This is all you need to know: Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Angel (David Boreanaz) are star crossed. She’s the slayer of vampires and demons. He’s a vampire with a soul. They used to date. It didn’t end well. They still have feelings.
If you need more nuance to their relationship than that, Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter)—Angel’s current assistant and former classmate of Buffy’s—covers more of Buffy and Angel’s backstory throughout the episode for the benefit of Doyle (Glenn Quinn)—vision-having half demon and also assistant to Angel.
“I Will Remember You” has regularly appeared on top 100 Episodes Ever lists ever since it first aired, with good reason: Buffy and Angel not only experience a full-on romantic relationship here, it genuinely has a chance to last. Right up until it heartbreakingly doesn’t. It gives fans absolutely everything, and then painstakingly explains why we can’t have it
I put this episode in my all-time list of viewing experiences too, but not exactly for why you’d think. The first time I saw “I Will Remember You,” it was after class. I cued up my VHS tape—remember those?—to watch this and the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Pangs” which aired directly before it, as part of a crossover event between the two shows. And I accidentally got the all-time greatest unreproducible alternate ending when my tape started to run out just as Buffy and Angel were pleading for more time. Talk about raising the stakes!
But even without that extra level, this episode is a beauty to behold.
Its pacing is top notch. The show takes 14 minutes to plausibly set things up before Angel becomes mortal. From that point forward up to Angel’s second scene with the Oracles is only another 22 minutes. That means Angel rediscovering food, meeting the Oracles, fighting the Mohra demon again, a handful of Cordelia and Doyle comedic scenes, and all of those amazing scenes with Buffy somehow all happened within 22 minutes. We got so much life from those romantic scenes that it felt like Buffy and Angel were able to experience a lifetime together, but it was just a few choice minutes. That’s quite the magic trick.
The episode begins with Angel fixing a particular clock. Then he’s examining a stake when Cordelia and Doyle charge in to tell him not to dust himself—the stake was only intended to be a shim for his wobbly desk. But then Cordelia’s tone changes when she hears how Angel skulked around Sunnydale in “Pangs” without even revealing himself to Buffy. Cordelia chews him out for being a lurker, which is right when Buffy shows up to agree.
Buffy and Angel get some privacy to figure out how to set better boundaries so they can move on “and forget” about their past relationship. A mohra demon then crashes through the window and starts a fight. The two battle it out of the room, then spend the next scenes alternating between battling sexual tension and searching for the demon. Angel eventually finds the mohra demon in the sewers and kills it, but not before the demon’s blood—rife with regenerative properties—mixes into Angel’s blood and turns him mortal again.
Rather than impulsively accepting his new state, I love how Angel decided to ask why he regained mortality, and investigate what the ramifications are. This is the same Angel who decided to not keep the limitless power of the Gem of Amara for himself a few episodes earlier. Doyle takes Angel to see the Oracles for answers, and they tell Angel there’s no catch. Angel’s a mortal. He can now do what he wants, no longer beholden to the fight.
Cut to the good stuff: Buffy in a park and Angel coming out from the shadows to meet her in the sunlight and give her one of the best damn kisses you’ll ever see in a TV show. Neither one of them says a word. They don’t need to. Angel purposely striding through the sunlight spoke enough volumes.
Back at Angel’s place, he and Buffy weigh pros and cons of rushing back into things, despite how taking the mature approach hurts Buffy’s feelings—she’s hurt that he’s not immediately all in. But passion takes over and you know it’s on way before the dishes get thrown off the kitchen table.
Then the entire Buffy fandom gets a cathartic scene with Buffy and Angel in bed acting as normal and in love as any couple could ever be. I mean, they eat ice cream and she talks endearingly about hearing Angel’s heartbeat. What’s not to fall head over heels for?
The intimate scene ends with Buffy’s moment of perfect happiness, feeling “like a normal girl, falling asleep in the arms of my normal boyfriend. It’s perfect.”
You alone will carry the memory of this day
After Buffy falls asleep Doyle tells Angel the mohra demon regenerated itself and Angel decides he and Doyle will go after it without waking Buffy. Because Angel has to figure out how to protect himself, which only ends up getting him in trouble. The demon reveals the “end of days has begun” and Buffy gets there to defeat the demon after quite a struggle with it. The scene ends with Buffy cradling Angel.
After the commercial break, we’re immediately in the Oracles’ lair, where Angel discovers without his vampiric powers Buffy would die sooner. So he makes a case for the Oracles to take his life back. The Oracles agree to swallow the day, but “you alone will carry the memory of this day. Can you carry that burden?”
The next scene is when I start to notice something with my tape. Buffy’s still at Angel’s place, and he’s just returned. He says he went back to the Oracles, that he asked them to change him back. This of course blindsides Buffy, who’s finally grasped that sense of normalcy with her greatest star crossed love.
He says “If I stay mortal, one of us will end up dead, maybe both of us.” It’s at this point my VHS tape starts to discolor some, a telltale sign the tape is running out. Buffy tells Angel that the fight is her problem now, “not yours, remember?” There’s that word “remember” again, but there’s more discoloration on the tape too, and the audio wobbles some.
Buffy’s pushing her confusion away so she can go back to holding onto her relationship, but Angel gets her with this line: “How can we be together if the cost is your life, or the lives of others?” You can tell she agrees because she has no words, she just begins to cry, then goes in and puts her head on his chest.
While Angel’s talking about how he wouldn’t be able to do it if they’d talked about it together first, she says “I understand.” Then it goes to a close-up of Sarah Michelle Gellar rising to the power of this material, crying right at us in a close-up. This is when static begins to temporarily replace some of the VHS recording coming in and out like a scene wipe in Star Wars. Tape is definitely running out.
Angel tells Buffy how the Oracles would eat the day so Angel never became mortal, and Buffy asks how long they still had. When he says “a minute,” Buffy gets frantic and bawls more and more heavily. She can’t believe she only has another minute and I’m getting more and more anxious that I may not even have a minute. She’s saying “No! That’s not enough time!” in between moments entirely covered by empty static.
One time the static was so long I thought I lost them for sure, but they came back to look at the clock from the beginning of the episode and say “God! It’s not enough time!” Sometime while Sarah Michelle Gellar is killing absolutely every one of us with repetitions of “I’ll never forget” and I’m saying repetitions of “Please don’t run out,” the video degrades completely. The screen goes black, then shows a completely unrelated show. The VCR clonks and thuds. Then, the sound of the tape rewinding.
For years, this was the only ending of “I Will Remember You” I knew. I was stunned at the time, but the extra level of VHS anxiety heightened the romantic tragedy, so I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Buffy and Angel faded into nothing as if they were never there, and so did “I Will Remember You.” Before DVRs or even DVDs, this was the kind of thing you just accepted, however wrong or cruel. But it was so fitting for the material.
The way I first saw “I Will Remember You,” their day never ended. Sure, it was in the process of ending, but it hadn’t ended like it was supposed to. Those two remained impossibly romantic in my mind. I was caught up in synchronicity and the unbelievable acting of Sarah Michelle Gellar, who once again rose beyond any of her peers in conveying inner pain.
I wanted Angel and Buffy to have their romance, and in this way they were still able to.
Pangs of Patriarchy
The only weakness of this episode is its adjacency to patriarchal attitudes. These days I can’t help but notice the patriarchal bullshit Angel was stuck in. In “Pangs,” Angel snuck back to Sunnydale to stop a threat in Doyle’s vision, but Angel said hi to everyone except Buffy. Angel kept his presence a secret from her because Angel knew best for both of them. Luckily right off the bat Cordelia—and then Buffy—call Angel on his bullshit, so at least it’s being called out.
Angel apologizes then, but doesn’t learn any lessons because he decides to leave Buffy when she’s asleep right after their amazingly romantic afternoon. Anyone who remembers that this happened in “Surprise” right after they slept together, raise your hand.
Why would Angel decide to fight the demon without her help? Saying “I’m going to need to figure out how to fight demons by myself so Buffy doesn’t have to protect me all the time” is one thing, but you can figure that out sensibly rather than the reckless and secretive way he did it here.
If the Angel staff decided “I Will Remember You” could be a two-or-three episode arc rather than a single episode, they could probably have made more story room to make this into a sensible conversation between Angel and Buffy—which by now I think the characters would have done without concern for episode lengths. But the scene we got instead reeks of “I’m a man and a man isn’t less powerful than his woman.” In 1999 this wasn’t so noticeable because that was still an active norm of the day. But now, it’s just cringe-worthy.
Another editing problem that could’ve easily been solved with more than one episode to tell the story is how Angel goes back to the Oracles to get his power back right after the mohra demon kicked his ass and Buffy had to save him to keep him alive. If he hadn’t literally been with Buffy in the previous scene, or if he’d struggled at all with the decision to return to the Oracles, it would’ve come off much more sensibly. Instead, if you include “Pangs” we’ve got a three-beat of Angel making decisions for him and Buffy without including Buffy in the decision-making. Sure they talked about restarting their romance together, but most of this episode is Angel having the right answer and it’s not negotiable. I know that he actually talks to Buffy in the end about how he came to his decision—and that she agrees with him—but it’s not model boyfriend behavior. It gives the impression he didn’t learn a whole lot from getting called out by Cordelia and Buffy at the beginning of the episode.
It stinks having these patriarchy-adjacent issues surface here, because it ends up putting a slightly different nail in the coffin of Buffy and Angel’s romance. That isn’t supposed to be why Buffy and Angel weren’t good for each other. It’s not even the Romeo and Juliet formula that finishes them. It doesn’t matter that he’s a vampire striving for atonement and she’s a slayer striving for normalcy. They work really well together and fight on the side of good; they’ve already overcome that rift. The real reason why their romance wouldn’t work—yet also why they understand each other so well—is because they both choose the fight before they’d choose themselves.
Why they fight
With Buffy and Angel now on different shows with different trajectories and goals, fans still shipping Buffy and Angel’s relationship against all odds needed the catharsis given in this episode so they could move on. This episode’s purpose was to end the relationship for good so both shows could finish this story then move on and forget. We needed to see Buffy and Angel be a united front and choose the fight before they chose themselves, regardless of how much pain it caused them.
The two characters may not completely agree on why or how they fight, but at their cores they are in complete agreement that the fight is worth fighting at all costs. That’s why they’re so good together and why they can’t be together. And why this episode was able to work.
Buffy was able to look away from the fight this episode, but only temporarily. She seems to be the wronged party here—Angel literally gave and took away her perfect romance—but once she was reminded of the actual stakes they’re constantly up against, she chose her calling even though it crushed her.
I like that Angel talked to Buffy after the fact to hopefully prove he did the right thing by her. But he already knew there was only one choice. There was no discussion even when he was talking to her. To Angel, love will always be less important than atonement for his past as Angelus. That’s what this show is about, after all.
How does this episode really end when a VHS tape doesn’t stop it early? While Buffy and Angel held each other, the screen would’ve flashed to white. Then we’re immediately back in that early scene where Buffy talks about boundaries with Angel. How she’ll “go about my business and—“ and Angel finishes her sentence again with “forget.” Except this time it’ll break your heart because you know this time it’s breaking his heart. Because this time he remembers everything.
The mohra demon crashes through the glass, Angel kills it immediately, and you get the impression that Buffy knows he’s hiding something. I know he’s doing it for the right reasons of protecting Buffy from an earlier death, but it’s a complicated ending. Again, Angel has all the answers without Buffy being privy. But at least this time he got her blessing first. They both admitted, even in their passion, they needed to be there to fight. Angel lets Buffy walk out of his office, and his show. And Angel will fight the fight.