If you thought that Angel Investigations had hit new levels of bad luck at the start of Hero, then Parting Gifts makes it look like Christmas morning.
For alas, Angel Investigations is not only broke, client-less (the last paying client seems to have been Melissa Burns) and now one man down. Poor old Doyle has fallen victim to the evil Scourge's deadly light ray, and neither Angel nor Cordelia are taking this too well.
Giving Angel some credit though – at least he knows that he's in a fantasy drama. Paying another trip to the Oracles, he's desperate for them to work their mojo to somehow bring Doyle back or reverse time. It's too much like hard work for these two Oracles – such a time-consuming job would distract them from swanning around in their golden palace while listening to harp music and concocting harsh put-downs to lesser mortals. Angel's looking in the wrong place though. If he wanted to resurrect Doyle, all he had to do was pay a visit to Steven Moffat.
But a lengthy plane trip and the resulting jet lag would prove too much for the brooding one, so instead he makes do with the crabby temper. He's not in the mood for social niceties and when a potential client – a scabby looking Empath Demon called Barney – comes barging in, Angel gives him typically short shrift. In particular, he's quietly furious that Barney's conformed to the age old cliché of asking what a vampire is doing up and about in the afternoon. For a demon who reads emotions, Barney's evidently having a bad day at the office.
Much like poor Cordy, whose audition for a commercial about stain remover is memorable for all the wrong reasons. Out of all the things to advertise, Cordy is stuck with a product that recalls Doyle's messy demise. “Just spray it on... and rub it in... and in minutes, the stain is gone!” she blubs. “It's completely gone!” It's hilarious on the one hand (the baffled reactions of the three casting folks) and a bit of a heart-breaker on the other.
As if that wasn't bad enough, Cordy's run of bad timing collides with her very first vision. Remember that crafty smooch between Doyle and Cordy at the end of Hero? Well, it turns out that it wasn't just champagne and roses at play here. Doyle's transference of his visions to Cordy has changed her life forever. And not so much in a good way – more a million head-cracking hangovers way.
As one of the Oracles mentions, another door opens as soon as one closes. Parting Gifts addresses this on a number of levels. It's an episode that sees Angel and Cordelia try and come to terms with their loss. It's also an episode that starts to change the dynamics of the show – two of the familiar Angel ingredients are introduced for the first time here: Cordelia's visions and also the introduction of that wily old rogue demon hunter, Wesley Wyndham-Price.
Wesley's introduction to the show comes about because of Barney's insistence that he's being chased by some sort of unstoppable, relentless foe. At this stage of the show, these are not two words that you'd use to describe Wesley who's regrettably still in bumbling, pratfallling mode. Don't get me wrong – Wesley will become one of the vital and best-characterised players of the show, but at this point in time, the creators of Angel can't see beyond the foppish template of a stereotypical English gentleman.
Mind you, there's plenty of laughs to be had with Wesley's introduction. Not only does he still remain a lousy kisser, he's also a bit deluded about his smooching abilities. Entering into a clinch with Cordelia, he still snogs her like a fish gasping for air out of its tank while seeming to perform the heads shoulders knees and toes routine at the same time. He thinks it went better than last time the two locked lips, which says a lot about Wesley's current state of mind. He's also amusingly gone for the leather tough guy look while hunting rogue demons. It's like Cliff Richard doing a punk rock song. Later on, Wes swaps these awkward togs for a suit that makes him look like he's shooting for the latest Del Monte advert. Quite where he's got the money for these clothes is never explained, given that he's unemployed and a pretty unsuccessful freelancer. The Watcher's Council must have given him a hefty severance package.
It's a timely re-acquaintance though, and you wonder whether the Oracles have had some sort of part to play in Wesley turning up again (let's ignore the later Inside Out episode). Both parties are at their lowest ebb. Angel and Cordy are battling with the loss of their friend and a struggling business. Wesley is contending with his own lack of confidence and insecurity, as well as the loss of his old job in Sunnydale. Losing two Slayers isn't something to put on the CV, and Wesley, despite his superficial bravado, knows it.
Like many other characters in the show, Wesley's an outsider. The lone wolf may be looking to head home after battle's done but the last scene sees a man clearly looking for some stable circle of friends to call his own. Despite the over-excessive pratfalling, it was an inspired idea to bring Alexis Denisof back, and he fills the gap left by Doyle very well.
From now on there's an altered dynamic between the team of Angel Investigations this season. If Angel and Doyle welcomed Cordelia into their supernatural world, it's now Angel and a newly visioned Cordy welcoming an unassuming old friend into their family. Revisiting the episodes again, it'll be fascinating seeing Wesley embark on his journey from bumbling fool to toughened, confident demon fighter – with the combination of Denisof's multi-layered performances and the first class scripting, Wesley's story is one of the highlights of the show.
Parting Gifts is no slouch either. Like all good Angel episodes, the story works on a number of levels. On the surface, it's a good, intriguing yarn that throws many twists and turns at the viewer until its well worked out conclusion. Below that though, there's emotional undercurrents bubbling like oil in a chip pan at full heat. It was a smart move to make Barney an Empath since he can read Cordy like a book. She may be full of feisty bravado on the outside, but inside, she's blaming herself for Doyle's passing. If she'd been nicer to him, been less bolshy, even less selfish, she's thinking that maybe his death could have been avoided.
This is some skilled writing from David Fury and Jeannine Renshaw – it's a well written piece that looks at how those left behind constantly analyse a premature passing of a friend or family member. Could they have done more? Did they say or do too much? Weren't they nice enough? That maelstrom of emotions, regrets and what ifs is well captured in this simple but well assembled tale, and again, Charisma Carpenter acts this episode to perfection.
Maury Sterling is also good as the shifty Barney. A strong selling point of Parting Gifts is that you don't know where the threat lies. Initially, Barney's the victim: a goofy, cowardly man on the run – in some respects, he's deliberately written with some of Doyle's characteristics in mind such as the unassuming down to earth nature or the bad taste in clothes. The threat then seems to transfer to a Kungai Demon, but in fact, the creature's just as much a victim of the whole evil mastermind, Barney himself.
Another nifty aspect of Parting Gifts is the motivation behind Barney's plan, which is to simply capture Cordy and sell her seer's eyes to the highest bidder at an auction. Simple but effective, and that gruesome looking gizmo to extract eyes is enough to make the squeamish squirm in discomfort. Luckily, Angel and Wes at the rescue manage to overpower Barney, allowing Cordy to stab him with a Tak Horn which instantly drains the life out of the Empath and reduce his corpse to a small pile of blackened dust.
Despite no mementoes of Doyle – not even a coffee mug – the newly formed gang frame Cordy's sketch of an “ugly, grey, blobby thing” as a keepsake to remember him by. The charming end breakfast sequence caps off a very strong episode which mixes all the best aspects of this series and serves them up on one irresistible platter. The script is exciting, thoughtful and frequently very funny. The visuals are as striking and polished as ever.
And best of all, there's a new team slowly finding out who they are and how they can take Angel Investigations to the next level. Parting Gifts is both a touching epilogue and a promising new introduction, and on both counts the episode works brilliantly.