Wow, I have a lot to say about this episode. I think it's one of the most underrated of the series. I know the setting seems crazy and random, but there's actually a point to it—like most things on this show.
Frank Capra is best known as the Oscar-winning director of idealistic, feel-good films such as It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life. Capra was an Italian-born immigrant who served in the U.S. army during both world wars; at the age of 44, he re-enlisted four days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. This turned out to be a boon for the army's chief of staff, George C. Marshall.
Marshall wanted to create a series of documentary films to counter enemy propaganda such as Triumph of the Will. He wanted to "explain to our boys in the Army why we are fighting, and the principles for which we are fighting." Capra was the answer to Marshall's prayers.
In 1942, Capra released the first film of the series to great acclaim throughout the Allied nations. The series is called, Why We Fight.
I've read a lot of criticism online about why Angel 5.13 is set during World War II. Bringing Hitler into any fandom discussion rightly gives people hives, and the epithet, "You're worse than Hitler!" is held up as the most hyperbolic of arguments. Angel is not worse than Hitler. Wolfram & Hart is never shown to be worse than Hitler. But this episode isn't really about the war. It's about the namesake films made during the war. More specifically, it's about the biblical passage that Capra kept in mind while making the films: "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." (John 8:32)
Everyone in the United States knew why the country was at war with Japan—the Japanese had attacked. The populace was less certain about the war in Europe. The U.S. had deliberately stayed out of that conflict, viewing it as a battle that did not directly affect their interests. Marshall wanted the public to see the war against the Nazis the way he saw it: as a battle between freedom and slavery, liberty and totalitarianism, justice and genocide.
But there was a public relations problem: joining the fight in Europe meant that the U.S. would have to ally itself with another totalitarian state—the Soviet Union. By the time the U.S. entered the war in December 1941, Hitler had broken the non-aggression pact and invaded Russia. Prior to this, however, the Soviet Union had been allied with Nazi Germany. Hitler and Stalin had made secret plans to divide up the territories of Eastern Europe between them, and in 1939, the Soviets rolled into Poland and occupied the east, just a few weeks after Germany invaded from the west.
Capra conveniently omitted this fact from his documentaries. An alliance with the Soviets would be more palatable to the American public if they didn't know the whole story.
So it goes with Angel and his pact with Wolfram & Hart. His team signed on to work for the firm without knowing the real reason Angel wanted the deal. If the truth can set you free, ignorance of the truth can keep you in chains. At Wolfram & Hart, as in war, it might even get you killed.
The truth behind Angel's deal with Wolfram & Hart begins all the way back in Season 3, when his enraged son locks him in a box and dumps him at the bottom of the ocean:
Connor. Why are you doing this?
You murdered my father.
No. I didn't. I swear.
I'm not lying. And she knows it.
You're the prince of lies.
— Angel 3.22, "Tomorrow"
At this point in the narrative, Connor is wrong. Angel is not lying to him, nor to his friends. He's been mostly honest with Connor, and he has tried desperately to connect with him. But Season 4 will see Connor kill an innocent to bring forth Jasmine; it will see him lose faith in family and love and life itself. Strapped to a bomb, ready to kill himself and Cordelia and a store full of innocent people, Connor tells Angel, "There's only one thing that ever changes anything... and that's death. Everything else is just a lie. You can't be saved by a lie. You can't be saved at all."
Angel can't accept this. Desperate to save his son, Angel gives him the "one thing that ever changes anything." He kills him. Wolfram & Hart erase Connor's existence and magic him into a new family – a functional, happy, human family. And along with erasing Connor's existence, the Senior Partners erase all memories of him among the surviving members of Angel's team.
What did we do with our lives before we got these jobs?
I seem to recall lots and lots of Jenga.
— Angel 5.13, "Why We Fight"
Jenga is a puzzle. And before any of Angel's team can solve it, one of them will be dead.
"Why We Fight" again finds Angel underwater, in the belly of the beast—or the hold of a submarine, pick your poison. And, once again, he's trying to save a wayward son:
We need that sub, and we need you to deal with... what's on it.
MAN IN BLACK
We had our intelligence investigate the submarine's cargo manifest.
[Tosses Angel a file] We think we know what attacked our boys.
Angel opens the file, begins to read it, and a look of recognition crosses his face. It's only after he reads this file that he agrees to the mission. What convinces him to go along with it?
In a word: family.
This is 1943—long before Angel began fighting evil and helping humans. It's even before he tries to help the residents of the Hyperion Hotel escape the clutches of a Thesulac demon in 1952 Los Angeles ("Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been"). Angel, quite frankly, doesn't give a shit about fighting evil at this point. The "relatively new" Demon Research Initiative hasn't yet developed its behavior modification devices for demons, so it's a safe bet that Angel could overpower the military goons in his apartment and escape. Yet he doesn't. Why not?
Because there aren't just vampires in that top-secret dossier. Angel sees Spike's name in that file. And he takes that dive to rescue him.
From the moment he kills his father in "The Prodigal" (Angel 1.15), family is shown to be Angel's primary motivation. He returns to his vampiric family in China, even after he's cursed with a soul. He never seriously tries to kill Spike or Drusilla despite numerous encounters with each of them, in both Sunnydale and Los Angeles. He fires his crew when Darla comes back from the dead. Only Buffy (and arguably, Cordelia) are shown to matter as much to Angel—and no one is more important to him than Connor. Wesley, Fred, Gunn and Lorne matter a great deal to Angel. But he doesn't hesitate to conceal the truth from them if it means protecting his son.
Likewise, Angel ends up 400 feet down in the middle of the Atlantic, on an enemy submarine that has been captured by American sailors, to protect another son. On board the sub, Angel meets Sam Lawson—who, despite making only one appearance in Angel, is one of the most densely layered guest characters in the entire series.
Others have written about how Lawson is an avatar for Connor in this episode, and there are some pretty obvious parallels. Lawson can even be seen as an avatar for Angel himself. I agree with both of these interpretations. But what interests me here, and what makes Lawson so layered, is that he also acts as the voice of Angel's crew—both on the submarine, and in the offices of Wolfram & Hart.
The first parallel drawn is between Lawson and Fred, when she finds him lurking around her office:
I was just trying to understand some of your equations here. I used to have a bit of a head for numbers. It's funny how you lose part of your mind when you stop using it.
Fred stopped using the part of her mind that remembers Connor. She took the job at Wolfram & Hart without knowing the whole story. And she wonders, several times throughout this season, why she's here. Lawson, while not knowing anything about the mind wipe, is smart enough to know that Angel keeps secrets, and that if Angel is working for Evil Inc., there must be a reason.
Do you like working here?
You know, do you enjoy what you do? Do you find yourself waking up in the morning, eager to start your day?
Fred stutters and stammers her response to this question. This is partly because she knows Lawson is up to no good, but it's also because she honestly doesn't know. She doesn't understand her purpose for being here. It's a job, not a mission.
The crew of the submarine has similar questions. They want to know what the hell Angel is doing there. "You wanna tell me how a man gets 400 feet down without so much as a dive suit?" Lawson asks, but Angel evades the question. Later, the crew speculates on the answer:
I'm telling you, he's some sort of super soldier, like Steve Rogers or Captain America.
Steve Rogers is Captain America, you eight-ball.
Like most superheroes, secrets have become a part of Angel's identity. They've been his constant companion ever since he allied himself with the enemy. Would his friends have taken the deal with Wolfram & Hart, if they knew the whole truth? Would they, like Angel, have signed on to give Connor a new life?
Maybe. Maybe not. Wes tried to protect Connor once before; he kidnapped Connor in a misguided effort to save him from his father. Given how badly that turned out, it's understandable that Angel feels the need to conceal the truth from his crew.
In 1943, it's Spike who plays the role of beloved (if annoying) offspring. He wears a Nazi uniform because he wants to be seen as badass. He's captured at a "free virgin blood party" like a teenager plied with an offer of free booze. He needles the crew despite Angel's admonitions, demanding to be called "Captain." He wants a turn at the wheel. He even introduces Angel to his vampire companions proudly, like a Hollywood brat with a famous dad: "Nostroyev, Prince of Lies, this is Angelus. [Grinning proudly] The Angelus."
And here, we hearken back to Connor's words in "Tomorrow", when he calls Angel "the prince of lies." Angel didn't deserve the epithet at the time, but in this situation, it's eerily apt. Lawson quickly catches on that Angel is hiding something, when he sees Angel protecting Spike:
I recognize there's a lot going on here that I don't understand... but those monsters butchered my crew. And apparently they're in the S.S.
Spike's not in the S.S. He just likes wearing the jacket.
Yeah, that doesn't help me understand why we're working with him, or keeping him alive, for that matter.
I got him under control.
That's not the point. He killed my captain, sir.
We may be able to use them. We don't have much of a crew left.
I don't think we'll need 'em.
They're extra hands.
They're monsters. And I don't know why we—
You don't need to know why.
But when you're asking your crew to willingly lay down their lives, they do need to know why. Otherwise, they're not volunteers; they're conscripts. Lawson says as much:
There's a difference between orders and purpose, sir. I didn't sign on because I needed directions. Hell, growing up, I used to make fun of the military boys. Always figured they wouldn't know how to tie their shoes if someone didn't give 'em the go-ahead. Then I saw pictures of what the Krauts were doing. Evil's spreading, sir, and it's not just over there. It was on my ship, it killed my crew, and we gotta stop it! And I've been scared out of my mind since I signed on for this duty, but I can keep it together. I can even handle dying, if I know it's for a greater purpose.
Lawson and his men would have seen Frank Capra's documentaries. They know the truth—even if it's not the whole truth. Ironically (or appropriately), the Prince of Lies is the one who uncovers the secret behind this particular mission; he finds a report on board the submarine, explaining why the Germans are capturing vampires.
It's technical. Something about stimulation and control. They've been experimenting on them. Cutting into their brains.
That what got the Prince's coronet in a twist, isn't it? Found out you were gonna pop our tops and melon-ball us.
They're trying to create an army, out of things like you.
Then we uncover another secret that Angel's been keeping:
[to Angel] You knew about this?
It was part of the mission.
So it appears that Angel's mission is three-fold:
- Bring in the submarine.
- Capture the sub's cargo (vampires) and the Germans' research (so the Americans can use it).
- "Deal with" Spike. It's never explicitly stated, but given what we know of the Initiative, dealing with him likely means bringing Spike in with the other "cargo" so they can experiment on him.
Spike is having none of this: "If the Yanks are after this stuff, too, I'm eatin' the lot of them." Lawson doesn't want to believe it's true. "We wouldn't do that," he protests. "You don't win a war by doing whatever it takes. You win by doing what's right."
What is right, when you're fighting a genocidal dictator? What lines would you cross to make sure you defeat him? Would you keep secrets from your crew? Make decisions for them? Risk their lives without their informed consent?
In war, leaders do this all the time. Whether it's acceptable to do the same at Wolfram & Hart is left up to the viewer to decide.
Angel, being in possession of the full truth, already knows what lines he will and won't cross. "None of this matters," he tells Lawson. "Your people are getting this ship and their men on board that are still alive. That's all!" Then he tells Spike to burn the research. The Initiative is not getting his family. Angel is not getting trapped at the bottom of the ocean, and Spike is not getting experimented on by Lawson's government.
By contrast, Wes, Gunn and Fred don't have the full truth. They follow Angel to Wolfram & Hart because they trust him. He makes an "executive decision" (4.22, "Home") with information to which they are not privy. Hamstrung by their lack of knowledge, they are literally strung up in this episode, nooses around their necks:
Easy now. That's double-ought wire wrapped around your crew's necks. Take a fella's head clean off with just a little tug. Best not go roughhousing. Something might get knocked over.
Whatever you want from me, this isn't the way to get it.
Already getting it. The worry in your eyes. Fear of what might happen next—which is right on the mark, 'cause I got a funny feeling there's gonna be some blood spilled tonight.
And indeed, Angel's crew will spill plenty of blood. Fred will die before she ever learns the truth about the mind wipe. Wes and Gunn will turn on each other, with Wes stabbing Gunn in the gut, the way the German officer stabs Lawson in the gut on board the submarine. And here, recalling his own death, with Angel's crew bound and gagged behind him, Lawson literally speaks for them:
Funny what goes through a man's mind when his life's hanging in the balance. Boys talked about that a lot back on the boat. Always figured it'd be the special moments you freeze in time. [The camera zooms in on Gunn] Your mom singing you to sleep at night. [Pan over to Wesley] Sneaking into the movies with your best friend. [Tight on Fred] The way your girl's hair shimmers in the sun. But the truth is, the only thing that really goes through your head is, "Wow. This really sucks." And then you're gone.
Lawson is the Greek chorus in this scene, speaking on behalf of Angel's crew, and indeed the audience. Would any of us sacrifice our lives for what we believe in? In order to decide freely, we have to know whether what we believe in is real. And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.
Lawson could handle dying, if he knew it was for a greater purpose. What he didn't know was that he might come back to life as a soulless, bloodsucking monster. Bleeding out on the floor, the only one left alive who can repair the engines, Angel turns Lawson into a vampire—to save the ship, the crew, his family and himself.
We're out of air. Crew's not gonna make it if we don't vent.
They swore to give their lives for their country. Just like me. Besides, I'm hungry.
They're still your men.
But they're not the mission. Are they?
No, Sam. They aren't. Angel's crew is not the mission, in any incarnation. He keeps secrets from them, he makes decisions for them, he withholds information that is vital to their ability to decide their own fates. Angel loves his crew. He protects them when he can. He saves them when he's able. But Angel fights for family. He always has.
He puts Lawson off the ship, threatening to kill him if they ever cross paths again. He makes no such threat to Spike. And as Spike climbs up the ladder, Angel smiles fondly. Mission accomplished, this time.
I never wanted to do this to you.
Oh, put your hanky away. I know how important the technology they pulled from the sub was to helping us stop the Germans. Sounded like a fair shake. One person damned to make the world safe for future generations. [Looks at Angel's team] Except these guys.
Except Angel's crew.
Angel kills Lawson, his crew's voice, at the end of this episode. Fred will be dead by the episode after next. Angel will blame himself for letting her to come to Wolfram & Hart. Spike will argue that it was her choice, but Angel knows better. Fred didn't have all the facts. None of his team did.
Angel didn't want to damn his crew, but he took the deal with Wolfram & Hart anyway. Even Fred's death is not enough to make him to confess the truth, to risk giving up what his son has gained. In the end, it's Wesley who will uncover Angel's deception, when Connor returns in "Origin." And Angel will plead with Wes, right up until the moment he smashes the Orlon Window, not to do it. To let Connor keep his human family, his life of lies. The lies that saved him.
Go home. Now.
They'll destroy you.
As long as you're OK, they can't.
— Angel 5.22, "Not Fade Away"
This is Angel's truth, his purpose, summed up in the show's final episode. Angel fights for family. He always will.