Sartrean Themes in Joss Whedon’s Angel: A Marxist Interpretation

Angel speaks with the demon Lorne.

Angel speaks with the demon Lorne.

It has been ten years since Joss Whedon’s Angel went off the air. Yet the enduring themes of the show remain with us. It has outgrown its origins as a spin-off to Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. Angel is about more than a vampire with a soul struggling to atone for past crimes as he battles demons, but showcases a world we can relate to: where not there is not only good and evil, but shades of gray where the heroes don’t always make the right choices and even if they do, they are fighting against powerful institutions and overwhelming odds. Yet more than being just a good television show, Angel, is also radical (dare I say revolutionary?) in its advocacy of revolt against oppressive institutions. This can be explained in part by Whedon’s embrace of the philosophical categories of Jean-Paul Sartre (such as existentialism). However, Angel inherits the various contradictions of Sartrean existentialism which while supportive of struggle against oppression also believe that no lasting victory is possible.

Wolfram and Hart: The Totalizer

Angel’s villains range from individual vampires to demonic spirits to varied monsters. However, the most persistent antagonist in Angel is Wolfram and Hart. Wolfram and Hart is quite unusual among the show’s villains in it being a faceless legal firm. The firm represents clients in the business (Conviction)[1], political (Power Play) and supernatural worlds (Time Bomb), all of which greatly overlap. The firm uses the law (and magic), in all the underhanded ways that we come to expect from lawyers, to ensure that its clients stay out of trouble or are able to advance their particular agendas. Wolfram is mostly staffed by human lawyers, although it employs scientists, mystics, and clerics (Home, Hellbound).

Wolfram and Hart is run by a secretive and unseen group known as the Senior Partners (Reprise). The Senior Partners operate on different dimensions than most of the characters. They leave most of the running of Wolfram and Hart to the human employees at the firm (Reprise). The Partners’ agenda extends beyond the activities of the firm to ensuring that the smooth functioning of their interests in the business, political and supernatural areas by way of an elite cabal known as the Circle of the Black Thorn (Power Play).

Any compelling villain not only challenges the hero and is a well-developed character, but also has their own agenda. On a basic level, Wolfram and Hart is a capitalist agenda as expressed succinctly by liaison officer Eve: “See, in order to keep this business running, you have to keep this business running.” (Conviction) And is that not the major (if not the only) purpose of any capitalist firm: profit. Or to be more precise, profit at any price.

A single capitalist business exists within a much larger market and is compelled by the laws of competition to struggle against other firms for a market share and the resulting profits: “the laws, immanent in capitalist production, manifest themselves in the movements of individual masses of capital, where they assert themselves as coercive laws of competition, and are brought home to the mind and consciousness of the individual capitalist as the directing motives of his operations. ”[2] Of course, the resulting profits are not due to the ingenuity or hard work of the capitalist, but via the extraction of surplus value from the working class: “Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.”[3] The laws of competition mean that the capitalist is compelled to increase hours, reduce wages or introduce labor-saving machines to increase productivity.[4] A capitalist may be in a business that is deadly for the environment and his employees, but is producing highly profitable automobiles. Suppose that capitalist decides to shift production to environmentally friendly automobiles. This withdrawal from the process of constant accumulation is threatened with bankruptcy. Thus even the most ‘humanitarian’ or socially conscious capitalist must obey the laws of competition or lose out to his competitors. Thus the pursuit of profit comes first despite it leading to environmental devastation, wars, immiseration or crises. Thus, the idea that the laws of capitalism can be modified to serve a greater social good is a pipe dream.

However, many reformers (whether social democrats, Eurocommunists, or Keynesians) have believed that they can tame capitalism’s insatiable profit drives by providing for the people or peacefully change it into socialism. In the end, all of these forces have been easily integrated back into the larger capitalist system which continues its normal pursuit of profit over people. No proposed reforms are ever allowed to interfere with this capitalist imperative.

This same reformist goal of using capitalism for a greater good also confronts Angel when he works for Wolfram and Hart. However, Angel’s fate is ultimately not one of integration, but of rebellion. We will explore more on Angel’s choices and dilemmas below that lead to this end.

Wolfram and Hart is not just a single firm though, it strives to be totalizing force to maintain the system. Let us expand on what this means by looking at the role of the capitalist state.[5] Even though its apologists claim otherwise, the capitalist system with its numerous enterprises seeking profits is inherently unstable. If firms are left on their own, they will see only their narrow interests before the need to maintain the system in its totality. Or, a capitalist can take no longer view than that of immediate profits which means that the interests of people are excluded. Yet some instrument or institution is needed maintain the larger social cohesion of the system. This is found in “the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”[6] The state doesn’t merely maintain the dominant property relations through violence (army, prisons, police), but also to maintain social cohesion. In maintaining social cohesion, the state protects the interests of the capitalist class as a whole against any particular capitalist who may get out of line and threaten the system by their particular actions. For instance, when President Richard Nixon engaged in Watergate, he was attacking other representatives of the capitalist class, something that needed to be kept in check by other capitalists (when Nixon’s tactics were used against the left, there was no outcry since these forces were fighting for the interests of the proletariat). Maintaining social cohesion is also done by providing a legal and political framework in which businesses can operate, knowing that their contracts will be respected (via the courts). There is also the use of the state in maintaining cohesion and to illicit consent and absorb various reformist demands (we will deal with this more below in evaluating Angel).

Wolfram and Hart is not just a law firm or a single capitalist enterprise, but it functions as a state (or perhaps a shadow state). Though the firm wants to keep itself afloat by satisfying its obligations to its clients (Conviction), there is a larger totalizing role of Wolfram and Hart.

Towards the end of season five, Angel and his friends are trying to discover the larger plans of Wolfram and Hart (whom they are also working for). They rescue a sometime enemy and former Wolfram and Hart employee named Lindsey, who they believe has the answers (Underneath). Once Lindsey is rescued, he reveals that Wolfram and Hart wants to ensure that the Apocalypse comes to fruition. The Apocalypse, contrary to what Angel (and the audience) believes is not a single cataclysmic battle with a clearly defined enemy (i.e. the “Big Bad”). As Lindsey explains: “What’d you think, a gong was gonna sound? Time to jump on your horses and fight the big fight? Starting pistol went off a long time ago, boys.” (Underneath) As Lindsey says, the Apocalypse has been going on this whole time. This raises the question, if the Apocalypse is not a big fight, then what is it? Lindsey clarifies this by saying: “The world keeps sliding towards entropy and degradation, and what do you do? You sit in your big chair, and you sign your checks, just like the senior partners planned.” (Underneath) The Apocalypse is the continuing exploitation, depravity and misery of the system. At the same time, as Lindsey says Angel and company are not fighting the Apocalypse, but “Every day you sit behind your desk and you learn a little more how to accept the world the way it is. Well, here’s the rub… heroes don’t do that. Heroes don’t accept the world the way it is. They fight it.” (Underneath)

These remarks of Lindsey touch on many of the illusions of liberals and some leftists. These illusions often go along these lines: “well, the system is bad sure. We just need to resign ourselves to whatever reforms we can get out of it. Perhaps if things get really bad and it appears that capitalism is breaking down, then we can have a revolution. As it stands, we don’t need one now.” Such an attitude is sometimes well meaning, but is often used as an excuse to accepting capitalism.

There is something else that such an attitude displays. The capitalist breakdown or the ‘crisis’ can reveal the system’s glaring inequalities and injustices. Yet, the capitalist crisis is produced by contradictions already present within it and maintain it even during the ‘good’ times. For example, capitalism during the neoliberal period (post-1973) has seen a vast increase of income inequality, rampant exploitation of undocumented workers, imperialist wars (Iraq and Afghanistan), gutting the social safety net and the development of a national security state (i.e. the Patriot Act and other post 9/11 laws).[7] To some liberals, these injustices are just accepted as normal when times are good and are only recognized when a crisis erupts. And during such times, they do not dare to challenge capitalism, but they are so integrated into the system that they offer cosmetic reforms rather than a revolutionary alternative.

Thus, the Apocalypse is not some major eruption or battle, but is already happening. And what Wolfram and Hart do is to ensure that the Apocalypse or “make sure man’s inhumanity to man keeps rolling along.” (Power Play) In other words, the Senior Partners want to maintain social cohesion which allows the system, in which they are able to flourish, to continue.

This is exactly the function which the state plays in capitalism. And Wolfram and Hart plays the role of the state in Angel via the Circle of the Black Thorn. As mentioned earlier, the Circle is composed of various elite and powerful demons in business and politics. As Angel himself says of the Circle: “I’ve seen the faces of evil. I know who the real powers in the apocalypse are…We’re in a machine. The Black Thorn runs it.” (Power Play) Members of the circle do compete with each other for power and influence (as often occurs in the cutthroat world of competition), yet they do unite to protect their general interests from opposing forces (such as Angel and company) and to ensure that the system keeps functioning (i.e. the Apocalypse, man’s inhumanity to man, profit and accumulation).

Lindsey challenges Angel’s growing tolerance of the world’s inhumanity by saying: “Heroes don’t accept the world the way it is. They fight it.” (Underneath) And should that not be the approach of a revolutionary: to develop the organization, leadership and courage needed to challenge capitalism head on rather than accepting it?

Angel: Hell is the Other

Angel, the series title character, is a vampire with a soul who is searching for redemption for his past crimes. Before becoming a vampire, Angel was the lazy and womanizing son of a merchant living in 1753 Ireland (Becoming Part I and Prodigal). After becoming a vampire, Angel spends roughly 140 years as a soulless creature of the night, inflicting countless tortures and deaths upon the innocent (Angel). However, at one point, Angel kills a gypsy girl. The girl’s family place a curse upon him which restores his soul and conscience (Becoming Part I and Darla), but he will lose his soul if he ever achieves a single moment of pure happiness (Innocence). For the next one hundred years, Angel broods and wallows in his own misery. He makes every effort to avoid human contact and live in solitude. By the time Angel is found by the (good) demon Whistler he is living on the streets of New York City drinking the blood of rats (Becoming Part I).

Angel in his actions appears to fulfill the Sartrean ideal of freedom. Even though he is a merchant’s son, he chooses not to embrace the values that come from that social position (hard work and frugality), but embraces laziness and avarice (Prodigal). Once Angel becomes a vampire, he chooses to embrace the values of being a vampire which means feeding on innocent people. And after Angel is cursed with a soul by gypsies, he decides to not feed on people even though he is still a vampire but rather feeds on animals. As Jean-Paul Sartre would say Angel “is condemned to be free.”[8]

And in that freedom, Angel faces many of the dilemmas a person condemned to be free has to face. For one, Sartre says that “the limit to my freedom is, as we see, posited by the Other’s pure and simple existence.”[9] In other words, other people are the enemy. Yet Angel has to deal with other vampires, who are competitors for food and thereby threaten his freedom. The vampires whom Angel deals with are not only ‘the Other’ or an enemy, but also soulless to boot. This is similar to what Sartre does in the Critique of Dialectical Reason in positing the other as non-human: “thus man is objectively constituted as non-human, and this non-humanity is expressed in praxis by the perception of evil as the structure of the Other.”[10]

Angel is also has to exist in a world of permanent and insurmountable scarcity. Sartre said “our history is a history of men is equivalent to saying that it is born and developed within the permanent framework of a field of tension produced by scarcity.”[11] Angel will sometimes fight with Spike and other vampires for the scarce food and pleasures (Destiny). However, some cooperation does occur even among the soulless vampires. Angel will share pleasures and food with others, such as him and Darla feasting on the gypsy girl (Darla). Yet the condition of the isolated individual is seen as the predominant fate of Angel and no lasting collective action in possible. Sartre says “we should hope in vain for a human ‘we’ in which the intersubjective totality would obtain consciousness of itself as a unified subjectivity.”[12]

What Whedon does in showing how vampires (such as Angel) live is to display in quite a graphic way, the lives of the working and underclasses under capitalism. Contrary to the views of vulgar Marxists, workers are not necessarily knights in shining armor just waiting for the chance to slay the capitalist beast. Rather workers are a class with “radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, an estate which is the dissolution of all estates, a sphere which has a universal character by its universal suffering and claims no particular right because no particular wrong, but wrong generally, is perpetuated against it; which can invoke no historical, but only human, title; which does not stand in any one-sided antithesis to the consequences but in all-round antithesis to the premises of German statehood; a sphere, finally, which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all other spheres of society and thereby emancipating all other spheres of society, which, in a word, is the complete loss of man and hence can win itself only through the complete re-winning of man. This dissolution of society as a particular estate is the proletariat.”[13] It is by virtue of the proletariat’s position as an exploited class who’s labor enriches the ruling class and is compelled to struggle against that exploitation and this struggle has the potential to overthrow capitalism, regardless of what it’s members may believe. Here is Marx summing this up: “It cannot abolish the conditions of its own life without abolishing all the inhuman conditions of life of society today which are summed up in its own situation. Not in vain does it go through the stern but steeling school of labour. It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do.”[14]

Even though the class position of workers gives them the potential to overthrow capitalism, they often accept the dominant ideologies of the capitalist order (racism, sexism, nationalism, etc.). Furthermore, workers will more times than not, compete with one another for jobs and privileges. And once they have privileges, perhaps by being accepted as ‘white’ workers by the ruling class by demonstrating loyalty, they will have no problem treating other workers of a different race as the enemy.[15] The world of the worker under capitalism is often quite soulless since capital cares not for people, but profit. And in showing the existence of vampires, Whedon lets us see the horror of a dog-eat-dog world.

Now, Sartre thinks that our lives are dominated by the “permanent framework” of scarcity and the other as the enemy, which is certainly how many people live under capitalism. Yet what Sartre does is to turn these traits of capitalism into ahistorical absolutes. As Istvan Meszaros points out, when Sartre says that scarcity can never be overcome, he forgets that “scarcity must therefore be understood in its appropriate historical context, as parasitic on human history, and not on as the postulated ground and pessimistically hypostatized casual foundation on human history.”[16] To makes scarcity a permanent condition of people is to forget that “all conceivable absolutes in the human context are necessarily historical at the same time.”[17]

And furthermore, when Sartre wrote the Critique of Dialectical Reason, he accepted the ontological foundations of existentialism (the other as enemy and the individual) in his attempt to provide a new basis for Marxism.[18] This means that Sartre, who was a dedicated fighter against the injustices of capitalism, is ultimately pessimistic about the success of any chance for a collective group to overthrow capitalism. Sartre thus sees “the only historical subject he can appeal to and try to enlist for the fights he is engaged in is the isolated particular individual” even though he “recognized the need of an organization,” but Sartre believes that “it is impossible to find a rational basis for revolutionary optimism, since what is is the present reality.”[19] The acceptance of existential ontological categories gives Sartre’s overall project of bringing about a world of freedom a pessimistic outcome. In comprehending the ultimate fate of Angel, we can say that Whedon largely shares Sartre’s pessimistic conclusions. Yet Whedon, like Sartre, says that even if the struggle is hopeless, we must undertake it (we will unravel this below).

Let us now look at Angel as he develops once the series begins. He comes to Los Angeles to “help the helpless” and redeem himself (City of). He is no longer an isolated individual but works in a collective/fused group (Angel Investigations). Part of the reason is no doubt that a group is more effective than a lone individual, but also in the words of Doyle “It’s about reaching out to people, showing them that there’s love and hope still left in the world.” (City of). This is different than how Angel behaved during Buffy, he had largely stayed aloof from the Scoobies (Buffy and friends), offering his help from time to time but never really integrating himself among them.

During the initial two seasons of Angel, helping the helpless seems to cover everything from charity (helping a pregnant woman escape demonic tormenters in Judgment), making the system work more smoothly (helping Kate Lockley and the police in Sense and SensitivityThe Shroud of Rahmon and Prodigal), and quasi-revolutionary struggle (assisting demon gladiator slaves gain freedom in The Ring).

Angel makes largely moralistic and individualistic appeals to the people he saves and those he fights. For instance, when Kate Lockley’s father Trevor (a corrupt police officer) is in trouble, Angel does not see him as a representative of the repressive arm of the state, but says “ I’m trying to protect your daughter.” (Prodigal). He even attempts to persuade the Wolfram and Hart lawyer Lindsey to desert the company and change his life by telling him, “You’re panicking right now.  You can’t believe how bad you let things get.  -  That’s not change.  -  You have to make a decision to change.  That’s something you do by yourself.  Most people – they never do.” (Blind Date)

Although Angel is a great fighter and sincerely strives to do good, his target is largely what he can see (a vampire, a demon, the “big bad”) and his remedy aside from brute force is just individualistic and moral appeals. In none of the examples from above does Angel even consider changing the social conditions which produce his adversaries.

During season two, when Angel goes up against Wolfram and Hart for turning Darla into a vampire (Reprise), he wants to go right to to the Central Office to kill the Senior Partners. The spirit of Wolfram and Hart employee Holland Manners (someone Angel let die) tells him that there is no Central Office. As Manners has Angel look at ordinary people going about their lives and explains to Angel that the Senior Partners exist “in the hearts and minds of every single living being.  And that, friend, is what’s making things so difficult for you. See, the world doesn’t work in spite of evil, Angel. It works with us. It works because of us.” (Reprise). According to Holland Manners, exist due to the fallen nature of humanity. In a literally existential twist for Angel, “hell is the other.”[20] And we would do well to remember that the Senior Partners want to keep this state of affairs going in ensure that the Apocalypse comes to pass. Ironically, both the Senior Partners and Sartre agree from opposite ends (the powerful and the rebel) that the condition of people under capitalism is an eternal one that can never be overcome.

Upon learning this information, Angel initially hits rock bottom and sleeps with the vampire Darla in a moment of “perfect despair” (Reprise and Epiphany). However, Angel decides to fight on after hitting a low point and makes an existentialist statement justifying his decision:  “In the greater scheme or the big picture, nothing we do matters.  There’s no grand plan, no big win… If there is no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. ’cause that’s all there is.  What we do, now, today.” (Epiphany)

While Holland Manners and Wolfram and Hart say that there is no hope of defeating them (just as the apologists of capitalism claim there is no alternative), Angel does have a hope that he holds onto. That hope is the Shanshu Prophecy which says “the vampire with a soul, once he fulfills his destiny, will Shanshu. Become human. It’s his reward… Well, it’s saying that it won’t happen tomorrow or the next day. He has to survive the coming darkness, the apocalyptic battles, a few plagues, and some — uh, several, — not that many — fiends that will be unleashed.” (To Shanshu in L.A.) On one level, we can look at the Shanshu Prophecy as strictly Angel’s personal redemption, but it can also be viewed on another level as Marxism’s “prophecy” or promise to the proletariat. After all, capital cripples and deforms the workers through exploitation and alienation. Marx graphically describes this situation as being “in the factory we have a lifeless mechanism independent of the workman, who becomes its mere living appendage. ‘The miserable routine of endless drudgery and toil in which the same mechanical process is gone through over and over again, is like the labour of Sisyphus. The burden of labour, like the rock, keeps ever falling back on the worn-out labourer.’ At the same time that factory work exhausts the nervous system to the uttermost, it does away with the many-sided play of the muscles, and confiscates every atom of freedom, both in bodily and intellectual activity. The lightening of the labour, even, becomes a sort of torture, since the machine does not free the labourer from work, but deprives the work of all interest.”[21] And here is a metaphor that Marx uses that Angel could understand, “Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.”[22]

Yet Marx believes that the proletariat can only free itself and all of humanity from exploitation by self-emancipation from the shackles of capitalism. Marx is almost prophetic in laying out the proletariat’s mission in theCommunist Manifesto by saying that “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.”[23] The result of the proletariat revolution is a communist society where the “free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”[24]

Marx does not say that the proletarian revolution is guaranteed to succeed. Rather, he is saying that it the end result can be “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”[25] We could extend the alternatives a bit more by including capitalism with a fascist face, environmental devastation, and the eternal rule of capitalism, however much we may want it to be overthrown.

Now it is clear that Angel doesn’t “accept the way the world is” (Power Play) and he struggles against the forces of evil and to him, “It doesn’t matter where we come from, what we’ve done or suffered, or even if we make a difference. We live as though the world was what it should be, to show it what it can be.” (Deep Down). Yet as the series progresses past season two, Angel is still fighting what he can see and making individualistic appeals without challenging the underlying social conditions, but by the end of season five this changes.

Angel Investigations: The Fused Group

It should be remembered that Angel’s struggle is not that of a lone hero. Rather Angel is part of what Sartre would call a fused group which is based on cooperation and has a common purpose. The fused group of “Angel Investigations” highlights the Sartre identified in a group when the other is the enemy and the overwhelming social structures that threaten to push the group apart. While Sartre has a negative belief in the ability of a fused group to achieve freedom against each other and oppressive systems, Whedon doesn’t seem to share this pessimism.

Yet the trials of Angel Investigations unveil how difficult it is for the characters to stay united, even in pursuit of a simple goal such as “helping the helpless.” For instance, Charles Gunn originally fights vampires with a gang of street toughs (War Zone). He later joins Angel Investigations, but feels the pull of his old comrades and often leaves Angel Investigations in the lurch (Over the Rainbow) or even lying to Angel and the others when they are investigating the crimes of his former comrades (That Old Gang of Mine). When Angel Investigations takes over operations at the LA branch of Wolfram and Hart, Gunn becomes a lawyer for them. Since Gunn had no previous legal knowledge, he is given a download of all the information he needs in order to be effective as an attorney to help Angel (Conviction). Yet Gunn’s legal upgrade is only temporary and he has to sign a deal with Wolfram and Hart to make it permanent, but this deal ultimately costs the life of a close friend, Fred (Smile TimeShellsA Hole in the World).

Then there is the example of Spike, another vampire with a soul, who hates Angel (In the DarkDestiny). Spike not only refuses to obey orders from Angel, but has difficulty working with the larger group. A part of this is due to his long standing feud with Angel. Yet Spike has a soul of his own and does set out to do good (Soul Purpose) and he does believe that he should be the one become human via the Shanshu Prophecy (Destiny). He goes as far as beating Angel to a pulp for a claim to humanity (Destiny). Spike believes that his claim is more valid since he fought for his soul while Angel was cursed (GraveDestiny). Spike also recognizes that Angel’s role as a hero is compromised by his position as head of Wolfram and Hart. Spike clearly states the dangers that come from working within the belly of the beast: “A place like that doesn’t change… not from the inside. Not from the out. You sign on there, it changes you. Puts things in your head. Spins your compass needle around till you can’t cross the street without tripping the proverbial old lady and stepping on her glasses.” (Soul Purpose)

Thirdly we have Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, a former Watcher and demon-hunter. Wesley starts off buffoonish, but eventually becomes a valued researcher for Angel Investigations. When a prophecy says that Angel will kill his son Connor, Wesley kidnaps Connor in order to save him (Sleep Tight). It turns out that the prophecy was false and Connor is taken by Angel’s enemy Holtz to a hell dimension (Sleep Tight and Forgiven). Wesley’s actions cause him to be ostracized by Angel and his other friends at Angel Investigations. While on his own, Wesley begins a relationship with Wolfram and Hart lawyer, Lilah Morgan (Tomorrow). Wesley (unwittingly) is used by Wolfram and Hart to relay false information to Angel (Slouching Toward Bethlehem).

However, the examples of Gunn, Spike and Wesley as portrayed by Whedon ultimately contradict Sartre’s pessimism of a fused group being able to form. After Gunn learns the high price of his legal knowledge from Wolfram and Hart, he devotes himself to the greater good and becomes intransigent in undermining legal deals at Wolfram and Hart (Time BombPower Play). Furthermore, Gunn lets himself be punished (in place of Lindsey) as penance for causing Fred’s death and to assist Angel in discovering Wolfram and Hart’s end game (Underneath).

After Fred’s death, Spike finally joins Wolfram and Hart and Angel Investigations, fighting with Angel until the end. Wesley, despite nearly being suffocated by Angel (Forgiven), saves Angel’s life (Deep Down) and eventually rejoins the group as a dedicated fighter (ApocalypseNowish). All three of these characters make a conscious decision to stand with Angel when he decides to challenge Wolfram and Hart by taking on the Circle of the Black Thorn (and Wesley loses his life in the process) (Power PlayNot Fade Away).

One character also shows how the collective struggle of Angel Investigations in ‘helping the helpless’ is able to effect a transformation. In fact, the struggle for social justice is often able to change people who were passive and meek in dedicated fighter inspired by the highest ideals. For instance, the character of Cordelia begins the series as a relatively shallow former-cheerleader. By struggling alongside Angel, Cordelia is able to grow as she feels the suffering of people (To Shanshu in L.A.). She is also given visions as a dying gift from Doyle which allow her to help Angel in his battles (Parting Gifts). Yet the visions cause great physical damage to Cordelia and threaten to end her life, but she won’t give them up. Cordelia sacrifices part of her humanity, and ultimately her life, in order to keep the visions and help Angel (BirthdayTomorrowYou’re Welcome).

Changing the System From Within?

Angel’s struggle through a great part of the series is done by fighting many individual threats and by making appeals for people to change. He does not seek to change the underlying social structures. Yet that all changes once Angel decides to work with Wolfram and Hart in Season Five.

Angel’s motivations to work with Wolfram and Hart are two-fold (HomeConvictionOrigins). On the one hand, Wolfram and Hart has the power to give his mentally unbalanced son Connor, a normal life (which they do by erasing his memories of Angel). On the other hand, there is the desire to use the vast legal, political, financial and magical resources of Wolfram and Hart in order to do good. This brings to the fore the problems of working within the system that Spike identified earlier.

However, a question remains to be asked: why would Wolfram and Hart want Angel to work with them in the first place? One: there is the Shanshu Prophecy that says a vampire with a soul will play a pivotal role in the Apocalypse. This prophecy does not clearly identify which side Angel will be on the Apocalypse. Wolfram and Hart, want to make sure that Angel is on their side when the time is right (Blood Money). Furthermore, the Senior Partners make it a standing policy that Angel cannot be killed since they want to recruit him.

Wolfram and Hart try various methods in order to bring Angel over to them. One is to resurrect Angel’s dead vampire lover Darla inhuman form (To Shanshu in L.A.). This results in Angel obsessing over Darla and doing everything possible to save her when it is discovered that Darla has syphilis (DarlaTrial). When Darla is turned back into a vampire, Angel is so enraged that he lets Darla and Druscilla (the vampire who turned Darla) kill Holland Manners and other Wolfram and Hart employees as punishment (Reunion). After Angel’s abortive attempt to take down the Senior Partners (Reprise), he sinks into utter despair and sleeps with Darla. Wolfram and Hart hoped that this would be a moment of perfect happiness that would cause Angel to lose his soul. Yet Angel experienced perfect despair and instead renews his mission to help the helpless (Epiphany).

The open-ended nature of the Shanshu Prophecy is similar to the openness of Marxism in regards to the proletarian revolution. Marxist theory says that the proletariat will struggle based on their exploitation and social position, but that there is no preordained guarantee of victory.

Earlier, we discussed the role of Wolfram and Hart as being similar to the that of the state under capitalism. We mentioned that the state operates as a repressive apparatus and seeks to maintain social cohesion. And maintaining social cohesion can be done in a number of ways as opposed to coercion. One method is seeking consent which the ruling class gains “caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production.”[26] Consent is also gained by the ruling class who have control via the institutions of civil society which are “the ensemble of organisms that are commonly called private” such as political parties, churches, and voluntary associations.[27] These organs of civil society are the vehicles through which the capitalist class fosters consent and hegemony.

Another way that capital seeks to gain consent and maintain social cohesion is to accept the various reform demands (to certain degrees) from the working class (shorter working hours, union recognition, social safety net, etc.). As history shows, capitalism can accommodate many reforms from below which not only gain it consent from varying sectors of the proletariat (i.e. labor aristocracy) but also integration of working class parties into the system (i.e. look at the austerity measures of the Greek Socialists as an example).. However, capitalism will not tolerate any threat to abolish it, however legal it may appear, and will respond with brute force (i.e. Chile 1973). When capitalism accepts reformist demands from the working class, it not only wants to ward off a revolutionary challenge, but also to maintain its own social cohesion.

We know that Wolfram and Hart wants to keep the Apocalypse going (“man’s inhumanity to man”) and also wants Angel on their side and this is what motivates them to make him the CEO of the Los Angeles branch. This changes Angel from the hero saving damsels in distress to managing a company and as Spike says,“you sign checks.” (Soul Purpose) Yet Angel and company sincerely want to use Wolfram and Hart to do good. To this end, they make various cosmetic changes at Wolfram and Hart such as stopping some more heinous practices, such as providing dead bodies to a necromancer (Conviction). Yet fundamentally, Wolfram and Hart remains a business and they have to keep it going and that means recognizing that “We’re a business, and we have a bottom line.” (Conviction)

While at Wolfram and Hart, Angel and his friends are constantly on guard and worried about ulterior motives from the Senior Partners. They are expecting to uncover some master plan and fight some “big bad.” They investigate Wolfram and Hart while also carrying out their jobs as managers. And by in large, Wolfram and Hart is sincere in wanting to work with Angel and his friends. In fact, the challenges they face come from rogue employees (Eve and Lindsey in You’re Welcome) or outside threats (UnleashedLineage).

Angel and company are used to fighting clearly visible foes, what they don’t realize for the most of season five is that by just carrying out their jobs at Wolfram and Hart, they are doing exactly what the Senior Partners want them to do. The Senior Partners want to “kill Angel by degrees” and “give up the champion angle” so he will become part of the Circle of the Blackthorn (Power Play). In this way, the Senior Partners ensure that Angel will be on their side for the Apocalypse.

And it is that very process of maintaining the current system while trying to change it to something else that ultimately corrupts the most honest of reformers. And this occurs to Angel over the course of season five. Angel is so immersed in working at Wolfram and Hart that he even gives up believing in the Shanshu Prophecy, his reason for fighting (The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco).

Still, Angel decides to challenge the Circle of the Blackthorn and the Senior Partners. This is a drastic change in his attitude earlier in the series (moralistic and individualistic struggle). Now he is itching for a frontal attack. A number of factors convince Angel, one is being reminded by Cordelia that a hero “fights the bad guys” (You’re Welcome) and that “heroes don’t accept the way the world is” (Power Play). And Angel is imparted with a vision from the dying Cordelia that reveals the Circle of the Black Thorn as “real powers in the apocalypse” who he needs to fight (Power Play).

After his friend Fred dies, Angel lets the Circle believe that he had a hand in her death so they will welcome him in and he can learn their identities (Power Play). Angel also carries out a great many unethical acts to convince the Circle that he has gone over such as surrendering a baby to be a sacrifice for a demonic cult (Time Bomb) and helping a corrupt politician destroy an opponent’s character (Power Play). He even kills a fellow hero, Drogan, as an initiation rite into the Circle to prove beyond a doubt that he had been corrupted (Power Play). And this last act allows Angel to learn all the identities of the Circle of the Black Thorn. Angel lies to and manipulates his friends to convince them that he has gone evil to further solidify his cover. Welsey, Gunn, Spike and Lorne are so convinced by this ruse that they attempt to kill Angel (Power Play). Once the others try to kill Angel, he reveals the truth and convinces them all to join him in one last battle against Wolfram and Hart.

An Honorable Defeat

It may appear contradictory for a hero like Angel to employ such ruthless tactics in order to challenge Wolfram and Hart. In fact, it is entirely consistent with how revolutionaries behave. After a revolution, the new ruling power has to confront resistance and counterrevolution from overthrown classes. Revolutions are violent affairs, but no ruling class has ever been overthrown any other way. No new society where people are provided for all their needs has ever come about peacefully. As Trotsky says, “to make the individual sacred we must destroy the social order which crucifies him. And this problem can only be solved by blood and iron.”[28] In order to fight counterrevolution, dirty methods are often required such as terror. For a true revolutionary, there is brutal honesty about what the struggle entails, and the part that violence plays in a social transformation as Robespierre says “if the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue.”[29]

Once Angel reveals to his friends the ruse and the identities of the Circle of the Blackthorn, they proceed to kill them all. After this, Wolfram and Hart sends their demonic armies against Angel and his friends who decide to fight a hopeless battle (Not Fade Away).

Angel’s choice to challenge Wolfram and Hart and the Circle seems to confirm Sartre’s pessimism on a collective struggle to achieve freedom. Angel doesn’t believe that they can actually defeat the Senior Partners and says “the senior partners will always exist in one form or another because mankind is weak.” (Power Play) Angel has no plans for what happens if he should win, only that “power endures.” (Power Play).

Like the Sartrean existentialist, Angel accepts that he can’t win, but he chooses to fight anyway knowing that it is right. Angel does not accept any attempt to remedy social ills or exploitation that are bestowed from above and that deny choice to people. Angel challenges the villain Jasmine in season four who is bringing about a world of happiness and abundance, but at the cost of taking away the free will of humanity (Shiny Happy PeopleThe Magic Bullet,SacrificePeace Out). Once Angel has defeated Jasmine he tells her it was “Because I could. Because that’s what you took away from us. Choice.” (Peace Out) This action of Angel shows that he rejects any social democratic or Stalinist solution that would bring change from above by denying the active participation of the masses (i.e. a classical Marxist position).

Angel’s a priori rejection of victory means he has no problem giving the Shanshu Prophecy when the Circle asks him to because they “think you’re trying to manipulate us in an attempt to fulfill this prophecy.” (Not Fade Away) Yet Angel is not fighting for a reward from this struggle. Angel admits that “The powerful control everything… except our will to choose.” (Power Play) He is struggling to overcome Wolfram and Hart despite the lack of a predestined outcome. He wants to “show them that they don’t own us.” (Power Play)

The last scene of the series depicts Angel and his remaining friends facing down tens of thousands of demons in a hopeless battle. Yet Angel isn’t concerned about the odds. He looks at a dragon flying above and says with calm, “Personally, I kind of want to slay the dragon. Let’s go to work” (Not Fade Away) Then Angel swings a sword at the first foe and the screen fades to black. Here is Angel affirming his choice to be a hero who doesn’t accept evil in the world, going up against it anyway, even while he is likely to be killed.

This is Angel representing the existentialist choice of struggling for freedom, who like Sartre denies the possibility of victory. Yet Angel’s decision to fight to the bitter end is not just a simple reaffirmation of Sartre’s philosophy. For Whedon shows that a fused group is possible (contrary to Sartre) since Angel’s comrades are beside him by the last frame. Marxists would posit that the struggle against capitalism and its state must be an collective act of self-emancipation[30] by way of unions, political parties, soviets and military force. While it is true that the outcome of a revolutionary struggle is not guaranteed in advance and can be defeated (Paris 1871, Germany 1919 and 1923, Spain 1936, and France 1968), there are times when the revolution does win (Russia 1917, China 1949, Cuba 1959).

Angel and his friends though are not a revolutionary party, they are small group. It could be said they are fighting a struggle in place of the masses. Yet it would be wrong to just picture Angel and company as Blanquists. In the case of Blanqui, we have someone who believes in militant minorities acting as tightly-knit conspiracies on behalf of the masses. For one thing, Blanquism assumes that their conspiracy can win and they develop ready-made plans for a new social order.[31] Yet as we’ve seen, Angel has already forsaken any hope of victory.

A better example to compare Angel to would be that of the German communist revolutionary Eugen Levine. In 1919, the German revolution was being stamped out across the country. Central leaders such as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebneckht were murdered in abortive uprising. The social democratic government was doing everything possible to dampen the revolution whether co-option or the use of death squads (proto-Nazi Freikorps). In Bavaria during March and April 1919, a Soviet Republic was proclaimed. The Republic was a farce and poorly organized. Before the Republic could be abolished, Levine and some comrades stepped in to provide leadership and organization (forming an army, getting production going) and fighting the incoming German army and paramilitaries. Yet Levine had no hope of victory. Rather, Levine said “the present task was only to salvage as much as possible from the debris of an unavoidable defeat: an honorable defeat and an object lesson was all Levine promised.”[32]

Once the Soviet Republic was defeated, Levine was placed on trial for treason. He declared (in an almost existentialist/pessimistic tone), “We Communists are all dead men on leave. Of this I am fully aware.” However, Levine does not believe that the revolutionary struggle is hopeless because he tells his accusers “I know, sooner or later other judges will sit in this Hall and then those will be punished for high treason who have transgressed against the dictatorship of the proletariat.”[33] Despite the odds, Levine believes that the while revolutionary victory is difficult, it is possible. His own fate was to provide an example, in the hope that his struggle could be useful in learning mistakes that could be avoided in a future revolution.


What Joss Whedon was able to accomplish in the show Angel was to tell a story that was more than just that of a vampire with a soul. He detailed through all sorts of characters, imagery and stories, the contradiction of labor and capital. The influence of Sartre upon Whedon is clear via the prevalence of existentialist themes of choice and a pessimistic belief in the victory over oppressive systems such as capitalism. Like Sartre, Whedon believes we must struggle for freedom even if victory is impossible. Whedon goes a step beyond Sartre though in showing that collective social struggle is can be done. While Angel’s message is one of choice and the necessity of fighting for freedom, I believe that like Levine, we should struggle honorably and view even our defeats as paving the way for future victories.


  1. All parenthetical italicized references are to Buffy and Angel episodes.
  2. Karl Marx, Capital: Volume One, Marxist Internet Archive. [Accessed October 30, 2012].
  3. Karl Marx, Capital: Volume One, Marxist Internet Archive. [Accessed October 30, 2012].
  4. For more on relative and absolute surplus value, see Capital Volume One, Chapter 16 at Karl Marx, Capital: Volume One, Marxist Internet Archive. [Accessed October 30, 2012].
  5. Here is my short summary of the state see Doug Enaa Greene, “Marxist View of the State,” Enaadoug. [Accessed October 31, 2012].
  6. Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marxist Internet Archive. [Accessed October 31, 2012].
  7. For more on these important topics see these two works by David Harvey. David Harvey, The New Imperialism(New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) and David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).
  8. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (Metheun: London, 1969), 129.
  9. Ibid. 510.
  10. Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason: Volume One (New York: Verso Books, 1976), 132.
  11. Ibid. 125.
  12. Sartre, 1969, 428.
  13. Karl Marx, Introduction to a Contribution of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right Marxists Internet Archive. [Accessed October 31, 2012].
  14. Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, The Holy Family, Marxists Internet Archive. [Accessed October 30, 2012].
  15. The changing boundaries of whiteness in the United States is explored quite well in Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York: Routledge, 2008).
  16. Istvan Meszaros, The Work of Sartre: The Search for Freedom and the Challenge of History (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011), 248.
  17. Ibid. 249.
  18. Ibid. 247.
  19. Ibid. 249, 251, 309.
  20. From Sartre’s play No Exit, quoted in Ibid. 79.
  21. Karl Marx, Capital: Volume One, Marxist Internet Archive. [Accessed October 30, 2012].
  22. Karl Marx, Capital: Volume One, Marxist Internet Archive. [Accessed October 30, 2012].
  23. Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marxist Internet Archive. [Accessed October 31, 2012].
  24. Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marxist Internet Archive. [Accessed October 31, 2012].
  25. Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marxist Internet Archive. [Accessed October 31, 2012].
  26. Antonio Gramsci, The Antonio Gramsci Reader, ed. David Forgacs (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 307.
  27. Ibid. 306.
  28. Leon Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism, Marxist Internet Archive. [Accessed October 27, 2012].
  29. Maximilien Robespierre, Justification of the Use of Terror, Marxist Internet Archive. [Accessed October 27, 2012].
  30. “Marxism, as the theory and practice of the proletarian revolution, therefore also had to be the theory and practice of the self-emancipation of the proletariat. Its essential originality flows from this source.” Hal Draper, “The Principle of Self-Emancipation in Marx and Engels,” Marxists Internet Archive. [Accessed November 1, 2012].
  31. The best overview of Blanqui’s life and thought in the environment of 19th century France can be found in Samuel Bernstein, Auguste Blanqui and the Art of Insurrection (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971).
  32. For the life of Eugene Levine see the biography written by his widow. Rosa Levine-Meyer, Levine: The Life of a Revolutionary (Glasgow: Saxon House, 1973) The farce of the first Bavarian Soviet Republic is covered in 90-97. The Second Soviet Republic and Levine’s role can be found in 103-125. Levine-Meyer explaining her husband’s rationale of fighting in Bavaria even though the situation was hopeless can be read on 112 and 123-5.
  33. Levine’s full speech at trial can be found in ibid. 209-218 and Eugene Levine, “Levine’s Last Speech,” What’s Next? Marxist Discussion Journal. [Accessed November 1, 2012].

Doug Enaa Greene is an independent historian living in the greater Boston area. He has been published in Socialism and Democracy, MRZine, Kasama, CounterPunch and others. He is a volunteer at the Center for Marxist Education in Cambridge, and is the author of a forthcoming book, Specters of Communism, on the French communist Louis-Auguste Blanqui from Haymarket Books.