Angel is a violent savior, one who transmutes his violent talents for the good of humanity, one who saves souls by shedding blood, but he's not slaying the bodies of pure evil—he's waging war against combatants who have as much potential for redemption as he does (Spike reclaimed his soul on BtVS and AtS shows that not all demons are unrepentant evil). Angel is “the greatest mass murderer” a man like Lindsey will ever meet, yet Angel is constantly given chances to redeem himself (I believe it's a testament to Buffy's belief in mercy and forgiveness that she fiercely argues that Angel can be good even after witnessing the evil he's capable of in BtVS Season 2).
As a vampire cursed with a soul, Angel is an incredibly dark figure. The dead air he exhales is ripe with tragedy and despair. He is cursed, he is trapped, yet he fights and continues to hope for a better world despite all evidence to the contrary. Throughout his journey, he is torn between two beliefs: 1) that there is no grand scheme and actions are what matter most and 2) that the ends (a result of a scheme, grand or otherwise) justify the means. He vacillates between these two beliefs based upon how hopeful and connected to humanity he feels (his epiphany occurs during an extreme time which leads to a very intimate connection with Kate), but hope is a fleeting emotion for Angel, one that is hard-won and constantly under siege, from within and without.
Angel is an individual who cannot actualize because he is not fully in control of himself—powerful forces are all vying to make Angel their agent, great powers that work to pull his strings and turn him into a mindless puppet. Even his souled state reflects this inability to actualize—his existence is predicated on fear of happiness and peace, for Angel to know joy is to destroy all that is good within him. He cannot know joy and peace because to truly know them he must embrace forgiveness, but he cannot because to embrace forgiveness is to forgive himself and his forward momentum is built upon guilt and the need to atone for his crimes. Transmuting his guilt into helping the helpless is how he makes himself useful—he uses his despair to help others. To forgive himself and to forgive others is to know peace, to achieve perfect happiness and thus lose his soul.
If Angel were to forgive others and forgive himself, while at the same time believing that “if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do” (a declaration of free will and hope), then the act of saving a life, saving a soul, with his friends at his side while feeling surrounded by love—that would be enough to lose his soul. Ecstasy is not orgasm. Feeling close to others, feeling accepted, feeling forgiven, feeling loved, feeling useful, feeling like a force for good—these are what Angel yearns for, these are what would bring him perfect happiness—not sex—and so these virtues and desirable states are what he fears most because to attain them all at once is to lose his soul and become a soulless creature that would destroy all which he loved. Angel cannot self-actualize because he is cursed, because letting go of what he can't control and allowing himself to know inner peace would destroy him—admitting his limits of control would then lead to a complete loss of control. If he evolves too much in his humanity, his soul is torn from him and he becomes a warped, destructive reflection of his former self. Control becomes Angel's albatross—powerful forces seek to control Angel while Angel wishes to relinquish control but cannot because he fears what he would become if he knew peace.
There is a metaphysical limit on how good Angel can be—he cannot become too wise, too kind, too successful, or too close to others—but there is no such limit on how evil he can become. For Angel, becoming too good inevitably leads to soullessness, but being cursed with a soul doesn't inevitably lead to goodness—souls can literally be sold or forsaken (see: Lilah, Warren), allowing evil to reign in a souled body. The presence of a soul doesn't ensure goodness—helping others is a choice Angel makes after largely a century of avoiding human contact and falling into malaise all while possessing a soul.
But what does it mean to be soulful?
Buffy the Vampire Slayer 1.07 "Angel":
Angel: When you become a vampire the demon takes your body, but it doesn't get your soul. That's gone! No conscience, no remorse... It's an easy way to live. You have no idea what it's like to have done the things I've done... and to care. I haven't fed on a living human being since that day.
Angel's mission is to help the helpless—not to redeem himself, but to care for others. In “Sanctuary”, Angel declares that his mission in LA is to save souls from the dark forces threatening to consume them (and he secretly hopes that in saving souls, he might save himself from the darkness within). But to save souls from evil, or more specifically to save innocent lives from the demons and murderous forces that seek to kill them, Angel at times must resort to violence. His mission becomes two-pronged—he fights to save lives by killing demons while he's also fighting to save souls—one battle is physical, the other is spiritual.
Thus a souled vampire is a figure who cares for others (soulfulness through caring), but because of his violent nature (vampires are predators who crave violence and destruction), he is sometimes charged to demonstrate his caring through violence. This is more easily accepted when Angel uses his violent nature to fight demonic forces that can be framed as irredeemable evil, but the waters become murky when Angel faces his greatest enemy, Wolfram & Hart. Yet what is W&H but a symbol of the lost souls Angel is charged to save? Lindsey, Lilah, and Holland Manners are not irredeemably evil. They embrace evil, they buy into evil and all that it will bring them (money, power, prestige), but they are not devoid of soulfulness (defined as caring for others). Lindsey cares for innocent children and even betrays W&H to work with Angel to protect the innocent. Lilah cares for her mother (who, fans speculate, has Alzheimer's) and for Wesley. Lindsey and Lilah are people who possess souls but do not fully embrace them—they've all but turned their backs on soulfulness, but not completely because they do still possess the capacity to care for others and prioritize others' well-being.
The people who work for W&H are the lost souls of LA who Angel is charged with saving. These lawyers have been seduced into committing evil for the Senior Partners: they made a bargain with the devil and literally signed over their souls. If Angel's mission is to save souls, not just slay demons and protect innocent lives from death at the hands of demons, but to save souls, then he's charged with helping the people working at W&H remember what it means to have souls. He is charged with reconnecting them with their humanity, with the souls they've silenced and ignored. Yes, there are innocents in the streets in danger of being hurt or even killed by evil forces, but Angel is more often saving their lives instead of saving their souls. His mission is to help the helpless and the hopeless, his mission is to save souls, yet when confronted with a house full of lost souls corrupted by powerful demonic forces, Angel is pushed into viewing them as combatants. Angel turning his back on the lawyers in the wine cellar in "Reunion" calls back to when he turns his back on the people in the Hyperion in the 1950's in "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been"—both times Angel abandons humanity to the demonic forces that seek to consume them—instead of saving souls, he sacrifices them. If Angel's mission is to save souls, then it is not enough to save good souls from becoming lost (saving innocents in danger of dying)—he must also try to save the lost souls in danger of being snuffed out and overwhelmed by the rising dark (i.e. Lindsey and Lilah).
Arguably, Angel's greatest success in his mission to save souls was Faith, a person everyone had written off as beyond helping, everyone except Angel. By forgiving her, accepting her and helping her accept responsibility for her actions, by forging a connection with her based on mutual caring, he was able to bring her back into a state of soulfulness (she cared for others and eventually acted upon this caring by helping others). Yet where Angel succeeds with Faith, he ultimately fails with Lindsey. Helping Lindsey to switch sides doesn't take in Season 1 and Lindsey returns to W&H. Later, when Lindsey again leaves W&H in Season 2 and even leaves LA, there's hope for redemption, only for Lindsey to return in Season 5, consumed with the need to destroy Angel. Lindsey's evil aspirations are focused on Angel—he doesn't buy into evil for evil's sake and he's still capable of caring for others, but he's obsessed with besting Angel and becoming king of the mountain—whether that mountain is evil or not, he wants supremacy over his rival above all. Lindsey is a lost soul who Angel is situated to help save, but Angel doesn't save him. Instead, he decides Lindsey is a threat to the greater good and too dangerous to be allowed to live—Angel becomes judge, jury and executioner when he orders Lorne to shoot Lindsey. Instead of saving Lindsey's soul, he damns him for eternity by destroying any hope of Lindsey redeeming himself.
“Not Fade Away” isn't the clarion call of a hero restored to his mission—it is the final act of a man consumed with despair, a man who has lost all hope that souls can be saved, even his own; devoid of hope, he now believes that violence alone will protect the innocent, that a soul teetering on the edge is destined to fall and so that potential lost soul is a future threat that must be extinguished before it grows into a greater evil that will endanger the safety of other souls. Years ago, Holland Manners told Angel the Home Office is the human world and considering W&H's modus operandi and form of agents, the apocalypse W&H sought was the seduction and corruption of humanity, to tempt humanity into destroying itself by embracing the monstrous within. Ultimately, Angel admits defeat in his ability to save souls from W&H's influence because he's lost the will, the fortitude, the wisdom and the compassion needed to save souls. Angel's strike against the Circle of the Black Thorn is one of despair not only for his own redemption (he symbolically signed away his hope when he signed the Shanshu prophecy), but for the redemption of humanity. In the end, all that Angel knows is violence—he cannot love thy enemy, he cannot save the lost souls, he can only kill the demons and the humans he deems too corrupt to be allowed to live—why let a corrupt human live when there is no hope for redemption? Far better to exterminate the rotten elements of humanity so that the innocent are not tainted by their evil.
“Not Fade Away” is a suicide mission—Angel has conceded victory to an evil he believes is too great to be defeated—in a way he's right, human evil cannot be destroyed, it must be fought, but his failure is determined by his methods—he fights the lost souls of W&H with violence, killing their bodies when he should be fighting to save their souls. Instead of distrusting these lost souls when they come to him for help and they offer him an opening to help redeem them, he should be genuinely embracing them and urging them to join his cause (i.e. Lindsey teaming up with Angel--Spike turned to the side of good and eventually joined Buffy's side from a similar bargain in Becoming). By viewing the people of W&H as his enemy, they become his enemy and Angel destroys the people he's charged with saving. W&H don't view Angel as their enemy, but rather a figure to be won over to their side and their attempts over the years to seduce Angel are so effective that Angel loses sight of his own mission—saving souls—while he's busy fighting to keep from being lost himself. In the end W&H wins because Angel abandons his mission and resorts to a desperate act of violence. Murdering the Circle of the Black Thorn leads to an army of demons raining down hell on Angel and LA (even the innocent are no longer safe)—Angel expects to die with the paltry satisfaction of knowing he's slowed the cycle of human corruption for a brief moment, but that it will inevitably start up again. It's a pyrrhic victory. When W&H regroups and begins the work of corrupting souls, there will not be an immortal warrior to fight the darkness threatening humanity, there will not be a vampire with a soul who embodies this battle between demon and soul within himself and can save souls because he understands what it means to lose his soul and constantly fight to retain it—humanity loses its champion when Angel believes deceit, manipulation and murder are the ways to save the world from evil and he only succumbs to this belief through desperation and despair driven home by horrible loss (Cordy and Fred's deaths) and belly-of-the-beast circumstances that have convinced him he's ineffectual and that the lost souls cannot be saved, so what's the point of trying? Like soulless Harmony, Angel now 'knows' the people who work for W&H are evil and no amount of Angel believing in them will make them try harder to be good. They're evil. End of story. No hope for redemption here. Move it along.
Angel the Series is a tragedy and “Not Fade Away” is the exclamation point on Angel's tragic end—disconnected from the people who ground him in humanity (Cordelia is dead, Connor is held at a distance, his other friends are busy being swallowed by W&H), he loses his way and loses hope in redemption, leading to the ultimate failure of his mission to save souls—in his despair, he forces a physical battle and settles for killing cogs in the wheel which will be easily replaced (cut off the hydra's head and three more grow in its place) because he's given up on winning the war of soul redemption. Angel then is the bringer of his own destruction—his inability to believe in his own redemption (a message Cordy tries to instill in him in “You're Welcome”) means he's unable to believe in the redemption of others. As Darla attested when she witnessed Angelus murder his father, physical violence is not an end nor a victory—Angel may kill the members of Circle of the Black Thorn and grant humanity freedom for a fleeting moment, but the Circle of the Black Thorn will reform, the Senior Partners will continue preying on the souls of humanity and W&H's defeat of Angel will last lifetimes as their power over humanity goes unchallenged hereafter.
* f1renze made a video that beautifully articulates the problematic way violence is used to attain redemption in AtS called Killing in the Name Of. I highly recommend downloading and watching it, but these lyrics still hit home what it means for Angel to kill Drogyn and Lindsey in the name of the greater good:
You justify those that died by wearing the badge, they're the chosen whites
Those who died are justified, for wearing the badge, they're the chosen whites
You justify those that died by wearing the badge, they're the chosen whites
Buffy is the Slayer, charged with battling the forces of darkness, while Angel is the Vampire with a Soul, charged with helping the hopeless and saving lost souls. Buffy's mission is to slay demons while not losing her humanity in the process (she worries about the Slayer taking her over, becoming hard and disconnected). Angel's mission is to reclaim his humanity by forging relationships so that he can help others reclaim their humanity, reclaim their souls. Where Buffy succeeds in slaying her demons through channeling the light of love that motivates a demon to reclaim his soul and sacrifice himself to close the Hellmouth (the demonic psyche is rendered powerless by the sun and the soul that loves), Angel gives into despair: his connections to humanity are taken from him, again and again, until he loses touch with his own humanity and hope. Learning of Angel's plan, Connor objects, saying to Angel that W&H “will kill [him]” and Angel replies that as long as Connor is alive, “they can't.” But what happens once Angel is gone and Connor is unprotected against W&H's corrupting influence? Angel's battling W&H and dying won't save Connor's soul. Angel compromises, accepting that Connor living is enough, not considering the likelihood of Connor losing his soul by living a corrupt life due to W&H's machinations. “Not Fade Away” offers the semblance of victory by resorting to physical violence, but the victory over the fate of humanity lies waiting for W&H to claim it.
Where BtVS ends with hope for the future, AtS ends in despair—Buffy smiles at the prospect of life while Angel grimly plans to fight till he dusts. These two finales set up the collision of Angel and Buffy's narratives in Season 8, Angel's despair diminishing Buffy's hope until Buffy submits (#34 is Buffy's desire to lose her soul in Angel and feel something besides the cold—only she does so by believing in a fantasy love) and then she's called back by her ties to humanity (she hears Xander's call).
This is how I see the way the BtVS and AtS narratives intertwine: Buffy's smile juxtaposing Angel's death wish, a death wish that Buffy is also prone to because Angel and Buffy are so very alike, both dependent on their human connections to keep them grounded, both in danger of losing sight of what's important when they fly too high, when they become isolated from their humanity, from their souls.
I saw Angel give up on his own redemption and the redemption of lost souls in AtS Season 5 and I believe this sets Angel up for his role as Twilight (a more in-depth meta for another time). I disagree with any fan who says Whedon didn't have a hand in creating Angel's journey. If you've watched BtVS, Dr. Horrible, Dollhouse and Firefly, you'd know that the themes AtS explores are constantly explored in Whedon's other works. I disagree with fans who say Whedon doesn't understand Angel—maybe the way he views Angel is different than some fans, but that doesn't make the way he sees Angel as wrong (since when is there one universally correct interpretation of Angel's character?).
I do agree that it's not fair to suborn Angel's narrative to Buffy's, but it apparently took stripping Angel of his protagonist privilege (and separating him from his sympathetic supporting characters) to show the potential darkness inherent in his character: that he is fully capable of damning himself without the help of his friends to keep him grounded. Angel is a tragic figure and his story in Season 8 is a tragedy, not because a higher power hijacked his body, but because he listened to the devil whispering in his ear and mistook it for an angel. He had become so lost to reason and redemption through the constant degradation of working in the belly of the W&H's beast that he was vulnerable to being led astray. Angel wants to do good, he wants to help others and save the world, but without Cordelia, without Wesley and Gunn and Fred, without Connor, he became susceptible to manipulating forces. Whistler came to him and Angel believed the figure who first set him on his mission to help Buffy was trustworthy. It began as a righteous mission and Angel's ends-justifies-the-means methods were already in place from his days at W&H when he murdered Drogyn in order to infiltrate and assassinate the members of the Circle of the Black Thorn.
Stripped of human ties and made so powerful that he can no longer feel pain, Angel becomes lured in by the role of hero (he saves a crashing plane!) and loses himself behind the mask. If you do not recognize him, it's because Angel is lost. And his descent didn't start in Season 8—it started when he faced off against W&H and over the years he lost his mission to save souls as he fought to keep from losing ground—and his friends—to the personal evils and trials orchestrated by W&H and other villains who distracted Angel from his mission (see: Darla, Holtz, Jasmine). Angel in Season 8 is a product of his experiences on AtS: the way he falls into his own inner darkness when he's cut off from humanity, the way he resorts to violence to save souls, the way he'll sacrifice bystanders—even heroes like Drogyn—for the “greater good”. Angel's tragic flaws and weaknesses have been magnified alongside his superstrength and invulnerability to injury, priming him to be used as Twilight's agent. Pity him for his weakness, have sympathy for the loss that's brought him to this juncture, but don't let him off the hook for the actions he willingly chose. Just as Angel is responsible for killing Drogyn and murdering Lindsey, he's also responsible for choosing to listen to a prophetic power that flattered his heroic ego and capitalized on his weaknesses.
This isn't a story about Angel being an adorable doofus—it cannot be because Angel would have to be around people he loved for him to act that way. This story is the culmination of Angel's fall—because it's not the demon that needs killing, it's the man. Angel's right: it's the man who's weak, but killing him isn't the answer. The man needs to be rescued.
Don't forget to save the Prince, Buffy. Save him from his despair—Connor is absent and he doesn't have Cordelia to help him now.