Changing one’s life around is not easy.
To take stock of yourself — who you are and where you’ve been — to see your life for what it is and then do a complete 180 degree turn is a challenge not many are willing to undertake. This show follows the journey of a “man” (and by man, I mean 200-year-old vampire with a soul) who seeks to answer the question: can you ever do enough good to balance the scales for all the evil you’ve done in your past? Have you ever done things so wrong that you are beyond the hope of redemption? When you’ve wasted, or rather, misused your life, what can you do to win it back?

Click to enlargeAngel, the spin off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, no longer struggles with its own identity. Though I feared for that identity when Spike (played by James Marsters, who doesn’t get enough credit for his acting) brought his act over from Buffy and joined the cast as a regular, the show has successfully created its own universe with its own mythology. If Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the television equivalent of Wonder Woman and the celebration of girl power, then Angel is Batman, with a brooding dark knight who helps the helpless rather than preying on them. The triumph of the antihero. While the show had found its perfect stride in season three, in this its fifth and final season, it has shifted and become, in a lot of ways, a different show. When it recently celebrated episode 100, I thought a backward look over the seasons was justified.

Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly is a self-professed atheist, and yet he can’t help but explore spiritual themes in all of his works. Partly this is because horror lends itself to the spiritual. It almost forces the hand of both the writer and the reader to deal with spiritual matters: life after death, matters of the soul, the unseen world of angels and demons, the possibility of heaven and of hell, and the concept of God.

Click to enlargeThe basic premise of the show is that according to prophecies, a vampire with a soul was destined to become a champion, to play a vital role in the coming apocalypse. You could say that he was one of the elect, one of the chosen, called for a new path, a new way of living. As in all cases of those that are chosen, he was chosen for a purpose: to partner with The Powers That Be, to be their vessel to save the world. He has to walk the path of the champion, the hero, which requires him to be selfless and to sacrifice. In other words, his life is no longer his own. And the character Angel (David Boreanz) does all this, primarily because it is the right thing to do. He, unlike the rest of his vampiric ilk has a soul and thus has moral obligations. (The only other exception is Spike, a vampire created by Angel and a former protege, but he fought to reclaim his soul rather than have one thrust upon him as a curse. Too long a story to cover here.) Angel is also motivated by a promise, a hope, a reward: finite life. He gets a regenerated body to live the finite life of a renewed man.

I hope you noted the inversion: being a vampire, Angel had already possessed eternal life.

Click to enlargeI know that I’m going to upset some people (those who hate horror and those who are vampire purists), but if you look at the book Dracula, which popularized the legend of vampires, you will see that it is deliberately steeped in Christian ideology. It was as if Bram Stoker, the author, set out to create a villain that was, in essence, the ultimate anti-Christ. To give just a few examples: Dracula had his “John the Baptist” forerunner, the madman Renfield; it is through the power of blood that one has eternal life; and, in order to become like him, one must die and three days later, rise. And look at some of the things that stop him: the cross, the sun’s light, and holy water. Which is why you see a lot of modern-day writers of vampire lore go out of their way to distance themselves from its Christian trappings.

Click to enlargeIn his past, Angel went by another name: Angelus. That was the name he used when he had only a demon inside him, before he had a soul. As Angelus, he was a legend of terror, wreaking new acts of horror, inflicting pain in grandiose and creative ways, until he was “cursed” with a soul and became “Angel,” who had to face and to live with the evil that he had done. As Angel, he has fought the good fight — first alongside Buffy, then on his own — principally against the law firm Wolfram & Hart, whose senior partners are powerful elder demons.

The entire cast deals with issues of loss and proving their self-worth. All of them are trying to make up for the past while not slipping from the path they have chosen. Difficult, when they find themselves running the company they have been fighting against for four seasons.

Click to enlargeIn episode 100, we saw the return of
Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter), one of the members of “Team Angel,” who had fallen during last season. Her role on the show was often that of the conscience of the group in general, and as a mirror specifically for Angel. She was one of his all-too-few ties to humanity and often had to remind him that his actions affected others. She showed him the good parts of himself, counterbalancing the brooding self-loathing and self-flagellation that he was so often caught up in.

Click to enlargeOne of the subplots of this season was that Angel was on the verge of giving up. Plagued by doubts about his purpose, his mission, and his methods; doubts about the prophecy and his role in things to come; doubts about his reward — he was at a spiritual low, wondering if he had in fact become complacent and enamored with the trappings provided by Wolfram & Hart. Whereas once he had battled them and all that they stood for, this season found him and his team in charge of the law firm that represented only evil (as in, demonic) clients. And the hypocrisy of using evil to thwart evil had been slowly eating at him because, as he puts it, “evil wins, ‘cause instead of just wiping it out, we negotiate with it. Or worse, for it.”

This was the second time he has made this mistake in the course of the series. The first was in season two, when he decided that in order to battle Wolfram & Hart, he had to descend to their level and methods. In that case, he chose to be evil himself, he couldn’t blame it on a reversion to Angelus. Along the way, he alienated his friends, the Powers That Be, and himself. This time his choices were a series of moral compromises, starting very small at first, as he deluded himself that he could remain good while using the tools and profits of evil.

Enter Cordelia.

One of the sacrifices that heroes, especially anti-heroes, often make is that of a personal life. Angel’s personal life is a series of missed moments. The love of his life had been Buffy, with whom he could not have a moment of perfect happiness for fear of reverting to Angelus (long story). Then there was Cordelia, who was taken by The Powers That Be the night the two were going to confess their mutual love for each other. She had been in a coma from the end of last season (another long story), and was back because The Powers That Be owed her a favor that she was calling in. She arrived in time to thwart the plan of Lindsey, the villain for the episode and former golden-boy lawyer for the firm Angel now ran. Lindsey’s grand plan revolved around making Angel doubt himself. He even mocked him by saying “There’s always time for redemption. Isn’t that your whole thing?” Cordelia’s job was to get her guy back on track, back on the road to redemption. “You know how you’re always trying to save, oh, every single person in the world? Did it ever occur to you, you were one of them?” Cordelia asked.

Redemption is what we all hope for. It is difficult to do a show that has as its heart the theme of redemption without slipping into moralizing or treacly simple-minded pabulum. In the real world, stories aren’t often clearly black and white with well-defined heroes and villains. High themes indeed, but the show works.

Plus it has lots of monsters and kung fu fighting. What more can you ask?

All in all, while not its best season (again, that would be season three which just came out on DVD), this season of Angel has been a very good one: lighter in tone than most of the series, but still marked by all the things that has made it great: great writing with wit and humor, great direction and well-rounded characters. This episode, characteristic of the best episodes of the show, had a way of making you laugh one minute, scaring you the next, thrilling you the next, then pulling your heart strings. And while I am saddened at its abrupt cancellation, I know that the series will have quite the second life on DVD.

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