AngelJoss Whedon’s War
By Joshua Ostroff
Friday 21 May 2004, by Webmaster
Joss Whedon, the creator of the late lamented Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its freshly staked spinoff Angel has built his career on metaphors. Using genre conventions like vampires and demons, he concocted a Buffyverse where high school really was hell.
After the final Angel episode on May 19, fans are facing the first Whedon-less TV landscape in eight years. As the real world got darker, so did his shows, which expanded beyond the personal teen traumas to include more socio-political subtexts. On both Buffy and Angel, Whedon and his writers used horror to come to grips with the war on terror.
During the final season of Buffy, which closed shop a year ago, Whedon morphed his femme fatale into a Dubya-like general, gathering up her army of slayers-in-training and endlessly speechifying about sacrifice. The show took on a black-and-white "you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us" tone that mirrored the post-9/11 Afghan invasion rhetoric.
"They think we’re gonna wait for the end to come like we always do," Buffy lectured. "I’m done waiting. They want an apocalypse? Oh, I’ll give them one ... we just became an army. We just declared war ... There is only one thing on this earth more powerful than evil and that’s us. Any questions?"
Her autocratic attitude temporarily drove away most of her allies and the final battle was won when punk-vampire Spike, with the help of a magic amulet, turned into a pillar of fire, essentially becoming a suicide bomber. But despite a twist that shared her powers with other slayerettes around the world, the 2002-3 season felt like an endorsement of the Bush Doctrine’s pre-emptive warfare.
However, Whedon’s personal politics, especially in regards to gender issues and sexual orientation, are clearly left-of-centre, and, while Buffy was concluding, his short-lived third series, Firefly (soon to be a feature film) came at global politics from the completely opposite angle. The sci-fi western dealt with a Han Solo-like spaceship captain named Mal and his battles against the post-war galaxy-ruling Alliance.
"Mal’s politics are very reactionary and ’big government is bad,’" Whedon explained to The New York Times. "And sometimes he’s wrong — because sometimes the Alliance is America, this beautiful shining light of democracy. But sometimes the Alliance is America in Vietnam: we have a lot of petty politics, we are way out of our league and we have no right to control these people." In other words, the heroes of Firefly kind of came off like jihadists fighting American imperialism, for good or ill.
For Angel’s fifth and final season, Whedon repurposed the program. The 250-year-old titular vampire-with-a-soul took over the demonic law offices of Wolfram & Hart, the apocalypse-minded firm that Team Angel had been fighting since he left Sunnydale for LA back in 1999.
The story arc leading to this was over-complicated, but essentially they hoped to use the law firm’s vast resources to do far more good than their hand-to-mouth existence previously allowed. The caveat, of course, was that their new office was "a business, boys, not a bat cave" and therefore they had to keep the profits rolling in from their still-evil clients.
The new theme asked the question, "Is it possible to do good in an evil world without becoming tainted by it?" Perhaps recognizing that Buffy had seemingly endorsed Bush’s militarism — and that in light of Gulf War II, the world had gone considerably less black-and-white — Whedon used Angel to make a more complex argument.
The politics were subtly laid-out in the season’s first episode, with an offhand remark about Bush Sr. signing a deal with the devilish law firm and having Texan science-geek Winifred Burkle put up a Dixie Chicks poster in her lab. Over the course of the admittedly uneven season, episodes focused on whether or not Team Angel were becoming corrupted by the institutional evil around them. Over and over they struggled with soul-crushing compromises — one resulted in Burkle’s death, another delivered a human baby to a demon cult — until Angel discovered the apocalypse they were trying to prevent was "well under way," that they were "fighting an invisible war."
Ah, the "War on Terror" subtext was back, but now the battle had become murkier — not unlike Iraq.
Though scripted and filmed prior to the growing prison-abuse scandal, with US soldiers committed morally indefensibly acts in the name of the greater good, the series-ending storyline became eerily prescient. All season, Angel has been distracted, trying to negotiate evil into slightly lesser evil — always the plan of the mysterious, conflict-profiteering "Senior Partners," who may as well be the neo-con cabal of Cheney, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld — rather than acting like a champion for good.
Mirroring the horrific pictures coming out of Abu Ghraib prison, the penultimate episode, "Power Play," opened with a man being beaten in a dark room — his hands bound, his head covered by a burlap hood. He offers relieved thanks when Angel finally appears, but instead of liberating the victim, Angel vamps out and drinks his blood.
Being the hero, Angel had an ulterior plan with which to save the day (albeit at the cost of too many lives) but despite the exploration of moral ambiguity that runs through all his work, Whedon’s final message is clear: the ends don’t justify the means. It’s not enough to simply wage war against "evil," the good guys still have to act morally better than the bad guys, or else there’s no real difference at all.
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