Angel helps Rachel deal with her abusive boyfriend Lenny. First by physically protecting her and later by encouraging her to leave him and find a better relationship. Oz comes to town bearing the ring of Amarra which will make Angel unkillable. Spike comes to town to get it. He manages to capture Angel and tortures him (he hires a vampire torturer named Marcus) for the ring. Angel won't break, but to save him Cordelia and Doyle are ready to make the trade.
Of course, Spike intends to renege on his deal, but with Oz's help they get away with Angel. However, Marcus gets the ring and Angel must risk his life to defeat Marcus and get the ring back. Realizing the ring is too dangerous to keep and that he is unworthy of wearing it, Angel destroys it.
If this week's Buffy, The Harsh Light of Day, was about relationships, then surely this episode of Angel is about redemption. And not just Angel's. Rachel and even Spike have their chances.
Buffy, via Oz, offers Angel a chance at immortality. And, as a bonus, he has a chance to walk in the light. Angel instinctively refuses. His reason for the refusal comes out in the scene in which Marcus tortures Angel by exposing him to the light; he wants forgiveness, redemption. And that isn't something you get handed to you. It's not something given to immortals. It's a mortal fact which must be earned. Angel knows he has a great penance to pay. The torture, especially when Spike comes in and helps, must remind him of how he tortured Giles. In the opening scene, Spike mocks Angel's saving of Rachel. He compares Angel to a cowboy. And deep inside, Angel knows there is a lot of truth to this. As always, Spike has great insights as does his torturer pal.
Doyle told Angel he had to connect with people, get inside their lives. He achieves this with Rachel when he helps her realize her own self worth. Spike mocks Angel's physical protection of Rachel, but there is no mockery of this moral support. Spike and Marcus strip away Angel's pretensions. In the light, he's just another demon struggling for survival. He's done the very things Spike and Marcus do. He's tortured like Spike and he takes the ring like Marcus. But he has learnt a lesson from his torture and from his experience with Rachel. He has learnt that it is the human element within him, the mortal weak part, that is most valuable. When Angel tortured Giles, he diminished himself. When he withstands the torture Marcus inflicts upon him, he grows spiritually. And when he risks his life to defeat Marcus, venturing into the light in his weakened state, he grows further. He does this to protect children, whose innocence so interests Marcus. Marcus tortured Angel to get the ring and have the power to destroy innocence. Angel destroys Marcus to preserve innocence. During his torture, Angel struggled to stay out of the light, as do his fellow vampires. But when Marcus threatened the lives of children, Angel ventured unprotected into the light to save them.
When Angel ultimately destroys the ring, he does so because he realizes he is not worthy of it. He has not fully redeemed himself. The evil he did over centuries is not wiped away in a few days or even years. He also recognizes that the connection he must make with people is not with the dwellers in light, but with those who skulk in the darkness. These are the ones who need his help and who have no one else to turn to. By helping Rachel, he saved her soul and that is the only way to keep his.
The Rachel character is a parallel to Buffy. Lenny abuses Rachel, but she keeps going back to him. In The Harsh Light of Day, Buffy is abused emotionally by Parker, but she makes excuses for him. And her relationship with Parker is an analogue to what happened between her and Angel. Only Parker doesn't change into a monster, he simply reveals his true nature.
When Angel tells Rachel she must have faith (and maybe Buffy needs a little of the emotional detachment of Faith), he gives her the key to her salvation. She can rid herself of Lenny. At first, she thought to do so required the intervention of someone strong who could physically protect her. But Lenny's real threat to her is not physical, but emotional. It's her attachment to him she must overcome, not Lenny himself. Angel gives her the moral support she needs to do this. This is far more valuable and more lasting than the physical protection he offers her.
I have to wonder if Spike really wanted the ring. In both The Harsh Light of Day and this episode, Spike seems at less than his best when fighting for the ring. His best moments occur as a sort of Greek chorus commenting on the emotional and spiritual development of Buffy and Angel. He does some pretty terrible things, but there is only one moment when I see him as truly frightening. This is when he is confronted by Cordelia and Doyle as he is ransacking Angel's place. He tells Cordelia that if she fires on him, she'll be dead before the arrow leaves the bow. She believes him as do I. Spike is very deadly. But he doesn't do it. And I don't think he would. In his own way, I think Spike really likes most of these people. His life would be diminished if they died. Even if they were vampirized.
It's amusing that while Doyle seems only to criticize Cordelia, Spike compliments her. He asks if she's lost weight and says he likes her hair. These are casual remarks that to me say Spike isn't all that serious about doing any serious and permanent harm. I think the ring was not something Spike so much wanted for himself as a way of excusing his return to Sunnydale and then his voyage to LA. I think Spike missed Buffy and even more Angel, who was his sire.
In Angel, Spike sees the only vampire he truly admires. When he tortures Angel, he does so not to get the ring (he could easily have captured Angel and threatened Cordelia and Doyle without having to engage in any torture) but to see how Angel responds. If Angel breaks, then he is no better than Spike. Indeed worse since he has the benefit of a soul to help him persevere. Spike may mock Angel's attempt at redemption, his working to forgiveness, but he also deeply desires it. Angel has friends who will risk their lives for him. Spike has Harmony who does nothing but annoy him. Angel has a goal in life worthy of a heroic character. Spike is driven by nothing but a desire for pleasure. Angel has the courage to reject easy solutions. Spike, for all his bravado, is afraid. He wants to walk in the light, but he hasn't the nerve to take the path Angel is taking. Angel seeks an immortal soul and realizes to get it (or at least to keep it permanently) he must build relationships with humans and help them. Spike seeks immortality and looks for it in a ring. Rings, as Angel demonstrates, are all too easily destroyed.
Some final comments. If you want to impress a girl, don't always be putting her down. In addition to mocking Cordelia's housekeeping skills, Doyle also poured cold water on her pleasure at their first invoice. He might be right, but that's no reason to rob her of her moment of delight. Did I dream it or did Cordelia actually stop and not say something? Was she about to make a negative comment about Buffy not sending a note and then stopped? Could she be developing sensitivity? Maybe even Cordelia can be redeemed. I was thrilled when Angel didn't spike Marcus during the torture scene. I really expected him to do this and to escape on his own. I always like it when the writers surprise me.
And let me plead with the writers to stop having vampires in the sunshine. Are we supposed to believe that in the final battle between Angel and Marcus, Angel didn't burn up because the light wasn't shining directly down on him? Or that Spike could casually meet Cordelia and Doyle outdoors in daytime because he was in the shadow? This is getting hard to live with.
That final, small complaint aside, this is easily the best Angel episode to date.
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