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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Angel

[Updated April 29, 2013]

Angel is the first of many “payoff” episodes. By “payoff” I mean that themes and plot points have been introduced in previous episodes and we now can understand that these were building up to what happens here. There’s a lot to discuss.


I’ll start with the first major twist we’ll see in the series, namely the reveal that Angel is a vampire. The opening scene of the show involved a minor plot twist, letting us know that the show would feature them, but this is the first (though hardly the last) major one. Here, Angel’s past as a vampire ties the story back to Darla, the very first voice we heard in WTTH and the key to that first minor twist. It can’t be much of a surprise that Angel and Darla had a relationship as vampires – Angel clearly has a “type” and Buffy and Darla both fit. Darla’s choice of a schoolgirl outfit is even more disturbing when you think about the implications.
What does it mean to be a vampire, not as metaphor but within the story line? Angel tells us the distinction: it’s the difference between having a soul and not. Joss explained later that he saw the soul as a conscience, that is, something which would enable the possessor to choose right from wrong. It’s not that souled individuals necessarily choose well – very often in this show they won’t – but that they are able to make a choice. An unsouled creature simply can’t distinguish between right and wrong, so will be much more likely to make a selfish or wrong choice.
Buffy fans call this the “soul canon”, and it’s one of the most contentious issues in all of fandom. I’m not going to try to explain it in any more detail here because it’s going to come up multiple times in the future. What I can do here is talk about the way the issue has been treated so far.
As I mentioned in discussing The Pack, it makes sense to see the “demonic possession” as building on the “dark side” of the “infected” (Giles’ term) person. As Giles phrases it here, a vampire “may have the movements, the, the memories, even the personality of the person that it took over…”. That’s why Xander could predict that Jesse would go to the Bronze in The Harvest and why HyenaXander was obsessed with Buffy.
I should add that Xander’s “infection” was “treated” quickly, but a vampire’s is permanent except, we learn here, in the unique case of Angel. For this reason, it makes sense for Buffy to slay vampires but to have tried the “reverse trans-possession” for Xander and the others. Xander’s possession in The Pack thus sets up the idea that Angel’s situation might be seen in a somewhat similar way – the gypsy curse can be seen as a “reverse trans-possession”. Angel’s soul was restored, just as Xander’s self-control was restored.
Then again, in Xander’s case the demon is gone, while in Angel’s case the demon remains but is controlled by his soul. Does that mean Xander’s “better” in some way? Well, maybe. If what the demon did in The Pack was release Xander’s subconscious dark side, then those dark aspects are always part of him. In that sense, Angel’s demon, now under the control of his restored soul, seems very similar. The Pack prepared us to think about this issue and how we should react to Angel.
In comments, anonymous pointed out another important factor: “There is another difference between removing the possession of Xander and killing vampires. When the hyena is removed from Xander, he returns to his old normal self, no super enhanced animal like powers. However, even when a vampire has his/her soul returned they retain all of their vampire-fueled abilities, super speed and strength (and those martial arts move they all seem to know), so even with a soul you have someone with enhanced super human abilities and no way of knowing if they will use those abilities for good or evil. Thus there is an inherent difference and a danger to allowing vampires to live (with some exceptions) while the same cannot be said for a de-possessed human.” 

Teacher’s Pet also now has direct relevance to the Buffy/Angel (“Bangel” for those new to the show) relationship. Buffy was concerned about her sexuality precisely because she felt an attraction for Angel which she makes express here: “that whole fantasy part has nothing to even do with you at all...” And then she kisses him, only to have Angel lose control of his emotions and vamp out. This is not to say that Buffy’s sexuality is the only one on parade here. Angel clearly has been seducing her – his flirtation at the end of Teacher’s Pet, especially the look on his face, makes that clear. But like all relationships, both parties have to deal with their subconscious issues, and Teacher’s Pet showed us Buffy’s. More on Angel’s below.
In short, the episodes Teacher’s Pet and The Pack were building a storyline in which we saw key elements prefigured, only to have a structurally similar issue arise in a very unexpected way here. This is very characteristic of the show. In fact, in every season the early episodes will introduce key elements of the season plot, but they’ll do it so subtly that you don’t even realize it, not even now that I’ve told you they’re doing it.
Angel hiding in the closet seems a pretty clear metaphor for his as-yet undisclosed vampirism. In the scene where Darla offers an unconscious Joyce to Angel, there is an addiction metaphor, which we see from Angel’s obvious temptation to “drink” and resistance; Darla pushing Angel to drink both literally and figuratively; and the “Just Say Yes” comment by Darla which references the Nancy Reagan anti-drug slogan.
These metaphors, I think, help explain why Angel vamps out when they kiss and when Darla offers Joyce to him in the kitchen. Angel is barely able to control his inner demon even with a soul; the demon side is constantly struggling with him for mastery and temptation makes his control much shakier.
Buffy’s sarcastic question to Angel about the curse – “what, they were all out of boils and blinding torment?” – raises the question whether the curse serves any real purpose. In my view, it does. Angel gives us the answer: he cares about what he did, i.e., he suffers remorse. Is that enough to justify calling it a curse? Let’s ask someone who wrote the book. Adam Smith, better known for writing The Wealth of Nations, wrote an earlier book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments in which he discussed remorse:

“The violator of the more sacred laws of justice can never reflect on the sentiments which mankind must entertain with regard to him, without seeing all the agonies of shame and horror, and consternation. When his passion is gratified, and he begins coolly to reflect on his past conduct, he can enter into none of the motives which influenced it. They appear now as detestable to him as they did always to other people.
By sympathizing with the hatred and abhorrence which other men must entertain for him, he becomes in some measure the object of his own hatred and abhorrence. The situation of the person who suffered by his injustice, now calls upon his pity. He is grieved at the thought of it; regrets the unhappy effects of his own conduct, and feels at the same time that they have rendered him the proper object of the resentment and indignation of mankind, and of what is the natural consequence of resentment, vengeance and punishment. The thought of this perpetually haunts him, and fills him with terror and amazement. He dares no longer look society in the face, but imagines himself as it were rejected, and thrown out from the affections of all mankind. He cannot hope for the consolation of sympathy in this his greatest and most dreadful distress. The remembrance of his crimes has shut out all fellow-feeling with him from the hearts of his fellow-creatures. The sentiments which they entertain with regard to him are the very thing which he is most afraid of.
Everything seems hostile, and he would be glad to fly to some inhospitable desert where he might never more behold the face of a human creature, nor read in the countenance of mankind the condemnation of his crimes. But solitude is still more dreadful than society. His own thoughts can present him with nothing but what is black, unfortunate, and disastrous, the melancholy forebodings of incomprehensible misery and ruin. The horror of solitude drives him back into society, and he comes again into the presence of mankind, astonished to appear before them, loaded with shame and distracted with fear, in order to supplicate some little protection from the countenance of those very judges, who he knows have already all unanimously condemned him.
Such is the nature of that sentiment, which is properly called remorse, of all the sentiments which can enter the human breast the most dreadful. It is made up of shame from the sense of the impropriety of past conduct; of grief for the effects of it; of pity for those who suffer by it; and of the dread and terror of punishment from the consciousness of the justly provoked resentment of all rational creatures.” [Slightly edited for readability.]

Yeah, true remorse is a real curse. It explains why Angel is so socially awkward, why he was stumped when Buffy asked him if he knew what friends were (The Harvest) and why, as Darla says, “for a hundred years [he’s] not had a moment's peace…”. I think it also explains why Angel was willing to let Buffy kill him. He knew he had nearly given in to temptation when Darla offered him Joyce (and think about the implications of that in the context of vampires and sex!), so he felt that he still deserved punishment.
I confess that I’m a complete sap for the ending of this episode. I think they just nailed the scene, and I can watch it over and over; I have Sophie Zelmani’s song on my mp3 player. That said, it’s worth asking if Buffy was right to walk away from Angel. She loves him, at least in a high school sophomore kind of way. But should she?
Willow and Xander give us both sides. Willow’s more than a bit of a romantic, which is understandable given her unrequited crush on Xander. “If you love someone, you love someone,” she says. Xander’s more pragmatic: “You’re in love with a vampire? What, are you outta your mind?” Of course, Xander has a pretty obvious conflict of interest on this subject.
Notwithstanding my general love for Willow and my view that Xander’s being a jealous jerk in telling Buffy that her duty is to slay Angel, there’s a lot to be said for Xander’s position. Angel may have a soul, but he’s still a vampire, as Darla demonstrated when she opened his refrigerator. He’s also much older than Buffy, as Joyce notes. Not just because he’s lived lots of vampire years, but because he was older at the age he became a vampire. It’s a good thing Angel was a “perfect gentleman” when he spent the night in Buffy’s room, because it would have been a felony in California if he hadn’t been.
Even Willow recognizes some of the problems: “it is kinda novel how he'll stay young and handsome forever, although you'll still get wrinkly and die, and... Oh, and what about the children?” This isn’t all, by any means: he hasn’t been honest with Buffy, not only when he denies following her, but particularly when he’s evasive about his parents and about whether he snores – he knows he doesn’t because vampires don’t breathe, not because nobody’s in a position to tell him.
As I see it, therefore, because she walked away at the end, Buffy is still on track for her destiny. She hasn’t let herself be diverted by love.
Trivia notes: (1) There were subtle clues in previous episodes that Angel was a vampire: he always appeared at night or indoors; he knew too much about the vampires; and most particularly, at the end of the The Harvest he said, “She did it. I’ll be damned!”. Yes he will. (2) As is so often the case, the school subject taught in the episode relates to the episode’s theme. Willow tutors Buffy about the Civil War, and there is a Civil War going on between Angel and his former “family”, including Darla. More directly, Angel himself is undergoing a “reconstruction” since he got his soul back. (3) Julie Benz, who plays Darla, auditioned for the role of Buffy. (4) Angel’s tattoo is a griffin, an animal which is part lion and part eagle, just as Angel is part vampire and part human. (5) Darla’s reference to “ruling in the Master’s court for a thousand years” is presumably a twisted reference to the Christian Millennium.

12 comments:

  1. There is another difference between removing the possession of Xander and killing vampires. When the hyena is removed from Xander, he returns to his old normal self, no super enhanced animal like powers. However, even when a vampire has his/her soul returned they retain all of their vampire-fueled abailities, super speed and strength (and those martial arts move they all seem to know)so even with a soul you ahve someone with enhanced super human abilities and no way of knowing if they will use those abilities for good or evil. Thus there is an inherent difference and a danger to allowing vampires to live (with some exceptions) while the same cannot be said for a depossessed human.

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  2. The stuff here on remorse is great, and I hope to come back and say a bit more (infant child at home!). But just wanted to say that this was the first episode that really "did it" for me, that indicated that BtVS was trying to do things that TV didn't normally attempt (a lot of it has to do with what you outline above re: good/bad and how just having a soul doesn't make you good). And no wonder you're a sucker for the final scene - nobody I've shown this to yet isn't. It's iconic and works on so many levels that I know 40-year-old men and 17-year-old girls and Americans and non-Americans alike who have been quite moved by it.

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  3. Thank you, love the blog!

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  4. mark - have you had that tune a long time? i did a search on itunes and amazon, and got nothing as an mp3. i did however find the album it's on, on sale for .34 (yes, you read that right... .34!) with $2.98 shipping it's a little pricey for 1 song, but i'm hoping i like other stuff on it too.
    and i'm such a sucker for that final scene. the outline of the cross on his chest still takes my breath away.

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  5. I've had it for years. In fact, I can't remember now where I got it. I'm pretty sure I just bought the CD and ripped it. I can't find it right now because all my CDs are in storage.

    34 cents sounds like a great deal, even with the shipping.

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  6. so . . . I'm back. I just wanted to say that what you've written about remorse and Angel is really intriguing.

    SPOILERS for later Buffy and . . . that other show.

    I was surprised to see on the AV Club that you're not really a fan of Angel (the show) (perhaps I misunderstood). You can definitely put me in the camp of one who prefers BtVS, and I can't imagine myself doing full - or even mostly full - rewatches of Angel like I have (and presumably will again) with Buffy. But the character of Angel is fascinating, what he goes through - both on Buffy and on his own show - and how his feelings of remorse affect both his actions and the audiences reaction to him.

    Just one example would be the SO2 Angelus-arc of Buffy. At first it's thrilling (that drag off the cigarette), then it's heartbreaking (his treatment of Buffy), and then it's truly horrifying and revolting (Passion). And yet the show has done such a good job of laying out Angel's situation of remorse (as well as elements of Buffy's love for him), that when he "awakens" in those final moments of S02, all that anger at him washes away BECAUSE we know how remorseful he'll be once he wakes up to what he's done. That's part of the power of Buffy's final decision with the sword. She knows it, too.

    Another example is the Connor arc from Angel. It's highly problematic in many ways, but the notion that after all he's gone through with Darla Angel is willing to take Connor and raise him to "prove" to himself that he's a "good person" - that all stems from his sense of remorse and his deep deep desire to make up for it. That's why Holtz's actions in S03's "Sleep Tight" and Angel's reaction to them are so heartbreaking. And much more . . .

    Sorry for the lengthy post . . . you got me thinking.

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  7. SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS FOR ALL FUTURE EPISODES

    You didn't misremember -- I'm not a fan of AtS. That doesn't mean I hate the show or anything (just Connor :)). It just means Angel's story doesn't move me like Buffy's does (and that I have some issues with other aspects of the show).

    I've thought a lot about why this is, and I think it's my view of the soul canon which is the sticking point. This is getting far ahead of the story, and I wasn't going to address this until Amends. I started to do it here, got half way through, and realized I really need to lay it all out in order to be clear. So if you can wait that long, I promise to explain in detail.

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  8. Some Spoilers

    Angel's story doesn't move me as much as Buffy's, either, although I find elements of it very fascinating (I love most of the Darla story, including the non-Angelus dark Angel).

    Looking forward to the Amends post.

    Cheers.

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  9. SPOILERS

    I agree with you on the Darla arc. IMO, it's the best part of AtS until S5.

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  10. SPOILERS, sort of...

    I third the Darla arc love.

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  11. This show talks a lot about right vs wrong or good vs evil, but I prefer what you sort of touched upon: selfless vs selfish. A soul, or conscience, gives a being the capacity to work in service of others instead of merely one's own self-interests. I appreciate how the show presents this dichotomy (or continuum, really) with increasingly better finesse as it goes on.

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