Angel Reviews: Somnambulist

Now here's a question that's the sort to get The Beast on The Chase rubbing his chubby hands in delight as a browbeaten contestant faces a wrong answer: What is a somnambulist?

It's not the sort of word that crops up in everyday patter. “Hello, I saw a somnambulist last night. Did you?” The only time I've come across this word was when I bought the CD version of XTC's splendid Black Sea album which features a hypnotic, ambient B-side extra song called The Somnambulist. In fact, it's another term for a sleepwalker – so if by some minute chance, you read this and find yourself faced with this question on a big money quiz show, remember – you read it here!

Somnambulist brings the first season of Angel to its midway point. Appropriately, it's an episode which subtly steers the series onto a new course. Not only does Wesley make it into the opening titles with a montage of goofy, accident-prone clips, it's an episode that begins the trend of looking back at Angel's past life. Up until now, the show has provided a string of straight-ahead mini horror films for the small screen. But from now on, the viewer starts to get a greater insight into Angel's history, both as a soulless monster and a souled man trying to come to terms with the things he's done.

It's a commendably sophisticated tack to take, and Somnambulist sets up this pattern with considerable visual impact – right from the moody opening moments in which a hapless girl is captured, tortured and killed. It's a bleak prelude which deepens the mystery by implying that somehow Angel is involved. Even Wesley is none too sure that his new boss is on the level.

Having read the front pages of the papers, he's alarmed to find that the brutal murder tallies with Angel's old modus operandi of carving a cross into the victim's face. Angel's preoccupied sour face isn't helping his case, so there's only one thing to do. Cordelia and Wesley hold a slumber party of the most morbid kind, holding their boss captive to ensure that he doesn't somehow break free to commit any suspicious murders. It's a successful bid as Angel doesn't escape from his bonds – well at least until he supposedly confesses to the latest killing.

But as usual in Angel, nothing is quite what it seems. Angel is responsible – but in an indirect way, given that we see a flashback to Angel standing over his latest protege, a young chap called Penn. Like his sire, Penn's period accent and wig aren't much cop – the only downer about these flashback scenes is that the combination of bad wig and accent drag down the impact of this intriguing history time-frame unfolding before the viewer's eyes. It's an inspired move to introduce the flashbacks though. It's the first time this series that this trick has been used – following on from the Buffy examples of Becoming and Amends. The problem with talking about Angel being evil is that you need proof to back it up, so the decision to show Angelus' monstrous crimes was definitely the right one.

Penn showing up at this point isn't great timing for Angel. Slowly coming to terms with Doyle's untimely end, he's faced with first hand evidence of the monster he used to be. He may not be directly responsible for the murders, but he's created the man who was. Spike aside, so far this season, the baddies have been villains of their own making, but Penn's a product of Angelus' evil reign of terror. You can tell by the fact that Penn uses as much hair gel as his sire.

Unlike his sire though, Penn isn't too bothered about that soul thang. He's too busy embarking on a modern day crime spree. What's curious is that Penn seems desperate to impress and get back at his old sire. He's aghast to learn that Angel has a soul during his first reunion – in the aftermath of a bungled kill of a teen stoner who actually says “Hey. Dude.” Teen speak was never really telly's strong point.

Penn obviously sees himself as a bit of an artist when it comes to this vampire lark. He regards himself as a bold innovator in the art form of blood draining – although Angel rightly dismisses this as hackery of the lowest order. Penn even uses the old ploy of using a worst case scenario decoy of targeting a school when in fact his target is the LA police force, and in particular, Kate Lockley. If you ever thought that Kate was a whiny, judgemental grumpyboots at any point so far this season, well – in the words of Bachman Turner Overdrive, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

Somnambulist is the episode in which Kate finds out that Angel is a vampire, and she's not overly impressed, to put it mildly. Kate's problem is that she only sees things in black and white as opposed to the real life frequency of that murky shade of grey. She'd make a rubbish police inspector on Midsomer Murders, for example. She'd arrest the first posh lunkhead that she claps eyes on when in fact it was the sweet and dotty old biddy who crushed the vicar to death with a giant home-made pork pie. The story would be over before the first commercial break.

From now on, relations will be strained between Angel and Kate. For all his current do-gooding, Kate can't see beyond the line of Angel's past victims begging and pleading for mercy. The whole fantasy element doesn't enter into the everyday hurly burly equation for Kate – even though she grudgingly misses Angel's heart while fatally staking Penn at the same time, it's clear that the two won't be meeting up for a drink any time soon.

Following on from the previous established trio, it's also clear that there's a new dynamic with the arrival of Wesley. He may still be a foppish, bumbling presence, but he's still not as trusting of his boss as Doyle. Cordelia in return, is not too happy with Wesley's initial dismissal of her boss and her friend – although in typical Cordy fashion, as soon as Angel 'admits' to his crime, she advocates cutting his head off or staking him.

Despite this though, it's clear that Angel and Cordy at this point have a greater mutual respect and trust for each other. It's well signposted in the closing coda on the roof: “You’re not him, Angel,” says Cordy. “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... People really do change.”

As a story that launches Angel on its subtly new course, Somnambulist works well. Tim Minear's script is crisp and well written. It offers a stack of good material for the regulars – such as Angel's tortured dilemma of an unwelcome blast from the past, Cordy's growing trust of her boss and Wesley slowly but surely becoming a part of the team. Even whiny Kate is well characterised – much as I dislike her relentless sour-faced grumpiness, I can understand where she's coming from. Angel's past is something that she can't comprehend because it doesn't fit with her version of her world. Penn is also a memorable and chilling foe and is brought to life (if you'll pardon the expression) by popular actor Jeremy Renner.

The direction from Winrich Kolbe is perfectly in tune with the show's stylish horror feel. The flashbacks are filmed with a gruesome period feel, there's plenty of great action shots (including the climatic staking of Penn) and clever cross fades and visual tricks (including the negative close-up freezes of Penn's victims).

Somnambulist is a complete success and after the transitional episode of Parting Gifts, takes the show into a new direction with strong results. Although Kate may be on the other side of the good fight at Angel Investigations, the new team are gradually shaping up to be a formidable force. A visual and intelligent triumph, Somnambulist is one of the most compelling episodes of Angel's first season.