Amends is an episode that was really necessary in season 3. Since Angel's mysterious return from hell, Buffy and Angel have both been avoiding the elephant in the room - Angel’s crimes in season 2, and the question what could have brought him back. This is a very dark, intense and emotional episode about guilt, forgiveness and redemption, and a great character study of Angel (setting him up as an interesting protagonist for a spinoff). The climax of the episode – Buffy trying to convince Angel not to commit suicide – has great acting but a mix of great and weak writing. However, what keeps this episode from being a classic is that it has the corniest ending of a BtVS episode ever: the MYSTICAL CHRISTMAS SNOW that convinces Angel his life is worth something.
Now, since this is the show’s only Christmas episode, this was, in a way, to be expected. But I could do without the divine (?) intervention, which takes away from the humanism of the show, and I’d rather not have Touched by an Angel (!) in my BtVS.
Forgiveness is the big theme of the episode, but one person not willing to forgive is Cordy, who’s taking a chance to taunt Xander with the fact that she’s going skiing in Aspen, while the rest of them are stuck in a particularly warm Sunnydale. To hurt Xander, she reveals that the reason he’s sleeping outside is to avoid his family’s drunken Christmas fights – an explicit confirmation of the hints we’ve had before of Xander’s dysfunctional family life. Xander is bothered because he says he didn’t want her to share it with others; it’s interesting that he used to confide in her about things like that – but not Willow or Buffy? Surely Willow must know about his crappy home life in general from before? The relationship between Cordy and Xander seems to have been closer and deeper than just making out and antagonism. Despite his embarrassment, he is happy that she’s even talking to him now. He wants her back, but realizes it’s too late now. Another real development for Xander’s character is that he offers Buffy help with researching what’s wrong with Angel, and admits for the first time that he was a jerk to Buffy regarding her relationship with Angel.
Willow is preoccupied with finding a way to make Oz forgive her – and she’s much more successful. Oz is finally ready to talk and tell her how much he was hurt and that he isn’t sure he can believe things can ever be over between Willow and Xander (we know how wrong he was, there will be nothing romantic between Willow and Xander ever again) but he misses her and is willing to give their relationship a shot. When Willow confides that she doesn’t know how to make Oz trust her, Buffy gives some insightful relationship advice: “Xander has a piece of you that can’t touch – I guess now it’s a matter of showing Oz that he comes first.” That would also be a good advice for herself to follow in the future. (The shooting script has a few lines that didn’t make it to the final episode and that confirm where Buffy was drawing the insight from: “Xander was your first love…that’s hard to let go”.) Willow takes the advice a little bit too literally and decides to make amends to Oz by losing her virginity to him, so she prepares the setting for the most exaggerated romantic night possible, with candles, Barry White and a sexy dress. Cue another classic Awesome Oz moment: just like in Innocence when he refused to kiss Willow, Oz recognizes that she is trying too hard, and tells her that sex is something he wants to happen when they both really want it, not because she’s trying to prove something to him.
Faith and Buffy also make up, thanks to Joyce, who has one of her best moments when she suggests that they invite Faith to Christmas dinner. Finally someone does something to make the girl feel included and wanted. Incidentally, Joyce is very embarrassed when Buffy suggests that they invite Giles, who is also spending Christmas alone; the awkwardness between Joyce and Giles after what happened when they were “teenagers” in Band Candy continues. Faith is still living in the same crappy motel room, still barely hides the resentment she’s felt since Revelations, and at first refuses the offer out of pride and pretends that she has a big party to go to – but later changes her mind. Warm family Christmas evenings are something she probably hasn’t had in quite a while, if ever.
But the focus of the episode is on Angel and his guilt and self-loathing. He is haunted by dreams and later visions of his victims. The best scene of the episode is a long overdue confrontation between Angel and Giles. Angel goes to his house to ask for help, which results in the most awkward meeting ever, what with Angel having tortured Giles last season and killed the woman Giles loved. Giles may accept on the rational level that Angel doesn’t deserve to die because he knows this version of Angel isn’t entirely responsible for crimes he committed while soulless, but he still isn’t able to forgive him – which is far more realistic and human than if he were OK with him just because Angel is feeling guilty. He that point by threatening Angel with a crossbow, even though he wouldn’t really use it and does let Angel in and talk to him and later doesn’t protest when Buffy asks him for help in figuring things out and saving Angel. The most poignant moment is when a vision of Jenny suddenly appears besides Giles, and Angel is the only one who can see her, making Angel unable to deal with it anymore. It’s almost disappointing that it’s not a guilty vision conjured by Angel’s mind, but as it turns out, a disguise by the First Evil, who is trying to drive Angel insane and get him to kill Buffy.
I love the flashbacks (despite the terrible Irish accent, this time with an addition of a terrible mustache), the dreams and visions – which all blend in Angel’s mind – a reminder of just how horrible Angelus was, taking great pleasure in others’ suffering. The First chose a few victims from his past to morph into and haunt him with: Jenny; Daniel, a gambler in Dublin, 1838 who was about to get married; a maid in England, 1883; a modern day businessman in a suit, whose children Angel(us) killed and then arranged as if they were sleeping, for their father to find them, before he was killed himself. The scene with Angel(us) about to bite and kill the maid disturbingly looks like a nobleman or merchant about to rape a servant who can’t say anything to her employers because they wouldn’t believe her or care, and when she is worried about her son, he mentions he’s going to kill him, too, for “dessert”. The flashback is actually a dream – shared by Buffy (I have no idea why Angel and Buffy are sharing dreams, unless the First is powerful enough to make it happen – we’ll see this later with Buffy and Faith, but they have the Slayer connection). Or rather, Buffy is literally in Angel’s dream and gets to watch him about to kill the maid.
All this complicates things between Angel and Buffy, who are trying to stay away from each other as Buffy decided in Lovers Walk, but instead they get to share dreams while Angel is at the breaking point, tempted by the First to give into his desire for Buffy and “lose himself” in her, and then kill her. We see that in the dream scene (another shared dream) where Buffy and Angel make love until he goes into vamp face, bites and kills her. I’m not sure how the First expected it to go down in reality (it’s unlikely that Buffy would have consented to sex with Angel despite the danger) - or maybe it just expected Angel to go insane, give in to the demon and kill Buffy while she’s at her most vulnerable while worrying about him. Angel’s behavior towards Buffy becomes obviously strange and erratic, which tips Buffy that something is seriously wrong. She tries to find out what is going on and save him, while fearing that she’d have to kill him again, which must be her greatest nightmare. One of the very few lighter moments involves Buffy and Xander going to see Willy the Snitch - and it’s amusing to see that the Slayer walking into Willy’s bar is like a cop walking into a shady bar (the vampires quickly leave and try to away from her, and she doesn’t ever bother to go after vampires who are just sitting in the bar, the way that a TV homicide detective ignores the well-known petty drug dealers). After learning that Willy has heard about things going on in the underground – literally - she proves to be a smart cookie once again when she figures out where to find the lair of the First and its minions, the Bringers, tears the place down and confronts the First in Jenny’s form. The First isn’t something you can slay, so she fights it the only way one can – not allowing it to intimidate her or shake her spirit and trying to give Angel faith in himself. (I love the way Buffy reacts to First’s speech “I’m the things that darkness fears blah blah” with snark: “OK, I get it, you’re evil.” The First: “You have no idea what you’re dealing with.” - “Lemme guess – is it… evil?” )
Scared that he’ll end up turning evil and killing Buffy, Angel decides to kill himself in a way that’s the easiest for a vampire – by waiting for the sunrise on the high hill over the ocean, the Kingman’s Bluff (the same one where the crucial scene of season 6 finale takes place on). This is where Buffy finds him and desperately tries to stop him – arguing, hitting him, and pleading. Buffy normally looks so tough despite her size, but this is one of those moments of emotional vulnerability when she suddenly looks like a tiny little girl, young and in tears, and Angel like a big, scary man, when he throws her on the ground. But he is the weak one, as he realizes better than anyone: the line “It’s not the monster in me that needs killing, it’s the man” is the crucial one that explains so much about his personality. He hates himself not just because of what he did as a soulless vampire, and he doesn’t blame just his vampire nature for everything; he hates himself because deep inside he feels that, as a human, he was a weak, useless man (“a drunken, whoring layabout, and a terrible disappointment to your parents” as the First describes him). “You were a worthless being before you became a monster” told him the First, echoing his deepest insecurities. A part of him believes what the First tells him, that cruelty is the only thing he ever had a talent for. And as a souled vampire, he wasted most of the 100 years lost and confused, and he still doesn’t know if he can be a good, worthy and heroic person.
Contrary to the popular opinion that Buffy idealizes Angel, she doesn’t try to argue that he has shown himself to be a great guy in the past; she pleads with him to do it because she loves him (despite wishing she could stop, because it’s too painful and because it gives him the power to hurt her so much) and she argues that he has the potential to be someone better in the future, and he has to try: “You have the power to do real good, Angel, to make amends. But if you die now, then all you ever were was a monster.“ He was her first love, and a source of great trauma, and the pain and guilt for sending him to hell only made it harder to let go; on some level, maybe it’s not just about saving his life; it’s about saving his soul (not literally) – she needs the only love she’s had up to that point to be a source of goodness and hope, not just badness and destruction.
Buffy’s speech that it’s cowardly to give up and commit suicide and that the real strength is in living and fighting every day, makes me think of her line in The Gift to Dawn: “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live for me” and the crucial scene of Once More, With Feeling, where Buffy is the one trying to commit suicide because she can’t go on, and Spike stops her and urges her to live on, while Dawn repeats Buffy’s own words from The Gift.
The snow that suddenly starts falling (for the first time ever in Sunnydale), after a period of scorching heat, doesn’t have to be mystical in nature – but the episode is clearly built around the idea that it is. It is hinted that some sort of higher power might be responsible for it and that it might have brought him back from hell, rather than the First, as Angel assumed. The ending with Buffy and Angel walking home together is meant to convey hope. But I find it disappointing that Buffy’s impassioned plea, and her argument that real strength is about living and fighting every day, might not have been enough to give Angel the will to live – it was only the apparent intervention of a higher power that changed his mind.
Angel: It’s not the demon in me that needs killing, Buffy, it is the man.
Angel: Buffy, please… just this once… let me be strong.
Buffy: Strong is fighting. It’s hard and it’s painful and it’s every day. It’s what we have to do. And we can do it together. But if you’re too much of a coward for that, then burn.
Oddly enough, the same scene and the same speech by Buffy contains a line that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me:
Buffy: I know everything you’ve done, because you did it to me.
The problem is that this isn't true: he didn't actually do the tenth of what he did to some others and that he is capable of, and that he might have even planned to do. However great the Angel-goes-evil plot in season 2 was, there was some contrivance in the fact that he didn't get to do a fraction of what we know he did to Drusilla. And that's because 1) Joss didn't want to kill off main cast members or Buffy's mother yet, and 2) he wanted the Buffy/Angel romance to continue – and if it had been Joyce's dead body he left, rather than just pictures of her, I don't think that there would be many people rooting for Buffy to get back with Angel, or that it would have been convincing that Buffy would want to get back with her mother’s killer. Something similar would’ve been the case if he had killed Giles, Willow or Xander – and he had opportunities to do all of these at some point, and didn't just due to luck (and again some contrivance – he had an invitation to Willow's house and could have done much worse to her than kill her fish). Jenny was the perfect victim from the storytelling point of view – important enough for her murder to resonate, but not enough for fans and Buffy to not be able to get over it. He tortured and broke Drusilla in different ways. but primarily by killing everyone she loved. He didn't, however, get to kill anyone Buffy loved. His torture of Buffy might have been his main goal, but it was twice removed: he killed someone who was loved by someone that Buffy loves. And a lot of people that Buffy didn't know or barely knew. The most awful thing for Buffy was that she felt responsible for the deaths of all those people, including Jenny, and for the pain it caused Giles. But the people who were hurt the most, aside from those who died, were Giles and the families and loved ones of the other vicrims. He didn't actually do all he did to Buffy, he did it to bystanders, and while she may know it intellectually, she didn't feel what it's like. (That’s why I feel more discomfort about Buffy forgiving Angel that I don't feel about Buffy forgiving Spike for the AR, because she had to forgive Angel for the things he did to others, and I'm not sure if anyone has a right to forgive someone for things they did to other people.)
Angel/Angelus: Angel at one point tries to defend himself from the visions’ accusations by saying “It wasn’t me” and “a demon isn’t a man. I was a man once” but otherwise feels guilt over all his past crimes (“You can never understand what I’ve done”). The whole episode doesn’t make any sense unless Angel, Giles and Buffy all consider Angel and his soulless self (at this point the name “Angelus” is still not used) one and the same person. Giles holds Angel responsible for killing Jenny, and Buffy talks about things he did and never tries to argue that it was someone else.
Recurring characters introduced: The First Evil, in the form of Jenny and other dead people, makes its debut, together with its creepy eyeless high priests, the Bringers aka Harbingers. The First makes about an equal amount of sense here as it does in season 7. It tries to get Angel to kill Buffy – I get that – but afterwards it seems to be OK with Angel just killing himself (it grins and says to itself “It will do”). So what did it really want to achieve? Maybe it just likes torturing souled vampires that Buffy is having a thing with at the time? If Buffy’s or Angel’s death was what it wanted, why didn’t it try again? And why haven’t we heard from it in 3 and a half years between Amends and season 7?
Mythology: The First is supposed to have existed long before everything else, before demons or humans. Unlike the monotheistic religions, in the Buffyverse it’s the evil that existed before the good. It’s not clear if there is a Good equivalent to the First Evil, though the ending hints that the snow might be a sign from some higher power, which, based on what we later see on AtS, it was probably the Powers That Be. However, the PTB seem to be a neutral power rather than a force for good.
According to Giles, Acathla had acolytes, and one of them wrote about demons, demon dimensions… and his garden.
Buffy’s ILYs: Buffy’s fourth declaration of love to Angel (“What about me? I love you so much”) is offered in an emotional outburst while she’s trying to stop him from committing suicide. (The first one was elicited by Angel in Lie to Me, and the other two spontananeous ILYs were in Innocence – when he was dumping her – and in Becoming II, before she sent him to hell.) She doesn’t have a habit of telling ILY on everyday occasions: it is almost always in a life and death situation.
Fashion watch: Buffy wears a white jacket throughout most of the episode, while Angel is in a black coat. Willow dresses in a sexy red dress when she’s trying to seduce Oz. Faith wears light lip gloss, rather than her usual dark red one (because she’s less ‘dark’ in this episode, I suppose).
Shirtless scene: Angel is shirtless in two scenes – when he wakes up in bed, and in the sex scene with Buffy.
Ooh, kinky: The dream sex scene itself isn’t kinky, it’s missionary and as vanilla as the one in Innocence – until it ends with Angel biting Buffy. Gotta love the accidental double entendre Joyce makes when she asks Buffy “Angel’s on top again?” shocking Buffy, until she realizes her mom is talking about the Christmas decorations.
Destroying the English language: Xander says he hasn’t been the “mostest best friend” to Buffy.
Pop culture references: Willow tries to use Barry White’s music to seduce Oz. Buffy says that the prophecies from one of Giles’ books (“A child shall be born of man and goat and have two heads...”) sound like something from the UK tabloid The Sun, which is probably why Giles enjoys reading it.
Foreshadowing: Oz tells Willow that seeing her with Xander made him feel the way he never felt before when there wasn’t a full moon – which foreshadows season 4 New Moon Rising, when Oz will actually turn into a werewolf out of strong emotions of jealousy of Tara. Angel will eventually bite Buffy and almost kill her, in a scene that looks a lot like sex, in Graduation Day II, after Buffy makes him drink from her to save his life.
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