“I had my throat cut and all my friends abandoned me.”
If Buffy was teaching us how to survive, then Angel taught us how to provide.
Buffy took us from high school to college; Angel took us to that point just after. That first foray into the real world. Rather than go on to college, Cordelia, the rich snob from Buffy was in LA to become a famous actress. She also had nothing to fall back on. Her family had gone bankrupt and they didn’t keep up with her anyway. Wesley, the awkward and incompetent former Watcher joined a few episodes later. All three were looking for a fresh start. Everyone Angel loved was dead or otherwise disliked him. Cordelia’s attempts at fame were a failure, and Wesley was disowned by the Watcher’s council and an awful father. Their second chances weren’t working out.
What initially looks like another exhausting depicting of failed Hollywood dreams quickly turns into something much sadder—something seen in the later episodes of Buffy: what your life looks like when your dreams don’t come true. You work hard at something. You meet the qualifications, but whether it’s due to personal integrity or bad luck or whatever, it just doesn’t work out. Angel, Cordelia and Wesley were failures. They didn’t have a small town or a gang of Scoobies to catch them when they fell. They were out in the world, and it wasn’t safe.
The fact that there was no Scooby safety net made things on Angel much scarier. That is, there was substantially more internal strife. When Buffy would pull away from the Scoobies, they would pull her back harder. The core three—Buffy, Willow and Xander understood that they needed each other. In season 2 of Angel, when he started pulling away, he was cut loose. He let Drusilla and Darla commit a mass murder of Wolfram & Hart executives because he didn’t like them. Then he lit Drusilla and Darla on fire.
Later, after the group recovered from that one, Wesley betrayed them by kidnapping Angel’s newborn son believing him to be in danger of being killed by Angel. The divide between the two of them lasted for more than a season and was still a bit of a prickly point by the end of the series. Wesley was also in love with the same woman as Gunn. They literally fought over it. In that way both Sunnydale and Los Angeles were very much characters in the shows themselves. They reflected the characters’ sensibilities and informed upon them. Whereas Buffy and the Scoobies could find a safe place in The Bronze or the magic shop, there was really no such place for Angel and his team. The Hyperion hotel was haunted and it’s not like the person next to you was guaranteed to be an ally all the time. Much of Angel’s drama came from character infighting—something that seems less and less like something you’d see among friends and more and more like something you’d see from coworkers.
So, you have all this turmoil in your twenties. For Wesley and Cordelia it was realizing your dreams aren’t going to come true and you not only learn how to dream a little smaller, you drift along a languid river of indecision. The future is foggy and unknowable in that uncertainty. Wesley took a walk on the dark side, falling for Lilah Morgan from Wolfram & Hart and later dabbling in unabashed high-functioning alcoholism. Cordelia shed much of the hollow Valley Girl shtick for something more fulfilling and altruistic. Gunn had sacrificed everything for his sister, and found there was nothing left for himself after she was gone.
Meanwhile, Angel accidentally fathered a child. The first time father freaked out as much as you would expect. With Connor’s birth came a major shift in priorities for Angel. His budding relationship with Cordelia (who would have thought?) was damaged greatly, and while dealing with a newborn, Angel was also forced to deal with Holtz, a man from his past—back when he was the soulless evil husk Angelus—and he had to deal with Holtz’ pretty big qualm: Angel killed Holtz’ son. In stealing Angel’s that cycle of mourning and pain was finally complete. Out in the world, we learn about consequences—that the things we do can ripple into things much larger over a long period of time. Though Connor was eventually recovered, it was clear that Angel was unable to care for him.
Despite his surrogate family, his was the carefully plotted arc of the travails of a single parent, and even taking a look at what it’s like to have a criminal for a parent. Through dimension-hopping, Connor ages to his teens in half a season. He has to come to terms with the fact that his father was known not for the redemptive acts he’s done over the last few decades but for the prior centuries of baby killing, gypsy raping, and mass murdering. In Connor, we are the kid who endures the heartbreaking revelation that his parent isn’t perfect; as Angel we see the fear and pain of a parents having disappointed a child—and eventually, the pain Angel feels in having to give his son up entirely “for adoption.” The question then becomes the same one every parent obsesses about: “How do I give my child a better life than I had?” As former Angel showrunner David Greenwalt reflected, “Angel is about how hard it is to be a man.”
While, like Buffy, there were season-spanning arcs, Angel adopted a series-spanning monolithic villain in the evil law firm Wolfram & Hart. Throughout the series, no matter what major evil Angel and co. came across, they were all attached to or aware of Wolfram & Hart. What seemed initially as yet another example of Hollywood attacking corporations and lawyers (rather ironic considering how much Hollywood relies on both) but as the series drew on it became clear that Wolfram & Hart was another important metaphor.
There’s this indie film from the 90s called SLC Punk. It’s these group of punk rock teens living in Salt Lake City. They’re at the end of high school and they’re all living up—or at least trying to live up—to their image and cliques and whatever it is their clothes are supposed to make them represent. Stevo loves his parents but hate what they represent. They were baby boomers—real march on the campus types—but now mom is a New Ager and his dad is a Harvard educated lawyer. Stevo rails his parents for selling out, claiming he’ll never do the same. His dad smiles, this is familiar to him.
I didn’t sell out, son,” he says. “I bought in. Keep that in mind.”
Stevo, by films’ end, begins his first semester at Harvard, making the same distinction about buying in and selling out his father made just months before.
We’ve all done this. We’ve all made some grandstanding, youthful declarations. We’ve all given our integrity a level of importance usually saved for things like breathing. In high school we know exactly who we are. By college, we’ve figured out exactly how our lives will be. Then, as they say, real life screws everything up. You make compromises, you realize you don’t really know yourself the way you thought you did. You realize that your situation defines your needs. Angel needed to save his son. Angel’s friends needed something more than the lives they had been handed. Wolfram & Hart offered them jobs.
Wolfram & Hart wasn’t just a metaphor for corporate America. It was a metaphor for that last revelation, the one that makes you a true adult. The reason they were a series long plot, and the reason why even in the finale Angel couldn’t break them, is because Wolfram & Hart symbolize not only being seduced by whatever you think the good life is, but it’s something much larger. Wolfram & Hart is you, who you will be for the rest of your working life.
For four seasons we watched Wolfram & Hart (as a structure) define and redefine evil. In Lilah and Lindsey we saw that not everyone that works there is entirely evil. We watched Angel and co. fight that larger organization, the personification of the man. Then they did what we all did when we got out of college—we took the job that was offered because we needed to pay the bills. Angel did it for his son. Lorne did it for fame and influence. Gunn did it for his unrealized potential. Wesley did it for respect. Fred did it for a perceived greater good. They didn’t sell out. They bought in. Angel taught us how to provide. For others and for ourselves.
Together, both series wanted to define important sections of our lives, as much a warning as it was a cheat sheet.