Ten years ago today, the final episode of Angel aired to conclude a five-season journey of endless battles, love and loss.
Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt's criminally underrated Buffy the Vampire Slayer spinoff starred David Boreanaz in the title role as a vampire with a soul seeking to atone for 200 years of life as a mass-murdering monster.
Although it was set in a world with vampires, demons and evil lawyers from hell, the show depicted just how complex humanity truly is and reminded us that the world isn't just black and white. There's a lot of grey.
In honour of the tenth anniversary, here are my picks (in order of air date and sans major spoilers) for the ten standout Angel episodes that deserve recognition for incredible storytelling:
1. "I Will Remember You" Season 1 Episode 8
Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) visits Angel to confront him about his recent intrusion into her life, only to be interrupted by a sword-wielding Mohra demon. Whilst in battle, Angel is wounded and inflicted with the Mohra's blood, which dissolves him of his demon side. Now a mortal, Angel rekindles his romance with Buffy and the two are finally content with a life they've always wanted. But it comes at a price -- Angel is no longer a champion and must rely on the strength of Buffy, who is now vulnerable to an even shorter life expectancy. This emotional rollercoaster of an episode not only tests Angel's selflessness but also reminds us of all the sacrifices both he and Buffy would have to make in order to be together.
2. "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been" Season 2 Episode 2
Angel has his sights set on the Hyperion, an abandoned hotel he occupied in the '50s. This episode, which plays a like a period thriller, flashes back to Angel's tenant days when a Thesulac demon fed on the paranoia of its residents, which included Judy (Melissa Marsala), a half-black thief who confides in Angel for help. It's revealed that present-day Angel has shame about his time spent at the hotel, the reason for which would be too major to spoil. Angel's morals are tested as he's placed in a position where he could help people who are quick to target him in a witch hunt that is based solely on their own discreet insecurities. The episode does an impeccable job of not only giving us a darker side of Angel with a soul, but also finely depicts the social anxieties (e.g. racism, homophobia) that were especially rampant in society back then.
3. "The Trial" Season 2, Episode 9
Darla (Julie Benz), who was recently revived as a human by Wolfram and Hart, confesses to Angel that she is dying from the same syphilitic heart condition that she suffered from prior to becoming a vampire. In a desperate attempt to save her life, Angel undergoes a trial of thrilling yet life-threatening challenges that is hosted by a figure in the form an English butler. This episode is significant because it goes full circle with Angel and Darla's centuries-long toxic relationship that surprisingly results in heartfelt moments. Darla, who is now able to understand Angel's struggles, is content with dying the way she was meant to, in spite of his protestation.
4. "Through the Looking Glass" Season 2, Episode 21
This is the second part of a three-episode storyline, which together plays like an incredibly fun action adventure mini-series. Angel, Wesley (Alexis Denisof) and Gunn (J. August Richards) embark with Lorne (Andy Hallett) to his hell hometown of Pylea -- where humans are "cows" and music does not exist -- to rescue Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), who has been held captive due to a prophecy that has her as the hell's savior. One of the most cinematic storylines of the series, Pylea-centric Angel not only introduces us to one of the best characters -- Amy Acker as Fred -- but also includes a hilarious scene of Whedon as a demon doing the "dance of joy."
5. "Waiting in the Wings" Season 3, Episode 13
What do you get when you put a vampire with a soul in the world of ballet? Surprisingly, inspired results. Angel takes the gang to a performance of "Giselle," starring Firefly's Summer Glau in her stunning Whedonverse debut as a prima ballerina who's forced to perform endlessly for the man who she cheated on. All dressed up and paired in dates, they attend the show, which weirdly has the exact same cast of actors that Angel saw perform over a hundred years ago. The gang find themselves facting restless spirits, which possess the group in eerily similar personal dramatizations, and creepy phantom henchmen with a penchant for endless laughter.
6. "Shiny Happy People" Season 4, Episode 18
In one of the most genuinely haunting episodes of the series, Jasmine (Gina Torres) debuts as a former ancient power and now goddess-like prophet with a plan to transform earth into a utopia, void of violence and ultimately, free will. Unless you come into contact with her blood, all those who gaze at Jasmine immediately turn into spellbound puppets with an inability to make rational decisions. This storyline, which is led by a superb performance by Acker, makes the audience question the human privilege of free will and how much authority over society is too much.
7. "Home" Season 4, Episode 22
Lilah (Stephanie Romanov) returns to present Angel Investigations with the offer of a lifetime: full control of the L.A. branch of Wolfram and Hart. Although they can benefit from the firm's wealth of resources, they're still pending a deal with the devil. The offer forces the characters to question their place in the world and the morality of making such a choice. The most heartbreaking subplot is between Angel and his son, Connor (Vincent Kartheiser), who no longer has a family now that Jasmine and Cordelia are out of the picture. Angel takes the offer, but only under one condition, which proves the ultimate sacrifice for the love of his son.
8. "Why We Fight" Season 5, Episode 13
This episode flashes back to 1943, where a dreary and directionless Angel is recruited on a mission for the Demon Research Initiative to save a submarine full of U.S. men and blood-thirsty vampires. It is there where he encounters a charming and honourable young leader named Sam Lawson (Eyal Podell), who he is later forced to sire -- the only person he ever sired when he had a soul -- in order to save his life. Lawson resurfaces decades later, seeking revenge on Angel for taking away from him what was once a meaningful life. It's an episode that takes a unique spin on why soldiers, and people, really, are motivated with (as Lawson puts it) "a reason to live."
9. "Smile Time" Season 5, Episode 14
Arguably both one of the funniest and most innovative episodes of the series, "Smile Time" sees Angel transformed into a puppet after he falls victim to an evil children's television series that consumes the life out of its young audience. A delightful and much needed light break from the season's serious storylines, this episode gives the cast a chance to show off their comedic chops -- especially Marsters, who probably never expected to someday be filming a fight scene against a puppet in his career.
10. "Not Fade Away" Season 5, Episode 22
Our remaining champions are given the opportunity to spend their last day before the apocalypse however they wish to (with Angel honourably deciding to spend it with Connor), giving each character a chance for closure -- something Buffy's finale never accomplished as effectively. Filled with poignant and shocking twists, it's a perfect wrap up that never decides to reveal the fates of our surviving champions once the final battle scene fades to black. Of the many profound scenes, one in particular that stood out was Gunn's conversation with Anne (Julia Lee) wherein he questioned her motivation in spite of the greater powers that paint their efforts as meaningless. Her unaffected response reinforces the show's continuous theme of helping the helpless in spite of all odds, which is such an innately human trait.
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