Warning: Minor plot spoilers ahead.

This is the catch: in order to keep this business running, you need to keep this business running.
— Eve (Sarah Thompson), “Conviction”

I’m his date.
— Spike (James Marsters), “Just Rewards”

The first moments of Angel‘s fifth season look like the vampire has turned all superheroic. A girl is accosted by a vampire in a dark L.A. alley (the kind that only the set designers on Angel conjure up). She screams and here comes Angel (David Boreanaz), swooping into the frame and, following brief fisticuffs, dusting that vile bloodsucker.

So, just as you’re thinking that this noble business is Angel’s new beat, the result of his deal, struck at the end of last season, with Wolfram & Hart, the tables turn. A clean-up crew descends on the scene, attended by a SWAT-looking team and a natty producer-guy who asks Angel if perhaps he wants a latte; they take the damsel’s picture and her statement, and get her signature on a form confirming her rescue by Angel. It’s the corporate version of heroics, where nothing counts unless it’s documented and turned into profits.

From here, the premiere cuts to the Wolfram & Hart offices, where the members of Team Angel are settling into their new positions. Lorne (Andy Hallet) is busy booking “entertainment” and revamping the employee list (checking their intentions by having sing for him); former Watcher Wesley (Alexis Denisof) runs into Fred (Amy Acker), thrilled with her “giganamous” lab and offering a short paragraph’s worth of plot catch-up for anyone who missed season four’s spectacular conclusion (whereupon Wesley congratulates her, “Your run-on sentences have gotten a lot less senseless”); and former banger/street-trained vampire beatdown artist Gunn (J. August Richards) enters with a basketball, scouting the optimum office space. Still worried that he doesn’t “belong here,” Gunn tells Wesley, “You’ve got the mystical creds at least. All I do is hit stuff.”

Yeah, but he hits stuff really well. As does most everyone in Angel, when called on to do so. Since spinning off from Buffy in 1999, Angel has gotten better every season — smarter, funnier, snarkier. With their posh new digs, with Necrotempered glass windows, come great expectations and moral complexities: how, they wonder out loud, can they possibly maintain the business they’ve signed on to maintain while keeping a lid on the evil clients the firm represents? The distasteful “greater good” compromise looks to be a daily bitter pill. As Eve (Sarah Thompson), their new liaison to the senior partners, puts it, “You’re on the inside now, you can stop the worst of it. This is a crazy time of fun.”

Of course, no one in this dour crew is quick to buy that line, even though the series’ mood is brightened considerably by the appearance of Angel’s new secretary, Miss Malaprop herself, Harmony (Mercedes McNab), who assures Angel that when she brings him a drink, it’s pigs’ blood (“I’m totally off the human blood,” she squeaks, “It’s not even a thing!”). Even before the wholly upsetting and much-anticipated introduction of Spike (James Marsters) into the regular cast (more on that below), the crew is suffering continuing grief over comatose (and apparently off the show) Cordy (Charisma Carpenter) and thankfully-dispatched-to-normalcy Connor (Vincent Kartheiser), or, for that matter, the dealings with demons and monsters and perpetual threats against life on earth that comprise their daily routine.

Take, for instance, the metaphorical terrorist plot hatched by pimp-kidnapper-client Corbin Fries (Rodney Rowland) in the season opener, “Conviction” (1 October 2003), directed by Joss Whedon. In order to ensure his lawyers at Wolfram & Hart will get him off at trial, he’s conjured a deadly retrovirus bomb-like device that will detonate over L.A. on his conviction. It’s the greater good problem, except that his trial so far looks very bad, like he’s going to jail. The Angelites see two options: figure a way to get Fries off (not likely) or find the bomb.

That the cleverly contrived outcome involves a very new role for my boy Gunn is not the least of the episode’s pleasures. Angel’s search for the bomb, not unlike Jack Bauer’s in 24, takes him to various sources and locations over the course of a day, including one mystical vessel maker called “Spanky,” who thinks he can defeat Angel by crushing his windpipe (of course, as Angel points out, he doesn’t use his windpipe, being dead). The antagonist tries again, offering a witty reference to his nickname (“I don’t spank men”) just before Angel takes him down, severely. “I have no problem spanking men,” the vampire snipes, looking dashing and very un-underdoggy in his suddenly well-financed action mode.

It’s exactly this sort of dancing around issues and identities that makes Angel so much fun. All the characters have turned into personalities you wouldn’t have expected during their early appearances. Stick in the mud Wes has been known to turn woman-warrior-ish when necessary; the Host, Lorne, has cut loose outside his karaoke club, turned diabolically witty (undercover at Fries’ trial, his green face behind sunglasses and a fedora, cracking wise about O.J. and Patient Zero); and Fred, so annoyingly demure for a couple of seasons, has become an ass-kicking clotheshorse, with attitude to spare (mad at her inherited staff for not “working the problem” of the retrovirus, she scolds them righteously, “Do you do anything besides pretending you’re running an evil Radio Shack?”).

For his part, Angel yet occupies that limbo between life and death, his singular province. A be-souled vampire, he’s getting used to suffering for his centuries of abusing humans but also appreciates the power he wields. When an evil soldier boy chides him, because, as he puts it, “I am something you will never be, I’m pure, I believe in evil,” Angel dismisses his claim to “conviction” with a decisively violent act. (The series has never been designed for the faint-hearted.)

But while Angel likes to presume his specialness in this between-betwixt condition, that status is changed drastically when Spike shows up in the W&H offices at the end of “Conviction.” The second part of the season opener, “Just Rewards” (airing 8 October 2003), reveals the rationale and the potential long-term ramifications of his reentry into the Buffyverse (his own response, charmingly: “Bugger!”). Spike died at last year’s end of Buffy, of course (and this Angel episode recalls this for you, in case you missed his sensational demise), and now he’s stuck in a haunting state, doomed, it appears, to play nagging ghost to Angel, without material substance (as Harmony describes it, he’s “gone all Patrick Swayze”). The curse, or whatever it is, has to do with the amulet (also a plot point drawn from Buffy‘s last season), and Spike is apparently attached to Angel specifically, unable to leave L.A., complaining about his soul, and endlessly competing with the big A over whom Buffy loved best.

Spike is, as ever, delightful, the ultimate macho punk (William the Bloody) trapped in a sensitive boy’s storyline (William the Bloody Awful Poet). His relationship with Angel has ever been fraught, and now that he seems condemned to play “the wisecracking ghost sidekick,” he’s particularly perturbed about it. Angel’s no less bothered by this odd turn of events (the reshuffling of characters resembles the crossover-events in David Kelley’s shows, or maybe the Law & Orders and Homicide, though the loop-de-looping is more pronounced here). Mad that he’s been horrifically punished for saving the world, while Angel gets the swank office and loyal staff, Spike is full of witty bile against his grandsire, or as he calls him, “Captain Forehead”: “The mighty hero,” he taunts, “reduced to a bloody bureaucrat.”

When the bickering undead duo confronts the Necromancer, Magnus Hainsley (Victor Raider-Wexler), and Spike introduces himself as Angel’s “date,” the stakes are looking clearer: these guys are of a brainy self-conscious piece, at each other’s throats (so to speak), constituting a continuum, and quite aware of their intimacy via Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar), all at the same time. As a strategy to recover and, to some strange extent, reform Slayer fans, the pairing of the vampire-killing vampires is ingenious. So full of contradictions and frustrations, so odd a couple, Angel and Spike are the ideal means to explore the intimacies that boys share.