Wednesday, June 8, 2011

What Makes a Hero?


Angel as Jackie Robinson? That might be a bit of a stretch.


"Why We Fight" from Season 5 of Angel seems to get better with each viewing. I admit that I didn't quite know what to think the first time I saw it. I felt that the WWII submarine setting was a jarring change from the rest of the season, which is saying a lot since I'm notoriously tolerant of stand-alone episodes. However, I acknowledged that it was well-written, well-acted, and expertly directed. I also thought it must have been a lot of fun for all of the males involved to produce this episode, since these guys probably all grew up watching war movies on TV.

Fortunately it didn't take me too long to realize that, in both the present-day settings and the WWII flashbacks, Angel was being reminded of how personal motivations need to be examined when making the decision to "fight". People also need to size up their chances for success, while carefully thinking through the consequences of failure.

Reviewing Season 5 has been problematic for me, mostly because it was revealed in After the Fall that the Senior Partners had manipulated Angel into taking the fight to Wolfram & Hart in order to bring on the Apocalypse. This kind of takes the luster off of the season-long story arc. Although Angel clearly knew from the very end of Season 4 that the Senior Partners were up to no good, I'm surprised to find out that "Why We Fight" seems to be kind of a breakthrough episode for me as far as giving me clues about not only Angel's motivations during his final countdown against the Senior Partners, but also about his basic personality as well.

Angel the True Champion? Before Blogger changed my plans, I was well on my way to doing a post about all of the little glimpses that we saw of Angel's ensouled character from roughly 1898, when he ran afoul of a pesky Romanian gypsy tribe, through 1997, when he met Buffy in Sunnydale. Luckily for me, "Why We Fight" featured a lot of those character traits that I was originally planning on writing about anyway. What struck me the most was Angel's dichotomy, in which he was usually aloof and separated from the world, but was also ready to spring into action almost unthinkingly in order to save victims-in-distress. We could almost call Angel a reluctant hero: it seemed as though he truly didn't care for anyone else on the planet, but managed to make momentary exceptions for just about everyone he ever met. (Season 2's "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been" provided an excellent case in point.)

Both "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been" and "Why We Fight" portrayed mid-20th century Angel as someone who tended to quickly retreat back into his broody, cynical shell after he achieved his few minutes of heroic glory. It also became apparent that his reasons for springing into action did not necessarily include self-sacrificing love for his fellow man. David Fury provided a clue in his DVD commentary for Season 4's "The House Always Wins" when he said (to quote what I wrote from an earlier post of mine) ".... Angel was a true champion, and he started fighting on pure instinct alone when he saw his friends being attacked."

Saying that Angel was a "true champion" is obviously way-too-simplistic, but the phrase still conveys a reasonably accurate image of his true character. I tend to call Angel an "alpha male" quite a bit, but alpha males can just as easily jump over to the side of Evil. In the glimpses we saw of Angel when he was the 18th-century wastrel Liam, we didn't see anything particularly heroic about his character. In retrospect we could possibly trace some of his 20th century exploits back to his human days when he would regularly assert his manhood by getting into drunken brawls, but there still seems to be something quite elemental missing from that explanation. Of course his "I'm cursed with a soul so I'm constantly seeking redemption" would provide an easy explanation for why he consistently jumped in on the side of Good, but that also seems a little too pat. If Angel really felt that way he would have been helping out at Salvation Army soup kitchens a little more often.

Serve Your Country, Or Else. I'm always fascinated with how a person will react when coerced into performing tasks that he normally wouldn't perform on his own. An extreme example is Alec Guinness' character of Col. Nicholson, and his complicated reasons for collaborating with the Japanese in order to build the strategic Bridge on the River Kwai. People who are caught up in these unfortunate situations seem to be faced with the choice of either performing tasks to the best of their ability in order to preserve some sort of transcendent integrity, performing the tasks half-heartedly and otherwise doing the bare minimum in order to just get by, or by doing everything they can to sabotage the process.

It's a common strategy for the alpha male to strike first and immediately assert his dominant top dog status. If the target male is smart, he'll back down right away, appear to acquiesce, and buy time by playing along until he can plan his next move. Angel sized up the situation quickly and accurately back in 1943 when the G-Men broke down the door to his New York apartment. Fans caught a glimpse of the very first days of the U.S. government's "Initiative", which was the military group that played such a prominent role in Season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Resistance was futile, and Angel gave in easily enough, particularly after he had been, if my memory serves me, beaten up, electrocuted and strapped into a chair. Although there was clearly no love lost between Angel and the Initiative, it still appeared to me that Angel grudgingly respected his opponents, since he probably knew he would have acted the same if he was in their shoes.

The Initiative is another one of those lovely morally ambiguous organizations conjured up by Mutant Enemy. I won't go into too much detail, but they were an outfit that often operated on a "time is of the essence" schedule and didn't have a lot of time for group hugs and consensus. Although we were often reminded that the Initiative itself was ostensibly working for the greater good, the fact that the organization needed to rely on murderous thugs and morally deficient technicians to carry out its operations kind of negated their claim to a higher moral ground.

Regardless, we found out from the above-referenced scene that the Initiative had only been in operation for a short period of time. This brings up a whole lot of wonderful conspiracy theories on how it was even possible to get the organization up and running so quickly, but there are parallels to real historical events. I've read that the U.S. Office of Secret Services (OSS), which was the precursor to the modern-day CIA, was supposedly quickly dubbed "Oh So Special" (or "Oh So Social") shortly after it was formed in 1942. The U.S. did not have a lot of time to recruit and train intelligence officers, so OSS director "Wild Bill" Donovan and his other Ivy League colleagues recruited heavily from their own upper-class social circles. These people were well-educated, well-connected and probably well-to-do, and more importantly, had spent considerable time touring pre-war Europe and visiting other exotic destinations. They knew foreign languages, were familiar with local customs and terrains, and had experience with improvising and making quick decisions on the fly during the normal course of their travel adventures. Although the foot soldiers of the Initiative might not have been Ivy Leaguers, an organization like that could only have been formed quickly if the upper echelons of power were involved. There was a lot of circumstantial evidence throughout the Buffyverse and Angelverse that the highest levels of government was always well-aware of the supernatural world.

So, against this backdrop, Angel had his own Bridge on the River Kwai moment when he decided to reluctantly join forces with the U.S. military.

Run Silent, Run Deep
. There was a wonderful contrast between the worldly Angel, the other vampires and the German officer on one side, and the young idealistic U.S. navy crew members on the other. At times I half-expected to find a stereotypical microcosm of WWII-era U.S.A. on the submarine, including Kelly from Chicago, Goldberg from Brooklyn, Kowalski from Pittsburgh, Robinson from Alabama, etc. Fortunately, the producers handled the kids' general "gee whiz" attitudes with a fairly light touch, in contrast with what I considered to be a somewhat over-the-top noirish post-war Los Angeles that was portrayed in "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been".

Although Angel clearly did not consider himself to be a citizen who felt obligated to defend his country, he still appeared to have an affinity for Americans. Angel quickly took the crew under his wing and and appeared to quite enthusiastically take charge of the mission. He obviously chose to take the "best of my ability" approach to his assignment as he kept everyone focused and on task even under the most horrendous of circumstances. I also get the feeling that Angel's concern for the well-being of the crew was just as big a motivation for turning Sam Lawson into a vampire (so Lawson could continue repairing the submarine engines) as it was to carry out the rest of the mission on behalf of the Initiative.

The Other Side. There were so many good performances from the "bad guys" in this episode, I almost don't know where to start. Actors Bart McCarthy and Camden Toy were so convincing as the legendary vampires Nostroyev and the Prince of Lies, I immediately recognized these characters as well-established cultural icons. The only problem was that they were new creations who had been developed specifically for this episode. The Prince of Lies was the one who really threw me off, since he was obviously patterned after Max Schreck's Count Orlok character in the 1922 silent vampire film masterpiece Nosferatu. Since I've never actually seen the movie before, for all I knew "Prince of Lies" could have been one of Orlok's aka's, similar to how Satan is also known as being the Prince of Lies. Regardless, I was very disappointed that Nostroyev was dusted so quickly, since I was really looking forward to hearing the exploits of a homosexual vampire (the ".......Butcher of Alexander Palace") who possibly went at least as far back as the days of Catherine the Great.

Roy Werner also did a good job portraying the worthy adversary and cool-as-ice Nazi officer Heinreich. However, James Marsters once again stole the show as the irreverent pre-ensouled Spike. Of all the evil characters encountered by the submarine crew, Spike probably seemed the most subversive to them. Nostroyev and the Prince of Lies were obviously classicists from the old school of vampires, but the brash and anachronistic Spike solidly represented the new breed. He certainly must have appeared light years of his time to the crew members, with his unabashed, joyous hedonism and his refusal to honor traditions or authority. I can't help but think that some of the crew members might have immediately thought of Spike the first time they started running across hippies and other campus radicals in the 1960's.

Angel's Personality Reduced to One Easy Word. Joss Whedon beautifully explained in this YouTube video how challenging it was to write about Angel, a heroic character that Whedon could not identify with or even begin to understand. Luckily, Spike came to our rescue when he gave us this definitive summary of Angel's character, "....You're still a dick". Angel confirmed Spike's observation when he proudly answered, "Yeah. I am".

So, there you have it, folks. Angel's a dick. There's no need to write any more long essays about his tortured past and his bloody curse. We can all accept the fact that Angel is a dick and move on with our lives.

Or can we? If Angel's a "dick", then Spike is an "asshole", which I've called Spike on more than one occasion. I've never given this much thought, but I'm wondering if I've ever used the words "dick" and "asshole" interchangeably, or if I've always applied two distinct meanings to these words.

According to Dictionary.com, the definition of "dick" that seems to fit Angel the best is "clever dick", which is "....a person who is obnoxiously opinionated or self-satisfied; know-all". I believe that is the definition that I usually ascribe to a "dick", as opposed to the alternative definition of "...stupid person, usually a male", which would seem to fit Spike better. In contrast, an "asshole" is "...a stupid, mean, or contemptible person". In the hierarchy of annoying males, a "[clever] dick" would seem to rate higher than an "asshole". To be more accurate, I would put Spike somewhere in the middle of being a "dick" and an "asshole".

If we really wanted to get technical, we could give Angel and Spike word assignations based on the roles that they may have played in past homosexual relationships. Also, we could trace the confusion between the colloquial definitions of these two words back to some popular misconceptions on what what actually constitutes sodomy, as delightfully illustrated in both the main article and the comment section of this early Naked Capitalism post regarding the predicament that ex-IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn has gotten himself into.

However, I digress. Regardless, it certainly makes sense that Angel clearly (and probably rightfully) thought of himself as being the ultimate alpha male in his universe. If he threw in his lot with the baddies, he would have been one of many. Although Angel might have found a way to claw his way to the top, (as we found with his Angelus persona), there would have been very little to distinguish him from other vampires and demons. How unimaginitive! As the defender of the faith of the righteous, Angel actually raised the stakes, so that his skirmishes against the forces of Evil automatically became battles of epic proportions. When Angelus became the ensouled Angel, with one fell swoop he was able to carve out a completely separate identity away from the rest of the demon world. The stakes were instantly raised from control of what was in essence a den of thieves to world domination!

Lindsey McDonald certainly said it best when he told Angel in the series finale "Not Fade Away" that "Everybody goes on about your soul. Vampire with a soul. Nobody ever mentions the fact that you're really a vampire with big brass testes. This is gonna be a circus. I mean, win or lose, you're about to pick the nastiest fight since mankind drop-kicked the last demon out of this dimension. And that you don't do without me. If you want me, I'm on your team." Lindsey's admiration for Angel's sheer chutzpah probably had more to his love/hate relationship with Angel than any latent homosexual feelings he might have been harboring.

So, to push the obvious in answering part of "Why We Fight", the fact that Angel is a "dick" probably went a long way towards explaining why Angel decided to fight against both the Axis powers in WWII and the Senior Partners in the early 21st century.

Sired By A Soul. In my first viewings of this episode I failed to attribute any importance to the fact that vampire Sam Lawson was sired by a Vampire With a Soul. However, according to this Wikipedia sub-entry for "Why We Fight", "It is first suggested in this episode that vampires sired by en-souled vampires receive a piece of the sirer's soul and end up living in a psychological limbo-state between their former selves and their intended vampire personalities - neither feeling guilty for their crimes, nor enjoying them."

Vampire Lawson started off by telling Angel:
LAWSON: We all need a reason to live, even if we're already dead. Mom, apple pie, the stars and stripes— That was good enough for me till I met you. Then I had this whole creature-of-the-night thing going for me—the joy of destruction and death—and I embraced it. I did all the terrible things a monster does—murdered women and children, tortured fathers and husbands just to hear 'em scream—and through it all... I felt nothing. 60 years of blood drying in my throat like ashes. So what do you think? Is it me, chief? Or does everyone you sired feel this way?

ANGEL: You're the only one I ever did this to...after I got a soul.

LAWSON: Do I have one, too?

ANGEL: I don't think it works that way, son.

LAWSON: Didn't think so.
In my first run-throughs of the series, I not only failed to link Lawson's feelings of emptiness to being sired by Angel, I went so far as to attribute these feelings to a substantial (although possibly not a majority) of the vampire population. Of course many other vampires, not the least Angelus and Spike themselves, thoroughly enjoyed hosting their demon entities. However, I've said in the past that vampires seemed to occupy the lowest caste in the hierarchy of demons within the Buffyverse precisely because their misery stemmed from the last vestiges of their human identities. Besides Sam Lawson, Vampire Charles Gunn fell firmly into this category of miserable vampires, which explains why Gunn was the most fascinating character in the After the Fall comic continuation series.

As usual, whenever I come across conundrums concerning the soul, I dust off my metaphorically well-thumbed copy of Scott McLaren's "The Evolution of Joss Whedon's Vampire Mythology and the Ontology of the Soul" for some insight. According to McLaren, (from section 25 of his essay):
Though it is clear that Lawson wishes to return to a simpler life constructed around the wholesome abstractions of family and patriotism, that door is irretrievably closed because as a vampire he no longer has a soul. He wishes so very much to have one that the viewer can’t help but wonder if he might not be wholly beyond the hope of redemption. But here the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of the ontological [note from Miriam - as opposed to some of Whedon's more existential concepts of the soul] to make sheer will an adequate remedy. ............ Angel is clear that the soul is no metaphor and that Lawson simply does not have one. Nor is there any way for him to obtain or recover one (notwithstanding Spike’s own saga in BtVS Season Six where the soul functioned in a fashion distinctly more existential).

snip

The implication is clear: without a soul Lawson is, in the ontological sense, nothing. Angel’s worst fears in “Soul Purpose” (A5010) become Lawson’s reality. He has no personality, or at least not the personality he would choose to have. Angel, seeing no hope for him, stakes Lawson as much to put him out of his misery as to free the world of a violent killer. Angel himself, in his own words of defense, acknowledges a very stark boundary between his soulless existence as Angelus and his ensouled life as Angel. He even implies that he may be less accountable for his actions as Angelus than he is for his actions as Angel. [14] All of this carries with it an important existential implication: the choices Angel makes with a soul, if not wholly different, at least spring from a different set of moral imperatives.
This part of the essay hints at the main reason why I failed to attach any importance to the fact that Lawson was sired by an ensouled vampire. Despite my attempts to expand my own definition of the soul to include existential and/or metaphorical aspects (e.g., the soul as a moral compass), I'm too firmly entrenched in the old Platonic/Christian concept of the soul as being a separate and immortal entity that guides the physical body.

I suppose it's possible that Angel transmitted a part of his soul to Lawson during the siring process. It's not as though there was a lot of established precedence that anyone could examine. And, besides, I've found out that when Mutant Enemy writers introduce a concept, they usually don't want the audience to dismiss it out of hand. It's just that Angel is a character that I usually trust implicitly. If Angel says it, I believe it. If I'm less-than-perfectly-correct about his motivations (think of how I defended Angel's descent into darkness in Season 2, his decision to take over Wolfram & Hart in extreme late Season 4, his decision to take on the Senior Partners in late Season 5, etc.). I usually need a lot of evidence to convince me otherwise.

However, I'm starting to give a little bit more thought to this passing-on-of-the-soul concept, particularly in light of how vampire Darla was influenced by her unborn child's soul in her Season 3 maternity arc. I can think of a lot of similarities and differences between Darla's and Lawson's situations, but the whole concept will probably stay firmly in my Posts That Will Never Be Written category.

Idle Thoughts. This whole race to establish demon armies touched on in "Why We Fight" is an obvious metaphor for the competing U.S. and German atomic bomb and rocket research programs in WWII.

As the mother of three boys who wrote elementary school essays about Jackie Robinson, the man who broke baseball's color barrier in the late 1940's. I'm well aware of the parallels between the discrimination encountered by Angel and by African-Americans. No matter how many good deeds Angel performed, he was still a vampire. Both Angel and Jackie Robinson (along with millions of other African-Americans) were obligated to conduct themselves on the highest of ethical levels as possible in order to avoid giving away ammunition that their opponents could use against them. It takes an incredible amount of courage and self-control to keep doing the right thing even though people are doing everything they can to make your life miserable.

As far as we know, Angel went off the Initiative's radar quite quickly after he completed his submarine mission. One would think that the Initiative would have done everything in their power to keep Angel around.

Spike's anachronistic irreverence is also a Hollywood trope, where modern-day sensibilities are introduced into movies that are set in the past. The best example I can think of is the 1970 WWII movie, Kelly's Heroes, which included Clint Eastwood as an anti-hero, Donald Sutherland as a hippy, etc.. This film was very much a product of its time.

My favorite line in "Why We Fight" is Spike's "I'll menace. You talk", which was a reference to how he and Lawson formed a tag team in order to take on the German officer.

Although the villains were delightful, I thought Eyal Podell was equally impressive as Sam Lawson, the wide-eyed all-American boy who received a bitter lesson on how the world really operated. Podell certainly made the most out of his single-episode appearance. Kudos also to Mutant Enemy for creating yet one more memorable minor character.

More kudos to writers Steven S. DeKnight and Drew Goddard for writing what turned out to be a pivotal episode that also tied up a lot of loose ends in the Buffyverse.

I wasn't sure whether to write "the Initiative" or "The Initiative". The latter makes more sense to me, but the few other sites I looked at while researching this post all seemed to use the former. I opted to not break ranks.

Angel as a "dick" turned out to be the missing link between Angel and Liam.

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