In the fourth episode of the fifth season of Angel, Spike learns what’s pulling him away from his world. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Angel.
Before I get to the content of this episode, I want to discuss horror tropes. I know that we talk about tropes a lot here on this site, but if there was ever a genre of fiction that utilizes a specific pattern of tropes over and over again that I ALWAYS FORGIVE, it’s the horror genre. Y’all, this genre is trope heaven. In a sense, Steven S. DeKnight’s story is a loving ode to tons of ridiculous horror tropes. Some are used straight up; some are subverted. Any way you look at it, this is one of the creepiest episodes in the Buffyverse. Dark hallways. Gory entities haunting the protagonist. The first deconsecration of a sacred burial ground I have ever come across ever in fiction. A terrible past for Wolfram & Hart. God, it’s so fantastic! DeKnight even plays with the technique of using the camera to act as the POV of the ~super creepy monster~ who sneaks up on our ~unsuspecting heroine~. Except Fred just pretends to be scared for Spike, and my GOD, Spike and Fred are so adorable together. Well, I’ll get there. You also have the moment in the shower with Fred, which is one of the most stereotypical plot set-ups you can find in the horror genre. Oh no, our innocent protagonist is taking a shower at an unfortunate time! Will she be murdered Psycho style??? Instead, the show directs our attention elsewhere and chooses not to have Spike sexualize her, something that I thought would happen just because this is how this trope always plays out. The scene is about Spike’s demonstration of will power, of his desperation to get out of this twisted reality. He doesn’t realize it at the time, but he’s bending reality to his will in an attempt to reach out to friend.
And while I don’t sense any romance between Spike and Fred, and I’m not a shipper of them, “Hell Bound” works so well because of these two. With the exception of one scene with Angel, most of the other characters take a backseat so that Spike and Fred can truly shine here. Even if this mostly feels like an unsettling horror film, I think it also operates to explore what redemption means for Spike. Even after saving the world in Sunnydale, he’s given no just rewards. His previous life of murder, torment, and suffering still comes into play, and I think Spike’s conversation with Angel in his office is evidence of that. The bleakness of what Angel says seems more in-character considering the events at the end of season four. So much of what Angel has gone through for the past few years has been a lie: the prophecy, his son, and Jasmine. I like the characterization we’re getting now because it’s a portrait of Angel who is simply going through the motions because it’s better than death.
So I wonder, then, if there ever truly can be redemption for characters like Spike and Angel. Will both of them be sent to hell when they die? Can they ever do enough good to essentially cancel out the bad? It seems that the show is suggesting that this isn’t possible. I mean, look how much good Angel has already done at this point! Could he fill the next 100 years with morality and ever undo the weight of guilt and shame? I’m not sure, but Angel seems to think that the terrible things they did will be the only thing that matters. I kind of want to sit on these thoughts until after the finale anyway, as it’s premature to theorize about this sort of thing.
Still, this is what haunts Spike in “Hell Bound.” He initially thinks the ghastly images he sees are souls welcoming him to hell. What’s interesting to me, then, is how Spike accepts that he’s destined to go to hell, but fights the Reaper for selfish reasons. (Understandably selfish, I should say.) Fred, on the other hand, fights the Reaper because she believes Spike is worth saving. Gunn and Wesley have no real history with Spike, so they’re largely indifferent about his fate. Angel is unconcerned because… well, Spike cramps his style. And they fight. A lot. And it’s terribly entertaining, and I hope I get to see this for the rest of this season. Anyway, this episode is why I’ll always love Fred. Well, one of the reasons, that is. Despite that she knows that Spike has a terrible past, and despite that her friends aren’t all that interested in saving him, Fred believes it’s right to help him. So she devotes countless hours, goes over budget by $800,000 in her department, and stops sleeping and eating regularly to help someone she’s known for like… a week? Maybe that? This show’s consistency in having friend attach herself to people who are lonely or stuck between worlds is uncanny. As I’ve said in past reviews, Fred’s past in Pylea completely motivates who she is now. (Oh god, I just thought about what she was once like when she first came to this show. She has changed so much.) She sees a man who desperately wants to return to his world, and she can empathize. It’s fucking beautiful, y’all, and it really makes this episode special. Plus, when it comes down to it, Spike chooses the most selfless option available: he saves Fred’s life and gives Pavayne a corporeal body. Their once-in-a-lifetime chance to make Spike whole again has passed. OH GOD. So many feelings.
Even beyond this story, a great deal of the small details were exciting. Gunn made a Scanners reference! The Magdalene Grimoire is the book from the first Sandman story! OH GOD LET’S COMPARE SPIKE’S INABILITY TO RETURN TO HIS WORLD WITH MORPHEUS’S SAME JOURNEY. done done DONE. I think the origin of the L.A. branch of Wolfram & Hart is going to be important in the future. And Wesley has a book of DARK SOULS. Oh my god, can I read that? That would rule!
All in all, “Hell Bound” is both frightening and emotionally powerful, and I think it’s one of the stronger episodes of the entire show. I seriously can’t deal with Fred and Spike’s glorious friendship. I mean, did you notice that there’s hardly any snark around her? He’s so open, honest, and genuine with her, and Fred is comfortable with him, too. I just love friendship, okay? IS THAT TOO MUCH TO ASK FOR?
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