[Review by Ryan Bovay]
[Writer: Tim Minear | Director: Bruce Seth Green | Aired: 02/22/2000]
If C-rate sitcoms, B-rate rom-coms and every quasi-humorous advertisements featuring two young people on a date have taught us anything, it’s that fathers are protective of their daughters. Above sons and wives, a father places his daughter on a pedestal. The poet Joseph Addison gave me one of my very favourite thoughts on these differences when he said: “In love to our wives there is desire; to our sons, ambition; but to our daughters there is something which there are no words to express.” “The Prodigal,” aside from some interesting points and a load of important back-story on Angel, is about fathers, sons and daughters, and how all these bonds play their parts.
It’s also extremely important in the long run of the show, not just for the history on Angel, but because it establishes some of the most important parts of the mythology concerning vampires in the Whedonverse. Up to this point, they’ve functioned as sexual metaphors and A Class villains, but here we get a deeper and essential understanding of their functions as creatures; how they relate to one another. More on that later, though. The first of the episode’s two plotlines focuses on Angel, or more specifically Liam (as he was named in human life), who we finally get some real answers on. Up to this point we’ve only seen flashes of his past in BtVS and in “Somnambulist” [1×11]; here we get a dollop’s more of important history.
Liam lived life a drunken wastrel, fraternizing endlessly with town women, squandering and taking for granted every opportunity and advantage given to him by his (perceivably) wealthy family’s life. Ashamed of by his father, Liam is a man driven to his useless life by his weaknesses and his failings in his fathers eyes. I was reminded of Jared Leto’s character in the feature film ‘Lord of War,’ where he played the brother and co-conspirator of a gunrunner who turned to cocaine and prostitutes when the reality of the evil he was purporting became too much for him to handle. Liam is much the same in how he turns to debauchery in part to spite his father, but it’s really more of a giving in, as he’s unable to please the man he truly cares for, but cannot express love for.
Likewise, his father does care for his son. When Liam decides to leave, he has fear for his only boy, and worries. But the distance between them has left him unable to express it, and he can deal with his son only in anger and fear, for fear his actions will take Liam down a terrible road which, eventually, they do. This is where the extremely well drawn parallel to Kate and her father Trevor is made; both fathers, for their own reasons, are far from their children. We learned in “Sense and Sensitivity” [1×06] that Trevor Lockley became an emotional void after the death of his wife and became unable to express love for his daughter. Neither of the two men can communicate properly with their children despite love, and this leads to the downfall of both.
Also tying the two threads together is the present day Angel. The largest part that makes this episode so significant is that we finally learn exactly why he feels as responsible as he does for all the crimes of Angelus. One could argue, quite potently, that by lacking a soul he was not in charge of his own will and was more like an animal; he’s not consciously responsible. That’s not entirely so. The truth of Liam’s actions is that he is, if indirectly, responsible for the demon that emerged from the grave that night at Darla’s side. His debauchery, and more importantly, his ignorance of the dangers around him, brought him to his end at his own fault.
It’s exactly why he understands Trevor’s situation, even if his was the moral opposite. “Sometimes the price we end up paying for one bad choice isn’t commensurate with the offence,” Angel tells Wesley. Living for a hundred years with the guilt of what may have been thousands of murders on one’s hands is hardly a balanced punishment for being a drunken wastrel. Nor is death a fit sentence for Trevor’s sins, given that his motives were noble, even though like Liam his motivations drove him beyond practical consideration. In one way or another it was still his fault, like it was Angel’s; how this sequence of events unfolded was masterful. Writer Tim Minear is near the top of his game here.
Now, as for the mythological: we’re given some more information on the nature of vampires, things that will be very important in the coming seasons of Angel and, to a lesser extent, Buffy. Aside from the further sexualization of vampires (Liam rising from the grave and coming into a new world of senses and pleasures; puberty), we’re given two things: A vampire’s rising is treated by their sire as a birth. Also, they often view the new vampire as both a companion (which is why most vampires are sired by the opposite sex) and a child; a child to be taught and brought up in this new and amazing world of the night.
This was done solely to fit with the story and it made a good counterpoint, as Angelus had everything Liam/Angel did not in a parental figure. And this is where, even if unintentionally, the writers are giving us the most important key to a vampire’s personality: defiance. In life, Angel was a drunken (chalk up more points for another use of this word, please) artless waste, looked down upon by his father for his uselessness. As Angelus, he was the constant delight of Darla, his ‘mother,’ and took his obsession with mental agony to frightening and artistic levels. Based on this, one can actually have a good psychological look at most vampires and imagine what they were in life.
I guess they did something right here, as the canon of both Buffy and Angel does incorporate this as fact, and continues establishing it, too. BtVS “Fool for Love” shows Spike as a human by the name of William Pratt (nice joke, “pratt” being English slang for annoying and all), a mediocre, unppreciated man who was seen as someone to be laughed at. Upon becoming a vampire he strove to be nothing but the fastest, most feared, most extraordinary and notorious force in the field that he inhabited. In this case, it happened to be terror and death, and lord, did he excel. Even Drusilla, our hints about her past comparably few, took to pure coldness and evil, having been a puritan and holy woman in life.
My last thoughts lie with Addison’s words. What is a daughter to a father? It’s not the most relevant quote to the episode but I really enjoy the truth it invokes about parents and children. Trevor and Liam’s father were both deeply loving of their children, but one could say that Trevor is much more unconditional and with a lot of proof, too. At times, he’s expressed clear disappointment for Kate. Several times in fact, in “Sense and Sensitivity” [1×06]. Yet it plays no part in his feelings for his daughter, and it’s nice to learn here that despite his regrettable fate, all he was, was for her.
Liam’s father, despite it all, still played to Addison’s tune. Men hold ambitions for their sons, more directly relatable to them, and a large part of his distance from Liam was due to how he failed in every one of his expectations. He couldn’t be close as a result of this, no matter how much he may have wanted to be. Trevor’s distance from Kate, on the other hand, was purely because of an emotional circumstance (the death of his wife), and this does speak volumes about the differences between these relationships.
As an experience, “The Prodigal” was unique. Not quite the best in the season, it still holds a great note of balance between heart, development, significance and entertainment, a macabre mix similar in tone to few other episodes. This too is just a shadow of the dark, complex greatness Tim Minear is to offer us in the future, as he would go on to write “Darla” [2×07], “Epiphany” [2×16] and “That Old Gang of Mine” [3×03], among many fantastic others. He’d already written the Perfect “Somnambulist” [1×11] by this point too. It has everything you could want from this type of show, and, oh, some really snappy dialogue to boot.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Angel’s birthname was Liam, which is the Irish equivalent of William. Ha!
+ Trevor thinking Angel was gay. This is the second use of this to-be long running joke.
+ Angelus rising from his grave. This was wholly chilling, knowing everything he would go on to do.
+ “Plan B.”
+ Wrist mounted stakes, again!
– When Angelus gets out of his grave, you can see both his and Darla’s breath. Vampires don’t breathe.
* Kate tells Angel of their relationship “I’m not sure it does (work).” From this episode on their bond is frail, and never heals. What little trust she had of Angel is now shattered and they never again really “work,” at times even coming into direct conflict with each other (“To Shanshu in LA” [1×22] ).
* After her father’s death, Kate sets herself stone-faced against the vampires and the demon. From this episode on, she focuses her interest in the underworld, and her furious attitude towards all of it becomes her entire demeanor in all of her life, as seen in “The Thin Dead Line” [2×14].