**warning- contains spoilers**
Picking the best episodes of "Angel" is even harder than choosing the cream of the crop of its sister show. Even though it boasted some major arcs, it got across a great deal of story and character movement even in its most inconsequential of episodes. But some are just great even by the standards of the show. Below is a list of the finest hours of one of the best shows ever made.
25. Orpheus (4x16)
As great as Faith was in "Buffy," her limited appearances on this show pushed her character farther than she went in a full season. Her return as a recovering villain hell-bent on saving Angel even at the cost of her own life was the true conclusion of her story. The personal risks Faith takes to save the only person who ever believed she could reform is touching and harrowing, and her story provides a nice juxtaposition to the hilarious take of Angel's tortured recollections that forces Angelus to revisit the heroic deeds of Angel, much to the demon's outrage.
24. Waiting in the Wings (3x13)
"Waiting in the Wings" is one of the more unlikely hits of the series, but then when Whedon's name is attached, you shouldn't be surprised by greatness. The neverending ballet serves as one of the better metaphors for not only Angel's struggles but with his budding feelings for Cordelia, which first start to manifest with this episode. It also marks the first TV appearance of future Whedonite Summer Glau. Everyone wins.
23. Spin the Bottle (4x06)
"Angel" was much darker than its parent, which was dark enough as is, but occasionally it boasted moments of pure Whedonesque glee. "Spin the Bottle" stands up to the very funniest of "Buffy's" romps through silliness. Angel turns back into a young adult in the 1700s in the middle of present-day Los Angeles, Fred a timid pothead, Gunn a solitary street warrior, and we get a glimpse back into the early personas of Cordy and Wesley. There are far too many great lines to even begin to list.
22. Underneath (5x17)
An unrelentingly dark look into the hell that is modern suburbia seems like a total aside after the events of the two episodes preceding it, yet it plunges the characters even further towards their inevitable conclusion. It’s hard not to get chills when Gunn takes Lindsey’s place at the end as penance for his role in Fred’s death.
21. Home (4x22)
The end run of Angel’s fourth season seemed hell-bent on ruining everything; it was so bad that Tim Minear came back after a full season off to pen this stunning, wrong-righting finale that moved the show in a completely unexpected direction. The way Wolfram & Hart perverts the Fang Gang’s victory over Jasmine is the first truly sinister thing they’ve done since Season 2.
20. Power Play (5x21)
The episode that finally completes the theme presented in “Reprise:” that in the grand scheme of things good and evil give way to the simple question of power. On the surface level it’s a brilliant exercise in constant misdirection as Angel moves into darker territory before he finally reveals his plan to the team. But the questions it raises about the true evil of the world pushes this over the edge of a fun episode into a classic one.
19. You're Welcome (5x12)
Cordelia’s arc in Season 4 almost made me abandon the show for good. Even in the great episodes of the season the undercurrent of her possession and the acts she commits made me want to throw my TV away. But this one episode rights almost everything by bringing Cordy back for only a fleeting moment to help Angel get his life back together and to send her off in a surprising yet affectionate way.
18. Sleep Tight (3x16)
One of the most Shakespearean hours of TV I’ve ever watched. Not only is Wesley a tragic hero, but Holtz turns into a true villain after a season of moral ambiguity through his subversive manipulation of both Wes and Justine in his single-minded obsession with revenge. The final scenes where Angel can only sit in anguish and Wes lies half-dead in a hospital is perhaps the most haunting moment of the entire series.
17. Sanctuary (1x19)
I’ll be honest, I struggled on whether to include this or its predecessor “Five By Five.” Ultimately, I came down on the side of this because Five By Five contains the bulk of its excellence to its final gut-wrenching scene while this is transcendent throughout. It juxtaposes Faith’s desire for redemption with Angel’s and proves to be one of the most thematic episodes of the series. Oh, and the philosophical discussion that accidentally spawns from a question about a microwave is both deep and hysterical.
16. Deep Down (4x01)
After the insufferably derivative and hollow Season 3 finale “Tomorrow,” Angel needed a rebound to make the ten seconds it took me to switch discs in my DVD player worth it (to say nothing of the poor sods who had to wait months between seasons). Happily, “Deep Down” fires on all cylinders; it presents some of the darkest developments to come along since “Reprise” and rewrites the thematic focus of the show once more to fit the season ahead. Shame that the season itself so completely failed to deliver.
15. Somnambulist (1x11)
Both Buffy and Angel had their share of standalones that were distant from the seasonal arc but still got across a great deal of development, yet this underappreciated gem inserts its character insights so subtly it almost seems like a throwaway. Penn serves to remind Angel (and we the audience) that his past will always come back to bite him and why perfect happiness eludes him.
14. Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? (2x02)
Quite possibly the most richly metaphorical episode of the series, AYNOHYEB? points to the direction Angel would take later in the season via an entrancing series of time jumps and a dark mystery. The main focus of the episode is fear and how people respond to it. Some of the allusions include xenophobia, racism, the Red Scare, and how these fears can influence a mob. The fact that Angel decides to relocate the gang to the site of his most terrible deed (post-soul, of course) is the biggest display of how he always keeps his demons on his mind.
13. I Will Remember You (1x08)
Yes, it’s melodramatic. But people need to stop equating melodrama with bad acting. IWRY is a devastating episode that teases Angel, Buffy, and us with the possibility of happiness before brutally pulling the carpet from beneath our feet. That Angel would sacrifice his chance at a life with Buffy to help her fight down the road is inspiring, and the final moments of their time together is heartbreaking thanks to SMG’s and Boreanaz’s stellar acting.
12. City Of (1x01)
Just about the best pilot you could hope for. It wastes no time introducing Angel and Cordy to this new world and tweaking their characters to fit it while keeping to their established traits, presenting us with a new character (Doyle), and laying down the fundamental themes of the show. The thematic direction of the series shifted often in brilliant ways, but the immobile core was formed here.
11. Destiny (5x08)
It’s been a long time coming, baby. The fight between Angel and Spike gets right to the core of their relationship, and the fight itself is the best in the series. It also tackles what it means to be a hero. The twist following the battle tops the whole thing off with a big laugh.
10. Smile Time (5x14)
Do I really need to explain this? The most brilliantly crazy concept in the Whedonverse (yes, it even beats out Hush and Once More, With Feeling for pure zaniness), “Smile Time” doesn’t have any real emotional highs or lows (apart from the pure elation of Fred kissing Wes at the end), but it’s such a bellyacher that I chuckle just thinking about it.
9. Epiphany (2x16)
The episode that preceded this, “Reprise,” was a cataclysmic affair philosophically and thematically, and “Epiphany” rebuilt the show out of the spectacular ashes. It reverts the themes of the show to those outlined in “City Of” while never backtracking. As terse and brutal as “Reprise” was, the idea of suddenly putting pieces back together in one episode seemed like an avenue to contrivance, but “Epiphany” is every bit as deep.
8. Reunion (2x10)
As I get closer to number one I’m finding it harder and harder to rank these. The number next to “Reunion” says 8, but it’s really tied for third or fourth. Wolfram & Hart gets their biggest victory over Angel by re-siring Darla, and it unleashes a being we’ve never seen before, one neither Angel nor Angelus. Wolfram & Hart were always trying to turn Angel, but they got more than they bargained for here. Though I’ve only watched the series twice, I’ve sat down with this one several times, and I still gets chills when Angel utters “And yet somehow, I just can’t seem to care.”
7. Lullaby (3x09)
I feel that Darla’s arc is somewhat overlooked by many because she was never a title character. However, hers is perhaps the most understated evolution on the show (after Fred's pre-Illyria days, of course), and her decision to sacrifice herself rather than lose her newfound love for her unborn child is deeply affecting. The juxtaposition between this touching selflessness and the cruelty both inflicted on Holtz and the cruelty he inflicts is one of the more cinematic touches of the series.
6. Darla (2x07)
I admit it, I’m a sucker for a Buffyverse flashback (the only ones that are actively bad are the retconning bores in “Heartthrob”), and the crossover smash “Darla” (it syncs up with Spike’s flashbacks in “Fool For Love,” only from Darla’s perspective) features my all time favorite looks into Angel’s seedy past. Equally as exhilarating is Angel’s desperate (and doomed) attempt to save Darla from herself which starts ramping up the show’s penchant for noir moods. This style would hit a high after Darla’s re-siring, but here it effectively builds tension for their plight.
5. Shells (5x16)
In the wake of Fred’s death, the Fang Gang is maybe as devastated as we are, and widens the scope of issues covered by its predecessor. Surprisingly, it packs almost as much emotional impact as AHITW with the revelation that Fred’s soul died with her, proving that Joss' series are so well-written, I can identify with them even on a surface level. Angel and co. took over Wolfram & Hart seemingly without consequence, but this was fate’s way of catching up.
4. To Shanshu in L.A. (1x22)
After a first season of disconnected rambling (which had its pros and cons), Angel stunned us all with an abrupt move into something bigger. Angel finally snaps out of his rut and the revelation of the Shanshu prophecy would loom over much of the rest of the series. Yet, until the fourth season at least, the prophecy never got in the way of the personal tale of redemption. A shockingly epic 42 minutes of television.
3. Reprise (2x15)
“Reprise” is the deepest hour of TV I’ve seen. If the thematic foreshadowing and complexity of Buffy’s “Restless” was a subtle dreamscape, “Reprise” is a sledgehammer to the forehead; it tears down the epic themes of “To Shanshu in L.A.” with the blunt admission that evil can never be triumphed over because it exists even within the good. Tim Minear made his mark with the Beige Angel arc, and here he proves himself to be the finest writer Joss ever hired, and the only one who makes me as excited to spot in the credits as Joss himself. Rarely has a series (much less a single episode) so curtly laid out the nature of the world for all to see.
2. A Hole in the World (5x15)
I’ve never put stock in any awards; most are motivated by a desperate desire for ratings and star coverage and the rest are just the industry’s way of patting itself on the back. Yet the fact that Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker didn’t nab Emmys for their heart-wrenching performances shows just how clueless some people are. It starts out with a hilarious and deceptively insightful debate over Cavemen vs. Astronauts (the answer is astronauts, by the way) and winds up a bleak look into religious fanatics (Knox) and never considering the consequences of our desires (Gunn). For my money this depresses me even more than “The Body” from Buffy's fifth season. Fred was the one character who couldn't be corrupted morally (Gunn even killed for her to keep her from doing anything vindictive), and so it was all the more devastating when this ancient evil corrupted her physically. And it gave people the chance to see what an incredible actress Amy Acker really was (as if the rest of her time as Fred wasn't subtle brilliance).
1. Not Fade Away (5x22)
There are those who view this episode as a cheap cliffhanger, a great first half to an unaired two-part finale. However, it is the truest send-off I have ever seen for any show. The depths the characters steep to in order to go out swinging is astonishing (Lorne’s finale in particular shook me deeply), and the last scene encapsulates everything about “Angel:” the daily, unwinnable struggle against evil. The fights manage to look epic without losing the working man feel of the series, and Wesley's death tore me up even more than Fred's, if that's at all possible. This is, quite simply, the best hour of TV I’ve ever seen.
I wanted so badly to add this to the list (and high too), but I just couldn’t leave off any of the others. Doyle was a character who never had the time to win our hearts but did so anyway, and the fact that he sacrificed himself so Angel could keep fighting is a harbinger to Angel’s newfound importance in the wake of the Shanshu Prophecy. However, the cheap Nazi allusions really bring it down, to the point that I just couldn’t put it on the list.
The Five Worst Episodes of Angel
Angel is unquestionably my all-time favorite show, but that does not mean it's perfect. To date the only show I've ever watched with not a single weak episode is "Arrested Development" (I'm not counting short-lived British shows like "The Office" and "Spaced" because their runs are so short), but then that show only ran for 2.5 seasons. However, even though "Angel" doesn't always fire on all cylinders, I had a great deal of trouble coming up with even five all-out bad episodes. Comparatively, I can think of 8 clunkers in "Buffy" off the top of my head, and I still haven't finished going back through the series. So, let us take a moment to acknowledge the lesser moments of a great series.
5. Tomorrow (3x22)
To be honest, the whole end arc of Season 4 pisses me off to no end, but separately they aren’t bad enough to be rank as the worst of the series. But “Tomorrow” was hands down the worst finale of either Angel or its parent show. It squandered so much great lead-up in preceding episodes by falling into the trap of rampantly derivative devices. You’ve got your lack of action, waste of tension, all to set up a cheap cliffhanger that smacks of the absolute worst of TV clichés.
4. The House Always Wins (4x03)
The end run of Season 4 was shittier than the sum of its parts, but this early season clunker provides me with all the ammo I need. It’s a microcosm of all the flaws of the season: the initial awe at the bombast quickly gives way to the realization that the writers are dragging a character through emotionally devastating territory only to act like it’s no big deal and not move the character forward. Of course, Lorne’s story wasn’t half as offensive as the protracted ruination of Connor and Cordy.
3. Double or Nothing (3x18)
When he was a teenager, Gunn sold his soul for a pickup truck. I almost want to stop there. Now he has to pay up, so he breaks up with Fred so he doesn’t hurt her when he dies. On the day that he is going to die. Nice “strategery” Charles. I’m sure Fred will move on in the three hours between breakup and the news of your death. It’s stupid, emotionally vapid, and frankly insulting to both the audience and the characters.
2. Provider (3x12)
I have such a hard time writing anything about this episode. Angel Investigations needs money, so they immediately agree when a group of mysterious creatures offers $50,000 to take Fred back to their place to literally solve a puzzle. Of course, once they have her they plan on doing something stupid with her genius mind and the lesson is that money isn’t as important as friendship. That’s right, we have to sit through a moral normally reserved for a preachy sitcom. Man, why didn’t I spot the huge weaknesses in Season 3 the first time around?
1. She (1x13)
Joss Whedon always prided himself on the fact that "Buffy" never operated in the hackneyed "In a very special of..." style that every other show out there used to drum up ratings. But "Angel" got me worried when I watched this early disaster. In a blatant, heavy-handed metaphor of female genital mutilation, we are forced to endure Bai Ling's Jheira and those young girls she protects. Why? Because they have a mysterious appendage known as the Ko, which drives the males of their species to madness, so they remove it. While I agree that such practice is horrifying and deplorable, so what? Does anyone really NOT think that? It so cheaply smacks you over the head with a message that everyone agrees with anyway that it proves far more abysmal than a piece of filler. It is to TV what “Crash” is to film.
(See also: The 25 Best (and 5 Worst) Buffy Episodes)