“Is there anything in this life but grief?” –Illyria
“There’s love. There’s hope.” –Wesley Angel Season 5 Shells
Until recently, I’d not really been a fan of the Whedonverse. Well, perhaps that’s not fair. It isn’t that I ever disliked Joss, but it is more that I just didn’t really watch Joss. I’d seen the movie Buffy The Vampire Slayer when it was released, but when Buffy TVS came around to TV, I was a sophomore in college. I like to call those the “dark years” of my pop culture fandom, as I was so busy reading and studying that I didn’t have time to watch his (or any) stuff, nor did I have consistent access to cable and that was before Netflix and Hulu.
I’ve also never been a huge fan of vampire stories. In fact, with the exception of The Lost Boys (1987), I have stayed entirely away from vampire mythology. My primal fear of vamps goes all the way back to a traumatic experience related to a neighbor in a Halloween costume when I was around four. As a young adult, I often had night terrors that featured a blond vampire without a face. This could explain my reticence to watch Buffy, and it certainly explains my long standing dislike of Spike as a character, though, I’ll admit, I’m kinda over that now.
By the time I saw Joss’ version of Much Ado About Nothing, I was convinced that all my friends were right. He is a genius. Recently, I was browsing my local DVD shop when I came across Buffy Season 1 for an incredibly cheap price. I figured “what the heck? All of my mythie friends swear by the amazingness of Joss’ vampire shows. Perhaps I should bite the bullet (pun intended) and finally watch it?” I brought it home to see if Bruce would like it. I figured that if he hated it, I could sell it back for about the same amount that I paid it, no harm no foul. It took about 2 minutes of the first episode for Bruce to fall in love with Buffy. And I can’t blame him. I love her too. She’s amazing and frankly, in spite of myself, I also love Angel. When my dear friend and Whedon guru, Nikki Fuller, invited me to the Whedon Studies Association conference commonly known as Slayage, I knew it meant one thing: time to catch up on the other shows, particularly Angel.
I already owned Season 1 of Angel, figuring the same as with Buffy TVS…if I hated it, I’d just sell it back. But I didn’t hate it. The show gripped me on an even deeper level than Buffy TVS did and not just because David is a bright and shiny object (which, of course, he is). I wasn’t sure at first what it was that hooked me. The darkness of the show, the message of how we find redemption deeply resonates with me. Halfway through the first season, it occurred to me what is was I was being drawn to there. DUH! Angel is Joss Whedon’s television foray into one of my all time favorite film genres–film noir.
Noir is a genre that peaked between 1940 and 1960. In its purest form, it is a response to the oblivion of WWII and focuses on the dark underbelly of American life, though its roots in crime fiction go back to the great depression. It isn’t a coincidence that it showed up during the war as a kind of counter-cultural expression. I find that we often romanticise the greatest generation‘s era. The people living during that time–particularly the young ones–were asked to make outrageous sacrifices. They were and are our parents/grandparents/great-grandparents, and we often honor their lives by focusing on the amazingly selfless gifts they gave.
We forget, however, how dark that time actually was. People living during the war did not have a magic 8 ball that would tell them how the war would end. It was truly apocalytpic…much as it was in the 1960s…much as it has been in the early part of the 2000s. And culturally, there was no time for apocalypse. All American resources had to go into fighting the war. Films were war propaganda. The US Army even took up residence at the Disney Studio with Mickey Mouse. Every part of American life was dedicated to winning the war. So the darkness…the doubt…the insecurity…and the guilt of the nuclear age came out in film noir. The genre produced some amazing pieces of art. Sunset Boulevard, Mildred Pierce, Double Indemnity, Anatomy of a Murder, and Vertigo are just a few of my personal favorites.
Obviously, Angel is a TV show, not a movie. Nevertheless, it is full of classic noir motifs.
The central character of a noir piece is generally called an anti-hero. As the name suggests, an anti-hero is a protagonist whose intentions may not be entirely pure. Like Angel, the anti-hero is perfectly suited for their job working through the seedy underbelly of America because they too have experienced corruption. They may be a recovering alcoholic/drug addict (like Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit), particularly violent, or a social deviant. The noir anti-hero commonly works as a law man–a cop, a private investigator (Scotty in Vertigo)–also like Angel. Anti-heros seek redemption for the sins of their past, though often they refuse to admit it. Most commonly, they are one temptation away from being drawn back into the darkness themselves. As a vampire with a soul, Angel is the perfect anti-hero. His memories of his old demon days are still in tact, but the remorse he feels and the development of his authentically good heart propel him on to do good in the world. As Joss said on the Special Features of Season 5 Disk 6, “Angel is an allegory for addiction” and “Redemption is something we work at every day.”
The Femme Fatale
The femme fatale is a noir archetype much like the anti-hero. She enters as a foil for him. She’s beautiful, alluring, and deadly. Dark sexuality is always present in the archetype of the femme fatale. She may seek out the help of the anti-hero, but in the end she may also be his undoing. A sexual female vamp is THE image of the femme fatale. We see examples of her in the characters of Darla (seasons 1 and 2), and Cordelia (season 4).
Darla is Angel’s sire (ewwwww Oedipus!!). This show shows us her past–her illness and how she was turned into a vampire. As a femme fatale, she is Angel’s weakness. Angel is unable to reject Darla even when he knows she is evil. He begs her to leave her ways behind, and she tempts him to return to evil. During season 2, he gives into his urges to be with her. When she returns pregnant, he becomes fiercely protective of her and his child even though evidence suggests that his child may be evil.
Cordelia, though generally not a femme fatale in the series, becomes one for a season of the series. Cordy, as they call her, has a connection to Angel that goes back to his Buffy days. The two of them slowly fall in love over the course of the show. When she is herself, she is always shown as a positive relationship for Angel, but in season 4 she becomes possessed by a higher being who wants to use her body to be reborn. This being does tons of damage through Cordy, including becoming pregnant by Angel’s adolescent son and destroying any chance the two of them had to be together. This action itself almost destroys the Angelverse. She is Angel’s other weakness on the show (as Buffy makes very few appearances).
The Dark City
If there is one motif that is central to noir it is the dark city. The city of Los Angeles is also iconic to the noir genre. Sure there are noir films that take place in New York, Chicago, San Fransisco and a few that are set in the countryside, but the City of Angels–and all the irony that implies–is the classic setting for these stories. Some have suggested that noir is LA and, at least in the golden age of film, when LA plays herself, she almost always plays noir. As psychologist James Hillman notes in his documentary Surfing LA, there is something Hades-like about the place, as though the lord of death himself may pop up at any time. The hills, the earthquakes, geothermal instability, the heat, the Santa Ana winds, the history of political/police corruption, the way it devours young women, and the wild, wild west mentality of the film industry are just a few of the things that make it such a dark image.The Percy Jackson series falls in line with this placing the entrance to Hades right off the Sunset strip. In the Angelverse, the presence of Wolfram and Hart (evil attorneys at law) opens up a channel to the evil powers that be. Wolfram and Hart are also very LA–powerful clients getting away (literally) with murder. The actual physicality of the city of Los Angeles is central to the show. Neighborhoods are discussed in such a way that those familiar with LA know exactly what those images imply, and furthermore, since Angel is a vampire, much of the work of the show must exist at night, adding a literal layer of darkness to the city.
These are just a few of the noir motifs. Many others exist in the show: moral ambiguity, the presence of evil, betrayal by friends, and perhaps most notably, despair of a world fallen to corruption. But this is the Whedonverse, and in Joss’ world the important thing is not that we are broken, full of the need for redemption. Humanist that he is, for Joss what is important is that we keep striving for redemption even if we know we won’t find it (perhaps we may find it but never reach it). Unlike traditional noir pieces that are literally black and white completely devoid of humor, Joss’ world is full of hope–colorful characters such as the green-skinned, Pylea native lounge singing empath demon Lorne. The show finds humor in our existential debacle by injecting it with a certain amount of silliness. It’s full of those fun moments that make me say “Oh, Joss…you would…” but punctuated by those tragic moments that also make me say “CURSE YOU JOSS!!”