Champion: Angel and the changing definition of a hero

What Ho Wee Readers, for anyone who subscribes to my Wee Mailing List, you will remember that come last update I talked about the various shows that I binged watch during this apocalypse, we’re all currently living through. And if you remember well, one of those shows was the Buffy spin-off, Angel staring David Boreanaz as the titular hero.

For anyone not in the know, Angel ran from 1999-2004 and centered round Buffy Summers’ former flame: Angel, most notable for being a vampire with a soul. It was originally envisioned as a kind of supernatural detective show, being more focused on case-by-case episodes and less on overarching soap-opera-esc storylines that had become Buffy’s bread and butter by that point. And for, roughly a season and a half it did that – and I’d say it did it really well. For while Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a show confined to its allegories – confusing as they became in season six – Angel could let itself be more flexible with the monsters and ideas it wanted to try out. Girl who electrocutes people, sure go ahead! Psychic demon who can read your destiny when you sing Karaoke? Hell, why not make him a recurring character.

Of course, anyone even remotely familiar with it will know that this notion of Angel as a case-by-case show didn’t last very long. And by around let’s say half-way through season 2, with the resurrection of (spoilers!!) Angel’s sire Darla, the show’s plot very quickly became just as soap-operay if not more so as Buffy before it. And I’m not even saying that as a bad thing, a lot of these plots were really interesting and unique – my personal favorite is the mystical pregnancy storyline in season 3 (the show did have several over the course of its five season long run, but this was by far the best). I’m just trying to give you a clear idea on what the show was and what it became: a paranormal detective show, to a supernatural soap-opera to, whatever they were trying to do with season 5. But throughout all that change the one constant in the show remains the focus on Angel; just like it’s parent show, while all the characters are given some form of development and plotlines of their own, ultimately, it’s our title hero that keeps the main share of the focus.

And that’s fine, in fact given the ever-shifting nature of both these shows, having the focus on a main central character is probably a good grounding factor. That being said if I did have one complaint it’s that, and I realised this at the beginning of season 4, I actually find Angel really annoying as a character.  

I know, I know liking characters is completely objective, and it’s not like Buffy Summers doesn’t have her share of people that find her annoying – I’ve never been one of them, but I do acknowledge their existence. And me finding Angel annoying (at least in the later seasons) really shouldn’t be enough of a topic to make a whole blogpost about. After all I found Cordelia unlikable and annoying right up to the end of season 3, when the last shot of her actual character was shown, and I’m not going to rant about that for over a thousand words. And yet what I found interesting about this revolution is when it happened: Angel is describing what he believes makes a champion.

Angel: Nothing in the world is the way it ought to be. It’s harsh, and cruel. But that’s why there’s us – champions. Doesn’t matter where we come from, what we’ve done or suffered, or even if we make difference. We live as though the world is as it should be, to show it what it can be. You’re not a part of that yet. I hope you will be.

As the main character, and a main character that is heavily favored by the writers to come out on top in any moral argument (except for season 5 for some strange reason, he was arguably doing a lot better than previous seasons) – Angel’s views on what makes a champion a champion holds a lot more wait then the other supporting cast. And come season four Angel’s definition of a champion is someone who lives morally, regardless of whether he succeeds at actually helping people. The methods matter more than the outcome.

It’s an interesting take on the concept of a champion, and strangely one that seems at least partially opposed to the definition that was laid out in Angel’s very first episode by the character of Doyle. Namely that a champion is someone who helps the helpless. And that was it, no disqualifiers, no strangely specific moral hoops, just be of use to people that need you. Under this definition absolutely anyone could be a champion, and you didn’t necessarily have to kick vampire butt to do it. We can see this in characters like Anne (a character who started in Buffy, but who comes back in Angel) who runs a home for homeless teens. She is literally helping the helpless, thus by Doyle’s definition of the word she is a champion even though we never see her handle a stake once.   It’s also notable that in her first episode we’re shown her grappling with a presumably morally dubious action, of accepting money for her children’s home even though it comes from Wolfram & Heart (the main bad guy of the series). While the episode does give a sort of work around, where she can get the money and not take it from Wolfram & Hart (Angel steals it for her) it’s interesting that the money still ends up splatted in blood (it’s a long story) that she quite literally has to wipe off. But in the end, she takes it because that ill-gotten money will do more for her kids, then her clean conscious ever could.

I’m not saying that being a completely morally upstanding person, who doesn’t compromise on their principles should be in anyway excluded from someone who saves innocents (particularly in fiction). I’m a big fan of characters like Captain America in that regard (both Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson). And if that had been how Angel had started off characterizing what it means to be a champion, that would be fine, but it didn’t and that’s what strange.      

But I know what you’re thinking right about now; Wee Lassie, this has all been very well written and clearly well thought out, but why does it matter?   So, the show Angel plays fast and loose with some of the dictionary, it’s not like the enjoyment of the entire show was predicated on it. And I’ll follow you to that peer, no there are large sections of Angel that are not ruined at all by this, fun characters, good episodes all throughout even the shakiest of seasons. You could in fact go several episodes in a row where this flip flopping on meaning bears no ill effect on the likability of their stories at all. But then, you go back and try and binge watch all five seasons and cracks begin to show.

The idea of being a champion, or at least of Angel being a champion is baked into the very core of the show. In much the same way that Buffy being a Slayer was baked into the very core of her show. In fact, as Angel goes on it seems that the word is used as the show’s version of a slayer, thematically speaking. But the difference is ‘a slayer’ was created by Joss Whedon and his merry team of writers to be its own specific thing. And a specific thing that is very well explained in the show itself. However, a Champion by contrast is not only a pre-existing concept, but it’s one that with its flip flopping on meaning, the show makes accidentally nebulous. It’s fine to tell us Angel is a champion, or so and so was a champion, but when the show’s own narrative can’t seem to keep the meaning of the word consistent, how are we supposed to interrupt that? Do they mean Angel helps, the helpless? Or that he is entirely good and virtuous? Perhaps it only means that he intends to do good? And as such when characters state with utter certainty that he is a champion or he is the real the champion, it comes off as false. Or at the very least, as a character not speaking as themselves but rather as a puppet for the writers to shill their pet.

So, I think the only question that remains is why change the definition at all? Well to answer that I could just tell you the conclusion I’ve come to, but I’d think it would be far more entertaining for the both of us, to show you instead.

So cast your eyes below, as I review several of the characters (both hero and antagonist) and see by the strictures of both definitions of the word, if they are champions.

Holtz

One of the most successful, non-superpowered vampire hunters in the Buffyverse. After Angel raped and killed his wife, snapped his infant son’s neck, and turned his daughter into a vampire, Holtz spent the rest of his life seeking vengeance. Ending in him making a deal with a demon, showing up in the 21st century and making all sorts of trouble for the main characters.

Definition 1: Helps the Helpless

Yes, both before Angelus destroys his family and afterwards. Even at his most antagonistic Holts helps the helpless because he’s still killing Vampires. In one of his first scenes with his acolyte Justine he kills a vampire right in front of her; we’re meant to take this as a dark reflection of a slayer and watcher relationship. Holtz is manipulating her, and yet I’ve never been able to get all the people; the people that had he been allowed to continue living, that vampire would have murdered, out of my head. The action may have been done for less than pure reasons, and yet it is still helping the helpless.

Judges say:

A Champion

Definition 2: Lives an entirely Moral Life

Before Angelus kills his family, it’s impossible to say for sure but given everything we’re shown of his family’s deaths, it seems likely that he did live an entirely good, moral life. Between their deaths and him making a pact with that demon, while he is consumed with vengeance, it seems likely he still lived a virtuous life beyond that. After the demon, no, his every waking breath is dedicated to vengeance on Angel; leading an idolised virtuous life is not a priority at all.

Judges Say:

No Longer a Champion

Gunn

 A good man, and a truly skilled Vampire Hunter whose been hunting the nasty things since he was twelve.

Definition 1: Helps the Helpless

Like most of the Angel investigation team, Gunn is a difficult one to pin down in this regard. When he first arrives on the scene, he is defending his neighbourhood from a nest of vampires, and putting himself in considerable danger to do so. So that seems pretty cut and dry, and yet when he joins the AI team officially in season two things become a little murkier. They all ‘help the helpless’ but much like the rest of the AI team, Gunn becomes much too reliant on Cordelia’s visions to tell him where he should help, and therefore when she is not there to give them, he does nothing. That’s not even me being unkind, that’s stated in the show itself. And then there’s season three and four’s whole debacle but I’ll get into that more later.

And then we have Season 5, which I was very complementary to in my last newsletter – but then again that was before I saw the disastrous end of it all and realised, they had absolutely no idea where they were going with it at all. But regardless, Charles Gunn has one of the more interesting storylines, with him fully embracing the power the AI team now wields as the leaders of Wolfram & Heart. With that kind of money, they can do more than just save individual victims from the things that go bump in the night. They can help with the aftermath, set up funds and homes for children that lost their parents to vampires; and really start to make a change in how the fight against evil is won. In other words help the helpless at the most fundamental level.

Judges say:

Season 2 – Champion

Season 3-4 – Not a Champion

Season 5 – A Champion, though of a different kind than before.

Definition 2: Lives an entirely Moral Life

Well, that’s the hard thing about this definition, because it’s so vague it’s difficult to attribute it to anyone. If it means living life by your own moral standards, then we could say that baring a brief time in season 4 Gunn is a champion throughout Angel. Even in season five before (spoilers) Fred’s death. The same could be said if it means living a moral life as seen by wider society, since in season 2 he is protecting his neighborhood and helping out at a homeless center; while in season 3-4 he’s still fighting the good fight, just getting paid for it. And season 5, well season five was a mess for everybody. However, if the definition only refers to what Angel sees as a moral life, then we can only assume his oppion holds the narrative weight for what defines a champion. And his oppion on Gunn is problematic, he seems to view him as a stupid if well-meaning kid when they first meet; nothing but extra muscle when he’s working for Angel Incorporated, and a moral traitor in season 5 when they’re working for Wolfram and Heart.

Judges say

Inconclusive

Connor

Angel’s son, born from two vampires (Angel and Darla) and raised in a hell dimension by Holtz. Honestly it makes less sense in context.

Definition 1: Helps the Helpless

Connor helps a lot of people in season 3 and early season 4 (arguably more than Angel). So, for a time he is a champion; however, than the main arch of season 4 happened and well…everything shot downhill from there.

Judges Say

Only for a short time.

Definition 2: Lives an entirely Moral Life

By all forms of this definition that I laid out in Gunn’s section no, it’s sad but no. It’s clear if you really look at it that Connor only views himself as a moral individual when he first returns from Hell seeking to kill Angel. If we look at it from a wider society perspective, he once again falls short, since his rescues come off as more wanting to hunt things than actually saving people. And then we have Angel, and since that petulant speech up nearer the beginning of this post was directed at Connor, we don’t need to dig that hard to find what the soulful blood sucker thinks of his offspring.

Judges Say:

Not a Champion

Angel

A Vampire who has a soul.

Definition 1: Helps the Helpless

In seasons 1 to 2, I would say yes without a drop of hesitation in my voice. But then everything changed when the Darla storyline attacked. But all joking aside, when Darla (Angel’s sire and former lover) was resurrected, Angel’s obsession with first her and then getting revenge for her turned him from a bland if inoffensive heroic character to a raging douche bag who hurt everyone and everything around him. And while this change was clearly intentional, and something that the plot encouraged Angel to move beyond, it revealed a nastiness to Angel’s character that he never really did.

But a mildly unpleasant hero is a still a hero, and then we got season three, and with the introduction of the miraculous birth of Darla and Angel’s son, Angel as someone who must continually prove that he is a champion is almost forgotten. While the ‘helping the helpless’ doesn’t completely stop, as this is still at least pretending to be a monster of the week show, it’s notable that that’s no longer the focus of the show. In fact, as I mentioned in Gunn’s section without the visions or some kind of monetary insensitive, neither Angel or his team seem very interested in helping anyone.

And then we have season 5, where Angel is counterintuitively at his most passive in regards to his ability to do heroic deeds, and his most desperate to be a champion. I found it very hard to ignore while watching Angel whine about being in charge of Wolfram &Heart (the LA branch anyway) that his main complaint was often that he no longer felt like a hero. This was even despite the fact that he’d been given proof that not only were they still helping people, but on a much larger scale than they ever could have in their previous location.

Judges Say:

To begin with, but lost his motivation for the fight along the way.

Definition 2: Lives an entirely Moral Life

Given the speech up there he clearly thinks he does, but honestly given some of his decisions particularly at the end of season 5 – I won’t give anything away just in case this mainly negative post has for some reason made someone want to check out the show, but his actions are truly disgusting – it would be hard to argue that this view of himself lined up in anyway with reality.

In seasons 1-4 we could claim that he is living a somewhat moral life in regards to how society at large sees it. He isn’t hurting anyone – which as a vampire, even a vampire with a soul, he is quite capable of doing – and he’s for the most part fighting the forces of evil. This only changes is season 5 when Angel is arguable at his most morally dubious (or at least a moral dubiousness that the writers will admit to); though strangely this is a moral failing that comes not from within Angel himself, but is rather forced upon him. By Wolfram & Heart, by the Black Circle, even by the more human members of his team. Angel is passive in his fall from grace; even the choice to join Wolfram & Heart didn’t come about from a character flaw as it arguably did for the rest of AI, but from the truly noble desire to save his child.

It’s almost as if the world bends around Angel, so that in his own standards at least, he can continue to call himself a champion

Judges say

I’ll leave this up to the reader.

So, if you’ve been following my tangent this far, you may have guessed where I’m going with this. That is, if you follow the series of events throughout series 3-4 it is clear that with the arrival of his son and all the plot-threads that came with that, Angel’s main focus turned inward rather than outward. All the energy that would have in the past been dedicated to helping as many of the helpless as he could, now stayed focused on protecting his son, providing for his son, and later in the season (spoilers) reclaiming his son. None bad priorities by any account, but all focused on the good of the few (and in particular the few that Angel considers his) rather than the good of the many. I’m not criticizing this, merely noting it as a fact in the show’s change of direction. Because in truth for the story this shouldn’t have necessarily be an issue. After all, unlike say Buffy herself Angel is not locked into his role as a hero, he is not a slayer. In the past he has chosen to fight evil in part to redeem himself, but often just because he felt it was the right thing to do – but he could stop, he could walk away or choose to turn his back on the world and the fight to preserve it. And yet to do so would be to give up being a champion; because being a champion on those early episodes was an active concept you had to keep performing. Help the helpless, or you weren’t a champion. Now they could have done this, made Angel have to decide what mattered more to him, the ones he loved, or he’s supposed great destiny. That would actually be a very interesting storyline, one that not even its parent show managed to tackle.

Except…as I noted before, the writers seemed really married to the idea of a “champion” being the Angel equivalent of Buffy’s “slayer”. Angel was the star of the show; therefore, he must be a champion. So, if the definition of “champion” as someone who helps the helpless no longer fit him, then the definition must be changed. Because in the end, that’s all Angel had. Unlike characters like Buffy or Spike, or heck even Xander there wasn’t really much to Angel. He could be blandly heroic, or mysterious, but once you got past that to what should have been the character that lay beyond, there wasn’t really much of anything. While Spike could flip flop from enemy to ally like he was having some kind of spasm, and still remain entertaining through his well-defined personality; and Buffy could confront the realities of life alongside her destiny as the Slayer, because of her innately heroic and loving nature; with Angel, you really had to take the writers word for it that he was interesting beyond the notion that he was a champion.

But the reality is just because you keep telling us someone is a champion, doesn’t make us belive it.

If you’ve enjoyed this terribly delayed rant of mine, remember to follow the wee blog if you haven’t already and don’t forget to check me out on Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook and Goodreads for all that good stuff. And click the button at the bottom of the post to buy me a wee cup of coffee on Kofi. Also don’t forget to sign up for the Wee Mailing List by the 27th of September to find out which three Angel characters would have done better in Buffy (hint the last one will surprise you). So, until next time Wee Readers, don’t forget to stay safe, stay awake and have a very bonny day.

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14 thoughts on “Champion: Angel and the changing definition of a hero

  1. mmm…Angel, I’m still looking for a wee puppet Angel, haha. I haven’t actually binged watched Angel, maybe I should that. I remember loving the first couple of seasons, and then it did seem to get a bit lost. Also, unlike Buffy, we have no idea what happens at the end. I liked how Buffy ended, not everyone survives, but the ending suited the series well.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. That’s a lot to take in. I watched a bit of Angel, back then, but I could not tell you which seasons. I put it in the category of a fun watch that was unlikely to hook me.

    It is difficult to address your point without knowing who the lead writers were through those seasons. If it was the same group, then I agree with you. Shades of grey are all well and good until the grey is almost gone. If the writers changed through the series, then it sounds more like a continuity issue, creatively speaking; which failed, for you (which means it probably failed for many others).

    A minor defense of the Angel turns obsessed with his child thing: people definitely change when they have a kid, and sometimes it gets weird. It does not surprise me they would write Angel as an overprotective new dad whose perspectives and focus change. Overall, I agree they might have been better off keeping the character closer to how he started.

    Great post.

    Like

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