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