Coming just in time for the holidays, Smart Pop is working with George Beahm on an updated edition of Unraveling...Posted August 14th
On shows created by Joss Whedon
"There's My Boy..."
By Joy Davidson
Since the first episode of Buffy, I’ve been a captivated fan, easily losing myself in the alternate universe where every dark remnant of the psyche lives vibrantly in the flesh. Perhaps that’s because as a psychologist and sex therapist, I come from what some might consider an alternative universe, too, where passions are living creatures, both wanted and feared, and the demons of shame, guilt, and regret can keep us chained for a lifetime. In my universe, curses are often self-made, knitted from the wool of our own histories: our families, our lovers, and our beliefs about ourselves. To the degree that my universe intersects with the Angelverse, I view Angel as far more than a creature tormented by blood cravings, past horrors, and mystical forces. In his hulking handsomeness, Angel may be one of the small screen’s most sexually confused heroes. He’s torn by sadistic impulses, terrified of the consequences of intimacy, and driven to redeem tortured women—all because a consuming relationship with one of them framed his destiny.
We could easily mistake Buffy for the most important femme in Angel’s life, considering that they had “the forbidden love of all time.” But another relationship was better than forbidden, it was formative. Of course, I’m speaking of the same relationship that is central in most men’s lives—the one with Mom. Except, in Angel’s case, Mother did not spit him from her womb, but bit him into bloody being.
To say that Darla “made” Angel is to tell only a fraction of the story. She made him, yes, but more than that she shaped him, molded him into her perfect consort. She directed his slaughter of his own family, wowed him with sadomasochistic thrills and showered him with otherworldly wisdom. When she abandoned him, he trailed her across continents and decades. Later, ensouled and divided against himself, Darla cast him off to suffer alone, yet Angel sought her reflection all over again in another preternatural little blond.
Now that’s a doozie of a relationship!
And then there’s the part where he dusted her, and where she rose from oblivion to have his baby. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the beginning…
Angel/Angelus began life as Liam of Galway, Ireland. The son of a harsh and punitive patriarch, Liam failed to cull even a lick of warmth or approval from his self-righteous father. No surprise, then, that the rejected young man turned to rebellious womanizing, drinking, and brawling. Who can help but wonder about his mother’s role in his fate? Given her husband’s iron will and the subservience expected of eighteenth-century women, she would have been powerless to stand between Liam and his father. We can only speculate about how unprotected young Liam felt, and how he might have resented his mother’s helplessness.
Enter Darla, a delicately beautiful, anything-but-helpless 150-year-old seductress, magnetized by lovely Liam’s recklessness and bawdy charm. Before her own vampire-birth in 1609 Darla had been an “independent” woman—a prostitute—accustomed to the fragile power that comes with belonging to no man. From the moment of Liam’s “rebirth,” the two cruelly kindred spirits are bound together, and remain so for centuries.
As a vampire, Liam finally triumphs over his nemesis, his father, when he drains his lifeblood: “Now I’ve won!” Liam boasts. But Darla, older and by far the wiser, reminds Liam that his brief victory pales beside his father’s longstanding defeat of him. With deceptive gentleness, she imparts a truth so elegant, so pregnant, that its echoes rever berate throughout Angel’s existence. “What we once were informs all that we have become,” she tells him. “The same love will infect our hearts even if they no longer beat” (“The Prodigal,” 1-15).
Arrogant, stubborn Liam sneers at her words. He doesn’t yet understand the tug of the past or the power of unresolved yearning. It will take him another 250 years to absorb this very first lesson of his making. Liam’s denial of the longing that drives him lies at the heart of his character, for Liam the Man had possessed little more soul than Liam the Vampire. We only need explore the similarities between “soul” and “Self” to see through the entrancing darkness that envelops both Liam and his vampire alter ego, Angelus, and to comprehend Darla’s power. In vampire literature, “soul” is often equated with human conscience, but it may be more fitting to compare soul with what many in my profession refer to as an integrated or “solid” sense of Self.
Let me explain.
A solid Self is believed to evolve when caregivers consistently respond to and reflect a child’s wholeness and uniqueness as he grows. In the light of this accepting gaze, a child becomes grounded in an ineffable essence of “me.” This consciousness of Self allows him to appreciate the sheer “not me-ness” of another, which imparts the capacity for emotional and sexual connection, and, in turn, yields empathy. Liam never developed these qualities. His father regarded him as a derivative creature, a disgustingly flawed “mini-me” rather than a treasured other. Though Liam fought against his father’s indicting perceptions of him, he absorbed them too, leaving him developmentally impoverished and empty inside.
In the absence of solid Self, a person will struggle to divine a set of illusions, a trusted fiction to fill his inner void. Liam was doomed to seek in others this reflected, idealized vision of himself—or the opposite, a devalued, repudiated image of his shriveled Self, huddling beneath his polished veneer. This hunger for reflection made him vulnerable to Darla’s über-femme predations. Ironically, on becoming a vampire, he lost whatever sense of self-observation he might have acquired in time, symbolized by the absence of reflection in the mirror. A damaged, invisible Self does not empathize; others exist only to fill his needs and make him seem real.
One word describes this embodiment of selflessness: narcissism.
Most of us harbor some narcissistic traits, if only because we are raised in an obscenely narcissistic culture. But the pathological narcissist virtually hemorrhages from his developmentally incurred narcissistic wounds. He is both great and puny; he is one moment indomitable, entitled by his specialness to pillage and use, and the next so lowly as to be unworthy of sucking air.
As a mortal, Liam was selfish, self-indulgent, and given to grandiose displays of machismo. Once his soul was extracted, his excesses became gluttonous to the point of psychopathic extravagance. Just as Liam once searched his father’s visage for a reflection he could love, Angelus seeks that reflection in his new mother’s smile-and finds it. He basks in her admiration. Cruelty fills the emptiness within him that might have flowed with compassion had he experienced a different sort of upbringing.
Angelus and Darla’s relationship accelerates quickly in intensity, fueled both by Darla’s attachment to the boy she can shape and mold, stunningly packaged in the body of a pleasure-seeking adult demon, and Angelus’s fascination with Darla’s strength, beauty, and lustiness. At first it seems they might love each other, but at second glace it becomes obvious that neither is capable of such generous emotion. Before being turned, Darla had been dying of a syphilitic heart condition—perfectly symbolizing her corrupted capacity for loving. As a human she had been too desperate and self-serving to love. As a vampire, she might display loyalty or the desire to merge with a mate, but she could no more love than walk freely in sunshine. Like Darla, Angelus could love only to the extent that Liam was able—suggesting that his feelings for Darla were something else entirely.1 In light of their damaged psyches, it would seem that love’s doppelganger—obsession—held Darla and Angelus in thrall.
However, obsession can be an even more demanding taskmaster than love, for it positions compelling need above reason or good sense.
Obsession is trouble enough in a human. In a vampire it’s … well, demonic. As a result, Angelus’s universe collapses into a mere pinpoint of ferocious desire. Nothing matters but Darla and the satisfaction of his demented cravings.
During their first dozen years together, Angelus and Darla tear across Europe, easily besting any adversary in an escalating reign of destruction. Finally, one vampire hunter, Holtz, traps them in his barn, nearly costing them their lives. But Darla’s cunning survival instincts kick in and she escapes, abandoning Angelus to near-certain torture and death. Her ever-resourceful son does get away—intact if not unscathed—and eager to extract his revenge upon mommy dearest. We never actually see what happens when Angelus finds Darla, but years later they both relish spinning a tale of her betrayal and subsequent punishment to the young vamp lovers, James and Elizabeth (“Heartthrob,” 3-1): “She hit me with a shovel, wished me luck and rode off on our only horse,” Angelus announces.
Delighting in his recollection, Darla reminds Angelus that when he finally caught up with her in Vienna, she was made to pay for her sins, again and again. Can James and Elizabeth even begin to fathom the things that he did to her, Angelus wonders—leaving both the horrors and pleasures to their innocent imaginations. Naturally, they can’t, because James and Elizabeth are “in love” and vampires in love don’t brutalize one another—do they?
Even if Angelus had harbored love for Darla prior to her betrayal-twisted though it might have been—the emotion would likely have died in that barn anyway, leaving Angelus with an unquenchable, ever-soaring thirst: to find her, punish her, and then have her again. Obsession is sustained by the urge to gain power over another, and here we glimpse a climactic turnabout in the power-relationship between Darla and Angelus. The son gains control; mommy luxuriates in baring her throat. Watching, we feel a mingling of disgust and erotically tinged wonder as we ponder the things Angelus did to his lover … his mother … his betrayer.
As years pass, Angelus becomes ever more artfully depraved, the legendary master of psychological torture. And Darla continues to provide fresh flesh for their sexual sideshows. True to Darla’s prophecy, the past continues to inform all that Angelus becomes, as the rage of Liam builds upon itself and is unleashed upon their victims in a whirlwind of mayhem.
In the making of their own vampire child, Drusilla, Darla and Angelus’s sexual sadism reaches a high point—or a low, depending on one’s outlook. In a scene depicting the two preparing to bring Drusilla into their fold, Darla and Angelus thrash about on the floor of a convent as Dru cowers in a corner, awaiting her fate:
“This one’s special. I have big plans for her,” Angelus taunts. Dru watches them, alert to the sexual repartee. “Snake in the woodshed. Snake in the woodshed!” she recites, sing song. Is she referring to Angelus’s snake in Darla’s “woodshed”?
“So are we going to kill her during, or after?” Darla inquires, as they continue wrestling on the floor. Darla’s question reminds us that Angelus now utterly dominates in their predatory marriage, while Darla submits to his whims.
“Neither,” he says. “We turn her into one of us.”
Darla’s eyes widen, for Dru is incontrovertibly “a lunatic,” and even she is startled by the incomparable evil of subjecting Drusilla to eternal life. For Angelus, that’s the beauty of his plan. “Killing is so merciful at the end, isn’t it? The pain has ended.” He prefers to prolong his victims’ suffering. The idea, itself, is an aphrodisiac, and Angelus forcefully rolls on top of Darla, pinning her beneath him as Dru looks on (“Dear Boy,” 2-5).
This scene is thick with the syrup of passion and dependency in Darla and Angelus’s relationship. A more potent elixir than love alone, their obsession thrives on this intoxicating coalescence of lust, power, and insane violence.
The terrible two might have continued cutting a crimson swath across the continents if Darla hadn’t one day outdone herself in procuring damsels for their erotic bloodbaths. On Angelus’s birthday she surprises him with the perfect gift: a glassy-eyed gypsy girl, bound and gagged in front of the fire.
“She’s not just for you,” Darla teases. “I get to watch.”
As Angelus lifts the trembling girl’s skirt, we see the couple at their most intimate, sharing a last moment of gleeful depravity, unaware that their destiny is about to change irrevocably.
The gypsy-girl’s tribe soon exacts revenge against Angelus by casting a spell to restore his lost soul, condemning him to everlasting remorse over his ugly past. What’s more, the curse carries an unknown tripwire: should he ever experience a moment of true bliss, he will lose his soul and any small measure of redemption he might have earned.
Darla is incensed by the curse. She rails, “… they gave you a soul. A filthy soul! No!” and attacks Angelus wildly, scratching his cheek until he bleeds. “You’re disgusting!” (“Five By Five,” 1-18).
Angelus is consumed by the horror of his past barbarism and despair over Darla’s rejection. Once more he is the spurned and loathsome offspring, abandoned and bereft. But, Darla, too, is lost, and for a century and a half ingrains a ragged need not easily slaked. She beseeches the gypsy elders to “remove that filthy soul so my boy might return to me.” However, the curse remains intact and Angelus, broken and tormented, wanders alone, living on vermin to appease his agonizing craving for human blood. However, nothing can appease his longing for Darla, and in a few years he returns to her, begging to be taken in. Tempted as she is, Darla can’t trust that a vampire with a soul could still be “her boy.”
“I don’t know what you are anymore.”
“You know what I am. You made me, Darla. I’m Angelus.”
“Not anymore,” she counters, though she desperately wants to believe otherwise. Obsession is not easily burnt out, and the barest flicker of hope can reignite it in an instant.
“I can be again,” Angelus promises. “Just give me a chance to prove it to you. We can have the whirlwind back.”
Darla’s longing supplants her better judgment. They both want to believe that their naked desire for one another will overshadow the glare of his defective soul.
“We can do anything,” Darla whispers, as their trembling lips meet. And when they kiss, Angelus morphs into his primal vamp-face—for this is not just his killing face, it is his lustful face … the face of passion for the woman who has been at his side nearly forever. A dark romanticism infuses the scene, and it seems for an instant that love between them is not so impossible after all.
Before long, Darla discovers Angelus has failed to keep his promise. Although he has been drinking human blood, he confines his kills to “rapists and murderers, thieves and scoundrels.” For Darla, his cowardly acts strike her as merciless betrayals. Yet, she can’t help offering him one final opportunity, one last test through which he can atone for his moral collapse by sinking his fangs into a missionary’s baby. Angelus—now the “Angel” we know so well—is unable to consummate the awful deed, and he bolts with the baby (“Darla,” 2-7).
The lovers do not see each other again for nearly 100 years.
If the first phase of Angel’s “life” as a vampire is an exotic free-for-all under Darla’s tutelage, the second phase is a nightmare of stagnation. Angel no longer feeds on even the most repugnant of humans, but subsists on subterranean vermin. Isolated from both humanity and demons, devoid of attachments or connections to the world, he hovers ghost-like among the living, unchallenged, psychologically still as stone. We see the human Liam in him—a Liam whose bravado has been knocked out—wasting away in a bed of pain and self-hatred. As self-centered as ever—even if consumed by sins rather than caprices—Angel wallows in worthlessness as he once swelled with grandiosity. He may have a soul, but he still lacks a core Self; a crippling conscience is not enough to make him whole.
Joss Whedon has suggested that Angel’s need for blood is a metaphor for addiction, and that he is always one drink away from reverting. But I question the actual substance of Angel’s addiction. Is it blood? Or is he hooked on something from which he cannot abstain without effecting an inner transformation: his own self-loathing?
A century after his exile from Darla, the Powers That Be finally break through Angel’s desolation by assigning him a mission. The new Slayer is in danger from the Master, and Angel is entrusted with her protection. Unknown to Angel, Darla has become the Master’s new hit-woman and when she threatens Buffy, her own dear boy is forced to drive a stake into her breast.
Darla is finally lost to him, it seems. Will his lingering obsession be stilled? Not quite—for he seeks her again in another little blond spitfire. The advice of a “faux Swami” on how to cleanse Darla from his psyche comes to mind: “Go out and find some small blond thing. You bed her, you love her, you treat her like crap!” (“Guise Will Be Guise,” 2-6). And this he did … in spades.
Although his longing for Darla contaminates Angel’s attraction to teenage Buffy, the relationship is just what the doctor ordered for the 250-year-old vampire. Angel and Buffy are not quite the May/December pairing they seem; emotionally, they may be closer to the same level of adolescent development. So, together they grow up, through trials and heartache and the crucible of deep caring for one another. For a while it appears that Angel might have finally begun to mend Liam’s wounds. But things don’t quite work out the way either of them planned, and Angel eventually leaves Sunnydale.
When Angel arrives in LA, he resumes his brooding isolation. But the Powers again intercede. (Obviously they have big plans for this accursed boy!) Flush with the new mission imprinted upon his business cards ”we help the helpless”—he becomes the paterfamilias of Angel Investigations. More than ever haunted by his deeds as Angelus, he craves redemption as he once craved human blood. And hope springs eternal when an ancient prophecy foretells that a vampire with a soul, after saving the world from apocalypse, will be made human again. Unlife is good. Sort of. Except for the fact that Angel’s new obsession—his quest for redemption—sweeps him into a claustrophobic labyrinth of his own making. Convinced that asceticism is the path to salvation, he accepts a joyless, passionless existence in the service of his Sisyphusian struggle. How ironic that love at its most intimate and connected—the experience that makes the rest of us most human—deprives Angel of his strongest link to humanity.
Meanwhile, the senior partners at the evil law firm of Wolfram & Hart, in the hopes of drawing the powerful “Angelus” into their orbit, invoke magic to bring Darla back from the dead as a mortal-with a soul. As Lindsey says to Darla: “We don’t want Angel dead. We want him dark. And there’s no better way to a man’s dark side than to awaken his nastier urges …” (“Dear Boy,” 2-5).
Darla’s return raises some hopelessly romantic questions: Could Darla and Angel have a real chance at love? Could they be “soul mates” after all? Not likely. For a soul’s installation can’t wipe away hundreds of years of personal history, nor heal a damaged psyche. A soul, alone, can’t sweeten a hardened, selfish heart. Darla is no more a being of innocence in her second incarnation than she was on the day she was turned by the Master.
The folks at Wolfram & Hart are certainly on the right track if they want to nab Angelus. Like any good therapist, they know that a desire buried in shame and shadow will eventually rise feverishly to the surface. And because Angel embraces the celibate path to sustained goodness, he is ever so ripe for Darla’s plucking.
Darla quickly rekindles Angel’s neutered sexuality, spinning irresistible tales of their past debaucheries. She croons of taking the gypsy in front of the fire until the girl was nearly drowning in her own blood, and Angel’s animal nature leaps to life uninhibited, unashamed. How different are these dreams from memories of times shared with Buffy, when the “good boy” remained ever cautious. His feelings for Buffy may have elicited true happiness, but he always restrained the full measure of his lust. As Darla conjures her hypnotic dreamscape, she slowly isolates Angel from his team, replacing the bleakness of his daily existence with a tempting illusion and leaving his waking hours choked with remorse.
In Angel’s world, intense sexuality is associated with dark forces that taint love. It’s a world bloated with Christian guilt, and Angel’s masochistic self-hatred is rooted in the very human dilemma of being simultaneously consumed with sexual tension and terrified of its release, of yearning for love yet mistrusting its carnal expression.
Angel’s reaction to his curse reflects the dynamic tension operative within the majority of modern males who wrestle with extremes of connection and separation, of merging and thriving independently. To love without fear is daunting. Fear of being enveloped, suffocated, of losing one’s Self, may keep love at arm’s length. Men are often caught in the wasteland between polarities, unable to achieve a balance that enables them to hold on to themselves and another.
I suspect that Angel’s desire to connect, to extend himself fully, may one day lead him to the completion of his heroic journey. I’d like to imagine that love will become the antidote to his curse, and cease to be the evil potion that inevitably invokes Angelus. Of all the trials that Angel confronts season after season, his final trial, and the road to triumph over the gypsy magic, may be (almost) as simple as a commitment to love fearlessly.
Angel’s relationship with Darla allows him to brush closely up against this very possibility.
The first time that a wakeful Angel encounters the human Darla, his pent-up feelings quickly ignite and he bursts into vamp-face with one passionate kiss.
“There’s my boy …” Darla coos.
Desire ripples off the screen in almost palpable waves. The raw eroticism Angel has been holding at bay oozes through, just as it does in his dreams. Angel tries to halt the momentum, but Darla pushes him up against a pillar, nuzzling close. He grabs her arm and shoves her away as she continues to entice him. “You’re hurting me,” she whispers. “And I like it.”
So does Angel-but his concern for Darla’s precious soul takes precedence. When he warns her of the toll her guilty memories will soon take she offers a means of easing his troubled conscience: allow her to give him one delirious moment of happiness-and then give her life eternal.
Angel won’t bite. “You blew the top off my head,” he says. “But you never made me happy.”
Infuriated, Darla strikes back. “There was a time when you would have said I was the definition of bliss! Buffy wasn’t happiness. She was just new!”
Angel continues preaching. “Darla, I couldn’t feel that with you, because I didn’t have a soul. But then I got a second chance—just like you have.”
Angel is deluding himself about the soul being his handicap, but at least he believes his own lies. And who can blame him for harboring just a flicker of a fantasy that if Darla aligns with the good in the world, they could be together again and, if not happy, perhaps the next best thing.
Darla will have none of Angel’s moralizing, and once again reveals her disdain for the idea of the “soul.”
“What a poster child for soulfulness you are… Before you got neutered you weren’t just any vampire, you were a legend! Nobody could keep up with you-not even me. You don’t learn that kind of darkness. It’s innate. It was in you before we ever met… My boy is still in there and he wants out!” (“Dear Boy,” 2-5).
Centuries earlier, Darla had recognized in Liam the very qualities she sought in a mate—ruthless cruelty and daring self-indulgence. However, Liam’s darkness wasn’t “evil,” it was merely his own pathetically human pain turned outward, savagely visited upon the world.2 In the grip of soulless excess, however, he became her monstrously dear boy. Now, even Darla’s wiles fail to sway Angel from his redemptive path, and he holds fast to the conviction that her salvation is his as well.
Soon after their confrontation, Angel learns that Darla is dying of the very disease that nearly took her before the Master made her a vampire. To save both her life and her soul, he embarks upon a tortuous series of trials. Despite his efforts, the Powers refuse to grant her another chance at humanity, and Angel resigns himself to the idea that turning her into a vampire is the only way to spare her.
“Maybe it would be different. We don’t know … because, you know, I have a soul. If I did bite you …”
He is reaching, searching, but Darla, too, has been changed by her short mortal life. She has been so deeply moved by Angel’s sacrifices, his willingness to die to save her, that she refuses.
“Angel, I’ve seen it now … everything you’re going through. I felt how you care. The way no one’s ever cared before-not for me. That’s all I need from you.”
Darla is willing to die as she was meant to die all along, and Angel promises to remain at her side until the end. “You’re never going to be alone again.”
For the first time, Angel and Darla realize a depth of unselfish caring for one another that transcends obsession. They are on the verge of the healing they need, and there is a chance, finally, for a resolution to their dramatic relationship. If only this tender moment could last. However, in the mythopoetic universe created by Joss Whedon, almost as soon as love blooms, tragedy strikes.3 So it is really no surprise that black-ops specialists burst in, subdue Angel, and force him to watch helplessly as his own spawn, Drusilla, gives Darla the eternal life she had been seeking (“The Trial,” 2-9). In the aftermath, Angel unleashes decades-centuries-of fulminating rage. His old obsession with possessing Darla gives rise to an urgency to destroy her—and, it seems, himself. His behavior becomes erratic, driven: giving the Wolfram & Hart staff over to Darla and Dru’s blood lust, setting fire to the two vampires, and finally launching his own Kamikaze mission into the bowels of Wolfram & Hart’s home office to wipe out the senior partners. He has lost hope, lost belief in anything except vengeance upon the evil that he can no longer abide—especially as it lies concealed within him. To the team at AI, he is almost unrecognizable.
“I don’t even know what you are anymore,” says Cordelia, noting that Angel is neither evil vampire nor good “helper of the helpless,” but some curious hybrid.
“I’m a vampire. Look it up!”
Angel has no illusions about the side of the divide from which he’s drawing energy. This scene is starkly reminiscent of the one between Angel and Darla when she says nearly the same words after Angel returns to her, ensouled, promising to prove himself.
When Angel fails to annihilate either his own misery or the world’s, he returns home, defeated, more disconnected from life than ever before. And there is Darla, waiting. Too lost to wonder why she is there, Angel violently pushes her up against a wall, devouring her with his mouth.
“I just want to feel something besides the cold.”
But in the midst of passion, Darla begins to giggle.
“Why are you laughing?” Angel snarls.
In spite of herself she continues to laugh, perhaps at the improbability of it all, the single turn she hadn’t anticipated. Angel strikes her viciously across the face, sending her crashing through the glass doors that lead to his bedroom. Slowly, he approaches her, a predator stalking prey. Light bounces off the jagged shards of glass that surround them, reflecting his own shattered sense of meaning. He reaches for her, gently pulling her up off the floor.
“What are you doing?” She seems genuinely puzzled.
“It doesn’t matter,” he replies, stroking the marked side of her face where he’d struck her. “None of it matters.” He kisses her again and she matches him eagerly. They fall back onto the bed, ripping at each other’s clothes … tearing at each other … mouths locked tightly. Angel pulls back and looks into her eyes with such blatant desire it borders on amazement … and, of course, the screen goes black (“Reprise,” 2-15).
Finally, we see the wreckage of 250 years of psycho-emotional torture (350 if we count the century-spent-in-hell’s timeline). If Angel wakes up as Angelus, so be it. Angel has ceased to care, and like any of us when pushed beyond our capacity to bear the burden, he reverts to the most familiar and predictable form of comfort. Darla is Angel’s touchstone. And for a while he is—in every way that counts—her boy.
Angel awakens with Darla beside him in an agony of “perfect despair,” yet his soul is intact and he feels illuminated. While he may not have had a chance to see Darla through her illness, or been able to give her a shot at redemption, her presence in his life has both incited and helped resolve his crisis of meaning. Later, he shares his epiphany with Kate Lockley—shortly after preventing her suicide. (Angel is still run by the axiom, “If you can’t save one little blond, rescue another.”)
He tells Kate that he knows there is no grand plan to life, no big win. But, “if there is no great, glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do—’cause that’s all there is. What we do, now, today. I fought for so long. For redemption, for a reward—finally just to beat the other guy, but … I never got it.”
Now, all Angel wants to do is help, “Because if there is no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world” (“Epiphany,” 2-16).
Angel’s epiphany is the first real step in his psyche’s resurrection, drawing him back to Angel Investigations where he humbly apologizes to Wes, Gunn, and Cordy. He is willing to relinquish his quest for power and do what ordinary folks do … reach out, share, cooperate. Once again, his involvement with Darla breeds his transformation.
It also … well … breeds!
Darla discovers that she is impossibly, yet quite assuredly, carrying Angel’s child. How two undead could create life is a mystery even to the shamans and mystics Darla consults to try to put an end to the pregnancy. The fetus seems magically protected, and as her due date approaches, Darla appears—where else?—but on Angel’s doorstep, seeking help. As if Angel’s “perfect despair” was itself a dream, the two reminisce almost longingly about the last time they were together. Angel says he can’t help thinking about the episode, in spite of trying to forget. Darla needles him with her rendition of events:
“So, you threw me through those glass doors, slammed me against the wall, pushed me onto the bed, and took what you wanted?”
“It seemed like the thing to do-at the time” (“Quickening,” 3-6).
The wry playfulness of their banter is charming in spite of its dark underpinnings. With Darla, and only with Darla, Angel is fully realized, completely present in all his aspects. Whatever he feels, whatever he needs—be it a trick of the light or the shadows—he embodies with absolute commitment. Though Darla lies and deceives, Angel reveals to her, and thereby to himself, the truth within. He might not have a reflection, but Darla is still his pure mirror.
As Darla prepares to give birth, she realizes that she is sharing more than a belly with her baby. She is sharing a soul-his soul-and its presence infiltrates her with such maternal love that she fears letting him leave her body.
“I love it completely. I-I-I don’t think I’ve ever loved anything as much as this life that’s inside of me.”
“Well—you’ve never loved anything, Darla,” Angel reminds her.
“That’s true. Four hundred years and I never did—’til now. I don’t know what to do.”
“You’ll have it. You’ll have it and then …” Angel begins.
“What?” Darla interrupts. “We’ll raise it?”
“Why not?” Darla’s dear boy is momentarily quite mad with paternal joy and the rush of hope that arises whenever Darla reveals even a hint of vulnerability. Clearly, the embers of Angel’s obsession with Darla will not die. Try as he might to snuff them out, Darla’s slightest exhale wills them into flame.
Darla, as usual, is the practical one.
“It’s impossible… What do I have to offer a child, a human child, besides ugly death?”
She knows that she has not been nourishing the baby, that the feelings she’s having are not coming from her; they’re coming from him.
“You don’t know that,” Angel argues, hopeful of her capacity to love-logic be damned. But Darla’s strength is her ability to appreciate the harshest of history’s legacies. Her very first lesson to Liam echoes here: what we were informs all that we become. Darla knows who she was—and what she will become once her body no longer envelops her baby’s soul.
“I won’t be able to love it. I won’t even be able to remember that I loved it,” she sobs, as Angel holds her close, stroking her hair and crooning “Shhhhh … shhhh.”
Darla knows intuitively that her body is not a life-giving vessel, and that she can’t carry the baby to term. But because the child is protected, it can’t be C-sectioned from her, either. As long as the baby remains inside, he will die. When Angel begs her to fight for the baby, he is just as desperately begging her to fight for them. Darla swears she doesn’t know how.
“My boy,” she murmurs, stroking her belly. “My darling boy.” Is she speaking of the child in her belly, or the “child” by her side—or both? “I told you I had nothing to offer this kid. Some mother… I can’t even offer it life.”
Darla is wrong, she can and will give life.
Lying in an alleyway amidst the debris of club Caritas, Darla feels the child’s life-force ebbing away. Angel squeezes her delicate hand between both of his and lovingly presses her fingers to his lips.
“This child—Angel, it’s the one good thing we ever did together. You make sure to tell him that.”
She reaches out with her free hand to grasp a pointed chunk of wood from the rubble and swiftly buries it in her chest. Angel looks as if his heart will break as Darla’s hand disintegrates within his … and she turns to dust.
Where Darla had been, a naked human infant lies squalling in the rain (“Lullaby,” 3-9).
Angel carefully gathers the infant in his arms. He will later learn that he is holding the “new life” that he had heroically battled to win for Darla during the Trials—a “gift” from the Powers That Be.
Angel has kept his promise to see Darla through to her death. With her final act of unselfish love, she achieves a sort of redemption, and certainly Angel’s forgiveness. Angel once told Darla that if he could redeem her—the vampire who made him—he could redeem himself. Perhaps, in forgiving her, he can finally begin to forgive himself.
The team at AI rallies around the newborn. With Darla put to rest, Angel’s relationship with Cordelia deepens. But, before anyone can grow too chipper, the child is abducted by the revengeful Holtz and lost to a demon-infested world where time moves at a different pace. Soon afterward, the “baby” reappears through a dimensional portal in the lobby of the Hyperion Hotel. Trouble is, he’s now an angry eighteen-year-old, hell-bent on killing the father he has been raised by Holtz to detest.
Despite Angel’s efforts to bond with his beloved son, Connor is driven by the hatred and bitterness instilled by his adoptive father. Just as Cordelia is about to declare her love for Angel, Connor imprisons him in a metal box, welds it shut, and drops it into the sea (“Tomorrow,” 322). Connor is anxious to see Angel suffer for the agonies of Holtz’s lost family, and his death. He might have succeeded if not for Wesley, who, a few months later, drags Angel out of his watery grave.
When Angel sees Connor, his sadness seems to overwhelm any vestiges of anger. Time below has given him perspective—an M.C. Escher perspective, he admits, but, hey, he’d weathered worse when his girlfriend, Buffy, stuck him in a hell dimension for a hundred years.
The events of the last year had demanded that Angel grow in ways surpassing anything evident in the previous two centuries. We see his identity, his Self, taking shape. We see his unconditional love for his offspring shining through his pain. We see his strength, his honor. His trials have forced him to mature, and now his task is to guide his son. Weakened, blood starved, near unconsciousness after his ordeal in the sea, he confronts Connor.
“What you did to me was unbelievable,” Angel says. “But I did get time to think. About us, about the world… Nothing in the world is the way it ought to be. It’s harsh, and cruel. But that’s why there’s us. Champions. We live as though the world was what it should be, to show it what it can be. You’re not a part of that yet. I hope you will be.” Angel moves closer to his son, looking him square in the eye.
“I love you, Connor,” he says quietly. “Now get out of my house” (“Deep Down,” 4-1).
Angel may retain some of his old grandiosity, but he is now dedicated to ideals instead of indulgence, to loving rather than loathing. His indelible relationship with Darla has completed itself. Life has emerged from her ashes; Angel, the father, has taken the place of Angel, the son. Again, Darla’s first lesson to her own dear boy ripples down through time. We feel sure that Angel’s pure love for Conner will inform all that each is yet to become as their intertwined destinies unfold.
And so it does.
In the wake of Jasmine’s ascension and Connor’s vicious rampage (“Home,” 4-22), Angel sacrifices himself again to save his son, his love proving as deep and boundless as the very sea to which Connor would have abandoned him. For his child’s physical and psychic security, he makes a pact with the devil, and, taking the helm of Wolfram & Hart, he delves into the magma core of the evil he once sought to destroy.
As Angel’s saga draws to a close, the apocalypse that had been prophesied bears down upon the new team at Wolfram & Hart. Connor, his memories restored and cleansed of Holtz’s pestilent imprint, acknowledges his father’s love on the very day that could well become Angel’s last. As the final battle begins, Connor appears at Angel’s side—an angelic savior himself—and we see that Darla and Angel, through their extraordinarily selfless love and Angel’s tenaciously forgiving efforts, have indeed brought forth a champion. Whatever cruelties Angel may have perpetrated in the past, he has redeemed himself in the fire of this singular creation, this brave and stalwart son.
However, in the Whedonverse, redemption is not an end. Even an apocalypse—that “nowish” concatenation of events—is not an end. These are merely harbingers of cycles yet to be. So, as Angel and his valiant troops gather-tragically, minus one—in exhausted celebration of a world that they hope is finally as it should be, they discover that nothing, nothing at all is as it ought to be. There is no grand resolution, no “big win.” Hideous, shrieking demons swoop down upon the wounded, weary troop, so many creatures that the odds are surely impossible. Yet, raising their weapons, fervor burning in their eyes, the team attacks the resurgent evil. Angel’s words of epiphany (“Epiphany,” 2-16) seem to echo silently in the darkness: “If there is no great, glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. Because that’s all there is. What we do now … today.”
- We have evidence that vampires can and do love—but not more or better than they did as humans. James and Elizabeth had what Cordelia called the “big, forever love” (Angel, “Heartthrob,” 3-1). Spike felt love for Buffy long before he was ensouled. But all of them had been love-struck as humans, too.
- Angel also acknowledges this point when he tells Faith that he once tried to bury his pain, “but you can’t get the hole deep enough. You know there’s only one way to make the pain stop. Hurt something else” (Angel, “Salvage,” 4-13).
- Think of Buffy/Angel, Giles/Jenny, Willow/Tara, Darla/Angel, Cordelia/Angel, Lilah/Wesley, Fred/Wesley…
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