Angel Reviews: Hero

For the first few minutes, Hero looks set to be something of a light-hearted romp.

We fade up on an imaginary advert in which Cordelia pictures a great promotion for Angel Investigations – complete with Angel looking straight into the camera, announcing: “You can count on me – I'm the Dark Avenger!” It's pure comedy silliness, only exaggerated by Doyle recoiling at the thought of his boss dressing up in a superhero costume.

The daftness continues as Cordy elects to opt for the 'common man' approach. Armed with only a camcorder and hastily rigged cue cards, Cordy's chosen her representative for Angel Investigations. Doyle's stumbling, fluffed attempts at enticing punters to Angel's business isn't exactly award-winning material. What with the low rats and the weasel factor, it's all harmless, knockabout fun that seems like an amusing way to introduce the episode.

So far, so good. And the next couple of scenes prove that Hero isn't rushing to make its point.

What they do provide are some important interactions between the regulars. Doyle is aghast to learn that his boss had chosen to put duty above Buffy and muses that he couldn't be capable of such strength: “Come on, you lived and loved and lost and fought and vanquished inside a day, and I'm still trying to work up the courage to ask Cordy out for dinner, not to mention the part about telling her that I'm half demon!” He's in true awe of his boss and friend, who's put the mission ahead of everyday pleasures.

It's followed up by a sweet scene between Doyle and Cordy, who quietly bond over coffee and questions about Doyle's ex. Great, understated playing from both Glenn Quinn and Charisma Carpenter here – especially subtle tricks like the gentle wiping of coffee from the mouth. But while it looks like Doyle may be on the verge of confessing all to Cordy, he's halted by another skull-crushing vision. If the action does take a while to kick in, these opening scenes are key to laying the foundations of this episode's message.

Because Hero swiftly does a tonal about-face. From the moment that Doyle sees a ragged bunch of half-demon/half-human refugees, Hero moves from comedy jape to something far darker. It's an episode that looks at what heroism really is, and who's capable of providing a selfless act. The real sting in the tale is the episode's conclusion in which Doyle chooses to sacrifice himself to save the day. Joss Whedon has never shied away from putting the lead characters at risk, but Doyle's demise marks the first, proper credited cast member (in the titles) to bite the dust.

Doyle's grisly death caps off a bleak half hour in which Angel Investigations do battle against the dreaded Scourge – essentially a band of football-headed racists who are hell-bent on wiping out all life forms who are not pure demon. It's a grim premise, if flawed. If you're a fan of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, then chances are that you saw Graduation Day. In the first part of this story, Anya claimed that all demons are tainted, a hybrid of human and monster. So quite where the Scourge fit into this line of reasoning is a head-scratcher.

Furthermore, the Scourge ain't big on subtlety – there's very obvious parallels with the Nazis, especially with their big hate for all non-conforming demon types. They have the attitude, the uniform and the jackboots, and even have their own rally in which a leader spills out venomous bile against the enemy cause.

All in all, not an enemy race portrayed in shades of grey. Angel tends to look at the baddies in more complex fashion, whether it's the loneliness-driven Meltzer or bartender or the control freak values of Maude. But in this instance, with such an audacious ploy to upset the Angel apple cart, maybe a big, brash band of evil thugs was needed to spell out the stakes at play. The Scourge have targeted a pack of what's known as Lister demons – humanoid grey-faced amiable sorts who are looking to make a speedy getaway from LA. They seem to be under the impression that Angel is the one to save them all – in the last days of the 20th century, it's apparently written that a Chosen One will save the day. Angel's not convinced, but compared to whiny teen brat Rieff, he's a true believer.

Ah, yes, good old Rieff. Not many dramas tend to portray sulky teenagers well, and sadly, Hero isn't in danger of bucking that trend. He's a kind of weird cross between Anthony Michael Hall circa 1985, Rod Stewart and Kevin The Teenager, forever stamping about and declaiming the capabilities of the Chosen One in a pained whine. It's the sort of noise that only a dog could understand with an ear half cocked in the air.

In true teen strop fashion, Rieff decides to abscond from the comparative safety of his folks' poky den, leaving Doyle to try and convince him otherwise. Not easy when you have a gang of jackbooted football heads on the prowl. In actual fact, when it comes down to it, forget the Scourge – it's bloody Rieff who's the real cause of Doyle's untimely end. If Rieff hadn't run away, then getting the Listers to the ship would have been a swifter process and they would probably have sailed away before the Scourge unleashed their big bit of shiny killer bling. So cheers for that Rieff – thanks to the irritating, be-quiffed runt's relentless mewling, he's inadvertently dug an early grave for the one guy who was looking out for him.

The aforementioned bit of mwah-hah-hah kit is something called a Beacon. It's a clunky kind of lethal death ray that resembles a cross between a giant diamond and the opening revolving eponymous cabinet from creepy schools programme, Picture Box. It's capable of wiping out any non pure demon life form a quarter of a mile in every direction by essentially melting their flesh to leave nothing but a bloody skeleton, which then evaporates into the ether. It's first used on the turncoat first mate of the ship who's sold out the Listers for a bit of extra cash. Evidently his boss is too busy fretting about someone called Big Randy (yes, really) and how he encountered Angel on one of his bad days. The effects of the Beacon ray are very well done, with the state-of-the-art video effects smearing and melting the flesh off the screaming First Mate's bones to reduce him to crispy-fried ashes. It's pure pulpy horror stuff, and considerably ups the stakes in the later part of the story.

The last act of Hero turns what's been a routine runaround into dramatic gold. There are some stories that induce a kind of queasy dread – a sense that something terrible is about to unfold before your eyes, and Hero gradually falls into that list. Looking back, you can see it coming a mile off. Cordy finally agrees to a date with Doyle. Greater insights into Doyle's back story. On that subject, it's fantastic that we finally see what Doyle's atoning for. It was cowardice, simple as that – by refusing to embrace his demon side, he let Lucas and many others of his race to be slaughtered by the Scourge. It's great use of flashback and guest actor Sean Gunn sells the despair and fear of Lucas very well. So, it's all leading up to an ending that's far removed from the comedic tone of the first 10 minutes.

The action comes thick and fast in the centrepiece of the final act – the Listers are trapped in the hold of the ship with the Beacon about to go critical. There's still a possibility that maybe there's a way out – until Angel offers to deactivate the thing while killing himself in the process. It's a heartfelt farewell as Angel says goodbye to his buddy. As it stands though, it's Doyle who gets to snaffle one first and last kiss from Cordelia (with mysterious lip glow raising questions for the future) before hurling himself through the air to prevent the Beacon from wiping out the Listers.

Friends may come and friends may go in the Buffy and Angel series, but none of their death scenes are quite as icky as Doyle's. Having sneaked a look at the behind-the-scenes notes, apparently, the effects for Doyle's death were toned down. What we get though is still grim enough, with Doyle's face rapidly blistering and melting under the glare of the Beacon to become little more than a badly charred skull. Quite what the original effects were like is anybody's guess – Raiders Of The Lost Ark, eat your heart out.

It's no surprise that the regulars pull out all of the stops in this story to provide some of their finest work. David Boreanaz and Charisma Carpenter prove that they can handle the range of material on offer here, whether they're goofing around in commercials or reacting with devastated disbelief at the abrupt end of their good friend.

But it's left to Glenn Quinn to make the most of his one last appearance as Doyle. He's made the character his own, a flawed but likeable everyday hero. We get to see both sides of that here – whether it's his down-on-his-luck, cold dismissal of his heritage or his endearingly goofy attempts at being the suave, sophisticated face of Angel Investigations.

Tucker Gates' direction adds to the pace and verve of Hero. It's magnificent stuff, bathing the scene in moody dark blues and shrouding the unfolding action in appropriately shadowy gloom. His talent for propelling the action along is a key part of this episode's success, and it's a great shame that this is the only Angel episode that he worked on. But with his stylish and moody handling of the script, it's a memorable first and last bid.

And by the story's end, the story's become a bit of a tearjerker. The episode ends with Angel and Cordy viewing the opening video of their friend in stony silence. What was originally a bit of harmless fun has become something that's quietly poignant and guaranteed to put lumps in throats. “Come on over to our offices and you'll see that there's still heroes in this world,” Doyle promises, and without realising it, he's just summed up his lasting legacy in the world of Angel Investigations.

It's doubly poignant since, sadly, actor Glenn Quinn couldn't overcome his own personal demons, and passed away at the premature age of 32. A great acting talent taken way too soon – but thanks to his consistently strong performances, not just in Angel, but in other film and TV like Roseanne, his legacy remains.

“Is that it? Am I done?” So long, Doyle and so long, Glenn Quinn.