[Review by S. van Houten – “Iguana-on-a-stick”]
[Writer: Jeffrey Bell and Joss Whedon | Director: Jeffrey Bell | Aired: 05/19/2004]
This is how an era ends. With a bang, and definitely not a whimper.
For eight years and in twelve seasons of television Joss Whedon and his crew told their stories of vampires, demons, and the people who fought them in a world not unlike our own. And we embraced it all; the mix of supernatural and personal stories, the humour and the drama, the funny speech patterns and the existential themes, and most of all the characters. So many characters, full of flaws and virtues, so many of their triumphs and disasters we witnessed over the years. And now, with this episode, we come to the end of the second and last series in this world of Whedon’s creation.
And what an end it is. There are hair-raising and nail-biting fights, twists and turns to shock the most jaded of viewers, heart-warming moments of affirmation and tragic deaths, all in just 43 minutes. Crucially, though, this is a finale that remembers it is all about its characters. Never does mass action or spectacle take the focus away from that, never does the plot forget it stands in service to the characters rather than the other way around. Each and every one of them gets at least one moment to shine, from Angel and Wesley to even Lindsey and Harmony. This is a finale that remembers where it comes from, and lets us say goodbye to all these people in a manner befitting them, though often in a way ranging from grim to sad, bitter-sweet to heartbreaking.
A decided lack of adjectives with positive connotations, there. Whatever its virtues, “Not Fade Away” is not a happy episode. In truth, Angel was never a happy series, and although Season 5 was a lot lighter in tone than most of the previous ones, it still had many dark and troubling stories to tell. The series finale is a return to noir-form, with desperate, flawed heroes performing amazing deeds, but ultimately proving helpless in the faces of the immensity of the world opposing them.
If we take a step back and examine the episode on a more technical level, we find that “Not Fade Away” is actually conventionally structured in three acts. The first act isn’t even all that remarkable, and I suspect few viewers will remember much of it by the time the credits roll. It’s more set-up in the vein of “Power Play” [5×21]: The Fang Gang still doesn’t quite trust Angel, with Lorne in particular having doubts. The Circle doesn’t trust Angel either and makes him sign away his Shanshu to prove his bona fides. Illyria has been hurt and needs patching up. Angel invites Lindsey to join his assault on the Circle and Harmony invites herself. There are some good scenes here, but it’s not the stuff great finales are made of.
The second act is where the game is suddenly changed on us: Angel tells his crew to take the day off and do what matters most to them, instead of planning their attack. Good tactics? Probably not, though I understand why Angel wants to give his team this one last gift. Good television? Without a single doubt. It’s a stroke of brilliance to make room in the finale for all these small character-centric vignettes. By the time the action starts and all hell breaks loose, we’ve really been reminded of who these people are and why we love them.
And then there is the third act. Angel’s audacious, desperate plan gets put into action, and it is everything it promised to be. The characters reunite in Spike’s apartment and set out on their respective missions of murder. There has been little in the way of planning, not much set-up at all. But of course, that’s the benefit of a suicide strike. Neither us viewers nor the characters need to know much other than who is to be fought and where. It’s hard to stop people with so little to lose. There are no grand speeches, nor anything resembling the kind of heroic power-walk this show is so fond of. You see it even in the darkness and monochrome palette colouring the second half; whatever stylistic changes happened in season five, here we are firmly back in the world of noir.
Yet for all its violence, the third act is almost as focussed on the characters as the second was. The only big fight-scene is between Angel and Hamilton. For the rest, we see the start of hostilities, a glimpse or two of fighting, and the aftermath. It is more than enough to convey a sense of frenetic action and widespread chaos, but in the end “Not Fade Away” spends these precious last few minutes bringing the stories of its characters to a close. For this last review, I shall take the same approach, and examine each character in turn.
Harmony would win my award for “character least deserving of being a series-regular.” She never grows beyond two dimensions, and in many ways her story in Season 5 retreads “Disharmony” [2×17], her first episode on the show. Both times, Harmony tries to fit in with the good guys despite being a vampire, and ends up betraying them because something shinier comes along and/or the good guys are mean to her. However, even she gets a good send-off in this finale. She doesn’t gain any last-minute depth, but then Harmony has always been comic relief. Here she is in fine fettle, and manages to provide some great lines and some much-needed laughs while still being an integral part of the plot. I’ll never stop being amused at Angel firing her in the middle of his battle with Hamilton while bickering over references and betrayals, and was sorely tempted to quote the whole thing. So long, Harmony. You were funny till the end.
Lorne is another character who has not really been justifying his regular-status this season, but in a few short scenes, “Not Fade Away” goes a long way towards remedying that. It is saying something that Lorne’s exit affects me almost as much as Wesley’s.
These last few episodes it’s become clear that Lorne has become disaffected with his role on Angel’s team. We hear his disillusionment in the sad, jazzy tunes of the song he sings for his last day: “If I ruled the world/Every day would be the first day of spring.” But he doesn’t rule this world. Lorne left his barbaric home to find a place where art and beauty were valued over bloodshed and skill at arms. Instead, he has found himself in the company of warriors all over again, and slowly lost his sense of purpose along with his sense of self. He’s finally had enough; he’s leaving, but he is too loyal to walk away before the fight. And so he does this “one last thing” for Angel, although it may well be the final straw that breaks his spirit.
Lindsey, meanwhile, has been adrift since we first got to know him all the way back in Season 1. (He is the only character besides Angel to feature in both the pilot and the finale.) Though he seemed to lead a charmed life as Wolfram & Hart’s golden boy, he never really knew what he wanted or how he wanted it and unhappily drifted from temptation to rebellion and back. If he sometimes seemed a bit out of place or shoehorned in Season 5’s plot, this much at least hadn’t changed in his latest incarnation. Even when he was defying the Senior Partners or trying to manipulate Spike it didn’t seem really clear why he was doing the things he did. Perhaps the only real constant in his appearances over the years was his ongoing obsession with Angel. (This episode once again plays with the notion that this obsession is at least partially sexual or of the love-hate variety, rather than purely antagonistic.) Given all this, it isn’t too shocking that he’s willing to turn on a dime once more and throw his lot in with Angel for the final battle. Grand gestures and blazes of glory suit Lindsey just as well as they do Angel, and self-preservation concerns him just as little.
His death, on the other hand, is definitely the biggest shock the finale has to offer. Wesley’s end I saw coming, though I tried to deny it. This, I did not. How poetic it is for Lindsey to die at Lorne’s hand, without any drama or build-up or bigger meaning, sputtering about the injustice of being treated as insignificant. Some people hate this scene, deem it out of character for Lorne or Angel or doing Lindsey’s character a disservice, though I don’t agree. Some will say Angel and Lorne were justified in their actions, others will vehemently condemn them. Personally, I don’t think it matters whether or not the world is better off without Lindsey. Backstabbing and murdering an ally in this fashion, however temporary an ally he was, is a betrayal unworthy of the kind of hero Angel once claimed to be.
But then, it’s been a long time since Angel actually was that hero, and he’s proven time and again how willing he is to use others as pawns in his games. Drogyn can testify. Angel is expecting to die, and he’s cleaning up loose ends so that his son may live in a slightly better world, and does not care about the morality of it all. And Lorne? Lorne has already lost himself, and Angel does not seem to care either. It’s an amazing scene. Painful, but amazing. Farewell, Lorne and Lindsey. Your exits were more memorable than your tenure, but you were part of what made this show great.
Spike is in a funny position for a main character in the series finale, in that his story arc is pretty much done at this point. At the start of this season, the sheer number of episodes dedicated to him threatened to distract from the rest of the cast, but he gets relatively little screentime now. This seems fitting to me, since he is not, after all, primarily an Angel character. His scenes at the bar are still relevant, though. It’s funny to see him engage a rough crowd with his poem for Cecily, and it’s a wonderful callback to “Fool for Love” for the fans, but it also says a lot about him that his choice for his last day on earth is to make peace with the human existence, with being that bloody awful poet he loathed so much that he embraced vampirism to escape it.
Spike’s progression this season has been all about acceptance. In “Just Rewards” [5×02] he accepted his incorporeal state so he could save the innocent. In “Hell Bound” [5×04] he accepted he is probably going to be damned to hell and still rejected Pavaine’s method of escaping. In “Destiny” [5×08] he embraced the fight Angel had mostly abandoned. In “Damage” [5×11] he came to realise and accept he still bears some responsibility for the crimes he committed and the damage he caused over his century of unlife, regardless of his current ensouled status. Finally, in “Shells” [5×16] he stopped standing outside the group and formally joined forces with Angel, giving up on his much-prized independence and rebel-status for the greater good.
Although Spike’s exit on Buffy the Vampire Slayer was more spectacular and his return on Angel threatened to take away from that, he really has come quite a long way this season. Considering all this, it’s touching to see him go back to his roots as a poet and confront that century-old fear, and get vindicated for it. He has come full circle, combining the best of his human self’s sensitivity and his vampire persona’s bravery and skill. The fights that come afterwards hardly matter in comparison, nor is it in any way surprising he comes through to stand with Angel in that alley in the end. That’s Spike for you. Farewell. It’s been quite the journey.
The poem’s still terrible, though. Props for confident delivery, but it rhymes “Bulge in it” with “Effulgent.” Come on. His audience must be as drunk has he is.
Gunn’s arc is likewise nearing its end, but his story here is more necessary as a capstone, since Season 5 is the first time he’s had a really strong personal story to sink his teeth in. His scene here also has the best surprise guest-appearance of the episode in the form of Anne. Gunn’s story these past two seasons has been about trying to transcend his roots, only to realise that in doing so he’s lost himself. Since “Shells” [5×16] he’s been trying to find his way back, so it’s great to see him do so through helping Anne and her shelter one more time. Anne herself, meanwhile, is one of the more fascinating side-characters in Whedon’s worlds, and one of the few who, like Angel, appeared on both shows. Here, she gets to voice the other answer to the question “Power Play” asked and demonstrate the alternative to Angel’s suicidal blaze-of-glory strike.
GUNN: ”What if I told you it doesn’t help? What would you do if you found out that none of it matters? That it’s all controlled by forces more powerful and uncaring than we can conceive, and they will never let it get better down here. What would you do?”
ANNE: “I’d get this truck packed before the new stuff gets here. Wanna give me a hand?”
GUNN: “I do.”
Anne’s answer is less expansive than Angel’s statement about kindness back in “Epiphany” [2×16]. It’s more pithy and down-to-earth. This makes sense: Anne has actually been living her philosophy while Angel has always been more comfortable fighting evil regardless of his claims back in Season 2. I suspect she may well have made more of a difference than all of Angel’s back-alley crusading ever did, discounting averted demonic apocalypses and the like. Gunn, looking back at the events of the past few years, probably came to similar conclusions about his own role.
Again, Gunn’s fight against the senator and her hench-vampires isn’t really important. What matters is that we know why he’s standing there, facing down those impossible odds. This season he’s fallen deeper and struggled harder than ever before, but in his final days he’s found his way back home. Farewell, Gunn. You went out in top form.
With Wesley we are getting to the meat of this episode. For the last few seasons, his character-arc has often been the best thing about Angel the series, and this is where his entire journey comes to its tragic conclusion. It seems so inevitable in retrospect, though when first watching I kept holding out hope until the very end. It was not to be, of course. That funny, foppish man who came to America to be a Watcher and fight the forces of darkness has finally been broken down to the point he can’t build himself up again, and his death comes more as a relief to him than anything.
The writing is on the wall when he spends his final day on earth patching up Illyria, because nothing in his life remains that is meaningful enough for him to seek out. It is another simple, understated, scene in the lead-up to the storm that is to come. And yet, the dialogue and the emotions lying underneath win it an easy place in my top-twenty favourite television moments of all time. It is a scene I can watch again and again and take a new detail away from every time. It’s bitter and sad, funny and heartbreaking. Watch Illyria continue to struggle with her growing humanity, sounding almost hesitant as she tries to understand this human she has come to care about despite herself. Watch Wesley speak more honestly and forthrightly about himself than he ever does with anyone other than her, even as he carefully applies layers of irony and light sarcasm to keep the truths he speaks from being too raw and painful. Denisof’s delivery of the lines alone is worth re-watching this scene for, and the dialogue itself is some of Whedon’s best.
As for foreshadowing Wesley’s impending death: recall, for a moment, the finale of the very first season of Angel.
WESLEY in “To Shanshu in LA” [1×22]: “The fact that his death is prophesied – which isn’t good news – doesn’t concern me nearly as much as the way he took that news.”
CORDELIA: “What? He didn’t scream like a girl as some of us would have? Angel’s cool. “
WESLEY: “Angel’s cut off. Death doesn’t bother him because there’s nothing in life he wants. It’s our desires that make us human.”
WESLEY in “Not Fade Away” [5×22]: “There is no perfect day for me, Illyria. There is no sunset or painting or finely-aged scotch that’s going to sum up my life and make tonight any… There is nothing that I want.”
I don’t really need to add anything to that, do I?
His actual death-scene could almost be an afterthought in comparison. The first time I watched it, it was the tensest moment of the episode, so badly did I want Wesley to survive. But with hindsight, it is clear in that he’s not on top of his game in his confrontation with Vail. His attack is poorly planned and thought out, he doesn’t play to his strengths, he talks when he should fight; whether he’s aware of it or not, he’s effectively committing suicide-by-Black-Thorn. Heart-breaking though it is, his death-scene is more significant to Illyria than to his own character, who is simply giving up. Adieu, Wesley Wyndam-Price. Your story was tragedy at its finest. May you find some measure of peace in death.
Poor Illyria. Compassion isn’t what I expected to feel for this ancient goddess of destruction and dominance when she first appeared, but it quickly became clear that she is a pitiable figure despite her phenomenal power. And yet, she’s also learning and growing at a rapid pace; nowhere more so than in this episode where she learns the meaning of loss and death.
Illyria is the only character who’s story is not at an ending point, the one who would have benefited most from having another season on the show. Still, despite her short tenure, she has already gone through a great many changes and the finale brings her story to a natural halting point. The end of a first chapter rather than the whole thing, but a good stopping point nonetheless. She has lost much of her power and come to rely on the humans she so used to despise. She’s definitely not one of them, nor does she truly understand them, but she has actually come to feel for one of these weak, sorry people.
And so Illyria lies to Wesley, and provides him with the comfort he needs. She eases his passing, despite knowing it’s not her he wants to be held by. It is another one of those golden scenes between Alexis Denisov and Amy Acker, where we can feel Illyria’s confusion as she tentatively tries to feel her way through these unfamiliar human emotions. It is a fascinating reversal of the scene in “A Hole in the World” [5×15] where Fred died in his arms. Unlike Fred’s passing, Wesley’s almost peaceful. In a way, he chose this fate, and now he finally gets to give in, to give up, to accept a beautiful lie instead of the hard truths he always tried to face. Beautiful, until you remember the tearful promises ‘Fred’ makes about how they will soon be together in the afterlife indeed are lies. Whatever remains of Fred’s soul is contained in the shell of Illyria. There will be not even be that much of a happy ending.
But is everything that Illyria says a lie? The face is Fred’s, the words, no doubt, are drawn from Fred’s memories, but some of the emotion behind them must be her own. The distinction is nowhere near as clear-cut as it once was, though. The character we see now is not purely the monstrous God-King of the Primordial, but has taken on some of Fred’s humanity. Of course, it’s still mostly Illyria, so she deals with these weird new emotions through her trade-mark violence. I doubt many of us viewers mind. When Fred’s tear-streaked face morphs into Illyria’s equally bereft mask and she shatters Vail’s head with a single punch, it is the very definition of catharsis.
We will never know where Illyria’s tale would have gone from here, but even in truncated form her story is something to treasure. Goodbye, Illyria. Try to limit the collateral damage, if only for the sake of Wesley’s memory.
And so we come to the protagonist himself. He’s not the highlight of the episode. Angel’s development has been rather uneven and unsatisfying this season. How many times did we visit the theme of “Angel lacks purpose and direction in life” now? It’s hard to fashion a strong resolution for such weak build-up. Nonetheless, “Not Fade Away” succeeds far better than I expected it to and if Angel’s parts are eclipsed it’s only because the rest of the episode is even better.
It accomplishes this through the character of Connor, surprising though that may seem for those who loathed him in Season 4. Of course, “Origin” [5×18] already demonstrated that this really is a new and improved version of the boy. It’s amazing how well his re-interpreted character works, while retaining enough of his previous incarnation so as not to be a completely different person.
His presence also does wonders for Angel’s character. After all, the entire reason the Wolfram & Hart deal happened in the first place was to save Connor’s life. So what else would Angel do for his final day, but have a cup of coffee with his son? Juxtaposed against the events of “Home” [4×22], it lends his arc this season at least the appearance of having some substance.
It’s quite touching to see Angel and Connor interact so amiably, bantering about girlfriends and penmanship. More importantly, we get to see Connor spell out he’s no longer affected by the memory wipe and forgive Angel for what he did. Later, by showing up for the battle with Hamilton, he’ll demonstrate he’s not just saying that but is willing to put it to action. I know there are some fans who wanted a happy ending to the series and were disappointed that nobody got rewarded with the Shanshu prophecy, but I suspect that if you could ask Angel himself, he’d tell you that being forgiven by a happy, well-adjusted Connor means ten times as much to him as any supernatural redemption.
Of course, on a meta-story level all this pretty much gives Angel a free pass for his highly questionable decision to mind-wipe Connor and all his friends back in Season 4. I don’t exactly appreciate that, but it’s a fault of Season 5 as a whole rather than the finale. Likewise, Angel hasn’t exactly been likeable or moral as of late; using his friends for his suicide mission, assassinating Lindsey, alienating Lorne, killing Drogyn… I can see people begrudging him getting any kind of closure. But this is not the time to address these issues. For the finale to work it’s more important to give its protagonist a satisfying resolution to his story, and Connor’s visit accomplishes that.
Angel’s fight with Hamilton is the centrepiece of the third act, unlike the other battle-scenes which are codas or window-dressing for more character-driven moments. This befits the leader of the team, initiator of the plan and protagonist of the story fighting the personification of Wolfram & Hart. Hamilton isn’t a very deep character, but he perfectly represents everything the evil law-firm stands for; from his dress sense and his eloquence to the sense of inhuman, emotionless menace he exudes. He no doubt was introduced for this very purpose, and indeed he is a great antagonist for the last big fight of the series.
It’s a good thing he’s such a good antagonist, since this is the longest fight we’ve had since “Destiny” [5×08], full of twists, taunts and reversals. The fight is actually one of the more light-hearted parts of the finale, but that’s a good thing. There’s plenty of heavy and heartbreaking stuff, so we can use some snappy one-liners. And there are plenty of great ones— they’re not so much taunts, as Hamilton seeming genuinely confused as to why Angel thinks he can win this fight and why he’s even trying. He also demonstrates his extensive knowledge of W&H’s files by recapping Angel’s entire past and taunting him with all his failures, which is a nice touch for the final moments of the show.
On the funny side, we have that whole scene with Harmony right in the middle. We get to see Angel getting thrown through a bunch of windows and pillars again. We get to see Connor saving his father. Finally, Angel vamps out one last time and uses the power of Hamilton’s blood against him to finally gain the upper hand. What better or more satisfying way could there be to end the last fight in a series about a vampire with a soul? What thematically more appropriate way could there be to end a season that was about Angel trying to use Wolfram & Hart’s own power against them?
But then it’s all over. The fighting is done, the bodies are counted, and those of our heroes who still live meet up in that dank, rainy alley behind the Hyperion, to exchange a last few quips and meet the coming storm.
Perhaps they all die there, in that alley. Perhaps this story is a tragedy where the hero’s stubborn pride dooms him and all his friends. Or perhaps Angel kills that dragon, and they pull off some dramatic last-minute turnabout to make their heroic escape and put the lie to all the predictions of their doom. It wouldn’t be the first time, though never in the face of odds quite as bad as these. Or perhaps they fight, bleed and die, but one or two stubborn survivors manage to crawl away after the dust settles. We’ll never know. The episode ends with this question deliberately left unanswered.
There are many viewers who were upset with this choice, who decried the lack of a clear-cut resolution to the series and felt betrayed by not knowing the ultimate fates of their favourite characters. It’s a reaction I understand, although I do not share it.
Then there are those who call this ending a cop-out, a failure of storytelling or just a poor way to end this series. Here, I very strongly disagree. Angel ended on a note perfectly fitting its film-noir style and its pervading themes of purpose, struggle, and redemption: Evil can never fully be defeated, past sins can never be redeemed by current heroic deeds, the universe is uncaring and devoid of transcendent meaning and will not reward you for your virtue, and the proper response to this is to simply deal with the problems in front of you and help those you can help each and every day.
Angel made his grand gesture, had his shining moment of defiance against the Senior Partners, but it changed none of these truths of the series. An finale neatly tying up every storyline and providing a clear-cut happy ending for each character would never have fitted a story like this. Instead, Anne gets her truck loaded, and Angel goes to work.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ On a re-watch, knowing Angel’s intentions makes his statements to/about Lindsey one hell of a lot more chilling.
+ Harmony’s indignation while she’s betraying Angel is probably genuine. She always wanted to belong. If they’d been friendlier to her she might have stuck with them. Of course, Angel needed her to betray them for his plan to work. That probably explains why he gave her that recommendation.
+ Though I’ve avoided mentioning it, Eve is in this episode too. Shockingly, even she gets a poignant exit where Angel leaves her in the collapsing W&H HQ, after coldly informing her Lindsey won’t be coming back. I actually feel sorry for her.
+ Spike exchanging a look with the baby as if asking its permission before doing battle with the Fell Brethren.
+ Lindsey’s swordfight looks great.
– Just how did Gunn get away from all those vampires surrounding him in the Senator’s office? It stretches credibility a bit, although he did get heavily injured off-screen.