In the course of reviewing a favourite series there are few episodes you just can’t wait to get to. “Awakening” is one such episode. Anti-heroes are a dime a dozen these days, but even in the post Tony Soprano world I can think of few series that deliver such an insidiously unflattering look at their protagonist, and none that do so for someone as virtuous as Angel. This episode isn’t about the crimes of Angel’s past or the darkness that still lurks inside of him. It’s about Angel; how he sees himself, his friends, the world. He’s a champion, a self-sacrificing hero who’ll always do what’s right. He’s also kind of a prick.
I call Angel a prick a lot, mostly because the characterisation amuses me, but also because its so damn refreshing for a series to let a character be so heroic and so petty at the same time. To be fair, most of us would likely come off as pricks in any outside observation of our “perfect day.” It is the nature of such fantasies that other people become caricatures, their personalities mere scenery in our own story. But we’re not the ones in front of the lens, Angel is. What’s more, the attitudes on display here don’t just exist in his daydreams, they affect his actions in the real world.
For starters, let’s talk about just how lame the whole scenario is. I didn’t pick up on the twist until nearly the end of my first viewing and so I spent most of the episode thinking the series had reverted to season one-level obvious. The quest for the mystical sword is as worn out as a cliche gets and there aren’t any of the Whedon winks to salvage it. With a little help from his friends, Angel solves the puzzles, gets the blade, and escapes the collapsing ruin. Then he has to face the monster, alone of course, who conveniently shows up just in time to die. Throw in the near-certain death and Angel gets to sacrifice himself for the cause, without the unfortunate consequence of having to actually make the sacrifice. He even gets the girl in the end. It’s a shallow, simplistic story unworthy of the series. It’s also Angel’s fondest wish. As we’ve seen many times before, Angel really wishes the world were a simpler place full of easily recognised good guys and bad guys. Yes, there are some hardships along the way but, in the end, the sword goes into the monster and everyone lives happily ever after.
By itself, What Angel wants from the world merely makes him kinda lame, not a prick. For that, we need to consider what all this simplicity means for his friends. This little adventure isn’t just an opportunity for Angel to be the hero he wants to be, it’s an opportunity for his friends to be the people he wants them to be. So Fred and Gunn don’t get to come. They shouldn’t feel that bad though, as Angel only takes the people he has issues with, but it does mean that whatever issues they have miraculously solve themselves in order to facilitate the happy ending. While Angel’s gone, Fred somehow goes from frustrated and ineffectual with the books to delivering the requisite exposition and then getting out of the way. Gunn gets even less dignity as he’s in pure sidekick mode, asking Angel “can I play with it” upon seeing the sword and then promptly destroying a coffee table. Careful with that, little buddy. The couple’s issues get no mention of any kind Gunn and Wes’ problems are neatly resolved with a closing handshake. I guess that others are allowed to have some problems, so long as Angel doesn’t need to hear about them.
Of course, engaging with Angel is no picnic either as the resolutions to his issues with his friends are all one-sided. He makes a point of the fact that Wes never apologises about anything and gets an unspoken guy-speak “sorry I kidnapped your son” that seems to satisfy. Wanting an apology is certainly understandable, but if that’s what you’re after then you probably shouldn’t smother the person while shouting “I’ll never forgive you! EVER!”. But there’s no acknowledgement that Angel’s done anything wrong and so he gets an apology without having to give one.
Bad as Wes gets it, Cordelia, the woman Angel loves, is even worse off. Let’s let the words speak for themselves:
CORDELIA What if we had? (sits back to look in his eyes) What if we’d been deep fried trying to save the world again, and I—and I didn’t have the chance to tell you.
ANGEL Tell me what?
CORDELIA I’m sorry for what happened, for what I let happen with Connor. I was lost and frightened, and I thought it was the end, and— (whispers) I wanted to be with you, but I couldn’t. (cries) Oh, God. Angel, what I did—
In any other narrative, in any other medium, in any other genre, Cordelia would’ve needed to say “I love you” not “I’m sorry.” This is the woman Angel’s been pining over for more than a season, who could’ve, would’ve, should’ve been his had the universe not kept throwing up roadblocks and in his own perfect day fantasy where he gets whatever he wants he’s more keen on her remorse than her love.
But it doesn’t stop there. Cordelia’s not only got to beg Angel’s forgiveness, she’s got to absolve him of all guilt for his own crimes which, let’s face it, are one hell of a lot worse than hers. The speech goes on:
ANGEL It’s gonna be all right.
CORDELIA No, it’s—you need to know that I can look back and see every horrible thing you’ve ever done as Angelus, and it doesn’t matter anymore. Because when I’m with you, all I feel is the good you’ve done as Angel. I know I’ve hurt you. (lowers her head) I know I don’t deserve forgiveness.
ANGEL (looks in her eyes) Cordy, I don’t care what you’ve done in your past either.
CORDELIA (leans her face against his) I don’t know if this is right, Angel.
ANGEL Stop talking.
I want to point out that Cordy doesn’t forgive Angel here, she tells him that what he’s done in the past doesn’t matter. The good he’s done outweighs the bad and so there’s no need for either of them to worry about it. Its not forgiveness she’s offering here, it’s absolution.
I also want to point out how Cordelia’s becoming less her own person and more a fantasy object. Not only does she need to grovel for forgiveness and absolve his guilt, she has to be a proxy for the real love of his life. Their goodbyes when he must “face the beast alone” could’ve been pulled straight from “Surprise.” A muted version of the Buffy/Angel theme even plays at that moment. Even that’s not sufficient as she must then assume all responsibility for the two of them having sex only to have him say another woman’s name in the moment of arrival.
So, in Angel’s perfect world it sucks to be Cordy, but it sucks even more to be Connor. There’s really no better illustration of Angel’s blind spot as a father than the way the boy’s portrayed here as all of his damage is reduced to mere teenage petulance. There certainly is a fair amount of petulance about Connor, but there’s also a lot of genuine pain. Angel’s solution is to dismiss it rather than deal with it, “You think you’re the only one who ever felt that way?”. Worst of all, this works. After going off to sulk for a while, Connor returns, miraculously morphed into the son Angel always wanted. He fights alongside his pop, just like he should’ve been doing all along, and is then gracious enough to assure Angel that there are no hard feelings. Don’t worry dad, she was thinking of you the whole time. It’s all capped by “Is this what it feels like, to be a champion?”. Connor’s not only come to respect the pain and loneliness of Angel’s existence, he’s now assumed that mantle himself. But don’t worry, he’s suddenly mature enough to handle it. The son Angel always wanted is… Angel.
So, Angel’s a prick and I love this episode for having the guts to portray him that way. I love it even more for making it understandable. Of course Angel uses himself as a yardstick for his son. Not only is it a fairly common failing in parents, but Connor’s a super powered being with a dark past and lots to make up for; how could Angel not see “being a champion” as the appropriate response? And of course Angel values remorse above love. He’s turned guilt into his central virtue and it’s natural that he should look for this quality in others. The things that drive Angel to be a hero are also the things that can make him a lousy friend and father. The willingness to take him down a few pegs has always been one of this show’s greatest strengths and I can think of no finer example than this episode.
I really took this episode at face value for most of the first time I saw it, assuming that some idiotic decision had prompted them to wrap up the Beast storyline as quickly and clumsily as possible. It wasn’t until Big Bad burst through the door that my Spidey sense started tingling. That moment was just too stupid not to be deliberate and, even then, the pace became brisk enough that there wasn’t really time to figure out exactly what was going on.
Not sure how much significance to read into the fact that Wes is the only one to sustain a significant injury in Angel’s fantasy.