In the sixth episode of the third season of Angel, WELL, THAT WAS FORTY OF THE MOST UNCOMFORTABLE MINUTES OF MY LIFE. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Angel.
Sweet babies, I wasn’t prepared for this episode.
The metaphor for misogyny is obvious. This is not necessarily a subtle episode, but the writers didn’t seem to be going for that angle anyway. This is one of the most relentlessly uncomfortable episodes in the Buffyverse, not just because we watch characters we like turn against each other, but because there’s a horrific truth to what we see: men are socialized to be misogynists since birth, and it’s entirely possible that we can become that person at any time. And that goes for me, too. Engaging my own misogyny is a daily process, and it always will be. I grew up in a world that not only hated women, but despised all expressions of femininity. As a gay man, that made for a confusing and painful experience growing up.
But let’s be real here. I still benefit from misogyny whether or not I try to fight against it. I’ll still get picked over women for jobs, my opinion as a man will still be respected over others, I’ll be associated with a whole host of positive ideas just by default, and I won’t experience what those who are on the receiving end of misogyny go through. Watching this episode is uncomfortable in that sense because I’d like to think I do right, but what sort of ideas are still floating around in my head? Have I ever made a person feel shitty because of this?
“Billy” starts off in a way that seemed like foreshadowing for a fight at some point between Cordelia and Angel. Why else would the writers include the entire bit where Cordelia shows how well she’s learned by pinning Angel to a wall with her sword? (As soon as that happened, I thought, “Well, there are at least forty-five fics that were spawned in the hour after that aired.”) It was incredibly adorable to watch, and I get the sense that the writers are pushing Angel and Cordelia closer. But. It seemed too much like a clue! And I was trying to be prepared! I failed.
I failed because I forgot about the guy Angel set free in “That Vision Thing.” I seriously did! Hell, I couldn’t even identify him at first. So I couldn’t figure out why I should care about this episode aside from the fact that it contained all these characters acting really cute. Oh my god, Wesley has a crush on Fred! I’m not surprised, despite that it came along so suddenly. I mean, how could you not? She’s adorable! Wesley and Fred are being cute, Angel and Cordelia are being cute… is this going to be a test? Just forty minutes straight of people being cute? I accept this challenge.
Unfortunately for me, this episode is the opposite of that. You know, as direct as the misogyny metaphor is (and it’s pretty damn direct when Lilah calls it misogyny), I was impressed with how many other tropes were used to scare the pants off of me. And I wasn’t even wearing pants at the time! Obviously, Billy’s power is horrifying. While I wasn’t terribly convinced by the idea that misogyny was a “primal” urge, I thought it was brilliant that Billy was able to bring forth a rage that was always there. To me, that was what made this episode work.
In that sense, “Billy” is also a horror story about infection and identity. Billy’s power can spread through contact with his blood, and we see that happen through both Wesley and Gunn. My god, even when Wesley was talking about this, I didn’t think, “Well, he’s next!” So watching his gradual decline into EXTREMELY FUCKED UP disturbed me so much. Truthfully, I don’t know what sort of commentary I can provide on this! I was seriously unsettled by this episode, and Alexis Denisof’s performance certainly helped me feel this way. I don’t like what this says about his character, but I have to accept that Wesley has the capacity to act this way. It was almost like getting a glimpse of his version of Angelus. I know that this is what Wesley struggles with at the end of “Billy.” It’s not just guilt, though he certainly feels guilty for treating Fred the way he did. He’s horrified that it was even within him to do this sort of thing. But he can’t deny it anymore. Billy didn’t add this to his soul; IT WAS THERE ALL ALONG.
What I want to do, though, is focus on the three women who I believe truly make up the bulk of this episode. “Billy” is about how Fred, Lilah, and Cordelia cope with the violent, vicious misogyny left in the wake of Billy. I noticed that the writers chose to do something very specific with all three of them: they saved themselves. It’s a callback to the cold open with Cordelia. Angel insists that he is teaching Cordelia how to fight just so she can keep bad guys from hurting her until he can come save her. Over the course of “Billy,” we watch Cordelia reject this premise in every single scene. She refuses to wait for Angel. She refuses to let other people deal with her problems. She even blames herself for what’s happened, even though that’s not the case.
THIS IS THE CORDELIA CHASE SHOW. I just… my god, I know y’all know she’s my favorite character, but this episode just secured her as one of my favorite characters ever. I am going to specifically refer to her monologue in Lilah Morgan’s apartment. When she tells Lilah that she used to be her, I just wanted to die. Cordelia is aware of what she used to be when she was in Sunnydale, and this acknowledgment of her journey is a powerful moment to witness. Cordelia Chase cares about the world she is in, and it disgusts her to see Lilah purposely ignore this for the benefit of her superiors. And that’s what Cordelia goes after: how does this benefit Lilah? Does she deserve to be beaten in order to keep her job? Cordelia gets what Lilah is going through because she was once her. So she goes after Lilah’s pride, and that’s what eventually works.
For Fred, though, she doesn’t have quite the same amount of confidence as Lilah or Cordelia. She might not be as strong as them, and she certainly is a lot more afraid than them. But what I like about her story in “Billy” is the fact that Wesley undermines her for all of these things, and yet this is what is his ultimate downfall. He spends so much time insulting her, demeaning her for being a woman, for being weak, for being silly and afraid, and he forgets that while she might be all those things, that doesn’t make her any less of a person. Fred is smart and crafty, and she uses what she’s good at to fuck Wesley up.
And it was interesting to me that Gunn was far more self aware than Wesley was. He wasn’t exempt from the infection, but within a minute of being informed of a possible infection, he instantly did what he could to protect Fred. That was really awesome to see because he put her needs before his own, the exact opposite thing done by every man infected by Billy. Wesley never once did anything of the sort, though the infection admittedly hit him by surprise.
I guess it’s weird to talk about this because I really don’t know how much of Wesley’s behavior while infected is what he really feels subconsciously. Does he resent Fred in some horrible way? I think that’s ultimately why I was so disturbed by this episode, especially the ending. I don’t know what to feel about Wesley anymore. I mean, I know that he deeply regrets what he did to Fred, and I don’t believe he’s going to do it again. But I can’t un-remember the image of him striking Fred after slut shaming her. I can’t just forget that he nearly killed her, and I’m sure Fred won’t forget that either, no matter how forgiving she is of him. Oh god, I am a mess of feelings. I imagine that for some of you, this affected you like “The Thin Dead Line” affected me. It’s a straight-up thriller to most people, but it’s remarkably personal and terrifying to those who are more frequently on the receiving end of misogyny.
I was also fascinated by how “Billy” chose to wrap up Angel and Cordelia’s storyline. I figured that Billy couldn’t use his powers on non-humans, but Angel proposed a far more interesting theory: he got rid of that sort of “primal” hatred a long time ago, since he killed out of pleasure instead of hatred while he was Angelus. I don’t think that means that Angel can’t be a misogynist, though I admit that it’s sort of toeing the line on the issue. But Angelus wasn’t hateful. I don’t know that the show will ever bring Angelus back again, especially since we just spend an entire season exploring Angel’s dark side, but this would be something I’d love to see more of. Cordelia remarks that, strangely, Angel’s demon is less petty than humans, and ultimately, that’s such a scathing indictment of what misogyny is: the most petty human reaction imaginable, acted out on a worldwide scale with violence and hatred.
Oh god, Wesley WESLEY.
SUPER IMPORTANT UPDATE! Oh my god, I forgot that this was going up today IT WON’T HAPPEN AGAIN.
The lovely Amanda purchased a Mark Watches video for this episode, so here’s my live commentary on “Billy” as I watched it the first time:
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