Author Notes: Thanks for everyone's patience, between the flu and the busted ankle, I think this fucking thing was my Requiem. I'm staying indoors for a while and avoiding any dangerous objects. Essay is divided for length with footnotes (indicated in parentheses) posted at the end of each half. It's long, and has footnotes because I am a dork. Essay also assumes some basic knowledge of the character and the 'verse. Feedback of any sort adored, comments disabled for part one, please reply in part 2.
The character of Angel was initially created by Joss Whedon to serve as a metaphor for the struggle between good vs. evil that exists inside of us all. Angel was introduced as an ancient demon "with the face of an angel", a serial killer who'd been born again, the original Whedonverse vampire with a soul. He was, in fact, supposed to be a disposable antagonist/love interest for the heroine, a symbol of what she had to fight against lest she become. But Angel proved too popular to kill off as originally planned. So, the story goes, the heroine fell in love with him. And Angel kissed the princess.
But Angel, both inside of the Whedonverse and meta-textually, has always belonged to something greater than himself. His intentions and desires are constantly thwarted by the needs and the actions of others. Angel is the universe's bitch. He is the archetype of an endlessly dying god, a model of fallibility and sacrifice, a vehicle to tell a larger story.
Angel's own story is one of redemption through action, not grace; it is about the failures of a man who desperately wants to become more than a monster, it is the journey of a reluctant hero.
"I can walk like a man, but I'm not one."
-Angel, to Buffy, in “Angel”, BtVS, Season 1
Over the course of eight seasons, the audience comes to know Angel intimately as a vampire. His humanity, however, is shown only via brief flashbacks. As a young man in 1753, Liam is the eldest son of an Irish Catholic merchant. He is a drunkard, a thief, and a womanizer, who despises his father's small-minded goals and pretensions of wealth and class.
Liam is on his way to a whorehouse with silver he has stolen from his father, when he meets a mysterious woman in an alleyway (1). She issues him an invitation, and he goes with her willingly. "Show me your world," he says (“Prodigal”, AtS, S1). Liam's lust consigns him to Hell; the beautiful woman kills him. For Angel, this is an often-repeated theme.
As his Sire, Darla says, "what we are informs everything we become" (Prodigal," AtS, S1). Liam died a would-be aristocrat, an alcoholic, a misogynist, an 18th century frat boy. Risking redundancy, imagine that man without a soul. Hello, Angelus.
Angelus is the name Liam takes as a vampire, either because of his disdain for the Catholic Church (The Angelus is the evening call to Mass, and a Catholic prayer in memory of Mary's total surrender to the will of God (2)), because he was said to have an “angelic face” (this via Watcher Council reports, “Angel”, BtVS, S1) or because when his little sister first sees him re-awakened as a vampire, she thinks he has returned to life and to her, as an “angel” (“Becoming”, BtVS, S2).
No matter the source, his name becomes legendary. His violence and lust for the perfect kill exceed even Darla's expectations. Other vampires have been shown to be disoriented and afraid upon waking up in their graves (3), but Angelus rises with a smile on his face. When Darla asks him who in the village he wants to kill first, he says, "I thought I'd take the village" (“Prodigal”, AtS, S1).
As a man, Liam despised his father, and adored his child sister; his relationship with his mother was never well defined, although she was shown as somewhat subordinate to the will of her husband. The first thing Liam does as Angelus is kill them all. It leaves him unsatisfied. He spends the next hundred years seeking satisfaction, and in so doing, becomes a murderer unparalleled in vampire history. He becomes so infamous, The Watcher's Council takes to calling him the "Scourge of Europe" (“Buffy: The Watchers Guide”, Nancy Holder, et al).
But links to Liam, and what he once was, remain. Angel takes on Darla's father figure, The Master, and wins her away from him (“Darla”, AtS, S2). And Angelus' "masterpiece" is the torture and turning of a young novice with the power of sight, Drusilla. He spends months killing her family and making her insane, before making her into a vampire against even Darla's wishes. Like Drusilla's name (4) indicates, she is sister-daughter to Angelus, and to another male vampire whom she turns years later, when she decides that "Daddy" is no longer paying her the attention she deserves.
Angel will spend his entire existence as a souled vampire trying to escape this family he has created, much as Liam tried to escape his own. Not only will he inevitably fail, but he will also recreate similar dynamics with everyone whom he becomes intimate. Angel's significant relationships will be discussed in greater detail further on in this essay, however, the following pattern is of primary importance:
-The petite, blonde woman who can destroy him: Darla, who kisses him, kills him and damns him, and Buffy who- also does that. In all incarnations, Angel is a creature easily distracted by the wrong head. And for Angel, sex with these women is always, always epic. Sometimes it destroys him, sometimes it saves him, and sometimes, it does both.
These are the women who will have some kind of relationship with Angel across all of his incarnations, and will thererfore be focused on in the most depth throughout this essay.
-The dark haired, visionary, sister-figure who names him: As Liam, his young sister Kathy first calls him “an angel”. As Angelus, he turns Drusilla partially because of her ability to see the future. She is the first to call him Angel when he regains his soul. And as Angel, Cordelia becomes his Seer, his link to the Powers that Be and his humanity, and the first human to call him "family" (“To Shanshu in LA”, AtS, S1).
Cordelia is also the only woman to ever represent two archetypes to Angel; she begins as sister-figure, but later in the series, when she takes on special powers (and blonde hair), the Cordelia/Angel romantic relationship is born. Not unexpectedly, it also ends in tragedy.
-The would-be-warrior, brother-son-figure: A younger male whom Angelus (William, aka Spike) or Angel (Wesley) takes under his wing in some way, who will then jostle for the position of Alpha Male in the family. Both these boys begin as fools, but both become warriors in their own right, in some ways surpassing Angel himself. (In some respects, Angel's son, Connor, also fits into this pattern, particularly when compared/contrasted with Spike (5)).
It should be noted that these male/male relationships also have a distinct sexualized component, albeit more subextual. Angel’s apparent bisexuality is a topic far too broad for the confines of this essay. Suffice it to say that his tendencies are commented upon numerous times throughout the series, by multiple characters, either covertly or out right, and that Angel himself never denies the allegation.
Liam loses his first family when he dies and returns from the dead to kill them. Angelus loses his demonic family when he is cursed. As punishment for killing a young Gypsy girl, her clan returns Angelus' soul to him, along with all the memories, guilt, and remorse of a man. By series end, Angel would not be the only demon in Whedonverse to experience this kind of torture, but he remains the only vampire who was ever essentially raped with a soul. The remorse for what he has done as a vampire is all consuming and immediate. He finds himself unable to kill, even to survive. He calls himself a monster (“Darla”, AtS, S1).
The soul gives Angel an industrial strength guilt complex, a hundred years worth of self-hatred, and possibly, the taste for rat's blood. What the soul does not give him is the desire to become a hero, it merely sets him on the classic hero’s journey: Having been sufficiently humbled, a creature with an incomplete and unsatisfactory early life, and some measure of supernatural power, will have a rapid and perhaps involuntary rise to prominence, and be required to fight evil. The hero himself is often too weak to stay on the true path without assistance, and will be surrounded by tutors who assist him. His primary fallibility will be the sin of pride, or hubris, and this will lead to his downfall. The death and rebirth of this hero figure is an eternally recurring theme. He does not have one true success which ends his fight for good, but rather, his birth-death-existence is cyclical. (“Man and His Symbols,” Carl Jung).
Angel becomes the only one of his species when the Gypsies curse him; Darla spurns him immediately as "filthy" (“Darla”, AtS, S2), and he leaves her under threat of staking. Alone and desperate, he tries to return to her once, two years later, but is still unable to be the monster she fell in lust with. After that, Angel spends the better part of the next century isolating himself from the world. As Liam and Angelus, he was a social creature, one who surrounded himself with beautiful people and precious things. As a vampire with a brand new soul, his own form of self-torture includes this kind of enforced isolation for many reasons. He neither likes nor trusts humanity at first, and he most certainly hates and mistrusts himself. Considering his brief interactions with humans in the 1950's end with Angel being hung (“Are You Now or Have You Ever Been”, AtS, S2), and in the 1970's with Angel feeding off the body of a dying man (“Orpheus”, AtS, S4), one could say his harsh judgment of interpersonal relationships at the time is actually fairly sound. Having learned that lesson time and again the hard way, Angel then spends the remainder of the twentieth century living in alleyways and feeding off rats, determined not to interact at all with the living.
But, as mentioned earlier, Angel has never belonged to himself, and his desires carry little weight in the scheme of things. The Buffyverse audience sees this play out for the first time in the pivotal episode "Becoming" (BtVS, S2), where a filthy Angel is dragged bitching and moaning by Whistler (Angel’s quasi-fairy god mother, in the form of a male, benevolent demon) to see a young girl. The girl is tiny, blonde, and the Slayer, but she looks young and helpless, and Angel is of course, smitten. He decides, for the first time, to become someone in order to help her. He decides to come out of the shadows. If this were a typical fairy tale, the monster would become a man when he kissed the pretty girl, and maybe they would live happily ever after. But this is Angel.
Buffy falls in love with him, yes, wholly and unconditionally. Despite the fact that her sworn duty is to kill vampires, she allows herself to be courted by him, kisses him while he is in demon face, defends him to her friends and her Watcher, and eventually, gives him her virginity. Which is when the fairy tale goes ass over the tea kettle and the would-be-man turns back into a beast. Having felt forgiveness, and therefore a moment of 'perfect happiness', Angel loses his soul, reverts back to Angelus, and tries once again to "take the village." The heroine is forced to send her lover to Hell at the point of her sword in order to save the world. The wheel turns.
"It's not the demon in me that needs killing, Buffy, it's the man."
-Angel, to Buffy, in “Amends”, BtVS, S3
Angel returns from Hell to his own confusion, Buffy's tears, and some benevolent snow. Who or What exactly saved him from eternal torment is never disclosed. But from this point on, it is clearer than ever that Angel is intended for some greater purpose. Not coincidentally, it is when he leaves Sunnydale to find this purpose (and his own show) that he develops more fully as a character and an archetype in his own right, rather than just a love interest or shadow-self for Buffy.
In the Buffyverse, a vampire is not considered at all equivalent to its human host, rather, it is "the thing that killed [the body]” (“Welcome to The Hellmouth”, BtVS, S1). In Angelverse, the audience learns how simplified a version of events this Watcher Council party line can be. Throughout all of his incarnations, Angel displays very similar personality traits.
First and foremost, he has never been a terribly nice guy. Liam is a lazy n'eer do well who would have likely died of syphilis had he not been turned into a vampire. Angelus is the ultimate evil, with "not a drop of humanity" left inside of him (“Surprise”, BtVS, S2). And Angel, for all his desperate desire to do good deeds, to be forgiven, and to be loved, is not only an unlikely hero, but a reluctant one. Early in his new life in Los Angeles, he re-encounters another boy he sired while he was still soulless. He dreams in great detail of Penn murdering and feeding off of young women in his city. In the end, Angel stakes Penn, but afterward, he confesses to Cordelia "I enjoyed the dreams" (“Somnambulist”, AtS, S1).
Despite the soul, Angel continues to find violence attractive, and to resort to it even with those he loves. When Angel begins to lose his sense of purpose in Season 2, he physically threatens Cordelia (“Reprise”, AtS, S2), after the infant Connor is kidnapped, Angel tries to smother Wesley in revenge (“Forgiving”, AtS, S3), and numerous times throughout Seasons 3 and 4, he responds to a teen aged Connor with greater levels of physical violence than is called for. Angel fully admits to longing for "the simplicity" of his soulless life (“To Shanshu in LA”, AtS, S1).
Angel is vain, autocratic, and can be phenomenally petty. Liam wanted all the finer things, Angelus took them. Angel, for all his self-sacrifice, still enjoys beautiful clothes, classic cars and pricey establishments. He may dress head to toe in symbolic black, but the labels are all designer. He often makes decisions for others based solely on what he thinks is best, like leaving Sunnydale so Buffy could have a "normal life" and turning back time in order to give up his humanity- both despite Buffy's desires to the contrary, and erasing the memory of Connor from his friends. He revels in being Alpha Male, and he is not above letting jealousy affect his judgment, such as neglecting to tell Wesley that Spike got a soul.
With a soul, his flaws and sins are certainly those of a man: lust, anger, greed, and of course, pride. Angel is a man who becomes a hero not because of himself, but despite himself. Angel has to work for it.
The initial metaphor the show writers used for Angel on his own was one of a recovering alcoholic. Angel needed to do certain work in order to ensure that he didn't fall off the wagon of good deeds, because left to his own devices, he was incapable of remaining 'sober' (6). In fact, in the original script of the premiere episode, a despondent Angel drinks the blood of a dead girl whom he tried valiantly but failed to save. The WB felt it was too dark to air, and the scene was cut. This is unfortunate, because as scripted, it is a perfect encapsulation of everything Angel- the character, the show, and the universe- is about: Angel finds the damsel in distress too late, she is dead by the hands of nothing more than a vampire just like him. There is a fresh wound on her neck. He reaches out to touch her and apologize for letting her down, but instead he lets his demon face out, then stuffs his bloody fingers into his mouth. He realizes immediately what he has done, howls, turns back into a man, and leaves her. Later on, he succeeds in saving another girl, but the image of the first one he lost will forever haunt him. It's a deceptively simple formula: Angel tries. Angel fucks up. Angel tries again.
But it's the unwillingness to admit defeat, even if he does require ongoing encouragement to do so, that demonstrates Angel's inherent heroic qualities. Angel may not always be nice, but he can most certainly be good.
He is capable of great generosity, particularly to those he loves. He can overcome jealousy and pettiness, and put aside his own happiness for the sake of others , such as giving Cordelia a large sum of money to go away with her boyfriend at the time, despite being in love with her himself (“Couplet”, AtS, S3). He is willing to go to the mat even for people whom others deem unworthy, such as the on-the-run-from-the-law-Slayer, Faith, and a recently resurrected human Darla, for whom he was willing to die in order to give her a second chance at humanity (“Sanctuary”, and “The Trial”, AtS, S1 & 2). He accepts the consequences for these kinds of choices, and stands by them, saying, "We don't get to decide who's worth saving and who's not," (“Sanctuary”, AtS S1). This desire to save others is certainly tied to his own desire for redemption, but it also is typically borne out- both Faith and Darla prove themselves 'worthy' in the end.
Despite the fact that Angel remains drawn to darkness, he carries with him a deep sense of shame around who and what he is. Angel thinks of himself as a monster, first and foremost, and he tends to view most of humanity as good, and/or innocent. "I see people being good, I see people try," he says to Bethany, (“Untouched’, AtS S1) when she is convinced the world is filled with evil.
He considers a recently called Slayer who went on to kill indiscriminately "an innocent," a victim of circumstance. It is only Spike who points out that both he and Angel were the same, "once upon a time" (“Damage”, AtS, S5). Angel looks stunned for a moment before quietly agreeing. It would never occur to Angel to consider himself, in any incarnation, innocent.
Angel is horrified when Buffy first sees him in demon face, and apologizes, saying, "You shouldn't have to see me like this" ("What's My Line", BtVS, S2). He is very reluctant to drink even pig's blood from a cup in front of his human friends, and often has to be coaxed into doing so (7). In fact, it is a very telling moment in Angel's slide toward darkness in Season 2 of Angel the Series, when he is shown to be drinking in front of the Angel Investigations team with no hesitation.
Angel romanticizes normalcy and humanity. Humans are for saving, they are otherwise untouchable. It is interesting to note that the women he chooses for himself are never 'normal'; he sees that type of relationship as beyond his reach, and not something he is worthy of deserving. He left Buffy under the misguided notion that she could have a normal life, with someone who could "walk (with her) in the light" (“The Prom”, BtVS, S3). His relationship with Cordelia did not develop beyond friendship until she took on aspects of a demon in order to keep the visions from killing her. Even his latest, casual, girlfriend of choice is a werewolf.
Angel considers being normal, being just a man surrounded by people he loves, to be the brass ring- something he longs for, strives for, but ultimately considers himself unworthy of having because of who he is and what he has done. Through centuries of suffering which includes a hundred or so years spent in Hell, we will see Angel cry on screen only twice : when he gives up mortality and sends Buffy away for good in “I Will Remember You” (AtS, S1), and then months later, when a human actress he barely knows sits on his lap and asks if he is lonely (“Eternity”, AtS, S1).
When he becomes human accidentally after being bitten by a demon, he cannot allow himself to keep the gift, because he feels as if he didn't earn it yet (“I Will Remember You”, AtS, S1). Similarly, he destroys a ring Buffy sends him that has the power to make him totally immortal. He tells Doyle that using it would be taking the "easy way out" (“In the Dark”, AtS, S1). He also cannot trust himself with that kind of power; should he lose his soul, Angelus with the ring of Amara would be unstoppable (8) .
In the Buffyverse, the characters often referred to "Angelus" vs. "Angel", "him" rather than "you". Occasionally, despite their promise, the Angel Investigations team does the same. Angel does not. There is a definite schism inside of him; in contrast to Angel, Angelus is completely Id, incapable and unwilling to be anything but evil. Angel works hard to be the opposite of his unsouled self- he dresses in dark colors, he rarely curses, he is quiet, withdrawn, and tends toward a sort of outdated chivalry. But it's clearly work for him.
Angel has to bite his tongue to avoid cruelty, has to keep himself surrounded by people who give him a reason to go on fighting, or simply not to give in and just *kill* them. Doyle (Angel’s second fairy godmother-type demon/tutor) realizes this upon first meeting Angel, and tells him in the first episode (“City Of”), that Angel needs to stay connected to the people he intends to save and to humanity in general. Otherwise, he warns, Angel is likely to slip and think to himself: "So what if I kill and eat this one, I saved so many, I'm still ahead by the numbers."
Angel places great importance on the ability of his friends to control him, should the need arise. In fact, he chooses his friends based on their promise to *not* trust him, to always acknowledge what he is, and to promise to kill him if he loses his soul. All primary members of the Angel Investigation team have made this commitment to him at one point or another. Angel never forgets what he is, and he would rather no one around him did either.
This connection to his demon, to his dark side, is a double-edged sword. Angel refers to Angelus as "I", he feels personal responsibility for the atrocities he committed while soulless. While this keeps his soul anchored in guilt, and therefore to some extent prevents him from losing control, it also creates a dangerous split. Unintegrated this way, Angel spends a great deal of energy on self-flagellation over things he never had control over ("We were innocents once upon a time") and he risks simple fatigue and frustration leading him to despair. And when Angel despairs, bad things happen. A good portion of Season 2, when Angel gave up his hope and slept with Darla in a failed soul-suicide attempt was spent with him learning this lesson. The consequences of these actions reached to encompass everyone in his life, and lasted past the series' end. Angel, not his demon, is more often than not, his own worst enemy.
Angel's internal struggle often manifests as a self-centered, arrogant streak. Certainly, Liam was egotistical, and Angelus demonstrated a desire to be the baddest motherfucker in the valley from the moment he awoke. Angel enjoys being "special" almost as much as he abhors it; the happiness clause of his curse allows him the perfect excuse to isolate himself, which then allows him to continue to suffer. Angel is a masochist and the perfect martyr, one who truly believes that the path to peace and redemption is through physical and emotional suffering. It is a rare episode where Angel is not beaten, broken or tortured in some way, usually in grand dramatic fashion, and often using visuals and symbols meant to evoke Christian themes. Even a casual watcher of Angel the Series could not help but notice the amount of times he is strung up, cruciform.
In truth, Angel himself is not symbolic of the latter day Christian god of Resurrection. Christ, or the Sun God, dies gloriously, once and for all time, and his return ensures the immortality of all other creatures. Angel, as mentioned earlier, is a perpetually dying god, and his death, and subsequent inevitable resurrection, does not necessarily herald happily ever afters.
Angel hearkens to the older gods, Osiris, Lord of the Underworld, and Odin, the Hanged God of War. Much like these deities, he rails in vain against fate, learns most lessons through grievous suffering, and faces his most brutal downfall at the hands of his family or loved ones.
Angel is, however, perfectly aware of his own importance, and it would be easy to label him as shamelessly narcissistic, but for one important catch. Angel may not be mistaken in his assumption that he is, in some respects, the center of the universe- after all, the nameless Powers of both good and evil are constantly fighting to have him on their side, his existence and deeds were prophesized by ancients, and the fate of the world occasionally depends on his orgasms. That's enough to give any good Catholic boy a martyr complex.
This connection to spirituality, God and religion is something his soulless self despises, and defames every chance he gets. Angelus will always hate anything that makes Angel feel human, be it romantic love or agape.
Essay continues Here
(1)Several of Angel's defining moments occur in alleyways: He dies as a man in an alleyway in Ireland in 1753. He loses his soul in a Sunnydale alleyway after sleeping with Buffy in 1998. His son is born to his recently resurrected Sire in an alleyway behind a hotel in LA in 2002. And his final battle against the Black Thorn, Wolfram and Hart, and other unnamed evils, occurs in that same LA alleyway, in 2004. According to mythology, the Devil is often found in alleyways and crossroads, or anywhere people must choose which path to take.
(2)The Angelus is also symbolic of the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Ghost, which bears an interesting correlation to Liam-Angelus-Angel. The invocation of Mary alludes to the miraculous birth of Connor to two vampires who are supposedly barren. In fact, Connor is even born just outside of a modern day inn, with (an) Angel standing guard. And certainly, with the addition of Fred wrapped head to foot in Angel's battered coat, the scene’s visuals were meant to remind viewers of a nativity ("Lullabye", AtS, S3).
(3) When Buffy first sees Spike after rising from her grave ("Bargaining", BtVS, S6), he sees her bloody hands, and guesses at what she had to do. "Done it myself," he says, and it is clear that the memory is unpleasant. When Darla re-awakens after being sired and buried by Dru, in "Reunion" (AtS, S2) she is terrified. Many, nameless stake-bait vampires are shown throughout both series rising looking nothing but confused.
(4)Joss has often said he chose the name Drusilla to hearken to the incestuous story of Caligula and his sister (via multiple interviews).
(5) Jenny O has a different perspective:
"I see similarities between Spike and Wes, but I truly think the connection to be made here is the one between Wesley and Drusilla. Angelus opened the door with Spike, but Drusilla is the beloved child, the one who's tolerated her fits of fancy-bred because Drusilla will always come back to Daddy when he calls. And this is largely the expected dynamic between Wesley and Angel. Wesley is Angel's beloved child, the one who, until Connor, could always be expected to choose Angel's side. Also, Wesley and Drusilla are also the most broken of all the people personally affected by Angel(us). And Angel knows that he's done the most wrong by both Wesley and Dru in his two lives, because they're the most vulnerable. Also, I connect Wesley to Dru because while they're both Daddy's most faithful child, Angel will always choose them second to the call of the Powerful but Negative Force in his life (Darla, Cordelia with a side of Connor) and devastate them."
- Jenny O, in Butterfly's Livejournal.
(6) Angel continues to be a good metaphor for maintaining sobriety via the 12 step program, which includes admission of wrongdoings, a healthy dependence on loved ones, a connection to a Higher Power, and reaching out to others who need similar assistance. The analogy of alcoholism as the addiction of choice, however, falls apart by series end, as one of Angel’s lessons is to integrate and use his demon for the forces of good. Since Angel must learn this lesson, and has to drink blood in order to survive, a better analogy may be (no pun intended) some sort of eating disorder, where the source of addiction must be controlled, rather than abstained from all together.
(7) "Don't be embarrassed, we're family," Cordelia to Angel, "To Shanshuin LA", AtS, S1.
(8) According to the writer of the episode "In The Dark" (AtS, S1), this was in fact the main reason Angel destroyed the Gem of Amara, although it was assumed audiences would understand this, and so the spoken exposition was cut from the aired version (via The Bronze Posting Board).