Angel Investigations is offered the keys to enemy Wolfram & Hart by a back-from-the-dead Lilah. Is this offer too good to be true? The gang takes a tour of the evil law firm’s offices and ask themselves if taking over is for the greater good, or if they’d ultimately be corrupted anyway. Offset against this change to the show’s premise is the emotional resolution of the Cordy/Connor storyline, which sees Angel forced to make an impossible choice regarding his son. Yet among these many storylines, Wesley resolving his relationship with Lilah arguably had the most provoking denouement. It was only ever an obsession, an unhealthy affair – or was it?
A mentally disturbed, abused slayer called Dana escapes a hospital, and so Wolfram & Hart, led by Angel, has to track her down. Spike believes he can beat him to the chase, but winds up falling into the slayer’s trap – after being tortured, the blonde vampire’s hands are chopped off before Angel turns up and helps restrain the wayward girl. By the end of ‘Damage’, you realise that Dana’s story is a parallel to Spike and Angel’s own loss of innocence. The image of a handless Spike is still rather chilling, even if it was easily undone by the catch-all narrative solution of having demonic law firm Wolfram & Hart as a backdrop.
8. There’s No Place Like Plrtz Glrb (Season 2, Episode 22)
A fairytale finale to Angel season two, this conclusion to the Pylea arc is almost like a buddy comedy for Angel Investigations. While Wesley and Gunn lead the rebels to freedom, Cordelia falls in love and Angel fights his ass off to get her back, battling his nature in this parallel dimension. It’s funny, touching and a little bit sad – particularly when Angel learns of Buffy’s demise in the closing moments. No scene is better in this episode than the severed head of Lorne opening his eyes and freaking out the team. It’s the closest Angel has ever got to pure comedy (barring ‘Smile Time’, of course).
This wonderful season two episode may be the most thematically ambitious standalone story that Angel ever accomplished. Taking place in both the past and the present day in one location, the Hyperion Hotel, we’re shown what happened when the newly soul-stricken Angel was confronted by a hotel full of hate-ridden Americans during the McCarthyism era. It’s a strong metaphor and a very convincing period piece.
This bizarre interlude in Angel season three belongs in the same category as Buffy’s ‘Restless’. The gang head to the ballet, only for Angel to recognise the lead dancer from his old days as Angelus. When Cordelia and Angel look into it, they’re soon inhabited by the spirits of the dancers and are entwined in a moment of passion. This episode is really about the relationships between the characters, both the ongoing will-they-won’t-they of Angel and Cordelia, as well as the difficult love triangle between Fred, Gunn and Wesley, but it’s all subtext, embedded within this episode’s strange imagery (and the mad ballet skills of Summer Glau).
Angel is the darkest of Whedon’s series – and let’s face it, his works have the tendency to get pretty dark. In ‘Sleep Tight’, poor old do-gooder Wes is tricked into stealing Angel’s son, Connor, but he is ambushed, his throat slit, and Holtz escapes with Connor to a hell dimension. And, in one of the most memorable instances in the entire series, Angel attempts to suffocate his old bumbling British friend for his betrayal while he lies in his hospital bed.
“You’re a bloody puppet!” – Spike
Angelus goes Hannibal Lecter in one of season four’s highlights, psychologically picking apart the team one-by-one, in what marks the most chilling appearance of Angel’s evil alter-ego over the whole course of the series. Barely anything happens in ‘Soulless’, but it’s a showcase for Boreanaz at his best, leading up to a horrific finale when his soul-in-a-jar has been nabbed, leading to an excellent arc where Faith has to help sort everything out.
You’re Welcome’ marked the return of Cordelia Chase to Angel after nearly a year’s absence and a bizarre exit in season four. When Cordy awakes from her coma, it’s the ex-cheerleader at her best. In some ways, we realise that she’s the only true insight into the way Angel works, since she’s the only remaining soldier who’s been with him from the start. The Matrix-esque battle between Lindsey and Angel is a perfect way to mark the show’s 100th episode – but it’s the heartbreaking ending that stays with me to this day. Quick trivia (which you may have heard before, but she told me this in person a few years ago so I have to mention it): Charisma Carpenter showed the final scene of this episode to Sylvester Stallone when she auditioned for her role in The Expendables. He liked it, but she still had to audition…
Angel’s series finale was divisive. For one, fan uproar at the decision to cancel the show soared after the cliffhanger ending, which implies there was still much more of the story to tell. Nevertheless, it was still a powerful end to the show, in-keeping with it’s dark tone and a stark contrast to Buffy’s conclusion, as Angel Investigations bring down the Circle Of The Black Thorn, who declare war on them in return. Wesley’s death is the most heartbreaking instance of this episode, complete with Illyria’s reprisal of Fred’s form, and the rest of the episode is a thrilling mix of fight sequences and character-perfect dialogue, everything Angel does best. It was sad to see the vampire with a soul go, certainly, but at least it went down fighting the good fight.
And the rest.
Home, Hole In The World, Origin, Apocalypse Nowish, Destiny and The Girl In Question – actually, I’ll throw every episode of Season 5 in there (minus the submarine one in WWII, that was a bit daft), most of Seasons 2, 3 and 4 (I loved the serialised structure of the latter. Come and get me) and a handful of Season 1 episodes (have to mention ‘I Will Remember You’ and ‘Hero’). In my opinion, Angel is the finest of Whedon’s shows, demonstrating an extraordinary ability to reinvent itself every year for five years – mainly as a result of behind-the-scenes events – and challenging its audience with truly mature themes, exploring that lost feeling people get in their twenties in a way that no other show really bothered to. Buffy did a bit of that too, of course, but there’s something about Angel’s characters that had a greater resonance with me. To be honest, I’m just pleased I managed to turn my 10+ viewings of the episodes on this list into something constructive. Complete side note: I’m so obsessed with the show that I actually went looking for the ‘real-life’ version of the Hyperion Hotel in last year’s excellent game LA Noire (the building, the Los Altos Apartments, was too far west on the map, sadly).
Here’s Angel dancing in the episode ‘She’: