Angel and me have never been intimate. Except that once.
— Spike (James Marsters), “Power Play”
Is that all we’re doing here? Just hiding the horror?
— Gunn (J. August Richards), “Time Bomb”
We’re in the business of business.
— Angel (David Boreanaz), “Not Fade Away”
After five precarious seasons, Angel goes out like the ornery rock star showcase it might have been. Never assured of continued life from one year to the next, the series spun off from the beloved Buffy, and lingered on the WB even after the mama-show took off to (briefly) grateful UPN. From its inception, Angel adopted a wily attitude and urban setting (namely, the City of Angels), differentiating itself from its origin-story and giving Angel (David Boreanaz) visibly “adult” plots and concerns (as his slayer girlfriend was, throughout their Sunnydale-based relationship, in high school and college).
These concerns ranged from explicitly absurd (Angel’s friendship with The Host, the green-skinned, horned demon Lorne [Andy Hallett], gifted with the ability to read “truth” in customers’ karaoke performances) to the melodramatic (Angel’s son Connor [Vincent Kartheiser], with whom he competed for Cordy’s [Charisma Carpenter] affections, such as they were) to the apocalyptic (this last season has been one long march to the end, ordained by Team Angel’s employers, the supernaturally evil law firm, Wolfram and Hart). Through all, the show hung onto its tenuous tenure with admirable determination and remarkable willingness to take risks, even sticking with some that didn’t work out so well, say, Gunn’s (J. August Richards) three-piece suits or the machinations of bland vixen Eve (Sarah Thompson). And occasional gambles worked out better than they should have, namely, Fred’s (Amy Acker) transformation into Nasty God of the Big Blue Forehead, a.k.a. the “monumentally self-possessed” Illyria.
This past season wound down commendably, as Joss Whedon and company struggled against the network’s doomy predictions, and loyal fans struggled to find the show, with new episodes disappeared and then scattered across months. Some plot turns have been silly, others adventurous, but the show has not gone down without a fight. The Angelettes have changed shape, with Cordy’s demise and Fred’s death-morph into Illyria. And while she’s never been entirely trustworthy, the self-touting god Illyria turned, in “Time Bomb,” entirely schizzy, or, as Spike (James Marsters) observed, “I’m thinking that she cracked her engine block, and now she’s leaking petrol all over the building.” That is, she was contributing to the figurative burn already in motion.
It turned out that Illyria had something like a temporal breakdown (splatting across different time planes in different scenes, eventually dragging Angel with her into a battle to not-quite-death and a close encounter with Wesley’s (Alexis Denisof) big god-sucking weapon. At which point Illyria became slightly less unreliable than before, though hardly less cryptic (“Perhaps I’m only bothered, because I am bothered”). As he came to appreciate her capacity to see a big picture, Angel allowed that Illyria might be a “resource,” if not an actual voting member on the Team.
Those with input as the series closes down are most definitely boys. He’s dispatched his werewolf girlfriend Nina (Jenny Mollen) on a jet plane and has turned to his own inner circle. Lorne, Gunn, Wes, and Spike (“I’m not wearing any amulets!”) all join in with Angel’s plan (and he does have one, despite his seeming corruption by absolute power these past few weeks), during a ritual agreement bit that closes the penultimate episode “Power Play” to fight the power, namely, the Circle of the Black Thorn, those grisly, extreme demons who do the Senior Partners’ work on earth — including those present as Angel’s “initiation,” the bodily-fluids-imbibing Vail (Dennis Christopher), pasty Archduke Sebassis (Leland Crooke), and slippery Senator Bruckner (Stacey Travis).
Angel and the guys decide at last to take down the Circle. So intent are they on their mission that Angel disinvites the nattering Harmony (Mercedes McNab) and invites definitive slimeball Lindsey (Christian Kane) (returned from Season Two, in “Destiny,” along with the delicious Drusilla [Juliet Landau]) to join in the mayhem. He agrees, of course, even knowing that, as tends to happen in Whedon’s apocalypses, that they have little chance of survival (with lots of hellishness to be unleashed by those vindictive Senior Partners). Still, the good fight appears worth undertaking, even when the network (sometimes known as the Senior Partners) can’t see the odd value or cunning of what’s in front of it.
Not unlike the countdown in Buffy, this one involves a dissemination of one-on-one contests (cutting across several at episode’s end, such that some likely harsh violence is left offscreen, mentioned curtly when a character reports to the crew), the death of a longtime warrior, and the regathering of old friends (once again, the rumored reappearance of Oz [Seth Green] did not come to pass), including Lindsey (to Angel: “Everybody says you’re a vampire with a soul, nobody ever mentions that you’re a vampire with big brass testes”) and Connor (in “Origin”), both of whom contribute to the climactic confrontation with another sort of Big Bad.
More metaphorically and more precisely, the Team confront, finally and forever (until the alleged movie deal is cut), the notorious, perennial dimwittedness of the Powers That Be, that is, the desire for reality-tv-style numbers instead of scripted character arcs or the increasingly strange perils arising from demon-hunting and corporate infighting.
That the showdown is less cataclysmic (and hyped) than in Buffy makes sense, as loyal viewers have, of course, previously seen the Hellmouth open up and, no small thing, Spike’s ultimate sacrifice. And so, while the terms here are equally awful (the series shutdown), the tone is less urgent, more “been there, done that.” Again. Illyria provides a useful gloss, however inadvertently: struggling to make sense of her own shifting temporal dimensions, she asked Angel, her adversary at that moment in “Time Bomb,” “Nothing’s what it used to be, is it?” Girlfriend’s exactly right. You might be sad that Angel‘s time is done, but you can also see its misfitting in the warp of the WB’s generally lackluster lineup (save, of course, for Smallville).
Even if Angel‘s persistent assault on conventional tv plotting came up short, it ran a gutsy campaign, asking viewers to make impossible leaps of faith (the fake Buffy?), appreciate clever in-jokes (Spike’s charming affection for the Dead Kennedys’ “Too Drunk to Fuck”), or endure endless wrangling over who’s heroic, or more egregiously, what it means to be heroic in a world where good and bad appear movable points on a moral-ish continuum.
Since last season, the parsing of complex corporate, political, and ethical structures (as if these are separate entities) has become the series’ seeming raison d’être. At the center of the “invisible war” (a war that can never be won because the moral terms are forever inconstant, repeatedly redefined) is the overtly odious Marcus Hamilton (typecast Adam Baldwin), proud to claim that he’s got the blood of the Partners flowing in him (“We’re legion, we’re forever”), making him particularly inviting morsel for a vampire seeking a means to ultimate power (this would be a central theme of the final episodes, ongoing discussions of power, its effects and its possibilities, as power makes you “inside” and so, no longer adversarial and marginal, that is, a sell out).
“People who don’t care about anything will never understand people who do,” announces Angel, all huffy on his high horse. “Yeah,” agrees Hamilton, “But we don’t care.” Aha. This is precisely what grants the Hamiltons of the world their blithe arrogance, the ostensibly genetic (or species-inherent) predilection to see only what must be seen, no sidelong glances at suffering or vulnerability, no concern for a future except as it might be ablaze. That Angel and his undeterrable associates can see and understand that fire, knowing, as Spike puts it, that they’ll still never get to be “real boys,” and still walk headlong into it, toward the camera no less, is to their credit. You’ll miss that they care, but you know it doesn’t matter.