[Review by Iguana-on-a-stick]
[Writer: Sarah Fain and Elizabeth Craft | Director: Marita Grabiak | Aired: 10/15/2003]
If one were to name the most common tropes from Angel’s early seasons, one might come up with a list that quite accurately describes “Unleashed.” There is the Damsel in Distress, who naturally is young, pretty, blonde and attracted to Angel. There is the requisite monster in the form of the werewolf. There is the amoral evil that speaks more of power and the ability of the rich and influential to do as they please than it does of sadism or demonic urges. Finally, there is the theme of human connections preventing us from giving in to monstrous instincts. Doyle himself could have walked on screen and given Angel’s final speech for him, and it would have sounded just right. The difference is the setting of Wolfram and Hart instead of Angel’s old office, and Angel’s people getting their information by using labs and psychics and minions instead of Cordy getting visions or Angel calling in a favour from Kate.
That said, in the context of Season 5 the themes of “Unleashed” do take on a different meaning than the themes of “City of” [1×01] did. In “City of” [1×01] we were being given the series’ mission statement. In “Unleashed” more than anything, we are being reminded how far from that we have come, and how much of that has been forgotten. For most of Season 3 and Season 4 the stress had been on the grand overarching apocalyptic plot, culminating in the original and daring (if not always appreciated and on some levels flawed) Jasmine arc. For Season 5 the network wanted, and the writers promised, more stand-alone episodes like in the early seasons. The first two episodes of the season set up the two big changes: Angel as CEO of Wolfram and Hart and Spike’s introduction to the cast. From this episode onward the standalones truly start. If “Unleashed” in a way rehashes old ground, it is so old that this is not entirely unwelcome. On a story-level, the characters themselves may feel the same way. It has been a long time since they just tried to help random strangers.
Plot is never the strong point of Whedon shows, but the one in this episode works pretty well. From the initial picnic in the park to the search for Nina to Angel’s attempts to reach out to her to the introduction of the villains to Nina’s rescue and return to her family, it is well paced, makes enough sense, and serves to hold my interest better than the average monster-of-the-week story.
The villains in particular are a good concept. The pleasant, civilised conversation Crane holds with his guests as we see a trussed-up Nina in the background ready to be served is one of the most disturbing scenes in the series, far more powerful than demons slaughtering their way through innocents precisely because these people seem so normal. Crane and his guests are only introduced well past the halfway point of the episode and feature in only a few scenes. They could easily have felt tacked on, but instead provide a welcome illustration of the kind of evil Angel must face again; they are very much like the Wolfram and Hart clients in the early seasons before more personal troubles and apocalyptic threats blotted them out. It is not a very original or new idea, but in this episode it works precisely because it never is spelled out, instead only sketched in a few understated but powerful background scenes.
The idea of eating a living werewolf must be one of the most disturbing to ever feature on Angel, more so because it manages to be both horrific and fundamentally logical. Sacrificing someone to a demon is bad but on some level is too alien to allow it to resonate. I can accept you need to cut a heart out with the sacred dagger at the night of the new moon, but I never forget it is a random plot-point. In contrast, eating a werewolf alive sounds almost reasonable from the villain’s amoral point of view. The werewolf, after all, reverts to human form on death. It is immensely cruel and revolting, but borne from a callous disregard for others rather than from any Angelus-like sadism. No doubt these people are motivated instead by boredom and casual thrill-seeking.
Characters are always a more important aspect of an episode to me than the plot. Where characterisation is concerned, Unleashed” is a bit different from your run-of-the-mill Angel episode because the bulk of the effort is spent on developing the new recurring character Nina. A lot of time is spent on her development, and as such it falls to her to hold the audience’s interest.
In this I say she succeeds adequately. Nina’s interactions with her sister and niece are believable and a nicely domestic change of pace for this series, with the strong creepy overtones of Nina’s change adding a layer of complexity. Her interactions with Angel and Fred also work to make me feel for the character. On the other hand, some of the more dramatic moments fall flat. Specifically, I do not buy Nina’s reaction to the werewolf dinner party at all. She thinks she deserves to be eaten alive and asks Angel to leave her there? Even if she has already despaired enough to become suicidal, which I doubt, no sane person would be anything but relieved to be saved from such a fate. And would probably rather be less calm about it.
On the whole Nina’s inner turmoil does make sense and is sold well enough by the actress in the quieter moments. This may seem like faint praise, and that would be what it is. The word that most comes to mind about Nina in this episode is “nice.” We learn that Nina is an art-student, that she is rather close to her sister and niece, and that she is horrified and freaked out by the idea of going berserk and killing and eating people. We learn that she finds Angel attractive. It is not a bad portrayal, but it is not very distinctive either. Nina at this stage feels very generic. If I am allowed the obvious art-based simile: if Nina is not quite a blank canvas for Angel to project his issues on, she is one painted in a few vague, broad pastel strokes that don’t do much to hinder said projection. Finally, Nina further establishes that Angel likes short young blondes.
If anything, Nina’s introduction is reminiscent of Gwen Raiden’s from “Ground State” [4×02]. If I compare the characters, Nina certainly comes off looking better. Unlike Gwen one never wonders what she is doing here; she is far more connected to Angel and is used as an outside illustration of some of the character’s themes this season. Adding a female character to Season 5 also makes more sense than it did in Season 4, where we already had Lilah, Cordelia and Fred with fairly prominent roles. In Season 5 Fred is all by her lonesome and, moreover, gets systematically ignored until it is time for her to die a painful and horrific death. It’s a pity Nina only adds a little to the show.
Angel’s interactions with Nina aside, most of the core cast has little to do in this episode. They frame it in two group-scenes: the picnic at the start and the visit to Angel’s apartment at the end. The picnic scene is a strong and necessary one, showing the consequences the move to W&H had for the Angel crew on a personal level. Their mutual suspicions and resentments are logical, if regrettable. Add in the lingering conflicts from Season 4 and you have group quickly growing apart. The finale in Angel’s apartment is a happy contrast with the group being together again and enjoying one another’s company. Complete with cheesy music playing. I don’t buy it. I am afraid the writers intended to show things indeed have gotten better, but the more accurate conclusion is that Angel’s invitation is a stop-gap gesture that does nothing to resolve the real causes of conflict when the buzz of saving Nina wears off.
For the rest of the episode the other characters just provide exposition and muscle. Lorne does get a nice and very witty speech where he tries to knock some sense in Angel, one of his best moments in the season (though his explanation is wrong: Angel’s disconnection is surely caused by Connor’s disappearance, not by Spike. Of course, Lorne does not remember Connor).
Fred is the other, bigger exception. She interacts with Spike, who tries to blatantly manipulate her into helping him without letting Angel see his weaknesses. She also interacts with Nina, accompanies her when she’s visiting her family, fights the kidnappers and finally discovers the crypto-zoologist’s duplicity and knocks him out. In this episode, Fred demonstrates again that she’s smart and resourceful and can handle herself in a crisis better than one might suspect. The scene where she distracts the crypto-zoologist with typical Fred-babble only to hit him on the head with the lamp is particularly well done and took me by surprise even on second viewing. However, actual development isn’t really to be found here. The episode just shows previously established aspects of the character.
Spike also spends some scenes wandering the halls trying to get Fred to help him and arguing that the AI crew should be focusing on him rather than on the werewolf girl who’s a lost cause anyway. He feels very extraneous to this episode and his scenes don’t really hold my attention well. It also seems a bit odd for him to harp so much about how he is the one deserving help.
Angel has always focused more on its themes than Buffy did, and I for one think the ones in Angel are often more compelling. In this case, however, the theme is fairly obvious and familiar: The increasing isolation of the members of the Fang Gang as they all pursue their own business at Wolfram and Hart. As mentioned, it’s basically the theme from “City of” [1×01] updated to reflect Season 5 realities. Whedon shows use the “family” metaphor a lot, but clearly it has long since ceased to apply to Angel and his people, no matter how many times this episode tries to hit us over the head with it. In Season 5 they start acting a lot more like co-workers than family. Witness Angel telling Gunn to shut up and do his job. Even their picnic at the start of the episode is just an excuse for the plot and is used to voice suspicions and accusations rather than for bonding.
Angel does get this, and it’s one of the reasons he strongly identifies with Nina and her plight. No doubt he believes the lecture he gives her about being more than the monster. He also tries to forcibly reverse some of this isolation in the happy group-scene at the end. But neither of these quite convince. As the season goes on Angel in particular will only become more and more isolated, even after Cordelia gives him a wake-up call. In the end his only true connection seems to be to Connor and possibly Spike, and he chooses to go out in a blaze of glory rather than keep on living.
The other characters aren’t much better. Gunn is distrusted for his brain-upgrade. Angel resents Wesley for what he did back in “Sleep Tight” [3×16]. Fred is drawn away to her scientist colleagues rather than her old AI friends. Lorne spends two thirds of the season walking through the screen nattering about celebrity business in his phone. In this season none of them, with the possible exception of Wesley and Fred, seem to act like friends anymore.
In conclusion, “Unleashed“ is a decent episode that introduces a new love interest for Angel, sets up the season’s themes of estrangement and loss of interpersonal connection in the face of the ever continuing struggle, tells a decent story and actually gives Fred something useful to do. On the converse side Nina never truly compels, the themes are occasionally expounded on with a distinct lack of subtlety and Wesley, Lorne and Gunn have little to do. I missed seeing Nina interact with characters other than Angel and Fred.
If I compare “Unleashed” with “Untouched” [2×04], an episode with a similar feel that introduces a troubled young woman and spends a lot of time on her development, I can see why the Season 2 episode is superior. Bethany not only is a much more complex character in her own right, but her interactions also manage to further the development of all the core characters. In helping Bethany, Wesley inadvertently reveals a lot about himself, Cordelia gets to brilliantly combine her new-found compassion and her traditional bluntness, and Angel finds someone who resonates with his past and foreshadows what is yet to come. “Unleashed” serves its purpose and entertains well enough, but is a bit lacking in comparison.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Angel borrowing Wesley’s pen to fight the werewolf. Good quick thinking and funny when Fred one-ups Spike with it later.
+ On that note, Fred pricking through Spike’s ######## on several occasions.
+ Angel being embarrassed and almost apologetic when saying he’s a vampire. He must know how it sounds.
+ The werewolves not looking quite as horrible as they did on Buffy.
+ Continuity: Angel’s sketching talents coming to the fore again. As Nina is an art student and Angel has been shown to have a strong cultural interest as well as his own artistic talent, this gives them something in common. I wonder if they talked about art on their dates.
+ Nina jogging through the park at night on her own. I do not know if people do this in LA, but way to play into the horror-movie clichés, Nina. And what about muggers?
+ Nobody mentioning Oz. He managed to control his inner wolf, after all. Angel, Spike and Wes all knew him. Even Harmony did.
+ Angel walking in on barely-dressed Nina in the cage. Creepy. He might have knocked to see if she had indeed gotten dressed, or sent Fred in first as she is far, far less threatening. No wonder she’s scared. Note that Angel learns his lesson and knocks in “Smile Time” [5×14].
– Angel taking just Wes and Gunn to break up Crane’s party. Why doesn’t he bring W&H security? Or Fred for that matter, especially since she felt it was her fault Nina was taken?
– The fate of the crypto-zoologist never being explained. It is later mentioned that Crane’s Bistro of the Bizarre was stopped so presumably he was not eaten alive, but this shocking development should have been followed up on more clearly.
– Song endings are often a cheap trick. Here it seeks to make the scene in Angel’s apartment appear more significant a moment than it is.
* Gunn is mistrusted for the deal he made. He will indeed end up compromising himself to keep his brain-upgrades.
* Wesley is suspicious of Knox being evil. This turns out to be true. I do not, however, credit Wesley with anything but jealousy and paranoia here.
* Spike says something is trying to hold on to him when he vanishes. “Hell Bound” [5×04] will reveal what is trying to drag him to the netherworld/hell.
* Nina obviously is attracted to Angel. This is followed up on in “Smile Time” [5×14].