Season three of Angel had a great arc, and a cliffhanger ending. Season four resolved the cliffhanger well enough and managed a couple of strong episodes, only to descend into a disappointing spiral, full of bewildering choices, shredded continuity, and the same kind of personal disintegration that characterized season 6 of Buffy. As a whole, these episodes had less humor and fewer highs than ever before. The show recovered some ground for the final third of its season, luckily, and wound up in a head-scratcher of an ending that certainly piques my interest in the beginning of season 5.
1. First of all, let me issue a big THUMBS DOWN to the “big conspiracy that explains everything” plot device revealed by Skip in Inside Out. As storytelling strategies go, it’s just inches above “It was all a DREAM!” (Which we also get a serving of — thanks very much, Awakening.) Not only that, there are multiple big, implausible, over-complicated plans:
ANGELUS: So… the attack on Angel Investigations, rain of fire, blotting out the sun—
BEAST: Stealing your soul… All designed by my master to bring forth and keep Angelus.
In the words of Homer Simpson: “Of course! It’s so simple! Wait, no it’s not. It’s needlessly complicated.” It really makes no sense at all that so many of the plot points in Angel, going all the way back to the first season, were part of a master plan to bring about Cordy’s mystical pregnancy. There are simply way too many variables involved for that to be any kind of a sane plan. Unless, of course, Jasmine was somehow mind-controlling people from somewhere out there to do her bidding, but even if that were so, why all the machinations? Just take over their minds, make ’em do what you want, wipe their memories. I dunno, the whole conspiracy thing makes the Powers seem both over-powerful and ineffectual at once.
Also, I’d just like to say “boo” to the retcon on Skip. Here was a distinctive, fun character who I genuinely wanted to see more of, reduced to just another lame cliche demon.
2. This season of Angel seems to have taken a cue from the prior season of Buffy, in which almost everybody turns into much more unpleasant versions of themselves, or else gets even more annoying than they already were, as the case may be. So it looks to be time for another character-by-character breakdown.
Lovable characters made unpleasant
- Angel — I know that the underlying threat of Angelus, and his presence in Angel’s psyche, is key to the character. And I like David Boreanaz’s performances as Angelus, I really do. But finding a pretense to yank Angel’s soul away and let Angelus go on the rampage is starting to feel like a pretty tired device to me. It was terrifying when it happened during season 2 of Buffy, but it’s losing its impact from overuse. Of course, now that I write this, I’m doing a little searching and finding that actually, Angelus hasn’t really emerged all that often, though Angel has “gone dark” in different ways, and there have been a couple of times when we’ve been falsely led to believe that Angelus is out. And of course, there are plenty of flashbacks to the character as well. Anyway, what’s true for me is that having Angel literally lose his soul when everyone around him was metaphorically losing their own did not improve the season for me. Besides, he’s brought in under a fairly tattered rationale, another fact that makes the big conspiracy I griped about above seem so outlandish. When the characters decided that Angelus was their “only hope” to learn more about the Beast, I was arguing with them that adding another supervillain to the mix was not likely to help matters. Of course, Angelus actually does end up killing the Beast and bringing back the sun, but it’s not as if anybody planned this outcome.
- Cordelia — This is the biggest one, obviously. There was so much I disliked about the Cordelia storyline this season, and I’ll address that a bit more specifically later. Here I’ll just say that it really sucked to have my favorite character from last season first removed from the show, then acting way out of character during her brief stints, then stricken with amnesia, then corrupted/mind-controlled/possessed, then thrown into a coma! I absolutely loved the Cordelia that emerged in season three, and I got absolutely none of that Cordelia this season. BOO.
- Gunn — It wasn’t his murder of Prof. Seidel that depleted my sympathy for Gunn. Really, that didn’t bother me so much — it seemed to be a clear act of self-defense, or at least Fred-defense. Even his brutal and sudden knockout of Matthew in Sacrifice, the one which so stuns Fred, didn’t faze me. In fact, developments later in that episode suggest that Gunn should have acted sooner, if anything. No, the place where he lost me was his ridiculous jealousy crap with Wesley. Not that Wes isn’t an asshole when it comes to the whole Fred thing — he most certainly is. And not that Gunn’s feelings aren’t understandable. But this guy is supposed to be “all about the mission,” and Wesley is obviously somebody who has a great deal to contribute in that department. When Gunn started defying and squabbling with Wesley just because he was annoyed about Wes putting the moves on Fred, I lost respect for him. As Lorne says, “Hey, uh, call me kooky-pants, but maybe we could save the three rounds until after the Chuck Heston Plague-A-Thon cools off.”
- Wesley — Now, I know that they laid the groundwork for this in the previous season, and even then I had my problems with both Wesley’s behavior and with some of the cheats in that season’s storyline which jammed Wes into dark ‘n’ broody mode. However, really, Wesley and Lilah? Wesley and LILAH? Ick! That entire relationship, plus his crappy treatment of Fred and Gunn, put him into the “corrupted” category for me. Happily, he redeems himself midway through the season by breaking it off with Lilah and rejoining the Angel gang. He never does really put the Fred thing to rest, I don’t think, but at least he doesn’t keep pursuing her after a while. I will say, about Wesley and Lilah, that squicked as I am by their relationship, I’m quite glad she never had a big moral awakening due to her contact with him. That was refreshing, and I think her few moments of vulnerability and helpfulness were well-handled. I liked the surreal sequence in Salvage too.
Lovable characters who are diminished
- Fred — Happily, the situation with non-twisted characters isn’t so dire in this season of Angel as it was in season 6 of Buffy — where Giles was shipped off to England and Tara was killed, here we just have Lorne mystically incapacitated and Fred kind of shuffled to the margins in between Supersymmetry and Shiny Happy People. Speaking of Supersymmetry, she does flirt with a kind of Dark Fredness there, and I was actually cheering her on. While I could see the others’ point about not going to the dark side, they’re hardly fit to judge, any of them. She didn’t end up killing Seidel, and apparently the consequence for failing to kill your arch-nemesis turns out to be not having much to do except read books and hang out on the periphery for 12 episodes straight. Oh, and angst about your boyfriend.
- Lorne — Thank goodness for Lorne — he’s about the only relief through the extremely dark middle of this season. Even he doesn’t escape unscathed though — as he says, “Queen bee-yotch put the whammy” on him, making his powers useless right before Angelus arrives. Unlike many of the twists this season, I really liked this one and thought it made perfect sense. The idea of crafting a big fancy woo-woo spell that only appears to be doing something important just so that everybody’s distracted when you perform the much subtler, much more important spell is really cool. Anyway, hooray for Lorne, and I was really pleased to see Andy Hallett’s name in the main credits starting with Release.
Characters who were always annoying and remained so
- Connor — Okay, what is the deal with the whiny teenagers on Buffyverse shows? Connor is every bit as insufferable in season 4 of Angel as Dawn was in seasons 5 and 6 of Buffy. Come to think of it, he’s just as much of a spontaneous invention as Dawn was, injected into the storyline apparently to give our hero another vulnerability, not to mention another source of constant irritation. In fact, Connor surpassed Dawn by becoming not just whiny and petulant but actively malevolent. His attack on Angel at the end of last season is slightly understandable, I guess, due to the sitcommy misunderstanding engineered by Justine (and possibly Holtz, I suppose.) However, his aggression towards the Angel Inc. gang during the Jasmine storyline finds no such excuse. In Peace Out, he says to (unconscious) Cordy, “I knew Jasmine was a lie.” Yet he’s so willing to defend that lie that he’ll kill the only living family he knows? Sorry, kid — no sympathy for you.
3. Having the season both begin and end with a happy family sharing a meal around a table was a nice bit of structural filigree. Interestingly, both scenes had an element of illusion as well, though it’s quite possible the illusion of the final scene will never be broken. I guess we have one more season to see how it holds up — if I see Vincent Kartheiser’s name in the credits for season 5, I’ll know the happy family won’t be for long. That final scene did make me think, though — how much difference is there between what Angel does to Connor and what Jasmine wanted to do to humanity? I was totally on his side when he was arguing for the position of free will after Jasmine’s downfall in Peace Out, but where did Connor’s free will come in for his final fate? Perhaps Angel was right about the Wolfram and Hart tour — before he even crossed their doors, he was corrupted.
4. Starting with Apocalypse, Nowish, this season is very depressing with the way things just keep getting relentlessly worse and worse and worse. I guess that’s the point, but it was a drag to watch. When nothing good is happening, it’s hard to enjoy watching. The first break doesn’t come until 6 episodes later, when Faith shows up and the sun returns.
5. The Cordelia storyline just did not make a lot of sense to me. This could very well be due to some deficiency on my part, or due to the fact that I watched the season over a much more extended time period than usual. Still, I have a lot of unanswered questions. Like: why was being a higher power so boring? I guess we’re just supposed to take it on faith that it was. Still, the reason Cordelia ascended in the first place (if we ignore the retcon-spiracy, at least) is that she was so supremely dedicated to the mission that she had outgrown the material plane. She was supposed to ascend so that she could pursue the mission as a more powerful being. And she is more powerful — she experiences Angelus’s entire life, for instance. (Assuming that wasn’t an Evil-Cordy lie.) She has all this power, all this dedication to the mission, and she’s… bored? This requires explanation.
Also: why did she lose her memory? Why did Lorne’s spell awaken the beast? Was this just yet another piece of the Big Conspiracy that just happens to explain every freaky coincidence? It annoys me just typing that out. It feels like a gigantic cop-out. “Oh, the Powers work in mysterious ways, etc.”
Also: if she’s evil after the spell is cast, and her whole plan is to sleep with Connor, then why do we get shown private moments of shock and regret? I can understand that she’d need to deceive everybody else, but she behaves the same way when she’s alone. For instance, her oh-my-god look after waking up next to Connor isn’t for anybody but the camera. What about her stunned experession after Angel reveals that he knows about their liaison? He’s left the room — she’s alone — but we don’t see the Evil Cordy smirk. That feels like cheating to me. I guess perhaps the Jasmine-entity (or something? That’s another question — what exactly is directing Evil Cordy’s actions?) might have woken up gradually, but that’s certainly not what’s implied at the end of Spin the Bottle. Even if we take the Beast’s crawling up from underground as a metaphor for the evil rising in Cordelia, it still doesn’t work, as she doesn’t act evil even after the Beast is out.
Also: what exactly was the deal with Lorne’s spell? Was it planted as a part of the Big Conspiracy? Or was it that the spell was legit but that the BC knew it would misfire and that the remedy would awaken the evil? (More eye-rolling.) Was it the spell or the remedy that was the problem, and whichever way it goes, does that mean that Lorne helped bring about the dire future he saw when Cordelia sang?
Also: how did Cordelia get exempted from the anti-demon spell (when she pushes Connor in Orpheus)? Is it somehow not the real Cordelia, or is it that she’s so uber-powerful (though not enough to stop Willow), or…? I fundamentally do not get what happened to her, and it’s really never explained. Detective’s speculation at the beginning of Inside Out is as close as we get.
Also: Are we supposed to glean the answers to any of these from the occasional hints thrown into an episode? For instance, Cordelia describes her movie in Apocalypse, Nowish: “Pod People or Mutant Pod Mushrooms or something.” Does that mean we’re supposed to grok that she’s a pod person, or a mutant pod mushroom or something?
Also: In Apocalypse, Nowish, Cordelia asks: “Am I on vacation? Did I go cosmic AWOL? Did I do something to piss off the Powers That Be and get kicked out? Why am I here?” Now, with the evil-Cordy thing, we can’t be sure that she really meant these questions, but still, they never get answered for us. Is it that Jasmine, being a Power at that point, brings her back to do it with Connor? But… why send her away at all? Couldn’t she have gotten it on with Connor without becoming a higher power? Or did she need to become a higher power in order to live through all of Angelus’ actions and thereby split up with Angel? But if so, why have her lose her memory? In any case, it’s highly speculative to think that this chain of events would lead to her sleeping with Connor anyway.
6. On the other hand, I quite enjoyed the Electro-Gwen subplot, perhaps because she was the most clearly superheroic element in this season. I dug the X-Men-style glimpse into her childhood and her claiming of herself as a freak. In fact, she’s a bit like a mutant melange. She’s untouchable like Rogue, a thief like Gambit, a sex-bomb like the White Queen, with electrical powers like… well, okay, like Electro, who isn’t a mutant. Still, I love the superhero collage thing.
You know what I would love? I would love to see a big Justice-League-style team-up of all the various superpowered characters Angel and Buffy have come across, all joining forces to fight some big evil. That would be awesome.
7. I was interested to note the motif of powerful entities destroyed by a piece of themselves. The Beast dies when stabbed with a knife made out of his own hide. The skittering Jasmine-worshiper in Sacrifice is vulnerable only to its own severed claw, which Angel jams into its neck. And of course there’s Jasmine herself, undone Rumplestiltskin-like by the airing of her own name. I don’t have any particular conclusion to draw from this pattern, but I found it intriguing. By the way, for all the big deal they make about Jasmine’s true name and how one of the gang had to choose a false one, we never actually see this happen, do we?
8. Where is all of Wesley’s money coming from? I can’t quite believe his parents are funding all his solo demon-hunting and gizmo-purchasing and minion-hiring in the beginning of the season, given the clearly shown animosity between him and his father. But it’s not like he himself has a paying job either. (Or at least, not so as we’d notice.)
9. Why doesn’t a rain of fire destroy, like, everything? L.A. seems to be in pretty damn good shape a few weeks later when we’re touring the town with Jasmine. Also, how does fucked-up-wounded Angel manage to be in exactly the right spot to look through the window at the C&C Mystical Pregnancy Factory? Oh, wait, that was probably a part of the big enormous conspiracy thingy, right? Was that also what healed him in the interim?
10. Did the character design on the Beast remind anybody else of Tim Curry in Legend?
11. Episode-specific comments:
- Spin The Bottle: Cordy reverting to her Buffy Season One self was a fun gag, though everybody else losing their memory was a bit too Tabula Rasa for me. Lots of the funny, though. Good ol’ Joss.
- Awakening: The stones puzzle was very IFfy, straight out of Infidel.
- Calvary: What is up with that title? I mean, yeah, I know what Calvary is, but I just don’t see the connection with this episode. Or is it really just a mangled reference to Lilah’s line, “The Beast that eviscerated me has a boss, and that boss is going to end life as we know it, and nobody is coming to save us! Not Angel, not the Powers that Be, and not the forty-damn-second cavalry!” Because if it is, that is really REALLY lame.
- Salvage: YAY FAITH! Apparently I have come to like her, because I felt relieved and happy to see her face.
- Orpheus: I do like the head-trip episodes. Also: DOUBLE YAY WILLOW! She is just awesome throughout this episode. It feels like the series regains its footing here.
- Players: How do Gunn & Gwen have time for a big long conversation when Morimoto thinks his daughter’s been kidnapped?
Deep Down — Fred: (after Lorne’s phone call) “He said make sure… Wait. You don’t – think he was referring to anything of mine that’s fluffy, do you? Because that would just be inappropriate.”
The House Always Wins — Fred: (explaining why the audience doesn’t freak at the sight of Lorne) “They must think it’s all make-up, like the Blue Man Group…” (Sudden realization) “You don’t think that Blue Man Group’s…” Angel: “Only two of them.”
Spin The Bottle — Lorne: (about Fred) “OK, first of all, she didn’t say, ‘May your words please the gods,’ so much as ‘May you orally please the gods,’ which is a slight… inflection’s very crucial in our — oh, God bless her, it’s always nice to hear the mother tongue — as long as it’s not from my mother. Is this on?”
Spin The Bottle — Lorne: (breaking the fourth wall) “Ugh. I know I’m still unconscious during this part of the story, but…” (gestures to the fight) “Can you believe these mooks?”
Spin The Bottle — Lorne: “Well, those were some exciting products. Am I right? Mmm. Let’s all think about buying some of those.” In both this one and the previous one, I dig the meta.
Spin The Bottle — Wesley’s dagger springing out eagerly as Fred talks about aliens probing her naked, helpless body.
Habeas Corpses — Lorne: “The big bad, possibly invincible, demony thing that nearly killed us all before he ring-mastered tonight’s Cirque du Flambe.” That’s clever.
Awakenings — Fred: “We found some relevant passages in the Paranych Grimoire which we were able to cross-reference with Wo-Pang’s, um… butt.”
Calvary — Lilah: “Divine intervention? Trust me, you have a better chance of winning the lottery six times in a row. I had the numbers done.”
Salvage — Faith: “You okay?” Wesley: “Five by five.”
Salvage — Faith (to Gunn): “I hear you’re a good fighter.” Gunn: “I hold my own.” Faith: “That’s a shame.”
Release — Evil Cordelia (in voiceover with a big booming voice): “You would dare to defy me?” Angelus: “Defy who? A big scary voice? Whoa! Hey, I got one of those, too. You wanna hear it? (cups his hands over his mouth) You can kiss my vampire ass!” Evil, but funny. Actually, that goes for all Angelus’s dialogs with the big scary voice.
Orpheus — The way Faith and Wes defeat Angelus
Orpheus — Willow (to Cordelia): “How’ve you been?” Cordelia: “Higher power. You?” Willow: “Ultimate evil. But I got better.” I know it’s not really Cordelia, but still, funny.
Orpheus — The darker-than-thou conversation between Wesley and Willow is most excellent.
Orpheus — Fred (to Willow, in the denouement): “I have to say, someday I’d love to bend your ear about the Pergamum Codex. I—I think some of the really obscure passages are actually Latin translated from a demonic tongue, and they’re kind of a hoot. All this stuff about Bacchanals and spells and—actually, I think it’s probably funnier in Latin. You know how that is sometimes.” Willow: “I’m seeing someone.”
Players — Gunn: “I spent most of this year trapped in what I can only describe as a turgid supernatural soap-opera.” I know how you feel, buddy.
Players — The final scene, when the lights go on, and Lorne shakes the magic 8 ball.
Shiny Happy People — Angel (to Fred, about Jasmine): “Sometimes, when I look in her eyes, I’ve seen it too. It’s overwhelming. The lies, the deceit…just melts away. Nothing left but the beauty.” Fred: “Um…yeah. It’s…incredible.” Hooray for correct use of “incredible.” That’s a very well-written bit.
The Magic Bullet — I very much dig Intense Bookstore Guy the whole way through, and in particular: “We don’t have to use the evil tools of ‘The Man’ when we have ‘The Wo-Man.'”
The Magic Bullet — The whole open mic night scene was funny, especially Angel & Connor covering “Mandy” with new Jasmine-oriented lyrics.
The Magic Bullet — Not really a moment, but: Fred’s plan is cool and clever, albeit wildly implausible
Sacrifice — Lorne (to Fred): “It’s strange, but under that blood-feeding creature of the night facade, he seems a bit heartless lately.” Angel: “Hearts get in the way.” Lorne: “Hearing as good as ever, though, boss!”
There’s even a tvtropes entry for it.
I’d forgotten all about electro-Gwen. She was probably the only thing I really liked that season.
The quote that springs to my mind is this:
Evil Cordy: I am not well pleased!
Angelus: And I am not well deaf!
I’m surprised how few people have commented here. I have just finished Angel Season 4 myself, and have a couple of small things to add. I’ve been very appreciative of what you’ve posted about Buffy/Angel all along, as I’ve been doing exactly what you did, a year or two later — watching all of these, almost always in airdate order, on DVD. Also, like yourself, I have taken pains to remain as totally unspoiled as possible, which I’m sure you’ve noticed is not the easiest thing to do with a cult fave show that aired several years ago. It’s particularly hard when one is already a genre fan and spends any time at all on the interwebs. I have found myself unexpectedly spoiled for several major Buffy/Angel events in places I didn’t think I had to worry (for example, I was spoiled for Jenny Calendar’s death in a TV.com user comment under a Season 1 Buffy episode. And I learned of a major Season 5 Angel event while reading the TWoP forums for Battlestar Galactica, of all things. And I haven’t gotten to Angel’s fifth season yet!)
I have agreed with and enjoyed your reviews of many moments and story/character arcs throughout the saga of both shows. Although I didn’t share your generally negative feelings about Buffy Season 5, and I don’t feel quite as negative about Angel Season 4 as you apparently do, we do have one major beef in common. Like you, I am perplexed and disappointed in the Cordelia storyline. I (also like you) adored the Cordy who emerged in Season 3 (or, really, the Cordy who developed over the course of Buffy Season 3 and Angel Seasons 1-3). And then, where was she during Season 4? On a higher plane being bored and doing NOTHING advancing the all-important “mission?” Or replaced by a Cordelia pod-person?? Or some ill-defined version of herself being controlled by Something Evil? Or controlled by The Powers? Ehhh… none of those explanations are satisfying in the least.
But the bigger problem for me in Cordy’s story, to which you also made reference, is the series of unfair audience fake-outs. As you said, we see many private, only-for-the-camera reactions that indicate we, the audience, are seeing the REAL Cordy, only to find out we maybe never were. Now, I enjoy being fooled by a show in clever ways as much as the next “Sixth Sense”-loving viewer, but there are conventions in visual storytelling that are meant to convey meaning to the audience, and there is a limit to how far the filmmakers can go in subverting our expectations by playing with those conventions. Beyond that limit, the trick stops being fun and becomes purely manipulative. It’s the difference between a magician’s sleight of hand and a grifter’s shell game. I felt that Cordy’s actions prior to when we learn she’s not exactly “herself” definitely crossed that line.
The only way I was able to suspend disbelief and accept Cordy’s out-of-character actions was to assume that something of “our” Cordy must have been present all along, and that the evil or otherwise unexplained entity (the unborn Jasmine? the Powers? whatever) was occasionally “taking the wheel.” Something like a split personality. In fact, that idea made it much easier for me, in hindsight, to accept the way Cordy treated Connor. After all, she showed him such tenderness and empathy, then slept with him after telling him she wanted to give him something “true,” and then acted like it was a one-night stand and he should just get over it. That’s a pretty horrible thing to do to a kid who was raised in a hell dimension and didn’t have the benefit of high school crushes or having to figure out how to ask a girl to the prom. And let’s face it, her wacky treatment of Connor was a big brick in the wall that helped usher him toward his eventual hostage-taking mad-bomber breakdown.
I could go on, but you covered most of my own “WTF” questions surrounding this issue, which is my main complaint about Season 4. Thanks for your blog on these shows — it’s the first place I go when I finish a season! That’s because I know two things: 1) you will have an intelligent, thoughtful analysis, and 2) there will be no spoilers for future seasons. Can’t wait to read your Angel Season 5 post, when I get there!