Monday, July 27, 2009

My Top 6 Favorite Angel Story Arcs

Faith collage, From Buffyverse Dialogue Database


I'd written in my "Top 10 Favorite Angel Episodes" post that I left some shows off of my "favorites" list because they belonged to particular story arcs in which each episode seemed to be equally good. I started to do a "Top 10 Story Arc Post", but I thought that would be cheating, since I could conceivably have anywhere between 20-40 episodes listed in total. So much for an exclusive list. Plus, I also feel that people putting together favorites lists should feel real pain in making their decisions (which I most certainly did).

Finally, I didn't include my obvious favorite story arcs, Wesley and Lilah, and Wesley and Illyria, because they were a little too obvious. I've written way too much about these arcs as it is.

My Top 6 Angel Story Arcs (In Chronological Order)
(I admit I'm playing a bit fast and loose with the definition of "story arc".)

1. Faith - Season 1 "Five by Five" and "Sanctuary". (My previous episode reviews here and here.) Eliza Dushku is such an amazing actress! She has that rare quality where she can both dominate every scene she appears in and make other actors give even better performances. I guess you have to crank it up a few notches to be able to compete with her. You know that a story arc that features my favorite character being brutally tortured has to be good to make it to my Top 6 List.

Highlights include: that sleazy bastard picking on the wrong little girl (Faith) when she stepped off the bus in Los Angeles; the flashback sequences with Darla, (btw, I think "Five by Five" had some of the best flashback sequences in the entire series); Faith's encounters with the Wolfram & Hart lawyers; Faith's breakdown in the rain when she first begged Angel to kill her, then slowly surrendered herself to his care; Wesley's "I do not, however, understand why the woman who brutally tortured me last night, this morning - gets pastries"; Angel's speech to Faith when she asked "So, how does this work?"; Lindsey & Lilah's "curses, foiled again" moments; Wesley's meeting with the Watchers Council goon squad and his subsequent warning of Angel et al of the upcoming attack; Angel repeatedly telling off Buffy whenever she started her incessant whining, including when he told Buffy at the end to "Go home"; and Faith's surrender to the police.

David Boreanaz was magnificent in this story arc as his Angel character kept working with Faith and never gave up on her. He was the best speechifier on the show, and he gave some good ones in these episodes. I also admired how Eliza Dushku was able to shut down and recede into the background, figuratively speaking, when it was Boreanaz' turn to take center stage. I'd written before how Faith's tantrums were childlike, and she readily turned into the little girl being comforted by the father figure. I was also struck by, and really enjoyed, how Angel and Faith could share such strong emotional bonds, even being in each others arms at times, without the least hint of romance or sexuality. What a pure form of love they had for each other.

I did not view Wesley and Cordelia as "bailing out" on Angel in "Sanctuary" when they both left the office early in the episode. Both wisely knew that their presence would only complicate matters, and it was best to leave Angel alone to work his magic on Faith.

There was an element of trying things out and seeing what worked in Season 1. I've written before that Season 1 introduced a lot of story ideas which were not really followed up on in subsequent seasons. Some of the things I would have liked to have seen continued was: Angel gazing at the night skyline, contemplating his life while being on the lookout for innocent victims; the natural follow-up where he rescued the victims from the evil that lurked in the dark alley ways; and Angel working on helping both agressors and victims find redemption for their deeds.

2. Crisis of Faith in Season 2. "Reprise" and "Epiphany". (My [sort of] episode review here.) I've never written any real reviews of these episodes because I really wanted to see all of Season 2 one more time before doing so. I could make a strong case for saying these are my two favorite episodes of the whole series. The only thing that's holding me back from making that strong endorsement is that the conclusions Angel reached in Season 2 were somewhat negated by what happened in Season 5.

Highlights include: Lindsey and Lilah's uneasy alliance where they had to work together to carry out the Senior Partners' objectives while simultaneously fighting each other for the desired promotion; Kate's confrontation with Angel over the massacre in Holland Manners' wine cellar; Lindsey's interactions with Darla; Lorne more than once providing Angel much neeeded advice in his Caritas karaoke bar; Angel's encounter with the priest in the bookstore, before Darla ruined things by murdering the priest; Virginia trying to break up with Wesley, while Wesley turned the tables and tenderly finished the job for her (my review here); Angel crashing Wolfram & Hart's big 50-year review meeting; Angel's revealing elevator ride with the deceased Holland Manners; Angel's "Epiphany" with Darla; Angel's fight with Lindsey; and Angel's encounters with Kate, first, when he saved her life, and, second, when he poured his heart out to her in what I think is probably the best scene in the entire series.

Trust the Whedonverse creators to never neatly compartmentalize their story elements within a single season. These two episodes were part of a much larger story arc featuring not only Angel's, but Lindsey's crisis of faith. This started for both of them with Season 1's "Blind Date" and ended probably when Lindsey left town a few episodes after "Epiphany" in "Dead End" . You can tell by this post that I was profoundly moved by "Blind Date". In fact, the only thing wrong with "Blind Date" was that it marked a beginning to a story arc, and by definition, the beginnings will always pale in comparison to the endings.

David Boreanaz, Christian Kane and Sam Anderson (as Holland Manners) all put in excellent performances in this story arc. It's too bad that Christian Kane and Sam Anderson both left the series (Kane, of course, returned in Season 5), because I thought the writers could have had a lot of stories left in them regarding their two characters. Happily, one consequence was Stephanie Romanov's Lilah being brought out more noticeably into the spotlight.

3. The Pylea Arc in Season 2. "Belonging", "Over the Rainbow", "Through the Looking Glass" and "There's No Place Like Plrtz Glrb". (My [sort of] episode reviews here, here, here, and here.) I have a definite fondness for this arc because both my unofficial and official introductions to Angel started in Pylea. ("Unofficial", in that, some time in the distant past, I caught most of "Through the Looking Glass" and thought, what a cute series. "Official", in that earlier this year I caught most of "Over the Rainbow" and immediately became hooked on the series.)

I fell in love with Alexis Denisof/Wesley Wyndam-Pryce literally at first sight, when he came rushing into the room after he had his "Eureka" moment. I'm still amazed how I thought he was about the most adorable creature I'd ever seen towards the end of Season 2, and he just kept getting better-looking almost throughout the rest of the series.

There were too many great things happening to list all of the highlights. I do have to single out: every single scene featuring Andy Hallett as Lorne; Joss Whedon's surprise appearance as Lorne's brother, Numfar, doing his musicless dance of joy; some particularly good one-liners from J. August Richards/Charles Gunn, including the handcuffs with the magical alloy and "you take the 30 on the right"; Cordelia's hilarious encounters with the Groosalugg, particularly where this impossibly handsome warrior apologized for his hideousness, and Wesley's leadership during the final battle sequences.

Judging from user forums, I don't know if any Angel story arc has divided fans more than the Pylea one. It's probably the least typical story arc of the whole series, which probably left a lot of fans feeling discombobulated. What I enjoyed was the light-hearted Midsummer's Night Dream element to the episodes, where there was a lot of enchantment, intrigue, and the inevitable happy ending. Although serious issues were addressed in this arc, particularly Wesley's so-called "ruthlessness" and his admirable growth in leadership skills, overall these episodes left me with a song in my heart and an overall good feeling. Despite my boasts about my love of shows that challenge viewers and don't provide easy answers, deep down, I always like going back to the more conventional, cuddly-happy ones.

4. Cordelia Arc in Season 3. (My [sort of] episode reviews are here, here, here, here and here.) The Season 3 Cordelia arc is kind of an ill-defined concept for me. In a way I could lump in Season 2's Pylea episodes into my overall Cordelia arc. However, for my immediate purposes, I'll include roughly most of the episodes between "That Vision Thing" and "Couplet".

These episodes showed Cordelia as she made her steady march from a ditzy bitch-queen to a warm, mature (but still wickedly funny) woman. Her friendship with Angel was also progressing during this time, although both were a bit clueless as to what was happening between them. There was a fair share of tragedy in these episodes, but overall, a warm happy glow permeated throughout, culminating in what's probably still my favorite all-time favorite Angel episode "Couplet".

Again, too many highlights, but I will mention a few standouts: Cordelia's development of an empowered kick-ass attitude in Billy; Cordelia's shameless flirting with the musclemen in the gym in "Carpe Noctum"; the entire "Birthday" episode; Cordelia's magical amorous backstage encounters with Angel in "Waiting in the Wings"; and her clueless yet still lovable overall joy at being with her beloved Groosalugg in "Couplet".

The ending of this arc (when Wesley translated his false prophecy about Angel killing his son) was particularly rough on me since the wonderful Cordelia arc shows were among the first Angel episodes I had ever seen. It was like having a happy ending turn into a horrible nightmare as Wesley kidnapped and lost Connor, got banished from the group, and The Beast and Angelus made their dreadful appearances. I quickly learned that whenever something good happens in the Whedonverse, something horrific will immediately follow.

5. Wesley's False Prophecy/Daniel Holtz Arc in Season 3. "Loyalty" and "Sleep Tight". (My episode review here.) This is another instance where horrible things happened to my favorite character, yet I still include these episodes in my "Favorite Story Arc" category. Alexis Denisof's fine acting (along with his exponential leap in handsomeness) make these episodes worthwhile.

I don't want to repeat everything I wrote in my review listed above, but I will highlight a few things. I didn't agree with Wesley's decision to act behind the group's back. However, I do recognize that he made what he thought was the best decision possible in order to try to achieve the almost mutually exclusive goals of protecting Connor, protecting Angel and protecting the rest of the group. I also enjoyed the warm moments shared by Wesley and Angel that manifested themselves in so many ways. The two of them had quiet moments where they shared a few thoughts, but the comfortably silent pauses were almost twice as informative. Wesley also talked about how much Angel meant to both him personally and the rest of the group, while Angel shared his wonderfully happy thoughts about fatherhood. These moments were all the more poignant in that, although Wesley was busy formulating a plan to kidnap Connor, he was being achingly sincere about the sentiments he was sharing with Angel the entire time.

There were also some delightful moments with Lilah, as she met with Sahjahn first in her office, then a few times at the bar (with one of those times being a delicious encounter with Angel).

If I didn't know for sure that Wesley and Lilah were going to hook up soon after the failed kidnapping attempt, I probably would have stopped watching Angel shortly after watching "Sleep Tight".

6. Wesley and Faith in Season 4. "Salvage" and "Release". (My [sort of] reviews here, here, here and here.) Notice how the word "faith" pops up repeatedly in my favorites list?

I don't make it a point to do formal episode reviews, but it's hard to believe I didn't write a lot more about Wes and Faith in these two outstanding episodes. I'm sure it had everything to do with how blown away I was by Wesley's dialogue with the deceased Lilah just before he chopped the head off of her corpse.

In these two episodes, Wesley was at the height of his bad-ass days. He was positively dripping with sex! Add an equally bad-ass Faith with her always in-your-face sexuality, and you get explosive results. These two never kissed, never almost-kissed and never even thought about almost-kissing. They didn't have to. Their scenes were hot enough as they were. Anything else would have been overkill. (But hey, a little bit of overkill once in a while is OK by me.)

I liked how Wesley was still acting as sort of the independent operator, and not quite fully merged with the group yet. "Angel" was gone, but the rest of the group naturally gravitated towards Wesley as their leader, despite some lingering doubts. The man commanded respect, and no one else came close to stepping in and taking over.

I also loved Faith's reaction to Wesley when she first saw him during his prison visit. She was quite taken by the New-and-Improved Wesley and could tell he wasn't someone who could be messed with. I also loved how she accepted him right away as the New Wesley, and didn't bother with constant little reminders of his ineffectual Watcher days. That was all in the past, and Faith was 100% in the present. Right away she started calling Wesley "Boss", not so much as a sign of servitude, but as a badge of honor that she bestowed upon him.

They quickly worked out the roles they'd be performing, and that brings to mind one of the reasons why I regret not seeing Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I never saw any true scenes of Watcher and Slayer until I saw Wes and Faith in Season 4. Consequently, I don't know if their interactions were typical or not. Regardless, their leadership roles reversed effortlessly back and forth, as Wesley always retained overall leadership while relinquishing the role to Faith as the situation demanded. I loved how Wesley openly beamed with pleasure at Faith's performance several times, particularly when Gunn remarked at one point how all Wes had to do was sit back and let Faith do all of the work.

You could make a strong case that Wesley ultimately abused Faith and abused her trust. Faith had turned a corner and was on her way to becoming reformed while being in a relatively sheltered prison environment. Her next logical step would be to try to continue being the "good" Faith in the outside world after her release from prison. Wesley ripped her away from her safe world and demanded that she return to her dark ways, all for the cause of capturing Angelus. He knew damned well that she had every potential of turning back into the psycho slayer, but he pushed her anyways. Sometimes there's a greater good that needs to be accomplished, and the world was more dangerous with Angelus on the loose than a temporarily off-the-wagon Faith.

I also didn't like how they ultimately caught Angelus, when he fed off of Faith after she shot herself up with drugs. What an inglorious way to capture Angelus, but it got the job done. This was totally in line with how the Whedonverse is loath to give us a satisfying conclusion to any situation.
Throughout most of these episodes, the two were a couple who looked as good together as Wes and Lilah did. This was particularly noticeable when Fred was commenting on the two of them while she was watching them at the Hyperion Hotel (after saying Supergirl would never make the mistake of being fooled by Angelus), and when Wesley carried the injured Faith back to the Hotel. What a great team these two made. It was a pity that their partnership had to end so quickly.

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