Ten years is not very long in the immortal life of a vampire – with or without a soul – but in the life, or afterlife, of a television series, it feels like an eternity. It is therefore with heavy heart that I note that it has been ten years since the end of Angel (WB 1999-2004), a show that maintains a significant place for me both personally and professionally [Buffy may have introduced me to television studies but it was Angel that pulled me through the looking glass]. It was on the13th February 2004 that the WB announced that Angel would come to a close at the end of its fifth season, an announcement met with regret on the part of the show’s creators (Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt) and horror on the part of the show’s fans (myself included). The WB promised the cast and crew the time they would need to wind up its narrative (and find other jobs) and on the 19th May 2004, Angel’s final episode ‘Not Fade Away’ (5.22) aired on the WB. I saw it a few weeks later on its UK broadcast.
As noted in the conclusion to my anthology Reading Angel: The TV Spin-off with a Soul, the fan response to Angel’s demise was memorable – petitions, online rallies, live rallies, blood drives, ads in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter and, most memorably, the Angelmobile, a mobile billboard, featuring the campaign slogan: ‘We’ll Follow Angel to hell…or another network’. Like the characters in the series, the fans were going to keep fighting the good fight for their favourite show about the vampire with a soul.
Sadly the campaign did not bring the series back but Angel does live on in comic book form with the Angel After the Fall and Angel and Faith serials. Much scholarship about the series has also emerged in the intervening years and the influence of Angel upon subsequent cult TV series such as Vampire Diaries, Torchwood, Supernatural and Grimm can still be felt. Ten years on, therefore, seems like a good time to reflect back upon the series.
Angel is of course best remembered as the show that placed the reluctant romantic vampire, a significant but peripheral character on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, at the centre of his own series. This was, in and of itself, nothing new as Dark Shadows (1966-1971) had done this decades earlier when they introduced vampire Barnabus Collins into its Gothic soap opera. Collins was created as a monstrous threat that would stalk the town of Collinsport Maine before finally being killed with a wooden stake. The character became so popular, however, that he eventually became the central figure in the show’s ongoing serial narrative [a similar thing happened with Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer]. Even Angel’s detective format was not entirely new as Canadian vampire series Forever Knight (1989-1996) had already told the story of a sympathetic vampire attempting to atone for past sins by fighting evil while working on the night shift of the police force. As Angel came on the screen in 1999, it was working within familiar terrain, standing as part of a longer tradition of vampire TV – a tradition that continues today with True Blood, Vampire Diaries, The Originals, Dracula, and From Dusk till Dawn. What stood out from the start, however, was Angel’s hybridised aesthetic style, mixing detective narrative with horror and film noir, presented through a rich visual and aural tapestry that evoked the melancholy and heroism that defined Angel and his team of investigators [as evidenced in this extended opening credit sequence].
The series stands out for its urban location, night-time shooting, complex characterisations, adult themes surrounding sex, alienation, guilt, redemption, moral ambiguity and its willingness to occasionally mock its own pretensions:
The show very quickly established itself as distinct from its parent series Buffy by targeting a slightly older audience. If Buffy was about ‘growing up’, then Angel was about the pains of being a grown up. To mark the anniversary of Angel’s conclusion, I want to reflect on the series and I thought one of the best (and fun) ways to do this was to present my top 10 episodes through which to watch and think about Angel. These are not necessarily my favourite (some are) nor the best (but some are) but episodes that offer particular insight into the strengths of Angel as a series. As with all good lists, I hope that this will provoke discussion, thought, rewatching, and further lists.
Let’s go to work:
10- – ‘Not Fade Away’ (5.22)
The best place to start is with the end. ‘Not Fade Away’ was a controversial conclusion for many fans as the creators chose to end the series in media res, as the remaining Team Angel, after having initiated a war with the evil Senior Partners, meet in an alley to face, quite literally this time, their demons… demons from hell that is. To me, this episode embodied the defining characteristics of the show and its characters. It is the act of fighting evil, oppression, and the coming apocalypse that counts and not who survives or wins. The final image of Angel, raising his sword to face a dragon, as he tells his team ‘Let’s go to work’ leaves the characters in mid-battle…fighting the good fight….helping the helpless. The fact that this conclusion was preceded by each of the characters spending the day — potentially their last day — doing something personal also reminded us of what they each fight for. The episode embraced and celebrated the human moments within a global apocalypse: Spike doing a public reading of one of his poems, Angel offering his good penmanship to his son Connor as he drafts a CV, Gunn helping at a youth shelter in his old neighbourhood, and Wesley finally achieving his role as Watcher this time to Illyria – demon God embodied in Fred’s human form – patching her up and preparing her for battle. This particular moment is made all the more poignant later when Illyria decides to join Wesley, having won her own battle, and, finding him mortally wounded, consoles him in Fred’s form as he dies and weeps at his demise (didn’t we all). The episode brings together the intimate and the epic and leaves us cheering Team Angel in their endless mission to ‘fight the good fight’.
9- ‘Hero’ (1.9)
Having mentioned Wesley’s painful demise in season five, season one’s ‘Hero’ was the first episode of true heart break as Team Angel suffers its first casualty in the form of Doyle, played by the late Glenn Quinn whose subsequent death makes this episode all the more poignant. This was the ninth episode of the season and so Doyle’s self-sacrifice was unexpected (I remember assuming he would be resurrected for week’s following his death). ‘Hero’ reminded audiences that in this show anything could happen and no character (except perhaps Angel) was safe. Long before The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones drew such great attention for the unexpected demise of key characters, Joss Whedon and the team at Mutant Enemy regularly reminded us of our mortality and the pain of loss and grief.
8- ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ (1.14)
It is easy to dismiss season one of Angel as it was clearly finding its feet and struggling with its format. Originally conceived as a monster-of-the-week gritty detective drama, executive producer Joss Whedon and showrunner David Greenwalt gradually realised that their strength lie in character-based drama. This episode, however, stands as one of the best stand-alone monster stories, albeit with hints at broader themes to come. The episode follows Angel and rogue-demon hunter Wesley Wyndam-Pryce as they try to save a boy possessed by a demon.
The episode knowingly evokes William Friedkin’s The Exorcist as both Wesley and Angel try to exorcise the demon from the innocent boy, ignoring the demon’s attempts to play to their insecurities and undermine their allegiance. But just when it seems to be a familiar remake of a classic horror trope, the episode reveals that while the boy was indeed possessed, the demon was not the cause of the mayhem and violence surrounding the boy and his family. The demon describes being trapped in a hollow remorseless shell, unable to escape until exorcism released him. The episode concludes with the boy attempting to murder his family in their sleep. Here Angel reminds us that monsters are not the source of all evil and that evil is all the worse when it is human born – a theme that recurs throughout the series.
7- ‘TimeBomb’ (5.19)
As I’ve written in my book Angel: TV Milestone, this series is predominantly about masculinity, challenging and undermining traditional gender construction surrounding notions of the hero. With its primary focus on the show’s male characters, the role of women within the series remains, however, complex if not unproblematic. Too many of the female characters meet horrible deaths (Cordelia, Fred, Darla), but there are also great pleasures to be had in the representation and construction of the female characters on this show. I am particularly drawn to the female villains or monsters such as evil lawyer Lilah Morgan, vampire Darla, and the demon-God Illyria – an old world demon revived in the body of Team Angel’s own Fred Burkle (who was killed in the process of Illyria’s resurrection). This episode is a key one for Illyria and highlights the pleasures and problems of Angel’s women.
First, Illyria reminds us of the constructedness of gender for she is described as a Demon-God not Goddess and his past identity is discussed as male but once reborn into Fred’s body, she becomes inscribed with a feminine identity. Her tight fitting costume both highlights the curves of her body while also looking like body armour, reinforcing an image of physical strength and imperviousness to harm. This episode celebrates her strength through a series of fight scenes with all of the show’s male characters (Angel, Spike, Wesley, and Lorne) wherein Illyria not only wins but kills all of them in one fell swoop – a feat never achieved by any of the show’s earlier screen villains despite numerous attempts. The episode’s clever time loop narrative allows us to enjoy her victory, while then restoring these characters to life. But this victory is short lived for the primary purpose of the narrative is to find a way to contain and control Illyria’s power, leaving her weakened and therefore manageable. This episode raises very interesting questions about gender in male centred telefantasy and the issues about what happens to female characters who become stronger than their male counterparts (reminding me of Donna in Doctor Who).
[The discussion of this episode is indebted to fellow Angel-scholar/fan Bronwen Calvert for her excellent work on Illyria and the TV action heroine]
6- ‘Orpheus’ (4.15)
‘Orpheus’ marks the climax of a three part series of episodes in which Faith the Vampire Slayer returns to Los Angeles and recaptures the evil Angelus (Angel’s vampiric alter-ego) so that his soul can be restored to him. This episode is of note for a series of rather idiosyncratic reasons. It features a guest appearance by Alyson Hannigan as Willow, the only character to have previously restored Angel’s soul (on Buffy – ‘Becoming Part 2’), allowing for comic in-jokes with other Buffy alumni Charisma Carpenter (Cordelia Chase) and Hannigan’s real-life husband Alexis Denisof (Wesley), each showing the extent to which they have gone to the dark side. But more significantly, the episode features a ‘this is your life’ dream sequence in which Faith and Angelus move in and out of each other’s consciousness (facilitated by a mystical drug) and examine the blurred line between Angel and his evil alter-ego Angelus, reminding us that the battle to do good is not as simple as having or not having a soul but one of choice. The episode climaxes with a long awaited, and self-consciously Freudian, battle between the two sides of Angel’s identity, fighting for dominance. The episode also features great comic moments at Angelus’ expense, such as when he is forced to rewatch Angel rescuing a puppy in the 1920s and singing along to Barry Manilow on a juke box in the 1970s.
5 – ‘Harm’s Way’ (5.9)
Angel is marked by many noteworthy comedy episodes – placing it quite centrally between The X-Files and Supernatural in a history of metatextual TV. While remembered by many for its brooding and melancholy, Angel utilised comedy as a necessary counterbalance to the show’s darkness and to highlight the constructedness of gender and identity – as well as to poke fun at genre conventions. ‘Harm’s Way’ marks an unusual moment to explore both the world of Angel and its comedy, via a character that is somewhat peripheral to the story, namely the at times superficial and vacuous high school ‘mean girl’ turned vampire, Harmony. The episode comically follows Harmony in her 9-5 routines as she tries to lead the clean, human-blood-free lifestyle required of her job as Angel’s personal assistant. Until that is, she finds a body in her bed and tries to conceal this lapse from her ‘no-tolerance’ boss. In keeping with Harmony’s identity, and in contrast to Angel who is not afraid to emphasise the black, the episode’s visual palette is bright, pink infused, and bubbly. The physical comedy surrounding her attempts to dispose of the body highlight the contrast between her girlishness and her extreme vampire strength, while the episode is punctuated by the comedy of repetition as Harmony repeatedly knocks out each colleague who learns of her blood-lapse and hides them in a closet. The climatic confrontation between Harmony and the rival vampire who has in fact framed her, offers a scintillating parody of the martial arts films that clearly inspired the show’s choreography team, as the two women do combat with chopsticks (all it takes to kill a vampire after all is a wooden stake through the heart). This episode is one of many fascinating and enjoyable narrative digressions that make the show’s final season so distinctive and enjoyable. It also provides Harmony with a brief moment of heroism, which is all the more powerful given the fact that she is working so hard to be good despite the fact that she is not in possession of a soul. In Harmony we perhaps see a precursor to Caroline on The Vampire Diaries.
4- ‘Guise will be Guise’ (2.6)
Continuing the discussion of comedy brings us back to season two’s ‘Guise will be Guise’ written by Buffy writer Jane Espenson, the queen of comedy. This episode offers the first of many comic deconstructions of masculinity along two key strands. The first is the comic buffoon Wesley’s attempts to pass himself off as Angel, when Cordelia is threatened and Angel is unavailable to save the day.
Wesley’s impersonation of Angel calls attention to the affectedness of Angel’s masculine identity, defined as it is by his imposing stride, accentuated by the long black coat ( As Lorne says, ‘it’s all about the coat’). This affectedness is further examined via the second strand to the episode, namely Angel’s attempts to address his obsession with Darla (his sire now restored to life as a human by Angel’s nemesis the evil lawfirm Wolfram and Hart) by speaking to a swami. Through these discussions Angel’s self-image repeatedly comes under attack as he is mocked for his self-loathing (why would a vampire live in LA and drive a convertible after all) and his adherence to self-image via his use of hair product:
“How many warriors slated for the coming apocalypse do you think are gonna be using that hair gel? (Angel runs a hand through his hair) Don’t get me wrong – you’re out there fighting the ultimate evil (Takes two wood staffs off the wall) you’re gonna want something with hold.”
This episode sets up a well-established tradition of gender deconstruction within this series that climaxes in ‘Smile Time’ when Angel, the champion, hero of the people, is magically transformed into a muppet.
3 – ‘Lullaby’ (3.9)
In contrast, ‘Lullaby’ is an episode that highlights the series adherence to traditions of melodrama rather than comedy. This episode weaves together the series’ narrative about Angel, his past-lover Darla and the impossible birth of their offspring with the story of Holtz, the vampire hunter tormented and tortured by Angelus and Darla back in the day. Angel’s attempts to hold onto his family are beautifully contrasted with Holtz’s loss of his family at Angel’s hands. While Holtz’s mission of revenge paints him as the villain, the episode reminds us that he is only the product of Angel’s dark past. But this is Darla’s episode, a character who first appeared in the first five minutes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer but who on Angel was allowed to grow and develop into a character too complex to be labelled as either hero or villain. Here she faces the realisation that despite her lack of a soul, she has come to love her child – the one good thing she and Angel have created in their many years together. Her self-sacrifice to save her child – staking herself to facilitate the birth – is beautifully staged in an alley surrounded by fire and water. In the tradition of the best of Hollywood melodrama, the heavens weep tears of rain at Darla’s passing, and invite the audience to mourn her loss.
2 – ‘Spin the Bottle’ (4.6)
This episode is perhaps my personal favourite as it brings together the extremes of comedy and melodrama that defines the show, presented via the virtuoso direction style of Joss Whedon (see my book on Angel and my chapter ‘Directing Angel’ in Reading Joss Whedon for a more detailed discussion of Whedon’s direction of this and other episodes). ‘Spin the Bottle’ begins with the team in their darkest phase of despair with Wesley alienated from the group due to his seeming betrayal of them in season 3; Fred and Gunn are now estranged due to the fact they have conspired to commit murder; Cordelia is suffering amnesia after a stint as a higher power and Angel is desperate to restore her memory and reconcile with his now adult son Connor. As Gunn explains in ‘Players’ (4:16), they are all trapped in ‘what I can only describe as a turgid supernatural soap opera’. This episode therefore serves as a respite from season four’s near operative narrative arc and to prepare the audience for the darkness to come, as the group suffer from a spell gone wrong that returns them all to their seventeen year old personas.
This narrative trope (not dissimilar to Buffy’s ‘Tabula Rasa’) serves to alleviate the darkness by wallowing in comedic excess. Star of the episode is of course Wesley who once again is able to offer a dazzling display of physical comedy and pratfalls that remind us of the comic buffoon he was when he first appeared in Sunnydale as Buffy’s less than impressive Watcher. Similarly, fans of Buffy are provided a brief glimpse Cordelia once again as the acerbic Queen C, a master ‘mean girl’ like no other rather than the selfless champion she has become. Great humour is derived from Angel’s return to his 18th Century seventeen year old self Liam who thinks that music coming from a stereo is emerging from tiny minstrels and who describes the cars speeding past the hotel as shiny demons. All the more humorous is his terrified discovery that he is in fact a vampire and the others are going to kill him. This episode brings out the best of the actor’s comedic skills. It also serves to remind the audience about how all of the characters have grown but also at what expense. The sequence of shots that end the episode, an overhead image of Wesley, Fred and Gunn slowly walking away from each other in silence; Cordelia running away from Angel in horror as her memories come flooding back; Lorne, the narrator of the episode, walking out of an empty bar, signals the separation and loss that will define the season. The group will go through hell on earth before finally being reunited.
1- ‘Are you Now or Have you Ever Been’ (2.2)
If ‘Spin the Bottle’ is my favourite, then ‘Are you Now or Have you Ever Been’ is, arguably, the best and most significant episode in the series. Written by Tim Minear it signals his presence as a key artistic voice in the series (one of the few writers from season one to return for season 2) and introduces the Hyperion Hotel as a central location for the show – as important to Angel as the Sunnydale High Library was to Buffy. Its flashback structure has become a hallmark of Minear’s work on Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse (and given the prevalence of flashbacks on American Horror Story it is not surprising that Minear is one of the central writers on that series as well). Minear’s episodes repeatedly integrate flashbacks within the storytelling structure, reminding us that a series with an immortal at its centre will have a different experience of time. If Buffy was about the ‘now’ then Angel is about the co-existence of ‘then’ and ‘now’. This is conveyed in ‘Are you Now or Have you ever been’ through a fluid movement between past and present, either through uninterrupted camera movements or the joining of two seemingly unrelated sequences through continuous sound. In this manner, Angel’s past and present are shown to be interconnected. This episode is also the first episode to present a glimpse of Angel’s life post re-ensoulment that highlights the manner in which the desire to do the right thing and help the helpless is a choice rather than an essentialist result of possessing a soul – a factor that is reasserted in ‘Orpheus’ discussed above when Angel chooses to drink human blood from the body of a dying man – undermining an underlying assumption that Angel has not had human blood since his re-ensoulment. This episode’s narrative of suspicion and paranoia, evoked through references to the House of Un-American Activities Committee of the 1950s, sets up the themes that will permeate the season and the series as Angel goes head to head with the lawfirm Wolfram and Hart – an organization that thrives on the evil that men do.
The episode’s conclusion when Angel is betrayed by the one friend he had and chooses to abandon all of the humans living in the hotel to a paranoia demon – telling the demon ‘take them all’ – prepares us for Angel’s next dark moment when he locks a group of lawyers in a room with vampires Darla and Drusilla – telling the lawyers ‘and I can’t seem to care’. This moment also then calls to mind Angel’s darkest moment when he visits best friend Wesley in the hospital in ‘Forgiving’ (3:17) after Wesley abducted his son Connor to protect them both. Having made it clear to Wesley that Angel is still himself, not Angelus, not soulless, Angel tries to smother Wesley rather than forgive him. ‘Are you Now or Have you Ever Been’ sets up the arc of Angel’s narrative trajectory, its complexity, its humour, its hope and its darkness.
Through this list I have tried to highlight those aspects of Angel that stand out to me as signaling its significance within the pantheon of cult TV and which mark its impact. Much has come since then but I continue to feel the presence of Angel when I watch Torchwood — it’s all about the coat after all and the casting of James Marsters as Captain John seems to be a deliberate echo of the Angel/Spike relationship in season five — and Grimm (produced by David Greenwalt). While TV screens are overpopulated by sympathetic vampires that seem to owe a debt to Angel, it is probably two demon-hunting brothers (Supernatural) who seem the most directly influenced by Angel, as they struggle with the complicated questions of what it means to be a man in the 21st century and how best to be a hero when the lines between good and evil are completely blurred. Angel lives on indeed.
Ten years after its cancellation, Angel is still a pivotal moment for me with respect to cult TV and with that in mind it warrants further reflection and consideration. I hope to see more lists in the coming weeks. It’s time to go to work.
Stacey Abbott is a Reader in Film and Television Studies at the University of Roehampton. She is the author of Celluloid Vampires (2007) and Angel: TV Milestone (2009), and co-author, with Lorna Jowett, of TV Horror: Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen (2013). She is also the editor of The Cult TV Book (2010) and General Editor of the Investigating Cult TV series at I.B. Tauris.