Monday, April 12, 2010

After the Fall Volumes 3 & 4: Vampire Charles

J. August Richards as Charles Gunn

I've mentioned in a previous post that, in many ways, Vampire Charles Gunn was the most fascinating character in the first four volumes of Angel: After the Fall. You can't get more tragic than someone who devoted his life to killing vampires, only to have to suffer the horror of himself being turned into a vampire, probably moments after the end of the Angel series finale. I don't like to repeat myself too much, so if you're really interested in the subject matter, I highly recommend that you read the relevant section in the above-referenced link.

According to the narrative that was developed by the Watcher's Council, when someone becomes a vampire, the person's personality, memories and other characteristics may remain, but the human soul departs the body and is replaced by a demon soul. From watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, we know that Vampire Charles was not the real Charles Gunn. However, in my last few After the Fall posts, I made references to how Scott McLaren, in his outstanding essay "The Evolution of Joss Whedon’s Vampire Mythology and the Ontology of the Soul", mentioned that there are persistent hints within the Buffyverse that perhaps more of the original human spirit remains within the newly-created vampire than what we may realize. Tellingly, I don't think the audience has ever been given any sort of clear cut explanation as to what exactly happens to a person's soul once his body has been taken over by a vampire demon. Presumably, the soul goes to Heaven or wherever souls automatically go to within the Buffyverse. I can take it a step further and guess that the departed soul might not even be totally aware of what's happened to his or her former physical self.

Throughout most of the Angel TV series, it was well-established that the then-living Charles Gunn resented that he was mostly the "muscle" for the group and did not seem to have a well-defined role within Angel Investigations. He also had alpha-male issues in his dealings with both Angel and Wesley. However, for the most part, he reluctantly settled into his role of being the perpetual low man on the totem pole. In return he received steady employment and a lifestyle that allowed him to leave his impoverished background behind.

All of Gunn's feelings of resentment finally came up to the surface when he became a vampire. Maybe the real Charles Gunn was completely gone in Volumes 1-4 of After the Fall, but Vampire Charles didn't seem to utter a single false note when he went on about his frustrations and utter despair with how his ultimate reward for following Angel was being turned into the thing he hated the most. (Also, let's not ignore the obvious metaphors about unleashing the "inner demons".) It was usually quite obvious that Illyria was Illyria when she was inhabiting Fred's body, even though she retained Fred's characteristics. It was less obvious that a totally separate demon had taken over Gunn's body. Was it really possible for a vicious demon to be so full of self-loathing?

Gunn and Angel. One critical scene occurred in Volume 3 when Angel and Illyira were seeking out a source of demon power within the city of Los Angeles, which resulted in a hilarious bad-cop/bad-cop routine between Angel and Illyria on one side, and an unfortunate glam-rock vampire on the other. Moments later, Angel finally came face-to-face with Vampire Charles.

You can imagine that the reunion started off awkwardly, then deteriorated quite rapidly. Charles revealed that a lot of the acts of mayhem he had performed (e.g., the slaughter of not only a demon lord but also the slaughter of the lord's innocent slaves) were inspired by visions that he was absolutely convinced were sent to him by The Powers That Be. Apparently, the vampire gang that turned him had captured a freelance demon who had been in the habit of communicating his visions from The Powers That Be to (presumably) various paying customers.

As soon as the demon fell into the wrong hands, it stopped receiving visions from The Powers That Be and started receiving visions from the Senior Partners of Wolfram & Hart. The vampire gang therefore found out about the First Night battle in the alleyway ahead of time, and knew where they could find Charles so that they could turn him. Charles then inherited the visions and "other powers" (some mild time-shifting abilities?) after he killed the leader of the vampire gang and, in what he considered to be an act of mercy, the already-dying demon.

About the only thing Charles got right (and which he actually derived a small amount of comfort from) was that it was inevitable that he would be turned into a vampire. Unfortunately, he thought he was receiving that little tidbit of information via visions from The Powers That Be, when in fact the information was being sent to him from Wolfram & Hart.

Gunn was absolutely convinced he was doing good and could save Los Angeles. For the first time in his life he was a champion in his own right and not taking orders from either Angel or Wesley. Unfortunately, thanks to his inner demon, he was totally incapable of realizing that he was further perpetrating evil. Gunn admitted that he had been trying to kill Angel according to the messages he was receiving in his visions, but then informed Angel he'd be willing to work with him for a while to try to achieve their mutual goal of saving Los Angeles.

Significantly, Angel thought to himself "He wants me dead. But he also wants me to pat him on the back for a job well done." Angel couldn't help but feel a tremendous amount of guilt over what had happened to Charles. It was also quite poignant how Vampire Charles, while posturing about how he was a bona fide champion in his own right, still desperately needed Angel's approval for his actions.

Angel proceeded to tell Charles that The Powers That Be would have cut off the visions as soon as the demon fell into the wrong hands, which Charles started to vehemently deny. Angel then continued, "I remember what it's like Gunn. You don't think you've changed. You don't even try to fight it, because you honestly think for the first time ever, your eyes are open. But the truth is, you're not in control. You've got a front-row seat for a demon destroying everything that meant anything to you. And all you can do is watch." Even more significantly, Angel thought to himself, "Using the truth to plant seeds of doubt. Angelus would be proud, but I hate myself for it." [Emphasis mine.]

I attach a huge amount of importance to Angel stating the "truth", which I'm choosing to take at face value. Angel, who supposedly knew about these things, was strongly implying that somehow a version of the real Charles still inhabited his body and perhaps didn't realize he'd been hijacked by a totally separate demonic entity. In this version of events, Gunn's situation would be similar to what happened to Cordelia when she was taken over by Jasmine. As Skip the Demon explained, "Oh, it's her [Cordelia]. She just ain't driving."

Except, Angel wasn't a typical vampire. He was a vampire with a soul. Perhaps what he was describing to Charles was not what normally happens to a human who is turned into a vampire, but what happens to a vampire who becomes newly ensouled. The way I'm interpreting this (and I'm being highly influenced by Scott McLaren's essay in the above-referenced link) is that when Angelus was ensouled and became Angel, he was not given a soul in the strict Platonic and Christian sense in which a soul is a life-giving source, separate from the body, that ascends to Heaven (or Hell) upon death. Instead, Angelus gained an existential soul, where he developed a conscience and the moral capacity to be able to choose between Right and Wrong and Good and Evil.

Although Angel acknowledged that his body originally belonged to an 18th century Irish wastrel named Liam, and he even retained Liam's memories, there doesn't seem to be much evidence that Angel particularly identified himself as being one-and-the-same as Liam. This seems to directly contradict what he told Charles about having a front-row seat for viewing the demon's actions. Presumably, if Gunn's Platonic soul had left, then his soul would be on a completely different plane and could conceivably not even be aware of what Vampire Charles was up to. There are very few absolute truths in life, so when Angel spoke "the truth" about Charles' situation, he may have been referring to a still-legitimate version that Vampire Gunn would have been capable of understanding.

Charles was absolutely devastated by what Angel told him. In a single instance, he went from one extreme of being absolutely convinced that he was the savior of Los Angeles to the other extreme of realizing that he was simply a lowly pawn of Wolfram & Hart. Vampire Charles immediately went on a rampage where he came uncomfortably close to almost mortally wounding Angel. Gunn, who held a device that took away Angel's healing "glamour" properties, was very much surprised to find out that Angel was human and wouldn't be bouncing back like his former vampire self. Continuing to be defiant, Charles taunted Angel by saying, "Should I turn you? Feed on you? Bet you wish you could tell me what to do now, huh old man?" Gunn then immediately contradicted himself by adding almost wistfully, "I kinda do too" before deciding to just let Angel die.

As an aside, I could never quite figure out what Vampire Charles wanted to do with Angel in After the Fall. Gunn clearly wanted to kill Angel, but he also wanted to do so on very specific terms.

When another vampire asked Gunn what was happening to Angel, Gunn answered, "I don't know. He's supposed to be up and about and fanged and undead for the big finale. He's supposed to be there when I win and then he dies." Clearly, Wolfram & Hart's visions weren't providing Gunn with a clear enough road map for him to follow. Either that, or the visions were communicating the Senior Partners' Best Case Scenario, which Angel tended to mess up on a regular basis.

Gunn and Wesley. In the meantime, much to his surprise, Wesley Wyndam-Pryce was taken away from the Hyperion Hotel by the Senior Partners and ended up in the midst of Vampire Charles and the close-to-death Angel. At that time, Angel was having an out-of-body experience while talking with Cordelia who was acting as a death guide for The Powers That Be. Wesley was unaware of Spirit Angel's and Spirit Cordelia's presence, and they had no way of communicating with Wesley.

Even though Wesley was taken completely by surprise by this turn of events, he quickly started doing what needed to be done. After an understandably awkward meeting between Wesley and Charles, ("Ghost" "Vampire"), Wesley immediately turned his attentions on the seriously wounded Angel. Right away, Gunn became incredibly agitated that he was being reminded once again that it was "always about him [Angel]." Wesley was probably quite lucky to be a ghost at that moment, since he could dish out more unpleasant truths to Charles without fear of personal injury. Wesley then proceeded to tell Charles in no uncertain terms that, just like Angel said, Charles was receiving his visions from Wolfram & Hart. He further explained that Charles was not receiving the full story from the Senior Partners, but was getting the visions on a strict need-to-know basis. In other words, he was getting just enough information so that he would do what the Senior Partners needed him to do. Charles, who still didn't want to hear this, then said in one more poignant moment that he wished the old Wes was back.

Wesley continued on that Gunn was absolutely right about one thing - it was all about Angel. According to Wes, Gunn was in the same boat as Wesley, where both of them were lackeys to Wolfram & Hart. "We are all pawns, moved accordingly and sacrificed when needed." Think of the implications! We all know about the concept of how each one of us has the ability to create our own personal hells, where our actions on earth determine our afterlives. Think of Scrooge's old partner Marley and the chains he "forged in life". It's just too horrifying to think that we can be living perfectly decent lives, only to be thrown into hell just so we can make another person's existence totally miserable. The phrase "it will hurt him more than it will hurt you" as you're being tortured in front of someone else's eyes provides some pretty poor comfort!

Wesley then explained to Charles a bit more clearly about the role of the original demon who started off with the visions, how the visions were commandeered by Wolfram & Hart, how the vampire gang knew ahead of time about the battle in the alleyway, and how Charles had been destined for quite a long time to be turned into a vampire.

Gunn, who was not yet willing to give up on his notion that he was a true hero in his own right, then countered that perhaps the Shanshu prophecy was not about Angel but about himself. Then, as if he realized he might have been grasping for straws a bit, Gunn joked that perhaps the prophecy was not about a "vampire with a soul", but about a "vampire with soul". Wesley, who always had answers for everything, informed Gunn that, "He's [Angel] the vampire with a soul that will play a key role in the Apocalypse. He will be rewarded with his humanity with his troubles". Wesley also explained that while everything in the visions were true and Charles was being manipulated by Wolfram & Hart to do their bidding, the Senior Partners were starting to rethink Gunn's part because of how he was interpreting (or rather, misinterpreting) the visions.

Although Wesley was giving Gunn a clearer picture of how hell operated, it naturally didn't help Gunn's mood. For one thing, this was just too much bad news to have to take in at one time. Also, the fact that, once again, Angel was the champion, Wesley was the brains and Gunn was "only" the muscle was too much for him to handle. Gunn being mostly an evil demon who was almost completely incapable of acting rationally certainly didn't help matters.

Volume 3 then ended with Wesley being forced by Wolfram & Hart to give the dying Angel the horrifying vision of Angel, all bloodied and bruised, standing as a solitary figure in the midst of an Apocalyptic battlefield filled with dismembered corpses, all brought on by Angel's decision to fight Wolfram & Hart to the bitter end.

Volume 4 started off with Wesley informing Charles that Wolfram & Hart was quite upset that he had harmed Angel. Injuring or killing Angel was strictly verboten since the Senior Partners needed him to be kept alive so he could fulfill his destiny in the Apocalypse. An army of Wolfram & Hart's minions were on their way to take matters into their own hands. When asked how bad this demon army was, Wesley informed Charles that the 40,000 demons in the First Night alleyway was like the company softball team in comparison.

Gunn and Illyria/Fred. At this point I'm leaving out a huge amount of the plot, but suffice it to say that Connor arrived and pushed Gunn out of the upper floor window. Illyria, who was wandering around trying to find out what had happened to her good friend Wesley, met Charles on the street. The meeting of Illyria/Fred and Vampire Charles was yet another fascinating encounter, as Illyria seemed to greet Gunn as a fellow involuntary mutant/hybrid creature. They weren't exactly comrades-in-arms, but they still recognized that they had more than a few things in common.

When Gunn first saw Illyria, he simply said "Fred", even though she was obviously still being the leather-skinned Illyria. I couldn't help but wonder if Gunn, who was obviously not himself, was confused and perhaps handicapped by the fact that he didn't know the full story behind her fluctuations between Fred's and Illyria's personas. To Gunn's "Fred", Illyria simply answered, "No. Are we expected to fight?", to which Gunn answered, "Probably".

It didn't take long for me to realize that Charles actually did have a pretty firm grasp of Illyria's situation, which gave me one more reminder that it was never a good idea to underestimate his intelligence.

Despite all of her problems, Illyria still managed to operate on a surprisingly high operational level. It's therefore quite surprising at times when we're faced with some of her knowledge gaps and limitations. Although Illyria could sense that Gunn was now a vampire, she still asked, (after noting he was "not the same"), "Is it better?" Gunn answered, "Not in the least. I want it gone."

Illyria's simple question signified to me that she still had a hard time understanding (or admitting) that, as Wesley explained to her earlier, "We are more than just memories". In her mind, logically, a dying person would be better off if he were turned into a semi-immortal demon. The fact that the real person was either completely gone or profoundly changed for the worse was a concept that she still had to work through. In some ways, "being Fred" was not such a bad thing for Illyria since it offered her the hope of being integrated into a group of "loved ones". (Think of the The Return of Martin Guerre, where the impostor received the extra bonus of gaining entry into a ready-made supportive family). For Charles, "being a vampire", with its inherent isolating characteristics, was the worst fate imaginable.

I had mentioned in an earlier post that Wesley was the only one who could open up to Illyria one-on-one as a person in her own right. At this point in Volume 4, you could make the argument that Vampire Charles was also opening up to someone he clearly identified as being Illyria. In many ways, I thought this series of panels between Charles and Illyria marked the high point in the artwork over the entire first four volumes of After the Fall. Every inch of Gunn's face and body depicted the utter agony and despair of a truly miserable and pitiful creature. At one point he fell on his knees and wept, "I'm broken now. Ain't no way around it. Thought I found a way to fix it." I couldn't help but think what a tragedy it was that actor J. August Richards didn't have the opportunity to bring these remarkable moments to the screen.

Despite Charles' outpourings to Illyria (who eventually transformed herself into Fred in what was ultimately revealed to be one more attempt to get closer to a loved one), one feels that she acted more as a sounding board or a catalyst for his eruptive feelings rather than someone that Charles was connecting with on a one-on-one basis. All of the visual signs were there (Charles, crying, on his knees, hugging Illyria-as-Fred), but his outbursts ultimately turned out to be more like an emotionally-charged soliloquy.

At one point Illyria informed Charles that "I can restore order and make it right". Gunn quickly countered, "No, you can't. No offense, but you're a mess". However, Charles quickly revealed that what Illyria proposed was actually part of his plans. While Illyria was looking like Fred, Charles took the surprising action of seriously wounding her with his crossbow in an attempt to make Fred disappear and bring out the "real" Illyria.

Illyria as "Fred" was genuinely bewildered by Charles' behavior, and stayed within her "Fred" persona while Charles carried her to his demon body-parts altar that contained special healing powers. Gunn even noted that it would be a lot easier on him if "Illyria" reappeared sooner rather than later, since it hurt him tremendously to see "Fred" suffer so much. (Would a 100% evil vampire suffer from the sight of a wounded loved one as much as Vampire Charles?) Gunn, showing that he had a much firmer grasp of reality than what we might have thought, had the presence of mind to inform Illyria/Fred ".....Gonna say it one more time then I get pushy. My friend is dead. You killed her. So stop pissing on her memory by going through her motions......"

We were then given another poignant narrative where Charles and Illyria/Fred went through many time-shifting moments, some of which were particularly lovely. (As an aside, although Charles had some slight time-shifting abilities, I believe Illyria was the one who was responsible for the timeslips during this part of Volume 4.) It brought to mind how it must have been unbearable for Charles to lose Fred in two different ways, first when they broke up, and then when she died. For all intents and purposes, Fred was the one who broke up with Charles. Gunn was forced to continue on in silent grief and pretend that everything was back to normal. After Fred died, Gunn was not able to take on the special status that is conferred to a grieving boyfriend.

Putting aside the whole "Gunn was responsible for Fred's death" meme for a moment, I couldn't help but think of how Wesley, through some pretty fortuitous timing, was the one who had the privilege to act as her comforting lover in Season 5's "A Hole in the World", even though they'd only been going out together for, what, about one week at the most? (And for some reason, I don't think even that much time had elapsed since their kiss at the end of "Smile Time".) There were even a few hints that perhaps Wesley and Fred hadn't even slept together before her death. (They hadn't gone home together after they had their little intimate moment when they finished flamethrowing the bugs, and Fred made a little wisecrack as she lay dying that "I finally get you up to my bedroom, and all you want to do is read.").

Gunn's Final Role in the Los Angeles Hell. Again I'm leaving out some very important plot points, but it turned out that Charles was hoping that Illyria would be inspired to time-shift all of Los Angeles back to Before the Fall. Illyria did transform herself into her presumably original giant bug demon form, but unfortunately she decided to end everyone's suffering by squashing everything out of existence. Of course, no one wanted Illyria to succeed, and eventually Angel and Wesley reasoned it out that the best way to get Los Angeles back to normal was to get Charles to kill Angel, which would thereby force Wolfram & Hart to place Angel back earlier into the Before the Fall timeline in order to restore him back to health. Oddly enough, I couldn't tell if Vampire Charles was totally committed to helping Angel and Wesley with the plan, if he understood the plan and was only playing along because he really had no choice, or if his inner evil demon was simply taking control and acting out its natural tendency to kill.

Despite the fact that Vampire Charles was misguided at best and an evil demon at worst, we really can't deny that he played a pivotal part in messing up Wolfram & Hart's plans for the Apocalypse. As much the Senior Partners tried to maneuver Charles into doing their bidding, he was always one step ahead of them since he always held out hope that he was working on the side of Good. Vampire Charles simply refused to interpret his visions to Wolfram & Hart's best advantage.

Unanswered Questions. In yet one more obvious attempt to get me to shell out another series of $20.00 bills for more volumes of After the Fall, Charles was still in his coma in the hospital at the end of Volume 4. Therefore, I still have some unanswered questions about what happened to the real Charles after the vampire demon took over his body. Was the real Charles still inside the body during his demonic possession? If so, was he simply an observer, or was he somehow (involuntarily) working hand-in-hand with the demon? If Gunn's soul had departed his body after he had been turned into a vampire, did his soul end up in heaven? Did Gunn have any idea what was going on with his body after his death?

I see that Mother's Day is coming up in another month, so I have a pretty good idea of what I'll be asking for as a gift.

Another Post Not Written. I came this close to writing up a post a few months ago called "The Good Died Young" about how Angel managed to outlive all of the humans in Angel Investigations. Specifically, I was thinking of how Charles Gunn was considered to be mortally wounded in the Angel Season 5 series finale, "Not Fade Away", and how his character had been turned into a vampire in After the Fall.

I was a little surprised that it took such a long time for the concept to hit me between the eyes that all of the members of the core group (Cordelia, Wesley, Fred, Gunn, and we might as throw in Doyle) died after just a few short years. I was actually quite upset at the thought. However, similar to how a person reaches the "acceptance" stage of the grieving process, I actually eventually warmed up to the concept of drafting up a post on how all of these young people had a lot of similar character traits in that they were hard-working, loyal to the cause, somewhat unmindful of their own mortality, etc. It was only fitting that they'd be joined together in death while Angel continued on.

When I found out shortly afterwards that Charles Gunn survived his experiences in After the Fall, I actually felt quite disappointed that my beautiful post was up in smoke before I even had a chance to start typing it. But then I thought, Miriam, what's wrong with you? You're disappointed that a favorite character survived just because it upsets some weird notion you have about poetic balance within the universe? I finally comforted myself after I was able to vividly remember howupset I was to find out that Charles Gunn was seriously injured after his encounter with Senator Brucker's vampires. He was so incredibly eager to dust it up with vamps again, I wanted him to end the series with a brilliant (albeit probably temporary) victory. It was very important to me upon first viewing "Not Fade Away" to have at least one human survive into the First Night.

Closing Thoughts. I might have been overstating it a bit when I said in a previous post that Angel, Wesley and others were treating Vampire Charles as though he was the real Charles Gunn. They clearly knew that he wasn't the real Charles, which Angel even overtly acknowledged to himself (while possibly contradicting what he said earlier) later on in Volume 4. However, in direct contrast to how they treated Illyria when they refused to acknowledge the existence of Fred, Angel et al clearly appealed to Gunn's personality that still remained inside of Vampire Charles.

Volume 4 ended with Illyria protecting comatose Charles from oncoming evildoers at the hospital. I understand that Charles and Illyria teamed up a few times for further adventures in later volumes of After the Fall. I also understand that Charles felt compelled to take a break from Angel and his crew. I don't know if this is a permanent thing or not, but it would have probably been a logical decision for Illyria and Charles to strike out on their own since neither of them really fit into the new incarnation of Angel Investigations. Illyria had her own problems trying to deal with who she was and how she fit into her new world, while Charles probably wouldn't have been able to improve his position within the herd. Wes, Cordy and Fred were gone, only to be replaced by people who would be hard to pass up - Angel's son Connor and girlfriend Nina. Charles was a powerful character in his own right, and it was probably as good a time as any to strike out on his own.

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