I just finished watching the TV series, “Angel”, for the third time. I enjoyed it at least as much as the first time, although for different reasons. The enduring attraction to the show is a testimony to Joss Whedon’s creative genius. It’s amazing the series has been off the air for ten years already.
From the first moment he appeared in the pilot episode (101) of “Buffy, The Vampire Slayer,” I loved Angel (David Boreanaz); dark, handsome and mysterious, yet uncertain of himself. It was a joy to watch him mature from the rat-sucking sewer dweller to the champion and hero, willing to take on Wolfram and Hart and die in the process.
There is no love story more tragic than the one between Buffy (Sarah Michelle Geller) and Angel. Drawn together by fate and the strong, passionate attraction of slayer and vampire, they are destined for heartbreak.
In “Surprise” (213), when his moment of true happiness arrives, when he’s in the arms of the first person he has ever really loved, the first person who has ever really loved him, finally content, poor Angel loses his soul. Man, could it be any harsher than that?
But, what a thrill to watch Boreanaz change characters from Angel to Angelus! Evil to the core and enjoying every minute of it. His delight at tormenting Buffy (“You can’t do it; you can’t kill me.”), and torturing and killing her friends and loved ones, is sadism at its purist. Whedon has a twisted mind.
Buffy toughs it out and does what she always does, what needs to be done. The sword fight between her and Angelus at the end of the season 2 finale, “Becoming, Part 2,” (222) was awesome, rivaling the one in “The Princess Bride” and taking me back to my childhood Saturday afternoons watching Errol Flynn swashbuckle his way across the South Pacific. Along with the sword fight, Buffy killing the newly ensouled Angel is one of my favorite 10 minutes of TV. As is usual with Whedon, the moment was captured in music with the sweet adagio, “Close Your Eyes,” which is what Buffy tells Angel just before skewering him with a sword and sending him to hell. Ironically, these are the words Darla told Liam just before she turned him into a vampire.
In the third season, Whedon continues to make Buffy miserable by bringing Angel back from hell in “Beauty and the Beasts” (304). Geller does a wonderful job expressing Buffy’s anguish as she helps the feral Angel regain a sense of humanity and normalcy. Angel has many doubts about himself and the reasons he was brought back, culminating in his attempted suicide in “Amends” (310). By the end of the season, in “Graduation Day, Part 2” (322), a brooding Angel finally matures enough to do the right thing by leaving Sunnydale and Buffy behind.
Boreanaz really started to show his chops as an actor when Whedon trusted him with the spin-off series, “Angel.” And Angel began to gain a sense of greater purpose on his way to becoming a champion.
At the beginning of the “Angel” series, Angel starts, grudgingly, to build a family with Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) and Doyle (Glenn Quinn, r.i.p.). They are all feeling things out and uncertain what is expected of them. They don’t always get it right, but they become a team.
In the third episode (103), “In The Dark”, Angel takes possession of a ring that would make him impervious to death. With it, he was able to stand in the sun for the first time since he was turned into a vampire. But, in a show of character, at the end of the show, as he sits watching the sunset with Doyle, he chooses to destroy the ring so he will remain a creature of the night and remember who it is he is meant to help. Ironically, in the fifth season, Angel spends a lot of time sitting in the sun behind the special windows in his office at Wolfram and Hart, considering his choices that led him away from helping “those in need.”
“I Will Remember You” is among my favorite “Angel” episodes (108). It demonstrates that Angel and Buffy are still deeply in love with each other, and the sacrifices Angel is willing to make for the greater good. In the last seconds of Angel being human, when time will be set back by one day, Buffy lays her hand on Angel’s chest. ”I felt your heart beat. I’ll never forget. I’ll never forget.” But the remembering is Angel’s burden. It breaks my heart every time, but it’s not the only time Whedon does this to me.
Joss Whedon, in his devious wisdom, knows his characters cannot be happy for more than, oh, say, half an episode. He’s the master of tragedy and isn’t afraid to kill his main characters.
The first time I watched the “Angel” series, I was shocked during “Hero” when, after only nine episodes (109), and with Angel still reeling from his choice to give up Buffy and being human to remain a champion for the cause, Whedon killed off Doyle. It was gratifying he died a hero. Angel and Cordelia’s grief felt genuine, a tribute to the skills of the actors, Boreanaz and Carpenter. I liked Doyle a lot and missed him as much as Angel and Cordelia, and this is part of the appeal of the show.
By putting these two episodes back to back, Whedon shows that Angel is not going to be allowed any real happiness.
Again and again, Angel is given bits of joy only to have them soul-crushingly dashed. A prophesy, a growing and deep love of Cordelia, a son. He gives up Buffy although he still loves her like no other, risks his life to save Darla’s, and goes through the depths of despair. And yet, his character is strong and he is able to pull himself back onto the path of redemption, helping those in need, and taking care of his friends.
The re-introduction of Wesley (Alexis Denisof) was nothing short of genius. This important secondary story arc takes Wesley from bumbling former Watcher and “Rogue Demon Hunter” through lapses in judgement and faith, through heartbreaking grief, to true loyalty for Angel. In the last season, when Fred dies in Wesley’s arms and then, in the finale, he dies in hers, it is breathtakingly poignant.
All of the characters go through their own personal battles. Cordelia shows her strength of character when time and again she chooses the horrible burden of having the visions to remain a champion. She matures from high-school cheerleader to struggling actress to warrior for the cause, and along the way learns to trust, and eventually to love, Angel.
Charles Gunn (J. August Richards) grows from vampire-hunting street youth to an important member of the team, although he always has self-doubt about his value. The love affair with Fred and its ghastly conclusion leave Gunn in need of redemption. His search to find his self-worth drives him to partnering with Wolfram & Hart for an “upgrade” of his brain to include the knowledge to be a super lawyer. Of course, as with everything Whedon, nothing comes for free and this leads, ultimately, to Fred’s death (although, in reality, Fred was probably destined to die as soon as the team joined Wolfram & Hart).
Although I didn’t like Lorne (Andy Hallett, r.i.p.) initially, I grew to love him as much as any of the characters and his role was important in guiding and calming Angel. He finds himself unintentionally caught up in a group of champions. His ultimate sacrifice in the finale, when he executes Lindsey McDonald (Christian Kane), breaks his spirit.
And then, there’s Winifred “Fred” Birkle (Amy Acker). Fred is mousey and afraid and more than a little crazy, but stronger than anyone knows. She survives five years of horrific treatment on Pylea and then grows into a champion, fighting side-by-side with the men and solving problems no one else is smart enough to. Her bravery is with her to the bitter end, when the “old one”, Illyria, infects her and takes over her body, pushing her out and killing her. She shows her fortitude just before she dies when she tells Wesley, “No, 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 gonna be cut down by some monster flu, I am better than that! What a wonder… How very scared I am.”
Illyria has her own journey from near-god to something closer to human, a journey the grief-stricken Wes helps her with. In the end, her humanity is starting to show as she finds she has concern for Wesley and, finishing her own mission, goes to his aid as he tries to kill Cyrus Vail. It is very touching when she turns herself into the guise of Fred as she holds the dying Wesley.
Spike’s (James Marsters) reincarnation in the last season was wonderful. He haunts Angel just when he is struggling with his decision to take over Wolfram & Hart. Spike seems to want whatever it is Angel has or wants, including Buffy and the Shanshu prophesy that says the vampire with a soul could become human after the coming apocalypse.
Angel has a lot of hatred for Spike, due to several factors. Spike has a soul, but he earned his through trials. It throws uncertainty into the mix with regards to the Shanshu prophesy. Spike also has a history with Buffy, and it’s clear he loves her. Some of Angel’s hatred might be a reflection of how he feels about himself for being responsible for Spike being a vampire and for mentoring him in how to be a monster.
Spike reveals in the final moments of the finale that he doesn’t care if the prophesy applies to himself as long as it doesn’t apply to Angel. “Well, as long as it’s not you.”
These two have such a long history together that all their fighting and squabbling can be viewed as sibling rivalry. The fact that neither ever killed the other is a testament to this. Spike follows Angel like a younger brother, so, when the going gets rough, he drops his jealousy and proves his loyalty to Angel. And Angel reciprocates.
When Spike loses both hands in “Damage” (511), Angel makes sure he gets them reattached back at Wolfram & Hart. Even though he has been antagonistic toward Spike up to this point, he visits him in the hospital. Both become self-reflective with Spike saying he’d never thought much about what being evil means, that he never really thought about the victims; he had killed for the rush and the excitement of the hunt. Angel admits that Angelus couldn’t keep his eyes off the victim; that it was all about the evil for him. And they agree that they were once the victims.
This conversation helped confirmed a notion I have that Liam completely and utterly lost his soul when he became Angelus, but that William hung onto some of his humanity in becoming Spike. Spike didn’t really give any thought to what he did to humans, but was just in it for the fun. And Spike had the capacity for love. Angelus, on the other hand, was truly sadistic and only maintained his relationships with Darla, Drusilla and Spike because they enabled his sadism. I think this is why, when he got a soul, he quit calling himself Angelus and changed his name to Angel.
There are so many other characters with complex personalities and rich histories that contributed to the evolution of Angel, good guys and bad guys alike; Faith, Darla, Drucilla, all the Scoobies, the mayor of Sunnydale, Kate, Connor, Holtz, Lyla, Lindsay, Eve, everyone else at Wolfram & Hart, and various and sundry demons. Even when it seemed like, no matter what he did, the evil would never end, Angel found a way to keep fighting. “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.” (“Epiphany”). In the end, he again chose to sacrifice a chance to be a real boy so he could continue to battle the bad guys. He never stopped trying to make the world a better place. It’s something we could all consider.