We did so many terrible things together. So much destruction, so much pain. We can’t make up for any of it. You know that, don’t you?”
— Darla (Julie Benz), “Lullaby” (19 November 2001)
“Team Angel: all growed up.”
— Lilah (Stephanie Romanov), “Home” (7 May 2003)
Angel (David Boreanaz) is grumpy by tv hero standards. And no wonder. He’s a vampire with his soul restored, which means that he’s condemned not only to an eternity of general pain and blood-craving, but also to an eternity of guilt, for the lives he’s taken during his centuries of soulless bloodsucking.
Angel’s story begins back in Sunnydale, where he did a couple of tours aided Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) in suppressing incursions from the Hellmouth and barely survived their tragically impossible romance, her being the Slayer and all. In 1999, upset over losing his soul and being killed by his girlfriend, Angel skipped town to L.A., his spin-off to his own series set in L.A. (“the City of Angels,” as the series’ promoters like to remind you), now ending its fourth season. If you’re looking for redemption by saving others from dens of iniquity (also known as selfishness, vanity, materialism, violence, and duplicity), Los Angeles is the place to be.
The location has served Angel well, allowing, as creator Joss Whedon promised, “darker” storylines than Buffy, that is, apparently, more “urban” and mature (no prom or graduation anxieties here). The show’s premise was, from jump, smart (if not exactly cynical), in that Angel has tried to parlay his personal mission into a business, that is, Angel Investigations. He and his employees seek out “innocents” and other sorts of victims to rescues from assorted evils, with primary opposition coming from a high-powered, proudly demonic law firm called Wolfram & Hart.
The primary thematic concern for Angel has been consumption — appropriate for a show about a vampire, perhaps the paramount junkie and the ultimate consumer. That Angel Investigations set up shop in an abandoned hotel, such that team members might be able to live where they work, to create their personal lives out of their work lives, only underscores the point. As the demon hunters do their best to rid the world of evil, they can’t hardly help but be swept up into it, the evil. This occurs not least because their head hunter comes with tarnished repute and occasionally suspect motivation.
Team Angel, as his version of the Scoobies is anointed, consists of onetime Sunnydale High diva Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter), who moved with Angel to mature into a clever, worthy girl, not to mention a potent seer of visions from the Powers That Be; bookish ex-Watcher Wesley (Alexis Denisof), since retrained into a kick-ass monster-fighter; the Host (of an underground karaoke bar), also known as Lorne (Andy Hallet), a behorned, green-skinned, wholly charming Anagogic Demon who comes with a much-appreciated store of entertainment trivia and penchant for singing pop tunes; science nerd Fred (Amy Acker), increasingly femmed over time, while maintaining her particular interest in P-Dimensional subspace; and the momentously named Gunn (J. August Richards), a former banger turned “streetwise” (read: black) vampire hunter.
This multiculti crew of increasingly self-defined individuals allows the series to poke into a variety of plot-corners, as well as sustain extended arcs. Not least among these is its exploration of race tensions, embodied and enacted by the crewmembers themselves. One is black, two are nonhuman, three are white, or rather, two and a half, as Cordy has gone on to become something else in this fourth season (more on that below). Even as Gunn’s racial difference is less acute and spectacular than that of Angel and Lorne, he is well aware of his background, and the expectations and role that emerge because of it. At first, the series seemed cavalier about the potential stereotypes from which it was culling, and Gunn seemed a sidekicky acknowledgment of the setting (not many black folks in Sunnydale). Since the first season, however, he has turned more complicated, more distinctive, and occasionally defiant, challenging the assumption that he is the resident “muscle.”
That’s not to say that Angel pitches to crossover viewers, like, say, Fastlane or The Shield. And, from its inception, the show has struggled to expand its loyal fan base (early on, Buffy viewers who moved over), into a broader audience, a problem often ascribed to its changing schedule (Tuesdays, Sundays, Mondays, now Wednesdays). Still, in its four seasons, it’s done well with critics and, usually, in the ratings, with an effectively complicated mix of gloomy outlook, one-line witticisms, apocalyptic plots, and range of characters. (Rumors are circulating that Spike [James Marsters] has expressed interest in joining Team Angel; but while these inspire hope, the WB is announcing whether it will renew the series on 12 May.)
Angel has always featured original, usually intelligent character arcs and a gallery of depraved and gaudy demons (Root Monsters, Transuding Furies, Wraither Demons, Van-Tals, et. al.), and wry references to important topical issues, from wicked lawyers and tabloid media to interracial relations and all things Faith (Eliza Dushku), who works her wily ways in Buffy and Angel, and may show up on Sci-Fi with her own series; Faith remains, far and away, the coolest Slayer in the Universe. Still, the series seeks security (every season threatens to be its last). And this search has become one of its principal themes.
Guy steps out for a few hours, half the place goes supervillain.
— Gunn, “Inside Out” (4 February 2003)
By way of appealing to that most prized (18-34 years old) viewer demographic, the show has gone the way of Buffy, adding an angsty teen character. To keep a foot in the high school domain from which it sprang, Buffy, somewhat infamously, added Little Sister/Key to the Universe Dawnie (Michelle Trachtenberg). Angel has pursued a stranger, predictably “darker” route, by giving the perennially worried Angel something else to worry about — a son. Last season, Angel’s protracted and mostly agonizing relationship with the vampire who turned him, Darla (the magnificent Julie Benz), ended with her demise at long last. She left behind (and, maybe valiantly, sacrificed herself for) their child Connor, who was immediately kidnapped and raised in a hell dimension, so that he grew up into an extremely troubled teen (played by Vincent Kartheiser).
This season, the rescued but irredeemably angry Connor has turned increasingly despondent and contentious. This, along with other obstacles cooked up by the Powers That Be, including Cordelia’s ascension to a higher plane, from which she returns quite changed; the Beast (Vladimir Kulich), who brought on a rain of fire and blockage of the sun; and Angelus (Angel sans soul), who gave Boreanaz a chance to play odious, which he does with great charm, and who gave reason to invite witchy Willow (Alyson Hannigan) for a guest spot, as she’s already proved able to restore Angel’s soul.
Connor’s rebelliousness makes him a likely vehicle for malevolence and disruption, to the point that he hooked up with his sort of foster-mom Cordy, just as she’s decided she’s in love with his father. This soapy twist gave rise, of course, to much drama. But in Angel — equal parts SF, horror, social commentary, and peculiar comedy — stakes are never quite what they seem. And so, even this bit of intragroup betrayal was only the beginning of something far more bizarre and planet-threatening.
This something came in the delirious form of Connor and Cordy’s lovechild, who evolved even faster than her daddy. By “Shiny Happy People” (9 April 2003), she’s taken leave of her mom (and left her unconscious for the rest of the season) and stated taking meetings at a bowling alley where vampires bowl with human heads (ewww). Soon it’s clear that she has a plan to be goddess for the entire world, making use of the insta-technology of tv to spread her own word; better, she wants to rid it of all traces of poverty, despair, and violence. Only one little thing, revealed by 30 April, in “Peace Out”: the now-named Jasmine demands total conformity and, by the way, she eats people. This would be, as Gunn points out, “‘To Serve Man’ all over again!” He gets points for knowing his Twilight Zones, but the situation is no less dire.
I thought Our Lady of the Perpetual Seabreeze was the real deal until the divine Ms. J walked through that door and into my ass.
— Lorne, “The Magic Bullet” (16 April 2003)
For all her superior being demeanor, Jasmine must have a secret vulnerability (otherwise, woe is the show). This weakness is revealed by a spiderperson, one of a vast population who has worshipped Jasmine for millennia. While he’s making bloody sacrifice sculpture out of bodies (dead humans or undead vampires). He voices his frustrations with the chatty Wesley by calling him “talky meat,” yet another instance of Angel‘s grim comedy and almost alarmingly coherent sensibility, for of course, this talky tendency will lead to the solving of the puzzle.
That is, Angel must discover Jasmine’s real name in order to stop her. To that end, he engages in yet another bit of witty banter, this time with the Guardian of the Word, who actually doesn’t know the name, but sends Angel ripping into the Keeper of the Name for some minutes, all while Angel and the Guardian keeps up a running conversation. It’s a nifty bit, the sort of combination of brutality-and-patter that the series manages especially well. Angel, for all his desolation and hostility, has always been an adept code-switcher, most visible when he morphs into and out of his (other-raced) monster face, depending on the intensity of his violence (mostly but not all so necessary). But he’s also mostly good at gauging his contexts, deciphering the language demons and witches and humans throw his way.
By contrast, Connor is a bad reader. Or at least, he’s an inexperienced and emotional reader. He surely “gets” ugliness; he’s unbothered by his daughter Jasmine’s true status as a maggot-face because, as he declares, appearance doesn’t mean so much to him, having come up in a hell dimension surrounded by physical, moral, and spiritual horrors. At the same time, he’s a teenager, with several lifetimes worth of grudges against his dad; as Lilah (Stephanie Romanov) observes in the season finale regarding the poor kid’s history, “I can’t imagine how he turned out postal!”
That Angel and Connor come together, in “Peace Out,” to beat back Jasmine is probably not a surprise. She’s a terrible evil (and strangely, given her ostensible parentage, black, here a sign of her great beauty and seductive beauty). And she must be stopped, even if her rap does sound a lot like world leaders who promise “freedom” and “peace” through calculated destruction, sacrifices that must be made for the greater good). That father and son do so with such difficulty, that Connor retains such rage at his dad while plunging his fist through his daughter’s skull in order to save Angel, is rather a wilder turn than most soap operas, much less most primetime dramas, take. Certainly nastier.
And, certainly leading to a sensational climax for the season. Tim Minear’s fourth season finale makes elegant, self-conscious commentary on the ways that corporate structures frame (if not ordain) life decisions. No matter how hard you try to avoid collusion with the beast, eventually, you come to realize there’s no way out of the cycle of revenge and desire. Indeed, Team Angel’s reward for defeating Jasmine, who had promised to bring about world peace (even if it was through body-snatchers-like mind control), is an offer from Wolfram & Hart, delivered by none other than dead Lilah (her visit, complete with neck wound to remind everyone of her slit throat, is, of course, particularly upsetting to Wesley, who might have loved her).
This offer is of the sort that you “can’t refuse,” and the episode, “Home,” suggests there are good reasons to “go over,” to work the corporate system as a means to get your own work done. The Team members are offered what seems to appeal to each: books for Wesley, a lab for Fred, celebrities for Lorne, and, ouch!, a sexy girl and then a black panther grants him a stare-down, conferring uncanny status and respect upon Gunn (“It’s black, it’s white. / It’s tough for you / To get by / It’s black, it’s white, whoo-hoo!”). It could be that Gunn’s going to come out of this experience tremendously changed.
As these scenarios suggest, the central idea here is temptation. If you’re a demon-battler, can you control it as you believe you control yourself? And what can self-control even mean in a world so driven by longing? To have access to all the technology and money of the wicked is mightily enticing, especially when you believe that you can maintain your independence of thought and initiative — this is the real fiction that allows all “selling out.” It instigates wars, permits good intentions, frames prejudice and, above all, induces consumption. Always consumption. This is what Angel, perpetually struggling for its share of the Nielsen pie, so necessarily appreciates, cycles of vengeance and victory, compromise and consumption, as satire, strategy, and incipient calamity.