Fifteen years ago this month, David Boreanaz’s soulful bloodsucker Angel drove his vampire-mobile through an interdimensional portal and arrived in a fantasy realm known as Pylea. When he and the rest of the Angel Investigations team — Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), Wesley (Alexis Denisof), and Gunn (J. August Richards) — returned to our reality three episodes later, both they and the show had been profoundly changed. It was an evolution that had been two seasons in the making. According to vampire lore, Joss Whedon’s Buffy spin-off was initially intended to be more of an episodic detective series (as opposed to the more serialized storytelling on its parent show) following the title character and his associates as they solved a variety of cases involving supernatural-crime in Los Angeles.
Halfway into Season 1, though, the creative team realized that mythology was what they did best and started building out Angel’s larger world. By the start of Season 2, Denisof’s Wesley had joined fellow Sunnydale refugee Cordelia, and former street gang leader Gunn eventually completed the quartet. Meanwhile, the sinister law firm of Wolfram & Hart was elevated to Big Bad status, becoming Angel’s primary nemesis until Season 5, when it became his employer. But it was the Pylea arc, which ran through the last four episodes of the second season, that really helped Angel chart a new course. Up until that point, Angel’s old vampire flame, Darla (Julie Benz), had been the instigator of much of the season’s conflict. As Benz herself later revealed in an interview, the writers felt they had exhausted that material and decided to end their sophomore year on a different note.
And so the Pylea journey was born, beginning in Episode 19, “Belonging” — when Cordelia is first kidnapped by a dimension-hopping demon — and continuing through “Over the Rainbow,” “Through the Looking Glass,” and the season finale, “There’s No Place Like Plrtz Glrb,” when her pals brought her back… along with another new addition to the Angel Investigations crew. All four episodes — along with the rest of Angel’s run — can be streamed on Netflix, and watching them back-to-back is like experiencing a short-run miniseries nestled within a larger ongoing narrative. Freed from the show’s usual setting, the writers were able to take some tonal and narrative risks. Here are four key ways that Angel’s detour to Pylea impacted the future of Angel.
1. It Made Angel Smile
A Gloomy Gus by nature (blame it on the whole “having a soul” thing), the darkness of L.A. nights only encouraged Angel’s brooding nature. But Pylea allows him to come out of the shadows and into the sun, because in this dimension, catchin’ some rays doesn’t equal immediate death. Boreanaz’s initially joyous reaction to being able to soak up Pylea’s twin suns is priceless, and the writers would make a point of allowing their star to engage in more comedy going forward. (A classic example being Season 5’s immortal all-puppet episode, “Smile Time.”) Of course, we eventually learn that there are downsides to “vamping out” in Pylea, which include being transformed into a raging beast. Still, that smile makes it all worth it.
2. It Introduced Fred
A college student who wound up in Pylea courtesy of a demon textbook and immediately sentenced to life as a “cow” (i.e. slave), Winifred “Fred” Burkle (Amy Acker) is kind of a mess when we first meet her — sort of like Tom Hanks’s character in Cast Away had he not had Wilson to talk to. Rescuing Fred becomes part of the crew’s “Save Cordelia” mission, and while she could have easily vanished when they returned to L.A., the writers decided to keep her around for Season 3 and beyond. Starting off as a comic relief figure readjusting to life on Earth after five years in another dimension, Fred blossomed into one of Angel’s most complex, interesting, and ultimately tragic characters — a transformation aided by Acker’s soulful performance. She’s the best Pylea souvenir the characters could have asked for.
3. It Made Lorne Matter
Speaking of comic characters who suddenly acquire unexpected emotional depth, Lorne (played by the late Andy Hallett) was introduced early on in Season 2 as the flamboyant host of L.A. premiere demon hotspot Caritas. But the Pylea arc revealed his backstory as a refugee from that dimension, where he was known by the far more ferocious name, Krevlornswath of the Deathwok Clan. Escorting Angel and his pals to his native land and serving as a tour guide of sorts, Lorne checks in on his family and reaffirms his decision that he was right to leave. But being on his home turf allows us to see a different, more dramatic side of Lorne, and Hallett rose to the occasion. That may be why, after spending another season as a recurring character, Lorne was invited to join the main crew in Angel’s fourth and fifth year. Growing increasingly broken and bitter during that time, he arguably has the most haunting moment in the show’s terrific series finale, and the seeds of that eventual downfall are planted here.
4. It Said Goodbye to Buffy
When Angel’s crew returns from Pylea in the closing moments of the season, their good mood is immediately put on ice when they run across Sunnydale’s most famous witch-hacker, Willow, who has some awful news. See, Season 2 of Angel ran concurrently on The WB with Season 5 of Buffy, which famously ended with the Slayer swan-diving to her death and her series saying farewell to its original network and moving over to UPN for its sixth year. That shift essentially forced the shows to sever all ties with each other going forward, apart from a few oblique references. (Angel did drop by Sunnydale for Buffy’s final season as well, although she notably stayed away from L.A. during his last year.) And while she was initially missed, not having the specter of Buffy looming over everything allowed Angel to fully come into its own in subsequent seasons.
All five seasons of Angel can be streamed on Netflix.