Thematically, the first half of Slouching Toward Bethlehem isn't great television. Cordelia has arrived back on earth with that pesky Lifetime-style problem of amnesia, sending her on a quest to find out information that we as an audience already know. It again feeds into the idea of this season trying to hook freshman viewers, but it's not a ton of fun for us long-term guys, besides a couple of funny lines about Cordelia's hair-don'ts and her past at Sunnydale High, along with Fred's comedic deflecting of anything potentially demonic. What does work in these early scenes, however, is Skip Schoolnik's direction, his photography able to make the familiar Hyperion set suddenly so cold and unwelcoming. It feels so empty and vast in its size, and you can really feel Cordy's loneliness and sense of detachment from everybody.
The episode peters along calmly for most of the hour, until a series of surprising twists perk up our collective interest. Lilah and Wesley's relationship has always been ambiguous and unbalanced, but it's Lilah who tips the scales when it comes to betrayal this time around. She intentionally takes a phone-call in front of Wesley, leading Wesley to tell Angel Inc of an impending attack on Connor's place, only for it all to turn out to be an elaborate ruse in order for Wolfram & Hart to get to Lorne. It's a nesting doll of an episode that continues to build as it goes on, full of things that shouldn't have been said, things we shouldn't have listened to, and things that people didn't understand. That's essentially what Slouching Toward Bethlehem is trying to represent -- the importance of communication, and how it's sometimes manipulated by the people around us.
I should also mention at this point that season four is incredibly difficult to review in hindsight, since so much of it works far better when you know everything that happens. With that in mind, it's one of the few TV seasons I can remember that is ridiculously convoluted and horrible on first viewing, but becomes so much deeper second time around. As a first-time viewer, I found Cordelia and Connor's newfound friendship sort of contrived, but the way this particular story feeds into the rest of the season is an example of gorgeously structured storytelling. I sincerely recommend watching season four again if you dislike it on first viewing.
Slouching Toward Bethlehem is very much a bridge episode, with a first half that feels annoyingly long-winded and a vision of Lorne's that is frustratingly vague. But those last twenty minutes are crazily powerful, with enough shockers to intrigue even the most jaded viewer. B-
Guest stars Andy Hallett (Lorne); Stephanie Romanov (Lilah Morgan)
Writer Jeffrey Bell Director Skip Schoolnik