Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
Back in the relative yesteryear of 2004, when television was released an hour at a time, week by week, year by year, and news about our favorite shows dripped down in a similar fashion, Angel’s cancellation took us all by surprise.
A late-in-the-game course correction toward a more episodic format had helped rejuvenate the flagging supernatural detective series, boosting viewing figures and setting the stage for a barnstorming finale. The writers were at the top of their game, the characters and their destinies were converging, and we viewers were ready to witness the fate of the vampire with a soul whose journey we had followed across two shows, eight years, and a millennium.
But The WB said nah, we’ll pass, slaying the show and all our hopes and dreams with it.
We still have five killer seasons in the bag—and neither The WB nor the devil himself can take that away—but those who claim time heals all wounds need only dust off their early-noughts VHS collection to confirm the lie. Rewatching Angel today still ushers in the old hollow feeling that some big, crucial piece of storytelling is missing. And with the show’s central theme of redemption spanning all 110 episodes, we need not look far to see why.
But to address our anguish in full, we must go right back to the beginning, to a quirky little ‘90s show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Angel’s (David Boreanaz) on-screen journey began in the very first episode of Joss Whedon’s Buffy, “Welcome to the Hellmouth.” As a tortured heartthrob burning with mystery and repentance, Angel lurked in Sunnydale’s shadows, watching over the titular slayer (Sarah Michelle Gellar) like some kind of guardian… vampire. And these natural enemies soon caught feelings. So far, so Romeo and Juliet; so what happened?
Due to a pesky Romani curse turning Angel evil any time he “experienced a moment of true happiness,” Buffy and Angel were prevented from being together in all but the most angst-ridden ways. Apart from inspiring the entire Twilight canon, this established Angel as more than just eye candy, fangs, and half a tub of hair gel. Buffy gradually introduced us to his struggle with destiny, from his human origins as an 18th-century rapscallion to ensoulment and an appetite for redemption via a gory reign of vampiric terror. But these scraps left us hungry for more! And, lo and behold, our prayers were answered.
Having literally been to hell and back by Season 3 of Buffy, Angel struck out on his own in the City of Angels as a newly minted PI. This vampire bad boy was off the Hellmouth, out of his cage, and ready to brood like nobody’s business. From the outset, the writing team (comprised of Whedon and a host of other Buffy talent), tapped a vein with the unholy triumvirate of Angel’s bloody past, troubled present, and uncertain future. They understood precisely what made him a compelling character and mined the symbolism for all it was worth, embracing the kind of religious overtones Buffy never indulged in beyond smoking crosses and vague allusions to H-E double hockey sticks.
With a roster of Sunnydale alumni—that being sassy graduate-cum-aspiring actress Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter), and failed Watcher extraordinaire Wesley Wyndam-Pryce (Alexis Denisof)—Angel’s detective agency was built on hopes of a fresh start and the promise of salvation. The gumshoe element didn’t stick, but Angel’s overarching concern with prophecy, fate, and (of course) redemption did, grounded in the scowl-with-a-soul’s connection to The Powers That Be—the all-seeing higher realm dwellers who, it turned out, had been pulling his strings from the beginning. We were now on track for a big moment: a game-changer, an all-new after-afterlife for our hero.
This sense of destiny was underpinned by the Shanshu Prophecy, a dusty scroll introduced in Season 1, which foretold of a vampire with a soul fighting in the apocalypse and receiving his humanity as reward. We had watched Angel fight to figuratively save his soul for years, but this gave him a greater purpose: to rescue the world from impending doom and be with his beloved, curse-less and mortal, and able to go at it like bunnies in spring.
Forgive us, then, for expecting this all to pay off.
Tied into the show’s long-term storytelling vision (which positioned evil law firm Wolfram & Hart and their demonic, inter-dimensional Senior Partners as perpetual antagonists), the oft-thumbed Shanshu’s vagueness about which side of the apocalypse Angel would fight on led his yuppie foes to continuously corrupt and bait him toward evil. But nothing could prepare him for the tyranny of a television network.
Twisting the knife on entry, The WB chose Valentine’s Day 2004 to release a statement announcing the show’s cancellation, and broke the hearts of millions—Joss Whedon included. Taking to the popular Buffyverse posting board The Bronze Beta (which is how internet fandoms used to operate pre-Twitter), Whedon expressed his shock and dismay. Rumors circulated that the cancellation followed pressure he himself put on studio heads for early renewal, but to be fair to him, the latter episodes of Angel were not the work of a man who thought his world would soon be ending.
Season 5 saw the Angel gang taking down the heavily mythologized Senior Partners’ Earthly representatives and finally making a move on Wolfram & Hart. With the new season already airing, it pressed ahead in spite of The WB’s decision, with only some minor course corrections from Whedon, allowing its cast and creators to stew in the knowledge that they had built us a bridge to nowhere. And, in the finale (following the literal unleashing of hell on Earth), the remaining heroes of L.A.—Angel, Gunn (J. August Richards), Illyria (Amy Acker), and Spike (James Marsters)—met in the alley behind their old haunt, the Hyperion Hotel, ready for (you guessed it) the apocalypse. Destiny had finally come a-knockin’, dragons and all, a season too late.
Executive producer David Fury has since tried to paste over the gaping hole at the end of the show, claiming this is a fitting conclusion because “the fight never ends.” But we dedicated few know the painful truth. We need only look as far as the complete arcs of Angel’s original gang to see how the show flirted with his potential futures. Cordelia embodied that very spirit of growth, redemption, and reward by ditching her callous high-school persona and literally transcending—twice!—while Wesley died in vain, his failure to save himself and the women he loved—twice!—nixing his chance of a happy ending.
Angel was built around fate, with its wounded hero determined to suffer for his sins but finding redemption in doing so. His ubiquitous destiny, which drove Angel as much as his quest to help the helpless, was often just out of reach, but the Shanshu and Buffy were always waiting, making the fight worthwhile.
While the show goes out on a high that would do justice to a thousand lesser series, there is an aching absence where Angel’s final season belongs. If we had to hear “scroll,” “foretold,” “prophecy,” and “ancient Aramaic” several thousand times over the years, you can be damned certain we wanted to share the spoils!
Like a vampire without a soul, there is something hollow and a little evil about this final resting place for Angel. And we never even got to see him slay that dragon.
Alisdair Hodgson is a film, entertainment, poetry, and fiction writer by day; long-suffering Editor-in-Chief of a not-for-profit lit publication by night. If you have a problem, and if no-one else can help, you can find him @Youthanised.
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