AngelVictim Triumphant - An Angels Essay
Wednesday 16 May 2012, by Webmaster
The commercials advertising Angel’s first season named Angel a hero. But do you believe everything commercials tell you? Angel’s certainly the man in charge. He headed Angel Investigations, and then had his own branch of a law firm, not to mention the most lines, the most scenes and the best close-ups. He’s likeable enough to be a hero and apparently has a worthwhile goal—preventing the destruction of the world. He also faces seemingly overwhelming odds as a goal-directed hero must.
But as heroic as Angel may appear on a weekly basis, he does not fit the profile of a goal-directed hero because he’s no hero. The goal he pursues in each episode—whether saving a child or a half-breed demon, the city of Los Angeles or the whole world—is not his own.
Note that it took the appearance of Doyle and his pipeline to the Powers That Be before Angel started doing significantly more than taking out a few vamps at some L.A. bars. A hero has to act. And Angel doesn’t act—he never has. He reacts..
He doesn’t scheme, plot and orchestrate events to achieve his personal goal. He doesn’t even stumble across trouble in classically heroic, single-minded pursuit of his own goals. He doesn’t go looking for trouble. Trouble finds him, whether in the form of gypsy curses or regular missives from the Powers That Be. The Powers assign him goals and he achieves them, hoping for the ultimate reward: redemption and restored humanity
A classic action hero plot (and Angel has been consistently billed as an action show) goes like this: “A hero gets his fanny caught in a bear trap, and has his adventures getting it out.” Vampirism is certainly a formidable bear trap, and adding back the vampire’s soul sharpens the teeth of that trap with barbs of guilt and remorse. The adventure comes in finding ways to atone for all those regretted sins. But Angel doesn’t actively search out ways to atone. His desire for redemption has never played a driving role in the show. At most, it’s a low hum in the background.
Angel accepts that his ultimate reward—becoming human—is not within his power to achieve. Until the Powers deem him worthy, he feels he must play by their rules, doing their bidding like a horse after a carrot on a stick.
This is diametrically opposed to Buffy’s attitude. Buffy is a classic hero with her fanny in the beartrap of being the Slayer. This prevents her from living a normal life. Almost every episode is, in some way, about her struggle to achieve normality.
Buffy gets manipulated by circumstance and higher powers as much as Angel, and deserves it even less. But her response is to assert her own agenda and choose her own goal. Handed a nasty job, she does it not because it was given to her but because it needs doing. She does it not because she seeks to be given a reward but because she can do it. Then she returns to her original objective: living a normal life. Her heroism lies in her ability to take the cards she’s dealt and refuse to play the hand. When faced with an unacceptable choice, she doesn’t choose the lesser of two evils—she finds another way. Buffy is a hero because she makes her own rules.
This was never better demonstrated than in her show’s final episode, “Chosen” (B7-22). Finally an adult, Buffy rejects the fate laid out for her by the Council of Watchers and a couple of old men millennia ago. She changes the rules of the spell that creates Slayers, sharing her power with dozens of potential Slayers around the world. She finally achieves her goal of normality—not by denying her own nature, but by making others like her. She changes the very definition of normality.
In contrast, Angel’s strategies rely on his ability to accept others’ rules and play the hand he’s been dealt. He’s not any kind of hero. He is a very talented victim.
Angel is a veritable paragon of victim-hood, a true role model for those beaten down by life’s events. He was made a vampire without his informed consent, as all vampires must be—how could any mortal be informed enough to understand what it means to exist as a vampire?
Imagine Angelus, for the moment, as innocent. Look at him as a victim not only of his sire, Darla, but of his own nature as well. Angel began as a man who was nothing more or less than the product of his time and circumstance. Because he conformed to the norms of his society, he had done nothing to deserve being stripped of his conscience, handed enormous physical power and turned loose with the inability to feel joy without causing pain.
Angel’s response to being put in this position was to perfect the art of being a soulless vampire. He used the intelligence that now serves him so well in his fight against evil to become the de facto head of his small family of vampires—the planner, the group’s most skilled and zealous victimizer. As the First Evil reminds Angel in “Amends” (B3-10), “That’s what makes you different from other beasts. They kill to feed, but you took more kinds of pleasure in it than any creature that walks or crawls.”
A century later, Darla victimized Angel again. Her birthday present to Angelus in 1898 was a gypsy girl she had caught and bound for his pleasure (“Five by Five,” A1-18). But the gypsy family retaliated against Angelus, not Darla, restoring his soul and turning every moment of his existence into his own personal hell.
The initial shock must have been utterly deranging, as it was for Spike when he regained his soul by a different mechanism (“Grave,” B622). But once that shock wore off, Angel could have tried to rid himself of his soul again to escape the constant pain. Instead, he accepted it and chose to elevate his existence as a vampire with a soul to a fine art—long before he ever laid eyes on Buffy. (As he says in “Lie to Me,” B2-7: “[I spent a] hundred years, just hanging out, feeling guilty. I really honed my brooding skills.”).
Step by step, Angel accepted his victim-hood, played by the rules others dictated and perfected his own character. Later, with Buffy, and eventually at Angel Investigations in Los Angeles, he was ready to accept the role of Champion of other victims.
But what are the Powers’ intentions regarding Angel? How much of his fate were they responsible for, and how much did they simply take advantage of? We know they sent Whistler to bring Angel to Buffy, but as Whistler informed her in “Becoming, Part 2” (B2-22), “It wasn’t supposed to go down like this. Nobody saw you coming. I figured this for Angel’s big day. But I thought he was here to stop Acathla, not to bring him forth. Then you two made with the smoochies . . . .”
Angel would have followed the path laid out for him if not for Buffy’s influence. But was his move to Los Angeles already predestined? Had the Powers been grooming him from the beginning to go up against the Senior Partners at Wolfram & Hart? How much of seasons two through four—Darla’s return, Connor’s birth and kidnapping, Cordelia’s preg-nancy—did Jasmine orchestrate? And why did Wolfram & Hart put him in charge of their Los Angeles branch?
It seems as if Angel has been manipulated from the moment he became a vampire. But I would also say that Angel’s love for Buffy changed him so much that he became unpredictable to the Powers. He likely also learned from her indefatigable response to the forces manipulating her. Many of those forces were mortal, though more than a match for the high school girl, Buffy. Most of the supernatural forces manipulating Angel’s life are likewise more than a match for him, even with his formidable allies.
But these supernatural forces have discovered that Angel has become an even more slippery target since Buffy entered the picture. Every plot against him, whether for good or evil, tends to do the instigator more damage than it does Angel. Sending Angel to Sunnydale backfired. Jasmine’s plans to birth herself into the world ended with her death.
Connor didn’t kill Angel. Presumably, whatever plans the Senior Partners have for Angel will go equally poorly.
The blows aimed at Angel ricochet precisely because Angel has perfected the art of being a victim. He has responded to his repeated victimization by accepting his fate as if it were an opportunity. As Angelus, he sharpened his ability to scheme, plot and out-think others; as Angel, he perfected his self-control, self-denial and discipline, as well as developing a strong moral sense he never possessed in life.
Now The Powers and the Senior Partners have discovered that anything they throw at him makes him that much stronger.
That’s why we love Angel. That’s why we identify with him so easily. As a victim, he exemplifies a life pattern that is far more common than that of the hero. Very few of us are in a position to make our own rules, to fight back against the fate or circumstances that hold us down. But almost every one of us has been, in some way, at some time, a victim.
Angel reveals that life’s victims—not heroes, but people just like us—are all that stand between us and annihilation.
Even if you’re a victim, you don’t necessarily need rescuing, you don’t need to transform yourself into something you’re not and you most certainly don’t need to knuckle under to anything more powerful than you are. You don’t have to consent to your own undoing.
You have other options. You can follow in Angel’s footsteps, develop the attributes that lie dormant within you, perfect the art of living as a victim of fate, and become stronger for it.
The victim’s true triumph is to thwart the victimizer, not by direct confrontation the way a hero would, but by living with style, grace, humor, honor, dignity and loyalty, without losing self-worth, compassion or the courage to champion other innocent victims.
Angel may not be a hero, but he is a champion who has used his victim-hood against the forces of darkness far more effectively than he could have used classic heroics.