After a long first season with a general lack of direction, the writers had to take stock of what was working and consider how the series could be revised towards a more serial format. While growing apart from Buffy and getting more comfortable with his redemptive mission were very important, the series wasn’t quite hitting all cylinders without the familiar arc structure that had dominated “Buffy”.
In particular, the writers began to focus on the idea of Angel as the “apocalyptic warrior”. Expanding the cast was important to that goal, because Angel’s actions had to be seen from an outside perspective in the second season. Wesley and Cordelia had already demonstrated an ability to rationalize Angel’s choices. Adding someone completely unrelated to Angel’s past was an important step, especially in the post-Doyle days.
“Prodigal” had taken Kate’s involvement in Angel’s life in a completely new direction. In essence, his ability to use law enforcement contacts as a means of information retrieval disappeared in short order. Angel was forced further into the shadows. Yet he still needed to find a connection with real people. A close look at the series after the first season makes it clear that Angel has a wealth of blind spots that make him psychologically vulnerable.
“Five by Five” and “Sanctuary” also made it clear that Angel believes that he’s on the right track. He wants to believe that, because among other things, it makes Doyle’s sacrifice more meaningful. Giving Faith a chance at redemption, even at the risk to his own existence, was a way to tie up the larger themes of the first season.
But in the wake of “Sanctuary”, the writers had to focus on the more obvious task of preparing for the second season arc, which meant setting up the new characters and solidifying the antagonism between Angel and Wolfram and Hart. The Faith situation was the first step in the latter process; this episode introduces two of the three characters that were meant to enliven the second season.
Perhaps as a means of drumming up confidence and interest in the series during its critical growth phase (the series was still struggling to find its identity, after all), the producers were more than happy to trot out the new characters in the same manner that they praised Bai Ling and made her seem like a solid new addition to the cast. As it turns out, between David Nabbit and Charles Gunn, only one would ultimately be viable.
David was meant to be a source of financial and technical support, if memory serves. It’s actually hard to be sure, because his character and his role never truly materialized as more than a momentary solution to larger problems. In retrospect, his role in the episode is a bit intrusive, given his later lack of involvement. But it does serve to place Angel in the right place at the right time to meet Charles Gunn.
Gunn is a character that had equal potential for a quick exit, but the character fulfills a very important role: someone completely non-privileged with no connections at all to Angel and his past. In other words, someone with plenty of incentive to keep an eye on Angel. Such a character is more likely to view Angel and his allies with an objective point of view, at least initially, and as the progression of the series would demonstrate, change in that perspective can also be compelling.
For that to be true, such a character needs to come at Angel from a position of strength. Spending so much time on Gunn and his world provides the necessary background. Gunn is also given a set of flaws, very important in the interests of keeping him grounded. Gunn lives with an amazing amount of fatalism, and he has just lost the one good thing left in his life. He has a death wish, something that changes as he finds hope as the season unfold. But for now, he is also someone in search of something to believe in, which makes him the perfect companion in Angel’s journey.
Beyond the introduction of Charles Gunn, this episode is also notable for showing Wesley in a more confident position. Wesley changes after his experience with Faith, and while he never completely loses the awkward side of his nature, competency does finally arrive. In this case, he has a certain droll response to Cordy’s sarcasm that wasn’t present in quite the same degree in previous episodes.
In fact, having faced down the temptation of doing what he was told to get some vague sense of reward in “Sanctuary”, Wesley has taken ownership of his alliance with Angel. The arrangement is no longer a temporary means of survival or self-confidence; Wesley made the choice to stick with Angel and be a true member of the team. As later seasons would demonstrate, Wesley’s sense of responsibility would make him a flawed leader at best, bringing out his dark side when his efforts aren’t so appreciated.
Cordelia also shows signs of personal growth. Faced with David and the chance to be some rich man’s toy, she does little more than wistfully entertain the notion. She’s not nearly as serious as she would have been in “City Of…” or the episodes immediately thereafter. In terms of a character arc, it carries forward the process that the pain of the visions would ultimately complete: conversion of Cordy from self-centered to selfless.
If there is one weakness in this episode, it’s Alonna. Not the concept of the character, since it is a simple way to get Gunn into the right psychological space, but the actress who plays the character. It’s never a good thing when the supporting character, slated to die by the end of the episode, actually acts as if they don’t have plans to be around. Alonna wasn’t very convincing in terms of communicating her own tragedy, and that was a slight miscue.
But in terms of setting the stage for the second season, this is an important part of the process. Gunn would be an important character right until the end of the series (and beyond, in fact), and Wesley’s increased confidence is another step in a direction that makes the character far more interesting in later seasons. While this forces Angel into the background to a certain extent, the effect is minimal and the episode succeeds in its appointed task.