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"A World Without Love" - an Angel essay

Sunday 8 April 2012, by Webmaster

A World Without Love - The Failure of Family in Angel - By Jean Lorrah

As the television series Angel ended its fifth and final season, the only character left from the opening episode of the first season was the title character, Angel. Compare that to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the show which spun off Angel: Buffy, Giles, Xander and Willow were present in the first episode of the first season and in the last episode of the seventh season. Is the attrition rate in Angel mere coincidence, caused by the vagaries of the entertainment industry, or is it the byproduct of a theme of the show—a theme that clearly differentiates this series from its parent?

In my essay, “Love Saves the World: the Nontraditional Family in Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” published in Seven Seasons of Buffy, I argued that in the original series a major theme is the self-made family Buffy creates, and that it is the love between the members of that nontraditional family that makes it possible for them to triumph repeatedly over evil—even when evil resides within one of their own.

When Angel first began in 1999, it appeared in the opening episodes that Angel would build a similar family in Los Angeles. After five seasons, however, we see that not only did it not happen, but that it was never intended to happen. Not only can Angel not create a stable nontraditional family—he always has a team of helpers, but they change over time—but when he is given a real, blood-related family (through the machinations of evil law firm Wolfram & Hart, an inauspicious beginning if there ever was one) the result is high tragedy that first echoes and then surpasses the Greek tragedies of Sophocles and Aeschylus.

The Darla-Angel-Connor-Jasmine arc runs for three years, from the first raising of Darla in “To Shanshu in L.A.” (A1-22) to the annulment of Connor’s history as the doomed child of two vampires in “Home” (A422), surely one of the most ambitious story arcs any television show has ever attempted.1

Reading the commentaries on the Internet, I am surprised that fans do not seem to have noticed the theme of incest in the arc, especially taking into account Cordelia’s involvement. Darla is Angel’s “sire,” that is, the vampire who turned him into a vampire. Angel is Drusilla’s sire. When Wolfram & Hart bring Darla back as a human woman and Angel refuses to turn her, they get Drusilla, who persists in calling Darla “Grandmother,” to sire Darla.

Angel is seduced by Darla, formerly his sire (mother), now his granddaughter. Little wonder the act does not bring him happiness— upon wakening afterward, he has his epiphany in the episode of the same title, abandons Darla and his flirtation with evil and attempts to return to Angel Investigations. (His return recalls not Greek tragedy but the parable of the Prodigal Son: he asks to return not as the boss, but as an employee.) His turn towards the light is too late, however—Connor’s life, unbeknownst to either parent, has begun.

Meanwhile, the second season diverts into the Pylea arc (“Belonging,” A2-19; “Over the Rainbow,” A2-20; “Through the Looking Glass,” A2-21; “There’s No Place Like Plrtz Glrb,” A2-22). These episodes, which might appear to be just comic wheel spinning to fill the nine months that must pass before Darla can be brought back, underscore the “failed family” theme of Angel and foreshadow the trouble to come. Pylea is Lorne’s home dimension. We learn, while there, that he left Pylea largely because of the rift between him and his family—he is an embarrassment to them, especially his mother. In Pylea they rescue Fred, who joins Angel Investigations and proves to be the only one in the group with a loving, functional family. In “Fredless” (A3-5), Fred’s parents appear—and when Fred is ashamed to see them everyone assumes they must have mistreated her, showing what everyone else’s home life has been. This is the sole example in the series of unconditional love of parents for their child in a normal family. It reassures us that, outside at least, there is a world where loving families exist. Not for Angel, however: only two episodes later, Darla appears, pregnant with Angel’s child (“Offspring,” A3-7).

Angel Investigations has been trying to determine the meaning of a prophecy concerning the imminent arrival of a being who will have a profound impact on the world. At the time it seems the subject of the prophecy is the impossible child of two vampires, and the phrase “there will be no birth, only death” is played out as Darla, experiencing love for the first time in her existence, stakes herself, sacrificing her life to save her child’s. (Love on Angel seems always to mean sacrifice.) No sooner does Angel have his son than the revenging Holtz, whose family Angel destroyed when he was Angelus, seeks to take the child.

Note that Holtz did not begin as an inherently evil person. He made an enemy of Angelus because he was a vampire slayer (small “s”), which in the Buffyverse is ostensibly a heroic occupation. Angelus did not simply kill all of Holtz’s family, but turned the man’s beloved daughter into a vampire, forcing her father to kill her. Angelus made the classic mistake of leaving Holtz nothing to lose.

As Holtz stalks Angel and the baby he names Connor, Wesley discovers another prophecy: “The father will kill the son.” When Angel begins to be attracted to Connor’s blood, Wesley fears the worst. What Wesley doesn’t know is that Wolfram & Hart have spiked Angel’s blood supply with a sample taken from the baby. (The allusion is to another Greek tragedy, Medea, in which Medea cooks up the children she had with the man who cheated on her and feeds them to their father.)

Not knowing why Angel craves his son’s blood, Wesley takes the child to protect him—and walks right into a trap. Holtz takes the child and departs into another dimension where Angel cannot reach him. There, for sixteen years, Connor regards Holtz as his father and is brainwashed with the pure hatred Holtz still feels for Angelus. Holtz never does understand the difference between Angelus and Angel—or else he does not care. He believes that Angel cannot possibly raise a child to be anything but a monster. The irony is that through the pact Holtz made in order to have another chance at Angelus, as well as through the force of his own desire for revenge, the boy does indeed become a monster.

Even though Angel eventually finds out why Wesley took Connor (the machinations of Wolfram & Hart again—the Senior Partners function in the story much as the Greek gods used to, manipulating humans to work out their plans), he does not forgive Wesley until well after Connor and Holtz return. With that return the pre-ordained tragedy continues on its course.

Angel and Cordelia have been slowly but obviously falling in love. Angel has good reason to fear such an event, but Cordelia is not Buffy, especially after she chooses to become part demon in order to prevent her visions from killing her. When Connor returns, Angel and Cordelia work together to try to win the boy’s love to his real father—Holtz, of course, has taught Connor only about Angelus, not Angel.

By the beginning of season four, however, we are much less certain of Cordelia’s motivations. When she inexplicably returns from the higher planes, she has amnesia—and when her memory is restored at the end of “Spin the Bottle” (A4-6), it is not the Cordelia we know, but an entity set on working out its own plans. It could be argued that it is not until after Cordelia becomes pregnant that she is possessed by the creature we come to know as Jasmine, but I find her behavior to have been erratic from the start, and as Skip explains to Angel later that season in “Inside Out” (A417), “Nobody comes back from paradise.” Angel, however, does not pick up on these behavioral cues—by “Long Day’s Journey” (A4-9), he is far more concerned with what Cordelia is doing with Connor. Angel knows that the woman he loves has seduced his son, but not why.

This betrayal has a greater feeling of incest than any earlier playing with who sired whom among the vampires. Just before she “ascended” in the season three finale (“Tomorrow,” A3-22), Cordelia was on her way to tell Angel she loved him at an appointment at which Angel was planning to tell Cordelia that he was in love her. And images such as the one at the end of “Dad” (A3-10), where Angel and Cordelia lying facing one another on Angel’s bed withthe infant Connor between them, have reinforced in the viewer’s mind that Cordelia is the only mother Connor actually knew. Not to mention that although he spent sixteen years growing up in a hell dimension, to Cordelia Connor was a babe in arms less than a year ago. If he had stayed in this dimension to grow up, Cordelia would certainly be old enough to be his mother.

In “Soulless” (A4-11), Angelus taunts Connor (who would not know the Oedipus reference, so it is purely for the audience) by saying, “Doesn’t it freak you out that she used to change your diapers? I mean, when you think about it, the first woman you boned is the closest thing you’ve ever had to a mother. Doing your mom and trying to kill your dad. Hm. There should be a play.” The play, of course, is Oedipus Rex, but Angel’s family is more dysfunctional than Oedipus’s! Oedipus didn’t know the man he killed was his father (in fact, as all he did was hit him with his crutch, he probably didn’t even know he had killed him), and there was no premeditation in his act. It was a simple, clean blow, and Laios got off easy by dying in the road. Connor, on the other hand, plotted vengeance against his father. He intended for Angel not to die a clean death, but to go slowly insane, trapped eternally at the bottom of the sea. Oedipus did not know that Jocasta was his mother when arrangements were made for him to marry the widowed queen, but Connor knew exactly who Cordelia was and took great pleasure in winning the woman Angel loved away from his father.

The culmination of all this anguish is the birth of Jasmine, the fully grown progeny of Cordelia and Connor, grandchild of Angel and Darla. In the episode “Inside Out” (A4-17), Angel learns from the demon Skip that virtually everything that has happened for the last several years has been manipulated by a higher power to bring Jasmine into being.

Jasmine is a far more interesting villain than the usual run of vampires, demons and other beasts. She is a beautiful woman whom everyone, male and female, automatically loves. People willingly do anything she asks. She does not appear either ugly or powerful, like the typical monsters. Only those who mingle their blood with hers can see her for what she truly is—that dysfunctional family theme again: When the blood of Jasmine is joined with the blood of someone else the result is not love, not progeny, but hatred and death.

In the end, Connor vanquishes his “daughter,” but his and Angel’s relationship cannot be repaired. Angel is forced to make a devil’s bargain with Wolfram & Hart to alter history. As a result, Connor is no longer the child of two vampires—to everyone but Angel, that timeline never happened.

There are clear reasons within the Angel mythic structure that this arc could not end in reconciliation between father and son. It is not An-gel’s soul that prevents him from creating a loving family, but the curse that came with it. (Spike now also has a soul, but no curse with it—and Spike, soul or not, easily integrates into family wherever he goes.) Angel cannot build a family based on love—at least one that lasts—because love is the one emotion truly forbidden to him: His curse dictates that if he experiences happiness, he will lose his soul, and for Angel happiness has constantly been represented as bound up with love. It is the physical manifestation of his and Buffy’s love, giving into it, that undoes him the first time. When the Shaman they hire in “Awakening” (A4-10) walks Angel through the process of attaining true happiness in order to loose Angelus for questioning, we see Angel’s concept of love has grown in complexity—he must have not only Cordelia’s affections, but also Connor’s forgiveness and his family intact (Wesley and Gunn working again as a team)—but it is still love, if familial rather than romantic, that is the key to Angel’s happiness.

But that fantasy was only that—a fantasy. In Angel’s world, people don’t come together in a crisis—they break apart. Bonds fail. Angel’s whole history has been a series of partings: first from Darla, Drusilla and Spike, then from Buffy, and all of his demon fighting resources cannot save Doyle, or Cordelia, or Connor, or Fred.

If we look at the opening credits of every Angel episode, we see a graphic representation of Angel’s eternal isolation. Yes, there are some changing shots of Angel interacting with the cast of each season, but the end of the montage never changes. Our final image of Angel remains that dark silhouette walking away from us into the night. Angel alone.