The Best and Worst of Angel: Season 4

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For previous installments of Buffy the Vampire Slayer:

For previous installments of Angel:

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Season 4 was one of the ambitious story arcs that I have ever seen on television. It’s a real piece of artwork. There was The Beast, return of Angelus, return of Faithreturn of Willow Rosenberg, death of Lilah Morgan, and the birth of Jasmine. It was a fun and wild ride!

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The Best:

Salvage, Release, and Orpheus

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Other posts within in this series (Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Season 7, Season 4, Season 3, and Season 2, specifically) have already indicated that I generally like a story with a slayer in it (Damage didn’t make the cut, because I prefer the slayers much more together in the mind). I really enjoyed the appearence of Faith and Willow in these episodes, particularly after the last time Faith saw Angel in Season 2 priemere, Judgement:

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According to the A.V. Club review of Salvage and Release:

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Angel was off the air for three weeks between “Calvary” and “Salvage,” and while watching this week’s episodes, I wondered if the show also had an extended production break pre-“Salvage.” The tone of these episodes is a little different from the two that preceded them; they’re a little less apocalyptically despairing and a little more run-of-the-mill mopey. It also seemed like the writers were feeling their way through a narrative that’s become crazy-complicated. After the confined staging of “Soulless” and “Calvary,” “Salvage” and “Release” sprawl out into multiple locations, and separate the cast (and the storytelling) as a result.

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But what was most glaring to me this week was how different Vincent Kartheiser looked and acted. Perhaps I’m misremembering after my own long layoff, but Connor’s hair appeared to be longer and more oddly styled in these episodes. Or maybe that stood out because Connor is such a major player in “Salvage” and “Release”—at times obnoxiously so. It’s not like the Negative Nelly version of Connor has ever gone away exactly, but he was much more of a full-force dillhole this week, whether sniping about the team’s efforts to ward off Angelus through mystical means—“Magic again… you people rely too much on that junk”—or insisting that he’d kill Angelus if he had the opportunity no matter what his teammates command.

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Who can keep Connor in check? How about Faith, whom Wes visits in prison shortly after she was almost stabbed by a fellow inmate (with one of those Slayer-killing daggers from the current Buffy storyline). Faith initially doesn’t want to help, until she hears that Angelus is on the loose, at which point she tells Wesley to step away from the glass in the visitor’s area while she smashes through. (“You okay?” she asks him after. “Five by five,” he replies, Faithfully.) Because Faith owes Angel for giving her a shot at redemption, she takes command of the Angelus hunt, dictating that it’s “a salvage mission, not a search-and-destroy,” and saying that no one should make a move without her “okay.” Connor resists, but falls into line eventually because he thinks Faith is kinda neat. (“A weakness for Slayers,” Cordelia sighs. “You’re definitely his son.”)

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Besides Faith’s arrival—and another twist I’ll get to later—the big narrative development in “Salvage” involves Faith confronting The Beast, getting the crap kicked out of her, then watching as Angelus kills The Beast with its own knife, thereby restoring the sun. The reasons why Angelus would help humanity in this way aren’t immediately clear, though I have some thoughts about it I’ll hold for now.

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First though, there’s a lot if other business going on in these episodes, all tied to what’s below the surface of an increasingly crowded plot:

  • Wes finds the murdered Lilah (with Angelus standing over her, which leads him and Gunn to jump to the wrong conclusion), and as he prepares to dismember her as an anti-vampirism measure, he has a conversation with his imaginary version of her, in which “she” suggests that no matter how “dark” he pretended to be, he really did want to pull her back from the side of evil.
  • Lorne gets advice on how to cast his own stripped-down “sanctuary” spell, preventing demons from harming anyone while inside the Hyperion. The spell keeps Lorne from smashing Connor over the head—unfortunately—but it also keeps Connor from attacking Angelus. Shaken by the thought that the spell has counted him as a demon, Connor retreats to the bathroom to stare at himself in the mirror with typical teenage self-loathing (and to try to make himself look more vampire-y).
  • Fred—whom I miss, since she hasn’t been given a lot to do lately—gets cornered by Angelus, who asks for her help researching who might’ve been behind the summoning of The Beast. Fred tries to shoo Angelus away by telling him about the sanctuary spell, but Angelus wields a phony trinket that he says circumvents the spell. And Fred falls for it.

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What do these three items have in common? They all show how our heroes continue to be motivated more by what’s inside their own heads than by the external threat facing them. Wes reaffirms his own good-guy-ism, putting words in the mouth of a villainess. Connor sulks, sure that he’s no good. Fred is frightened by the mere notion that she could be overcome, even though she’s in no real danger. In keeping with the theme of the last several episodes, it’s what’s inside these characters that is proving to be their greatest obstacle.

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And yet also, maybe, their secret weapon. At first I was a little put off by how weak and silly Angelus seems in these episodes: soaking up the adulation at a vampire bar (where he insists that “I’m no different than the next guy… I put my victims’ skin on one leg at a time”), and showing no urgency to commit evil deeds. But when Evil Cordelia suggests to Angelus that he’s the true nature of Angel, always lurking below the surface, I thought back on Angelus dusting The Beast, and him dispatching a vampire skank at the bar, and now I wonder if the reality here is entirely the opposite of what Evil Cordelia is saying: that in fact Angel is working from within Angelus, to achieve the team’s goals unconsciously. I’ll be keeping an eye on that in the episodes to come.

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I’ll also be keeping an eye on Evil Cordelia, a plot point that for now is still more an “Ummm, okay?” than an “Oh, I get it!” We know that she manipulated The Beast, and that she’s working on Angelus, but we don’t yet know why. Oh, and we also know now that she’s pregnant with Connor’s baby, which… well, I think “Ummm, okay?” still suffices with regard to that. I will say that the way Evil Cordelia uses her pregnancy to appeal to Connor’s yearning for family and normalcy is pretty sinister and creepy, and enhanced by the “’70s horror movie”-style piano on the soundtrack as she whispers, “We’re connected now… forever.” But since I don’t yet know what the deal is with EC or her rapidly growing fetus, I hesitate to weigh in beyond that.

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On the whole, I’d call these two episodes a mixed bag: some poignant thematic development undercut a little by a surplus of plot and an overemphasis on the characters’ self-pity. Even Faith, who jump-starts “Salvage” when she appears, gets into the “woe is me” spirit in “Release,” as she chastises Wesley for the way he roughs up a human witness at a demon hangout, and as she listens to Angelus tell her that deep down she’s just like him. (Right before he bites her on the neck. To be continued.)

On the one hand, the “we suck” vibe of these Angels is a little bit too much like the dispiriting wallow that Buffy has lately become at times. (Though I hasten to add that I’m still enjoying both of these shows’ seasons overall.) On the other hand, the questions Angel raises about what really holds people back are the kind that Whedon’s shows have nearly always asked, and to good effect. The Buffyverse characters would like to be more like Gunn when he tells Fred, “If you really think you did something wrong, don’t do it again. That simple.” But they’re really more like Gunn when he refuses to talk about his problems and harbors resentments against all of his teammates. That, as much as any demon, is what’s left our heroes scattered and on the brink of defeat.

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And then came Willow! As I have said previously (Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Season 6), I have felt that I could always relate to Willow (for several reasons), so her appearance on Angel was very, very exciting. Cordelius plays the Apocalypse Maiden during these stories. According to the A.V. Club review of Orpheus:

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“Orpheus” is a fine Angel episode on its own—minus one major stumbling block—but it’s even better when set alongside “Lies My Parents Told Me.” Both episodes are flashback-heavy, and both feature vampires struggling with their soul-issues before remembering and recovering who they really are. It all reinforces the idea forwarded over and over on Buffy and Angel: People conjure their own evil most of the time, and have to dispel it on their own, too.

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We begin where we ended last week, with Faith being bitten by Angelus. But then in brief flashbacks, we see that Faith has injected a poisonous psychedelic drug called Orpheus into her bloodstream, which incapacitates Angelus, allowing Angel Investigations to chain him up back at HQ. So while Faith hovers near death, her spirit walks with the similarly tripping Angelus, guiding him through his own past. We see Angel arrive in New York in 1902, we see him rescue a puppy in early ’20s Chicago, and we see him fail to save a diner clerk from armed robbers in the ’70s. Angelus sees all this too, and rants to Faith about what a simp he was back when he had a soul, missing opportunities left and right to feed on the weak. The lone exception is the incident with Disco Angel at that diner. Then, Angel gave into his hunger, and fed on the clerk after he’d been shot and killed. (“I love this episode,” Angelus smirks.)

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As with “Lies,” the core of “Orpheus” is a philosophical debate, though the one in “Orpheus” is more one-sided. Angelus tries to get under Faith’s and Past-Angel’s respective skins, wondering if Angel chose to be slow on the draw in that diner so that he’d have a chance to feed, and seething at his former self for spending the next two decades after that slip-up living in trash-strewn alleys. (“His fingers never smelled of anything but rat.”) Angelus insists that when it comes to ordinary human beings, “They suffer, they die… that’s what they’re there for.” But Angel knows—and tries to impart to Faith—that it’s not that cut-and-dried. Everybody suffers for what they do, even when they try to make it right later. There’s no turning point; just the mild satisfaction that comes from trying to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. And with that, Angel is re-ensouled, and Faith overcomes the effects of the drug.

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Of course, they have help. While all this flashback-ing is going on, Willow is up from Sunnydale (or down… I’m never sure which), and working a variation on the first spell she ever learned, to get Angel his soul back. Willow was called in by Fred, and the two of them get along so well—tittering happily over their interest in mystical research—that I started thinking about how fun it would be if Willow could join the team full-time. (Willow nips this in the bud though. She likes Fred, but when Fred starts getting too chummy, Willow nervously croaks, “I’m seeing someone.”)

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Willow’s re-ensouling efforts are fought by the bed-ridden Cordelia, with the help of Connor, whom she’s manipulating by exploiting his hatred of Angelus and his yearning to be a good father and boyfriend. This is the “stumbling block” I referred to above. Having Cordelia fight Willow psychically from another room within the Hyperion is a nifty way to pit the two old friends against each other without Willow or the rest of Angel Investigations realizing who their adversary is. It also leads to some strong moments, as when Cordelia cradles a knife under the covers while listening to Willow explain her re-ensouling plan, and also when Cordelia projects a “huge floaty head” into the lobby to freak everyone out. But the whole “Cordelia as Big Bad” thing is still so weird and under-explained that it works against the tension of the episode. Plus, the scenes between Cordy and Connor are so creepy (and, frankly, poorly acted on both sides) that they distract from the exciting, dramatic material happening elsewhere in “Orpheus.”

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On the other hand, the weakness of the main season-long storyline does produce an unexpectedly (and unintentionally) powerful effect at the end, as Angel returns and tries to reassure his friends that everything will be okay now, just before the very pregnant Cordelia walks down the stairs and reveals herself. “Oh yeah,” I thought to myself. “This crap’s still going on.”

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The Worst:

Ground State

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It’s X-Men meets Angel in this particularly awful episode. I am no fan of Gwen Raiden what so ever and was quite annoyed by her following appearances. She is just one of those momentary “cool” characters that have no lasting effect on the overall series. She is a mayfly, if you will. According to the Critically Touched review:

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“Ground State” is one of the most wholly unremarkable episodes of the season, so timid and – may the Gods of punnage strike me down – emotionally grounded that it feels like it’s trying to be inoffensive. If this criticism seems callous, consider its location in the series: it floats amongst the philosophical excesses of season four, the show’s most thematically insightful and morally challenging set of episodes. While season four lacks the consistency of two and the dramatic highs of five, it still manages to make some incredibly powerful statements for a television show – the kind of unconventional insights more common to great works of literature. Thus insipidity doth not contrast well.

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Not that it’s an offensively bad outing, mind you. Its worst mistakes aside, it’s highly watchable and has the sharp, entertaining dialogue characteristic of the series. Gunn even mentions Vegas again. And who doesn’t love Gunn throwing in a pitch for Vegas (though the fact that he pimps it three or four times in the series makes me think product placement)?

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We pick up shortly after where “Deep Down” [4×01] left off. Even though Angel has returned to the land of the living there’s hard work yet to be done. The hotel is running down, Connor is out on the streets, the Fang Gang lacks paying clients (as usual) and Cordelia is still missing.

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To find her, Angel tries mending bridges with Wesley. In one of the episode’s few memorable scenes he puts himself face to face with his betrayer for the first time since “Forgiving” (3×17). We might expect sparks or some bloody satisfaction for one of these two larger-than-life figures, but what we actually get is far quieter, and yet somehow even more devastating, than any fight ever could be: Wes barely regards Angel at all. No anger, no sadness. Nothing. He says what he needs to and then coldly dismisses the man he was once willing to follow into hell. It makes the point crystal clear: Angel can reach out to Wesley, and he can try to bring back Cordelia, but he can’t wipe the slate clean just because he wants to. The way Wes walks out on him after shrewdly serving Angel’s purposes speaks volumes about the utter antipathy he’s developed for the old gang. It’s heartbreaking. But then, Angel did try to kill him. He is understandably bitter.

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Then there’s Gwen. Gwen in tight pants. Yes. Oh yes. Guest character Gwen Raiden functions as the episode’s thematic focal point, and despite not doing too much in the episode proper she is a fascinating character to consider. Gwen is a woman whose capacity for passion has gone completely untapped throughout her life because of her unique condition. This is a polite way of saying that if she touches people they die. For her this has made all human contact a moral line not to be crossed. A cruel state to say the least.

In keeping with season four’s exploration of choice and free will versus determinism and circumstance, the episode hinges our sympathy for Gwen on whether or not we feel like she’s justified in being an emotionally-gutted bounty hunter with a predilection for roasting people who offend her.

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When she kills Gunn it’s…wait a minute. When she kills Gunn?! That’s right: “Ground State” features a character death. As a death it plays lighter than any other in the Whedonverse – maybe even too light to be taken seriously (did anyone think he would die? Anyone?) – but for a fine point nonetheless. When Gwen looked back and saw the little boy from school in her near-murder of Gunn I felt a real spark of the impossible conflict within her. In that one moment the defining trauma of her entire life came rushing back, and I thought “now this…this works.”

When Angel and Gwen confront each other over the Axis of Pythia their shared sense of alienation lends them an understanding of one another, but their interactions (and the entire main plot for that matter) climax not with a revelation that changes their characters. No, the writers don’t go for a, you know, compelling angle, but instead go for a steamy kiss supposed to hint at a romance that’s really not…because in this moment of excitement Angel’s dead heart starts beating and the first thing he says is “Cordelia.”

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Since we already knew Angel loved her, this amounts to nothing more than re-stating the painfully obvious about his character. But since this point makes for the episode’s dramatic climax I’m doubly unimpressed. Why take an entire episode just to re-state the obvious?

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The end result of this episode would’ve been a foregone conclusion even if the episode had never been written. Strip away the main plot and you get maybe a quarter-episode of interesting character material, and only for a couple of characters. Fred and Gunn are largely set dressing and Gwen fails to develop beyond the basic premise of her concept as a character (which is a particular problem given the aforementioned lameness of her dramatic “climax” with Angel). From a writing standpoint the dearth of substance is inexcusable, especially on a show as character-driven as Angel.

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Angel’s motivations are problematic too. The simple motive for finding Cordelia – his love for her – would never be questioned by the audience, so the one the writers try to inject into this episode – of Angel feeling like he has nothing without her – comes off as over-written and disingenuous. Gwen and Wesley were well positioned to demonstrate the theme of how coldness follows from a lack of intimacy, but with them the point was that coldness follows from a lack of familial and fraternal relationships.

Angel ignoring the value of Fred, Gunn and Connor (not to mention Wes, whom he forgives – rather conveniently – just in time to look for Cordelia) by holding Cordelia up as the relationship most essential to his heart doesn’t ring true to anything in the series. It rings shoddy characterization; a poor dramatic conceit contrived to lend a sense of urgency to Angel’s quest.

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Next is the best and worst of Season 3.

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6 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of Angel: Season 4

  1. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Angel: Season 3 | The Progressive Democrat

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  6. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Angel and Faith: Buffy Season 9 | The Progressive Democrat

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