Dean: Well, they are righteous, I mean, that’s kinda the problem. Of course there’s nothing more dangerous than some a-hole who thinks he’s on a holy mission. (Supernatural, 4.07)
I just rewatched the Good Omens TV series for roughly the millionth time and a thought crossed my mind: why are angels such dicks?
Let me explain.
In Good Omens, Aziraphale and Crowley are apparently not the best reps for their respective ‘sides’ because Crowley is too good for Hell and Aziraphale is too much of a bastard for Heaven.
The flip side of this being that angels should be inherently ‘good’ and demons are inherently ‘bad’. That’s the premise of Crowley and Aziraphale’s characters, and the reason that they work so hard to keep the war from ending the world – because otherwise they’ll have to go back to heaven/hell where they don’t belong.*
The important thing is that Aziraphale is supposed to be a bit of a dick. He’s ‘gone native’ by spending too long on Earth.
He’s more of a dick in the book – the dove scene ends with Crowley reviving the dove, not Aziraphale, and when Aziraphale turns the guns into water pistols during Warlock’s birthday party, he misses one. He hears a sudden gunshot and literally doesn’t care.
He’s human, in other words. Like Crowley, Aziraphale is trying to follow the orders from his side, but he’s also selfishly enjoying humanity and doesn’t want a war to muck things up.
That’s in the book. In the TV series, Aziraphale is practically saintly compared to the rest of the angels.
The angels are cruel and aggressive – they take pleasure in harming others, especially Aziraphale himself, who gets kicked around and belittled despite his being a principality (a rather high up choir of angels, outranking even the archangels). The angels in Good Omens relish the thought of a war that will wipe out humanity.
But the worst part, from the viewer’s perspective, is that they have this insufferable air of righteousness. They believe, right down to their cores, that they are right to behave this way.
Honestly, I kind of wanted to climb through my screen and smack those smug smiles off their faces.
They believe so much in their own unflappable goodness that they don’t even pretend to give Aziraphale a fair trial when he stops the apocalypse; Gabriel, the archangel, sends Aziraphale straight into hellfire with the parting words: “Shut your stupid mouth and die already.”
Even the demons pretended to put Crowley on trial. He was found guilty of a crime, even if the trial was rigged from the start. The angels cast their judgement without offering Aziraphale the curtesy of a hearing.
The angels, in short, are dicks. Self-righteous, sanctimonious, hypocritical dicks.
This representation of angels, while not necessarily the most frequent, is not new.
Consider the angels from the show quoted above: Supernatural.
In Supernatural, the angels are introduced as holier-than-thou dicks who aren’t there to be the Winchesters’ friends. They’re there to ostensibly stop Lucifer’s release (though later we learn that the higher-ups in the angel hierarchy are working to do the exact opposite – again, because they’re dicks). They don’t care how many humans die in their wars. In one case, they plan to wipe out an entire town to prevent one demon from rising and the only thing that stops them is the Winchesters digging their heals in and refusing to leave.
Castiel is a good boy. Until he isn’t. And then he is again. Honestly, I’m not really sure what the situation is with that character anymore, but I think he’s more human-adjacent than divine at this point so his morality is beyond the scope of this post.
In general, it seems that the angels in Supernatural are dicks because they’ve been left to their own devices at the top of the food chain and they’re enjoying the power. They don’t want the Winchesters or Lucifer or Kevin to come and ruin it.
When I was researching this blog, I came across a TV Tropes page for the Knight Templar. I recommend checking out the page itself for a really excellent breakdown of the trope, but for our purposes, here’s the important bit:
“It’s important to note that despite being villains/villainous within the context of the story, Knights Templar believe fully that they are on the side of righteousness and draw strength from that, and that their opponents are not. Trying to reason with one isn’t much good either, because many Knight Templar types believe that if you’re not with them, you’re against them. Invoking actual goodness and decency will have no effect, save for making Knights Templar demonize your cause as the work of the Devil. After all, they are certain that their own cause is just and noble, and anyone who stands in the way is a deluded fool at best and another guilty soul to be “cleansed” or evildoer to be killed at worst, and doing so is not even Dirty Business (except, sometimes, for how much it makes them suffer, having to hand out all this justice). Indeed, it may take them a while to realize that a person with sense and good will really oppose them; the righteousness of their cause — and their own selves — is self-evident to them.”
This is the trope that best fits the ‘angels are dicks’ thing – especially in the case of Supernatural and Good Omens. These shows portray holy beings who have become blinded by their own righteousness that they are unable to contextualise their actions as anything other than inherently right.
Is that it, then? The old adage of power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely?
Or are they dicks because they’re doing what they’re told?
Take Dogma, for instance. There are three angels in the movie: Loki, Bartleby, and the Metatron. Now, Loki and Bartleby are fallen angels from the outset so they’re allowed to act badly. But Loki is the angel of death. He was created specifically to smite the unrighteous. When he killed all the first-borns of Egypt, he was acting on God’s orders. Later, Bartleby points out that his killing spree during the film are technically alright by the decrees that God used to set during the Old Testament era (“Well, he does hate competition.”) Loki is doing what he was made to do. He’s a dick, but it’s not his fault.
Similarly, the Metatron is a seraphim (the highest choir of angels) and the literal voice of God – and he’s played by Alan Rickman. In his first appearance, he insults the main character, Bethany, and snarkily tells her that he can’t rape her by showing her his Ken doll-esque crotch. Later, he admits to Bethany that he doesn’t like some of the things that he has had to do in the name of God, but he must because it is his duty. Instead of asserting his own will, he drinks (as much as an angel can) and insults the humans around him. Not very nice, but he’s just exercising what little power the angels have in that film.
In Good Omens, the angels (and the demons as well) are motivated by the Great Plan. They believe that they must bring about the apocalypse because it is what God wanted when she created the universe. Aziraphale is able to disrupt their intended war by pointing out the difference between ‘great’ and ‘ineffable’ – this stops the angels from finally settling things but it doesn’t quite push them off of their divine pedestals. The angels still believe that they were right, as demonstrated when they consign Aziraphale to the fire, they just aren’t willing to mess up God’s Ineffable Plan by following the Great Plan – at least until they’re sure that they know what the difference is.
Angels, in these examples, seem to be acting like Lawful characters.
If you know your D&D alignment, Lawful characters follow the rules no matter what. According to one source, they Lawful characters “tell the truth, keep their word, respect authority, honor tradition, and judge those who fall short of their duties.” This does not mean that they are necessarily good. In fact, evil can be lawful – just look at characters like Darth Vader, Dolores Umbridge, Judge Turpin, and Frollo. All of these characters are on the side of ‘the law’, whether or not the law is good or bad. Regardless, they all believe that they’re good, much like the Knight Templar trope and the angels discussed here.
But the question posed at the beginning of this post still stands: why are angels dicks?
Here are some of my ideas:
- Righteous, lawful evil characters make interesting antagonists – there’s a lot to play with
These characters are effective proxies for your protagonist to engage with. They create a chance for the creator to play around with smug little shits in their story; it is great fun and also a step away from the tortured antagonist or tragic backstory tropes that are also quite popular in media. It’s also nice, as an audience, to just be allowed to hate a character without getting into the moral complexity of ‘oh, but his life was hard’ blah blah blah.
- It highlights the ambiguous morality that so many human characters are forced to adopt in real life
Seeing angels be dicks even when they’re supposed to be good shows the complex moral tightrope that the protagonists (and we audience members) are walking. If these so-called pure and divine creations are having trouble being objectively good (or, alternatively, are good but also smug assholes about it) then we humans can be forgiven for the occasional slip-up. It can also make the human characters – or the humanized angelic characters like Aziraphale – look better by comparison.
- Making angels ‘good’ means that the creator needs to put their own morality on the line
If the angels are objectively good, that means that the creator has to sit down and decide what good means to them. What should angels be doing in this story? Should they be going after pedophiles and shutting down white supremacist groups? Should they be saving the environment? Why do bad things happen to good people if you’re creating a world where pure, divine beings exist and are good in every way? These questions are super thorny and can get a creator in a lot of trouble if they want to populate the text with perfect angels who have an actual effect on the plot. It is better and safer to make the angels straight-up dicks and leave the moral complexity to fallible humans. That way, the creator won’t get cancelled for populating their text with their version of moral good, only to find that their version and the internet’s version don’t align.
- Righteousness is a difficult tone to pull off
The characters just end up being dicks by virtue of their position as God’s warriors. Even the characters who have done nothing else wrong will chafe against the audience when they’re presented as completely and utterly sure of their own goodness. This is the case in Castiel’s arc, and even a little bit in Aziraphale’s (“We will win, of course. Heaven will finally triumph over Hell. It’s all going to be rather lovely.”) It’s tough to pull off writing a genuinely good character who also knows that they’re good, who everyone knows is good, whose only purpose in the narrative is to be good. In some cases, the insufferability seems to be inevitable.
This isn’t a complete list of reasons why angels can be dicks in popular media. It’s just the ideas that I came up with in between running errands this week.
The important thing is that these characters are not ‘angelic’ in the way that we typically think of when we think of the connotations of that word. They are plot devices, first and foremost, and they’re there to serve a purpose.
In Good Omens, the bad angels act as antagonists to the protagonists because they threaten the protagonists’ way of life. Aziraphale’s goodness – and even Crowley’s goodness – is highlighted through comparison with the angel characters.
In Supernatural, the angels are dicks because the series needed a new threat beyond ‘monster of the week’.
In Dogma, they’re dicks because they’re following orders. And because it’s fun sometimes.
It’s important to note, as well, that these are just three examples. There are others, of course – in some popular culture, angels are genuinely good. In others, they’re worse than the ones I’ve explored here. I just focused on these examples because, like I said, I just watched Good Omens and these other characters came to mind.
What do you think? Can you think of an example of a character who was righteous without being smug about it? What about other examples of angels being dicks? Let me know!
* Whatever you consider ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is a personal issue, but the Good Omens series seems to be leaning towards the Judeo-Christian tradition of morality. You can unpack that shit at your leisure.
PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee? 🙂