Standard spoiler warning: The notes are written for folks who have seen all of BtVS and AtS. I'll be spoiling through the comics as well. Basically -- if you are a spoiler-phobe and haven't seen or read it all, read further at your own risk.
Standard Credits: I've written the material in black; Strudel (aka my Bro) writes in blue; local_max writes in purple. Or at least, that's what they've done when I finish editing and formatting!
Angel, aka Buffy’s Love Life part 3, in which Angel Shows His True Face, and the Greatest Romance of All Time is Launched.
Things aren’t what they seem. We’re coming in for the first big pay-off on that, so it’s appropriate that the episode opens with the first two plays on the theme. First we see Collin, the anointed one who looked like an innocent. Next Darla enters -- the vampire dressed like a school girl who we thought was going to be the first innocent victim of the show. Strudel: Note that Darla suggests that she's picked her costume because Angel is now into high school girls. Max: Which is particularly disturbing when you consider that Darla had picked out the high school outfit before Buffy's first day at Sunnydale High. Was Angel stalking Buffy at school back at Hemery long enough for Darla to notice?
Prior to the reveal almost everything Angel says is laden with meaning, starting with “good dogs don’t bite”. It’s fun to watch how carefully they threaded the needle of screaming he’s a vampire without having him say or do anything that could be used to prove he was a vampire. A fairly well-executed plot twist (unlike many that follow).
Max: Now now, Maggie, what could you be referring to? Maggie, hmmm...
Romance which is not what it seems, but which really is a romance. Willow is firmly set-up as the B/A cheerleader. She’s all romantic about it, rose colored glasses. Except the one time she accidentally strays into the observation that Buffy is going to age and Angel isn’t. The episode quietly reminds us that the differences are even more profound. Angel’s had a fully adult hot sexual relationship with a woman (Darla) and now he’s playing with the chaste sixteen-year-old. His apartment is that of a sophisticated adult, full of books and objets d’art. Elegant. The contrast with Buffy’s room couldn’t be more pronounced. The episode has a running gag with Buffy’s complete lack of interest in history. While Angel reveals some very hard truths about his past as a vampire with a soul, including killing his own family, he still lies when he tells her that he hasn’t fed from a living human since being cursed. He lies at the top of the episode as well when he tells Buffy he wasn't following her (he was). Strudel has a long dissertation of just how much Angelus is on display here below.
Max adds: The contrast between Willow and Xander's reactions to Buffy & Angel are I think significant beyond just their respective roles in the A/B/X/W quadrilateral in this season. They both have an obvious investment in how Buffy and Angel works out, because Bangel spells the end of Bander. But I think their attitudes on Angel, morally, have a lot to do with their different views of the world: Xander stands in judgment that Angel is a vampire ergo evil, and we find him in this "judgment" position quite often, including of Buffy; Willow just wants everything to work out in a way in which everyone is happy, regardless whether it's "right" or not.
That said, Buffy and Angel are genuinely drawn to each other. Buffy offers to let Angel kill him, and he really can’t even though he admits he wants to. Instead, he stakes his sire and century-long lover. And the ending scene really is poignant, with both of them knowing they should walk away, but not being able to do it. They kiss and her cross burns into his chest. We are getting two stories here. It’s about the way romantic lenses can obscure reality ---- these two could never be happy in a house with a picket fence. There is nothing about these two that could make a real relationship work or make sense. The gauzy romantic lens is being called out or subverted in many ways. But the romance is still affecting as romance. .
The final affecting image sets up the big reversal to come: Angel may have a temporary burn mark on his heart, but Buffy is the one who is going to walk away with a permanent scar. She may be tempting him to live, but he ends up seriously damaging her capacity to live fully.
Local-Max: How temporary is the burn? Angel burns for 100 years after Becoming, but still (arguably) recovers to open up his heart to Cordelia a year or so before Buffy tells Spike she loves him. Depending on how one reads season eight, that might not have been enough for her. Of course, how much Angel does open up his heart to Cordy is another matter--c.f. whispering Buffy's name in "Awakening."
Angel as a hero watch. He finally saves her! Twice! Go Angel!!
Angel/Angelus. Both the Scoobies and the vampires use the names interchangeably. The accent is on Angelus as the evil version, but Angel in the past is referred to as Angel. The reveal has Angel’s demonic face appearing in an uncontrollable way. Darla goes on to say he can only suppress his true nature for so long. Angel doesn’t disagree with her on this point. He visibly has to restrain himself from succumbing to the temptation to dine on Joyce when the opportunity presents itself. And we actually get a fairly accurate description of what is going on here. Angel is a demon; the soul is simply a conscience. Without it he doesn’t care about the harm he does. With it he cares enough about the harm to try to reign in the strong desires to do harm (both towards Joyce and towards Buffy). The idea that Angelus is an entirely separate person is going to come later, but I think it’s clear both from what is said and shown here and what is said and shown in AtS that the idea that they are separate entities is a fiction that is convenient to everyone in the aftermath of Angelus’s actions in season 2. Just last week we saw a dry-run on the process of setting up a convenient lie about the demonic behavior of our friends.
Other nice resonances: Max: Willow, to Giles, when he describes The Three, is upset that Giles always seems to know things and she doesn't. Giles: "Well, you weren't here from midnight until six researching it." WILLOW: "No, I was sleeping." Very early we're pointed to Willow's desire to know everything without having to put all the work in that's required in order to acquire that knowledge.
Summary on Buffy’s Love Life. She only has eyes for Angel. Since the lure has nothing to do with anything that suggests compatibility, it seems like we could ascribe it either to Angel as the mysterious romantic figure, or to Angel as the other being in Buffy’s life stranded between the demonic and the human. I tend to think it’s both. Also, there's chemistry -- they have a basic animal attraction to one another.
More on Angel/Angelus: Strudel: We have three cross burnings we can juxtapose. The Master grasps the cross to show his mastery of pain. Angel endures the searing of his flesh for the sake of Buffy's kiss (sigh, how romantic). Spike will later drape himself over a cross while reeling from the burdens of his new soul. The first, the Master's, is about power, the last, Spike's, about repentance. What of the second? While it looks like, on the surface, that Angel accepts the pain in the name of love, my thesis of the moment is that Angel's acceptance of the burning cross is really just the Angelus version of the Master's painful power grab, the difference being Angelus's preference for gaining power through manipulation. I admit, this is a deeply, harshly, cynical read of Angel at this moment, when he appears to be achieving the height of romantic devotion. But perpend:
Angel as a demon watch. For form's sake, I will refer to Angel as Angelus, just to set the stage rhetorically. In the first scene, we see Angelus doing what he has been doing for years, spying on Buffy. This time, it's at the Bronze. Now, finally, after all these years, this lurking seems to be of some benefit to Buffy since Angelus does manage to arrive on the scene to save Buffy from the Three. Go Angel, we can finally cheer, but this is Angelus's m.o. too, since he gets Buffy to believe that he is a full-fledged ally in the fight against vampires. Step one in any con: gain their trust. Together they flee, and, just as Angelus might have drawn it up in his long hours contemplating how best to insinuate himself, they escape the Three by ducking into Buffy's house. And in the panicky moment, Buffy invites Angelus in. It seems so natural and benign, doesn't it? But then we immediately start getting the hints about what an enormous breach this is. We learn immediately of the invitation-only rule that applies to vampires and the sanctity of home (Buffy worrying over Joyce -- "There's a lot of weird people [vampires] outside at night ... I just feel better with you safe and sound inside, [with a vampire who will shortly be mortally tempted to kill you]"). Angelus has already breached that sanctity, getting his invitation from a deceived Buffy, an invitation that will be echoed when Darla (and who else comes closer to Angelus than Darla?) deceives Joyce to walk through the same door.
The deceptions continue throughout their dialogue. Don't worry, he tells her, vampires can't come in unless invited (implying he isn't one). Why were you there? "I was just out walking." Why do you hunt vampires? "They killed my family." (Yeah, yeah, he doesn't say that, but he lets Buffy believe that). He also has to pretend he can eat the dinner she got for him. And he avoids telling her how old he really is. Yes, we can understand the deceptions, but let's face it, this is all pure Angelus, and, with Angelus, conversations can barely move an inch without him needing to walk a fine line with the truth.
Angelus then penetrates the inner sanctum, Buffy's bedroom. Buffy has him look out her window while she gets undressed, but we have to wonder how many times has Angelus peered in those windows to watch her. After all, he's been watching her for a long, long time before he even makes his presence known to her. "You even look pretty when you go to sleep," he says when she's changed for bed. That's a funny way to say she's pretty in her PJs, which makes me think he's actually saying he has seen her go to sleep before (this line also prefigures one of Angelus's creepiest messages to Buffy in Season 2, the drawing of her asleep). Even when denying that he read her diary (is that remotely plausible?), he highlights his lurking skills by saying he hid in the closet -- but he didn't just hide; ever the spy, he watched Joyce straightening up the room. It's not clear this is a tenable story (is Joyce really going to straighten up Buffy's room and move her diary?), but Angelus moves the inquiry away by saying how much he's wanted to kiss her.
And here is where we get to the ick. All along, we've been watching as Angelus slowly lures Buffy in, with the coy messages, the gruff chivalrousness, the darkly handsome brooding. He's got her where he wants to and now the conquest is getting closer and closer. I think Xander nails it when he calls the gentlemanly chaste sleeping on the floor routine "the oldest trick in the book." And so, Angelus has lured her in, and now he proceeds to the kiss. Right away, anyone with a brain, especially anyone with the experience of an immortal watching the frequent waxing and waning of mortal lives, will know how wrong this is. Sixteen year-old Willow stumbles into this recognition ("it's kind of novel how he'll stay young and handsome forever, although you'll still get wrinkly and die, and ... oh, what about the children?"). Angelus even says this is impossible and should not be, but takes not a step away from Buffy. He doesn't pause or pull away when they cross this line.
Now, admittedly, the next part of the seduction is a bit harder, what with Buffy wanting to kill him and everything. As I watch Angelus with the crossbow pointed at him, I see no real concern that he's about to get dusted. He's a poker player and he's going all in when he stands before her, defenseless, and confesses a smattering of his crimes (including 'fessing up that he's the one who killed his own family). It's an audacious and gutsy gamble -- unless you think that he's seen Buffy's cards. I think he has. He knows (and not just from the diary -- Angelus reads his victims well) he's got her wrapped around his finger and that she will be looking for reasons not to kill him. I don't know that the text proves this point one way or another, but Angelus does not look scared or desperate when facing Buffy at this crucial moment. He looks like he knows he's going to win. And indeed, he does. And once again when they kiss, with her now knowing she's kissing a vampire, he once again says this cannot be, and he once again takes not a step away. She's the one who has to step away. Yes, yes, he's got the burn on his chest, but what's pain in the pursuit of this, the hardest conquest? (Think of it this way, if Spike had one-upped Angelus by bagging himself a Slayer or two, wouldn't it be an even bigger coup if Angelus could bed one?) If this is Angel the hero, this is a hero Angelus would be proud of.
Maggie replies: I do think that's all in play -- Angelus is always inflected in Angel. But let us do recall that Angel has some good motives here. He's been moved by Lolita, er... I mean the teenage girl with the large heart. She really has inspired him to get into the game of trying to beat back the forces of darkness. That's his conscious idea, and it's plainly a better idea than moping around in alleyways eating rats. In this episode Angel does finally step up to the plate and do some saving. That his m.o. is pure Angelus just reminds us of the ginormous gap between who Angel aspires to be and who he actually is. That's what's so dangerous. Angel is in denial about who he is to himself, and that's what makes his denial to Buffy as effective as it is. Indeed, much as I'll emphasize Buffy's romanticized view of Angel as her knight-protector; Angel has a romanticized view of Buffy as the vision who called him out of the alley and onto the path of being a champion.
So, yes, Angel has some ostensibly good motives here, but they are all filtered through Angelus. Help the girl? How 'bout let's seduce her? Do selfless acts of good? Who said anything about having to do that? It is worth remembering that Angelus has barely done a lick of good in his hundred or so ensouled years, so it makes sense that he's a bit of a novice at figuring out how to do the right thing. Unfortunately for him and Buffy, he's gotten off to the wrong start. Instead of becoming her ally, he decided to be her lover, which sets them on a disastrous course, and emotionally cripples Buffy for the better part of six seasons or more. Doubly unfortunate, we'll see that he actually starts learning about this heroic redemption stuff, but it comes too late to undo this disastrous first move of his. He became Angel too late to stop Angelus from screwing this up.
Max: Let's add staking Darla to the list. Angel is clearly very angry with her in his scenes with her. We don't know it yet, but it was Darla who rejected Angelus because of his soul, not the other way around. Angel's killing Darla at the end of the episode is a sacrifice that helps to prove to Buffy that he's on her side--"Look! I killed the love of my life for you! Isn't it romantic?" But Angelus has a good reason to kill Darla too--the moment he got his soul, Darla turned on him, the way she always turned on him when the going got rough. Now, after a century of leaving Angelus trapped with a soul, Darla wants to be best pals again, right when she's trying to marshal together an army for the Master, whom Angel both resents and fears. So staking Darla means Angel gets to feel like he's moved past Darla's influence and is a good boy now, and Angelus gets to kill the bitch, stick it to her and the Master, and close the deal with Buffy. Of course, while Angel doesn't talk about it much, we see in season two of his own series (and it's implied in "Becoming") that the revenge wasn't enough to get Darla out of his system. (Indeed, in "The Prodigal" Darla herself points out that killing someone does not free one from their influence.)
Maggie adds: Season 8 has really plugged back into the darker aspects of Buffy and Angel -- hence this dark reading seems even more salient. But I want to underscore the poignancy of it. Angel *does* want to be Buffy's knight protector. It's the essence of his drama. The soul (and Buffy) give him ideals that are difficult for him to live up to given that he's burdened with a cursed demon at his core. The juxtaposition of his ideals and the damage he causes in trying to achieve them is what makes the guy such a compelling tragic figure.