Prodigal
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EPISODE 1.15

THE PRODIGAL

Written by Tim Minear

Directed by Bruce Seth Green

Answering Questions about Angel

"The Prodigal" will probably be one of the most important episodes in the entire ANGEL cannon because it answers, if not completely then in substantial measure, two of the most important questions that have dogged the character of Angel since the episode "Angel." These are Ė

why does Angel feel guilt and accept responsibility for his actions as the soulless Vampire; and

what is the relationship between the personality of the vampire and the human who went before it?

In answering these questions in "The Prodigal", ANGEL borrows a technique from its elder sibling that it has not really used before. A very common practice in "Buffy" is to have two parallel plots, one supernatural and the other usually personal, running along side one another. One counterpoints the other and thus helps draw out the points the writers wish to make. ANGEL has been much more into straight storytelling and sub-plots are few and far between. But here we do have two parallel stories each involving the relationship between fathers and their children. In the first of these two separate stories we see why Angel came to feel responsible for Angelusí crimes and through the parallels drawn between it and the second story we see how that feeling of responsibility affects he actions now.

Contrary to my initial expectations we were not presented with two "bad" fathers. "The Prodigal" makes it clear that the problem Trevor Lockley and Liamís father faced was that neither could make their children understand how much they loved them. Liamís case is the important one. We first see the relationship between him and his father when it had already become a vicious cycle of low expectation and low self-esteem. Each reinforced the other. We do not see how it reached that level. Perhaps Liam had tried to please his father, failed and just gave up. That would be consistent with his own description of himself as "weak" (a classic case of perception not having caught up with reality). Perhaps there was something about his fatherís business that gave Liam real moral scruples. This was implied in the very first scene when he referred to his fatherís sins and hinted obliquely at his corruption. Regardless, the two did not understand one another and it was this that led to disaster.

One thing that the Angelverse in particular has never ducked is the question of responsibility. A choice may be the result of human weakness rather than malice, it may be understandable but it is never whitewashed and it ALWAYS produces consequences. Angel could have been a better son if he had tried harder. He could certainly have avoided the irresponsible lifestyle he chose for himself. The fact that he did neither was, as he later put it, an "offence", although one that may be put down to human weakness rather than malice. But this is what adds the poignancy to Angelís story. If he had made better choices he would not have attracted Darlaís attention in the first place and would not have been where she could lure him into the alley. He would have been home, with his family. There would have been no Angelus. The fact that that demon came into the world was, therefore, the result of Liamís actions but was an evil that was grossly disproportionate to the offence.

And here I have to say that this aspect remains one of the strongest and most compelling things about Angelís story. It is in essence a tragedy in the classic tradition. Fundamentally it is a question of the arbitrariness of fate. He is a random victim of an almost biblical punishment that was, on the scale inflicted, undeserved. The pathos of his situation derives partly from this fact and partly from his reaction to it. In the classic tradition of tragedy, the true test of a character is how he responds to the situation he finds himself in. It is his dignity and integrity now in the face of what has happened to him that essentially makes his story a hopeful and not a dispiriting one. And the key element in the nobility (there really is no other word for it) of his reaction is the way he accepted responsibility for the actions of the demon.

Liam was irresponsible. His life was on a downward spiral of drink and debauchery. But instead of taking responsibility for that, he blamed his father. Angel, once he had recovered his soul, could also have been irresponsible Ė literally. He could have said that Angelusí crimes were nothing to do with him. Instead he decided to take full responsibility for them. Eventually he also decided to make amends for what he has done. The counterpoint between post 1898 Angel and 1753 Liam is perfect and is emphasized when, after Liamís father in Galway 1753 tells him he is ashamed of him and slaps him, we jump to LA 2000 and the fight with the demon Ė part of Angelís continuing effort to make reparation for past wrongs.

And it is this feeling of responsibility which has been Angelís key motivating force since "Amends" and which has led him to try to save other potential victims of "evil evil things". And this seems to me to be the key link between the two stories in "The Prodigal". Angel is very strongly motivated to save Trevor; so much so that he ignores Wesleyís objections that he is going too far. The point was very well put in the following lines:

Wesley:  "At the very least he [Trevor] must realize that he is in league with someone who if not criminal is most certainly unethical.  Itís his choice!"
Angel:  "Yeah, I know all about it, Wesley, believe me.  But sometimes the price we end up paying for one bad choice isnít commensurate with the offence."

Angel knows Trevor has made a bad choice by involving himself in wrongdoing but he sees in that choice a reflection of his own poor choices. He realizes too that Trevorís choice, just like his own, was made in ignorance of the forces around him and recognizes that the consequences for Trevor will not be proportionate to his responsibility. The fact that Trevor is Kateís father adds a poignancy, especially since the communication problems between the two reflect Liamís own difficulties with his father. It was communication difficulties with his own father which proved to be his undoing and led to the death of his father. That is why Angel feels so strongly motivated to save another father and to do so without Kate knowing the truth. That way he saves the father/child relationship as well.

Tragically, however, there is another parallel between Galway 1753 and LA 2000, namely the consequences of the choices made by Liam and Trevor. These are too self-evident to need belaboring. Instead I will make just two points here. I like it when writers have the courage of their convictions and did not give us a pat ending. If Angel had saved Trevor the conclusion to the episode would have been so much less effective than the scene we got with Angel looking on as Kate visited her fatherís grave. Secondly the two scenes where the respective fathers died were themselves very powerfully tied together in the person of Angel. In the one, because he was uninvited, he watches helpless to do anything as Trevor dies at the teeth of vampires. Because of the absence of an invitation Angel was unable to meet his own personal commitment to save Trevor. That personal commitment in turn related directly back to his murder of his own father as a vampire. That murder was committed because of an invitation given to him by his sister. The irony is clear and gives the two stories a very sharp sense of symmetry.

Having looked at why Angel accepted responsibility for Angelusí actions and the consequences of his doing so we must now turn to the other question I mentioned at the start of this review. What is the relationship between the personality of the vampire Angelus and that of the human Liam. Here we do not get a complete answer but we certainly do get a much clearer picture of at least one way in which the latter influenced the former. The breakdown in Liamís relationship with his father centered on his inability to please him. But the need to do so still existed. That need existed because Liam, in spite of everything, loved his father. Penn from "Somnambulist" does not seem to have shared the same need; hence his actions simply reflected a desire to wreak revenge by destroying his family over and over again. Angelusí attitude, as a vampire, to his family was much more complex. As Darla said:

"What we once were informs all that we have become. The same love will infect our hearts Ė even if they no longer beat."

Angelus did not love his family in the same way Liam had as a human. But the love Liam once knew left its legacy. Because of this legacy, no less than the human he once was, Angelus still felt the need to prove to his father that he had become someone special. Only, as a vampire, his definition of what this involved was warped. It was this which motivated him to kill the entire village rather than just some people in it. As he boasted to his father:

"You told me I wasnít a man. You told me I was nothing. Ė and I believed you.  You said Iíd never amount to anything.   Well, you were wrong.  You see, father?  -  I have made something out of myself after all."

And final proof of his strength and power was to have been given by destroying his father and everything he held dear, including his own mother and sister. That need to make up for what the demon perceives to have been weaknesses in the human it once was by showing strength seems very typical in a Vampire. Remember Vampire Jesse in "The Harvest"? As he says himself

"Jesse was an excruciating loser who couldn't get a date with anyone in the sighted community! Look at me. I'm a new man!"

And yet in Angelusí case the attempt to prove himself was doomed to failure. As Darla pointed out:

Darla:  "Youíre victory over him took but moments."
Angelus:  "Yes?"
Darla:  "But his defeat of you will last life times."
Angelus:  "What are you talking about?  He canít defeat me now."
Darla:  "Nor can he ever approve of you Ė in this world or any other. "

It seems that the scale and intensity of Angelusí killing sprees may, therefore, be linked directly to this need for the demon to prove to himself that he really was someone special and to deny the doubts about him that were held by his mortal father. But, as Darla suggested, these were doubts that he could never now disprove.

And now that he is ensouled Angel still wants to prove he can be someone of whom a father could have been genuinely proud. But herein lies part of the tragedy for Angel. His father will now never know how he has changed. This too finds its connection with Trevorís situation. The fact that Angelís father dies without knowing of his sonís change of heart reinforces Angelís need to save Trevor. But it also highlights the shared sadness of Angel and Kate at the end. Both had essentially the same problem with their father, the gap of comprehension between them. Now, whatever issues both had with their fathers they will never be resolved.

On the whole I prefer the "slow striptease" approach when it comes to revealing the past of characters, rather than too much being revealed all at once. But the way that we see Angelís past being used here is just right. The full story of how Angel became a vampire is an interesting one in itself and would have been well worth showing if only to satisfy our curiosity. But what is especially effective here is the use that was made of it as part of a wider character study. The flashback scenes show us Angelís past and present and trace how the former has affected and shaped the other. In doing so "The Prodigal" is consistent with what we have seen of the Angel before, coherent and perceptive in itself and very moving. Even someone without any sympathy for Angel before now must feel some compassion for his situation. Even the title is a poignant one. The biblical story was of a young man who wasted what he was given on a life of debauchery but eventually found forgiveness and peace in his fatherís house. No such happy ending was available here.

The Plot

In all of this the story of the drug running demon in LA 2000 plays a slight enough part. The plotting is, as usual, pretty solid. In fact Angelís suspicions of the delivery driver was the product of a very fine piece of deductive reasoning for which the writers deserved credit. But this aspect of the story is, in fact, so inconsequential that we have no clear idea why the drug was being imported. If the plot were intended to be that significant then the importance of stopping the importation of the drug would have been emphasized. As it is there is a suggestion the demon was feeding the drug to the Kwaini to give their adrenal gland a "zing" to it. But that would make his taste for the adrenal gland both an expensive and potentially dangerous one and any other motive is a matter of pure speculation. The truth is that it really doesnít matter because the only purpose the plot served was as a device to set up Trevor Lockley for the part I have just described in the character study of Angel.

Characterization

And his death also serves as yet another turning point in the rocky road on which Angel and Kate are now embarked. Every time they seem to be moving to some mutual understanding something else happens to come between them. At the beginning of "The Prodigal" Kate was still having a very hard time coming to terms with what she had discovered but she was making an effort and what was helping was that she still had a belief that Angel was basically on the right side. But she still viewed him as something that existed outside normal human society. As she said:

"I think youíre probably a pretty decent guy for a Ė You know, what you are, but lets keep this strictly business, all right?  We donít get personal.  Iím not your girlfriend."

Things could not be the same as they were before but there was a modus vivendi there, as illustrated by her decision to pass information on to Angel to help with his investigations. But it was one which could not survive her fatherís death. When she saw that it was a vampire that killed her father the fact that Angel too was a vampire assumed a new significance.

        "My father was human and you donít know anything about that."

Now she could not have even a business relationship with a creature of the sort that had killed her father. The gap between Angel and human society was now, as far as she was concerned, unbridgeable.

I thought that the evolution of Kateís attitude in this episode was expertly handled. It would have been easy to show her as much more hostile towards Angel from the beginning and that would have made the writersí job in portraying her anger towards him at the end so much more straightforward. But then we would have been deprived of the drama of the sudden change in her attitude and the uncertainty as to whether this change was only temporary. It would also have been easier (if a little hackneyed) to have her blame him directly for killing Trevor. But then the blame would be based on a misunderstanding and could not have convincingly survived the truth. This way Kateís attitude may not be fair but it has a solid foundation. We have yet to see how this turn of events fully plays out. But it is usually a good sign when writers take a storyline to its logical conclusions by using it as set up for another. They obviously thought quite hard about the consequences of what they were doing and that shows the sort of careful planning that has been a hallmark of this seasonís ANGEL.

Another character that was well used (in a nicely understated way) was Wesley. Here I am not only thinking about his forensic skills. His interaction with Angel was very interesting. When Angel said he wasnít going to take Wesley along on the reconnaissance of the car warehouse the latterís response was:

"Right you are.  A deliberate cautious approach would be the most sensible plan.  Fools rush in..."

My initial reaction was that this was Wesley just covering up his hurt pride. There probably was an element of this but I now think that more was involved. This was brought home when Angel was preparing for Plan B. Wesleyís comment (in a deliberate echo of his earlier words) was:

"What happened to calmly, cautiously, and deliberately investigating before rushing in?".

Throughout this episode the interplay between Angel and Wesley showed the latter to be the calm and unemotional voice of reason. This is a useful development from a dramatic point of view in that the dialogue between them over Trevor helps draw out Angelís thinking on the subject. But more important is the light it throws on Wesleyís continuing development as a personality. In one respect this was a return to the Wesley we saw in "Choices" and "GD2" and shows a nice continuity in his character. But there is a subtle difference was well. Here, when he saw there was no changing Angelís mind about Plan B, there was no hint of the same petulance in his reaction when he failed to convince the Scooby gang not to give up the box of Gavrox for Willow in "Choices". This emphasizes how much more adult is the nature of his character in ANGEL compared to the person we all too often saw in "Buffy".

And this brings us to Darla. The role she plays in Liamís downfall is a pretty obvious one. But in two respects it does, I think, call for comment. I really did like the way the writers so quickly established a close relationship between her and Angelus. It wasnít so much the obvious attraction Liam as a human had for her. The way that she shepherded Angelus towards his first kill and the way he looked back at her for reassurance before completing it brought to mind almost a mother-child relationship. This was the most meaningful look at what it is to be a "sire" in the vampiresí world we have ever been given. It really does stress just how close Angelus and Darla were. It also adds a very neat counterpoint by showing here at least was a parent who approved of her child and his actions.

And I personally had no difficulty with the insight that Darla is shown to have into the how to personality of a vampire is affected by that of the human it replaced and also into Liamís relationship with his father. We just didnít see enough of her in season 1 of "Buffy" to form a very clear idea of what she was capable of. But we did see enough of her to realize that she was capable of more than low cunning. It was she, rather than the Master, who hit upon the idea of using the demon inside Angel to lure him back to the Dark Side. So, while it is perfectly true that "the Prodigal" represents something of a development for the character we last saw in "Angel" I donít find it a problematic one.

Overview

9/10 "Prodigal" just gets better every time I watch it. The storyline may be slight but it is the characterization that makes this episode. We have a clearer sense than ever before of Angel, his past and how that past lives in him today. In giving us this picture the writers have made the sense of tragedy all the clearer and thereby reinforced the mythology underlying the character. Here lies the heart of this episode and it is a very dark heart indeed. Just how dark is illustrated by the fate of Liamís little sister. This provided us not only with a totally believable explanation as to why Liam took the name Angel but also (without descending to gory details) gave us a chilling insight into how pitiless vampires are. A human may out of a sense of anger kill a father with whom he had fought, but that was truly inhuman. Nor should we forget the tragedy that took place in LA2000. This too made its own impact, not least because we too saw it through Angelís eyes and with him made the connection with the other deaths in Galway 1753. But in order to relieve the bleakness, the writers made very clever use of both humor and a combination of visual imagery and some beautiful music. Too much humor would have been out of place here but the little moments (Angelís dry comment about the 2 x 4 and Cordelia happily sawing up the dead Kwaini) worked well to break up the tension. There was also one quite good running joke (about the alarm system) that succeeded not least because it was integrated into the plot. The montage scene where Darla turns Liam was beautifully shot; Liamís rise from the grave is a visually striking image and the use of music both there and at the end was superb. It all combined to give the tragedy an almost poetic feel to it that emphasized the pathos but stopped it from becoming too depressing.