10 Angel episodes that were too big for Sunnydale

After breaking up with Buffy, Angel moved to Los Angeles, a bigger, scarier place even than the Hellmouth...

In the season three premiere episode of Angel’s parent series, Buffy Anne Summers agrees to help another young runaway look for her missing boyfriend. Together they search parts of Los Angeles full of despondent people. Even withstanding the city’s lack of a Hellmouth, it’s a harsher place than Sunnydale. A shot or two from these moments end up in Angel’s opening credits, establishing the world that the brooding vampire was inhabiting. Even as the city of angels, though, it’s one less tailored to its hero. Along with being the setting of a slightly less satirical show, Los Angeles was simply a bigger, more real platform. In that vein, here are ten Angel episodes with a scope too big for Sunnydale.

Season 1 Episode 1: City Of

In Sunnydale, it took the better part of two seasons for anything to get the best of Buffy – when she’s unable to save hypnotized (and vastly under-conceived) fellow slayer Kendra. But staking a lost vamp aside, Angel’s first attempt to help someone falters big time. Half-human, half-demon Doyle convinces Angel to help a woman named Tina. She’s being coveted by Russell, a rich, upstanding citizen with connections – and, oh yeah, he’s also a vampire.

Tina is understandably distrustful after dealing with rich, upstanding vampires (probably not just the literal kind), and though Angel forges a connection with her, his vamp face doesn’t help maintain it. When she goes it on her own, he’s unable to get to her before Russell does. 

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They tried to make the vamps in Los Angeles look scarier physically, but they didn’t need to. Not when they’re aligned with powerbrokers Wolfram & Heart or the gauze of ‘Hollywood.’ Cordelia riding in that limo on the way to Russell’s mansion, feeling like life has finally turned around her – the vamps in Sunnydale were never intertwined with that kind of affluence. Luckily, like any other vampire, Russell doesn’t have sunlight on his side. 

Season 1 Episode 9: Hero

Before Tara, the Buffyverse experienced its first heart-wrenching loss on the Los Angeles side. For eight episodes, Doyle had been become, in many ways, the heart of the show. In the character’s own words, his “simple, but unpretentious charms” had hugely positive effects on both Angel – who, in Doyle, made his first real, non-Buffy-related friend – and Cordelia, who’d given up romantically on guys with layers after one cheated on her. 

When ‘the Scourge,’ a bunch of pureblood demons come to Los Angeles to wipe out any half-breeds they can find, Doyle’s vision propels him to revisit his greatest failure. During the last scourge, he turned his back on those like him who couldn’t hide in plain sight. This time, Angel takes the lead in trying to get a clan of mixed-blood demons to safety.

I hate mentioning how the plot alludes to people who’d be considered minorities, because that sort of thing is often trumped up to being sufficiently representative – but it’s obviously there. The Scourge stomping around at night the way do fits, in part, because they do so in the neglected sections of a city.   

Things come to a head when the Scourge reveal a machine with a light that wipes out anyone not a pureblood demon. Angel prepares to give up his own life to save the other refugees when Doyle knocks him out. After kissing Cordelia goodbye (and giving her his visions), Doyle painfully deactivates the machine as he melts away, leaving Los Angeles a much emptier place.  

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Season 1 Episode 19: Sanctuary

Faith Lehane is in a million little pieces and lashing out at the world isn’t enough to keep her together anymore. She’s tortured Wesley, and as far Buffy is concerned, Faith recently having switched bodies with her amounts to the same thing. Both are the latest in Faith’s long list of transgressions. Angel is the only one who wants to see her get it together enough to willingly make amends, and his support of that, at least, spills over to Wesley.

Watcher’s Council’s mercenaries attack both slayers on a building rooftop. As the slayers are under fire from a helicopter, Angel busts through the roof and gets inside of it. Angel looking over the lights of Los Angeles as the helicopter safely lands ­is also a portrait of his wider vantage point.

Season 2 Episode 2: Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?

In the episode previous to this one (Judgement) Angel rediscovers the Hyperion hotel – seemingly abandoned for years. As Cordelia and Wesley ponder his out-of-nowhere interest in a place with such a grim past, he wanders through the hotel – and we’re brought back to his stay there fifty years earlier. He’s much colder than we’ve seen ensouled Angel before.

With the Joseph McCarthy hearings in the background, a paranoia demon stirs up and feeds on the fears of the hotel’s occupants. One of those occupants, Judy, robbed a bank when her bosses found out her mother is black – and that she’s been passing … When the mayor introduces himself to Mr. Trick in season 3 of Buffy, the latter makes a brief comment about how people telling him they don’t want his kind around got old long before he was a vampire … This episode explores -isms not in passing, and in a very natural way – isms that all boil down to fear, weakness, selfishness and insecurity. All the things that McCarthyism exploited. Using Judy’s racial background and Angel’s undead-with-a-soul status as a way to explore being different builds on an archetype – but there’s enough depth for it to be far more meaningful than it could have been. 

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Finally, what makes this episode so subtly epic is the way it uses past and present Los Angeles to show how much Angel had grown on the inside. Of course, the rest of the season/series would show how much he could shrink from that growth. 

Season 2 Episode 3: First Impressions

This is the third episode of season 2, and it has to be noted how distinctively film-like the cinematography of Angel becomes. 

But plot-wise: Euphoric dreams of Darla have Angel wanting to sleep all the time. Gunn has asked for his help to track down a demon, and though Angel comes with his team in tow, they can barely take out a handful of vamps. 

Later, Cordelia has a vision about Gunn cornered, afraid and fighting for his life. Unable to get Angel or Wesley, she heads out at night to save him. The focus here is mostly on Gunn and Cordelia as they both gradually see there’s more to each of them than meets the eye. While Cordelia continues with the kind of growth she couldn’t quite have in Sunnydale, this episode also makes good on the promise of Gunn’s first appearance late in season one. As the only character who grew up in Los Angeles, showing the city from his perspective helps to make it more than just a bigger vista for demon-fighting. 

Season 2 Episode 20: Over the Rainbow

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After Cordelia has been sucked into the portal to Pylea with Lorne’s cousin, Angel, Wesley, and Gunn set out to bring her home. They hop into Angel’s convertible and dimension-hop, surpassing just the one dimension that the Scooby gang were limited to. A minor technicality, you say? It’s the beginning of a three-parter.

Lorne’s homeworld is full of fantasy archetypes. Pylea is like a whole world made for Olaf the troll god (and Angel’s stalwart avenger tendencies): vast landscapes, two suns – neither of which burn up Angel – and the beginning of a relatively simple tale to free an enslaved kingdom. Throw in more background on Krevlornswath of the Deathwok Clan and the ridiculously hard life that Winifred Burkle has been surviving, and you’ve got a layered fantasy outing that Buffy – so tied to defending Sunnydale from its Hellmouth – couldn’t have. 

Season 3 Episode 17: Forgiving

No event in Sunnydale ever formed the chasm between friends that Angel and Wesley undergo. Forgiving is the aftermath of Holtz taking Angel’s son, Connor, to another dimension – able to do so after Wesley’s betrayal.

Wesley had been fed false prophecies by Holtz indicating Angel would be the end of Connor. Wolfram & Heart has been sneaking Connor’s blood into Angel’s own supply.  Wesley takes Connor, and soon finds Holtz-ally Justine asking for his help before she slits his throat. Left to die, the first person that finds Wesley just takes his possessions.

When Angel is told by his friends that Wesley is in the hospital, he goes to his room. The only thing that stops him from tearing Wesley apart is Gunn and a roomful of orderlies.

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Season 4 Episodes 18 and 19: Shiny Happy People and The Magic Bullet

Season four got a little soap operatic, but the emergence of Jasmine set things on a much less melodramatic and even grander path. The first sight of Jasmine makes people blissfully happy, as has occurred with all of Team Angel. They all unquestioningly set out to help the world’s newest deity bring about world peace. When Fred comes in contact with Jasmine’s blood, she loses all illusions about what Jasmine is. Her friends quickly turn on her.

The Magic Bullet finds Winifred Burkle by herself – no superpowers; devastated with the come down from Jasmine-induced joy; in a crowded metropolis where she’s the only one aware the world’s newest deity is really a monster who consumes people for food. And it gets worse. Jasmine, able to see through the eyes of her followers, has Fred being hunted. Fred struggles to stay alive and find some way to get her friends to see that, however joyful Jasmine’s message may feel, it’s a mirage. It’s an episode rife with desperation, and it’s a potent reminder of just how strong Fred is. 

Season 4 Episode 22: Home

The mirage of Jasmine is over, and all the people who believed in are devastated. Though Connor could always see her for what she was, he didn’t care. For the first time in his life, there was a semblance of peace – and he embraced it. Now, he’s completely and utterly hopeless. He’s broken in a way that nobody in the Buffyverse has ever quite been.

For Connor’s sake, Angel accepts Wolfram & Hart’s invitation to run their Los Angeles branch. The resulting dilemma is like Buffy trying to be a slayer while working as Mayor Wilkins’s deputy. Angel the CEO magically cuts himself out of Connor’s life to give him, from scratch, a well-adjusted life. The resulting dilemma is like Buffy trying to be a slayer while working as Mayor Wilkins’s deputy.   

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Season 5 Episode 22: Not Fade Away

During Buffy’s season five finale, a dragon emerges from a dangerous portal that can only be closed by Summers blood. It flies in the background. The only dragon that would appear on Angel gets a lot closer. 

The roads that Buffy and Angel each take to their final episodes are much different. While Buffy returns to a thematic focus on empowerment and hope, Angel’s final themes are all about the relationship between morality and power. During the course of season five, Gunn and Angel become grayer characters than Spike – even withstanding how much Spike enjoys getting to be self-righteous for its own sake. 

But both shows’ final episodes have similar structures. The main differences are that Angel’s fights along the way are more personal¸ and how, with the exception of Connor being able to go on knowing his real father cares about him, Angel lacks a coda. Instead – Angel, Spike, Gunn, and Illyria meet in the alley behind the Hyperion with a legion of monsters barreling for them. Including, it would seem, an angry dragon.* Gunn is dying. Wesley is already dead – the weight of which registers on everyone’s faces. We never get to see much more than this fight’s prelude… Angel’s sword clashes with something, and we know they’ve got their work cut out for them. Just like they always have.  

* If you go with the comic book continuity in which Cordelia is that dragon and she’s there to help – that’s still quite the epically involved dragon.

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