Finales are often problematic. And cliffhangers are almost always infuriating. So when you put these two things together, the result can be awful…or it can be absolutely perfect.
“Not Fade Away” is the second half of the series finale, at the end of the fifth season of Angel. The show had changed drastically in the 5thseason due to dropping ratings. Team Angel, once scrappily fighting the good fight out of a defunct hotel, has literally moved up to a dee-luxe apartment in the sky. The evil law firm Wolfram and Hart, that had been a constant adversary for our team since the very beginning, is now their home. They have lost two soldiers—Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) officially died a few episodes back, and the body that used to belong to Fred (Amy Acker) is now host to Illyria, the blue and pompous (though very badass) god-king of the primordium. Angel himself has gotten even broodier than usual. Sure, he’s got a hot new girlfriend (Jenny Smollen), but she’s kind of clingy and also a werewolf. Even though he’s got a sex life, there’s no risk of his losing his soul again through perfect happiness. Nina’s great, but the pressures of running an evil business empire are taking their toll on our hero.
When a show gets cancelled, sometimes the finale feels kind of like a rush job, that they’re trying to wrap everything up super quick, and oftentimes it comes across as forced. Not so here. Everything in Season 5 that has happened so far makes perfect sense as a buildup to this point. The team has had to watch over and over again as Angel has made decision after decision that have seemed anything but heroic. And it’s not like he’s ever been a sharer, so the more tight-lipped he is, the more the lads worry. The only person Angel does seem to be willing to chat with is Marcus Hamilton (Adam Baldwin), the new liaison to the Senior Partners, those metaphysical demon types that are evil incarnate and want to bring on the Apocalypse. At the top of “Power Play”, the first half of the finale, we see Angel eat an old friend of his. Remember Drogyn from the Deeper Well? Here he is, beat all to hell by anonymous guys with bats. He turns his face up to Angel, and whispers “thank you”. Angel sinks his fangs into his buddy, and the opening credits roll.
Post credits, it turns out that what we’ve just seen isn’t going to happen for another 19 hours. In the meantime, he’s setting more and more precedence for unexpected behavior.
The rest of “Power Play” goes on to set up the targets that the finale proper knocks down. Spike and Illyria get some bonding time in when they go out to beat up a demon together, because Angel can’t be bothered to do it himself. I have to say, while I was never crazy about Spike as anyone’s love interest on either show, he makes a great bro. And lord knows Illyria needs a buddy. I’ll be honest with you, Fred had had to grow on me in the first place. But finally, I had really grown to like adult, non-pigtailed Fred. And she had finally gotten together with Wesley, for which we had all been waiting since she first appeared on the show. And now poof, she’s gone, and I’ve got the Blue Meanie to get used to. Spike offers some down-to-earth sympathy to the former Old One, who has been depleted of some of her powers. Nevertheless, she still kicks massive butt when she wants to, and redefines the concept of imperious. She’s not trying to take over the world anymore, and scorns all humans and anything that smacks of humanity. Still, when Wesley gives her the cold shoulder, she doesn’t like it. She’s also convinced that Angel’s behaviour is a telltale sign of his inevitable descent into corruption and megalomania. When Angel won’t go demon hunting because he “can’t sweat the small stuff”, she’s very willing to go with Spike for some fresh air and punching.
Meanwhile, someone has hacked into Wesley’s magical book and left a mysterious symbol there. When no one else recognizes it, they tap Lindsey McDonald and ask him about it. Lindsey has been cooling his heels in some kind of in-house jail cell, ever since he got spanked by the Senior Partners for trying to destroy Angel without their permission. But he’s a master of the dark arts, and he recognizes the symbol when no one else does.
Apparently there’s this thing called the Circle of the Black Thorn. They’re a secret society, kind of like evil Freemasons, and they are the ones with the real power. These elite, evil few are the earthly instruments of the Senior Partners. They keep the world in its eternal downward spiral. Both this show and Buffy throw around the word “apocalypse” an awful lot, and it seems to sometimes mean different things. In this case, the Apocalypse doesn’t mean end times, or anything that final. The idea I’ve always gotten was that the Senior Partners, who are on a different plane of existence, feed off the evil created by humans. So, the worse humanity is, the stronger the Senior Partners will be. And the Circle of the Black Thorn are the ones who help make that happen, and Angel wants in. Lindsey says no way, the Black Thorn would never consider Angel badass enough to join their ranks unless he did something really hardcore, like killing one of his lieutenants. The rest of the team remembers Fred’s recent death, and now they really have concerns.
Armed with this information (not to mention a crossbow or two), the lads march into Angel’s office to confront him. Yes, Angel is capable of kicking the collective ass of all his friends at once—but instead, he pulls a magical doohickey out of his pocket and says a magic word. A 6-minute glamour launches, so anyone looking in from outside the room will think the fight is still going on. Inside, Angel is laying down the truth.
Yes, he’s been trying to get into the Circle of the Black Thorn, in fact he just came from his initiation, that thing we saw earlier where he ate Drogyn—but he’s not trying for the reasons any of them think. Apparently, during her brief visit a few episodes ago, Cordelia passed her visions on to Angel. Just one vision, but it’s a biggie (also, thank you for finding a way to include my girl Cordy in the finale, she deserved to be there). She hipped him to the existence of the Black Thorn, where the biggest bads hang their hats. Angel’s plan was to earn their trust, get accepted into their group, and kill them all. He’s done two out of three of those things on his own, but now he needs his team. When they lost Fred, Angel determined that her death would not have been in vain. “I wasn’t going to let that be another random horrible event in another random horrible world.” He let the bad guys think that he had killed her, so that they would think he’d gone over to the dark side. And now that he’s in the Circle and knows who the real power players are, he knows whom he has to kill. And this, folks, is kind of where the moral of the whole series really gets spelled out. “Heroes don’t accept the way the world is. The Senior Partners may be eternal, but we can make their existence painful…We’re in a machine. The Black Thorn runs it. We can bring their gears to a grinding halt, even if it’s just for a moment…We can’t bring down the Senior Partners, but for one bright, shining moment, we can show them that they don’t own us.”
Boom, there it is. They vote, and it’s unanimous. They’re going to do it, and they’re probably going to die trying. But that’s the point. Sometimes, in a fight this big, it’s not about winning it. It’s about the fight. It’s about not giving up, even against astronomical odds. Ultimately, it’s about hope.
All that there was the leadup. Now comes the finale proper. “Not Fade Away” picks up right where “Power Play” left off, with Team Angel apparently tearing each other apart. Hamilton interrupts with a message for Angel. The Black Thorn wants to see him, and they’re not happy with the new recruit. They’ve just found out about the Shanshu Prophecy that might have allowed the vampire with the soul to someday regain his humanity, and they want Angel to sign away his potential rights to it. To be a member of the Circle, they want Angel’s absolute loyalty, and their concern is that hope might prove stronger. Angel, assuming he’s going to be dead by morning anyway, doesn’t bat an eye. He signs his hope away.
Meanwhile, the rest of the team meet up at Spike’s place. Illyria, babysitting Drogyn, has had a tangle with Hamilton during the meeting the boys had with Angel. She’s pretty badly beaten up. Drogyn had come to LA because he thought Angel had gone over, which was what Angel had wanted him to think, since that was what first caught the Black Thorn’s attention. Illyria had been guarding him, and the scene with the two immortal beings playing Crash Bandicoot makes for a nice little giggle in the midst of a very dark episode. She says, “I play this game. It’s pointless, and annoys me, yet I am compelled to play on.” Kind of a metaphor for fighting the good fight?
Anyway, Hamilton beats her up and takes Drogyn, to deliver him to the Black Thorn, to be fed to Angel at his initiation. Angel wasn’t happy about draining the blood out of his buddy, but I think at that point, it was putting Drogyn out of his misery. And I’ll say this for Illyria, it’s nice to see Amy Acker getting to fight. Having been a ballerina can make you really good at fight work, and Illyria is right up there with River Tam when it comes to ass-kickery. But she’s no match for Hamilton, who has the strength of the Senior Partners running through his veins. Remember that for later.
Back at the office, Angel has another meeting. This time, he’s the one who wants a chin-wag with Lindsey. I have to say, for a show that has always had strong subtext in the man-crush department, Season 5 really goes out of its way to give the fans what they want. Wesley has great big heart eyes at Angel when they vote to fight to their deaths, Spike drops comments about how “Angel and me have never been intimate, except that one…”. Lindsey and Angel have always flirted up a subtextual storm, and the show finally owns it. Angel wants to enlist Lindsey’s help in the evening’s mission. Lindsey, who has always wanted to be in the Room Where It Happens, agrees. He manages to get in a remark about Angel’s big brass testes, and says that if Angel wants him, he’s in. Angel responds (and we’ve waiting 5 seasons to hear him say this out loud), “I want you, Lindsey.” Of course it is immediately followed by “I’m thinking of rephrasing that,” and Lindsey agreeing that would be best, but still.
Hamilton is on to them, time has become a factor, and they need to get the job done tonight. He tells Harmony (Mercedes McNab) to keep Hamilton occupied and out of their way, he doesn’t care what she does (cut to shot of Harmony and Hamilton in bed together, while she pillow talks about Angel’s secret plan). To the team, he wants everyone to take the day off. Go out and live the day, he says, “like it’s your last…’cause it probably is”.
They go their separate ways. Spike knocks back a few at a rough looking biker bar, which turns out to be an open mic poetry slam. The poem he recites is the one he wrote for Cecily, and it’s a nice callback to the long-ago flashback when William was mocked for that very same poem, by the subject herself. The burly, leather-clad biker types prove much more receptive to William the Bloody’s poetry than would-be girlfriends long dead.
Gunn goes back to the old neighbourhood. His old gang isn’t around, but his friend Anne Steele is busy loading a truck of supplies and furniture for the teen homeless shelter that she runs. I love that they got Anne (Julia Lee) into the finale. When we first met her, it was in Season 2 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She was a naïve vamp-groupie, and Buffy saves her bacon. Her name was Chantarelle back then, and she moved to LA to reinvent herself. It took her another couple of tries, aliases, and Buffy saving her again, but she finally grew up and decided she wanted to help kids like herself, giving them support she never got. She knows all about the vampires and demons in LA, but her concerns are more earthly—crack, runaways, teen pregnancy, abuse. She’s old pals with Gunn, and fights the good fight in her way, as much as he does. When he asks, “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?” Without missing a beat, she responds, “I’d get this truck unpacked before the new stuff gets here. Want to give me a hand?” In other words, keep fighting said good fight. He does, indeed, want to give her a hand.
Lindsey is cozied up on a couch with Eve (Sarah Thompson), getting in a last afternoon of smoochies. She’s anxious about the plan, especially when she learns her lover is partnered with Lorne (Andy Hallett). She’s been terrified of Lorne ever since he biffed her across the jaw and told her that her future wasn’t too bright. I always wonder if Eve would have been a better character if she had been played by Morena Baccarin (Firefly), as originally planned. Probably. It’s not Thompson’s fault. The character wasn’t written for likability, though being played by a beloved Firefly alum would have given her a leg up.
Wesley spends his last day playing nursemaid to Illyria. When she asks why he is doing this, she also says that she could be Fred for him, if would ask her to. But he won’t ask. Since he doesn’t intend to die tonight (and I’m sorry, Wesley, but saying that out loud just jinxed your ass, you are totally doomed now), he has no interest in the lie that would be.
Having sent his family off to have their own last days on earth, Angel goes to a coffee shop to meet up with his other family, and his own last day. His son Connor remembers him now, despite the mojo that Wolfram and Hart worked at the beginning of the season to give the kid a normal life. The firewall between Connor’s new memories and the old ones has been broken, but he’s okay with it. I’ll tell you, for one of the most hated characters in the entire Angelverse, it’s refreshing to see Connor be not awful. We even get to laugh a bit with these two. Connor cracks a joke that Angel doesn’t get, picks on his father for having no concept of humour, and Angel informs his son that he happened to have been at the first taping of The Carol Burnett Show. It’s one of my favourite things about the show, when they drop references to Angel’s age in a non-sexy way. Like his being a fan of Bonanza, or reminiscing about old Bob Hope shows. As Fred once said of him, he’s such an old fuddy-duddy.
Night falls, and Team Angel gathers, possibly for one last time. Angel gives each of them a target, members of the Black Thorn to take out. Off they go. Hamilton, having been filled in on the goings-on by Harmony, is waiting in the Wolfram and Hart lobby, ready to pound Angel into dust. Pummeling ensues. It’s not as exciting as it could have been, despite Angel stunt double Mike Massa being his usual amazing. Adam Baldwin, for all that he is so often cast as the heavy, moves like a Mack truck. Plus he’s kind of hindered by his double-breasted suit. Our hero might actually be in trouble, but guess who comes to his rescue? It’s Connor, in another example of no longer being the worst. “Come on. You drop by for a cup of coffee, and the world’s not ending? Please.” Connor helps dad out with the pummeling, and the good guys rally.
Everyone else is out, taking out their assigned demons. Spike gets the baby back from the demon cult. Gunn rocks up into Senator Brucker’s headquarters and takes out her vamp staff. He finally gets to play with that nifty spring-loaded stake rig we saw Angel use in the pilot. Lindsey cleans demon blood off his sword (a little disappointing that all the fighting we got from Christian Kane was just a couple of moves, but I guess there wasn’t time for more), and for a second we think he might have actually reformed enough to be a real part of a team. Lorne, however, knows better than that. As per the last request Angel made of him, Lorne shoots Lindsey, who does the jealous boyfriend thing even as he dies. “You kill me? A flunky? I’m not just…Angel kills me! You don’t!” Yes, he does. And it’s sad for both of them. Lorne, always one of everyone’s favourite characters, was ever a gentle soul, and never a fighter. Which of course made him the perfect choice for this job, since Lindsey would never see it coming. Still…his last act on the show is to murder a human being. And he does it because his team leader told him to…but now he’s done. I can’t really blame him.
Strap yourselves in and grab your Kleenex, because now comes one of the most heart-wrenching moments in the whole Whedonverse. It’s definitely in the top 5. Wesley may have been confident about going up against Cyvus Vail, but he’s outgunned. Illyria, who has already accomplished her spine-trophies, shows up to check on Wesley, just as Vail has disemboweled him with a knife to the gut. She gathers Wesley into her arms, observes that he will be dead in moments, and asks if he would like her to lie to him now. He whispers “Yes, thank you,” and then Fred is there. The fandom sobs tears of closure into our tissues, as the ship we only got for about 5 minutes says goodbye to each other. I know they used the Wolfram and Hart beyond-death contract loophole as a way to bring him back in the comics, but I’m not a fan of that. Wesley had had a long journey from the poncey Watcher we first met in Sunnydale. He had a lot to atone for. I thought his death was absolutely perfect, a beautiful way to end his story arc. He got to die in the arms of his true love, and got to hear her say she loved him. It’s wonderful. Don’t mess with that, comic.
Back in the lobby of Wolfram and Hart (which is being reduced to rubble, because destroying the set is one of those things you do in a finale), Hamilton is getting a little bored with Angel and Connor. And he might just have wiped them out, if not for the fact that self-important bad guys like to talk too much. Remember that thing I mentioned earlier? Hamilton, after yet again throwing Angel across the room, says “You cannot beat me. I am a part of them. The Wolf, the Ram, and the Hart. Their strength flows through my veins. My blood is filled with their ancient power.” Whoops—my dude, had you forgotten you’re fighting a vampire? And they couldn’t end the series without making David Boreanaz endure those facial prosthetics he loathed just one more time. Out come the fangs, and the blood Angel sucks out of Hamilton proves better than the biggest bowl of Wheaties ever. Our hero literally flips through the air, and finishes off Hamilton in short order. Rewatching this nowadays is even more satisfying than it used to be, since Adam Baldwin has unfortunately shown a lot of reasons we should enjoy watching him get his ass kicked. It’s hard to not shout “and vaccinate your kids!” at the screen, as Angel finally snaps his neck.
Their liaison is dead, and the Senior Partners are hella pissed, heavy on the “hell”. The ground begins to shake, and Angel knows that the hell he had predicted is about to rain down. Connor is ready to stay and help, but Angel tells him to go home. Anyway, someone is going to need to protect Connor’s other family from the demon invasion, right? Never one for long goodbyes, Angel tells his son that as long as Connor survives, Angel himself can’t really die.
What’s left of Team Angel assembles as planned, in the alley behind the Hyperion Hotel, their old home base. I’ve always reckoned this alley to be a sort of inter-dimensional hotspot, since it was home to all sorts of important mystical things throughout the series. And now is no exception. Angel wasn’t kidding when he said Wolfram and Hart would pull out all the stops. The army that is looming looks like it just stepped out of Lord of the Rings, only nastier. Even a dragon roars above.
Illyria tells them that Wesley won’t be joining them. Gunn, bleeding from just about everywhere, seems like he is ready to join Wesley. When Illyria observes that he will last 10 minutes at best, Gunn says, “then let’s make ‘em memorable.”
The last moments of this show are, in my opinion, some of the most perfect in television history. I know the fandom is kind of divided on this. Like I said back at the beginning, people get resentful at cliffhanger endings. But the overall message of this show isn’t about an ending. It’s about the struggle. It’s about not giving up, even against astronomical odds. It’s about heroes. Angel says, “well, personally, I kinda want to slay the dragon.” Of course he does! It’s the one thing he has yet to check off his hero bucket list! And now our hero and his team get to go down swinging, out in a blaze of glory, every metaphor you can think of for the fight that you can’t win, but you fight anyway. The dragon screams overhead. Angel says, “let’s go to work.” He swings his sword, we cut to black, and the credits roll.
To those who are frustrated by the cliffhanger—I hear you. But really, how else was this show supposed to have ended? For this team, this is their happy ending. What began as a show about one man’s atonement ends with a team, making a stand for all humanity. It’s perfect. I know the story was continued after a fashion, in the form of comic books. But for me, this is how I want to remember this ragtag bunch of imperfect, always-trying-to-atone-or-do-better beings. It’s inspiring, and it’s hopeful. I look no further. In my heart, they and their fight are eternal.
Thanks, Team Angel.