Making lists on the Internet is all the rage nowadays. I’ve done them too, though I don’t think I’m very good at it. I get bored and kind of lazy after four. One time, on a really good day, I made it to seven. But, as one often does while scouring the Internet, I always come across better and longer lists for me to read. A popular list I keep seeing is Best TV Series Finales, and every single one of them make me angry because they always leave off the best series finale I’ve ever seen — “Angel” series finale ‘Not Fade Away.’ Instead of making my own list to include that finale for reasons explained above, I decided I would just dedicate an entire article to that particular finale.
Major, major spoilers for “Angel” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” are ahead. Read at your own discretion, or if you don’t care about spoilers.
“Angel” was always considered the lesser show between it and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” That’s partly why I like it better. It’s got that underdog feel to it throughout its entirety, which nicely paralleled the character’s constant stance as underdogs in the fight against evil. My love for “Angel” probably also has something to do with the age at which I started watching it. Everyone knows “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was a show about high school, with the supernatural acting as a metaphor for all the obstacles that come with being in highschool. But I didn’t start watching “Buffy” and “Angel” until I was well into college, making “Angel’s” stories of early 20s and life after high school much more relatable to me.
Before I get to talking about ‘Not Fade Away,’ I need to talk about the overall themes in “Angel,” and those themes start with the title character himself, Angel, the vampire with a soul. Angel’s three season run on “Buffy” was full of love, mystery, and heartache. He was often the quiet, melancholy, and stoic figure amongst the chatty Scoobies, but it was a nice juxtaposition. Angel’s relationship with Buffy was complicated, to say the least, but through each other they learned about life and growing up and love and trust. Then everything changed in the middle of “Buffy” season two when Angel lost his soul and became the revered Angelus, the vampire who killed and maimed his way across Europe for a 150 years before he got his soul. After Angelus psychologically and physically tortures his way through the rest of season two, he’s resouled, becoming Angel once again, just in time for him to go to Hell. Angel comes back in season three of “Buffy,” Buffy and him try dating again, but the damage is done. It’s time for Angel to move on.
That’s where “Angel” begins. Appropriately set in Los Angeles, “Angel” follows Angel’s own fight against evil when he opens a detective agency with other “Buffy” alums, Wesley and Cordelia, called Angel Investigations. Together, they tackle the supernatural cases and occasionally the non-supernatural cases, anything that falls under their “we help the helpless!” motto. The show starts off as Angel’s road to redemption. The concept of souls is complicated to understand in the Buffyverse — is Angel responsible for the death and mayhem Angelus caused? It’s a question that is never really answered, but all that really matters is that Angel believes it’s true. Angel becomes consumed with this need for redemption, especially after learning about the Shanshu prophecy, which paraphrased states that if Angel does enough, if he saves enough lives and defeats an apocalypse or ten, he will become human.
The idea of becoming human further consumes him, so much so that in season two, Angel believes the only way to beat evil is to become dark himself. He righteously believes only he can accomplish this, so he fires his employees (friends) and goes down that road by himself. And then the show becomes about something much more than just redemption. At the end of Angel’s downward spiral he has an epiphany. In season 2 episode 16 ‘Epiphany,’ Angel tells a friend he just saved from suicide that “if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.” Meaning that in this great fight against evil, the end result isn’t important, Angel’s reward (becoming human) and his redemption shouldn’t be the reason he fights. It’s the little things that matter. Fighting for the little guys. The underdogs.
Fast forward to season five, often considered the best season of “Angel,” when the Angel Investigations team suddenly finds themselves in charge of the evil law firm Wolfram & Hart that has been a thorn in their side throughout the whole show. Season five has a “beating the beast from the inside” mentality, and it’s beautiful and funny (puppet Angel will always be a special episode) and tragic and inspirational. Cut off from their allies over on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” who believe Angel Investigations has turned to the dark side because of their new status of In Charge of Evil Incarnate (but also because at the time, “Buffy” had ended while “Angel” was still airing), Angel’s team is set to face the mysterious Senior Partners themselves when they finally decide it’s time to turn against their employers.
That brings us to ‘Not Fade Away.’ It was around the filming of episode 18 that the cast and crew of “Angel” learned they were to be cancelled, which meant Joss Whedon had to get everything he wanted to say into episodes 19, 20, 21, and 22, making ‘Not Fade Away’ even more impressive. Despite the chaos of an impending apocalypse on its way, the episode is a relatively quiet affair. Angel and his crew make plans to take out the top members of the Circle of the Black Thorn (a group of demons and one senator who make up the link between Earth and the Senior Partners), and then Angel tells everyone to take some time for themselves before the battle begins. Angel goes to visit his son, Spike recites poetry at a bar (and finally getting the round of applause he’s always wanted), Wesley takes care of Illyria, Lorne sings, Lindsey spends the day with Eve, and Gunn visits Anne’s shelter to help with their move. When the night comes, they each take care of their respective members, and after those members are dead, the Senior Partners unleash their demon army on the few who still stand.
The last couple of minutes of ‘Not Fade Away’ have Angel, Spike, Gunn, and Ilyria meeting in the alleyway behind the Hyperion Hotel, the hotel in which Angel Investigations used to work out of. It’s pouring down rain and hordes of demons are descending upon the group of four. There’s even a dragon. Spike asks what the plan is, and Angel replies with “Well, personally, I kind of want to slay the dragon. Let’s go to work.” The episode ends, as does the series, with Angel bringing down his sword.
“Angel” continues on in comic books, with season six detailing the events and repercussions for Angel taking down Wolfram & Hart in ‘Not Fade Away,’ and while reviews say those comics are in the spirit of “Angel” and stick to the same themes, I’m content with leaving “Angel” in that mid-sword swinging finish. True, in the episode, the fight has really just begun, but that’s the point. Remember Angel’s epiphany all the way back in season two: “if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.” The result of that fight in ‘Not Fade Away’ isn’t important. The fact that it’s four against thousands and Angel Investigations is still standing is what matters here. When I first watched the episode, I distinctly remember not being upset about the episode cutting off right at the start of that battle because realization hit me in the exact same moment it ended: by ending it there, “Angel” perfectly and whole-heartedly stuck to its themes like no other show I had ever seen. Not even the “Buffy” series finale ‘Chosen,’ an episode a lot more action-packed and final in terms of destruction, can live up to ‘Not Fade Away,’ and ‘Chosen’ is on a lot more of those Best TV Series Finales lists.
While “Buffy” was always a lot more specific in terms of who’s story it was, “Angel,” in its focus on its secondary characters and its themes, feels a lot more universal in what it’s trying to say, and for that, I think, I will always side with “Angel” in the “Buffy”/“Angel” argument. Though if you were to ask me my favorite individual episodes in the Buffyverse, those are largely going to be from “Buffy.” But that’s an entirely different article. Many shows have overarching stories and themes, and what sets “Angel” aside is the way it sticks to its own inherent identity.
Katey is a writer and film and television critic. She maintains Mad Max: Fury Road is the best movie of the past decade, and definitely deserved Best Picture at the Oscars. Follow her on Twitter, where her Twitter bio says she live tweets her progress of “The X-Files,” but that hasn’t actually happened in a really long time. Follow her anyway. It’ll be a laugh, probably.