The second season of Angel is a bit of a mixed bag, but in it, the show begins to find its form outside of its origins as a Buffy spinoff. In the first season, Angel was still indebted to its parent enough that its most memorable episodes and most of its characters came from Buffy. In Season Two, the crossovers are rarer, and Buffy herself doesn't appear at all. Angel has its own story now, for better or worse.
The season also marks a departure from the Buffy form of "Big Bad," single-season based storytelling. Several different stories weave in and out of the season, with varying degrees of resolution. At times, it's almost a straight-up serial with very little of the Monster-of-the-Week storylines which drove the first season.
The first few episodes are marked by Angel's lethargy, as the newly resurrected Darla and Wolfram & Hart begin fiddling with his sleep schedule. He's able to go through the motions, but his mind, and often body, and elsewhere. When Darla finally makes her physical appearance, Angel becomes obsessed. It is somewhat frustrating in that the audience knows who's behind Angel's dreams of Darla and why, but he doesn't know for several episodes. The frustration, of course, is thanks to the inherent drama of the reappearance of Angel's sire and the knowledge of their inevitable confrontation, delayed until the fifth episode.
The confrontation is somewhat cathartic, but leads to Angel's Darla-obsession coming to the fore, further alienating his co-workers. The rest of the Angel cast is increasing in both complexity and charm through the second season. The addition of the vampire-fighting gang leader Gunn to the crew is an especially good touch, as he adds a good mix of comedy and drama. Wesley's character continues his improvement, particularly in the episode "Guise Will Be Guise" in which he impersonates Angel. Later developments cement him as a leader as well as simply an expert in demonology.
However, it is Cordelia who steadily becomes the show's strongest character. By the end of the season I was about ready to declare her the best character of the Buffyverse. Her transition from Homecoming Queen Bitch to a powerful character in her own right has been almost seamless, especially once she switched from Buffy to Angel. I've always liked the dynamic that Cordelia brings to the shows, but now she's becoming likable as well, without sacrificing the humor she began with.
Angel's confrontation with Darla and the law firm lead to some of the season's strongest moments. He fights Darla, as well as attempting to turn her to good, as Wolfram & Hart continue hoping to push him to evil through her. Angel's quest comes to a peak in the ninth episode, "The Trial," in which he finally through stubbornness and heroism manages to convince Darla to accept her mortality. Naturally, this is almost immediately followed by the shocking re-emergence of Drusilla, who turns Darla to a vampire again as Angel is forced to watch, helpless.
The entire season so far built to that point, and the remainder seemed to stumble, unsure of where it was going. Angel becomes obsessed with revenge against Drusilla and Darla, turning dark - if not evil - and firing Gunn, Cordelia, and Wesley. In theory, this is a brilliant twist. In practice, it's awkward, forcing Angel to go all dark and the rest to turn almost entirely comic. Occasionally it works, like when Angel smokes a cigarette and then uses it to torch Darla and Drusilla, or when Wesley solves a crime a la Cluedo. But generally it's awkward (especially when Angel resorts to clumsy narration in lieu of talking to people), and a relief when Angel gets out of his funk and the gang gets back together.
Like its sibling, Buffy's Season Five, Angel improves in quality in its last third. In its best episode, "Dead End," the primary antagonist at Wolfram & Hard, Lindsay, receives a replacement hand for the one he lost in the first season finale. Lindsay quickly comes to realize the hand is evil and has a will of its own. This tips him over the edge, finally causing a break with Wolfram & Hart, but not before leaving in a blaze of glory - slapping Lilah's ass, shooting a security guard in the foot, threatening a board room, and explaining it all away with a gleeful declaration of "Evil hand!"
Towards the end of the season, the show breaks from formula and veers into a completely different direction, offering a four-part serialized string of episodes in a demonic dimension, more akin to a fantasy movie than the L.A. setting of the show. It's a quality run of episodes, with each character's development being highlighted: Cordelia's vanity is tempered by responsibility; Angel's heroism always threatened by the monster within; Wesley's leadership role forces him to make hard decisions with clarity; and Gunn tries to do the right thing while being pulled in multiple directions. Lorne, an empathic demon with a musical soul, who had been in and out of the series all season finally starts being treated like one of the main group, and the crew also rescues Fred, a mentally damaged supergenius played by the gorgeous Amy Acker, who officially joins the cast soon after.
It's a solid, if unspectacular, finish to a season with plenty of ups and downs. The second season of Angel doesn't quite put it on a level with Buffy the Vampire Slayer just yet, but much more than the first season, it says that it's possible.