5x09: "Harm's Way"
Review by Alexandra Jones
Posted on November 16, 2011Writer: Sarah Fain and Elizabeth Craft | Director: Vern Gillum | Air Date: 01/14/2004
This is a retrospective review and may contain spoilers from anywhere in the series. Read at your own peril.
Something very odd seems to happen to me when I watch this episode. It's like I become two completely different people. One of them is having a great time, enjoying the silliness and appreciating the brilliant comedy styling of Mercedes McNab. The other is just sitting there thinking 'wow, this is pretty bad.' I guess that makes it a 'guilty pleasure' kind of episode. Because, while I do genuinely enjoy watching this one, there are several things that I just can't deny: it's very silly, the plot is (almost deliberately) terrible, and it has almost nothing to do with anything that's come before or after it.
So why do I like it at all? Well, I guess it's mostly because I like Harmony herself. Not everyone does, and if you don't, I can't imagine you'll like this very much. I do strongly suspect that this episode was slotted in to give Boreanaz a bit of a break from filming after his knee surgery, although I haven't been able to find anything to back that up. With the focus on Harmony, Angel doesn't have to do very much, and he spends most of his scenes sitting down or at least standing still. But even if that is the case, I'm actually glad that Harmony gets her own episode. She may not be one of the most important characters in the show, but she's been around for a long time - since the first season of Buffy, in fact. The only other remaining cast member we can say that about is Angel himself. She's also important because, if you watched Buffy, she's the only character we've seen for any significant length of time both before and after becoming a vampire, and she's the first 'new' vampire we've really seen for more than an episode or two.
This is kind of a Harmony-centric version of "The Zeppo" - the Buffy episode where we saw Xander take off on a mini adventure of his own while the rest of the gang were preoccupied with yet another Apocalypse. Like that episode, "Harm's Way" subverts the usual A/B plot structure so that the 'A' plot is actually the much less significant story. Angel is busy preventing a demon war over bad table manners (did I mention that the plot is very silly?) which should really be much more significant than Harmony's antics, but it's the latter which we're clearly supposed to care more about. However, this episode is sadly nowhere near as clever, interesting or important as "The Zeppo," which showed Xander in a whole new light and gave him some space to really develop as a character. "Harm's Way," on the other hand, is almost entirely a throwaway comedy effort, with just a few minor new insights into Harmony's life and character. And this is a little disappointing. I can really appreciate a good 'comedy' episode, and I think Mercedes McNab is a delight to watch, but I can't help feeling like there's so much more which could have been done here.
I actually think this season really needed Harmony. There's no escaping the fact that Cordelia and Lilah were both very strong female characters, and that without them the season has become very male-dominated. Combine that with the fact that Fred's not really doing all that much in this season, and the girls really don't have a lot left going for them. However, this season has brought us two new ladies in much smaller roles, in the form of Harmony and Eve. Personally, I really dislike Eve and think she's a very poor substitute for Lilah. The same can be also said for Harmony, although perhaps it's a little unfair to view her purely as Cordelia's replacement. It's true, though, that many of her catty remarks are reminiscent of the early Cordelia. When I hear Harmony tell Fred she'd like to be more like her, "except for the part about not having a lot up front," I'm definitely reminded of Cordelia coming out with such gems as "You're a lot smarter than you look - of course, you look like a retard." So I can't help thinking that Harmony was at least partly brought in to fill the gap left by Cordelia - and there lies my disappointment.
Having had an entire episode to explore Harmony's character, we might have expected that she'd emerge from it with some new significance to the wider context of the series. But that never really happens. I suppose that if we had got a sixth season, Harmony might have played a bigger role, and at the end of this episode I do wonder whether the stage is being set for another possible dalliance with Spike. But I'm still disappointed that Harmony hasn't really developed very much at the end of this episode. One of the most poignant 'Harmony' scenes for me is the conversation she has with Angel in "Not Fade Away" [5x22], where he asks her "You ever miss it?" But for me, it's too little too late. I wish we could have explored this relationship between 'old' and 'young' vampire much sooner, and it's a real shame that Angel and Harmony never really go much deeper than the boss/secretary relationship. It feels like a totally missed opportunity to me, especially given all that I've said at the beginning of this review about Harmony's fairly unique status as an established human character who has turned vamp.
So, I think I've established that I definitely don't think this is a great episode. But I don't think it's a completely lost cause either. That being said, its redeeming qualities most definitely do not come from the plot itself. The actual storyline, with Harmony getting framed by a fellow vampire secretary, is utter garbage, and is basically just a device to facilitate Harmony's little comedy adventure. It even feels like the writers know it's a terrible plot, as evidenced by Harmony's "wait, who you are?" straight after the 'big reveal' of Tamika as the bad guy. But that's no excuse. Surely Harmony could have been given an adventure with a bit more relevance, which might actually have had a bit of an impact on her character or on the people around her? Instead, we get an episode made up of a number of funny scenes all loosely joined together by a very dull story, and many of these could probably have existed in a completely different episode with a totally different plot.
Having said all that, this episode does have just one or two more significant things to contribute to the wider context of the season. For one, it allows us to revisit an interesting theme, which was previously examined with Spike's arc on Buffy. Does a vampire need a soul to be 'good'? Is a soulless vampire just irredeemably evil, or can he/she ever be motivated to overcome the bloodlust which generally goes along with the fangs? With Spike, it was his love for Buffy which drove him to try to be 'good', and ultimately led him to win back his soul. With Harmony, it's her desire for acceptance and popularity which compels her to forgo human blood and try to work alongside Angel. While this episode's a mostly comedic outing, I do get a real twinge of sympathy towards the end when Harmony says "I mean, it's not like I have a soul - I have to try a lot harder." Despite all the silliness beforehand, I find myself feeling genuinely sorry for Harmony here.
Even Spike had 'the chip' in his head which forced him not to drink from humans. Harmony only has her willpower, which actually makes her murder-free months all the more impressive. Yet she's never given much credit for it - especially not by Angel. We saw in "Orpheus" [4x15] that even the ensouled Angel couldn't resist the blood of a fatally wounded man, so I find it disappointing that he's so dismissive of Harmony's efforts to stay 'clean'. When Fred says "Harmony could have handled it better, but she didn't kill anyone," it seems like she's the only one who really understands quite how big a deal that is. She gives Harmony a look filled with sympathy and understanding, which just sharply contrasts with Angel's abrupt manner. When viewed from the other side of the big desk, Angel's actually not all that likeable: he seems to keep himself in a real bubble with the rest of Team Angel (now his senior management team) and doesn't show much regard for anyone else. Of course, we should probably forgive him for that, since we all know just how much pressure he's under and how much inner turmoil he's dealing with. But still, I just want to give Harmony a big hug when I see the sad little look on her face as Lorne sings his own assistant's praises while Angel completely ignores all of her hard work.
This brings me to another thing I find interesting about this episode: the opportunity to see another side of Wolfram and Hart, and see all of our heroes in a very different light. To us, they're just Team Angel in a new setting. But, to the rest of the company, they're now the bosses. It's actually a nice change of pace to see the rest of the worker bees hanging out in the canteen, gossiping about Fred's love life or Wesley's sexuality. This also works plot-wise, since it adds to Harmony's feeling of isolation. Her status in the company is similar to her status on the show: she's not yet part of 'the gang' (i.e. the series regulars), but she's not one of the nameless extras either. This feeling of isolation, coupled with Angel's evident contempt for her, seem to be what leads her to betray her boss at the end of this season. Again, Harmony's lines there are meant to be funny ("You have no soul!" - "I would, if you had confidence in me!"), but I think there's some truth in what she says. Angel has never really given her much of a reason to help him out, and it's not that surprising that she's ended up siding with his enemy. Hamilton actually gives her some attention - something which she's always been keen to have, even as a high school student.
The only non-Harmony parts of this episode which are remotely interesting to me are the parts involving Spike and his decision not to go and see Buffy. The whole plot with Angel and the stupid clicking demons is completely inconsequential. Yes, it does serve one of this season's important themes by showing how Team Angel are able to use their position to influence the demon world on a grander scale… but really, it's just silly and boring. I don't even feel the need to talk about it any further here.
Spike's little storyline is more exciting, though. We knew he was never actually going to leave the show to live happily ever after with Buffy, but I appreciate the fact that we actually got to see his thought process here. His reason for staying might seem a little shaky to some people, and I like the fact that Harmony actually points that out to him, but to me it actually does just about make sense. It also ties in with the 'blaze of glory' theme of this season's finale. My one problem with it, though, is that I don't think this would be the only reason why Spike wouldn't go and see Buffy. There are plenty of other things which might make him think twice about it - such as the fact that they weren't exactly a totally happy couple at the end of Buffy. But this is Angel, not Buffy, and it would be a little irrelevant to rake over all the details of Spike and Buffy's complicated relationship here. All in all, I'm pretty pleased with this little plot thread.
There are also plenty of other bits and pieces which I think make this episode great fun to watch, without actually contributing anything particularly meaningful or having much wider significance. These things don't need lots of discussion, but I do hope I'm not the only one who really appreciates Harmony's opening montage. It's like Clueless, with fangs! I think it's great, but I do suspect that not everyone will agree with me on that. I also love seeing a bit of girly bonding between Fred and Harmony. We don't get many scenes like this in Angel, and I find it very cute that Fred actually has a nice time and shyly tries to invite Harmony out again. And finally, we get to watch Harmony repeatedly knock people out and put them in the closet, which is just plain hilarious.
I've actually found it very difficult to pick a grade for this episode. I think it's clear that I have a lot of fun watching this, but in the end I have to be honest and admit to myself that it's a pretty flawed effort. It gains a number of points for being pretty funny, for doing something a bit different, and for allowing us to focus for a while on a fairly underused character. However, it loses even more points for not really doing anything to further Harmony's character development (or anyone else's), for having little to no impact on the rest of the series, and for having a truly terrible plot. Despite all that, though, I'll still be watching this one from time to time. Is it at all relevant in the grand scheme of things? Well… no. But is it entertaining? Allow me to borrow one of our heroine's favourite words: totally!
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
QuotesHARMONY:I just… I don't get it. Why'd you kill Eli?
ANGEL:I didn't much like what he was doing in his off hours.
HARMONY:Well that's not right. What Eli did on his own time -
GUNN:Is dismember virgins.
HARMONY:Oh. Well, a person's religious beliefs is no cause for -
GUNN:He did it for his own amusement.
HARMONY:Oh. Well… okay.
HARMONY:Don't forget about Wesley! I get the vibe that he's like, totally crushing over Fred.
BITCHY EMPLOYEE:Mr. Wyndham-Price? Everyone knows he's - Muffins!
SPIKE:Any message for Buffy?
ANGEL:Tell her you're a moron.
HARMONY:(to Fred) We're totally bonding! We're like gal pals! This is awesome! You can teach me about life, and I can teach you how to dress better.
FRED:You should go talk to him.
HARMONY:Oh, no, I couldn't. I'm hanging with my gal pal. I would never do that to you.
FRED:Oh, don't be silly. I'd be fine if—
ANGEL:What are you doing?
HARMONY:Desk crunches! Get fit while you sit! You should see my abs - you wanna?
FRED:Bite marks are seventeen millimetres apart, six millimetres deep, on the right side of the neck.
HARMONY:Well, that doesn't sound like much to go on.
FRED:The size and depth of the wound indicate a female vampire.
FRED:Um… it doesn't really work like that.
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