“If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.” These words are spoken by the titular protagonist of Angel in the 16th episode of the second season. Angel (David Boreanaz) is a vampire with a soul trying to regain some sense of the humanity he once possessed. As he continues to battle personal demons through the noble cause of helping the helpless, he comes to the realization that goodness should not be contingent on some lofty promise of atonement.
This “Epiphany” (as the episode itself is also called) ultimately becomes the most memorable quality of Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt‘s broody spinoff to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Thriving in Buffy‘s shadow is no small feat, especially when the Sarah Michelle Gellar-led series is so often touted as a cultural milestone for feminism in the media. However, what sets Angel apart from its predecessor — even one as game-changing as Buffy — is its study of free will, human nature, and moral ambiguity. And virtually no Angel episode evidences this more clearly than the series finale, “Not Fade Away.”
Tying up five seasons of a ridiculously thorny mythological supernatural drama is certainly difficult. Considering Angel‘s many changes in tone and style across 110 episodes, the show wasn’t the easiest to distill into a final 44-minute package. Regardless, the choice to take “Not Fade Away” back to basics and make it solely character-driven really allows Angel to go out on a bang.
The episode wastes no time in getting audiences situated in the urgency of its circumstances, picking up right where the series’ penultimate episode, “Power Play,” has left off. Up until these last two chapters, much of Angel‘s fifth season had tackled wealth, greed, and corruption — themes that serve as an extension of the characters’ existing inner demons surrounding personal responsibility and conscience.
Of Angel himself, his arc plays with the precarious potential of a return to the dark side, shifting the character in an ostensibly power-hungry direction after he begins overseeing the show’s evil law firm, Wolfram & Hart. Thankfully, in “Power Play,” he actually reveals the machinations of a grand plan to his associates — the Watcher Wesley Wyndam-Pryce (Alexis Denisof), vampire hunter Charles Gunn (J. August Richards), Buffy alum and resurrected vampire Spike (James Marsters), and demon Lorne (Andy Hallett).
Angel’s true intentions are purer than they first presumed; he wishes to disassemble Wolfram & Hart from within. But in taking the fight to the insidious Circle of the Black Thorn — the powerful elite evils operating the firm behind the curtain — Team Angel will inevitably have to face the armies of hell to truly win.
“Not Fade Away” sets up this possibly action-packed premise but instead lets it unfold from a more measured and satisfying angle. Rather than merely filling its runtime with a lot of epic demon slaying, the Angel finale prioritizes character growth and expertly paints a tense portrait of a calm before the storm.
By the finale, Angel stands in stark contrast to the version of him that we meet in the series’ first season. Once a vampire inspired by self-interest, prophecized to only earn humanity should he find true redemption, Angel now chooses to fight for what is right, with or without a reward. “Not Fade Away” highlights the personal sacrifices he endures to ensure Wolfram & Hart’s downfall. Besides playing a long con and risking losing his friends’ trust, Angel literally signs away his chance to attain mortality, if only to better convince the Circle of his supposed allegiance. In doing so, he accepts his role as a champion and protector, at long last fulfilling his redemption arc.
For the rest of Angel’s allies, their journeys culminate in slightly different but equally important ways. Across the board, they are tinged with the regretful knowledge of past mistakes. Nonetheless, between Wesley, Gunn, Spike, Lorne, and even the ancient demonic wildcard Illyria (Amy Acker), Angel’s associates ultimately meet appropriate fates. We start to notice this when they are tasked by Angel to have one last “perfect” day before facing the fight of their lives.
Gunn, once a trustworthy guerilla warrior, is unwittingly seduced by false promises from Wolfram & Hart toward the series’ end. The finale brings him back to his roots when he opts to spend his day at a homeless shelter for teenagers in a local Los Angeles neighborhood. Eventually, Gunn gets the chance to dust a bunch of vampiric baddies; just as he used to do when he kept the streets of LA safe in seasons prior. His send-off is an act of personal discovery that can only be described as cathartic and memorable.
Spike also comes full circle in a way, despite the fact of his late entry into Angel’s pack. He arrives in the show’s fifth season as somewhat of a replacement for Charisma Carpenter‘s indomitable but vastly underserved Cordelia Chase. Nevertheless, when taking Spike’s entire Buffyverse tenure into account — especially his own intense redemption arc in the seventh season of Buffy — the character has clearly gone from incorrigible villain to unexpectedly soulful antihero. It is only fitting that his last hours are spent reminiscing about human life, reliving his days as a poet in 1880. Spike then continues on a hero’s quest when he rescues an infant while destroying a faction of the Circle of the Black Thorn.
Not all characters meet totally desirable ends, though. Lorne joined Angel’s circle as a non-judgemental pacifist who ran a feel-good karaoke bar where even the toughest demons were welcome. Unfortunately, his time on the front lines with his friends has made him deeply jaded. Lorne is the only member of Team Angel to be against the ultimate plan in “Not Fade Away,” choosing to seek solace in singing onstage once last time. Sadly, he leaves the episode with a great deal of remorse after having been asked to kill a conniving ally, Lindsey McDonald (Christian Kane), on Angel’s orders.
The complex dynamic between Wesley and Illyria reaches its own heartrending conclusion. These two have had a confusing resentful history, given that the latter consumes and kills the former’s one true love, Winifred Burkle, in order to exist in a human form. Notably, this exchange isn’t seamless. Illyria now walks in Fred’s shell and is susceptible to more human emotions. Her once immense powers are also vastly dampened in Season 5’s later episodes, leaving her distraught by her weakened state.
“Not Fade Away” allows both characters to meet in the middle. Wesley spends his last day tending to Illyria’s wounds from an initial confrontation. When she inquires about his odd choice to stay with her, he declares that after the collective trauma that he has suffered throughout the course of the show — varying situations that transformed him from the bumbling comedic sidekick in Angel‘s early seasons to a battle-hardened antihero — there is nothing left for him to want.
Except, as it turns out, Wesley misses Fred. He bravely dies at the hands of the Circle, but not before Illyria comes to his aid. She stays with Wesley during his final moments, assuming Fred’s form and voice to comfort him as he passes away. In the aftermath, Illyria begins grappling with strange feelings of grief once seemed foreign to an ancient being such as herself. However, her pain fuels her desire for vengeance and she takes it out on the demon who killed her companion, punching cleanly through his skull.
The remainder of Angel’s crew thus meets up in a nondescript alleyway for a seemingly impossible final showdown. Team Angel is vastly outnumbered as the hordes of Hell close in, complete with giants and dragons. Regardless, as the audience takes stock of these unlikely heroes, their resilience is palpable. Angel and Spike are bloodied and exhausted, but not especially defeated. Although mortally wounded, Gunn is ready to fight until his last breath. And finally, Illyria is still enraged, ready to rip demons limb from limb in Wesley’s name.
Against all odds, Angel‘s final call to action for his team is triumphant and deeply human, if obviously bittersweet. It symbolizes a concrete throwback to the series’ ragtag roots in a genuine way that truly seemed tough to achieve after the messier mythology-driven plots that began to overrun the show by its fourth season. But there’s hope under the rubble and beyond the grit. Angel‘s tumultuous ambitious storytelling treads the intersections of darkness and light with unexpected nuance, reminding us that even in our darkest hour, carrying on can be the strongest thing to do. In the words of Angel himself, let’s go to work.