Hopefully-provocative title aside, my GF puts a question in response to the heartbreaking Angel episode 'A Hole in the World': Does Joss Whedon kill his major male characters anywhere near as often as he offs his central females? The answer is obviously NO, he doesn't. So the real question is: why not? From which we get to a whole host of other more specific questions, but let's approach through that one. Why not?
[Note: This is just about as close as this blog comes to full-on lit-crit. It also assumes familiarity with Joss Whedon's work, though I hope to surprise even fans dropping some references to his writing beyond Buffy. Still, this is more highfalutin' than is traditional around these parts. Forewarned is forearmed.]
[Note 2: New readers (if there are any), find some other writing on Joss/Buffy/etc. here, here, here, here (a long post about fandom and subjective combat(!)), here (on the different ways The Sopranos and Buffy treat dreams), and here (spoilery for Angel's final story arc, so my housemates, don't read!).]
[Note 3: Whedonesque types, to clarify, while I may have buried the lede here, the implied answer to this deliberately silly, improperly framed titular question is 'Yes, but Angel is problematic.' Welcome again - please leave a comment if you'd like.]
The first and least satisfying answer is nothing more than: 'Numbers.' Most of the main characters on Buffy are women, and they're often in combat and conflict, so it makes sense that they'd be killed off (cf. Buffy, Anya, Kendra, Jenny Calendar, etc.). Angel was never positioned as that kind of explicitly feminist statement, and its recovery-from-checkered-and-brutal-past themes (Angel is a private detective with a drinking problem, remember) are much harder to rework in primarily-female stories, so its cast is largely male; as Fred puts it in 'A Hole in the World,' she 'walks with heroes,' '[her] boys,' even if Whedon regularly undercuts standard masculine/feminine expectations - as when Gunn is caught singing 'Three Little Maids' and tries to cover by turning it into a rap, but can't remember any rap lyrics. Firefly centered on Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his role on the outskirsts of (traditionally male-dominated) society, but as Whedon has pointed out, he can't help turning it into a show about a 'teen girl with superpowers,' namely River Tam. Whedon's inversions of standard sex-role formulae - the whore is the most powerful public figure on the ship, the formidable second-in-command on the ship is a married woman whose husband feels a combination of inferiority complex, willful submissiveness, and fear of cuckoldry, while the greasy ship's mechanic is a cute little girl - work as statements about culture on that show, and complicate the group dynamic. But when the time comes to start killing regulars on Firefly (or rather, in its film sequel, Serenity), he offs the husband and the priest. Whoever's more numerous does the dying on Firefly and Buffy.
But again, there's Angel, on which the following women die suffering horribly (we haven't watched up to the finale yet, and I won't talk about it though it plays into this argument): Fred, Cordelia, Darla, Lilah. The little girl in the White Room is brutally killed (though admittedly she's only a physical manifestation of all-powerful evil), and the particular way in which both Cordy, Fred, and Darla die is uniquely female: they die (or are rendered comatose) in childbirth.* Angel is a show largely about men in which the genre formulae seem to dictate that women bite the dust. And if you've just seen Angel's fourth season, in which a goddess bursts forth from Cordy to terrorize the world, you can be forgiven for raising an eyebrow when, a year later, a goddess bursts forth from Fred to (etc.).
But I credit Whedon with almost superhuman craftsmanship and commitment to egalitarian principles; if he's killing girls off left and right in his stories I imagine his reasons aren't the usual ones. He's got his fetishes like everyone else - notice how often shirtless males are made to endure torture on all three of his shows, particularly in the third season of Buffy, with Angel in the role of victim/convalescent much of the time, down to the finale - but I think the mortality rates on his shows tend to reflect the unique and progressive reordering of power that is a major theme in all his work. Think too of Alien: Resurrection, a middling film at the center of which are a mother-clone and daughter-robot, along with a dumb ox of a guy for ineffectual company. And of the sacrifice of the buddy-cop in Speed. And of the percentage of Angel and Buffy's adventures in which females end up aggressors (from praying mantis teacher lady to the demon of the Doublemeat to Glory to Illyria to the Amazons in 'She' to Willow's S6 rampage to the astonishing richness of Faith, Buffy's alter-ego, and on to the Primitive, the central figure in Buffy's evocative mythology). Among Whedon's work, Angel trades in the most problematic (from a feminist-evaluative standpoint) gender relations of all his shows, but it follows the general lines of his work, which is pointedly and consistently progressive.
Lilah, for instance, is killed only after being emotionally and physically weakened: The Beast has given her a wound that won't close (with a molten finger to the midsection),** and she's staying with her ex-boyfriend Wesley while they work to stop the Apocalypse (only sort-of-)together. Lilah was the gloriously sexual castrating legal-eagle bitch-goddess of Angel, but by her death midway through Season Four she'd been pummeled by an abusive coworker, let down none-too-gently by her XBF Wesley, and lived in a constant state of barely-concealed terror that Angel would harm her. Angel endured his share of torture on that show - far beyond it, actually - but Lilah's treatment at his hands was sometimes downright cruel. He'd have killed her (as Angelus), given the chance - but then Cordelia, or rather whatever demon was inhabiting Cordy's body, took care of that for him. Lilah was laid low before dying, running scared (like Jenny Calendar - no slouch herself). And even as villainess, Cordy was a victim; same for Lilah; same for Darla, whom Angel fucked 'til they were both blue in the face in Season Two and who came back huge with devil-child in S3 so she could kill herself in an alleyway. Did she find redemption? Why yes she did. Right before buying it while having a kid.
But then you might point out that pregnant Darla was also the most powerful being on the show in Season Three - able to toss Angel all over the place, empowered by the living thing inside her. She was Angel's craftiest foe, to whom he had the closest and most twisted relationship, and she came nearest to destroying him utterly - and far from being simply victimized by pregnancy, she was humanized by it, attaining in her final weeks an admirable complexity and humanness of character. By taking her own life, she embodied a feminist-poetic principle ill-suited to plain ol' structural analysis: there are costs that only women can bear, and in paying them strong women can acquire unique vision. Remember, Darla gets to come back briefly in Season Four to play the wise mother from beyond the grave, setting Connor against his then-lover, Cordelia. The kid doesn't stand a chance against one woman stewarding the next generation of Joss's creations; against two he's hopeless, a pinball. That scene - in which Darla fails to prevent Connor from completing a dark ritual that requires the blood of a virgin - sets the sacrifice up as women's work, in which loverboy is just a pawn. A fighter so strong he can beat Angel and his pals in a brawl, but unlike Darla and Cordy he's slave to his adolescent impulses. Two of the three will end up dead, but they die as full-on combatants, agents, not just shells. From a narrative standpoint, Lilah is brought to the Hyperion Hotel just to die - she might easily have slunk off on her own. But the proximate function of her death is to force Wesley to decapitate her dead body - to make sure she doesn't come back a vampire - which is the respect accorded a warrior, not just a protective gesture by the sensitive ex-boyfriend.***
So what about Fred? She's struck down and never even gets a chance to fight (though look too at her 'I'm not the damsel in distress, Wesley' speech). Why? For one, because that's what Joss's L.A. does to women in particular. (Remember the foolish, sympathetic actress in Angel's first season, who seeks eternal youth because she's been eaten up by Hollywood's ludicrous expectations for starlets? But then remember also Anne, who fights and survives and is last seen running a successful homeless shelter she once might have inhabited.) The opening of 'A Hole in the World' illustrates that standard trope: the nervous parents, promises that Fred'll be careful in L.A. Cut suddenly to an homage to Aliens: Fred with a flamethrower, destroying a nest full of demon eggs. And then she heads home to study them: science geek, badass, adorable Southern girl, and head of a freaky sci-fi laboratory. So why is she punished? (She asks this question herself, on her deathbed.) In part, to symbolically echo the circumstances under which was found (hiding in a cave, waiting for a knight in shining armour to save her - who turns out to be a vicious demon who can't love her). Fred makes reference in that final episode to those days in the cave, and that episode's ending hinges on the fact that Angel can't save Fred - or rather, by doing so, he'd kill hundreds of thousands of people, and he won't do that. (He thinks he can make that decision, but can't - a major character moment, handled beautifully by Whedon and Boreanaz.) They boys gallop off to do good, they inflict some violence, but the die was cast 'millions of years ago' - and so Wesley does literally the only helpful thing he can do in that situation, namely to make Fred comfortable in her last moments. Her final words: 'Why can't I stay?' And the answer the show seems to offer, in my reading, is: because she's the one everyone tried to protect. Deals have been struck, a System has been erected and perpetuated, and the casualty in such a situation is always the person everyone makes it their first priority to keep safe.
Fred's not the damsel in distress, but the guys of Angel seem at some level to want her to be just that. (The love of Angel's life certainly worked that way!)
It's all there in the very first season of Buffy - a distilled and (in retrospect) surprisingly powerful articulation of Whedon's pet notions. In the finale of Buffy's first season, 'Prophecy Girl', Buffy finds out that she's fated to fight the Master and die. She has two conversations with Giles about her fate. In the first she cries and is heartbroken: 'I'm sixteen years old. I don't want to die.' And in the second she clocks him and marches off to war - after (to his credit) Giles tries to take up the burden himself, knowing it's suicide. In her ball gown ('By the way...love the dress') Buffy fights, and dies, and comes back, and though she dresses the part of damsel in distress, it's her refusal to lie down and be endangered that grants her victory. The finale of the show's seventh season works the same way - Buffy leads her troops into battle, and loses lots of them, and though she initially retreats, she explicitly refuses to let the Potential Slayers be 'scared little girls,' instead leading them down into Hell itself. Again, the various men in traditional seats of power (priests, Watchers, CEO's, principals, even the largely male army of vampires who 'make it their world') want to cast women as trophies in need of saving (or succubi in need of slaying, of course). And while Whedon sometimes seems to make a now-too-common extension of that schema by linking pregnancy and forcible imposition and invasion (an association of greater historical than contemporary-critical value, I would venture), his work generally gives its females plenty of chances to throw off the yoke of expectations and assume roles outside of standard gender-political orientations. Some fail. Oh well.****
The Illyria arc complicates the Fred-as-helpless-damsel vibe of the proceedings somewhat, though I don't want to discuss that here (since the GF does deign to read this bullshit once in a while and I don't want to spoil the surprises in store in Angel's final nine episodes). And since Cordelia's pregnancy was written into the existing Season Four Angel story arc around Charisma Carpenter's real-life pregnancy,***** it'd be necessary for a fuller consideration of the show to delve into the exigencies of production. Let's skip those considerations here, and say simply that Fred's death is as much a transition as a termination, and that Amy Acker's performance as Illyria was no small factor in the strength of late Season Five Angel. (Not to mention that it brought out some of Alexis Denisof's finest work as Wesley.) It was something Joss and Co. inflicted upon the character, of course, but it also preserves the position of an interesting, rich female in the group dynamic - just a different one.
Angel has always played on the macho-martyr vibe of its title character, never questioning the validity of his desire for redemption but periodically pointing up its pathetic or escapist sides. I believe the character reaches transformation and transcendence by the end of the Fifth Season, but I also think Carpenter's beautiful performance in the show's 100th episode (Cordelia's return) shows that Cordelia had achieved the same transformation. Why is it that Angel's cock-waving heroes end up costing the women around them their lives?
Maybe because, were the situations reversed, such losses might not be countenanced, such missteps made, such torture deserved and sustained. Angel doesn't get to go back to the earth from whence he came. Buffy does. (Someday Malcolm Reynolds will.) That fact says something about Joss, yes, but within his world it serves too as a song of Earth. What is lost and gained in death has nothing to do with body count.******
* Fred's 'pregnancy' is an infection, a transformation of her body, and the episode in which she dies is closer to Outbreak than Rosemary's Baby in plot and temperament. But the tale's body-angst and the helplessness of the men around her (who acquit themselves magnificently trying to save her) as she suffers alone with her beloved are linked, I think, to a generalized association of pregnancy (and the deadly, grotesque miracle of birth) with monstrosity in Whedon's work. Remember Ripley's gleeful words in Alien: Resurrection - 'There's a monster in your stomach. [...] In a few hours it will punch its way through your chest and you'll die. Any questions?' Stricken, the villain asks: 'Who are you?' 'I'm the monster's mother.' Not for nothing is the pregnancy that kills Cordelia her second such affliction.
** No symbolism there, of course.
*** Note that Holtz gets the same treatment from his adoptive son Connor. Watching characters bury a 'loved one' (as Wesley calls Lilah in a slip of the tongue) puts the audience in the position of grieving not for the departed but for the survivors; when Doyle died he got the last word (on video), and viewers mourned him, but Lilah was a peripheral character, as was Joyce Summers. The goal of fictional death is to render the aftermath, in Joss's world - one of the unique strengths of his TV work is the accretive melancholy of his fictional worlds, showing the way the constant presence of death weighs on the surviving characters.
**** Joss's more-or-less proxy, Xander Harris, is an extraordinary creation, not least because he comes to embody, organically, a healthily imperfect masculinity that's tied to an appreciation of both the unique strengths of the superpowered women around him and a willingness to accept traditional masculine responsibility - at least until his massive, character-altering fuckup at the altar in Season Six of Buffy ('Hell's Bells'). By leaving his bride at the altar Xander took, in that episode, a position more critical of than continuous with his previous identity. But without talking about the show's authorship - who was running things - it's hard to discuss the shifts in Season Six. And that's well beyond this post's ambit.
***** Apparently on-set relations were imperfect at the time, not least because of this sudden change. Remember that she didn't come back for the fifth season. How could they? But then again, how could they not?
****** For ANS, who wouldn't have put it in such simplistic terms as those but rather pointed up my own tendency to do so. Reading alongside her is one unprecedented pleasure; writing for her is another.