On Shanshu

I’ve been doing a lot of watching and thinking about Angel recently, and I though I’d weigh in on one of the most central, yet most peculiar elements of the story: the Shanshu Prophecy.

For those who don’t know, the Shanshu Prophecy is a prophecy introduced at the end of Angel Season 1 that says that “the vampire with a soul will play a pivotal role in the apocalypse, and as a reward will become human.” Angel sees the prophecy as his symbolic redemption, and a lot of his efforts after hearing the prophecy are aimed at earning that redemption. It also plays a role in Angel’s relationship with Wolfram & Hart, who want to make sure that when the apocalypse comes, he will be pivotal for their side (the side of evil).

I call the Shanshu Prophecy peculiar for several reasons. Firstly, the very idea that humanity would be a reward is really interesting to me. I can understand that Angel would want to be rid of his inner demon, but it’s not as if humans are any less screwed up or any less in need of forgiveness. That’s even a bit of a theme on Buffy and Angel: that a lot of the time, humans are just as bad if not worse than monsters. It may be that the attraction is less about humanity and more about mortality: the reward is that Angel would be able to die, which brings me to my next point.

I find it interesting that the prophecy comes after Angel has already experienced and rejected humanity. He took back his chance to be a human because he felt like his job was still unfinished, which tells me that the attraction that the prophecy holds for Angel is not the prospect of humanity, but the idea that one day he will be finished: that the higher powers will have officially decided that he’s done enough, that he’s forgiven.

Next, despite the fact that Wolfram & Hart is continually driven by their desire to corrupt Angel because of his role in the prophecy, it becomes less and less relevant to Angel himself. He begins the story searching for redemption, but he becomes more and more convinced that he has done far too much evil to earn his redemption, and that no matter how much good he does, he can never make up for it. He starts helping people just for the sake of helping people: because he can, because it’s right, and because it gives him purpose. (This is a bit of a tangent, but as a Christian, I’m really glad the story went in this direction because I believe that sin is not something that one can “make up for,” or that one can ever succeed in balancing the scales of good and evil. That’s why forgiveness is necessary.) There’s a sort of irony in that the prophecy ends up being W&H’s driving motivation more than it is Angel’s, but that Angel’s driving motivation is W&H.

And then there is the issue that there are two vampires with souls. There is some debate, both within the story and without, about whether the prophecy refers to Angel or Spike. The debate is never resolved within the story, although I would argue that there is a lot more textual evidence tying Angel to the prophecy than Spike. The fans, of course have their own opinions. I’ve heard a lot of arguments from fans saying that Spike deserves to become human more than Angel because A) he wasn’t punished with a soul like Angel was, he fought for it, and therefore he is a better person B) he won the fight for the cup of perpetual Mountain Dew. Personally, I find those arguments to be a total load of crap. Maybe it’s just the fact that I’m a big softie when it comes to Angel’s character, but the very idea that Spike deserves humanity more than Angel really ticks me off. I’ve got nothing against Spike, and I think he’s a fabulous character, but if it had turned out that he had been the subject of the prophecy I would have turned off my TV and started writing hate mail to Joss Whedon. Here’s why:

I don’t think that the fact that Spike fought for his soul says as much about him as people would like to think. Don’t get me wrong, it says a lot, but Spike never would have done so if he hadn’t been given the brain chip, which forced him into a position where he could appreciate the value of a soul. That’s not so different from what happened to Angel: both had a moral perspective forced upon them. The way that they acquired their respective souls is not, in and of itself, sufficient evidence to rank their moral characters.

You might still be able to make a decent argument that Spike is a better person than Angel at his core, but I don’t think it’s a logical leap to say that therefore Spike is more deserving or more admirable than Angel. For me, it is not a question of “Who are they” as much as “Who do they become?” (or perhaps not “how do they get their souls?” but “what do they do with them?”) The man that Angel becomes is far nobler, gives far more, and cares far more than Spike, which is all the more impressive if he doesn’t have the same quality of raw material (so to speak) that Spike does. Angel actively fights to be a better person, whereas Spike just evolves.

As for the argument that Spike deserves the Shanshu because he won the fight for the cup… umm… it wasn’t real. It didn’t actually mean anything. Maybe he wanted it more (although even Spike admits that he doesn’t really want it as much as that he just doesn’t want Angel to have it), and maybe he fought better, but are those really enough to say he deserves it? I don’t think so.

Spike fought for a soul, and was rewarded with a soul. He never fought for redemption. Angel didn’t fight for a soul, but he did fight for redemption. Why should Spike get what Angel fought for?

But even more fundamentally than all that, neither Angel nor Spike deserve to Shanshu. It’s a gift. It might be an earned gift, but it’s not something that either of them can ever be worthy of.

In a sense, this entire post is made moot by the last episode of Angel, and yet, that is the episode that makes the prophecy the most fascinating to me. Angel gives it up. It never happens. In order to trick the Circle of the Black Thorn into trusting him, he signs it away. Now, I’m not so sure that a prophecy can be undone as easily as that, but the fact that Angel was willing to take that risk in order to go on a kamikaze mission that even he admits has little chance of making a long-term difference says a lot about him. Either he’s completely given up, or he’s a far bigger hero than we ever knew.  Maybe I’m just a hopeless romantic, but I think it’s the second option.

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~ by ntertanedangel on April 6, 2012.

2 Responses to “On Shanshu”

  1. Interesting post. I especially liked “Why should Spike get what Angel fought for?”

    Shanshu was a mistake. It was clearly a way to tie off season 1. And then episode 1 of season 2 essentially rebooted Angel. They found the voice of the show in Judgment and learnt the lesson of not “keeping score”. The message here was the message of the season, most clearly stated in Epiphany: all that matters is what we do.

    The resurgence of Shanshu (and please- it’s the prophecies of Aberjian… it’s okay for fans to call it Shanshu but why did the characters in Angel start calling it Shanshu and not its proper name?) felt like a weird symptom of the fandom. I remember being exposed to the notion that Spike was the vampire in the prophecy through fan discussions before the fifth season of Angel. The prophecy didn’t feel like it was a part of the series any more but suddenly, with the addition of Spike to the cast, it was important again.

    And it never was. Angel signing away the prophecy was very much a non-event because we had spent three years with him not caring at all about it and apart from the rivalry with Spike, which had already been set aside for the Bigger Picture, there was no believable reason for him to suddenly want to “shanshu”.

    So those are my thoughts on the matter.

    • Interesting. See, I think the prophecy is important precisely because it is so irrelevant. It’s the measure against which we can judge how far Angel has come in learning the lesson of helping people for their sake, not for his.

      Even after Angel’s big epiphany in season 2 he still wants to be redeemed, he just doesn’t think it’s possible. I think at that point he’s still hoping deep down that the prophecy is true. The prophecy is brought up a couple of times in season 3, tying into Angel’s desires at that time for a normal, happy family, as well as his feelings of irrelevancy when the Groosalugg shows up. And in season 5, the issue of the prophecy is raised long before Spike is mentioned as a possible candidate. It’s tied directly into Angel’s issues of trying to find a reason to continue fighting. The fact that he gives it up at the end seems to me to be an indication that he has finally found that reason, and realized that the prophecy isn’t it.

      Whether or not the prophecy is relevant to Angel personally, it still plays a huge role in the way that Wolfram & Hart treat him. If they hadn’t believed in it, they would have squashed him like a bug at some point in season 2. But instead they put all their time and money into corrupting him, driving him crazy, seducing him, etc.

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