Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Angel: “Power Play”/“Not Fade Away”

Illustration for article titled Angel: “Power Play”/“Not Fade Away”

The story so far….

So there’s this vampire, named Angelus, who’s been “cursed” with a soul. He’s changed his name to Angel, and has become a demon-fighter, “helping the helpless” as a way of making up for his past misdeeds. He traveled the world, then settled in California, in a small town called Sunnydale, where he had a romance with the modern embodiment of an ancient heroic force known as The Slayer; and then in Los Angeles, where he started a detective agency with the help of a prophetic demon and an aspiring actress. Over the years Angel has lost some allies and gained others, including two skilled demon-fighters—one raised on the streets, one trained by experts from a prestigious institution— a timid Texas science student with a generous heart, and a green-skinned demon who can sense both who people really are and what they’re going to be when he hears them sing. All the while, Angel has bumped up against an very old and deeply evil organization which operates via a law firm called Wolfram & Hart, and which has pegged Angel as an essential player in the coming apocalypse. Our hero has visited other dimensions, has fought villains both ancient and new, has turned evil himself once or twice, and has sorted through prophecy after prophecy that speaks—sometimes contradictorily—about what he’s destined to do. Throughout, Angel the show has explored how a simple mission of atonement gets muddied by the other people for whom Angel feels a responsibility, and by the terrible choices he’s had to make for what he hopes to be a greater good.

I have only one minor bone to pick with “Power Play,” the penultimate Angel. The episode hinges on the suggestion—first introduced in “Time Bomb”—that our hero may have lost sight of what he’s meant to be doing, in his attempt to use Wolfram & Hart’s resources to acquire more power. In theory, this is plausible. Angel has gone overboard before while trying to complete a mission. He’s also been corrupted, infected, and otherwise supernaturally altered in the past. So it’s not too far off-base that Wes, Gunn and Lorne would think something amiss when Angel begins shutting out Wes to talk more with Marcus, or when he agrees to help Senator Helen Brucker—who has a vampire assistant, and boasts of having clawed her way up from Hell—tar her opposition with a baseless charge of pedophilia.

But as played, Angel’s pretense—and it is just pretense, we later learn—is too broad to be convincing. Angel tries too hard to sell his friends and enemies on the idea that he’s stopped taking an interest in the world’s piddly human victims, and that he’s now only concerned with getting to the top of the ladder of wickedness. About as close as Angel ever got to swaying me in “Power Play” was when he compares his new attitude to Lorne’s, who always avoided being judgmental when he ran Caritas. There’s a logic to this notion that even the worst demon can be useful, and thus worth claiming as a friend. But for the most part, it’s clear from the start that this is all just a gambit: Angel’s way of earning his way in to a powerful secret society known as The Circle Of The Black Thorn. And that makes it harder to be suitably chilled when Angel insists that he hasn’t been turned into Angelus—an important point, since it signifies free will—or when he plays racquetball with that one dude who looks like Satan, or when he races to the side of a man being beaten by The Circle Of The Black Thorn only to feast on the victim’s blood.

That said, the racquetball scene is very funny, and the feasting scene is meaningful in that it occurs at the beginning of the episode, right before we’re flashed back to “19 Hours Earlier.” There’s a sense of foreboding and inevitability throughout “Power Play,” a sense that everything is leading up to this moment when Angel feast, which is the also the moment when he proves himself to The Circle Of The Black Thorn. Angels clearly made an irrevocable choice here, and even if he’s working a kind of undercover sting, there’s no guarantee he’s in the right—especially given that Angel has never really done all that well when he goes it alone.

So even though I never believed for a second that Angel had turned—and found it hard to believe that his friends would believe, strictly based on Angel’s hammy performance—there’s still plenty of dread in the scene where Illyria tells a skeptical Spike that before this is all over, Angel “will murder one of you,” or when Drogyn The Truth-Teller shows up out of the blue to say that Angel is responsible for Fred’s death. Meanwhile, Wes is receiving alerts from W&H’s magic books that “YOU’RE LOOKING IN THE WRONG PLACE,” and Spike is coercing Lindsey to explain that the The Circle Of The Black Thorn effectively exerts the Senior Partners’ will on Earth, taking charge of the master plan that “starts with ‘A,’ ends with ‘pocalypse.’” This story is plainly reaching an end, and it may not be a happy one.


That’s what makes the conclusion of “Power Play” so rousing. Wesley, Gunn, Spike and Lorne attempt a kind of intervention—one that involves kicking Angel’s presumably evil ass—and after Angel rather cruelly takes Lorne hostage, he uses an artifact to cast a temporary spell that masks their conversation, allowing him time to explain what’s really going on. What’s moving isn’t so much the not-at-all-shocking revelation that Angel’s been trying to infiltrate and expose The Circle—working from a vision that Ghost Cordelia imparted to him with her final kiss—but more his reasons for doing so. He’s allowed the bad guys to believe that he was responsible for Fred’s death, because that would be a way of proving his evil cred, and would thus make her death “matter.” He goes on to say  that he now understands the scope of his fight, and that it’s essentially unwinnable. Even if he and his colleagues defeat one wave of villains, reinforcements will arrive, until eventually everyone on Angel’s team will be dead. But they can at least make a stand, and slow the apocalypse for a bit, thus remaining true to who they are and maybe making the likes of the Senior Partners feel fear, if only just for a moment.

In further acknowledgement of how his worldview has changed, in “Not Fade Away” Angel acquiesces to The Circle Of The Black Thorn’s demand that he revoke all claim to the Shanshu Prophecy, which says that if he does enough good deeds, he’ll become human again. Maybe Angel does this because he knows that prophecies have a way of coming true even when others try to alter or undo them. Maybe he does it because he really does believe what he once told Spike, that the Shanshu is just a bedtime story designed to make vampires behave. Or maybe Angel realizes that it just doesn’t matter. So he becomes human again; so what? Won’t thwart evil—at least not permanently. (For his part, Spike is fine with Angel destroying the Shanshu, since it guarantees that Angel won’t be the one to fulfill it. Actually no one will be fulfilling it now, but that’s okay with Spike too… “As long as it’s not you.”)


So here’s the plan: Now that Angel has gotten everyone in his own circle to agree that the Senior Partners aren’t there to be beat, just “to be fought,” he’s assigned everyone a task—including Lindsey and Illyria—to destroy the Black Thorn members separately, Godfather-style, in one night of swift and merciless vengeance. Angel’s theory? As a group, The Circle is formidable, but on their own, they’re “just demons.” And his team knows how to kill demons. (And what if Angel really is working for the other side, and is just trying to divide his people, to make them easier to pick off? This objection gets raised privately, but only Lorne remains truly doubtful, because he’s kind of had it with Angel and his machinations. More on that in a moment.)

Before the final battle, Angel instructs everyone to take the day off and either settle their affairs or just live it up. It’s something Angel begins doing himself in “Power Play.” After a lovely morning in bed with Nina—during which she half-jokingly asks, “You’re not perfectly happy, are you?”—he meets up with her later and sends her and her family on a trip far away without him, which aggravates her. Then in “Not Fade Away” Angel goes to see Connor, who admits what was fairly clear at the end of “Origin,” that his memories of his time with his father have been restored, and are coexisting with his false memories, “like a dream… at times inappropriately erotic.”


As for everybody else: Lorne sings, Spike recites verse (“for Cecily”) at a roughneck poetry slam, Gunn helps his old friend Anne with the more mundane fruitless task of taking care of poor kids, and Wes… well, Wes does nothing. He refuses Illyria’s offer to be Fred for him, saying that his Watcher training has taught him to separate truth from illusion. So there’s nothing “true” that he wants for his one last “perfect day.” Besides, he says, “I do not intend to die tonight.”

But he does die. Damn it, Wesley Wyndham-Price dies, in a moment that is painfully sad, but not tragic, because it’s part of a larger victory (and because, as Angel has all but promised, they’re all likely to die before the night is through, whether we see it on-screen or not). As they meet before going out, the gang makes plans to rendezvous in an alley after their individual missions, though they say their final farewells, just in case. Illyria tells Gunn, “Try not to die. You are not unpleasant to my eyes.” Gunn shakes Wes’ hand; Wes looks knowingly at Angel. It’s all very warm and stirring. The only one not really sharing the sentiment is Lorne, who says that once he completes his mission, he’s out of the Angel business, for good.


Eventually, we see why. It’s because Angel’s plan has a couple of twists in it. For one, Angel leaks to Harmony that he’s planning to kill Archduke Sebassis, and Harmony shares that detail with Marcus Hamilton. But Angel has anticipated Harmony’s loose lips, so he’s ready for Marcus’ ambush back at the W&H offices, and he’s figured out a way to assassinate Sebassis remotely, by spiking the archduke’s slave’s blood. Similarly, while Angel relies on Lindsey to wipe out one demon faction, he doesn’t trust Lindsey to be loyal in the long run, and so he has Lorne kill the brute once the job is done. Poor Lorne, the romantic, who loves showbiz and Hollywood, finds himself living out the life of a noir hero, with a stained soul. No wonder he’s so bummed.

Meanwhile, Illyria obliterates a carload of Black Thorn bosses, Gunn lays waste to Senator Brucker’s vampire staff, and Spike saves the sacrificial baby of “Time Bomb” fame from The Fell Brethren. It’s really only Wes who comes up short. Asked to pretend to betray Angel to the powerful wizard Cyvus Vail, Wes ends up in a magick-off, and comes up short of the old master. Illyria swoops in to finish the job— “I killed all mine,” she explains to Wes, before punching Vail’s head into powder—but is too late to save her human mentor. “This wound is mortal,” she tells him. “Aren’t we all?” Wes jokes. Then she says, “You’ll be dead within moments… would you like me to lie to you now?” And as he gratefully says yes, she takes on Fred’s form and cradles him as he dies. Heartbreaking. But again, it’s for a cause, which makes it sting a little less.


Also it helps that since Amy Acker is playing Illyria as Fred, we do get to see “Fred” we’ve known her one last time, for another kind of meta goodbye. And as this finale is about to exert, how you act often matters than who you are. That’s evident in the conversation that Angel has with Marcus while the latter is clobbering him. Angel says that people like Marcus who “don’t care about anything” will never understand those who do, and Marcus smirks, “Yeah, but we won’t care,” further emphasizing the distance between those who attempt to rule or enslave humanity and those who strive to be human.

If nothing else though, the good guys sometimes have unexpected help, as shown by the unexpected arrival of Connor, who helps hold Marcus at bay long enough for his dad to find an angle. Marcus taunts Angel by saying that he’s been supercharged by the Senior Partners and that, “My blood is filled with their ancient power.” A lightbulb pops up over Angel’s head and he retorts, “Can you pick out the one word here you probably shouldn’t have said?” Then, for the second time in 48 hours, Angel feeds on a living creature.


That bending of Angel’s personal code is yet another signal of where we are in the story. All bets are off. Angel has unleashed himself, and will do what he has to do. Enough of the rules, laws, codes, technicalities and prophecies: let’s fight, until we drop.

And so here’s where the story ends, with one of the most spine-tingling final scenes I’ve ever seen in a TV series. Lorne has bailed and Wes is dead, but a heavily wounded Gunn meets up with Spike, Angel and Illyria in the designated alley—which may even be the same alley where the whole series began five years earlier—and they watch as hordes of demons encroach. Illyria, mourning Wes, says, “I wish to do more violence.” Angel looks at a creature screeching overhead and says, “Personally, I kinda wanna slay the dragon.” And when Illyria tells Gunn that he has maybe ten minutes of life left, Gunn smiles and says, “Then let’s make ‘em memorable.”


That Gunn line isn’t the last line of the series; Angel saying, “Let’s go to work” is. But it’s Gunn’s dying declaration that has stuck with me. “Let’s make ‘em memorable” is a fitting epitaph for a series that took some huge chances over its five-season run, including having long stretches where the good guys could barely speak to each other, and including the introduction of beasts and realms far beyond the sort that usually appear on sci-fi/fantasy/horror TV. (Remember Skip? And Jasmine? And Pylea? And Smile Time? And remember a few episodes ago when Gunn consigned himself to a suburban torture basement? Never lacking for ideas, our Angel.) But the line also shows the influence our hero has had on his closet companions, as he’s gotten them to understand that this is it, and this will always be it: Just creatures of like minds, shoulder to shoulder, standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves.

And if that’s what it means to be a decent, heroic human being, then maybe the prophecy came true after all.


Stray observations:

  • At the start of “Power Play,” Illyria tries to find human words to explain to Spike that Wesley won’t even look at her or talk to her any more. She probably could’ve done better than, “He and I are no longer having intercourse.”
  • Angel’s “no human blood” policy makes it difficult to entertain the senator’s vampire assistant, though the firm can offer “a fruity, unassuming vole.”
  • You know how it is with The Fell Brethren. They won’t stop talking about the baby.
  • Spike tells Illyria that he and Angel have never been intimate. Well, except that one time. But he gets cut off before he can explain further.
  • Lindsey, dismissing Angel’s efforts to rouse the troops: “You get a little speech-y, all right? And I breeze out.”
  • Illyria’s idea of a stump speech: “I will shred my adversaries. Pull their eyes out just enough to turn them towards their mewing, mutilated faces.” Wesley’s response: “You’re a very inspirational person.”
  • The Circle Of The Black Thorn is a secret society that does not abide secrets.
  • Angel doesn’t like Connor’s implication that he has no sense of humor. “I was at the first taping of The Carol Burnett Show,” he huffs.
  • Anyone else get a little John Woo/Hard Boiled vibe from the scene where Spike fights The Fell with a baby in his arms?
  • Here’s how Angel is so good: What looks like a little throwaway gag in “Power Play”—Spike encouraging Illyria and Drogyn to play with his PlayStation, prompting Illyria, blank-faced, to say, “Crash Bandicoot?”—becomes a little something more when Drogyn interprets the game through his understanding of quests. (“You must collect those crystals and fruit!”) There’s something poignant about the way these ancient evils and heroes adapt to the modern world, picking up the lingo and customs while still proceeding more or less as they always have. That’s what makes it meaningful when Illyria offers her own analysis of Crash Bandicoot, filtered through her disgust with how human she’s becoming: “The game is pointless, yet I feel compelled to play on.”
  • A few years ago, when I started covering Buffy The Vampire Slayer, some of you asked whether I was going to do Angel as well. I hadn’t planned on it, frankly. As I’ve mentioned many times before, simply by virtue of being alive and being interested in popular culture, I was familiar with many of the major plot development in Buffy, and I knew how well it was regarded by TV buffs, so I was excited about digging into it. But Angel has never had that same lofty reputation, nor has it been bandied about as much in the major entertainment media. I only decided to add it to the docket because so many of you insisted, and because I’d gotten invested in the characters of Angel and Cordelia from Buffy. So I thank those of you who beat the drum so loudly for Angel, and I thank you for commenting so much and so well on these reviews, even on the weeks when Angel was in the middle of a long story arc and I was more focused on Buffy. They’re different kinds of shows, these two. Buffy is punchier in a lot of ways, and more intimate. Angel is the epic adventure, that takes its time to build and pay off a story. But both are witty, thrilling, heartbreaking, and astoundingly mature about what it means to be alive in this world, and to assume responsibility for who we are, what we do, who it affects, and what it all means.
  • Last note, of future plans: Donna and I will be beginning Firefly next week. Since there’ll be two of us writing the reviews, and since we both have other TV Club Classic assignments this summer (her on SportsNight; me on Arrested Development), we’re just planning to do one episode per week, and we’ll likely have to take a couple of breaks along the way, for family vacations and the like. But we do intend to carry on from start to finish, even past the summer, and to finish with Serenity, later this year. (And yes, we will be following the intended order, not the broadcast order.) Beyond that, Whedon-wise, I have no plans to cover Dollhouse since Scott Tobias wrote that up for us so well during the original run, but I am thinking about doing an episode from that series for a “Very Special Episode” column, perhaps early next year. As for the Buffy and Angel comics, I admit to being curious enough about them to at least give them a look, and if I find them worthy of further comment, I might write something for “For Our Consideration” next year. Given the way Buffy ends, further adventures make sense. Given the way Angel ends though? Man, I don’t know if any new stories set in this universe will be able to honor that big finish.