Mark Watches ‘Angel’: S05E03 – Unleashed

In the third episode of the fifth season of Angel, the team tries to save a woman from the dangers of her new condition. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Angel.

Y’all, I am already a massive fan of this season. Do I hate that Cordelia is gone and largely unacknowledged? Yes. It feels sloppy and bizarre, and I imagine there must be something going on behind-the-scenes, but I often don’t read that stuff. I try to do my best to interpret the show as-is, but blah. I miss Cordelia.

That being said, this season feels so incredibly new to me, and it’s making for some fine television. With a new set and the return of both Spike and Harmony, Angel has never felt so fresh and exciting. Not only am I totally into this season’s serial arc regarding Wolfram & Hart, this one-off story is so wonderfully written. It makes the disappointing moments from season four all that more glaring because the writers demonstrate with this episode that they clearly understand these characters and where they came from.

Of course, I’m also a huge fan of stories about identity and loneliness. This is not a new thing, and I’ve certainly discussed it before for multiple Mark Watches projects. This particular episode initially pits Angel against Nina, who must cope with the fact that she’s now a monster. By the end, though, I was blown away by the fact that the writers were drawing a direct parallel between Spike and Fred, something I had never previously considered.

But before I got to that point, I was happy to see the further examination of what life was like for these people now that Wolfram & Hart had taken over their priorities. The fact that the group has to meet up in the Hollywood Hills in order to have a real conversation is a sign of how fucked up this is. And yet, I’m so pleased that they’re still able to help others out. For the first time this season, they face a case that’s purely about them getting to do nothing but good. There’s no rambunctious, stubborn client, there’s no sense of ambiguity about morals, and there’s no second-guessing the mission. They all get to use what they have access to at Wolfram & Hart to help Nina.

And holy shit, this episode is such a nuanced, caring look at what it is like for Nina to lose control over her life when she is bit by a werewolf. I’m perfectly fine with the fact that the Wolfram & Hart and Spike plots largely take a backseat for “Unleashed” because this story helps build up the characters involved with it. That opening scene is entirely relevant, too, and not just because it sets up Angel to stop the werewolf attack before Nina dies. We see how Nina’s condition isolates her from those she loves, at least initially. It’s frightening. She’s so confused that she later voluntarily steps away from the only family she knows. If you go back to that cold open, you can see how close Angel and his friends come to doing the same thing. They are so afraid of what their deal with Wolfram & Hart might mean that they are quick to attack one another.

So it’s significant that Angel brings his friends and workers together over a single issue: Nina does not have to be alone throughout her journey. That’s an important moment because there’s probably not a single person in this cast of characters who understands loneliness quite like Angel does. He understands what it is like to lose one’s humanity and feel like you can never get close to another person again. This is then contrasted with Nina’s own discovery of this same sensation. Those scenes at her sister’s house show the beginning of her rapid decline. She’s suddenly different. Even things as simple as cooking are suddenly complicated and dramatic. It’s one of the many things I adored about “Unleashed.” The writers show us just how scary and upsetting this transformation is for Nina, and they don’t take the easy way out either. When Nina begins to transform later that night while her niece Amanda is downstairs, it’s a genuinely frightening moment. Obviously, it’s played for maximum suspense, but Nina loves Amanda so much that she can’t fathom hurting her or putting her in danger.

It’s also agonizing to watch her witness absolute proof that she’s a werewolf. I am thankful, then, that she has this team of people helping her. For all their faults and for as many stumbles as the writers have taken, I just think this is fucking beautiful. It’s a reminder where these characters came from and the conviction they have to being a force for good in the world. (Take that, Agent Hauser. Oh wait, you can’t because you’re dead.) And there are so many moments that show us how this fucked up, dysfunctional family has managed to survive through the worst. As they take care of Nina, they comfort her without being dishonest. They stay close when she needs them. It’s just… ugh, I’m going to tear up thinking about this. I genuinely care about all five of these main characters so much, and it’s just so awesome to see them act so selflessly.

When this story takes a dive to the morbid and unsettling, it still never loses sight of the message. The entire rare cuisine plot is seriously fucked up, and I did worry that I’d been thrown a curveball that was too distracting. But I saw the point of that scene as Nina’s resignation from her humanity. She was so hurt by what her sister said to her that she felt that she’d never amount to anything more than livestock. I mean, how could she explain to her sister that she was a werewolf? But Angel refuses to let her succumb to this sort of fatalism. I imagine once Angel got back his soul, he went through the exact same thing. Well, actually, we’ve seen that from him. Only in Angel’s case, that process lasted for many, many decades. Oh shit.

In a moment akin to “The Reunion,” Angel solves the whole mess by giving these immensely fucked up people Dr. Royce, who will turn into a werewolf a month later. Jesus, so there’s this episode’s dose of moral ambiguity. I don’t feel all that bad, since Dr. Royce did betray the team and nearly get Nina killed. But it was certainly unexpected. Actually, the entire ending to “Unleashed” is unexpected because… well, it’s so happy. I’m just not used to this show ever letting an episode end on a happy note. However, the writers give us two scenes, one with Nina and one with Angel, that demonstrate the power of families. That’s a theme that was big on Buffy, and I’m happy to see it here. Hell, a lot of Whedon’s work shows us how we can choose our own families to cope with life. It’s just nice to know that these people still have each other’s back and that they still care.

This also means that this moment of joy must be destroyed as soon as possible. I’ll enjoy it for now, but by gods, I know that this can’t last long. Look what show I’m watching.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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