[Review by Ryan Bovay]
The longer I spend on television message boards and follow ongoing shows, the more I learn about why people like the shows they do. Most people can’t quite articulate it. In fact, that’s what sets a writer apart from a non-writer; everyone has ideas, but writers are the people with the skill sets required to convey them in all their glory. So I can’t quite understand everyone when they attempt to defend Season Three as AtS’ best season. Yet, I think I can guess where they’re coming from. There’s a lot to love about this season, which is still a good entry into the Whedonverse despite some serious conceptual and episodic flaws, all of which I’ll discuss at length as I go.
Like at the start of Season Two, the writers seemed to have a clear direction in mind at the start of Season Three, and they wisely picked up the story at the logical introductory point: With Angel having conquered his innermost doubts about his own humanity. He begins to live a truly human life. He’s accepted his role in the world as a good person rather than a champion, and recognizes the world as a wide-open, random place with no greater destiny or order about it. It’s the kind of world where even the smallest acts of kindness mean everything, because they mean someone is able to shrug off the horrible burdens of life long enough to make another life better. With this new mission statement for the series (stemming from “Epiphany” [2×16] and solidified by the Pylea arc (“Belonging” [2×19] to “There’s No Place Like Plrtz Glrb” [2×22])) well established and the question of ‘what makes us human?’ well traveled, Season Three started in with a new one: ‘Just what is up with these humans, anyway?’
It opens with a six episode prelude looking at various facets of the responsibilities and obligations of normal human life, and then really begins with “Offspring” [3×07] when Darla returns to L.A. in a very, very pregnant state. Like “Dear Boy” [2×05] was for S2, this is where the beginning of S3 truly lies. With Darla’s death and the birth of baby Connor (“Lullaby” [3×09]) as the emotional forces driving the season, the writers used the question of responsibility and all the ideas that fall under it (justice, deserving, chaos and guilt) to create some truly, gut-wrenchingly impossible situations for our characters to face. If I have to commend this year for one thing alone, it’s the painstaking drama that the writers plunge the characters into throughout the main arc and in the mini-arcs that follow. Although there’s not nearly as much thematic depth as S2 or as much consistency as S1, the tragedies and difficult moral situations our beloved Angel Investigations team members are forced to face moved me deeper than a lot of other episodes in the series.
Aesthetically, S3 also has a much more sprawling scope than the previous two seasons. While the first six episodes were essentially standalones, everything that followed “Offspring” [3×07] was in some way tied to the main plot arc of the show, even when some of its key players disappeared following the epic tragedy of “Sleep Tight” [3×16]. Just when it seemed the story was about to move in another Pylea-like offshoot after the main storyline concluded, Connor and Holtz returned and the plot kept on chugging. This led to some problems, of course, as all season-long arcs eventually do. Tension sometimes tried to take the place of real content and it often showed. It also led to there being an uncomfortable setup/payoff ratio on the episode list. But on the plus side, S3 (and S4, which moves even further in this direction) had a feeling of epic scope that no other seasons manage, so to even think of the better aspects that lie within strikes me. Such a sprawl is one of the reasons many people love S3 even if they haven’t looked very deeply at it.
However, I must go into this without deceiving you and say that I feel this season is AtS’ weakest, and one of the two or three weakest in the Whedonverse. It has serious, serious problems that plague even the best or best-intended material. At almost every conceptual level there are flaws to be found in the story, and on an episode-to-episode basis even the standalones don’t stack up to any other season in this show’s run. But don’t kill me just yet! I’m here to make my case. Without any further ado, let’s talk AtS.
- Weaker episode-to-episode consistency.
- Too many setup episodes.
- Comparably less intelligent themes.
- Stupid and shallow villains.
- Some poorly used and under-used main characters.
- The worst of the worst: “Provider” [3×12].
Though we could argue from here until the end of sun-soaked Brigadoon about the issues with S3, what wounds the season first and foremost in my mind is that the average episode is not as great as this show has gotten me used to. For individual reasons, most episodes in this season do not match up to the average episodes of any other season in the show’s run. There are two variations of this: First, there are episodes whose problems are symptomatic of the entire season. The competent, emotionally-charged but filler-stuffed “Offspring” [3×07] is a prime example. Here was an episode with intriguing ideas and great dramatic moments, but with some seriously flawed plot and character decisions and an overall story designed only to set things up, not pay them off. The second type is the ordinarily flawed standalone, which like any other episode from S1 or S2 was just an episode with problems. I liked a lot about “Billy” [3×06] , for example; namely its moody atmosphere. But the theme was painfully blunt to the point of insulting the audience, and it missed the mark on some of the most interesting issues it brought up.
Of course, every season has episodes like both of these, but there are more in S3 than anywhere else in the show. Particularly set-up episodes, of which there are far too many. Even if you ignore the fact that the first six episodes of the season were made to be a prelude to the main arc, the ratio of setup to payoff is very uncomfortable. Off the top of my head there’s “Offspring” [3×07], “Quickening” [3×08], “Waiting in the Wings” [3×13], “Couplet” [3×14], “Loyalty” [3×15], “The Price” [3×19], “A New World” [3×20], “Benediction” [3×21] and “Tomorrow” [3×22]. All of these episodes were designed to set up future events or had major elements that were designed for that purpose. The main problem with this is that these events were means to ends that occur in later episodes. And this is almost always at the expense of the episode in question, because you leave the hour without the slightest sense of resolution. Unless that’s the point, as with the two successful setup episodes “Loyalty” [3×15] and “Benediction” [3×21], this is a bad bad thing.
And then there’s the heart of the content itself. I mentioned in the overview a point which will come up again in my ‘Pros’ section: there’s some stern, emotional material here, and the writers set up deviously cruel situations that test our characters’ moral fibre. But because the writers went for the gut punch, the themes saw a noticeable decline in their average intelligence. Like with the examples I gave, there are arc and standalone episodes with their respective thematic problems, and episode-to-episode the ideas did not intrigue me as deeply nor penetrate the human soul as memorably as some of S1’s and all of S2’s. S2 in particular dug deeply into human morality at a level unmatched by almost any show I’ve ever seen, and portrayed both good and evil as relative concepts that exist as components of humanity, thereby revealing the conscious choices we make as the most powerful things in the world. S2 had such deep ideas in spades and plumbed them from all conceivable angles. S1, though not quite as deep as S3, was still more focused and consistent. With the exception of a few Tim Minear gems (“Offspring” [3×07], “Lullaby” [3×09], “Benediction” [3×21]) this season’s average episode opted to gear its characters toward pure drama. That’s fine of course, but I didn’t particularly like the effect.
The most unpleasant result of it was that because the underlying ideas weren’t quite as deep, the major players tied to them suffered the same flaws. The characters of Holtz and Sahjahn, the main antagonists driving the conflict against Angel, began their time on the show with great promise and left it without having developed very much from it. Holtz is a terrifying threat to the characters in “Lullaby” [3×09] and what we learn about his past and his hatred for Angel made me shudder. But unfortunately, for all the acting talent of Keith Szarabajka, the character never develops beyond his setup. It appears as though he does in “Benediction” [3×21] , but that ended up being a fakeout (a damn good one, at least). Holtz’s family was killed by Angel, and Holtz wants Angel to suffer like hell. That’s all you need to know about that character; disappointing. Sahjahn is also a major problem. Despite being undeniably hilarious every time he was on screen (Sahjah to Lilah in “Loyalty” [3×15]: “Would it impress you if I told you I invented daylight savings time?”), he didn’t develop anything beyond his initial characteristics either.
Even worse than Holtz, he wasn’t that rich a character to begin with: He’s a demon who wants to save his own ass. His place in the arc’s back-and-forth on the issue of free will was good enough, but being strung along for half of a season about his motives only to find out in “Forgiving” [3×17] that they were so uninteresting was a serious let down. It’s another one of those problems that occur when you have a long, ongoing story arc: No matter what the answer is, it will never be good enough because the mystery has been put on such a pedestal. Let’s not even go into deeper detail here about how much Wolfram and Hart’s stupidity annoyed me this season (I’ll do that later on in the review).
But even if all this means nothing to you, even if what you get out of AtS has nothing to do with the richness of the theme or the competency of the plot, there’s one thing no one can ignore: the characters, for better or worse. So many fans of the Whedonverse don’t give a crap about the kind of things I do, and come just to see their favourite characters do their thing. If your favourites are Lorne, Fred or Gunn, you’re out of luck this season. Perhaps S3’s greatest flaw is that it seriously under-uses and mismanages a good host of its characters. Aside from Holtz and Sahjahn, we have characters like the Groosalug, who are used in entirely uninteresting ways despite their worthy impact on other characters. With the exception of a few episodes focusing on them early in the season, the characters of Fred and Gunn are reduced to being ‘the couple,’ as well as plot devices in a couple of episodes. They could’ve been written out of the show in a couple of episodes and it wouldn’t have made a difference. Not that either of them had very compelling arcs even when they were on screen.
And Lorne? I’m still of the opinion that he should’ve remained dead after “Through the Looking Glass” [2×21] . Andy Hallet is charming as hell in his role, but the character does nothing more than give Angel some sagely advice in a few episodes. And what of Cordelia? Her development throughout the season was consistent and sometimes intriguing, but towards the end of the season dropped off to monumentally boring. Though their dynamic was fun in “Couplet” [3×14] , after that I profoundly did not care about her and the Groosalug or their shallow lie of a relationship. And her ascension to the level of higher being in “Tomorrow” [3×22] was one of the single most contrived moves this series has ever made. See the episode’s review for many many words on why I hated it. It’s these character problems that overshadow even S3’s greatest strengths. Characters are story, especially on a Joss Whedon show. When they suffer, the show does.
Also, there is this episode: “Provider” [3×12] . Avoid at all costs, kill with fire.
- Interesting blend of themes
- Strong, effective drama.
- All things Wesley.
- Excellent arcs for a couple of other characters.
While they weren’t as well explored as they could’ve been, the topics the writers tackle this season are simmered in a pot of many variations. Rather than sticking to a central collection of one or two themes like S1 did, S3 branched out as far as it could go, using responsibility as an entry point into many of the avenues of human life: justice, family, love, hatred, free will and destiny. While the overall Holtz/Connor story arc gave us the most potent dilemmas on direct personal responsibility, a lot of episodes tried something a little different, a little less direct. Though they didn’t always succeed or measure up to the big brains of S2, I admire what the writers attempted. Occasionally when they did score a big win, I was impressed. Darla’s noble sacrifice in “Lullaby” [3×09] made such a brave, precocious statement about free will and redemption that I found myself raving for paragraphs when I reviewed the episode.
“Forgiving” [3×17] was another gem, as it looked at the human need to assume we live in an ordered world where someone is responsible for everything that happens. But it’s never that easy, and watching Angel struggle with that was fascinating. The final three episodes (“A New World” [3×20], “Benediction” [3×21], “Tomorrow” [3×22]) made up another interesting stretch where we saw how our characters could be motivated by pain, hatred or love and the effects of all those things. It makes me wish the season could’ve held together better because most of its ideas are ambitious. There’s one thing this show has never been, and that’s cowardly.
It certainly didn’t hold back on making us watch our beloved Angel Investigations members suffer, that’s for sure. It may have been at the expense of some other aspects of the season, but the best thing here is the emotional power the writers wring from their pages. I mentioned this in the overview as well: Angel and Co. are put into some horrible moral crises this year, and they don’t all respond how you’d expect. No matter how much pain he threatened Holtz with in defense of his child, Angel could still never tell him he was wrong in wanting revenge. In fact, when Holtz came for Connor, Angel even begged the man to take him when the alternative for his son was death. The great tragedy of Wesley Wyndam-Pryce in “Sleep Tight” [3×16] or of Holtz and Connor in “Benediction” [3×21] are just a couple moments of unforgettable visceral power I could mention. Lest we forget everything from “Lullaby” [3×09] or “Waiting in the Wings” [3×13] Even “Loyalty” [3×15], one of the season’s only good setup episodes, had some moments of absolute pain as we watched Wes cringe in his lonely desperation. Or when Angel nearly killed him in “Forgiving” [3×17]. Amazing stuff.
But then, we have Wes to thank more than anyone for the best part of this season. From “Sleep Tight” [3×16] on, Wesley Wyndam-Pryce is hands down the single most interesting character in the series. With additional help from the fantastic Alexis Denisof who plays him, the writers make Wes the focus of the free will debate by putting him under Sahjahn’s manipulative thumb, and the one with the hardest choices to make. Ask yourself: do you know what you really would do in Wesley’s situation? It was an impossible one, and the fatal flaw driving him to make his mistakes in “Sleep Tight” [3×16] has an impact that affects him for the rest of his life. Embittered, he eventually abandons Angel Investigations and begins a dark tryst with Lilah. In seven episodes he goes from being an interesting character to the most damaged, and one of the most complex people in the Whedonverse. More on him in his own section.
Luckily he wasn’t the only character who had good development this season. Many characters were poorly handled, but some still managed to shine (never as bright as Wes though). Angel’s arc was especially potent, as he struggled to take control of his own human life. For the first time we saw him totally happy, and when his world came crashing down around him worse than ever, the way he was forced to deal with his grief was well written. Lilah Morgan came into her sultry own this season without Lindsey McDonald hogging all the attention at Wolfram and Hart. And Connor, believe it or not, impressed me a great deal in the last three episodes. It’s sad, knowing the repetitive mockery his character is about to become in most episodes next season. But I digress. For now.
In contrast to the other seasons, S3 and S4 have Angel largely play the role of a puppet (well, so does “Smile Time” [5×14] I guess). He’s no less the main character (his name is the show’s title!), but unlike S1, S2 or S5, he’s further from the heart of the events that drastically change his life. It can be debated how truly responsible he is for the suffering of Holtz’s family and the revenge Holtz takes on him for those actions (in fact, the whole season is this argument), but for the most part what comes to transpire with the culmination of “Sleep Tight” [3×16] is not directly his doing. There are many players moving and shaking throughout the main arc and almost all of Angel’s development this season is how he reacts to them. Again the series picks up where last season left off in terms of theme, moving Angel deeper into his (somewhat) normal human existence.
“Heartthrob” [3×01] was a blueprint for the season in how it had Angel deal with the pain of loss, and accept the uncontrollable in life. The fact he was forced to recognize was that he couldn’t have saved Buffy even if he’d wanted to. Life is complex, and people live as they do with or without you. And after all, Angel is just one man; a noteworthy statement. The first six episodes of the season are introspective like this. The gang works out its own internal issues and eventually comes together as a surrogate family because of it; Gunn finally sides with Angel (“That Old Gang of Mine” [3×03]), Fred gets past her Pylea issues (“Fredless” [3×05]) and Cordy and Angel reaffirm their bond as friends and warriors in the ongoing fight against their enemies (“Billy” [3×06]). By the time the main arc finally kicks into gear, Angel Investigations is tighter than it ever has been before. It’s a family. But then along comes Darla – again – to throw everything into chaos.
The trilogy of “Offspring” [3×07] , “Quickening” [3×08] and “Lullaby” [3×09] that kicks off the arc throws Angel into his first moral dilemma. The theme of the season is responsibility, and rather than throwing a thematic message at us the episodes simply raise questions and put characters into motion. Is Angel really responsible for Darla’s predicament? He couldn’t have possibly known that a vampire could get pregnant. Yet when he slept with her in his despair (“Reprise” [2×15] ) he was aware the event could have consequences, namely losing his soul. More importantly, how responsible is he for the death of Holtz’s family? “The Prodigal” [1×15] showed us that Angel became Angelus at Darla’s teeth because of his ignorant, drunken life. But would Liam as he existed then, or Angel as he is now, ever have done such terrible things? Probably not, and definitely not. But there’s a tricky grey area here.
Angel may not have any direct responsibility in these events, but he affirms his growth as a good human being by taking full responsibility regardless. “Lullaby” [3×09] marks an important moment for the series because in it both he and Darla, under the knife of Holtz, realize that no matter what they do to make things right, a measurable goal of redemption is impossible. You can’t quantify human suffering. How would you? Save one person’s life and it clears your conscience of a rape? It’s not so simple. And what’s worse is that Angelus and Darla’s actions created a man driven by evil, so all the death and pain that Holtz causes ultimately comes back to Angel. With Darla’s death and the birth of Connor, Angel Investigations has a new rallying point, a new foe, and their bond grows even tighter. The episodes that follow are probably the most content months of Angel’s long life as he struggles with ordinary fatherhood duties in place of demons.
Angel almost seems as though he could walk into sunlight as he manages day to day activities and very nearly forms a romantic relationship with Cordelia in “Waiting in the Wings” [3×13] . And despite losing her to the Groosalug, he comes to a place of rest on the foundations of his literal and surrogate families. He says to Wes: “I’m not alone.” It’s a profound and moving statement when you think about everything he’s been through and lost. Even with Holtz and Wolfram and Hart looming over his every move, Angel remains solid and steadfast where last season he was fueled on guilt and vengeance. But running underneath this brief period of happiness is a darker current. “Lullaby” [3×09] was probably the first instance of Angel moving towards a more nihilistic view when it came to his quest for redemption. From that point on, the goal for him was simply to live and be a good man, an even simpler way of life than the one he committed to in “Epiphany” [2×16] .
With this in mind, Angel’s approach to his enemies became simpler as well: touch me and die. Though he frequently admits his guilt, he makes it clear in no uncertain terms that grievous harm will come to anyone who tries to destroy him or his family. The scene in “Loyalty” [3×15] where he threatens Holtz’s spy Aubrey was a mark of real change for him, because it was not something an Angel of any season before or after would’ve said. Not for the reasons he did, anyway. What was best about playing this darker angle of Angel up was that it made Wesley’s decision in “Sleep Tight” [3×16] that much more difficult, yet inevitable. The series has always been keen to remind us that Angelus is just as much a part of Angel as Angel is, and when it shows, it chills the spine. The most intriguing thing about Holtz is that even though his view of the world is a very narrow black-and-white, he’s not totally wrong about Angel being a threat to those around him.
For a brief flash it appeared as though Sahjahn’s prophecy would come true: “The father will kill the son.” Until everything gets screwed up. The tragedy of “Sleep Tight” [3×16] and losing Connor is the defining event of Angel’s life for the rest of the series. To have his future and the key piece to his happy life ripped away destroys him. Having been the helpless victim in Sahjahn’s plot, he claws to find the deeper meaning and some justice in “Forgiving” [3×17], only to find that the world is not only unfair, but random. Terrible things happen every day over the simplest of misunderstandings, and no single person – sometimes no one at all – can be held responsible. But someone had to pay, so Angel took the only person left standing: Wesley, whom he almost killed in a terrifying and iconic scene.
But the good manages to shine through, and where he’s given the same kind of choice he was in “Reunion” [2×10] last season (to help his friends or take revenge on Sahjahn), he makes the right decision this time. And like all good men, Angel suffers for his nobility. It takes the possibility of Gunn losing his soul over a debt (“Double or Nothing” [3×18]) before Angel can pull himself out of his despair long enough to leave his room, and even then we see a man scarred by the raw trauma that he’s experienced. His nihilism deepens to a point where he defends some of his more questionable actions (like the blood magic ritual from “Forgiving” [3×17]) in spite of the fact that the consequences nearly kill Fred. This is the first glimpse of a new edge of Angel’s persona that overtakes him by the end of S4: a man so eroded by pain that nothing else matters.
“A New World” [3×20] sees a teenaged Connor return to our world. Raised by Holtz and on the hunt for Angelus, the boy is thrown of his axis to truly meet Angel and the people around him, who want a happy life for him. The most important moment for Angel in the three episode arc that closes out the season is when he confronts Holtz in “Benediction” [3×21] and not only forgives him, but apologizes to him for what was done to his family centuries and centuries ago. He may have suffered terribly, but so has Holtz, and as Angel comes to a poetic understanding of the man’s pain, he’s willing to let him go. For this benevolence, Angel is again rewarded with pain when Holtz puts the final piece of his revenge scheme into motion by making his suicide look like a murder, turning Connor against his true father. If there was ever man who could claim to have been screwed by the world, it was Angel of S3, who is locked in a crate and dropped into the ocean by his own son.
At the end of S2’s Pylea arc, Cordelia had left behind a material image. The shallow, narcissistic girl of Sunnydale’s 1999 graduating year had become an adult by realizing her strengths as a human woman and coming to terms with the burden of her vision powers. Cordelia to Angel in “Heartthrob” [3×01] : “I’m Cordelia. I don’t think, I know. Okay?” The six episodes that lead up to the main arc give a pretty good amount of screen time to Cordelia, and the word on her is: confidence. Early S3 has a bit of a feminist bent to it, and she’s the lens through which we see that. “That Vision Thing” [3×02] was a strong standalone that focused on her. Wolfram and Hart’s sick and ingenious plot to manipulate Angel by controlling her visions has an unexpected effect by forcing her to think about a world without them. Back around the time of “Dead End” [2×18] that would’ve seemed like a blessing, but now Cordelia is attached.
Whatever flaws she still has (she’s not the least un-shallow person just yet) she’s completely committed to helping people and without the visions, she admits, she can’t see any way she could help. Angel’s strong insistence to the contrary, but more importantly her own determination pulls her out of the crisis even more resolved to help the helpless. An important idea that surfaces in both episodes via Cordy is Angel’s fixation on playing the hero on her behalf. While she was certainly too incapacitated in “That Vision Thing” [3×02] to help, her desire to train and get stronger of her own accord reflects her desire to be more self-reliant. Though she trusts Angel even more deeply after “That Vision Thing” [3×02], it’s a wake up call for her to do some new things like learn to fight. Angel’s intentions are noble, but the suggestion that she should depend on him to protect her (which comes up in (“Billy” [3×06] ) comes off as condescending.
“Billy” [3×06] was an episode specifically tailored to discuss, among other things, the theme of strength. Feeling responsible for Billy being loosed because of Wolfram and Hart’s vision tricks with her, Cordelia goes on the warpath herself, determined to make her own stand independent of Angel. By the end, she gives reassuring advice to Lilah (the very person who brought the vision plagues on her) and is prepared to kill Billy. In my review of the episode I pointed out the moral problems with trying to make a feminist point by having a female character model aggressive male behaviour, but looking back, perhaps that was the point? If it was, the series didn’t continue on with the particular thread (disappointing) and Cordy simply got stronger for the experience. “Birthday” [3×11] , though, was the major turning point for her character, perhaps for the rest of the series. Faced with the prospect of death or a new life as an actress – what she always wanted to be – she still pushes and gets a third option: become half demon.
Symbolically it’s a huge moment, because it’s an acknowledgement of her inseparability from the visions, her continued commitment to her mission, and the very real grey area that exists in demon-hood. But it’s also where the problems with her character start; problems that plague her until actress Charisma Carpenter actually leaves the show as a regular at the end of S4. By making her come to the moment of choice by forcing her to see what her life would’ve been like if her acting dreams had come true was a blunt and overwrought way of doing things; metaphorically, the Pylea arc did the exact same thing, and with a much more entertaining package, too. Her role as surrogate mother to baby Connor and her near-relationship status with Angel work well, as does the introduction of the Groosalug into her life in “Couplet” [3×14] , but after she returns from her trip in “Double or Nothing” [3×18] there’s nothing interesting about her beyond how she helps Angel in “Double or Nothing” [3×18] itself.
This is where she begins to become St. Cordelia, as those who loathe her S3 character enjoy calling her. Yes, she’s noble, benevolent and all that other wonderful stuff, but by completely removing the sharper edges the writers made her a bit, well, dull. It’s not even a major problem until the last few episodes of the season though, in which her only real character issue is her shallow lie of a relationship with the Groosalug, which she’s forced to sit through for so many episodes only to string us along. And once she does recognize her true feelings for Angel, the writers denied us a glorious moment between her and Angel for no good reason. Cordelia’s last ‘test’ before becoming a higher power is to choose Angel or becoming a higher being, a choice which would’ve made for agonizing and effective drama if the twist hadn’t been chosen only to compound the season finale cliffhanger of “Tomorrow” [3×22] .
It’s a disappointing way for her arc to end, and because of her amnesia and then Jasmine body jacking her in S4, we don’t technically see the real Cordy again until “You’re Welcome” [5×12] . A shame.
If I have to commend S3 for one thing above all others, it is the tragic, heart-breaking, genuine and unforgettable development that Wesley Wyndam-Pryce undergoes. Wesley is at the centre of the toughest questions that are posed to us, and it’s through his perspective that we’re forced to stare down some ugly things about humanity. Admittedly, most of the season is light on Wesley-focus compared to the stretch from “Loyalty” [3×15] onwards. But what the early episodes do is re-establish and embolden him in his position as leader of Angel Investigations. Like with Cordelia, Pylea was the final death knell for old issues. His passivity in dealing with Angel early in S2 and some of his leadership failures later in the season (even after he gained control of Angel Investigations) were finally put to rest. The prospect of the gang never being able to escape Pylea if someone didn’t step up to the plate was enough to beckon out Wesley’s great and many strengths, and help them overcome his performance anxiety.
That he took the place Angel usually would’ve taken in battle – the forefront – was important in ringing in his tenure as leader. And so Wesley overcame his self-doubt, but in a manner that foreshadowed what awaited him in S3: by doing a morally dubious thing (in Pylea, it was dishonestly reassuring Angel so he would fight the Groosalug) to accomplish what he believed was the necessary good. And “Heartthrob” [3×01] shows a marked difference right away: last season’s opener had Merl manage to extort money out of Wes’ pockets for information. This season when he goes for info he actually takes money from Merl to get him to fess up quicker. In “That Old Gang of Mine” [3×03] he’s understanding of Gunn’s moral predicament, but is resolute in threatening to fire him if he endangers the team again. And “Billy” [3×06] foreshadowed Wes’ capability for anger and violence.
But to understand his descent we have to remember one very important thing that stretches way back to the beginning. The S1 episodes “Parting Gifts” [1×10] and “Somnambulist” [1×11] featured a more bumbling, insecure Wesley, but they showcased what was driving him: the need to act. Since he was raised and trained to fight for the forces of good (dogmatically so, at the hands of his disapproving father), he believed he should be acting for ‘good,’ and in ‘noble’ ways. This means playing the hero. Wesley seemed taken in by classic, romantic-era definitions of courage being solitary action, and demonstrated so when he went to Cordelia behind Angel’s back when he thought Angel was killing again. In S3, he’s a more together man, but he is still mostly the same man. But along comes a girl, as she so often does in fiction. “Waiting in the Wings” [3×13] is a pivotal moment for Wesley because he fails to act in a timely manner, and it costs him a chance for romance with Fred.
More importantly, we see in a dark moment that he experiences insane jealousy at losing her, yet still does the right thing with that moment in mind. He encourages Fred to go with who she chooses. This only re-enforces his emerging man-of-action persona, and also establishes a growing distance between him and his friends. “Loyalty” [3×15] is a masterful study of his predicament in this way; with Angel the subject of a deadly prophecy, Cordelia gone and Fred and Gunn cavorting romantically, Wes is left completely alone with a disturbing prophecy: “The father will kill the son.” He’s been raised his whole life to study the occult and now more than ever has faith in his skills, so why doubt it? Only his emotions try to doubt it, but when Holtz tells him that Angelus is Angel’s nature, Wesley can’t say he’s wrong; he, like we the audience, have seen Angel’s capacity for violence and just how quick he can turn (whether by his own choice or by loss of his soul).
And with this the writers have put Wesley in one hell of an interesting situation. It’s a classic moral dilemma, but by letting us be insiders to Wesley’s pain, while still being outsiders as TV viewers, unable to tell him what’s going on right around the corner (Lilah and Sahjahn’s plots, for example), they make our stomachs churn because we know – deep – down – that Wesley is a good man. And that means bad things. Boy, do I love this show. But what of his ultimate decision? Sure, on the surface it appears unequivocally morally right: save the baby and you save Angel from himself. You’re everyone’s hero, then. Ah, but it’s not that simple. In my “Loyalty” [3×15] review I commented that what made the betrayal of Angel so total is that Angel is a man who focuses on the means: how he goes about his mission of helping people. By resorting to terrible means to do a good thing, Wesley morally betrays everything Angel Investigations stands for.
Wesley’s personal bitterness over Fred and Gunn and his hero complex play their parts in a series of events that go very very wrong for Angel in “Sleep Tight” [3×16] . And with that act, Wesley finds himself cast out from Angel Investigations. With Lilah retreated to W&H, Sahjahn untraceable and Holtz in Quor’toth with Connor, Angel has no one left to blame but Wesley, and tries to kill him. In “Double or Nothing” [3×18] Fred, his love, tells him never to come back to the hotel. When we see Wesley again in “The Price” [3×19] he’s gone into a nihilism of his own in parallel to Angel, and he only helps the team survive a near-deadly infestation at the hotel when he finds out Fred is the subject of the slusk demons’ attacks. Like Angel he’s become so eroded by pain that he doesn’t care about anything more than what he wants to do anymore. Only a hero would be selfless, he might say, and Wesley learned the most goddamn hard way that he is no ‘hero.’
Not to mention Sahjahn’s fabrication of the prophecy shattering his faith in his skills. However, much unlike Angel he’s been left with nothing else. Angel was able to pull himself out of his grief because he was the victim of the season’s great tragedy. Wesley was left with nothing but his guilt. No home, no family, no friends, and no chance to even justify the actions that lost him everything; no one would listen. And to say his pride was wounded would be like saying Hitler was ‘kind of a dickhead.’ The last three episodes of the season show him engaging in a dark and attractive game of moral chess with Lilah as she tries to recruit him to Wolfram and Hart’s ranks. The ambiguity of Wesley’s inability to choose whether or not to help save Justine from getting killed when presented with both opportunity and choice in “Benediction” [3×21] foreshadows the blurry, murky line he’ll straddle all the rest of his life.
In the season finale he gives fully into a selfish impulse, taking sexual advantage of Lilah and loving the hell out of it. “Don’t pretend you’re too good to work for us,” she tells him.
As I noted in my Cons section, I was fairly disappointed with the use of Charles Gunn this season. Though he starts out promisingly enough, he gets relegated to the background by bigger events happening around him. As such, he doesn’t develop a lot of new depths or get a chance to do anything really remarkable. Not that he was especially compelling a character in S2, but he had an important place in the season, both in terms of his impact on the main character and in his own right. But after a certain point this season, he becomes set dressing. Starting out with the issues he had held over from S2, “That Old Gang of Mine” [3×03] is the most Gunn-centric episode the series had had up to that point. What kept his character from being really interesting in S2 was that his most interesting personal problems and insecurities weren’t plumbed as deep as they could’ve been.
The Pylea arc did attempt to exorcise some of Gunn’s demons about being torn between Angel Investigations and his old neighbourhood gang, but didn’t really find an endpoint for the development it started. “That Old Gang of Mine” [3×03] is that endpoint. The issue it forces out is Gunn being able to reconcile working with and possibly befriending a vampire. Having lived his whole life to fight the demon underworld and having lost his sister to a vampire, it was a serious concern. It made him irrationally quick to chastise Angel for his betrayal of the gang in S2 as well as throw out random hostility here and there in general. When his neighbourhood gang forces him to choose them or Angel, he can’t lie to anyone: he chooses Angel. Not because he can totally overlook what Angel is, but because he knows Angel is a good man who has the interests of his family and the people of L.A. at heart, while the gang has descended to slaughtering demons for fun and revenge.
The soldier-like Gunn, who fought a war against vampires for years, recognizes Angel as a brother in battle. But what really makes this an important turning point is that Gunn starts to think things out a little better from here on in. It’s a very gradual change, but it’s there. In “Lullaby” [3×09] he’s the only one with the foresight to consider that Darla’s pregnancy and Angel’s child could be something evil and worth destroying. No one wants to hear it, but it needs to be said. He still plays the role of critic to Angel in this way, but in the interests of the group, not feeding his insecurities like he did last season. The next important step Gunn takes is starting a relationship with Fred. As he’s much bolder in action than Wesley (he’s a soldier, after all), he gets to her first.
I admit, the Fred-Gunn pairing isn’t sold exceptionally well, but as an average couple they function and enjoy each other’s company in a sweet and common way. Like both Fred and Gunn this season, their pairing isn’t very interesting, but at least it works. They deal with some basic relationship issues and come out stronger for it, and in “Loyalty” [3×15] Gunn decides that if it came to his job or Fred, he’d choose her. And so they cavort. “Double or Nothing” [3×18] is the first real test of their relationship, in which Gunn proves his devotion to Fred by trying desperately to keep her out of harm’s way. In it, we also get a strong contrast between the Gunn of old and new: he’s happy with his station and life and sees a future for himself, but is still ready to give it up to protect those he loves. He grows beyond the soldier at last. I like this development in particular because at this point, Wesley is growing into more of a man of action while Gunn becomes clearer headed.
One last item of note on Gunn for this season is the role he plays following Wesley’s departure from Angel Investigations. While he initially defends Wes’ integrity, the truth about Wes’ actions has him doing a complete about face; he gets offended by the very mention of his name in a couple of instances. It’s not exactly fair, but it demonstrates how important Angel has become to him as a friend by this time. And in Wes’ absence, he’s Angel’s strong right-hand man, stepping up to the plate to try and manage Angel Investigations alongside him. Of course, this is hardly a suitable amount of development for an entire third of a season. And what we did get in the early episodes wasn’t all that great either. Only “That Old Gang of Mine” [3×03] showed Gunn’s true potential for complexity. Fortunately in S4 he grows by leaps and bounds, and becomes as rich a character as the best on this show in S5.
Fred is the newest member of the Fang Gang, and it’s a shame she wasn’t given more to do. She’s funny, intelligent, cute as a button and just-damn-nice enough to soothe a Hun. Amy Acker plays the subtle duality of her outer bubblyness and inner anxieties in a fully convincing manner, and brings great comedic timing to the character. She often gets the funniest little one liners and they never fall flat, even in episodes that do. Fred, like Gunn, starts off with an interesting set of issues that hang over from the last season. But once the season gets rolling she too gets shuffled off to the side for much of the proceedings, especially towards the end. Although, I did at least find her more interesting than Gunn throughout, especially due to her impact on Wesley’s arc.
Fred is a scientist at heart. She’s a physics whiz and a practical observer of human nature. How things work generally interest her. But her time in Pylea and separation from anything human drove her to obsession; her ability to deduce and reason became the only way should could put order into her life and keep herself from becoming suicidal & depressed. This of course had the result of making her more than a little batty, because when she wasn’t thinking about something, she’d be forced to stop and think about where and what she was: a hell dimension, and a hunted fugitive. Coming back to LA was certainly better for her general sanity, but as the season opens Fred is having trouble even coming out of her room.
Enclosed spaces that keep her from dealing with other people or things are the only places she feels safe. And what’s more is that because she was trapped in a fairytale-esque alternate reality for so long, she has medieval, romantic conceptions of Angel as her true love. After all, he rescued her. Now if this sounds to you like an interesting set of personal issues that the season could’ve dealt with, then I’d say I agree with you. Unfortunately “Fredless” [3×05] , like “That Old Gang of Mine” [3×03] does for Gunn, deals with all of them in one fell swoop. When Fred’s parents come looking for her, she’s forced to face the reality of where she is and what she’s been through, and the episode ends with her painting over her physics scribblings on the wall in her room; symbols of her obsession. This is not necessarily a bad transformation for her, but I would’ve preferred it to be more gradual.
Though she did get rid of her fantasy conceptions of Angel in “Carpe Noctem” [3×04] , between those two episodes that’s’ pretty much it. The writers never touch the Pylea issues at any great length again until S4. Fred is defined by her relationships with Wesley and Gunn for the rest of the season. She’s a much more conventional woman in terms of how she deals with and understands people and relationships, and Gunn’s bravery and general good nature are enough to win her over. She’s enamored by the same qualities in Wesley and in fact finds more in common with him (they’re both big book geeks, for example), but everything happens so quickly that she’s never even fully aware of how deeply Wesley cares for her until S4. Her and Gunn dating feed Wesley’s isolation and contribute to the series events that ultimately lead him to betray Angel Investigations. But she’s ever a sympathetic soul, and in the wake of “Sleep Tight” [3×16] she tries harder than anyone to help get Wesley forgiven.
She’s the first to propose going to him in a crisis because as a woman of reason, she believes that the most qualified person or thing is the best person or thing to have around, especially when you’re fighting demons. That, and without Wesley around she starts to see just how important he really was. But as the season closes out, that’s about it, unfortunately. Not much for 22 episodes, hm? Like Gunn, though, she does get more interesting next season. The two of them are left without Cordelia and Angel, and have to take care of Connor, unaware of how he’d betrayed all of them.
Daniel Holtz and his protégé Justine are the familiar and somewhat sympathetic faces that oppose Angel this season. In this way they take the place of Detective Kate Lockley. Although in this season Holtz is the main antagonist working against Angel, and like Kate, threatens him while still managing to make us feel sorry for him. The big switch is that Angel may very well be responsible for what was done to him. Holtz grew up in England and led his life hunting vampires in a classically heroic way: ride off on a horse and slay things of evil to protect things of good. He was a morally black and white man with a loving family, until Angelus and Darla took revenge on him for the trouble he’d been causing in the underworld: they murdered his family.
He became so furious with grief that he was willing to make a pact with a demon (Sahjahn) to be mystically preserved so he could come to life at exactly the right time to kill Angel and Darla according to Sahjahn’s interpretation of the Nyazian prophecy. What makes Holtz an interesting character is how he opposes Angel in every way: where Angel focuses on the means, Holtz is obsessed only with the ends. He has no understanding; to Holtz there are only monsters and demons. Like all ye olde Englishmen, he’s a man of ‘God’ and ‘righteousness,’ where Angel is rooted firmly in the Earth and is most concerned with humankind’s well being. Holtz looks to the heavens in a classically biblical sense, and if you’ve read the Old Testament you know it’s just full of vengeance.
What makes Holtz so important to the season is he raises interesting questions. While we’re ultimately meant to be more sympathetic to Angel, we can’t help but wonder if he’s not getting at least some of what’s coming to him. Holtz goes about everything a very disturbing way, but his intentions are noble: destroy an evil thing that has killed good people. On top of that, the way he lost his family was so horrific and perverse we can realistically grasp at the fury driving this man. His great flaw is that hatred has consumed him so totally that he’s blinded to the context of things (like Angel’s soul), and that every last drop of understanding has been sapped out of him. Even as he does horrible things to characters we love, we can’t help but feel sorry for him, or wonder if maybe he’s just a little justified. This is the kind of enemy I like to see.
Justine is basically the same: she lost someone she loved and became enslaved by hatred. The difference between the two of them: she really believes she’s doing a good thing by hunting Angel. She doesn’t give totally into the urge for selfish vengeance until she loses Holtz. Though as I explained in my Cons section, Holtz never really changes, which is disappointing. At least it made for a great twist in “Benediction” [3×21] : He hands Angel’s son back to him, only to fake his own murder so that Connor will hate Angel forever.
I really have very little to say about W&H in S3, which is probably one of the few things I don’t just dislike about S3, but outright despise. Last season they proved themselves to be masterminds; puppeteers of human and demon nature alike. The inner moral workings of their organization and the truth about how they became eternal because human ugliness has eternally fed them drove S2’s main arc from step one, even though we didn’t know it then. When we finally got to the moment of revelation about these things in “Reprise” [2×15] , the darkness and despair was so thick you could almost choke on it.
Now they’ve been reduced to bumbling bureaucrats. They took a backseat to Holtz for the sake of the season’s main topic, which I was fine with. But when they did interfere and attempt to intervene, they failed miserably. An organization that once convinced Angel to abandon his entire mission simply based on their principles couldn’t even spy on his hotel with cameras without getting caught. Maybe Linwood Murrow was just so incompetent that he had that effect. A dry and one dimensional character, he bored and annoyed me, as did Gavin Park, who did nothing at all except annoy Lilah.
Lilah herself was good, at least. She further fleshed out Wolfram and Hart by embodying what fuels them: pure human selfishness. It’s not a selfishness that exists for any reason; it’s just an abandonment of morals in the interest of self-preservation. She wants to live nicely, and has no reason to do it but the best way for her and her only. Lilah is simple, but because of how she reflects on W&H (and makes some fine points about Wesley) and how Stephanie Romanov plays her, she’s a sizzle to watch. She gets even better in S4.
Despite what seem like a lot of putting down in this review, even the weakest season of AtS is better than almost every season of most shows out there. Though sometimes too boring, S3 tries its heart out and succeeds in a lot of areas. And again I have to say that I admire the complexity it put into a lot of its characters, even if not all of it worked. In this way it’s similar to S4 of Buffy, which I’d probably rate it equally with. Speaking of S4, I’ll see you there.