This season of Angel is all over the road, veering from the very very dark into the very very kooky, sometimes quite abruptly. It’s also pretty inconsistent in terms of structure, starting with a long arc and ending with a short one, and stringing a few individual pearls between the two. Still, I found a lot to enjoy at both ends of the spectrum.
1) The Host, and the whole karaoke bar concept. Last time around I complained that the whole “visions-from-the-Powers-That-Be” thing was a little too much naked plot machinery for my tastes. Now, not only do we still have those, we also have this daffy device. Still, as exposition factories go, this is a very entertaining one. The idea that people must sing in order to advance the plot allows us to gain some surprising depth on villains (Darla’s rendition of “Ill Wind”, and Lindsey’s guitar playing) as well as some very funny moments of tunelessness. Angel’s “I’m very sorry” after singing Wang Chung is great, and Harmony’s awful butchering of “The Way We Were” brought back memories of some of the hapless talent show auditions I’ve witnessed, though those were usually to Andrew Lloyd Webber rather than Streisand. Having those music cues is always entertaining at the very least, and often enlightening. Also, Andy Hallett is terrific. I was suspicious for a while that Lorne was somehow an agent of darkness, or being used by them, but after a few bum steers he redeemed himself, and his role in the final arc made him a full fledged member of the cast, as far as I’m concerned.
2) Besides the visions and the Karaoke, there are two other plot drivers: Angel’s past and Wolfram & Hart’s machinations. Sometimes the former can seem a little too convenient, as in Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been?. Overall, that episode did a good job of moving smoothly, combining plot points with twilight zone story, but I wouldn’t want the show to pull the “Angel had a big important past here” card very often — it feels a little heavy handed. On the other hand, I quite enjoyed seeing more of Wolfram & Hart — I like to see villains undercutting each other even as they try to foil the heroes.
3) Darla. Now I understand that Darla’s power is not about what she can do as a vampire, but rather all about her relationship to Angel. She’s one big Oedipal tangle — the mother whom he both slept with and killed. Not only that, she’s his ex. Who doesn’t dread having an ex come back to make life hell?
4) There seems to be some blurriness about how much an accepted part of the world the demons are. Gunn says, “How’d I live in L.A. all my life and not notice weird-ass stuff was going on?” I say: yeah, what’s up with that? The way Angel is playing it right now reminds me a bit of things like Howard The Duck and Get Fuzzy, where animals can talk and nobody really seems to find it that remarkable. This plays more weakly than in Buffy, where most of the evil is underground enough that it can pass for normal, at least to a person with a reasonable amount of denial.
5) The direct superhero homages are toned down, but much of the season’s main story arc seems to me to be an examination of “grim-n-gritty”.
Another aside for the non-comic-book-geeks out there: In 1986, Frank Miller wrote a series called The Dark Knight Returns, which featured an aged Batman in a dystopian future where crime runs rampant under the complicit eye of the Establishment and the press. This Batman is brutal and relentless, the polar opposite of the campy Adam West portrayal. The series makes explicit some of the more fascistic undertones of superhero fiction, and helps return Batman to his roots as a dark and morally ambiguous night warrior. It became wildly popular, and Marvel soon imitated its style with dark quasi-heroes like Wolverine and The Punisher. The phenomenon became known as “grim-n-gritty”, an era (lasting from the mid 80s to the early 90s) where hordes of superheroes became (to plagiarize from myself) clench-jawed desperadoes struggling against a poisoned culture by any means necessary.
Angel’s plunge into darkness during the Darla arc takes a pretty blatant cue from the grim-n-gritty era, and I felt like part of the work it was doing was holding the assumptions of that era up to scrutiny. In the end, the series rejects this approach to heroism, and puts its message into the mouth of The Host: “Blood vengeance is a luxury of the lesser beings.” Happy Anniversary in particular is a great juxtaposition of a grim-n-gritty hero in a comical world.
Other superhero references: Bethany in Untouched is a mix of Jean Grey from the X-Men and a riff on Stephen King’s Carrie(ish), with incestuous abuse standing in for high school bullying. The faux T’ish Magev in Guise Will Be Guise reminded me of Stick from Daredevil, especially the movie version of same (which I realize came later). The voice-over-scenes-of-guy-working-out-feverishly scenes in Redefinition hearkened back to so many superhero origin stories that they felt like a total cliché stuck in there.
6) Angel and Buffy have switched places by the end of the season — Angel gets the wacky and Buffy turns dead serious. (Uh, no pun intended.)
7) Angel often finds himself in a situation where something crucial is going on just a few feet away, but he can’t intervene, either because the event is in sunlight or because it’s beyond a threshold where he hasn’t been invited. In fact, he finds himself in such a position often enough that I began to think that he really should get in the habit of carrying some projectile weapon around. A gun, a bow, or even a well-aimed slingshot in hand would solve a number of the problems he encounters. Well, okay, maybe not a bow. The fishing rod in Guise Will Be Guise was pretty clever.
8) My goodness but that Julia Lee is pretty. She reminds me of the way Renee Zellweger looked in Jerry Maguire, before Renee’s face weirdly metamorphosed. What’s even better, and I didn’t even realize it until I looked Julia up on IMDb, is that her Anne is the character from Anne (season 3 of Buffy), and Lie To Me before that. She’s Anne because Buffy gifted her that identity. What a cool bit of cross-continuity. Also, while still on the topic of pretty: Amy Acker.
9) So transitioning between the Darla arc and the final Pylea arc, there are a bunch of standalone-ish episodes, and similar to last time, I’m drawn to episode-specific commentary for them.
- Happy Anniversary: I’m a little confused by the demons’ agenda here. So they set up this situation where the time-stopping bubble runs out of control, thereby freezing everybody and everything. So, sure, that takes “the human pestilence” out of the picture, but doesn’t it also, y’know, also stop everything else and destroy the universe? (Well, technically I guess it would preserve the universe in such a way that ongoing existence in it would be destroyed.) The demons are fanatically anti-human, sure, but are they anti-existence as well?
- The Thin Dead Line: I only noticed this on the second time around, but it’s an interesting contrast, watching Angel beside two different women grieving their dead parents. Angel is so present and loving with Buffy at her mother’s graveside (in Forever), but completely paralyzed when Kate weeps at her father’s grave. Granted, they’re two very different relationships, but after watching how capable Angel is of comforting someone, I found it a little jarring to see him just uncomfortably watch Kate weep. Speaking of Kate in this episode, I found her righteous anger at the end (“that’s what we just gave back to the people of that community”) pretty irritating. I mean, okay, so the crime rate was down. Of course the crime rate was down! Killing everyone you see is a highly effective measure of decreasing crime (since the killings are done by cops, they don’t count as crime, I guess.) But you know, to me it seems a little drastic. I mean, these cops not only randomly shot Wesley, they also mowed down an ambulance driver, for heaven’s sake. This is what Kate’s so upset about losing? I guess the benefit of the doubt would be believing that she didn’t understand the full extent of the zombie cops’ behavior.
- Reprise — I enjoy how Cordelia’s prescription for Angel (“just get laid already!”) actually turns out to be completely true. This is one of those beautifully done moments where a bit of dialogue that fills in a plot point for newer audience members also serves as foreshadowing, and cleverly ironic foreshadowing at that.
- Epiphany — I appreciated the motif of Angel apologizing over and over: first to Darla, then to Lindsey, and finally to the crew.
10) At Epiphany, the show takes an abrupt left turn into the wacky. I don’t mind this — I like the wacky, and it doesn’t hurt that it kicks off with the best wacky episode of the season, Disharmony. This was just an all around great episode. I loved so many things about it — the dialogue, the friendship theme with Cordelia, the idea of a vampire self-help group. Mercedes McNab herself gives her best Harmony performance ever, easily. Loved it. Mind you, there were a few glitches (what was up with the scene where it was raining on everything but the cast?), but still, I loved it.
- Untouched:: Angel — “You know how hard it is to think straight with a re-bar through your torso?” Cordelia — “Actually, I do.”
- Untouched:: Cordelia’s “don’t bone my boss” scene with Bethany
- The Shroud Of Rahmon: Shroud-drunk Cordelia examining her reflection. “My teeth are so BIG!”
- Happy Anniversary: Gunn — “Don’t try to tell us there’s no way to go but up, because the truth is, there’s always more down.” Great line.
- Happy Anniversary: Wesley’s big Hercule Poirot scene is very funny.
- Happy Anniversary: Angel — “Angel, why are you so cranky? Angel, you should lighten up, you should smile, you should wear a nice plaid.” Host — “Oh, not this season, honey.”
- Reprise: The two guys performing a ritual sacrifice as if they were assembling furniture: excellent gag.
- Reprise: The way the set was used in the first Lindsey and Lilah scene was very cool. They weren’t wipes exactly, but the pieces of the set passing across our view is very comic-booky. The pillars and ceilings work as gutters between the panels of Lindsey and Lilah talking. Heroes uses a similar technique quite often, to great effect.
- Reprise: Sam Anderson’s performance in the elevator scene between Holland and Angel was very good. Also, the elevator music in that scene. Hee hee.
- Disharmony: Cordelia’s phone call with Willow.
- Disharmony: Harmony’s singing, and the Host’s comment. (“I think your friend should reconsider the name Harmony.”)
- Disharmony: Angel’s little dance at the end when Cordelia is la-la-la-ing with joy. I think this may be my favorite moment of the whole season.
- Dead End: Everybody’s reactions to Lindsey’s singing.
- Over The Rainbow: Angel — “Can everyone just notice how much fire I’m not on?”
- Through The Looking Glass: Angel seeing his hair — “Okay – this is because of going through the portal, right?” Cordelia — “No. It always looks like that.”
- Through The Looking Glass: Numfar’s dances. Very Pythonesque.
- Through The Looking Glass: Cordelia — “Do I put out some kind of Com-Shuk-me vibe?”
- There’s No Place Like Plrtz Glrb: The very last moments, with Willow. It would be a powerful moment anyway, but it was made all the more so by being such a sudden change-up after all the zany and madcap adventure.
Least Favorite Moments:
- Happy Anniversary: Host — “Not to mention Cordelia. Whew. Hot-o-Rama. In the oh-my-sizzling-loins sense of the word.” This really threw me, because I really thought the Host was supposed to be gay. Either that or he’s the most stereotypically gay straight character this side of Lyle the Effeminate Heterosexual.
- Epiphany: Kate — “Because I never invited you in.” What an eye-roller. You’re telling me there’s some kind of benevolent Supreme Being at work in the Buffyverse? The Powers That Be are annoying enough, but the notion that somebody’s out there suspending the rules every so often is really annoying. I mean, if so, it’s an awfully selective or inattentive Supreme Being. I really dislike it when stories break their own rules and act as if we should be inspired by that. Also, while I’m on the topic of this episode, since when does a cold shower cure a drug overdose? What did she OD on? Chili peppers?
- Epiphany: Host — “Keep your pants on!” [Angel walks in] “Well, I see we’re a little late with that advice.” It’s a pretty funny line, but Angel didn’t exactly walk in singing. How did the Host read him? And how does he know that the crew is in danger? Was a Skilosh demon in there earlier singing “Doctor My Eyes” or something?
- Dead End: The eye-stab. Not because I thought it was badly done or anything, but — AIEEEE! It’s very memorable, but I couldn’t quite bear to put it under “favorite moments.”