Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Coda To The Vampire's Saga: Angel Season Five Serves Up Mixed Results!

The Good: Decent character development, Nice new conflicts, Acting, Illyria plot
The Bad: Loss of cordelia, Moments of jumped shark, Infuriating ending
The Basics: While Angel adapts to the humdrum life of running the evil lawfirm Wolfram & Hart, he finds himself plagued by old adversaries and a conscience in Angel Season 5.

It seems to me that sometimes people know when the end is near in television and they bail ship at just the right point. Thus, it is hard for me to castigate Charisma Carpenter for not returning to the show Angel for its fifth (and final) season. At the same time, possibly only because it is retrospect, the question must be asked, "Why did Angel return for a fifth season?" Before rabid fans start to take huge meaty chunks out of my flesh, know that I am a fan, I signed every petition begging the WB to extend the life of the show. I wanted to see where the show could still go. As far as inherent potential, Angel had more potential for longer staying power than the concept of Buffy The Vampire Slayer ever did.

The fifth season of Angel could have been a new beginning. Instead, it exists now solely as a coda to seven years of investment by fans of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer universe. In many ways, the fifth season of Angel is plagued by the same difficulty as the sixth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, namely where to go after the adversary has been a God. It's quite a difficult story to recover from. Here is what the fifth season of Angel looks like.

Following the defeat of Jasmine at the climax of the fourth season, Angel and his group find themselves walking an ethical tightrope as the new heads of the villainous lawfirm Wolfram & Hart. Angel sheds his sword to manage the firm, Gunn discards his past to become an agile lawyer with a fierce legal mind, Wesley takes a mid-management job, Fred becomes the head of the Research department and Lorne finds himself working as a security screener. Joining the group is Harmony, the vampire who used to be Cordelia's best friend, and Spike, who was last seen in the Buffyverse getting burnt to a crisp by an amulet in the series finale of Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

Finding himself plagued by Spike and forced to rely on a mysterious woman named Eve as a relay to the Senior Partners, Angel discovers life is far more complicated than it ever has been before. Not burdened with his supernatural son and somewhat emotionally lost given Cordelia's coma, Angel tries to figure out how to fight the good fight while leading the forces of evil. At the same time, Spike, still burdened with a soul, becomes seduced by the possibility that the prophecies that everyone has assumed are about Angel could now pertain to him.

First of all, the whole arc that Spike goes on where he challenges the legitimacy of the assumption that the "vampire with the soul" who gets redeemed, is brilliant. Nothing short of an amazingly good idea. Conceptually, this is what makes the first half of the season interesting and fun to rewatch. Now that Angel is no longer the only vampire with a soul, it challenges the viewer to rethink many of the assumptions we have.

Moreover, the addition of Spike is a great way to remix the characters and situations of Angel. He has long been an annoyance to Angel and when events revolve around Buffy, the show becomes tiresome. However, when the conflicts between Angel and Spike are dealt with without the Buffy context, they are two much more interesting characters. It is a shame that there was not a season to deal with the sense of resignation both characters gain in the late season five episode "The Girl In Question."

In effect, though, this final season of Angel stands as a denouement, with many loose ends being tied up as the season goes on. On the character front, however, the show opens up some intriguing new directions for Spike and, surprisingly, Fred. The season ends with a pretty impressive series finale that looks great on DVD. But as character is of fundamental import on Angel, here is where the characters stand for season five:

Cordelia - lies in a coma. She's gone. She appears in a single episode of the fifth season and that is one of the best, saddest, most wonderful and bittersweet episodes of the series,

Harmony - tries hard to be good, but between being soulless and a secretary to Angel at Wolfram & Hart, she rarely succeeds. Hers is the story of an evil minion forever trapped in being a teenager,

Eve - The liaison between Angel and his team and the Senior Partners that have spent the prior four years making Angel's life hell is never quite what she seems. While the gang is instantly suspicious of her as an outsider, they have good reason to be and it does not take long before her true nature becomes apparent,

Lorne - Working at Wolfram & Hart leaves Lorne unsettled and feeling like a moral compass that is not checked nearly as frequently as it should be. Lorne continues to be the invariable force of good in the world otherwise filled with grays,

Gunn - Trades in his streetsmarts for an encyclopedic knowledge of the law. This, of course, has consequences and when one of the other characters is stricken down, he learns that he may be at fault and checks himself into hell to save the group,

Wesley - Will do his usual thing and along the way finally get what he's wanted for years, only to have everything he loves destroyed. Wesley grapples his demons and in the process learns the truth about the bargain Angel made to get them their status at Wolfram & Hart. In short, Good Wesley doesn't last,

Fred - In a strange turn, the introverted head of the research department will undergo an incredible transformation that will be a harbinger to the coming of all evil. Fred's story, usually at the back of the class, will take the forefront as her character becomes a tragic hero,

Spike - Restored from the dead by the same forces that killed him, the blonde vampire challenges Angel's authority by simply being the goon he's always been. Now with a soul, Spike adds both legitimate menace and wonderful comic relief to the show,

Angel - As in previous seasons, nowhere near as interesting as those who surround him, Angel adapts to life as a manager of people fighting a morally ambiguous fight using tools that are inherently evil. This leads him to learn about the deepest evil and make his attempt to fight for good in the grandest way possible.

The fifth season of Angel continues the tradition of the show to push the envelope and combine horrible incidents with quirky, offbeat humor. Wesley's character arc, for example, is a study of vicious irony in the way it develops. Episodes like "Smile Time," where Angel is turned into a puppet strike one as the moment the show jumps the shark, but somehow it works on Angel. In fact, that episode is funny and works well as a metaphor.

Being able to rewatch the episodes from the fifth season leads to greater appreciation of them (they were not rerun on most WB stations once the show was canceled). The fifth season is filled with action. Indeed, the episodes "You're Welcome" (the show's 100th episode) and "Not Fade Away" (the series finale) have some of the most impressive battles I've ever seen. Not just on television, ever. These are entertaining shows.

Part of what keeps the show wonderful is the acting. David Boreanaz is fine as Angel, though James Marsters kicks new life into the show with his portrayal of Spike. But neither deserves the lion's share of praise for the acting in season three.

J. August Richards, who portrays Gunn, is finally given the opportunity to express the full depth of his range. Instead of being monolithic and out for vengeance or wrestling with the conflict between his past fighting on the street and working as a part of a team, Richards is able to use the character changes in season five to illustrate his articulation and the depths to which he can play sorrow and loss. He is incredible.

Alexis Denisof, usually a favorite of mine, does a great job in season five, but does not get to illustrate more of his acting ability beyond what we've already seen. That honor, for expressing real growth as an actor beyond what we've seen before, goes to Amy Acker, who plays Winnifred Burkle. Acker is given the chance to illustrate her range when Fred's story takes an abrupt turn. She is amazingly extroverted and able to exude an aura of confidence and power that she has never before revealed on Angel. It is a treat to see.

Who will enjoy the fifth season of Angel? Anyone who enjoys good, quirky, science-fiction comedy. But it is a denouement. Buying this set is ridiculous if you're looking to get into the series. You're coming in for the last act, the final stanzas, the lines before the curtain falls. At least, until Joss Whedon gives up on movies and gives fans of the Buffyverse a show featuring Spike, Faith, Illyria, and Andrew.

Until then, though, this is it. And it is a fitting end if nothing else ever comes.

For other final seasons of pretty epic shows, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Millennium - Season 3
Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Complete Seventh Season
The X-Files - Season Nine


For other television and movie reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2005 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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