Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 3, Episode 10, “Amends”
Original airdate December 15, 1998
For many people, the holidays are a time of regret. Coming, as they do, at the end of the year, they provide a chance for all of us to reflect on our pasts, to celebrate the good things we have accomplished, but just as often to bemoan our mistakes and misdeeds. None of us are good all the time. Some of us are bad a lot more often than we are good. We all bear flaws, both imposed on us by our culture and of our own making, and at the end of the year, it can be easy for those imperfections and missteps to overtake all of the good we have done. It can be easy to forget all of our potential in our hurry to remember the ways we may have squandered it. It can be easy for the darkness to swallow up the light.
“Amends” is one of my favorite episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the way it looks the darkness at the heart of one of the show’s most flawed heroes and sees the potential for light. The episode serves as a sort of backdoor pilot for the show’s then-forthcoming spinoff Angel, introducing a lot of the thematic concerns that would pre-occupy that series over the course of its five season run. At the center of those is the titular concept, the idea that one might be able to correct for past wrongs, to do enough good in the world to make up for the bad that they’ve done.
Angel has done many bad things in his life. He has killed, but more than that, he took perverse pleasure in torture, mayhem, and murder for over a century, and after beginning to make amends, he returned to his evil ways during the show’s second season, wreaking havoc anew, killing Jenny Calendar and torturing Giles. Those things torment him constantly, but when a dark force arrives in Sunnydale intending to push him over the edge, he comes to the brink of finally giving in.
The episode builds to a beautiful, heart-rending climax, where Angel ascends to the hills above Sunnydale to wait for the sunrise, intending to commit suicide in the easiest way possible. It’s an act of weakness by a creature who thinks that is all he is and all he has ever been. It’s a moment beyond desperation, where a man who thinks he cannot be redeemed simply decides to give in, to do the world a favor by leaving it. But then, Buffy arrives.
She comes not to fight Angel, and not to force him. She doesn’t come to save him, not at least from the sort of threat we usually expect her to save people from. No, mostly, she comes to beg. She tells Angel that everyone is weak, that everybody fails. She tells him he has the power to change, to do real good in the world. She tells him he has the power to make amends. Angel shifts positions. No longer is he arguing from weakness; he asks Buffy to let him be strong. Then she says something that forms the crux of his subsequent series, and one of Joss Whedon’s most potent messages of the existential possibility of endurance: “Strong is fighting. It’s hard, and its painful, and its every day. It’s what we have to do. And we can do it together.”
Change isn’t ever easy. It’s hard. It’s a constant struggle for even a slight improvement, an uphill battle pushing a boulder made up of every mistake you’ve ever made, of every moment you’ve slipped back into a bad habit. It’s easier to stay the same. It’s easier to give into your flaws, to give up on yourself, to give up on life entirely. But there’s always hope. If you work hard enough, if you try long enough, if you push yourself further and never stop struggling, you can get better. Forgiveness is a moving target. Every person approaches forgiveness of others in different ways, and people often have different standards for forgiveness based on the person they are forgiving. Amends, on the other hand, is in some sense more objective. It means making up for a loss. It means paying recompense for past wrongs. It isn’t easy, it isn’t fun, and it doesn’t happen immediately.
Though the themes of the episode tie into Christmas and the end of the year, it’s the resolution that really makes “Amends” a Christmas episode for the ages. Buffy doesn’t save Angel. Angel doesn’t change in a moment and decide to save himself. No, it’s a Christmas miracle that saves the day, as snow begins to fall in southern California. The sun won’t rise that day. Angel will have to learn how to live another, and another, and another after that. He’ll have to fight, and love, and fail and lose. He’ll have to try to change. He’ll have to make amends. Change doesn’t happen over night. You can’t undo your worst mistakes by simply wishing it so. But you too can put in the time and effort necessary to improve. You can sacrifice and strive and become better. We can all, just by living in the world, improve it, if we want to badly enough. The Christmas miracle is that possibility. And that, well, it can last the whole year through.