1. Angel: Season 5 (2003 – 2004)

It’s Got: The move to Wolfram and Hart, Spike, Illyria, the puppet episode.

Angel Season 5 is an incredibly powerful mediation on the nature of evil, the corrupting power of greed, and whether or not heroism matters in a bleak, nihilistic world. And also robot ninjas. This is a tale worthy of Shakespeare, wrapped in gloriously entertaining cheese. It’s a deep, rich story about vampires with souls and demons from other dimensions. The pivotal moment of the season, maybe the most heartbreaking turn of events I’ve ever seen on TV, involves a cursed mummy’s tomb and someone who wants to have a brain upgrade. But here’s the thing, I’ve never once thought about how ridiculous that is until I wrote out that sentence. Season 5 pulls you in.

This season is a constant exercise in topping itself. Every time I thought “This is one of the best seasons I’ve ever watched,” something happened to make it that much better. Given that this season is a light reboot following the ending of a lot of long term stories there are some light spoilers ahead, stuff you probably know about even if you’ve never watched the show, but you’ve been warned:

The characters on Angel (not to mention the show itself) were constantly searching for their place in the world. Consequentially, their struggle against evil became murkier and murkier. Finally, the demonic law firm they’d been battling for four seasons said “We give up, you’re in charge now.” Suddenly, Angel and the characters became the enemy they’d been fighting. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a story that suddenly blurred the line between good and evil quite so effectively. There’s not really a Big Bad this season, the villain is the corruption that comes with suddenly having unlimited power. It’s also endlessly funny, seeing the characters trying to do good despite the evil sycophantic bureaucrats surrounding them, but the troubling undercurrent is always there.

The season’s second masterstroke happens almost right away, as Spike is brought over from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He’s instantly an amazing foil for everyone in the cast, and his chemistry with Angel is off the charts. Somehow, this character who was once a villain becomes the moral centre of the season as he foresees and tries to warn Team Angel of their incoming descent, when he cares enough to do so, anyway.

Spike even fully usurps the lead role at times (though interestingly, the episode in which Angel is at his most reduced was directed by David Boreanaz himself). Now, imagine if some brand new vampire with a soul burst onto the scene and tried to take over the series. You’d resent and loathe that character with a passion. But if you’ve watched both shows, you’ve become separately invested in Angel and Spike. When we come to a crucial scene in which both characters violently argue about which of them deserves to be called THE hero, you’ve got years of history and both characters make convincing arguments.

It all starts very episodically. There’s a long run of outstanding episodes that bounce around tonally between funny, exciting, tragic, or all three. Then the season springs its trap in the last third. I don’t want to say too much, but this is where the show earns its stripes, and where actors like Alexis Denisof, Amy Acker, and J. August Richards put in career performances. All the characters are left reeling as their choices suddenly have devastating consequences. They unleash the darkness within themselves in deeply dramatic ways and are left wondering if it’s even worth fighting in the face of overwhelming evil. What they decide to do is one leads to one of the most unexpectedly inspirational endings I’ve ever seen.

Angel Season 5 is the complete package as far as TV goes. It’s mature and dark, entertaining as all hell, makes an incredibly powerful statement, and is my personal #1 favourite television season of all time.

If I Had to Nitpick…: I doubt I’ll ever be on board with the decision to wipe Connor from the minds of everyone but Angel. He was crucial to the third and fourth season, and I don’t like the idea that the characters wouldn’t carry so much of that with them into Season 5. In fairness, Wesley is the character who eventually remembers everything, which is fortunate because his character development was most intertwined with Connor’s. But it never seemed like a great decision in the first place. Oh well, maybe I can blame this on Season 4.

Notable Episodes: The best of the best. “Life of the Party,” an inspired bit of Ben Edlund weirdness. The Angel and Spike showdown we’d been waiting for in “Destiny.” “Smile Time.” Just “Smile Time.” The one-two punch to the stomach and kick to the crotch in “A Hole in the World” and “Shells.” “Underneath” is maybe the quintessential episode of the series for the way it blends action, humour, heartbreak, and thematic depth. And “Not Fade Away,” which gets better every time I see it.

And oh hell. “Conviction,” “Hell Bound,” “Lineage,” “You’re Welcome,” “Origin,” “Time Bomb,” and “Power Play.” It is a fantastic season.


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