“Let’s go to work.”
— Angel, “Not Fade Away” (the last line in the last episode of the last season of Angel)
Angel concludes pretty much exactly where it begins, our titular hero squaring off against the relentless and indefatigable minions of hell in a back alley of Los Angeles. It is an eternal fight, one which, in the end, he has no hope to win, but which he joins nonetheless, if only because it may be the only way to redeem humanity, and reclaim his own. If Angel is about one thing, it is the impossibility of any final redemption, of ever being able to atone fully for your sins — but also that maybe, just maybe, the struggle to purge the guilt of centuries of evil is worthy enough to find some solace, if never salvation.
For a supernatural serialized drama/soap opera on a mostly teen-oriented network, it’s pretty heady stuff, and it still amazes me that Angel lasted even one season, let alone five, outliving even its progenitor, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And its narrative, aesthetic and thematic superiority (except in notoriety) to its much beloved parent show is perhaps even more amazing.
But probably most amazing of all is that anyone ever thought spinning the character of Angel off on to his own show was a viable idea. When we first met him on Buffy, Angel (David Boreanaz) was the one-note, brooding dreamboat demonlover of the Slayer, a shadowy mystery man who seemed to possess hidden depths that were never quite realized in his three seasons on the show. The proto-Angel hinted at potential, though, with a tragic, blood-soaked backstory that could eventually be filled in and fleshed out.
A notorious 250-year-old vampire “cursed” with a soul, Angel was damned to suffer the full, guilt-wracked knowledge of the myriad bloody crimes he committed, knowing, too, that he could never find atonement, and knowing, as well, that if he let down his guard, let himself feel one moment of perfect happiness, he would be transformed back into a bloodthirsty monster. He is trapped in an ontological and moral limbo — neither demon nor human, neither good nor evil — fighting to lift the curse but unsure how to do it. He is condemned to an eternity of knowing that happiness, a moment of pure humanity, is forever beyond his reach.
This curse, with its attendant struggle for redemption, carries over onto Angel and forms the main character arc of its hero over five seasons. It is the thread that binds what would become a divergent, often wildly uneven, but nonetheless always entertaining series that was never quite sure of exactly what it wanted to be. Conceived by co-creators/producers Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt as a darker, more brooding, neo-noir counterpart to the hormonally overloaded teen dramedy monster mash-up of Buffy, i>Angel struggled with its identity during its first season, working hard — maybe too hard — to step out of its parent show’s shadow. Moving from the bucolic suburb of Sunnydale to the perpetual night of LA, the show stuttered out of the gate as an episodic anthology of mostly stand-alone segments, morphing week-to-week from superhero show, to supernatural thriller, to detective show, to broad comedy, to angsty broodfest, and back again, circling around its hero, unsure of what exactly to do with him.
Andy Hallett (Lorne) and Amy Acker (Winifred)
The series is given some initial stability by carry-overs from Buffy, who ground the show with familiarity even as it tries to stake out new territory. The irrepressibly insouciant Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter, who was probably shipped off because she routinely upstaged the entire cast of Buffy) enters early on, as the perfect antidote to Angel’s furrowed, glowering brow. She is shortly followed by Wesley Wyndam-Pryce (Alexis Denisof), a prissy bumbling nitwit on Buffy, who reinvents himself as a bumbling, not so prissy rogue demon hunter and eventual badass anti-hero.
Together, they establish themselves as Angel Investigations, a sort-of mix between a detective agency and vigilante group, their intent to “help the helpless” and root out the demonic evil nesting in every corner of LA. Though the detective aspect is driven more and more into the background as the series progresses, the initial set-up of a small band fighting overwhelming evil to protect humanity persists over the series, with the introduction of more members kicking new life into the group every so often.
Though showing flashes of brilliance in scattered moments during its first season, it’s not until season two that Angel finally begins to come into its own. An early episode, “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been”, signals a darker turn, both for our hero and the show itself. Set in 1952 in a big rambling Hollywood Hotel, this superbly crafted episode places our hero in a claustrophobic vortex of Salem-esque witch hunt hysteria, touching on McCarthyism, virulent racism, xenophobic paranoia, and.. um… Rebel Without a Cause.
Angel’s persecution and hanging at the hands of the hotel residents opens a path to a near sociopathic indifference to humanity which will become a key aspect in his struggles for redemption. He turns his back on his “fellow” men at the episode’s conclusion, allowing them to be slaughtered by a demon rather than saving them (echoed later in the episode “Reunion”, when he allows two vampires to munch on a roomful of lawyers). This is the first time we start to realize that all his glowering and brooding is not just for effect, that he is not truly the pure hero he seemed at first glance, and that his backsliding into evil is not entirely predicated on him becoming a vampire again. Angel will reemphasize the importance of these moral quandaries again and again, about the ramifications of choice and the consequences of indifference and inaction, which can be just a devastating as any deliberate actions we take.
Season 2 also marks the full rise to prominence of Angel’s true and perpetual nemesis on the series, the Offices of Wolfram and Hart, a vast multidimensional law firm who broker the majority of evil on Earth, and who seem to be perpetually orchestrating various apocalyptic scenarios, most of which seem to feature Angel at their center. In interviews, Whedon and Greenwalt are insistent that Angel would try a different tack than Buffy, that instead of one giant baddy each season, Angel’s enemy would be huge, featureless, relentless, and legion.
What better and more obvious way to embody that than with a law firm that relies more on procedure, precedent, and the “law” to wreak its evil plans, than some mystical powers or what not. And though Angel squares off against several individual lawyers, the chief import is always the firm’s ubiquity and facelessness. Its reach is everywhere, in everyone. The apocalyptic hell it keeps fermenting is not only inevitable but already here: it is the world itself (as one lawyer reveals to Angel in the episode “Reprise”). Though the revelation of this eschatological nightmare nearly sends Angel reeling off into a nearly irreversible existential funk, the true importance of the show’s vision of hell on Earth doesn’t fully blossom until the final two seasons.
Meanwhile, the show finally comes into it’s own in Season 2, beginning a long, sweeping narrative arc that, for better or worse (hint: it’s definitely for the better) will carry over three seasons, and transform the show from a noirish monster of the week detective anthology into what one character self-referentially terms “a turgid supernatural soap opera”. Beginning with the reintroduction of Darla, the female vampire who turned Angel into a vampire, and who was his lover and partner in crime until Angel was given back his soul, the show basically floors the gas and goes shooting off, often erratically, along a path that would become increasingly Byzantine and obtuse, even as it ratcheted up the melodrama.
A synopsis of these seasons, especially the densely plotted seasons 3 and 4, would be overlong, tedious, and unfair to any viewer who hasn’t seen the series before. Thinking back on it now, it’s amazing how much exposition and mayhem Angel crammed into three seasons (or really, two and a half, since about half the second season briefly veers of the main track into both stand alone episodes and a mini-arc that involves traveling to another dimension that resembles nothing so much as a bad Renaissance Fair). It begins with Angel teetering on the edge of despair and indifference, letting his resurrected lover run wild in a murderous rampage around LA, meanwhile firing his gang and nearly caving into the monster within.
But that’s just the warm-up to the impossible pregnancy of Darla with Angel’s son, a signal event which triggers a flood of high melodrama, including, but not limited to: base treachery, brutality, betrayal, kidnapping, vengeance, the rise of a cartoonishly badass demon, Oedipal conflicts galore, the blotting out of the sun over LA, live burial, mystical statutory rape, more impossible pregnancies, Angel’s reversion into his evil vampire alter-ego Angelus, and the birth of an impossibly beautiful beatific demon whose apocalyptic plans for humanity involve eternal happiness and peace (and what could be worse than that?)
All due credit to the writers for their wild ambition and odd bravery. In all this, yes, soap-operaish madness, Angel plumbs depths usually given a wide berth on television, and for a show already on shaky ground to begin with, it seems positively reckless that they would cook up such a convoluted madhouse narrative that even a highly detailed roadmap episode guide would be scant help against the head-scratching obtuseness of it all. I love it. Seasons 2 through 4 of Angel are some of the most genuinely entertaining, wild, but also contemplative and spiritual, television I’ve ever seen. But still, I can understand how most of it would be completely lost to all but the most devoted of audiences. By the end of season 4, the show was in dire need of a change of direction.
In a way, though Season 5 was never planned as the final season (word came that the plug was being pulled about half way through), it proves to be the perfect book end, along with season one, to the series. Reverting back to the anthology stand alone format, this season finds Angel and company firmly ensconced in the belly of the beast, having taken over operations at Wolfram and Hart. This troubling, seemingly contradictory development was the result of a deal with the devil Angel made at the end of Season 4, which he hoped would both save his son and give him a better chance of combating the coming apocalypse and, of course, help him eventually redeem himself.
I’m sure some would see Season 5 as a regression, the series retrenching itself in order to reclaim an audience, but to me it’s a logical extension of the arc of redemption and salvation begun at the series’ beginning and perhaps lost (but not forgotten) along the way. Though no narrative arc emerges during this season, what binds everything together is the struggle of all the major characters, especially Angel, to come to terms with the consequences of their choice to work “with” the enemy, to try to effect positive change from the inside without becoming changed (for the worse) themselves. It’s a shift of emphasis from the narrative to the thematic, and though it doesn’t always work (like season one, there are an equal number of misses as hits), in the end, as Angel winds down to its brilliant finale, all the characters finally come into their own in full realization of the moral ramifications of what they have done, and the cost of their actions.
What I like best about the abrupt end of Angel — it’s teetering on the edge of a moment of rash madness and foolhardiness =- is precisely that it offers no safe, pat, satisfying conclusion. Nor is there, as Whedon emphasizes in a Season 5 interview, any nice neat epilogue where, after the characters beat all the demons, they all go out and grab a beer. Everything you think the series would deliver at the end — Angel’s redemption, the fulfillment of his quest to become human again, the defeat of Wolfram and Hart — is nowhere to be found, and all we have is a dark rainy, demon-clogged alley where all hope and all help has completely vanished. And yet, I can’t help but find these final despairing moments to be among the most exciting, invigorating and even hopeful I’ve seen on TV. Is it the end of everything, or is it the beginning? Is it the apocalypse or the rebirth of the world? Is it the death of the hero or his final triumph? We’ll never know, and we shouldn’t know — we should have this frozen moment, standing on the brink, turning to face an enemy that will never stop coming, and we should never have expected otherwise. This is the world, this is hell. All we can do is fight
The Complete Collector’s Set of Angel comes in a compact case containing five compact albums of six discs each. It is really very compact. See, this is the best-selling point of this particular set, because, apparently, these are the exact same discs as were released as standalone season sets — there are no new features, no remastering, no extra anything really, except a nice, funny little letter to the fans from Whedon. I guess the real justification of the release (aside from the excellence of the series) is in the bargain price for the entire series, as well as the (again) compactness of the set itself, which doesn’t take up a lot of shelf space and looks really cool.
So, as for the extras, each season has a few scattered episode commentaries, most of which are with either the director of the episode, the actors, or both, and most of which are anecdotal and loaded with on set miscellany. Better are the season recaps featured on the last disc of each season, which do a good job of synthesizing each season, and making sense of the general confusion when you are down in the trenches with Angel and company. Greenwalt and Whedon feature prominently in these recaps, which run between 30 minutes and an hour, and are really quite informative, insightful and entertaining.
Other than that, most of the remaining features are gag reels, a few deleted scenes, or behind the scenes features about make-up or set design. Angel is a show that lends itself to the obsessive, and it might have been nice to have even just a single disc of “new” extra material, you know, interviews with cast or crew about the overall impact or meaning of the show. But on the other hand, the series stands on its own without any need of supplement. It is essential television, one of the great unsung and underappreciated series of the turn of the century, one that deserves a new audience and new appreciation. Buffy may be the most well known and beloved of the Whedon oeuvre, but Angel is the crown jewel.