:Angel: has been inconsistent these past couple of weeks. Fortunately, although there have been stumbles, the show is still able to reach its high points. Please note that spoilers follow.
The World War II flashback episode 1943 was well directed and had good acting, but I had serious concerns with the characterization. It stretched credibility to have Spike in the mix in the flashback portions of this episode and, as the episode progressed, it became quite clear that we weren't dealing with the 1943 versions of Angel and Spike, but the modern-day versions transposed to their 1943 bodies. Spike was nowhere near as psychotic as he should have been, and he was far too willing to work with Angel. Angel himself was coopted far too easily, in my opinion, and he took charge far too well. There was no sign of the vermin-eater here, despite the reference to same.
In the modern-world part of the plot, Lawson overpowered Angel far too easily and his motivations were less than clear. It was interesting that he had difficulty being a vampire, and the suggestion that it might have been because he was sired by a vampire with a soul, while interesting, doesn't give the episode much of a point. Also, the two guest vampires were, frankly, annoying, and it was a relief to have them killed.
Ah, well; at least there were nice touches. Nice to see the Initiative make a cameo appearance.
Far better was Smile Time, which had the feel of the production team realizing that cancellation was inevitable and going "ah, what the heck." I have not seen such a combination of creepiness, laugh-out-loud comedy and brutal horror for many an episode. Smile Time prompted a range of reactions, from gails of laughter to grimaces of revulsion, and very little in between.
I guess you've got to figure: a story where a werewolf declares her love for a vampire who has been turned into a puppet from a Sesame Street knock-off has either got to be a total disaster or sheer brilliance. It was, fortunately, the latter, thanks to excellent direction, and actors and script writers who just decided to go for it. The puppets themselves were very effective, conveying menace as well as they conveyed earnest innocence, and the scene where the lead puppet has his hand up the puppeteer's back is... gross, that just has to be said. Angel's puppet is especially well realized, looking like a cross between James Dean and Bert. There might have been too much chin and not enough forehead, but the frown and the eyes made it work -- as did James Marster's willingness to be beaten up by an incensed puppet.
The producers did miss one opportunity, however. When the puppets make their play for the souls of the children watching, and Angel and crew come on set (on live television) to take them out, we should have seen more reactions from the parents. There was tremendous comic potential to think that people were watching in horror as puppet dogs and puppet boys and girls were being decapitated and dismembered. Sadly, the producers didn't follow through. And they should have run Self Esteem is For Everybody over the end credits, but it was not to be.
Nina's guest appearance (she appeared earlier in the season as a newly minted werewolf) seems superfluous on paper, but it managed to work, providing a good mirror to Fred and Wesley's deepening relationship, and contributing to the comic factor (especially when, as a werewolf, she grabbed the Angel puppet -- "Nina! No! Bad werewolf! Bad!"). To cap things off, little touches, like spoofing :Angel:'s own slow-motion gang-walking shots and David Fury's guest appearance, made this stand-alone episode very special indeed.
And, as stand alone episodes go, there is still more of a sense here than in 1943 that something else is building. I notice that Joss Whedon shared the story by credits with Ben Edlund, and his contribution was probably to set up the romantic entanglement between Fred and Wesley, and the jealousy of Knox, not to mention Gunn sinking deeper into Wolfram and Hart's corruption. The next episode, I see, is written and directed by Joss Whedon, and is said to begin an eight-episode story arc that will take us to the end of the series.
Should be good.