As if it matters how a man falls.
— When the fall is all there is, it matters. (The Lion In Winter, by James Goldman).
There’s a difference between being dragged to your death, and walking into the arena with your head held high. There’s a big difference between being Chosen and having choices. The one almost cancels out a lot of the other. We all know our Slayer, the girl who is Chosen with a capital Ch. We know how she got that way. But there are other women in the Angel-verse (and I’m going to keep most of this confined to that show) who were equivalently yanked out of their normal lives. They were given superpowers of some kind, and they had to figure out how to deal with them. They may not have had the choice, but they did get to choose how they handled having been Chosen. Some managed this more gracefully than others did.
I don’t want to go out of my way to diss on Buffy (okay, maybe I do a little). She saved the world, a lot. But she spent the entire run of the show fighting her calling and complaining about her destiny. And don’t get me wrong, she had a right to want a normal life. She didn’t ask to be Chosen, and a sixteen-year-old wants to think about other things than saving the world all the time.
The whole Slayer line happened in the first place because a bunch of men decided they needed a girl to do their fighting for them. They forced it on her, and then, centuries later, Buffy would force the same thing on girls all over the world. When Willow cast her big Slayer-spell at the end of the series, it did more than help the Scoobies defeat The First. The effects were global—and those girls didn’t ask for it any more than Buffy had. I’ve always wondered if anyone had thought that through, and how it would have been addressed.
Again, this isn’t about Buffy. But I have to mention her at the top, if only for comparison’s sake. Over in the spin-off land of Los Angeles, people are having adventures and character development, the likes of which Sunnydale has never seen. Angel is a darker show, overall. The big thing about it, right at the off is that it is about adults, not teenagers. Growing up is painful, and the women in and around Team Angel find different ways to cope.
Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter) is one of my favourite characters in all of television. I liked her just fine in Sunnydale when she was the bitchy comic relief. But when she moves to LA in search of superstardom, life and the Powers That Be smack her around and force her to mature in a big way. Like Buffy, she has preternatural powers thrust upon her by a well-meaning man. I’m sure it never occurred to Doyle that his gift of the visions would eventually tear her human brain apart.
Cordelia’s big come-to-Jesus happens at the end of Season 1. Her visions are tapped into, and this forces her to see and experience the pain and anguish of all the helpless, everywhere. When Cordelia sees the world in pain, she wants to help it. She could have rejected the visions. She could have locked herself in a room and let the visions drive her crazy. She could have been content to stay as Angel’s “Lassie”—the one who tells him Timmy’s down the well. She does none of these things.
Formerly the girl who had as her motto “pay attention to me“, Cordelia resigns herself to a solitary life. She’s got no friends anymore other than Angel and the boys (and a ghost). As the visions get progressively worse, she has a whole secret life that involves trips to the neurologist for MRIs and migraine medicine (I always wondered how she paid for those—it’s not like Team Angel had a health plan). She never complains or allows herself to be a damsel in distress. And when offered the choice between visions and superstardom, she doesn’t even hesitate.
It’s almost as if Cordelia’s expertise in being selfish had the side effect of making her equally expert at being altruistic, once she decided to live a selfless life. The only way the Powers That Messed With Her were able to keep her from helping others was to take her out of the driver’s seat completely. And even after being exploited again (by a god, no less), she uses the last of her cosmic credit to help Angel one last time.
Darla (Julie Benz) wasn’t what you’d call a member of Team Angel. Back in Sunnydale, we only got to meet her briefly. That was in full vamp gear and a schoolgirl outfit, so the chances of taking her seriously were small. And Angel staked her early on, so we might have just forgotten about her.
At the end of Season 1 of Angel, though, the evil law firm, Wolfram and Hart, finds a way to resurrect her. She is part of their plan to turn Angel dark again (why they assumed Angelus would have been an ally for them has always puzzled me. It’s not like he played well with others). Plot twist—instead of a vampire, they bring her back as a human.
What started out as a one-dimensional baddie blossomed. Darla’s arc was beautiful, complicated, and tragic. Her entire existence had been manipulated by others, time and again. Her life would have been short as well as miserable, but the Master showed up and made her a vampire. I don’t think she really grasped what he was offering as she lay on her deathbed, but at least she got to choose. And she did well as a vampire, as far as that goes. She kicked up her heels and called her own shots. When she was staked by the one with whom she had wreaked havoc with for 150 years (not to mention having turned him in the first place), she should have been done.
Her second chance as a human is problematic at best. Wolfram and Hart wants to control her, and she is back to dying of the plague. And worse, with a human soul now, she is slammed with the guilt of all the damage she had done with a pretty face and a pair of fangs. Even then, she’s not about to take it lying down. She wants back into Club Vamp, so it can save her life again. Ultimately, Angel talks her out of it, but Wolfram and Hart have other ideas.
Lindsey McDonald, the lawyer with a crush on her, hunts up Angel’s other old flame Drusilla to assist him. Darla is re-vamped against her will. Free of both soul and plague, she’s certainly happier—at least, til Angel sets her on fire. Then she’s back to being dependent on Lindsey again. He cares for her while she heals up, and goes ballistic like any jealous boyfriend when she sleeps with Angel. She has no time for this and skips town.
Fast forward a bunch of episodes later. Darla is headed back to LA and Angel—and is pregnant. Which is a thing vampires are not supposed to be able to do. And even though Darla herself doesn’t have a soul anymore, the baby does. This is Darla’s lowest point as far as her own agency is concerned. Her body is trapped by this baby that isn’t supposed to exist. Through its soul inside of her, human emotions are forced upon her. She realises she loves this baby.
It’s heartbreaking. She doesn’t want the baby to be born because once they are no longer sharing a body, they will cease to share a soul. She tells Angel, “I won’t be able to love it. I won’t even remember that I loved it. And I want to remember!” Finally, in the ultimate act of love and sacrifice, she stakes herself so that the baby can be born. It’s the one maternal gift she is able to give her baby. And in this way, she is able to re-enter oblivion with her love for it intact.
I have to give some mention to Wolfram and Hart lawyer Lilah Morgan here. She’s definitely not a member of Team Angel. She works for the bad guys. And she’s good at her job. Out of all the women in the Angelverse, Lilah is the one who is always in control, even when she isn’t. “I know the risks of my job, and I accept them.” No matter what befalls her, she puts on her designer, big girl panties, and she deals with it. She chose this life, for better or for worse. When she first signed her contract with Wolfram and Hart, it was with full knowledge that it extends beyond death. Nobody made her do it. Cordelia may call Lilah a vicious bitch, and Lilah may even agree—but it’s hard not to respect strength like that.
The flip side of Lilah Morgan is Winifred Burkle (Amy Acker). Fred took a while to grow on me, in all honesty. Joss does like his Super-Smart-But-Adorable Girl, and I felt that the un-ironic pigtails were a bit much. If the show tried and succeeded to Damsel anyone in the show, it was Fred.
Her whole life was one male-manipulated turn after another. And the men did it because of her virtues. Her jealous professor used the black arts to send her to Pylea because she was smarter than him. Alone in a dimension where humans are treated as slaves and livestock, she survives by wits alone for five years. Rescued by Team Angel, it takes her a minute to get used to life in LA again, and it is a different kind of scary. Before too long, though, she realises that this is the life she wants, and chooses to not go home to her parents and safety.
Fred is also a kind of indirect love interest for almost everyone. She’s got a crush on Angel (who is in love with Cordelia), Wesley has a crush on her, and she winds up dating Charles Gunn for a while. Workplace romances are often messy, especially for this bunch. Over two seasons, Fred really grows up. By the time Season 5 comes round, she is no longer the socially-awkward cutie who sits under tables and obsesses about tacos. Instead, she the super-capable head of the lab at Team Angel’s newly inherited Wolfram and Hart law office. Still no superpowers, but she’s smarter than the rest of the lads put together. Any problem that comes up she and her team can work it. She even manages to save recently-arrived Spike from a ghostly sort of purgatory.
They’re doing some real good, the pigtails are no more, and she and Wesley have finally gotten round to getting together the way most of us had known they should. I was really beginning to like her a lot. The problem is, someone else thinks she’s wonderful too, and not just because he wants to date her. Knox is working for an ancient god and thinks Fred is the perfect choice to host the rebirth. Despite Team Angel’s best efforts, Fred disappears, and blue, scary, monotoned Illyria takes her place. Fred dies in Wesley’s arms, whispering that she’s afraid. He tells her that she’s as much of a hero as the rest of them, and it is easily one of the saddest moments in the whole show.
Is it less egregious to have your choices taken away by a mortal or a god? Either way and even with Illyria’s strength and superpowers, she’s still got men controlling her at every turn. She’s unable to leave or acclimate to the modern world. Since she still resembles Fred (while still being blue and aloof and expecting to be worshipped), it’s painful for the boys to be around her much.
She joins the team to fight their final battle, but she’s a weapon. She does get to commit a great act of kindness first, however. When Wesley is fatally wounded, Illyria assumes Fred’s appearance. She holds him and eases him into death, the way he had done for her. It is a beautiful turnabout. I hadn’t been a particular fan of Illyria’s up til now since I had only just warmed up to Fred when she died. But I liked her for this.
Amazing women, and not a Slayer among them. What they do have, each of them, is a kind of dignity. When called out by the Powers That Be to step up and fight the fight, they did it. Even when the choice wasn’t theirs to begin with, they owned what they were given. They owned it even when they didn’t want it. Does that really make a difference, in the grand scheme of things? When the fall is all there is, it matters.