Note: A recent discusion on Kulturblog brought to mind a post I made on a messageboard about the series finale of Angel — “Not Fade Away”. I managed to track it down. I’m posting it here because I think it deserves a canonical place in my oeuvre. Re-reading it, I find nothing I disagree with, eight years after the fact. I have made some minor edits for grammar, spelling, clarity and punctuation.
Spoiler warning: I think the shelf life on requiring spoiler tags has come and gone for Angel, but since I know that there are still viewers out there still working their way through the series (via Netflix, DVD, etc.), I’m going to post this warning: this spoils pretty much everything about the series ever. Like from the second sentence on. Do not read until you have watched the entire series.
After the series finale of Angel (“Not Fade Away”), I thought that I was going to be writing a defense of the Manichean ending: the forces of good poised to battle evil. But as I’ve thought about it, I’ve realized the ending isn’t all that Manichean after all — even though it ends with the iconic pose of four heroes, weapons in hand, staring down a rushing flood of demon warriors.
First, it’s not as simple as good vs. evil because all the heroes are deeply scarred and not wholly pure.
Gunn has never fully recovered from his role in the revenge killing of the professor who sent Fred to the demon dimension. Sure, he didn’t strike a fatal blow, but he was the one who pushed the man into the portal where he would be transported to a place where he wouldn’t survive for long. And then, of course, in his attempt to retain the power boost to his brain, he signed the papers that set up the events that led to Fred’s body being taken over by the demon Ilyria.
Fred herself is not quite as pure as the image she projects. Although Gunn gave the final push, Fred was the one who was out for blood and is most responsible for the whole professor thing. Of course, Fred is no longer Fred. She’s already gone, her body now the vessel for Ilyria — Ilyria who shows up for the final battle filled with grief for Westley. A demon finally affected by the vestigal humanity of her vessel, willing to stand and fight with the others Fred loved even though it’s not really her battle. [BTW, is anyone else struck by how embodiment is such a constant theme in this series?].
Wesley betrayed his best friend. Seduced by a (false) prophecy, he took Angel’s infant son and delivered him to Holz. And then there’s all the murky stuff after that — forming a relationship with Lila, keeping Justine locked up in a closet [so he could rescue Angel, but still…]. In fact, Wesley’s tragic flaw is that he thinks in stark, Manichean terms. It started with his failure with Faith, and in spite of how ‘dark’ he became, the flaw remained with him — thus Connor, thus his leading role in doubting Angel this final season, etc. This, I think, is part of the reason he was the one who died before the final fight [and the why the whole ‘lie to me now’ is so poignant]. He doesn’t quite fit with the others.
Neither does Lorne. Which is why he isn’t there. A compassionate, sensitive demon with a distaste for violence. I’ve never heard a silencer sound so mournful.
Finally we have the twin paradoxes — Angel and Spike. The vampires with a soul. Angelus, one of the greatest mass murders the world has ever known and William the bloody. Sure they are champions. But the demon is never far away with them. Angel is there to finish the fight that began when he fled Buffy’s arms for LA. Spike — he’s living on borrowed time anyway.
It’s tempting to think that Angel has gone fey , itching to battle to the end because he has given way his incentive to live [to life]. And yet the Shanshu prophecy was never what it was really all about. Sure, Angel would have liked to be fully human again. But his core motivation has always been redemption: atoning for Angelus’s bloody deeds.
And here we get to the second reason why it’s not some simple Manichean struggle: it’s not some ultimate, almost abstract, good vs. evil thing. It’s much more human than that. From the beginning Angel and co. have been about freeing people — individual humans — from demonic influences. Slaying the demon, vampire or whatever so people can get back to their ‘normal’ lives. Angel reminds us in his stirring speech in the offices of Wolfram & Hart that you can’t ultimately erase evil, you can’t destroy forever end of story — you can only slow it down, throw a wrench in the works. It may mow you down, but you still win by standing against it because in choosing to stand you assert what humanity is all about: the freedom to make choices.
Through five seasons Angel and co. have fought to create a city (the city of Angels) where individuals have the space, the room to choose their own fate, unterrorized by evil. The final fight at the end isn’t some crazy suicide mission engaged in by world-weary individuals who have nothing left to lose. It’s the final chapter of the battle they’ve been fighting. It’s what they’ve been doing since the beginning — writ large.