There was never any substitute for this topic of the day: favorite series finale. I knew it right when the finale finished airing back in 2005 - the simple beauty and power of these 42 minutes was as apparent to me back at 15 as it is now at age 20. The series finale of Angel, "Not Fade Away", is my favorite series finale of all time, and possibly is the embodiment of all other series finales should be based on. 'Cuz this is how you do it, ladies and gentlemen, this is how you wrap up a series with characters you've grown to love and bring resolution to dangling plot threads that will leave you entirely satisfied.
Co-written by Jeffrey Bell and Joss Whedon, and directed by Jeffrey Bell, "Not Fade Away" sees Angel, Wesely, Spike, Lorne, Gun, Lindsay, and Illyria track down and kill members of the Circle of the Black Thorn. Who are the Black Thorn? Well, earlier in the season (Angel's 100th episode, to be exact) Cordelia came back to give Angel one last vision - and that vision lead him to this group who basically act as Wolfram & Heart's instruments of the Apocalypse. It's them that set things in moment and maneuver big players to where they need to be.
So that's the set-up of the finale: Angel & Gang need to stop the Big Bads of the Apocalypse, which is basically a no-win scenario because the Senior Partners will literally reign hell on them [it's true; read the comic series "Angel: After the Fall"]. A pretty simple set up, not one that's typically found in series finales [although it could be argued the Lost finale was pretty straightforward: Jack vs. Locke for the island]. Sure, it's a pretty sweet, action-guarnteed set-up, but that's not what makes this episode beautiful.
To truly understand the impact of this episode, one needs to have watched the entire series (including the first three seasons of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer with Angel as a series regular). Right from Scene One with Angel in "Welcome to the Hellmouth", his story was and is all about redemption. As I wrote in my Favorite Male Character post, since cursed with his soul reinstalled into his body Angel has sought redemption for all the heinous, brutal, sadistic crimes he committed as Angelus for years and years. As Angel tells Faith when she visits him in LA, the path to redemption doesn't end, and it's a rocky road, and there will always be chances to try and redeem yourself. His own remorse kept him going for a quite a long time (a hundred years? Isn't he 240 something?), but then at the end of season one a new aspect of his redemption became introduced: the Shanshu prophecy.
Shanshu, basically meaning "to live" or "to die", become a unspoken goal for Angel. Essentially, if Angel continues his righteous path of redemption and stops or fights in the Apocalypse, he can become human again; a "real boy." Yes, his never-ending quest to find redemption for all his crimes of the past will always be what drives him, but this gave him hope, and hope is perhaps the most powerful emotion of them all. "Not Fade Away" sees Angel, in a attempt to win over the Circle of the Black Thorn, casually sign any chance of this prophecy fulfilling itself away. It's about three seconds of screentime, but it's so monumental to the theme of the entire show, as well as the Angel character, not to mention the finale: With no personal gain or reward, a hero fights the good fight to make the world as it ought to be, not as it is, because the hero can't accept that this is all there is. A hero will fight no matter the odds, no matter the certainty of death, no matter how impossible or worthless the whole matter is. And in regards to redemption, it's just as I mentioned above with the whole Angel/Faith this: never stop atoning. Never. There's no final destination, no point where it's all, 'alright, I've done my community service, end of atonement.' Nope.
The Angel finale closes on what can be considered to the larger community a cliffhanger. Angel and his surviving crew members are stuck in a rainy alleyway wounded and morally broken, and there's a good 60,000 (or more) demons, dragons, and other mystical creatures ready to tear them all apart limb from limb. Angel prepares to attack, slashes his sword, and it ends. Not only does it nicely coincide with the Hero's Journey storyline in regards to Angel, but it perfectly compliments the other message of the series: the struggle will never end, but no matter what, we keep on fighting. Again, there's a incredible amount of bad guys stacked against this small group that has no hope of survival, but it's not about that. The finale isn't about just the characters. It's about that fight. The will to fight. The fight that needs to be made, and only a select few will heed the call.
On a personal note, the episode is a goldmine for the characters. Due to the fact they could all die tonight, the gang go out and live the day like it could be their last. Angel visits his son without all the angst (major applause), Gunn visits Anne who's packing up boxes to move over to a new homeless shelter (a character first introduced in Buffy season two as 'Lily', I believe), Spike drinks up and finally finally FINALLY recites his poem to a cheering crowd, and Wesley patches up a bruised Illyria. Now, about Wesley, who nearly beat out Angel as Favorite Male Character, "Not Fade Away" is also a perfect culmination of this character. A bloke who started off as nothing more than a buffoon, and through the years became Angel Investigations biggest assets and most complicated character. This episode is Wesley's as much as it is Angel's.
I could go on and on and on and on about how terrific the finale is - and I just might if a Professor will allow me to write a 5,000 word paper on it - but I'll just leave it at this: "Not Fade Away" is about as perfect as they come. A finale that celebrates and continues the core theme of the show and honors the characters that fill up its world in an entirely satisfactory fashion...well, they just don't come around all too often. This finale - nah, the entire show - will live on long after we're all gone, because the show isn't stuck in any one time period. It doesn't just relate to us now. It's central theme and message of redemption, heroism and (sorta) justice will live on and be entirely accessible to a new wave of audiences for years to come. Does that not make it a great and successful series finale in its own right?
In a nutshell: watch Angel, buy Angel, love Angel, one of the most brilliant TV shows that ever aired.
"You're fading fast. You won't last five minutes." - Illyria
"Then let's make them memorable." - Charles Gunn