Angel Season 2 Review
After a relatively successful series premiere, Angel season 2 proceeds to take the vague ideas of atonement and “help the helpless” in season 1 and adds layers to them. While Angel Investigations is now aware of what they must do to help people, it’s easy to paint such a goal with broad strokes and miss the point. In season 2, Angel (David Boreanaz) and Co. explore what it truly means to help others; while for Angel, he also goes on his own journey to find himself and discover what it truly means to be human. Both themes are the ways season 2 has taken a clearer approach on where it wants to go beyond the first season’s random and episodic monster-of-the-week format that bears too much similarity with Buffy’s earlier seasons. It’s a stronger direction that results in some very compelling storytelling and character examinations.
For Angel, even though he now has a clear end goal in mind where he has the chance to become human again, his path to discovering his humanity, on the other hand, is a long and arduous one. What does it mean to be human exactly beyond the literal sense? Is Angel simply Angelus with a conscience? Is he the bumbling Liam who was such a disappointment to his father? Or is he a combination of all three? Angel believes that inner demon within him has never left and he needs to control it, but the imposter Swami in Guise Will Be Guise suggests that the demon is already a part of his identity. In spite of the Swami’s artifice, his words ring true. All of Angel’s wrongdoings, all the lives he has taken and even the lives he has abandoned this season are all some part of him. Perhaps one could argue that Angelus is merely Liam’s subconscious darkness brought to surface, but that only means he’s still part of Angel’s “self” (much like how Spike is a romantic like William).
And so season 2 makes great strides in exploring these questions, especially through the use of Darla (Julie Bentz) and Drucilla (Juliet Landau), two walking embodiments of Angel’s past sins. Having learned of their return, Angel is once again entwined in the past rather than working towards the future. He’s once again filled with self-loathing when he becomes unable to save Darla from damnation in The Trial. She is the mirror to his past, so when he learns that there’s a chance to grant her peace, it makes sense that he associates her salvation with his own, believing that if he could free the woman who has sired him, he’s that much closer to unshackling himself from the past. Unfortunately, the past seems to have a way of haunting you in spite of your best efforts, and Drucilla comes knocking, reducing all his effort back to zero. This would spell Angel’s downfall as he feels helpless and trapped by his sins.
And during his attempt to once again clean up the mess caused by his past mistakes, Angel’s quest to regain humanity would be further stifled when he decides to abandon members of Wolfram & Hart to die in the hands of Darla and Drucilla, the two vampires that the law firm was responsible in summoning. This darkness in him is not a sudden thing. Aside from the same act of apathy he performed in the ’50s, as can be seen in Are You Now or Have You Ever Been, such a resentment against the unjust traces back to as early as the first season, Blind Date, when he expressed his frustration over not being able to fight the evil of the firm, lamenting how those rich and powerful are the ones who control the world. It’s something that’s very relevant outside the realm of fiction, so when I finally got to see him sticking it to the man, even if at the cost of his own humanity (and the lives Darla and Dru will inevitably harm), I couldn’t help but feel a little elated at the notion. It’s vigilante escapism that’s in the vein of neo-noir, a genre which Angel the Series very much belongs to with its femme fatale and blurred morality.
And yet, it never really reached that height of satisfaction that I would normally get from such vigilante fiction, probably because Angel’s empathy towards others is still a dominant voice amidst this dark period. His scheme to expose W&H’s crimes of fraud still results in helping out a homeless shelter during Blood Money, and even all the way until Epiphany, he has still made a conscious (or maybe subconscious) effort to help people unrelated to his revenge against W&H like Gene Rainey (Matt Champagne) in Happy Anniversary (though in fairness, Gene almost caused the end of the world, so Angel had to help). Admittedly, I was initially disappointed at the anticlimax of Angel not being any more competent than before he went dark (especially when W&H’s Lilah Morgan (Stephanie Romanov) and Lindsey McDonald (Christian Kane) are the ones who conveniently survive because of plot-armor), but looking back now, Angel holding back his full savagery is a clever subversion of your usual “fallen hero” trope, showing that he is more human than he realized, and that “unleashing the demon or darkness” within him isn’t something as simple as turning on “Evil Mode” on the villains. As long as he’s not drugged like in Eternity, that human soul in him would always be a part of his darkness and vice versa.
Angel would come to realize this ambivalence of human nature in Reprise, where the executive of W&H, Holland Manners (Sam Anderson), would inform him that humanity’s evil is what kept their law firm afloat, that humans contain the very evil he’s trying to fight against. So where do you go from there once you learn that there’s no point in protecting the good people from the bad guys because such selfishness are malevolence are inherent in all of us? Is there no meaning, no greater purpose to fighting evil then? That’s where Angel gets his epiphany in the aptly named Epiphany. Back in Blind Date in season 1, Angel said that he misses the moral clarity of Angelus, even if it was immoral clarity. At the lowest point of his life, he tries to lose his soul by sleeping with Darla and become Angelus again in Reprise; it doesn’t work. He look at what he has done, going as low as sleeping with the one woman who damned him, and he sees it as “perfect despair.” And when he realizes he could indeed save someone — Kate Lockley (Elisabeth Röhm), who’s also going through her own existential depression — it all clicks. If nothing he does matters, then all that matters is what he does in the present moment, now, today, like saving Kate instead of drowning in despair. There’s a dignified meaning in that small action, just as there was meaning in helping Anne Steele (Julia Lee) with her homeless shelter.
While I very much love that quote in the context of it, especially now that I have time to reflect on it, I still really don’t like how the rest of Epiphany was handled. It was “back to business as usual” as Angel and Co. fights some random demon unrelated to either W&H or Angel’s epiphany. Perhaps it is related in a meta sort of way — that none of it matters, and all there is left to do now is just go about your business and helping people as usual — but I still feel like the impact of the message was dampened by such incoherence, and it lacks the kind of solidarity where everything just clicks together nicely in Joss Whedon episodes. Metafictional constructs like these can always be a hit-or-miss due to interpretation, and a story that deliberately lacks impact just to prove a point can come off as pretentious.
Nevertheless, the incoherence of it isn’t too much of a problem when I consider what fantastic storylines it has left behind. Everything up ‘till the second-half of Epiphany has been a joyride, examining such spiritual themes of human nature and the cycle of abuse. The latter is also explored in areas outside of the Darla arc, such as Untouched where Bethany Chaulk (Daisy McCrackin), victim of a sexual abuse from her father, takes back the power from her father at the end instead. Charles Gunn (J. August Richards) has his own arc that’s more relevant to such an issue, particularly The Thin Dead Line, where Gunn chastises the drug dealer Jackson (Mushond Lee) for perpetuating the intolerance between the cops and the citizens on the street, cleverly subverting the usual idea of racial persecution from the police force by indicating that “the other side” is no better. It’s these kinds of storylines that really differentiate Angel from Buffy in a more mature way, tackling more serious subject matter that’s beyond the troubles of a teenager. That’s not to downplay how well-written Buffy’s storylines still are, but it is clear from such storylines that Angel is a more gritty adult drama that deals with issues like race, crime and justice (and even McCarthyism and racial purity in Are You Now or Have You Ever Been) rather than drug addiction and familial relationships.
Aside from the titular Angel, this season also examines the other characters in its second overarching theme: what does it mean to help people? While Angel is struggling with his own existential crisis, Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter), Wesley Wyndam-Pryce (Alexis Denisof) and Gunn all have their own identity crisis as well. For Cordelia, she has become more sympathetic to the countless souls whose torment she experienced in the season 1 finale, To Shanshu in L.A. And while her acting career has taken off to great success, the show seems to suggest in Belonging that being vision-girl is a more fitting role for her as she can actually be of importance to people rather than just feeling important as an actress, not to mention that her role as the resident psychic doesn’t require her to degrade herself like she does for her acting gigs. And by the season 2 finale, There’s No Place Like Plrtz Glrb, she fully embraces this role by associating her visions as a part of her new identity.
For Wesley, after Angel fires his staff, he struggles in accepting the role of a leader, a role he uses to impress his father with little success. This is seen in an excellent phone conversation in Belonging that’s carried entirely by Alexis alone with all the emotional nuances that comes with it. But ultimately, in There’s No Place Like Plrtz Glrb, we see shadows of a more pragmatic (and perhaps a darker) Wesley take charge as a leader when he decides to sacrifice a few to save the many, something he chose to do as well in Buffy season 3 episode, Choices.
And finally, Gunn has to decide his own role between helping his own people in his home neighborhood and helping the clients of Angel Investigations. This character development traces back to his helplessness in season 1 where he feels that his actions inadvertently caused the deaths of people close to him like his sister, Alonna Gunn (Michele Kelly). In Belonging, Gunn learns that another of his friends, George (Darris Love) has died in the hands of a vampire while he’s off playing demon hunter with Angel. Considering that this guilt of his has been made clear this season since First Impressions, I wouldn’t have blamed him for leaving Angel permanently to protect his own family and friends. But instead, in the Pylea arc stretching over the tail-end of the season, he not only feels obligated to join Angel in his journey to another dimension, his earlier violent role in First Impressions has now changed into a more protective role where he seeks to help a bunch of rebels with a cause, something that undoubtedly bears similarities to his own vampire-slaying friends in his neighborhood.
This kind of striking character development is the reason that, in spite of its jarring change in tone and sudden departure from the Darla arc, the Pylea arc remains a strong part of the second season where all the characters learn more about themselves in this demon dimension. Appropriately, one of the episodes in this arc is also called Through the Looking Glass, signifying Angel and Co.’s journey to look into themselves and accepting whom they are, whether it’s Angel’s human side beneath the animal, Cordy’s responsibility as a psychic, Wesley’s capabilities as a leader or Gunn’s big brother protective nature. It’s undeniably one of the best ways to create a footnote for a season, summing up the characters’ best qualities.
Looking back on how I felt initially after finishing Angel season 2 and how I feel now writing this analysis, it’s easier to see why people love this season so much. It’s not just the compelling and morally ambiguous Darla arc but also all the little details in other episodes that strengthen the characters’ identities, having all of them confidently embracing whom they are as saviors of humanity fighting for justice in a corrupted world. Season 2 has now a clear identity of its own to move forward with pride. Where do we go from here in season 3? Surely it can only get better… right? Right?
Oh well. At least season 5 is still widely considered to be the best.
Final Rating: 8.3/10