Written by Mere Smith
Directed by Michael Grossman
Cordelia is tearfully thanking someone for something. Also confessing her love? And actually she was just taking a break from cleaning the lobby with Fred to demonstrate the Oscar acceptance speech she’s pretty sure she won’t be able to ever use. The whole team has been working on cleaning up after the W&H massacre. Angel brings Connor down, and he doesn’t want anyone covered in cleaning fluids and grime touching him. Cordy goes to wash up. In comes Wes, and he seems pretty urgent to see Cordy.
In the bathroom, Cordy takes some pills, and the music is all sad. But when she comes back out, the team is singing “Happy Birthday” to her! And holy crap they sang the entire song. So does that mean the WB paid for the privilege of singing the most absurdly copyrighted song of all time? It’s time for cake and present. Angel’s present is very tiny compared to everyone else’s. Also, Angel better take Connor back from Cordy fast, because she’s having a vision. It’s of a teenage girl getting attacked by something. But she doesn’t get to tell everyone about it because she is now, at best, having an out-of-body experience or, at worst, dead.
Cordy tries to communicate with the team, which is crowded around her unconscious body. Before they can start panicking too hard, Angel assures them that she’s still breathing. They move her onto the couch. Spirit Cordy is not having fun. Nobody can hear her, including Lorne, who walks right through her on his way to join the group. Then a weird shadowy thing passes over her. Also, they’ve found Cordy’s prescription pain pills. None of them knew she was taking such an intense prescription. Lorne senses that there’s something mystical going on, not that Cordy’s in a coma from overdosing. They’re all upset at the idea that Cordy has been downplaying the toll of her visions so much. Angel sends Fred and Gunn to Cordy’s apartment to look for clues and tells Wes to hit the books.
Spirit Cordy hears whispering. She attempts to leave a message for the team so that they’ll actually go help the girl from her vision instead of prioritizing helping her. At her apartment, Fred and Gunn are greeted by ghost Dennis’s birthday decorations for Cordy. Aww. Fred introduces herself to Dennis, which is adorable. Gunn certainly thinks so. They break the news about Cordy’s coma to Dennis.
Cordy tries to read up on astral projection over Wesley’s shoulder, but he turns the page too fast. Also, it was in Latin. Fred and Gunn are still at her apartment. They haven’t found anything yet, but Gunn thinks Cordy’s underwear drawer is a likely hiding place, which leads to an adorable flirty conversation. Fred suspects that Dennis is hiding the stuff they’re looking for. Gunn asks Dennis very nicely to help them, and a box emerges from under the bed. It’s full of pill bottles, some from a year ago.
At the hotel, Angel is holding Cordy’s hand and talking to her. He’s very angry about all the medical stuff she’s been keeping to herself. She’s had MRIs and CAT scans without telling anyone. Angel’s whole purpose is to help people, but she hasn’t been letting him help her. Spirit Cordy is standing there, indignant at his anger. She’s the one who should be angry. Lorne comes in and tries to get inside Cordy’s head with his abilities. Cordy tries to tell him the address from her vision, but all Lorne can sense is that Cordy isn’t in her body. He can’t actually hear her. Cordy hears the whispering again, and she’s getting scared. Angel gets all up in Lorne’s face. He wants him to use every connection he has to help her.
Some time later, Angel has fallen asleep and Spirit Cordy tries possessing him in order to get him a message. Which is apparently a trick she learned from Wesley’s books. So I guess some of them are in English, then. She makes Angel picke up a permanent marker and start writing that address on the wall. 171 Oak. Then she gets blasted out of him by shadowy things. Wes comes in and finds Angel on the floor. He vaguely remembers dreaming that Cordy was trying to tell him something, but he dismisses it as just a dream. Cordy is very annoyed. Wes has news about Cordy’s brain scans: the visions are pretty much frying her brain. She’s dying. Wes takes over watching Cordy and Connor so Angel can have a break. The shadowy things come back, accompanied by flashy lights and thunder, and oh hey it’s Skip!
Skip does an evil laugh and briefly pretends to be the angel of death, then introduces himself. He’s surprised that Cordy looks the same in astral form as she does physically, because most people project an idealized version of themselves. He wants her to come with him. She’s not dead yet, but the only way she won’t die is if she comes with him. She reluctantly goes with him.
Fred is explaining Cordy’s brain scans to the team. Her more recent scans resemble those of braindead patients. Lorne comes back after dealing with his contacts. He is very beat up, with one horn hanging off his forehead and a tongue-tying spell on him so he can’t reveal any of their information. However, he’s still free to write his info, which he does, warning Angel to be careful.
Skip brings spirit Cordy to a mall. It’s basically the scene in Deathly Hallows where Harry and Dumbledore are in Kings Cross Station but not really. Skip shows Cordy a video of when Doyle kissed her and passed his visions to her. Apparently he wasn’t supposed to do that. The Powers didn’t take into consideration that Doyle would fall in love with her. Just like they didn’t think Angel would fall for Buffy, I guess. Wow, they really suck at that. Cordelia can’t handle having the visions for much longer, because she’s a human. Skip introduces Tammy, a 17th century Englishwoman who had the visions for a year before they blew the back of her head off.
Angel comes slamming to the ground in a weird dungeon place with a lone brazier in the center. This is apparently where you come if you want to talk to the conduits to the Powers. At least, now that the Oracles are dead, anyway. Angel’s here to demand that the Powers take the visions back and end Cordy’s suffering. They toss him around the room a bit, but he refuses to leave.
Skip informs Cordy that if she had just walked a different direction at that Hollywood party in “City Of,” she would’ve made a huge industry contact instead of running into Angel. She would’ve been a huge TV star instead of working for Angel. And Skip can give that back to her. He can reroute the timeline onto where she would’ve ended up if things had played out that way. Or, she can go back in her body, remain comatose, and die when she gets the next vision. She doesn’t want to go into a timeline where she and Angel don’t work together.
To help convince her, Skip shows her what Angel’s up to. He’s still insisting that Cordy shouldn’t have the visions anymore because she’s too weak to handle them. His phrasing is slightly unfortunate due to frustration, and Cordy makes Skip take her out of there before she can hear any more. Which is of course when Angel starts talking about how he doesn’t want her to suffer and die, things Cordy wouldn’t have minded hearing.
Cordy has chosen door #1. In this reality, she has won two Emmys. She’s in a fancy dress and is being introduced on the Late Show or something. Then we get the intro theme for a sitcom-y show starring Cordy. She walks with her agent or her personal assistant or something, talking about her schedule while signing autographs. She feels like there’s something important she needs to be doing, but she isn’t sure what. Whatever it is, it involves the Hyperion hotel, and she heads off there at once.
The Hyperion is a functioning hotel in this reality. Which makes no sense by normal alternate timeline standards, but I have a theory about that. The concierge is a mildly creepy spaz about helping Cordy to her room. She decides she’d rather stay in 217 than the luxury suite, to his consternation. She gets flashes of this room as it is in the prime timeline, with Connor’s crib and Angel’s stuff. She starts ripping at the wallpaper, revealing what Angel wrote on the wall when she possessed him.
Cordy goes to 171 Oak. The girl who lives there is a huge fan of Cordy. She’s Cynthia, and she promptly invites Cordy in. She’s very confused about Cordy being there, even though she’s super happy about it. Cordy wants to make sure everything’s okay. Apart from Cynthia’s dad leaving a couple months ago, yes. Cynthia shows Cordy the cool pentagram on her floor, which is for a spell to force her dad to come home. Yeah, it’s time to run away. The spell did not work, and now there’s a horrifying monster in Cynthia’s living room. Cordy hits it with a lamp, and then a one-armed Wesley arrives with Gunn. Wes kills the demon pretty effectively for being one-armed.
Cordelia is very impressed with Wesley, considering the last time she saw him was when they super awkwardly kissed in the Sunnydale high library. Wes is very confused that Cordy is even there. She explains how she found the address. Then they tell Gunn the backstory about the super awkward kiss. Gunn mentions Angel. Cordy’s surprised yet another Sunnydale alum is in L.A., but she wants to see him.
Alternate timeline Angel is not okay, though. He’s been the one with the visions since Doyle died, and they’ve driven him nuts. Wes and Gunn are the ones who act on the visions. Angel is alone in a room with just a mattress and some scattered papers. Also, restraints, for when he’s violent. He’s mumbling incoherently. Cordy goes up to him despite Wes and Gunn urging caution. He scrambles over to the corner. He doesn’t recognize her. Cordy tries to comfort him, which without transition turns into her kissing him, and the visions go back to her.
And suddenly everything is paused. She remembers the prime timeline again, and Skip is back. He’s not happy that Cordy managed to get the visions back. She didn’t feel right in her flashy actress life. He doesn’t care: she, as a human, still isn’t physically strong enough to cope with the visions. She refuses to live a life without the visions. Skip admits there’s a loophole. If she’s part-demon, then she’ll be fine to have the visions. It’ll hurt way worse than the visions, and she might not be the same person when it’s over. She wonders what he’s waiting for.
Cordy wakes up back in the prime timeline. Angel hugs her. She frantically checks for demon features like horns or a tail (which are absent). She’s very happy to be solid again. Also, apparently, they don’t need to worry about her vision anymore because solving it in the other timeline means it’s still solved in this one? How’s that? She’s having a new vision now anyway, and she just casually talks about it as it’s happening, because it doesn’t hurt at all! It’s about a young man at a park, about to get attacked by a five-horned demon. Also, Cordy is floating.
In general, I’m a big fan of alternate timeline stories, which is why “The Wish” is one of my favorite episodes of Buffy S3. And if that’s what “Birthday” was, it would probably be one of my favorite episodes of Angel. But I’m not entirely convinced that it is an alternate timeline story. But I’ll get into that in the next paragraph, where I explain my headcanon theories. From a storytelling/filmmaking perspective, I think the biggest reason “Birthday” doesn’t come close to “The Wish” in terms of quality is that the pacing is very rushed. Roughly two-thirds of “The Wish” is set in the alternate timeline where Buffy didn’t move to Sunnydale in early ’97. We have plenty of time to explore this horrible version of events, and the impact Buffy has had on Sunnydale (and vice versa) can really sink in. But we only spend about twelve minutes in the alternate timeline in “Birthday.” That is simply not enough time for us to understand Cordelia’s impact. Particularly because she doesn’t remember the normal timeline, so she can’t be the audience stand-in like she was in “The Wish” and ask important questions. As to my non-pacing-related issues with it, why would Angel have gone crazy because of the visions? That makes no sense. It only took him a couple months to get back on his feet after a century in hell, so why would two years of having visions to guide him directly to the people he’s supposed to help drive him insane? This episode could have been much better if they’d truncated the plotline of the A.I. team and given at least two-thirds of the episode to the alternate reality. Maybe Cordelia could’ve gone into the alternate reality with all her normal memories, so that instead of being vaguely confused about her purpose, she would’ve been trying to fit into her new life but unable to stop herself from checking on her friends. I’ll talk about how I think the A.I. team should’ve been in the alternate timeline in the character analysis section.
Now that I’ve dealt with why “Birthday” is a bit disappointing for being such a pivotal episode to Cordelia’s arc, let’s shift gears to those headcanon theaories. On the surface, even if it’s poorly paced, this episode certainly appears to follow the It’s a Wonderful Life formula pretty closely. However, the writers don’t seem to have put much thought into the famous actress Cordy timeline. Like I mentioned earlier, it doesn’t make sense for the Hyperion to be a functioning hotel. It was an abandoned building that was falling into disrepair before Angel decided to take care of that paranoia demon. At best, it should be en route to becoming a functioning hotel. I’m pretty sure it would take longer than a year and a half to refurbish a place that was in such bad shape and get it open for business to the point where if you say the word “Hyperion” in Los Angeles, people immediately know you’re talking about that one swanky hotel. But the condition of the Hyperion doesn’t have to be an example of a crappily written alternate timeline. We know from the events of season four that Skip is not actually a good guy. He’s working for Jasmine, an evil higher power who uses Cordelia in order to be born. Once we know that Skip is evil, it calls everything he does into question. That entire alternate reality could’ve been a fake, engineered to steer Cordelia into consenting to becoming part-demon so that Jasmine could get her foot in the door. Which also calls into question the idea that Cordy’s visions, given to her by higher powers who are supposedly good guys, would be slowly killing her. Maybe the killer migraines were just another one of Jasmine and Skip’s strategies for bringing Cordelia to this point. Maybe humans can handle having the visions. I’m pretty sure Drusilla had something similar when she was human, and she was physically fine. Anyway. Make of that what you will, but for me, it’s an explanation that seems to fix some of the larger problems with S3 and S4, most of which haven’t really started being problems yet.
In the prime timeline, I like how Angel reacts to Cordelia’s coma and the fact that the visions are killing her but she’s been hiding that from everyone. He cares about her deeply, but she apparently doesn’t respect that enough to share her problems with him, so he’s angry at the same time as he desperately wants her to be okay. But what I really want to talk about is alternate timeline Angel. He shouldn’t have been insane in the alternate timeline. He should’ve been isolated, recklessly attempting to interpret and respond to the visions with minimal help from anyone else because he doesn’t want anyone else to die for his cause. If Cordy never joined his team, then Doyle’s death would’ve left Angel all alone. Wesley would’ve shown up shortly after Doyle died, but I think Angel would’ve kept him at arm’s length because he wouldn’t want to have (and thereby be capable of losing) another friend. They might’ve worked together periodically, but I don’t think they would’ve become as close as they did in the prime timeline.
Cordelia not remembering the prime timeline is one of the biggest handicaps to the alternate timeline. Since she thinks she’s living in her normal reality, she can’t ask important questions like “Wait a second, where’s Fred?”, “Where’s Connor?”, and “Holy crap, Wesley, what happened to your arm?!”, to name a few. And with an alternate timeline Angel who is in determined lone soldier mode, Cordelia’s job would be not to simply find Angel, but to attempt to get through to him and convince him he’d be much better off as part of a close-knit team, and so would the rest of them. (Because, as I’m about to explain, in my version, not only is Angel only loosely affiliated with Wesley, Gunn is dead and Fred is still in Pylea. There is no team in this reality.)
One-armed Wesley is fine, but I want to know how he lost the arm! Did that happen in one of the fights Angel took point on in the main timeline, but which Wesley had to in the alternate timeline because Angel was crazy? We could still have one-armed Wesley in my hypothetical alternate timeline. If Angel and Wesley aren’t working closely together, then Wesley “Rogue Demon Hunter” Wyndam-Pryce would be lucky to still be alive, let alone have at least three limbs left.
In the prime timeline, Gunn and Fred are getting a lot closer to straight-up flirting, and it’s incredibly adorable. I love the way Gunn convinces Dennis to help them. Real talk with ghosts. Awesome. In the alternate timeline, I think Gunn should’ve been dead (or a vampire), because Cordelia had a whole episode where she had to save him from himself. I don’t think vision-Angel would’ve been as successful as Cordelia against that particular problem.
Fred isn’t in the alternate timeline, which makes sense, because the only reason the team succeeded in rescuing her was that they were actually trying to rescue Cordelia and ended up stumbling across Fred along the way. And Cordelia was the one who opened the portal that let Landok through, so without Cordelia in the A.I. team—without much of an A.I. team to speak of, in fact—Fred still would’ve been in Pylea.
“As much as I’m enjoying this forced death-march down Memory Lane...”
The Watcher's Diary
In this blog, I'll be reviewing, analyzing, and generally fangirling over excellent television. Exhibit A: the Whedonverse.