Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been?
The second episode of the second season of Angel may not be entirely perfect, but it’s reallyreally beautiful; visually, musically, thematically. As if there weren’t enough backstory dragging behind a 240 year-old vampire, this episode loops a single thread of his shameful past from the present through a lyrically assembled series of events that localize crucial choices, filmic allusions and shame-based behaviours to a personal emotional disaster frozen fifty years in his past. It does this without the jarring, unpredictable, blinding flashes and ear-splitting noises that make most of the episodes in this series remarkably difficult to watch — even though I know that these interstitial transition story-devices mark the inevitable approach of Jasmine, two seasons down the vampire’s steeply-uphill path to redemption.
I suspect the 8 minutes trimmed for time, and moments removed to appease Standards & Practices might make this episode still more sublimely satisfying than the produced version already is, but putting them back wouldn’t alter the look that comes over Angel’s face at the very end of the episode as he gazes kinda-lovingly around the lobby of the haunted, insecurity-riddled hell of an old hotel he’s just liberated from the fascinating/abhorrent paranoia demon. It’s a legible look of homecoming that foreshadows Malcolm Reynolds’ first, enraptured visual study of Serenity, at the end of Out Of Gas, my favorite episode of Firefly (also written by the same remarkable guy).
Tim Minear’s fine-toothed commentary doesn’t go much out of its way to itemize each of the chewy allusions he wrote into this episode, beyond the mention of Chinatown. I noticed/imagined quotes from a host of hotel-based horror/noirs; The Shining, Barton Fink, Psycho with fond nods to Rebel Without A Cause, The Defiant Ones, Ox-Bow Incident, Pinky, Advise and Consent, and possibly The Manchurian Candidate, with strong tonal resonance with Bad Day at Black Rock and Shock Corridor — but then, the content and the context of this episode is steeped in still-topical issues that bleed from most episodes of The Twilight Zone; prejudice, self-interest served at cost to others, alienation, mob violence, lethal secrets, insupportable shame and manipulated insecurity — it’s as though Tim Minear were Serling’s unsung son. Temporal variations in our collective sociocultural attitudes toward racism, homosexuality, miscegenation, communism, lynching, scapegoating, crowdsourcing, and bullet-headed stupidity play tacitly, deep in the viewer’s imagination without crowning The Present Day with bullshit awards for enlightened, progressive platitudes (except for one unfortunate line that Minear explicitly regrets). It’s an amazingly tidy, nonlinear, meandering, complex and contradictory, yet beautifully-managed, profoundly-disturbing episode. HUACpaTooie!
In the interest of candor, I might as well report that I find Angel (one of my favorite television series) a real chore to watch because of the
- aforementioned, blinding and deafening interstitial transition thing,
- mumbled/whispered dialogue alongside BIG musical score and (industry-standard bogus) violent sound effects,
- the increasing prominence of the Cordelia Chase character,
- 80% of the Pylea excursion,
- most things involving Connor,
- and the mercifully-rare instances of crossover in which the hit&miss chemistry of Geller/Boreanaz usually leads me to gag on the smarm.
But it’s worth it because these shows are almost always about something real and pending that deserves to be re-evaluated regularly. And Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been? is certainly one of the best of them, right up there with The Monsters are Due on Maple Street. And there’s Billy, Skip and the indescribably delicious Alexa Davalos.
Jasmine’s the personification of the internet, the singular server of an ever-widening social network, the adversary of oldschool privacy, free will, and both the highest ideal and the ugliest dreads of humanity. The interstital transitions persist more intermittently after Jasmine’s vanquished (in the Whedonverse, where death isn’t necessarily terminal). Jasmine’s termination may have been instrumental in the liberation of Illyria, lest two monumentally-powerful higher largely-female powers converge on Earth kinda simultaneously to vastly overshadow the vampire from whose name the show derived its title.
Given the vicissitudes of unexpected preganacy (in season four), network anti-seriality notes and series cancellation, Mutant Enemy ground the standalone form of season five to an incredibly satisfying halt. Perhaps its a little more accurate to say they modified the course of a streaking killer-asteroid into a stable orbit.