Welcome to my new weekly post, Words for Wednesday! Each Wednesday, I’m going to post a paper that I’ve written. Up first is one I wrote for the course “Greek and Roman I” way back in 2008. I examine how the TV series Angel gives us a modern version of Oedipus. Note, it was written for a reader who had not seen the series. Also of note, for any MLA buffs out there, this was written before the most recent MLA format changes. Enjoy!
Simply put, “Myths are stories . . . about things that matter a lot” (Downing Lecture 1). These stories were first told orally. By 5th century B.C., stories commonly appeared on stage as plays. Now, in the 21st century, stories appear in a variety of forms including plays, films, books, and television. Despite the changes across the world over the last thirty centuries, one thing remains the same: we love our stories. In Ancient Greece, Oedipus was a well known name. In Modern America, the same is true of Buffy and Angel. Change the time, the location, and the tradition, but the human experience does not change. Myth provides us with images to understand our time. As Joseph Campbell asserts in several of his texts, myth needs to be modern and relevant. Downing echoes this sentiment in “Another Oedipus”: “What makes a myth a myth is its power to continue to activate fresh mythology” (280).
Sophocles developed a powerful play in his retelling “Oedipus Rex.” The audience was familiar with the story and could respond to the irony he provided. At a time when drama was not serialized as it is now on television, it behooved playwrights to use the audience’s knowledge to enhance a resonating story. As Downing indicates, “The dramatists used the inherited myths to reflect on perennial but newly pressing issues and to call for a deeper and more resilient relation to the community and to the gods, to fate, suffering, and death” (Downing, “Another Oedipus” 285). Part of the power of television series today is that they are not just viewed once and dismissed. They are re-viewed time and time again. This can be as much of a social event as the plays of 5th Century. “Buffy” and “Angel” fans have been known to have viewing parties and even sing-along’s –there was a musical “Buffy” episode.
“Oedipus Rex” was a response to the times, reflecting the struggles that citizen’s faced during that time: loyalty to state rising above all other responsibilities. Downing reflects on Nicole Loraux’s interpretation, indicating that “the tragedies’ emphasis on loss, grief, mortality, and the haunting presence of death, suggest to her [Loraux] that the spectators [of "Oedipus Rex"] discovered that more fundamental than their role as citizen was their participation in the race of mortals” (“Another Oedipus” 290). Among the many functions fulfilled in Greek Tragedy, this particular play by Sophocles was so powerful at that time because it helped the Athenians to think about the struggles they were facing.
In America today, that reminder is still needed. There are so many distractions in the business and monetary world that individuals sometimes forget to see the suffering of people that requires attention. Sometimes people even forget to take care of themselves as they are concerned with climbing the corporate ladder, supporting a family, and keeping up with the latest technologies. Our world is changing rapidly around us, but at the heart of it all we remain untouched – we are still humans facing the same struggles that the Athenians faced: balancing duty to family, state, and self. While “Oedipus Rex” is still widely read and appreciated today, the culture had a call for a new and modern myth.
In 1997, writer and creator Joss Whedon successfully debuted “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” on the WB network. While he had pitched the script for the 1992 theatrical release, he did not maintain creative control of the film and his story had not yet been told. From 1997 until 2003, new episodes of “Buffy” aired; from 1999 until 2004, the spin-off “Angel” aired. Together, these series present what is commonly known to Buffy scholars and fans as the “Buffyverse.” Both shows remain in syndication and have yet to be off-air since their initial debut. While the series may be considered a cult phenomenon, it has certainly captured the attention of many. DVD sales, spin-off novels, and academic conferences such as “Slayage” are just some of the evidence that this show is not leaving the pop-culture consciousness for some time.
The shows gained popularity and maintained a solid fan base because of the world the writer’s carefully crafted. The Buffyverse has a distinct mythology that it does not stray from or violate. The two series maintain individual and integrated continuity and viewers are never asked to just accept new ideas or characters. A fluid story is maintained in a universe that is every bit as real as the one we live in. The power of the Buffyverse stems from the fact that, despite the presence of demons and magic, it is a clear representation of our modern world. It takes place in present-day California and involves protagonists that face not only literal demons but the demons of modern life: the high school and college experience, relationship dynamics, adulthood responsibility, and parenthood accountability.
While it is necessary to discuss the encompassing Buffyverse to get a complete look at the character of Angel, the main focus here is to look at “Angel” as the modern “Oedipus Rex.” Just as the original viewers of “Oedipus Rex” were familiar with previous renditions of the story, “Angel” viewers are familiar with the history and back story provided on “Buffy.” The important elements of Angel’s history as provided on “Buffy” are as follows: In 1753 the young man Liam is seduced by a vampire in a back alley. This vampire, Darla, is at once both the mother and the lover to the new creature, Angelus. This act of “birth” physically removes Liam’s soul, morality and mortality. The first murderous act of Angelus is to kill Liam’s biological father. In 1893, Angelus is cursed by gypsies. He is given back his soul; in other words, he is re-ensouled though still immortal. Leaving his murderous ways behind, he now uses the name Angel. However, his conscience is burdened with all the murderous memories of Angelus. As Angelus killed the father of Liam, Angel kills the mother of Angelus, Darla, in 1997.
From this brief history, it is clear that Angel/Angelus is both a villain and a hero, a victim and a victimizer, much like Oedipus. Downing explains that Oedipus “is morally innocent, he acted in ignorance, but his crime is objectively horrifying – and he accepts responsibility for it. It is not an either/or – Oedipus is not just a victim of fate nor a free agent; he is both . . . The hero is the one who can affirm his fate and say ‘this is me’ in a way that includes an acceptance of the inescapable contingencies of his life” (“Another Oedipus” 285). While there appears to be a clear cut line between Angel and Angelus, it is important to remember that when Buffy once explained to Willow, “A vampire’s personality has nothing to do with the person it was,” Angel begins to clarify with a heavy, “Well, actually . . . ” though a harsh look from Buffy hinders his explanation (“Dopplegangland”). Just as Oedipus was unknowing when he killed his father and married his mother, Angel was not in control of the acts committed by Angelus. Nevertheless, they are acts he was some part of and he must live with the consequences.
Angel (Liam) is the victim when Darla sires him in that dark alley, but Angelus rules as a terrifying victimizer as one of the most violent vampires for over a century. After he is re-ensouled in the late 1800′s, it takes him nearly 100 years to adapt. He moves from place to place living off the blood of vermin, lost in the horrors of violence he committed as Angelus. Inspired when Buffy is called to be a Slayer, he finally steps into the role of hero. By the time viewers meet Angel, he has accepted the “inescapable contingencies of his life”: as an immortal vampire with a soul, he fights to save the innocent from the horrors he knows to be real.
When the “Angel” series begins, Angel has left Sunnydale behind (his home on “Buffy”) and moved to Los Angeles to “help the helpless,” eventually forming the paranormal-investigative team “Angel Investigations.” In the third episode, “In the Dark,” Angel receives a gift from Buffy: a ring that makes vampires invincible. However, at the end of the episode, Angel smashes the ring. His new associate, Doyle, explains that ring was his opportunity for “redemption.” With this ring, Angel cannot be killed and can step into the sunlight. Doyle reminds Angel that the people “between 9 and 5″ could use his help as well. Angel disagrees: “They have help. The whole world is designed for them, so much that they have no idea what goes on around them after dark. They don’t see the weak ones lost in the night, – or the things that prey on them. And if I join them, maybe I’d stop seeing, too” (“In the Dark”). This is a strong demonstration of Angel’s commitment as a hero, and a reflection that he is continuing on his path of redemption, one of the key elements to this series. Angel cannot just accept this easy opportunity to escape his accountability; like Oedipus, he still has crimes to pay for. There is hope, though, that Angel will one day receive redemption. At the end of the first season of “Angel,” a scroll is discovered that contains the Shanshu Prophecy. This prophecy reveals that Angel, the vampire with a soul, will become human one day – “He has to survive the coming darkness, the apocalyptic battles, a few plagues, and . . . fiends that will be unleashed,” but after that he will have truly earned his redemption (“To Shanshu in LA”). He will be free to live and die as a human.
Until that time, Angel must continue to live with his past and deal with its reemergence. Unlike Oedipus, Angel was completely aware of the implications of his actions as he slept with his new mother (Darla) and murdered his father. In the form of Angelus, however, this incest and murder is par for the course. Nevertheless, it is appalling to the now reformed Angel. Downing explains, “Freud helped us realize that the play ["Oedipus Rex"] is about our deepest and most hidden sexual and aggressive impulses” (“Another Oedipus” 289). One of the functions of “Oedipus Rex” is to work as a demonstration of the impulses we have and cannot always deny. While Angel has a soul, he is still a vampire, and the desires of Angelus are something he must constantly battle – this is the demon inside, a metaphor many can relate to. While most individuals are not be compelled to commit violent acts like Angelus, we do combat the ever-pressing id. In any functional myth, the id will be demonstrated and fought against. Angel’s id is aroused the most whenever Darla is around.
In 2000, on the second season of “Angel,” Darla is brought back from the dead – human and with her soul. She is brought back by Wolfram and Hart, a company of lawyers that work for high-powered evil. Throughout the series, Angel is in constant battle with Wolfram and Hart. They know that Angel is destined to be an important player in the apocalypse and they want him on their side. They bring Darla back in an attempt to bring Angel over. Unfortunately, the resurrected Darla is dying of syphilis, as she was back in the 1700′s before she was turned into a vampire and given immortality. Angel does everything – including risking his own life – to save her. When they both make peace with the situation and accept her unavoidable death, Darla is forcefully taken from him and turned into a vampire by Drusilla, a vampire that Angel had sired in the 1800′s. Drusilla and Darla form a wild pair and Angel feels responsible for the damage his “family” is doing to his city, Los Angeles. Nevertheless, with or without souls, Angel and Darla are always drawn to one another.
After five episodes of fighting with Darla and Drusilla, Angel finally gives into all of his impulses. Amidst a violent fight, Angel succumbs to his id and has sex with Darla. After this obscene event, Angel explains to Darla that he “gave [her] everything [he] had left” (“Epiphany”). Darla thinks that this means he has lost his soul and that her beloved Angelus has returned to her. However, he recognizes that this night with her was “perfect despair” (“Epiphany”). He had to face the demon within to remember who he truly was – a hero. Later in the episode, Angel saves a friend from suicide. He reflects to her,
If there is no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do, now, today. I fought for so long. For redemption, for a reward [but] all I want do is help. I want to help because I don’t think people should suffer as they do. Because, if there is no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world. “Epiphany”
These words of hope are comforting, and elements such as these are part of what contribute to “Angel” functioning as a powerful, modern myth. However, we must remember that “Angel” is also functioning as a tragedy. Downing shares that, “[Greek] Tragedy reflected the anxieties not the confident verities of its audience, voiced the hope (not the assurance) of triumph of order over chaos” (“Another Oedipus” 285) . Though these moments of hope are experienced, dire consequences often await.
The union between Darla and Angel has unimaginable consequences: Darla is impregnated. (For the purposes here, it will not be discussed why this mystical event occurred, though rest assured that Whedon maintained the integrity of the series’ mythology in this apparent impossibility). The body of a vampire is not a life-giving vessel, which Angel and Darla become painfully aware of when she comes to term and cannot deliver. While Darla is pregnant, she is filled with the presence of their son’s soul and she connects deeply with Angel. Ultimately, for the life of their son, Connor, Darla kills herself (thus allowing the boy to be born). Shortly after Angel begins lovingly raising Connor, the infant is kidnapped into a hell dimension. Though Connor returns to Angel only several weeks later, he has been raised in a hell dimension and returns as a young adult bent on avenging his father. Now the Oedipal-like cycle of sex and violence continues.
Connor is in a constant battle with his father, mistakenly believing Angel to be a cruel vampire that murdered the man that raised Connor. By the end of season three, Connor seeks his vengeance not in death, but in something even worse – he seals Angel in an air tight box and drops it into the depths of the ocean. Since Angel is immortal, he will not die but weaken and slowly lose his mind. Fortunately, a good friend of Angel’s rescues him in a matter of months. As father and son have difficulty with their situation, Connor develops a close bond with Cordelia, his mother figure during his brief time as an infant in Los Angeles. Cordelia is unknowingly possessed at the time, but Connor consciously chooses to sleep with his mother figure. Since Cordelia is not Connor’s birth mother, he is not committing something quite as vile as Oedipus did, but the symbolism remains the same.
As Downing explains, “[Jung] reinterprets sexual longing . . . as really meaning our longing for a return to the psychological source of our being” (“Another Oedipus” 293). Connor never really knew a mother and suffered through a very disturbing upbringing; this connection with Cordelia functions as his “male initiation” (293). Reflecting also on when Angel slept with Darla, both as Angelus and as Angel, we can see that he, like the wide-eyed Connor, is constantly searching for a connection to his source of being. When Darla sires him, she is both his mother and his father. Connecting to her is really the only thing he has to connect to. When the ensouled Angel slept with Darla again, he had hoped, as he himself explains, that in saving her he could save himself. When he cannot save her, he gives into her, meeting that “perfect despair.” He is again trying to make peace with what he is – now a vampire with a soul.
While there is not really a way for Oedipus or Angel to truly resolve their murderous and incestuous ways, each character must move forward in some manner. As Downing explains, the new idea of the hero presented in 5th Century Athens was of a character who understood himself to be deeply alone (Lecture 3). Clearly, there is no comforting the sightless Oedipus who is now aware of the actions he committed. There is also no comforting the tormented Angel. Unlike Oedipus in “Oedipus Rex,” Angel does accept the help of others through his chosen-family members of “Angel Investigations;” nevertheless, he still solitarily faces unavoidable choice, another element of the tragic 5th century hero (Downing Lecture 3). In this unavoidable choice, the hero sees the downside to both possibilities, but must make the choice despite the unknown outcome (Downing Lecture 3).
By the end of the fourth season of “Angel,” Connor spins completely out of control and is a threat to himself and others. After many attempts to save his son, Angel recognizes there is nothing that he can do . . . until he gets an offer from Wolfram and Hart. Angel climbs into the belly of the beast and agrees to work for the company he has previously fought against. In exchange, Connor’s memories are erased and the young man has the opportunity to grow up safely with a “normal” family. The choice was not easy and Angel makes it alone, knowing there will be repercussions, but compelled to save his son. Angel is not the only one to make this choice. Each member of “Angel Investigations” agrees to join “Wolfram and Hart” – but for each there will be a price.
Throughout the course of season five, all of the characters face immense difficulties as they struggle to continue fighting the good fight within the belly of the beast. Angel ultimately works to earn a seat with The Circle of the Black Thorn, a group associated with the Senior Partners of Wolfram and Hart and working toward the apocalypse. Angel makes another choice without the support of his cohorts. Once Angel joined the Circle, there was one catch – before the Circle would accept him, they asked 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. Angel later 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 Play”). His plan is to kill every member of the Black Thorn, knowing that he and his team will probably not survive.
Just as “Oedipus Rex” ends without assurance, so does “Angel.” In the finale “Not Fade Away,” Angel’s plan is a success: they kill every single member of the Black Thorn. However, Wolfram and Hart unleash hell on Los Angeles – literally. Angel and his few living colleagues stand in an alley against an endless sight of demons and beasts, including a dragon. Angel raises his sword and says, “Let’s go to work,” as the screen fades to black. Whedon writes like a Greek dramatist to “use the myths to call to a deeper, more resilient and complex relationship to the community, the polis, and to the gods, fate, suffering, death” (Downing Lecture 3).
The drama of the Greeks and effective drama in our current time work to help us express and face issues relevant to the time. Oedipus and Angel are subject to being both the victim and the hero. This duality speaks to the complexity of man. The “aim [of tragedy] was to develop a tragic consciousness in the spectators, an awareness of simultaneously valid contradictory perspectives” (Downing, “Another Oedipus” 285). Angel and Oedipus never truly reconcile their situations. “Oedipus Rex” ends without the audience knowing what will come of Oedipus. Although this is resolved in further plays, “Oedipus Rex” was originally created to be a standalone production. The same is true of the ending of “Angel.” The audience does not know what will come of Angel, though the outlook is bleak. This is later resolved in the form of comic books. Yet, like “Oedipus Rex,” the “Angel” series originally stood independently. The creation of Sophocles’ later plays and Whedon’s comic “Angel: After the Fall” demonstrate the audiences desire for more. When well told stories come to an end, viewers, readers, and audience members are not so quick to let them go. When the myth resonates, there is a continual retelling or continuation of that story. These stories never truly leave us – or, rather, we never leave them. While Angel and Oedipus may be left standing alone against immeasurable odds, we never have to stand without them. These myths, these stories about things that matter, give us something to look at to help us resolve our contemporary crises.
Downing, Christine, “Another Oedipus,” Gleanings. New York: iUniverse, 2006, ch. 24.
— Class lecture 1. MS505: Greek and Roman Myth I. Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpinteria.
15 Sept. 2008
— Class lecture 3. MS505: Greek and Roman Myth I. Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpinteria.
17 Nov. 2008
“Doppleganglang.” Writ. Joss Whedon. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. WB. 23 Feb. 1999.
”Epiphany.” Writ. Tim Minear. Angel. WB. 27 Feb. 2001.
”In the Dark.” Writ. Douglas Petrie. Angel. WB. 19 Oct. 1999
”Power Play.” Writ. David Fury. Angel. WB. 12 May 2004.
“Not Fade Away.” Writ. Joss Whedon. Angel. WB. 19 May 2004.
“To Shanshu in L.A.” Writ. David Greenwalt. Angel. WB. 23 May 2000.