I’ve been regretting that I didn’t keep a written log of every episode after I watched them like I did with Buffy. I definitely wish I had done a “season review” at least, because Angel was much more serialized than Buffy, and I think that’s what might keep it from being discussed quite as often as Buffy, that and the fact that it was quite a lot darker. I was always frustrated (in a good way) when the characters on Buffy were angry with one another, but Angel took that to a whole new level. In the end, Angel turned out to have an incredible overall arc and, except for season four, shied away from the “big bad” of every season like Buffy did.
I think that Angel felt more like a team effort as well thanks to that. There was a point in season two where Angel fired Cordelia, Gunn, and Wesley, and there was a stronger focus on Angel and Darla (and Drusilla), and there was something that kept nagging me at that point, something that bothered me, and I realized that it was because without the rest of the team, there was a noticeable hole in the show (ha ha ha), which made their eventual reunion and Angel’s apology so much sweeter. That absence also gave Cordy, Gunn, and Wes the time to grow as characters without their attachment to Angel, and we saw that they were still an effective team even without their superpowered vampire. I also liked how, like on Buffy, nothing was ever “reset”, and character arcs were maybe even stronger on this show. Their strength as a team didn’t last for long though, because the Holtz/Connor arc in season three is one of my favorites on the show. It changed the show irreversibly in terms of characters, and it was hard to watch at times (in a good way). Wesley’s betrayal and then abandonment hurt so much even while I relished watching him get meaner and harder alone. It made the temporary reset of season five all that much better when it was broken again near the end when Wes restores their memories of Connor.
This show-long arc made for some great villains. Wolfram & Hart is such a cool concept and one that Buffy could never have done properly, despite trying at times to create something similar, and the fact that they were so lawful evil (ha ha) made them a really powerful villain (especially Lindsey and Lilah, the latter who I loved to death). The reversal in season five took me by surprise, and I loved that season’s exploration of the theme of “how to do good in a bad world”. I think it really worked, as we saw the characters change noticeably. Wes’ change is obvious; Gunn’s renewed sense of purpose and how it totally backfired on him was a great use of dramatic irony; Fred became so much more than the crazy hermit from the beginning of season three; Lorne’s world-weariness (or rather, Angel-weariness) grew so naturally, his exit at the end is one of the most heartbreaking exits that didn’t end in death that I’ve ever seen on TV; Cordelia toughed up just like Wes; they redeemed Spike from an increasingly problematic character in Buffy; even Darla who I didn’t care for for a long time but who I sympathized with so much by the middle of season three; and of course Angel at the end, the one who fed on a human two times in order to succeed, something he never would have done before. This doesn’t mean they aren’t heroes, but it was a fascinating exploration of how we are corrupted and how we have to make sacrifices to succeed. It’s something that Game of Thrones does constantly but never so naturally or as well as Angel did.
Which leaves the season arcs. They follow the frame that Buffy set up of having three acts, the opening, a natural segue into the middle part, and usually followed by a twist. None as surprising as season two’s jump to Pylea, which was hilarious and unexpected in the best possible way. Season three got super dreary at the end, and then I don’t even want to talk about season four and how terrible they handled Cordelia (no wonder she left the show), but it did lead to one of the best “big bads”, Gina Torres as a god who everyone falls in love with.
All of this makes the finale one of the best of any TV show, I think. The whole show got its purpose at the end of season one with the Shanshu Prophecy, promising that a vampire with a soul who did enough good works could once again become human. Mid-way through season two, Angel realizes that doing good works for the purpose of being human defeats the purpose. He has to do good works for the sake of it, and slowly he begins to lose faith in the Shanshu Prophecy as things get worse and worse. The addition of Spike created the hilarious competition between the two (seriously, they have so much chemistry!), but in general I loved how this show handled prophecy and fate. Cordelia is prophesied to be the savior of Pylea, but does she really save them from anything? Wes finds the prophecy that “the father will kill the son”, which ends up having been a fake and gets him nearly killed and then exiled from the group; the demon who brings back Holtz changed that prophecy because it was supposed to be Connor who kills him and we forget about him for a season and a half before suddenly he’s brought back and the prophecy is fulfilled (in this sense, a self-fulfilling prophecy, because what he did created the situation that got him killed); and then of course, back to the Shanshu Prophecy which Angel signs away at the end of the show. It was a red herring all along, and I love that. The show was never really about Angel being prophesized to become human again. It was about so much more about that, how to BE human in a bad world, and nobody embodies that more than Angel does, a vampire with a soul.
I’m not ready to do an episode ranking yet, but here’s what I’d pick from each season, my favorites:
Season 1: Five By Five/Sanctuary, To Shanshu in LA
Season 2: Are You Now or Have You Ever Been, Darla, The Trial, Reunion, Disharmony, Over the Rainbow/Thru the Looking Glass/There’s No Place like Plrtz Glrb
Season 3: Fredless, Lullaby, Waiting in the Wings, Birthday, Sleep Tight, Forgiving, The Price, Benediction
Season 4: Spin the Bottle, Awakening, Soulless, Shiny Happy People, The Magic Bullet, Home
Season 5: Conviction, Just Rewards, The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco, Harm’s Way, You’re Welcome, Smile Time, A Hole in the World, Shells, Underneath, Time Bomb, The Girl in Question, Not Fade Away
Although I think I could guess my top 10 as
1. A Hole in the World
2. Waiting in the Wings
3. You’re Welcome
4. Not Fade Away
5. Sleep Tight
7. Five By Five/Sanctuary
10. Are You Now or Have You Ever Been