Allow me to paint the picture for you: a young-looking couple breaks into a darkened school after hours. He looks like your typical leather-jacket-wearing “bad boy,” and she’s completely innocent, or so we’re led to believe, in her Catholic schoolgirl uniform. A spooky score helps make the eeriness of them being alone much more noticeable. It’s probably safe to presume that something bad is going to happen, and it does. That peppy, harmless-looking young woman suddenly appears with a distorted face and monstrous fangs, and one can bet that the young man she’s with has become dinner. With this opening, Buffy the Vampire Slayer cemented itself as a new standard on the world of urban fantasy television and a large part of that has to do with the darling Darla who set the stage with this opening scene.
At the time of Buffy’s premiere, the world was at the height of a vampire obsession. Anne Rice was at its forefront with her novels Interview With the Vampire and The Queen of the Damned, but others also took advantage. R.L. Stine published Goodnight Kiss as part of his Fear Street series, while L.J. Smith would write The Vampire Diaries, which would later become a hit television series itself. There’s something about being lusted after by a bloodsucking, centuries-old stranger that sends teenage girls diving headfirst into a multitude of different gothic novels (as much as I hate to admit it, look at Twilight). I was certainly one of them. Buffy the Vampire Slayer would capitalize on this phenomenon for an entire generation of girls.
“Darla, Anglo-Saxon derivation. Meaning ‘dear one.’ It didn’t come into common usage until more than a hundred years after she was born.”
— Angel (“Darla”)
Most of the vampires seen on Buffy have been sired within the last couple of decades from when the series takes place. Compared to Darla, these are still children coming into their own.
Who is Darla though?
Is she the woman who found herself in the Virginia Colony in 1609, which was still new, having been discovered just two years prior? It was a place full of hope for many English settlers who wanted to have a prosperous and rich religious life in the New World. As explained by the Master, Darla was a woman of “some property with no husband and no inheritance,” which meant she gained her place in the colony by resorting to bawdstrotting (the term used then for working in a brothel). Earning her living this way would be her downfall, as when we meet her she is on her deathbed after having contracted syphilis.
Although the Church of England had been established as the practicing religion of the colony, Darla hadn’t believed in it. When the Master arrives at her bedroom door she mistakes him for a priest and tells him to go away. It is after he reveals himself to her that she then believes that he is Death and welcomes him.
Perhaps Darla is this creature that took over her body when she died that day. This woman who loves the sight of a pretty thing and would want to preserve it, who would take pleasure in chaos and finds herself often being drawn to it or causing it.
Actress Julie Benz, the woman behind the fangs and seductive personality, has said that when she approached playing Darla as a 400-year-old vampire, she did it “with a smile and a bit of glee and joy.” In every kill or moment of disaster she finds herself in, she is always so peppy about it (as seen in the first moments of her being on screen). She’s practically gleaming as she, Angelus, Drusilla, and Spike walk the streets of the Boxer Rebellion as chaos ensues all around them. Soon after she is reborn as a vampire for a second time, she decides that the perfect way to cheer up is to go shopping…which basically means take whatever you want, eat everyone who is in the store, and act like the crying woman who’s begging for her life is poor customer service. I must say, that’s probably one of my favorite moments, but when it comes to Darla there are so many.
Darla is free to do whatever she wants with zero remorse and she does so in the most ruthless of ways. Holtz was a vampire hunter who had tracked her and Angelus throughout Europe. In order to send a message to him to back off, she and Angelus decide to pay a visit to Holtz’s home. After gaining entry by his daughter they give their message. Angelus kills Holtz’s wife while Darla goes a step further. She takes his young daughter and turns her into a vampire. This is cruel because now Holtz must decide to either kill his own child or allow her to exist in this monstrous form. He kills her, but forcing him to make that choice is something that could only have been thought of by a psychopath who takes joy in knowing that their prey feels helpless.
Darla is also the type of vampire to understand that you don’t get to be 400 years old by living carelessly. As much as she loves Angel, she comes first. When she and Angelus are trapped in a barn after fleeing a city, the villagers catch up and set it on fire. Given the option of dying with her lover or fleeing, she knocks Angelus out and leaves him in the burning barn to find his own means of escape as she rides off on a horse. It sounds ruthless, but really it’s a power move and one that I highly admire.
I’m a pretty ethical person. If given the chance to be damagingly assertive in a situation or ethically sound, I always choose the ethical route. I can’t stand letting people down, and when I do, I end up beating myself up over it. This may make me loyal, but it also can be quite frustrating. It must be why I love Darla so much. She doesn’t have that moral compass holding her back, which means she can be that assertive person without feeling awful about it. It’s a quality I wish I could have, and have been attempting to attain to an extent.
“Why is everyone trying to make this about Angel? I mean, for god’s sake, can’t a woman wreak a little havoc without there being a man involved?”
— Darla (“Redefinition”)
Darla is as complicated a character as the men she chooses to have by her side, and part of that could be because she’s been controlling men for as long as she’s existed. Being able to manipulate men is probably a key factor, besides the smarts, in how she came to survive for so long.
Her relationship with Angel is…complicated. On one hand, she is basically his mother. She was the one who created him in that alleyway back in Ireland. She was the one there when he first rose from the ground. She taught him how to hunt and feed, and passed on her skills of manipulation. She has moments with him where she becomes the disapproving parent.
Part of her must blame herself when Angelus regains his soul, after a Romani clan curses it back into him. Darla’s instinct is to “mercy kill” him because, for her, how else is a vampire supposed to survive if he can’t find it in himself to feed? When this fails, she throws him out. Angel spends years trying to find a way to remain the monstrous man she knows him to be, in order to get back into her good graces. When he catches up to her at the Boxer Rebellion, he’s given the chance to feast on a cowering family, but he can’t. Darla goes back and sees that they are still there, and kills them herself. She brings him the infant to see if he would actually kill an innocent, but he still can’t do it. The men he’s been killing for her have been wrongdoers, “rapists and murderers. Thieves and scoundrels” (Darla, “Darla”). Being once again disgusted by his existence, she attempts to kill him again and that is when he finally leaves for good.
Darla was never able to accept Angelus with a soul, and then she is brought back with the same fate. She’s in denial, in the beginning, taking pleasure in torturing Angel in his sleep. That is, until he assures her that her past deeds will catch up to her, and they do. She begins to crumble as 400 years of murder and torture come rushing back. Angel insists on being there for her, even though she couldn’t be there for him when the tables were turned. When he finds out that she’s dying all over again, this time of the natural causes that should have taken her in the first place, he takes it upon himself to try and find her a cure. When he can’t, his sacrifice allows her to realize that the life she’s been given, although shortened, may be a gift after all—so she can die the way she was meant to. Throughout Darla’s experience as a human, she suddenly finds herself being the child that needs protecting, and Angel being her protector. In a sense, their circle comes fully around just as when a parent comes to the point of needing to be cared for by their child.
Yet, at the same time that this parental bond has been made, there is also a romantic attachment between the two. Darla picked to sire Angelus because she wanted a partner. “Someone who, too, can walk those lonely nights, hunting with [her]. Feeding with [her]. Joining with [her]” (Darla, “The Trial”). The two share a passion for one another that is seen many times in the flashback sequences of both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.
Angelus promises her the world instead of keeping her caged underground like the Master would have. When he says it, it’s said as a promise. He takes her away and gives her the extravagant life he believes she deserves. Fancy hotels, beautiful gowns, a more than lavish lifestyle for a vampire. One that kind of looks like the life Lestat tries to give Louis in Interview With the Vampire. Their story feels like a parallel to the Anne Rice novel, right down to Angelus gaining “a heart” and changing his nature.
In the vampire family they create for themselves with Drusilla and Spike, they are the parental figures. Even before Dru and Spike when they were traveling with James and Elizabeth, that same framing occurred.
When Angel was on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, his ultimate love was shown to be Buffy. He even killed Darla in that first season, after a measly three episodes, in order to protect Buffy. One can’t deny that Darla is actually the most important woman in Angel’s life.
Once he left and gained his own series, Angel, her presence became more apparent and can be seen through all five seasons of the show. In Season 1, Wolfram & Hart want to find what could make Angel tick and learn that unlocking Angelus will be key, and to do that Darla will be needed. Season 2 picks up with her being human but then getting turned back into a vamp, and Angel coming to terms with the fact that he can’t save everyone. He has an epiphany over the fact that Darla was the key to everything. What if he had been able to save Darla? Then he would have been able to save himself because they were tied to one another. Season 3 held the birth of Connor (which I’ll touch on more in a moment), the ultimate accumulation of their bond, because he is a combination of the two of them. In Season 4, a fully grown Connor ends up impregnating Cordelia with a demon god named Jasmine, and Darla appears to plead with Connor that she knows there’s good in him to overcome this manipulation. Finally, in Season 5, Connor finally comes to face his ultimate destiny and fights the demon he was prophesied as slaying long before he was born.
Outside of Angel, there was one other man who came the closest to being a part of Darla’s life, and that was Lindsey McDonald. When it came to the Wolfram & Hart lawyer from Angel who had feelings for her, it’s sad to know that this was a one-way infatuation. Once Darla arrived back, she had her eyes set on Angel, since that is where the law firm directed them. At this point, she was in denial of having regained her soul and threw her all into manipulating Angel by giving him some pretty explicit dreams. Lindsey was the one assigned to help her because he, more than anyone, also wanted to take Angel down. Lindsey’s had an equally interesting relationship with Angel throughout the series and it’s crazy how parallel their lives and characters truly are.
Their similar qualities can play a big role in why Darla found Lindsey to be the one to connect with. In doing that he forms an attachment, but that feeling isn’t mutual. When Lindsey learns that Wolfram & Hart are going to terminate her, Lindsey puts aside his hatred of Angel in order to get him close enough to save her. Lindsey also wants to save Darla when it is found out that her syphilis has picked up where it left off but, unlike Angel, he’s willing to do anything, even if that means bringing Drusilla in to revamp her.
Lindsey’s a “good old boy,” and that’s probably one of the reasons Darla decides to pick him as one of their connections to Wolfram & Hart. She’s seen the extent he would go to for her. When it comes to Darla, Lindsey has put his career on the line multiple times. He’s broken countless regulations in order to keep her safe because she’s someone he really cares for.
That feeling isn’t mutual though. Darla sees him as a source. When she’s brought back she knows she’s being used, she’s not stupid and shouldn’t be underestimated, and yet almost everyone at Wolfram & Hart treats her as if she’s out of the loop. Everyone, that is, except for Lindsey, and for that he has gained some respect from her. Knowing that she can trust him to a point means that he’s let down his guard and also means he’s become easy bait in being manipulated for information which she uses to her advantage. She is constantly grooming Lindsey and leading him into a sense of security because she knows that if she’s to make a wrong move he would do anything to save her from it.
She uses his home as a sanctuary after she’s been set on fire by Angel, in order to heal. It’s while here she uses Lindsey’s urge to be her white knight to sneak information about the law firm. Unbeknownst to him, she gets information about a powerful ring that is a direct line to the “Senior Partners.” She plays injured, all the while plotting her way into the event in order to steal the ring for herself. Even after she’s foiled, Lindsey’s only desire from her is to have been let in on her plan in the first place. He wants to be her equal when really he’s her lap dog.
“Angel, I don’t have a soul. It does, and right now that soul is inside me. But soon it won’t be, and then—I won’t be able to love it. I won’t even be able to remember that I loved it. And I want to remember.”
— Darla (“Lullaby”)
Angel Season 3 presented one of the most Angel-serving plot lines the show could possibly muster up. Don’t get me wrong, I think the “Darla is pregnant” storyline was executed well. My only concern was that it served mainly as an emotional arc for Angel, which seemed to be the case with a lot of the female characters’ stories.
Vampires are not supposed to get pregnant. They are still dead even though they are walking around. They have no heartbeat or any way of nourishing a life if it was to grow inside them. Yet, here we are presented with a vampire having been impregnated by another vampire.
Logistics aside on how this could even be possible, having this child inside Darla allows her to once again have a soul. It’s far different this time from when she was magically brought back because this allows her to create a connection with the life growing inside her. As it grows, she begins to exhibit more and more emotions. When we first realized she was pregnant, she was dead set on destroying whatever it was, but nothing would work.
When she decides to go to Los Angeles to finally tell Angel, she is met with the most obnoxious pushback one could receive. What did Angel want, to go onto Jerry Springer or Maury and play “You Are Not the Father”? He was completely in denial that it was due to the night they spent together when he got his epiphany, or as Angel would refuse to acknowledge, a one-night stand, because that is what he did. He seduced Darla, had his way with her, and tossed her aside while refusing to acknowledge that it actually happened. It was that moment that I believe Darla probably suddenly found herself back in her first human days when she sold herself for money. Imagine how low that makes one feel, soul or no soul. I was incredibly happy when Cordelia called him out on the whole situation because it made Angel accountable.
It did bug me so much though to hear Angel and his gang refer to the life inside Darla as strictly his. I’m sorry, but it is not just Angel’s. Did we all forget that Angel didn’t even want anything to do with the child until he found out that it was human? To call it “Angel’s child,” and in front of Darla, is a massive insult that belittles her into such a minor point of this entire situation, and every time I rewatch these episodes it continues to infuriate me. Acknowledge the woman who is right in front of you, who has that being inside her, because she matters just as much as your boss. In fact, she matters more because without her you wouldn’t even have had your boss.
The side effect of having this child growing in her is that Darla’s hunger is turned up to 11, which is incredibly dangerous. After she attempts to attack a child to feed on and is stopped by Angel, she pleads with him to stake her because it’s becoming unbearable. It’s only then, at that moment that Angel can hear the heartbeat inside her (because it’s a vampire thing) that he realizes that the child in there has a soul. To think that a vampire, a creature that hunts by sensing a human nearby from hearing its heart suddenly finds itself surrounded by this little heartbeat that they can’t stop. It just beats and beats and beats with no way for them to feast on it. It’s torture, and that is just a small part of the hell Darla’s being put through.
I think it’s horrible of me to find the humor in some of this, but pregnant Darla is extremely punchy and allows for some of the best scenes, and best comedic acting from Benz. When the cult of vampires locate her and the gang at a hospital, she is all for allowing them to kill Angel and his crew. That is until they go into a very detailed description of everything they plan on doing to her. Nope, Darla’s not having it and she decides to help fight them off.
Then there’s later when her water breaks and she’s in the car with the others while Angel has gone back to the hotel. Wesley believes it’s a good idea (which it’s not) to take this time to go over breathing exercises with the vampire. Oh Wesley, you silly ex-Watcher, have you forgotten that vampires don’t need Lamaze? If he did, Darla was certainly happy to remind him, and then break down afterwards as she tossed everyone around the car away from her. Since her emotions are all out of whack, she begins looking like a crazy person reasoning with herself while the others recover. When they all squeeze into the front seat she hurtfully asks if anyone wants to sit back with her and when they all dodge the question she reassures them that she won’t throw anyone from the car, “while [it’s] moving.” The hurt she has when she says this makes you just want to go over and hug her. That is until you remember that she took a chunk out of Cordelia’s neck earlier when she attempted to help her.
With these humorous moments also comes some of the heartbreaking ones that showcase Benz’s range. If your heart didn’t grow 10 sizes when she and Angel heard the heartbeat then I don’t know what to say. Maybe you should see if you have a reflection.
One of the biggest tear jerking moments for me is when Angel finds her on the roof hiding and contemplating why anyone would want to bring a child into the world. I have never had children, but I know far too many people who have and they all ask the same thing when examining the world of today. The violence. The chaos. The danger. It becomes too much to think about, but there’s something more for Darla.
She understands that when she gives birth to whatever is inside of her, she is going to lose any chance of being able to see it as hers. The empathetic emotions that come with being a mother are only being felt by her because this child is giving her the gift of feeling them. She fears that once the child leaves her and those feelings become but a memory that she could turn so quickly on it. Even worse, she feels as though she won’t even remember having the love of a mother and she wants to. She wants to be able to be there.
It’s this moment in “Lullaby” that I remember first watching Angel. Seeing Darla, this ruthless and unapologetic creature, find the need to remember the love she had for something left such an impression on me. Soon after watching this, I remember being taken away from my own family and placed into foster care for the second time in my life. I found myself turning to Darla, who had ended up performing the selfless act of sacrificing herself to bring her child into the world, and just hoping that if a vampire without a soul could find it in herself to love something wholeheartedly then why couldn’t my own parents, who allowed for their children to be taken away again. To get me through the months of being in the System, I found a way to get my hands on her earlier episodes and made it my mission to watch them. She became a rock for me and a safe place I could escape into.
Julie Benz has once said, “What I love about genre shows is they allow women to be strong.” When people think of the strong women to have come from the Buffyverse, Buffy, Willow, Faith, and Cordelia are usually the first ones to come to mind. In my head, Darla ranks higher than a lot of them because she was the first character I actually remember holding an attachment for. It was Darla who made me want to continue watching Angel, even though she was no longer there, because I became invested in what would happen to Darla’s baby.
Darla’s had such an amazing arc in her many lifetimes. She’s been born as a human. Died as a human. Born as a vampire. Killed as a vampire. Brought back as a human. Died as a human again. Brought back again as a vampire, and finally selflessly sacrificed herself as a vampire. I’m pretty sure there are not many characters to be able to say that, and I’m also sure that’s a record. Through this entire journey, Darla has grown as a character, and Julie Benz has grown as an actress. Darla was sadly killed off on Buffy the Vampire Slayer after a measly three episodes, but was able to return on Angel, allowing for her arc to continue. By being allowed to come back, Benz was able to sculpt Darla into a fully fleshed-out character who is empowering on many levels, and for that, I must say, “Thank you.”