Home Season 1 Season 2


City of
Lonely Hearts
In the Dark
I Fall to Pieces
Rm w/a Vu
Sense and Sensitivity
Bachelor Party
I Will Remember You
Parting Gifts
I Got You Under My Skin
The Ring
Five by Five
War Zone
Blind Date
To Shanshu in LA




Written by:  Tim Minear

Directed by: Winrich Kolbe


The Past Catches up on Angel

The basic premise for “Angel” is the search by our eponymous hero for redemption.  However, until this episode we have been looking at redemption in only one way – what Angel does to earn it.  There is another side to redemption – what Angel has done to need it in the first place.   By this I am not referring to the source of Angel’s feelings of responsibility for Angelus’ crimes.  Rather I am referring to the nature of the crimes themselves.  This is a question that has to date never really interested the writers, not only in “Angel” but in “Buffy” as well.  We got the odd passage of dialogue here and there in episodes such as in “Angel” and “Lie to Me” but surprisingly little attempt was made in “Buffy” to explore just what it meant to be Angelus, the vampire serial killer.  Even during the “Angel goes bad” period from “Innocence” to “Becoming 2” the focus was not on what Angelus did but rather how Buffy reacted to it.   The most comprehensive view we have of Angelus’ past is in “Amends” where Angel is visited almost literally by the Ghosts of Christmas past but even here the focus is on how the human soul reacted to the memories of individual deaths.    There is no attempt to get into the mind of a killer.  And, crucially, what we do see is confined to the dead past – gone if not forgotten.

In “Somnambulist”, Angel’s past literally does come back to haunt him in the worst way possible.  One of his own children – a vampire he created  -  is repeating a pattern of killing that Angel himself taught him.  In him I am sure we are intended to see a reflection of the mind of his vampire father, Angelus. But crucially the killings continue to the present and in the present they stir the demon still within Angel and affect his relationships with those around him.  This is indeed a far more potent mix than anything we have seen before.   “Somnambulist” is a story which helps us understand Angel’s past but also the nature of the demon still within him.  Because of this it is also about the consequences that past has for him to this day.  And they are not easy ones to live with.

It is in this context that we have to look at the title of the episode and the way it begins.  At first sight the opening seems little more than an elaborate piece of misdirection.  Angel’s killing dreams and the fact that the bodies the killer left are marked in a way that Angelus had made a trademark at one time give rise to the suspicion that he was murdering again.  This was never going to be a particularly effective twist on its own because, almost instinctively, we knew that Angel was not responsible.  The significance of this little piece of misdirection, however, does not lie in the twist it gives the plot. We are being reminded very forcefully that the demon is still there within Angel and that if the circumstances were right it could re-emerge.  Angel admits, not once but twice, that he enjoyed the killing dreams. And this intellectual realization is reinforced visually by the wonderful scene where we listen to Kate’s description of a serial killer while watching a montage of Angel stalking the streets.  Every word she used applies to him, not as the soulless killer Angelus but as Angel the ensouled vampire with the demon within who could be released at any moment:

“Our suspect will be a white male.  To the observer he will not seem a monster.  His victims put up little or no struggle, so it’s likely that he is charming, attractive, but at his core he is a loner; possibly a dual personality, who once the crime has been committed, retains no memory of the act.   He will not view his victims as sub-human; rather it’s himself that he views as something other than human, more than human, a superior species.  Stalking his prey, getting to know them.  It’s unlikely that he’ll be married though he may have recently come off a long-term relationship that ended badly.  We look for a precipitating event in cases such as this, and a painful break-up is always at the top of the list.  Prior to failing this relationship may have marked an inactive period in our suspect’s life.  He would have regarded it as a lifeline, his salvation, but once ended, it resulted in his recidivism.  -  What is not in question is his experience.  He’s been doing this for a very long time, and he will do it again.”

It is, I think, no coincidence that the first sight we get of Penn is as the newly turned vampire making his first kill under the watchful eye of Angelus.  That kill happens to be his own sister and then Angelus incites him to make a feast of the rest of his family (thus emulating Angelus’ own family values).  Moreover Penn hated his own mortal father but admired and wanted the approval of his vampire sire.  These two strands meet very nicely in his constant repetition of the same killing pattern.  By re-enacting the killing of his own family he sticks it to his mortal father while paying homage to his sire who taught him what to do.  In the son we see a reflection of the father.  But for Angel the chilling thing about Penn’s murders is that, unlike his own crimes, they are not confined to the past.  Rather they continue into the present and, as the individual, who made Penn a killer and taught him his pattern he, Angel, is by extension also the author of each new death.

In this context Penn’s unimaginative approach to the killings is important.  It was stressed on several occasions that his pattern did not vary.  This reinforced the idea that in 200 years he had not formed a pattern of his own but was simply replaying what he had learned at his master’s feet.  And Angel himself adds the most important details.  He immediately recognizes the intention of the cross marked on the victims’ cheeks.  In his dreams he stalks his victims, toys with them and before they can die of their fear he feeds from them.  In these dreams of course he is experiencing Penn’s hunts.  But he is also reliving his own past, thus completing the identification between himself and Penn.

 I am reminded of Angel’s own words in “Rm w/a Vu”.  When Kate reminds him that PI’s have more than one name she adds that Popes and Rock Stars are the one-name guys.  Angel retorts “You got me.  I’m a Pope.”  And what is the name given to the serial killer here?

And this identification between Angel and Penn is further highlighted by Kate.  Both Wesley and Cordelia were concerned at the thought that Angel may have become a recidivist.  But once they knew that they were not going to become “cocktails” their trust in Angel is substantially unaffected.  They drew the distinction between Angel on the one hand and his vampire past (as personified by Penn) on the other.  Kate was different.

From the beginning of the episode Kate’s trust in Angel, even her attraction to him is stressed.  She goes out on a limb for him, first over the number plates and then over the search for “the Pope”. But that trust, that connection with an ordinary member of society simply serves to counterpoint the strength of her reaction against him when she finds out the truth, is destroyed by the revelation of his true nature.  Instead of a friend, once Kate knows the truth, becomes Angel’s accuser.  And in keeping with the theme of the episode she makes no distinction between Angelus’ own actions and those of Penn.  She makes them both the subject of her reproaches. 

Angel:  “I can’t make up for the past, Kate, I know that.”

Kate:  “No you can’t.  In fact all of this what’s happening now, is really because of you.  You made him, didn’t you?”

I have always found incomprehensible the “Buffy” writers’ evident lack of interest in the possibilities of greater inter-reaction between Angel and the Scooby gang, especially in Season 3.  And it is here that we see just what we were deprived of in a face to face confrontation between Xander and Angel over the latter’s past.  Kate’s moral judgment may not have been fair but it carried conviction and weight and it made all the more real Angel’s own internal struggle.   He will not deny his responsibility (whether his shouldering of that responsibility is fair or not) but at the same time he desperately wants acceptance and recognition that he is good now.  That is why he is reduced to a slightly pleading “Let me help end it, please”, only to have that word “please” flung right back in his face. For a while Kate treated him as if he were human, something that Cordelia, Wesley and even Buffy could not do.  And that of course is what Angel wants, that is the ultimate aim of his quest for redemption.  But in “Somnambulist” his past returns to deny him the one piece of acceptance that he has found. 


People Change

If that were all the episode were about it would indeed make for very depressing viewing indeed.  But that is not all that there is.  Indeed in many ways it seems to me that this multi-layered examination of Angelus  as serial killer is only the launching pad for the real message of the story – for Angel there has been change.  This point is made principally in two scenes.  In that stunning confrontation across the barrier of sunlight we see on the one side the vampire who has turned his back on the past and on the other the vampire who is still stuck in it.  The gulf of understanding between them as to Penn’s murders is now clear for all to see.  Indeed, if I am correct and this episode is about Angel dealing with the consequences of his past, the destruction of Penn is the outward sign of how he does so.  Finally putting an end to the chain of death that he started (albeit with help) symbolizes how the fight against evil can bring about his own redemption.   This idea is neatly encapsulated in the superb scene between Cordelia and Angel at the end.   We are reminded of why Angel is in LA and in being so reminded the change from his past is once more emphasized:

Cordelia:  “You’re not him, Angel.  Not anymore.  The name I got in my vision, the message didn’t come for Angelus, it came for you.  Angel.  And you have to trust that whoever that the Powers That Be be…are…is…anyway,  they know the difference.”

And it is here that Cordelia’s attitude is so important.  Her willingness to accept him as good both when Wesley first raised the suggestion that he was killing again and in the final scene on the roof is not only evidence of her friendship for him.   Cordelia is no sentimentalist.  When she says she would stake him if he turned bad she means it.  But this is the very consideration that lends weight to her present belief in him.  She is not being swayed (as Buffy might be) by emotion but by her practical knowledge of Angel.   But Kate too plays her part.  There is no pat kiss and make up here.  That would have been quite unbelievable.  But there is evidence of an open mind.  Her threat to stake Angel was real but, significantly, when she was given the opportunity to do so she refrained.  This too shows that even for her Angel is not defined simply by his past.  But the symbolism of the post-staking tableau is also quite striking.  When she and Angel both collapse after Penn is dusted there is a substantial distance still between them.


The Plot

Another thing that makes this such a great episode is that all of this character work is developed in the context of a story which, as Samuel Goldwyn once put it, starts with an earthquake and works its way up to a climax.  The implications of the story that I have spelled out above are there for all to see but we do not have long pauses in the action so that the characters can worry about them – at least not until the very end. They therefore complement the story rather than get in its way.  This allows the narrative to unfold at an almost breakneck pace. The “I track a serial killer” stories are usually heavily into detective work – finding small clues and developing leads from them.  We do not have that approach here. “Somnambulist”  is perhaps more of an action adventure episode than a detective story.  So, Penn is first interrupted and then cornered by the simplest and most direct route possible – roving police patrols.  But because they were directed by Angel’s knowledge of the character no suspension of disbelief is required.  Equally his lair is finally tracked down because of the same flaw in his character – his predictability.  These are shortcuts yes, but perfectly fair ones.   And because of them the story just keeps on moving.   As it is essentially a linear narrative with straightforward and logical developments, it is easy to keep up with.  But the story itself does change and develop as it progresses so it is not a one dimensional narrative.

One great strength of the little piece of misdirection at the beginning is that it knocks us off balance.  We do not believe Angel was killing but we know someone is and we cannot (or at least I could not) figure out the connection to Angel.  We are therefore pulled straight into a mystery that our hero must solve.  And instead of sitting around and worrying about the implications of Angel reverting to type the writers leave it to audience to do that and solve the mystery.  Immediately Angel does he, and the viewers, are faced with another problem – Penn.  Angel’s task then becomes how to stop him killing again but once he successfully does so the nature of the problem once again changes.  When Penn discovers Angel has become good he looks for a way to strike back.  So the nature of the story and of the challenge Angel is faced with changes almost from scene to scene.  But these are not abrupt or arbitrary changes.  Rather one leads naturally into the other.

And in Penn himself the writers have created one of the best single-episode villains in the whole Buffy/Angel cannon.  It is not only that he has the speed, strength and intelligence to constitute as real threat.  Even more importantly he is a believably three-dimensional character with a personality which makes his actions (including his decision to make the contest with Angel a very personal one) entirely credible.  Indeed he comes complete with his own psychological flaws that help pave the way for his undoing (always my favorite way of bringing down a bad guy).

There are one or two difficulties with the plot.  I do not myself object to Kate’s pursuit of Penn into the abandoned building.  Before she goes in we see policemen with flashlights already inside it so she is not alone.  She just happens to be the one to find Penn, a coincidence yes but nothing worse.  Actually I find the failure of the police to seal off the side of the building through which Angel entered more problematic.  Nor am I bothered by how Angel knew Penn was after Kate.  The clues about the schoolchildren were just too obvious.  If he really had been after them I would certainly have called foul about a killer leaving clues like that lying around.  As it is the first question Angel would have asked after Penn left his office would have been “What did he want here?”  The answer Cordelia would have given was that he was pumping her for information about Kate.  The rest would have been easy to guess.  Much more difficult for me to swallow was Angel’s “psychic link” with those he sired.  Since when?  If he had such a link how come he thought Drusilla was dead in “Surprise”?   And as for Kate and the stake into Penn through Angel, well lets just say that that is stretching suspension of disbelief a little far.  A vampire could do it.  The slayer could.  But a human?


Other Matters

Before closing I would like to mention one or two further aspects of the production.  First of all, as TV is a visual medium, I have to say that this episode was also a visual feast.  I have already mentioned the montage of Angel as suspected serial killer and the striking image of the two vampires separated by the shaft of sunlight.   There was another montage of Kate researching, Penn plotting and Angel brooding.  Equally arresting were the sight of Angel climbing the drainpipe, the opening sequence with the first kill and the flashback scene where Penn kills his sister (linked by the fact that the opening shots in each case were of the moon reflected in a pool of water).  The two fights between Penn and Angel were, I think, the best action sequences yet, particularly but not solely the special effects of bodies crashing through ceilings.  Then there is the dialogue.  This is not something I have made a big issue of in previous reviews, largely because we are used to it being of a high standard.  But throughout this episode it was sharp, incisive and economical.  Its quality was especially evident two particularly crackling scenes: the confrontation between Penn and Angel in the latter’s office and between Kate and Angel at her apartment.   From the former the following is one of my favorites:

Angel:  “I’m sorry for what I did to you, Penn, for what I turned you into.”

Penn:  “First class killer?  An Artist?  A bold re-interpreter of the form?”

Angel:  “Try cheesy hack.  Look at you.  You’ve been getting back at your father for over 200 years.  It’s pathetic and clichéd.  Probably got a killer shrine on your wall, huh?  News clippings, magazine articles, maybe a few candles? Oh, you are so prosaic.”

This gets right to the heart of the character of Penn, in a wonderfully hard hitting way.

Finally I have to say a word about the performances which were uniformly excellent.  There were no histrionics but, from DB in particular, we were treated in a controlled and understated fashion to the full range of emotions raised by Angel’s situation: fear, shock, anger, desperation, remorse, resolve.  It was not eye catching stuff but it carried great conviction and one thing I liked in particular was that throughout he maintained Angel’s sense of dignity, even in extremis.



9.5/10.  “Somnambulist” is a combination of strong character work and a powerful story.   The center is, of course, Angel and his situation.   There is so much depth and texture in this part of the story that we get closer to the heart of the situation Angel finds himself in than at any previous stage.  Both Cordelia and especially Kate are very well used to illustrate aspects of this  situation but it is of course Angel himself who is central to the episode.  On the one hand there is a past he cannot change.  On the other he must deal with its consequences, both within and without.  The internal consequences take the form of the demon still present in him and the fact that it may one day re-emerge is a very real possibility.  The external consequences lie in the form of a legacy destroyed lives and the echoes his past actions have to this day.  It is really only be showing us and making us think about the nature of Angel’s past that we can begin to understand just what his journey of redemption means.  It is perhaps the ultimate justification for the whole concept of an “Angel” series that the writers can get so much out of this.   And the story itself which a perfect vehicle to develop the points the writers want to make about Angel is in itself a strong and sophisticated one.  It is not only that the opponent is a menacing one who poses formidable problems to be solved, or that these are solved in an interesting and believable manner.  It is the fact that the nature of the plot keeps continually moving, changing its focus and leaving the audience to keep up as best it can, thus ensuring our attention is always riveted.   This episode is not perfect – nothing is.  But it is a classic which will stand comparison with anything we have seen in BUFFY. 


Review revised and rewritten Sunday, September 17th 2000