In my Words for Wednesday post last week, I shared a paper about Angel the TV series. Continuing with that theme, here is a paper I wrote about Angel and DH Lawrence’s Apocalypse in 2009 for the graduate course “Approaches to the Study of Myth.” As is often the case in my academic writing, this was written for an audience unfamiliar with the Whedon-verse. This paper was accepted for presentation at the Slayage 5 conference, but I was unable to attend. Had I had the opportunity, I would have revamped it for the Whedon-y audience. Nevertheless, here’s the original paper.
In the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the spin-off series Angel, Joss Whedon created what scholars and fans commonly refer to as the “Buffyverse.” In this verse, Whedon presents a compelling mythology filled with heroic quests and powerful metaphors for modern society. One of the metaphors present throughout the Buffyverse is the Apocalypse. This threat appears so often that Buffy’s boyfriend in season four finds himself needing to know “the plural of Apocalypse” (“New”). Buffy constantly thwarts the coming of the Apocalypse. She does whatever it takes, even sacrificing her own life, as a variety of foes try to bring forth the end of the world. In the final season of Angel, however, the Apocalypse is more than a threat. An old foe explains to Angel, “You’re soaking in it. Not an apocalypse. The Apocalypse” (“Underneath”). Despite his best attempts, Angel will not avert the Apocalypse. His hero’s journey does not end with a triumphant dissemination of the boon and the mastery of the two worlds, as Joseph Campbell proposes for all heroes. The final scene of Angel depicts frightful demons and beasts arriving in Los Angeles. The Apocalypse is here and Whedon is showing viewers how to face it.
As D.H. Lawrence indicates, the notion of the Apocalypse has been around since at least “second century B.C.” and it continues to speak to the human consciousness (79). Campbell asserts that the Apocalypse remains a modern concern. He also explains, “We must not understand apocalypse literally, not as some physical destruction and judgment on the world, or as something that is going to occur in the future. The kingdom is here; it does not come through expectation” (Campbell, Thou 106). As the kingdom is here, so too is the Apocalypse. We breathe life into it through our concern about it. Lawrence explains the simple definition of Apocalypse as “Revelation” (59). What truth, then, does the Apocalypse reveal? In Campbell’s discussion, he indicates that the Apocalypse is the end of “our ignorance and our complacency” (107). Quite simply, the Apocalypse can be read as the end of things as we know them. It is, therefore, the quintessential metaphor of change and transformation.
How are we to live with the metaphorical Apocalypse, the ever-looming threat of change and destruction? Whedon and Lawrence provide us with the same answer through their respective metaphors and criticism. While Lawrence focuses specifically on the Apocalypse as depicted in the Bible and discusses it in relation to reality, Whedon utilizes his fictional realm to reveal elements of the Apocalypse. Both approaches are constructive and valuable. Comparing these two texts achieves two purposes: an attitude of how to approach the metaphorical Apocalypse, and a demonstration that our television screens have the potential to present us with great mythic images.
In the first season of Angel, the heroic vampire with a soul has left Buffy behind in Sunnydale and moved to the dark, demon-infested city of Los Angeles. Angel eventually forms the team “Angel Investigations” to “help the helpless” against the supernatural horrors that occur. His early team consists of two humans, Cordelia Chase and Wesley Wyndham-Price. At the end of the first season, Wesley discovers the Shanshu-Prophecy, which reveals that one day the vampire with a soul will become human. The prophecy clearly indicates that many battles lie ahead of Angel and his team. He must, “survive the coming darkness, the apocalyptic battles, a few plagues and [several] fiends that will be unleashed” (“Shanshu”). Nevertheless, the promise of that tantalizing reward lingers throughout the entire series
D.H. Lawrence explains, “What man most passionately wants is his living wholeness and his living unison . . . For man . . . the supreme triumph is to be most vividly, most perfectly alive. Whatever the unborn and the dead may know, they cannot know the beauty, the marvel of being alive in the flesh” (149). Throughout the five seasons of Angel, viewers see his desire to return to a human body. He longs for the beating of his heart, the ability to walk out of the shadows, and the opportunity to pass from this life naturally. His immortality is a burden. However, he accepts that burden to atone for the evils he committed during his century as a vampire without a soul. Angel knows he must first “fulfill his destiny,” as the prophecy indicates (“Shanshu”).
Through the many battles that Angel encounters, the largest foe he faces is the law firm Wolfram and Hart. The clientele of the firm are demons, and the firm works across a multitude of demon-filled dimensions. In fact, they are brokering the Apocalypse. The firm represents Lawrence’s notion: “The [modern] community is inhuman, and less than human” (71). Wolfram and Hart serve as the perfect metaphor as they present a pitiless community awaiting the Apocalypse. The Shanshu prophecy indicates that Angel will be a major player in the Apocalypse, though it does not dictate if he will be on the side of good or evil. For this reason, Wolfram and Hart are in a constant struggle to maneuver Angel to their side so that he will help bring forth the Apocalypse.
For the first four seasons of the series, Wolfram and Hart put Angel to the test, constantly interfering with his heroic aims. At the close of season four, Wolfram and Hart offer Angel a deal he cannot refuse. When Angel’s son Connor is on the verge of suicide and destruction, the firm offers to grant him a truly fresh start. They will mystically replace Connor’s memories and place him in a happy and nurturing home, away from Angel and away from any danger. In return, Angel must work for the firm. Angel accepts this offer without hesitation, believing he will both save his son and be able to fight against evil from within the belly of the beast. His team accepts the offer as well, for varying personal reasons. At this point, his team consists of the humans Wesley Wyndham-Price, Winifred “Fred” Burkle, Charles Gunn, and the empath demon Lorne. Each ultimately pays a price for this deal.
In season five, Angel gains two powerful allies. One is the resurrected Spike, who himself died averting an apocalypse in Sunnydale in the final season of Buffy. Wolfram and Hart resurrect Spike, the only other vampire with a soul. Though the history of Spike and Angel’s two century relationship is rocky at best, they learn to collaborate in their fight against evil. Angel’s other ally is the god-king Illyria. Unfortunately, her resurrection causes the death of the beloved Fred, whose body she uses as a shell. While Illyria is mostly unpredictable and highly self-seeking, she chooses to fight on Angel’s side in the final battle. Spike and Illyria are the strongest members in Angel’s camp, key to his fight against Wolfram and Hart.
Angel ultimately works to earn a seat with the Black Thorn, a group associated with the Senior Partners of Wolfram and Hart, working toward the Apocalypse. Once Angel joins the Circle, there is one catch –they ask him to sign away the Shanshu Prophecy. Angel does so without hesitation, giving up any chance of ever becoming human and receiving his hard-earned redemption. After five years of fighting the evil in Los Angeles and working towards atonement, Angel gives up his only opportunity to return to his human state.
Angel represents the hero that Lawrence thought was gone. In his time, Lawrence perceived “society [as] a mass of weak individuals trying to protect themselves [and therefore] bringing the evil into being” (72). He saw men “turn[ing] against the heroic appeal” (72). Lawrence discusses a consistent weakening of humanity across democracies. While some may disagree in the continual demise of the greater human society over time, it stands true that today society continues to struggle and needs heroes. Lawrence concludes Apocalypse with the assertion that we are not individuals but “part of the great human soul” (149). Angel represents this notion as he takes responsibility for humanity, surrendering himself for the greater good.
After joining the Black Thorn and signing away his personal boon of becoming human, Angel explains to his team, “We are weak. The powerful control everything except our will to choose . . . heroes don’t accept the world the way it is. The Senior Partners may be eternal, but we can make their existence painful . . . We’re in a machine. The Black Thorn runs it. We can bring their gears to a grinding halt, even if it’s just for a moment” (“Power”). His plan is to kill every member of the Black Thorn, knowing that he and his team will probably not survive. Angel is willing to surrender everything in order to avert the Apocalypse, or at least inhibit its harbingers.
Lawrence explains, “Power is there, and always will be. As soon as two or three men come together, especially to do something, then power comes into being, and one man is a leader, a master. It is inevitable” (68). Wolfram and Hart, in addition to the Black Thorn, hold a great power. They are a seemingly indestructible force. Even though Angel can wipe out the Black Thorn, Wolfram and Hart are far reaching. Nevertheless, Angel is the master of his group, and they all unequivocally agree to fight the Black Thorn with him. He is using his position of power to destroy a greater position of power that is destructive against humanity. Lawrence discusses the idea that “nowadays, the will to destroy power is paramount” (69). While Wolfram and Hart have the power to orchestrate the Apocalypse, Angel possesses the strong will to fight against this iniquitous power.
In the series’ finale “Not Fade Away,” Angel and his small cohort successfully attack the members of the Black Thorn. In this penultimate fight, one member kills Wesley and others mortally wound Gunn. In the final scene, Angel gathers in an alley with Illyria, Spike, and a dying Gunn. Though the team successfully eliminated every member of the Black Thorn, Wolfram and Hart will not tolerate this defiance: they open the gates of hell and bring forth the Apocalypse. An assortment of demons descends upon the alley. It does not seem likely that Angel and his remaining allies will survive. Angel indicates the plan simply: “We fight.” Spike requests something a “bit more specific.” With a look of triumph, Angel asserts, “Well, personally, I kind of want to slay the dragon.” At this moment, the horde closes in on them and Angel commands, “Let’s go to work!” (“Not”). As Angel makes the first swing of his sword, the screen fades abruptly to black.
Angel’s desire to go after the dragon speaks to Lawrence’s analysis of the “evil potency” demonstrated in the “red dragon” (125). Lawrence asserts that today “it must once more be slain by the heroes” (125). As Jung always demonstrates and Lawrence stresses, “Man thought and still thinks in images” (93). While the dragon is a “complex and universal symbol,” the “killing [of] the dragon is the conflict between light and darkness, the slaying of the destructive forces of evil” (Cooper 55 and 56). Angel’s choice here speaks symbolically to his position as the hero, his epic fight against evil, and the arrival of the Apocalypse.
Unlike the Apocalypse of Revelation, the Apocalypse in Angel is never seen. The audience does not know what happens next. Upon the initial airing of this finale, many viewers were shocked and disappointed. As Lawrence explains, “We always want a ‘conclusion,’ an end¸ we always
want to come, in our mental processes, to a decision, a finality, a full-stop. This gives us a sense of satisfaction” (93). Whedon’s decision to fade to black before the battle begins is, for this very reason, brilliant. He did not give the viewers a Hollywood ending; he did not even give them the satisfaction of knowing the outcome. He made viewers uncomfortable and, most importantly, contemplative. We do not see the epic battle, but Angel’s words “Let’s go to work” will resonate forever.
Throughout the Angel series, one undertone that stands out is simply to fight the good fight. Angel lost many great soldiers on the road to season five, including Cordelia, and loses even more in the belly of the beast. This, however, is the nature of war and the nature of life. Lawrence’s point is that this life is our life, the collective life. Angel is aware of this. Whatever the outcome may be, the life of humanity is worth the fight. His decisions echo Lawrence’s ideas in his famous conclusion to Apocalypse:
My soul knows that I am part of the human race, my soul is an organic part of the great human soul, as my spirit is part of my nation. In my own very self, I am part of my family. There is nothing of me that is alone and absolute except my mind, and we shall find that the mind has no existence by itself, it is only the glitter of the sun on the surface of the waters. (149)
Lawrence accentuates the interconnectedness of humans, emphasizing that we ultimately share one great soul. Angel is one example of the hero that fights for that universal soul.
After an in-depth discussion of the Apocalypse, an analysis of Revelation, and a tirade against Christianity, Lawrence has one thing to offer: hope. Likewise, after five seasons of fighting evil, and in the face of the greatest battle, Angel offers this same optimism. The love for humanity and the willingness to sacrifice everything is the essence of Angel’s soul. While he may not have regained his human form, he certainly earns his redemption. He has proved himself as a hero filled with humanity and he has inspired those by his side to fight the good fight, whatever the cost.
Essentially, D.H. Lawrence’s Apocalypse is a cry for the hero to re-emerge in the community. In his conclusion, Lawrence is teaching others how to live, thereby himself fulfilling the role of the hero. Campbell instructs, “All societies are evil, sorrowful, inequitable; and so they will always be. So if you want to help this world, what you will have to teach is how to live in it. And that no one can do who has not himself learned how to live in it in the joyful sorrow and sorrowful joy of the knowledge of life as it is” (Campbell, Myths to Live By 104). Lawrence demonstrates this achievement. He acknowledges the bitterness of life, the descent of community, and the bleakness of Revelation. Yet it has not marred him. He sees the beauty in the sun, in the cosmos, and directs individuals to start there. He is calling other heroes to action.
In our time, as in Lawrence’s time, there is a need for heroes. In our modern society, we are blessed with real heroes and fictional heroes. The story of the hero is the story of each of us. It is, as Campbell so beautifully articulates, the monomyth. This monomyth will continuously transform to the demands and the reality of the present time. This is why we continually seek it; the monomyth instructs us on how to live. In our present time, pop-culture is arguably the most dominate and influential modern storytelling source. There is an up rise and constant retelling of the hero myth in pop-culture, as demonstrated in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Such stories, whether they are in the form of television, film, or text, are tapping into the great symbols and metaphors of myths. They are opening a gateway to discussions of community, heroics, morality, and existence.
Angel brings to focus the journey of the hero and the threat of the Apocalypse. As Lawrence and Campbell discuss, this is not a literal threat of the world ending, yet the threat of change to the world as we know it. Through Angel, Whedon takes the symbol of the Apocalypse and uses it to show humanity how to exist in this beautiful and frightening life, in the same manner that Lawrence does in his Apocalypse. Together, these texts offer a modern conversation on a timeless concern.
Campbell, Joseph. Myths to Live By. New York: Penguin, 1972.
— Thou Art That. Novato: New World Library, 2001.
Cooper, J.C. “Dragon.” An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols. London: Thames & Hudson, 1978.
Lawrence, D.H. Apocalypse. New York: Penguin, 1931.
“A New Man.” Writ. Jane Espenson. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. WB. 25 Jan. 2000.
“Not Fade Away.” Writ. Joss Whedon and Jeffrey Bell. Angel WB. 19 May 2004.
“Power Play.” Writ. David Fury. Angel WB. 12 May 2004.
“To Shanshu in L.A.” Writ. David Greenwalt. Angel. WB. 23 May 2000.
“Underneath.” Writ. Sarah Fain and Elizabeth Craft. Angel. WB. 14 April 2004.
Abott, Stacey. Reading Angel: The TV Spin-Off with a Soul. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2005.
Boxall, Ian. “The Reality of Apocalypse: Rhetoric and Politics in the Book of Revelation.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 29.5 (July 2007): 116-117. Religion and Philosophy Collection. EBSCO. Pacifica’s Graduate Library. Carpinteria, CA. 22 Mar. 2009 http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rlh&AN=25786290&site= ehost-live
Callahan, Allen Dwight. “The language of Apocalypse.” Harvard Theological Review 88.4 (Oct. 1995): 453. Humanities International Complete. EBSCO. Pacifica’s Graduate Library. Carpinteria, CA. 22 Mar. 2009 http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db =hlh&AN=9606030624&site=ehost-live
Moore, Harry T. “Apocalypse and the Writings on Revelation/ D.H. Lawrence.” Modern Language Review 77.2 (Apr. 1982): 433-435. Humanities International Complete. EBSCO. Pacifica’s Graduate Library. Carpinteria, CA. 21 Mar. 2009 http://search.ebsco host.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=hlh&AN=17537987&site=ehost-live
Scherr, Barry J. “CHAPTER TWO: Lawrence’s Quarrel with the Jews.” 97-170. Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2004. Humanities International Complete. EBSCO. Pacifica’s Graduate Library. Carpinteria, CA. 22 Mar. 2009 http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct= true&db=hlh&AN=19587975&site=ehost-live
Stafford, Nikki. Once Bitten: An Unofficial Guide to the World of Angel. Toronto: ECW Press, 2004.