in Angel. Here are some of the highlights of the episode for me:

Stepping Through the Looking Glass. One of my favorite themes is how ordinary people react when they face the alternate world of vampires and demons. In this post, I wondered, are people able to step back into their worlds and deny the existence of the supernatural, or will they always be stuck on the wrong side of the looking glass? Although, unfortunately, events were being manipulated by a dreadful demon who took the shape of dead little Hansel and Gretel-type children, this is the best episode I've seen so far that tackles this issue head on. One of the key dialogue sequences for me was here, when Joyce chided the townspeople for trying to deny the evil that was all around:
This is not a good town. How many of us have, have lost someone who, who just disappeared? Or, or got skinned? Or suffered neck rupture? And how many of us have been too afraid to speak out? I-I was supposed to lead us in a moment of silence, but... silence is this town's disease. For too long we-we've been plagued by unnatural evils. This isn't our town anymore. It belongs to the monsters and, and the witches and the Slayers. I say it's time for the grownups to take Sunnydale back. I say we start by finding the people who did this and making them pay.
For Joyce, there was no going back after she stepped through the looking glass. She warned the townspeople that those who refused to acknowledge the existence of evil did so at their own risk. Which leads to:

What's the best way to tackle evil? This is another issue I've written about at great length. (See "Angel's Season 2 Crisis of Faith - Part 1 - The Root of All Evil"). What's the best way to fight Evil? Do you react to the consequences of Evil after the fact? Or do you try to cut it off at its head? There's no good answer to this question, which is why the Buffyverse creators repeatedly revisited the topic. This dialogue sequence between Buffy and her mother speaks volumes, particularly this excerpt:
BUFFY: Mom, I hate that these people scared you so much. And I-I know that you're just trying to help, but you have to let me handle this. It's what I do.

JOYCE: But is it really? I mean, you patrol, you slay... Evil pops up, you undo it. A-a-and that's great! But is Sunnydale getting any better? Are they running out of vampires?

BUFFY: I don't think that you run out of...

JOYCE: It's not your fault. You don't have a plan. You just react to things. I-i-it's bound to be kind of fruitless.

BUFFY: Okay, maybe I don't have a plan. Lord knows I don't have lapel buttons...

JOYCE: (exasperated) Buffy.

BUFFY: ...and maybe next time that the world is getting sucked into Hell, I won't be able to stop it because the Anti-Hell-Sucking Book isn't on the approved reading list!
Joyce fell into a common trap where people are desperate to do something but have no idea what to do. Slayers and Watchers had learned over the centuries that the best we can hope for is to maintain some sort of equilibrium where, while the monsters aren't completely vanquished, they're at least held in check. Non-champions have their own crucial jobs of functioning without fear in as normal an environment as possible. If people cowered in their homes their entire lives, then they might as well just hand the world right over to the demons on a silver platter.

In a park scene that delightfully foreshadowed Angel's Season 2's "epiphany" conversation between Angel and Kate Lockley in the garden at the Hyperion Hotel, Angel had this exchange with Buffy:
BUFFY: My mom... said some things to me about being the Slayer. That it's fruitless. No fruit for Buffy.

ANGEL: She's wrong.

BUFFY: Is she? Is Sunnydale any better than when I first came here? Okay, so I battle evil. But I don't really win. The bad keeps coming back and getting stronger. Like that kid in the story, the boy that stuck his finger in the duck.

ANGEL: Dike. It's another word for dam.

BUFFY: Oh. Okay, that story makes a lot more sense now.

ANGEL: Buffy, you know, I'm still figuring things out. There's a lot I don't understand. But I do know it's important to keep fighting. I learned that from you.

BUFFY: But we never...

ANGEL: We never win.

BUFFY: Not completely.

ANGEL: We never will. That's not why we fight. We do it 'cause there's things worth fighting for. Those kids. Their parents.
Parental Concern: All parents want what's best for their kids and will do everything within their power to achieve that goal. In spite of their parents' best efforts, most kids still turn out fine. Joyce Summers and Sheila Rosenberg tried their best to get closer to their daughters (or in Sheila's case, at least show more interest in Willow's life), but their inability to approach matters with an open mind doomed their attempts. It was just too easy for them to fall onto past habits and communicate with the girls by mechanical rote. We are all overpowered by the emotional parts of our brains. It can become almost impossible at times to approach things in a logical manner, even if we think we're making a serious attempt. When we try to search for the truth, we end up just looking for evidence that will support our own theories.

Predictably, all of this narrow-mindedness resulted in intolerance for the lifestyles of others, mass hysteria, book-burning and scapegoating.

Joyce was more than the Dopey Mom. I'm surprised that I spend a lot of time talking about Joyce, since I always thought she was a fairly minor character. I don't think it's because I relate to her that much as a mother. Joyce seemed to play a vital role within the series of acting as a catalyst who brought the key issues out into the open. She strikes me as the type whose heart was in the right place and could at least see the issues. Formulating and executing effective solutions seemed to be a problem for her.

Willow and Oz. I'm glad to see that these two were at least temporarily back together again. Both of them were so sweet and seemed ideal for each other. I know Oz was supposed to be laid-back and quiet, be he was a little too laid-back and quiet. I was just hoping to see Seth Green given the opportunity to expand his acting range a bit more.

And, ooh-la-la! Naughty Vamp Willow playing with her "puppy" in "The Wish"! I wonder if that's one of hubby Alexis Denisof's favorite scenes?

"Band Candy". This episode, also written by Jane Espenson, is not one of my favorites. However, one redeeming quality is that we were able to see Joyce and Giles as teenagers with their hormones raging out of control.

Giles. It's gratifying to see father-figure Giles coming through to save the day on a regular basis. One of the best rewards of being a parent is seeing how your children take you for granted and absolutely knowing that we'll always be there to make things right. I can tell already that whenever the kids (including Buffy) got into trouble, Dad Giles was the first person they called.

Cordelia. I wrote a few days ago that no matter how obnoxious Cordelia was, and despite having some ignoble motivations, she always ended up doing the right thing. I loved her interactions with Giles at the end of "Gingerbread" when she joined him in another swooping-in -to-save-the-day routine.

Speaking of Cordelia, I thought it was a nice twist to have her killed in "The Wish" before she had a chance to see all of the consequences of what life would have been like without Buffy.

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