ANGEL SEASON THREE
Angel’s third season felt very much like an extension of the second. There was a clear and obvious shift in the way the show told its stories in season two as compared to season one, and other than the Darla tease at the end of the first finale, there wasn’t much carry-over, either. Season two, on the other hand, left a ton of unanswered questions and unresolved plot points. Darla was still out there, as was Drusilla. Instead of wrapping up those matters, the final few episodes of the year went in a completely different direction, detouring us to the demon realm of Lorne. Everyone comes home by the end of the year, bringing with them Winifred Burkle, and the season ends with the news that Buffy had died. We’re not told how that announcement affected Angel, but we can guess.
As season three opens, the events here run in parallel to the happenings of Buffy season six, so it won’t be for a few weeks before Angel learns Buffy is alive again. In the meantime he spends his summer in Sri Lanka, trying to meditate and ease the hurt. All he ends up finding there are a bunch of demonic monks, so he packs up and returns home to find comfort by keeping busy and taking his mind off the loss of his love. Goal #1 is helping Fred integrate into the group and the world at large.
Despite being introduced to us at the end of the last season, it’s really only here where we get a real sense of who this new Fred character will be. To put it simply, she’s pure bliss. She’s an endlessly happy, wicked smart, southern girl from Texas, with a smile that steals every scene, and a pluckiness that never (ever) grates on the nerves. Do you know how hard it is to have a character as relentlessly optimistic and “just happy to be here” as she is without her ever becoming public enemy #1 with the fans? Not only does Fred avoid that, but she manages to pull off being a fan favorite that didn’t come in until halfway through the show’s entire run. It’s a testament to how quickly the writers nailed her character and how effortlessly the actress in question—Amy Acker—walked the line between earnest and charming.
Anytime a new character joins a TV show, you can expect several episodes to focus on them, as sort of a character development speed-run to get them on the same level of familiarity as the rest of the cast. Thus, Fred gets quite a bit of screentime this season, and more than a few B-plots centered around her. She’s not the driving force of the year however, and in fact, neither is Angel.
The real centerpiece, through which the main arc of the year is constructed, is the other new character introduced to us this year: Daniel Holtz. While he’s not a cast regular, and only appears in half the episodes this season, he nevertheless drives the plot. His character is just the kind of Big Bad that Angel’s show has needed from the outset. Thus far, he’s contended with run-of-the-mill monsters and ghouls, and tangled with an evil law firm, but at its core, the character Angel is about a man haunted by his past. He was the most feared and ruthless vampire in history, “cursed” into goodness, and now forced to live with the shame of his prior evil. The drama that comes with that has certainly been explored from an internal perspective, but other than listening to Darla yearn from those “good old days” there really hasn’t been much of an exploration of Angel’s past external to the man himself.
Enter Daniel Holtz: A vampire hunter from the late-1700s, he was arguably the greatest non-supernatural slayer in history. Ten years into his very successful work, much of which was consumed by chasing (and failing to slay) Angel and Darla, he came home to find his wife and child killed by Angel and his daughter turned into a vampire by Darla. Thus began a quest for vengeance that completely consumed him. Despite his zeal, he failed repeatedly to capture the vamps. Eventually, he became a hermit before the time-shifting demon Sahjhan found him. The demon essentially offered him the chance to live forever until the right time presented itself when he could pay Angelus back for all he did. Fast forward 200 years and it’s the year 2001, Angelus is now Angel and Holtz is back and looking for retribution. It does not matter to him that Angel is reformed; he’s too broken to be swayed by such nuance.
Here’s a character that, on paper, is easy to root against as a traditional villain. Instead, the way he is depicted, you almost feel sorry for him. Angelus did commit unspeakable evil to him, enough to drive him beyond reason. He is the perfect adversary for the show’s protagonist: He’s a monster of the hero’s own making. And under the circumstances of a lesser show, this year would have been about the cat and mouse between these two, ending in some heartbreaking death for the “villain” that tears Angel up inside. Clean and simple.
But that’s not this show.
This show insists on twisting the knife and throwing in surprises you never saw coming at you. The big one this year is revealed to us at the end of the first episode: Darla is extremely pregnant. We’re not yet told who the daddy is, but we’re also not stupid. There’s only one man it could be to create maximum drama. We learn in episode two the father is another vampire and that such a pregnancy is completely inconceivable among the undead. After that, we get several episodes of radio silence, while Fred is better introduced to us. But episode seven brings the major arc of the season roaring back, with a three-episode stretch that shows just how confident and polished the show had become in such a brief period of time.
In episode seven, Darla returns and reveals her condition to Angel, at the same time Holtz is awakened from his 200-year nap, looking to kill. In episode eight, Holtz brings the fight to Angel and nearly takes him out, at the same time Darla’s water breaks. In episode nine, we discover that Darla is unable to deliver the child naturally (on account of her being undead and all) and her body is too strong for a C-section to work. The not-delivery will kill them both so, in what is her finest and most selfless moment, Darla stakes herself, turning to dust in Angel’s arms, leaving him holding the baby in her wake.
It’s a whirlwind trio of episodes that never slows down, where every installment ends with a cliffhanger to leave you breathless, and where the closing moment serves as a tour de force for Whedon and co as TV creators. As well-constructed as season two was overall, these three episodes stand head and shoulders over everything else.