Read an Exclusive Excerpt from Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion
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“The strength and conviction to lose so relentlessly”: Heroism in Angel
“Evil happens without effort, naturally, fatally; Good is always the product of some art.”
—Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life”
“In a fight between you and the world, bet on the world.”
—Franz Kafka, “Aphorism 52”
“Not Fade Away,” the final episode of Angel, ends the show with (most of) the Angel Investigations (A.I.) team facing down a literal army of demons. They have succeeded in their master plan, described by other-reformed-vampire Spike as “Kill 'em all. Burn the house down while we're still in it” (“Power Play” 5.21). They have eliminated the Circle of the Black Thorn, and dealt a serious blow to the Wolf, the Ram, and the Hart. Crucially, this army turning up on their doorstep isn’t a sudden reversal of fortune; Angel and his team were fully aware that their plan carried with it this kind of retribution.(1) Everyone there knew exactly what they were getting into when they helped temporarily curtail the evil that they had been struggling against for so long. But their impact is just that, temporary. And these are the lines that end the series:
Spike: And in terms of a plan?
Angel: We fight.
Spike: Bit more specific?
Angel: Well, personally, I kinda wanna slay the dragon. Let's go to work. (“Not Fade Away” 5.22)
Bravado is bravado, of course (that’s a literal dragon Angel is referring to), and last stands have a rich history in heroic tales; but you will struggle to find a last stand in recent pop culture that’s as Quixotic as the one at the end of Angel, which is practically willed into being by our protagonists. As with most plot and character developments on TV shows, there’s an element of real-world practicality to the decision—this particular plot probably happened when it did because the show was ending—but it’s fully in keeping with the character of the members of A.I. and the way heroism is presented on Angel. So far, all of Joss Whedon’s series follow to some extent the same set of ideals and ethics, but on Angel takes those ideals further than on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, or even the grimly pre-apocalyptic Dollhouse. Here, heroism is presented as something that you do, not despite the possibility of failure, but because of the certainty of it, to scorn that certainty.
Now, obviously any portrayal of goodness or heroism that states that one should only be good or heroic when one is rewarded for it (or, in a more basic sense, when one will not be punished for it) is lacking, but what Angel does is present the converse case in the starkest possible sense. Not only is hero-ing a generally thankless job, one that seems doomed to fail on the larger scale of existence, but the universe doesn’t give you any credit for it. If one were to appeal to the Higher Powers that apparently exist in Angel’s universe in the face of some disaster that one was good, had done good, had helped others, one would receive the same answer the Higher Powers give to every question and please in the series: silence.
Over the course of the series Angel and his team win many times on a smaller scale, and just before the armies of Hell engulf them(2) they win a fairly major victory. But it would be hard to argue that they’ve actually made that much of a difference. As Angel himself puts it in “Power Play,” the penultimate episode of the series, “We're in a machine and that machine is going to be here long after our bodies are dust. The senior partners will always exist in one form or another because mankind is weak.” (5.21) Again, this pessimistic worldview is part of his pitch to his friends and comrades to, essentially, give up their lives in the service of one last stab at the heart of evil. Whenever I watch that speech, I think about is Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s JLA: Earth 2, where Morrison posits that the regular DC Comics universe is metaphysically predisposed towards good, and Earth 2, where only the heroic Alexander Luthor opposes the Crime Syndicate, is similarly predisposed to evil. Ultimately, to save both universes, the JLA has to let evil win, at least on Earth 2. After they send Luthor back to a universe where he can never truly succeed, there’s a moment of conversation:
Wonder Woman: I keep thinking about Luthor. Alone, doomed to fail. I don't know if I could have the strength and conviction to lose so relentlessly. Do I try too hard sometimes?
Batman: No one tries too hard to make the world better, Diana. (Morrison and Quitely)
The members in A.I. don’t have the deck stacked against them quite as unfairly as Luthor, but enough is set against them that it’s not wrong to think that one of their major heroic qualities is simply their refusal to give up. And that refusal is not based around a belief that they will be rewarded, so much as a faith in the rightness of the attempt, regardless of result. Earlier in the series, Angel manages to save recently-ex-cop Kate Lockley from her suicide attempt, prompting them to talk about what really matters:
Kate: I just couldn't... My whole life has been about being a cop. If I'm not a part of the force, it's like nothing I do means anything.
Angel: It doesn't.
Kate: It doesn't what?
Angel: Mean anything. The greater scheme. The big picture. Nothing we do matters. There's no grand plan, no big win.
Kate: You seem kind of chipper about that.
Angel: Well, I guess I kinda... worked it out. If there's no great, glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do, because that's all there is, what we do. Now. Today. I fought for so long. For redemption, for a reward, and finally just to beat the other guy, but I never got it.
Kate: Now you do?
Angel: Not all of it. All I want to do is help. I want to help, because I don't think people should suffer as they do. Because if there's no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world. (“Epiphany” 2.16)
Crucially, this conversation takes place in an episode where Angel pulls himself out of a tail spin. Before “Epiphany,” he had been attempting to fight evil through becoming more evil himself, culminating in the end of the previous episode, “Reprise,” where he sleeps with his sire Darla, thinking that the sex will turn him back into the soulless Angelus. When he wakes up with soul intact, it instead triggers him changing his ways; he gave in as much as he possibly could to the undertow of evil, and all it did was make him feel horrible, alienate him from his friends, and eventually wake him up to the necessity of action. That this course of action leads to Angel revoking, in “Not Fade Away,” his claim to the Shanshu Prophecy that would reward him with humanity again, the ultimate example of putting his money where his mouth is, is only fitting. That the sacrifice is in service of an effort that he knows will bring the forces of evil, the same ones he could get away with defying in a less major way for years longer, immediately and crushingly down on himself and his friends, is what really makes that last stand striking. Angel and company could exist in this world and do good in a smaller way; they just won’t.
In Angel’s universe, the belief that people shouldn’t suffer as they do is a necessary and sufficient criterion for actual heroism. As both Angel and theoretically evil but human ex-attorney Lindsay MacDonald say in “Power Play,” “Heroes don’t accept the world the way it is.”(3) One of the elements that makes the final season of Angel so thematically rich and dramatically compelling is that A.I. throws its lot in with demonic law firm/bringers of the apocalypse Wolfram & Hart (a move that all of the members of the team have their reservations about, of course). When they do so, they come perilously close to accepting the world the way it is. Their arguments are the arguments that pragmatism always makes: Someone is going to get Wolfram & Hart’s resources, why not the good guys? If they join Wolfram and Hart, can’t they work to mitigate the evil of the firm and maybe even influence it towards some form of good? Wouldn’t the best way to counter Wolfram & Hart’s plans be to be present on the inside?
Interestingly enough, this plotline comes right after the A.I. team narrowly defeated Jasmine, the evil god who wanted to take over the world and bring... world peace. Yes, Jasmine’s true form was rather more “evil” looking than the face she presented the world, and that world peace was going to be enforced by mind control, but having Wolfram & Hart congratulate you for averting it is going to give most heroes pause. But ultimately, our heroes had to choose free will over tranquilized happiness(4), just as they have to choose rebellion against accommodation. Past a certain point, staying with Wolfram & Hart is making things worse, not better. And that slide from resistance to accommodation is subtle; as Lindsey says about the apocalypse, “What'd you think, a gong was gonna sound? Time to jump on your horses and fight the big fight? Starting pistol went off a long time ago, boys. You're playin' for the bad guys. Every day you sit behind your desk and you learn a little more how to accept the world the way it is” (“Underneath” 5.17). In a sense, that acceptance is also a slide towards the idea that there should be some reward for heroism. Don’t Angel and his friends deserve some support in their fight? They’ve worked so hard for so long, shouldn’t things be getting easier, not harder? Don’t they deserve the resources, the relative rest, that Wolfram & Hart provide?
Sure they do, but deserve has nothing to do with it. That’s Connor’s problem. Well, actually his problem is that he’s the kind-of son of two vampires, who was raised in a hell dimension by one of Angel’s most intractable, implacable, and unreasonable enemies, then brought to L.A. to meet/kill his father, which he almost does, and is then seduced by his surrogate mother-figure when she’s possessed by an evil god, in order to father the body that evil god will use to take over the world. So certainly he’s got some reasons for what he does in the series. But it’s not coincidence that so many different forces in Angel are able to use and abuse Connor by playing into his belief that he’s special. On some level, Connor thinks he’s destined for great things, and that he deserves commensurate rewards. Angel, his father, doesn’t buy into or tolerate that mindset and tries to talk sense into Connor after being rescued from his son’s attempt to bury him forever at the bottom of the ocean:
Nothing in the world is the way it ought to be. It's harsh and cruel, but that's why there's us. Champions. It doesn't matter where we've come from, what we've done or suffered or even if we make a difference. We live as if the world were as it should be, to show it what it can be. You’re not a part of that yet. I hope you will be. I love you, Connor. Now get out of my house. (“Deep Down” 4.1)
It’s questionable whether what Angel says to Connor ever really sinks in. Even when Connor manages to stay on the side of the, ahem, angels and not be a petulant jerk to everyone, he never really seems to get into the spirit of what comes to Angel, Wesley, Gunn, Fred, Cordelia, and even Lorne so effortlessly. To be sure, most of the reason that Angel sends Connor away at the end of “Not Fade Away” is that Connor is his son; but if Connor really was a hero, rather than just a boy trying his best to be heroic, I’m not sure things would have played out the same way.
And of course, it’s not just Angel who suffers. Whedon has a reputation not just for killing characters, but for killing them in the most painful way possible. Generally speaking, when one of his shows decides to kill off one of the heroes, it’s going to hurt. In all of his work, though, the death of Winifred “Fred” Burkle might hurt the most. It’s just so unfair. Unfair in the sense that Fred certainly didn’t deserve it; unfair in its arbitrariness (some dust from an artefact, and that’s it); unfair in the way that the heroes are implicated in it (Fred might have lived if the A.I. team hadn’t joined Wolfram & Hart) and of course Angel and Spike have to make the necessary, horrible decision to let Fred die in order to save the lives of hundreds of thousands more); unfair in that she and Wesley had just finally begun their long-gestating romance. Fred was never a victim, even when she knew she was dying:
Fred: I am not—I am not the damsel in distress. I am not some case. I have to work this. I lived in a cave for five years in a world where they killed my kind like cattle. I am not going to be cut down by some monster flu. I am better than that! (“A Hole in the World” 5.15)
Fred’s right; she is better than that, having displayed tremendous smarts, guts, compassion, and other heroic qualities since Angel found her in that cave. Being better than that, being a hero, doing an enormous amount of good for others; it doesn’t help at all, even if it should. But Angel is hopeful rather than depressive; in addition to being marvelous entertainment it’s something we can draw guidance from in our own struggle with a world that, if not actively under siege from the forces of hell, certainly is so much bigger than us that it seems futile to fight for what we believe in. That’s because, as Angel said to Kate, realizing that the universe isn’t going to give us any credit for our heroism, that there is no big final battle or reward, should galvanize us to act now, in whatever ways we can. To be unsatisfied with the world the way it is, and to live as if the world were as it should be.
During “Not Fade Away,” Angel tells his team to go off and live the day as if it’s their last (because it almost certainly will be). This leads to a series of scenes both touching and funny, but the key one, maybe the key to the entire series, is Gunn’s visit to his friend Anne’s(5) homeless shelter. Gunn’s there to help, but also to catch up, and maybe to hear what he needs to hear:
Gunn: What if I told you it doesn't help? What would you do if you found out that none of it matters? That it's all controlled by forces more powerful and uncaring than we can conceive and they will never let it get better down here? What would you do?
Anne: I'd get this truck packed before the new stuff gets here. Wanna give me a hand?
Gunn: I do. (“Not Fade Away” 5.22)
The thing about a dragon is, it’s probably going to kill you. But if you don’t get in front of it, it’s definitely going to kill the rest of the village. What makes Angel and his team heroes, real heroes, is that they’ve always wanted to take one on, and when they get the opportunity, they get in front of the dragon.
1. Angel even says to his team “We can't bring down the senior partners” (“Power Play” 5.21) in the course of recruiting them for his plan. The plan is explicitly described as one that cannot succeed, at least in the sense of the grand heroic triumph that most shows would use for their climax.
2. Those armies don’t engulf the A.I. team until after the show ends; even Whedon isn’t quite that cruel. You can contrast that ending to the final shot of Buffy; in that series, the last shot is of the ensemble standing in daylight, just having finished defeating the ultimate evil. The last shot of Angel is also of the ensemble, albeit in the rain, about to face near-certain death. Much as in the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, they end in a freeze frame; you don’t have to see them gunned down, they (technically) finish still fighting (my thanks to Mary Alice Money for reminding me about the latter point).
3. I am writing this essay in mid-October, 2011; any contemporary political resonances are both noted and tantalizing, but fall outside of the scope of this essay.
4. This choice also comes up rather strikingly in Serenity; the conflict there between Malcolm Reynolds’ ethics and the Operative’s ethics is a very clear example of what Whedon tends to value in his work. The Operative, a villain that we nevertheless sympathize with, is a perfect example of the kind of pragmatic, accommodating desire to do the right thing that can lead to monstrous evil in Whedon’s view. Thanks again to Mary Alice Money for helping me develop this point.
5. Although it’s too complicated to detail here, it’s worth looking up Anne Steele; her history before she showed up on Angel is one of the unexpected delights Whedon and company have put into the background of Buffy and Angel, and her character arc is an excellent example of the kind of heroism Whedon’s work extols.
Angel Collector’s Set: Seasons 1-5. Box set. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2007. DVD.
Baudelaire, Charles. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. Trans. Jonathan Mayne. London: Phaidon Press, 1995. Print.
“Deep Down.” 4.1. Writ. Stephen S. DeKnight. Dir. Terrence O’Hara. Angel.
“Epiphany.” 2.16. Writ. Tim Minear. Dir. Tim Wright. Angel.
“A Hole in the World.” 5.15. Writ., dir. Joss Whedon. Angel.
Kafka, Franz. “Aphorismen” in Unpublished Works 1916-1918. www.kafka.org . Web. 13 Oct. 2011.
Morrison, Grant, and Frank Quitely. JLA: Earth 2. New York: DC Comics, 2000. Print.
“Not Fade Away.” 5.22. Writ. Jeffrey Bell and Joss Whedon. Dir. Jeffrey Bell. Angel.
“Power Play.” 5.21. Writ. David Fury. Dir. James A. Contner. Angel.
“Reprise.” 2.15. Writ. Tim Minear. Dir. James Whitmore, Jr. Angel.
“Underneath.” 5.17. Writ. Sarah Fain and Elizabeth Craft. Dir. Skip Schoolnik. Angel.
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