20 Years Later, Angel’s Scorched-Earth Series Finale Is Still the Perfect Ending

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20 Years Later, Angel’s Scorched-Earth Series Finale Is Still the Perfect Ending

Editor’s Note: This weekend marks the 20th anniversary of “Not Fade Away,” the final episode of Angel, so to celebrate, we’re looking back on the finale itself and highlighting our favorite episodes. For more Buffy and Angelcheck out our previous coverage on the cult series. 

Given Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s incredible popularity and large ensemble of beloved characters, of course it made sense that the series would receive a spinoff at The WB—the only question was which member of the Scooby Gang the spinoff would follow. Recurring favorites like Oz (Seth Green) and Faith (Eliza Dushku) would’ve seemed like ideal candidates, but it ended up being Angel (David Boreanaz), Buffy’s hulking, brooding, wet blanket of a vampire boyfriend who would get to star in his own show. 

Especially in a franchise so heavily populated with complex, well-written female characters (Cordelia, Faith, Willow, Tara) it seems, in hindsight, somewhat odd that a Buffy spinoff would look to follow a male lead—and an adult one at that, once again breaking from the confines of the high school teen drama. 

But Angel’s tonal and thematic departures from Buffy the Vampire Slayer ended up being one of its greatest assets: like its protagonist, Angel is decidedly gloomier and more grown up than Buffy while still honoring its storytelling and worldbuilding. This weekend sees Angel celebrate the 20th anniversary of its series finale “Not Fade Away,” which is a bold, risk-taking end that encapsulates so much of what made Angel great.

By the time Angel trudged its way to the back half of Season 5, the series had lost more than its fair share of major characters: Doyle (Glenn Quinn), Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), and Fred (Amy Acker) had all met untimely ends before the series finale. As such, when that final episode finally rolls around, the surviving cast of Angel feels exhausted, beaten-down, and backed into a corner.

Angel, Spike (James Marsters), Wesley (Alexis Denisof), and Gunn (J August Richards), still reeling from the sudden death and possession of their beloved friend Fred, have spent the entire season trying (with little success) to take down the evil, multidimensional law firm Wolfram & Hart from the inside. Sure, the series still followed the monster-of-the-week formula, but Angel Season 5 maintains an ever-present undercurrent of dread—the knowledge that our heroes are slowly slipping further into the inescapable clutches of the organization they’re trying to destroy.

Aside from evil, outside forces slowly seeping in, Team Angel has also undergone its fair share of inter-party turbulence by this point in its five-season runtime. From Wesley kidnapping Angel’s infant child (and Angel trying to smother him in retaliation) to Angel’s penchant for flipping his lid and turning into Angelus to Gunn’s decision to let Wolfram & Hart implant demonic knowledge in his mind, everyone had good reason to be more than a little wary of each other.

But even rife with conflict, the remaining members of Team Angel (now joined by Spike, Angel’s pseudo-vampire progeny, and Illyria, walking around in Fred’s body) have a seemingly unbreakable bond, and it’s that stubborn, unflinching resolve that makes the Angel finale such a powerful episode. When Buffy headed into her series finale, she did so with an army of potential Slayers behind her, a powerful witch at her side, and countless other allies (not to mention a few legendary weapons)—a full-fledged assault made possible after a season of preparation.

It’s an epic, sweeping battle that feels like the hard-earned conclusion to a hero’s coming of age story—and it’s also the kind of finale that would’ve been incredibly insincere and out of place on Angel. Did David Boreanaz’s broody vampire grow over the course of the series? Of course. Angel goes a long way in helping rehabilitate the character’s image for fans who may not have loved him on Buffy, especially once his will-they-won’t-they romance with Cordelia finally kicks off. 

But at the same time, to have an ending anywhere near triumphant or conclusive would feel antithetical to who Angel is as a character—after all, a tortured, centuries old vampire can never truly have a happy ending. What’s most heartbreaking about Angel as a series, though, is that Angel isn’t the only character living in his bleak world. Characters like Andy Hallett’s loveable, kindhearted demon Lorne end the series battered and broken, not dead but walking shadows of themselves.

Then, of course, there’s Fred—the literal walking shell whose body is the vessel in which Illyria is born. Though Illyria as a character does end up becoming surprisingly endearing in her own right, her appearance is still an ever-present reminder of the unfairness and cruelty of Fred’s untimely death. Though Fred doesn’t die in the finale (that would be Episode 15, “A Hole in the World”) her death haunts the finale, following Wesley to his ultimate fate as Angel’s final casualty.

Having started off as a foppish joke of a recurring guest character on Buffy, Alexis Denisof’s Wesley undergoes perhaps the most drastic change of any character in the shared Angel universe, thanks in large part to all the tragedy he endures during his time on Angel. Though he didn’t start the series out that way, Wesley enters Angel Season 5 as a tragic character, almost marked for death—but that doesn’t make his loss in the finale any easier to endure.

Rubbing salt in the wound is Illyria’s presence in his final scene; still walking around in his beloved Fred’s body, she cradles a dying Wesley and grants him one last kindness by changing her appearance to look like his dearly departed love. It’s a macabre, tragic ending for a character who had such a drastically different run on Buffy, but the heartbreak conjured by his death is what helps make the Angel finale so potent. 

The Buffy franchise has plenty of memorable iconography, but the shot of Angel, Illyria, Spike, and Gunn standing in the pouring rain and bracing for one last stand is a stroke of genius, and a fitting ending to a paradoxically macabre yet whimsical series. They’re outnumbered a thousand to one, Gunn is already on death’s door, Wesley is dead—yet, as Angel raises his sword to lead the final charge and the show cuts to credits, you get the feeling that there might still be a way for them to make it out alive. 

If there’s such a thing as a perfect cliffhanger, it’s the Angel finale. Always willing to take narrative risks and push characters to their limits, Angel’s five season run ends with the show going scorched earth on itself—changing the stakes beyond reparability, but always leaving a sliver of hope for our heroes to cling to. If Angel wants to slay a dragon, who is the world to stand in his way? 

Lauren Coates is a freelance entertainment writer with a passion for sci-fi, an unhealthy obsession with bad reality television, and a constant yearning to be at Disney World. She has contributed to Paste since 2020. You can follow her on Twitter @laurenjcoates, where she’s probably talking about Star Trek.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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