AngelAngel Season 4 Review
By Tara DiLullo
Monday 11 August 2003, by Webmaster
Where We Left Them
Season three ended with the haunting images of Cordelia ascending to a new plane of existence bathed in white light while Angel descended into the depths of the ocean welded into an airtight box at the hands of his son, Connor. Meanwhile, Wes had literally gotten into bed with the devil as he began an affair with Lilah. Lorne split town to Vegas and Gunn and Fred were left alone in The Hyperion lobby scratching their heads wondering where everyone went. Twisted, yes, and only the beginning...
Where They Went
For a show that once started as a standalone, noir-ish, vampire detective show, Angel hit it’s arc nadir in season four with a complete shift from individual episodes to a dense serialization which drew heavily on the character’s histories to introduce a series of plot twists that rocked the show’s world. It was an ambitious season that brought fans even deeper into the mythos of the show and rewarded them with some amazing revelations, changes and shifts in allegiances.
Initially run by David Simkins, the decision was made early on in the season to instead give Jeff Bell the reins and he did an outstanding job of keeping the quality intact, while writing some choice episodes and making sure the complicated arc stayed the course. The smaller staff of writers all got more than the usual amount of episodes to tackle this season and they rose to the challenge. It was clearly evident that this team of scribes really gelled and connected with one another creatively making for their best written season yet.
Visually, the look of the show was outstanding. Director of Photography, Ross Berryman, makes this show look so rich and sumptuous using the saturated blacks and vivid reflective colors of the frequent nighttime settings to full advantage. Rob Hall’s Almost Human also pulled out all the make-up stops with a creative array of creepy monsters, zombies, and demons culminating in his stunning design work on The Beast. And stunt coordinator Mike Massa had an impressive year choreographing some outlandish and eye-popping action sequences in Rain of Fire/Apocalypse Nowish, Salvage, Release, and Peace Out.
Overall, the seasonal arc was building from the moment the series returned. While it was slowly percolating from Deep Down through Spin the Bottle, all hell broke loose (literally) in Rain of Fire/Apocalypse Nowish and the freight train storyline never stopped until the end of the season. Joss and company also weaved a myriad of mini-arcs into the main story, which forced fans to pay attention and keep up or be left behind. Audiences were treated to Electro-Gwen and the evil Beast. Angelus, Faith, Skip and Willow also made return appearances. Wolfram & Hart took a back seat then took the front seat again. There were prophecies, old personalities and the mother of all misdirects thrown in as well - enough to make a fan dizzy but it was delicious fun making heads and tails of it throughout the season.
Like season three, season four was so tightly scripted that the majority of episodes continued the action right from where the last episode left off thus only a few weeks were covered during the season. There were even less standalone episodes than ever before so watching episodes out of continuity is less recommended but there are still exceptional offerings to review and savor again including:
- Spin the Bottle: Written and directed by Joss Whedon - Rain of Fire/Apocalypse Nowish: Written and Directed by Steve DeKnight - Awakening: Written by David Fury and Steve DeKnight and directed by James Contner - Calvary: Written by Jeffrey Bell, Steve DeKnight and Mere Smith and directed by Bill Norton - Orpheus: Written by Mere Smith and directed by Bill Norton - Sacrifice: Written by Ben Edlund and Directed by David Straiton
As usual, there were exceptional single episode appearances by guest actors this season but interestingly, the best were all return appearances by familiar faces. Laurel Holloman [Justine] made her coda appearance in Deep Down having the control tables turned on her by Wes and his "bucket" threats. It was a fitting albeit merciful end to a much maligned character.
Alyson Hannigan [Willow] swooped into town in Orpheus with her Wicca mojo to restore Angel’s soul. It was such a treat watching Aly get to play Willow as the confident, charming and mightily powerful woman we’d been missing in Sunnydale.
Julie Benz [Darla] made her one and only appearance this season in a deeply affecting scene between mother and son in Inside Out. Any chance to see Julie back on the show is a plus but her time spent trying to connect with her spiraling son, Connor, was both heart wrenching and emotionally pitch perfect - a reminder of why we love her so!
David Denman [Skip] returned and quickly went from light-hearted guide to ominous and evil in a sentence. Inside Out gave us a Skip that was a complete 180 from what we had come to think of him yet Denman still infused him with the trademark snark and wit fans love. Even as a truly evil demon, Skip stole our hearts.
Season four on Angel just proved again that the series consistently feeds and develops one of the best supporting casts on television. While their names may not be in the main credits, these actors give tremendously vital performances which make indelible impressions on the landscape of the show as well as inspiring the regular cast to new heights time and time again.
Stephanie Romanov [Lilah] reached her career apex and her life zenith this season as we saw her orchestrate a hostile takeover of the W&H boardroom and lose her life at the hands of an unexpected enemy. Yet it was her torrid relationship with the tormented Wesley, which finally gave us a glimpse at the softer side of this legal shark in stiletto heels. Together, they reluctantly attempted to redeem one another in a "relationship" no one would have ever guessed could happen. Stephanie rose to the challenges this season and continued to make Lilah a complex and thoroughly mesmerizing foe. As inevitable as her death may have been, it was still heartbreaking to let Lilah go.
Gina Torres [Jasmine] was the best kind of villain - one so gray and challenging to the preconceived notions of good and evil that the audience is left without cut and dry answers. Gina Torres was a smiling goddess of love bathing followers with peace and tranquility for a price that left us repeatedly questioning what sacrifices are too much. Torres did an exceptional job playing that fine line of benevolence and malice crafting a Big Bad with layers worth exploring.
Eliza Dushku [Faith] broke out of the pokey in her customary brash way and came back to LA to save her redeemer, Angel, from his soulless self. Watching Eliza on screen as Faith just served to show it’s been too long since we’ve seen this saucy slayer. Tough yet vulnerable, Faith ended up mending a lot of fences this visit with Angel and Wesley and she proved her redemption was worthwhile as she was willing to sacrifice herself to do right by those that needed her most. It was a terrific return or as Faith would say, "5x5."
Vladimir Kulich [The Beast] was a truly terrifying visage that appeared from the bowels of hell to wreak havoc on LA and particularly for Angel and his team. With a costume that was stunning and an appetite for destruction, The Beast was a Big Bad whose bite matched his bark. He laid waste to Wolfram & Hart, knocked the stuffing out of Wes, Gunn and Angel, almost broke Faith in two and made out with Cordelia! While Kulich may not have gotten many lines, he played his part with obvious glee and made a memorable mark on LA despite his brief stay.
Alexa Davalos [Gwen] was one of the coolest and most unique women to ever appear on the show. Her story positively oozed from the panels of a comic book as the mutant girl with the destructive powers of electricity running through her skin. Alexa had a lot of fun with her snappy but emotionally distant thief-for-hire and that fun was infectious. Despite her odd story, Gwen still managed to make sense in Angel’s world and she wove well into the overall fabric and arc of the season. She had great chemistry with the cast, especially J. August, and added some literal spark to the season.
The regular cast grew by two this season with Vincent Kartheiser and Andy Hallett making the opening credits. Every actor was challenged this season, some with surprising characters turns, others with deeply dramatic emotional arcs showing continued range and versatility.
David Boreanaz [Angel] arguably had his finest year playing Angel this season. He ran the emotional gamut from angst-ridden, would-be lover, to despondent father, and then got to revisit his wickedly evil side with the return of Angelus. Overall, it was a dark year for Angel but David has become very confident balancing the many moods of Angel into his performance. Spin the Bottle gave us a return look at the brash and cocky pre-vampire Liam, Shiny Happy People gave us the lighter, goofier Angel, while Home was just a brilliantly subtle work in portraying anguish and parental sacrifice. Of course, David also got to revisit his villainous roots in the return of Angelus from Soulless to Orpheus and it was a fantastic opportunity for him to chew the scenery and have some fun. Boreanaz has grown so much in this role and this season just exposed new, vibrant shades in his acting palette.
J. August Richards [Gunn] continued to grow and become his own man this season. After the icky sweetness of he and Fred’s relationship last season, we got to watch them mature and tackle some very deep issues, which ultimately taxed them to the breaking point. Through that pain, we got to see new facets to Gunn, which helped flesh out the "muscle" of the group into someone deeper. Beginning with Gunn’s morally stunning action at the end of Supersymmetry, season four slowly shifted Gunn into new areas. He was the sympathetic, jealous ex-lover in the Fred/Gunn/Wes triangle. Players gave him a showcase to play the quasi-James Bond hero highlighting a new confidence. He even got to woo Gwen in a surprising but hot love scene. But Gunn’s experience in the "White Room" at the end of Home is just a hint at the changes yet to come for Gunn.
Alexis Denisof [Wesley] was a revelation this season. Who knew that the uptight Watcher we met on Buffy would ever turn into the dark, complicated, steely fighter we now know as Wesley on Angel? Played to perfection by Alexis, Wesley has evolved into a stubbly, sexy, dangerous loner who truly knows darkness and is willing to embrace it when necessary. His brutal force on the drugged out girl in Release gives the chills upon every viewing. Yet he is also completely in control of his power retaining his humanity and the moral center that is the heart of his character. From his cold treatment of Justine in Deep Down to his sadly tragic relationship with Lilah (as evidenced in Salvage and Home), season four made Wesley an absorbing and fascinating mess of dichotomies which was amazingly portrayed.
Charisma Carpenter [Cordelia] suffered through the most drastic changes of any character this year. After such a cliffhanger ending to season three, viewers were only given frustrated cameo Cordy from Deep Down through The House Always Wins. And as soon as Cordelia made it back to our plane of existence, you could tell something was just "off" about our heroine. Except for her outstanding return to form in Spin the Bottle, the Cordelia we’ve all come to love over the years (that bitchy but charming woman with a good heart) was nowhere to be seen this season. The reasoning for the change became clear by Calvary, but by then we had witnessed in horror the act of her seducing Connor in the most disturbing storyline on the show ever. The last half of the season had Charisma playing at Big Bad but her heart never really seemed in it. Now, Cordy is in a coma without ever getting to see her redeemed or have a satisfactory resolution to her and Angel’s relationship. It was a disappointing year for a beloved character as well as for the actress who played Cordelia so well.
Amy Acker [Fred] grew by leaps and bounds this season. The quiet, shy, southern bookworm blossomed into a stronger, more independent woman over the year. The overly sweet Fred of season three was no more as she faced insurmountable challenges one after another. The heartache and sadness she suffered, as her surrogate family was ripped apart at the seams just made us love her more. Performance wise, Amy was given a lot of challenges and she met them all. Supersymmetry was her moment to shine as we learned more about pre-Pylea Fred and the simmering rage that experience left in her wounded soul. She got to be physical more often whether it was zapping Connor with a tazer in Deep Down, getting green and sexy as a Lornette in The House Always Wins or threatening a brainwashed Angel with a gun in The Magic Bullet. Fred grew a tremendous backbone to match the strong soul that was always within her. And despite the romantic affections of Gunn and Wes towards her, Fred ultimately chose neither and defined herself first.
Vincent Kartheiser [Connor] had a challenging year playing Angel’s errant son, to say the least. While audiences may have hoped for a reconciliation between the two, it was never meant to be. Connor instead started and remained the heavy for the majority of the season as petulant and unsympathetic as many teens are in real life. The pairing of he and Cordelia was completely foul just about everyone and therefore made him the whipping boy for fan ire. It wasn’t an easy job but Vincent should be commended for following through and playing the role like it needed to be done. But he earns serious kudos for his amazing last inning transformation of Connor from brat to tragic figure worthy of pity and understanding in Peace Out and Home. That Vincent was able to redeem Connor in such a short time is a true feat in itself and it was singularly responsible for making the finale as heartbreaking and haunting as it ended up being.
Andy Hallett [Lorne] finally made it to the credits this season and it only left us asking "What took you so long?!" Andy has been a blessing to the show since he first showed up in Caritas in season two. Since then, his comedic line readings and vocal stylings have been the highlights of every episode he’s shown up on. We were almost worried he wasn’t coming back this season but The House Always Wins proved conclusively that Angel wouldn’t be as good as it could be without Lorne. I do have to complain about the gross amount of times poor Lorne gets physically abused this season a la Slouching Toward Bethlehem. The writers need to quit using him as a punching bag so often and a significant other seems due about now as well. With such a dark season, Andy was a breath of fresh air and the source of some much needed levity all around.
Season four was stacked with so many amazing plot revelations that it almost seems a blur until you go back and watch it all over again. These arcs shook the show and characters to their very core and at the end - nobody left standing could say they weren’t profoundly changed by the outcomes.
Cordelia & Connor’s liason While we saw it hinted at early in the season with lingering glances and a shared kiss, the majority of us still refused to acknowledge a sexual relationship between Cordelia and Connor would ever happen - but it did, in full glory at the end of Apocalypse Nowish. It was disturbing and wrong, making fans miserable all season and securing a seething hatred for Connor by most viewers. Yet it was also a means to an end, allowing the possessed Cordelia, to show her evil face to the audience while continuing to work the group and the circumstances behind the scenes like puppets. But most importantly, it allowed for the conception of an offspring that would become the true Big Bad in the tail end of the season.
Cordelia is Evil There was something not right about Cordelia from the moment she reappeared in the Hyperion lobby at the end of The House Always Wins. Each consequent episode added to the intangible oddness that suffused the amnesia stricken Cordelia. Her rejection of Angel in Spin the Bottle, sleeping with Connor and agreeing to bring back Angelus all screamed "Wrong" but it wasn’t until she killed Lilah in cold blood in Calvary that we could finally acknowledge that Cordy was literally not herself. While it was an interesting turn of events that Skip explained had been in play for years in fact, the complete destruction of Cordelia’s character was the fallout from this arc and it never felt worth it especially when all that was left was a comatose shell.
Angelus Returns We knew it had to happen eventually - the incendiary return of Angel’s soulless self, Angelus. In desperation to fight the overwhelming power of the The Beast and the apocalyptic Rain of Fire, it made sense the gang would consider unleashing the most potent and brutal weapon they possess - Angelus. While the series has flirted with the idea in past seasons or just provided us flashback looks into his history, there hasn’t been a full out return of Angelus since season two on Buffy. Joss and company did an excellent job earning his return from the complicated "trick" needed to get Angel to turn in Awakening, through his literal memory lane tour with Faith all the way to the excellent and unexpected physical confrontation of Angel vs. Angelus in Orpheus. What could have been a "stunt" was an effective and necessary re-examination of Angel’s Id, which spurs and informs his every decision to fight his nature and continue on his path to redemption.
Faith Returns With Angel’s soul missing, the A.I. team found themselves no match for Angelus and his brutal tactics. Desperate times beget desperate measures and Wesley took off for the California Women’s Penitentiary that held Faith. Though at peace with her judicial punishment, it only takes the phrase, "Angelus is back" for Faith to bust out of the joint and return to LA to help restore her redeemer. Faith may still be a slayer and an amazing warrior but she takes a tremendous physical beating from The Beast and becomes a target for the mental manipulations of Angelus. Her confidence is shaken to the core but it becomes her personal crusade to battle the guise of her strongest supporter and accept the fact that she must again embrace her darker side to overcome Angelus and restore Angel. Faith’s redemption began in season one but she finally found her chance to earn it within this arc.
Jasmine She was evil wrapped in a warm smile and a message of "Peace." From the moment of her magical birth when she appeared glowing and fully-grown, we knew there had never been a Big Bad like Jasmine before. Subsequently, her true nature unfolded over the final episodes and provided one of the most complicated foes Angel and his team had ever encountered. The brainwashing was a throwback to ’50’s style paranoid pulp novels and was a clever and fresh plot device. But what made Jasmine truly unique was that it wasn’t brute force that was her biggest threat. Instead, it was her message of conflicting ideology, which was so compelling. Her twisted message of constructed "peace" which sacrifices thousands for the benefit of billions actually made sense. It was Angel’s defeat of her that in turn restored a disillusioned world that hastily reverted back to humanities weaknesses and chaos. This was brilliantly written and executed - an extreemly smart and well-layered exploration of what is good and bad.
Angel Runs W&H When The Beast laid waste to Wolfram & Hart in Habeas Corpses, that looked like the end of the evil law firm. Heads rolled and only Lilah made it out alive (only to eventually die) but it just goes to show that you can’t keep evil down. Sparkling clean and fully staffed, Wolfram & Hart came back with a vengeance in Home and even Lilah made a trip back from Hell to offer Angel and his crew the chance of a lifetime - control of W&H. It was a shocking turn of events and an amazing coda to an already complicated season. While the offer would seem ludicrous at any other time, the ramifications of the season to that point, along with the excessive muddying of the once black and white moral waters, made the implausible suddenly not such a stretch. But Connor’s emotional breakdown was the dealmaker. Destroyed mentally by the end of Home, Angel’s all encompassing love for his son really made it impossible for Angel to say anything but "Yes." In exchange for them taking care of his son, Angel now heads the evil law firm with his team by his side as they move into a future that will provide their greatest moral tests.
Where They Are Going
Season Four was a stunning experiment that succeeded far more than it failed. While the intensity of the arc may have been off-putting to the casual fan, those that stuck with the season were rewarded with an immensely satisfying payoff. The writers provoked and challenged the audience all the way through with no shortage of surprises along the way. It certainly didn’t make for light, frothy fun but it was captivating storytelling of which we won’t see the likes of again on Angel. Home was the foundation for a fundamental shift in direction for the show which is itself, deliciously intriguing. Our champion now runs the monster, which he has battled for four seasons - Angel is head of Wolfram & Hart. No one could have seen that coming! After such a devastating year for Angel and his family, one that broke them apart and made them question their trust and loyalties, we can only guess if this new moral challenge will again unite or further separate them? I know I’ll be there in September just waiting to find out.