Bottle Up and Explode
Spin the Bottle
Bottle Up and Explode aims to explore a tradition that is unique to television: the bottle episode. Each installment will examine one such episode to understand the constraints of the form, its particular strengths and weaknesses, and what it says about both the particular television show and about the medium in general.

"We'll just wait to see if there are any side effects."-Wesley Wyndam-Pryce (Alexis Denisof)

"Everything is designed really carefully to keep you guys in the hotel"¦because I didn't want to spend the money to send you anywhere else."-Joss Whedon, in the commentary track

The best television shows are ultimately, at least in some way, about change. Whether it's a character's inability to change, like on The Sopranos, a characters shocking ability to change, like on Breaking Bad, or about the slow development of characters over time, like on shows such as Six Feet Under, The Wire, and Mad Men, most great television deals in some way with change. Angel too is a show about change, about a vampire with a soul on a quest for redemption, hoping he can change enough to make up for all of the wrong he's done. Not only Angel (David Boreanaz) changes over the course of the show, however. Every character on Angel is constantly developing, evolving, and changing, to the point where most of the main cast is rendered almost unrecognizable from their first appearances on the show.

Knowing this was the case, and wanting both to return the characters to their much more innocent, humorous ways as well as remind us of how far they have come individually and together before the beginning of the show's longest and darkest arc yet, Joss Whedon wrote and directed "Spin the Bottle," an immensely comic episode that has some dark, heartbreaking elements hidden just beneath the surface. Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter), Angel's love interest and his conduit to the Higher Powers (via visions of people in trouble) has just returned from a higher plane, with no memory of who she is or what she's done. In an attempt to get that memory back, Lorne (Andy Hallett) tracks down a spell that should return her to her former glory. Of course, magic is never as predictable as one might like, and the spell backfires, rendering Lorne unconscious and reverting everyone else in the room to teenage versions of themselves. Angel becomes an insolent Irish boy from the 18th Century, Cordelia reverts from her noble hero role to her "Queen Bitch" characteristics last seen early on Buffy, Wesley (Alexis Denisof) regresses from a cold-hearted bad-ass to a simpering, incompetent dandy, Fred (Amy Acker) goes from being a deeply conflicted genius to a small-town stoner, and Gunn devolves from his more measured views on the supernatural back to a reactive, street level view (a "shoot first, ask questions later" type of guy).

The entire episode is framed as a cabaret act performed by Lorne to an unseen audience, a narrative trick Whedon had always wanted to try (much like his desire to do a musical episode created "Once More With Feeling" over on Buffy). The entire episode, excepting the cabaret frame and a single outdoor fight scene, takes place within the existing sets of the hotel, which was an attempt on Whedon's part to save time and money, though various complicated shots he attempted throughout the episode and the amount of time it took to shoot some of the more comedic scenes (due to the cast cracking up through many early takes), the episode did not end up saving much time, showing once again that bottle episodes are rarely a guaranteed time saver (Though they are much more regularly money savers, as this episode has only three outside characters, and those characters only appear in the one outdoor set, which was filmed right next to the club used for Lorne's cabaret act, again to save money).
The episode is both a visual and verbal marvel, as Whedon uses multiple long, sweeping takes, especially in the early going, and keeps things interesting with constant jokes flying and Lorne's consistent fourth-wall breaking as he tells the tale (including my favorite bit, when directly after a commercial break he comments, "Well, those were some exciting products, am I right? We should all think about buying some of those."). Whedon even makes the most of his cost-saving maneuvers, shooting the alley fight scene from only one direction to save time and money, but keeping the camera moving and changing angles to ensure it stays visually dynamic (he repeats the same trick to greater effect during a confrontation at the hotel later in the episode).
And the subtle shift in tone, from broad comedy (including pratfalls, and various masturbation, boob, and sexual inadequacy jokes, all of which relate perfectly to the character's regressed teenage anxieties) to melancholy drama near the episode's end happens so easily you almost don't notice you aren't laughing anymore until the tragedy sinks in. As Angel (who has been outed as a vampire by the suspicious rest of the gang, who are now trying to kill him to win the freedom they aren't aware they already have) fights his son Connor (Vincent Kartheiser), he vents his frustrations about his father, which are eerily close to the problems Connor has with him.

Things only get worse as the gang regain their memories. This group has been through a lot together, and much of it has been terrible, alienating and traumatic. Wesley now remembers how removed from the rest of the gang he's become and how estranged he is from the woman he loves. Gunn and Fred recall the strain they put on their relationship just one episode before when he killed a man for her to stop her from getting revenge and becoming a killer herself. Cordelia remembers who she is, and with that, gets a glimpse of the horrible prophecy she's been repressing (the one that will plague the gang for the rest of the season), and realizes just how complicated things have become with Angel, who in turn has to deal with the fact that he remembers that he loves her, and that she isn't ready to deal with that. And Lorne, who never forgot any of these things? Well, he's been telling this story all along to an empty club.

Each of these characters is alone in some way by episode's end, but each also realizes how far they've come, how much they've changed and how much they've gone through to get to where they are. And we, in turn, are reminded of all of that as well. "Spin the Bottle" is a masterful piece of television, funny, sad, visually dynamic and verbally sharp as a knife. It's a story about friendship and isolation, about remembering and forgetting, about who we have been and how the events of our lives can profoundly change us. It's complex, clever, and soul-crushing. This is the stuff that makes up great bottle episodes, and this one is worth taking for a spin.

Read more Bottle Up and Explode here

Coming up on Bottle Up and Explode:

3/25: "In the Closet," Sealab 2021

4/8: "Once Upon A Time," The Prisoner

4/22: "A is for Aardvark," Bewitched

5/6: "Day 5: 7:00 pm-8:00 pm," 24

Tags: Angel
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