Angel, Season 5, Episode 22: “Not Fade Away”
Written by Joss Whedon and Jeffrey Bell
Directed by Jeffrey Bell
Aired May 19th, 2004 on the WB
There is a preconception in parts of Hollywood and America in general that shows one might call “genre”, shows set in a different time period (other than ‘60s, apparently) or featuring actors in billowy coats or, heaven forbid, prostheses are somehow inherently less than their more traditional peers. They can be fun, sure, but they’re not really art and admissions of watching them should be made only in hushed, somewhat embarrassed tones. Every now and again a show will break through, but for the most part, loud as a subset of critics may scream their support from the rooftops, shows branded with the G word enjoy second tier status. Perhaps that, along with its origins as a spinoff of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is why Angel is so frequently overlooked as one of the best dramas to air on the WB. And perhaps that’s why Angel’s fantastic finale, “Not Fade Away”, so rarely gets the respect it deserves as one of the best television finales ever made.
The episode, watched alone, has some significant barriers to entry. It’s the culmination of a substantial arc that ran through the show’s final season, so anyone dropping in without having seen what preceded it would likely be confused and disengage. It has callbacks to the earliest moments of the series, and even before that, which create depth and nuance for those who’ve watched from the beginning, but are meaningless to new viewers. It also opens on a cliffhanger from the previous week that needs to be resolved before the main action of the finale can begin. Once it does though, “Not Fade Away” soars thanks to its clever structure, memorable character moments, and dedication to the message and themes of the series.
“Not Fade Away” works incredibly well as a finale partially because, unlike most final episodes, it marks the end for the characters as well as the show. Our protagonists essentially decide to go on individual suicide missions, seizing their slim window of opportunity to take out the baddest of the bad. Because of this, rather than prep for battle or anxiously strategize, they choose to spend the day as if it’s their last. They each look into their souls and decide what’s most important to them, what they want their last non-violent memories to be, and embrace that. It’s a brilliant and (to this critic’s knowledge at least) singular structure that shows the audience what they’re most fighting for, who they are or want to be, and how far they’ve come.
There are character moments galore, outside of the aforementioned, beautiful last days. Angel has a quiet conversation with Harmony, taking in what he knows will be his last rays of sunlight (even if he survives). Lorne reaches his limit and heads out of town, Spike ponders his and Angel’s tangled futures, and Illyria comes the closest she ever has to experiencing love. The emotional wallop, though, is the death of Wesley. Portrayed by Alexis Denisof, Wesley Wyndham-Price and his multiple series-spanning character arc is one of the most developed and nuanced in television history. It’s a testament to the actor, as well as the writers of the series, that Denisof was able to give him so much range, taking Wesley from a bumbling, immature Watcher in Buffy season 3, through extreme highs and lows, to where he is in the finale. Every moment of Wesley’s development over the years felt true and earned, and his death and final scene with the false image of his lost love, played superbly by Amy Acker, is heartbreaking.
For a finale about a fight to the death, there’s surprisingly little action in “Not Fade Away”, but that’s just one of many examples of the episode exemplifying the message of the series. What we do see looks great, but most of the action happens simultaneously and a lot happens off screen, with our main fight a slugfest between two, and then three, super strong not-quite-humans. Angel has always been about the struggle between good and evil, and more specifically the struggle within each person to decide which version of themselves they’re going to be. The message of the series has long been, as Angel memorably says in the season 2 episode “Epiphany”, “If nothing we do matters, all that matters is what we do”, and this ethos is present in every scene of this finale. The fight doesn’t matter- the decision to fight does, and that is what makes cutting to black immediately after starting the battle such a perfect ending for the series.
The episode stays true to the show’s other themes as well. Angel had strong noir influences from the very start (including the final shot from the opening credits, paralleled towards the end of the finale) and these are paid off in a huge way with Lorne’s murder of Lindsay. It’s a scene straight out of a Raymond Chandler novel, if his heroes had green skin, horns, and style to spare, and this dark, morally compromised decision is not one most heroic leads, and most series, would make. It’s true to Angel, though, and in a finale more than any other time, that’s what matters. The show’s theme of constructed family is touched on when Connor chooses to help Angel and ends up saving his life. The final moments are set in an alley outside the Hyperion, which was the home of the series for most of its run, and there’s a delightful, comedic self-awareness throughout this finale, an important element of all Joss Whedon shows.
Maybe it’s the inaccessibility to new viewers, maybe it’s genre bias, but “Not Fade Away” truly is one of the great television finales, perhaps the best finale so frequently overlooked. It’s moving, it’s funny, it’s entertaining (a wholly underappreciated descriptor), and it does what every finale should do, and does it well- it truthfully reveals the characters, solidifies the show’s message, and says a satisfying and heart-felt goodbye.