I’ll admit to some personal bias in my love for “Epiphany.” Angel’s response to Holland’s philosophy is nearly a one-to-one match with my own moral outlook. Wolfram & Hart’s denial of any greater moral framework for the world is hard to dispute, particularly in the context of all the pain and suffering we experience, but their answer, to work within this amoral framework, isn’t the only one. We can accept that the world is an immoral place without accepting that we ourselves should be immoral. Quite the opposite; if there’s no moral order to the universe, then it’s even more important for us to create one for ourselves.
That seems like a fairly innocuous principle when written out, but most people can’t accept its full ramifications, and I give this episode full props for exploring those. Angel’s epiphany isn’t just about being a good person in an evil world. It’s about being a good person in a world where it doesn’t matter. There’s no “big win,” no “grand plan,” no “greater meaning,” no larger context in which to frame any of our actions. This lack is what gives Wolfram & Hart license to do whatever they please and what leads most people to deny the truth of this outlook.
Angel needed there to be a greater meaning to the things he’s seen, to the things he’s done. It’s why he’s been obsessed with Darla all season. She was the start of it all, the one who made him what he was. Her reappearance seemed to provide a chance for resolution, to close the loop in some satisfying moral arc. Angel puts it succinctly, “You were the thing that made me what I am, and I thought if I could save you, I’d somehow save myself…” This is why Wolfram & Hart turning her was such a blow. Not being able to save Darla meant revenge was the only source of meaning he had left.
Like any great conclusion, this one lends new shape to the story that preceded it. Much as it seemed like Angel had “given up” in his descent into darkness, he was still fighting for morality of a sort. While he couldn’t set right the wrong, he could at least avenge it by punishing the guilty. It wasn’t until Holland drove home the fact that such punishment would be irrelevant that Angel truly despaired. Unable to cope with a world that doesn’t care about good and evil, he tries to erase the distinction for himself. In losing his soul, Angel would’ve entered Hollis’ camp; becoming (again) a creature that cared for nothing beyond its own appetites and willing to use any means to attain them.
Fortunately, he fails. And, in failing, Angel realizes that becoming evil isn’t the only option in a world without good. He wakes up and realizes that he still has a soul, that he still has a chance to be something else. He rushes to save Kate not because its part of some grand design to make the world make sense, but because she needs his help. It’s a stunningly simple motivation, one that makes Angel the perfect foil for Wolfram & Hart.
Holland believes that, because the world is an awful place, we all might as well be awful too. He thinks that if he can strip away Angel’s delusions then he’ll share this rational conclusion. It nearly works, except that Angel arrives at an alternative that’s equally rational; because the world is an awful place, we might as well be good. Not for redemption, or a reward, or a big win, but because “… I don’t think people should suffer,as they do. Because, if there is no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness – is the greatest thing in the world.”
Well, I managed to get through that entire review without talking about much more than the first and last scenes. I’m so in love with the point of this episode that I tend to lose sight of how well it’s constructed. Oh well, plenty of room for that here.
I love how Kate’s response to Angel saving her mirrors his own response to Darla, “Thank you, now get out.”
Lorne’s at his best here, offering Angel some perspective and insisting the course isn’t backward, but forward to “the new place, whatever that is.”
The AI crew’s also pretty excellent in their refusal to welcome Angel back with open arms. I really like their varying responses; Wes with the silent treatment, Gunn with the tough questions, and Cordy with straightforward “You really hurt my feelings.”
Lindsey brings more greatness as his attack ultimately amounts to a chance for Angel to prove that he has changed.
So, what does Angel’s newfound ethic mean for the prophecy that he’ll become human? This actually something that the series would wrestle with as it went on, but I think that part of the answer lies in the fact that his outlook is a fundamentally humanist one.
The only major flaw in this story is that it concludes the season arc at episode sixteen. There are still some good episodes to come (and some bad ones), but the story we’ve been so invested in is effectively over.