Fighting the War
July 31st, 2010
You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.
At first glance, “The Shroud of Rahmon” was a fairly unimportant episode: caught between “Darla” and “The Trial,” it seems strange to offer a standalone tale of Gunn’s cousin getting in over his head, featuring a mysterious shroud which brings out the worst in those in its presence. It’s not the worst story in the world, tying in with Elisabeth Rohm’s Kate, but it seems like a distraction from the fact that Darla is somewhere out there, and I don’t need to see someone sing karaoke to know that the series’ destiny very clearly awaits her return.
However, as the series embraces its destiny in the episodes which follow, we see that the Shroud was a bit of foreshadowing, a sort of preview of what we were about to see. While Angel’s previous high point to date, the Faith crossover, was in some ways dependent on our connection to Buffy and the arcs which started on that series, the run of “The Trial,” “Reunion” and “Redefinition” feels as if it wholly belongs to this series, even with a number of familiar faces in the mix.
This is largely because these episodes are not about Darla, or Drusilla, or about Wolfram & Hart – rather, they are first and foremost about Angel, about who he has become and what precisely he believes he can do. It is not that these other characters lack nuance, or that their stories stop progressing, but rather that their actions all work to force us to reconsider Angel’s heroism. What was once brave becomes reckless, and what was once heroic can very quickly become inhumane – Angel makes decisions which would to an outside observer make one believe that Angelus had in fact returned, but we see enough to know that his soul is perfectly intact.
It is simply the soul of a soldier, is all.
Earlier this year, HBO’s The Pacific offered an indepth glimpse at the psychological impact of World War II, as its most harrowing images were not of bloody carnage. Rather, they were scenes where you could see the soul start to slip away from the young soldiers, those moments where you can tell that they have crossed over into something which goes beyond death and dying. In some cases, they’re pulled out of the field before they completely lose themselves, but in other instances they remain because they need the men: when you’re fighting a war, sometimes you look past the telltale signs, ignoring just how far someone might be gone. And so you do little things to provoke them, not knowing that little things can turn to big things, and in attempt to avert tragedy you unknowingly cause it – it’s the sad reality of warfare, and it’s one that I thought The Pacific captured extremely well, so if you haven’t checked it out I would recommend it once it arrives on DVD this fall.
What I appreciate about “The Shroud of Rahmon” is that it shows us Angel in a dangerous place, but not through showing us Angel as Angelus (even though the episode sends us in that direction through the in media res opening and the flashback structure). By all accounts, we’re to presume that it is Angelus who bites Kate, but in reality Angel’s darker sides were simply rising to the surface without taking over. Something was coming over him, but it didn’t keep him from being aware enough to know that biting Kate was the only way to keep her alive – Angel may not have been “all there,” but some part of the character we know was still present. It’s a scene which confirms that Angel biting someone, or acting in a violent fashion, is not a black and white issue – there are reasons for everything, which is why Kate lets Angel go. As a standalone story, the episode has its moments (including Boreanaz getting to ham it up impersonating the flamboyant vampire), but its real value is in establishing that the people in Angel’s life are willing to overlook what seem like clear signs of Angelus’ return so long as some part of the Angel they know remains.
Similarly, we see “The Trial” as an act of heroism even when we should consider it to be an act of reckless abandon. Darla’s impending death is unfortunate, and I do not blame Angel for wanting to find a cure so that her fragile humanity can remain and she can make the most of her second chance at life, but that final trial demonstrates a complete lack of foresight. Cordelia and Wesley’s concerns, before this point, seem more psychological than behavioural – they are more worried about Angel’s well-being in the emotional sense, rather than being concerned about his actions. If anything, Angel has the hypothetical dangers on his side: if he doesn’t save Darla, she’ll turn herself into a vampire by other means, and she could wreak plenty of havoc. However, when the trial’s referee of sorts explains to Angel that he must sacrifice himself for Darla to live, there’s a moment where Angel realizes what he is theoretically about to do: he is going to leave the world without its protector, leaving in his place a damaged infant of a human being struggling to reconcile 400 years of murder and massacre with a newly acquired soul. It’s not a fair trade, nor is it a safe trade, and yet Angel is willing to make it because despite maintaining his soul he has lost his connection with his purpose. After starting the season too focused on his long term future with the powers that be, Darla’s arrival has him on a completely different path, which is why it is so key that Darla isn’t able to be revived (having been granted a second chance once before); those trials weren’t about saving Darla’s life, they were about showing us where Angel stands, an important signpost for his future transformation.
However, despite these signs, most everyone turns a blind eye, likely because they believe Angel is the only one who can fight this war. Once Drusilla sires Darla in that really effective scene at the end of “The Trial,” and Angel proves unable to kill Darla in their rooftop altercation early in “Reunion,” there is a sense that no one but Angel is able to stop them – Kate allows Angel to go free after his arrest at Wolfram & Hart because she fears that she won’t be able to do anything, and the rest of Angel Investigations is really in no position to stand in his way when his plan involved thwarting the plans of two vicious vampires. When Cordelia received the vision in the car, it reminded me that it had been a long time since we had seen such a vision; the season began with Angel obsessed about what plans the Powers that Be had for him, but now he sees them as an annoyance, and refuses to listen to any logic regarding whether or not their visions were designed to in some way protect him. Perhaps they were the only ones who truly saw the road Angel was heading down, and so they tried to use the vision in order to hold him back, but can we really blame Angel for dealing with the imminent threat rather than listening to an omniscient power which has been frustratingly vague in the past?
However, everything changes when he stumbles upon an impending massacre and locks the door instead of saving those trapped inside with Darla and Drusilla. It’s the moment when you realize that Kate was wrong: it isn’t just that the police aren’t capable of bringing them down, but rather that no one is capable of bringing them down. Wolfram & Hart got in over their heads, unable to control what they had brought into this world due to their lack of foresight in manipulating Darla so readily, continuing to demonstrate how fallible the organization really is. However, at the same time, Angel isn’t able to bring them down either, too affected by his past with Darla to kill her outright and too caught up in Darla’s current transformation to see that allowing Holland Manners and the majority of the Contracts department to die is crossing a line. In that moment, Angel weighs his hatred for Wolfram & Hart’s mandate with his emotional connection with Darla, but he never brings the safety of humanity into the equation. He doesn’t consider what would happen once Darla and Drusilla emerge from that room, demonstrating how his decision in “The Trial” was more than selflessness. It was a form of abandon, losing track of the mandate to help people which “Judgment” went to such lengths to confirm.
What I love about “Redefinition” is how different Angel and Darla’s plans are: while Angel fires his staff and seeks to chart his own course towards Darla’s destruction, Darla tries to create a group of other vampires to work with her, and keeps Lindsey and Lilah alive so that she can continue to utilize her connection with Wolfram & Hart. Darla suddenly has a future, while Angel seems to have forgotten his entirely, which fits nicely into Lindsey and Lilah’s anxiety about what will happen to them as the survivors of the Wine Cellar massacre. Lilah and Lindsey are also of two minds about their situation, the former anxious to settle things while the latter is simply willing to accept what comes, but they’re working towards a common goal and can eventually find common ground as the new co-vice presidents. By comparison, Angel and Darla’s differing paths are on a collision course, as Darla tries to operate as if Angel doesn’t exist (bristling at Lindsey’s claim that his death need be her primary goal) while Angel operates as if nothing else but Darla stands in his way. He doesn’t fire his staff because he’s trying to protect them, but because he doesn’t want to have to worry about them, and he doesn’t want to listen to them try to convince him otherwise with their wagging fingers. Both are past the point of persuasion, and yet both are still almost crippled by the presence of the other – while the early parts of the season showed Angel suffering from Darla’s return, now it is Darla who suffers from that sense of Angel lurking in the shadows of her mind.
There’s a wonderful psychological complexity to where things end with these characters. With Darla, her bloodlust as a vampire stems from her frustration being trapped between two forces: both Wolfram & Hart and Angel claim that they have no intention of imprisoning her, but there is no worse prison than the space between a rock and a hard place, and so Darla rises from the grave with more than just a chip on her shoulder. Angel, meanwhile, has again lost control to his emotions surrounding Darla. The scene where he burns the pictures he drew of her suggests that he is looking past his obsession, yet his actions (killing a nest of vampires to test his skills, and then burning them alive instead of trying to stake them) indicate that he is just as obsessed as he was before. Early in the season, that obsession was in his dreams, and it led to the loss of his strength and his ability to stay alert; now that the obsession has become real, defined by the rollercoaster of events within this series of episodes and those earlier in the season, he loses all control of his vampiric strength, so focused on his mission that any sense of morality or ethics goes out the window.
What works so well is that Angel has transformed into a monster without transforming into Angelus, having lost track of reality for reasons which go beyond happiness and instead reflect the very human ability to lose control when in difficult situations. He is a soldier who has lost his way, someone who is so set on winning the battle that he fails to see the carnage he will cause, in the process cutting his ties with what grounded him in the past. As the series disconnects from traditional stories, leaving the visions and the investigations behind, we see Angel becoming more and more unhinged, his anger and frustration channeled through intensely personal battles rather than towards a more altruistic purpose. It makes us realize that it isn’t only Angel’s soul which keeps him grounded: his connection with humanity, whether through someone like Buffy or through people like the rest of Angel Investigations, are what gave him the strength to balance his conscience. Back in the flashbacks we saw in “Are You Now…” Angel was not yet the Angel we know: he had a soul, and he wasn’t killing humans indiscriminately, but he wasn’t reaching out to them, and eventually he walks away rather than trying to save that young woman from the demonic force he could sense was present. In that condition, presented with Darla’s return, he likely would have fallen to this point even sooner, which is why we’ve seen his business of helping people and connecting with humanity dissolve in the midst of his struggle with his sire.
The presence of The Host this season has led to some comedy, but it’s also created a lot of questions. Does he know, for example, that Angel will go off the rails in the near future when he suggests he go through the trials? Destiny is an incredibly fickle concept, and while the Host can offer some insight into how things might unfold there are still visions from the Powers that Be, supernatural rituals or eavesdropping bartenders who confound him. Angel’s path is littered with events like these, unseen landmines which promise to make his path rockier than we had imagined. As I noted when I wrote about “Judgment,” the premiere was designed to confound any notion that Angel was on a clearcut course towards his destiny, but even then I had no expectations that things would fall this far – what seemed like small blips, like the violence shown in “The Shroud of Rahmon,” suddenly becomes prognosticative of something much deeper.
And rather than picking up on threads from Buffy, this drama feels distinctively homegrown, grounded in Angel as a character and these figures from his past emerging to derail his plans for the future. The additional complexity hasn’t completely transformed Angel as a series, but it has transformed Angel as a character in a way which indicates the series’ commitment to serialized storylines which go slightly beyond Buffy’s introduction of a definitive antagonist – Buffy’s seasons were battles, but Angel seems much more overwhelmed, in the best possible way, by the ongoing war.
- Always pleased to see Juliet Landau back as Drusilla, a character that has nicely transitioned over to Angel – while her ramblings remain quite random at points, and become more of an ‘annoyance’ to Darla in “Redefinition,” we are introduced to her as a cold villain siring Darla against her will, and this gives her prescient commentary an eerie quality which quickly overcomes any comic roots which may have remained from her time on Buffy.
- Speaking of that moment, interesting that Darla and Angel have each been “killed” shortly after achieving a transformation: Darla dying just as she was finally coming to terms with her mortality is not far off from Angel dying shortly after having his soul restored in “Becoming.”
- Sad to say goodbye to Sam Anderson’s Holland Manners, who to the very end was a perfect symbol of Wolfram & Hart’s ambivalence towards the value of human life. However, I was really annoyed with how that massacre played out: that Manners would have absolutely no security on his home to protect him against vampires, and that he would allow his wife to answer the door in that capacity, shows very little respect for his intelligence. I understand it’s necessary to get to the point of the massacre, but it pushed the realm of logic for me personally.
- Nice to see the whole gang get together at karaoke in “Redefinition,” but their altercation with the random demon didn’t really make much of an impact. My favourite thing about the story, in fact, was seeing Virginia again, as it’s a nice reminder that they do have lives outside of Angel Investigations (I would have liked to have seen a Cordelia/Dennis scene as well).
- If you haven’t already done so, check out (via the Cultural Catchup Page) the string of comments on the recent sets of Angel and Buffy posts (Seasons 2 and 5, along with the end of Seasons 1 and 4) from Becker (who worked as a writers’ production assistant on the first and second seasons of Angel) for some really intriguing insight into both series – unfortunately for us, Becker has only occasional internet access, but there is some really great stuff to be found there.