Mark Watches ‘Angel’: S03E11 – Birthday

In the eleventh episode of the third season of Angel, Cordelia Chase is my queen. The end. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Angel.

There is no doubt in my mind that I’ll come back to “Birthday” and still be able to declare it as one of the finest hours of Angel long after I finish the show. I’m not surprised, then, that it’s centered around my favorite character. But I don’t want that to be the sole reason for why I enjoyed “Birthday” so much. Everything that Angel has done well so far – strong writing, evocative acting, clever stories, and some fantastic character development – combines here to give us an emotional story of a woman who chooses to suffer in order to help others. Cordelia Chase chooses to have a life that will be more difficult than it already is so that she can do good in the world.

Oh my god, I love Cordelia Chase so much.

In fact, it was that love of her character the fueled a lot of the tension in “Birthday.” I feel like I am slightly prepared to watch a Joss Whedon show because I spent most of “Birthday” believing that Cordelia would choose her own death by the end of the episode. I harbor no illusions that Whedon, Greenwalt, or Tim Minear wouldn’t dare kill off Cordy, and truly believing that definitely made this episode horrifically suspenseful. This is what Mere Smith has to base a lot of her choices for this episode, but it’s really not what makes this episode so spectacular.

Honestly, “Birthday” just felt like this HUGE episode, one you place near the end of a season, full of massive jumps forward in the show’s mythology, and one hell of an emotional story. At the heart of this, Cordelia collapses on her birthday, right after the rest of the group surprises her with a cake THAT HAS HER AS WONDER WOMAN ON IT. OH MY GOD. THAT CAKE. IT’S SO BEAUTIFUL. But this moment of joy is immediately put in a new context: Cordy is still suffering from migraines due to her visions. Of course, this was only going to get worse. The way the camera was framed after Cordelia collapsed from her vision made me think that she’d hurt Fred during her episode. But then WHAT THE FUCK HOW IS SHE OUTSIDE OF HER OWN BODY?????

And thus begins ONE OF THE MOST HEARTBREAKING EPISODES OF THE SHOW EVER. The first half of this episode tackles Cordelia’s increasingly upsetting out-of-body experience. She’s not dead, but she’s close to it, and she has to watch her friends try to save her. But it’s not necessarily a heartwarming experience. All of them discover just how bad the visions had gotten for her, and the secret she’d held on to for over a year was now in the open. God, it just sucked to watch. I wanted Cordelia to be fine, and I hated that she was taken out of the action only to watch from the sidelines. But this was an incredibly serious situation, especially once Wesley reveals that Cordy’s CAT scans show that she is dying. The visions are literally going to kill her, and she doesn’t have much time. So what was she going to do? Why were the Powers That Be going to let this happen? How was this at all fair? She’d done so much good for them, but this is their reward?

Before I get to Cordelia and Skip (!!!!!!! BE MY FRIEND !!!!!!!), I need to talk about Gunn and Fred. Like, okay, again, I don’t really ship? It’s just not my thing. But there’s that moment when they both go to Cordy’s apartment, and Fred introduces herself rather excitedly to Phantom Dennis, and Gunn says, “Fred, you are so cool!” and in that instant, all I could think was, “WOW, THEY WOULD MAKE A CUTE COUPLE,” and then it went away right as they both awkwardly looked at one another. So is that shipping? It probably is. If anything, I really appreciated that small moment because it showed me that Gunn truly was warming up to Fred being around all of the time.

Okay, so, Skip. Yeah, I didn’t think I’d ever see him again, and it was a pleasant surprise to watch him as Cordelia’s guide through the astral plane. I love that the Buffyverse doesn’t make all their demons act the same. I’m thinking of the much-missed Big Gulp demon from “That Old Gang of Mine” (R.I.P.), and of the demon in “Once More, with Feeling,” or even Merl. Like humans, demons have varied personalities, and Skip is unlike any demon I’ve ever come across in fiction. He’s actually perfectly suited to Cordelia’s personality: he’s confident, direct, matter-of-fact, and sassy as hell. God, I loved that her astral version of herself was exactly the same. Anyway, Sam arrives right as Cordelia finds out she’s dying, which is the exact point where I started to tear up. It’s also where this episode goes from “really good” to “how is this real it’s so amazing.”

I love everything about what Skip does. I love that he takes Cordelia to a shopping mall. (How had he seen The Matrix if he had been guarding Billy for so long? Perhaps he spent all the time since then catching up on movies.) And I love where Mere Smith takes Cordelia Chase in this episode. We’ve seen her growth since she first appeared on Buffy, and we’ve witnessed even more growth on Angel. I thought it was brilliant that this episode contained visual references to both “City of” and “Hero.” It was a great way to remind me of just where Cordelia has come from over the years. She really was a stuck-up, bullying, and self-centered rich girl from Sunnydale, and after losing all of that, she’s become the most dependable and moral member of the team at Angel Investigations. But more so than anything else, Cordelia Chase finally cares. She learned how to sympathize and empathize with the pain of others, and she came to accept the visions Doyle gave her as a gift. And now, she has discovered that this “gift” is going to end her life by LITERALLY EXPLODING HER BRAIN.

So what is she supposed to do? Cordelia truly believes this is her purpose in life, but how can she continue to help others if she is dead? That’s when Skip gives her a second option: she can choose to have the Powers That Be rewrite her life so that she is a famous actress instead. Initially, I believed Cordelia wouldn’t choose this option ever. And that’s how things unfolded! No matter what Skip showed her, no matter how many times he tried to get her to believe that her life would be better (and much longer), she refuse to give up her visions. Can we just spell that out? Cordelia Chase, when shown that the back of her head would blow up in a matter of days if she kept her visions, refuses to allow a mystical power to give her a perfect life if it meant giving up her painful and violent gift.

I love you, Cordelia Chase.

I felt that Skip was being a little unfair to Cordelia when he took her into the Conduit room, as if he was timing it just so she could here the part that sounded horrific. Like, for real, man, she’s smart enough to make a good decision on her own. Give her the truth. That being said, I was so committed to the idea that Cordelia would never choose a rewritten life that I actually believed it was a joke that she did. She wouldn’t actually do that, and that’s beca –

oh.

oh my god.

OH MY GOD IT’S HAPPENING.

Oh fuck, she has her own show? SHE WON TWO EMMYS? SHE’S PERFECT AND HER LIFE IS PERFECT AND SHE HAS AN ASSISTANT AND WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON? Oh my god, she has her own opening titles and theme song, WHAT THE FUCK?

What struck me about “Birthday” once we entered the alternate reality was how strange it all was. This was akin to a more fucked up version of A Christmas Carol. A world without Cordelia was one where Wesley lost his arm and Angel has become reclusive due to his visions. Hell, Fred isn’t even in this reality! What reason would they all have had to go to Pylea without Cordelia? Oh my god, that thought is so haunting. But for Cordelia, nothing is worse than knowing that her choice left Angel suffering as he does in this version of the world. She can’t stand it. And that’s when she chooses to go back. To die. Cordelia Chase chose to die rather than let her friend suffer for the rest of his life. But things don’t end up that simple, and I was completely shocked by Skip’s reveal: if Cordelia becomes part demon, she can tolerate the visions. I adore the look on her face as Skip awaits her answer. She’s essentially saying, “What are you waiting for? The answer is obvious.”

Be still, my heart.

I’m interested to see what other powers or ramifications Cordelia will have to deal with. Is it just floating? I mean, that’s a pretty cool demon power to inherit. But will she be half demon like Doyle? Oh god, THERE IS SO MUCH POTENTIAL IN THIS. I seriously adore this episode so much.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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