ARE YOU NOW OR HAVE YOU EVER BEEN
Written by: Tim Minear
Directed by: David Semel
Fear is the Key
The soul and its struggle with evil has been a continuing preoccupation for ANGEL the series. At the heart of this struggle has been the great and unresolved paradox of life. The Angelverse starts with the basic proposition that the human soul knows the difference between right and wrong. More than that, the possession of a soul means that human beings have a basic orientation towards good. And yet human beings still commit evil. Why? There is, of course, no one answer to this question, let alone a simple one. In “Blind Date”, for example, the writers looked at the way some people make a conscious choice to do evil for personal gain. In AYNOHYEB they concentrate on the way in which human weakness can lead to wrongdoing, or rather one human weakness in particular: fear and especially the fear of those who are different and the fear of being different.
The Times we Live in
And in this context I have to say that setting the principal action in the 1950’s was an inspired move. This was the decade of fear and suspicion. There was fear of Communists and Communism. Right at the beginning of the episode we see people in the lobby of the Hyperion hotel watching televised hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Later, the Hotel manager is reading a copy of the LA Times with a story about a “Soviet Spy Ring” being revealed. There was also fear of those who belonged to a different race and the resultant desire to stay away from them. Even in those States where racial segregation was not enforced by law it was a fact of life, as witnessed by the family turned away from the hotel simply because of their race. And there was the fact that homosexuality was underground. It was known, even tolerated to a degree in some circles. But only on the strict condition that it was kept secret. In the 1950’s it really was the “love that could not speak its name”.
None of these prejudices were unique to the 1950’s. In fact they undeniably survive to the present day. But in the 1950’s they were more visible and more powerful. So this was the ideal backdrop against which we could understand the fears and of the residents of the hotel. Each of their own fears was a reflection of the times in which they lived. So, for example when the writer and the actor were discussing the death of the traveling salesman it wasn’t long before they each latched on to thing about the other person that really bothered them:
And this general background, where we see fear of the person who is different from us as a part of life, makes it very easy to understand the attitude the bellhop had towards Angel. When asked to do something as simple as give him a bill he reacted with fear:
But Angel wasn’t the only person who was different. There was also Judy. She was of mixed race but was “passing”. That is to say she could pass for White. And in that era she could, therefore, expect advantages denied people of other races. Advantages like a secure job, like being accepted in White society. But the price for living like that is that you live in fear of the truth coming out and of loosing all you had. That is what happened to her. When she was discovered she lost her fiancé and she was not only fired, she was obviously harassed. That was why she stole:
And in the Hyperion she lived in fear of being found by the Federal authorities or by private investigators hired by her former employers. Compared with that, the fear of being asked to leave the hotel because she was of mixed race didn’t even warrant a mention.
And in this fact Judy shows us what a vicious cycle fear can be. Here was a young woman with everything to live for but whose life was destroyed by others’ fear of her. As Angel said:
But Judy’s reaction to his remark shows that she realized that her treatment had also led her to do something stupid - steal the money. And the consequences for her of that stupidity were far worse than the harm she suffered because her employers discovered the truth about her. As she said herself:
The fear and insecurity demonstrated by her employers had driven her to do something desperate and instead of making the situation better it had simply compounded her own fear and insecurity and almost certainly confirmed the fear and insecurity of her former employers about “those people”.
This is intended to be a picture of real fear and insecurity at work, not the demonically inspired variation. But the vicious circle we see in Judy’s case finds its own reflection in the way that the demon worked in the hotel. It didn’t create fear or insecurities. It found those in humans. But the demon magnified their fear and insecurities to the point where they fed off those of others and that is when they became really dangerous. As the Thessulac says itself:
The response of the Hotel residents to the suicide was, of course, the dramatic representation of the way this worked. They first of all accepted that the salesman killed himself. But then the demon whispers to one old man:
"Maybe this wasn't a suicide. Are you sure you're safe here?
And so the first doubts are aroused on the flimsiest grounds (the salesman’s request for peanuts) and in the face of all evidence to the contrary (locked door and gun in hand). Almost immediately the salesman’s murder was taken as a fact and the search is on for the one responsible. And the prime candidates were the ones who don’t fit in. And because everyone in this hotel has something to hide, the insecurity of each fed off one another. The actor fearing he would be singled out because he was homosexual points the finger at the Communist and vice versa. The manager raised suspicions about the actress who asked where she could buy a gun. And most telling of all, is the bellhop’s response when the manager brings him into the frame. He starts off by protesting against the paranoia:
But when the Manager asks:
he immediately deflects attention from himself by accusing the maid:
"It was Consuela! She's the one that found him!"
Eventually we have a mob mentality where anyone who is different can be picked out as a scapegoat and everyone is so anxious not to be the scapegoat that they will submerge their conscience, indeed their own individual identity into the mob.
For me the metaphor of the Thessulac demon works so perfectly because it does parallel so closely the way that real life fear and insecurity feed off itself. This makes it such a very effective means of exploring the issue. But equally effective is the way that the writers, through the metaphor, look at the harm fear and insecurity can cause.
An Alternative to Fear
When Angel saw and understands how alone and frightened Judy was, he reached out to her and tried to help her. By now she is herself a victim of the Thessulac demon. Her fear of prison and her apprehension of the cops both seem to have been heightened by its whispers. It is noticeable that at one point she seemed to believe that the cops had already come for her. This gave Angel the clue as to what was going on and led him to research the nature of the threat posed by the demon and the way to deal with it. In parallel he offered to show her a way out of the trap she had found herself in over the money by hiding it, presumably with an eye to returning it later on.
If he had been successful in this, everyone (except the Thessulac) would have benefited. There would have been an end to the paranoia. For Judy in particular there would have been a chance for a fresh start. But it was not to be. The return of the private detective to the hotel was sufficient to focus everyone’s attention on Judy and despite the fact that there was no evidence about her being responsible for the salesman’s death, the mere fact that she seemed to have something to hide was enough to convict her.
So, she did what everyone else had been doing up until then. She pointed the finger at someone else - Angel. Again there was nothing to connect him to the salesman’s death but the mere reference to his having some blood in a bottle in his room and the fact that he had an axe in his hand was enough to turn the mob on him. And in all of this the bellhop takes on the role of the cheerleader:
He was of course the one who was most fearful of Angel from the very beginning. The very fact that he, once the person who was seemingly the least vulnerable to paranoia, is now the one most excited by Angel’s “death” speaks volumes about the effect that a person’s fears and insecurities can have.
But here we see the most delicious irony. Judy had a choice. There were risks for her in putting her trust in Angel. She was certainly in a dangerous position but who knows what might have happened if she has refused to give into her fear of the mob. She may well have found her salvation in Angel. But she didn’t. She gave into her fears and, to save herself, set the mob on him. But by doing so she had more effectively doomed herself. Even as a thief her fears had not consumed her. She still had hope, hope of forgiveness, hope of avoiding jail, hope of a new life.
And that hope was fed by Angel. Here was someone who knew her worst secrets, her “tainted” blood and the fact she was a thief. And still he was willing to help her. But she betrayed him. In doing so she had solved the immediate threat to her but her hope of forgiveness for the theft and of living a normal life had died when he was lynched. All that was left was her fear; a fear now magnified by her realization that she had (as she thought) been responsible for the death of the person who could have helped her. As the demon said:
And irony of ironies, it was her fear of prison that led her to sell Angel out. There is no real suggestion that she would have been lynched. Yet all her efforts to save herself ended in condemning herself to a form of imprisonment more severe than any she would have known had she been convicted of theft. She was unable to leave that one small room at all, for 48 years. It is no wonder that at the end her one thought was to go out.
Equally poignant was the fate of the bellhop. This is perhaps another cautionary tale about scapegoating. One is just never enough. Without Angel’s body who were the residents of the hotel going to blame for the salesman’s murder? The Thessulac demon had its meal and was going to protect it so Judy was off the list of suspects. The bellhop was the person who had put the body in the meat locker so the other residents probably figured he was the obvious candidate to point the finger of suspicion at just in case someone else started looking at their secrets.
So, what we have here is in effect a little morality tale. And it is none the worse for that. I have no great illusions about the ability of a television drama lasting less than an hour to define the problems of the world, let alone solve them. But what it can do is to hold up a mirror to society. In this mirror we can see a very recognizable truth about human beings and the way they react. The proof of this lies in the title of the episode. I have already referred to the hearings of the House Committee on Un-American activities seen televised at the beginning. The question asked repeatedly by that Committee of witnesses who appeared before it was “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist party”. But what the Committee was really interested in was getting those witnesses who had been party members to identify others, especially those not yet known to it. And for those whose livelihood depended on the motion picture industry in particular, the pressure to conform, to join the ranks of the accusers at the expense of accusing others (who were entirely innocent of any “subversive activity”) was immense. Blacklisting and even jail was the threat held over them. And, out of fear of themselves being victimized for once having been “different” (i.e. members of the Communist Party) turned “stool pigeon” as a way of saving themselves, to their later regret and shame. And there was another even more unpleasant aspect to this. Jews were very prominent members of the left wing in American society at that time. A subtext (often not even a subtext) to the activities of the Committee was the identification of these prominent Jews as enemies of the United States because of their involvement with “foreign” and “un-American” causes. And the pressure on many fellow Jews to “prove” their credentials as American by leading the denunciations was intense. Nobody won this struggle for the soul of a society. Everybody lost. But those who abandoned their principles to save themselves lost most of all.
But what pleases me most about this is that not only do the writers show us a vivid and truthful picture of human society at its worst; they also restate their faith that it need not be like this. We are not being shown that human beings are evil or malicious by nature. Rather they are weak. In the way that Judy first put her trust in Angel there is undeniably a degree of optimism in the potential for human beings to overcome their fears. And I think this episode is all the better for that. Being realistic about human nature is one thing. Being relentlessly negative is another. And I would also say that this would have been out of keeping with the general thrust of ANGEL as a series which, in spite of the darkness that permeates it and in spite of its preoccupation with evil, is essentially a hopeful series. It is after all essentially about redemption.
The Role Angel Played
I have been continually impressed by the intelligence, consistency and coherence with which our eponymous hero has been characterized on ANGEL. But in this episode the writers set themselves a task of unusual difficulty. And I am bound to say that the way they pulled it off was little short of a triumph. The problem was not that the Angel we saw in “Becoming I” was living in the gutter. That represented the material circumstances in which he was living at one moment in time. There was nothing necessarily permanent about that. Much more difficult was to ensure in AYNOHYEB we see a character that was a credible predecessor that the character of Angel as it developed through three years in Sunnydale and one year in LA. This was someone who went from near complete social isolation to someone who was still essentially a loner. This was a person whose first steps in fighting evil were only undertaken to help the girl he loved and even then were faltering. Can we believe in the Angel of LA 1952 as the earlier manifestation of such a person?
The answer to that is a fairly unqualified “yes”. The Angel we see in the Hyperion may not be physically separated from humankind but he is certainly alone among them. He waits until the bellhop has gone before picking up his bill. When Judy invades his space, he is rude, even aggressive. The only thing that saved her from being flung out was the intervention of the private investigator. You could see Angel take out on him the frustration he felt at the unwarranted interruption and when he got back to his room he simply slammed the door shut in Judy’s face. Later when she tries to strike up a conversation with him at the observatory he is uncommunicative to say the least. Most strikingly of all when he sees the salesman being tormented by the demon in the corridor he stares but says and does nothing. And when he hears the salesman actually commit suicide he is completely disinterested. The Angel stranded in the gutter in Manhattan 1996 was no more alone than this Angel.
So, why did he help Judy? The answer is that he identified with her. I find it easy to believe that she would confide in him. However unwillingly he had helped her with the private investigator and she was probably the only one with whom she had had a social conversation while she was in LA. She had a oppressive secret and didn’t know what to do. The most natural thing in the world would be to unburden herself to the one creature she felt she had any hope of trusting. For his part it was the idea that she was neither one thing nor the other that engaged his attention. As he said of himself in “Angel” he could walk like a man but he wasn’t one. And because of that he felt less than either man or vampire. She for her part felt the same way about herself:
It was as if trying to give her hope was a way of convincing himself that he too was more than nothing and that he too had a place in the world. And because of this he went out on a limb for her in trying to destroy the demon. The conversation with the bookstore owner made it pretty clear just how much of a risk this was going to be:
And once it was made corporeal the only thing that Angel had to deal with it was an axe and the bookstore owner was less than confident about the chances of that killing it. The best he could offer was that “it might” do so.
And for his pains he was, quite literally, thrown to the mob by the very person he had set out to help. It is no wonder that he felt embittered. It is an open question whether the Thessulac that appeared to him after the hanging was feeding his own fears of humans. I tend to think not. It seems only to have operated from inside the mind and introducing itself to Angel in that way would surely have undermined its efforts. It seems to me rather that when he said to Angel:
he was gloating. He was saying that all Angel’s efforts to help Judy were doomed to failure because of human fear. The only thing Angel had done was to make her a tastier meal. The same would have been true of anyone else he tried to help. He was saying that because of their fears and insecurities human beings could not be rescued from him. They were, in that sense, irredeemable.
And Angel, I think, agreed. When he said “Take them all” there was an unmistakable sense of disgust; a refusal to forgive. And it is this last part which for me constitutes a wonderful insight into the character at this stage in his life. Contrast his attitude after the lynching with his last meeting with Judy in LA2000. There he refused to blame her for the giving him to the mob.
Judy: "They killed you - because of me. I killed you."
And when she asks for his forgiveness he simply says “Of course”. The gentleness and compassion is due, I think, to more than the fact that this is now a frail old woman or to the fact that time has dulled any resentment. The key sentences in the meeting are:
When he first met Judy in 1952 Angel did not believe in concepts such as forgiveness or redemption. He was convinced of his own worthlessness and that he was only on earth to suffer. Everything about his behavior in and around the Hyperion suggested how deeply mired he was in hopelessness. It was Judy who was the optimistic one, who believed in forgiveness. Even as he identified with her and tried to help her Angel could not go that far. When the bookstore owner said he didn’t get why Angel wanted to help a human his reply was:
"To be honest, I'm not sure I do either.
What happened afterwards confirmed his former view. For him there is no forgiveness, no redemption. We reap what we sow. It is now pointless to revisit how this attitude changed, especially since he came to LA in 1999. Suffice to say that this creature, who now for the first time hopes for his own forgiveness and redemption, willingly offers it to others and must look back with despair on the occasion when he refused it.
This is why the secrecy from Cordelia and Wesley. Cordelia was right, in principle if not in detail. Their search was in connection with something that Angel would now regard as “screwing up”. It was, however, a different kind of screwing up to the one she had in mind.
What I love most is that here we have far more than just a picture of Angel almost fifty years ago that is consistent with his character development since. It is a yardstick by which to judge the distance he has traveled. And the distance measured is not the obvious one - how far he has succeeded in connecting with humanity. It is the far more important one of how far he has come in his search for redemption and forgiveness. Comparing his mindset now with that in LA 1952 we can see with the greatest clarity the extent of the progress made not in terms of tilting a balance but in terms of a belief that what he is doing is the right thing. And here too the writers seem to be striking the balance in favor of optimism and that pleases me.
I have often commented on the pace with which episodes of Angel move. Typically a problem is identified rapidly and the Fang Gang move to deal with it in an orderly and structured fashion with a minimum of distractions. This episode, however, moves at a much more leisurely pace. For stretches almost nothing seems to happen, especially at the beginning. But that simply goes to prove that, properly written, slow pacing is not necessarily a fault.
What we are in effect dealing with is a 50 year old mystery. It is clear from the start that Angel knows about but he is keeping the knowledge to himself. And the slow deliberate pace at which the this mystery is unveiled doesn’t bore us but rather draws us in deeper and deeper because it is so well conceived and crafted that we want to know more.
First of all we can infer that it is a very personal and painful mystery or Angel would have been more forthcoming about it. And this idea that it is important is sharpened by the parallel sequences of Angel going through the deserted hotel in LA 2000 and allowing us to see the events in 1952 connected to that place, almost in the way he is remembering them at that point. This creates a sense of being taken on a very personal journey. Secondly the structure itself creates questions. There are, in fact, two parallel yet seemingly unconnected storylines going on at the same time. The first consists of a series of small, initially insignificant supernatural events which begin when we seen the salesman being whispered to in the hall and culminate in his suicide. Angel is not remotely interested in these, even when the salesman kills himself. At the same time he is, however, slowly but inexorably drawn into Judy’s affairs: the initial meeting in his room, the talk at the observatory (was she following him?) and finally the occasion in her room when she admitted the truth about herself. Is there a relationship between the different storylines? If so what is it? The little pieces of information that we do find out only deepen the mystery because at first they don’t fit together. The supernatural involvement in the salesman’s death is clear, not only because we saw it but because there have been three other suicides in the previous three months. Yet from Wesley and Cordelia we learn the bellhop was executed for his murder. Why?
Also helping to sustain interest is the very effectively created rising level of tension over the salesman’s death. The fact that it is a suicide is initially accepted, then doubted and finally it is accepted he was murdered. And at each stage the degree of suspicion is heightened and the search for scapegoats goes wider and wider. This helps create the sense of an impending crisis but at this stage we are not sure just what that crisis will be.
Then things do start to come together. The paranoia about the supposed murder is fed by the same whispers the salesman himself heard. Judy too begins to hear whispers. We begin to suspect the supernatural is the link between the different elements of the story, although even now we are unsure of its precise nature. But with impeccable timing once the right moment has arrived the answer is given to us directly and clearly. It is:
Significantly we see Angel give this information to Wesley and Cordelia in LA2000 and immediately find out he had made the same discovery in 1952. This changes the character of the mystery. We know the nature of the threat. We also know that Angel did not deal with it in 1952 (because it is still there). This reinforces the idea that something went terribly wrong. But the question then is what.
Having already found out about Judy’s disappearance our assumption is that she died because Angel failed to rescue her. But yet again ANGEL has a very powerful twist ending for us which makes perfect sense of all that had gone before but came as a complete surprise and had enormous shock value to boot. And that shock value was due not so much to the graphic hanging scene (which was terrifically well done) but to the realism of the crowd reactions both before and afterwards. The outbreak of frenzied, hatred where instinct takes over and rational thinking vanished followed by a sheepish “what have we done” when the blood lust disappears. It all rings horribly true and, demonic influence or not, shows us what human beings really are capable of.
But fortunately things are not left on that note. I have already talked about the way this episode demonstrates that humans need not always be a victim of their fears. This proposition has its dramatic realization in the counterpoint between the circumstances in which the Thessulac is made corporeal in 1952 and 2000. In the first he is triumphant and Angel is the embittered loser who walks away in disgust at human beings. In the second the demon is brought forth against its will and destroyed by an Angel who is now psychologically unrecognizable from the creature who confronted the demon in 1952. And the sense of hope created by this counterpoint is, as I have already said, reinforced by that wonderful scene between Angel and the now dying Judy. It was the perfect ending.
9/10: I will leave to others the task of identifying the 1950’s film noir references. For me the strengths of this episode are simple. First of all it took a serious subject, how fear and insecurity brings suffering in their wake. It developed this idea through a very intelligent use of metaphor which seemed to me to be a pretty close parallel to the way in which fear and insecurity cause harm in the real world. But it also tried to show that this was not inevitable and that human beings were capable of better. And central to the exposition of these ideas was the character of Angel. What was impressive here was the way that the depiction of him in 1952 not only respected his later character development but was actually used to show the nature and scale of that development. And we the viewers are taken along in our exploration of these ideas by a dark, brooding story. The almost claustrophobic atmosphere hangs heavily over everything in the hotel, giving an almost physical reality to the developing sense of paranoia. This adds immensely to a plot which at the start holds our attention as a mystery tale but then changes and develops into a taut thriller complete with a surprise ending.