It's almost Halloween, which for me means it's already been Halloween for at least a month. I've been watching lots and lots of Halloween-y things to get in the mood for the holiday, this is my second time in a couple of months watching the only season of the Buffyverse TV shows I own (not counting the comics). And watching Buffy makes me think about it and want to talk about it but I don't know anyone else watching it right now! Such a tragedy. Then I remembered I have a blog and it's my blog and I can talk about whatever I want, so instead of a serious entry right now you get my over-thought ramblings about the nature of evil, vampires, and souls in the Buffyverse. It's ridiculously long and I seriously overemphasize all my points when I go in fandom mode, but if that sounds interesting to you, I hope you enjoy it! Otherwise, this is probably a pretty skippable post, I promise I won't accidentally stray into incredibly deep theological musings here. This is pure fandom ramblings that have been building up in my brain for years with nowhere to go.
I love Buffyverse. I think I love every single character in it. One of my absolute favorites, though, is Harmony. OH MY GOODNESS HARMONY. She's adorable and bubbly and any time she's in an episode I know I'm going to have fun and be happy. On a more serious level, she illustrates really well one of my major issues with the series...everyone in it who knows Angel seems to take him at his word and assume whatever he says about vampires is true, and they ignore all the examples that prove him wrong. And both shows are really, really, painfully clear about the fact that he is wrong, or at least that there's room for other explanations. But other characters don't seem to get that, so I've noticed when I talk to friends who enjoy Buffy and Angel that they also take Angel at his word and will talk about the things he says as if it's official fact about the way the Buffyverse works and it's not and I shouldn't care because it's just a show but I do because it's a good show and I love it and it makes me think a lot. Too much, maybe.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. I should explain. This all gets into vague spoilery territory, so if you haven't watched it and intend to and don't want to be spoiled, you might want to skip this post.
Angel is a vampire. In this universe, vampires are people that died, lost their souls, and started feeding on people. And back when he was a regular old vampire, Angel (Angelus then) did a whole lot of really evil things. And then he was cursed with a soul which made him feel guilty, and then he kind of hid out and felt sorry for himself for a hundred years or so and then he met Buffy and decided to stop whining and try to be awesome instead. He...doesn't really succeed, but he's sweet for trying and he has funny friends, so his spinoff show is actually pretty good. (I do love all the characters, including Angel, but you might be able to tell he's definitely not really one of my favorites.)
I'm a little flippant about it, but his hiding out being scared and sad for a long time really does have a good reason - he's tortured by the guilt from the things he's done and to some extent still wants to do, so he sort of cuts himself off from others. And that right there is where we get all of his ideas about what being a vampire means, which sort of becomes the default view of the series. According to Angel, the demon Angelus is a totally different person that takes over once his human soul is out of the picture. And so every time Angel loses his soul throughout both series and terrorizes all his friends, it's ok, because it's not him! So once they put the soul back and he's all nice-vampire again they just forgive everything and we don't have to lose him as a protagonist. So Buffy gets all these weird ideas like "You can't love without a soul!" because Angelus doesn't seem to love and instead hates and tries to destroy everything Angel loves. It makes sense, he's the vampire Buffy knows best and so he's the default source when she tries to understand them (which she really doesn't seem to do often).
But he's not the only vampire the viewers get to see up close, and none of the others match his claims. In fact, when we see him in the spinoff, even Angel doesn't match his claims. For example, there's an episode where he doesn't even actually lose his soul, he just thinks he does, and that doesn't stop him from trying to hurt and/or kill everyone he sees during that time. Every time I see that episode, I'm left with the feeling that the soul doesn't really make him a different person at all, it just makes him feel guilty enough about who he is and what he wants that he denies it to the point that he finally imagined a different personality for himself made up of all his dark impulses. With the guilt out of the way, either removed completely or drugged into silence, he gladly runs back to his sadistic ways because that's who he really is.
But for most of the run of the shows, he's the only vampire with a soul in the entire world, so there's no real way to be certain of any of that. It's...possible, I suppose, that there might be an alternate explanation for why he would act that way even while his soul's still intact without it disproving his explanations. But then we get Spike. And after he gets his soul he has a very short period of remembering all his atrocities and driving himself crazy with guilt. But then he gets over it. And he immediately goes back to helping Buffy & Friends, which he was already doing without his soul, and basically goes back to being exactly who he already was. And that whole thing just kind of destroys all of Angel's claims. I always think that's the real reason Angel's so grumpy and wanting to get rid of Spike when the latter shows up in LA and joins the team: if his friends get to know another vampire with a soul, they're realize he's been lying to them (and in fairness, probably to himself as well) and that the soul doesn't really change who he is at the core - all those times Angelus got out of the cage, that was just Angel not holding himself back.
And one step beyond that, we come back to Harmony and I'm going to try very hard to contain my squee. Did I mention I love her? I used to roleplay her on livejournal. Nobody liked her when I played, which pretty much matches how she's treated on both shows so I didn't really mind, but I think it's sad because she's SO CUTE and she tries so hard and she's just so PINK and who couldn't love all that? Ahem. Sorry. Harmony is another vampire, a regular soulless one who used to be a cheerleader and somehow got NICER after she was turned. Now, make no mistake, she is evil, and the shows seem to state that she's evil specifically because she doesn't have a soul. It doesn't matter what her intentions are or what team she's currently helping, she's a kind of evil that shows itself in little ways. She's never malicious, she's just selfish and impulsive to the extent that she doesn't care about hurting other people. She doesn't have a soul, she doesn't feel any remorse, so she doesn't see any reason not to hurt people, unless it's for her self-preservation like when she started working for Angel and was allowed to stay and not be seen as an enemy as long as she didn't hurt humans.
I think Harmony probably shows better than any other example what's really going on with the vampires in Buffyverse. It's not that a demon takes over their bodies or that all their good impulses leave. Several vampires are shown to love, and Harmony is shown to still be a very good friend when she meets Cordelia again. In fact, I'd argue she's kind of a better friend at that point in the series than Cordelia is. Drusilla (another vampire) and Spike clearly love each other a lot and aren't hindered in that by their lack of souls. Is it exactly the same as the way we think of human love? No, at least not the ideal. They love each other, but they can both be pretty selfish about it. Spike clings to Drusilla and makes her his whole world so that he gets very jealously possessive, and Drusilla sometimes seems to regard Spike as a favorite pet and doesn't think anything of hooking up with other people even though she knows it hurts him.
So what does the soul represent? As far as I can tell, empathy. That's all. No whole other person, no magic ability to do good things, just empathy. Without it, it's hard for most vampires to relate to other people and to act unselfishly or feel remorse. With it, they start to feel for other people, which makes them feel bad for hurting them and makes them want to help instead. And it actually kind of frustrates me that Angel (and by extension, all the characters that assume he's right) insists it's something more than that, because it minimizes the importance of that one trait. The ability to really understand and care for other people is something really central to humanity, and the massive change it causes in Angel/Angelus is a really powerful statement about how important that is to who we are. He shouldn't have to convince anyone that Angelus isn't really him, because it means a lot more that it is really him. If he doesn't have those urges when he gets a soul, he hasn't really accomplished much by being good. But it's shown several times that he does have those urges, he is that darker version of himself, but when he has the ability to really feel and care for other people he chooses to be better. To me, that's a much more interesting and positive statement about both the character and humanity in general.
So yeah. I always just think of Angel as a sort of neurotic person who has tricked himself into seeing Angelus as a different person so that the guilt wouldn't crush him quite so badly. There's nothing wrong with that and it's not one of the reasons he's not on my favorite character list. But it does make him a pretty unreliable source of information about what it means to be a vampire in that universe. That's kind of part of a larger pet peeve I have with people assuming that anything a character says in a work of fiction is meant to be taken as truth unless they're specifically shown to be lying in the story. :-/ There are a lot of cases where it seems to me that it's clearly not the case, and usually it makes the stories much more interesting to peel back the layers and consider what might be going on behind the things a character says. I wonder why a lot of people don't seem interested in doing that, and also if maybe it's something we do in real life too, that we want to assume the information people give us is good because it's simpler. And just to be clear, that pet peeve isn't a judgment on people who do that, because I do it too. And then when I watch something again and again until I see it in a different way and realize I'd made some faulty assumptions earlier, that makes it much more interesting to me but also makes me annoyed at myself for missing it the first time. And then it makes me want to share.