Follow by Email

Thursday, March 15, 2012


[Updated April 30, 2013]

This is a long post. I’m going to deal first with some very important features of Amends before I discuss the issue which I’ve been saving for this episode, namely Angel’s culpability, if any, for the actions of Angelus. I’m covering a lot here and I hope I haven’t tried to do too much.

I mentioned in my post on Lie to Me that Joss describes himself as an absurdist in philosophy and talked about the way existentialism influenced the story lines. For purposes of that episode I didn’t need to make any distinction between absurdism and existentialism, but now I do. The reason is that Amends raises a question which absurdists believe is fundamental: why shouldn’t one commit suicide?
This may seem like an odd question, so let me explain how they (specifically, Albert Camus) get there. Camus starts with the proposition, which he shares in common with Jean Paul Sartre, that there is no inherent meaning in life. The universe is meaningless, therefore the human search for meaning in the universe is what Camus calls “absurd”. What he means by this is that it’s humanly impossible to find any meaning, such that the search itself is pointless: “it is absurd to continually seek meaning in life when there is none.” (Quote from link.)
Camus’s discussion of the absurd in his most famous work, The Myth of Sisyphus (see below), begins “with an implicit reference to Sartre's novel, Nausea” (Id.). That was the novel in which Sartre explained the inherent meaninglessness of the uncaring world. In Lover’s Walk we saw Angel reading that novel, the novel Joss described as the most important book he ever read. In my view, this was no accident – it was the implicit reference which began the discussion of the issues raised by Camus. Let’s see how this plays out in the subsequent episodes.
The next episode after Lovers Walk was The Wish. It presented us with a stark picture of a meaningless, uncaring world. That’s the world the absurdist sees. Recognizing the absurdity of the world triggers the existentialist crisis, which Angel articulated to Giles here in Amends: “I need to know why I'm here.”
Given this crisis, that is, the recognition that the world is absurd, Camus identified 3 possible ways to react in the face of absurdity (see here). One possible solution was that proposed by the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who is sometimes called the founder of existentialism. Kierkegaard was a devout Christian who argued that in the face of the absurdity of the world the path to one’s true self required a “leap of faith”.
“A leap of faith, in its most commonly used meaning, is the act of believing in or accepting something intangible or unprovable, or without empirical evidence.” (Quote from link.) In essence, the idea is that you escape the bleakness of the world as it appears to be by an act of faith, even though such faith appears to be irrational. Faith “imagine[s] and live[s] for a life beyond this life.” (Quote from Camus link, above.) Faith reveals to those who have it that the apparent harshness of the world is merely an illusion. Escape from the WishVerse came when Giles took a leap of faith: “Anyanka:  You trusting fool! How do you know the other world is any better than this? Giles:  Because it has to be.”
This “leap of faith” is something Kierkegaard described in the phrase “subjectivity is the truth”. What he meant by this is that there is no objective certainty of God’s existence – we can’t prove it by reason or any other reference to the outside world. We can only believe subjectively, that is, in our own minds. I may be reading too much into this, but an additional reason I see The Wish as a reverie or a daydream is because I see it as exploring Kierkegaard’s proposed “subjectivity” solution.
Camus, however, rejected any “leap of faith” because he was an atheist. I should emphasize that this doesn’t mean that faith can never alleviate the meaningless of the world – those who have faith do (subjectively, at least) believe that the world has meaning. But this won’t work for an atheist like Camus – Camus believed that those who accepted faith were fooling themselves. Similarly, Angel can’t really follow the path of faith because he’s a demon (“vampires aren’t that big on Christmas”). Others might find the leap of faith satisfying, but Angel can’t and neither did Camus. Since Camus couldn’t accept faith, that left two remaining logical possibilities in his mind and Joss explores those other two in Amends and the following episode, Gingerbread.
The first of those two remaining options is suicide. Logically speaking, one can escape the absurdity of the world by ceasing to exist. Because Camus rejected faith, he had to take seriously the possibility of suicide. “There is only one really serious philosophical problem,” Camus says, “and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.” (Quote from Camus link, above.) The real debate for Camus, and the one Joss explores here, is between suicide and option 3, which I’ll describe below.
Camus explained his reasoning in his most famous book The Myth of Sisyphus. For those who don’t remember it, the story of Sisyphus in Greek mythology is that he was condemned by the gods to push a large stone up a hill. Just as he got to the top the stone would escape his grasp and roll back to the bottom. Sisyphus would therefore have to start all over again. For eternity.
Camus saw Sisyphus’ condition as a metaphor for that of modern man striving to find meaning in the world: constantly engaged in pointless striving to achieve something which has no meaning. His solution (option 3) was that embracing and accepting this fact ends the absurdity of it. By facing the true state of mankind, people can overcome the sense of absurdity they experience when seeking meaning that isn’t there. Once they recognize that there are no universal absolutes, people free themselves to create their own meaning out of life. Wikipedia phrases it like this:
“The freedom of humans is thus established in a human's natural ability and opportunity to create his own meaning and purpose; to decide (or think) for him- or herself. The individual becomes the most precious unit of existence, as he or she represents a set of unique ideals which can be characterized as an entire universe in its own right. In acknowledging the absurdity of seeking any inherent meaning, but continuing this search regardless, one can be happy, gradually developing his or her own meaning from the search alone.”

With this background in mind, let’s examine the dialogue between Buffy and Angel on the hilltop (that’s intentional, of course, in direct comparison to Sisyphus). Angel wants to commit suicide not because of what he did as Angelus, but because he perceives himself a failure as a person: “Angel:  Look, I'm weak. I've never been anything else. It's not the demon in me that needs killing, Buffy. It's the man.” Buffy begs him not to, telling him that if he ends things now, then all he’ll ever have been was a monster. Angel then responds with a key point: “Am I a thing worth saving, huh? (shakes her) Am I a righteous man? (shakes her) The world wants me gone!”
That last phrase, “the world wants me gone”, is a description of the uncaring nature of the universe as it appears to someone who assumes there’s meaning in it. If you operate under the assumption that there is meaning in the universe, and if the universe seems hostile to you, then the natural conclusion is that the universe “wants” you out of it. Suicide is an obvious solution.
Buffy then tries the argument that she herself wants him to stay, but he won’t accept that: “Buffy, please. Just this once... let me be strong.” And this is when Buffy gives him the real answer: “Strong is fighting! It's hard, and it's painful, and it's every day. It's what we have to do. And we can do it together.” Quoting again from the Camus link, “What then is Camus's reply to his question about whether or not to commit suicide? Full consciousness, avoiding false solutions such as religion, refusing to submit, and carrying on with vitality and intensity: these are Camus's answers.”
The fascinating thing about Amends, though, is that Angel knows she’s right but doesn’t formally choose to accept her statement. Instead, the miracle snow spares him the need to choose, at least at that moment. As I’ve mentioned so often before, it’s the power of choice which defines existentialism and absurdism, yet Angel didn’t choose. I’ll let Joss himself explain:
“I'm an atheist but it's hard to ignore the idea of a "Christmas miracle" here... The fact [is] the Christian mythos has a powerful fascination to me and it bleeds into my storytelling. Redemption hope purpose Santa these all are important to me whether I believe in an afterlife or some universal structure or not. I certainly don't mind a strictly Christian interpretation being placed on this ep by those who believe that -- I just hope it's not limited to that (joss Dec 15 22:17 1998).”

Like most of us, Joss incorporates multiple concepts into his view of life. As he mentions here, one of those concepts is redemption; he is, as we say in Buffy fandom, a redemptionista. It’s a theme which we’ll see repeatedly throughout the remainder of the series. Just remember this: redemption is a process, not an event. Nobody gets redeemed by a single act or even many.
The snow, miracle or no, doesn’t mean Angel is forever off the hook. It just means that the snow bought him more time to contemplate the meaning of his existential crisis. We next see Angel and Buffy, no longer on the hill, but walking along the street in contemplation. “After the rock comes tumbling down, confirming the ultimate futility of his project, Sisyphus trudges after it once again. This ‘is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights…, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.’” (Quote from Camus link.) It’s on the downward journey that Sisyphus recognizes “the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent”. (Id.) I’ll explain the result of that contemplation and put it in context next episode.
Three quick points before I move on to the bulk of this essay:

1.     There are two stories being paralleled here, Angel/Buffy and Willow/Oz. Neither guilty party actually makes amends, but both are given the opportunity to do so by the power of love. In other cases where amends might be necessary, Buffy does start to make amends to Faith (and vice versa), but the one who tries the hardest is Giles. Xander hasn’t always been Angel’s mostest best friend, but he puts that aside in the Chanukah spirit. 

2.     Willow’s attempted seduction of Oz is a great scene, but why does she believe that sex is the way back to him? I think Willow heard two bits of conversation as suggesting that. In Lovers Walk, after Oz gave her the PEZ witch, we get this dialogue:
“Willow:  (suddenly disappointed) Oh... I don't have anything to give you.
Oz:  (smiles at her) Yeah, you do.”
I took this as referring to sex and I think Willow did too. In addition, here in Amends Buffy told her, “I guess now it's just about showing Oz that he comes first.” Again, the wording is ambiguous but certainly could be read to suggest sex.
3.      Amends is a very important episode for purposes of Season 7, so keep it in mind. I’m holding off discussing some features of the episode for this reason (and because this post is long already).

Through Angel’s Eyes
I’m going to take two controversial positions in the remainder of this discussion of Amends. In both cases what I say is almost certainly a minority view among fans and may very well be unique to me.
First, as I mentioned in discussing POV in The Wish, I see Amends as a POV episode. That is, we see the world as Angel sees it himself – feeling guilty and a bit sorry for himself. We also see, though, what we might call Angel’s fantasy version of events. Angel wants others – whether the Scoobies or the Powers That Be – to notice him, to forgive him, to accept him, and to give his life meaning and purpose. He gets all of these here. Giles and Xander more or less accept him, Buffy begs for his life and gives him the “comfort” of existentialist purpose, the PTB grant him miracle snow. If nothing else, the episode allowed Angel to put aside thoughts of suicide and begin to address his past.
Did it really happen precisely this way? That’s up to you to decide, but keep the question in mind as we get to the other POV episodes I mentioned and see how you answer for other characters.
Angel’s Responsibility For The Crimes Of Angelus
The second controversial position involves the merits of Angel’s moral case. I’ve held off till now any discussion of a very important issue in the Buffyverse: what does it mean to be a vampire? I’m referring to moral culpability here, not genre details such as whether they breathe or not. The key question, as we’ve learned from Angel’s story over the last 2.5 seasons, is whether we should consider him guilty of the crimes of Angelus.
I could have brought this up earlier, in Passion maybe or certainly in Becoming or Revelations. I could also wait till later because future episodes bear on this issue. While raising it here is somewhat arbitrary, any other time would suffer from the same problem unless I waited until the very end. That’s too long to hold off discussing such an interesting issue. My excuse for choosing Amends as the focal point is that we now have enough evidence to make the discussion productive and the episode itself does bring the issue to the forefront. I will, though, limit the arguments to those which don’t rely on spoilers, so those who haven’t seen the remaining episodes may want to hold off coming to any final conclusions until you’ve seen them all.
I’m going to set up the debate by letting Masq frame it. Masq used to be a philosophy professor (she has a real job now J) and she ran the ATPO site which I mention regularly. This is from a post on June 3, 2002:
“There are two major theories for the vampire-human relationship, both of which emerge out of the text of the shows themselves:

(1) Vampire as spiritual and physical infection, the vampire is a different "person" from the human predecessor and
(2) Vampire as physical infection only, the vampire is the same "person" as the human predecessor, minus conscience

(1) The first theory comes from bits of dialogue that have been scattered through BtVS … over the years. We've seen these quoted many times before. Just off the top of my head, I can think of these instances (there might be more).
Giles in The Harvest: "The books tell the last demon to leave this reality fed off a human, mixed their blood. He was a human form possessed, infected by the demon's soul.

Giles to Xander in The Harvest: "Jesse is dead! You have to remember that when you see him, you're not looking at your friend. You're looking at the thing that killed him."

Buffy in Lie to Me: "Well, I've got a news flash for you, braintrust: that's not how it works. You die, and a demon sets up shop in your old house, and it walks, and it talks, and it remembers your life, but it's not you."
This view depicts the vampire demon as an infection of body and most especially of spirit--a replacement for the outgoing human soul. It states outright that that vampire is not the same "person" as the human predecessor, and in doing so it implies that the soul that has been lost is something more than mere conscience, it is a unique spiritual aspect of the human person, their self, and that all that is left behind of the person we knew is a body, memories imprints in the brain, and habits of walking and talking. The person we knew is gone, banished to the ether. All else is appearances, 'cause someone else is driving the machine.

(2) The second theory appears not in dialogue (at least not directly), but in ME's writing in general, most especially the behavior of the characters themselves.
Basically, this theory posits that the "vampire" is not a spiritual infection, but a physical one only. The original demon who bit a human (see Giles quote above) gave them animal-aspects of the demon such as blood lust and violent tendencies. It altered their physiology to make them stronger and give them vamp-face when they feed. The vampire is a brute animal; everything else about the vampire is supplied by the human: intelligence, personality, love, family issues. The only thing missing from human predecessor is the conscience.

Theory #2 has its support in the long history of vampires resembling and amplifying the traits their human hosts, from Jesse's inept stalker tendencies blooming full-grown in VampJesse to ….” 

In considering Masq’s two options, we have to start by recognizing that Angel certainly feels that he is guilty. In that way, he’s on the same side as Xander. Buffy, however, takes the opposite view. Indeed, it may very well be essential that she do so: if she really believed that Angel – not Angelus but Angel – murdered Jenny and tortured Giles, even her formidable power of forgiveness would be challenged. Yet the moment Buffy saw Willow’s spell take effect in Becoming 2 she recognized that something essential had restored Angel and she could tell him she loved him.
Any explanation we give therefore has to account for the fact that (a) Angel perceives himself as guilty; but (b) Buffy, the hero, does not. I do have a way to account for these facts, and it’s probably best if I disclose that up front. I’m going to do that by copying a dialogue I (Sophist) had with Rahael (of ATPO) on her livejournal page. As you’ll see, Rah disagreed with me and I’m sure others will too. I’ll get to some of the disagreements afterwards (spoilers removed):

“Recently, Sophist and I have been having a discussion concerning two quite differing ways of viewing souls & personalities in BtVS …on my livejournal. We thought the Board [ATPO] might like to read/comment on the exchange, so here it is. It was quite lengthy, so I might split it up into parts.

It's part of a longer thread, and so it might start a little abruptly, but bear with us!
it is argued that when Vampires kill people, it can't be classified as 'murder'.

I haven't seen many people make this argument [Note today: I probably was wrong about this]. A much more common argument, and a better one (hey, it's my own), is that Angel is not responsible for the killings of Angelus…. It's the only way I personally can justify Buffy's behavior in S3….

We have to segment all kinds of actions that require thought & emotion in order to make the show's metaphysics work, as far as vampires are concerned - we are forced to jump through hoops.

Oh, and I must just mention another complicating factor. … If he acts as if he should receive redress for ill treatment, or act as if it still matters to him, then, doesn't that complicate the whole thing where he's a completely different person?

… I don't think it's surprising that the souled vamp would feel responsibility for "his" previous actions. All the memories and feelings are there; psychologically, there appears to be only one "him". That is how I understand the torment of the gypsy curse to affect Angel -- all the more poignant because it's not strictly rational. I don't think it complicates the moral issue, I think it deepens the psychological one.


I agree it deepens the psychological moment. I think the show hangs around this paradox. Sometimes it works really well, this faultline. Sometimes, it breaks the suspension of belief.

Because if you have such psychological realism, it renders the soul/no soul distinction as increasingly troubled.

There was an excellent Babylon 5 ep called "Passing through Gethsamene" where a murderer had his mind wiped clean, and programmed to have positive impulses towards society. He became a monk, a very holy man. When his memories came back, it was induced by the angry relatives of his victims. They then crucified him.

That ep was all about vengeance and forgiveness. The person who led the crucifixion subsequently had his mind wiped, and became a monk, taking the place of the man he crucified. He was offered the same chance of forgiveness and redemption.

At no point were the crimes excused, despite the fact that the 'mindwiped' men felt like a totally different person. Different personalities, no memories.

Forgiveness was offered, and it was a very strong theme in the ep, but I felt in no way that the crime was diminished. …


There was an excellent Babylon 5 ep called "Passing through Gethsamene" where a murderer had his mind wiped clean, and programmed to have positive impulses towards society. He became a monk, a very holy man. When his memories came back, it was induced by the angry relatives of his victims. They then crucified him.

This is, in some ways, the mirror image of the situation in BtVS. Based on your description, in B5 the person felt different but was the same. In BtVS, the person (Angel…) felt the same but was different (at least in my view of it).

I've never seen the B5 episode, but from your description I don't believe it has the psychological or moral complexity of BtVS. I don't personally believe that memories alone are important enough for us to treat the same person as though we had also forgotten the past. If, for example, Josef Mengele showed up today claiming amnesia, I would have no trouble trying him for war crimes. And I would hardly watch a show in which the heroine falls in love with him.

In contrast, the soul canon on BtVS, at least in my interpretation, separates the person (in his "essence", not physically) and the deed while preserving the memories. That solves the moral dilemma, in no way diminishes the previous crimes, and still allows for a very complex exploration of psychology, both for the (former) killer and for his victims. YMMV….

I think I can justify Buffy's behavior in S3 under my view of the show's metaphysics, but I can't do it under any other. If I believed Angel to be the same "essence" as Angelus, I'd have been with Xander in Revelations (and we know that could never happen!). I'd also have to have even more problems with Amends, since it would then appear to let Angelus off the hook not only with Buffy but with Giles and everyone else. My view avoids this problem.

hahaha re Xander.

Well there might also be this: that both meanings are possible, and that the credibility of one or the other rises and falls depending on the ep, the theme, the arc.

I quite agree. However, let me reprise the B/A arc in your terms by removing the metaphor:

Buffy meets a man who seems attractive and mysterious. She begins to develop feelings for him. After shared experiences which awaken in her a physical desire for him, she learns that he is living incognito but was previously a concentration camp guard who tortured and murdered a large number of innocent people. (I'm not treading on Godwin's Law here; the portrayal of vampires leaves us with only a few plausible real life examples.)

He admits to her that this is the case (note that he did not tell her this before she learned it on her own), but says that he has reformed his life and no longer behaves as he did in the past. Rather than turn him over to the authorities, she kisses him and tells him she nevertheless can't continue to see him. She avoids reading books which are available to her which describe his earlier crimes.

Circumstances, however, continue to throw them together. He proves to be loyal and trustworthy. Her feelings, perhaps never entirely subdued, re-awaken and she falls in love. They sleep together. After she does so, he goes through a psychotic episode in which he reverts to the torture and murder of innocents, including people she knows. Forced now to act, she is able to have him committed to a mental hospital for treatment of his psychotic episode.

Under circumstances which are unclear, he leaves the mental hospital and returns to her, claiming again to be cured. He again performs actions which indicate he is trustworthy.

Stopping the narrative at this point, let us ask some questions.

1. Is it plausible that a girl in such a case would not think some punishment was in order for the man?

2. Is it plausible that she would continue to express love and concern for him?

Now, I think I have given an entirely neutral and impartial (;)) summary of S2-3 which follows your metaphor but puts it in real life terms. I can't make it plausible. I think the soul must mean something more essential in order for Buffy's behavior to be justifiable.” 

To summarize, I opt for Masq’s option #1, though incorporating some elements of her #2, because I see the soul in BtVS as providing an “essence” to a person. Angel with the soul is essentially different than without it, i.e., when he’s Angelus. When I say “essentially different”, I’m limiting that difference to the soul. It’s obvious that the demon retains basic personality traits of the departed human. Thus, when Buffy tells Willow in Passion that Angel’s “not the same guy”, Willow can respond that he is in one sense because “all he ever thinks of is you”. The specific obsessions and character flaws remain those set by the dead victim. As writer David Fury put it in a Zap2it interview on February 9, 2001, “We feel like there's a ghost of the person you once were inside them -- a philosophical ghost, not an actual spirit. It is, in fact, a demon, but the demon is infused with some of the characteristics of the people that they possess.”
It’s the human substrate which guides the crimes committed. That is what causes the demon to pick this victim over that one, to artistically torture and murder rather than to face a mob with just fists and fangs. But though the specific characteristics of the vampire’s actions can be traced to the human, the fact of the act itself cannot. It wasn’t Angel’s human self which murdered his family (Angel), it was the vampire Angelus. Angel didn’t torture Drusilla and drive her insane, Angelus did. The essence of Angel, the soul which restrained his evil desires, wasn’t there.
In my view Angel is not responsible for the crimes of Angelus. However, Angel feels responsible because he shares the same body and memories as Angelus, and because Angelus exploited precisely those weaknesses that Angel knows he has. The body, including the brain, contains the memories and emotions. The soul is immersed in the body and therefore is privy to those memories and emotions, whether it was present to create them or not. Angel remembers the crimes of Angelus as his own and the emotional impact of Angelus’ crimes would affect Angel; that’s what the gypsy curse was all about: “You have no idea what it’s like to have done the things I’ve done and to care.” (Angel)
In comments, State of Siege makes an excellent point about Angel’s feeling of responsibility: “One of the things I love about Amends is that it shows that while the ensouled vampire might feel responsibility for—and indeed deeply regret—his past crimes, he can still feel their pleasures... I would argue that what Angel flees, what tortures him the most during the episode is not the reminder of his crimes—he lives with them daily, hence the trademark brooding—but the revivification of their pleasures through the magicks of the Bringers (not that he does not otherwise remember them, but that the spells make them inescapably vivid). That he did them he knows—but that he enjoyed them and, on some level, continues to enjoy them, the demon not being dead, only kept in check—that is for him the thing insupportable.”
Ok, that’s where I’m coming from on this, but remember from my post on Revelations that I also believe Buffy takes this same position. I’ll get into some arguments pro and con below, but I need to be very upfront about one important point first. My theory that the soul provides an “essence” directly contradicts the fundamental premise of existentialism. Existentialism was designed to be the exact opposite of the philosophy of “essentialism”, which argues for an “essence” which makes us human from the beginning. Existentialists deny the existence of any such “essence”. For them, we exist first and create our own “essential self” by the choices we make in the life we live. The phrase used to express this is “existence precedes essence”.
After all the emphasis I’ve put on Joss and existentialism in these essays, I’m now in the position of saying that Joss created a “soul canon” which undercuts his own philosophy at its most fundamental point. And that his hero is the biggest proponent of this essentialist doctrine.
Well, yeah. Sartre and Camus were atheists; they rejected the very concept of “soul”. Once Joss reintroduced the soul into the show, it became impossible to follow existentialism on every single point. I want to emphasize that this is not a criticism of Joss. For all I know, Joss doesn’t consider himself an existentialist on this particular point. The show Dollhouse might suggest that he doesn’t, though I don’t want to get too far into the brambles of philosophical debate about a different show (I’m in too far on this one).
Even if he does take that view in his personal life, he isn’t Jean Paul Sartre or Albert Camus, who were philosophers writing novels in order to communicate an intellectually rigorous philosophical system. Joss is a storyteller who has been influenced by philosophy. He makes use of the philosophy, but it doesn’t bind him. If the story requires it, I expect the philosophy to yield (just as the plot sometimes does in his works). And there’s no denying that he told a wonderful story indeed in S2. The fact that Joss is a storyteller means that he contains multitudes within him. If the immediately preceding episode can feature a leap of faith which absurdist philosophy rejects, and if an atheist can write a Christmas miracle, an existentialist can write an essentialist story.
Philosophy aside, it’s time to consider the evidence from within the show and the arguments on either side. I’ll begin with what the text gives us. Following are the relevant passages from the episodes we’ve seen thus far so you can see them all in one place:

“Xander: So vampires are demons?
Giles: The books tell the last demon to leave this reality fed off a human, mixed their blood. He was a human form possessed, infected by the demon's soul.” The Harvest.

“Xander: We've gotta get in there before Jesse does something stupider than usual.
Giles: You listen to me! Jesse is dead! You have to remember that when you see him, you're not looking at your friend. You're looking at the thing that killed him.” The Harvest.

Buffy: (to Giles) Can a vampire ever be a good person? Couldn't it happen?Giles: A vampire isn't a person at all. (clears his throat) It may have the movements, the, the memories, even the personality of the person that it took over, but i-it's still a demon at the core, there is no halfway.” Angel.

“Angel: When you become a vampire the demon takes your body, but it doesn't get your soul. That's gone! No conscience, no remorse... It's an easy way to live. You have no idea what it's like to have done the things I've done... and to care. I haven't fed on a living human being since that day.
Buffy: So you started with my mom?
Angel: I didn't bite her.
Buffy: Then why didn't you say something?
Angel: But I wanted to. I can walk like a man, but I'm not one.” Angel.

“Ford:  …I will become immortal.
Buffy:  Well, I've got a news flash for you, braintrust: that's not how it works. You die, and a demon sets up shop in your old house, and it walks, and it talks, and it remembers your life, but it's not you.” Lie to Me.

“Buffy:  Angel, there must be some part of you inside that still remembers who you are.
Angelus:  Dream on, schoolgirl.
Xander takes the cross from Jenny and starts toward Angelus.
Angelus:  Your boyfriend is dead. You're all gonna join him.” Innocence.

“Buffy:  Do you remember my ex-boyfriend, the vampire? I slept with him, he lost his soul, now my boyfriend's gone forever, and the demon that wears his face is killing my friends.” IOHEFY.

I believe I’ve now quoted all the relevant passages from the series to date, and they all say exactly the same thing: the vampire is no longer the person s/he once was. The vampire may be affected by the personality of the dead victim, but there’s something missing which differentiates the two.
In the context of the show, this must be true. If a vampire were “the same” as the person s/he once was, then having Buffy automatically slay every vampire would be problematic, to say the least. It would be as if she were to slay Oz, something both she and Giles agree would be wrong. If it weren’t true, then Buffy would love Angelus just as she does Angel. I take it that no one would argue for that.
That’s one side of the coin, of course. The other side is whether the souled vampire is “the same” as the vampire. Obviously Buffy doesn’t think so, otherwise she’d have slain Angel herself as Xander told her to do in Angel, and she wouldn’t have phrased it the way she did in the passage from IOHEFY which I quoted.
The issue goes beyond Buffy’s view, though. It’s absolutely critical to the storyline since the episode Angel that Angel be seen as in a separate category. If Angel were exactly identical to Angelus, then Buffy should slay him, not fall in love with him, and the whole storyline would fall apart. If Angel is not exactly identical to Angelus, then we have to decide where the difference lies. He’s not human; on that we can agree. But he’s not vampire either.
Given these two facts, it seems to me that the only available conclusion is that the souled vampire has an essential difference from all other vampires. The obvious difference is the soul, which Joss has described as functioning like a conscience. That is, the presence of the human soul enables someone to distinguish right from wrong. Without it, and having a demon soul instead, the vampire can’t make that distinction. To me, this means that the souled vampire can’t be held morally responsible for the acts of the unsouled creature he was before his soul was restored – the feature which makes moral choice possible was missing.
The argument on the other side, as I understand it, relies on two key points. One is the storyline, as Masq alluded to in her description of the two sides. Angel wants to do something to be redeemed; that was why he followed Whistler in Becoming. If he doesn’t actually need redemption, then this story isn’t all that compelling. My explanation – that the need is psychological rather than moral – strikes some people as detracting from the power of a redemptionist story.
The other key point is that, as I’ve agreed, the demon which takes over builds on characteristics which were already present in the individual. Since those characteristics were already present in the human, the souled vampire will see that his former human self bears responsibility for the evil done in pursuit of those ends. I’ll let shadowkat explain this in more detail (edited to remove spoilers):

“Also, we're talking metaphor here, so I don't see why the physical should equate so strictly. Vampires are a metaphor for unrestrained hunger, desire, id. While the id does have a role in terms of creating identity, and is certainly necessary at a certain level for survival, when not balanced by other parts of one's identity, problems result -mainly immaturity. That is what the vampires represent.
Id gives the motivation to live - the desire to eat, drink, take pleasure etc. Those things aren't intrinsically bad, they just are. It's when those desires are frustrated in some way, or we refuse to grow out of that stage that id becomes a problem. If vampires could feed without hurting humans, would they be evil and would there be a need for a slayer? …

In terms of the growth of identity, accomodating one's darker impulses, containing them without harming others is an important part of learning who one is. To be unconscious of our impulses or deny they are a problem, as a vampire usually does, stymies the process of self-knowledge. …Choice is important and operative here. Choice means becoming conscious, not being a victim of one obsessions and compulsions. He got back his 'moral compass' in Joss' terms, but that does not mean he lost the identity of the last 100+ years ... I don't see why his soul would negate the identity he created as a vampire. … Soul does not equal identity.

I believe it is possible to change and transform oneself. One can become the person one wishes to be by changing what one does every day to ensure that it conforms to that person. Living and being (to me) are conscious decisions -one's desired identity is won and lost every day with a myriad of actions. Part of the reason that I find BtVS so compelling is because it shows us every episode that it is a struggle and that it is possible.”

If you find the metaphor compelling in the way she explains, the identity of the two creatures makes for a gripping storyline.
Since I let Masq set up the problem, I’ll let her have the last word (here SPOILER WARNING for link; spoilers removed from quote below):

“Angel's dilemma is both compelling and perplexing. In one respect, his situation is not so hard to understand. He has a conscience and human emotions, but a demon physiology drives him, and he must fight it. In another respect, Angel's situation raises confounding questions about guilt and responsibility. The show has been fairly clear that upon siring, Angel's human soul was banished to the Ether. Nevertheless, in Lie to Me, Angel "confesses" to Buffy the truth about "his" siring of Drusilla. Does this mean he thinks the human soul is responsible for this horrible act? But how could that be so, since the human soul wasn't even present at the time? In Amends, Angel distanced himself from the acts of the demon when he told the First Evil that "It wasn't me."

“And there lies the rub: "It wasn't me" "It was me"--who is the "me" doing the talking? The "Angel" we know is both the demon who did the bad deeds and the human soul that didn't. So what is their relationship to each other? Are we talking about

  1. two consciousnesses in one body taking turns being in control, like some sort of multiple-personality guy?, or
  2. a single, combined consciousness at once both demon and human? or
  3. a split consciousness, two consciousness both aware simultaneously, just not of each other, or
  4. one consciousness--the human's--spurred on by the mindless drives of a vampire physiology?

“Angel has "memories" of his mortal life (as Liam of Galway), of Angelus' deeds, and of his days as a souled vampire. This would seem to indicate the second of these choices. But it's not quite that simple. Option number four is also close to the truth, and fits well with Joss' "drug addict" analogy for Angel's condition:
“Whedon said that the character of Angel … was intended as a metaphor for an alcoholic in recovery. Angel, like many recovering addicts, is making amends for what he did "under the influence" (Hercules, Ain’t It Cool News, March 4, 2001).
“I always thought of Angel's "soul" as the conscience and goodness of a person or put another way his "control" over doing the evil within all of us, so to speak. The "demon" that comes with being a vampire is what he is controlling and denying the light of day (pardon the pun). So, Angel is always there, regardless of the "demon" aspect pushing towards the commitment of horrible things (i.e. killing Ms. Calendar) ...but when he gets his soul back, he realizes how horrible the things he did are and thus feels all the guilt. I don't think the soul ever goes away, it just gets locked up inside, out of a controlling position (W. R. Terrell 4:17pm Oct 19, 1999).

“The "soul" that left Liam of Galway's body upon death/vamping (and Angel when the Gypsy curse was reversed) was just one part of his personality--namely, his conscience. Everything else that made up the human Liam's personality remained behind. Which means that "Angelus" is merely Liam of Galway with a demon physiology and without a conscience (and the same would be true for all other vampires). This is supported by the fact that Angelus was sadistic and sociopathic, in other words, he lacked empathy.
“As for memories being what's left of the person controlled by the demon, aren't memories what make up who we are? Someone i forget who said that we are the sum of our memories. ...(16:53:24 ) I think [Angel's memories] had an effect on the "person" Angelus was. ...The person Angel was had, through the parts left when the demon took over the first time, an influence on how the demon acted. The "person" Angel was when he lost his soul in Surprise had an influence on the demon Angelus and his acts (Lady Bathory, Dec 20 16:14 1998).

“If this is the proper view of the Buffyverse soul, then the received story about vampires being "a human body possessed by a demon 'soul'" in The Harvest would have to be dismissed as Watcher mythology, and everything we've learned about vampires would have to be explained according to such a view, …. This theory does have the merit of being a simpler, more elegant understanding of complex metaphysical situations like Liam-Angelus-Angel….”

So, the official philosopher disagrees with me too.

If you take my view, the issues of redemption and forgiveness simply don’t arise. If you disagree with me, though, they do. In that case the show is raising important questions about the nature of redemption. Among those questions are: (1) Can atonement ever be made for crimes which are so horrifying and numerous? (2) What form would that atonement take? After all, nothing can restore Angelus’ dead victims. Does saving others count?
Another way to look at the problem is from the point of view of forgiveness. We might see forgiveness in the Christian tradition in which Jesus forgives all our sins when we declare moral bankruptcy. By that I mean that we declare bankruptcy, discharge our debts, and start “over”. The show may very well be making a statement about the power of forgiveness, since Buffy has and will demonstrate remarkable forgiveness over the years. I’ll argue that religious comparisons in her case are fully justified (at the very least as part of the Hero’s Journey), and of course forgiveness is a big part of that in the Western tradition.
Then there’s the question of the point in time at which forgiveness is offered. In the Christian tradition, that would be “always”. At any point in time an acknowledged sinner can come to grace. The issue of atonement complicates that somewhat, because it suggests that atonement is a necessary pre-condition for forgiveness. In Christianity that’s not the case, but it might be on BtVS.
Going one step further on the forgiveness theme, we see that Buffy is not the only one to forgive Angel, as we might expect if religious imagery were the only factor. Willow is also quick to forgive Angel, Xander not really, and Giles is doubtful but ambiguous. Perhaps we can explain Willow in metaphorical terms: she’s Buffy’s spirit and it is, after all, the spiritual aspect of forgiveness which is crucial in the Trinitarian tradition.
It’s also possible there’s a point being made here about gender and forgiveness (h/t Cait), which I’d urge you to consider as we go forward. If Buffy and Willow go one way and Xander the other, does this mean women take a different view than men? Or is this simply specific to their characters? There will be more evidence to come on this, so hold the issue open for now and think about what the consequences might be if there were a gender difference.
Now let me throw out a suggestion that will probably make everyone unhappy. As I noted above, I see Amends as a POV episode. Suppose we extend that idea and treat the whole soul canon not as an objective fact, but as something dependent on POV. In this interpretation, Xander sees Angel and Angelus as one person; so does Angel. Buffy sees them as two, and probably Willow does also. Giles is simply pragmatic. Each of them is right for himself/herself. The whole issue is an attitude, not a fact.
In the end, I don’t think there’s a way to answer these questions definitively, whether within the show or outside it. I hope I’ve laid out both sides enough for everyone to understand that BtVS does raise these issues and to judge for him/herself how they should be resolved. I’m sure the tiny bit of extra space given to my own argument doesn’t affect that at all. J
Trivia notes: (1) There’s no explanation ever given on BtVS for why Angel returned or what caused the snow. Feel free to speculate. (2) “The Lord is my Shepherd…” (Daniel’s prayer when Angelus corners him) is Psalms 23. (3) Oz asks Willow “You ever have that dream where you're in a play, and it's the middle of the play and you really don't know your lines, and you kinda don't know the plot?” That was Willow’s nightmare in Nightmares. (4) The Sun is a British tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch. (5) “He’s a Rebel” (and he’ll never be any good…) was a song by the Crystals. Giles used the phrase to describe the Bringers. (6) The phrase “dead by sunrise” has two possible meanings: dead by the time the sun rises; or dead because the sun rose. That’s how Buffy could find Angel on the hilltop. (7) Joss obviously had Christmas on the brain this season, since The Wish seems based on It’s A Wonderful Life and Amends rather loosely on A Christmas Carol.


  1. I'm pretty sure Joss doesn't believe that vampires, vengeance demons, Hell-gods, etc. exist in the real world, so I figure that he thought that they could be included in an interesting fantasy show...and so could entities that are believed in by conventional religious people.

    So it makes perfect sense to me that Joss would name-check pop culture properties that rely on a Western religious, especially a Christian world-view.

    But to me the central issue of all Jossverse shows is how you play the hand you were dealt. I daresay it would have been sensible to move out of town, but there could have been any number of places in rural Ireland where there was a pig farmer who might have brought more pigs to market if he didn't insist on sleeping late...but was still a dacent fella who stood his round in the tavern every night. Angelus inspired Spike to be much more vicious than the average vampire, which suggests to me that there was something about Liam and William that made them behave much worse than, as George Eliot might have said, the unsung vampires who *don't* sleep in unvisited graves.

    The series "rules" suggest that vampires don't even need human blood to survive, and they can feed without killing humans and can take blood from willing humans. Not all vampires kill their families or engage in large-scale torture.

    Sort of like Mark Bittman's current New York Times column, saying he's not a full-time vegetarian but he finds commercial meat-raising practices beyond the pale. Vampires *could* be "vegetarians" or subsist on the equivalent of Niman-ranch blood, so I think they're responsible for their ethical food choices.

    BTW my new headcanon is that Faith's never-canonically-revealed surname is not "Lehane" but "O'Leap."

    1. Heh. I'm VERY sure that Faith's name is no accident. As I'll explain.

    2. Of course, if you pronounce Faith's actual last name as if it were French, it roughly translates as "The Hate"... (la haine). But I don't think Joss is given to multi-lingual puns...

    3. Mark: I figure that Faith is not all that different from Angie Gennaro in the Boston-Area Tough Gal Sweepstakes.

      StateOfSiege: I don't know about that, I think Simon Tam is well tasty.

    4. Hm. That never occurred to me as the source of her last name, but it's very plausible.

  2. Sorry for the long post - I'm being prompted to break it into two sections:

    "Now let me throw out a suggestion that will probably make everyone unhappy. As I noted above, I see Amends as a POV episode. Suppose we extend that idea and treat the whole soul canon not as an objective fact, but as something dependent on POV. In this interpretation, Xander sees Angel and Angelus as one person; so does Angel. Buffy sees them as two, and probably Willow does also. Giles is simply pragmatic. Each of them is right for himself/herself. The whole issue is an attitude, not a fact."

    On the contrary, rather than make me unhappy, this seems not only an elegant solution but one that might help tie together many of the (sometimes competing) philosophical streams that you're unpacking here. If Whedon is something of an existentialist, then the idea that many potential meanings (thus no true specific meaning) permeates his show makes sense. If we here on earth don't have all the answers, why should the characters in BtVS?

    If, for instance, the Catholic Church or the Hindu tradition or the many different types of Buddhists can't claim anything like true authority on the question "what does it all mean," why would the Watchers' Council or one of their newest, least seasoned adepts (Buffy) have the answers?

    It may be that deciding this issue (for the characters, maybe the viewers, too) is part of the "fight" that equals living that Buffy talks about. Because we struggle with these things. Even the atheist - or at least the atheist interested in the question of "why are we here" - struggles with them. And it seems to me, any of the answers must include some sort of leap of faith - whether we decide "I'm just a collection of dna in an organic hull whose existence will cease when my heart's electric impulses stop firing" or "I'm a gift of God to this earth, as is each individual human life" or anywhere in between.

    If centuries of philosophy and scholarship from desert madmen to official church doctrine, from Thomas Aquinas to Camus and so on can't convince everybody that THIS is the truth about being, how could somebody like Xander or Buffy or Angel or even Giles know for sure.

    And as our interpretations of "being" on BtVS are filtered through the POVs of such (naturally and inherently) flawed individuals, it seems natural (if potentially frustrating) to me that we'd be given competing answers, none of which are definitive.

    1. cont'd

      I guess that doesn't really answer the question of Angel's culpability, but as I've hinted at before here, the addict/alcoholic metaphor really works for me because it also lends itself to a both/neither reading. An alcoholic in a blackout loses all sense of propriety and decorum and acts anywhere from foolish to absurd to abusive and violent. When the blackout is over, the alcoholic has no memory of the incidents. As the story is related to him/her, floods of shame wash over him, such that he knows no apology will suffice. Ultimately, he wasn't "possessed" by a demon (although that has long been a metaphor for alcohol), so is completely responsible for his actions. And yet, bio-neurological functions were acting out of a part of his semi-conscious mind that at the time he had no knowledge of and no control over. So in that sense, beyond his responsibility for taking the drinks that led him there, he's not completely responsible. As many who have seen an alcoholic in a full-on blackout have said, "you didn't seem like the same person."

      This, to me, is very reminiscent of the guilt that plagues Angel. In that sense, it doesn't matter so much if, in some morally absolute fashion, Angel is or isn't responsible for the crimes of Angelus. Until he can assuage his guilt and move on to a fuller sense of being, where he can create his own sense of purpose, his own sense of meaning in life, his purpose (whatever that may be) remains unfulfilled.


      Somewhat following on this, and related to your trivia point 1, doesn't the show 'Angel' imply that the character Angel was brought back precisely because TPTB have a plan for him, a plan involving his being a champion for good against the encroaching powers of evil on earth? If so, part of what the show 'Angel' is about is the character Angel figuring out a way to move beyond his feelings of guilt and self-reproach so that he can more fully embrace that champion's role.

    2. Hey, I'm in no position to complain about long comments.

      Your metaphor of the alcoholic does capture a lot of the ambiguity. I suspect different people will assign different degrees of culpability to someone under the influence (and depending on how they got there). I like it.


      Yeah, AtS does imply that the PTB brought him back, but I don't recall it's ever said definitively (someone correct me if I'm wrong about that -- I don't know the AtS episodes nearly as well and I'm answering OTTOMH). Even if they do claim to have done so, there's some reason given to distrust the PTB anyway.

    3. I went back and checked CA law on intoxication as a defense (I don't do criminal law). As I vaguely remembered, CA abolished the defense about 30 years ago.

      Even in states where it is a defense, it's only a defense to a limited issue, namely the intent of the perpetrator. For example, Murder 1 requires a specific intent to kill. If you're intoxicated, you can prove that as a defense to Murder 1 but you'll still be guilty of (most likely) manslaughter. Note that because it's a defense, the burden of proof is on the defendant, not the state.

      None of this necessarily affects people's moral judgments, but in the long run laws do tend to reflect the majority view. Thus, having been under the influence probably isn't seen by most people as exculpatory.

    4. I think that's as it should be. If somebody gets drunk (whether an alcoholic or not) and kills somebody, I cannot by any stretch imagine the law treating them as two different people (and wouldn't want it to). One thing Angel's got on his side (lucky for him) is that in the Buffyverse, when it comes to vampire "guilt," Buffy is the law. I assume if the Sunnydale PD ever found out that Angel was responsible for, say, Jenny's death, the old "but sometimes I'm a vampire, and the vampire did it" defense would not hold up in court. Maybe (and you'd know much better), in the Buffyverse, such a defense might work akin to an insanity plea.

      But even in the real-world case of the alcoholic, the personal story does not stop with conviction or acquittal. It's the perpetrator's own moral dilemma that will plague her for time to come. Imagine committing a horrific crime, but not having the memory of it and being convinced that you weren't the type of person to commit such a crime. Living with the proof of it, learning to live with yourself, trying to forgive yourself, and so on, that would be the struggle. And that's where Angel's at, I think. Even if some all-knowing Buffyverse power could come down and say, "Angel, look, it's simple: the human is not responsible for the deeds of the demon," I'm not sure Angel would just nod, say, "okay," and get on with his life. Because his conscience is still plagued or haunted by those deeds regardless of his level of culpability. Does that make sense.

      Mild SPOILER

      It's similar, in a way, to the struggle of conscience Buffy will have in S06 with certain . . . relationship-based actions she'll take with a particular blond, and much of it (and much of the show) revolves around Buffy's line to Dawn in S05: the hardest thing to do in this world is live in it.

  3. MILD SPOILER OF SEASON 4: I agree that this is a tantalizing debate, and that the POV explanation offers "something for everyone" to appreciate. The notion of choice and free will (the ability to control one's actions and thus conversely to be accountable for them) is completely mitigated by the events of Season 4 concerning Spike. I cannot wait to learn how you apply an existentialist or deterministic interpretation of events where choice is removed from the equation.

    1. You've mentioned on one of the key themes of S4. I think it makes S4 a lot more interesting than it's usually given credit for being.

  4. More tomorrow or Sunday or Monday, busy day. I think the POV read is pretty credible, and I also think the fundamental question -- why shouldn't one commit suicide? -- is something both shows (SPOILER) return to again and again. I think The Gift and most of season six deal with this pretty explicitly, all the way up to Grave where of course Willow takes it a step further and asks why humans as a whole bother living at all (and decides, more definitely, that they shouldn't, before relenting when Xander goes to her). The whole question of Dawn's identity (and whether she is 'real' or not) also deals with this. Lots of great stuff coming up.

  5. And now for some comics canon, just to confuse the conversation

    Season 8 and Season 9 spoilers:

    After the events of season 8, where our world is no longer connected to external dimensions or planes where the demons are, any new vampire that has been sired is now what's being called a "zompire". Since the vampire was a dead human body being reanimated and controlled by a demonic soul, it's now canon that the demon that controlled the vampire originally existed in another dimension, and since the connections are cut off, new vampires are now only reanimated human corpses with all the strength and speed of vampires, but without ANY external control and without any residual human instincts. They become literal bloodthirsty animals unable to control themselves to integrate into society to search for victims.

    What I find interesting about this development, is that it explains(to me at least) why the existent human personality was so important to a vampire's development. The demons that cross over into vampires are just mindless little peons, with no emotional development on their own plane, they have to use what exists in the human body that becomes their host to create their identity.

    How this affects the soul canon(Spike and Angel are fine, as are any other vampires that existed before the connections were severed) is anyone's guess. But I thought it was some new information that could add to the discussion. It does seem to verify your statement that it's the human emotions it absorbs that creates a vampire into a particularly cruel and twisted monster(like Angelus or Spike), instead of just a mindless feeder.

  6. Just a quick question, seeing as you mentioned Dollhouse in this excellent post, what is your opinion of Joss Whedon's other shows from a philosophical standpoint? Is there, in your opinion, enough material in Dollhouse or Firefly/Serenity to engage in a meaningful philosophical discussion based around those shows?

    POSSIBLE SPOILERS (not sure what your spoiler policy is for comments, hopefully this is fine)

    Also, on the topic of other Joss Whedon shows, I was wondering if you were planning on reviewing the episodes featuring Buffy in the first season of Angel. Do you think they have enough significance for Buffy to be worth reviewing?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Thanks and sorry for the delay in responding -- our power went out yesterday and I just now got back on line.

      I think the first season of Dollhouse does raise some interesting philosophical issues, many of which will appear in S4 of Buffy. To (unfairly) summarize in a sentence, the idea of Dollhouse 1, as I see it, is how one creates a true self in the face of attempts by society to impose different ones on us. That's an existentialist theme and it's executed using some concepts Whedon explored with The Initiative (where I'll explain in more detail).

      The second season of Dollhouse is still a mystery to me.

      Firefly, unfortunately, never got enough episodes for me to know where Whedon was going.


      No, I don't plan to review the crossover episodes. I don't think they have enough direct salience to BtVS. For example, it's relevant to the plot of The Yoko Factor that Buffy saw Angel in LA and that they had a fight, but the reason for the fight and Buffy's interaction with Faith don't really impact the themes of S4 as I see them at this point. I could change my mind later as I think about it more, of course.

  7. Apologies for coming so late to the party—and for being a bit cryptic—it has been, and continues to be, a busy week... So I am writing very quickly—and splitting this into two posts...

    First, thanks to Mark for the beautiful and finely argued post, one that sets so many important ideas into play.

    Second, I am not given to accept the soul-cannon as POV alone in part out of personal tendencies (any ethical solution that makes everyone happy, even in fiction, makes me suspicious), in part because I do not think the textual evidence supports it: the only person really advancing the Angel is fully responsible (in the fully anti-essentialist sense) is Xander, and his position is undermined by his one interested position and by the body of statements against it... Angel feels responsible, but even he sees the metaphysics as more complex, if not the ethics.

    As for Giles, I read him as knowing Angel is not responsible but being unable, due to his personal trauma at Angelus' hands, to forgive the face of his tormentor immediately—he is caught in a series of conundrums, knowing Angel is not responsible but feeling that he is, knowing that he should forgive but not being able to... And I see him being moved by both Buffy's pleas and the clear signs of Angel's suffering and desire for atonement to forgive, although even that does not come easily, as is understandable given his suffering. (And if he is Buffy's mind—I am right about the allegory, no?—then his struggles would represent the philosophical struggle that the ensouled vampire presents to traditional questions of ethics—both the vampire's responsibility and others' responsibility to him (or her).) So I would see him less as a pragmatist, more of a reluctant adherent to the position Buffy herself holds, or perhaps one whose experience made him doubt and question more than Buffy herself did.

    More generally, I do agree, Mark, with your position on Angel's metaphysics and responsibility, and yes, the most important aspect of the character is the ground he opens for moral argument: he feels responsible, whether he is or no, and that is part of what makes him who he is.* As Masq says above, Angel is, after all, a composite of the memories of Liam, Angelus, and Angel, and even if he knows, like Giles, that he is not technically responsible, how can he help but not feel so? That is part, it seems to me, of what a soul does—since the soul, like desire, always makes things messy.

    Another support for the essential position comes, I think, from the end of Becoming Part II: when Willow restores Angel's soul, the light goes through Angelus' eyes, his face changes expressions—softens—and we clearly see Angel return—and he seems to wake up or come to, asking Buffy where he is, saying he feels as if he has not seen her in months (which, essentially, his soul has not), etc. He does not remember anything Angelus had done in the intervening months, just as he did not when he first came to after the gypsy curse (Becoming, Part I). Of course, he would have remembered, eventually, had Buffy not killed him, as he had remembered after the first curse, as he would after his return to earth in S3, but the fact remains that we see a clear break between Angel and Angelus here, a momentary epistemological break occasioned, I would argue, by a metaphysical break. And I am not sure that the anti-essentialist camp can explain this.

    1. Second part, with apologies for the length...

      A few other, scattered thoughts:

      One of the things I love about Amends is that it shows that while the ensouled vampire might feel responsibility for—and indeed deeply regret—his past crimes, he can still feel their pleasures... I would argue that what Angel flees, what tortures him the most during the episode is not the reminder of his crimes—he lives with them daily, hence the trademark brooding—but the revivification of their pleasures through the magicks of the Bringers (not that he does not otherwise remember them, but that the spells make them inescapably vivid). That he did them he knows—but that he enjoyed them and, on some level, continues to enjoy them, the demon not being dead, only kept in check—that is for him the thing insupportable.

      Also, although Angel does not, I agree, choose life at the end—it is merely given him—he does at least reject the first form of death he is offered: death of the soul through Buffy, tempting though it be to him. (Whether Buffy would have acquiesced is another question... )

      *Of course, Spike suffers far less, at least in terms of time gone from society... But then, as he notes in EoD, he does not have the reputation as a thinker, so I suppose that that makes sense... Note that he does, however, suggest that Buffy may have to kill him, too, if he reverts to his old self—through the doings of the First, not through loss of his soul, in NLM. That said, I look forward to seeing how you read Spike's reading of Nausea in AYW...

      Amends as a whole is repeated, in a way, in AtS's Epiphany: there, Angel does choose soul-destroying sex, but it does not destroy, since it is with Darla (and we thus learn just what kind of sex it has to be)—and sitting with Kate he essentially reprises Buffy's final plea, in a different tone, uttering what might be the AtS'—and Joss'—motto: "If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do." Not to go into details, but one of the things that Angel has to learn—again—in the series is that "fighting is hard, and it's every day," that redemption comes only through fighting, that no one thing will bring it to him.

      But enough—more thoughts, but I have taken up too much time and more than enough space, so I'll save the rest for later: as many of the other commentators have noted, these are major themes, and I cannot wait to see how you will be dealing with them.

    2. Thank you for 2 very excellent comments. I obviously agree with you (because you agree with me :)), but I want to add that the point about Angel *enjoying* the memories is particularly good.

      If you like Epiphany -- it's possibly my favorite AtS episode -- you'll like what I have to say about Gingerbread.

    3. Oops, meant to add that your point about Giles in metaphor is right I think.

  8. "If the immediately preceding episode can feature a leap of faith which absurdist philosophy rejects, and if an atheist can write a Christmas miracle, an existentialist can write an essentialist story." --These contradictions describe my own, not only can I fully accept them in this show, but they're also why I love it so much. Maybe Joss is working out his own conflicting views through fiction. At heart, he seems more agnostic than pure atheist (maybe a 5 or 6 on Dawkins' scale). With that in mind, I think I tend toward your POV take on this episode. No one seems to know the absolute truth. If they did, The First wouldn't be so able to manipulate people.

    Angel spent 100 years atoning for his actions as a vampire, but he never dealt with who he had been as a man. He's being tempted now--as a man--to lose himself again. It's what drew him to become a vampire in the first place: the desire to escape. As with an alcoholic, which it seems Liam was in life, that temptation may never fully go away.

    BTW, I find The First to be the scariest Big Bad of the series. I look forward to discussing that later.

    1. I'm always surprised when people insist that others (rarely themselves) be completely logically consistent. That would require us to be Vulcans, not people. We contradict ourselves all the time and somehow justify it.

  9. So in your point of view Angel's guilt is psychological rather than something morality demands of him. Would that make his atonement process a form of personal therapy? In that reading, it doesn't matter that people tell him he's not responsible for the crimes Angelus committed. He cannot overcome his psychological problems with these memories without going through the motions of atonement.

    I like this reading in the framework of BtVS (in fact it's the reading I was most subscribing to as the viewer, based on the huge amount of dialogue supporting it). It does seem to cheapen a lot of the themes in AtS.

    1. Yes, I definitely see it as Angel's form of personal therapy. As I once put it on AtPO, Angel's fatal flaw is that he needs to see himself as the hero/champion in order to believe he's succeeded. But because he so strongly needs that, he keeps making the mistakes which prevent him from ever achieving it.

      Much of the resistance I've gotten from others to my interpretation is just the one you mention -- that it cheapens the themes on AtS. As I said to Rah in the dialogue I quoted, I prefer to see it as deepening the psychological insight.

      Another option, of course, is to treat the shows as separate and distinct. If you are willing to do that -- and there are reasonable grounds for it, IMO -- then we can simply say that Angel's story on Buffy was one of psychology while on his own show it was one of actual atonement.

  10. Wow. Unsure of how to respond to all that except to say Wow. You've laid it out so thoroughly that I don't really have much to add. I love the ambiguity and contradictions - all sides have merit and are worth considering. I agree that it's still incredibly compelling that Angel FEELS responsible for Angelus' crimes and wishes to make amends. Of course he's not directly culpable, because that would mean he's better off locked up or dead. Like you said, redemption is a process, 'it's all about the journey.' The point isn't to reach redemption but to day by day fight the monster within, 'to do real good,' to be strong.

    Onto more superficial points! I know this episode is known as the one with Buffy's weird bangs, but I love the way Joss shot SMG in the bedroom scene where Angel 'came to see Buffy to tell her that she can't see him.' She looks so innocent. I never get over how this show manages to make Buffy intensely, endearingly vulnerable one moment and completely tough, quippy, and kick-ass the next ("All right, I get it, you're evil, do we have to chat about it all day?").

    1. "Wow" is nice. :)

      Agreed on Buffy. I think some of the credit for that goes to SMG. But yeah, those bangs were odd.

  11. Posting in two parts, as apparently I'm too long-winded (sorry)

    I agree with you on the soul canon in the BtVS universe: the 'soul' is a sort of uber-conscious: vampirization removes not just the awareness of good and evil but some essential part of the us that makes us who we are, and human.

    However, I disagree that Angel’s need for redemption is only psychological. What I think is missing from your analysis gets into something that I find very interesting about BtVS itself.

    BtVS is built on a very strong Christian foundation. Note that, in particular, the writers made the choice to have crosses and holy water repel vampires while other symbols of faith do not: for example Willow, a Jew, never tries to use a Star of David on vampires; and this obviously occurred to the writers, since she is shown in Passion to worry about her mother’s reaction to her nailing crosses around her room. Along with other elements of the series (Heaven and Hell being real places that characters actually go to, vampires bragging that they were present during the crucifixion) this suggests that the BtVS world is very literally a Christian one: one that works on the principles enshrined in Christian theology. An interesting show for an atheist to write…

    Now, let’s revisit the BtVS vampires using a Christian framework. (disclaimer: I’m not Christian, if I get something wrong here, I apologize.)

    In Christian doctrine, the soul gives us a way to connect with the divine. God created us in his image, and ‘breathed life’ into us. That connection to the divine is what gives us the knowledge of right and wrong, yes, but it does much more than that. Note that in Christian mythology, Adam and Eve had souls before they ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

    Vampirization thus literally ‘damns’ us: it removes the soul, our connection to God, and replaces it with a connection to Evil. All human—and vampiric—souls (i.e. connections) are the same: we each have the same capacity for good or evil, the same level of connection with God or the (d)Evil. In Christian theology, one human cannot say (s)he has a ‘better soul’ than another; presumably, one vampire cannot say that (s)he has a more evil soul than another. Yet all humans are not equally good, nor all vampires, bad. I would argue that this is because the ‘soul’ is only one part of the ‘self’. The other parts are made up of our memories, our personalities, and these DO remain when the human soul is replaced with a vampiric one. I believe that this Whedonsian notion of the ‘self’ as made up of different elements is—SPOILERS—reinforced by Dollhouse, in which the Dolls at first seem like completely different people when their memories and personalities are changed, but then start showing commonalities in all their imprints (the soul leaking through?) In effect, Caroline and Echo are different people who share the same soul. —END SPOILERS—In a way, Angel and Angeles are the same person, the same ‘self’, but have different souls. This does make the Watcher version of vampirization somewhat of a kindly lie, as is lampshaded in Doppelgangland:

    “Buffy: (reassuringly)[…], just remember, a vampire's personality has nothing to do with the person it was.

    Angel: (without thinking) Well, actually... (gets a look from Buffy)
    That's a good point.”

    A human turned vampire has no choice but to do evil, and so cannot be held responsible for it. But because the vampire’s level of evil does come out of the prior human identity, he does bear guilt, and have a need for redemption.

    The acts he committed as a vampire were not his fault - he did not choose them from free will, ‘he’—i.e. that essential part of 'him' that makes him human, his soul— wasn’t even present when the sins were committed. Nonetheless, he bears guilt and must seek redemption from them, because of his connection to them.

    1. Had Angel’s ‘self’, as created by his memories and personality, been different, Angeles’ sins would have been different. Angeles is repetitively shown as being worse than most vampires. The Judge can find no humanity to burn out of him, while being repulsed by Spike and Dru and easily able to kill the Scholar. This is echoed later when—SPOILERS—Spike does not feel the same intense need for redemption b/c he never descended to the level of evil that Angeles reached. END SPOILERS— That this is where Angel’s guilt comes from is shown in this very episode: the killings the First taunts him with are not the casual murders and feeding but the truly sadistic kills:

      “But you see, that's what makes you different than other
      beasts. They kill to feed, but you took more kinds of pleasure in it
      than any creature that walks or crawls.”

      Angel must seek redemption not because he committed or bears responsibility for the horrible acts of Angeles, and not out of a psychological need due to the shared memories, but rather because it was his personality—a part of his identity—that created the person who DID commit them.

    2. Very nice. I substantially agree with your analysis on several points. Let me start with the most significant one. SPOILERS FOR DOLLHOUSE follow.

      I mention in one of my posts -- possibly Goodbye Iowa -- that Dollhouse suggests that Joss has an essentialist view of humanity, notwithstanding his existentialist roots in Camus and Sartre. Without getting into too much detail, Sartre and Camus always left the construction of one's authentic self as kind of a black box: if we have no essential self, then what's the foundation on which we create an "authentic" self? What does it mean to be "authentic" when, if there is no essence, presumably one choice is as good as another? I'm not saying they had no answers to these questions, just that they are important problems for existentialists.

      Based on Dollhouse and S4, I think Joss's answer is that there is, in fact, an "essence" to individuals. We see this in many ways: in the eventual merger of Caroline and Echo, as you note; in Buffy's response "Me." to Angelus's question, "Take all that away and what's left?"; in Giles's statement in Lessons that "we all are who we are, no matter how much we may appear to have changed"; and in many other examples I could give.


      So, I agree that Joss adopts an essentialist view for the show, and not just in the soul canon which I discuss in this post on Amends. That means that I agree that vampires have an essential core too. The issue is what makes up that core.

      I'm inclined to see it as the soul. The underlying human strengths and weaknesses are there, of course, but the existence of the soul canon means, pretty much by definition, that the human aspects can't themselves be the essence.

      This doesn't mean that Angel himself sees it that way. "It's not the demon in me who needs killing, Buffy. It's the man." As you say, Angel believes that his human failings are ultimately at fault for his actions as Angelus. To avoid spoilers, I'll say that this same point gets repeated in Never Leave Me.

      However, and this is where I disagree somewhat, in both cases Buffy rejects that answer. She insists that Angel keep fighting, she insists that he can change: "Angel, you have the power to do real good, to make amends. But if you die now, then all that you ever were was a monster." She'll respond similarly in Never Leave Me.

      So the reason I refer to Angel's guilt as "psychological" is that he recognizes his failings and that those failings led directly to the evil he did as Angelus, but misses two important additional and related points: the absence of his soul deprived him of the opportunity for growth and change; and Buffy's point that he now has the ability to change.

      I think that in all this Joss is walking a very fine line. He adopted an essentialist doctrine in the soul canon, and he seems to believe that all people have a core personality -- a self, if you will -- that they can fall back on in the worst times (Becoming 2). At the same time, he believes that people can change for the better, that we have a chance for redemption.

      I'd reconcile this in Angel's case by saying that Angel is focusing on his failings, treating them as his "core" self, but Buffy sees through him and tells him, in essence (heh), that there's a truer core, one which will allow him to change what are, after all, the superficial failings which he's mistaking for his true self. That's what I as Angel's core struggle on AtS.