A local channel has been airing Buffy the Vampire Slayer every day, from the beginning. Apart from the fact that this gave me a chance to catch up on a few episodes I had managed to miss (early seasons 1 and 4, and yes, I know that was no great loss), there's something to be said for watching the show in concentrated form. Some things became clear that I had only been vaguely aware of, such as how mind-bogglingly terrible the first season was, how quickly the second season went from merely good to freaking great, how open and cheerful Buffy was in the beginning of the second season, and how Angel losing his soul makes a gigantic dent in hers. It's easier to start seeing the show as a single story about a person who struggles against the loss of her humanity--not just because of her superhuman legacy, but because of the all-too-human impulse to protect herself from pain by cutting herself off from the world.
Last week was the end of the fifth season. I must have seen "The Gift" four or five times by now, and the final scene still leaves me wrung out and tearful. This time, it wasn't Buffy's heroic swan dive that got to me, but the moments that precede it. You can see the relief flooding across Buffy's face as she realizes what she has to do--not just at the knowledge that she doesn't have to sacrifice her sister to save the world, but at the realization that, for once in her life, she doesn't have to be a death-dealer. Her sacrifice isn't just heroic--it is triumphant, the victory of Buffy's humanity and her love for her friends and family.
All of which just hammers in how empty and meaningless Angel's corresponding sacrifice was at the end of his series. If Buffy was a show about a person burdened with superhuman powers and responsibility who struggles to maintain her humanity, Angel revolved around a human (mentally, if not physically) who chooses to shoulder a superhuman undertaking and finds himself crippled by its weight. Again and again, Angel is confronted with an impossible truth--that the fight for good can never be won, and that it must never be abandoned. Again and again, he finds himself unequal to the burden of that knowledge--he chooses to fight against evil rather than for good, abdicating his role as a champion. Again and again, he is forced to recognize the destructive darkness of that path, and returns to his role as a protector.
The most obvious iteration of this journey in and out of darkness is the second season Darla arc--enraged by his inability to save Darla's life and soul from the monolithically evil law firm Wolfram & Hart, Angel abandons his mission in favor of a quest for vengeance. He attempts honorable suicide by taking on Wolfram & Hart's senior partners single-handedly and, when he fails to either defeat the senior partners or lose his life, attempts dishonorable suicide in Darla's arms, hoping that a moment of passion will rid him of his soul. Instead of losing his soul, however, Angel gains an epiphany, realizing the importance of the neverending struggle to make the world a better place. This cycle--of despair and disillusionment, redemption and hope--recurs throughout the series, but it's puzzling to me that Joss Whedon chose to end the series with not only Angel but the entire cast on the downward slope.
Although three seasons previously Angel's friends were ready to chastise him for losing sight of his mission, by the end of the fifth season they are all eager to join him in a suicidal strike against the senior partners' representatives on earth. In the show's last moments, Angel and his surviving compatriots face an army which they can never hope to defeat, and rise up against it for one final, hopeless stand. It is a valiant moment, an honorable one, even, but are the choices that led to it equally honorable?
In the episode's penultimate scene, Angel is joined by Connor, who quips that "[Angel comes] to see me and the world isn't ending?" The most important lesson Angel ever tried to instill in his son is the difference between being a fighter and being a champion. The latter "live as if the world were as it should be, to show it what it can be." At the show's end, Connor has finally learned the lesson, and he assumes that his father has stepped up to protect the world. In reality, Angel has called down this disaster upon himself, as an act of vengeance for Fred's death. In theory, destroying the Circle of the Black Thorn lands a crushing blow on Wolfram & Hart's plans for the apocalypse, but Angel knows that the apocalypse has already started--it is in the cold and harsh world that he can see out of his window, in the myriad acts of malice and evil, tiny and great, that take place every day. Faced with the Herculean task of overcoming this sort of apocalypse, Angel's approach seems like the easy way out. Rather than continuing to help the people suffering from this apocalypse, Angel chooses to leave them.
To my mind, the most important scene in "Not Fade Away" is Gunn's talk with Anne, who runs a youth crisis center in Gunn's old neighborhood, a difficult and hopeless task if ever there was one. Gunn asks Anne what she would do if she learned that she was powerless before the forces that sought to destroy her world, and that all her hard work to make it a better place meant nothing in the grand scheme of things. The look on Anne's face is answer enough, and I think we're supposed to learn from it that Angel's actions are justified, no matter how meaningless. I can't help but feel, however, that if Anne had known what Gunn was planning to do later that day, she would have whupped him upside the head, told him to get over himself, and given him more furniture to move.
There's no question that Angel deserved to die at the end of its fifth season. The show's overall quality never approached Buffy's, and the fifth season quickly squandered the goodwill that the third and fourth seasons had generated--the female characters were killed off or marginalized, the intriguing multi-episode stories were replaced by standalones, most of which were barely watchable, Spike was brought in but given nothing to do, and Angel himself became dull and chilly. I can't even get too upset at Whedon's decision to kill off the entire cast in the finale. It was well done, and a suitably heroic end for our heroes. It's the decisions that brought Angel and his compatriots to that point that strike me as a betrayal of the show's central theme--to the point where I can't help but wonder if it was done intentionally, if the suicide wasn't (figuratively) Joss Whedon's, who had grown tired with fighting for his invented universe (and after watching the network tweak his show into irrelevance for an entire season, I can't say I blame him) and preferred to go out in a pointless blaze of glory.