[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: Tim Minear and Howard Gordon | Director: Tucker Gates | Aired: 11/30/1999]
“Hero” is an episode with much strength and some nasty, rather unfortunate weaknesses. I was in fact, disappointed with it the first time I saw it, as my appreciation for the Doyle character had grown immensely in just the eight short, previous episodes. And unlike some other deaths in the Whedonverse, it wasn’t handled as spectacularly as it could’ve been. This isn’t because it’s bad; not at all. It’s only that character deaths, disappearances or alterations are usually huge and immensely well crafted events in this fictional universe, and in comparison with episodes such as “Reunion” [2×10] or “A Hole in the World” [5×15], “Hero” falls way short in terms of both series impact and standalone quality. But, it does have a lot to offer, especially for us wee clan of Doyle fans, and it’s a worthy send off for the ‘poorly-dressed superhero.’
The set up for the episode is straightforward, and isn’t bandied about in the shadows as it annoyingly could’ve been: A group of Lister demons (half demons) being hunted by a dangerous organization of pure blooded demons known as the Scourge appear to Doyle in a vision, and Angel Investigations takes it upon themselves to help the beleaguered clan before they’re hunted to extinction.
Before going into the episode’s character and plot points, it behooves me to dive into the series’ mythology and the inconsistencies we get here with the rest of the Buffy/Angelverse, as the existence of these demon clans raises major questions; it’s where the episode gets hurt a great deal.
The mythology of BtVS has taught us a few things: the soul gives one the ability to determine right from wrong and act accordingly, and that every demon that exists on Earth has to have some part of it that is human in its essence (meaning one could have a soul), as pure demons no longer exist in the human dimension. Also, the lack of a soul tends to make one amoral, completely selfish and otherwise a killing machine, or at least capable of feeling no guilt for any such sin (see: any demon). What remains unanswered in this episode is the status of these Lister demons. Do they have souls? How much of them is human? Maybe they deserve to be hunted down.
They’re made to resemble humans in their social ways to strike up sympathy and that’s understandable but unfortunate, as it’s never really explained. The parallel to the Brachen demons, which we’re led to believe have souls since Doyle is one and has one, might be the only shade of a ‘yes’ to answer the question. As I mentioned in my review of “The Bachelor Party” [1×07], it’s a problem that plagues the mythology of AtS from start to finish. Good questions are often raised, but frustratingly, no answers are provided.
We’re left to interpret everything ourselves; perhaps the Lister demons and other passive, assimilated clans are examples of one’s ability to ignore the natural order of things and adapt (an ironically human quality for a demon, hey?).This, much in the same way characters like Lindsey McDonald and Lilah Morgan, or Angel in S2, are good case studies of how one can choose to turn away from their soul (their nature) and unwaveringly do the things they do; nature’s intent has nothing to do with it.
Or maybe nature’s just it: The genetic predisposition of some demons makes them less violent. But, that conflicts with the idea of lacking a soul making one amoral towards and a practitioner of evil, which we see these Listers are not. Maybe their human side is dominant, giving them souls, but we’re never really told.
More unfortunate are the Scourge, which I’ll tell you I hated. Firstly: Nazis? Nazis. If you’ve watched more than one sci-fi or fantasy show/movie in the past thirty or fourty years, you’ll see that any and every group of oppression and supremacy has been modeled after the infamous hegemonic go-getters of WWII. It’s tacky, stupid, and illogical; a demon clan that despises anything less than pure blood demons and they model themselves after a human group? Perhaps if a joke had been thrown in about how the Nazi’s copied them, I could’ve coped. My other problem has to do with this ‘pure blood’ concept, which is also unexplained.
We learned in S3 of Buffy that since the time of the demons on Earth’s plane ended, no pure blooded demon has existed in our dimension save for a few very rare oddities (such as powerful warlocks who ascended, as Mayor Wilkins did in BtVS “Graduation Day, Part II” ). Every demon on Earth has some part of them that is human so they can physically exist in our dimension. This conflicts directly with the whole pure blood idea of these demons, as even they are half-breeds in one way or another.
If they had a reason to believe they weren’t, or held a human desperation to elevate themselves, subsequently acting out genocide to quell their fears of admitting to the humanity tied to their essence, some great material could’ve emerged. Instead we get a wholly undeveloped and stupid enemy organization. The addendum to stupid: lazy. These were the same demons that appeared in BtVS “Anne,” only now dressed in Gestapo gear.
This may be Buffy mythology, but Angel and Buffy both live in the same world, in a way. Just because they’re on different shows doesn’t mean the established rules go away or can be changed arbitrarily, and at this point in time AtS’ mythology is still basing itself off BtVS’, so one would assume that such tenets apply. My final criticism of this episode is that the racial themes, which could’ve made for some very insightful exploration into the subcultures of demons (themes which were still in the infant stages of the entire Whedonverse at this point, chronologically) were completely passed in over in favour of a simple, recognizable imagine of unadulterated evil that begged no nuance or development (frickin Nazis). This is out of step with the show already, as Angel’s enemies have already proven to be far more interesting than mindless evil.
Now, as you’ve by this point noticed, this installment provides a lot more to talk about than most episodes, even some superior to it. And there’s plenty on the positive side too, much of it resting on the capable shoulders of Glenn Quinn as Doyle, who again does a number here. His character arc comes to a brilliant peak and a tragic end in this episode and how the writers succeed is in how logical it truly becomes of him. The exploration of his past, regrets and the development thus far in his life with Angel (primarily in “The Bachelor Party” [1×07] ) has set him up perfectly.
The episode, ignoring the shoddy racial issues, is about Heroes, our images of heroes and the societal preconceptions of what one should look like and act like. If we’re putting Superman up as a standard, than Doyle is far from par. Even compared to Angel, a former serial killer, he pales and he knows it: “I would have chosen the pleasures of the flesh over duty and honor any day of the week. I just don’t have that strength.” Cordelia thinks so too, and is eager to supplant Angel with him in her home made advertisement for Angel Investigations. She tells Doyle: “Angel is all wrong for this commercial! He is a larger-than-life character, way too Braveheart for Joe-Couch-potato to relate to. We need someone who’s – average, of the mill, ordinary….you’re perfect.”
What occurs is a pretty simple tale that brings Doyle’s life and character to a wholly satisfying end in and of itself. Having experienced the wrath of the Scourge when he first got the visions, Doyle advises Angel strongly that help has to be offered to the Listers. When Angel infiltrates the Scourge to get info on their plans (which is done completely illogically; they would never be so quick to accept him), he discovers their plan to use a scientific device that kills any creature with humanity in it, including half demons (another stupid plot device, the origin of which is never explained).
And Doyle’s at a place now where he realizes fully the mistakes of his past, why he made them, what he can do to avoid them again and what he has to do to make up for them. When speaking with the young half-demon Rieff, he’s speaking to a young version of himself: “They put their faith in something, Rieff. You don’t have to if you don’t want to. Maybe Angel doesn’t know what he’s doing. It’s possible. But the other option: losing yourself somewhere, hoping it all goes away, I know that never works.” Doyle made these mistakes because of losing this hope and faith, resulting in the destruction of his marriage and a tailspin in his life. And clearly, when the time comes, he knows what he has to do to atone for them.
And it’s not just finally ballsing up to ask Cordelia out either (which was still a very sweet moment). The time comes when the Scourge have lowered the device in place to wipe out the Lister demons, and Angel realizes what the right thing to do is, but then Doyle does it for him. This was a really good shock the first time I saw the episode (I didn’t think they’d kill him a main character so fast), and is all the more powerful because it was something Doyle didn’t have to do. Angel would’ve thrown himself on the device gladly, saved the demons and all would’ve made sense. But Doyle had seen Angel’s immense ability to sacrifice, live, fight and do great good. As he tells Rieff: “I don’t know anything about your people’s myths and legends. But I do know Angel, and he’s the genuine article.”
He’d fought alongside the soulful vampire for an estimated few months now, and particularly after about hearing how Angel gave up his perfect day with Buffy for the greater good, was in awe of his friend’s capacity for self sacrifice. It was because of these well placed, connected and logical events that Doyle’s actions were perfectly rational, and therefore very deeply moving. Doyle died so Angel could keep fighting.
After the big showdown, we go back to the ad Doyle taped for Cordelia and how our perception of it has changed is what this episode is about. Being a Hero has nothing to do with melting hearts, wearing billowy black coats or riding off with the damsel (the stereotype Angel himself is closest to). It’s about stepping up to do the extraordinary when the time comes upon you, and it’s nice to see how right Cordy was: Doyle was perfect for the ad.
Despite its flaws, this episode retains most of its power in the intelligence and quality of this character’s last hurrah, and I do so wish the episode itself could’ve been better. The score could’ve gone lower, and I had planned to give it no more than a 75 or 80 originally because of the weaknesses, but in retrospect of the entire series, this episode has a lot of importance.
Not just in that Angel continued living so he could fight, but how his friend’s sacrifice constantly swam under the surface of his mind, giving him the strength to live and the will to fight. Bye Doyle. You’ll be missed (and what a shame you never had a chance to hang out with Wesley, Lorne or Spike).
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Cordelia’s fantasy of the Angel Investigations ad. This is where the joke about Angel being ‘the dark avenger’ originates.
+ The hilarity/scariness of picturing Angel in tights.
+ Cordelia getting offended; “What do you think I am? Superficial?!”
+ Doyle smiling back as he jumps on the device.
+ The Lister demons in shock and sadness after Doyle is vaporized.
– Rieff. He was a bit annoying, despite his good scene with Doyle.
– The Scourge.