Wednesday, December 24, 2008
**Warning- contains spoilers**
Well, here we are: the end of "Angel." After suffering through the fourth season the first time I could barely bring myself to even care about the show anymore. But once I start something I have to finish it, so I popped it these discs expecting to either feel totally indifferent or to somehow get even angrier at the series that had rewarded me so often only to take so much away in only one arc. Instead, I was treated to the single best season of TV I've ever watched, one that —though not without weak moments— contained no weak episodes. It took the characters into territory far darker than they had ever gone before, but also featured many of the funniest moments of Whedonverse television. On a second viewing, I amazingly like it even more.
The writers had a lot of pressure on them this season. After the operatic bombast of the fourth season, "Angel" enjoyed great ratings but still couldn't bring in enough advertising money to pay for its hefty budget. So, when the Fang Gang moved to Wolfram & Hart, they also went back to basics. On a related note, WB execs told the writers to focus more on standalone episodes after the lengthy, dense arcs of the past two seasons. Normally, forcing shows to abandon the formulas that won them their fanbases leads to a big downturn in quality, which allows the studio to cancel the show guilt free, but "Angel" excels even in these early episodes.
The season opens with "Conviction," which shows our heroes adjusting to their new jobs at Wolfram & Hart, with Angel unable to go out and help the helpless without a squad of protectors around him. The main plot of the episode (a violent gangster threatens to unleash a virus on L.A. if Wolfram & Hart fails to convict him) is fairly incidental, but it brings about two major changes: 1) Gunn, feeling useless in this new, more elite world, undergoes a procedure that fills his head with full knowledge of the law and 2) Spike materializes in Angel's office.
The former is an interesting development into a late-bloomer of a character. Gunn mainly served to move forward others (chiefly Wesley) up until the fourth season, when he killed Fred's evil professor in order for her to keep her innocence. The resultant emotions over the event destroyed their relationship, and we really got a deep look into Gunn's masked sensitivity. Here, we get to see a man deathly afraid of being left behind, perhaps because it took so long for his character to go somewhere in the first place. His decision would have terrible repercussions down the line and would make him more central to the plot than ever before.
But nothing compares to Spike’s appearance. Somehow, his essence was contained in the amulet that he used to destroy the Hellmouth in Buffy’s series finale, and that same amulet makes it way to Angel before Spike pops out as some sort of incorporeal ghosty type thing. Spike’s reappearance could have so easily undone his emotional end in “Chosen” (and some believe it did), but his instant rival siblings/old married couple rapport with Angel is a total riot, and he manages to grow just a little bit more throughout the season.
I’d rather not dwell on the standalones since they all have their various strengths and weaknesses. “Life of the Party” is a terrifically funny Halloween episode, while “The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco” has such an absurd concept that I get a kick of out no matter how empty it is. The best of the first half of the season is unquestionably “Destiny,” in which Angel and a freshly corporealized Spike do battle to determine who has the rightful claim to the Shanshu prophecy. Not only does it contain the best fight sequence in the show by far, it gets deeper into the Spike/Angel relationship than we’ve ever seen. The worst of these episodes by default would have to be “Soul Purpose,” which is actually a great episode but features an atrocious dream sequence in which Angel hallucinates that he “loses” Buffy to Spike. This isn’t bad at all, but factor in the obvious stunt double to make up for SMG’s absence and the non-sequitur lines ripped from the old season 3 episode “The Prom” are the absolute worst. It is the only moment of the season that really grates me.
The first half was strong enough in a Season 1 kind of way, but starting at about the halfway mark, Whedon and co. knew the show’s days were numbered, and they went all out. “You’re Welcome” brings back Cordelia for only one painfully brief episode, but it restores her character back to the person we came to love. The final scene is one of those simple, heartbreaking moments that brings you tears every time.
Apart from a slight stumble in execution in the interesting “Why We Fight,” season 5 hits the throttle. First up is the single funniest, most absurdly brilliant episode Joss Whedon has ever penned: “Smile Time.” A story of the seedy side of the show business, the emptiness of TV and how it enslaves our children, and puppets, “Smile Time” alone should have guaranteed “Angel” another season.
At the end of the episode Wesley finally gets with Fred, and we all should have known that would spell trouble. Enter “A Hole in the World,” quite possibly the most depressing hour of TV Whedon’s ever penned. Yes, even above “The Body.” When Whedon kills his characters, he tends to do so in the most abrupt ways, but when he does allow for melodrama, he does so in inventive ways. After Fred is infected with a mysterious pathogen when she opens a coffin, she spends the entire episode slowly dying. However, instead of her spouting out tearful monologues, she has more subdued (and therefore more affecting) moments with Wesley while the rest of the Fang Gang desperately searches for a cure. Those final scenes where Angel and Spike realize that they can do nothing and Fred’s final, innocent last line will tear out your heart and puree it in front of you.
Fred’s death ushers in an amazing new character: Illyria. An ancient demon resurrected in Fred’s body, Illyria is disgusted to even have to reside in such an unworthy “shell” and even more repulsed that she is surrounded by everyone’s grief over losing Fred. Their grief is only more compounded with the knowledge that Illyria’s resurrection not only killed Fred but also destroyed her soul. It’s a testament to the writing that this revelation devastated me, that I was so into the show that even thinking about it purely on its surface, supernatural level could affect me.
The end run of “Angel” is stronger than any other run in the Buffyverse: above the original Angelus arc., above Buffy’s third and fifth season, above the beige Angel arc. Wesley turns into a pathetic wretch who clings to Illyria as his only link to the only thing he ever loved on this planet, and his feelings seem to bring out latent remnants of Fred in a clearly vexed Illyria. Wesley’s not the only one who suddenly has nothing to lose. Angel, fed up with sitting by, plans a last-ditch attack on Wolfram & Hart, leading to the epic two-part finale.
In “Power Play,” we cannot be sure that Angel has truly snapped over his grief for Fred and has turned evil. He goes so dark that the Circle of the Black Thorn, the highest agents of the Senior Partners on Earth, invites him to join. When his friends confront him on his sudden change, he reveals his plan: gain entrance to the Circle in order to kill every member. This plays out over the final episode, “Not Fade Away.” The finest and truest series finale I’ve ever seen, NFA shows our heroes mount a large-scale attack on an unbeatable foe while still keeping to the central theme of the series: a daily struggle against evil as a means to redemption. The seedy depths that the characters stoop to (Lorne’s final act for the gang still turns my stomach because of what it means to him), the beautiful parting moment between Illyria and Wesley and that much debated final scene display everything that made the show great. If this is not my all-time favorite episode of TV I can’t tell you what is.
I’ve been trying to make these things more concise because let’s face it, no one reads this anyway and it’s never fun to surf through a big essay online. But I can’t help myself. If I went into even half the moments of this season that affected me deeply it would be four times as long. Apart from a few moments in a couple of episodes, I love every second of this. Even “The Girl In Question,” which I completely agree should have been moved earlier in the season (even though Buffy threw in a comic relief episode plenty of times in the middle of a dark arc), is so damn funny I don’t even mind that stupid stereotypical Italian Wolfram & Hart executive.
When you boil it down to its essence, Angel’s fifth season mixed the best of the solitary quality of Season 1 with the emotional impact of the big arc structure of the other three seasons. The fact that I have to resort to pointing out individual scenes to demonstrate any dip in quality is a testament to at the very least my undying love for it, if not the actual quality. “Angel” became my favorite show the instant I watched it (yeah, even including the fourth season), but even when I take a step back from it I can do nothing but shower this season with adulation.