Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Long Dark Night Of The Vampire's Soul: Angel Season Four!

The Good: Dark, Excellent characters, Interesting plotline, Wonderful acting
The Bad: One real dud, Misuse of talent (Charisma Carpenter!)
The Basics: When Angel returns from the bottom of the sea, the Apocalypse comes in two very deadly forms in the fourth season of Angel.

The television series Angel, has a way of ending its seasons with a nod toward its fans, isolating those who are not fans of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer or Angel franchises. For example, the first season ends with the appearance of Darla resurrected and unless one watches the show regularly, the significance of that event is lost. Similarly, the end of the second season is baffling to those who do no know what happened in the finale of the fifth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The third season is something of an exception to that rule. There are not mugs to the audience, there are no secret innuendoes: Lorne leaves, Wesley has gone rogue, Cordelia ascends, and Connor sends Angel to the bottom of the ocean in a box.

The fourth season of Angel opens with a stark exploration of the bleak events that capped off the previous season. While Angel goes slowly insane in his watery grave, Gunn and Fred struggle to hold Angel Investigations together having exhausted every last lead in the search for their employer. And as Angel struggles to return to sanity after his rescue, the crew finds themselves entering an apocalypse that cannot be blamed on anything other than the direct path their lives have taken up until now.

In short, writer/director Joss Whedon risks the franchise by playing every possible card in his arsenal. Whedon and David Greenwalt declare that this was the season the characters were destined to get to as they fully explain the significance of the interlocking lives that have been the Angel cast. It is in season four that Connor's existence is explained, Angel is revealed to be a tool for his conception, Lorne's participation as a guide and Cordelia's purpose in ascending and returning is explored.

Man, this is a bleak picture! In the course of the fourth season, Angel and his partners come to learn everything was set into motion outside them and they've moved and been moved toward a certain moment and the moment of their destiny has arrived. This is the Apocalypse and Angel does it with style, flair and intrigue.

Here is how the main characters weather the year:

Connor - The teen struggles with the death of his father, the reappearance of his dad, Angel, and the tide of bad choices he makes in regard to Cordelia and the Angel Investigations team,

Lorne - Returns to Los Angeles after being imprisoned in Las Vegas by tyrants at a casino only to find that his powers have been compromised by something even more powerful than himself,

Fred - Finds her life emotionally complicated when she is able to confront the professor who sent her to the hell dimension for five years and her attempts to deal with the fallout from that is compromised when she finds herself on the losing end of a war to save the world,

Gunn - Realized as a leader in Angel's absence, he works hard and sacrifices everything to save Fred from falling into darkness, at the cost of what is most precious to him,

Wesley - Still alone following his betrayals in the third season, Wesley has fallen in love with Lilah Morgan and he works desperately for redemption with his friends,

Cordelia - Returns to our plane of existence after being made virtually into a Goddess, only to find she has no memories. When her purpose for returning is made clear, Angel's love is revealed as the earliest casualty of the Apocalypse and her life is placed in supreme jeopardy,

Angel - is rescued only to find his fruitless search for Cordelia frustrating beyond belief and her return complicated by his feelings for her and his confusion by her relationship with Connor. Angel is forced to confront his dark side, Angelus, when it becomes clear that his past may be an important trigger to the Apocalypse.

The fourth season of Angel continues its trend toward a morally ambiguous hero who struggles with the prophecies and realities of his life. Here, Angel is not only pitted against the incredible Beast that rains down fire and blocks out the sun, but he is forced to confront his unresolved love for Cordelia and the complications of having a duplicitous son.

And that is what Angel has done remarkably well since day one, since the first episode. Angel balances action/adventure with deep personal, character moments wherein the individuals involved are forced to develop. There are consequences to every action in Angel and the fourth season illustrates that perfectly as Angelus is unleashed in an attempt to stop The Beast and the appearance of the most subversive evil the Angel Investigations team has ever faced.

This is a season where our heroes are trapped in a downward spiral of loss. Angel is unable to reconcile with his son Connor, Cordelia's return is marred by her lack of identity, and the beautiful love between Fred and Gunn becomes torn. But is it worth watching? Absolutely. This is television that draws the viewer in and on DVD, the ability to watch the episodes over and over is a great boon. That the crew works constantly to overcome is the true spectacle and while the characters agonize, the viewer is constantly intrigues as opposed to depressed. This is not Magnolia (reviewed here!), where the characters are mired in depression, this is the last minutes of The Empire Strikes Back (reviewed here!) where the characters are going down, but they desperately, heroically, try anything to endure and persevere.

In fact, in the entire twenty-two episode set, only one episode is a real dud. I cannot say anything more about it because it comes late in the season and to describe the faults of the episode would reveal more about the deeper plot than I already have and it ought to be a surprise to the viewer. On the other hand, the show comes out of its one episode rut swinging and it skyrockets toward an impressive climax. But the show has an annoying tendency to be brilliant and engaging and agonize the fans. Upon her return, Cordelia asks Angel the question all of the fans have wanted the answer to, in the last second of the episode! Fortunately, with the DVDs, we need not wait an entire week for the answer!

Many fans do not like the fourth season of Angel because of the presence of Connor, played by Vincent Kartheiser. While the obvious argument is that he is the typical WB pretty boy, the more substantive argument against Connor and Kartheiser is that Connor is a crappy character who is poorly acted. But Kartheiser's performance is actually genius; Connor is a confused kid. Connor is a confused child who is caught in a rash of stupid decisions followed by huge consequences and punctuated by more bad choices. Connor is annoying, not because Kartheiser cannot act, but because Kartheiser acts so precisely. Who wants to watch some idiot kid make stupid choice after stupid choice? Of course it is going to be agonizing! And as a result, it works wonderfully here.

The real acting issue in the fourth season is with Charisma Carpenter. Carpenter may be the best potential choice for a Wonder Woman feature film and while the fourth season gives her some juicy parts, it never provides her with a chance to explore Cordelia's character in a satisfying or meaningful way. In short, Carpenter's talents are wasted in the fourth season as her character becomes a tool and Carpenter's days are clearly numbered on the show.

Holding the whole sandwich together is David Boreanaz (Angel) and Alexis Denisof (Wesley). Boreanaz returns to the role of Angel with little growth, but in a season where there is such intense action, he does not need to expand the acting repertoire too much. Boreanaz comes through, however, when forced to portray Angelus over several episodes. Sustaining his character's alter ego works and Boreanaz pulls it off with satisfying results. Denisof, however, continues to expand Wesley into a dark, often tragic, hero caught between his desire for redemption and his belief in the reasons for his mistakes. Denisof is both subtle and calculating as Wesley this season and he makes Wesley the character to watch.

The bottom line for this DVD set is that it wraps up the tale of Angel quite nicely. Yes, there is another season after this, but we'll get to that when the fifth season boxed set comes out. This finishes the longest arcs of Angel and rewards the fans with a pretty pounding season-wide arc that gives everyone in the show their chance to shine. If you haven't been a fan of Angel before now, don't start with this set, go back and work up to it. You will be glad you did.

For other works with vampires, please visit my reviews of:
Breaking Dawn Part 1
True Blood - Season 3


For other television reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2004 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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