At the end of the second season of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," when Buffy skilled Angel, the series reached its operatic height. The climax was the culmination of everything that had been set up and provided a level of pathos rarely seen in network television. During the third season of "Angel," the counterpart to "BtVS" reached its height in a moment that was stunningly surprising. But then the story arcs that dominated this third season were totally surprising.
Season two of "Angel" had ended with the gang returning from Pylea only to learn from Willow that Buffy is dead (How good is Alyson Hannigan? She just looks at Angel, never says a word, and it is clear what has happened). Season three starts with Angel still in a bad mood after a long summer of mourning Buffy, but then three significant threads are revealed. The first is a prophecy in the Nyazian scrolls, that predicts a being or an event that will bring about the end of time. The second is the arrival of an immensely pregnant Darla (Julie Benz), who informs Angel that he is the father. The third is the arrival of Holtz, a mortal enemy of Angelus and Darla, who has been brought from the past by the demon Sahjhan to kill them both.
Of course, these threads all collide, and this is only the story arc that dominates the first third of the season. Darla's pregnancy derails any romantic entanglement between Angel and Cordelia, the evidence of the one night stand with Darla adding insult to the injury of the gypsy's curse. Then there are the complications of the pregnancy, which should have been impossible given mommy and daddy are dead vampires, because it turns out the baby has a soul and that Darla cannot deliver naturally (as if that has meaning at this point).
This sets up the aforementioned great moment in "Lullaby" when Darla gives birth in the rain in the alley behind Caritas. How great was this moment? I basically told everybody I knew about what happened--we are talking people who never watched the show and had no interest in ever watching it--and they were all impressed by the power of the moment. What impressed me the most was the performance during this season by Julie Benz. When you consider how little there was to Darla during the first season of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," the change in the character is impressive, but then on "Angel" that is par for the course: witness the transformations of Coredlia Chase and Wesley Wyndham-Pryce. But I still think there was something special about the totally captivating performance by Benz.
The Darla plot thread is replaced in the rest of the season by the Connor plot thread, as Angel has to learn how to be a single parent to a baby boy. Holtz is still in pursuit, gathering his own collection of warriors to go up against Angel and his gang, and getting ever closer. But the key development turns out to be the prophecy in the Nyazian scrolls, which is finally translated by Wesley. The former Watcher discovers that the prophecy says that Angel is going to kill his own son, and with Wolfram & Hart spiking Angel's blood supply with blood from Connor so that the baby starts smelling like food to him, Wesley has to take things into his own hands and in "Sleep Tight" we have what you would have thought was a great season finale, but there are still six episodes to go.
The final story arc has Angel dealing with the loss of Connor and then the surprise when his son returns, but not as a teenage demon fighter. However, having spent years in a demon dimension being taught to hate Angelus by Holtz, this is not a happy reunion and it is payback time in "Tomorrow." You look back at this third season and it is pretty impressive how much happened in these twenty-two episodes. One of the reasons this season was so strong was that there was so much going on in terms of the show's subplots. Having brought Fred back from Pylea, she develops an early crush on Angel only to become involved in a love triangle with Wesley and Gunn. Then there is Lilah Morgan (Stephanie Romanov), who comes into her own at Wolfram & Hart now that she is no longer in Lindsey McDonald's shadow (e.g., "Billy").
The make it or break it part of this season is the return of Connor all grown up. I have to admit that I understand the grain of salt with which it needs to be taken with regards to how long can Angel take care of a baby? Rachel has a baby on "Friends" and you can see how often anybody even remembers to talk about Emma. So from a writing standpoint I think this a good move, as understandable as when Pam woke up and found Bobby alive in the shower on "Dallas" (it was the easiest way of getting things back the way they were). Besides, Josh Whedon, Tim Minear and the rest of the writing staff were just pouring things on fast and furious by that point. The only part that I had trouble with was Cordelia's ascension as a higher being.
The extras are getting better on these DVD sets. There is the expected commentary on "Lullaby," as well as on "Billy" and "Waiting in the Wings." There are a few deleted scenes, outtakes, and screen tests for the new kids on the block, Amy Acker and Vincent Kartheiser. But the chief extra features are the featurettes, which include a "Season 3 Overview," a piece on "Page to Screen," and, my obvious favorite, a celebration of Julie Benz's performance in "Darla: Deliver Us from Evil."