"In the Dark," one of several cross-over episodes with parent show Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the first in a series of episodes that carry significant elements and characters from one show to another with the central purpose of helping the new and emerging spin-off show get on its feet. I guess we know we're in Whedonland when it's just this good.
Picking up where BtVS, "The Harsh Light of Day" left off, this episode of AtS follows Spike and Oz as they depart Sunnydale for . Oz has come to the city for a gig with his band, but stops by the offices of Angel Investigations with a special package from Buffy: the Ring of Amarra. A ring that constitutes the Holy Grail for vampires which, when worn by one, renders them invincible against stakes, crosses, holy water and even sunlight. Spike, the greedy and mindless entropy fan he is, has followed Oz, having unearthed the ring in a plot to kill Buffy not days earlier in the fictional universe's time line. This is the set-up.
It's just a testament to the show's writers that these two worlds mesh so well; only two episodes in up to this point, and AtS already has a distinctly different tone, yet nothing feels out of place. Maybe it's just that writer Douglas Petrie really does write Spike better than the rest. Some rock solid proof appears right away in the teaser scene before the credits, where Spike gut-bustingly mocks Angel as he watches his former ally save a young girl in an alley.
There's a subtle layer beneath Spike's self-appreciated jibes too, as he is ever more intuitive than anyone around him guesses throughout his entire time in the Whedonverse. Even back in S2 of Buffy, his practicality and common sense stuck out and made him more than just the blind-fighting killer he appeared to be, and during his time with the Scoobies he could see their tight bonds falling apart while no one else could. In S5 of Angel, he's the only one, and right from the start, who doesn't delude himself with the company line about how Wolfram and Hart was changing because of Angel's new regime. He truthfully observed: "a place like this doesn't change, it changes
Here, his snarky comments about Angel scratch a delicate surface, and the sarcasm of the "fluffy puppy" line nails it: Angel is who he is, soul or not, and a large part of this season has him dealing with that and how it ties in to his history with Buffy. In fact, how he deals is a big part of this episode, along with the main theme of the entire series: Redemption. More specifically here: earning it.
The B plot involving the aforementioned girl named Rachel whom Angel saved in the alley doesn't do a whole lot, but serves as a fair parallel for the A plot. It also continues to lay a solid foundation for Angel's true mission of saving souls. When her abusive boyfriend has been released from jail, Rachel calls Angel in desperation, pleading to him to save her from herself; she always goes back to this man like an addict. Angel gives her his console, and tells her she can choose to go with another quick fix and wait and bleed through the consequences again, or take the longer, more painful road that ultimately has a better place for her at the end. This is just a shadow of what's to come as Angel is soon to face the same choice.
Oz shows up in . with the ring, and I'd like to point out how much I love this little guy and how wonderful he is no matter how little he talks; we always get what he's about and his brief exchanges with the team are enjoyable. Shame there isn't more of him. After a brief confrontation, Angel tracks down Spike and is subsequently captured, and it is here that the real meat of the episode kicks in.
Spike has hired a vampire who specializes in torture to get the location of the ring out of Angel, smugly explaining that this man, Marcus, invented some of the torture Despite the painful nature of it, the torture isn't all that gruesome, but pain seems to get the job done. Angel resists as boldly as he can all the while Marcus repeatedly asks him, 'what do you want, Angel?' trying to crack him by exposing deepest desires. The self-important, philosophical psychotic has been done to death so I was put off by this concept at first, but some good acting from all three 'vampires' and the strength of the writing made me enjoy the sequence as a whole.
In stark contrast to later seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Spike really does feel threatening throughout this episode too. I felt genuine concern for Doyle and Cordelia's safety when he confronted them in the office. And, as is his style, his determination for a goal is tough to break; we watch him egg Marcus on, periodically becoming delighted, bored and angry by the length and method of the torture and Angel's lack of response. But, is it really lacking? Even a vampire can only take so much and when Angel gives in to Marcus it's like a beautiful release; both chilling and pure. He tells his captor that he wants forgiveness, and Marcus is pleased with this truth. He knows that Angel often takes the high road too, and that he wishes to earn his redemption. This is where the Ring of Amarra ties in.
For Angel, it represents the same choice Rachel had to make: The quick fix versus the righteous path. Invulnerability and an enhanced bonus on top of his immortality would make Angel feel akin to a God, and this type of power easily corrupts. More importantly, as Marcus said, Angel feels he has to earn his 'freedom' from his past and it's through the pain he suffers that he realizes the cost of this, and learns to face it. And when Angel faces Marcus, then stepping into the sunlight with the ring on his hand, he takes a long look and truly sees what he's giving up, and still does it.
I really liked seeing him watch one last sunset before destroying the ring and thematically, it was moving. But, it does bother me a little. Now, from a storytelling standpoint it makes sense; you can't have an invincible hero because it would become impossibly boring, but much the same way Buffy stored the Troll God's hammer from an earlier episode for use against Glory in BtVS "The Gift" Angel could've stored this very powerful weapon away for the one most crucial moment. Just a necessity of the writing, I guess, however disappointing. Although, I have seen it pointed out that having such an item could bring Angel too close to true happiness, and the thought of Angelus with the Ring of Amarra is downright terrifying.
One last item of note is that Doyle and Cordelia get something important to do at last. They start to bond while hiding out at Doyle's place, and show their true colours in a crisis. Spike uses Angel's life as a bartering chip to scare them in to handing over the ring, but right away they know it's not an option. This seems a small thing, but it's important, as it starts to define the difference between Angel Investigations and the Scooby Gang.
From a metaphorical standpoint, they're more grown up; S1 of Angel focuses on the metaphor of life in one's early twenties, while Buffy S4 is about the college life. The only winning option for them is to cheat Spike out of the ring while rescuing Angel, as opposed to say, what Buffy and Co. did for Willow in BtVS "Choices" handing over the Box of Gavrock to the Mayor without a second thought when Willow's life was at stake. They're willing to give up even Angel to do what's right; another high road.
In the end, this is a really good episode that suffers from only a few minor nitpick items. Marcus himself was a good treat, making for an interesting play on the 'quiet psycho' archetype. And the exceptional blend of action, character development and thematic relevance, as well as the very entertaining presence of Spike make it memorable and fun; his mockery of Angel is one of the funniest moments in the Whedonverse.