“Unleashed” is a great episode. I never expected to say that as Nina’s debut had largely faded from my memory. Truth be told, there’s little here to distinguish it from any other case of the week but perhaps that’s why I found myself smiling throughout most of it. There’s a very old school Angel vibe here as the gang must ostensibly help someone with a supernatural crisis while in truth helping them with a personal one. Angel has to make a connection with Nina in order to save her, everything else is just window dressing. After a couple of weeks of the firm colouring almost everything Angel & co have done, it’s nice to see that they can still be the sort of heroes they once were.
Feel-good as most of this episode is, it doesn’t start out that way as the gang’s fake social gathering quickly devolves into the sort of real jealousy, mistrust, and bickering that made season four such a downer. Fortunately, the sniping’s interrupted werewolf attack and Angel’s pushed into hero mode. Of course, it’s a decidedly Angel style hero mode as, for all the thrilling action in killing a werewolf with a pen, her still can’t save the girl. Nina ends up bitten and on the run and we get some old school Angel villain/victim conflation as the gang needs to “save” her before she hurts anyone.
What’s really great here is that W&H doesn’t get particularly involved in the proceedings. Yes, it’s a betrayal from within the firm that causes things to escalate, but there isn’t a lot of time wasted bemoaning the fact that they’re working in unfriendly territory; this story’s about the team trying to help someone and all the evil coworkers, mystical & high tech gadgets, and hired goons are incidental to that. The tip off to the bestiary bistro could’ve come from anywhere for all the difference in makes to the plot. The only real exception to this is the way this environment is grating on Angel. While everyone seems to have a short fuse in the intro, the boss is the only one who keeps lashing out over the course of the episode.
Pointed as one of Lorne’s patented pep talks is, it’s helping Nina that actually gets Angel out of his funk. This is a pretty straightforward case of him helping and being helped by making a connection with someone but I didn’t mind the by-the-numbers feeling as we haven’t actually seen those numbers in what feels like forever. Angel recognizes his own tendency toward isolation in the werewolf he killed and, in urging Nina not to go down the same path, he realizes that he needs his own course correction. Angel saving himself through others formed the bedrock of this series in the earlier years and it’s nice to see that making a return.
So nice, in fact, that it’s able to carry an episode that doesn’t have a lot else going for it. Nina’s a rather stock damsel by this show’s standards and the happenstance reveal of the Dr. Phlox’s treachery is pretty weak. But it’s still very satisfying to see the AI team save the day without any of the compromises that have plagued them since the season began. The Chinese takeout (real this time) conclusion, which could’ve been overly sappy, feels earned. The team’s still a family, despite their new surroundings, and it’s okay to enjoy that on occasion.
Blink and you’ll miss it, but Gunn says that they shut down the bistro in the closing scene. While making their victory complete is certainly in keeping with this episode’s vibe, wrapping things up in such a neat package felt a little needless.
Does leaving Phlox (I found John Billingsley’s cameo a bit distracting) to be eaten alive count as a moral compromise? Technically yes, but Angel’s never placed the same value on the life of human bad guys that Buffy did so I’m not sure that we can blame the influence of W&H for this one. Plus, one would assume he wasn’t actually eaten as they shut down the bistro.
I always liked Nina, despite her never really being fleshed out. She made for a good match for Angel, someone he could have a relationship with without his entire world crashing to a halt. This is, perhaps, less interesting to watch on television but it’s a more accurate portrayal of most relationships. She’s his Riley.
Not a lot for Spike to do this week as his “fading” just seems like an excuse to keep him out of the episode’s main plot.