WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Angel is a vampire who drank the blood of the wrong gypsy girl and found himself cursed with a soul. Now, tortured by the guilt of his past misdeeds, he leads a team of investigators to keep the citizens of Los Angeles safe from vampires, demons, monsters and an evil law firm (yes, really) called Wolfram & Hart.
Also, he dated Buffy the Vampire Slayer and has some real manpain about it.
Angel, see above.
Cordelia Chase, former Buffy mean girl at Sunnydale High, Cordelia now works as Angel's secretary. She also gets visions of people in danger that serve as the source for many of Angel's cases week to week.
Wesley Wyndam-Price, former member of the Watcher's Council, former rogue demon hunter, former ... head boy. Wes is Angel's demonologist and sometimes fighter (although he's not very good at it at this point).
Charles Gunn, leader of a group of vigilantes who protect their neighborhood from vampires. Someone he loved got turned into a vampire. Also, he loves trucks enough to maybe sell his soul for one, apparently. He helps Angel out part-time but doesn't completely trust him yet.
PREVIOUSLY ON ANGEL
Angel has been slowly establishing his team at Angel Investigations, one case at a time. But one thing we don't know is Angel's connections with Los Angeles specifically. We've seen him as the soulless killing machine Angelus, and the tormented hero with a soul on Buffy, but we know very little of Angel's background during the time in between.
THE PLOT AND WHAT MAKES IT GREAT
"Are You Now or Have You Ever Been" (Angel Season 2, Episode 2; originally aired October 3, 2000) is basically the story of why Angel didn't get into the habit of helping the helpless a lot sooner. Angel's backstory is one of the most mysterious things about him, so there's a risk in revealing too much, but here we get a perfect snapshot of both him and a darker moment from America's history -- McCarthy and the Red Scare.
"Are You Now or Have You Ever Been" is mostly set in 1952 at the Hyperion Hotel. It's the kind of place where people from every walk of life go to disappear -- whether it's a famous actor trying to hide his sexual identity, a young woman in trouble or even a vampire with a soul.
The other part of this episode is set in Angel's present. Here he is revisiting the Hyperion now that it is abandoned. He's got Cordelia and Wes investigating the place, but without a case, neither is sure of why -- until they find a picture of Angel there.
So, what is Angel doing in Los Angeles in 1952? Nothing. Angel is laying low in a room at the Hyperion doing everything he can to go unnoticed. And other than a suspicious hotel manager and a paranoid bellhop living in fear of him, Angel has been largely successful at fading into the background.
Until, that is, Judy Kovacs sneaks into Angel's hotel room to hide. Judy experiences events in which she slowly finds a potential protector and confidante in Angel, even as he tries to remain outside of her life. First, it's when Angel knocks out a private dick whom she claims is an ex-boyfriend. Later, it is when she reveals that she stole a bag of money from the bank she formerly worked at after they fired her.
Judy is fired because her bosses find out that she is half-black during a time when race mattered even more than it does now, at least in the eyes of the official law. What makes "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been" such a great story is the reason why Angel ultimately chooses to help Judy: it is because he relates with her. Angel is a pure hero here; he's lonely. Angel's forced isolation is still isolation and he still can feel depressed from it. Angel empathizes with this woman who, like himself, is isolated because she is neither one thing nor another.
Angel, as a character, does not trust himself. Subsequently, Angel does not trust anyone else either. And that makes the McCarthy era a perfect time period to place him in. This is a horror/fantasy, though, and so naturally the paranoia that Angel feels (and the paranoia that everyone else at the Hyperion is also living under) gets personified by a Thesulac demon. The demon whispers to people their greatest fears only to feed on the resulting paranoia later.
Sometimes, however, the paranoia simply leads to suicide. Or is it suicide? "Are You Now ..." does a wonderful job of using Los Angeles as its location, where Hollywood types live. A writer at the hotel, for example, feeds the demon with the paranoia that maybe a suicide is actually ... murder! "Locked door mystery: I've written it a hundred times."
All of this naturally feeds back to Angel and Judy. While Angel is beginning to feel trust for the first time in centuries, Judy is pulled into the murder accusations by the remaining cast at the Hyperion. In a moment of desperation where Judy is being assaulted with accusations by the other hotel patrons, she sells Angel out, accusing him of the supposed murders. Resigned to his fate, Angel is taken to the hotel lobby, where he is strung up and hung.
That's right. The reason Angel doesn't help people for so long is because, the one time he did, he was literally hanged for it. Of course Angel doesn't need oxygen since he's a vampire, so he just waits for the lobby to clear before letting himself down. That's when the Thesulac demon appears to Angel and taunts him with, "There's a hotel full of tortured souls who could really use your help." To which Angel replies, "Take 'em all." Not only does Angel not help these people, he actively chooses to let them suffer and die at the hands of a demon.
And what makes "Are You Now ..." such a great story is that it feeds so well into Angel's narrative of being tortured by his past misdeeds. Angel doesn't stop making mistakes because he has a soul, he keeps making them because having a soul doesn't make you morally right automatically.
The other thing that makes this episode great is its ending. Remember how Cordelia and Wes were wondering why Angel was investigating the Hyperion? Turns out the Thesulac is still there, still feeding ... on Judy. Yes, decades later, the paranoia demon kept Judy in the hotel, feeding on her fears and anxiety the whole time. And decades later, Angel finally slays the demon and forgives Judy for betraying him. She dies, but she dies with some part of her knowing forgiveness.
And then Angel makes the Hyperion his new base of operations. The place where Angel failed to be his best self, a place known for murder and betrayal, is ground zero for his attempts to redeem himself and the city of Los Angeles.
WHY DOES THIS MATTER NOW
The end of the sentence "Are you now or have you ever been" is "a member of the Communist Party." And while there isn't quite so much panic over Communism these days, a cold war rages on between the two major political parties in America just the same. "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Republican Party" or "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Democratic Party" carry with them a stigma depending on who you are or where you go. And that stigma could impact your ability to, say, hold down a job or be able to safely inhabit a neighborhood.
We're living in a time where absolutely everyone seems to assume the absolute worst in each other a not-small portion of the time. For the record, I am a part of everyone, too. No exemption status for Syfy Wire writers. Or readers, for that matter. And while there are many fears I'd argue are pretty justifiable these days, that doesn't mean distrust should go unexamined.
Like Angel, any one of us could be left to swing at any time. And like Judy, many people face discrimination based on something core to their identity which can yield acts of self-preservation that are understandable yet still flawed.
And, in the figurative sense, people do find themselves hanged without so much as a a whiff of benefit of the doubt all the time. You hear about someone making a single tweet only to lose their jobs or campaigns being spawned with the express purpose of ruining a person's career over a difference in opinion over video games. If a person finds even a moment's notoriety, you can bet someone else will be there to find another moment that person said something ungracious.
Sometimes consequences are merited, often times they are not. Most times consequences exist in a nebulous gray area where people argue over whether or not they are deserved. But the net result is the same: someone suddenly faces a consequence over one act that dwarfs the consequences they've faced for all other decisions previous.
I think what's so great in "Are You Now ..." is that we see Angel have the opportunity to bear out extreme consequence far beyond a single lifespan. He can show us what those moments of judgment, what those attacks on a person in a moment can really mean for all involved. We knew that many residents of the Hyperion died, for example. That's the obvious part. But most people don't die over a bad tweet.
And so much more interesting is that Judy lives and embodies the impact of multiple stigmas and consequences from all sides. Judy, as a person of mixed race, spends her whole life feeling out of place and the result is that she never feels safe anywhere ever. And that's not an uncommon feeling in this world. But Judy also represents a person who, in a moment, turns the crowd against someone else, even if only to save her own skin. The reason the Thesulac feeds on Judy for so long is because, when you hurt someone, even if you feel justified in the moment, it's not unlikely that it will eat at you for a long, long time. People talk about how hard it can be to let go of a grudge against someone else, but try letting go of one against yourself. It's almost impossible.
For all its bleakness, "Are You Now ..." is ultimately a very hopeful story about seeing beyond a dark moment and remembering that even humans doing horrible things are still human after all. Judy may only find redemption in the moments before her death, but she does find them. And Angel discovers that he can build a life specifically in the place where he was completely betrayed, and a place where he was the betrayer. And his life goes on. Our lives go on.
McCarthyism was a moment in time. A terrible moment, but a moment. I think, despite how we all may feel about issues otherwise, we can also agree that we are in another terrible moment right now. There's no literal demon whispering to us our fears in a way that turns us against one another, but we have regular, human brains that do that for us all the time. But again, this is still a moment.
"Are you now or have you ever been" I think, viewed through that lens, asks the viewer how they want to endure moments like this. When it's all over, when we're not all at each other's collective throats, doxxing each other, seeking out hidden truths about one another's more sinister natures, when this moment passes -- who are we then? And how do we forgive and move on? Because we aren't all vampires who lives for centuries on end. Our lives are much more finite. And in the comparatively short term of one human lifespan, it's not so easy to forgive, especially when who you have to forgive is yourself.