Festive Rewind: Buffy the Vampire Slayer “Amends”

21 Dec

It’s TV Ate My Wardrobe’s first festive season and to mark this occasion we are hosting a very special rewind series. What this means is that we will be featuring a whole host of guest posts and in the spirit of the holidays we have asked a variety of writers to discuss a festive episode of their choice. These will be appear on the site over the next couple of weeks and there’s an eclectic mix including teen dramas, science fiction, animation, comedy, drama and more to get you in the celebratory mood. Or to at least give you plenty of suggestions of TV to watch over the break.

In today’s guest post Ian Austin talks about the season 3 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer “Amends.”

amends-pic-21So when I heard this site was doing Christmas rewinds, it took me less than a second to figure out the show I’d focus on. And the episode took a half-second less. Buffy The Vampire Slayer brought the world in the season 3 episode “Amends” and like every truly memorable Buffy episode decided to do something different from the norm. Instead of a happy, fun Christmas episode, they gave us an episode that is among the saddest and most adult episodes that the show ever produced. Which is fascinating, given the same show brought us “The Gift,” “Lie to Me,” and something called “Passion” which I can’t even get started from…

The basic gist of the episode is that when Angel died in S2, he spent a near-eternity in a Hell dimension suffering for his sins. His re-emergence from Hell wasn’t explained, and the show did a (sometimes subtle, sometimes not so) decent job of bringing him back into the fold while ensuring that there were lasting repercussions. Prior to this episode there was tension between Buffy and Angel, and the sense that Angel didn’t come back quite right. When the Scooby Gang find out Angel is alive they, remembering he went evil in Season 2, were suspicious. After all, Angel (as Angelus) did have a tendency to go for the hurt rather than the pain; who’s to say he wasn’t pulling a long-con to destroy Buffy mentally and physically.

And that wasn’t a basic gist at all, and didn’t even get to this episode. I’ll try again.

So “Amends” focuses on Angel’s psyche, presenting us with flashbacks to his days as an evil, drunken, lecherous vampire through to his present as a broody, sober, striving to be asexual and failing vampire. He’s taunted by The First, a Dickensian concept if ever there was one in the form of an ancient being who – like the ghosts in A Christmas Carol – taunts Angel with his past, present (and future) failings, forcing him to relive the terrible things he’s done, is doing in the present, and wants to do in the future; the last being ‘bite Buffy.’ Buffy never strived away from pointing out the correlation between Angel’s soul and a rehab mindset, and in this episode they go for the jugular in the ‘Christmas is a horrible time for addicts’ sweepstakes.

After all, Christmas is a time for excess. Which is hard enough for anyone, but for someone like Angel who is constantly teetering on the wagon it’s torture. In this context, pig’s blood can be seen as an allusion to non-alcoholic beer; the cravings have to be transferred, they can’t be removed entirely. At this point it’s worth noting that The First appearing as Jenny isn’t a clever twist on the work of Dickens, as Scrooge is shown the importance of family via Tiny Tim, a being who will die because of greed, while Angel is shown that Jenny died because of him and – as a result – Giles is never going to have the family. The concept of a stolen life resonates with Angel, tying in with how Darla turning him into a vampire removed his potential for rising above his laddish attitude.

Incidentally, the Christmas Carol contrast is fascinating in regards to Darla. Belle left Scrooge and broke his heart; Darla chose Liam and stole his humanity. In retrospect that flashback would work brilliantly here, but that’s hindsight for you.

Back to the episode… and we see Angel’s passivity (it’s clear The First is using the truth, or Angel’s perceived truth, as a weapon) is rooted in his desire to die. Not showing us what happened to him in Hell is a clever way of getting around some of the logic flaws here; the show can play the post traumatic stress disorder angle without it feeling patronising. The combination of his addiction and PTSD combine to make Angel suicidal, which is a brave concept for a Christmas episode now, but back then was pretty damn huge. Events build until a fantastic scene between Angel and Giles, where Giles raises the obvious question of whether Angel thinks he deserves to be saved.

One of the flaws of Buffy’s second season was that, after “Passion,” they mostly dropped the Angel-Giles issues. I mean it makes sense conceptually, with Buffy punching Giles and begging her to let it go after “Passion,” but at the same time it cuts back on dramatic material for Anthony Stewart Head. In this episode, we get some great and subtle acting from him, as you can visibly see his demeanor go from ‘I don’t trust you and would kill you if you turned evil, regardless of Buffy’ to ‘I trust Buffy.’ The show doesn’t make a big thing of it, it’s just that the narrative complexity fascinates me; Giles isn’t offering holiday cheer, he’s choosing to believe in Buffy generally and this is heartwarming.

Indeed, there’s only three bits of holiday cheer in the episode. The first is Xander helping research The First using Christmas as an excuse and… well, we won’t get into the horribleness of Xander’s ‘camp out at Christmas’ tradition because the show has never established whether vampires inability to enter a home means they can’t climb a fence, and it’s unpleasant to think of how abusive the Harris household is.

The second bit is more a subversion than anything as Buffy tackles the ‘virginity’ concept with Willow. She’s just gotten back with Oz after the events of “Lovers Walk,” where she cheated on him with Xander. It was a thing. Anyway, the episode triumphs because Oz – who has had sex before – and Willow don’t have sex because he’s not ready. Yeah, ‘HE’S NOT READY.’ Again, it’s a pretty big thing for a show nowadays to point out that guys don’t want sex 24/7, and this was another sweet moment in one of the nicest relationships in TV history. You could read the scene as Oz sensing Willow wasn’t ready and taking the pressure off of her, but I think an equally valid reading is that Oz just wasn’t used to the idea of sex with someone he cared about. Which gives the scene a slightly more intense undertone, book-ending “Lovers Walk” nicely as that episode was about how obsessive love can be bad, whereas here it’s more selfless: love where characters don’t take advantage of each other just because they can. I think Willow realising Oz wasn’t that guy was probably the best Christmas gift she could have ever gotten. Even if she’s Jewish and doesn’t celebrate Christmas.

Which brings us to the third and final ‘Christmas Spirit’ moment. Namely the end of the episode, where Angel’s given up and has walked out in the throes of a rising sun to end it all. It’s a very powerful moment and a very sad moment; the idea of this character feeling he has nothing to live for, and is a bane on the existence of everyone around him. Buffy’s pleas with him to not do this don’t work because, sadly, suicidal people already know all of the ‘don’t do it’ arguments. They think about them constantly, and the disease can still win. Seeing Buffy breakdown is brutal stuff for a Christmas episode, knowing that in the end she’s powerless to stop this. And then, a miracle happens…

It starts to snow.

Now lots of people have debated the meaning of this, as to whether some sentient force brings the snow to spare Angel’s life. And maybe there is an explanation there (given the prophecy from Angel’s self-named TV show), but for me I think in the end it’s just snow. The importance is not the event, rather what it does for Angel. It doesn’t solve his problems (indeed, those continue into his own show, and are the reason he leaves Sunnydale), they just give him a stay of execution. And he walks off with Buffy into the unknown, a Christmas Day where – for once – while there isn’t a happy ending, there’s a moment where things can’t possibly get any worse for the characters.

I know this wasn’t the most cheerful episode to do a Christmas retrospective on, but I think it’s important to note during the holidays that lots of people are in real-life situations of pain and suffering. And while they can’t be fixed easily, or in some cases at all, to me the true meaning of Christmas should be letting people know they’re not alone. Whether it’s donating to charity, sending a ‘merry Christmas’ message to someone you used to know, or just letting your loved ones know you care about them, stepping outside of presents and commercialization sometimes brings more joy than anything else.

Oh, and go watch “Amends” again. It’s a tough episode to sit through, but one of the true underrated gems from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Having written in the past for TV OvermindCult Den and Haddonfield Horror, Ian Austin will soon be debuting on Inter-comics with an article on Firestorm (of DC Comics infamy.) Until this occurs, his fan-fiction scripts for a Daredevil series can be found on BZN. If you want to tell him The Avengers is a good film and get into a long-winded debate, you can follow him on twitter @https://twitter.com/I_A_Austin.

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