Thursday, July 29, 2010

SW/TX PCA/ACA Conference Paper by Samira Nadkarni, University of Aberdeen, Scotland


“Is that a footnote, or are you just happy to see me?”: Examining Meta-narrative in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog


“All that matters: taking matters into your own hands,” sings Dr. Horrible in the 2008 web series Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. The show, a social satire in three acts, seems to rely on certain established narratives to constitute itself, working through the audience's participation within an established framework, a media-savvy community that is able to understand throwaway comments and asides and the layering they are intended to provide. Yet the series and its associated musical commentary subverts and destabilizes these dominant ideologies, re-appropriating them to a new purpose, and thus this paper aims to discuss the presence and subversion of these meta-narratives. However the events of the actual “making-of” commentary itself, included only in the DVD edition, will be ignored in favour of focusing on the framework established by the scripted performance and its potential effects upon a media-fandom community.
The social satire contained within the series is simultaneously both, remarkably multi-faceted and yet almost simplistic in its depiction. Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is based upon the premise of a world filled with heroes and villains, focusing on Dr. Horrible and his nemesis Captain Hammer and their mutual love interest, Penny. In doing so, the show borrows from a number of stereotypes within the established universe of superhero comics; for example Dr. Horrible comments at the start of the series that he has hired a vocal coach because:
Dr. Horrible: A lot of guys ignore the laugh, and that's about standards. I mean, if you're going to get into the Evil League of Evil you have to have a memorable laugh. What, do you think Bad Horse didn't work on his whinny? His terrible death whinny.
Further examples include the self-proclaimed hero, Captain Hammer's invulnerability, his ability to continually best his nemesis, Dr. Horrible in battle, and as per established guidelines, that the hero ends up with the girl - in this case, do-gooder Penny. The audience's understanding of the series's underlying satire is predicated upon their knowledge of these stereotypes and the manipulation they undergo within the confines of the series. The viewer is compelled to place the events within a narrative that presumes the triumph of good over evil, i.e. within a dominant meta-narrative that is informed not only by the genre of the superhero universe, but also by a moral narrative propounded within society. Arguably, the series destabilizes these by revealing Captain Hammer to be the “corporate tool” of Dr. Horrible's early claims, whereas Dr. Horrible himself, while claiming to have “a PhD in horribleness,” is shown far more sympathetically. The audience realizes, as we are meant to, that Dr. Horrible (or Billy, his alter-ego) is in fact the (anti)hero of the piece. As in previous works such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Serenity and Dollhouse, co-writer and director Joss Whedon challenges these tropes and demonstrates that they are not as rigid as one might think; good and evil are simply matters of interpretation.
The term “meta-narrative” is used here with specific reference to Jean-Francois Lyotard’s assumption that there is in fact a representation of universal truth, one commonly but not exclusively associated with a positive ethico-political end, which, once communicated between a sender and an addressee would then be intellectually binding for all rational minds. This notion of meta-narratives was commonly associated with modernism, and it is possible to argue that in part by adopting the superhero genre, the golden age of which was considered to be in the 1930s and 40s, and placing it within a field that is almost aggressively post-modern, the show implies a continuing presence of meta-narratives, the old order challenged by Dr. Horrible. As he states, he is “destroying the status quo, because the status is not quo. The world is a mess and I just need to rule it.”
It is interesting to note that Lyotard believed that meta-narratives no longer had a legitimate place in the post-modern world, laying credence instead with micro-narratives, an argument he formulated based on Wittgenstein's theory of “language games.” This theory then argues that while there are no broad over-arching narratives, there are a number of smaller narratives or micro-narratives that society uses to regulate itself through linguistic conduct. Thus, in order to establish what one might term a certain ruling system, a unified narrative which consolidates people into a community, there is the requirement that there be a sense of shared understanding, that certain words be taken for certain things. Identity in this community is grounded around the “throwaways” in language, the agreed-upon clich├ęs and commonplaces that are taken for granted. And it is that which is taken for commonplace, for unsaid, that allows for the formation of links between individuals and the formation of a community. What one encounters in this manner is the unsaid, a truth represented in pure form that will inevitably provoke a response. There remains no doubt about them; rationality and a shared sense of understanding ensure a reaction.[1]
However, it seems possible to argue that with the onset of a global culture and the amalgamation of a global community, there is once more the possibility of narratives that can no longer fall merely within the space of a micro-narrative. Rather, these narratives are assumed to be fact, enforced by a shared knowledge or shared history; a fact that when coupled with the globalizing influence of the media allows for the possibility of unified narratives or meta-narratives. Thus, within the global phenomenon that is television and the internet there is the propagation of an over-arching set of narratives, what one might term a media culture that compels certain common narratives among its viewers who use the same to validate themselves as part of an ongoing society, a community alive and responsive to these selves.
Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog then functions not merely within the space of a well-established narrative - the superhero genre - but also within a space where the viewer's own global culture is incorporated. The series is framed such that the audience is provided a certain amount of information through the recordings Dr. Horrible creates for his video blog, drawing the viewer into the events occurring and placing him or her among Dr. Horrible’s online followers, a list that includes not only other viewers within the audience of this film, but also fictional members such as Captain Hammer and the story-bound LAPD. In this manner, the lines between reality and fiction appear to blur. Moreover, this effect is propounded by the associated musical commentary which, while meant to provide what one might term “real” information such as the history of the show, the artistic process involved, anecdotes involving the cast and crew, or a deeper insight into the characters portrayed, instead displays a continued fictional confine, a scripted performance. This applies largely to the characterization of the actors involved, with this performance often blurring the lines between their character in the series and the supposed reality of themselves that they perform:
Nathan Fillion: Look there Felicia goes/ Another deal you couldn't close, yeah. ... I'm better/ Better than Neil/ At - where do I start?/ Romantic appeal./ We both went for Penny/ And who copped a feel?/ The true man of steel./ I'm better than Neil.[2]
It could be argued that the viewer is not only drawn into the patently fictional confine of the show, but that the commentary – elucidating real-time events such as the strike held by the Writer’s Guild of America (2007-08), Maurissa Tancharoen’s writing of Penny’s lines, and the cast and crews’ supposed fascination with the game of Ninja Ropes – also places the film within a reality external to itself. The viewer is led into a space within which the ideological discourse by which they navigate cannot be said to be informed merely by the narrative presented to them; the cultural discourse and basic social patterns that surround them will also play a role in the means of interpretation.


The show's attempts to establish itself within certain fields of narrative then seems to prioritize an analysis of the various communities depicted within its frame, as well as the series's own effects upon a media-fandom community both within and outside of this narrative. Arguably, by placing the series within the confines of the superhero genre, the viewer's attention is drawn not merely to the established social mores and the conventions of law and order, but also to the transgressions of, and ambivalence towards, these mores and conventions, the latter usually depicted by the villain in question. However, the show raises certain pivotal questions with regard to these transgressions, inquiring into the communities depicted and the transgressed social norms in question. It seems clear that both heroes and villains (represented by Captain Hammer and Dr. Horrible respectively) can be seen to be members of differing communities, each with its own social norms, hierarchy, and strictures. And while Captain Hammer adheres to the basic social patterns applied by “normal people” or society at large, Dr. Horrible in turn is merely adhering to the behavioral blueprint for his own community of evil-doers. This theory seems borne out by Dr. Horrible's attempts to advance to a higher status of villainy by entering the Evil League of Evil, and being unable to do so until passing an evaluation by Bad Horse, “the thoroughbred of sin,” in which he is ordered to perform “A heinous crime, a show of force/ (A murder would be nice, of course.)” Thus, while convention within this genre would dictate that the villain in question represent a force of anarchy, Dr. Horrible's efforts are still merely an attempt to conform.
Notably, unlike traditional formulations within the superhero comic genre, the villain in this case is not constituted within a Freudian parable as the id, nor is the hero representative of either the ego [as per the character of Batman] or the superego [as per the portrayal of Superman]. Rather, if one attempts to place the main characters within this formulation, it would appear that Captain Hammer, the supposed hero of the piece would represent the id, Dr. Horrible, the self-proclaimed villain would depict the ego, and finally, Penny, the moralistic do-gooder would take the place of the superego. Thus, we see Dr. Horrible agonize over his entry into the Evil League of Evil, an entry predicated upon the immoral act of murder:
Moist: Kill someone?
Dr. Horrible: Would you do it? To get into the Evil League of Evil?
Moist: Look at me, man. I’m Moist. At my most bad-ass I make people feel like they want to take a shower. I’m not E.L.E material.
Dr. Horrible: Killing’s not elegant or creative. It’s not my style.
Moist: You’ve got more than enough evil hours to get into the Henchman’s Union.
Dr. Horrible: Pshaw. I’m not a henchman. I’m Dr. Horrible. I have a P.H.D. in horribleness.
Moist: Is that the new catch phrase?
Dr. Horrible: I deserve to get in. You know I do. But killing? Really?
Moist: Hourglass says she knows a kid in Iowa that grows up to become president. That’d be big.
Dr. Horrible: I’m not gonna kill a little kid.
Moist: Smother an old lady.
Dr. Horrible: Do I even know you?
Meanwhile, Captain Hammer baits Dr. Horrible at the laundromat, informing him of his intent to sleep with the woman of his dreams purely because Dr. Horrible cares for her:
Captain Hammer: You got a little crush, don’t you Doc? Well that’s gonna make this hard to hear. See, later I’m gonna take little Penny back to my place, show her the Command Center, Hammer Cycle, maybe even the Ham-Jet. You think she likes me now? I’m gonna give Penny the night of her life. Just because you want her, and I get what you want. See, Penny’s giving it up. She’s givin’ it up hard, ‘cause she’s with Captain Hammer. And these (indicating his fists) are not the hammer. [Pause] The hammer is my penis.
Moreover, the characters of Dr. Horrible, a.k.a. Billy and Captain Hammer, seem to be closely associated with each other, so much so that the characterization of each appears curiously dependent upon the other. The viewer is first presented with this connection in the first act during “A Man's Gotta Do,” a song begun by Billy and yet, immediately after the first verse appropriated by Captain Hammer with the same refrain. This original co-dependency is then underlined by the fact that Captain Hammer decides to woo Penny beyond his usual seduction routines due to Dr. Horrible's crush on her, keeping her far longer than his other conquests simply because, as he says, he gets what Dr. Horrible wants. And most notably, at the climax of the series, at the very moment that Captain Hammer cannot help but feel, cannot help but be placed in a situation where he experiences real feeling for the first time, Billy claims that he no longer can.
It seems clear that the terms “hero” and “villain” within the series are not without a certain irony, and that in this particular case, the terms have then ceased their association with the traditional meanings. Rather, the destabilization of these signifiers within the field of the show appears to create what one might term a “pure signifier,” one that is freed from its previous associations at this point to be bound through the field of shared understanding to a new meaning within the media-fandom community that observes these fictional events. Thus, within this community of viewers, these terms and associations have taken on new meanings in the context of the series, i.e. a micro-narrative that is applicable within the context of a shared understanding.
Whedon's use of the superhero genre employs a further irony. Traditionally, superhero comics, especially those in the 1930s and 40s, were largely associated with the propaganda inherent in a war-torn and immediately post-war world. To accommodate their propagandistic function, communication was made as simple as possible with comics relying on rudimentary phrasing and formulaic plots. Whedon's representation of this genre, however, lacks this simplicity, with communication within and between various communities in the show being problematized, albeit for satiric or comic effect. For example in the case of Dr. Horrible (a.k.a. Billy) and Penny, the problem seems to arise either from his romantic interest in her:
Dr. Horrible: Love your hair.
Penny: What?
Dr. Horrible: No – I... love the... air.
or from his need to protect his identity as an evil villain; the need for subterfuge arising from his need to keep this side of himself hidden away from the moralistic do-gooder of his dreams:
Dr. Horrible: I wanna do great things, you know? I wanna be an achiever. Like Bad Horse…
Penny: The thoroughbred of sin?
Dr. Horrible: I meant Gandhi.
Subsequently, the viewer is given to note that this lack of communication is not restricted purely to the disparate communities of supposed good (or “normal”) and evil, as Captain Hammer also finds himself unable to effectively communicate with Penny due to excessive use of his signature metaphor:
Captain Hammer: Who wants to know what the Mayor is doing behind closed doors? He's signing over a certain building to a Caring Hands Group as a new homeless shelter.
Penny: Oh my God!
Captain Hammer: Yep. Apparently the only signature he needed was my fist. But with a pen in it. That I was signing with.
He also appears to fumble during his speech to the assembled crowd gathered to witness the opening of the shelter, pausing inappropriately during the opening to his speech:
Captain Hammer: I hate the homeless... ness problem that plagues our city.
The viewer is not exempt from this attempt at failed communication either. As previously stated, the viewer is drawn into the confines of the fictional space itself, made to assume the place of the audience. Thus, the viewer is included in the failure to communicate demonstrated both, by Dr. Horrible in his stuttering video blog entries, as well as the newscasters who announce:
Newscaster (female): It's a good day to be homeless.
Newscaster (male): [laughs] That it is.
This problematization of communication, while intended for satiric effect, then also simultaneously performs the function of interrupting any attempts to posit the series and its associations with the superhero genre as mere propaganda. The narrative undermines itself, its interruptions or effects revealing the ludicrous nature of modern communication, both within the series and in the viewer's own reality that relies so heavily on standardized phrasing and pithy metaphors.
Furthermore, it is possible to view Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog itself, along with Commentary! The Musical, as informing a meta-narrative of media by contrasting the relatively controlled media environment of television with the readily accessible broadcast media of the internet and its potential as a site for independent cinema.[3] The viewer's own knowledge of Joss Whedon's work with television, and his well-documented concerns regarding the creative constraints and lack of artistic control afforded to him lend credence to this theory.[4] There can be no doubt that the internet is currently one of the largest up and coming arenas for media with various web-series gaining rapid popularity such as The Guild (2007), We Need Girlfriends (2006), The Legend of Neil (2008), Dorm Life (2008) and many more. And as Carolyn Marvin presciently notes in her book When Old Technologies were New (1988):
For if it is the case, as it is fashionable to assert, that media give shape to the imaginative boundaries of modern communities, then the introduction of new media is a special historical occasion when patterns anchored in older media that have provided stable currency of social exchange are re-examined, challenged and defended.[5]
Thus, while television’s current meta-discourse is specific to modes of production, associated commercialism and viewership, it is possible that the growing popularity of the internet as a viable site for independent cinema would then place it in a position to challenge some of these discourses. For example, Dr. Horrible’s video blog can be seen to depict not only a means by which to propound individual cinema at costs far below those conventionally associated with works for television, but also a production that is free to view and available to a global audience. This would also mirror the production of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog which was marketed via Hulu.com, and was originally available free to viewers in its online format.[6] In this manner, it seems that while the web-series might have been written and produced in an effort to respond to the issues being raised by the strike held by the Writer’s Guild of America (2007-08), which affected television production, it also worked to disrupt the dominant meta-discourse of television. This entry into web-based production and distribution is an incursion that destabilizes television’s current monopoly.
All: As the fall turns into winter/ There appears a bunch of splinter / Groups who wonder what this inter -/ net is like.
While the tide is turning tepid/ And while the town is feeling trepi -/ datious time for us to step up/ to the mic.
We’ve got all these dynamite plots to use/ It’s time to light the fuse or lose/ The Strike.
Television’s ideological discourse is inextricably interwoven with commercial and promotional rationale, and it is clear that in order to succeed, where success is measured in terms of viewing figures and sales, one is forced to play to particular assumptions. As the chorus so clearly notes in the opening track “Commentary!”:
All: Everyone loves these “making-ofs”/ The story behind the scenes./ The way that we got that one cool shot./ And what it all means.
We’ll talk about the writing./ We’ll probably say “It’s great!”/ And the acting – so exciting./ Except for Nate.
Cast: Bring back the cast, we’ll have a blast/ Discussing the days of yore./ Moments like these sell DVDs.
Writers: We need to sell more./ We’ve only sold four.
It seems that the musical commentary’s clear mocking of these assumptions appears to adhere to the promotional logic so associated with current media culture, while simultaneously avoiding placing itself completely within this field. The performance both inhabits this commercial space, its intention clearly to appeal to the audience, while its satiric element seeks to disrupt. It mocks from this privileged yet dissenting position, playing both to and against the dominant meta-narrative of promotional culture so entrenched in film and television, forcing the audience to constantly re-assess.
As a result, the commentary acts as a footnote to the show itself, but not as convention would dictate. Instead, it inhabits the edge, the margins, and speaks with impunity from this position, its mockery all the more powerful for the fact that it speaks in response to an unasked question. The commentary presumes that “everyone loves these ‘making ofs’” and that “moments like these sell DVDs,” but what the audience is in fact confronted with is not the true making of, or even a proper discussion of the writing process. Instead, one encounters what one might almost term “throw away” tracks such as “10 Dollar Solo,” “Zack’s Rap,” “Ninja Ropes,” and “Steve’s Song.” Moreover, songs such as “All About Me,” “Nobody’s Asian in the Movies” and “Heart, Broken” all seem to undermine meta-narratives propounded by or within the media, dealing with issues as diverse as the urge for fame, potential racial discrimination, and the constant need for clarification of the artistic process.
Having discussed the commercial and promotional rationale so entrenched in current media culture, it then seems prudent to call particular attention to “Heart, Broken,” the eleventh track on Commentary! The Musical. Written primarily as a solo for Joss Whedon, it explores his despair at constantly being called upon to explain the narrative in question, the commentary expressing a castigation of the commodification of art and the artistic process. The song is arguably a classic example of a satiric attack on present day meta-narratives of fame and mass-production:
Joss Whedon: …[My heart’s] broken by the endless loads/ Of making-ofs and mobisodes/ The tie-ins, prequels, games and codes/ The audience buys/ The narrative dies/ Stretched and torn./ Hey, spoiler warning:
We’re gonna pick, pick/ Pick, pick, pick it apart./ Open it up to find the/ Tick, tick, tick of a heart./ A heart, broken.
Jed: Joss, why do you rail against the biz?/ You know that’s just the way it is/ You’re making everybody mis-
Zack: These out-of-date philosophies/ are for the dinner table, please./ We have to sell some DVDs.
Jed, Maurissa, Zack: Without these things you spit upon/ You’d find your fame and fanbase gone.
Maurissa: You’d be ignored at Comic-Con.
Joss: I sang some things I didn’t mean./ Okay, let’s talk about this scene./ I think it’s great how Ryan Green – / Oh no, this is no good./ I thought J-Mo would back my play/ Now Zack and they all say –
All: We’re gonna pick, pick/ Pick, pick, pick you apart./ Open you up and stop the/ tick, tick, tick of a heart./ A heart…
It seems that at this point, Whedon is not merely addressing the production houses and television syndicates that would place emphasis on the need for mass production, although these are no doubt represented within the song by the voices of Maurissa Tancharoen, Jed, and Zack Whedon. Potentially, Whedon is addressing the viewer, the audience at large. “Heart, Broken” is all but a call to arms against this commodification, albeit one firmly entrenched in irony.
Finally, the series seems to suggest, the choice lies with the viewer. Whedon’s subversive argument echoes Dr. Horrible’s own words - all that matters is taking matters into your own hands. It is possible to view Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog as Whedon's challenge to the authoritarian narratives that popular culture has set in place, the global phenomenon presenting us not only with the presence of these potential meta-narratives, but also the ability to evaluate and perhaps reject them. As Mila Bongco notes:
The world is very different from that of thirty years ago: the bases of power have shifted, and so have ways of understanding them. Old certainties have gone, though new and perhaps equally repressive authoritarianisms have emerged. These, in their turn, must be challenged.[7]


Notes:

1. All song lyrics referenced from Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (2008) have been obtained from the official website: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture)http://www.drhorrible.com/linernotes.html [accessed on 28 December, 2009].
2. All song lyrics referenced from Commentary! The Musical, an additional feature of Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog (2008), have been obtained from the official website: Commentary! The Musicalhttp://www.drhorrible.com/commentary.html [accessed on 28 December, 2009].
Bibliography:

Primary Sources:

Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog, Dir. Joss Whedon (Hulu.com, 2008).



Secondary Sources:

Books:

Bongco, Mila, Reading Comics: Language, Culture, and the Concept of the Superhero in Comic Books(New York: Garland Publishing Inc, 2000).

Lyotard, Jean-Francois, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984; reprinted and translated from Les Editions de Minuit, 1979).
Marvin, Carolyn, When Old Technologies Were New (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).



Essays:

Anna-Louse Milne, 'The Power of Dissimulation: “When You Are Only Three White Men...”, in Yale French Studies, No 106, The Power of Rhetoric, the Rhetoric of Power: Jean Paulhan's Fiction, Criticism and Editorial Activity (2004), pp. 109 – 124.



Online Content:

Commentary! The Musical http://www.drhorrible.com/commentary.html [accessed on 28 December, 2009].
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture)http://www.drhorrible.com/linernotes.html [accessed on 28 December, 2009].
Kushner, David, 'Joss Whedon Goes Where No TV Man Has Gone Before', in RollingStone.comhttp://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/25951789/joss_whedon_goes_where_no_tv_man_has_gone_before[accessed on 12 January, 2010].

PEOPLE Magazine, ‘Exclusive: Neil Patrick Harris tells PEOPLE he’s Gay’,http://www.people.com/people/article/0,26334,1554852,00.html [accessed on 30 December, 2009].
Whedon, Joss, in http://www.whedon.info/Joss-Whedon-s-Reaction-About-Angel.html [accessed 12 January, 2010].



[1] Anna-Louse Milne, 'The Power of Dissimulation: “When You Are Only Three White Men...”, in Yale French Studies, No 106, The Power of Rhetoric, the Rhetoric of Power: Jean Paulhan's Fiction, Criticism and Editorial Activity (2004), p. 120. Although Milne's argument is based on Jean Paulhan's fiction and criticism, the context of Milne's theory of the formulation of a community seems more than related to Wittgenstein's theory of “language games.”
[2] 'Better than Neil', Commentary! The Musical, in Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog, Dir. Joss Whedon (Hulu.com, 2008). Nathan Fillion's lyrics here refer in the same manner to both Felicia Day as well as her character Penny, overlapping the two into a single entity. Furthermore, the viewer would also be aware that Neil Patrick Harris, having openly declared his homosexuality in People Magazine (Nov 3, 2006) would be unlikely to be interested in any pursuit of Felicia Day, unlike his fictional counterpart Dr. Horrible.http://www.people.com/people/article/0,26334,1554852,00.html [accessed on 30 December, 2009].
[3] David Kushner, 'Joss Whedon Goes Where No TV Man Has Gone Before', in RollingStone.comhttp://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/25951789/joss_whedon_goes_where_no_tv_man_has_gone_before[accessed on 12 January, 2010].
[4] While Joss Whedon's blog is no longer available online, certain websites have copies of his entries. I've chosen to access these instead in order to provide evidence for the statement I've chosen to make.http://www.whedon.info/Joss-Whedon-s-Reaction-About-Angel.html [accessed 12 January, 2010].
[5] Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 4.
[6] Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog was initially ad-supported and available to viewers free of charge via Hulu.com. However, the series is no longer available for free view outside of the United States of America and must be purchased in individual acts via iTunes or as a DVD.
[7] Mila Bongco, Reading Comics: Language, Culture, and the Concept of the Superhero in Comic Books(New York: Garland Publishing Inc, 2000), p. 94.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

SW/TX PCA/ACA Conference Paper by Mary Ellen Iatropoulos, SUNY New Paltz

"Look Where Free Will Has Gotten You": Brave New World
and Angel’s Body Jasmine
In the foreword to the twentieth-anniversary edition of Brave New World, author Aldous Huxley states that “a really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which...slaves do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude” (xv). What tyrants face, according to Huxley, is “the problem of happiness;” that is, the challenge of manufacturing the illusion of utopian paradise under which oppression operates undetected as people are conditioned to feel comforted by the very society that oppresses them (xv). Jasmine, an arguably dystopian despot, appears in Angel’s season four and meets Huxley’s definition of efficient dictator by enthralling all whom she encounters into blissful subservience. The Jasmine arc bears striking resemblance to Huxley’s vision of dystopia, interacting with the literary model in ways that at first seem to subvert dystopian conventions. Yet, the seemingly subversive depiction of literary dystopia the Jasmine arc offers us ultimately retreats into containment and convention, concluding (just as Huxley did over 70 years ago) with an ominous warning about the nature of free will and the human tendency to prefer control to chaos.
In order to establish fictive landscapes as dystopian, critic Peter Edgerly Firchow relates, the world must feel undesirable in relation to contemporary society (10). Towards this end, the dystopian genre depicts characters as sincerely oblivious to absurdly oppressive conditions. For example, as Brave New World opens, the platitudinous “Director of Hatcheries” escorts students through what readers recognize as a eugenics laboratory, describing the fertilization processes for different castes within the “social body” – including growth-inhibitors for the underclass Epsilon embryos so that they never develop beyond simian intelligence and remain complacent workers (3-15). “What an enormous saving to the community!” smiles the Director (15). Of course, the discord between his loving words and the horrific “progress” he describes alerts readers to the nightmarish underbelly of this brave new world.
We see a similar sort of irony contextualizing the introduction of the Jasmine arc, the final six episodes of the fourth season: "Players" (4.17), "Shiny Happy People (4.18), “The Magic Bullet” (4.19), “Sacrifice” (4.20), “Peace Out” (4.21), and “Home” (4.22). Early on in “Shiny Happy People,” for example, when the mystically impregnated Cordelia gives birth to the mysterious goddess Jasmine, Angel and Connor gaze upon her but momentarily and, united in worship and wonder, immediately cease fighting each other and fall to their knees. This sudden camaraderie in reverence comes off as troubling and absurd – mere moments before, they’d been locked in mortal combat – and their devotion to Jasmine is so comically sudden and absolute that the audience immediately recognizes it to be an illusion, a brainwashing tool wielded by dystopian power seeking to mask its insidious agenda. Team Angel reinforces this irony in the following scene as well. While an anxious Team Angel awaits their hero’s return while he’s off fighting Connor and Cordy, they speculate over the status of his mission, whether Cordelia’s given birth to a monster, whether she’s still alive. As the Jasmine-struck Angel and Connor wistfully wander back into the team’s home base, the team rallies around them, assuming the estranged father and son are beaten and bruised from fighting Cordelia’s progeny. But as the team prepares to hunt and kill the unknown entity that’d been controlling Cordy from within her womb, Connor protests that killing is out of the question. “Since when?” questions Gunn. “Since we’ve all been saved,” rejoins Angel, in language reminiscent of religious epiphany and spiritual conversion (4.18). Fred replies in disbelief: “Um....well, that’s just....crazy talk,” confirming for the audience that Angel and Connor appear deluded from their perspective in the show as well as our perspective from without. Yet Angel, smiling and serene, takes the team’s weapons away from them, saying “We don’t want to kill her. We just want to find her. So we can worship her. That’s all” (4.18). Team Angel continues to express astonishment that Angel and Connor could be deluded by something so obviously false, and persist in attempting to convince Angel and Connor that their bliss is an enchantment. Wesley even explicitly urges them to remember the horrors Jasmine caused even while in her mothers womb, reminding them: “it’s a spell. It’s evil” (4.18). Yet Wesley’s appeal is in vain, for literally seconds later, Jasmine enters, bedazzling the rest of Team Angel and causing them to fall silently to the ground in reverence. Even after acknowledging the dystopian power lurking behind the veil, Team Angel assumes the same ludicrous devotion they themselves had been criticizing mere moments before, underscoring the irony and securing the show’s landscape under Jasmine as dystopian.
A second element of Huxley’s that Angel revisits is a protagonist who shares with the audience disgust for and disenchantment with dystopian society, and who undergoes what I call the “anagnoristic arc:” the successive occurrence of four narrative events. The first event, anagnorisis, is the clear recognition of oppression behind the charade of utopia– another way to think of it, it’s when you realize “To Serve Man” is a cookbook, or that, gasp, “Soylent Green is people!” The second event, excursion, is a journey taken beyond the reaches of dystopian society, from which they return equipped with information to threaten the system. The third event, moral negotiation, features the protagonist deliberating whether to sacrifice safety and happiness, and the fourth is attempted subversion, in which the protagonist attempts to overthrow the dystopian system.
As Brave New World unfolds, the character Bernard moves along an anagnoristic arc, becoming aware that the social body robs individuals of crucial freedoms.
He exhibits discontent, wishing he were “not just a cell in the social body” (88). He wants to escape, and escape he does, to a degree. He journeys to the so-called “savage land,” an American Indian reservation unaffected by social body governance. Here, Bernard discovers Linda, who was stranded there twenty years ago by the Director of Hatcheries, and her son, John, who was born on the reservation. Returning with these two “savages” in tow, Bernard exposes the Director’s past and gets him fired for imposing the horror of natural childbirth on Linda (since children are engineered in test tubes, natural childbirth is considered obscene). Yet, as Bernard negotiates how much farther to push his discovery, he moves away from anagnoristic conviction and ends up bartering his specimens for more privilege under the dystopian regime. When John the savage attempts to galvanize a riot, Bernard meekly watches, and later, when he’s informed that he’s going to be exiled, he’s dragged away, screaming – “I haven’t done anything! It was the others! I promise I’ll do what I ought to do, give me another chance” (232). Bernard’s inability to sacrifice his newfound celebrity cause him to retreat into complacency, and the social body continues its utopian illusion undeterred.
In Angel we see not one, but three interrelated anagnoristic arcs, each showcasing a resolve to subvert dystopia that Huxley’s protagonist never achieves: Fred, Team Angel, and Angel himself. To begin, Fred undergoes anagnorisis when she gets her blood mixed with Jasmine’s, breaking the spell and glimpsing the reality behind Jasmine’s illusion. Unlike Bernard’s tepid, hesitant misgivings that stretch out over time,

Fred instantly rebels, attempting to warn her friends even as they turn on her, forcing her to flee into the sewers. Fred’s flight amounts to excursion in that she, just like Bernard, seeks solutions beyond the borders of dystopian power, yet Angel reconfigures Huxley's convention to feature not self-imposed exile, but rather a fugitive being hunted. This revision serves to characterize Jasmine's spell as malicious and vindictive, further demonstrating to the audience the dystopian reality operating behind her enchantment. Fred further mirrors Bernard as Angel revisits a trope found in Huxley, the ritualistic handholding circle, during Fred’s period of flight. In Huxley, this convention takes the shape of the Solidarity Service, at which 12 people hold hands in a circle– “twelve of them ready to be made one, waiting to come together, to be fused, to lose their twelve separate identities into a larger being” (80). The twelve beat out a rhythm on their own bodies, going around the circle reciting platitudes as the beat grows and swells and erupts into an orgasmic collective cry lauding the social body. Yet Bernard feels nothing, and afterwards, “he was as miserably isolated now as he was when the service began – more isolated” (86). Thus the ritual circle, intended to physically connect members of the social body, serves Bernard only to reinforce his alienation from society.
Jasmine leads the enthralled Team Angel in a similar sort of ritual in “The Magic Bullet” (4.19). While the liberated Fred manages to elude the ever-increasing mass of Jasmine’s followers, Jasmine remains unperturbed. She calls Team Angel to her, and informs them that they’re “all becoming connected...we’re going to find Fred.” She commands all of them to hold hands and close their eyes. Here, Jasmine participates in Huxley’s model, employing the ritual circle with the same holding of hands in concentration, the same channeling of energies towards furthering dystopian agenda, even similar rhetoric as Jasmine’s language of connectivity parallels Huxley’s depiction of the circle as single bodies waiting to be fused into a single body. The camera focuses in closely on Jasmine as she says, “I want you to picture Fred.” The camera begins panning right, a smooth, fluid shot circling round the Team Member’s faces bent in closed-eyed concentrated as they picture Fred, “what she looks like, her face, her big brown eyes, the way she styles her hair” (4.19). As the team’s energies unite on visualizing Fred, the camera pan picks up speed as the music swells, cinematographically echoing Huxley’s narration of the circle of Twelve. “Where are you, Fred?” asks Jasmine as the camera settles back on her face, still in close up. “I’m looking for you” (4.19). Meanwhile, somewhere in Los Angeles, a fugitive Fred wanders past an old woman lackadaisically smoking a cigarette. As Fred passes, something visibly jolts through the woman, as she snaps her head to give Fred a harrowing, purposeful stare. The camera cuts back to Jasmine’s handholding circle, as Jasmine smiles: “I see her. I see Fred.” By virtue of the handholding circle, Jasmine channels herself into the bodies of all of her followers, effectively using her followers as so many decentralized surveillance cameras. Just like Huxley, Jasmine’s ritual circle serves to solidify her absolute control of the bodies of her followers, and just like Huxley, the groupthink of the circle isolates the story’s independently minded individual. Yet whereas in Huxley, the ritual marks Bernard’s anomalous individuality within the circle, in Angel Jasmine uses the traits that individuate Fred to locate and attack her while she’s outside of the circle, using her followers as so many decentralized surveillance cameras. Jasmine’s weaponizing of her social-body power underscores the social body’s deep fear of individual will.
In Angel, however, we see not one, but three interrelated anagnoristic arcs, each showcasing a resolve to subvert dystopia that Huxley’s protagonist never achieves. Fred, as mentioned above, is first to undergo anagnorisis when she gets her blood mixed with Jasmine’s, breaking the spell and glimpsing the reality behind Jasmine’s illusion. Unlike Bernard’s tepid, hesitant misgivings that stretch out over time, Fred instantly rebels, attempting to warn her friends even as they turn on her, forcing her to flee into the sewers and again featuring Huxley's trope of excursion. Yet Angel reconfigures the convention to feature not self-imposed exile, but rather a fugitive being hunted. This revision serves to characterize Jasmine's spell as malicious and vindictive, further demonstrating to the audience the dystopian reality operating behind her enchantment.
Though Fred’s anagnoristic arc concludes with the subversive action she takes towards Jasmine in freeing Angel from the insidious enchantment, she succeeds in catalyzing anagnoristic arcs for Angel as well as Team Angel as a whole. Like Fred, once Angel, Lorne, Wes, and Gunn undergo anagnorisis, there is no attempt to bargain for celebrity or power under the system – it’s not a question of whether to rebel, only how, and when. True, as they undertake excursion and go on the lam, they all mourn the loss of the peace and bliss felt under Jasmine’s influence. Yet, the ensuing period of moral negotiation results in Team Angel collectively concluding that they prefer this misery to the deluded complacency of Jasmine’s thrall – better to be miserable and free than happily enslaved. Wesley discovers a creature from an alien dimension that Jasmine used to rule, and with the knowledge gleaned from conversing with the creature, realizes that Jasmine’s power can be undone by learning her true name. Wesley’s discovery enables Angel to voyage to the alien dimension in order to learn Jasmine’s name and destroy her illusory enthrallment. When Angel eventually returns from this excursion, he immediately takes subversive action, revealing the dystopian horrors lurking beneath her magnificent facade to the world.
Perhaps the strongest point of comparison between Huxley and Angel lies in the concept of the social body. In Huxley, all society’s efforts go towards maintaining the social body by making people love their subjugation. Jasmine’s reign employs similar strategies. She performs her benevolence by removing suffering, bringing eternal bliss. “My love is all around you” is the refrain of her regime. Yet, in contrast to the faceless, figurative “social body” governing Huxley, Jasmine’s power is very noticeably rooted in her actual physicality. Jasmine embodies both utopian illusion and underlying dystopian power. It’s looking upon Jasmine’s form that initially enchants Connor and Angel, and she propagates her spell through visual contact, enthralling the world by exhibiting her physical self - going for a walk, appearing on the news, etc. Fred also admiringly stammers about Jasmine’s “holy bodiness” (4.18), and Angel and Lorne fondly call her their “mocha” and “cocoa-colored queen” (4.18, 4.19), foregrounding Jasmine’s physicality rendering her body a text on which is writ dystopian rule.
These qualifying quips exhibit a preoccupation with Jasmine’s body that only becomes more pronounced as Jasmine’s power grows. She becomes able to physically possess her followers’ bodies for her own agenda. She tells Connor that she can feel all of her followers fusing together “like the cells of a single body.... my eyes, my skin, my limbs, and if need be, my fists.” Jasmine eventually is able to manipulate her follower’s bodies, creating an army of satellite slaves all bent on eliminating dissidence. For example, in “Sacrifice” (4.20), as the fleeing Team Angel stops to replenish their supplies, several passersby (all of whom clearly are physically possessed by Jasmine) form a menacing squad and close in on the heroes. “You’re a disease in the Body Jasmine,” sneers one such attacker in Jasmine’s actual voice, as he takes a swing at Angel’s face. Here, Jasmine explicitly engages Huxley’s rhetoric, articulating her status as the “Body Jasmine,” inserting herself into the social body paradigm just as she inserts herself into the bodies of her followers. Later on, as Connor and a team of Jasmine-worshipping soldiers attack Team Angel in the sewers, a gleeful and maniacal Jasmine holds her arms aloft, her flesh being ripped and shredded by invisible swords, her body receiving the wounds of her followers being slashed in the sewers, miles away. Jasmine, then, is literally the embodiment of Huxley’s social system, a centralized carnal command center pulling the strings of so many meat puppet minions.
However, the Body Jasmine also problematizes Huxley’s social body metaphor by portraying an individual woman of color embodying the traditionally white patriarchal dystopia. Placing a woman of color at the top of the dystopian chain would seem to reverse Huxley’s vision, wherein the Epsilon underclass is dark skinned. And yet, while in general the placement of women of color in positions of power theoretically subverts Brave New World’s racial paradigm, Jasmine is portrayed as insidious and false (not to mention covered in maggot-infested rotting flesh) and must be defeated in order for the protagonists to emerge victorious. As it’s Connor who actually lands the killing blow, we see a white male triumphing over a woman of color, a fact that detracts from a reading of the Jasmine arc as empowering.
The final dystopic element Huxley and Angel share is the exploration of the question of happiness vs. free will. Following Bernard’s forfeit of subversive action, he is taken to the office of Mustapha Mond, who explains that the social body eliminates messy, inconvenient, and often painful concepts like beauty and truth. The social body paradigm “hasn’t been very good for truth, of course.. but it’s been very good for happiness...happiness has got to be paid for,” In Huxley, the price is free will, and John the savage ultimately illustrates this point when he claims “the right to be unhappy,” committing suicide (232). Angel’s Jasmine arc similarly concludes with dystopian power articulating this tradeoff. When Team Angel finally succeeds in revealing the dystopian horror behind Jasmine’s spell, Angel’s L.A. tumbles into riotous hysteria, and the defeated and furious Jasmine accuses Angel of making a terrible mistake. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” hurls the dethroned despot at Angel over the roar of the riots. Angel, steadfast in his resolve, replies “what I had to do.” Jasmine, in her lunacy, shrieks “there are no absolutes, no right and wrong....there are only choices!” She pauses, as her words sink in. She gestures to the chaos around her, and continues: “I offered paradise! You chose this!” Angel jumps on her phrasing, righteously reaffirming his choice to take subversive action against her regime: “Because I could. Because that’s what you took away from us. Choice.” Jasmine rejoins, with a malicious sneer: “And look where free will has gotten you. This world is doomed to drown in its own blood now” (4.21). The frenzied hysteria and wailing sirens in the blurred background of these shots reinforce the threads of truth woven through Jasmine’s words: the world without Jasmine does indeed seem brutal and bloody in comparison to her utopian illusion. Although Angel (and the audience along with him) deeply wants to believe that the world is better off without Jasmine, her rebuttal causes him to falter, and defend himself: “Hey, I didn’t say we were smart, I said it’s our right. It’s what makes us human” (4.21). Here, Angel asserts that same viewpoint espoused through the character of John the Savage, that which Huxley’s aims to inspire in readers; namely, that miserable reality is preferable to happy slavery, and that being unhappy and feeling the full spectrum of human emotion is a human right. And if the show ended there, with the assertion that it’s better to be miserable and free than to be happily oppressed, the show would indeed appear to subvert the dystopian literary model on which it builds.
Yet Angel extends the dystopian narrative; rather than ending with the certainty of Angel’s assertion, Jasmine continues to argue her point. When Angel accuses her of murdering people, she reminds him that, as a vampire, he also possesses a violent and bloodthirsty past – violence that didn’t carry with it the pleasant side effect of promoting peace on earth. Angel persists, declaiming “thousands of people are dead because of what you’ve done,” yet Jasmine quickly replies “and how many people will die because of you? I could have stopped it... war, disease, poverty...how many precious lives could have been saved in just a handful of years?” (4.21). Jasmine’s equation causes Angel to falter in his righteousness. As a champion of the helpless, Angel knows firsthand the misery and suffering that exist beyond his power to help, the feeling of futility at fighting a wave of evil one drop at a time. As he seems to reconsider the merit of his subversive action, the show once again addresses Mustapha Mond’s assertion that free will leads to chaos. Further, as he heads to home base with the rest of the team, a posthumous Lilah Morgan visits them, offering Team Angel ownership and control of the LA branch of Wolfram and Hart as a reward for destroying Jasmine’s “world peace” (4.22). Their certainty shaken by this phrase, Team Angel insists that what Jasmine offered wasn’t world peace, but a slave state. Echoing both Mond in Huxley and Jasmine before her, Lilah states that “world peace comes at a price. Jasmine knew that. She consumed... what, a few dozen souls a day? Now weight that against the suffering of millions” (4.22). In echoing Jasmine’s equation, Lilah compounds Team Angel’s uncertainty. Once she’s left them to consider the offer, the team collectively questions their actions: did they really end world peace? The emphasis placed on Team Angel’s reconsideration of their subversion reveals a sub-textual, Huxley-like cynicism that wonders if humanity may be better off happily enslaved. To further complicate the issue, Connor begins to parallel John the Savage as he undertakes a suicidal terrorist plot, arming himself and innocent bystanders with bombs, as well as the unconscious Cordelia (who’s been in a coma ever since Jasmine’s mystical birth). Connor’s violent plan enacts a sort of existential rebellion, fully exercising his freedom to be miserable and destructive and illustrating the horrific underbelly of that spectrum of human emotion which Jasmine supplanted with blissful complacency and which Team Angel fought to preserve.
In Angel’s reaction to Connor’s behavior, Angel as a show retreats away from its subversive depiction of dystopian narrative and moves back into the containment of Huxley’s pessimistic model. While the rest of Team Angel rationalizes that they could reform Wolfram and Hart and use the firm’s resources for good, they seem on the brink of accepting the deal. Yet before the team can reach consensus, Angel sees news footage of Connor’s terrorist-hostage situation in progress, and negotiates with Wolfram and Hart to create a false, happy life for Connor and revert the world to how it was before Jasmine’s reign. He accepts the morally suspect offer on the condition that firm mystically tampers with his friends’ minds and memories, and in doing so, Angel’s deal enacts the same tyrannical cloaking of dystopian reality in a veil of utopian illusion against which he so adamantly fought.. Not only does Angel remove Connor’s right to choose misery and suicide, he alters his friends’ minds without their consent, and moreover, he does so in the context of becoming part of the institutionalized evil he’s been fighting for four seasons. Free will, then, has gotten Angel into exactly the same project of masking undesirable reality in paradisiacal illusion, suggesting that free will leads to choosing safety over subversion.
Two ways to interpret this troubling conclusion present themselves. On the one hand, a pessimistic reading suggests that Angel’s decision evinces corruption, that Huxley’s axiom remains true – people would rather be happily enslaved than suffer the unpredictable extremes that go along with free will. Yet (as I argue in an expanded version of this paper’s in The Literary Angel, forthcoming from McFarland, and as I will argue in my presentation at the Slayage conference this June), I prefer a more optimistic interpretation. By taking control of Wolfram and Hart, Team Angel positions themselves to defy Wolfram and Hart’s senior partners in the season five finale, eventually taking decisive subversive action on a much larger scale.
Works Cited
Booker, Keith M. The Dystopian Impulse in Modern Literature: Fiction as Social Criticism. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Firchow, Peter Edgerly. Modern Utopian Fictions from H.G. Wells to Iris Murdoch. Washington, D. C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2007.
“Home,” Angel. Creat. Joss Whedon, David Greenwalt. Dir., Writ. Tim Minear. DVD. 1999. 20th Century Fox Home Video, 2003.
Huxley, Alduous. Brave New World. 1932. Reprint. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.
Jowett, Lorna. “Angel as Critical Dystopia.” Critical Studies in Television 2 (Spring 2007) 74-89.
“Peace Out.” Angel. Creat. Joss Whedon, David Greenwalt. Dir. Jefferson Kibbee. Writ. David Fury. DVD. 1999. 20th Century Fox Home Video, 2003.
“Sacrifice.” Angel. Creat. Joss Whedon, David Greenwalt. Dir. David Straiton. Writ. Ben Edlund. DVD. 1999. 20th Century Fox Home Video, 2003.
“Shiny Happy People.” Angel. Creat. Joss Whedon, David Greenwalt. Writ. Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain. Dir. Maria Grabiak. 1999. DVD. 20th Century Fox Home Video, 2003.
“The Magic Bullet.” Angel. Creat. Joss Whedon, David Greenwalt. Dir., Writ. Jeffrey Bell. 1999. DVD. 20th Century Fox Home Video, 2003.