Why Angel Season 5 Was The Best In The Series

Not too many series make it to five seasons and those that do often feel like they've run out of gas by the time they get there. It's incredibly rare for a show's final season to be its best and yet, that's somehow the case with "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" spinoff, "Angel." After a strong, but largely episodic freshman outing, the series evolved into a truly great show in its 2nd and 3rd seasons, expanding on Angel's own mythology and exploring the complexities of what it means to fight an unwinnable battle. Things fell apart with season 4, which, despite having its moments, was far too serialized for its own good and also suffered from creatives whose focus was majorly split.

"Angel" is all about redemption, so what better season could there be than the one in which the show redeems itself? Thanks to a major paradigm shift, the spinoff returned revitalized for its fifth season, which would sadly turn out to be the last. Season 4 finale "Home" saw Team Angel accept Wolfram & Hart's offer to run its LA Branch. After tangling with the villainous law firm since the show's pilot, Angel was going to ... become CEO? Of course, the vampire with a soul knows this deal comes with strings attached, but he's desperate to help his son Connor (Vincent Kartheiser) and Wolfram & Hart offered the only solution — though it came at a terrible cost for Angel.

The whole team had their own reasons for accepting Wolfram & Hart's terms, but all of them went in there with the best of intentions. What's that they say about the road to Hell?

Why was Angel canceled?

Moving into season 5 of "Angel," the writers knew that something had to give. Writer/director/executive producer David Fury explained that their strategy after the highly-serialized 4th season was to try to gain more viewers by largely returning to their original formula of standalone episodes. Apparently, it worked. Riding high on greatly increased ratings and positive reactions to season 5, "Angel" co-creator Joss Whedon went to speak to Jordan Levin, head of The WB at that time, about an early renewal.

According to Fury, Whedon's reasons for pushing for this was so the cast and crew wouldn't turn down work in the hopes of "Angel" continuing if it was only going to be canceled anyway. Fury feels confident that if Whedon had waited, they would've been picked up for sure, but when pressed for an answer, that answer became "no." Fury has also said that "Angel" cost a surprisingly little amount of money to make, but that financing was an issue since it was still more expensive than a sitcom or a reality show. At the time, fans hoped the spinoff would be picked up by UPN, where "Buffy" had found a home for seasons 6 and 7. Sadly, this didn't come to pass, but "Angel" did not go gentle into that good night.

Back to basics

When Angel (David Boreanaz) left Sunnydale at the end of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" season 3, no one could've predicted where the vampire with a soul would wind up. As it turns out, he headed to LA and formed a Scooby Gang of his own. First, with half-demon Doyle (the late Glenn Quinn) and Sunnydale's own former mean girl Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter), but later expanding to include watcher-turned-rogue-demon-hunter Wesley Wyndam-Pryce (Alexis Denisof), vampire fighter Charles Gunn (J. August Richards), brainy Fred Burkle (Amy Acker) and empathic crooner Lorne (the late Andy Hallett). The series evolved quite a bit from one season to another and despite season 5's wildly different premise, in many ways, it sought to return to basics.

There are two types of Buffyverse fans: those who prefer the standalone episodes and those who are more interested in the larger arc of the season. I've always fallen into the second camp for both "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel," but I do believe season 5 has the best of both worlds. The beginning of the season is pretty much all one-shots — which are mostly strong installments — much like the show's freshman year. However, the back half gives way to the best block of episodes the show has ever seen. This was likely because the writers knew they'd been canceled with few episodes left to go, so the latter part of the season is incredibly action-packed. It feels a bit rushed towards the end, but that's due to the knowledge that everything had to be wrapped up so quickly.

The catch

While both "Buffy" and "Angel" rather brilliantly used monstrous metaphors to delve into life's struggles, those fantastical experiences were always anchored by very real emotions. The spinoff had always dealt in shades of gray and while its parent show touched on the struggles of early adulthood in later seasons, "Angel" sought from the beginning to tell darker stories.

Season 5 was no exception, exploring what happens when the hero sits in the villain's comfortable chair, looking out at those same spectacular views. Can you change things from within without ultimately becoming corrupt yourself? Wolfram & Hart had spent the entire series trying to bend Angel to their whim. This was by far their best gambit. Plans to turn him evil were thwarted at every turn, but the law firm's efforts to make him ineffectual were wildly successful — at least for a while.

Using Wolfram & Hart's vast resources to save the world seemed too good be true, because it was. The catch, as was explained to them by Eve (Sarah Thompson), was that in order to use the law firm to their advantage, Team Angel would have to actually keep it running. This led Angel to a string of compromises the vampire never thought he'd have to make, slowly chipping away at the soul that drove him to fight for absolution in the first place. As longtime foe Lindsey (Christian Kane) reminded him late in the season, "Heroes don't accept the world the way it is. They fight it."

A year of reinvention

From the very first episode of season 5, it's obvious that "Angel" has reinvented itself. The vampire with a soul saves a damsel in distress — as he has so many times before — but rather than disappearing into the shadows afterwards, he's got an entire team concerned not only with his safety, but also with the publicity. Now that he's taken over Wolfram & Hart, Angel can't really be Angel anymore. He's hardly the only one to go through major changes though.

This season does amazing character work all around, with the whole gang getting compelling story arcs. The only one largely unaltered by working at Wolfram & Hart is Lorne. He does get his own fun installment with "Life of the Party," though by series end, he's had his fill of being a part of this group. The best overall arc for the entire series undoubtedly goes to Wesley. His growth continues in season 5, which sees him soften a bit. This is surely the result of being truly back with his found family, having been mostly separated from them for much of seasons 3 and 4. 

No one changes more than Gunn, who receives a major mental upgrade, becoming a talented lawyer. However, Gunn could've never imagined the true price and loses himself more and more as the season progresses. Things don't end well for Fred, but she definitely comes into her own as a leader running Wolfram & Hart's Practical Science Division. She and Wes manage to find happiness at the close of delightful installment "Smile Time," but this is a Joss Whedon show, so that romantic relationship doesn't survive the next episode. There is also a new character added to the mix that majorly shook up the series' dynamics.

Another vampire with a soul

Spike (James Marsters) sacrificed himself to save the world, seemingly losing his life in the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" series finale, "Chosen." However, his sacrifice was somewhat cheapened for fans by The WB's announcement that the other vampire with a soul would be headed to LA for the 5th season of "Angel" — an announcement that took place before "Chosen" had aired. Spike's path on "Angel" was a fascinating one. Just how much of his hero's journey thus far had been all about Buffy? Also, his dynamic with Angel added new dimensions to the series, thanks to the relationship these two had shared previously, but also in terms of Spike and Angel's respective destinies.

Spike had a very complete arc on "Buffy," so if his time had indeed ended there, that would've been fine. That said, "Angel" brought even more depth to Spike, not always showing him in a positive light, but treating him like the flawed character he is. Spike and Angel definitely didn't bring out the best in one another, with their pettiness always rising to the surface. The reasons for this were fleshed out by allowing more of their relationship to play out via flashbacks. "Destiny" was a particular highlight because of the way it showcased Angel's pivotal role in shaping Spike, as well as explaining why these two vampires disliked each other so very much.

Spike also caused Angel to question his purpose, his very existence. The Shanshu Prophecy had given Angel a pot of gold at the end of this apocalypse's rainbow. He would get to one day live as a human after playing his part in the coming battle. But he was no longer the only vampire with a soul. So what if Angel was never the chosen one after all?

A tremendous loss

My personal favorite season of "Angel" for a long time was season 2. I loved the inclusion of Darla (Julie Benz) and Drusilla (Juliet Landau), and the way the season tore down Team Angel only to rebuild them stronger then ever. It also brought in a version of Angel we had never quite seen before. Season 3 was excellent as well, giving Angel a whole new set of problems with a pregnant Darla and the return of old enemy, Holtz (Keith Szarabajka). Those seasons also had something vital that season 5 is largely missing: Cordelia Chase. She does get a perfect sendoff in season 5 episode "You're Welcome," but most fans, myself included, would've preferred she play a much larger role that year. Carpenter only chose to return on the condition that the writers not kill Cordelia off. Whedon agreed, but only admitted after she signed on that he planned on doing exactly that.

Thankfully, season 5 did give fans the version of Cordelia that we all know and love, after largely ruining her character in season 4, and "You're Welcome" is one of the year's best episodes. On many repeat viewings, season 5 has barely edged out season 2 as my favorite, but I'll always wish Cordy could've gone down fighting with the rest of the gang.

Familiar faces

Lindsey McDonald returns for season 5 after being absent since season 2. Angel's old enemy had been gone for so long that it's a genuine surprise that he's been behind much of the Angel/Spike drama of the season. Lindsey's obsession with the vampire with a soul goes all the way back to the series premiere. He's has never been a match for Angel, but he plans to throw a major wrench into the vampire's gears, as well as the plans of Wolfram & Hart. Lindsey has always been one of the show's better villains, because of how complex he is as a character. The sad truth is that Lindsey never mattered to Angel, not in the way that Angel mattered to him, a point driven home when his death comes at the hands of Lorne, rather than the vampire.

Another familiar face was Harmony Kendall (Mercedes McNab), who made her triumphant return to the Buffyverse in the season premiere and even got her own excellent episode, "Harm's Way." After being a background character for so long, it was so much fun to see her take center stage. Like pretty much every "Buffy" character to appear on "Angel," Harmony is made all the better for it.

Perhaps an even more impressive feat? Season 5 makes Connor likable! Angel's son had never really resonated with fans, despite the incredible season 3 arc surrounding him. Season 4 seemed very confused as to how to treat this character and the less said about his relationship with Cordelia that year, the better. He also gets a great episode, "Origin" and is even able to lend a hand in that final fight.

The death of someone dear

Another stroke of brilliance in season 5 is Fred's story. Is it unbelievably awful that she and Wes didn't get more time together? Yes, an absolute crime! That said, Amy Acker gets to stretch some different acting muscles and the results are truly spectacular. Illyria became one of the best characters of the series, which is saying something considering such a beloved character had to die to make way for her arrival.

At least we didn't have to say goodbye to Acker, but everything from her speech to her movements to her looks made it feel as though we'd said goodbye to Fred when Illyria took over. A mainstay since the end of season 2, Fred had become an integral part of Team Angel. "A Hole in the World" might just be the most soul-crushing "Angel" episode ever, with viewers painstakingly saying goodbye to Fred as the rest of the team does the same.

Illyria wasn't around very long, but she is a truly captivating character. Surrounded by remnants of the life she destroyed in order to claw her way into this world, she initially wanted only to rule. However, Illyria quickly adapted to the idea that she'd have to learn how to walk amongst mortals and showed a tremendous amount of growth across only eight episodes. Her relationship with Wesley is a lovely surprise and leads to one of the most heartbreaking moments of the entire series. Who doesn't sob uncontrollably when Wes dies in her arms as she pretends to be Fred for him? If not, you might just have a dried-up raisin where your heart should be!

Never stop fighting

"Angel" was always a show about redemption and season 5 really delved into why it's worth striving for even if it's impossible to truly attain. Aside from being a fantastic year of television, "Angel" season 5 also gave us one of the best series finales of all time. "Not Fade Away" was overflowing with action, humor, and heartache, and tied together the themes of "Angel" rather perfectly. This show about life's unending battle concludes with a fight that we don't see the end of. We'll never know if season 5 wound up being so excellent because of the show's early cancellation, but based on the episodes filmed prior to the series getting the axe, it certainly seems like "Angel" could have yielded at least one more awesome season. At least the show went out on a high note, which is more than can be said about a great many series that lasted as long!