Monday, September 17, 2012

Angel: Not Fade Away (5.22)

And they went out fighting. When Angel began, you'd be hard pressed to imagine that the series finale would end with the few survivors left pulling a Butch Cassidy; guns blazing, running into probable doom. But, thinking hard, Angel was never a show about victory. It was more a series about atonement, about constantly aiming for something despite rarely coming out on top. The show's entire mission statement is expressed during Gunn's reunion with Anne, where he asks her how she would react if she knew everything was ultimately futile. Would she give up? Just call it a day? She answers that she wouldn't, and instead would just continue doing what she'd be doing regardless. Not Fade Away is about taking a stand, being counted, and making your actions worth a damn. This is brutal in its execution, but beautiful as a piece of storytelling.

Naturally for a series only given brief word of its impending fate, there's definitely an abrasive pace to this episode. Those last five minutes, in particular, are so breathless in speed that as soon as Angel hits the alley you're left asking "oh, God -- is it really over so soon?" But this is an episode that tries to do three things at once. It wants to make that grand statement about fighting for something, it wants to showcase action and the physical brutality of war, all the while pushing a true sense of warmth. It succeeds in all areas, while proves ridiculously affecting as a character-driven drama.

I think it's that last day that does it. While Buffy ended with everybody gearing up for a fight taking place on their own terms, there's a true sense of hopelessness here, that final act so inevitable that the least Angel could do is allow his team some personal freedom for their last couple of hours, all somehow not related to death or violence -- they embrace the calm and go out into the world, and I don't think I've ever gotten so weepy.

Lorne sings. Spike recites his poetry at a biker bar. Angel reunites with his son. Gunn visits the streets he's left abandoned for so long. And it's all overwhelmingly personal, these people we've seen fight for so long, suddenly being driven to do things that they, deep down, just want to do for themselves. It's so heart-warming, even sadder in retrospect knowing where they all end up.

In preparation for what arrives at the end of the episode, it's also an important moment for Wesley. He spends his day not pursuing one last bout of happiness, but continuing with what he would normally do: researching and tending to Illyria. Because, for Wesley, life has become so hellish that there is no freedom or sense of escape. Everything he's ever had has gone down in flames, and it's overwhelmingly tragic. But it also makes his eventual death so ironically positive. It's a moment that's brutal and frustratingly mundane, Wes stabbed in the stomach by some asshole old-man demon. But it's also his escape, and the freedom that he couldn't experience during the last day like the others. Instead of a life marred by pain and sadness, he's now reached peace in death. Illyria's final gift is ridiculously moving, morphing into Fred to grant him one last illusion to make his transition easier to handle. God, I loved these two. The way Illyria became so ineffectual as an Old One but so human with her feelings was brilliantly developed, while Wesley has just experienced this incredible journey over time, one of the most radical character evolutions I've ever seen and a testament to the power of long-running television -- an example of the importance of TV as a medium and what it can provide storytellers and the actors they write for.

Lorne wound up being another tragedy here. He's never been a fighter, the extent of his violence being that hilarious sonic-scream he used so often. But even that was detached violence, not something at all physical -- all because he's somebody that came to this dimension because of its peace and acceptance, of its music and rhythm, not because of its awfulness. Here he bows out ahead of the final battle, but not before he finally gets blood on his hands. He kills Lindsey at Angel's request, meaning that somebody who had adopted so much human positivity now adopts our very worst traits, too. Lindsey's death wasn't entirely necessary. It was cold, opportunistic and flawed. The one area of true sadness in this finale is not knowing where Lorne ends up, that ambiguity over where he goes from here. It's foolish to say that Lindsey's murder isn't ghoulishly affecting, particularly his cries of disbelief that 'the green guy' pulled the trigger, but it's Lorne who is the real victim in all of this. And rest in peace, Andy Hallett. Gone way too soon.

Elsewhere, there is heroism, too, that last run of scenes being majestic in power. Connor leaping into the fray and fighting alongside his dad is the greatest possible ending for his character, a tribute to how far he has come and how strong he became. Angel tasted blood once again, but only in order to save the day. Illyria fought hard and found empathy for humans, standing by Angel's side in the rain. Gunn is fighting till his last breath, never stopping despite being entirely human. Even away from the heroes, the characterization in those final scenes is crazy good. Harmony's departure is hilariously on-point, a development that finally acknowledges that she hasn't, in fact, got a soul -- but is just generally vacuous and eager to jump on the coattails of whoever she thinks will win. Then there's Eve, a character who bugged so much at the start of the year, suddenly becoming so hilariously insignificant that she's left stranded in a crumbling building, no one around her and nowhere to go. It's surprisingly affecting.

The way the episode utilizes this enormous ensemble and grants them stunningly effective material is a prime example of how to handle a large cast of characters. It's no surprise that the crowded protagonists of The Avengers were a cake-walk for Mr. Whedon. Not Fade Away is aggressively ambitious in scope, bouncing between tones as characters face their fates in what amounts to the end of Los Angeles as we know it, and the ensemble have never been tighter.

Re-watching Angel, I've been thinking a lot about my own appreciation for the show, and why it rarely crossed into a kind of love that came so easily with Buffy. I also kept flashing back to the paragraph I wrote for Angel's show page on this blog, in which I said the show "justifiably never received the mass praise that Buffy garnered". The word 'justifiably' constantly bothered me, as I kept asking myself why I had decided to use that word, and whether watching the show over again could help me figure out why I didn't have that same emotional attachment with it that I did with Buffy. Watching this last run of episodes, I now think I understand.

The only times I remember entirely adoring Angel were during the first three quarters of season two, and the very end of season five. While Angel has been consistently break-neck with its strong storytelling, that love for the show only occurred during two stretches of time. But it also coincided with what I believe to be the two greatest 'teams' on the show: Angel, Cordy, Wes and Gunn in season two, and the guys and Illyria of the last couple of months. What connected the two? A sense of friendship. As soon as Fred tumbled down those stairs in A Hole in the World, her boys instantly threw aside all of their feuds and their angst to fulfill one common goal: to save the girl they all loved so much.

So much of Angel was about the tension within a group. Season three had the Gunn/Wesley feud over Fred, followed by Wesley's betrayal with baby Connor. Season four, too, was about group dissent and Jasmine pulling the team apart, specifically Connor and Angel. Early season five constantly revolved around Angel and Spike's rivalry. But when this cast of characters abandoned their personal issues and worked together as a unit, that's when the love arrived. Obviously this is just my interpretation of the show based on my own emotions, but it was something I found sort of interesting of late.

And that's why I adored this finale. It's not at all about feuds or detachment, it's about coming together as part of the mission and fighting for what's right. It's not because of any particular physical motivation, or a fancy Shanshu reward. It's about being worth something, and embracing the very pinnacle of the compassion and strength that we should have as humans. And this is all told from the perspective of a vampire, somebody cursed all those years ago and given a soul, but only recently having realized what it truly means to be human. It doesn't matter that you're technically not, it's about being human in spirit, about exhibiting care and strength even when you know it can't possibly end well. You can sit around and wait, or you can go out there and fight.

As an otherworldly blue lady once said about a tiny marsupial: "The game is pointless, yet I'm compelled to play on". Damn. A+

Guest stars
Vincent Kartheiser (Connor); Christian Kane (Lindsey McDonald); Dennis Christopher (Cyvus Vail); Sarah Thompson (Eve); Julia Lee (Anne Steele); Leland Crooke (Archduke Sebassis); Stacey Travis (Senator Helen Brucker); Adam Baldwin (Marcus Hamilton)
Writers Jeffrey Bell, Joss Whedon Director Jeffrey Bell


  1. Sorry I don't have much to say. As I told you, I saw Angel only once in my year in New York exactly two years ago during the course of a month so I don't remember much details.

    However, I will say that this is one of my most favorite series finales. That final scene in particular is gorgeous and perfect and such a fantastic way to end a show. I loved everything you wrote analyzing it and the reason you're more attached to Buffy (which I share completely).

    Still, this was one heck of a show that I'd love to rewatch and review eventually!

  2. It's interesting that you like it so much, since you said you disliked finales that don't really have an official ending. But, yeah, absolutely adore it. It's one of my favorite TV finales.

  3. Hi Max, I just wanted to thank you! It took me three months, but I've just finished a rewatch of both Buffy and Angel and it was pretty fun to come here afterwards and see what you thought of every episode. I don't always agree with you, but you make some compelling arguments and you reviews are always a good read. Thank you!