After a disaster of an “event episode” and a mediocre return to a more character-based approach, the writers returned to what might be considered one of the original plot threads of the first season: the evolution of Kate’s relationship with Angel. Up to this point, of course, it looked like Angel and Kate were headed for a tentative love connection. Kate’s discovery of Angel’s true nature got in the way of all that, but from there, the path forward was less obvious.
The previous episode focused on a message regarding fathers and the effect they can have on their children. Wesley was the kind of young man who could never measure up to the lofty expectations of his father, and indeed, there were more than a few hints of psychological abuse. Wesley is still in the process of dealing with the fact that finding his own place in the world means ignoring his father’s wishes.
As it turns out, Angel has more than a little in common with Wesley, which could and perhaps should have been used to give their partnership additional resonance. Angel’s father terrorized him in a similar yet oddly opposite fashion: he had expectations, but assumed that Angel could never meet them, to the point that failure became the expectation. As a result, Angel never had a sense of self-worth or accomplishment, something that fed into his demonic side when he became Angelus.
Kate also has “daddy issues”. Her father felt that an emotional connection between father and daughter would represent weakness. Much of the reason behind that damaging psychology was outlined in “Sense and Sensitivity”. But Kate continues to strive for her father’s acceptance, even to the point of extremes. The underlying message of the episode is that such fathers maintain power over their children long after they are dead and gone.
In “Somnambulist”, Kate discovered that there’s demonic activity in the world. Her initial reaction was very professional, and while she seemed stunned, she also seemed ready to deal with the new reality. Time, it appears, has allowed doubt to creep in. Now she’s not dealing with it so much as trying to return to that sense of blissful ignorance. Angel’s not sure how to deal with that, but he’s been around enough to know that Kate could get herself killed if she keeps putting reality at arms’ length.
Of course, earlier in the season, Kate might have entertained some interest in Angel. He was already a part of her world. Even if she can turn a blind eye to the demons all around her, she can’t dismiss the fact that Angel isn’t just a dark and brooding private investigator. His nature is all too real for her, and she’s terrified to allow him to remain so far within her defenses.
With so much emphasis on Angel’s past and Kate’s present, there’s not much else for the rest of the cast to do. Wesley plays a critical role to keep the plot moving forward, but Cordy is more or less window-dressing. In some respects, this keeps the episode from hitting all cylinders, since some of the later seasons meshed a larger ensemble cast in far better fashion. But the scenes that do include Cordy feel contrived as it is, so perhaps more would have been equally painful.
One very interesting discussion between Kate and Angel picks up on one of the more intriguing questions regarding the Buffyverse. Initially, all demons were soulless and evil creatures, the original denizens of the Earth before the Slayer drove them out. But since that point, coming into “Angel”, there were hints of demons with a more neutral, even non-aggressive way of life. This would continue to be explored in the future, but in this case, it becomes a benchmark for Kate’s psychological state. Angel tries to get her to understand that not every demon is evil; Kate, however, needs to see things in black and white at this point.
Angel’s decision to meddle when it comes to Trevor Lockley’s activities, however justified by the circumstances, is something that comes back to haunt him. He does it, it seems, out of consideration for Kate’s feelings. It might have been better if he had given her some information that would let her verify his discovery independently. By going behind her back, it gives Kate reason to think Angel can’t be trusted, which is not his intention.
It’s also hard to imagine how Trevor would miss the rather obvious fact that his associates are conducting illegal activities. Does he really believe that something a little illegal is any better for a former law enforcement officer than something completely illegal? Trevor’s motivations are hard to pin down, and they seem designed simply to ensure that his life will be forfeit in the worst possible scenario for Angel and Kate.
Kate’s peace gesture becomes the impetus for Angel’s attempt to protect Trevor from himself, all in the name of trying to protect Kate from being hurt. Of course, when the time comes, Trevor’s choices deliver consequences before Angel can do anything but watch it happen. He seems to forget, in the interests of taking revenge, that he called Kate and tried to get her to warn her father. In the end, however, the whole situation is designed to make it look like Angel stood by and watched her father be murdered.
That’s not at all consistent with the fact that Kate armed herself with very specific information in “Somnambulist”; she would know that Angel has to be invited in, regardless of the circumstances. So Kate’s anger towards Angel is really a way of transferring her own sense of blame onto Angel’s shoulders. Kate blames herself, on some level, because she had been trying to ignore the reality of demons. Angel is the one that opened her eyes to that, and so all that self-loathing is given direction.
This does, however, give Kate a direction that isn’t contrary to the expectations of the fans, who were still hoping for an Angel/Buffy reconciliation. That would be crushed to pieces soon enough, but in the meantime, the audience got a good look at what might have been, had the Slayer been less in love with the vampire with a soul. Kate makes a nice enough Slayer stand-in, despite the inexperience, and that parting shot to Angel is just vicious.
The theme of the episode, however, is one of tragedy. Angel and Kate are both left without closure, though of course, Angel’s situation is far more damaging in the long run. Kate wasn’t directly responsible for her father’s death, but Angelus definitely murdered his entire family with a smile and a few witty remarks. Angelus thought he was defeating his father, but as Darla points out, he was delivering final victory to Liam’s da without a second thought.
This brings up an intriguing side to the whole “vampire” concept in the Buffyverse. According to the Watchers, vampires utterly replace the human with a demonic personality, thus eliminating the human entirely. The mechanism of Angel’s curse made that unlikely, and as time marched on, more details emerged. In this episode, Darla puts into words what the totality of the Buffyverse continuity clearly indicates: the demon within a vampire is essentially an invading parasitic entity that comes in, locks onto a person’s psychological obsessions, and heightens them to a massively damaging and violent degree.
In terms of Angelus, it’s rather complicated. This episode establishes that at least part of Angelus and his deviousness originated with the heightened obsession over living up (or down) to the expectations of Liam’s father. Thus Angelus has an appetite for elaborate destruction, even to the point of self-destructive madness, as per the second season of “Buffy”. Angelus prefers to torture his victims psychologically, and this episode suggests that his methodology is based in the complicated and bitter mental anguish of Angel’s youth.
This blurs the fine line between the human and demon within a vampire. Most vampires are ruled completely by the demonic persona; indeed, they become the cannon fodder of nearly every “Buffy” teaser sequence. But there seems to be a significant population within the vampire horde that operates on a more substantial level. Spike is ruled by obsessive love (thanks to mommy issues), Angelus is ruled by a need to display the full depth of his cleverness, Drusilla is ruled by her visions and accentuated madness, and so on. The real question is Darla and her motivations, which are explored in more detail later in the series.
Speaking of Darla, it’s no mistake that the audience was reminded of her role in Angel’s past. By this point, the writers were beginning to see where the series should be going, at least in terms of the second season. One could even assume that the first season itself was seen as something of a loss, given all the outside pressures; the focus was on establishing new characters, clarifying the situation with Kate and later Wolfram and Hart, and then getting the series to the point where a story arc could be firmly established for the second season. Showing Darla in all her glory (and incredibly tight period attire) was a good first step, though hearing David’s version of an Irish accent is hardly a treat.
Thus this episode marks a turning point for the first season. The rest of the season would have serious highs and lows, and the apparent theme of the series would be lost in the shuffle. It’s not so much that the effort was no longer being made to make the first season meaningful, but when one looks back on the series as a whole, the first season serves as an extending opening chapter to a much more interesting tale to follow.
“The Prodigal” is one of the season’s better episodes, because it defies expectation by setting Angel and Kate against one another. At this point, there was still an attempt to make Kate and the more darkly rendered “real world” concept for the series work. But the seeds for the more epic, mythological aspect of the series had already been established in “I Will Remember You”. Kate never fit into that side of the story, and so while this episode sends Kate in an interesting and more complex direction, it was closer to a holding action than a strong step forward.