With Buffy the Vampire Slayer celebrating its 20th anniversary, the beloved series is receiving lots of attention. But the “Slayerverse” that Joss Whedon created wasn’t confined solely to Buffy. In 1999, three seasons into the show, Joss Whedon and The WB broadened the slayer’s world with a spinoff, Angel, featuring the titular vampire with a soul.
From the beginning, Angel was conceived as a very different show than its progenitor. BTVS spoke to a younger audience, while its new spinoff would be aimed at an older demographic. The “high school is hell” motif that served Buffy so well was gone, and in its place was an immortal vampire coming to terms with centuries of evil deeds and trying to redeem himself one day at a time.
Angel produced some truly great episodes, and they won’t all be found on this list. Comedic romps like “Smile Time”, “Spin The Bottle,” and “The Girl In Question”, while fantastic, didn’t really alter the course of the series. The episodes listed here are the ones that were most important to the journey of Angel and the group of allies that formed around him.
15. City Of – Season 1, Episode 1
It goes without saying that the series premiere is usually an important episode, especially in serialized genre shows like Angel. The first episode of his solo series finds the vampire with a soul relocating to Los Angeles after departing Sunnydale at the end of Buffy’s third season. It’s not long before we learn that Angel is pursuing a new purpose in the big city.
With no slayer to watch over the streets, Angel takes on that duty himself, and we first see him in a bar, keeping a watchful eye over a group of vampires who are on the hunt (and doing a great job of impersonating a drunken slob as a cover). When Angel follows the vampires and their prey outside, he promptly dusts them, but when the bleeding victim offers her thanks, he angrily demands she get away from him: Angel may be a hero, but he still has a demon inside him.
The early status quo of the series takes shape, as Angel reunites with his friend Cordelia, who has moved to LA to pursue a career in acting. But it’s Doyle, a half-demon plagued with visions of people in imminent danger, who really sets Angel on his new path.
14. I Will Remember You – Season 1, Episode 8
Though it would always be intrinsically tied to BTVS, Angel would need to stand on its 0wn feet, and the same was true of the title character. In “I Will Remember You”, Sarah Michelle Gellar made her first appearance on the spinoff, and Buffy and Angel picked up their love story where it left off.
When Angel fights a demon whose magical blood makes him human again, it seems like the star-crossed lovers can finally have the relationship they’ve always wanted. With no “perfect happiness” curse hanging over him, Angel is able to give himself to Buffy completely, and the pair spend a perfect day together. But Angel soon learns the cost of being a powerless human, and makes the difficult decision to ask the Powers That Be to turn back time so he can remain a vampire and continue fighting the good fight.
It’s the first of many selfless sacrifices Angel will make on the show, as he puts the world ahead of his own happiness. Buffy’s tearful pledge to never forget their perfect day, only to do just that when the Powers turn back time, is heartbreaking, and Angel is left alone with his memories.
13. Five By Five – Season 1, Episode 18
Angel knows a thing or two about redemption, and when Faith was succumbing to her darker impulses during Buffy’s third season, he was the only one who understood her struggle and tried to pull her back to the light.
When Faith first arrives in Los Angeles, it seems like her main goal is causing Angel and his friends as much pain as possible. The evil law firm of Wolfram and Hart hires her to kill Angel, and she kidnaps and brutally tortures her former Watcher Wesley. But the true nature of her plan is only discovered when she fights Angel and gradually loses her composure until she’s begging him to put her out of her misery.
The relationship between Angel and Faith has always been profound, and remains so in the comic book continuation being published today. They both have done terrible things, and they both struggle for redemption. With Faith’s breakdown, she starts on the long road back to recovery, and Angel essentially serves as her sponsor. It’s a role she’ll eventually play for him in the Season 9 comics, when everyone else has given up on him.
12. The Magic Bullet – Season 4, Episode 19
Jumping ahead to the fourth season, we find Angel and his friends in a peculiar situation: enthralled to a powerful entity named Jasmine who pledges to bring about world peace. It seems like a good deal, until they realize the price is their free will.
Amy Acker’s Fred was one of the most beloved characters the series created, and this episode was a showcase for the seemingly meek scientist. Fred is the first of the group to be freed from Jasmine’s spell, and she finds herself on the run from her own friends, and the entire city. Acker is fantastic embodying a heartbroken and terrified Fred who is nevertheless able to muster her courage and intelligence to hatch a plan that frees her friends from Jasmine.
The fourth season, and the Jasmine storyline in particular, received its share of criticism. But it did allow Angel and his friends to fight for their free will and the belief that people must have the right to choose, even if they make the wrong choices.
11. Tomorrow – Season 3, Episode 22
Angel was not a show you could drop in on every now and then and still be able to follow: the third season is a prime example of that. By the time of the finale, “Tomorrow”, Angel had a son with Darla… that son had been kidnapped and raised in a hell dimension, returning to Earth as a teenager… and said kidnapping had been perpetrated by a resurrected enemy from the 18th century. Needless to say, the series demanded the full attention of its audience.
Angel’s son, Connor, was raised to hate his biological father by his kidnapper, Holtz. Returning to Earth, Connor met Angel and his friends, and in spite of everything he had been taught, he began to bond with his father. Holtz, seeing that he was losing his grip on his victim/adopted son, enacted a plan to ensure his hatred of the vampire would live on after his death. Holtz arranges his own murder and frames Angel for it, sending Connor into a rage: he traps Angel in a metal box and drops him in the ocean.
10. Home – Season 4, Episode 22
The fourth season finale set up a new paradigm for the fifth and final season, and redefined Angel’s relationship with his son.
Connor, having been through so much pain and abuse in his short life, finally snaps, strapping a bomb to the comatose Cordelia and taking hostages inside a sporting goods store. Elsewhere, Angel and the gang receive an unexpected offer: take over the Los Angeles branch of Wolfram and Hart.
The offer forces each member of the gang to think about what they could accomplish with the firm’s resources. Though Angel is reluctant to work with Wolfram and Hart in any way, Connor’s ordeal forces his hand, and he strikes a deal – he’ll work for Wolfram and Hart, and they’ll magically give Connor a new life.
Angel’s incredible sacrifice – giving his broken son a new chance at life, away from him – is a remarkably selfless choice, the pain of which is sold perfectly by David Boreanaz. Vincent Kartheiser is also great, both as the shattered Connor and the renewed and cheerful version.
9. You’re Welcome – Season 5, Episode 12
Most shows that make it to one hundred episodes mark the milestone with a celebration of some sort. There is no party in “You’re Welcome”, but it’s still a great installment that explores how far Angel and his friends have come, and all they have lost along the way.
The return of Cordelia (in a coma since the Jasmine ordeal) is a welcome one, and Charisma Carpenter is great in her swan song. She returns just as Angel is at his lowest point, feeling hopeless in his role as Wolfram and Hart big wig and jealous of Spike’s success as a street level hero. In true Cordy fashion, she helps Angel remember his purpose in time to stop a revenge plot by his old nemesis Lindsey McDonald.
At the end of the episode, in one of Angel’s most touching scenes, Cordelia tells Angel she has to move on and kisses him goodbye. Before he can protest, he receives a phone call from the hospital telling him Cordelia has died in her sleep: she never woke up at all.
8. A Hole In The World – Season 5, Episode 15
Like Buffy, Angel had no qualms about killing off popular characters. One of the most heart wrenching examples of that came in this episode, as the series neared its end.
Amy Acker’s Fred is infected by the soul of an ancient demon lord named Illyria. The gang springs into action to save her, but nothing can be done, and the ancient force overtakes Fred’s body, inhabiting it as a vessel. Fred is gone, and Illyria is reborn.
It’s a classic Joss Whedon death: it’s agonizing to watch, and Acker and Alexis Denisof (Wesley) give great performances. Plus, it’s not just a death for the sake of shock value. Fred was the heart of Angel’s team, and her death and “rebirth” as the cold, remorseless Illyria is a seismic shift for them and the show itself. With just a handful of episodes left in the series, the writers didn’t get to fully explore this new dynamic, but they made the most of the time they had, and Acker proved herself to be a truly remarkable actress.
7. Darla – Season 2, Episode 7
This episode marked the second half of a unique crossover with Buffy. The corresponding episode of BTVS, “Fool For Love” aired immediately before “Darla” and featured many of the same flashback scenes, told from Spike’s perspective. In this episode, we see Darla’s side of the story.
Angel had a complicated relationship with Darla, his sire. When he was the soulless Angelus, they tore a bloody swath across Europe together, but in this episode we see their relationship fall apart after Angel is cursed with his soul. He tries to return to his murderous ways at Darla’s side, but his conscience won’t allow him to.
It’s interesting learning more of Darla’s story, especially seeing The Master sire her in a flashback. Angel’s side of the story, meanwhile, reaffirms that he was far from a hero when he first got his soul back. It took him a long time to truly let go of his old ways and walk a more heroic path.
6. Redefinition – Season 2, Episode 11
This episode picks up immediately after the events of the previous installment, “Reunion”, in which Angel made the stunning choice to stand aside and do nothing as Drusilla and Darla slaughtered a room full of Wolfram and Hart’s lawyers, and then fired his friends and shut them out of his life.
In “Redefinition”, Angel continues down this new, darker path as he goes on the offensive against the vampire duo. He sabotages their efforts to recruit a demon army by slaughtering all the candidates before mercilessly (and wordlessly) setting both Darla and Drusilla on fire.
Angel’s ruthless actions show the audience (and his friends) that he doesn’t need to lose his soul to do some truly monstrous things. In this episode, Angel takes the proverbial gloves off and takes his war with Wolfram and Hart to a new level. It’s a ruthlessness we’ll see again before the series is over.
5. Lullaby – Season 3, Episode 9
We’ve already established how important Angel’s son Connor would become to the series. In this episode, Darla’s seemingly impossible pregnancy comes to an emotionally charged end.
Over the course of her pregnancy, Darla became more and more human, and began to feel compassion and love for the baby growing inside of her. The change in her was attributed to the soul of her human baby, and she began to worry that when she gave birth she would revert back to the murderous vampire she had been. That, coupled with the inability of her vampire body to complete the pregnancy, drove her to stake herself in the heart so Connor could live.
It’s an emotionally powerful sequence, with Darla and Angel sharing their last words in a darkened alleyway before she sacrifices herself and leaves the crying baby in her wake. It’s accentuated by the arrival of Holtz, who seemingly shows Angel mercy by letting him leave with his new son: his true plan, however, is to leave the vampire’s budding family in ruins.
4. Sleep Tight – Season 3, Episode 16
Holtz was a compelling villain in Angel’s third season because, in many ways, he wasn’t a villain at all. He was completely justified in his hatred for Angelus and Darla, as they had murdered his entire family. When he is resurrected in modern times and learns that Angel now has a soul, he revels in the opportunity to cause his enemy real pain, now that the vampire is actually capable of caring for others.
After Connor is born, the baby becomes the centerpiece of Holtz’s revenge plot. The resurrected vampire hunter allows Angel to escape with his newborn son, and leaves him to enjoy his new domestic bliss, knowing it’ll be all the more painful when it comes crashing down.
Wesley’s decision to kidnap Connor in order to stop his prophesized death at the hands of Angel is suitably heart wrenching, and events take an even darker turn when he is attacked and left for dead by Holtz’s lieutenant Justine, who absconds with the baby.
The episode culminates with a standoff between Wolfram and Hart, Angel, the demon Sahjhan and Holtz, who escapes with Connor into a demon dimension. It’s a moment that changes the series in a number of ways: dooming Connor to a horrific and abusive childhood, alienating Wesley from his friends, and denying Angel yet another chance at happiness.
3. Hero – Season 1, Episode 9
Sacrificing oneself for the greater good is a theme at play in both Buffy and Angel. The characters on both shows come to learn that some victories come at the highest of costs, and that was the case in this early episode of Angel.
In a shocking move (even by Joss Whedon’s standards) the critical character of Doyle was killed off just nine episodes into the series. It was Doyle’s visions of people in danger that guided Angel on his heroic quest in Los Angeles, so his departure from the show was a big surprise.
The late Glenn Quinn delivered a powerful performance in his final episode, as the audience learns more about Doyle and his history with The Scourge, a hateful group of pureblood demons bent on destroying all the “impure” species. When they arm a bomb that will do just that, Angel is ready to sacrifice himself to disarm it, but Doyle forcefully takes his place, kisses Cordelia goodbye (while passing on his visions to her) and dies a hero.
2. Orpheus – Season 4, Episode 15
When The Beast arrives in Los Angeles in the fourth season, the gang gets the terrible idea to bring Angelus back in order to learn more about their fearsome new enemy. Angel’s soul is removed through magical means and kept safe in a vessel, to be restored as soon as they have learned everything Angelus knows. Of course it all goes wrong, and Angelus escapes to terrorize Los Angeles as only he can.
Wesley brings news of the events to Faith, who is serving her time in jail and promptly breaks out to render assistance. She and Angelus face off a number of times before they’re both rendered unconscious in a dreamlike state. In that state, the pair relive important moments in Angel’s life. It’s torture for Angelus, who is forced to relive his years of powerlessness trapped inside of Angel, while Faith sees her friend and mentor at some of his lowest points.
The journey through time culminates with a vicious battle between Angelus and Angel himself. Seeing Angel fighting his demonic alter ego is truly powerful, even if it is only in his mind. He also has a sobering reminder for Faith: that he’s not perfect, and he has his own mistakes to atone for, not just the evil deeds of Angelus.
1. Not Fade Away – Season 5, Episode 22
The WB cancelled Angel late in the production of its fifth season, so Joss Whedon and his team were forced to wrap things up quickly. Years later, the comic book continuation “After The Fall” would provide an adaptation of what the sixth season would have been like, but on television, fans were forced to accept a truncated finish.
In the final episode, Angel and his friends launch a suicidal assault on the Senior Partners and their representatives, the Circle of the Black Thorn. Each member of the gang accepts that they are most likely going to their deaths. After they each spend their “last” day doing what is most important to them, they launch their attack. The Black Thorn is decimated, but Wesley is killed, and Angel, Gunn, Spike and Illyria gather in an alleyway as all the forces of the Senior Partners bear down on them.
We don’t get to see the fight, which looks like an impossible one. We only get to see Angel’s confident declaration – “Let’s go to work.” Some fans cried foul, calling it a cliffhanger, but as Joss Whedon explained, it was really a mission statement. Angel’s fight is never done: there will always be more battles to fight, more evil to vanquish. What matters is that there are heroes who are willing to fight that endless battle, not because they’ll win, but because it’s the right thing to do.
It may live in the shadow of its “older sibling”, but Angel was a remarkable series in its own right, matching and in some ways surpassing Buffy the Vampire Slayer.