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Postmodern Village
est. 1999
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Good and Evil in the Realm of the Interior:
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 within himself.

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 both?

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 on life.

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 torturous.

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 dark side.

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 evil merge.

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 with him.

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.

Works Cited

Whedon, Joss, creator. "Amends." Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The WB Network. 15
December 1998.

Originally web-posted at http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~dedeo/ by the author.