"Smile Time," February 18, 2004
A young boy is watching puppets sing on television. When his mother leaves the room, one of the puppets stops singing and walks closer to the screen, telling the boy to come touch the television. When he does, the puppet somehow drains the boy's energy, and his mother finds him collapsed on the floor with an eerie grin on his face. At Wolfram and Hart, Fred is trying to find out what happened to the boy and several others. Nina returns to spend the night locked in a cage, when she turns into a werewolf. Angel shows her to her cell; she asks him to breakfast, but he awkwardly locks the cage and leaves. Wesley encourages Angel to not hide behind the curse if there's someone he is interested in. Fred brings the mystery of the sick children to Angel and Wesley, and Angel observes from the file that all of the children collapsed while watching the same TV show. He goes to the studio and breaks into a room marked "Don't," where a man with a towel covering his head says that he shouldn't be there. Suddenly, a bright light bursts forth and sends Angel flying back into a pile of cardboard boxes. When he climbs out, he's a puppet. Back at the office, Angel is embarrassed by his condition. Fred tells her people to record the mysterious show, which is called Smile Time. Gunn and Lorne go to the studio to visit the man behind the show, but they learn nothing. After they leave, the man collapses: Polo, the boy puppet from the show was controlling him. He tells the other puppets that they are now able to drain all of their audience at one time, so they will - and then they'll disappear. Meanwhile, Gunn continues to grow forgetful when trying to recite the law; he returns to the doctor, who observes that the imprint is fading. Gunn orders him to fix it, but the doctor bargains, wanting Gunn to retrieve a curio that is being held up at customs. At W&H, Knox jealously observes Wesley and Fred as they watch videotapes of the puppets. Knox leaves, and Fred hints at her interest in Wesley, but he interrupts, having noticed something on the tapes. They take their findings to Angel, and Gunn joins them. It is obvious that he agreed to the doctor's terms, as he confidently explains how the show's creator made a deal with demons to improve the ratings. Angel and the gang return to the studio: Angel and Gunn destroy the puppets, while Fred and Wesley break the mysterious light that stores the children's energy. Later, Angel returns to Nina; although the spell that made him a puppet is not yet broken, they go to breakfast. Elsewhere, Fred starts to explain her feelings for Wesley, but she decides to kiss him instead. He understands what she means, and he passionately kisses her back.
At first, I was puzzled why the "nest egg" turned Angel into a puppet. Sure, he's been accused several times in past episodes of being one, but . . . did the nest egg somehow know that? Was that the nest egg's idea of a joke? Or was it the nest egg's way of giving him a clue that something was wrong with the puppets? I'm still not sure.
However, if we're looking for a moral to the episode, the story itself offers a comparison of perceived roles to actual roles. For example, the puppets were hardly so in the traditional sense, because they were the ones pulling the strings - with Framkin, with their workers and even with the children who were watching. Likewise, even after being zapped by the nest egg, Angel was still the leader. He could still fight, as evidenced by knocking Spike on his butt in the elevator. He was even still a vampire. Sure, his physical features changed, but inside he remained who he was. The point here could be that appearances deceive.
Other scenes explored the characters' roles in relation to one another. Angel lamented that Nina was trying to take their relationship to a new stage; assuming the worst, he was already fast-forwarding to the part where it ends badly. In response to Angel's fears of the curse, I liked Wesley's response that most people have to make do with "acceptable" happiness, and even though it isn't perfect, it's still very good. Meanwhile Nina, not realizing that Angel has big-time issues, interprets his actions to mean that he isn't interested and that he sees her as she sees herself: Monster Girl. Relationships are often like that, making people feel vulnerable and unsure of the role they should play. On the other hand, when you're with someone new, part of the excitement is gaining the ability to reinvent yourself as part of a couple. By the episode's end, Angel seems to have learned this as he suggested to Nina that they find out what puppets eat.
As Angel had apparently resigned himself to being alone, Wesley had given up on ever having a chance with the woman of his dreams. At the other end of the spectrum, Knox was trying to create something from nothing. The shift in their love triangle is displayed most clearly in the scene between the three of them in the lab. Formerly, Fred and Knox were the ones looking so cozy together, but now Fred and Wesley are. Knox has become the odd man out, unmistakable in the painfully clear way that Fred dismissed him and remained with Wesley.
In a slightly different scenario, Gunn found himself in the difficult position of choosing a role. With the imprint, he was given a chance to be someone completely new, and he became an asset to the gang in a new way. Having repeatedly said that he thinks they're doing good, he relished the person he had become; no doubt, he never considered the possibility that one day he'd have to return to his former self. He seems to feel that he is worthless apart from his new skills, and the doctor verbalized the dilemma by labeling the two sides of Gunn: street punk versus attorney-at-law. However, despite the fact that one title may sound more desirable, neither fully describes who Gunn is. The so-called punk would be above making a shady deal with a crooked doctor.
Including a television show in the plot was particularly fitting, because where else do so many people try so hard to manufacture their own reality? Just like with actors, the roles that we play change from time to time. Sometimes the change is only temporary as in the case Angel's puppet problem. Sometimes the change is for the better, as with Fred and Wesley, but sometimes the change is not so good, as with Knox. Perhaps Gunn should have learned from Framkin that when trying to prolong the inevitable, the fine print will get you every time.
* The revelation that Fred likes Wesley was a bit sudden but it fits with Wesley's complete obliviousness to her changing feelings.
* Could there also be a message here about TV stealing people's lives away?