Thinking about this season, one theme really jumps out at me. As Gunn says in That Old Gang Of Mine, "It's about the mission, bro." More specifically, it's about what happens when love and/or loyalty comes into conflict with that mission. This season treats us to a variety of scenarios in which characters are asked to choose between their personal attachments and the "greater good" in some form. We see it from very early on, starting in That Vision Thing, wherein Angel must decide whether to allow Cordelia to be hurt (and possibly killed) or to loose a dangerous entity on the world, under the auspices of Wolfram & Hart. Angel chooses personal attachment. In fact, Angel always chooses personal attachment. It happens again during Birthday, in which he clumsily charges off to confront the Powers and tell them to take the visions from Cordelia, despite the fact that he then wouldn't have a Mystical Police Scanner anymore, and presumably the attendant helpless would just have to go without his help. The prime example from this season, of course, is his reaction to Connor's kidnapping. In order to salvage his personal connection, Angel throws overboard any sense of morality or proportion. Suddenly he's kidnapping, torturing,
I don't say this to condemn him, just to notice that he's on one end of a continuum. Other characters make different kinds of choices. In That Old Gang of Mine, Gunn leaves behind the only family he has left: Rondell and the rest of the crew. He chooses Angel, but makes it clear in his speech that it isn't because of friendship -- it's because he wants "that sense of doing good -- of waking up in the morning and making the world safer." He chooses the mission. Of course, in the episode where he speaks those words (Loyalty), he goes on to reassure Fred that if forced to choose between her and the mission, he would choose her. Then again, he's never really forced to make that choice, except perhaps in The Price, where he leaves the scene of the crisis in order to find a way to save Fred. Even in that scenario, though, I could argue that he's focused on saving the only people who are in danger -- it's not really a choice between helping Fred and helping (or harming) someone else. In fact, he makes it clear in Loyalty that he wants "the great girl and the great job." This season allows him to keep both, but not everyone else is so lucky.
Speaking of Fred, her sacrifice for the mission is even greater than Gunn's. Yes, Gunn leaves Rondell behind, but then again Rondell is up to no good, steeped in prejudice. He may be the closest thing Gunn has to family, but his actions really leave Gunn very little choice. This isn't the case with Fred's parents. Despite the clever feinting in Fredless, they are finally shown to be loving and supportive, ideal family members. Nevertheless, she does not accompany them back to Texas, deciding that she belongs in the fight, that the mission is her "true path in life."
At the zenith of this curve is Cordelia. Perhaps as a result of her vision bombardment in To Shanshu in L.A., Cordelia is completely, one hundred percent dedicated to the mission. She endures incredible pain and the gradual destruction of her body in order to maintain her connection to the Powers, so that the people in her visions can get the help they need. When she is placed into her ultimate wish-fulfillment scenario of fame and fortune, her dedication to the mission breaks through almost immediately -- within a few hours of beginning to live her fantasy, she's tearing out wallpaper to rediscover the mission beneath it. In that same episode (Birthday), she gives up her very humanity for the sake of the mission. Even in the real world, she places the mission over money (oh Cordelia, how you've changed!), exhorting Angel in Provider to remember that "first and foremost we work for the Powers, help the helpless." Finally, she gives up this world altogether and all her attachments within it, including her newly discovered love for Angel. Sight unseen, with only the prompting of Skip as the Powers' representative, she passes "the last test" by ascending to another plane, to fight evil in some new dimension as a "higher being." Apparently she won't get to spend any more time just being a good influence on Angel.
Then there's the toughest case of all: Wesley. In the first part of the season, he seems firmly in the Cordelia camp, ready to cut anyone loose if he thinks that person is endangering the team or the work. (He makes that crystal clear to Gunn in That Old Gang of Mine.) Indeed, his attempted kidnapping of Connor could be read as the ultimate repudiation of personal connections in favor of defending the helpless. However, what becomes apparent by the end of the season is that he never really expected to lose those connections. As he says to Gunn in The Price, "I needed to live to see my friends again. To explain to the people I trusted... and loved... my side of what happened." He truly believed that by explaining "his side", all would be forgiven. However, what seems to be true is that despite his claim, he did not trust his friends enough to share his unsettling discoveries with them, and therefore the connections from their side aren't as strong as he expects them to be. I think there are reasons he makes this choice, but I'll revisit those later. For now, it's enough to say that while Wesley appears to choose the mission over personal connections, in fact he expects to be able to pursue both paths without sacrificing either, and unlike Gunn, he is forced to sacrifice one. Because he wasn't expecting the sacrifice to happen, and because he didn't understand the problematic nature of his behavior, he ends up broken and embittered. As he says in another of the season's key lines, "It's never easy, the pull of divided loyalties." Little did he know just how difficult it would become for him.
This internal conflict isn't new to superhero narratives. One of the most prominent examples is the justly famous Spider-Man #50, in which Peter Parker decides that the hero biz is too destructive to his personal life, and vows to be "Spider-Man no more." He eventually changes his mind, of course, driven by his overwhelming sense of responsibility, but he continues to struggle with this balance throughout his career, trying unsuccessfully several more times to leave his Spider-Man identity behind. Still, even though it isn't the most original theme, this season of Angel does a very good job exploring it through various avenues and characters. Speaking of comics, the direct superhero homages seem to be fading away, or at least I'm not noticing them anymore. (Although I did notice that in Benediction Lilah refers to Connor as "the boy wonder." I'm quite glad Connor didn't become a Spunky Teen Sidekick for Angel, at least not yet.) The gradual reduction of comicbook references makes sense, really. Just as Buffy finally ran out of steam ringing changes on classic horror stories, so Angel has found its own voice and no longer needs to reach outward for material to adapt.
Well, now that I've got that out of my system, how about some of those numbered comments? I found that this time around, my notes fell naturally into a few different categories, so I've got three separate numbered lists this time. Besides the usual general notes, I've also got some tiny notes and a list of things I thought were problematic in this season.
1) I notice that between Angel and Buffy, there seems to be a rising trend of "ordinary" demons, beings who beneath all the crazy skin, horns, and bumps are almost aggressively mundane. There's Clem, there's Merl, there's Sahjhan, there's Lorne, there's Skip... all in all, a demon in the Buffyverse these days is just as likely to yak about the Matrix or do a Doritos taste-test as he is to rip somebody's arms off. This approach works pretty well for me. I enjoy Clem and Lorne a lot, and the moment when Skip first speaks is a hilarious reversal of expectations. Sahjhan's laid-back California cool, combined with his brutal and evil nature, made him feel like a variation on one of my favorite Buffyverse villains, the Mayor of Sunnydale. Sahjhan is Los Angeles to the Mayor's Mayberry.
2) Speaking of Sunnydale, this is the first season where there are no crossovers between Angel and Buffy, and I have to say I kind of miss them. Angel is solid enough to stand on its own now, but it was great when somebody or other from Buffy would make an appearance on the show. Also, Buffy itself could have used an infusion of the energy that a visit from Angel or Cordelia might have brought, especially the person Cordelia became during this season. On the other hand, I found myself relieved that the angsty Buffy/Angel reunion happened offstage, especially given the humor with which it was handled on the Angel side. I'm a little burnt out on that relationship, and I sense that the shows are too. In any case, I understand they were on different networks starting this season, so the crossover point is moot, I guess.
3) Let me expound a little more on the "who Cordelia became" point. I love who Cordelia becomes this season. Really, I felt that she was more the hero of the show this year than Angel was. Certainly I found her subplot with the visions and the demonization more compelling than the main Holtz/Darla/Connor plot. I particularly liked her interaction with Lilah in Billy: "Please. I was you, with better shoes." Recasting her bitchy past as a position of strength, from which she ascended to compassion, resonates nicely with her arc of becoming a "higher being", culminating in a literal ascension. Birthday was a very nicely done turning point for her, visiting the sites of initial Cordelia-ness (the mall, the money), moving through the dream she established in the Angel pilot and subsequent shows, and landing finally at her decision to discard it all for the sake of the mission. When the idea was introduced that Cordelia is as much of a champion as Angel is, I didn't really buy it at first, but after seeing that episode, it made perfect sense to me, and therfore seeing their "kye-rumption" thwarted in the final episode packed a strong emotional wallop. I was not a big Cordelia fan at the outset, but she has grown to became my favorite Angel character. The shows where she was gone felt drab and dismal compared to the ones before and and after. I'm definitely not happy to see her leaving, if in fact she is leaving.
4) The fact that Billy Blim's powers are based around misogyny and hurting women was a well-crafted echo of That Vision Thing, wherein Lilah manages to free him by torturing Cordelia and holding her hostage. The fact that it's Lilah who puts him down at the end of Billy feels like a repudiation of those tactics, though really it probably isn't. I imagine if she needed to she'd be more than happy to torture Cordy, Fred, or whoever again. The show is walking a fine line with Lilah, trying not to repeat the Lindsey plot (good idea there) and keep Lilah a villain while still providing her a few moments here and there of vulnerability and sympathy. So far, I think it's working pretty well.
5) I feel like I should do some analysis of the Holtz/Darla/Connor plot, but I find I don't have much to say about it. The whole thing was well-done, but seeing Angel give in to his passions and start doing questionable things is becoming tedious. I know that one of the main points of the character is the way he walks the line between good and evil, but how many times can we watch him succumb to the dark side before it's no longer compelling anymore? I do like that Holtz finally loses his taste for revenge after his years in Quar'Toth, but the fact that this message gets garbled on its way to Connor is frustrating. I hope Justine is dealt with in some final way during season 4. The show's is much less successful at making her a sympathetic character than it is with Lilah.
6) Speaking of Justine, you know, Gunn and Justine really ought to have a talk. Seems like they have quite a lot in common. Perhaps Justine is partly intended as a dark reflection of Gunn, with a twisted point of view on what "the mission" ought to be.
1) Alexis Denisov looks way better with the longer hair.
2) Mark Lutz is quite good as the Groosalugg, especially given that it's such a relatively small and one-dimensional part.
3) When I get ready to write these reviews, I read transcripts of all the shows from a particular season, and I repeatedly have the experience of finding that the ones I particuarly enjoy are written by Joss Whedon, even though I don't remember in advance which shows he's written. I think there are plenty of good writers on Angel and Buffy, but Whedon really is in a class by himself.
4) This may be sort of a left-field comment, but the Connor plot kept reminding me of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It seems like there are quite a few references, starting with the kid's name. Also there's the guy who comes from the future to destroy the kid who will grow up to pose a threat to him. Even the scene where Connor fights the drug dealer in a Los Angeles concrete canyon reminded me of the way that film portrayed the city. It doesn't hurt that Vincent Kartheiser bears a bit of a resemblance to Edward Furlong.
5) What happened to Stephanie Romanov's face? Weight gain? Surgery? Both? I feel like she looks markedly different from how she did last season.
1) It's dissatisfying that Wesley double-checks the prophecy (with the Loa in Loyalty), is confirmed to have researched its commentary and scholarship extensively (in Forgiving), trying to find anything that casts doubt on it, and it still turns out to be false. That feels like playing fast and loose with the rules. Also dissatisfying about Loyalty is Angel's remark at the end. I know it ties into the Wolfram & Hart plot revealed in the next episode, but it feels way too over the top. It's not something he would say, even in that circumstance.
2) I'm not sure what to make of the ending of Forgiving. I didn't like it at the time, and it hasn't improved much on further reflection. I think it partakes of two different problems: it's both over the top, like the end of Loyalty, and a bit tedious, as I mentioned in general note #5 above. One thing I thought was interesting about it, though, is the fact that in wanting to kill Wesley, Angel basically becomes Holtz. Poor Wes can't win -- no matter who he allies himself with, he finds himself on the wrong end of some guy seeking revenge for the loss of his child. Still, I hope that Holtz's eventual discovery of compassion allows Angel to find a similar path with Wesley. It's terrible to see Wes in the state he's in.
3) The setup for the finale felt a bit sitcommy -- too much of a wacky misunderstanding, though I guess it's supposed to be Justine manipulating Connor. I'm not sure I understand Justine's motivation, here. I mean, she gets betrayed by Holtz but remains loyal. Okay, fair enough, she's a cult member. But then she goes against Holtz's own wishes. Is she just so anti-vampire that despite everything she's seen, she still wants Angel punished no matter what? Something about that strains plausibility for me, even though I could understand if somebody argued the opposite. I can't quite put my finger on what the problem is with her, but I think there is one.
4) I'm disappointed that not all of the dialogue from Cordelia's initial vision of herself in Tomorrow appears in her later scene with Skip. Time-warpy stuff like that is supposed to match up.
5) So why does Wesley keep the prophecy to himself and try to solve the problem of it by stealing Connor? I think there are a few reasons, and they reach deep into the foundation of Wesley's character. First, it's been established several times that Wesley's parents, especially his father, are relentlessly critical, that they "grind [him] down into a tiny self-conscious nub with their constant berating." This background has left Wesley with a deep need to prove himself, to be the hero. This tendency has manifested itself in the past, such as his brief and unfortunate career as a "rogue demon hunter." Then there's the fact that Wesley has suffered some critical failures along the way, most notably his disastrous turn as Faith's Watcher, and his inability to keep Buffy from turning her back on the Council. These failures further feed his desire to save the day. Finally, there's the fact that he alone is the resident scholar at Angel Investigations. He has researched this prophecy backwards and forwards (which is the problem I mention in #1 above), and no one understands as well as him its seriousness. Perhaps he feels that the others would tell him to ignore it, and even he seems on the verge of doing so in Loyalty when he sees direct evidence that Angel is willing to harm his child. (That would be the other bit of problem #1). I'm listing Wesley's motivations in the problems category because the plot events that propel his actions are contrived and illogical. There are definitely some strong, grounded character motivations for him to behave dysfunctionally, but the things that push him over the edge are just a little too much to swallow.
- That Vision Thing - Gunn: "All I know is, you use the word 'dick' again and we're gonna have a problem."
- That Vision Thing - The moment when Skip first speaks.
- That Old Gang Of Mine - I quite liked Wesley in this episode. His "clean kill" speech was quite good, and I also liked him giving Gunn the score at the end.
- Carpe Noctem - Fred: "You know that awkward kind of quiet?" [Awkward silence ensues.] Wesley: "No, that's never happened to me."
- Fredless - Fred: "Are they gonna get back together? Angel and that girl with the goofy name?" Wesley: "Well, Fred, that's a difficult question." And then Wes & Cordy as Angel & Buffy -- very funny, and Angel's "How about you both bite me?" punchline was awesome.
- Fredless - The sly dig at Joss about Alien Resurrection.
- Dad - I enjoy the whole concept of the Files And Records department at Wolfram & Hart, and its librarian. I particularly liked the way the joke about Angel's file was set up.
- Dad - The ending shot of the five of them walking down the hallway abreast, opening-credits-style... but pushing a stroller.
- Birthday - The fake opening sequence for Cordy!
- Provider - The dysfunctional poisoner/zombie couple was a good gag.
- Provider - Literalizing the cliche, "if you can keep your head while others about you are losing theirs..."
- Waiting In The Wings - Gunn's disappointment about the ballet is very funny. "Don't be usin' my own phrases when we lost the trust."
- Waiting In The Wings - "Well, we could always get our outfits at 'Cave-girl's House of Burlap,' but that's just so last season." Great wordplay on "last season."
- Waiting In The Wings - Angel to Lorne: "Stop saying that. And stop calling me pastries."
- Waiting In The Wings - Gunn: "You know, I was cool before I met you all." I will stop quoting Gunn lines now and just say that Gunn is great throughout this episode.
- Couplet - Wesley: "Why can't you have sex?" Cordy: "I could lose my 'visionity.'" [beat] Wesley: "...If you wanna play it that way."
- Couplet - Cordelia: "I guess we could probably 'com' without actually 'shucking.'"
- Couplet - I thought the scene between Gunn and Wesley where Wesley acknowledges his feelings for Fred was very well handled.
- Loyalty - The drive-thru oracle
- Sleep Tight - The bit where Wesley sings to Connor, then suddenly realizes that Lorne has read him
- Forgiving - Fred's horror at the idea of Connor going through a portal
- Double Or Nothing - I love how Cordelia treats Angel during his grieving, and I quite like the Pylean "Vigil Of The Bereaved" idea.
- Double Or Nothing - Angel dismantling the crib at the end
- The Price - (After Groo can't pronounce "purple") Angel: "And yet you had no problem pronouncing 'pomegranate.'" Groo: (completely serious) "It was my mother's name."
- Benediction - Cordelia cleansing Connor
- Tomorrow - The final moments, the rising and falling