Spoilers for all 5 seasons of Angel.
Twelve years ago the series finale of Angel, the successful spin-off to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, aired on The WB for the first time and to this day, I put forward that this was the greatest final episode of any show I’ve ever seen.
To provide a little background, this was a final episode at the end of an extraordinarily strong 5th and final season in a show that had spun off from my favourite show of all time. Despite being a risk, it managed to find a tone and style all of its own when it so easily could’ve failed and ended up on the scrapheap of failed TV spin-offs.
Yet, for 5 seasons, for better or worse, Angel managed to be one of the sharpest, darkest and most outright ballsy shows on TV, taking risks and telling diverse and interesting stories to provide the opposite to the comparatively lighter Buffy. It turned two of its parent show’s supporting characters, the bitchy Cordelia and the wimpy Wesley, into layered, engaging and prime examples of the art of character development whilst telling stories that felt gritty and relevant.
Who can forget when Wesley got his throat cut and Angel tried to off him with a pillow whilst he recovered in the hospital? What other show has so briskly gone into deeply dark places as Angel has done, whilst remaining as silly and witty as any Joss Whedon propert?
Along the way we are introduced to Gunn, Fred, Lorne and even re-introduced to Spike and by the time the 5th season rolls around, our heroes are now running Wolfram and Hart, the evil law firm they were struggling to defeat for 4 years, which they then attempted to use for good, with mixed results.
Season 5 is a hard one to top in terms of top tier episodes. The genius Smile Time in which Angel becomes a puppet, the heart-breaking You’re Welcome in which we find out that Cordelia has passed away and the devastatingly sad A Hole in the World in which Fred succumbs to an ancient curse and dies in new lover Wesley’s arms.
These 4 episodes are the highest rated Angel episodes on IMDB, which must count for something towards the seasons overall quality.
So, it’s an absolute testament to the superb final season and even the show as a whole, that the finale episode stands out so shiningly from the rest. Apart from having a wonderful episode title, the finale features Angel and chums preparing to take down The Circle of the Black Thorn, with each character spending their ‘last day on Earth’ doing as they choose before taking on the bad guys, one on one.
Despite this final episode being perhaps a little rushed due to the impending cancellation, meaning the final threat of the show didn’t have as much weight as it would’ve with a season of development, the final 45 minutes of the Buffyverse was done with such a brazen all or nothing attitude that it gave such a long lasting impression.
It’s not as sunny or positive as the finale of Buffy but it kept itself in line with the story it had been telling, reflecting the message of the show in its final line “Let’s go to work”. Even in these closing seconds, Angel was a show about fighting the good fight, no matter the cost, and it was so beautiful.
Who can pick the best moment? Spike reading poetry to a bar full of adoring people? Illyria asking Wesley “Would you like me to lie to you now?” and showing him Fred for one last time as he dies in her arms? Or Lorne shooting Lindsey point blank and bowing out of Angel with a “Goodnight, Folks”?
Or maybe just the final 2 minutes as Angel, Spike, Illyria and a mortally wounded Gunn prepare to take on the hordes of the powers that be, in an alley in the pouring rain.
“I’ll take the 30,000 on the left”.
“Well, personally, I kinda wanna slay the dragon”.
No other ending has really made me feel this way. I love a lot of TV finales but Angel stood confidently above the pack, being memorable by ending on a cut to black and never sacrificing what made Angel, Angel.
A TV finale is a fascinating thing. You can either play it safe and wrap up your stories in happy ways, use the time to do something that is completely against everything the show is, or you can be brave and use the shows themes and overarching story to do something big and unexpected.
Angel did something big. It spent four years being surprising and took a lot of risks, even from the beginning and with the final episode it chose to make it stand for something. This was a show about atonement and in 45 minutes it decided not to have a happy ending but tell a more enriching story by having our heroes not win, but just keep fighting.
The fact that in this final episode, Angel signed away the prophecy that said that he could one day be human if he atoned enough, is a sure sign that it was a finale that was more content with saying something grand about good and evil rather than taking the easy route to a happy ending.
Angel sacrifices the thing he’s been working so hard to achieve, his redemption, and in doing so proves that the good fight means sacrificing what’s important to you, to save everyone else.
The evolution of the shows over the seasons has made the development very interesting. With Season 5 came the biggest change of all, an intrinsic reworking of the show’s themes whilst keeping the central idea of helping the helpless. We focus more on the fight the good fight rather than help the helpless in the end but it doesn’t dilute the final because both themes are woven carefully together.
Despite lessening the focus on the helpless over the years, the core sensibilities of the show were held fast by keeping us in sight of those adversely affected by evil.
The baby that Spike rescues, for example, is no surer sign of innocence.
As Whedon himself says “But the point of the show is that you’re never done; no matter who goes down, the fight goes on”. Angel is about redemption “something you fight for every day, so I wanted him to go out fighting. People kept calling it a cliffhanger. I was like, 'Are you mad, sir? Don’t you see that that is the final statement?“.
I know this has turned into more of an Angel appreciation post but I just want to use the anniversary of the finale as an excuse to highlight the importance and brilliance of the show.
If you haven’t seen it because you don’t think it can match Buffy or because you don’t like Angel as a character, I strongly recommend that you do because you will be rewarded with one of the finest, most complex shows on TV. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.
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