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An Angel in Hell
A guest essay
Critic and journalist Maureen “Mo” Ryan is a Contributing Editor at Vanity Fair, and has written for Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times, Salon, GQ, and Vulture. Prior to joining Vanity Fair, Ryan worked as a television critic at Variety, Huffington Post, and the Chicago Tribune. In addition to criticism, opinion pieces and feature stories about the entertainment industry, she has spent much of the last decade doing in-depth reporting on matters of inclusion, misconduct, and abuse in Hollywood, and on efforts to make the industry better on a variety of fronts. Her first book, Burn It Down: Power, Complicity, and a Call for Change in Hollywood, a deeper exploration of these issues, is out today, June 6. She lives in the Chicago area with her family, and more of her work can be found at moryan.com.
It’s like a song. Now, I can hold a note for a long time.
Actually, I can hold a note forever.
But eventually that’s just noise.
It’s the change we’re listening for.
The note coming after and the one after that —
that’s what makes it music.
Lorne, “Happy Anniversary,” Angel
I do not want to talk about the man.
I do not want to talk about what you or I think about him, how he conducted himself, which people and institutions enabled him and what that says about the whole sorry system. You can ponder all this for yourself, you can draw your own conclusions. By this point, too many of the periodic reruns detailing the harm he caused simply give him more time, more attention, more consideration, and cause more harm for those who had to endure the work cultures he created. Pass.
The man behind Angel, Buffy, The Avengers, and people like him — they just consume so much of the oxygen of the culture, of our minds. I will continue, because I’m a human being who cares about this stuff, to think about what he did, what they did and were everywhere allowed to do, and what effect those patterns continue to have. I will think about why so many reflexively cause pain when they resurface (so often not to make amends but transparently to reclaim what they are “owed”). Whether this particular person causes pain unwittingly, wittingly, obliviously, selfishly or sadistically — I just … I am not going to re-litigate all of that again. I’m tired.
I have more than enough energy for something else, though. I have longed, so longed, to dive into a different topic. In all of the discourses about that man’s complicated legacies and toxicities, one subject has rarely, if ever, come up: How good Charisma Carpenter was at her job.
How tremendously good Charisma Carpenter was at her job.
A job that she did on both Angel and Buffy, key texts for TV critics of my generation. A job that, when she was working on Angel, not many people made easier for her, and any number of people appeared to make much harder.
But Carpenter, for different reasons and at two separate times in my life, was a light, a brilliant light. I needed that light in those unspeakable times.
In the early months of 2021, I was working on a series of stories about Bad Men (they are all the same story; I would like to please, please exit this hell-loop). Around then, Carpenter told the truth about her experiences at Angel, and how they affected her, then and later. She used her own platforms and her own words. Many of her creative collaborators, thousands of fans, and many in the industry lifted up her voice and added supporting notes to the chorus.
It lifted me to see that. The media industry is on fire on its best days. People finding creative ways to tell these stories, to keep the voices of survivors not just in the mix but at the forefront — it’s not just encouraging, it’s a relief.
Those of us doing reporting in these arenas, I know we’re not enough. Sometimes I feel like Batman. Either Batman is obsessing about the ones he can’t save, or he’s a sociopath. Neither is a fun headspace to be in.
I often fear the world has grown tired of listening, hearing, responding, changing. I’m old enough to remember that a famous line from Fatal Attraction — “I’m not going to be ignored” — was a punchline for years and years. A woman who refuses to be ignored? A joke.
The Cosby survivors told the truth. The R. Kelly survivors told the truth. The Weinstein survivors told the truth. The survivors I’ve talked to — hundreds — would not, did not stop. They told the truth. They were not a joke.
Charisma Carpenter and her character, Cordelia Chase, they also told the truth. They were often ignored. Not by me. Certainly not when I needed them most.
The first time Carpenter lit a dark place for me was a decade ago.
My life was a heaving, immensely complicated shitshow in 2013, when my dad died, and for years after. Not long after my father’s cancer took him, I locked myself in a hotel room, trying to make sense of my relationship with a difficult man who was funny, smart, charming, an ace pilot, a good grandfather, a good liar (especially to himself). He told the best stories around the bar, his eyes crinkling with amusement, a Lucky Strike hanging off his hand or mouth.
As a frozen 2013 turned into 2014, he was no longer around to convince me of his story, the one he repeated so often: That he was the good guy.
At 11, I saw my mother’s teeth on the floor. You can guess the rest.
For a long time, I was frozen in that moment. That night, and other nights, will always travel the path with me. And also… those who grew up in homes with violence will understand that this is not a justification: Just last week, tears sprang to my eyes when, on Succession, Shiv Roy said she missed her “world of a father.”
They were worlds, my parents. Galaxies. The furthest reaches unknown.
As he lay dying, my father lurched into those uncharted byways. He regressed, into panic, into fear, and then into a childlike state. Into peace, finally. At his deathbed, my exhausted equilibrium — when I could find it — was filled with sadness, regret, love. I held his big, square hand for hours. I will never reconcile any of these things. I know that now. Then, enormous demons did battle inside me. I did not understand they were there to save me. Not yet.
Then, I was left holding the bag, holding my frozen grief, holding my mother’s hand. A massive array of people and needs and logistical concerns and pragmatic problems crowded around me. Yet I was alone. My mind could not take the pressure; the only way I can describe what lurked at my heels is to say that I could feel my psyche sliding sideways. I was terrified by this.
Angel was a pressure relief valve.
I’ve tried to write this essay for a decade. I have written so many versions of it. I don’t know if I cracked the formula. I do know, now, that it’s not about the man. It never was. I want to talk about the woman. The women. Who are not perfect, who are messy, angry, funny, brave. Through the lens of one woman who had to forge through the unknown, with so much pressing on her from all sides.
Charisma Carpenter and her work, on screen and off, helped me make it to the other side. She is one of the survivors who, when I was hopeless, made me feel less alone. I will always be grateful for her light. Their light.
Some context: Carpenter was not the star.
That was David Boreanaz. When Angel was spun off from Buffy in 1999, Carpenter occupied a familiar slot: The established character who appeared on the spinoff to provide continuity for fans. She was the bridge between the Sunnydale of Buffy and the darker, broodier L.A. of Angel. Carpenter was saddled with a gig female actors are so often tasked with in all manner of Hollywood productions: Hold the emotional core in her capable hands while the male lead gets the heroic arcs and all the other showy, “important” stuff. And gets paid a lot more.
All you really need to know about Angel’s premise is that, yes, he was a vampire, but he was trying to make amends for the enormous damage he’d caused over hundreds of years. (Amends: The thing too much of Hollywood treats the way a vampire treats sunlight.)
There was a lot going on in the Buffy saga, but it was, at its core, a coming-of-age tale. Angel was not that. It was a “dealing with age and grief and mistakes” story, one threaded with layers of ambiguity (well, as much ambiguity as people could stuff into an early-aughts WB show).
Angel, when it was good, explored these truths: Some wounds do not heal. Some bad choices can never be rectified. It’s important to try to be better than you were, but some scars still have poison in them years, decades, centuries later. You cannot outrun the sins of your past — many follow you around forever — but you can make choices right now that might help those around you. That may not be enough, but it’s something.
Lofty stuff, thematically, and none of it would have worked without the grounding energy Carpenter supplied. She was indeed charismatic, and that easy presence on camera may have, for some, disguised how much skill suffused her acerbic, questioning, warm performance. The thing about Carpenter — on Buffy, Angel and beyond — is that she makes what she does look easy. You know how casually Rosalind Russell and Barbara Stanwyck carried themselves on screen? Carpenter has that silky, observant, wry quality, and also the spiky layer that’s just underneath the casual, cutting wit of a classic noir dame.
Carpenter often appears to be playing herself, but to assume that is to discredit and minimize her craft. She gives the characters she’s played, even minor ones, variations and hints of complex inner lives. Given that she’s often cast as a slightly cynical, observant woman — a gal who knows the score and hides her intelligence and iron will behind a breezy, expertly accessorized exterior — it seems like she’s not doing anything at all.
Well, that’s the trick of good acting, isn’t it? To make it look like you’re not trying. Carpenter is a talented, thoughtful performer who, when given the chance, creates characters I want to watch, even if they’re doing dodgy or dangerous things. Especially then.
We knew Angel was not going to fully redeem himself or get Buffy back. Things weren’t going to pan out; it was not that kind of story. You can’t get your noir on unless Angel broods while walking seedy L.A. streets. But no show (as anyone who’s seen the first season of Angel will attest) can live on grim formulas alone.
Over time, the show’s center of gravity rightfully migrated toward Cordelia. She was willing to put up with Captain Broodypants and even love him. I’m quite capable of holding salty grudges for decades, which is one reason I’ll point out that the powers that be at Angel made some really stupid and shortsighted decisions. Every show has to navigate various practical and logistical concerns, but that’s not what still annoys me, decades later: I’m still steamed about the fact that the show’s top brain trust appeared far more interested in punishing Carpenter than exploring the potential of a long-term Angel-Cordelia relationship.
There were hints the story would go that way — Angel’s own narrative kept pulling in that direction — but Cordelia ended up off-screen for long periods and was, at one point, in a very creepy relationship with Angel’s adult son (it’s a long, bad story). Later in the show’s run, when Cordelia was onscreen, at times the writing for her was insulting. By the final season, she was no longer a core part of the drama, and Angel’s denouement greatly suffered from her absence.
When various weird story gyrations played out around Cordelia two decades ago, many viewers realized something was off. We could see that the show was doing odd things to her and her arc, things that made no damn sense on a story-evolution level. There were other meaty character journeys — Wesley’s long evolution from comic relief to tragic figure was excellent — but Cordelia’s presence elevated not just the emotional heft of the mythology but the narrative as a whole. If not for Cordelia’s evolution, her loyalty to Angel, her dry quips, the pragmatic and smart ways she cared for everyone who came through the door, I’m not sure I’d still be thinking about the show 20 years later.
In any case, once the show figured out where its potential lay — rotating around Cordelia’s journey — it got much better. But the man made her suffer. On screen and off.
There’s an image in my mind, forever, of Cordelia lying in a bed, pregnant, silent, in a coma. This was in the phase in which it sure looked like the character and the actor were both being punished for some kind of transgression. Then and now, it came off as visual evidence that the man with the most power over the show was intentionally putting a woman in her place.
Because feminism, right?
I needed to get away from all of it, all the pressures bearing down on me from outside, from inside. I sat in the hotel room, chosen for its flat blandness. It was featureless, plain, unmemorable. Gloriously so. Two chaotic, crushing months after my father’s death, I needed this chain-approved neutrality, this cube of blessed silence.
The room was at the end of a long, empty hall and looked out over a wintry forest. All I brought was books and DVDs of all five seasons. Phone turned off. Episode after episode Angel, as the snow fell.
A moment trapped in amber: On the screen was Cordelia. Talking to a demon, of course.
You don’t need to know much about this arc, I promise — all you need to know is that a key episode titled “Birthday” arrives in the middle of Angel’s third season; it serves as Angel’s hinge. In that hour, Cordelia has a choice: She could have a good life, a normal life, a life with nice things and happy potentials. Or she could take on a burden that would add to her many challenges. The psychic flashes she’d been getting — painful visions that allowed her and the team to aid desperate people — would be made permanent. There would be less agony and destruction to her brain, but the change would bring other side effects. Because she herself would be part demon.
Cordelia already lived with fear and struggle. She’d been a popular girl at Sunnydale High, but life went very sideways for her and everyone she knew. Whether or not she had intended to learn humility, betrayal and fear, the world taught her many lessons on those topics. But she wasn't dark; she was a light. In Los Angeles, with Angel, you could say she’d fallen into a terrible new life, but the truth is, her soul was on an upward trajectory.
By the middle of Angel’s run, she’d learned a lot about how hard and confusing life was, most of the time. She’d watched her actor hopes evaporate (in part thanks to creepy on-set experiences. Sigh.) She was the backbone of her friend group, but she didn’t always know how to help the desperate. But she paid attention, she listened and she improvised. Buffy, Angel and Firefly often modeled a brittle flippancy that could feel quite hard, off-putting and even mean. That’s why it mattered that, over time, Cordelia learned — and showed — that caring did not need to be shameful or secret.
In “Birthday,” she had that decision to make, courtesy of a polite demon named Skip. The changes she’d go through would be unpredictable. “You may never be able to lead a human life again,” he said.
Cordelia’s face told the story. She knew the right thing to do. It was the casual way Cordelia said it — “So demonize me already” — that destroyed me.
No drama. No angst. She didn’t hesitate. She considered for only an instant before saying yes. That’s what crushed me. I had been doing that for so long, so routinely, that I’d almost forgotten I was doing it. I’d lost track of the fact there was a person inside the shit tornado, and that person was me. If Cordelia was cool and admirable and good, and I was making the kinds of choices she’d made, did it mean that all the altruism and sacrifice and shit-tornado-ness in my life had some kind of meaning, maybe? Was I … good?
I stopped the episode and cried.
Sobbed. I couldn’t re-start it for a long time.
Sometimes knowing the right thing to do is straightforward. We know in our bones what the best, most altruistic choice is.
Doing that right thing, however — fucking hell. It can be brain-meltingly difficult. But when you face enough bad choices and routinely stare down different-degrees-of-horrid options, you get used to the process. You get used to the stress, almost, and you hang on, when you can, to the slender reed that is battered hope. You get to the point, if you’re lucky (unlucky?), that doing the right thing is instinctual. There are times you could slither away from the hard path, and you don’t, and no one will ever know. Because hiding how much that cost — that’s a form of love. Isn’t it?
The fact that most people don’t know what you gave up when you took the high road — well, them’s the breaks. Cordelia knew the breaks.
I wanted more for Cordelia, but I understood why she foreclosed an easier future, why she took the hard path and gave herself to others. It’s what Hollywood had trained me to think women were for. It’s what I thought I was for.
“So demonize me already,” she said, as if she didn’t know the cost.
“So demonize me already,” she said, as if she knew the full cost, down to the penny, and did it anyway.
Carpenter conveyed both things at once.
In that performance, and in so many other moments, Carpenter as Cordelia radiated what I knew. She quietly transmitted the knowledge I tried to hold off in that bland, chain-hotel purgatory: Life is a series of opposing, nonsensical things that live on top of each other, get mixed up in each other, and cannot possibly co-exist but do. Cordelia knew trying to untangle this mess is tiring on a level that hardly seems possible. But you do it, you try. You keep going, you make the generous choices, because of love. Or something.
She knew, when she made that decision, that being a hero was not a cool, grand event that happens in public, where they hang a medal on your neck and lay garlands at your feet. It’s not like that. Maybe once in a while. But usually, in the movies and on TV, certainly in the popular culture that raised me, the medal thing most often happened to dudes.
Being a hero — ladies weren’t usually allowed to be that, and if they were, men told the story of what that should look like. But Cordelia made me forget that, for a while, thanks to the actor who played her. Carpenter infused the lines she got with her own spin, her own complexity, fire, compassion, doubt. Some of those lines were written by women, some of whom were shoveling the same shit female, femme and nonbinary actors and writers and creators have had to shovel their entire careers.
Caring about what others think, thinking that you exist to serve everyone else, and being broken by expectations that hover constantly — these are dynamics that many of us run from, even as they efficiently trap us. I’m overgeneralizing, but I’m overgeneralizing from experience: I think women feel the intrinsic compulsion to serve more than men. We are made to feel it, to internalize it like a song we learned as children and never forgot.
And I know that a popular culture largely created and run by men reinforced this basic premise to me for decades, before my cortex was done cortexing: Be a good girl. Figure out, from the 27 million conflicting things you are told, what “a good girl” looks like, acts like, sounds like, notice how thin her thighs are. Note how she fades into the background when the man is angry or needs attention or wants to take back the story. It’s his to take. Know when to be quiet, which is often, usually, always.
For the Cordelias of the world, of the screen, this was the way — object, not subject. I was used to it.
But Carpenter put fire behind Cordelia eyes. Steel and sadness girded her choices. Nobody else knew what the service and sacrifice cost her. She knew. I knew. It was our secret.
Stealthily, in the good seasons of Angel, a heroine’s journey took shape; it took on edges and eddies that felt real, textured, palpable. Carpenter created a memorable individual, someone who knew that hero-ing is something you do even when you’re in a bad mood. “Heroic” choices — and the fallout that can follow — are sometimes brutally imposed from the outside. Or you choose them. Either way, you’re alone. Or you feel alone. You resist being ground into dust and fail sometimes.
And then you get up the next day and do it all again. Them’s the breaks. They break you.
I wanted to matter to myself more, I wanted to be more than a servant, more than a repository for others’ pain and needs and damage and anger, more than a stalwart workhorse. How could I be selfless and still have a self? Some small voice told me I deserved to have both, but how was that possible? Give of yourself, and not give yourself away. How?
I am no hero, not by a long shot, but for a long, long time, I could not get off the narrow path of selflessness, of workaholism, of instinctively prioritizing everything and everyone else. Avoid the negative judgments. Do what they want, whoever “they” are. If you break — when you break — don’t make a mess.
If I didn’t unlearn this — the unavoidable mythology that undergirded not just the entertainment industry but my life — it was going to kill me. My mind would slide all the way sideways. I could not afford that. I did not want that. I wanted more for myself. To be loud, to be true. To be honest.
Cordelia was one of the messy, true, loud, funny fictional women who showed me the way. Cordelia made the right choice — to do the selfless thing — and she yet did not view herself as merely a tool, a vessel. She was also herself — sweetly, sarcastically, kindly, sadly, unapologetically herself. Always.
A step and a misstep at a time, I have taught myself to follow in her footsteps. I dried my tears, and I packed up the DVDs and went home. I decided — and when I wavered and faltered and failed, decided again — that I would be more than a vessel, more than just a facade of “goodness,” more than an exhausting-to-maintain construct that I (incorrectly) thought others wanted. I would be more than the target of an impossible swirl of expectations and demands.
I’m not done yet. It’s a process. Especially for those of us who are part demon.
I was not the lead character in my own life for a long, long time. Cordelia knew she wasn’t the lead character either, but she protagonized herself. She stole the life out from under the less interesting man at the center of the story.
“Demonize me already.”
I cried because I knew she was the hero, even if the show didn’t.
I’m not going to watch Angel again. Well, it’s unlikely. Those days are over; the help that I needed from it, I got.
Moments, scenes, lines linger. They always will. Lorne (RIP Andy Hallett) taught me to listen for the change. I still do. Sometimes I hear it. Even in accursed Los Angeles.
Supported by those who know and cherish me, I learned to listen for, and even sometimes love, the changes that crises and healing and deep grief bring. Three years after my father died, a fatal neurological disorder that took everything from my mother – except the love in her eyes – ended her life. After losing both parents – both galaxies – I often thought of this exchange from “Shells,” from Angel’s fifth season:
Illyria: We cling to what is gone. Is there anything in this life but grief?
Wesley: There’s love. There's hope — for some. There’s hope that you’ll find something worthy. That your life will lead you to some joy. That after everything, you can still be surprised.
Illyria: Is that enough? Is that enough to live on?
Many people have given up a great deal to bring the truths about bad people, bad situations, to light. To do that while keeping yourself alive, while continually choosing to occupy the role of a protagonist who fucking matters … I know what that costs.
I am sorrier than I can say that it took 20 years for Carpenter to feel safe enough to tell the truth about her experiences. Many have tried to make the industry a safer place to do things like that. If not for the courage of survivors of misconduct and abuse who have come forward — in so many places, at so many times — I would not have much hope. When she spoke out in early 2021, Carpenter brought a light to another dark time. What makes magic magical is that you don’t expect it.
I know someone from that world, the world of the man I will not name. She, like me, has made hard choices. Her choices cost her, thanks to a heartless industry and toxic superstructures that endlessly cater to the petty and the toxic and the cruel, but she never surrendered her soul.
One night, she said something — a concise, brilliant distillation, like all her work: “I guess if changing the world was easy, everyone would do it.”
Cordelia was not everyone. Carpenter is not everyone. My friend is not everyone. That’s why I treasure them.
We go on. I send my prayers and my thanks to those who have taken pieces of darkness and forged them into new things: A weapon. A light. A path. A tribe.
Survivors are many things; one of them is a community. They are in the world, phalanxes of them, in public places and private spaces, and they are lead characters. They are not silent.
They give me hope. Enough to live on.