Chapter two of Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion takes on Angel, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer spin off focussing on Angel and his posse of supernatural investigators in Los Angeles.
Angel has never been as popular as Buffy in terms of viewer popularity or critical attention basically because it just wasn’t as good. Angel wasn’t terrible though, at least not in the first few seasons, so it is refreshing to see the Champion get some scholarly attention.
My first gripe is that this is a short chapter with two essays devoted to Illyria. By the time Illyria came to the show Angel had jumped an entire ocean of sharks and had become more than a little bit silly and quite pointless. Some more attention on the earlier seasons and their cast of fascinating side characters (Lorne anyone? Kate? Doyle?) would have made this chapter far more enjoyable as a whole. But let’s get down to the essays on an individual level….
Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion – Chapter by Chapter Review
2.01 – Joss Whedon 101: Angel by Stacey Abbott
Stacey Abbott is no stranger to the subject of Angel having written numerous books on the show as well as books on TV vampires, Cult TV and a host of articles on the Whedonverse. Who better to write the introductory essay? We learn about Joss and David Greenwalt’s decision to move Angel out of the teen world of Sunnydale and into the darker more adult world of L0s Angeles, drawing on Hollywood noir traditions.
This essay is peppered with fascinating little factoids about the show ( who knew the introduction of UV proof windows in season five was a solution to the expense of shooting at night?) and a deep insight into the character of Angel and his cohorts, and offers numerous ways Angel can be approached and understood.
Abbot goes through the numerous genres Angel was working in from a brooding noir-ish drama with a hint of Batman, classic horror, drama and comedy. I draw a slight issue with Abbot claiming Caritas added the musical to the generic mix of Angel, as though while there was a lot of singing going on, it was not a “Musical” in the definition of the musical genre. See ‘Once More With Feeling’ (BTVS 6.7) for an example of true genre hybridity incorporating the musical genre.
The essay looks at the major themes of the series, redemption being the biggest one, as well as referencing how the show deals with ideas of heroism, masculinity and identity and how these ideas are explored in the often dramatic character shifts that occur throughout the series.
There is numerous reference to the episode “Billy” (3.6) as a pinnacle of Angel‘s horror aspects particularly in terms of its exploration of masculinity. As Abbot has a research interest in horror, this isn’t surprising, although as an introductory essay, perhaps her scope might have been set a little broader. “Billy” is a brilliant episode, and perhaps a dedicated analysis could have taken the place of one of the Illyria essays in this chapter (see my gripe in the introduction to this article). A good overall introduction though, and one that made me want to go back and revisit some classic Angel moments.
2.02 – Lindsey and Angel: Reflecting Masculinity by Lorna Jowett
As Buffy attracts it share of women’s studies, Angel brings out a host of ideas of masculinity, as touched on in Stacey Abbott’s essay above. In this section, Lorna Jowett, a colleague of Abbot’s at the university of Northampton (the two are also co-authoring a book on TV horror), compares the disparate characters of Angel and his nemesis, Lindsey.
What’s most interesting about this essay, and a notion that I had never before really considered (one of those things that is only obvious after you realise it) is that is sets up the major difference between Lindsey and Angel is that Lindsey, his evil, is self-made whereas Angel’s dark side is sired. This of course makes Lindsey all the better as a villain and all the more fascinating as he continues to alter his identity throughout the series.
We can all accept Jowett’s observations that Lindsey and Angel are parallel opposites to one another, however I immediately hesitate at the claim of an underlying homoeroticism between the pair. “Throughout, the ongoing homoeroticism of this antagonistic relationship is matched with superficial heterosexuality and this adds further complexity to their respective versions of masculinity.” (168)
Jowett goes on to claim that Darla displaces the homoerotic tensions between Angel and Lindsey. By having Darla at the center of this love triangle, Angel and Lindsey are able to closely interact. Yes, Lindsey’s obsession with Darla is derived from his obsession with Angel, and yes there is a homoerotic competition – two guys want the same girl, but it’s not a “displacement of Lindsey’s potential desire for Angel” (177) (Jowett quoting Alyson R. Buckman,).
The claim just gets more and more tenuous as Jowett references Lindsey and Angel’s fighting as homoerotic physical contact, their repartee as flirtation and Angel’s line “I want you Lindsey… I’m thinking about rephrasing that” as penultimate evidence of their homoerotic relationship.
While Jowett’s essay does make some excellent observations on the performance of masculinity in Angel and the continued reinvention of identity, her theories on homoerotic relationship have lost me on the whole piece. Yes, Lindsey is obsessed with Angel. Lindsey lusts for power. Angel has power and Lindsey wants to either take it from him, or at the very least share some part of it with him. To read this through the lens of homoerotic gender theory is possible, but ultimately unfounded by the text.
2.03 – “The Shell I’m In”: Illyria and Monstrous Embodiment by Bronwen Calvert
English professor and pop culture scholar, Bronwen Calvert, has in this essay taken a look at Illyria – the demon “Old One” who took over Fred’s (Amy Acker) body in the final season of Angel. Calvert is looking at Illyria as a type of monstrous feminine embodiment, starting off with Barbara Creed’s influential theories on the “monstrous feminine” but then moving into ideas of a more fluid embodiment, one where the body has multiple states including internal and external perspectives. Calvert sees Illyria as a “site of struggle” (182) and looks at the different ideas of embodiment she represents – the more obvious “monster” taking over Fred’s body and the more complex Illyria as Fred.
Calvert examines the emergence of Illyria through Fred’s disease with ideas on the female body and gestation – drawing some nice links to Creed’s discussions of the monstrous gestation in Alien – and connects the whole thing to ideas of birth, death and femininity, and how these are represented in the scenes of Fred’s death.
It’s a good point that Illyria isn’t from Fred’s body, but rather uses it as a type of vessel. This in itself makes for some tricky ideas in the whole embodiment situation and makes it clear that yes, this embodiment is not a fixed state or a typical monstrous gestation like in Alien.
There are also some interesting ideas raised along the idea of gender and Illyria – who as a god like demon thing was an “it” until it became a “she” in Fred despite the fact that Fred changed in almost every way that made her “Fred”. So, not only is Illyria “not-Fred” in that she’s not born of her, she “is-Fred” in that she takes on Fred’s gender, as well as other physical traits different from its native state, and then ends up becoming a type of “both Fred.”
The essay makes a side note of the significance of introducing this character so late in the TV series and notes though does not discuss, that the character as continued in the Angel comic series. As an exploration of the different types of embodiment Illyria represents, and the complexity of this embodiment, it would have been interesting and more rounded analysis of the character to see how Illyria, and her represented embodiment as Illyria/Fred, was developed in the later comic stories, especially as Calvert does briefly mention the idea of a continued hybrid personality.
2.04 – The Three Faces of Anne: Identity Formation in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel by Don Tresca
Pop culture writer, Don Tresca here takes on an examination of the psychology of identity looking at Anne Steele, a relatively minor side character appearing both Buffy and Angel. Tresca’s choice to focus on Anne is a fascinating one in itself and the freshness of this perspective gives this essay a unique angle from the beginning.
Anne appeared in 5 episodes in both Buffy and Angel. She was, Chanterelle, the girl in the vampire cult in Buffy’s ‘Lie to Me’ (2.7), later appearing with the name Lily in ‘Anne’ (where Buffy runs away to L.A, 3.1) and then as homeless worker, Anne Steele in 3 episodes of Angel (2.21; 2.14; 5.22). Tresca takes each of these incarnations of this character and examines them in terms of a number of different psychoanalytical theories about the process of identity formation. The discussion moves from her original weaknesses and insecurities as Chanterelle and into her new found strengths and acceptances of her own self as Anne arguing that by the end of Angel, she has fully accepted her self and has committed to the social role she has chosen to play. Tresca contrasts this with a number of regular characters, particularly Gunn who sold himself out to Wolfram & Hart for what he perceived was a better identity as a lawyer, rather than the group’s muscle, and also Angel, who only helped the homeless shelter in order to foil Wolfram & Hart’s plans to rip them off. These arguments and discussions are all valid in themselves, but I feel there is something lacking from Tresca’s examination of “Anne”.
In the opening of this essay, Tresca claims that this minor character’s continued appearing in the Buffyverse demonstrates that something about her continued to fascinate both writers and audiences. This might be the case, but I also think that the fact that “Anne” is also a convenient plot and contextual device for the major characters to play off might have also had something to do with her continued appearance. Probably more. In each episode “Anne” appears in we learn some inner truth about whichever major character she’s interacting with. This is most evident with Buffy and “Lily” as this is the episode where Buffy has to first cast off her Slayer identity in order to reclaim it, fully choosing her role as Slayer on her own terms for the first time. Angel sees that helping the little guy might not be exactly what he is all about all of the time, and Gunn sees that letting Wolfram & Hart change who is was at the core might not have been the best move. The actual character of “Anne” was an aside to all of these. As “Anne” develops, so too do our major characters. As she changes, we see their changes.
Further, I keep using the inverted commas for “Anne” for as Tresca points out, it isn’t her real name and that we never know it. There’s an endnote that reveals her real name is Joan, a fact excluded from the original script. The fact that is was excluded makes it all the more relevant that this character is never meant to be a real or true identity.
Tresca’s essay closes somewhat dramatically with claims “the character of Anne shows those young people in the audience that they each have the strength of character to form their own identities and become committed to those identities fully in their own lives. Anne’s chosen surname, Steele, symbolizes the power and strength of that commitment. And with that powerful and strong commitment to identity should come and equally powerful and strong commitment to your fellow man, to a love of humanity unblemished by personal pride” (198).
So, if “Anne Steele” is so powerful and strong, unblemished by pride and has committed so fully to her “fellow man”, how come she’s still denying her full self by not using her real name?
2.05 - “Touch Me and Die, Vermin!” The Psychoanalysis of Illyria by Nikki Faith Fuller
From a background in psychology and English composition, as well as a wide range of Buffyverse writing, Nikki Faith Fuller takes on Illyria, the second Illyria essay in this short Angel chapter. Fuller looks at Illyria in terms of her “human” development, how she adjusts to living in the world in the former human’s body and the psychology involved in the adjustment. She takes a Lacanian perspective of the fragmented self, which works quite well considering the hybrid personality and physicality of the character.
Illyria’s main fragmentation comes from her being both a powerful god figure, and one of the tiny humans she looks down on. And it’s this duality that forms her relationship with the other characters as they work to discover who she really is now and exactly what she is capable of. This duality is also important in her own destruction, and Fuller presents some interesting ideas on Angel’s relationship with her, allowing her to exist as a less powerful form for his own advantage.
Again, my question with this essay is the same as I had with Bronwen Calvert’s earlier essay on Illyria – what about Illyria in the Angel comics? It just seems to me that any essay that’s examining the deep ins and outs of a character introduced so late in a TV series, which was then continued into a comic, should be looking at the development of that character in the new medium. It is, after all the same character in the same story world.
2.06 – Interview With Alexis Denisof by Laura Berger
Laura Berger co-authored an essay in the Buffy chapter on psychoanalytic dream theory in “Restless”. Here Berger chats with Whedon veteran actor, Alexis Denisof in an interview conducted especially for this book. The interview is well balanced as a discussion of Wesley (which, let’s face it is what we’re all here to see), but does not discredit Denisof’s other projects by keeping Wesley as its sole focus.
Denisof has had supporting roles in three Whedon series – as uppity Watcher turned rogue demon slayer, Wesley Wyndam Price in Buffy and Angel, as Senator Daniel Perrin in Dollhouse, and was also a part of Joss’ production of Much A Do About Nothing. Wesley’s character, particularly his dramatic character transformations, are of particular focus for this interview. Denisof clearly has a deep respect and admiration for Joss, as well as other key players in the Whedonverse particularly David Greenwalt, Tim Minear and Drew Goddard.
There’s also a sense that Denisof has a real affection for Wesley and his thoroughly enjoyed the time spent playing the role. There’s an amusing recollection of shooting the Wesley and Cordelia kiss scene, and he also talks about meeting his now wife, Alyson “Willow Rosenberg” Hannigan, how the pair got together on the set of Buffy, and his recollections of Anthony Stewart Head’s somewhat concerned reaction to their blossoming relationship. There is also a short discussion of his role as Sandy Rivers on How I Met Your Mother, and Little Women, Big Cars and H+, two new web series he is currently involved in.
The interview also cover’s Denisof’s thoughts on the whole concept of Whedon studies and he comes out with some valuable insight into the value of pop culture – “Culture is a link that binds us all… To find the voices that are shaping culture, and dig deeply into the message that those voices are carrying, is, I think, a worthy endeavour. As a consumer we each are responsible for what messages we are consuming and re-broadcasting. So it is important to look deeply and consider the kind of culture you want to support.” Well said!
2.07 – The Strength and Conviction to Lose So Relentlessly”: Heroism in Angel by Ian Mathers
In this essay, freelance pop culture writer and blogger, Ian Mathers looks at the ways in which Angel represents a different type of pop culture hero tale in that it’s one where the heroes fight, knowing and peaceably accepting the fact that they cannot win. The essay is in most part concerned with events in and leading up to the final episode of the series, “Not Fade Away”, and while it makes a valid point as to what constitutes Angel’s heroism there’s a general sense that this argument could be better developed perhaps taking in the wider context of the Whedonverse.
Mathers makes the claim that Angel and co’s heroism exists in a world where good goes unrewarded by the powers that be. This may be largely the case for the series climax, but there are numerous moments throughout the series where Angel is rewarded by the Powers that Be for his duties as a Champion. Isn’t that what they whole Shanshu prophecy is all about? Isn’t that what drives Angel as Champion for much of the beginning of the series? Though Angel revokes his claim to Shanshu, rather living as the fighter doomed to failure than the victorious champion retired still doesn’t lessen the fact that the offer of reward for valour was there.
This aside, the fact that Angel ends with the good guys losing, or about to lose we assume – the scene does end with the champions still fighting – is a fascinating contrast to the end of Buffy where the Sunnydale champions stand victorious, albeit over a ruinous cavern that used to be a town. Mathers makes some nice parallels between Angel and the Justice League’s JLA: Earth 2 – the title of this essay derived from a Wonder Woman quote.
The major factor of heroism then, according to Angel is continuing the fight and refusing to give up. Heroism, Mather explains by way of a dialogue quote between Angel and Kate Lockely in Season 2, is of the moment. This is why Connor can never be a true hero, because he constantly expects reward. In Buffy, Faith has the same sense of entitlement that Connor feels in Angel, that their unusual status gives them the right to have something extra in the world, and of course that’s a downfall for the both of them. What about Buffy? At the end of season 3, Buffy is awarded the Class Protector Award at her senior prom. While it’s not exactly a great, metaphysical reward from The Powers That Be, not is it an award that she asked for or expected, Buffy is still honoured and completely awed by the fact that her work has been recognised if only by her classmates who don’t really understand what she’s a part of. She likes getting rewarded, and she continues to hold that award dear in the following season. Does this put a chink in Buffy’s status as a true hero, according to Mathers’ observations on Angel?
On a final note, this essay is peppered with aside endnotes. Just a personal preference, and one that saves a lot of back and forth page turning, but I tend to believe that if a point is worth saying in an endnote it’s worth saying in the body text, and if you don’t want it in the text, then leave it out altogether. Mather’s endnotes do provide useful information and some interesting context, but ultimately interrupt the flow of his argument.