One of the things that always frustrated me about Angel was its heavy emphasis on plot and continuity. Buffy the Vampire Slayer had plenty of that as well, but it was never really about the story; it was about how the events of the story affected and shaped the characters and their relationships. Angel, on the other hand, seemed more willing to get lost in its convoluted storylines, doomed (and boring) romances, and grand themes of redemption and power, often at the expense of character development or (this is, to me, what makes or breaks a show) character interaction.

It was a pleasant surprise, then, to see that the final season of the show puts the emphasis squarely onto the characters, giving them real arcs and new layers. The twist and the bummer is that the characters’ stories are invariably tragic. Angel learns how evil operates and despairs of ever being heroic enough for redemption; Lorne is worn down by the strain of playing the court jester to an increasingly cheerless house; Gunn’s need to be more than just “the muscle” leads him to make Mephistophelian deals with Mephistophelian consequences; and Wesley’s unfailing ability to make the wrong choices with the best of intentions, and his resultant self-loathing, finally drive him towards an inevitable conclusion.

The character that continues to drive me up the wall in Season 5 is Fred. When she was introduced late in Season 2, she was cute, scrappy, and completely insane, a mix that I could easily get behind. Almost immediately after being introduced, though, some spell seemed to slowly drain the personality out of her, reducing her to a thin soup of technobabble and damsel-in-distressedness. In Season 5, she barely hangs onto her last shreds of individuality, serving mostly as a reflection of the male characters’ desires and hopes.

Of course, those last shreds of individuality are finally blown away when Fred is consumed from the inside out by Illyria. The most frustrating thing about Illyria (besides the long speeches) is seeing that Fred’s limitations were in no way the fault of actress Amy Acker, who shows impressive range (and high kicks) in a dual role; Fred’s weaknesses seem to be pretty much an intentional result of the writing. She is possibly the single most disappointing female character in Joss Whedon’s body of TV work.

Despite the despair, death, and defeminization of Season 5, it’s actually a lot of fun to watch. Apparently, they got lots of notes from the network to make more standalone episodes after the “turgid, supernatural soap opera” of Season 4. It didn’t save them from cancellation, but it did lead to wildly fun episodes like “The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco” (superpowered luchadores), “Damage” (psychotic Slayer), and “Smile Time” (Angel gets turned into a Henson-esque puppet).

A lot of the fun comes from two characters who didn’t get a ton of development, and didn’t need it. Spike is back from the dead (it’s a Whedon show, after all), but instead of the moony semi-boyfriend he was in the final season of Buffy, he seems to have reverted to his comic foil role from Buffy Season 4: mostly harmless, but hilariously irritating. He and Angel play especially well off each other, with centuries of homosocial/homoerotic friendship and resentment built up between them.

Particularly happy, though, is the addition of Harmony as a regular character. Her initial job interview (actually, just pleading for her life) with Angel in the season premiere is like an undead version of the Mary Richards’s interview with Lou Grant; who’s got more spunk than Harmony, and who hates spunk more than Angel? Harmony is in many ways a vapid waste of space, but no character on Angel or Buffy makes me giggle as consistently as she (as her? I always get that wrong), which is all you really want out of your comic relief. Besides, Harmony is the only character left who’d been around since the original, unaired pilot of Buffy, so it’s kind of fitting that she stick around until the very end.

At any rate, I’ve now finished devouring all of Joss Whedon’s shows. Whatever will I watch now?