Friday, September 02, 2005

The Obligatory Buffyverse Post

A local channel has been airing Buffy the Vampire Slayer every day, from the beginning. Apart from the fact that this gave me a chance to catch up on a few episodes I had managed to miss (early seasons 1 and 4, and yes, I know that was no great loss), there's something to be said for watching the show in concentrated form. Some things became clear that I had only been vaguely aware of, such as how mind-bogglingly terrible the first season was, how quickly the second season went from merely good to freaking great, how open and cheerful Buffy was in the beginning of the second season, and how Angel losing his soul makes a gigantic dent in hers. It's easier to start seeing the show as a single story about a person who struggles against the loss of her humanity--not just because of her superhuman legacy, but because of the all-too-human impulse to protect herself from pain by cutting herself off from the world.

Last week was the end of the fifth season. I must have seen "The Gift" four or five times by now, and the final scene still leaves me wrung out and tearful. This time, it wasn't Buffy's heroic swan dive that got to me, but the moments that precede it. You can see the relief flooding across Buffy's face as she realizes what she has to do--not just at the knowledge that she doesn't have to sacrifice her sister to save the world, but at the realization that, for once in her life, she doesn't have to be a death-dealer. Her sacrifice isn't just heroic--it is triumphant, the victory of Buffy's humanity and her love for her friends and family.

All of which just hammers in how empty and meaningless Angel's corresponding sacrifice was at the end of his series. If Buffy was a show about a person burdened with superhuman powers and responsibility who struggles to maintain her humanity, Angel revolved around a human (mentally, if not physically) who chooses to shoulder a superhuman undertaking and finds himself crippled by its weight. Again and again, Angel is confronted with an impossible truth--that the fight for good can never be won, and that it must never be abandoned. Again and again, he finds himself unequal to the burden of that knowledge--he chooses to fight against evil rather than for good, abdicating his role as a champion. Again and again, he is forced to recognize the destructive darkness of that path, and returns to his role as a protector.

The most obvious iteration of this journey in and out of darkness is the second season Darla arc--enraged by his inability to save Darla's life and soul from the monolithically evil law firm Wolfram & Hart, Angel abandons his mission in favor of a quest for vengeance. He attempts honorable suicide by taking on Wolfram & Hart's senior partners single-handedly and, when he fails to either defeat the senior partners or lose his life, attempts dishonorable suicide in Darla's arms, hoping that a moment of passion will rid him of his soul. Instead of losing his soul, however, Angel gains an epiphany, realizing the importance of the neverending struggle to make the world a better place. This cycle--of despair and disillusionment, redemption and hope--recurs throughout the series, but it's puzzling to me that Joss Whedon chose to end the series with not only Angel but the entire cast on the downward slope.

Although three seasons previously Angel's friends were ready to chastise him for losing sight of his mission, by the end of the fifth season they are all eager to join him in a suicidal strike against the senior partners' representatives on earth. In the show's last moments, Angel and his surviving compatriots face an army which they can never hope to defeat, and rise up against it for one final, hopeless stand. It is a valiant moment, an honorable one, even, but are the choices that led to it equally honorable?

In the episode's penultimate scene, Angel is joined by Connor, who quips that "[Angel comes] to see me and the world isn't ending?" The most important lesson Angel ever tried to instill in his son is the difference between being a fighter and being a champion. The latter "live as if the world were as it should be, to show it what it can be." At the show's end, Connor has finally learned the lesson, and he assumes that his father has stepped up to protect the world. In reality, Angel has called down this disaster upon himself, as an act of vengeance for Fred's death. In theory, destroying the Circle of the Black Thorn lands a crushing blow on Wolfram & Hart's plans for the apocalypse, but Angel knows that the apocalypse has already started--it is in the cold and harsh world that he can see out of his window, in the myriad acts of malice and evil, tiny and great, that take place every day. Faced with the Herculean task of overcoming this sort of apocalypse, Angel's approach seems like the easy way out. Rather than continuing to help the people suffering from this apocalypse, Angel chooses to leave them.

To my mind, the most important scene in "Not Fade Away" is Gunn's talk with Anne, who runs a youth crisis center in Gunn's old neighborhood, a difficult and hopeless task if ever there was one. Gunn asks Anne what she would do if she learned that she was powerless before the forces that sought to destroy her world, and that all her hard work to make it a better place meant nothing in the grand scheme of things. The look on Anne's face is answer enough, and I think we're supposed to learn from it that Angel's actions are justified, no matter how meaningless. I can't help but feel, however, that if Anne had known what Gunn was planning to do later that day, she would have whupped him upside the head, told him to get over himself, and given him more furniture to move.

There's no question that Angel deserved to die at the end of its fifth season. The show's overall quality never approached Buffy's, and the fifth season quickly squandered the goodwill that the third and fourth seasons had generated--the female characters were killed off or marginalized, the intriguing multi-episode stories were replaced by standalones, most of which were barely watchable, Spike was brought in but given nothing to do, and Angel himself became dull and chilly. I can't even get too upset at Whedon's decision to kill off the entire cast in the finale. It was well done, and a suitably heroic end for our heroes. It's the decisions that brought Angel and his compatriots to that point that strike me as a betrayal of the show's central theme--to the point where I can't help but wonder if it was done intentionally, if the suicide wasn't (figuratively) Joss Whedon's, who had grown tired with fighting for his invented universe (and after watching the network tweak his show into irrelevance for an entire season, I can't say I blame him) and preferred to go out in a pointless blaze of glory.

6 comments:

Uncle Patrick said...

I quite agree with your analysis. I was disappointed in what I saw as lazy writing and indifferent plotting in the final seasons of both shows. However, both shows were at the not-so-tender mercies of networks who would be supportive one moment and indifferent the next. I can understand how uncertanty over the shows' fates could affect the writing and production.

The Imitation Monkey said...

Have you seen/any interest in Firefly? I'd be interested in your thoughts on that.

I've only come to your blog recently, but it's become an oasis of lucidity in the clamour of my daily trek through the blogosphere - so cheers for that.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I adored Firefly, but I haven't formulated any coherent thoughts about it except for Mal+Inara=Big Boom. Maybe when Serenity comes out I'll have more to say.

Thanks for your kind words. I hope I continue to please.

Niall Harrison said...

You know what's great about your blog? The way I go from vigorously nodding my head to vigorously shaking it in the space of a sentence. Or vice versa. Gives me whiplash, but it's great. [g]

Case in point, from your last paragraph: there are Angel episodes I'd put up against Buffy's best any day of the week, but I agree that the fifth season is the weakest of the five, for the reasons you give. And I think the meta-reading doesn't just match the ending--if you want to, you can apply it to the whole damn season. Joss Whedon having to make compromises and sacrifices to keep his show on the air; Angel having to work for Wolfram and Hart to save his son. Both of them trying to live with their decisions, and work from within the belly of the beast...

I also think you're right that the Gunn/Anne scene is central, but for slightly different reasons: I think it's meant to be a reminder to ask whether Angel is wrong. The scene is a reprise of the Kate/Angel conversation in 'Epiphany' ("if nothing we do matters, then all that matters ... is what we do"), but the interesting thing about it is the difference in situation. In season two, Angel was making a commitment to a principle, but in a sense that principle was never truly tested because he was never in a position to effect real change. At the end of season five, he is. So the question shifts. It's not about whether the Good Fight must be fought--obviously it must be fought--not whether it can be won--obviously it can't--but about how it can best be fought.

We know from the moment Angel proposes his plan that it's a suicide mission, and that in the grand scheme of things, all it will be for the forces of the apocalypse is a setback. But maybe Angel's right--maybe the fight is what humanity's great. Maybe a bright, shining moment is the way to assert humanity's potential, to inspire, to make people like Hamilton understand why champions fight. And maybe, points out that scene with Anne, he's wrong. Maybe this--persuading Angel to throw his life away in service of an ephemeral victory--is the Senior Partners' final victory. Maybe it really is all about the smallest act of kindness being the greatest thing in the world.

And maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe you just do what you can, from where you stand. Maybe what matters is that you *do* fight.

What raises the episode from 'good' to 'great', for me, is that none of these answers are shown to be right or wrong, in exactly the same way that Angel's last stand is neither won nor lost. They are questions, frozen in time. Even though it (probably) got them all killed, there's no doubt that Angel's plan was heroic. Even though she's never going to change anything, there's no doubt that Anne is doing good work.

Angel was never a show about winning; it was never a show about endings. It was always a show about the questions; about the journey. That's why 'Not Fade Away' had to end the way it did, just as surely as Buffy had to end with the Slayer living to fight another day. The rest of season five I can take or leave, but ... they got the finale right.

(And it shoulda won the Hugo, dammit.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

You know what's great about your blog? The way I go from vigorously nodding my head to vigorously shaking it in the space of a sentence. Or vice versa. Gives me whiplash, but it's great

That is quite possibly the nicest thing anyone has said about my writing, especially since the blogger who most inspired me start blogging myself is Andrew Rilstone, with whose writing I have much the same relationship. Thank you!

I really like your analysis of "Not Fade Away" - it almost makes me reconsider the episode, maybe manage to separate it from the disappointment that has colored my feelings for the rest of the season. I like the idea that Whedon expects us to wonder whether Angel has done the right thing. I'm not 100% convinced that it's there, but I'd like to think so.

(As for the Hugo, I'm not so sure. I didn't really have a favorite in this year's race. I'm probably the only person on the planet who wasn't bowled over by "Smile Time", I liked "33" but think Battlestar Galactica has done much better, my opinion of the Lost pilot is disappointed by my disappointment with the rest of the season, and the day Stargate: SG-1 earns a Hugo is the day I give up on genre television. I think I probably would have given the award to Lost, but only because it was the best in a flawed bunch.)

niall harrison said...

I was mostly worried that the award was going to go to 'Smile Time'. I actually do quite like it, but it's a gimmick episode, and it would have annoyed me for Angel to get a Hugo for such an un-Angel like episode. So on the night, I was in a way relieved that '33' took it ... but deep down I'd still rather it had been 'Not Fade Away'.

I'm expecting Galactica, for all its flaws, to dominate that category for the next few years, too. Unless Lilly really does turn out to be a ghost in VM, or something.

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