Good and Evil in the Realm of the
Dreams in Buffy the Vampire Slayer
by Carrie-Anne DeDeo
The battle between Good and Evil: nothing could be more timeless or
universal. Each week, this struggle is presented as a contest between
a teenage vampire slayer named Buffy and legions of vampires, demons,
and assorted destructive forces on the television series Buffy the
Vampire Slayer. Every Tuesday night, millions of modern American
television viewers watch the conflict between good and evil as represented
in late-nineties popular culture. And as any frequent TV viewer knows,
Good wins, vanquishing Evil with some ratings-garnering kicks and punches,
and the episode concludes, at least until next week. Right?
Although Buffy Summers, the series' teenage protagonist, consistently
protects the world from destruction, her supremacy as a force of good
remains challenged and incomplete. In part, this is a television necessity;
forces of evil must always remain to be battled in next week's episode.
But within the text of the series itself, the character of Buffy's boyfriend
Angel - a two hundred odd year old vampire "cursed" with a
soul - further blurs the already-complicated line separating good from
evil. Angel, by his very nature, embodies the struggle between good
and evil. The character of Angel, tempted to drink human blood but capable
of feeling guilt and love, functions as a site within which the war
between Good and Evil take place on a microcosmic level.
In the episode "Amends," which aired in December of 1998,
in the series' third season, Angel's dreams and visions of his past
destructive acts - committed when he was a vampire without a soul -
drive him to attempt suicide. The episode presents the evil force responsible
for Angel's dreams both as an external demonic force and as an element
of Angel's own psyche. This dual representation of evil as an exterior
and interior force ultimately suggests to Angel and to the viewer that
one cannot successfully combat evil by responding with still more evil
and destruction. Rather, Angel must come to comprehend of and maintain
constant vigilance against the complex and competing forces present
On its most literal and external level, the episode "Amends"
posits the existence and destructive nature of a purely evil force in
the world. "The First," the evil force that controls Angel's
dreams, is described by school librarian and Buffy's Watcher, her mentor
and guide in vampire-slaying, Rupert Giles simply as "Evil. Absolute
evil, older than man, than demons" ("Amends," Act 3).
Giles' research in old texts and his resulting characterization of the
First as "an ancient power" situates the evil force within
a lengthy literary tradition of dream-bringers. The First appears to
be an evil counterpart to such benevolent and holy bringers of dreams
in medieval Christian-influenced poetic accounts of dream visions as
Genius of Gower's Confessio Amantis and the Pearl Maiden of the
Gawain poet's Pearl (Act 3).
Unlike adversaries in other episodes of the television series, whom
she dispatches by a staking them in the heart, Buffy cannot fight the
First. She cannot fight it, she explains, because it's "not a demon,"
not even "a physical being" (Act 4, Act 3). The First's lack
of corporeality suggests it transcends the simple limitations of character
and instead functions as a representation of a universal and eternal
force. The "First Evil," as it describes itself, is "everywhere,
every being, every thought, every drop of hate" (Act 4). In the
absence of a comparable force of goodness - for there is no "First
Good," nor any mention of a Supreme Being in this episode - the
forces of evil are granted a position of supremacy within the context
of "Amends." The First Evil's self-described ubiquity and
the lack of a supreme force of good indicates an understanding of evil
as inevitable and powerful within Buffy's physical and spiritual realm.
In medieval dream poetry, dreams are sent by God or the gods, and thus
their messages can be trusted implicitly. "Amends" darkly
twists this notion. On Buffy, the authority of the First establishes
it as the source of dreams' content and shaper of their meaning in the
mind of the dreamer. Unlike the spiritual guides of medieval dream visions,
this dream guide must disguise itself - as a creation of the dreamer's
mind or as a sympathetic character - in order to gain his trust. Angel's
sleep is disturbed by nightmares about people he murdered when he was
a soulless vampire, and his waking hours are similarly haunted by visions
of these victims. According to Giles' research, the First has the power
to "conjure spirit manifestations and set them on people, influence
them, haunt them," and is therefore capable of controlling Angel's
dreams - and through them, controlling Angel himself (Act 3).
The apparitions who appear to Angel exhort him to "take [Buffy],
take what you want" (Act 2). In the series' previous season, Angel
slept Buffy and consequently lost his soul. The Gypsy curse that had
given him a soul robbed him of that soul when he experienced a moment
of "pure happiness." He was thus rendered evil again and wreaked
havoc on the lives of Buffy and other Sunnydale residents until a magic
spell restored him. To "take her," to give into the temptation
to sleep with Buffy, then implicitly urges Angel to again lose his soul,
give into his dark nature, and become evil. In guiding Angel through
these dreams, the First seeks to make Angel complicit in his own destruction.
Similarly, the First's proclamation that Angel will be "dead by
sunrise" - that he will give into the despair brought about by
these visions of his evil and destructive past and by remaining outside
at sunrise, kill himself - demonstrates the First's primary intention
in controlling Angel's dreams is to destroy him (Act 4). And yet, although
even Buffy characterizes the First as "that thing [that] was haunting
you," such an understanding of the First as a purely external force
is insufficient. The First did not simply bestow upon Angel completely
random dreams and visions upon him in a malicious attempt to destroy
him from without. This evil force may have catalyzed Angel's dreams,
but the content of these dreams consist of his own memories of his own
evil acts and dark nature. Though its intent is malicious - is evil
- the First in effect forces Angel to confront the truth about himself.
A deceptive aesthetic pervades "Amends." From the first scene,
the visual cues provided to the viewer align him or her alongside Angel
as he gradually discovers the First's connection to his dreams. The
very substance of Angel's dreams as memories of those he killed - a
former friend named Daniel, a maid named Margaret, and a businessman,
all in the nineteenth century, and high school computer teacher/"techno
pagan" Jenny Calendar, in the series' previous season - blurs the
viewer and Angel's understanding of the dreams' origin. Are these confrontations
with his past simply memories resurfacing in his sleep? Are they visions
forced upon him by an evil entity intent on destroying him? Or are they
The episode opens with a shot of a bustling street, filled with carriages
and people dressed in period costume. No visual cues - such as a greased
camera lens or black and white film - suggest to the viewer that this
scene is a dream. When after a few seconds, a title reading "Dublin,
Ireland, 1838" appears on the screen, the television-savvy viewer
might logically assume that the scene - which goes on to feature young
Irishman Daniel's fatal encounter with then-soulless vampire Angel -
is a flashback (Teaser). An abrupt cut from 1838 Angel biting Daniel's
neck to 1998 Angel waking up in bed serves to shock and disorient the
viewer, just as the dream appears to have disturbed Angel. Neither Angel
nor the viewer seem certain if they have just experienced a memory or
a dream, and both proceed to question the meaning and source of this
and ensuing dreams.
The episode "Amends" plays upon and twists television convention
in suggesting to the viewer possibilities for interpretation of Angel's
dreams. Introduced in the "Tonight on the WB" network promo
that immediately precedes the episode as "A Buffy Christmas,"
the episode draws upon traditions established within familiar Christmas
movies and television specials. Dreams and dream visions are not unfamiliar
Christmas fare; A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life
- the latter referenced within the episode when the character Faith
attempts to fix the reception on a television set playing the movies
- both depict men, unhappy with their lives, who relive scenes from
their past with spirit guides and who as a result attain a new lease
Buffy rewrites this convention of Christmastime dream visions in the
context of a world constantly threatened by evil. In "Amends,"
this familiar Christmas movie formula translates to scenes in which
Angel relives the murders he committed in the past. He appears to be
guided by the forms of Jenny Calendar and Daniel, both seemingly benevolent
entities and, in the case of Jenny, a returning beloved character. But
while Clarence and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet-to-Come
show George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge scenes from their pasts in order
to lead them to redemption, Daniel and Jenny's similarity to these spirit
guides is a dangerous illusion. These characters in fact mask the identity
of the First, who seeks to show Angel that not the possibility of redemption
but its opposite - that "cruelty," "the only thing [he]
ever had a talent for," is his "destiny" (Act 2).
Destiny, in "Amends," is conceived of as both internally
determined - by the evil inherent in Angel's nature - and externally
imposed - by the First's struggle to force Angel to give into that nature.
Here, an understanding of destiny provides the point around Angel struggles
to comprehend and act upon his dreams. On the most external and literal
level, an evil power called the First seeks to destine Angel to a life
of evil and destruction. This is not destiny at all, in fact, for such
an outcome would be brought about by the character of the First rather
than fate. The First's failure to effect such a "destiny"
by controlling Angel's dreams leads him to abandon one fate for Angel
in favor of another. Thus, the frustrated First, prophesizes another
destiny. Angel "will be dead by sunrise. [Buffy's] Christmas will
be his wake" (Act 4).
The real struggle with destiny - with the conflict between the good
and evil - takes place on the more metaphorical, interior level of Angel's
own psyche. The First is not just a character frustrated in his attempts
to destroy Angel. The First is also a representation of the destructive
aspects of Angel's consciousness. As an external representation of Angel's
interior, the First lives in underground caves, whose contents are not
easily discernible because they are lit darkly and only partially illuminated
only by candles. These caves, in which evil lurks, emulates the interior
life of which humans like Angel cannot fully "conceive" although
it exists as part of "every being" (Act 4). The First represents
the powerful dark side of his personality with which Angel struggles
- his guilt over his past crimes and his destructive desires, to give
into his thirst for blood and kill or to sleep with Buffy and thereby
lose his soul. And just as the forces of good represented by Buffy cannot
completely destroy the literal manifestation of evil represented by
the First, so too does Angel's internal conflict between the good and
evil forces within himself fail to provide "something" he
or she "can pummel" (Act 3). Destruction of evil is not so
simple when the evil is inside oneself.
Destruction of the evil inherent in one's nature is in fact impossible.
Evil within can only be contained, not eradicated, and Angel's inability
to accept the existence of evil within himself drives the conflict around
which "Amends" centers. Daniel's demand that Angel take responsibility
for killing him forces from Angel the defensive response, "It wasn't
me" (Act 2). In attempting to separate himself from the evil deeds
he has done, Angel erects a false wall between his good nature as "a
man" and his bad, "demon" nature as a vampire - insisting,
"A demon isn't a man. I was a man once" (Act 2). Only by recognizing
that he is - and will remain - both man and demon, both good and evil,
can Angel escape the impulse to destroy himself and those around him.
No longer fully demon, because he has a soul, nor fully man, because
he is a vampire, Angel cannot define himself as solely evil or good.
Though he seeks to absolve himself of guilt for the murders he committed
while soulless, his memory of committing those acts prevents the separation
of himself into two truly separate and independent entities - good and
bad Angel. He seeks to deny the existence of his memories of his life
as evil Angel, telling the apparition of Jenny "You're not here"
and "Leave me alone." But Jenny "can't" leave his
consciousness because "[he] won't let [her]" - because Angel's
guilt over killing her and memory of doing so cannot be so easily dismissed
(Act 2). Similarly, Angel cannot escape the First's hold over him and
his dreams because the actions and impulses of which they remind him
are an inescapable part of him.
As memories that he cannot successfully repress or disassociate, Angel's
"dreams about the past" make him feel "like [he's] living
it again," preventing him from sleeping. Angel dreams disturb him
so much that he goes to Giles, from whom he knows he "ha[s] no
right to ask for [help]," - because he killed Giles' girlfriend
Jenny and tortured Giles - in an attempt to stop them (Act 1). This
momentary recognition that his past actions define his present self
demonstrates that Angel has begun - slowly - to move away from the destructive
denial of his past and himself. For Angel, at this point, the coexistence
of both good and evil within himself appears at once inconceivable and
For Angel, recognition of the coexistence of good and evil within himself
is a painful process. His insistence that he is no longer a demon, juxtaposed
with his contradictory admission that he "should be in a demon
dimension suffering an eternity of torture," demonstrates Angel's
need to see himself as either all good or all evil (Act 1). As a manifestation
of his dark side, the First, taking the form of Jenny, suggests that
giving into his destructive impulses would be a release from "all
that pain" that Angel's simultaneous inhabitance of the categories
of good and evil entails (Act 2). Giles describes Angel's past belief
- before losing his soul the previous season - that he could be all
good and could have a functional, loving relationship with Buffy as
"the last time [he] became complacent about [his] existence"
(Act 1). This existence which focused solely on an impossible existence
as a wholly good being ended in the destructive emergence of Angel's
The belief he could live as good man culminated in a "moment of
pure happiness" with Buffy, and it was precisely this moment of
happiness that led to Angel's temporary turn to evil. Perception of
himself as all good or all evil seems easier and less painful for Angel
than does confrontation of his dual nature. However, Angel's false belief
that he can deny the evil within himself caused things "turn out
rather badly," as Giles understatedly puts it (Act 1). Such a simple
and deceptive self-perception may stop Angel's personal distress, but
it leads to the destruction of others, like Jenny, Daniel, and Margaret.
Angel, in his evil life as a soulless vampire in the previous season
and in past centuries, "took more kinds of pleasure in [killing]
than any creature that walks or crawls" (Act 2). The alternative
to the destruction all-good or all-bad Angel wreaks on the world around
him is a more complicated understanding of himself as both good and
evil. But this understanding of his dual nature threatens to destroy
Angel from within.
For Angel, the initial solution caused by the pain of his dreams -
which result in lack of sleep, seeming hallucinations, and emotional
strain - appears to be a decision to give into what appears to be "destiny"
by submitting to his dark side. Angel is guided by the first to a particular
understanding of his "destiny" by the introduction of his
dreams of past killings with words like "you have to understand"
and "I'll show you." He therefore comes to see these dreams
and visions of his victims as proof of his inherent "cruelty"
(Act 2). Furthermore, his dreams gradually come to reflect not just
his past actions but his temptations and fears about future actions.
In the one dream in the episode that does not depict a scene from past
or present reality, he bites Buffy on the neck while in the midst of
making love to her. For Angel, self-destruction and temptation to do
The First, in the form of Jenny, argues that the obvious solution to
ending Angel's pain is to give into temptation: "Take her. Take
what you want. Pour all that frustration and all that guilt into her,
and you'll be free" (Act 2). To lose his soul by sleeping with
Buffy, Angel knows, would provide him with "peace" through
the loss of his soul and the guilt over past actions a soul entails.
The First, in the form of Jenny, promises, "You'll never have to
see us again" (Act 3). If Angel loses his soul, the guilt-induced
dreams of his past victims will cease.
But Angel is not all evil. To do what the First suggests and lose his
soul would be to deny his good side would be equally dangerous as his
attempt to deny his evil temptations. Angel's dual nature allows him
to resist the pull of his dark side - diving out Buffy's window when
he momentarily considers that "tast[ing] her," drinking her
blood would end his dreams and his the battle between good and evil
within him (Act 3). Though his dark side provides a strong pull, Angel
also possesses a soul that allows him the possibility of resistance,
though painful, to his destructive temptations.
Angel's internal strife - his guilt-induced "need to know why
[he's] here" as a vampire with a soul - demands an internal solution.
Neither Buffy's need to "find. . . something [she] can pummel"
nor Angel's decision to end his struggle of allowing the sunrise to
kill him provides an adequate solution - for neither addresses the problem
on its own terms (Act 3). Here, the very possibility for resolution
lies in the interior world, in the dreams whose imagery mirrors the
dark side of Angel's nature. In one of Angel's nightmares, eyeless priests
worship the First in a candle-filled cave. Their appearance and location
emphasizes the interiority of Angel's dilemma.
In the images found in Angel's dreams, it becomes apparent that internal
resolution - rather than external action - is necessary. When Buffy
kills the demon priests of the First, who appeared in the dream, resolution
is not achieved. Unlike in other episodes of the series, Buffy's strength
cannot save the world - or Angel. For Buffy, the possibility of saving
Angel lies not in her physical prowess, which is ineffective in combating
an interior obstacle, but in her understanding and emotional connection
Buffy shares in Angel's struggle not only by her own conscious choice
- as when she invades the priests' caves and kills them - but on an
uncontrolled emotional level. Just as Angel cannot disassociate himself
from the painful images which reveal to him his dark side, so too does
Buffy find herself unwillingly implicated as a viewer and participant
in Angel's interior dreamworld. Buffy and Angel's dreams intersect when
the two share a dream in which they begin to make love - until a suddenly-evil
Angel bites Buffy's neck. Buffy knows full well that she "can't
put this all behind [her]," cannot deny Angel's struggle or her
own continued emotional connection to him, when she and Angel "are
doing guest spots in each others' dreams" (Act 2). Just as Angel
cannot deny or escape his evil past, no matter how much he might wish
to do so, Buffy cannot deny or escape her love for Angel. By sharing
in his inner conflict, however painful it is for her, Buffy must also
participate in seeking an inner solution to his distress.
Emotional connection, in "Amends," appears in many ways just
as dangerous as individual struggles. Buffy's desire to deny and escape
her past relationship with Angel is just one of several separate storylines
that reveal the uncertainty and possibility for pain posed by emotional
connection. Giles' continued anguish over Jenny's death demonstrates
the emotional risks wagered in a relationship. On a more comic level,
Cordelia's revelation that her ex-boyfriend Xander sleeps in his backyard
on Christmas Eve not to "look at the stars," as he claims,
but to "avoid [his] family's drunken fights" - which he confided
to her as "a confidence" - demonstrates the cruel ways in
which sharing of emotions can turn on someone (Act 1).
Buffy, who in the previous season was forced to kill Angel when he
turned evil, cannot answer when Giles advises that if Angel "truly
becomes a danger, [she] may have to kill him" (Act 3). Though she
says she "wish[es] [she] wished [him] dead," she "do[es]n't
and "can't" make that wish (Act 4). Buffy realizes that she
cannot separate herself from Angel emotionally. Her commitment to saving
Angel, even when it "hurts [her] so much," and her unhappy
recognition of his imperfect nature ultimately provides her with the
tools for saving Angel from giving into his dark side. Buffy's ability
to recognize that survival must be a continued struggle provides a model
for Angel's own realization.
Buffy gains insight into Angel through the same dreams that force him
to recognize truths about himself. Though she perceives the scene she
witnesses in one of Angel's dreams - evil vampire Angel taunting and
biting a maid named Margaret - as true "stuff that [she] couldn't
possibly know about. . . Angel's past," Buffy's negative reaction
to the dream comes not from the recognition of Angel's dark side but
from the emotional connection this "guest spot" in Angel's
dream signals. Unlike Angel, who attempts to deny the import of the
dreams and struggles with them on his own, Buffy immediately recognizes
that "there's something wrong with him" and that despite her
misgivings, she and Giles need to "help him" (Act 2). Angel
and the viewer may be deceived by the aesthetic clues surrounding the
dreams; not so pop-culture-savvy Buffy, who adeptly reads the incongruities
of her ability to share Angel's dream memories. Whereas Angel seeks
to escape from the truth about his conflicted nature, even to the point
of contemplating punishing himself through suicide, Buffy not only recognizes
the truth unflinchingly but works through her pain to help Angel.
Buffy's knowledge of Angel provides a counterpoint to Angel's own conclusions
about himself. Angel accepts and internalizes the First's message -
recognizing the power of his own evil side - though he does not do so
in the same way or to the same extent first suggested to him by his
dark impulses. Rather than simply give into the desire to lose his soul
by biting or sleeping with Buffy, Angel believes that the First "was
showing [him]. . . what [he] [is]. . . and ever shall be" (Act
4). Though he refuses to give into the "destiny" of actively
pursuing evil, his belief that it is his destiny to be evil leads to
his contemplation of suicide. For Angel, the ongoing struggle between
good and evil within himself appears unbearable. He admits to Buffy
his fear that:
I want to take comfort in you, and I know it'll cost me my
soul, and a part of me doesn't care. Look, I'm weak. I've never been
anything else. It's not the demon in me that needs killing, Buffy. It's
the man. (Act 4)
Angel's decision to die to escape his painful struggle is just as destructive
to himself and to Buffy as would have been a decision to give in to
his evil nature. Choosing death as a means of escaping evil denies the
good half of his nature in which lies "the power to do real good,
to make amends" (Act 4). Buffy recognizes that the choice to "burn"
in the morning sunrise would make Angel a "coward" and a "monster"
(Act 4). In choosing to destroy himself, Angel would also be choosing
not to fight to express the good that exists within him alongside the
evil. With insight into Angel's internal struggle from her access to
his dreams and her emotional connection to him, Buffy insists while
that any suicide will have to be undergone alone, fighting for good
is something she and Angel "can do. . . together" (Act 4).
This belief that Angel should struggle to realize the good within himself
ultimately saves him from giving into his destructive impulses.
Within the greater framework of Good and Evil within which the series
situates Buffy and Angel's plight, "Amends" depicts Angel's
survival as a tentative triumph of Good. Nature - the closest thing
to a benevolent God in the Buffy universe - demonstrates its approval
when, in the instant in which Buffy has convinced Angel that they can
fight his struggle together, it begins to snow - something that has
not happened in Sunnydale, California, "in, well, ever," according
to a television weatherman (Act 4). The episode's concluding shots,
of Angel and Buffy walking together through the snow-covered streets
of Sunnydale, emphasize their recognition of the power of mutual understanding
and togetherness. Angel and Buffy, prevented from ever before spending
the daytime hours together because of Angel's vampire nature, have been
rewarded in their struggle for good - if only with the chance to spend
a single day together.
Such a reward is necessarily fragile. Ultimately, neither Good nor
Evil rises fully triumphant from "Amends." Angel and Buffy's
reward is only temporary. "Sunnydale residents shouldn't expect
to see the sun at all today," says the weatherman - not
this year or forever (my italics; Act 4). Success comes to Angel and
Buffy not in banishing the dark side of his nature but in recognizing
the impossibility of doing that. Though Angel's initial refusal to recognize
the evil within him results in his inability to see himself as anything
but evil, Buffy demonstrates to him the importance of the equal amount
of good he possesses. This good is reflected in her love for him and
in its positive constructive power even in the face of his darker nature.
For Buffy and Angel, dreams are not solutions. Rather,
dreams provide insight into their situation, themselves, and their emotional
connection. Though revelations self come from dreams, solutions - ways
to fight against evil and weakness - comes from characters working together.
Though it presents surprisingly complex view of self-perception for
a television series supposedly concerned with the physical battle between
Good and Evil, Buffy the Vampire Slayer's exploration of these
forces on both exterior and interior levels ensures that while episodes
like "Amends" remain true to the demon-fighting impulse at
the heart of the series, they also delve into issues of self-knowledge
familiar to audiences from medieval times until today. Good, evil, and
dream visions - Tuesdays on the WB.
Whedon, Joss, creator. "Amends." Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The WB Network. 15
Originally web-posted at http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~dedeo/ by the author.