For anyone who thinks I’ve been too hard on Angel’s first season, I’ll point to “Five by Five” as the sort of quality I expect from a Joss Whedon show. No, not every episode can be great, but it shouldn’t have taken 18 for one of this kind of quality to arrive. This is the sort of exciting, character-driven, emotionally relevant story the season needed way back in its first half. Beyond the significant step up in the quality of writing, acting, and directing, this episode also marks the first time Wolfram & Hart have served as primary antagonists. By every measure I can think of, “Five by Five” and “Sanctuary” mark the point where Angel found its voice. Thank God we’re finally here.
Of course, now that I am here, I’m not sure where to begin. This episode’s a hell of a lot of fun. As I mentioned in “This Year’s Girl,” there’s a reason Faith’s a fan favourite and she proves it again here, upping both the evil and the enjoyment as she continues her downward spiral. Faith herself declares how much fun it’s going to be when she first arrives to threaten Angel and, during their second encounter, declares “let the games begin.” The story delivers on this promise, bringing genuine menace we’ve yet to see on this show as Faith goes after the people Angel cares about. There’s an unpredictability to the scene in Cordy’s apartment that’s very refreshing and the payoff, a surprisingly badass Wesley under surprisingly badass torture, is a worthy one. Cap that off with the series’ best fight scene yet, and you’ve got one damn entertaining episode.
Calling this episode “fun” may seem to damn it with faint praise, but, like the very best of Whedon, there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface. To take a look at the fun itself, the audience is figured uncomfortably close to Faith in our enjoyment of all this violence. Faith pounding Lee’s smug face into the table has an undeniable satisfaction to it, and the “games” themselves begin with our hero casually attempting to shoot someone, and then getting shot for the mistake of aiming for the leg. Wes actually makes the best case; this is a character that’s grown on us tremendously since his introduction, and his “finest” moment of the series is his response to torture. The only one who shares our enjoyment of all this is Faith.
Aligning the audience with the bad guy isn’t about showing us the error of our ways (we’re not meant to regret watching Angel and Faith beat the crap out of each other) it’s about pushing us out of what we think we’re watching at precisely the right moment. Faith’s the villain in this action/thriller scenario and the “right” ending is for her to be killed. We’re on board with this story right up until we realize that Faith’s well aware of her role. She’s tried desperately to lose herself in the thrill of evil but, despite her best efforts, she knows she needs to pay for her crimes, and suicide by Angel seems like the most expedient route. It’s a fantastic turn capping off a fantastic episode and just the sort of thing this series desperately needed.
Beyond the awesomeness of Faith, this episode also gets major points for making Wolfram & Hart into worthy villains. The evil law firm has been long on promise and short on delivery thus far and it’s nice to see them finally step into the role of Big Bad. This really needed to happen about 15 episodes ago.
The awesomeness of Wolfram & Hart really rests on the awesomeness of Lindsay and Lilah.
“You feel young , do you Faith? You’re looking pretty worn out to me.”
This episode also touches on the real fundamental necessity Angel’s been lacking, a reason why. I didn’t do the main review on that because I think that “Sanctuary” is the episode that really nails it, but “Five by Five” is a superb set up for its knockout. We’ve seen Angel identify with a villain before, but never this effectively. The flashbacks (always a series high point) drive home the fact that he’s well aware of what it’s like to feel like an irredeemable monster. This is why he needs to save Faith. We’ll find out exactly what that means next week.