Angel 1×11: Somnambulist

[Review by Ryan Bovay]

[Writer: Tim Minear | Director: Winrich Kolbe | Aired: 01/18/2000]

The first half of AtS’ first season roars across the finish line with “Somnambulist,” an important, impressive, and hugely entertaining episode. It’s the second episode to receive a Perfect score so far, and despite some early doubt, full consideration gave me the answer that this episode was indeed fitting. Why?

Well, my criterion for a perfect episode is as such: Firstly, the episode must be technically flawless, or have problems insignificant enough that they don’t affect my enjoyment. Secondly, it must have a good deal of development for the characters or story arc, and have consequences that affect the series and leave an impact. Thirdly, it requires a piece of its execution to do something amazing; I need to be blown away. With this episode, I was. Very tightly constructed, it provided everything you could want from this kind of a show and then some. And while it isn’t quite as powerful or deeply impacting as some other episodes, even ones whose flaws couldn’t bring them above a 95 (the most prominent that comes to mind being “I Will Remember You” [1×08] ), it deserves every percentage point it in its score.

The episode is composed of three major conflicts, all of them woven with masterful care throughout the story. The first is the simplest: Angel versus Penn. Of course we know that Angel can’t be performing the killings that occur in the teaser in his dreams, and he soon realizes which of his ‘apt pupils,’ which of the vampires he sired, are behind the murders. The second is more important, and is the main point of the episode: Angel versus Angelus.

Penn’s existence, as it is so bluntly pointed out by Angel, is because of him. It is him (and Angelus having been my favorite Whedonverse villain of all time, it’s why I like him so much). Penn as a character isn’t all that deep or new and revolutionary, but what he does as a device is superbly effective is that he necessitates Angel’s mission for redemption brought into the present. In BtVS S2, mainly in “Becoming, Part I” and “Becoming, Part II” we got hints and flashes of who Angelus, the true Angelus (the one who ravaged across Europe for a century) was, but it was done solely for the effect of the final fight and to give us what we needed to know for the context at hand.

With Angel now the main character on his own show, this became too little. There’s only so much talk about puppies nailed to crosses and “I was so evil, I must brood” that can get the point across, since Angel’s feelings on his sins have been clear for some time. The purpose of Penn was to personify the horrors of Angelus, to show us why he needs redemption as opposed to just telling us, and he does this very well. Much like his mentor, the apt pupil is very personal about his kills. He’s a master of the human animal, capable of cleverly manipulating situations and emotions for his gains (demonstrated when he tricks Cordelia into revealing Kate’s identity). Finally, he also happens to be a particularly brutal #######, who takes death to a mortifying artistry.

Penn is Angelus’ reflection, and that’s the conflict. Angel must face everything his student is doing, has ever done and plans to do with the knowledge that he made him, taught him and was him. This duality of his nature and the threat of the demon inside re-emerging is something he has learned to live with, but the appearance of it in the bold and bright present shakes him to the core; he admits to Wesley and Cordelia that he enjoyed the killing dreams explicitly. From start to finish, his demeanor is one of raw fear as he senses his alter ego stir. What’s more than just the cruel irony of seeing his crimes in another are the crimes of the other themselves. Just as with Drusilla and Spike, Angel is, by extension, responsible for everything they’ve done and every moment they exist is more blood on his hands.

It’s no wonder he’s so shaken; the effects of Penn’s return speak for themselves. This conflict isn’t one that finishes within the episode, or even the series, either. Rather, it’s featured here to let us and the characters know how close we are to Angelus’ return at any time. To treat him as a potent threat in every moment makes the history that the series explores through to S5 much more relevant to the present, and does it undying justice in that none of it becomes unimportant. And, critical to our understanding, this episode gives us a valuable piece of information on what Angelus did for Angel to need redemption in the first place. This is explored in “The Prodigal” [1×15] as well.

As for Wes and Cordy: They both react spot-on throughout the episode and some development even comes of it. Kudos to Wes too, as his ‘powers of deduction’ were on the money. As aware of Angel’s duality as Angel is, he is willing and prepared to take on the demon the moment it re-emerges. Cordy too, informing Angel that she’ll “kill him dead!” should the day come. It’s exactly why they can and quickly do become as close to the dark avenger as they do (the events in this episode particularly important to their bond), while characters like Charles Gunn take a lot more time to. In “That Old Gang of Mine” [3×03] Angel tells Gunn: “You’ll prove that I can trust you when the day comes that you *have* to kill me – and you do.”

Throughout S2 and into S3, Gunn’s history fighting vampires renders him incapable of properly accepting what Angel is, (which is why he’s particularly harsh on him in “Epiphany” [2×16] ), and it takes a long time before they reach a proper place in their dynamic.

The vampire Penn isn’t just a device though. Going back to the first conflict, I have to say I liked the small but well-used side story that rounded out Penn’s motivations for his murders. There is the possibility, that like a type of addict, Penn has spent his life trying to recapture that one immeasurable moment of killing his family (something the mythology purports is a vampire rite of initiation). Angelus telling Penn “savor the moment, you’ll not recapture it,” followed by a quick cut to his wall of news clippings about the murders suggests this is possible.

More likely, however, is that it’s all in the family: He killed those whom he supplanted as his family, using all eternity to continue to get revenge on his disapproving father. Secondly, after becoming a vampire, he was taught proudly by his sire Angelus in the art of death, and constantly sought his approval, having lacked his real father’s in life. In that, Angelus became the father he could never have made proud, and the repetition of the deaths over two centuries show that his hatred for one father was as strong as his admiration of the other.

Penn doesn’t really care about Angel’s soul, what’s happened since the early 1800’s or why it matters; he’s never even informed. All that matters is when the dad he hasn’t seen in nearly two centuries appears before him changed, disapproving his actions, he appears to Penn as the one he’s spent forever getting back at. So of course, killing him is no question, but as a student of Angelus he doesn’t just kill. He gives Angel a brutally ironic taste of his own BtVS S2 medicine, exploiting and threatening Cordy and Wes, and then going after Kate the moment gets a whiff of Angel’s compassion for her. This was a really great place to take the story, and the final fight was all the more dramatic for it.

The third conflict is the toughest for the viewer to go through and is the most important in the immediate wake of the episode: Kate versus Angel. Or rather, Kate versus Angelus. Up to this point Kate has represented part of Angel’s tie to the human world. She’s played the part of the outsider, not aware of Angel’s past, vampirism and has functioned as both a potential romance subject and a connection to the world not rooted in Sunnydale. This episode changes everything. Within this story, brought on by her discovery of what Angel is, and who Angelus was, she becomes someone entirely different to herself and Angel.

Her part now transforms into another piece of Angel’s quest for redemption. Indeed, Angel, Kate and Penn are a triumvirate here. Penn is the sin, Kate is the guilt, and Angel is the reconciliation. Angel tells Holtz in “Lullaby” [3×09], “there’s no justice for what I did to you.” He knows his own history and that making up to it is going to be more than saving souls; there’s the guilt. Kate becomes this now, unaware of Angel’s history or the context of his ensouled life, her discovery of both his identity and his past leave her with confusion and hatred. When Angel confronts her at her door she’s well aware of what he is and isn’t all too happy about it. She’s read about his sins, and the constant price the ensouled hero has to pay is racked up again at the cost of their friendship.

Not all’s lost however. When all these threads come together for an amazingly well built-up fight sequence at the end, the payoff is incredible. Angel comes face to face with both demons he has to fight, and Kate makes the right choice in the heat of battle. Their relationship is never the same again, and Kate will always be, in part, a mouthpiece to read back the monstrosities of Angelus whenever Angel gets too high on himself or too close to his old path (see “The Thin Dead Line” [2×14] ). But her decision to stake only Penn is a step forward following the massive regression that took place in a split second this episode, as she clearly recognizes Angel has something to offer the world. She’s seen his bravery and his strength, and can’t deny the value of those things.

As I said, though, nothing ends here. Kate and Angel’s relationship is drastically altered because of these events, all the way up until their final time together in “Epiphany” [2×16]. And Angelus, certainly, is never going to go away. The strength of this episode goes well beyond the strong writing, frightening villain and cool fight scenes. The Angel Investigations team are all the tighter too, and I like how Wesley’s being slowly integrated into a part of their new family. He can’t replace Doyle, but he’s part of something new and that’s great too.


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Cordelia talking to an empty chair.
+ Angel’s quick takedown of Wesley.
+ Chains. Ha!
+ Angel making his point to Kate while the cross burns his hand.
+ Us believing Cordelia’s talking to a chair again, and then we see Penn is in it.
+ The ‘stalking the killer’ montage.
+ Penn appearing inside the police station. So totally Angelus of him.
+ Kate using a giant stake.

– Penn not hearing Kate pull out her bottle of Holy Water. Aren’t vampires supposed to have great hearing?


* In the flashback, Angelus instills his ‘family values’ in Penn, speaking of the unmatchable pleasure of family blood. In “The Prodigal” [1×15] we learn just how he murdered his family after being sired by Darla, and how he ‘savors’ the experience.
* Wesley has a hero complex, believing he alone is the one who must act in times of crisis. Here, he is instantly prepared to go up against Angel when he believes he has turned evil. In S3, he betrays his entire life at Angel Investigations when he thinks that Angel is going to kill his son. Both times he works behind his friend’s back, and both times he is wrong.
* Wesley’s investigative skills usually put him in the place of bad-news-messenger. In “To Shanshu in LA” [1×22] in L.A. he transcribes the scroll, mistaking it as a prophecy of Angel’s death. Cordelia also acts the same way in both cases, defending Angel loyally.
* Both Angel and Penn claim Angel’s responsible for all Penn’s transgressions and psychotic traits. This is the same with any Angelus took undre his wing; Spike, in “Destiny” [5×08] says to Angel: “Drusilla made me a vampire. You made me a monster.”



19 thoughts on “Angel 1×11: Somnambulist”

  1. [Note: buffyholic posted this comment on February 3, 2008.]

    Amazing review, Ryan. I must say that I´m impressed with this episode everytime I see it. It has a lot of issues, very hard to deal. I mean, Angel is trying to atone for his past deeds and he is good now, but that´s really hard because just because he is good now, that doesn´t erase his past sins and what he did. Excellent stuff, great food for thought.


  2. [Note: Tara and Willow posted this comment on March 17, 2009.]

    First of all, gongratulations Ryan on your perfect reviews. Each time I watch an episode I alway go on to read your review. Now this episode was good but NOT as good as you present it. I found myself bored in some spots. I would give it a C+


  3. [Note: Tara posted this comment on March 17, 2009.]

    First of all, gongratulations Ryan on your perfect reviews. Each time I watch an episode I alway go on to read your review. Now this episode was good but NOT as good as you present it. I found myself bored in some spots. I would give it a C+


  4. [Note: wytchcroft posted this comment on August 1, 2009.]

    Great, great episode, and a fine review.

    I like that Wesley has his own motives and actions from the get go (and though he IS ‘on the money here’ – after his initial suspicion…) we all know where this ends…

    And yeah Kate and Angel, it IS tough, in fact it hurts me more than the Buffy thing – but this kind of complexity serves the show well, and if Kate does eventually (and unfortunately) begin to fade from the show from here on in, that does clear a path for Darla – who, as you point out, rocks up both S2 and S3.

    Oh and a vampre’s comedy accent, always good for a laugh.


  5. [Note: Nathan.Taurus posted this comment on January 13, 2010.]

    The only thing I didn’t like with this episode was Cordelia’s out of character, stupid just-added-for-laughs comment about the stake. There is no way in the given circumstances that she would mistake what Angel is really asking for. I can understand 1775 Buffy not understanding in ‘Halloween’, but not Cordelia now.

    Anyway I like the episode greatly and found Penn a better past friend of Angelus than the vampire couple in the season 3 opener.

    Penn wears glasses to read which is strange for a thing with good eyesight.

    Kate finally finding out what Angel is and his past deeds.

    One of my favourites for season 1.


  6. [Note: Jason posted this comment on August 25, 2010.]

    I’m currently watching Buffy S4 (love it) interlaced with Angel A1, and if this is a perfect episode… I’m going to take a break from Angel. There was nothing wrong with it, but there just wasn’t anything great about it. Not for this viewer. It all seems rather thin, and I usually know just where it’s going. Does this show get better? 🙂


  7. [Note: MikeJer posted this comment on August 25, 2010.]

    Jason: Yes, it gets a lot better than this (particularly by S2, but also towards the end of S1). Personally I think Ryan really overrated this episode. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a good solid episode, but nothing all that spectacular.

    But do take note that this is not scored as a “perfect episode” but rather just a special episode… according to Ryan. The “P” grade does not mean it’s perfect as the description next to the grade explains.


  8. [Note: John Roberts posted this comment on November 7, 2010.]

    I’m with Mike and Jason here. This show isn’t yet ready for a P. It only has two real characters, after all. We barely know Kate and Wesley is only beginning to be something different and better than a stock sissy English ditherer.

    Within that thin context, this episode does very well, as Ryan explains. I was *so* pleased that it wasn’t an Angel-becomes-Angelus episode, which I feared from the title and from the start of the show. I’m happy to see Angel struggle against his evil part … but not yet! The pacing was right here, this is a setup for future events, as it should be.

    Cordy is becoming very funny. She’s much more interesting than in BtVS. Kate and Wesley need similar development. And this show still needs a couple of more regulars.


  9. [Note: JMK posted this comment on January 3, 2011.]

    I would like to state that I really liked this episode. But after rewatching it recently,it should be noted that the actress that played Kate was so montone and boring haha. My friend and I could not help but dislike the character to her very core. I understand what she represents to the story and to Angel, but her monotone performance was very dull in my opinion. However, the story and its purpose to illustrate the struggle that Angel faces in terms of his past and within himself was very well done. On a side note,I think the scene where Angel disarms Wesley was hilarious. Gotta say that I love Wesley as a character and was very amazed at his development throughout the show.


  10. [Note: nathan.taurus posted this comment on January 10, 2011.]

    I think Jeremy ‘The Hurt Locker’ Renner plays the best vampire assistant/old friend to Angelus of any of the put-into-the-time-line vampires.

    JMK: Kate can get pretty boring. The actress is good, maybe it’s the nasel voice.


  11. [Note: nitramneek posted this comment on December 17, 2011.]

    one of funniest lines in the ‘verse, Cordy to Angel; “you look half dead”! Nearly called 911 thinking I flayed my own chest laughing at that one. I mean, right right up there with “I aim to misbehave”, and the classic “Hi! I’m Buffy the vampire slayer, and you are?


  12. [Note: TheShanshuProphecy posted this comment on October 12, 2012.]

    Nice review – some valid points re character development but I don’t think the episode stands alone as a ‘P’ in any way. It’s a solid ep but it always smacked of contrivance for a couple of the reasons that you have stated – a way to re-intro Angelus (especially for those viewers who haven’t come from BrVS) and a way to demarcate the (until then unclear) relationship between Kate/Angel. I never liked the character of Kate (although there was potential for a character like this, perhaps it was a chemistry thing?) and the will they/won’t they was never very strong so it wasn’t working there either. But this ep felt like a shortcut to bring the two narrative conflicts into quick focus & lacks some sincerity for that reason. I like the episode, it has some great moments, but it feels contrived.


  13. [Note: nathan.taurus posted this comment on January 25, 2013.]

    Penn wears a Claddagh ring with the heart pointing away so that he belongs to nobody. Angel, of course, gave Buffy a Claddagh ring in ‘Surprise’.


  14. [Note: Matt posted this comment on February 1, 2013.]

    Great review of this episode, it’s definitely one of my favorites of the series. Also, I think there’s a subtle connection in this episode to season 4’s “Soulless” that no one else has really noticed. Towards the end this episode, Penn says “But I’ve come to realize something – it’s you! You made me! You taught me! You approved of me in ways my mortal father never did! You are my real father, Angelus.”

    The idea of Angelus as one’s “real father” is brought up again in Soulless, in Connor and Angelus’ conversation. Connor tells him that “Angel told me how you’d try to hurt me, how you aren’t my real dad, just some animal in a cage. Angel’s my dad… That’s what he told me. And he thought I believed him. The truth is, Angel’s just something that you’re forced to wear. You’re my real father.” While it’s probably just a coincidence, I found it kinda interesting.


  15. [Note: Josh Man posted this comment on September 10, 2013.]

    An important episode, sure. Worthy of an A plus? Not for me. It didn’t really excite me. I love Jeremy Renner, who returns to the Wheden verse as Hawkeye in Avengers, but the story is slow and rather predictable, especially compared to some of the other episodes in the season that really, in my opinion, stand out. I think “Hero” was worthy of an A plus and you gave it a fairly low grade, so maybe we just aren’t going to agree. That being said, I still enjoy reading your thoughts.


  16. [Note: Random posted this comment on April 24, 2015.]

    This episode reminded me of a Highlander episode, with the flashback scene of an old friend/enemy in contemporaneous garb and grooming, flashing forward to same friend/enemy as he looks and behaves in today’s world. Luckily, it was much better written than any Highlander episode (not that I hate Highlander, but it wasn’t the best made show ever, especially compared to ME productions.)

    One of the interesting aspects, I think, about this episode is that it is one of the first where Angel, confronted with his past, doesn’t spend endless time brooding. The immediacy of the danger obviously plays a part in that, but I also wonder if we’re supposed to understand that Angel is finally starting to realize that he actually exists in a continuum. It’s not all about a futile but inescapable fight for redemption anymore. When Doyle’s gift offered him a glimmer of hope that he had a higher calling, he accepted it grudgingly. But the fact that the gift was passed onto Cordelia after Doyle’s sacrifice would seem to hint that the PTB are dead serious about Angel’s ability to change the world. They didn’t just throw up their hands and sigh about the loss of their link to Angel. They transferred it to Cordelia, which, to Angel, would likely seem a powerful hint that whatever is going on, it’s real and important on a larger scale than his mere redemption. This idea, of course, will come back in full (and torturous) force during the “Dark Angel” arc, but, for now, Angel seems to have the one thing I would suggest he always craved from Buffy — the chance to have a real destiny, a real place in the world. What Whistler offered Angel wasn’t just a road-map to atonement, but an opportunity to exist in the same world as the heroes themselves. (Obviously, Whistler didn’t do a particularly grand job of selling the idea of Angel being a part of something greater — he was too irreverent and cryptic for that — but he at least laid the seeds for something that Doyle and Cordelia nurture into something more than a vague hope.)


  17. [Note: Pathbeyondthedark posted this comment on April 24, 2015.]

    Before I address you, when rewatching this I realized it was Jeremy Renner playing the part of Penn. It’s always great to catch actors back before they became stars.

    It really isn’t until “To Shanshu in L.A.” that Angel fully grasps his role in all of this. For him, despite feeling the need to redeem himself, he never will. It’s as much a part of his brooding and internal suffering as is his guilt. His despair at realizing he’s damned no matter what he does does not allow him to live in “our world.” I believe Wesley at some point even alludes to this, that grabbing onto something tangible, something that gives you hope (referencing the prophecy) is necessary to continue living with some semblance of healthy contentment.

    At this point, I think he’s still going through the motions, living day by day and enacting his righteous deeds in an effort to forget his sorrow for even just a single moment. It gives him the slightest amount of comfort, just for an instant, to help someone before remembering exactly where he’ll end up once his number is up. Having to leave the one thing that brought him happiness in so long, Buffy, plays a part in it as well. But I believe the latter is downplayed in favor of the former in order to make Angel his own entity rather then one tied to Buffy alone.

    That said, he probably does become increasingly suspicious and inquisitive, albeit quietly, about what all this PTB and vision stuff really means. I just think it’s not a priority of his to analyze too much. Again, it probably never occurred to him that his soul could possibly be saved from damnation. If he was becoming inquisitive, it’d be more about airing on the side of caution then believing his destiny has any grander meaning or light at the end of the tunnel. This is pretty evident in “To Shanshu in L.A.” where Wesley’s mistranslation about him dying doesn’t phase him one bit. He never thought for a second that he’d end up anywhere else and it didn’t bother him because he already believed it himself.


  18. [Note: Random posted this comment on April 26, 2015.]

    I had the same reaction in “Expecting” when I realized Wilson Christopher was played by Ken Marino, heh. He looked really young there, though he was in his 30s by then.

    I agree and disagree with your analysis. In the macrocosm, “To Shanshu in L.A.” was the turning point, agreed. S1 of AtS was a slow burn of a character arc, much like S1 of BtVS, except Joss and co. had learned some lessons from their BtVS experience, which translated into a much smoother, more sophisticated first season for the latter series. But we’ve now watched all the way through “Sanctuary” (we binged this afternoon and evening) and I honestly think there’s a marked transition from the early season to the later that seems to have roots in “Somnambulist”. I’ve been keeping an eye out this time and have yet to mark any further development of the “brooding” factor that the series hit us over the head with in the first few episodes. While still dour, the Angel of the post-“Somnambulist” episodes seems to be shrugging off his brood-fight-moralize-brood rut.

    That could partly be attributed to the writers feeling comfortable enough to stop selling the characterization, having settled into a groove where they no longer feel compelled to make sure the audience knows and understands the character of Angel. (I believe we’ve already discussed the issue of spin-offs and developing an audience independently of the original series.) But if we’re staying with contextual explanations, he’s also feeling more comfortable with his role. Just as Cordy notes she can trust her friends after the events of “Expecting,” Angel seems to getting more involved with his environment, more motivated in his fight as he learns to trust his own companions and his new role in the world. Let’s face it — broody BtVS Angel was hardly comfortable with any of the Scoobies except Buffy herself. He was the very definition of the outsider boyfriend who never quite assimilates into the girlfriend’s social group. At best, he could call on them to help save the day when Buffy was in danger, but can you imagine him just sitting down for drinks with any of them? That’s what strikes me about AtS — Buffy had her Scoobies, and they helped her be a better slayer. Angel now has his Angel Investigations gang (and it will grow over the seasons) and that somehow clarifies his role as a champion. I think we start to see that around this time, the idea that he’s not alone, he doesn’t have to sit in the dark brooding. He has responsibilities, and friends, and they are, in fact, frequently the same thing.


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