Saturday, November 28, 2009

A Closer Look at Darla, Part I: “I don’t get to have any fun.”

Vampires are all the rage these days. You can’t go very far without reading, hearing, or seeing some reference to the pale, brooding, dangerous, and above all “hot” undead. Personally, I’m rather sick of how “hot” vampires are, despite my love for the vampire genre. But amidst the blood, the sparkles, the abs, and the violence, where are the female vampires? On E!’s latest list of “10 Vampires We Love,” a TV special aired earlier this month, only 3 out of the 10 oddly-chosen vampires were female, and the discussion of these ladies was anything but complex. Angel made the list at #8, but none of his fellow Whedonverse vamps placed on the countdown. This is only the latest of such lists, and I have repeatedly found myself thinking that the lady vamps of the Whedonverse are underappreciated. Of course such things are subjective, but I cannot help but wonder about the larger trend. For example, despite Alice Cullen making it to #9 on the E! list, no one was wearing Alice shirts to the recent screenings of Twilight Saga: New Moon. Instead, most of the moviegoers identified themselves as Team Jacob or Team Edward. The tendency to read books and watch shows and movies purely for relationships leaves many of these female vampires with little fanfare. The predominantly female audience plays into this, which I find rather odd. You might think that with so many women watching things like True Blood, Twilight, and The Vampire Diaries (or reading the book versions), there would be more attention to the kick ass vampire chicks. Sadly, no.

Even within the Whedonverse, fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel often seem much more fixated on Angel and Spike, and the battle for Buffy’s heart. No female vampire was ever included in the Buffy or Angel credits, though Angel and Spike were regulars on both shows. In particular, I find that Darla, and her role in the larger mythology, is underappreciated. In an interview with Julie Benz, found on the special features of the Angel season three dvds, she talks about how the fans didn’t really like her, until finally at the end of her run in season 3, when she sacrificed herself to give birth to Connor. I was shocked to hear this, as Darla was one of my favorites since she first bit what’s-his-name in the opening to “Welcome to the Hellmouth.” In contrast, Spike and Drusilla seem to have been embraced by the fandom right away, following their entrance in the season 2 Buffy episode “School Hard,” and their popularity is referenced in the commentaries as a reason for keeping those characters around for so long. I should note that I did not watch Buffy or Angel when they first aired, and instead caught it all on dvd in 2007 (since then, of course, I have re-watched it all multiple times), so my experience is rather different from those who have been taking part in the fandom since the beginning. Nevertheless, I’m sure that there are others who feel like me, and want to see Darla given a bit more attention and credit. Or perhaps, if you have underestimated her in the past, you might reconsider after reading this post.

Darla was the first vampire to be featured on Buffy—the first to bite anyone, and the first to walk the halls of Sunnydale High School. The opening teaser for "Welcome to the Hellmouth," begins with spooky music, as the camera pans through a high school science classroom, featuring an absurd number of skeletons. The arm of a teenage boy breaks through the window, and we see Darla's face behind. Julie Benz played the role with pure innocence and fear, as Darla stammers to her companion, " I I I I don't want to go up there." At this point, I assumed that the boy was a vampire, and that the sweet blonde girl was soon to be dead meat. Darla was visibly frightened and worries that she heard someone. Her date tries to spook her further, but she is not amused. He mockingly calls “hello,” and when no one answers, he assures her that no one is there. Then, suddenly, the pretty blonde vamps out and bites the boy’s neck. Hello, unconventional vampire. Goodbye, random teenage boy. In the commentary for the pilot, and the interviews on the dvds, Joss Whedon talks about the choice to open the show this way, and the significance of this for the overall message of the show. In this opening scene, Joss manages to play upon the expectations of the audience, and then suddenly to subvert them. As Joss says over and over again, part of the impetus in creating the character Buffy was that he was tired of watching horror movie after horror movie in which the pretty blonde was killed by monsters in an alley. Buffy was an opportunity for the pretty blonde to fight back, and fight back she did. Overall, the message was empowering, at least for me, and Darla was part of this. While Darla was not the heroine of the story, the fact that she turned out to be the scary one, not the powerless victim as I would have supposed, was a sign that this show would challenge traditional gender roles.

The next time we see Darla, she is flirting with Jesse (remember him?) in The Bronze (while sitting in a chair that looks like a bird cage, but that’s neither here nor there), and he is thrilled to have the attention. Jesse eats up every word, but in his defense Darla is way cooler than the vamp that was seducing Willow in that episode. Willow goes off with the loser vamp in the 70s garb, and is led into a mausoleum. Darla arrives shortly thereafter, and the loser vamp asks why she didn't bring her own. She wipes her mouth and says, "I did." There is a pause and then a bitten Jesse stumbles in. Darla explains, "I got hungry on the way." See? That is the Darla I know and love. This was the first episode, however, so the vamp-face-change is rather awkward, and Julie Benz was sporting unfortunate bangs and makeup. Additionally, she, along with most others in the early seasons, had a hard time speaking with the fangs, but she still conveyed awesomeness. Then Buffy comes in and there is a confrontation. Darla is a bit more fearful and ignorant than I would imagine her character to be (based on the flashbacks we see later), but this was the first episode, so the writers hadn’t figured out all the mythology yet. Darla and Buffy even fight in this scene, but it is rather pathetic as the oafish Luke comes in and totally cuts-in on the fight. Darla runs off to tell the Master. Fail. I would have preferred to see Darla take lead here.

In the second part of the premiere, "The Harvest," Darla and Luke bring Jesse to the Master. The Master is not so happy with Darla, as Jesse is totally leftovers, but she makes excuses. The relationship at this point doesn’t seem as close as it seems in later episodes, but I guess the fact that he doesn’t kill Darla over this is proof of his affection. For the rest of the scene, however, Luke gets all the lines, and all Darla does is light some candles. While Luke is anointed as “The Vessel,” Darla looks on with this odd ecstatic expression, and it's kind of hilarious. Then Darla leads the gang of vamps to the Bronze, but does nothing once she gets there. Disappointing.

After this, we really don’t see Darla until “Angel,” episode seven. Buffy has increasingly become a problem for the Master, so Darla offers to kill her. The Master refuses her request, saying that she has a "personal interest in this." Darla’s response? "I don't get to have any fun." Word. The Master is totally keeping her down. When The Three (clever name) inevitably fail, they offer their lives in penance. The Master: "I am weary, and their deaths will bring me little joy. [Cue Darla happily staking The Three.] Of course sometimes a little is enough." Ha! The happiness on her face while staking the vamps really just made me adore her even more in that moment. Is that wrong?

Later in the episode, Angel arrives home to his apartment to find Darla waiting, and this is when we begin to learn about the past relationship between these two—a history that will continue to be developed in Buffy and, to a much great extent, in Angel. There is much history between the two, involving rampaging across Europe and Asia for over a century. Darla tries to convince him to embrace his vampire nature, and insinuates that Buffy will never accept him for what he is. It is left unclear whether she succeeds, and after this conversation, Darla goes back to The Master with a plan: "Angel kills her and comes back to the fold." The Master likes this, and says of Angel: "He was the most vicious creature I ever met." The way they talk, it seems like Angel actually was part of the Order of Aurelius, and had a relationship with The Master, but they retcon that later. Oh well. Darla sets her plan into motion by going to see Joyce. Through a conversation between the two, there is a hint that Darla’s family dates back to the War of Independence, but in fact we will later learn that she was turned over a century before that. Darla manages to frame Angel for biting Joyce, hoping to make Buffy try to kill Angel, and thus force Angel to fight back and kill Buffy.

After Buffy starts making preparations to hunt Angel down, Darla confronts Angel again: "She's out hunting you right now. She wants to kill you. What did you think? Did you think she would understand? That she'd look at your face—your true face—and give you a kiss? For 100 years you have not had a moment's peace because you will not accept who you are. That's all you have to do—accept it. Don't let her hunt you down. Don't whimper and mewl like a mangy human being. Kill, feed, live." Darla is very much representative of the demon aspect of the vampire, and is an advocate of the easy, and above all the fun, way of un-life. She wants Angel to let go and embrace his inner demon. As we will learn later, Darla was the one who made Angelus the monster that he was, both literally and metaphorically.

Eventually, Buffy and Angel have a showdown in the Bronze. He tells her about the gypsy girl whom he killed, and the resulting curse. At first Buffy is not very impressed at the hardship this curse presents, but Angel explains: "When you become a vampire, the demon takes your body, but it doesn't get your soul. No conscience, no remorse. It's an easy way to live." As he points out, “You have no idea what it feels like to have done the things that I’ve done … and to care.” This is relevant for Darla because it explains her persona, in contrast to Angel’s. She is in the no-cares camp, and has no remorse for her evil deeds. She also has a real spirit of fun and enjoyment.

When Darla arrives on the scene, she is still mocking Angel’s teenage love choice by wearing a red plaid school-girl outfit. She is also in vamp face and sporting the resultant lisp, but I’ll let her slide on the latter. Darla asks Buffy, "Do you know what the saddest thing in the world is?" Buffy: "That hair, on top of that outfit?" Hehe. Darla: "To love someone who used to love you." Buffy is not thrilled to learn that Darla and Angel were involved, but puts on a brave face: "Well, when you've been around since Columbus, you are bound to pile up a few exes. You're older than him, right? Just between us girls, you're looking a little worn around the eyes." Well, she’s not that old, but Buffy is only about 100 years off. Darla explains: "I made him. And there was a time when we shared everything, wasn't there Angelus? You had a chance to come home, to rule with me in the Master's court for a thousand years. But you threw that away because of her. You love someone who hates us. You're sick. And you'll always be sick. And you'll always remember what it was like to watch her die.” This really captures Darla’s role in the Whedonverse in a nutshell. She misses her play-time companion Angelus, and desires more than anything that he would return to who he was. She has a very clear idea of what it means to be a vampire, and it is a rather tempting lifestyle for Angel. She will never succeed in turning Angel, which makes her almost tragic in a way. She is fighting a losing battle and won’t accept that the past is over.

Darla quips, “You don't think I came alone did you?" Buffy didn’t either, and pulls out a crossbow. Darla: "Ooh, scary. [She pulls out two guns, one of the rare moments when guns are featured on this show.] Scarier." Even with the vamp-teeth-lisp that scene is awesome-sauce. She shoots Angel, for fun, telling Buffy: "Oh, don't worry, bullets can't kill vampires. They can hurt them like hell, but … so many body parts, so few bullets. Let's start with the knee caps. No fun dancing without them.” Really, when does Buffy have an adversary more fun in the first season? At this point, Xander and Willow try to distract Darla, and Willow tells Buffy the truth about who bit Joyce. Angel takes this opportunity to stake his former lover, and she features a look of shock, turning and saying Angel’s name, before turning into vamp dust. I have to admit, despite the fact that she is a cold-hearted killer, Darla’s death makes me sad. I can’t help but pity her—at that point no one ever gave her a second chance, or tried to save her, and it just seemed rather sudden and final. Luckily, however, this would not be the last time we would see Darla.

When The Master hears about Darla’s death, he is visibly upset, and smashes things. At least someone cares. The Annoying One (copyright some fabulous podcast I listened to, but there are so many that I can’t quite recall) tells him, "Forget her." The Master is as annoyed at this advice as me, and tells the boy: "How dare you. She was my favorite, for 400 years." The Annoying One says that she was weak, and that he doesn't need her. Shut up, Annoying One. The Master continues: "But to lose her to Angel. He was to have sat at my right hand, come the day. And now …" Again, they kind of retcon this later, as Angel turns down The Master’s invitation to join him right away. But I guess everything has to come back to Angel, since he is the tragic hero of the piece. Sigh.

We next see Darla via flashback, in the season two finale, "Becoming Part I." The episode open on Galway, 1753, and we see a young and bewigged (oh, that awful wig) Angel, or rather Liam, carousing in the streets, complete with a terrible Irish accent. He catches sight of a gorgeous and mysterious woman in the alley across the way, and it must be noted that Julie Benz rocks the period-look beyond all others on the show. Darla looks a million times better without those awful bangs and overdone makeup, and is wearing a fabulous dress and sporting a wig as lovely as Angel’s is awful. Angel asks: "So I ask myself—what's a lady of your station doing alone in an alley with a reputation like this one has?" Darla replies, "Maybe she's lonely." There is some back and forth flirting, and Darla wonders if he is up to the challenge. Angel asks where she’s from, and she says "Around. Everywhere." Angel had never been anywhere, and Darla offers to show him her world, "Things you've never seen, never even heard of." Angel: "Sounds exciting." Darla: "It is. And frightening." Angel: "I'm not afraid. Show me. Show me your world." Darla tells him to close his eyes and grants him his request. The scene is at once sexual and maternal, and we can see the beginnings of their unhealthy relationship. Especially interesting to me was the fact that Angel asked for it. He certainly didn’t know what he was getting himself into, but he was game for adventure, frightening or not. Before this fatal encounter, Liam's life was rather pointless and narrow. Darla opens up a whole new world for him, and is very much his guide and mentor. In Angel we are able to further explore the ways in which Darla shaped Angelus, and consequently Angel. Look forward to Part II of this post to come, discussing Darla’s character growth on Angel.

You can read more by Lucia on her blog, Heroine TV, where she recaps TV series such as Dollhouse, Mad Men, The Vampire Diaries, and Lost. You can also follow her on Twitter, where she never tires of talking about TV.


Scar said...

I never liked Darla much, something to do with the whiney voice. Drusilla was my favourite vamp, though I do agree people seem to fixate on the male vampires who have romantic roles with Buffy much more than any of the others.

Michelle said...

I love the character of Darla and I'd say her stint on Angel was one of the best story arcs of that series. I also love the fact that Darla was the only vamp who wasn't an 'innocent' when she was turned. She was bad before she was really bad.

elainecleo said...

Great article and a keeper. Dru was always my favorite female vamp because she was so very crazy(thanks Angelus),but am looking forward to part 2 on Darla. This has given me a new way of looking at Darla and she was bad before she was EVIL.

Roxie said...

Don't be fooled by the Team Edward, Team Jacob shirts. Team Alice is STRONG. Everybody loves the poo out of Alice. It's a pity there are no shirts sold for her this time around (they were for the first film).

Darla was a fantastic character and I agree with Michelle that her story arc was one of the best Angel ever had. At Dragon*Con Julie said that fans didn't like her but that she suspects it was b/c her character was evil & there was a bit of transference going on.

Dru was my favorite, but the scenes with Dru & Darla were the best!

heroine_tv said...

I certainly agree with everyone about Dru--she never ceases to amuse. "I'm naming all the stars. But I've named them all the same name, and there's terrible confusion." Hehe. And yes, she has some great scenes with Darla as well. Really, I find all four vampires in that dysfunctional family to be fabulous.

Roxie, I am glad to hear that team Alice is strong. She was one of the only characters whom I really enjoyed in those books, as she had so much personality and spunk.

I also love that Darla wasn't "innocent" before being turned. However, I don't think she was the only one. Liam/ Angel was quite the troublemaker, getting into fights at bars, seducing servants (rather aggressively), breaking hearts, and I'm sure that he had a lot of fun with ladies of Darla's profession. ;) Plus, he trolls alleys for women, and asks to be bitten. ;) In my opinion, that make him no innocent either, and no better than Darla, who was just trying to make a living in a very unjust & misogynistic world.

Thanks for reading!

(I normally post comments on here as heroine_tv, but since I was logged into Google, I did it this way. We are the same person in case anyone is confused.)

Michelle said...

I guess what I mean about Darla's "badness" is not so much about her choice of profession, but rather her attitude. She wasn't a nice person and made no apologies for it. Even when she comes back to Angel as a human, she's not repentent or looking to get into Angel's good graces. She's working for Wolfram and Hart and trying to bring Angel down. That doesn't seem much different from her vampire self. I especially love the scene when she tells Angel he should be thanking her for making him a vamp. It's so interesting that she would see it that way. She's a great layered character and I'm glad she got to shine on Angel.

heroine_tv said...

You make a very good point, Michelle. Sorry, I guess I was just only thinking about her siring versus that of Angel's. Yeah, even with a soul, she is not "nice" and doesn't seem to regret anything. I love that she is full of attitude too, and doesn't waste time brooding. She only seems to have a couple moments of torture and repentance -- right before she is sired by Dru (after Angel was ready to sacrifice himself for her) & then later on her last die on earth (Connor's birthday), when she is all aglow with Connor's soul.

Tara said...

I'm back! And loving this moment to peer inside Darla's story. Thanks Heroine_TV!

Even though I've long loved Darla's story, I guess I never so clearly realized that yes, she was also a perfect representation of Whedon's goal of "turning the blonde girl in a horror movie on it's head." And she was the first instance of that - within the first 5 minutes of the series! Really, there could've been a whole show about her that was the opposite of Buffy. Interesting.

Season 1 Darla still slightly pissed me off but once "Becoming" rolled around, I was definitely hungry for more information on these 2 vamps and their history.

Going to read part 2 now!

Anonymous said...

Spike calls him the annoying one in one of the episodes... of course I don't remember which one...

Nick aka Puppet Angel said...

I love Darla and Julie Benz. I've just finished re-watching Angel season 2 and the Darla storyline is the best arc of that entire series - how she messes with Angel and then becomes so messed up herself is wonderfully written and played. Her sudden and unexpected re-siring by Dru was a "HOLY C**P!" high point of the series.