Thursday, December 11, 2008
**warning: contains spoilers**
Angel's first season was a confident but shaky debut, one that boldly moved away from its parent show while still remaining in the same universe. It managed to get across a lot of thematic development as well; at the start Angel is a brooding loner who fights evil just to whittle the time away until something finally kills him, and by the end of it he has a whole new outlook on life. Armed with the knowledge that he is prophesied to become great, Angel is more upbeat than ever before. But, as with all things Whedon, the good times never last.
The first few episodes are, with the exception of the deeply metaphorical "Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been?," the superb Tim Minear classic that remains a fan favorite, fun but meaningless. Angel is still riding high on the prophecy, Wesley is coming into his own but still clumsy, and Gunn slowly starts to acclimate to the team members.
But it all changes with "Dear Boy," the beginning of what would become a mammoth mid-season arc that drastically shifted the tone of the show. Darla's return throws Angel for a loop; he can't decide if he wants to help her or kill her once and for all. Darla, brought back by Wolfram & Hart purely to screw with her ex-lover, came back as a human and, funnily enough, hates it. At one point in the season Angel remarks that she's been destroying mirrors because she has a soul and, when someone points out that he doesn't go around smashing mirrors and he has a soul, Angel responds "I don't have to look at myself." As cold and ruthless as Darla very much still is, she must confront herself on her past, and whereas Angel shut down from the gult, she poured those feelings into rage.
The Darla arc is split into two segments; the first ends with her shocking re-turning in "Reunion," which sets the stage for some of Angel's darkest moments. It launches the second half of the arc, commonly titled the Beige Angel arc. In it, Angel, crushed by his inability to save Darla, realizes he is entering a dark part of his mind and fires the Angel Investigations staff. He begins to hunt Darla and Drusilla with a vengeance; he strikes a terrifying balance between Angel and Angelus, a creature who has a soul but, like any human, can bring that soul into the darkness.
It all hits a magnificent nadir (in terms of cheeriness, certainly not quality) in the two part arc ender "Reprise" and "Epiphany." "Reprise" is one of the absolute finest episodes of either Angel or Buffy; it's an existential nightmare that reveals that the hell Wolfram & Hart answers to (and, presumably, the real Hell since they are the embodiment of evil) is right here on Earth. It obliterates the themes laid down at the end of Season 1 by flat out stating that evil is not something that can ever be defeated. Angel's parent show would tackle the same issue throughout it's final season, but as much as I enjoy it, the entire season never comes close to the depth and despair of this single episode. "Epiphany" rebuilds the show from the ruins of its predecessor, putting Angel's life back on track by reducing his mission back to its "working class hero" roots.
This lengthy arc is one of the most consistent and incredible runs in the Whedonverse, but sadly the season ends on a weak note with the Pylea arc. Perhaps in an effort to allieviate some of the philosophical darkness of the rest of the season, the writers decided to make some weird-ass version of The Wizard of Oz. If I'm lying I'm dying. In all fairness, this four episode arc isn't bad, per se, and it would have been lovely, pointless frivolity...if it wasn't so long. Pylea's a one-joke town, and we get four episodes of it. It does, however, get a pass purely for introducing Fred. I'll go into that in later seasons.
All in all, this is one of the best seasons in the Whedonverse, for one simple reason: Tim Minear. Run down the writing credits for this season: Every. Single. Classic episode is written by Minear. He combines wonderfully dark humor, deep allegory and metaphor, and thought provoking philosophy into 43 minute chunks. He even wrote the only good episode of the Pylea arc ("Through the Looking Glass").
Apart from a few hiccups at the start and finish, you'll rarely see a season of TV more captivating and thoughtful than this. For my money, only the show's final season could best it.
Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been?
Disharmony (Thank God they figured out how to make Harmony interesting in the final season)