Buffy The Vampire Slayer Reviews: Pangs

We've had Christmas. We've had Halloween. Now it's the turn of the Thanksgiving special episode to take a seat in Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

Pangs is the story in question – fans of both this series and Angel had a teaser of sorts in the concluding moments of the previous Angel episode, The Bachelor Party. Angel's friend, Doyle had one of those mind-cracking visions which paved the way for Buffy to make her first cameo appearance in the spin-off show. So what better opportunity to bring Angel temporarily back to Sunnydale?

Pangs appropriately lives up to its name from Angel's point of view. He's doing his usual stalker routine, sussing out the threat to Buffy from behind a convenient bush or tree or mailbox. It's a whole different ballgame to Passion though – whereas Angelus could and did take whatever he wanted, souled Angel is constantly faced with someone that he can never have. He's the kid whose parents refuse to buy him the expensive toy speedboat. He's the Bullseye contestant who's just gambled a tape recorder, a TV/video set and a dishwasher for the sake of losing all of these prizes and the star prize of an inaccessible car with a great big gaudy bow wrapped around the doors.

It's a common theme of this episode in that the characters are experiencing pangs for things or people that are far out of their reach. Buffy wants a nice normal family Thanksgiving, but can't have the real thing since Mum's out of town. Spike wants a place that he can call home, but Harmony's since wised up and kicked him out without so much as a suitcase. The baddie of the piece wants to become the big noise of the area, but since he's reduced to floating around in green spiritual mist, this is unattainable too. The mantra of “Want. Take. Have” doesn't belong in this season of Buffy, and Pangs explores this wistful notion in greater detail. Professor Walsh would have a field day with this theme in Psych 101.

Beyond the whole symbolism thing, there's no good reason for Angel to be back in town. Buffy's up against the spirit of a vengeful Chumash warrior, who's out for blood. He's gone all Vincent Van Gogh on a female museum curator and has also sliced up the throat of a local priest. In all honesty though, this is small-time stuff for Buffy. There's admittedly another side to this argument in that you can't have big-scale apocalypse episodes every week, and that's fair game.

My beef with Pangs though, is that it's actually rather dull and slow moving. Brilliant episodes such as Fear Itself tell a more personal tale, but don't compromise on the terror and drama. But in Pangs, there's never any real sense of threat with the Chumash spirit. Hus, as he's known, tends to float in and out of the action while speaking clichéd dialogue of the sort you'd find in a made-for-childrens-TV western movie. “I am vengeance!” he bellows at one tension-free point. “I am my people's cry. They call for Hus, for the avenging spirit to carve out justice!” Events potter along in their own meandering way this week – the sight of the Scoobies riding bikes at one point is mildly amusing, but it does sum up the slow pace and the lacklustre baddie of the week.

Another irritant with Pangs that reduces the drama is Buffy's constant alternation between brave Slayer and bossy head chef. The two fuse together as successfully as turkey and ice cream. Virtually every scene involves Buffy one minute sussing out how to deal with Hus and the next, babbling on about more peas or rice or rolls or pie. How to save the day with a rolling pin and an apron. No wonder Giles is in such a strop this week – he's being constantly bossed about by his Slayer, who's commandeered his kitchen on very short notice.

About the only big plus to come out of this repetitive gag is that Buffy's in surprisingly good cheer this week. She's finally put the Parker Abrams saga out of her mind, and is doing her level best to recreate a family Thanksgiving. Although she can't have the real thing, she's evidently pleased as punch that her Scooby family are filling in the empty spaces. Which is kind of ironic when you think about how this season later ends up in tales such as The Yoko Factor.

While Buffy's at her most puppyishly likeable, the other Scoobies aren't faring quite so well. Xander's been struck down by a mystery disease, courtesy of Hus. Anya's too busy playing nurse to Xander, and trying not to dislodge her still weird-looking wig from on top of her head. Giles and Willow meanwhile are embroiled in their own battle, debating with one another over the morals and ethics of Thanksgiving celebrations. Willow regards it as a sham that's all about death, while Giles takes on a more bullish contrary approach – especially when it comes to ridding the world of the murdering Hus. What's more, Giles' lack of empathy for Hus' plight seems to spark Willow into a cold rage: “I don't think you wanna help,” she howls. “I think you just wanna slay the demon, then go, 'La la la'”.

It's curious that loss always brings out the edgier side of Willow. Ever since Oz left, Willow has not been the happiest of campers. Her cynical mistrust of Riley in The Initiative. Her cold rejection of Thanksgiving. And now, her feisty arguments with Giles. Believe it or not, this is nothing compared to what will happen a couple of seasons down the line. But as River Song constantly pouts, Spoilers.

It's a good opportunity to look at both sides of the argument, and although some of the dialogue gets a bit heavy-handed, Pangs is at least unique in looking at the mechanics of a national holiday rather than just celebrating it at face value. In the end, it's left to Spike of all people to deliver some sort of moral of the week: “You exterminated his race. What could you possibly say that would make him feel better? It's kill or be killed here. Take your bloody pick.” It's the first time that Spike's properly integrated with the Scooby Gang, albeit on a totally reluctant basis (on both sides). He's been booted out of the house by his ditzy ex, and has nowhere to go. Like other regulars, Spike's finding that this season is delivering him fast and hard punches. If Xander and Giles have no worthwhile jobs or any real future for the moment, at least they haven't had the indignity of having the one defining element taken away from them – Spike's inability to attack is already starting to take its toll.

Pangs offers some strong material for Buffy, Willow and Giles. There's a brave attempt at educating newcomers about what Thanksgiving is all about, even if it is a bit too laboured and clumsy at times. And there's less Initiative stuff which is always a bonus!

Perhaps my biggest problem with Pangs is that my expectation level was too high. The Bachelor Party's conclusion promises a big, epic showdown of sorts with Angel somehow in the mix. In the end, Angel's return to Buffy The Vampire Slayer is a damp squib. Angel is largely confined to brooding in the shadows and being part of the ongoing gag about how he's back to being evil again (doesn't Jane Espenson know better than to resort to repeating the same old gags?). Put it like this, it wouldn't make a scrap of difference if Angel wasn't in Pangs – the Scoobies would still have most probably disposed of the menace without a little extra help from their old vampire chum.

Following on from the overall high quality of the last season and a half, Season Four has been notably less consistent. We've had the drawn out Parker Abrams stuff, the less-than-inspiring Initiative season arc, and some episodes that have ranged from OK to bafflingly bad. Pangs, for me, at least never gets as bad as Beer Bad, but there's still this sense that the last couple of episodes have been treading water rather than reaching for the dizzy heights of Passion, Becoming, The Wish or Earshot. Jane Espenson's script, while funny in places, lacks the overall punch of earlier stone cold classics, and there's not enough incident or drama to make Pangs come alive, leaving the end result a little tepid for my tastes. It's a reasonably enjoyable way to spend 45 minutes on Thanksgiving Day and has some insightful things to say about the moral side of battle, but – like Spike - Pangs lacks that certain bite.