‘Billy’ and the violence of Angel
More or less everyone has heard of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. More or less anyone with basic analytical skills is aware that Buffy has feminist and anti-misogynistic leanings. Buffy was responsible for a lot of things on TV. It essentially created several versions of modern television season plot structures. Whilst academic TV studies certainly existed before Buffy, it gave academics something deeper to sink their teeth into in the mean time. But in 1999 Buffy also gave us something else; it gave us its spin-off Angel.
The dark and brooding eponymous vampire-with-a-soul from Buffy moved to LA and got his own adventures, creating his PI business ‘Angel Investigations’. It was grittier, darker (visually and thematically) and about a dirtier world with neo-noir flavours. In Buffy broadly the humans are good and the demons are evil, in Angel it isn’t so cut and dry. Obviously Buffy did deal with morally grey depictions of humans and demons and even horrific real forms of violence, but Angel got there first. Whilst Angel never became that rich tapestry that Buffy was, its plots, ideas and themes were always more mature, so to speak.
Angel’s action scenes were more brutal and raw, whereas Buffy’s leant towards over-staged comic book fare. Angel didn’t have a ‘big bad’ that was defeated at the end of every season, but a demonic law firm called ‘Wolfram and Hart’ that literally could not be beaten, as well as being an unbeatable figurative depictions of ‘evil’. Angel ended its run on a cliff-hanger as its cast of characters faced almost certain death. Angel wasn’t about beating the bad guys, it was about fighting a never ending evil, just because someone has to do it.
Angel will lose his soul and turn evil if he experiences a ‘moment of perfect happiness’. His guilt from his pre-soul days ravages him daily, he can only appease it through ‘helping the helpless’. He has to choose to never be happy so he can continue fighting a war without end. The primary statement of Angel seems to be that we can never truly defeat ‘evil’, only keep evil at bay. The world will never be truly saved and Angel can never be wholly ‘good’.
So what happens when Angel steps into feministic thematic territory usually confined to Buffy? In the season three episode ‘Billy’ (written by Tim Minear and Jeffrey Bell, directed by David Grossman) the show dealt directly with misogynistic violence. In an earlier episode ‘That Vision Thing’ Angel is forced to free a mysterious young man from a mystical prison, he is coerced to do so by a Wolfram and Hart lawyer called Lilah. The coercion took the form of magically torturing Angel’s co-worker Cordelia. The young man turns out to be the eponymous Billy of this later episode. Over the course of the narrative the gang discover that Billy’s touch (and blood or any cells) will turn any other man murderously violent towards women. Cops, lawyers and even two members of the main team succumb to this power.
Now some of this stuff is obviously without any subtlety. Much of the subtext here is text. Billy states he hates women, but he maybe hates men more because he feels men will corrupt themselves to whatever degree, to either impress or sleep with them. He believes women weaken men just by existing. He feels this so strongly he creates violence towards women. We’ve all met more than a few men that lean towards these views, if not outright embracing them. When trying to track down Billy, Angel comes across some men gossiping by the murder scene of one of Billy’s victims. The men are talking about how she probably deserved it for her backseat driving and other BS. Angel then grabs one of them and threatens them, ending the threat with ‘just saying’, an obvious reference to the things some people will say to justify misogynistic opinions.
The writers’ intentions are also clear with the female cast. Cordelia talks of feeling powerless to Lilah’s previous magical abuse of her and feels horrendous that the ultimate results of her abuse were the further subjugation of other women. She then tracks Billy down (before super-powered Angel even) and plans to kill him with a crossbow. She even comments that the irony of using a phallic shaped projectile to kill him is not lost on her. However in the end Billy is shot to death by Lilah.
Earlier in the episode Lilah, as his lawyer, reprimands Billy for being cavalier with his new freedom. In response to his obvious hatred of a woman ‘condescending’ him, Billy has Lilah’s co-worker savagely beat her. Lilah works for an evil law firm, she is used to being the person who takes advantage of society’s systematic abuses to make things happen for her benefit. Billy’s father is a senator and a big donor to the firm. Lilah’s usual manipulations are now rendered useless by the men with power over her; the only thing higher than the law of the land is patriarchy. Wolfram and Hart is usually depicted as a meta-physical extension of capitalistic greed, but its demonic reign also extends to institutional sexism. This is also a nice furthering of Angel’s morally relative and grey tone, the antagonist from a few weeks ago is now the protagonist and avenging hero.
However something interesting happens between Cordelia’s attempted murder and Lilah’s successful murder of Billy. Angel turns up and takes Billy on, literally trying to ‘save’ Cordelia from the burden of killing someone, but actually just stealing her moment and her agency. Billy then gives Angel a huge dose of his power. Angel appears to be shaken for a moment before revealing with a sucker punch that he was unaffected. Wisely the episode still gives Lilah the ultimate kill regardless of this development.
Cordelia later posits to Angel that his resistance to the power was his vampire nature. Angel replies by saying that was not the reason he was able to resist it. He instead posits that it was because of his pre-soul and evil incarnation Angelus. He partially refers to how he’s seen society’s expectations of men and women change so much over 250 odd years that they are meaningless, but also that he broke so many societal taboos by murdering, raping and torturing he saw just how stupid and invented many established norms are. He loved killing everyone, so learned not to see his brutality through the lens of controlling women and so on, just a love of senseless slaughter. As a psychopath that didn’t care for society’s expectations, he threw them aside. Obviously Angel isn’t endorsing horrific crimes as an alternative to patriarchal and heteronormative values…
It is notable that the episode opens on Angel training Cordelia with a sword. He initially refuses to teach her all the moves as he just wants to teach her enough to survive until help arrives, specifically his help. When Cordelia points out how impractical it is for her to fight in hope of some noble rescue, Angel seems wounded by the idea that he wouldn’t arrive to save her. Angel clearly has a somewhat sexist view about needing to save women, or at least Cordelia. He feels his manhood is questioned here rather than seeing the logic in training Cordelia properly and ignoring his own fears. Angel wants to be a hero. He associates the nobility of heroism as coming from saving damsels, amongst other things. Angelus doesn’t have heroism, he has amorality. Whilst not heroic, that amorality is at least not sexist. However, the other male characters, Wesley and Gunn, do not have histories as psychopathic murderers.
Winifred ‘Fred’ Burkle is trapped in Angel Investigations, an abandoned hotel, with Wesley and Gunn, both who have been infected by Billy’s power. At first Fred is just in the office with Wesley. He is slowly overcome by the misogynistic rage, but in a more insidious manner. At first he just looks at the wrong parts of Fred and is generally abrupt with her. Then he scolds her for supposed inappropriate dress and espouses the myth of men being unable to control themselves. Then he flips out and has a go at her for waving ‘it’ in front of him day after day. In his usual state of mind Wesley does have unreciprocated feelings for Fred, clearly Billy’s power is making that spill over into violent resentment; resentment from a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies. Wesley then chases Fred through the hotel with an axe. He makes misogynistic jokes as he goes. As she hides she bumps into Gunn. Gunn however realises he is becoming infected due to Fred’s explanation of how Wesley was infected (carrying out a test on his blood). Gunn then experiences violent mood swings. He demands that Fred knock him out with a fire extinguisher. She refuses, but then complies when he becomes truly dangerous. Minutes later Wesley breaks into the room. Fred knocks him out by rigging a trap that involves a hidden hole in the floor, a rope, the fire extinguisher and using a cupboard’s mirror for misdirection. The way both men become and then act angry tells us something Angel is trying to say, as does the ways that Fred incapacitates them.
Wesley is a man of intellect. He has an upper class background, went to University and generally approaches his job in a more cerebral way than Gunn. Gunn was raised on the street fighting vampires whilst homeless. He has a big heart and is generally referred to as the team’s ‘muscle’. Wesley’s intelligence allows him to stave off the misogynistic rage for hours longer than Gunn. However that intelligence bleeds into his form of misogyny. Wesley tries to rationalise a hatred of women. He manipulates social rules and boundaries to hurt Fred. Even as he swings at her with an axe he is still dexterous with his vocabulary.
Whereas Gunn is overcome much faster than Wesley, but still slower than other male characters in the episode. He is still a hero, but one whose strength comes from emotion and physical power. He threatens Fred in brutal and direct terms, but he also has the heart to demand she takes him out first whilst he’s still cogent. This brings me to the episode’s point about Fred. She defeats Gunn by beating him unconscious after he’s turned, showing she can be as physically powerful as the team’s ‘muscle’. She then rigs a trap and employs it against Wesley using misdirection, thus showing she can be as clever if not more clever than the team’s intellectual. Thus saying that women can be as or more strong and clever than men, or more or as violent. Amusingly in their earlier training session Cordelia manages to trap Angel after he doubts her claims to being a fast learner.
When we take Angel’s ability to resist Billy’s power and compare it to Gunn and Wesley’s inability to resist it when can draw some conclusions. On some level Gunn is readily able to do horrific things to women if angry enough. On some level Wesley is hateful of Fred for not wanting him. These are both forms of anger from male entitlement to treat women the way they want. These are both forms of anger drawn from male fears of female perception.
The show never states the power can’t affect women. Perhaps Billy doesn’t think women can harm anyone, or that they don’t have the right to harm anyone. Or perhaps the power would be ineffectual on the majority of women because they are groomed into less domineering behaviours than men. Either way this is just blind speculation over authorial intent. But the overall point remains, even though Angel’s vampirism didn’t protect him from Billy’s power, the life experiences that vampirism gave him did. So no human man could resist Billy’s power.
On the other hand, Wesley or Gunn will never be that angry with a woman, or give into that rage if they did. One can say that with certainty. They are mostly gallant heroes who help the helpless. They sacrifice a lot in the protection of others with no real reward. They are by no means weak or bad people. But Angel’s point is that that anger has still been imbedded into them by the world around them. At the end of the episode Fred goes to visit the recuperating Wesley at his apartment. He denies her entry. She states that what he did wasn’t ‘him’. He states that it was and continues to deny her entry. As she leaves she hears him crying. As we all know, many people consider men showing emotion to be showing weakness. He’d rather cry alone than be comforted by a friend. Just like Angel’s insecure need for women to see him as a saviour, Wesley is broken down when shown the insecurity underlying his own heroism. He can’t allow a woman to see him ‘weakened’. And was seen in the hotel, on some level Wesley is so afraid of what a woman may think of him, he is willing to take away her thoughts.
Angel knows with confidence that real misogynists are so afraid of women perceiving weakness that they are willing to deny women those thoughts in the first place, be it through enforced social practices or the threat or use of violence.
Misogyny comes from the insecurities, weaknesses and fears of men who want to be seen a certain way by women, and even other men. Hell, there are plenty of misogynistic women too. These aspects of human psychologically are not inherently ‘evil’ by any stretch. As a concept misogyny certainly is ‘evil’. This story was told on Angel rather than Buffy because Angel is the show about fighting evil that will likely never end, sadly. It’s about keeping that evil at bay. Just like Angel must keep his inner Angelus at bay, Angel is arguing that men must keep their misogyny at bay. Angel isn’t saying misogyny is in men’s nature, but that it is nurtured into us, you just need a vampire’s lifetime to wash it out completely.
Angel is saying that to deny that misogyny is to allow it to have power over you, and perhaps render violence onto women. After all, Gunn knew of the misogyny growing in him and was thus able to give Fred the opening to take him out. Angel being in touch with Angelus allowed him to retain his sanity. In both cases their knowledge of their inability to be wholly good was what saved them. Wesley wasn’t aware of what was growing inside him, he didn’t think of himself that way. Thus he ended the episode alone, feeling insecure and refusing to let a woman see him cry.
I don’t think ‘Billy’ is saying that men are sexist bastards. Or that men can’t defeat the misogyny within them. The show is co-created by Joss Whedon, a prominent fan of Sartre’s existentialism and the idea that our actions define us. Angel does say that misogyny lives in the psychology of all men and that that matters, but it is also saying that if you make the right decisions, it doesn’t have to matter in what you do. Or to quote something the titular vampire says to his son in a unrelated episode in a later season:
“Nothing in the world is the way it ought to be. It’s harsh, and cruel. But that’s why there’s us. Champions. 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 were as it should be, to show it what it can be. You’re not a part of that yet. I hope you will be.”