The concept of "astronauts versus cavemen" is such a Whedon-y joke that it can only read as a goofy aside at first. It's strange and fun, and everybody is weirdly distracted by it. But as the episode builds, it becomes clear that this running gag is there for an entirely different purpose. A Hole in the World is an exploration into futility, events unfolding that are so horrible and painful, yet entirely inevitable. No matter how much they work, no matter what they do to try and prevent it, the episode still ends with blood and pain. Like Fred says, "this is a house of death". You can be a forward-thinking astronaut and explore science and technology and that's all great, but the primal power of those cavemen, of the old ones, is always impossible to undermine.
Even before Fred passes, there's an undeniable sense that this is all too depressing. I can completely understand the opinion that this is Whedon at his most exploitative, killing a character just one hour after they experience perfect romantic happiness. You're left thinking, "Jesus, can Wesley not catch a freakin' break already?". It's so insanely harsh as a piece of fiction, featuring so much abject horror that you leave entirely deflated. It's like Joss watched The Body again, and thought it just wasn't morbid enough.
But once you move past that, A Hole in the World quickly presents itself as incredibly powerful. Besides a brief bit with a disheveled Eve, Fred is the lone female here, surrounded by her men as they try in vain to save her. Fred has never been a favorite of mine, even if I grew to really admire her strength, but the way the story makes you feel so much for her, and how Amy Acker conveys all that internal pain... gosh, it's completely heartbreaking. What's even more tragic is that Fred's death is so merciful and cold. Compare it to Cordelia just three weeks ago, a death that was grand and romantic, Cordy saving the day and fixing the problems of those she loved the most. It was a classic 'hero' death. Here Fred is sneezed upon, ruptured by pain, has her insides liquified, becomes delirious in anguish and eventually succumbs to the sweet release of death. "Why can't I stay?", she pleads right before she dies. And you buy it. This is so needless and sudden, so empty a death. It's unimaginable horror, and it's what makes A Hole in the World so stunning.
Joss's script pulsates with energy. As soon as Fred falls down those stairs covered in her own blood, the Angel cast burst into action, every one of them casting aside whatever they're doing in the hopes of healing her. It's a wonderful testament to how important Fred was to all of them. Even for non-fans, you realize how much she had become the 'heart' of the team. She was the brains, too, but she was always so sweet and kindhearted and supportive. If Cordy was the mom, she was the wunderkind daughter, and the mere possibility that she's about to get ripped away creates this immediate drive within every member of the ensemble.
But it keeps coming back to that futility. Spike and Angel fly to England to follow a lead, but even then the price of saving her is too great. It's such a varying mix of tones, the horror at this young woman's untimely murder (which is essentially what it is), compared with the idea that this is just one woman, and how saving one life isn't worth the guarantee that you'll kill thousands elsewhere. There's also a tremendous scope to this episode, from the discussion on the plane, to the literal hole in the world. Sure, parts of it are a little Lord of the Rings, but there's something so peaceful, almost spiritually existential, about it all. It's harsh and mean and gut-wrenching, but alternatively quiet and intimate.
Removed from the speed of momentum elsewhere, A Hole in the World is most about Fred and Wesley. There's this electric resonance to every one of their scenes, Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof both conveying this denial over what they both know will eventually happen. Right from that initial scene with Fred in the hospital bed, Acker puts across this unquestionable vibe that she knows something terrible is happening. It's like she always knew that she wouldn't make it out of this. Even before that, when she's guiding her hand slowly over that sarcophagus, she wears the expression of somebody almost being pulled to something that she knows will end badly. Again, futility. Like slimy asshole-bastard Knox says, this is something that was set in motion eons ago, and you really get that sense that every action here is propelled forward by something cosmic, every act guided by something higher than us, higher than even God itself. Gunn feeds into this, too, an everyday blip last episode suddenly exposed as the worst decision he's ever made.
But then there are Fred and Wesley. He tries so hard to make her comfortable, never stating it but keenly aware that this is the last time they'll be together. He reads to her, he kisses her. They never got to sleep together, but they hold each other in her bed for her last couple of hours. God, this is pain. A Hole in the World leaves you feeling hollow, an episode executed so powerfully that you forget that this is all inherently miserable. It's a testament to emotional power, how much sadness can be brought out of an audience via characters who we've seen grow and evolve over time.
In one scene Fred references her experiences in Pylea, and you just sit back and think about how much she has flourished since then. She's so reached her pinnacle as a thinker, as a fighter, and as a woman. And she's in love. And then she's just cut down. It's death at its most hostile and cruel, and it's never been conveyed as successfully as it is here. This is a damn masterpiece. A+
Guest stars Sarah Thompson (Eve); Jonathan M. Woodward (Knox); Jennifer Griffin (Trish Burkle); Gary Grubbs (Roger Burkle); Alec Newman (Drogyn)
Writer Joss Whedon Director Joss Whedon