Who’d be an Obscure Relics Renovator huh? That career path must have the same low life expectancy as Sunnydale High Caretaker or Magic Shop Owner. That aside, this is a humdinger of a first-parter. On one level, it’s about Angel and Dru plotting the apocalypse (“We’re going to make history….end”) versus Buffy’s desire to bring the fight to Angel, to finish him. On another it’s about killing Angel versus curing him by cursing him. And of course, it’s about destiny, how, as Whistler puts it: “….even if you see 'em coming, you're not ready for the big moments. No one asks for their life to change, not really. But it does. So what are we, helpless? No. The big moments are gonna come. It's what you do afterwards that counts. That's when you find out who you are”.
So, Angel finally becomes the season’s big bad in his plan to unleash the demon Acathla, who will swallow the world. He outwits Buffy at every opportunity, a fact shown at the beginning of the episode where we see him stalking her whilst she slays. The scene turns to her perspective as she talks about school exams and so forth, but then straight back to Angel’s viewpoint. This is not going to be her night. She is forced to kill the vampire that she wants to send a message to Angel, whilst Angel manages to persuade a lady-vamp to be his immolate-a-gram to deliver a message which leads Buffy into yet another trap. She thinks it’s going to be the big face-off, but Angel (or is it Joss) is cleverer than that. The last time that Kendra de wompire slaya was here, Buffy walked into a big old trap set by Dru and Spike. On that occasion, she rushed off to save Angel, this time it’s to fight him. She did the same thing when Willow was kidnapped in Prophecy Girl. As Angel says: “You never learn do you? This was never about you. And you fall for it every time”. He has used his knowledge of Buffy’s weaknesses to set the snare which Buffy’s ego – believing his one desire is to fight her – falls into.
“Not the turquoise coat!” I shouted when I saw Buffy set off in it, as if by wearing something different she could alleviate what I knew was coming. That slo-mo shot of Buffy shooting around the corner to find devastation is just wonderful. The awful approach of Queen Dru, after her drones have broken Xander’s arm, buried Willow under a bookcase and knocked out Giles, is its equal. Her blood-red dress compliments her crimson nails which she uses to slit Kendra’s throat; how ironic, since it was Spike who wanted to come to Sunnydale to bag a Slayer. And also ironic that it’s Buffy’s feeling of responsibility towards Ms Calendar and the world in general (“As long as Angel is fighting me, he can’t do the end of the world ritual”) which leads to the scene of destruction in the library. She is responsible for leaving her friends in danger. Even her taking Kendra’s stake, Mr Pointy, results in her ally being un-armed. Oh the inhumanity!
Willow’s new teacher-confidence makes her think she can work the mojo that they find on the slipped disc, something that she and Giles are strongly in favour of and a plan that Xander, backed up by Cordy, dislikes (“you want to forget all about Ms Calendar’s murder so you can get your boyfriend back”). Personal feelings come into this – Xander hates Angel and Cordy loves Xander (and doesn’t want Angel in her car again). Giles wants to carry out Jenny’s last wish and Willow wants to prove herself by practising witchcraft. The person who should have the most emotional input into the plan – Buffy - is ambivalent. In the end, of course, the gang both kill and cure him. Rather like a pig (which is apt, since en-souled Angel drinks a lot of pig blood).
I digress. The brilliance of this episode lies partly in the flashbacks; in them we see the four big changes in Angel’s life, all involving women and him being in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time. They also point toward the future Angel series in terms of showing Angel’s history and also re-introducing Darla to us. In the first flashback, we see Darla changing Angel from a bar-brawler into the vamp he is today - from Liam to Angelus, almost. The scene is highly sexualised, Angel chats up Darla by asking what a nice girl like her is doing in a place like this, in 18th century vernacular of course. Darla cuts her own bosom for Angel to drink from and the idea of her making him a man is definitely there, in an Anne Rice kinda way. The second flashback shows Angel accidentally meeting Dru as she makes her confession to the ‘priest’ about being psychic and foreseeing an accident in the mine (in London? What were they mining for, petticoats?) and we see Angel’s sense of warped playfulness with Dru that still exists today.
The third pivotal moment is when the member of the Kaldarash clan re-ensouls him. In the odd-numbered flashbacks – when he becomes a vampire and when he regains his soul – Angel has little control over. He thought he was getting alleyway sex with Darla, not a lifetime of murder and kill. But in the even-numbered ones, he makes more of a choice. In the final flashback we see the pathetic derelict that Angel has become (and of all the bad wigs, the ‘90s one is the worst) and how, with Whistler’s help, he decides he wants to make something of his un-life: “I wanna become someone”. In the 19th century he chooses to torment Dru, in the 20th, he chooses to help Buffy. A blonde girl changed his life at one point in the 18th century, and once again in the 20th. As well as setting the scene for the concept of The Powers That Be in Angel, it is also an excellent explanation as to why Angel was in Sunnydale (although not how he gained so much confidence in so short a time or when he got the hair cut) and shows how he fell for Buffy straight away. Valley-girl era Buffy thinks she is destiny-free, but we know that is not to be and it’s adorable to see her kill her first vamp, not at all the hardened killer we see today. Joss also gets to indulge himself in showing the film-epoch Buffy The Vampire Slayer as he wanted it to be, SMG instead of Kirsty Swanson, no Donald Sutherland. Furthermore we see the Joyce/Hank conflict that led to Buffy’s parents’ separation and which also foreshadows Joyce and Buffy’s argument and their splitting up in the final episode of the series.
Spike is under-used in this episode but this, mirroring his pretence that he is still wheelchair-bound, is a fake-out to cloak the fact that he will be pivotal in the last ep. There is a throwaway line in which Whistler says: “Not all demons are dedicated to the destruction of all life” – a neat nod to Spike’s intentions in the second part of this finale.