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original air-date: 02-11-04

When Angel was first introduced as a character, all that anybody really cared about was telling a good story. Back in the fledgling days of the WB, Joss Whedon and his writers hoped to make it through twelve episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and let it go at that. But a funny thing happens once a show gets successful. It develops continuity. And with continuity comes baggage.

Flash forward eight years, and it's kind of a mess. The whole explanation for vampirism has gotten hazy - initially they were demons, but more and more often they seem to be just the worst side of their original human personalities. Even the process of siring them wavers depending on a story's needs.

Then there's the lead vampire himself.

Had Angel remained just a supporting character, it would have been okay that he had spent several decades brooding, moping, and generally bemoaning his sins. But as its own premise, it cuts out a lot of potential, and slowly, the writers have been finding "exceptions" to his long exile from humanity.

Most of these have been presented as failures in Angel's past, where he tried to do the right thing and somehow, something still went awry. Because he has to feel guilty, the past always comes back to haunt him.

Not only did this seem like a hackneyed way to get to the action of "1943" (set, naturally, in 1943), even the writers, Drew Goddard and Steven S. DeKnight, seemed to know it. Scenes set in the present played out rather perfunctorily, leading one to wonder why they didn't just throw in the towel and do an entire episode set in the past. Because there, continuity hounds, some cool stuff happened.

Ah, yes, you say, it has to somehow tie into the overall storyline, or at least deliver on a theme behind the season. So a majority of the Fang Gang has to be immediately put in peril - two captures are shown, and poor Gunn, who probably had the best fight, has it completely offscreen.

Their captor? A clean-cut young navy man, Ensign Lawson, claiming to be an old friend of Angel's. Since he hasn't aged a day since 1943, we know that something supernatural must be afoot. (There's also the clue in the opening tag - Lawson dragging his submarine commander away from something that has ripped his throat open. You only have one shot at guessing what it is.)

To make it plausible that the brooding Angel would have joined the war effort, the writers present us with the beginnings of The Initiative. It's a nice touch to see the embryonic stage of the governmental agency, and a reminder of the depth of this mythos that we can go years without hearing about it. Lawson's crew has captured a Nazi submarine, but obviously, something has killed most of the crew, Axis and Allies. Uncle Sam needs Angel to weigh himself down to the ocean floor and see if he can complete the mission.

Once onboard, he encounters a swastika-clad Spike. "You're a Nazi?" Angel asks incredulously. "Nah," a black-haired William the Bloody replies, "just ate one."

Spike isn't alone. It seems the Germans have been gathering vampires, hoping to dissect them and somehow duplicate their powers for a super-army. Though Lawson expresses contempt for the plan, Spike quickly realizes that the U.S. wants to try the same thing if they can. (See Buffy's season four villain, Adam.)

With a couple of cool concepts swirling around, the episode still falls a little flat. Once we realize it's just vampires - wow, when did they become so mundane? - there's not a lot of tension onboard. Angel manages to keep Spike and "The Prince of Lies" in control fairly easily. The usual submarine story conflicts arise - call it The Hunt for Blood Red October. And then come the continuity issues.

Spike seems unaware that Angel has a soul, and takes him at face value as his old running mate. Darla never mentioned why Angelus wasn't hanging around with them anymore?

It serves the purpose of the plot, but not the big picture. To be fair, Spike also doesn't seem very different from the way he is in the present, perhaps a sop to those who have come late to the party and see him as a heartthrob. But there isn't even an attempt to have either character use the slang of the day. If there weren't Nazis involved (and only superficially), you would have no idea this was set in the past.

You would know, however, that it's set in the Marvel Universe, as one sailor calls Angel a super-soldier, "…like Captain America or Steve Rogers." He's quickly corrected by his buddy that the two are one and the same. Sure, they could be talking comic books, but remember that Willow was taught to control her witchcraft by the Fantastic Four's governess. Clearly, Whedon would be happy to throw his whole universe in to Joe Quesada's playpen.

But I digress. Back in Sunnydale, it seemed like anybody sucked dry by a vampire automatically became one. But with this episode (and if memory serves, not for the first time on Angel), it's a much more involved process. Lawson's inevitable transformation may come as no surprise, but guest star Eyal Podell fails to play the emotional conflict up.

Sure, in 1943 there's no time for it anyway, but the only way for the framing sequence to work is to see his internal struggle, which the dialogue hints is constant. We're supposed to come away understanding the difference between a regular vampire siring and one involving a soul. But only because Angel says so.

In the end, it's all just a convenience to kill time with an episode. Why Lawson has chosen this time to return never becomes clear. If he has plotted revenge all along, then why has he checked up on Angel every ten years or so and done nothing? Every vampire in the country supposedly came to L.A. last year to worship Jasmine, but Lawson must have had a hair appointment or something.

He sought purpose. At least, that's Angel's terse analysis. But so do we. In that regard, "1943" comes up short. Take heart, however, because next week Angel will get transformed into a pissed-off muppet, and I can hardly wait.

Derek McCaw

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