Monday, February 15, 2010

What a Bummer of a Birthday

It occurred to me while I was watching "Birthday" recently (from Season 3 of Angel) that "This episode is everything that's wrong with the series". That's a pretty harsh statement to make, which, by the way, doesn't stand up to too much scrutiny. Nonetheless, "Birthday" did mark a bittersweet time in Angel where it seemed like so many wonderful opportunities were beginning to open up for not only the character of Cordelia Chase, but also for actress Charisma Carpenter.

"Birthday" is almost too painful for me to watch. I know only too well that all of the lovely things happening to Cordelia in this episode (if you can call being knocked into a coma by a mind-numbing vision"lovely") were set in motion by Jasmine, the rogue Power That Be who was going to hijack her body and, in the process, set off a chain of events that would eventually kill her. It seems particularly cruel that it took the original audience more than a year to find out that the narrative of Cordelia choosing her higher calling of saving Angel and helping the helpless over choosing to have a brilliant acting career was all manufactured by Jasmine in order to bamboozle Cordelia into becoming part-demon.

Similar to questions I asked in my recent Darla maternity arc posts, I wonder, how much of the Jasmine story line did the creators plot out in advance of "Birthday", and how much of the plot was hatched out over beer shots several months later? I almost hate to admit it, but, "Birthday", and really, the rest of Season 3 and most of Season 4, started making a lot more sense after I finished watching the complete Jasmine arc. For a really outstanding analysis, I highly recommend Chief Seattle's separate "before" and "after" reviews of "Birthday", where the blogger wrote in great detail about how the inconsistencies in the episode were cleared up by the time the story arc was completed. Chief Seattle also has a great discussion on how Jasmine exploited Cordy's sense of vanity by convincing her she was being specially chosen to become a Higher Being.

It really was trite, juvenile, and borderline ridiculous that Cordelia was given the opportunity to make such a clear cut moral decision on how to live the rest of her life. My only excuse for swallowing this line is that anything is possible in the Buffyverse. The whole episode reminds me of those cute little moralistic stories I used to read in elementary school where the child sacrificed himself by doing the right thing, then was later bountifully rewarded for his efforts. (For example, I remember a story about a boy who arrived late for a Milwaukee Braves baseball game because he helped a mother find her lost toddler, only to win all sorts of terrific prizes after finding out he was the 1,000,0000th visitor to the stadium.)

One way to look at things is that all of the metaphysical claptrap Skip was spouting (here, here and here) in "Birthday" didn't really matter since it was all just a pack of lies. Which brings us to the heart of watching any show in the Whedonverse - should we even bother to break down and analyze any episode Joss produces since we're reasonably sure that our conclusions will be proven false later on?

Luckily for us, even though the Whedonverse tends to change the rules in the middle of the game, we also find dichotomy and universal truths amidst the swirling chaos. For example, I wrote in one post that a lot of what Holland Manners told Angel in his famous Season 2 elevator ride made a lot of sense even though Manners was obviously trying to mislead Angel. I've even written before that I'll take what's given to me at face value unless later events prove otherwise. In a post that I did called "The Powers That Be and Jasmine - A Dividing Line?", I hinted that I was profoundly influenced by what Skip revealed in "Birthday", in that "Inside every living thing there is a connection to The Powers That Be. Call it instinct, intuition. Deep down we all know our purpose in this world." I've interpreted that statement to mean that The Powers That Be are a universal force within the Angelverse rather than minor deities who influence only a relatively small number of people.

My above-referenced blog post also discusses constant questions I have where I wonder, at what points within the episodes are The Powers That Be involved, and at what points is Jasmine directing the events? To simplify things a bit, I've pretty much concluded that The Powers controlled Cordy's visions while Jasmine controlled just about everything else. In "Birthday", I'm still bothered by the vision that Cordy had of the 17-year-old girl on 171 Oak Street in Reseda. If TPTB brought her the vision, and if all of the things that happened during Cordy's alternate TV star reality was just a big fat lie, then what happened to the girl? Did the TPTB wonder, hey, isn't anyone going to come in and rescue the girl? Or did Jasmine provide a false vision? If Jasmine stepped in and provided the vision, that's disturbing to me since it obviously puts my too-tidy theory in doubt. I guess I'll just have to pay attention as I work through the DVD's to see if I find any other clues.

Idle Thoughts. The Season 3 DVD features the sitcom scene that was deleted from the actual "Birthday" episode. According to the excellent audio commentary from Tim Minear and Mere Smith, the scene was cut because "it wasn't funny enough". Smith, the writer of the episode, was adamant that they needed something that looked like an actual high-quality sitcom rather than a parody. (Although Minear correctly joked that most sitcoms look more like parodies anyway.) The creators wanted to portray Cordelia as being genuinely successful. Including her in a below-par sitcom simply would not have produced the desired effect.

Personally, I thought the deleted segment was kind of cute! However, I'm not a good judge of sitcoms since I prefer dramas with heavy doses of humor.

"Birthday" also gave Charisma Carpenter a wonderful platform to showcase her talents. I think she would have made a wonderful sitcom star! When viewing Seasons 3 and 4, I can't help but weave the fortunes of Carpenter together in with the fortunes of Cordelia. I've already talked way too much about how much I was enjoying the New and Improved Cordy of Season 3 (before she got too saintly), only to have to sit through the disappointment of having both her and Carpenter ground up and spit out like hamburger at the end of Season 4. "Birthday" should be one of my favorite episodes. In reality it's one of my least viewed episodes because I can't help but think of all of the ensuing disappointments for the character.

Another disappointment with "Birthday" is that it contained one of the few scenes within the series that acknowledged that Wes and Cordy almost had something going on between them back in Sunnydale. It's too bad that it happened during the "alternate reality", which meant it was really a "fake" moment of reality. If MTV ever gets around to airing Wes and Cordy's Sunnydale kiss during their Buffy broadcasts, I'll comment on that aspect a little bit more.

No comments: