[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt | Director: Joss Whedon | Aired: 10/05/1999]
Welcome to the very first review of AtS (Angel the Series), for the premiere, “City of.” This is a flash-bang of a series opener which is nothing short of flawless. We get a feel for Angel as a leading man, meet his new sidekicks and follow him through an airtight plot as he starts his quest for redemption. At this point in time the people behind BtVS (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) had three years of experience under their belt, bringing them to the start of AtS in a well readied state. This episode and most of S1 are fantastic proof of this. Composed mostly of stand alones, this season still manages to be one of the shows most consistent and most universally liked seasons because of its unwaveringly rigid focus on character development. A whole load of important things happen in “City of,” so we’ll dive right in.
“High School is over, pal,” Doyle tells Angel early on, and how right he is. Whereas Buffy’s base metaphor for its first three seasons rested upon the demonic exaggeration of the High School experience, S1 of Angel is a about the new kind of life one experiences in their early twenties. Whether it’s moving to a big, scary new city where nobody knows your name (this episode), dealing with the impossible singles scene (“Lonely Hearts” [1×02]), finding a new place to live (“Rm w a Vu” [1×05]), getting over your H.S. sweet heart (“I Will Remember You” [1×08]), or learning about consequences (“Expecting” [1×12]), this particular age bracket has a distinct calling card of experiences.
High School truly is over for Angel and Cordelia, and much of the first Season deals with growing further as people in response to that. However, it is not the primary focus of this episode, and in fact is only an undercurrent to the main theme that dominates S1.
The first scene presents our fearless hero deeply drunk, telling a bald and black bar patron how much he reminds him of his much beloved Buffy (whose name is not actually mentioned once in this episode); pure, blissful Whedon. We know instantly we’re still in Joss’ world, which comforts those of us moving on to new territory from the end of BtVS S3 (as are our characters). After leaving the bar, Angel expertly dispenses of two vampires who are out on the hunt, but finds himself grappling with human cravings of his own, as he tells the grateful and now-saved victims to flee when he spots a bleeding cut on one of their foreheads. He can’t be near them.
This is a smart way to start the show, and it is the focus of both this episode, and S1 (along with the perennial theme of redemption): Human Connection. Angel is a man who wants to help people and do the right thing, but with no connection to the human world, he faces becoming detached from them as well. As Doyle points out rather bluntly in the next scene: “that craving is going to grow and one day soon one of those helpless victims that you don’t really care about is going to look way too appetizing to turn down. And you’ll figure hey! What’s one against all I’ve saved?” It’s a disturbing truth and you can tell Angel knows it right away.
The first two scenes with Doyle (one in the apartment and one on the street) are both very important. Aside from introducing the uninitiated to the dark avenger’s history, they accurately sum up his current situation, and what needs to change. Angel is seeking the means to do good, but is going about it wrong, dangerously distancing himself from those who he hopes to help. From there, Doyle explains that he receives visions of people in danger from omniscient forces called the Powers that Be (who will be referred to as the PTB), and he has been sent to Angel to help guide the wayward hero in saving helpless souls. We also find out that he is half demon in a rather funny way: spikes come out of his face after a sneeze, just before which he strongly affirms he is completely human (‘on my mother’s side’).
Doyle properly states that saving the world is not just about gadgets and brawls, it’s about connection, and saving lives and souls; about letting people into your heart. The parallel here to Buffy’s character and the psychology of the Slayer as told by Spike in BtVS’ : “Fool for Love” is quite applicable, probably to all heroes. Vigilantes rise and fall because they are cut off, and eventually implode or explode when they come under stress with no one to support them. The key difference is that Angel’s character would explode, whereas Buffy’s would implode. We see examples of this for both of them later on in the timeline.
In BtVS “The Gift,” Buffy’s emotional support finally buckles when she faces the idea of sacrificing her sister on top of having lost her lover and her mother so recently; she chooses to die rather than face this. Angel is different. In S2, we see him go dark without losing his soul; his emotional support buckles when Darla is turned back into a vampire by Wolfram and Hart almost instantly after he helps redeem her, and he goes on a manic quest for vengeance, locking W&H lawyers in a room with two deadly vampire gals (2×10: “Reunion” [2×10]).
He then fires Gunn, Cordelia and Wesley to willingly complete the transition to full detachment so he can pursue a full on crusade for blood. As Wesley tells him, they (his friends, his human connections) are all that stands between Angel and true darkness; he knows this, which is exactly why he does what he does.
The reactions of the two heroes are different, but the message is the same: A connection to the world is all that will keep a hero from slipping off of it, and it is what makes a hero. Part of Angel’s darker moments in this episode actually have to do with the loss of Buffy in his life, but wisely, the writers do not call attention to it, focusing on Angel himself.
Once this has all been explained, Doyle gives him his first soul to save: A woman named Tina (oddly, a blonde), who he is to meet at a coffee shop. He somehow manages to charm her, also learning that she is very afraid of someone named Russell. Offering Tina a ride to start, he ends up at a Hollywood party where he runs into Cordelia (who I’ll talk about later). There’s some fun stuff in here, including a hilarious exchange with a talent agent named Oliver (who appears later in this season: “Eternity” [1×17]), but the purpose is first and foremost to give us an impression of how (not) well Tina’s acting ‘career’ is going.
From here the pace picks up and doesn’t let go, with Tina being snatched out of the party by Russell’s man Stacy and rescued by Angel in a very entertaining car chase. Hiding back at the apartment, the two share a quiet and beautiful pair of scenes that really hit home, helping to re-establish what kind of guy we know Angel is. When he responds to Tina’s suggestion that he’s earned the right to ‘comfort her’ by telling her “this is the part where you have a safe place to stay…you have enough people taking advantage right now,” we feel as moved as she does. But the happy is short lived, as Tina finds Doyle’s instructions in Angel’s apartment no sooner than the soulful vampire starts to feel the needed connection he was told about. This drives the paranoid Tina away to her apartment to flee where she is confronted by the aforementioned Russell, who is not only cleverly manipulative, but a hungry vampire. Bye Tina.
It struck me as a waste at first, but in fact, helped smartly move two important things along. First: we see instant proof of what happens to Angel when he loses that human connection discussed earlier. He had gained Tina’s trust, and then lost her. His initial reaction is not self-destruction or pity, but vengeance; Angel swiftly returns to his place in a blood thirsty mood with full intent of tracking down Russell’s henchmen and Russell himself. Not that much later he violently breaks into the store that one of the henchmen own. When told by Stacy that Russell will kill everyone he cares about, all Angel can say is that there is no one left he cares about. Good stuff.
The second thing that made the Tina plot essential had to do with Russell himself, who we learn in the next scene is Russell Winters, a powerful and wealthy client of – and here they are – Wolfram and Hart, a law firm that appears to be more than just a law firm at once. Lindsey McDonald, the lawyer, makes his first appearance, quickly and coolly constructing an alibi for the vampire with nothing but business in his amoral voice.
By coincidence, Cordelia, who has also been chasing an acting career, ends up at Russell’s place, lured by the promise of a break in her career, at the same time Angel makes his move. Apparently Cordy’s been chasing the Hollywood cliché like Tina, having ditched Sunnydale to seek riches in acting. Her exchange with Angel at the party is sweetly played and reminiscent and of an old Scooby meeting, and upon first viewing is quite cool; watching two members of the old Sunnydale clan who never really interacted chat it up. Like Joss Whedon’s third show, “Firefly,” these little moments are what makes the big ones matter; the experiences of friendship and communion that so many other shows lack. I also like how we’re meant to think that Tina will be the one Angel saves, but it turns out being Cordelia by the end.
At this point, her character is advancing forward through the motions foreshadowed in BtVS “The Prom,” with her family having lost all its money, and poor Cordy herself going through a dry spell. Her apartment is run down, she has little food and her only real things of value are her few fancy articles of clothing. She is as Cordelia as ever, letting no one know about her struggle, but in fact is in a harsh place. This is the first thing introduced to make her character more sympathetic, despite still being the snarky Cordy we know. All of this sets her up properly for the stellar development that she is soon to go through.
Angel shows up in the nick of time to rescue her, and the fight scene is fun. The feeling of excitement as our hero steps out of the shadows with Tina’s ‘message’ for Russell is purely satisfying and well-earned, as our reaction is the same as Cordelia’s: “Oh, boy! You’re about to get your ### kicked!” All the episode’s tightly woven threads come together for a pay off that feels both worthwhile and liberating, here and after in Russell’s board room. Watching Doyle come through was nice, too, even though he doesn’t get much to do in this episode beyond that and the vision (this would be a detractor in other episodes, but since it is the series premiere the focus needs to be on Angel).
We do see hints of his nature in a few places: when Angel asks him why he wants to help, he mentions that everyone has something to atone for. Back at the mansion we see him struggling with the notion of risking his hide, even though he knows it’s the right and selfless thing to do; in the end he does. This is a good starting point for his development since that by the time his life ends, he’s willing to die selflessly to save the lives of others (“Hero” [1×09]).
All of this is excellent, and makes a grand first showing. Rolled in with great entertainment is also some very good and logical character development (as well as re/establishment), new information and some clever foreshadowing. Wolfram and Hart is introduced, we get our first mention of the senior partners, and our heroes are set up to take the stage. Russell Winters was an efficient creation in how he brought out the necessary sides of Angel’s character. The script was also very tightly constructed, so not a moment was wasted between the story and the sharp licks of dialogue, which are particularly good here.
I debated quite a bit about whether or not to give this episode a Perfect score, but I feel it’s earned it in retrospect of the entire series; more for what it does than what it appears to be. It lacks a single misstep one way or another, and is a perfect start to this great show.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The use of Angel’s theme music throughout the episode.
+ After the vampires leave the bar, Angel’s face goes from a drunken stupor to an intensely focused glare in about two seconds. This is a great little piece of acting.
+ The first appearance of wrist-mounted stakes.
+ Angel jumping into the wrong car.
+ Cordelia’s self-esteem meditation.
+ Angel has seen fourteen wars in his lifetime. Though not including Vietnam, as he mentions they never declared it.
+ Doyle ramming the mansion gate and busting the car.
– The new vampire makeup is cheesy looking; luckily it is changed later on in the show.
* Doyle mentions that everyone has something to atone for. We later find out that he still suffers from guilt over his marriage (1×07: “The Bachelor Party” [1×07]) and refusing to help others of his own half-demon kind (1×09: “Hero” [1×09]).
* Angel is told that human connection is what makes a hero. In S2, he both loses and breaks his human connections and slips down a dark path. In S5, distancing himself from the average soul-in-danger weakens his conviction to be a hero entirely.
* Lindsey refers to Russell’s victims as ‘long term investments’ for the firm. This is a good hint about how Wolfram and Hart operate.