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Spacecrab's Journal
LB in SF
Heroes and Villains .... (continued) 
21st-May-2004 09:22 pm
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Some thoughts on the last episode of Angel as moral fiction.

Angel, in his final episode, is not a heroic figure. He makes the wrong strategic decisions and becomes a tragic villain. That is, he does, if we judge him by the wisdom of our best moral philosphers, and consider his actions within the infrastructure of our own world. Angel breaks with the moral code he's established for himself as an ensouled being. He commits a series of despicable acts -- as a prelude to an ill-considered stand against overwhelming evil.

I know that Joss Whedon tells you the rules of the Buffy/Angel world are different. In that world there really are supernatural, evil forces, which act upon the characters. Lovecraftian eldritch dooms are attempting to rule (Buffy) or already rule (recent Angel) the world; and they really should be Stopped.

But even within the context of Whedon's usual Buffyverse, the sensibility of Angel's final campaign seems debatable. Angel might go on for years and years, quietly improving quality of life for the supernaturally-afflicted. He could take a leaf from the book of Gunn's social worker friend: "load the truck" and set up business in a new location. But that's not what this Angel episode is about. Apocalypse is coming. Has to come. The eldritch dooms rule the world, and may foreclose on it Real Soon Now.

Once the Mutant Enemy script writers get you to accept the passion of this premise (or the less-fatalistic Buffy version: "One Eldritch Doom Can Spoil Your Whole Day"), they go to work on your sense of situational ethics. Our suppressed visceral responses to evils in _this world_ become fair game for externalization in the Buffy/Angel world. This does, I'll concede, constitute art.

What it does not constitute, in many individual episodes, in my opinion, is well-constructed moral fiction. This is my ongoing beef with Buffy and Angel.

What we're led to experience in the series finale of Angel is not the evocation of pathos for a tragic villain. What we're given, instead, is a flash of existential courage over the plight of a Dark Knight. "Let us be moved by this tale to go out and renew our own heroic battles with evil. There's only one way to go out -- singing! " (Or slashing at goblins with sharp metal instruments, if we've grown up in a slightly different context of economics, politics, and pop art.)

The most successful thing that Joss Whedon does to make this trick work is to employ good actors and script writers (with excellent ears for dialog and well-developed senses of irony). The less successful thing (from my point of view) is to proffer superficially-logical justifications for the metaphysics of his universe, using directorial manipulation combined with spectacle to make those metaphysics feel credible to us.

As far as I'm concerned, the last few episodes of Angel destroy any resonance with Angel-as-Dark Knight that were successfully established in earlier episodes. Compare/contrast with Frank Miller's Dark Knight. Miller's world jabs at our sensibilities. His Batman shocks us. But despite the presence of super-powered evil in Miller's world, his Dark Knight refrains from crossing certain lines. Batman's shocking pragmatism does not negate the moral force of his courage.

In the last few episodes of Angel, Whedon stacks the deck (as I think he often did in Buffy). He manipulates his metaphysics so that the ultimate actions of the characters are less likely to be categorized, a priori, as immoral or two-dimensional. (As usual, the script writers feint on a scene-by-scene basis. "Uh-oh. This one is out of character doing good|evil. But no! It's the opposite of what you thought. So there!")

For me, Angel was entertaining TV in the early episodes, which showed him as a Chandleresque detective in the City of Night. The show was entertaining, sometimes, in episodes that showed a supernatural being trying to survive -- and cope with other (comically-ironic or horrifying) supernatural beings. (I will continue to remember Wesley's desperate plea to the loa that manifested, in one episode, by incarnating as a Bob's Big Boy hamburger sign.) I think Angel was less successful as a Dark Shadows romantic soap opera, and dull as a Lovecraftian (or Stephen King-ian) horror surrogate. I wish I had the text for the paper Umberto Eco is supposed to have written about apocalyptic horror themes in American TV shows, in which he calls them signifiers of the corrupting influence of corporate capitalism. I have a feeling he might have been on to something about memes that show up in Buffy and Angel. </ljcut>

Comments 
22nd-May-2004 06:00 pm (UTC)
I'll disagree with you about Miller's Dark Knight. I thought Miller wrote very well, but loaded the deck in an offensive and preachy way. The villains (led by the Jabba-with-shades guy with the teeth) were simply evil-evil-evil for the sake of evil, and the liberals who tried to negotiate with them were depictedly as cowardly fools. This is right-wing cant, nothing more.

This is much worse than most of what appeared on Angel. Though the evilness of Wolfram & Hart is an essential premise, they are suave interesting villains who can, and sometimes should, be negotiated with. (This despite the fact that I found Angel going to work for them to be a stupid plot premise.)

I will agree with you that the show worked best when the writers remembered that the heroes were supposed to constitute a supernatural detective agency.

I will also agree with you that the fundamental premise of the Buffyverse does not constitute moral fiction. What may be hard to grasp is that, at its best, BTVS was not about its premise. (I can't say that Angel ever really achieved this.) My touchstone for this is the final climax of BTVS season 2. Angel is evil, Buffy "kills" him. ("Kill" was the verb used at the time; actually he just went to hell for a while and came back none the worse for the experience, though he kept saying it was for the worse.) The specific set-up for the moment was completely absurd.

But that's not what it was about. It was a supernatural version of the "you've got to hurt the one you love" story. In watching that scene, don't look at the stupid CGI vortex. That's the plot gimmick, but it's not the story. Look at the actors' faces: that's where the story is being told.
23rd-May-2004 05:05 pm (UTC)
I'm still trying to decide how much thought I want to give to Angel and the final episode. Do I really believe that Loren would shoot Lindsay? Just when Lindsay was sounding like a valuable addition to the team? And so forth.
8th-Jun-2004 02:31 pm (UTC)
Oh, good ghod yes.

Er, I think so, anyhow. Lorne had broken, a little while before that. Working for W&H, or to be more exact, working for Angel at W&H had broken him. The act of shooting Lindsay was the external manifestation of that, and Lorne knew it.

Besides, he'd heard Lindsay sing.

One can make a case that most of the characters on Angel broke at the end. Within the context of the show, that makes the final battle an attempt at a Pyrrhic defeat, I guess.
9th-Jun-2004 04:43 am (UTC)
Still haven't thought much about that episode; thank goodness you did some of the thinking for me.

Good thinking, too - don't get me wrong. Guess I was disappointed that my heros all had feet of clay and soluble souls. They all melted and broke under the pressure of trying to do good from an evil starting point.

We were watching an episode of Stargate last night from a season or two ago, in which Teal'c is revisiting his past. In a flashback, his friend and superior Britac (excuse me if I get these names wrong) is explaining that though he appears to serve the Guaould (the evil parasites that pass themselves off as gods), he's actually doing his best to undercut them and save lives. But often he has to do evil things to retain the Guaoulds' trust.

The difference between the situations is that W&H's "senior partners" know that Angel et al are trying to undercut them, and they use that knowledge against our heros. I think it was a no-win situation from the start, and never could really understand why Angel took over.
9th-Jun-2004 05:32 am (UTC)
Because the main writers felt like doing sardonic "law firm" humor with demons in it?

One of the interesting things about Buffy/Angel is the way people adopt the (well-drawn/well-acted) characters and develop their own rationales for why things in the stories happen. My own feeling about the plotting is that a lot of it wasn't constructed to make sense over the long haul. The point was to have the characters interact in a bunch of scenes each week, setting up viewer expectations and then breaking out of them -- inducing the audience to experience a range of emotional reactions.

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