Written by David Greenwalt
Directed by Scott Brazil
Original Air Date: 14th April 1997
It’s fascinating to watch the seventh episode of Buffy’s first season because even though it was never planned to be so, the episode has the feeling of functioning somewhat as a pilot for a spin-off that was two years away and not even on anyone’s mind at this point.
It makes sense for it to be credited to David Greenwalt. The co-creator of Angel and very much the defining voice of that show for its first three seasons and whose absence was very much felt in the disastrous fourth season, the episode ‘Angel’ lays down a lot of groundwork in the tone that makes the series’ romantic lead work so well as a character, and given his somewhat jovial nature in the first two episodes, it’s clear that at this stage of the series that everyone has realised that the character works better (at this stage at least) as a brooding, romanticised figure as opposed to the chipper nature he displayed in ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth’.
On top of being a great forty-five minutes that foreshadows Buffy’s first live action spin-off, it’s also the first bona fide classic of the series, and while one can look at it knowing that Angel is getting his own show with its own set of increasingly complicated story arcs in the future, it is first and foremost an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and much of what happens is filtered through the character of Buffy herself.
First seasons of famously established television series are interesting because the reactions of future generations and the manner in which even fans of the properties themselves look back on earlier episodes usually go through the motions of ‘the first season is average, but it gets better’. With the first season of Buffy, and the same goes for shows such as The X-Files, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and even comedy series such as Parks and Recreation and The Office, which all similarly come in for some flack for their first seasons, there’s a feeling that you had to be there when it aired to generally appreciate it, with nostalgia being the thing that fuels any love for it and remembering the wonderful feeling of coming across it when they premiered.
It’s understandable to have ambivalent feelings for some of the first season of Buffy given the knowledge of how great things are going to get from season two onwards, when everything slots further into place for it and writers such as Marti Noxon, Jane Espenson and David Fury started to make their mark on it, but there is a genuine joy to be had in watching, or re-watching, the creators of a show and the writers’ room figuring out where everything goes and that moment when they stumble upon an early classic of a show’s run.
With The X-Files that episode was ‘Ice’ (or ‘Squeeze’ if you want to go a little earlier, an episode that established the monster of the week formula that The X-Files would mine for wonderful effect). With Buffy, ‘Angel’ was the episode that indicated that what made Buffy work wasn’t just imaginative monster of the week stories, but complex storytelling that had the ability to run beyond a forty-five-minute runtime. The moment you can see the series really figure that out is the first act which ends with the reveal that Angel is a vampire.
Watching Buffy as a fourteen-year-old when it premiered was probably the best age to watch the show. It works when you’re grown up as well, hence the reason why the series, to this day, invites so much academic interest and endless publications of books about the deeper meanings of the show and its philosophies, but watching the Buffy/Angel dynamic at a young age made the central romance in the show feel as heightened and epic as anything portrayed on television up to that point.
Yes, there were other teen shows with complicated romantic dynamics (Dawson’s Creek was the other big teen series of that era with its myriad romances) and one of the things about television series with younger protagonists was that it committed to romantic entanglements pretty quickly with very little of the unresolved sexual tensions that were a dime a dozen in shows about grown-ups. We’re seven episodes into the first season and already the Buffy/Angel romance has featured its first kiss between the two characters, although it immediately goes into dramatic overdrive with the reveal that the brooding, handsome stranger who has been helping our heroine is in fact a vampire and has been the whole time.
Greenwalt’s teleplay is tightly constructed, although if there are any failings to be had here it’s with having Buffy fall into the trap of having to be saved by Angel twice throughout. The second time it makes sense, but the opening of the episode looks as if it’s going to subvert the ‘blonde haired girl attacked in a street at night’ cliché and instead opts to have Buffy be saved by Angel in order to get out of it. Admittedly it does function to have Angel and Buffy be together and to set up the reveal, so it’s understandable to have a little bit of that cop-out in order to get the episode going.
Those clichés aside, everything else going on here is superb. It’s very much the least stand-alone episode of the show up to this point, with Greenwalt making up for any shortcomings with ‘Teacher’s Pet’ by going to town with a plethora of world building and explorations of the larger Buffy-verse. One of the things that will mark Angel’s own television series is its exploration of the past and how the long lives of many of the vampires that show up on both series indicate not only a life long lived, but an epic backstory to go against Buffy’s theme of growing up in the here and now and Angel’s themes of dealing with adulthood.
Angel isn’t just a vampire newly arrived in Sunnydale, he has a history with The Master and more importantly Darla, with Julie Benz wickedly stealing many scenes throughout. The moments dotted throughout between Boreanaz and Benz are the ones that make this feel like a proto-Pilot for Boreanaz’s own show down the line, although at this stage it’s better to leave that for when we get to that moment, but while we’re supposed to swoon over the chemistry between Buffy and Angel, it’s the latter’s scenes with Darla that crackle with a sexual tension that seems dangerous and illicit, and it’s no wonder that when Angel launched in 1999 that they would use many flashbacks in that first season to try and find ways to bring her back to recreate that dangerous spark.
Revealing that he’s over two hundred years of age (Angel’s age is somewhat like Ross’ age on Friends in that it’s never completely settled upon although later on I feel they go for the 240 mark) and was the most violent and animalistic of vampires, the revelation of a gypsy curse that granted him the soul that he lost when turned into a creature of the night is another lovely slice of world building and character development that’s really going to come into play in season two and yet none of it feels like mere set-up here and is in service of the show just wanting to have fun with its developing mythology and ongoing story elements.
Vampires have frequently been used as a means to explore immortality and a life long lived, and with it a sense of melancholy. The sadness and loss that comes with immortality and having to watch those that are loved die have formed the basis for many stories involving those who live forever, although Greenwalt has no time for the type of maudlin melancholy that would mark Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire and Neil Jordan’s wonderful film version, but instead gets deep into the mud by revealing that Angel killed his entire family the moment he was turned.
That he has links to The Master and Darla could, under lesser hands, potentially have made this world smaller, but instead Greenwalt and Whedon have opened up the possibilities to a larger, more expansive world, a world that will be explored further not only in Angel, but also in a cottage industry of comic books and tie-in novels.
On top of all that, Buffy will become increasingly more serialised as it goes on, and you can see the series really starting to wear a more serialised nature on its sleeve this hour, with the result being that everything is coming up roses. With a stylishly shot final act involving a final confrontation with Darla in a closed-up Bronze and a superb final scene and image that just oozes with romance and angst, and that wonderful final image of a cross burned into Angel’s chest, there is no doubt that this is the first bona-fide classic of the show and things will only get truly better from this point on.