Buffy the Vampire Slayer is, as I’m sure I’ve said multiple times, my favorite television show of all time. It got me through so much in my adolescence, I discovered it at exactly the right time, in middle school, just as all of those teenage problems wee beginning to surface. It’s a show about coming into your own and embracing who you are. It’s about all of the problems of adolescence with an identifiable teenage heroine who overcomes everything thrown her way, no matter how often she gets beaten down—or killed. I became obsessed with the world of this show the way so many other kids become obsessed with Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. I ate up the video games, comics, novels, you name it. Because of that, it was a surprise to me even at the time that I found it so hard to eat up the spinoff. I put off watching Angel until after Buffy was over, because I didn’t want that world to end.
But as a young teen, it was a tough show to get into. It was so different from Buffy and it dealt with some extremely different things. Now, of course, it makes sense that it took so long for me to understand and become engrossed in the show. The problems Angel tackled were totally alien to me at the time. I couldn’t understand them because I was so far removed from them. That’s the point, of course. Buffy was a show about teenage problems that I immediately recognized. And while it dealt with them in incredible and adult ways, it wasn’t a show about being an adult. It was about that transition into adulthood, to some degree, but that was it.
Angel, on the other hand, was very much a show about being an adult, about being faced with the real world and the real consequences that come with it. The two shows actually compliment each other in some incredible ways, in that respect. They balanced each other incredibly well, in terms of the challenges the respective characters faced and the various evils they fought. Buffy was a show with a terrific variety of enemies, but all of them were tangible enemies. They’re all representative of what the show was about. Angelus is a devastating personification of the asshole ex-boyfriend, someone who pretended to care (or worse, did care) and then started making your life a living hell. Other villains were authority figures like the Mayor, or to a lesser extent Principal Snyder. Every season had a definable Big Bad, a character who could absolutely put the Scooby Gang through the ringer, but was always defeated in the end.
Right there, that’s where the fundamental, ideological differences between the two shows start. Unlike Buffy, Angel had a singular Big Bad throughout the entire series. Even when there were other, long-running villains, they would always be tied back to the evil law firm Wolfram & Hart. This is a very corporate, wide-reaching evil. Right from the pilot, its power and presence is made fundamentally clear. It’s not one thing, it’s not one bad guy, even if the firm is taken down, this is just the L.A. branch and that wouldn’t solve anything. It’s everywhere, not only are there locations across the globe, but in other dimensions as well. It doesn’t have a motive, there are complicated people who work within it, but Wolfram & Hart does not have any characterization of its own.
It has been there to fuel the fire of corruption from the very beginning, and it is never going anywhere. The higher up the corporate ladder you go, the more abstract things become. There are liasons to the Senior Partners, voicing the concerns of those highest ranking entities, so Lovecraftian that they are never even glimpsed in the show. The White Room, the top floor where expressing concerns to the Senior Partners is made most clear, provides an entity that looks different to everyone who converses with it. Nothing about this organization is tangible.
Sometimes there are long-running antagonists who do come in and get taken down, but even then things are very different. The Buffy gang get beaten up and beaten down a lot, but even when they die they find a way to come back from it and win. To put things right. Angel deals with defeat in a very different way. Even when these characters win, they lose. And every victory is an almost equal loss. The two shows deal with defeat in sometimes opposite ways. When Angel goes bad and has to be sacrificed, he comes back and even resumes a relationship with Buffy, at least for a time. They Mayor is defeated and even though the high school is destroyed in the process, that’s no great loss. Glory kills Buffy, but she comes back and finds a way to come to terms with her death and return to life. The characters always persevere and always find a way to win.
The losses on Angel are not necessarily more serious or powerful, but they are almost always more permanent. They have longer lasting consequences, and rather than being about overcoming these losses the stories tend to revolve around how to live with and accept them instead. Only a few episodes into the series, Angel killed off one of its three main cast members, and it never brought him back. Doyle was personified as a bit of a drunk and a coward, only really discovering his potential for good when faced with an opportunity to give his life for others. It’s one of the most devastating, poignant, powerful deaths of either series and it is never undone. Before he dies, Doyle transfers his visions, the thing he uses to help Angel in the fight against evil, onto Cordelia. Right away, from that first huge loss, the characters were presented with something new to live with and adjust to, even in addition to simply losing one of their own.
In the third season, Angel loses his newborn child, a baby that by all accounts of previous lore, should not have ever even existed. He races against time to save baby Connor from his enemy, Holtz, who the child has been delivered into the hands of. Holtz takes the baby into a hell dimension to raise it as his own, and Angel has to watch it happen. He’s powerless to stop them leaving. While Holtz and Connor do eventually return, it’s not something that happens right away. Angel has to live with the loss of his child for a decent amount of time. And when they do return, Holtz is the only father Connor has ever known, and Holtz kills himself and frames Angel for it, ensuring that this child will never love his father. That’s Holtz’ one and only goal, to make sure that Angel’s son will never love him, even if it means taking his own life, and he wins. Connor spirals into basically becoming a school shooter, and the only way to remotely salvage that relationship is to hit the reset button and erase Connor’s memories of his entire life. That’s not winning. That’s realizing there is no possible way to salvage this relationship and starting over again, without you in your own child’s life.
Every victory for Angel is just another kind of defeat. Early on in the series, in the episode “I Will Remember You,” he meets up with Buffy in L.A. and they finally get what they always wanted. Angel has his humanity restored and it’s not a trick. It happens. But even as capable as Buffy is, he realizes she can’t do her job to the best of her ability if she has to worry about protecting him and he cannot stand by and not try to help after being in the fight for so long. At this point, it’s just in his nature. When Angel undoes this by literally reversing time, he’s the only one who has to live with the memory of it. And it’s a colossal burden. Buffy absolutely got the better deal because, in this case, ignorance is bliss. And to Angel, there’s not even a question as to whether he should try to seize the opportunity to forget as well, because this is also in his nature. Keeping the memory of that happiness, however brief, is just another thing he has to live with.
Buffy was no stranger to killing off characters and bringing them back. As mentioned, Angel did that on that series and Buffy did it twice. Spike went out heroically in the Buffy finale before being brought back on Angel. This series, however, only ever brought characters back to really rub the characters’ noses in it. Lilah came back briefly because her contract with Wolfram & Hart extended beyond her death, only accentuating the disgusting power of the firm. Cordelia was in a coma for a year after an entity crawled inside her and hollowed her out to give birth to itself, and while her return was a sweet way to help Angel remember his mission as the show raced toward its end, it was also a kind of ghostly encounter that let the audience know that she was well and truly gone.
And then there’s Fred. Like Cordelia, Fred is hollowed out by an otherworldly thing. Her soul is destroyed as the Old One named Illyria enters her body. There’s not even a hope of bringing her soul back from the afterlife because it’s just gone. There’s a new character now, walking around and wearing Fred’s face, but it’s not her and that’s just something they have to learn to live with. Even though the comics later found a way to bring Fred back, speaking only in terms of the show, that’s a perfect example of the way Angel handled death and defeat as a series. It’s something that presents a new status quo, it’s something that one simply has to learn how to live with, rather than something one has to overcome. Even as Illyria eventually comes into her own as a deeply intriguing character, Fred’s loss is always felt.
It’s a complicated ideology, but one the show sums up pretty succinctly. There’s a terrific line in which Angel notes that winning isn’t the point of fighting and that “We do it because there’s things worth fighting for.” That’s a simplistic way to put it, but it’s also deeply profound. I’ll admit that Angel was a character I didn’t quite connect with on Buffy. Their relationship didn’t work for a lot of reasons, and it wasn’t until we got to see things from his perspective that I started to understand who he was. I would always watch the show and wonder what he did when he wasn’t lurking in the shadows around Buffy, and it made so much sense to realize that he wasn’t really doing anything at all. He sulks in the shadows until he’s called upon to do something else.
If Buffy is sometimes called out by her friends (especially toward the end of the show) for thinking too highly of herself, then Angel is the exact opposite of that. With Buffy, that faith in one’s self is important, it’s teaching a necessary self-reliance, to believe in yourself and your own strength. Angel is not that. This is a guy who fundamentally, deep down does not believe that he is a good person and is trying to make up for that by doing the right thing. There’s no reward. Even the Shanshu Prophecy that promises to return his humanity once and for all is something he doesn’t quite believe actually exists, and when confronted with its existence at the end of the show, is something that he simply signs away.
Buffy and Angel are both blessed with extraordinary series finales that both perfectly represent exactly what both shows were trying to do. For Buffy, “Chosen” is an episode about finally sharing that power, not only embracing an inherently feminist message, but lifting a weight off of Buffy’s shoulders so that she does not have to carry this burden alone anymore. It’s a fantastic realization of the mission statement of that show.
The Angel finale, “Not Fade Away,” draws Team Angel into a final fight against the Senior Partners and it is without question a fight that they know they’re probably going to lose. Wolfram & Hart was never something they could beat. They even, by the final season, embraced that coldest reality of adulthood and found themselves going corporate as well. Even if they were well-intentioned, they were seduced by the promises of what Wolfram & Hart could offer them and each member of the gang was somewhat changed by that power. Everything had a cost, with the most extreme and obvious example being the fact that one of them (Fred) had been killed. “Not Fade Away” is about the gang reclaiming who they were, reminding themselves of a mission they had maybe lost sight of and making a final stand against an evil that they could never hope to defeat. Because as Angel had already mentioned, it’s not about defeat. For the real evils of the world, defeat is largely an impossibility. But if you can so much as make a dent in something that powerful, that’s a victory. If you can stand up and let them know that you are not afraid of them, that they have no more power over you, that’s enough.
That’s a perfect way to end the show, because it’s the mission statement of the entire series. Sometimes victories are so small that they don’t feel like victories at all. “If nothing we do matters,” as Angel says in the season two episode “Epiphany,” then “all that matters is what we do.” Amends aren’t made for the rewards or for any kind of sense of cosmic balance, and sometimes good people can do horrible things to one another. Sometimes they’re forgiven and sometimes they’re not. Life beats you down and it always wins, but that’s no reason not to keep fighting. Thinking about it now, I’m not surprised that this was something I could barely comprehend at fourteen. But as an adult these are the reasons why I love the show as much as I do. It’s not always about people winning, but it’s always about people trying, and despite everything these characters face it is—perhaps against all odds—a very hopeful show.