Angel Season 5

Oh, it’s a sad, sad day. It’s now official: I’ve seen every episode of every Joss Whedon show. I suppose it’s a happy day, really — it’s been a very satisfying journey since the day I saw Serenity (October 1, 2005, as it happens.) Still, I can’t help feeling a little grief at the fact that I’ll never watch another new episode of Buffy or Angel.

Well, at least I had a good sendoff. I was quite pleased with this season of Angel. Like season 7 of Buffy, the show found its feet again after a dreary and depressing previous season. It was both funny and thrilling, with a solid premise that was low on the endless angst and high on the superheroics of old. Not only that, it had a lovely elegiac quality, bringing back moments and characters from previous seasons like some kind of victory lap, or maybe a greatest hits album.

[Psst! If you’re reading this on Facebook, my spoiler protection tags have been stripped out! Spoilers ahoy from this point forward, for all seasons of Angel, and lots of Buffy as well.]

1. From the first scene of the first episode, we get good news: this show is funny again. Hallelujah! In previous seasons, the humor would drop off for long, long stretches, making the whole exercise feel rather dank. This time, though, bright moments of comedy sparkle all the way through. There’s Conviction, of course, which sets the terms. Damn, that Joss is funny. He would be a great comedy writer if that were all he did. Oh, and of course Life Of The Party, the obligatory everybody-gets-mind-alteration episode. Like Spin The Bottle or The Shroud of Rahmon before it, mystically changing people’s personalities leads to hilarious results. Oh, and then there’s Harm’s Way. Harmony is consistently funny to me, and this episode got some great laughs out of her character, even while telling a solid story. I was pleased to see Mercedes McNab appear in the opening credits halfway through the season, even though she never did really emerge as a major character. It was great to see Tom Lenk, too, in Damage & The Girl In Question. I really loved him as Andrew in season 7 of Buffy, and he didn’t disappoint here. Speaking of The Girl In Question, Angel and Spike as nerds getting shown up by the cool kid is a funny premise, executed well.

2. I think this is the first season of Buffy or Angel to have no real “Big Bad.” I suppose it could be argued that the situation itself is the Big Bad, which is a rather ingenious turn of events. The ongoing difficulties of trying to do good from inside the belly of the beast made for a satisfying conflict. It opened up more space for superheroics, without losing complexity.

3. Speaking of superheroics, this season boasted a pleasant abundance of superhero stuff, in both overt and oblique references:

  • The Fred/Spike dynamic at the beginning of the season is a bit like the Reed Richards/Ben Grimm dynamic in the first several years of The Fantastic Four, minus the guilt. She keeps trying to cure him of his condition, and despite her brilliance she continues to fail. In the end, she never succeeds — the solution comes from a left field deus ex machina.
  • There’s a trope in superhero comics, wherein via flashback (or sometimes an entire series), we learn about the adventures of superheroes who fought one or more generations before the ones we’re used to following. The Cautionary Tale Of Numero Cinco felt like an entertaining riff on that “Superheroes of the Golden Age” theme.

Then there were the overt references, all of which were fun:

  • Why We Fight — Hodge: “I’m telling you, he’s some sort of super soldier, l-like Steve Rogers or Captain America.” Spinelli: “Steve Rogers is Captain America, you eightball.”
  • Smile Time — Knox (upon seeing pictures of comatose smiling kids): “Right. Could be the Joker. From the comic books? Just trying to think outside the box.”
  • Shells — Gunn (about Illyria’s time-slowing trick): “Yeah, like she was pulling a Barry Allen. (Angel looks at him, not recognizing the name; Gunn looks around at the others) Jay Garrick? Wally— Like she was moving really fast.”

As in the final season of Buffy, we’ve now collected enough continuity that it’s time for that tried-and-true plot mechanic, the returning supervillain! I quite liked Lindsey’s arc this season (though Lindsey himself was highly irritating), and it was also fun to see Sahjahn again, even if just for a moment.

4. Lindsey and Sahjahn weren’t the only callbacks to earlier points in Buffyverse history — this season was rife with them:

  • Nods to the sappy sides of our bloodthirsty heroes in Hellbound — Angel: “I never told anybody about this, but I… I liked your poems.” Spike (frowning): “You like Barry Manilow.” Oh, and the return of Spike’s poems in Not Fade Away.
  • Beyond the appearance of Lindsey himself, there’s the fact that he calls himself “Doyle”! We even get a bit of Glenn Quinn on the monitor in You’re Welcome.
  • Speaking of You’re Welcome, I’d say the return of Cordelia qualifies as nostalgia at this point. I was less than satisfied with the way said return was handled, about which a bit more later.
  • The Connor guest shots (in Origin and Not Fade Away) were better — it was refreshing to see how appealing the character could be when he wasn’t constantly in a snit.
  • I loved the way that Damage built on the continuity established in season 7 of Buffy. The idea of Spike and Angel encountering one of the many newly minted Slayers was crying out to happen, and having her be a reflection of the victims in their guilty pasts was an excellent twist.
  • Fred’s parents reappearing in The Girl In Question was the best thing the show could have done to make me feel sad about her death.
  • In that same episode, it was fun to get one more whirl with Darla and Drusilla, albeit only in flashback.
  • Same goes for Andrew, minus the flashback part and plus Damage.
  • Then in Not Fade Away we get one more look at Julia Lee as Anne Steele (and I am always more than happy to have another look at her!) and a little shout-out to Gunn’s old crew.

I ended up feeling quite pleased with all these reappearances. Cycling through these touchpoints gave this final season of Buffyverse TV a real sense of closure.

5. I quite like the way that the season kept returning to its unifying theme of “defending innocence.” In the last episode of season 4, Angel warns that if his gang decides to take the Wolfram & Hart tour being offered by Dead Lilah, “before the ride’s even over, before you even cross through their doors, you’ll be corrupted.” Then they do so anyway, and spend all of season five trying to prove that statement wrong. That’s a great tension upon which to base a season, and many individual episodes revisited the question from various angles.

Once again, Joss sets the terms in Conviction. That episode does a brilliant job of interrogating the idea of innocence, choosing to set its main story in the very battleground of innocence, a courtroom. That the gang must keep justice at bay from a man who is clearly guilty, in order to protect the world from the danger posed by that man’s innocent son, is a perfect start to their slog through the moral morass that is Wolfram & Hart. Angel’s vigorous crunch into Eve’s apple is a lovely symbolic moment, setting off an arc that ends in Not Fade Away with his comment to her about being thrown out of the garden.

Eve herself displays an intriguing set of developments, seeming at first to be the snake in the garden, contrary to her name. Bit by bit, though, we learn that she is not nearly as worldly as she at first appears. We get our first glimpse of vulnerability at the end of Life Of The Party — she’s just dismissed any emotional consequence to her mystically-influenced coupling with Angel, but as she turns away from him and towards the camera, her face twists in anger. That vulnerability flowers in her attachment to Lindsey, and in that moment of the final episode, as she (apparently) sacrifices herself to despair, it is clear that she has become the naive one, and the power is with Angel once more.

Speaking of Angel’s “groin buddies”, Nina the Werewolf is trying desperately not to become a destructive monster, mirroring the struggle of our heroes in this season. She also wants to stay closeted from her family, protecting them from the frightening world that has claimed her. In this way, she reflects Angel’s decision to alter reality, erasing the memories of his son and his friends — he decides on their behalf that they are better off not knowing. I appreciated the fact that the show revisited this decision in Origin, and that it never fully resolves the question of whether innocence must be tied to ignorance. For Connor, we suspect (and get confirmation in Not Fade Away) that he is able to integrate the truth about himself without losing his soul to the darkness. With Wesley, on the other hand, I get the sense that once he uncovers the mystery, he wishes he could have remained in the dark.

A number of Little Bad episodes also rung changes on the theme, none more piercingly than Damage, which links the shredded innocence of deranged slayer Dana to that of Angel and Spike themselves, who were, after all, once victims of a horrific fate. Like them, Dana lost her innocence long before the heroes could jump in and defend it — all they can do is deal with the consequences of horror. We get a more hopeful parallel in The Cautionary Tale Of Numero Cinco, in which Numero Cinco represents not only a more innocent time in the fight against evil, but also a parallel to Angel’s essence, on a journey where both rediscover hope and purpose. Smile Time ends in success, too — the demons who are looking to sell the “100% pure innocence” of their victims fail in their gambit, thanks to Angel and company. Why We Fight is closer to Damage — Lawson sacrificed his soul heroically, but there is no way to avoid the consequences of that sacrifice. All Angel can do is euthanize him.

When we see Angel give up the baby to the Fell Bretheren in Time Bomb, alarm bells start ringing. Here, in a season all about the defense of innocence, we see the ultimate symbol of innocence seemingly defenseless against embodiments of evil. Luckily for us, Angel has “gone dark” so many times that now the way to confound the audience’s expectations is to have him actually remain a hero. Thank god! I was getting very tired of that particular groove, and was relieved to see this final season skip it. (Even the surprise-by-staying-good trick was more powerfully done in Enemies, the season 3 Buffy episode.) Still, Whedon never lets us off the hook that easily. Fred’s essence is destroyed for good by Illyria, despite every possible effort being made to save it. Wesley dies too, but he’s shown us plenty of darkness in his heart. Really, the greater loss of innocence happens to Lorne, who finally must turn his back on the “unsavory” (albeit heroic) work of the gang when Angel asks him to commit murder. Although Angel does much to protect the souls of many, including his own, his fight isn’t always successful.

6. Doesn’t it seem like the show is kind of playing fast and loose with the question of whether or not Angel can have sex? It kind of seems like it keeps changing its mind on the topic. I mean, early on (in Untouched, from season 2), Cordelia is all about warning Bethany, “Don’t bone my boss.” Even as late as Origin, Spike says, “Keep in mind, he can’t get laid without maybe going crazy.” Yet not only does he do it with Eve (which, arguably, he didn’t have a choice about), but he also has entirely-consensual-no-mystic-influence-whatsoever sex with Nina in Power Play. Sure, they reference the “happy but not perfectly happy” thing, but it still seems like a lot of slippage to me. Er, as it were.

7. I like seeing Gunn with brains, and I really like that he develops a dependency on them. His position as “the muscle” never made a huge amount of sense to me, what with a superpowered vampire standing right next to him. J. August Richards takes on the “human encyclopedia” persona quite ably, and his panic at losing that power made perfect sense in light of his long history of insecurity about his place on the team.

8. Lindsey with muscles and bad snark is way more annoying than the Lindsey I remember. (Not that the Lindsey I remember was a joy.) His patter is especially bad in Not Fade Away — so much so that I think it must be intentionally irritating, though whether the intentionality is on the part of the character or the writers I’m not sure. It was quite satisfying to see Lorne dispatch him, and I loved Lindsey’s crushing disappointment at being killed by “a flunky.”

9. Gosh, it was fun to see Adam Baldwin again. Hamilton was a great replacement for Eve, and Baldwin is terrific in the part. (And would you believe, I just today learned that he’s not one of the Baldwin brothers? I always just sort of assumed he was. Thanks, Wikipedia!)

10. The “Fred taken over by Illyria” plot is a bit of a rehash of the “Cordelia taken over by Jasmine” plot from last season — the show even acknowledges this in Shells. The fact that it is rehashed is troubling to me. Whedon is certainly known for his strong heroines, but now twice in a row, he has used the violation and destruction of a woman as a central plot point in Angel. Once, okay, but if you’re going to use the same basic motif, did it really need to be Fred as the victim? It seems to me that Gunn, Lorne, Wesley, or even Spike would have been more interesting, less hidebound choices. I don’t like the fact that twice in a row, the show had to build its dramatic capital by having a bunch of men freak out about saving a damsel in distress, not to mention the fact that they fail both times, and the women involved have virtually no agency in the process.

One thing I did notice in the Fred plot is that unlike in previous seasons, where Angel would always, without fail, choose personal attachment over the good of the world, here he allows Fred to be sacrificed in order to avoid the disastrous consequences of saving her. The good of the many outweighing the good of the few, as it were. Is this a different, more evolved Angel? Well, I’m not sure. He’s certainly ready at first to say, “To hell with the world.” In fact, he does say that. But somehow, in a way that the episode never quite makes clear, he either backs off or doesn’t pursue hard enough. Is it Spike that changes his mind? No, I think that he realizes he’s about to do the wrong thing, and stops. What’s still not clear to me, though, is whether he’s grown into a new moral compass or whether the “tens maybe hundreds of thousands” of people who would have been killed rescuing Fred pass some sort of threshold that’s always been there. Given the behavior he displays in the final episodes, where he only pretends to turn into Ends-Justify-Means-Guy, perhaps it’s not too hopeful to think he’s learning from experience.

11. Episode-specific comments:

  • Lineage — I was really pleased when it seemed like Wesley was going to have a reckoning with his father. It seemed like a pivotal moment that his character needed in order to shed some long-held baggage. I was quite disappointed that the reality of it was overturned at the last minute. I wonder — was he easier to kill because this crucial incident was only a fake-out?
  • Destiny — Again, what is with the business of Spike claiming that he fought for his soul? That is revisionist history, is it not? It seems as if the show has accepted this version of events, but that is surely not how I read his behavior at the end of Buffy season 6.
  • You’re Welcome — Okay, maybe I am dense, but this episode made no frickin’ sense to me. So Cordelia is corporeal, seemingly herself in every way except that she doesn’t sleep. So she’s a… what? Not a vampire, clearly. A zombie, except fully alert? A ghost, except totally corporeal (unlike ghost-Spike) and functionally not a ghost in any apparent way? A higher power manifest on earth in a way we’ve never actually seen her be before? I take it that we’re supposed to figure out that she drew the curtains over her own dying body at the beginning, but if that’s so, what body is she walking around in? Then she transfers the visions to Angel, seemingly, and somehow he knows it was a “one-shot deal.” The whole thing was just a big “Wha…?” to me. Or is this supposed to be one of those The-Mysterious-And-Never-To-Be-Explained-Powers-That-Be-May-Alter-Logic-And-Reality-At-Their-Whims-Woo-Woo type of deals? Because, thumbs down to those types of deals. When Angel got that call, it felt like somebody lowering a sign into the frame reading “Note: Poochie died on the way back to his home planet.”
  • Smile Time — At first, I thought I was really going to hate this episode. Ever since I became a parent, I find stories about the seduction and destruction of children almost too upsetting to tolerate. However, once Angel became a puppet, it just got great. I absolutely loved the bit about him having the relative excitability of a puppet.

Favorite moments:
Conviction — Gunn: “We can switch if you don’t like the—you know, the kung pao or whatever.” Wesley: “Feng shui.” Gunn: “Right. What’s that mean again?” Wesley: “That people will believe anything. Actually, in this place, feng shui will probably have enormous significance. I’ll align my furniture the wrong way and suddenly catch fire or turn into a pudding.”
Conviction — Phone menu voice: “You have reached ritual sacrifice. For goats, press one, or say ‘goats.'”
Conviction — Angel: “What? I’m not allowed to hit people?” Wesley: “Not people capable of genocide.” Angel: “Those are exactly the types of people I should be allowed to hit!”
Just Rewards — Spike: (as the remains of a former employee are carried in by the bucketful) “Ol’ buckets here was right. You guys are doing a bang-up job.”
Just Rewards — Angel: “Yeah, well, sharing’s not something Spike does very well.” Harmony: “Preaching to the horse’s mouth.”
Unleashed — Lorne (to Angel): “No, it’s talking you need… or maybe a shoulder to—” Angel: “I’m not gonna cry either.” Lorne: “I was going to a leaning place.”
Life Of The Party — Knox: “And how do you know your spell-casters didn’t screw up the payload?” Wesley: “Because I went over the work and I got that knowing feeling you get when you know something.”
Life Of The Party — Angel (in the midst of making out with Eve): “I mean, do you even have a last name?” Eve: “Do you?”
Life Of The Party — “Positive attitude Spike” is totally hilarious throughout this one. I especially love it when the angry demons burst through the door and he exclaims, “What a fantastic entrance!”
Life Of The Party — Eve: “Angel, it’s not like this is the first time I’ve had sex under a mystical influence. I went to U.C. Santa Cruz.” Also, her abrupt shift of expression as she walks out is very good.
The Cautionary Tale Of Numero Cinco — The whole running gag of the devil’s robot, especially Wesley’s automatic knowledge of it: “El Diablo Robotico.”
Lineage — Wesley: (to Fred, after being “comforted” by Angel and Spike) “If you’re here to tell me about how you killed your parents… perhaps it could wait for another time.”
Soul Purpose — Gunn: “We open a can of Machiavelli on his ass.” Harmony: “It’s Matchabelli, Einstein, and it doesn’t come in a can.” I had to Google it, but once I did: very funny!
Soul Purpose — Harmony: “Also, any time something comes in with runes on it, I’m supposed to tell Angel immediately… and not try and read the runes myself… ’cause that can cause a fire.”
Damage — Andrew (to Spike): “No problem, brother. You’re a troubled hero. Creature of the night. El creatro del noche.”
Damage — Andrew (to Angel): “Think we’re just gonna let you take her back to your evil stronghold? Well, as they say in Mexico… No.”
Smile Time — Angel: “I do not have puppet cancer!”
Smile Time — The whole Angel puppet thing is very funny. I especially liked it when he took his nose off.
Smile Time — Gunn: “These particular devils have a fairly distinctive M.O.” Fred: “They’ve done this before?” Gunn: “You see the last few seasons of ‘Happy Days’?”
A Hole In The World — Gunn’s prank on Wes (and us): “Fred and I are getting back together!”
A Hole In The World — Fred: “Cavemen win. Of course the cavemen win.” A chilling windup to what was just a few moments ago a joke. How very Joss.
A Hole In The World — Spike’s annoyed fusillade of questions towards Drogyn.
Shells — I love that Illyria believes (as do we) that she’s a big apocalyptic monster with an army of doom and she turns out to be wrong.
Shells — Angel’s noble speech about how he would protect Knox interrupted by Wesley, shooting Knox.
Underneath — Illyria (reminiscing about her dimensional travel): “I traveled all of them as I pleased. I walked worlds of smoke and half-truths, intangible. Worlds of torment and of unnamable beauty. Opaline towers as high as small moons. Glaciers that rippled with insensate lust. And one world with nothing but shrimp. I tired of that one quickly.” Awesome Buffy callback.
Origin — The scene of Spike “testing” Illyria is very funny.
Origin — Connor (to Angel): “Do you spend all your time making out with other vampires, like in Anne Rice novels?” Angel: “No. Uh — I used to, but…”
Origin — Lorne (about Cyvus Vail): “He’s powerful. Heads up a large demon empire, has tendrils stretching throughout L.A.” Angel: “Tendril-tendrils?” Lorne: “Metaphor-tendrils.”
The Girl In Question — I quite enjoyed the CEO of Rome’s W&H branch.
The Girl In Question — Demon butler: “Oh, look. The Americans are relying on violence to solve their problems. What a surprise.”
The Girl In Question — Final scene, with Angel & Spike. “Movin’ on.” “Oh, yeah.” “Right now.” “Movin’.”
Not Fade Away — Angel solving the Hamilton puzzle.

Favorite episodes:
Conviction

And thus it ends. But hey: only 74 days to Dollhouse!

Angel Season 4

Season three of Angel had a great arc, and a cliffhanger ending. Season four resolved the cliffhanger well enough and managed a couple of strong episodes, only to descend into a disappointing spiral, full of bewildering choices, shredded continuity, and the same kind of personal disintegration that characterized season 6 of Buffy. As a whole, these episodes had less humor and fewer highs than ever before. The show recovered some ground for the final third of its season, luckily, and wound up in a head-scratcher of an ending that certainly piques my interest in the beginning of season 5.

Turgid, supernatural spoilers within

Buffy/Angel hiatus

The Buffyverse Watching Project is going on hold for a while.

My sister’s boyfriend is a comedy writer (sequitur coming soon…), or at least he’s been an aspiring comedy writer. He graduated from Harvard and worked on the Lampoon there, so he knows a lot of people in the biz, but has been trying unsuccessfully to break in himself for a couple of years. Then, last month, he learned he’d gotten a job as a writer for The Office! This is super exciting, not only because I’m very happy he’s landed a job, but because it seems to be one of the best things on TV right now. I haven’t been watching it, but (and here comes that sequitur I promised) I’m going to start this fall, so my summer project is to get caught up on the seasons I missed. I have several friends who watch it, and I’m looking forward to being able to participate in their conversations.

Angel Season 3

Amid the depressing degeneration that characterized season 6 of Buffy, it was a pleasure to watch season 3 of Angel. It didn’t grip me the way that some previous seasons of Buffy have, but it was solid, enjoyable television, with lots of good surprises and dramatic twisty turns. Strangely, though, it wasn’t the main plot that I found most compelling, but rather the thematic unity that draws together some of the season’s most important events aside from the main plot.

Thinking about this season, one theme really jumps out at me. As Gunn says in That Old Gang Of Mine, “It’s about the mission, bro.” More specifically, it’s about what happens when love and/or loyalty comes into conflict with that mission. This season treats us to a variety of scenarios in which characters are asked to choose between their personal attachments and the “greater good” in some form. We see it from very early on, starting in That Vision Thing, wherein Angel must decide whether to allow Cordelia to be hurt (and possibly killed) or to loose a dangerous entity on the world, under the auspices of Wolfram & Hart. Angel chooses personal attachment. In fact, Angel always chooses personal attachment. It happens again during Birthday, in which he clumsily charges off to confront the Powers and tell them to take the visions from Cordelia, despite the fact that he then wouldn’t have a Mystical Police Scanner anymore, and presumably the attendant helpless would just have to go without his help. The prime example from this season, of course, is his reaction to Connor’s kidnapping. In order to salvage his personal connection, Angel throws overboard any sense of morality or proportion. Suddenly he’s kidnapping, torturing, suspending habeas corpus (sorry, wrong rant) invoking dark magic, and basically doing whatever he wants to and to hell with the consequences, as Gunn points out in The Price. Angel is no stranger to the dark side, but where in the past he’s done it as a result of his curse (Innocence) or to seek vengeance (Redefinition), in this season all his questionable acts are done in the name of preserving his connections. Well, with maybe a little vengeance thrown in there. 🙂 The point is, for somebody who’s supposed to be a champion of the helpless, he’s pretty ready to let them fend for themselves while he fights on behalf of the people he loves.

I don’t say this to condemn him, just to notice that he’s on one end of a continuum. Other characters make different kinds of choices. In That Old Gang of Mine, Gunn leaves behind the only family he has left: Rondell and the rest of the crew. He chooses Angel, but makes it clear in his speech that it isn’t because of friendship — it’s because he wants “that sense of doing good — of waking up in the morning and making the world safer.” He chooses the mission. Of course, in the episode where he speaks those words (Loyalty), he goes on to reassure Fred that if forced to choose between her and the mission, he would choose her. Then again, he’s never really forced to make that choice, except perhaps in The Price, where he leaves the scene of the crisis in order to find a way to save Fred. Even in that scenario, though, I could argue that he’s focused on saving the only people who are in danger — it’s not really a choice between helping Fred and helping (or harming) someone else. In fact, he makes it clear in Loyalty that he wants “the great girl and the great job.” This season allows him to keep both, but not everyone else is so lucky.

Speaking of Fred, her sacrifice for the mission is even greater than Gunn’s. Yes, Gunn leaves Rondell behind, but then again Rondell is up to no good, steeped in prejudice. He may be the closest thing Gunn has to family, but his actions really leave Gunn very little choice. This isn’t the case with Fred’s parents. Despite the clever feinting in Fredless, they are finally shown to be loving and supportive, ideal family members. Nevertheless, she does not accompany them back to Texas, deciding that she belongs in the fight, that the mission is her “true path in life.”

At the zenith of this curve is Cordelia. Perhaps as a result of her vision bombardment in To Shanshu in L.A., Cordelia is completely, one hundred percent dedicated to the mission. She endures incredible pain and the gradual destruction of her body in order to maintain her connection to the Powers, so that the people in her visions can get the help they need. When she is placed into her ultimate wish-fulfillment scenario of fame and fortune, her dedication to the mission breaks through almost immediately — within a few hours of beginning to live her fantasy, she’s tearing out wallpaper to rediscover the mission beneath it. In that same episode (Birthday), she gives up her very humanity for the sake of the mission. Even in the real world, she places the mission over money (oh Cordelia, how you’ve changed!), exhorting Angel in Provider to remember that “first and foremost we work for the Powers, help the helpless.” Finally, she gives up this world altogether and all her attachments within it, including her newly discovered love for Angel. Sight unseen, with only the prompting of Skip as the Powers’ representative, she passes “the last test” by ascending to another plane, to fight evil in some new dimension as a “higher being.” Apparently she won’t get to spend any more time just being a good influence on Angel.

Then there’s the toughest case of all: Wesley. In the first part of the season, he seems firmly in the Cordelia camp, ready to cut anyone loose if he thinks that person is endangering the team or the work. (He makes that crystal clear to Gunn in That Old Gang of Mine.) Indeed, his attempted kidnapping of Connor could be read as the ultimate repudiation of personal connections in favor of defending the helpless. However, what becomes apparent by the end of the season is that he never really expected to lose those connections. As he says to Gunn in The Price, “I needed to live to see my friends again. To explain to the people I trusted… and loved… my side of what happened.” He truly believed that by explaining “his side”, all would be forgiven. However, what seems to be true is that despite his claim, he did not trust his friends enough to share his unsettling discoveries with them, and therefore the connections from their side aren’t as strong as he expects them to be. I think there are reasons he makes this choice, but I’ll revisit those later. For now, it’s enough to say that while Wesley appears to choose the mission over personal connections, in fact he expects to be able to pursue both paths without sacrificing either, and unlike Gunn, he is forced to sacrifice one. Because he wasn’t expecting the sacrifice to happen, and because he didn’t understand the problematic nature of his behavior, he ends up broken and embittered. As he says in another of the season’s key lines, “It’s never easy, the pull of divided loyalties.” Little did he know just how difficult it would become for him.

This internal conflict isn’t new to superhero narratives. One of the most prominent examples is the justly famous Spider-Man #50, in which Peter Parker decides that the hero biz is too destructive to his personal life, and vows to be “Spider-Man no more.” He eventually changes his mind, of course, driven by his overwhelming sense of responsibility, but he continues to struggle with this balance throughout his career, trying unsuccessfully several more times to leave his Spider-Man identity behind. Still, even though it isn’t the most original theme, this season of Angel does a very good job exploring it through various avenues and characters. Speaking of comics, the direct superhero homages seem to be fading away, or at least I’m not noticing them anymore. (Although I did notice that in Benediction Lilah refers to Connor as “the boy wonder.” I’m quite glad Connor didn’t become a Spunky Teen Sidekick for Angel, at least not yet.) The gradual reduction of comicbook references makes sense, really. Just as Buffy finally ran out of steam ringing changes on classic horror stories, so Angel has found its own voice and no longer needs to reach outward for material to adapt.

Well, now that I’ve got that out of my system, how about some of those numbered comments? I found that this time around, my notes fell naturally into a few different categories, so I’ve got three separate numbered lists this time. Besides the usual general notes, I’ve also got some tiny notes and a list of things I thought were problematic in this season.

General Notes

1) I notice that between Angel and Buffy, there seems to be a rising trend of “ordinary” demons, beings who beneath all the crazy skin, horns, and bumps are almost aggressively mundane. There’s Clem, there’s Merl, there’s Sahjhan, there’s Lorne, there’s Skip… all in all, a demon in the Buffyverse these days is just as likely to yak about the Matrix or do a Doritos taste-test as he is to rip somebody’s arms off. This approach works pretty well for me. I enjoy Clem and Lorne a lot, and the moment when Skip first speaks is a hilarious reversal of expectations. Sahjhan’s laid-back California cool, combined with his brutal and evil nature, made him feel like a variation on one of my favorite Buffyverse villains, the Mayor of Sunnydale. Sahjhan is Los Angeles to the Mayor’s Mayberry.

2) Speaking of Sunnydale, this is the first season where there are no crossovers between Angel and Buffy, and I have to say I kind of miss them. Angel is solid enough to stand on its own now, but it was great when somebody or other from Buffy would make an appearance on the show. Also, Buffy itself could have used an infusion of the energy that a visit from Angel or Cordelia might have brought, especially the person Cordelia became during this season. On the other hand, I found myself relieved that the angsty Buffy/Angel reunion happened offstage, especially given the humor with which it was handled on the Angel side. I’m a little burnt out on that relationship, and I sense that the shows are too. In any case, I understand they were on different networks starting this season, so the crossover point is moot, I guess.

3) Let me expound a little more on the “who Cordelia became” point. I love who Cordelia becomes this season. Really, I felt that she was more the hero of the show this year than Angel was. Certainly I found her subplot with the visions and the demonization more compelling than the main Holtz/Darla/Connor plot. I particularly liked her interaction with Lilah in Billy: “Please. I was you, with better shoes.” Recasting her bitchy past as a position of strength, from which she ascended to compassion, resonates nicely with her arc of becoming a “higher being”, culminating in a literal ascension. Birthday was a very nicely done turning point for her, visiting the sites of initial Cordelia-ness (the mall, the money), moving through the dream she established in the Angel pilot and subsequent shows, and landing finally at her decision to discard it all for the sake of the mission. When the idea was introduced that Cordelia is as much of a champion as Angel is, I didn’t really buy it at first, but after seeing that episode, it made perfect sense to me, and therfore seeing their “kye-rumption” thwarted in the final episode packed a strong emotional wallop. I was not a big Cordelia fan at the outset, but she has grown to became my favorite Angel character. The shows where she was gone felt drab and dismal compared to the ones before and and after. I’m definitely not happy to see her leaving, if in fact she is leaving.

4) The fact that Billy Blim’s powers are based around misogyny and hurting women was a well-crafted echo of That Vision Thing, wherein Lilah manages to free him by torturing Cordelia and holding her hostage. The fact that it’s Lilah who puts him down at the end of Billy feels like a repudiation of those tactics, though really it probably isn’t. I imagine if she needed to she’d be more than happy to torture Cordy, Fred, or whoever again. The show is walking a fine line with Lilah, trying not to repeat the Lindsey plot (good idea there) and keep Lilah a villain while still providing her a few moments here and there of vulnerability and sympathy. So far, I think it’s working pretty well.

5) I feel like I should do some analysis of the Holtz/Darla/Connor plot, but I find I don’t have much to say about it. The whole thing was well-done, but seeing Angel give in to his passions and start doing questionable things is becoming tedious. I know that one of the main points of the character is the way he walks the line between good and evil, but how many times can we watch him succumb to the dark side before it’s no longer compelling anymore? I do like that Holtz finally loses his taste for revenge after his years in Quar’Toth, but the fact that this message gets garbled on its way to Connor is frustrating. I hope Justine is dealt with in some final way during season 4. The show’s is much less successful at making her a sympathetic character than it is with Lilah.

6) Speaking of Justine, you know, Gunn and Justine really ought to have a talk. Seems like they have quite a lot in common. Perhaps Justine is partly intended as a dark reflection of Gunn, with a twisted point of view on what “the mission” ought to be.

Tiny Notes

1) Alexis Denisov looks way better with the longer hair.

2) Mark Lutz is quite good as the Groosalugg, especially given that it’s such a relatively small and one-dimensional part.

3) When I get ready to write these reviews, I read transcripts of all the shows from a particular season, and I repeatedly have the experience of finding that the ones I particuarly enjoy are written by Joss Whedon, even though I don’t remember in advance which shows he’s written. I think there are plenty of good writers on Angel and Buffy, but Whedon really is in a class by himself.

4) This may be sort of a left-field comment, but the Connor plot kept reminding me of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It seems like there are quite a few references, starting with the kid’s name. Also there’s the guy who comes from the future to destroy the kid who will grow up to pose a threat to him. Even the scene where Connor fights the drug dealer in a Los Angeles concrete canyon reminded me of the way that film portrayed the city. It doesn’t hurt that Vincent Kartheiser bears a bit of a resemblance to Edward Furlong.

5) What happened to Stephanie Romanov’s face? Weight gain? Surgery? Both? I feel like she looks markedly different from how she did last season.

Problem notes

1) It’s dissatisfying that Wesley double-checks the prophecy (with the Loa in Loyalty), is confirmed to have researched its commentary and scholarship extensively (in Forgiving), trying to find anything that casts doubt on it, and it still turns out to be false. That feels like playing fast and loose with the rules. Also dissatisfying about Loyalty is Angel’s remark at the end. I know it ties into the Wolfram & Hart plot revealed in the next episode, but it feels way too over the top. It’s not something he would say, even in that circumstance.

2) I’m not sure what to make of the ending of Forgiving. I didn’t like it at the time, and it hasn’t improved much on further reflection. I think it partakes of two different problems: it’s both over the top, like the end of Loyalty, and a bit tedious, as I mentioned in general note #5 above. One thing I thought was interesting about it, though, is the fact that in wanting to kill Wesley, Angel basically becomes Holtz. Poor Wes can’t win — no matter who he allies himself with, he finds himself on the wrong end of some guy seeking revenge for the loss of his child. Still, I hope that Holtz’s eventual discovery of compassion allows Angel to find a similar path with Wesley. It’s terrible to see Wes in the state he’s in.

3) The setup for the finale felt a bit sitcommy — too much of a wacky misunderstanding, though I guess it’s supposed to be Justine manipulating Connor. I’m not sure I understand Justine’s motivation, here. I mean, she gets betrayed by Holtz but remains loyal. Okay, fair enough, she’s a cult member. But then she goes against Holtz’s own wishes. Is she just so anti-vampire that despite everything she’s seen, she still wants Angel punished no matter what? Something about that strains plausibility for me, even though I could understand if somebody argued the opposite. I can’t quite put my finger on what the problem is with her, but I think there is one.

4) I’m disappointed that not all of the dialogue from Cordelia’s initial vision of herself in Tomorrow appears in her later scene with Skip. Time-warpy stuff like that is supposed to match up.

5) So why does Wesley keep the prophecy to himself and try to solve the problem of it by stealing Connor? I think there are a few reasons, and they reach deep into the foundation of Wesley’s character. First, it’s been established several times that Wesley’s parents, especially his father, are relentlessly critical, that they “grind [him] down into a tiny self-conscious nub with their constant berating.” This background has left Wesley with a deep need to prove himself, to be the hero. This tendency has manifested itself in the past, such as his brief and unfortunate career as a “rogue demon hunter.” Then there’s the fact that Wesley has suffered some critical failures along the way, most notably his disastrous turn as Faith’s Watcher, and his inability to keep Buffy from turning her back on the Council. These failures further feed his desire to save the day. Finally, there’s the fact that he alone is the resident scholar at Angel Investigations. He has researched this prophecy backwards and forwards (which is the problem I mention in #1 above), and no one understands as well as him its seriousness. Perhaps he feels that the others would tell him to ignore it, and even he seems on the verge of doing so in Loyalty when he sees direct evidence that Angel is willing to harm his child. (That would be the other bit of problem #1). I’m listing Wesley’s motivations in the problems category because the plot events that propel his actions are contrived and illogical. There are definitely some strong, grounded character motivations for him to behave dysfunctionally, but the things that push him over the edge are just a little too much to swallow.

Favorite moments:

  • That Vision Thing – Gunn: “All I know is, you use the word ‘dick’ again and we’re gonna have a problem.”
  • That Vision Thing – The moment when Skip first speaks.
  • That Old Gang Of Mine – I quite liked Wesley in this episode. His “clean kill” speech was quite good, and I also liked him giving Gunn the score at the end.
  • Carpe Noctem – Fred: “You know that awkward kind of quiet?” [Awkward silence ensues.] Wesley: “No, that’s never happened to me.”
  • Fredless – Fred: “Are they gonna get back together? Angel and that girl with the goofy name?” Wesley: “Well, Fred, that’s a difficult question.” And then Wes & Cordy as Angel & Buffy — very funny, and Angel’s “How about you both bite me?” punchline was awesome.
  • Fredless – The sly dig at Joss about Alien Resurrection.
  • Dad – I enjoy the whole concept of the Files And Records department at Wolfram & Hart, and its librarian. I particularly liked the way the joke about Angel’s file was set up.
  • Dad – The ending shot of the five of them walking down the hallway abreast, opening-credits-style… but pushing a stroller.
  • Birthday – The fake opening sequence for Cordy!
  • Provider – The dysfunctional poisoner/zombie couple was a good gag.
  • Provider – Literalizing the cliche, “if you can keep your head while others about you are losing theirs…”
  • Waiting In The Wings – Gunn’s disappointment about the ballet is very funny. “Don’t be usin’ my own phrases when we lost the trust.”
  • Waiting In The Wings – “Well, we could always get our outfits at ‘Cave-girl’s House of Burlap,’ but that’s just so last season.” Great wordplay on “last season.”
  • Waiting In The Wings – Angel to Lorne: “Stop saying that. And stop calling me pastries.”
  • Waiting In The Wings – Gunn: “You know, I was cool before I met you all.” I will stop quoting Gunn lines now and just say that Gunn is great throughout this episode.
  • Couplet – Wesley: “Why can’t you have sex?” Cordy: “I could lose my ‘visionity.'” [beat] Wesley: “…If you wanna play it that way.”
  • Couplet – Cordelia: “I guess we could probably ‘com’ without actually ‘shucking.'”
  • Couplet – I thought the scene between Gunn and Wesley where Wesley acknowledges his feelings for Fred was very well handled.
  • Loyalty – The drive-thru oracle
  • Sleep Tight – The bit where Wesley sings to Connor, then suddenly realizes that Lorne has read him
  • Forgiving – Fred’s horror at the idea of Connor going through a portal
  • Double Or Nothing – I love how Cordelia treats Angel during his grieving, and I quite like the Pylean “Vigil Of The Bereaved” idea.
  • Double Or Nothing – Angel dismantling the crib at the end
  • The Price – (After Groo can’t pronounce “purple”) Angel: “And yet you had no problem pronouncing ‘pomegranate.'” Groo: (completely serious) “It was my mother’s name.”
  • Benediction – Cordelia cleansing Connor
  • Tomorrow – The final moments, the rising and falling

Angel Season 2

This season of Angel is all over the road, veering from the very very dark into the very very kooky, sometimes quite abruptly. It’s also pretty inconsistent in terms of structure, starting with a long arc and ending with a short one, and stringing a few individual pearls between the two. Still, I found a lot to enjoy at both ends of the spectrum.

Look inside for buckets o’ spoilers

Angel Season 1

Buffy started out as a horror riff with elements of superhero drama thrown in, but it seems to me that Angel announces itself as a superhero drama with a horror theme. Since I’m a big fan of superheroics, this sits quite well with me. Also, Angel himself is much more tolerable when he’s not a supporting player in Buffy’s life. For one thing, he actually breaks a smile every so often. He’s still often annoyingly mopey (“Broody McForehead”, I’m told they call him over at Television Without Pity, and that’s about right), but Cordelia does a nice job of lightening the tone. The metaphorical underpinnings of the show don’t really hold up to those in Buffy, since “city life” is a much broader target than “high school/college”, but I still enjoyed it.

We spoil the spoilerless.