Monday, May 01, 2006

Joss Whedon's Buffy and Angel: The Wide Angle View

Joss Whedon has the most persuasive and stunning vision of evil in all of popular culture. To begin with, Whedon's evil is a positive evil, by which I mean that it really exists in-and-of-itself rather than being merely the absence of good, as it is in Dante (where Hell is what you get when you can no longer apprehend God). It is also not at all like evil in C. S. Lewis's Christianity, where Satan merely thinks he is evil; in the grand plan of God's benevolent design Satan's rebellion and temptation of man has its part to play, and thus, in the long run, his "evil" is in the service of good. For Whedon evil is pervasive and fundamental: as Holland Manners tells Angel, the world runs because of evil, not in spite of it. As Buffy and Angel end our heroes face primordially evil antagonists that cannot be destroyed (though their representatives can be harmed): the First Evil and the Senior Partners live forever, though Caleb, the Uber-Vampires, and the Black Thorn are killed. And though there is lip service to the powers of good, it is ultimately empty: the ancient women who watched the watchers are useless and tacked on in the second to last episode of Buffy. On Angel The Powers That Be are distant and weird, communicating through cold and dangerous representatives, and the terrifying Jasmine reveals herself to be one of them. Angel makes clear that in resisting evil we define ourselves, which is good for us, but has nothing to do with the cosmos. In order to fight evil, Whedon's characters, who don't call on the powers of good because there are none, harness evil to fight evil while trying not to lose their humanity: Slayer powers are essentially demon powers and, in season seven, Buffy rejects more power because it means less humanity; and Angel, of course, is a vampire with a soul, who, in Angel season one, refuses to become human because it means he won't be able to oppose evil with the same force. The soul, in Whedon, is so poorly defined as to be essentially meaningless (though on the surface level it makes for great drama): characters with souls do evil (Buffy's dying childhood friend from "Lie to Me"), and characters without souls do good (Spike). Evil, on the other hand, is defined clearly and extensively over seven seasons of Buffy and five seasons of Angel.

What I find less persuasive in the Buffy and Angel universes however -- though it doesn't really bother me as ultimately it plays little part in most of the actual episodes -- is Buffy and Angel's desire to be merely human: Buffy wants nothing more than to live life as a normal girl free of Slayer responsibilities and Angel's fondest wish (though he signs it away when he thinks it no longer matters) is to fulfil the prophecy in which the vampire with a soul is granted his humanity (Angel and Spike even go so far as to fight over this prize). Though Spike comes back as a network demand, notice the two characters that don't make it though the Buffy series finale are both not human. Whedon, of course, draws tremendous power in injecting a vital, human element into fantasy and horror genres (and the sci-fi and western in Firefly and Serenity); superhero comics, however, have made strides in thinking through the consequences of post-humanism (as I discuss in my essay on the X-Men here). It will be interesting to see if Whedon's future work in the superhero genre (Astonishing X-Men, Wonder Woman) will ever be effected by this. But as long as he remains a genius, it won't really matter -- he is, after all a master storyteller rather than an master philosopher, as he himself admits on Firefly's "Objects in Space" commentary (though without the word "master," obviously). Long Live Joss Whedon, is my thinking.

23 comments:

jennifert72 said...

i also agree that whedon has the most complex conception of evil out there. his evil is whole and substancial. it is capable of acts for good (like when spike joins with buffy in the season 2 finale to fight angelus... spike's motives may be selfish(to get back drusilla) but his willingness to use good to achieve his aims mirrors whedon's heros willingness to use evil to achieve their aims. which makes the whole situation fluid and allows whedon to surprise us.

a lot of the violence perpetuated against main characters is by soul-having humans (warren killing tara, andrew killing jonathan, the lab assistant killing fred) this keeps the show from becoming predictable by not always having the worst evil done by the guy in the monster mask.

although there is lip service paid to angel and buffy's desire to be "normal" in every instance when it is offered (also, "helpless") it is rejected. luckily, whedon is too smart a storyteller to suffer from the data (stng) syndrome!

in the angel finale, the only characters to survive are the non-human ones (i consider gunn "post-human" after his mental upgrade)
do you have a theory about that difference in endings for the two shows?

Geoff Klock said...

The Angel finale has to be read in two conflicting ways.

On the one hand, as you say, only the non-human characters survive (I can think of Gunn as post-human, but if you think of Gunn as a normal human, you might note we are told he has a moral wound and will be dead in ten minutes, fight or no fight; so either way it seems only the non-human characters can survive). Whedon could continue the adventures of Angel, Spike and Illyria in a comic book, and we would accept it because Joss Whedon is great.

On the other hand this is a Butch-Cassidy-and-the Sundance-Kid ending: anything is possible, I suppose (sci-fi fans love to point that out), but the emotional impact of that scene is that they all go out in a blaze of glory, dead. The non-humans don't survive; no one does. It's the same with Spike at the end of Buffy: the only way that scene works emotionally is if you think of it as his death, even though you know he will be back. You have to read it both ways.

But given the nature of evil in the Whedonverse, given the fact that viewers knew Angel would not be on the air next year, that Buffy was over, I think of the death of Spike on Buffy and the death of everyone but Lorne on Angel as the "real ending." If Whedon revises those endings to tell more stories (as he did when Spike turned up on Angel season five) I will be there because I like Whedon stories. But I still find the death of Spike and the death of the Angel cast -- even though, since Spike dies twice, there is a kind of logical but not emotional contradiction -- to be the "real" endings of the shows. Mostly because I think the creators want the audience thinking, at the end of Angel, say, "wow, they went out in a blaze of glory," rather than "ok, here is how they might have survived."

This is a very long way to go to say no, Jennifert72, the non-humans don't survive because no one does. It just requires this vast explanation, because sci-fi fans like to quibble around the idea that "anything is possbile." Which it is, I suppose, but that doesn't matter as much as they think it does. Saying the Angel cast survives because "anything is possible" is like saying string quartet music is cat gut scratching wire: in some sense that is true, but it misses the whole point of the music.

jennifert72 said...

excellent point. completely convinced!

jennifert72 said...

oh, btw, i am so proud of myself for finally hooking you on whedon! ta dum!

Geoff Klock said...

Whedonesque.com, your one stop website for all things Joss Whedon, has been kind enough to direct people here (anything to do with Whedon anywhere gets a link). We were put up on May 2. There are more comments to be read on their site. To go directly to their discussion page on this post, go to http://whedonesque.com/comments/10240.

They seem mostly interested in my sidebar comment on the soul, at least so far.

Geoff Klock said...

Over on Whedonesque.com Saje makes a great point about the soul in Whedon: I said it makes for great drama, even though it doesn't really mean anything; Saje points out that it allows Whedon's heroes to kill and not be hated by the audience, since the things killed have no souls. As Whedon himself points out in the commentary to "Welcome to the Hellmouth" this is the same reason vampires have "vampire face" in a fight, and why they turn to dust: he didn't think the audience could go with a show where a girl stabs people who look like high school students and then has to spend fifteen minutes getting rid the bodies. Whedon is a smart guy.

jennifert72 said...

and... when you hear the commentary on Passion, why angel is wearing his vamp face when he kills jenny...

Anonymous said...

FYI, Gunn doesn't die in the finale. Although he does gain an eye patch. See the comic Angel: Old Friends

Geoff Klock said...

anonymous: ah, see, I only read the comics that had writing by Whedon, or writing by someone from Buffy, Angel or Firefly. I missed everything else. I wonder if Whedon signs off on those comics, if he will feel he has to stick to that continuity when he writes Buffy Season 8 in comics form (as he has suggested he will).

D'C'A' said...

I personally regarded "A Hole in the World" as the real ending; satrting with S"eeing Red" and ending there, the Whedoneverse became a universe without a chest as far as I'm concerned and all the rest is just windowdressing. So by "Not Fade Away" it meant nothing to me any longer. To me the only charcaters still alive are Faith Harmony, and Lorne;everyone else's story had been told before the cancellation.
I know this isn't purely on-topic, but I can never resist a chance to preach.

Geoff Klock said...

d'c'a: fair enough.

By the way, anon., Whedonesque.com, on the same day they linked to this blog post -- which has a stunning 54 comments, though not really related to what I wrote -- linked to an interview with Jeff Mariotte, author of Angel: Old Friends; in the interview Mariotte said the comics that take place after the end of Angel are not canonical, as Whedon is not beholden to follow the continuity established there, if and when he should continue the story.

Jon Bebee said...

I would like to know which comics are canon's. I'm sure the writers of the non-canonized comics are talented, I just would rather read the material that's consistent with Whedon's story.

I didn't get into Firefly until after I saw Serenity. But I love it, and I hate whoever cancelled it. It was like sci-fi with balls, just imagine it, a TV spacewesternopera? with actual cajones.

Anonymous said...
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Geoff Klock said...

I am sure everyone has already guessed this but let me say: the deleted comments, here and elsewhere, are not angry people saying I suck; they are spam.

Patrick said...
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Patrick said...

Why I don’t buy this-

BtVS and Angel are supremely post-modern texts; Good and evil in this series are ultimately portrayed as arbitrary and meaningless. The First (whom in the context discussed, would fulfill the role of God) is in the end, impotent and incompetent.

Consider the character of Spike. Spike without a soul, Spike without a soul and a chip, Spike with a soul and with a chip, Spike with a soul and without the- it’s the same god dam character throughout. Spike however, is supremely cool. (Here I refer you to Roger Shattuck’s analysis of Pulp Fiction). Cool is the supreme ontological state in these fictions. Spike cares not for the greater concerns of good in the latter seasons or evil-writ-large in earlier seasons. Spike is concerned with what serves him be preserve a world repleate happy meals with legs, or getting in good with the blonde, so he can shag her rotten.

Spike is the true uber-vamp; he is beyond good and evil and exists entirely for his own gratification.

Patrick said...

Screw you Whedon, you can't hurt me anymore, is my thinking.

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calvierude said...
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