Written by: Tim Minear
Directed by: Winrich Kolbe
Past Catches up on Angel
basic premise for “Angel” is the search by our eponymous hero for
redemption. However, until this
episode we have been looking at redemption in only one way – what Angel does
to earn it. There is another side
to redemption – what Angel has done to need it in the first place.
By this I am not referring to the source of Angel’s feelings of
responsibility for Angelus’ crimes. Rather
I am referring to the nature of the crimes themselves.
This is a question that has to date never really interested the writers,
not only in “Angel” but in “Buffy” as well.
We got the odd passage of dialogue here and there in episodes such as in
“Angel” and “Lie to Me” but surprisingly little attempt was made in
“Buffy” to explore just what it meant to be Angelus, the vampire serial
killer. Even during the “Angel
goes bad” period from “Innocence” to “Becoming 2” the focus was not on
what Angelus did but rather how Buffy reacted to it. The most comprehensive view we have of Angelus’ past
is in “Amends” where Angel is visited almost literally by the Ghosts of
Christmas past but even here the focus is on how the human soul reacted to the
memories of individual deaths.
There is no attempt to get into the mind of a killer.
And, crucially, what we do see is confined to the dead past – gone if
“Somnambulist”, Angel’s past literally does come back to haunt him in the
worst way possible. One of his own
children – a vampire he created -
is repeating a pattern of killing that Angel himself taught him.
In him I am sure we are intended to see a reflection of the mind of his
vampire father, Angelus. But crucially the killings continue to the present and
in the present they stir the demon still within Angel and affect his
relationships with those around him. This
is indeed a far more potent mix than anything we have seen before.
“Somnambulist” is a story which helps us understand Angel’s past
but also the nature of the demon still within him.
Because of this it is also about the consequences that past has for him
to this day. And they are not easy
ones to live with.
is in this context that we have to look at the title of the episode and the way
it begins. At first sight the
opening seems little more than an elaborate piece of misdirection.
Angel’s killing dreams and the fact that the bodies the killer left are
marked in a way that Angelus had made a trademark at one time give rise to the
suspicion that he was murdering again. This
was never going to be a particularly effective twist on its own because, almost
instinctively, we knew that Angel was not responsible.
The significance of this little piece of misdirection, however, does not
lie in the twist it gives the plot. We are being reminded very forcefully that
the demon is still there within Angel and that if the circumstances were right
it could re-emerge. Angel admits,
not once but twice, that he enjoyed the killing dreams. And this intellectual
realization is reinforced visually by the wonderful scene where we listen to
Kate’s description of a serial killer while watching a montage of Angel
stalking the streets. Every word
she used applies to him, not as the soulless killer Angelus but as Angel the
ensouled vampire with the demon within who could be released at any moment:
suspect will be a white male. To the observer he will not seem a monster.
His victims put up little or no struggle, so it’s likely that he is charming,
attractive, but at his core he is a loner; possibly a dual personality, who
once the crime has been committed, retains no memory of the act. He
will not view his victims as sub-human; rather it’s himself that he views as
something other than human, more than human, a superior species. Stalking
his prey, getting to know them. It’s
unlikely that he’ll be married though he may have recently come off a
long-term relationship that ended badly. We look for a precipitating event
in cases such as this, and a painful break-up is always at the top of the list.
Prior to failing this relationship may have marked an inactive period in our
suspect’s life. He would have regarded it as a lifeline, his salvation,
but once ended, it resulted in his recidivism. - What is not in
question is his experience. He’s been doing this for a very long time,
and he will do it again.”
is, I think, no coincidence that the first sight we get of Penn is as the newly
turned vampire making his first kill under the watchful eye of Angelus.
That kill happens to be his own sister and then Angelus incites him to
make a feast of the rest of his family (thus emulating Angelus’ own family
values). Moreover Penn hated his
own mortal father but admired and wanted the approval of his vampire sire.
These two strands meet very nicely in his constant repetition of the same
killing pattern. By re-enacting the
killing of his own family he sticks it to his mortal father while paying homage
to his sire who taught him what to do. In
the son we see a reflection of the father.
But for Angel the chilling thing about Penn’s murders is that, unlike
his own crimes, they are not confined to the past. Rather they continue into the present and, as the individual,
who made Penn a killer and taught him his pattern he, Angel, is by extension
also the author of each new death.
this context Penn’s unimaginative approach to the killings is important.
It was stressed on several occasions that his pattern did not vary.
This reinforced the idea that in 200 years he had not formed a pattern of
his own but was simply replaying what he had learned at his master’s feet.
And Angel himself adds the most important details.
He immediately recognizes the intention of the cross marked on the
victims’ cheeks. In his dreams he stalks his victims, toys with them and
before they can die of their fear he feeds from them.
In these dreams of course he is experiencing Penn’s hunts.
But he is also reliving his own past, thus completing the identification
between himself and Penn.
am reminded of Angel’s own words in “Rm w/a Vu”.
When Kate reminds him that PI’s have more than one name she adds that
Popes and Rock Stars are the one-name guys.
Angel retorts “You got me. I’m
a Pope.” And what is the name given to the serial killer here?
this identification between Angel and Penn is further highlighted by Kate.
Both Wesley and Cordelia were concerned at the thought that Angel may
have become a recidivist. But once they knew that they were not going to become
“cocktails” their trust in Angel is substantially unaffected. They drew the distinction between Angel on the one hand and
his vampire past (as personified by Penn) on the other. Kate was different.
the beginning of the episode Kate’s trust in Angel, even her attraction to him
is stressed. She goes out on a limb
for him, first over the number plates and then over the search for “the
Pope”. But that trust, that connection with an ordinary member of society
simply serves to counterpoint the strength of her reaction against him when she
finds out the truth, is destroyed by the revelation of his true nature.
Instead of a friend, once Kate knows the truth, becomes Angel’s
accuser. And in keeping with the
theme of the episode she makes no distinction between Angelus’ own actions and
those of Penn. She makes them both
the subject of her reproaches.
Angel: “I can’t make up for the past, Kate, I know that.”
“No you can’t. In fact all of this what’s happening now, is really
because of you. You made him, didn’t you?”
have always found incomprehensible the “Buffy” writers’ evident lack of
interest in the possibilities of greater inter-reaction between Angel and the
Scooby gang, especially in Season 3. And
it is here that we see just what we were deprived of in a face to face
confrontation between Xander and Angel over the latter’s past. Kate’s moral judgment may not have been fair but it carried
conviction and weight and it made all the more real Angel’s own internal
struggle. He will not deny
his responsibility (whether his shouldering of that responsibility is fair or
not) but at the same time he desperately wants acceptance and recognition that
he is good now. That is why he is
reduced to a slightly pleading “Let me help end it, please”, only to have
that word “please” flung right back in his face. For a while Kate treated
him as if he were human, something that Cordelia, Wesley and even Buffy could
not do. And that of course is what
Angel wants, that is the ultimate aim of his quest for redemption. But in “Somnambulist” his past returns to deny him the
one piece of acceptance that he has found.
that were all the episode were about it would indeed make for very depressing
viewing indeed. But that is not all
that there is. Indeed in many ways
it seems to me that this multi-layered examination of Angelus
as serial killer is only the launching pad for the real message of the
story – for Angel there has been change.
This point is made principally in two scenes. In that stunning confrontation across the barrier of sunlight
we see on the one side the vampire who has turned his back on the past and on
the other the vampire who is still stuck in it.
The gulf of understanding between them as to Penn’s murders is now
clear for all to see. Indeed, if I
am correct and this episode is about Angel dealing with the consequences of his
past, the destruction of Penn is the outward sign of how he does so.
Finally putting an end to the chain of death that he started (albeit with
help) symbolizes how the fight against evil can bring about his own redemption.
This idea is neatly encapsulated in the superb scene between Cordelia and
Angel at the end. We are
reminded of why Angel is in LA and in being so reminded the change from his past
is once more emphasized:
“You’re not him, Angel. Not anymore. The name I got in my
vision, the message didn’t come for Angelus, it came for you. Angel.
And you have to trust that whoever that the Powers That Be
be…are…is…anyway, they know
it is here that Cordelia’s attitude is so important.
Her willingness to accept him as good both when Wesley first raised the
suggestion that he was killing again and in the final scene on the roof is not
only evidence of her friendship for him.
Cordelia is no sentimentalist. When
she says she would stake him if he turned bad she means it.
But this is the very consideration that lends weight to her present
belief in him. She is not being
swayed (as Buffy might be) by emotion but by her practical knowledge of Angel.
But Kate too plays her part. There
is no pat kiss and make up here. That
would have been quite unbelievable. But
there is evidence of an open mind. Her
threat to stake Angel was real but, significantly, when she was given the
opportunity to do so she refrained. This
too shows that even for her Angel is not defined simply by his past.
But the symbolism of the post-staking tableau is also quite striking.
When she and Angel both collapse after Penn is dusted there is a
substantial distance still between them.
thing that makes this such a great episode is that all of this character work is
developed in the context of a story which, as Samuel Goldwyn once put it, starts
with an earthquake and works its way up to a climax.
The implications of the story that I have spelled out above are there for
all to see but we do not have long pauses in the action so that the characters
can worry about them – at least not until the very end. They therefore
complement the story rather than get in its way.
This allows the narrative to unfold at an almost breakneck pace. The “I
track a serial killer” stories are usually heavily into detective work –
finding small clues and developing leads from them.
We do not have that approach here. “Somnambulist”
is perhaps more of an action adventure episode than a detective story. So, Penn is first interrupted and then cornered by the
simplest and most direct route possible – roving police patrols.
But because they were directed by Angel’s knowledge of the character no
suspension of disbelief is required. Equally
his lair is finally tracked down because of the same flaw in his character –
his predictability. These are
shortcuts yes, but perfectly fair ones.
And because of them the story just keeps on moving.
As it is essentially a linear narrative with straightforward and logical
developments, it is easy to keep up with. But
the story itself does change and develop as it progresses so it is not a one
great strength of the little piece of misdirection at the beginning is that it
knocks us off balance. We do not
believe Angel was killing but we know someone is and we cannot (or at least I
could not) figure out the connection to Angel.
We are therefore pulled straight into a mystery that our hero must solve.
And instead of sitting around and worrying about the implications of
Angel reverting to type the writers leave it to audience to do that and solve
the mystery. Immediately Angel does
he, and the viewers, are faced with another problem – Penn.
Angel’s task then becomes how to stop him killing again but once he
successfully does so the nature of the problem once again changes.
When Penn discovers Angel has become good he looks for a way to strike
back. So the nature of the story
and of the challenge Angel is faced with changes almost from scene to scene.
But these are not abrupt or arbitrary changes.
Rather one leads naturally into the other.
in Penn himself the writers have created one of the best single-episode villains
in the whole Buffy/Angel cannon. It
is not only that he has the speed, strength and intelligence to constitute as
real threat. Even more importantly
he is a believably three-dimensional character with a personality which makes
his actions (including his decision to make the contest with Angel a very
personal one) entirely credible. Indeed
he comes complete with his own psychological flaws that help pave the way for
his undoing (always my favorite way of bringing down a bad guy).
are one or two difficulties with the plot.
I do not myself object to Kate’s pursuit of Penn into the abandoned
building. Before she goes in we see
policemen with flashlights already inside it so she is not alone. She just happens to be the one to find Penn, a coincidence
yes but nothing worse. Actually I
find the failure of the police to seal off the side of the building through
which Angel entered more problematic. Nor
am I bothered by how Angel knew Penn was after Kate. The clues about the schoolchildren were just too obvious.
If he really had been after them I would certainly have called foul about
a killer leaving clues like that lying around.
As it is the first question Angel would have asked after Penn left his
office would have been “What did he want here?”
The answer Cordelia would have given was that he was pumping her for
information about Kate. The rest
would have been easy to guess. Much
more difficult for me to swallow was Angel’s “psychic link” with those he
sired. Since when?
If he had such a link how come he thought Drusilla was dead in
“Surprise”? And as for
Kate and the stake into Penn through Angel, well lets just say that that is
stretching suspension of disbelief a little far.
A vampire could do it. The
slayer could. But a human?
closing I would like to mention one or two further aspects of the production.
First of all, as TV is a visual medium, I have to say that this episode
was also a visual feast. I have
already mentioned the montage of Angel as suspected serial killer and the
striking image of the two vampires separated by the shaft of sunlight.
There was another montage of Kate researching, Penn plotting and Angel
brooding. Equally arresting were
the sight of Angel climbing the drainpipe, the opening sequence with the first
kill and the flashback scene where Penn kills his sister (linked by the fact
that the opening shots in each case were of the moon reflected in a pool of
water). The two fights between Penn
and Angel were, I think, the best action sequences yet, particularly but not
solely the special effects of bodies crashing through ceilings.
Then there is the dialogue. This
is not something I have made a big issue of in previous reviews, largely because
we are used to it being of a high standard.
But throughout this episode it was sharp, incisive and economical.
Its quality was especially evident two particularly crackling scenes: the
confrontation between Penn and Angel in the latter’s office and between Kate
and Angel at her apartment. From
the former the following is one of my favorites:
Angel: “I’m sorry for what I did to you, Penn, for what I turned you into.”
Penn: “First class killer? An Artist? A bold re-interpreter of the form?”
“Try cheesy hack. Look at you. You’ve been getting back at your
father for over 200 years. It’s pathetic and clichéd. Probably
got a killer shrine on your wall, huh? News clippings, magazine articles,
maybe a few candles? Oh, you are so prosaic.”
gets right to the heart of the character of Penn, in a wonderfully hard hitting
I have to say a word about the performances which were uniformly excellent.
There were no histrionics but, from DB in particular, we were treated in
a controlled and understated fashion to the full range of emotions raised by
Angel’s situation: fear, shock, anger, desperation, remorse, resolve.
It was not eye catching stuff but it carried great conviction and one
thing I liked in particular was that throughout he maintained Angel’s sense of
dignity, even in extremis.
“Somnambulist” is a combination of strong character work and a
powerful story. The center
is, of course, Angel and his situation.
There is so much depth and texture in this part of the story that we get
closer to the heart of the situation Angel finds himself in than at any previous
stage. Both Cordelia and especially
Kate are very well used to illustrate aspects of this
situation but it is of course Angel himself who is central to the
episode. On the one hand there is a past he cannot change.
On the other he must deal with its consequences, both within and without.
The internal consequences take the form of the demon still present in him
and the fact that it may one day re-emerge is a very real possibility.
The external consequences lie in the form of a legacy destroyed lives and
the echoes his past actions have to this day.
It is really only be showing us and making us think about the nature of
Angel’s past that we can begin to understand just what his journey of
redemption means. It is perhaps the
ultimate justification for the whole concept of an “Angel” series that the
writers can get so much out of this.
And the story itself which a perfect vehicle to develop the points the
writers want to make about Angel is in itself a strong and sophisticated one.
It is not only that the opponent is a menacing one who poses formidable
problems to be solved, or that these are solved in an interesting and believable
manner. It is the fact that the
nature of the plot keeps continually moving, changing its focus and leaving the
audience to keep up as best it can, thus ensuring our attention is always
riveted. This episode is not
perfect – nothing is. But it is a
classic which will stand comparison with anything we have seen in BUFFY.
revised and rewritten Sunday, September 17th 2000