Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Eve: Looking back at "Amends"

I recently sat down and watched a few episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It had been years since I last put them on and during the interim there have been allegations that series creator Joss Whedon was a creep, which may hurt the series' reputation by association. Still, I recently realized there was a new generation of viewers born since the series aired its first episode. These new fans are watching the series from the start with absolutely no idea where the program is going, because it's been off the air long enough at this point to be forgotten in contemporary pop culture vocabulary (similar to a professor who made a Matrix reference to a class I was auditing last year; the students didn't get it).

In particular, I wanted to watch the 3rd season episode "Amends" again. It's the series' one and only Christmas episode and aired at a point where the series' cast, writing and storylines were at a very consistent peak. Earlier that year, Angel had been sent to Hell, then returned to Earth with no explanation for how he'd managed that. Angel himself had no clue how he'd been released. Enter the First Evil, a being of pure evil which claims responsibility for returning Angel to Earth so that he could become his soulless self Angelus again. Angel undergoes spiritual torment as the First Evil reminds him of his many past sins, tells him he can never find redemption, and encourages him to lose his soul again. Events come to a head on Christmas Eve.

This episode is pretty well known within the Buffy and Angel fandoms, being the debut of the First Evil, who would become the 'big bad' of Buffy's final season. Further, it establishes a tone for Angel's character which would be followed throughout his own 5 season program - his quest for redemption and the demonic forces which avow he cannot be saved.

One element of the episode which seems to have slipped from popular memory is the impact it had on how fans viewed Xander Harris. Xander was frequently pig-headed and spiteful, particularly in how he reacted to Buffy and Angel's relationship. Leading up to "Amends", Xander had reached a near-critical mass with Buffy fandom, who had all-but given up on him. Then, "Amends" turned him around in the eyes of many for two reasons: 1) he offers to help Angel despite his own misgivings and 2) viewers learn Xander's parents are alcoholics whose drunken Christmas fights have led Xander to sleep outdoors. Suddenly, it seemed to provide an excuse or rationale for much of Xander's poor behavior and instantly won him the benefit of the doubt for a decent period of time.

"Angel, you have the power to do real good, to make amends. But if you die now, then all that you ever were was a monster."

What I find surprising about fandom's reaction to the episode is how many of them take the First Evil at its word - that it truly was responsible for bringing Angel back from Hell. If that were the case, why did it consider Angel committing suicide to be an acceptable outcome? Why put Angel back on the table as part of a plan where taking Angel off the table again was helpful? Being pure evil - the program's nearest equivalent to Satan - why should anything the First Evil claims be considered truthful?

"I hate that it's so hard... and that you can hurt me so much. I know everything that you did, because you did it to me."

But more to the point, there's the snowfall. At the climax, Angel has decided to kill himself, knowing he can't resist the temptation to be with Buffy, even though it will cost him his soul. Buffy pleads and even fights with him to try and change his mind, but Angel cannot be swayed. Yet the sun doesn't rise. An inexplicable, truly miraculous snowfall occurs in southern California, its clouds blocking out the sun. The obvious impression is that the forces of good in their world - God, from where I'm sitting - have intervened to spare Angel. That perhaps it was the forces of good who rescued Angel from Hell. To some extent all 5 seasons of Angel's own program would continue to revisit the question - is Angel's ultimate purpose for good or evil? But there is undeniable hope expressed in this episode.

"Am I a thing worth saving, huh? Am I righteous man? The world wants me gone!"

Joss Whedon being an existentialist I sometimes find parallels with my own Christian beliefs. Then, at other times, an impasse. Whedon's approach to Angel's redemption is such a thing - Whedon does not believe in God's grace (the foundation of Christian belief) and so because of this, Angel is tormented (Angel has a Christian upbringing but apparently not a very substantial one). Whedon's programs usually come down on the side of existentialism - as Angel himself would later express it, "If nothing that we do matters, then the only that matters is what we do." But "Amends" forcefully rejects that idea; mercy is shown to Angel on Christmas Eve not because he has earned it, but because goodness is merciful in and of itself.

Merry Christmas, internet!

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