They’re different kinds of shows, these two. Buffy is punchier in a lot of ways, and more intimate. Angel is the epic adventure, that takes its time to build and pay off a story. But both are witty, thrilling, heartbreaking, and astoundingly mature about what it means to be alive in this world, and to assume responsibility for who we are, what we do, who it affects, and what it all means.
I have so much love for A.V. Club’s Noel Murray’s coverage of the Whedonverse. He basically just puts into great words what that oeuvre is or means to so many of us. I also especially love his coverage of Angel’s heartbreaking “A Hole in the World”/”Shells,” an excerpt:
“Why can’t I stay?”
Those are the last words of Winifred Burkle, before her soul is destroyed and her body claimed by an ancient evil known as Illyria. But the line also speaks to what we look for so often from the medium of television, and expresses how Joss Whedon’s shows both reward and defy our wants.
One of the key elements that distinguishes TV from other narrative artforms is in the way its dispensed: in discrete periodic installments. The advent of DVD box sets and streaming video is in the process of transforming that, but for now, most of us still watch our shows week-to-week, and the majority of TV-viewers even make an effort to watch shows on the day they air. It’s ritualistic: if it’s Wednesday night, I look forward to visiting my friends in Chatswin; if it’s Sunday, I check in on what’s going on with the lawyers at Lockhart/Gardner. I like these characters. I like these places. Even when a particular episode is especially tense, the show itself is a comfort.
Few TV writer/producers have been as consistently successful as Whedon at creating those kinds of inviting worlds, populated by engaging people. But Whedon can’t leave well-enough alone. Buffy The Vampire Slayer could’ve easily have been a fun TV series about witty teenagers who kill monsters and then hang out happily together. Angel could’ve been much the same, only with grown-ups and goofy L.A. phonies. And those would’ve been good shows: the horror equivalent of some breezy cabler like Royal Pains or Burn Notice, at once easy to enjoy and easy to forget once the hour is up. But instead, Whedon and his writers have taken full advantage of the affection fans have for their creations. The characters in Buffy and Angel (and Dollhouse and Firefly too) take dark turns, make unforgivable mistakes, hurt each other, and die. They just die. And we watch, helpless, as these places we like to visit and these heroes we’ve come to love are transformed almost beyond recognition, while we plead, “Why can’t I stay?”
“A Hole In The World” and “Shells” are yoked together, with the latter featuring scenes and lines of dialogue that echo the former. In “A Hole In The World,” Fred dies. And in “Shells,” we find out that she’s really dead—that this isn’t some temporary displacement. By the time these episodes are done, Wes will be wracked with grief, Gunn will feel overcome by guilt, and Lorne will see his generally upbeat disposition drop into abject despair. I’m not going to lie: these episodes hurt.
Of course they wouldn’t hurt so much if they weren’t so suspenseful, so funny—so fundamentally entertaining. We get to take a good, long look at the non-tragic version of Angel before Whedon and company bring the pain. We see Gunn playfully messing with Wes, pretending that he and Fred are getting back together. (And note the look on Wes’ face during that exchange; he’s crushed but not surprised, because Wes always seems to expect the worst when it comes to his potential happiness.) We also get an amusing running gag involving Spike and Angel’s argument over whether a caveman could beat an astronaut in a fight. (And note how this foreshadows the story of Illyria, a primitive force who by the end of “Shells” will find herself trapped in a world that she never made. Also note that the sides Spike and Angel take in this debate roughly approximates their individual opinions of mankind, a race that Illyria could do without.)….
…. The cruel brilliance of Whedon is that he’s willing to push us more than he has to—to destroy what is beautiful in his shows, perhaps because he wants us to feel his own deep pessimism toward the fantasy of unconditional happiness. Whedon’s a Marvel Comics kind of guy, raised on heroes who bicker and stories that never conclude but just get more and more complicated. The characters stay the same, but the take on them varies, year by year, storyline by storyline, creator by creator. How much can be altered before something essential is lost?
At the end of “Shells,” Illyria adopts Fred’s voice for Wes, saying, once more, “Why can’t I stay?” And then the episode flashes back to the moment when Fred said goodbye to her parents and moved to Los Angeles—a moment that also opens “A Hole In The World.” Back at the beginning of this two-parter, the scene with Fred and her folks is light, as her dad disparages the “city of angels” and Fred makes sure she has her bunny. (Feigenbaum!) Fred promises that she’ll be dull and boring in L.A., and then the scene cuts to her blasting tiny demons with a flame-thower. It’s a funny juxtaposition, but also an indicator of how plans—and people—change. Because of circumstance. Because of a sense of duty. Or because there’s a rot to mankind that eventually spreads to even the best of us.
“There’s a hole in the world,” Spike says at the end of part one, as he stares down a shaft at The Deeper Well. “Feels like we ought to have known.”
Ah, but you should’ve known, Spike. After all, this world was created by Joss Whedon.