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

Hey all! It’s Ivory Tower Intellectual Saturday, and here’s our first Boy Are We Ever Intelligent Presentation of the day:

ANGELtvseriesLorneby Doug Enaa Greene

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.

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.

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There’s more at the link above. Much more. And, frankly, we don’t understand a word of it. But, hey, all this serious discussion is just so darned, you know, cute, that we had to share!