RM W/A VU
Written by: Jane Espenson and David Greenwalt
Directed by: Scott McGinnis
A Home of Your Own
One of the most important stages in a person's life is moving away from the family home and into a place of your own. It is significant in so many different ways. It represents a break with your childhood and a birth of true independence from your parents. You are in a position to take control of your own life as perhaps never before. For all of these reasons you can almost say, for better or for worse, it is the definitive experience of anyone's move from adolescence into adulthood. But in finding this independence you have to face real difficulties. A move away from your parents and the support they can provide means taking on significant financial and other obligations, often for the first time. As a young adult you may be in full time employment for the first time and will not usually have the means to replicate as comfortable a lifestyle as you enjoyed while at home. This may mean accepting less than ideal living conditions. Alternatively accommodation of your own will only be affordable with one or more others sharing it. And whatever choice is made you are going to have to (literally) live with the consequences.
For Cordelia in particular the problems of moving away from home have a special resonance. In the conversation between Angel and Doyle right at the beginning of the episode we are reminded that her expectations from life were higher than most. Angel told Doyle that she was leader of a group of girls from wealthy families.
And the contrast to her present grim living conditions was made immediately apparent by the cut away to her as she enters her apartment. Her lights donít work properly, the water is brown and spurts out all over her and the place is infested with cockroaches. So she flees. But why now, when she has been living there for so long? The answer is given to Angel
She had stuck things as long as she could but now she had enough. She was not a person who could survive indefinitely in sub-standard living conditions. Material things have always meant a lot to Cordelia. It is how she defined herself and her place in the world. She was someone because she had things. That is why she refused to speak to Aura. She was ashamed of what, in material terms, she had become. That was why she had to throw herself on the mercy of her friends. In short reached a crisis point in her life where her independence had vanished and her sense of self worth was seriously compromised.
As a series, ANGEL was, in its early stages anyway, intended to explore the challenges facing young adults. So, for all of the reasons I have mentioned at the beginning of this review, the problem of finding suitable accommodation was an ideal theme for it. But cleverly in "Rm w/a Vu" the writers have made the most of it as a theme by relating Cordeliaís crisis of confidence to her inability to find a place to live. Cordeliaís plight needs a focus, a medium through which to explore it. Because of her materialism a search for suitable accommodation provides the ideal medium for this purpose. But perhaps even more importantly, it gives us a point of reference for her character that everyone can understand. It instantly makes her situation both more understandable and more sympathetic. Given the very fine line that Cordelia as a character often treads the latter in particular is very important.
Humor in the Episode
Another thing I like about the episode is the accent on humor we find throughout the piece. ANGEL is not a social drama. The concentration has to be on the supernatural (which is after all the show's raison d'etre). But at the same time I am glad that the writers didn't make "Rm w/a Vu" a dark horror story. The discomforts involved in finding a place to call home tend to be exaggerated when first experienced. But the passage of time brings a perspective that means we become more conscious of the funny side of the experiences rather than what seemed at the time the grim reality. So the emphasis on humor in exploring Cordeliaís difficulties was an entirely natural one. Moreover resisting the temptation to incorporate too much slapstick of the "Cordelia puts her foot through rotten floorboards" variety also paid dividends. Instead the humor is character based with a concentration on the reactions of our principals to the situations they find themselves in.
This is illustrated by a number of finely conceived and executed scenes where Angel's self-sufficient, orderly and reclusive existence is totally disrupted by Cordelia. In the first one Cordelia just lands at Angel's doorstep and bulldozes her way over him. Here much of the physical comedy comes from the fact that Angel is semi-naked throughout the scene and Cordelia doesn't even seem to notice. There has been considerable comment on the number of "shirtless" scene we see in ANGEL and BUFFY. Some are quite frankly gratuitous and that is a pity. Nakedness (or rather this being network television semi-nakedness) can in fact be a very effective tool for any storyteller using a visual medium but overuse diminishes the effect. Nevertheless this scene very forcefully demonstrates its strengths . When Cordelia appears at Angelís front door she interrupts him in the middle of a shower. He could have been doing a dozen other things Ė reading a book or just listening to Beethoven for example. But then the scene we were then treated to would not have had nearly the same impact. There was poor Angel dripping wet, desperately clinging on the Cordeliaís suitcases, the towel round his waist and his dignity while Cordelia, completely oblivious to his distress, was in full flow about what a shambles her life was. Itís hard to imagine a more uncomfortable situation for him. Then, she proceeds to take over his shower, his bed and his life. Buffy's "me, me, me" attitude comes across as a sign of immaturity and emotional neediness. As such it can be slightly pathetic. Cordelia's self-centeredness, on the other hand, comes across as a sign of self-possession and inner certainty. It's hardly a "nice" quality but it evokes a bemused awe. In that scene we had Cordelia the force of nature and Angel as hapless victim. But in subsequent scenes there is a subtle shift in the emphasis. Cordelia is still treating the place as her own but Angel has recovered his equilibrium so there is much more of a conflict built into the situation than was possible with Cordelia walking all over him. This conflict develops round the incompatibility of their characters. She is careless; he is neat. She is materialistic he is austere. She isn't prepared to treat him with the respect due to the fact that she is living in his home but he isn't prepared either to make allowances for her or simply to order her out.
It isnít exactly realistic for Cordelia to be oblivious to the fact that there is a half naked man standing in front of her or, while a guest in someoneís home to cut up his linoleum. But character based humor like this is often at its best when there is a degree of exaggeration in the storytelling. Such exaggeration, while it has to bear a reasonable resemblance to real life and be faithful to the characters concerned, can bring out the inherent absurdities both in the situations they find themselves in and in themselves as individuals. Properly done, as it was here, this not only makes the humor more meaningful but (because we see ourselves reflected in them) actually tends to engage our sympathies for the characters at the same time as we find their actions amusing.
Up to this point "Rm w/a Vu" is pretty light hearted. But ANGEL, just like BUFFY, needs an edge. Almost any dramatic scenario works best where the central characters are threatened or otherwise put under pressure. But more particularly the idea of using the supernatural as a metaphor for the nasty things that happen in life is robbed of much of its force unless there is something supernatural in an episode which carries real threat. So, I am glad to say that in "Rm w/a Vu" we do not simply have a piece of light fun but a story that skillfully weaves the humorous with the serious. The warning sign of what was to come was there for all to see when Cordelia discovered her "perfect" apartment. There had to be a catch somewhere. In fact it was revealed pretty much straight away and it might have been better to delay the surprise until Cordelia's first night in the place. Nevertheless from that point onwards the tension and the pressure mounts. At first the tone is not too threatening - moving furniture and clothes, not much more. In fact by morning Cordelia convinces herself that all really is still right with the world. Indeed our own conventional expectations are that ghosts only operate at night. But having built up a degree of tension, released it and lulled us all into a false sense of security things start to go wrong again. At this point Angel and Doyle arrive and this adds further to the tension as Cordelia tries to keep the fact she has a ghost quiet. This is a very well plotted sequence which keeps the audience's attention and leaves them wondering what is going to happen next. But this is rally only set up. In plot terms it establishes the problem for Angel and Doyle to solve Ė why is the apartment haunted and what can be done about it. More importantly, from Cordeliaís point of view, through the pressure mounting on her to abandon the apartment, the writers can really make something of her need for it. In other words they can look below the surface material discomfort to see what is really going on inside her head. When it was first shown to her, her reaction to the apartment is instructive:
Later on she says: "Itís perfect and beautiful. Itís so me. I need it!". This is reinforcing the identification she feels between material possessions and her sense of self. And this is made still more explicit in the following exchange:
We have already seen how Cordelia has been brought to the point where her sense of being in control of her life and of her own self worth have been compromised. Here we get the first sign of the effect that this is having. She has begun to look at herself, her life and the bad things she was responsible for. But she does so in a very Cordelia like way. Angel recognizes that suffering can lead a person to seek change in their lives. That is why he tries to be understanding. When Cordelia compares his situation to her own he thinks she means that she will now be working for her own redemption. But that is not what she meant. Cordelia doesnít see the need to change; she doesnít want redemption. In fact, as the speech I have just quoted makes clear, what she really wants is for things to go back to being the way they were and the apartment is the symbol of that.
The problem for Cordelia is that, order to get the apartment, she has to get rid of Maude. But Maude comes after her. Why she did so is never explained. There have been other tenants who have just left without Maude trying to kill them. But from the point of view of Cordeliaís inner journey it is crucial that she does. Cordelia understands what she wants and more importantly she understands why she wants it. But she is not prepared yet to take it. And this is the key point. This is still the Cordelia whose self-confidence has taken such a battering. She needs something to prompt the recovery. It was Maude that provided it but not in the way anyone had looked for.
The Turning Point
From the moment Cordelia responds to the fake telephone call things start getting bad very rapidly. Maude assails her, calling her worthless and a looser. Then she tries to kill her with a cable. Even when Angel and Doyle arrive matters do not improve; in fact the poltergeist activity escalates. The wind howls and things start flying around. Cordelia is reduced to helpless tears. Then worst of all she is separated from the others who are distracted and so unable to help her. Finally she is confronted by Maude taunting her about the stench of poverty and failure. This is Cordeliaís lowest point. There is now surely no way back for her. But in the classic tradition, just when victory seemed inevitable, Maude overplays her hand. She uses the word "bitch" and that triggers something deep inside Cordelia. Suddenly everything is changed. Maude is the one who is powerless and Cordelia is in charge. She has taken back control over not only over the situation but over her whole life. And the fact that she does so leads Dennis for the first time to face down his mother and together they defeat her.
Both as a piece of drama and thematically I thought this worked terrifically well. As a piece of drama we have the sense of thing running out of control. We had been set up to believe that the banishing spell would solve the problem but it failed utterly and the threat was escalating. The arrival of the Kaliff demons and their henchman was unexpected and effectively took Angel and Doyle out of the picture in terms of defeating Maude. And the reversal of fortune was itself as sudden as it was unexpected. And what makes it so effective is that it takes place just when Cordelia has been reduced to her weakest. Thematically, this reversal of fortune resulted not only in Maudeís banishment but in the recovery of Cordeliaís old self in a way that was believable and in character but which at the same time was unexpected in the way it happened. Cordelia was putting the cart before the horse. She wanted to get the apartment because she thought it would help her recover her sense of self. As it turns out it was only because she recovered that sense that she got the apartment.
Of course it was Dennis who was primarily responsible for Maudeís banishment and his role in this is also very well handled. We had already been aware of him and the fact that he disappeared when his mother died. This left a mystery. If Maude had died naturally why was she still haunting the apartment. It was only after she was banished that the twist was revealed. This twist not only added to the unexpected way Maude was banished but made sense of the mystery. From the dramatic point of view that was very effective. Just as importantly, though there was a very nice tie in between Dennisí situation and that of Cordelia. Dennis had never been allowed to leave home. The cause for this was the fact that he wanted a relationship with someone of whom his mother disapproved and indicates the degree of control that Maude demanded over her son's life. Eventually, he was (quite literally) smothered by her. He remained trapped in the apartment with her unable to help Cordelia or anyone else. The implication of the final battle with Maude is that Cordelia, by standing up to her helped Dennis do the same and thereby find his own sense of independence as well.
The B Plot
Thus far I have very much concentrated on the A storyline. The B storyline is a slightly curious affair. In plot terms they are connected at two points. Doyle helping Cordelia to find an apartment was the quid pro quo for Angel helping Doyle out of his difficulties with the Kaliff demon. Then, as I have already said, the arrival of that demon and his friends in the middle of the confrontation with the ghost distracted Angel and Doyle long enough to allow Cordelia to solve the problem on her own. To that extent the episode made very good use of the sub-plot. Thematically there was a much more difficult fit. The B storyline was never actually resolved. We merely got an idea of the sort of shady lifestyle Doyle led (without at this stage any context). A clue comes in the following exchange:
With a little hindsight it may be that here Doyleís case was being used to provide a little counterpoint to Cordeliaís. For all her doubts about her future and her place in the world Cordelia retained an inner belief that she deserved something good out of life. In the end that was what saved her. Doyle, from these words, by contrast, seems to believe that his uncertain lifestyle is all he deserves. But I have to say this interpretation does seem something of a stretch. If this was a line of thought that was intended it really should have been more explicitly drawn out.
8/10: This episode is something of a turning point for Cordelia. When we saw her in "City ofÖ" she was on a downward spiral. Meeting Angel and getting a job stabilized the position but it was hardly much of a recovery for an American Princess. Tying this recovery into her finding her dream apartment worked very well thematically for someone like Cordelia who does think in material terms. Equally it worked from a dramatic point of view because the struggle with Maude over the apartment provided a focus through which her internal doubts were resolved. I have to say though that there wasnít that much depth to the issues Cordelia wrestled with. The writers it seems to me deliberately avoided addressing head on the question of "redemption" for Cordelia. Admittedly being a bitch at school is a long way from being a mass murderer but if anything Cordelia was steered away from taking responsibility or making amends for the way she had hurt others. That is probably inevitable given the fact that Cordeliaís "I think it I say it" approach was intended to be one of the corner stones of the seriesí humor. But it is still a weakness in any episode about Cordelia dealing with her past. It is one of the principal reasons I havenít graded it higher. The other is the B storyline that, although it had its uses, really didnít go anywhere terribly significant and even if it was intended primarily as set up for "Bachelor Party" and "Hero" it still seemed an ill fit thematically for this episode. The A storyline itself, however, worked very well, being a deft mix of humor, mystery, tension and action. Some parts, such as the final confrontation in the apartment, were genuinely scary.