[Review by Ryan Bovay]
Fans find themselves torn on most of AtS’ seasons almost as heatedly as they do BtVS’. Some enjoy Season One’s anthology style while others revile its lack of an arc and slow pace. Many consider Season Three the show’s best season for its large arc and strong developments, but some see it as overstuffed with filler, dramatic tension taking the place of substance. Everyone may agree on Season Four’s grand ambitions, but whether they fall absolutely flat or amaze is up to the viewer. Even Season Five, widely considered by many to be the best season, has some harsh critics. So the fact that Season Two stands alone with very few detractors and unkind words against it is a mark of something special, especially on a show as intricate and divisive as this.
The preceding season was, for its weaknesses, thematically strong and coherent. While looking at the tribulations of life after High School in the big city, it managed to do so in a way that developed the characters within another major theme: Connection; Human emotions and growth that make us a part of the world, make us human. By the end of the season, Angel had become ‘human’ by that definition. He’d been given a purpose, both short and long term, and a mission to fight for: Fighting in the final battles and surviving to be made a breathing human being again. Season Two, with a much broader theme, builds logically on that, and asks our vampire hero just what it means to really be human. Much of the season’s development is split in that way, with Angel increasingly being led off into his own world, with his friends developing entirely in a place away from him.
While he and the fate that ties him to Darla explore the complexities of human existence, Cordelia, Wesley and Gunn become forced to suffer through and succeed in it on their own. Though not as characterized by pain and hopelessness as much as S3 post “Sleep Tight” [3×16] through to the end of the series is, there’s much darkness and suffering abound, especially for Angel. His epic trials and will for revenge separate him harshly from humanity, only for him to realize that his worst actions are indeed wholly human, and that this is what humanity really can be. Season Two has such interesting ideas in spades, and its theme looks at all the best (“Untouched” [2×04], “Guise Will Be Guise” [2×06], “Epiphany” [2×16]) and worst (“Reunion” [2×10], “Reprise” [2×15]) sides of our existence: forgiveness, self-control, image, obsession, revenge, victory, belonging and the very nature of evil itself. By the time the season closes, Angel’s re-examined entirely what his mission is and how he’s to fight it, and goes from a champion vampire-with-a-soul to simply a genuinely good human being who helps people.
With the exception of the brilliant period piece Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?, and a few rare others, the season doesn’t have quite as much use for pure standalones. Its arc employs its best metaphors and situations in the interest of exploring all sides of the characters’ journey, and as such, the season gives the impression that more happens this year than last because of the depth of each phase of the arc: the four episode standalone period, the first part of the Darla arc (“Dear Boy” [2×05] to “Reunion” [2×10]), the second part of the Darla arc (“Redefinition” [2×11] to “Epiphany” [2×16]), another couple of standalones (“Disharmony” [2×17] and “Dead End” [2×18]) and the Pylea arc (“Belonging” [2×19] to “There’s No Place Like Plrtz Glrb” [2×22]).
This is likely why the season finds such a strong and undivided following. While some dispute the worth of the standalones or the Pylea arc, others like them, and everyone loves the story arc; there’s something for everyone. The best aspect of this year of the character’s journey in L.A. is how broad and all encompassing the season is. With the exception of Season Five, I find this to be the best season of the show. It has a few great metaphors, an engaging, unpredictable story arc, fun standalones, important character development, strong drama, and some of the most intelligent moral and social considerations I’ve ever seen on a TV show or in a movie.
There’s not much of to level against this season. Even the worst episodes were done competently and with merit, and the lesser ideas and developments were just that: less than great, not necessarily bad. There are only two small items that belong on this list:
- Comparably tepid high points.
- Overstatement of theme.
While S2’s arc is a very fine piece of work and one of the best stretches of episodes in the Whedonverse, the high points of the season, with the exception of the four perfect episodes of the season, are comparably bland when contrasted with S1’s high points or S5’s. Those seasons may have sharper lows, but find a groove that allows for high points of high consistency at more points. S2’s arc, as engaging as it is, doesn’t always get the highest scores; S1 had eight A marked episodes and three P’s, while S2 has four of each; much of the year rests in the B range. However, a season is not only the parts of its whole, a fact which I’ll address in the “Pros” section, but it is unfortunate seeing as how easy it would’ve been for this set to outstretch any other with a bit more going on.
The other issue to address is the re-use of theme at some points in the season. The first four episodes of the season, standalones that are a prelude to the main arc, have great success and charm, but do seem as though they’re all driving home the same point in a teasing kind of way. They manage to entertain in their own right so they’re forgivable, but we do however have a pair of episodes (“Belonging” [2×19] and “Over the Rainbow” [2×20]) towards the end of the season that substitute theme entirely in the place of character development. This is hardly a problem that plagues the entire stretch of episodes; in fact, there’s so much material here that the writers likely felt it necessary to re-state some things simply to jog our memory. Nonetheless, it’s a not a detraction one can ignore.
- Engaging, intelligent and important story arc.
- Huge amount of important character development.
- Increasingly complex thematic ideas.
- Effective and entertaining standalones.
- Good balance between in-depth storytelling and entertainment.
As I mentioned in my overview, S2 builds a great deal upon S1. S1’s strong use of theme and intensely focused character development are present here, with a great deal of newer improvements. This, even if it’s not quite a perfect (or the best) set, simply because not all of it reaches a huge, consistent high point like the second half of S5 does.
For all the successes of this year, nothing was more triumphant or more responsible for the high quality than the Darla arc, and its titular character. “The Prodigal” [1×15] gave us our first flashback of Darla, in which she told Angelus “What we once were informs all that we become.” How true that’s held here. Like Holland Manners, she is such a brilliant concoction because she manages to be a plot/thematic device and an intrinsically valuable character all at once. Her existence as a human and her fall down to the demon world lead Angel effectively through the stages he must go through to experience the best and worst parts of humanity, at times trying to abandon it entirely. And yet, even in this her character is too complex to be simply labeled a villain, as she’s deeply sympathetic even at her worst moments. The pain and randomness of her human existence leads to genuinely unpredictable turns, which throw the world into chaos when she becomes a vampire again. The torment Angel is forced through and concordantly turns against his friends and Wolfram and Hart produce excellent drama. And by the time it’s all over, Angel has come to important realizations about how to fight evil that re-define the show in a fundamental way. The transformations the characters undergo this year have a broader range than any other season.
And all of it is done with competence and fearless execution. But what’s best about the arc and, in fact, the season, goes far beyond that. The writers use the story to explore profound questions about human existence, which have depths that far outmatch almost any show. What it means to be human is a fundamental question of our existence that has been asked since human beings learned to speak. When we’re dealing with a creature that isn’t technically human, we get to be a bit more literal and conclusive with the idea, even if it is only fiction and metaphor. But we’re never hit over the head with the theme. The writers’ answer to the question is left vague enough for us to come to our own reasoned conclusions, but the story is so adept at producing difficult situations for the characters that we find ourselves re-considering our own positions and seeking out the truth of others. We find ourselves siding with characters we ordinarily may not, or justifying terrible things that some others may do, which in turn makes us question our own human existences. And on a base level, our very sympathy for Angel is tested many times throughout the arc, and that mine was nearly broken a few times is testament to the power of the writing.
Also, in discussion of theme, it’s important to mention the excellent episodes “Reprise” [2×15] and “Epiphany” [2×16] . These two hours of television contain some of the most intelligent writing I’ve ever seen on a screen, big or small (“Reprise” [2×15] in particular). Their real world importance is huge. Foreshadowing the show’s attitude in future seasons, these episodes take an existential turn, holding that the world is a random, natural place with no exact order about it. The idea maintains that the world is a staging ground for the motivations and fears of every human being, all of which collide or collaborate to produce the world as is; there’s no God, no destiny, no big win or loss. There’s just us. We live, and then we die.
“Reprise” [2×15] is the dark side of the existential bent; we live in a society that necessitates routine dishonesty, glorifies violence, and requires evil to exist. What are we, then? Wolfram and Hart’s employees make an excellent argument for the ‘humanity sucks’ brigade, and as Angel slides further down his slope, so does he. “Epiphany” [2×16] is more positive, saying that if this is all that we are, then this is all that we are. And with the world weighing as heavy on us as it does, and with no glorious reward for our labours at the end of the journey, then every act of kindness, every tiny selflessness we manage means the world. The very possibility of it makes humanity great.
However, a few great episodes does not a great season make; the cardinal rule is that a show is only as good as its filler. Though the average episode (“The Shroud of Rahmon” [2×08], “Happy Anniversary” [2×13]) doesn’t quite reach the heights that S1’s average fare often did (“The Bachelor Party” [1×07], “Blind Date” [1×21]), it maintained an excellent consistency at its level. And, just as much, the standalones all had value. The first four episodes of the season were good thematic preludes to the main arc, and every non-major episode within it lent something to the main purpose of the overall story. Even with a better average score, a season that lacks this cohesiveness would still be, overall, inferior.
What’s best about the average episodes is how they manage to blend tones and be all over the map without feeling inconsistent in that respect. An episode like “Guise Will Be Guise” [2×06] went and mixed riotous situational comedy with intelligent character insight, and another, “The Shroud of Rahmon” [2×08], was sheer smartass entertainment augmented by an intense and unsettling fourth act. And in between them was the hugely important, noir-styled look at Angel and Darla’s past (“Darla” [2×07]). There’s a perfect balance here between darkness and fun, and it keeps the season as a whole from being too macabre to just sit down and enjoy.
Angel’s development is, again, the key to the season which the plots and ideas run alongside with. As I mentioned, his development is the logical continuation of where we left him at the end of S1. He’d recognized his right to exist in the world. The events of the S1 finale left the ensouled vampire with confidence in himself and his friends, and a prophecy that promised him human life for fighting in the apocalypse (which side he fought for was left unclear). This gave Angel short/long term purpose and allowed him to accept his existence as a champion for humanity for all his good deeds. Now, I say champion rather than person because Angel, for as human as he socially became in S1, was still left with a long way to go.
Angel, up to this point, has been metaphorically and literally defined as the torn individual; a man and a demon inside him fighting for dominance. S2 throws this entirely out the window and begins to look at the character as a true human being. It makes him ask of himself what it means to be human by destroying this champion persona, starting with “Judgement” [2×01] . The promise of glory, saving the world and becoming human again have made him far too comfortable in his mission for redemption, and turned Angel Investigations into a demon extermination crew, where once their mission was to save souls and help people make life worth living, rather than simply allowing them to live it (sounds like an artist’s preference if I’ve ever heard it). By being forced to admit his mistake in slaying a noble demon in “Judgement” [2×01], Angel takes his first step forward. That episode itself, despite being one of the weaker season premieres, was very indicative of where the entire season was going for his character.
It examined Angel as a vain, image based being, who believed whole-heartedly in his grand-champion identity and his mission to ride in on the white horse and save the day. This identity was what he saw as his salvation from the demon within him that sought to overtake all that he was. By showing him his wholly human fallacies, the episode forced him to undergo a difficult penance and accept a humbler station in his mission. And this is the story of our hero this entire season. After this initial shake up Angel is not fundamentally changed, but is conscious of this new view of himself. But then something (read: Darla) happens. Her invasion of his dreams makes him lie to his friends and begin keeping secrets until they spill out on their own; his earliest human sin in this story.
The fake swami in “Guise Will Be Guise” [2×06] accurately defines Angel’s issues as “Judgement” [2×01] identified them, and goes one further: The swami advises that hiding behind his image is damaging, and limits his true personality. What’s more is that he makes the claim that the idea of Liam and Angelus inhabiting Angel’s body and fighting for dominance is a false and metaphorical perception;. All there is is Angel. He is who he is, and is capable of wondrous and terrible things all at once. It’s what makes him a part of the human world. Angel hears this, but isn’t quite ready to accept it yet, and continues pursuing Darla obsessively and ignoring his mission (more human faults) because he still believes in his image as a champion. And as she is experiencing the same things that he once did when he got his soul, he is intent upon helping her. But more importantly, she is representative of something: She is someone important to him, even in a negative context, who has been made into what she is at the time of “Darla” [2×07] by W&H’s dark designs. To Angel, she is the epitome of the helpless soul who must be saved from their evil, with the highest stakes (snicker) possible riding on her salvation.
He does his hero thing, and goes so far as to choose his life over hers in the ultimate champion-like battle and sacrifice, which makes the destruction of this image for him all the more potent when it is rendered useless in “The Trial” [2×09]. And when, in a dark and ingenius play, the writers have Darla turned back into a vampire by Drusilla at W&H’s order, his mission is destroyed. This move re-defines everything Angel believes: human connection is really a weakness, evil must be hunted and exterminated for anything else to survive; the helpless need to be helped a lot less than the guilty need to be destroyed. Out of a misplaced sense of compassion and a desire to abandon the humanity that has pained him so, Angel fires his friends and takes the low road to becoming a remorseless killer with a solitary purpose: destroying Wolfram and Hart.
The irony is that he simply cannot do either of those things. For all his efforts he is still an emotional being, and his worst, most remorseless actions are as much a product of his human existence as his best actions were. This is what the faux-swami purported: This is not Angelus, nor is this Liam. This is Angel, the vampire who’s as ‘human’ as any mortal doing such things. In the period stretching from 2×12: “Blood Money” [2×12] to “The Thin Dead Line” [2×14], Angel takes advantage of a teen shelter to damage W&H’s image, pays near-complete indifference to helping a man who accidentally almost destroys the world, and ignorantly lands Kate in huge trouble in a blunt and stupid move. What’s important to note in this period of the season is that Angel is still using his old image of a great hero, but ironically: He tells Anne that Wolfram and Hart has to be stopped, but is really interested in simply hurting them. He goes to great lengths to save Gene, but by that point is completely indifferent, beginning to slip into suicidal hopelessness. And in “The Thin Dead Line” [2×14] he fully tries to play hero for only his own gratification in a pathetic attempt to reconnect somehow to his old life.
Most telling, however, is that underneath the exteriors of the two extremes he had portrayed so far, he does little things that show his true personality, such as selflessly taking a horrible beating to get Anne her money in “Blood Money” [2×12]. At the end of “The Thin Dead Line” [2×14], there still seems to be hope for Angel. But then 2×15: “Reprise” [2×15] happens. So disenfranchised with existence and the utter impossibility of saving and redeeming the world, he dives in to a kamikaze mission, fully content with giving his life to destroy Wolfram and Hart. Holland Manners’ chat with him clicks the last piece into place: Wolfram and Hart is not the cause of evil, but is merely an avatar of it. The same evil, he says, exists in every human being, with organizations like W&H only founded upon such negative aspects of existence. As such, the very idea of redemption OR the destruction of evil is utterly impossible. The thought of this leads Angel to his night of empty, hollow despair with Darla during which he presumably seeks to lose his soul, all to escape the inevitable tragedy of what he now knows he is, what his actions have been: human.
Not losing his soul to Darla opens his eyes and puts him on a new path, different from any of his old ideas on how to fight evil. Angel resolves in “Epiphany” [2×16] that if nothing matters in a greater sense, than all we have is our actions. It’s what made Angel so truly detestable during his dark period, despite his grander intentions. All it takes to ‘save the world’ is the smallest act of kindness, and to simply help people and do good, his own salvation be damned, becomes his new mission. This is Angel’s greatest step away from his champion complex and into humanity. It’s also the new mission statement for the show as a whole, which is not about winning, but about living to fight for good and the intrinsic worth of that action. And it’s a particularly important moment in the long term too, because here, for the first time, Angel dispenses with the Shanshu prophecy despite its supposed importance. By Season Five his suffering in this cruel world will have made him completely detest the idea of the heroic life he once led.
But before the season closes it asks of our characters: where do we go from here? The stretch of episodes from “Disharmony” [2×17] to “There’s No Place Like Plrtz Glrb” [2×22] examines the re-united Team Angel’s lack of belonging in the new world they’ve found themselves in following the main story. Pylea concludes all this and sets them up, and for Angel, it is a particularly difficult trip. His last shreds of vanity are destroyed when he finally, literally, looks himself in the mirror for both good and bad and realizes that despite all his past preconceptions about himself he doesn’t have to be defined by any half of his personality. He realizes what the writers and his friends have been telling him all season, and finishes the year as a bona fide and true member of our society, minus the ability to tan.
Cordelia’s transformation in this season is not entirely unlike Angel’s. She begins moving from her own little fantasy world into the ‘real’ world and becomes a better, more realistic person through it. This year is about her mission too. In S1 she was a wannabe actress moonlighting as an oracle, but in S2 she learns to live with her vision-burden and begins the path that will turn her into what fans have “lovingly” dubbed her S3 character: St. Cordelia. In “To Shanshu in LA” [1×22], suffering the pain of literally everyone on Earth due to Vocah’s spell made her realize the importance of her mission with Angel Investigations. By “Judgement” [2×01] she’s starting to realize her own fallacies. Along with Angel, she and Wesley make the mistake of being too zealous as a demon hunting machine, rather than actively trying to save souls. But the bit that relates to her that I really liked was a small throwaway line where she lamented “Lord, will no one shut me up?”
She’s starting to become more self-aware and more realistic. Her dedication to the mission is important in the first half of the season, as she’s Angel’s strongest emotional tie to Angel Investigations, while Wesley functions as the logical voice of reason. Cordy recognizes the value of what they’re doing and, more importantly, is the only one of the Fang Gang who lived in Sunnydale during Angelus’ reign of terror. She’s rightfully the one most afraid when Angel begins his descent. But it’s when fired that she and the rest of the Gang really get their moments to shine, starting in “Redefinition” [2×11], in which they symbolically unite in the age old bonding ritual of drunken karaoke, searching for their new destinies at Caritas. By the end of the episode they’ve saved a life without Angel, and realize wholeheartedly that their mission to save souls is something separate from Angel and the old team.
Cordelia, despite the worsening pain and the decreasing social life and inability to pursue her dream, takes stronger to her job as the season progresses. For the lack of glamour and money, she has two close friends she trusts completely with her life, and a definite purpose that betters the world. Like Angel, she clings to her old image as her true personality shines through, and a new persona begins to develop that is truer and more honest to her deeper feelings. But she’s not averse to suffering. Although one could make the argument that what she and Wes and Gunn are put through is puny compared to what Angel is, it’s really a different side of the same coin; human suffering. Being abandoned and forced to start over, for all the success they encounter, is difficult on the gang and Cordy in particular is most wounded by the betrayal of her old friend. The visions were meant to guide Angel, and how pedestrian his methods of casting her off were is damaging.
As her suffering from the visions intensifies, she would no doubt blame Angel, however misplaced the blame might be. When he attempts to rejoin the group, her first words to him are how badly he hurt her feelings. The gesture of buying her clothes shows he is not averse to her feelings, likes and sensitivities, and transcends the apparent material-ness of the act, and is the first real step in healing their friendship as they begin to re-define their group. But with the acting career well in the rear-view mirror, Cordelia is as much like anyone following the Darla arc in feeling the need to confirm where she belongs.
Pylea is such a critical turning point for her because she gets a chance to live fully and totally the way she’s always wanted to: worshipped unconditionally, praised, waited on and made famous. But she’s grown so much since S1 that it’s quickly surmised to be a bore. Being a subservient figurehead extolled for no particular virtue or accomplishment rings false to the battle-weary Cordy, who is capable of being more than the hot girl, the glitzy movie star, and knows it heart and mind by now. For all the pain and heartache, what she does has value, and when she returns to L.A. with the gang she’s left behind an image like Angel has, and has moved onto being something much greater and truer.
Wesley Wyndam-Pryce finished off last season as someone who’d grown into the new Angel Investigations family following the death of Doyle. For him, S2 is about his old image as a bumbling pratt, and how he overcomes the anxieties that have informed some unfortunate traits that produce that image. For as long as Wesley has existed in the Whedonverse he’s been intelligent and highly useful, but has always been marred by performance anxiety and self-worth issues. As we first learned in “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” [1×14] and saw more of this season, it’s largely due to his condescending, overly critical father, who’d obviously instilled an unfairly critical voice in Wesley’s head with his influence. Compounded by his failure with Faith in Sunnydale, Wes has long seen himself and been seen as incompetent by others despite his positive traits. And in the shadow of those he looked up to like Angel, his anxieties were more severe, often humiliating. Like the rest of Team Angel, he starts S2 with a big confidence boost due to the group’s new cohesiveness and sense of purpose, but joins in on the bad feelings when they collectively screw up. His prejudgments about demons make him feel particularly shamed in “Judgement” [2×01].
The major development he gets starts in “Guise Will Be Guise” [2×06], where he proves his worth conclusively and takes charge of the team and a mission in an action that foreshadows his leadership position in “There’s No Place Like Plrtz Glrb” [2×22]. It’s a situation he’s forced into, but succeeds in. It’s not only a tremendous confidence boost as he proves his own capabilities to himself, but also a good step forward in his dynamic with the rest of Angel Investigations. He starts to realize that he too can make important calls, which is why he no longer feels the obligation to be subservient to Angel as the Darla arc kicks off, and plays the voice of reason to the increasingly obsessive hero. When Angel fires him along with Cordelia and Gunn, he steps nervously but bravely into the leadership role at the new Angel Investigations, which keeps the name to show that the mission goes beyond the man that started it.
This period is particularly important for him, as he begins to be seen as an equal by Gunn as they fight alongside one another and as a respectable figure by Cordelia (“Blood Money” [2×12] and “Happy Anniversary” [2×13]). In “The Thin Dead Line” [2×14], getting shot while helping Gunn earns a deep respect from him for Wes, and just experiencing and surviving the harrowing events that surround it make all of them as close a group by the time of “Reprise” [2×15] as the old team was at the start of the season. So confident is Wesley in this new bond that when Angel shows up to take a book from their offices he’s not the least bit hesitant to stand up to him, and in “Epiphany” [2×16], despite his memories of great adventures past, is the first to chastise Angel for his selfishness and reckless abandon. This is the best sign of his development as a character, considering that Angel used to be someone he sucked up to, and it’s even more impressive that he’s the quickest to forgive Angel, because he now understands the immense pressure of the position Angel was in. Seeing his remorse allows him to forgive his friend almost instantly, and he moves on much quicker than Cordy or Gunn do.
But for all his change, he still has his daddy issues, which are reinforced in “Belonging” [2×19]. And as we see in “Disharmony” [2×17] and “Dead End” [2×18], there are still some stickier parts of his new job that he’s not prepared to deal with. Pylea changes all of this. Wes feels responsible for almost letting the Drachen demon get away and kill someone and for losing Cordelia to the portal. In “Over the Rainbow” [2×20] he takes real charge, and his follies with the rebels in “Through the Looking Glass” [2×21] fully motivate him to put aside the very last of his reservations and use his skills and knowledge to finally do something right. Not only does he come up with a good plan for defeating the Pylean Covenant, but he shows the moral fiber of a General in his willingness to sacrifice lives and souls to serve the greater good. Whether or not this is moral to you is left for you to decide, but it’s a huge step for someone who once begged Angel for a job to send the same man onto the battlefield with orders and false hope. As I first discussed in “Somnambulist” [1×11] , Wesley’s always had a bit of a hero complex because of his abilities and his desire to be the lone saviour. Now we’ve seen what he’s truly capable of doing with his anxieties eliminated, and it sets him up for his tragedy in S3.
Charles Gunn is the new addition to Angel Investigations this year, having popped up in the last three episodes of S1. His introduction episode, “War Zone” [1×20], was good, but not great, though in retrospect of the series was much more interesting than upon initial viewing. It’s clear the writers saw a future for him when they designed that episode. In a series about redemption, his character is the archetype of the hard-done street man that has to grow up past adolescence in a different way, and atone for losing his sister. His character isn’t all that interesting in comparison to the others until S4 and S5, but actor J. August Richards make him likeable and sympathetic enough to work, and there’s plenty for him to do in this season. Right away the series goes ahead and addresses that while he might appear to be the token black character, it’s not going to take the typical route and make him that. His practical usefulness and quick action are valuable in “Judgement” [2×01] despite some skepticism concerning his ‘hood’ appearance from Wes and Cordy, who treat him a bit idiotically. “First Impressions” [2×03] gets in quickly too to address his issues left over from the previous season, namely his dangerous death wish.
Gunn is a man of action, who’s fought a sustained war against vampire gangs in his neighbourhood since he was a child. Foresight and planning are not what keeps his type alive; quick, bold and decisive (which usually also can mean stupid) action is the kind of action a soldier has to take in any war. That he is alive is a testament to that. But soldiers tend to have a short life span. In “First Impressions” [2×03] we see how his social brashness and lack of foresight can be damaging and dangerous, and it takes someone who usually does nothing but sit and try to think (vision-girl Cordelia) to ‘save’ him and show him the problem. Of course, it’s not an instant change, but the favour is appreciated and it’s after this junction that Gunn starts showing a respect for Angel Investigations as a legitimate partner in fighting the underworld, as he agrees to be a paid team member in “Untouched” [2×04]. In the run up to “Reunion” [2×10] and the firing by Angel, he shows that his death wish has faded, but his problems with planning haven’t. If Angel’s obsession with Darla is considered an addiction, then Gunn would easily be considered an enabler. Not thinking too much of Wesley, he goes over his head and mindlessly helps Angel track her.
And yet, when the shocking events of “Reunion” [2×10] transpire he’s right alongside everyone in chastising Angel. This is in part due to having no hindsight either, but another is also lent to an issue that isn’t finally solved for Gunn until “That Old Gang of Mine” [3×03] : His problems with working for a vampire. In Angel’s worst actions he sees a reaffirmation of what he initially summed Angel to be and what he believes most vampires are. “The Shroud of Rahmon” [2×08] makes commentaries on obsession for several characters, and Gunn is one of them; still in pain over his sister’s death, he’s accepted Angel as something of a colleague, but is still on edge about the very idea of their working relationship and it shows throughout the season. When he’s fired he seems indifferent; it’s an uncomfortable proximity he no longer has to worry about. But then something happens in “Redefinition” [2×11]. He realizes he actually enjoys fighting the fight with Team Angel, even if it’s minus Angel. When he has his neighbourhood gang to fall back on it’s not entirely clear why he’d join up with Cordy and Wes, especially since he didn’t seem to regard them all that highly, but perhaps he saw it as doing more good than he could with his gang.
Maybe it’s not meant to make sense, since Gunn acts rather than thinks. Working with Cordelia & Wesley makes him grow tremendously, and seriously begins to split his loyalties. Wesley taking a bullet for him seals their bond as brothers in battle for the soldier-like Gunn, and Cordy’s function as guide makes him realize her worth. When Angel comes back into the fold, threatening to upset this new bond, he’s the most openly hostile, even though he was, as mentioned, an enabler and the least wronged of the three. He’s also a hypocrite, considering he abandoned his gang in the same way. But he accepts Angel’s new role, even if he doesn’t fully accept his nature just yet.
Pylea makes him see Angel’s worth and strength quite a bit, and it also serves to finally push him towards loyalty to Angel Investigations, despite still being guilt wracked about his gang. The season ends on a shaky note for Gunn, and the issues left lingering aren’t fully addressed until “That Old Gang of Mine” [3×03].
The character that made this season work. You could almost argue that she is the main character of season, or at least equal to Angel in importance, as all the major events in the season happen around her development and doings. What makes her work so incredibly well, aside from the nuanced and broad performances by actress Julie Benz, is how she’s not only a good plot device (the ramifications of which I discussed in individual reviews) but a worthwhile character on her own (which I’ll discuss here). She motivates action and affects all the characters while still developing her own story. Her past with Angel makes it all the better, because she’s someone very personally important to him who becomes the symbol of the helpless whom he must help, and when he fails, it makes it all the more damning.
As we open on her story, she’s still acting very much like a vampire at the time of “Dear Boy” [2×05], as she plays Wolfram and Hart’s game with Angel purely because of her interest in him. She hasn’t felt the spiritual effects of being a human again yet, but as “Darla” [2×07] rolls around she becomes infinitely more interesting as it starts affecting her, and as we learn of her past. As a human who died in 1609, she was bitter and emotionally detached, powerless to stop disease from infecting her and a world taking advantage of her as a prostitute. When sired by the Master, she became the opposite of that personality as most who become vampires do: Sensual, passionate and voraciously sexual with an appetite for power.
Liam’s innocence and potential for corruptibility were what drew her to him, and with him she was able to put her ‘whorish’ and murderous talents to use in the guise of dark romanticism, which not only pleased her but allowed her to cultivate her own image, one that is destroyed when she learns that Angel never loved her; that because of what she was, she couldn’t even conceive of love. But is that really only a non-human issue? As she gains the ability to feel through her soul, we’re asked the season’s big question about what it means to be human through her as well. Darla, in her first human life, never knew real love either. There’s an interesting paradox concerning souls here too, as she considers her new gift of life a cancer, while Angel sees the curse that gave him a soul as a blessing. She refers to the two of them as soul mates; their fates inescapably tied together by higher powers and meddling.
The major development she gets in this stage is in “The Trial” [2×09], when she realizes that humanity isn’t so bad and that she does have love in her life, after all. Not the fanboyish infatuation that Lindsey offered, either, but genuine affection. Angel’s noble sacrifice for her moves her to embrace her humanity and suffering and pay penance by dying properly as a human before Wolfram and Hart intervene. The writers make the argument here that while a soul is steadfast requisite in this fictional universe to be considered human, it’s not the only thing. Darla ending her pursuit of the underworld to gracefully die is as noble a thing as Angel has ever done. But, that would be too easy wouldn’t it? In the best and most shocking twist of the season, Darla is re-sired by Drusilla at the command of Wolfram and Hart, and instantly takes her new unlife.
But she has changed. Where once she was concerned with an Anne Rice style of vampiric existence, her experiences as a human had sobered her and brought her to a new reality where power and control were the only answers. Having been tugged around by Angel, W&H and her sickening soul, all she wanted to do was have minions and start slaughtering her enemies. And when she learns through Lindsey of the 75 year review to take place during “Reprise” [2×15], she makes a grab at it just as fast as Angel, although for different reasons. Her final appearance of the season in “Epiphany” [2×16] is a quiet coda to all of this drama and action. Where taking his soul the first time was an act that Angel was reviled to call a favour, the act of sleeping with her, which might’ve produced the same results, is acknowledged as one. The moment snaps Angel back into reality, and as he thanks Darla for this sexual ‘favour,’ she comes to realize her utter failure to escape her past lives – any of them – quietly leaving town. She’s more human than she thought.
The superfluous but well-done Kate makes another batch of appearances this season as one of the most important recurring characters in the series’ ongoing run. Word has it she may have become a regular if she hadn’t left the show after “Epiphany” [2×16] for a role on Law and Order. This season explores the main theme surrounding her character (law and order, no pun) with its own themes of humanity and image. In the wake of her father’s death last season (see my analysis of Kate in my S1 Review) she reacted by making it her mission to take law and stability to the paranormal levels, fighting to protect those who don’t even know such a world exists.
She’s still so aggrieved that she clings desperately to this image of a lone, noble cop that she merely sauntered her way into because of her upbringing as a policeman’s daughter. It’s not only that she knows nothing else, but has no other way to deal with losing someone close to her but than to strike back at what she feels is harming people.
Not unlike Angel’s situation with Darla. And because of what Angel is, and how he operates outside of the law working his mission, she sees him as a threat as or more dangerous than any regular nightcrawler. Early on in the season Kate and Angel are at odds over her, as Wolfram and Hart’s early phases of the Darla plan seek to turn Kate further against Angel. They succeed, but only temporarily. The amazing moment in “The Shroud of Rahmon” [2×08] when Angel bites her as part of a ruse to save her (something both heroic and demonic) is a sharp wake up call about her deadly obsession and bridges the gap between her and Angel a bit, enough so that she helps him out a bit in “Reunion” [2×10] when Darla and Drusilla are on a murder spree.
Just as Angel is about to make the transition to hunting the guilty, Kate starts going back to helping the people.But as with all things in the Whedonverse the good things don’t last. Kate is fired from her job in “Reprise” [2×15], the one last thing about herself she has left to cling to in her harsh life, due to Angel’s reckless, lawless actions. Having not properly dealt with her father’s death in any real way, it absolutely destroys her and leads her to a suicide attempt, culminating in Angel saving her on the night of his “Epiphany” [2×16]. In this action they both realize that they can and should be more than what they clung to, and their mission are about much more than vanquishing evil or putting a list of definitive successes on a plaque, so to speak. Breaking out of this harsh cycle is an excellent conclusion for the poorly befouled Kate. Even if it is disappointing to see her go, she quietly departs with a healed heart; a warming note after a story so full of darkness.
Last season they were a bureaucrat’s wet dream and a front for the demon mafia, but S2 reveals Wolfram and Hart in its true glory. They are truly the great villain of this show, and without a doubt the shows single most inspired creation and its greatest gift to its viewers. Say what you will of any part of this show, from here on in, there is no single idea that matches up to what the awe-inspiring scale of what these nightmarish people have to offer. Their plan for Angel and for the apocalypse they apparently have scheduled is frightening in its intelligence, and how they go about it is masterful and truly evil in a league of its own. These are human people committing these acts, not Hellgods or demons or soulless monsters, but human people who have chosen these paths for themselves and commit horrible sins to pay the bills. In true Whedon fashion, average human beings are made far scarier than any underworld critter.
Their uniqueness is their best trait; Unlike Angel, who’s been fighting for as long as he can remember for some accomplishable goal of redemption or the destruction of evil, their credo is much simpler but more subtly brilliant. They wish to survive, and to live on so that they can continue accumulating their power. Why? Because someone has to. If the world doesn’t have evil, it can’t have good. If someone isn’t on top, how can we judge who’s on the bottom? When there is an end of all things, it’ll be on their day calendar and no one else’s. They don’t seek to defeat their enemies either, but rather to convince them that their way is the right way. When it comes to Angel, their manipulations of him in this fashion are successful beyond their wildest dreams. Their goal being to have the vampire with a soul on the murky side of the Force when the apocalypse occurs, they use Darla to get him to develop a strong connection and then tear it away. When he takes up his new mission to destroy them, W&H hit him with the hardest blow of all: they can’t be destroyed, because all that they are, the offices, the lawyers and the plots, are all just extensions of human corruption and evil that have always existed.
So long as those things exist, so will they, in one corporeal form or another (for a more detailed analysis of this idea, see my review of “Reprise” [2×15]). Wolfram and Hart as it exists as a law firm in our dimension is only the capitalization upon the types of human-fueled evil that dwells in our world. This devastating revelation convinces Angel once and for all that nothing matters and that redemption is unattainable. That’s an incredible blow against their enemy, even if Angel does manage to see the positive side to that and later continue his mission of helping the helpless. Not only do they manage to prove themselves more or less invincible here, but in their workings this season with Darla show themselves to be one of the most effective season-long villains in the entirety of the Whedonverse in how they impact the major players. And the profound statements their existence metaphorically makes about how evil works in our corporate and fast-paced world goes well beyond that in its real world importance.
Where I began reviewing the series with a set of judgments about each season and each story, the more I review the more my opinions shift. Analyzing S2 down to its bare bones made me see more than I ever did before in this amazing year of television. Great credit goes to David Greenwalt this season, who was the primary showrunner while Joss juggled Buffy S5 with this show, and also to Tim Minear, whose name is on every single great episode you can name on this 22 episode list. There’s not much else more I can say, except that it’s been an amazing ride, and I’ll see you in S3.