Buffy The Vampire Slayer Reviews: Amends

Uh oh. It's that time of year again. The shop windows are decked to the halls with decorations. Big supermarket chains are gearing up to see which festive advert can make viewers cry the most. I feel like I should be wearing some brightly coloured party hat while finding at least three Christmas songs that I can actually stand (for the record, Ring Out Solstice Bells by Jethro Tull, Christmas Wrapping by The Waitresses and for some bizarre reason, Macca's festive cheese-fest Wonderful Christmastime are the only festive musical choices that don't make me want to take an axe to the pub stereo in the festive season).

On top of this, Santa Joss is in town, delivering many a festive gift to all Buffy The Vampire Slayer fans with the episode, Amends.

Christmas episodes are tricky things. There's the danger that they pile on the schmaltz and overdo the usual festive clichés. To be honest, Amends isn't a Buffy episode that I'd have readily picked as one of the first to watch from this season – since, A, there are so many great episodes to choose from, and B, I still suffer from Scrooge-itis. But while Amends may walk a fine line with the cheese factor, overall, it's a cleverly written piece with some typically sparkling Whedon characterisation. Nobody knows the characters better than Joss Whedon, and he hands out plenty of acting opportunity gifts to all the regulars.

Amends chiefly revolves around the answer to the mystery of why Angel is back from a hell dimension. He's experiencing a series of nightmares, relating back to his past evil deeds as Angelus, and somehow, Buffy's experiencing these nightmares too. What's making matters worse is that many of Angelus' past victims are coming back to haunt him in the present day, taking the vampire with a soul on an all-expenses paid guilt trip.

Amends looks to Becoming for inspiration, in that it mixes up present-day action with flashbacks to the past. We get to revisit Dublin in 1838, as Angelus mentally tortures, bullies and kills victims such as a young groom to be and a serving maid. Make no mistake – back in the day, Angelus was the lowest of the low, killing victims with a gleeful edge and a sadistic streak. “Daniel, be of good cheer!” he snarks to the quaking young chap in the pre-credits teaser. “It's Christmas!” Grim stuff, although the edge is slightly taken off by two things: One is David Boreanaz's wonky Irish accent, which needs a bit of work. The other is the terrible wig, which reaches a nadir in the sequence when he's preying on servant girl, Margaret. For some reason, not only is he lumbered with a silly fake moustache, he's also hampered by what appears to be Anya's wig from the early part of the fourth season.

Far more effective are the modern-day sequences in which Angel is tortured by the ghosts of Christmas past in an effective tip of the hat to A Christmas Carol. Driving Angel insane with guilt is just as hellish as being stuck in a tortuous dimension with fire and brimstone. It's all the work of an ancient evil which enigmatically goes by the name of The First.

The First is a clever entity. Not only can it take on the form of the dead, it can also plot the downfall of the Slayer. The First attempts to use Angel as the instrument of Buffy's death, and so, cleverly answers why he's back in Sunnydale. No wonder Season Three is regarded as one of the best – there's no less than four Big Bads in one season: The Master; Angelus; The Mayor and The First. The latter evil will have the patience of a saint by waiting a good few seasons before trying again to complete its mission of destroying the Slayer line.

Not that The First doesn't make a convincing first stab at this. It nearly succeeds, and one of the key ways of doing this is to take the form of one of Angelus' most prominent recent kills. Robia LaMorte makes a welcome return as the ghost of Jenny Calendar, and after her brief stint as the baddie in The Dark Age, she proves that she can do cold evil very well indeed. Out of all the ghostly manifestations, Jenny is easily the most effective, with LaMorte bringing a chilling, hard-edged menace to Jenny's ghost. “You were born to hurt her,” she sneers when discussing Buffy. “Have you learned nothing?” It's a good example of how the third season of Buffy hasn't forgotten its earlier roots in making the show such a hit, and Jenny's ghostly cameo is one of the best instances of this.

The one thing that The First hadn't banked on was Angel's own literal suicide mission. This leads to the climatic scene in which Buffy confronts Angel on the hilltop. Angel tells Buffy that it's not the demon in him that needs killing: it's the man: “I'm weak,” he says. “I've never been anything else.” While enjoying a life of drunken debauchery in his original non-vamp days might have been just the ticket, right now, Angel realises that it's his feelings for Buffy that will unlock the beast to be set free on another killing rampage: “I want you so badly!” he tells Buffy. “I want to take comfort in you, and I know it'll cost me my soul, and a part of me doesn't care.”

Buffy's replies only emphasise Angel's forthcoming mission path, in that he can make a change and do something with his life for the greater good. “Angel, you have the power to do real good, to make amends. But if you die now, then all that you ever were was a monster.” She adds that the strength lies in the facing up to the harsh realities of life, as opposed to Angel's assertion that the strength lies in him taking his own life: “Strong is fighting! It's hard, and it's painful, and it's every day. It's what we have to do.” It's big stuff, and Whedon's sensitively written script is boosted by top of the class performances from David Boreanaz and Sarah Michelle Gellar. Both actors go for raw, gritty performances that never descend into mawkish sentiment.

The title of the episode isn't just about Angel making amends – lots of other characters are making up for what they've done in the recent past. Xander notably chooses to help Buffy rather than shove a novelty festive stake through Angel's heart once and for all. It's possible that his recent screw-up in his relationship with Cordelia has made him re-assess his life a little. From this moment on, Xander looks to be more of a supportive friend rather than let his instinctive judgement get in the way.

Giles is amazingly prepared to help Angel after the vampire pays him a call. Angel's visit to Giles again makes the best of both writing and acting worlds. It's great how Giles allows Angel entrance into his house with a crossbow. Anthony Head manages to combine a quiet superiority, cold threats and even pity into that scene, and, coupled with the eerie appearance of Jenny The Unfriendly Ghost, it works brilliantly.

Even Willow's trying to make amends with Oz, who despite his earlier brush-off in The Wish, is prepared to give the relationship another shot. In another fantastic scene, Willow goes all out to give Oz the most romantic night of his life. Cue dimmed lights; tight dress; and Barry White's 1974 classic smoochathon, Can't Get Enough Of Your Love Babe on the stereo. But in an echo of the scene in Innocence, Oz turns down Willow's offer: “When it happens...I want it to be because we both need it to for the same reason. You don't have to prove anything to me.” While the Willow/Tara relationship is probably the better remembered of the three, the Willow/Oz one still contains many moments of charm, and this scene is certainly in the Top 5 list.

Faith's attempts to get into the festive spirit tell a sad old tale. Still smarting from her recent fall-out with Buffy in Revelations, Faith turns down an offer of spending Christmas chez Summers. Her weak excuse is that she's got some great big party to go to – it's too bad that anyone with two glass eyes could see through Faith's charade. Luckily, Faith has a change of heart, and shows up with a selection of “crappy” presents, most likely snaffled from the local petrol station en route. It's a sweet scene, and proves that when it comes down to it, all Faith wants is to be accepted in a friendship without any strings or risk of betrayal.

Considering that happy endings are about as common as a tap-dancing turkey in the World Of Whedon, Amends is a nice change of pace. With that in mind, I'll even take the miraculous snowfall at the end that allows Angel to live another day. Divine intervention? Coincidence? An intergalactic alien with really bad dandruff? I'll leave that one up to you (but please don't mention the awful retcon theory from Angel's fourth season). It's a bit corny and hokey, I'll grant you, but how many Buffy episodes end on such a positive note?

There are many moments of magic sprinkled throughout Amends, from Willow's reminders to her friends about her Jewish upbringing through to Willy The Snitch wishing Buffy and Xander a Merry Christmas (loving the jazzy background music in the bar). While the episode is chiefly centred around Buffy and Angel, the other regulars get a decent slice of the action, including Joyce, who's going all out to make it a festive day to remember.

While it lacks the hallmark gut-punch of episodes like Becoming and Innocence, Amends sees Whedon at the top of his game. A script that's by turns exciting, dramatic, poignant and funny is well served by some polished direction that makes great use of flashback sequences and chilly ghostly effects for The First. Christmas episodes can be throwaway pieces of hokum, but with Amends, Joss Whedon has given the fans a festive gift that can be returned to time and again.

Even in July.