“Power Play” is the perfect episode at the perfect time. Beyond being a masterful lead-in to the events of “Not Fade Away,” Angel’s penultimate episode is a great story in its own right and more than enough to get the audience re-invested after last week’s unpleasantness (let us never speak of it again). What really sells this episode for me is the way it’s able to make us doubt our champion. We never really believe that Angel’s gone over to the dark side (I’m not sure that we’re meant to) but it’s abundantly clear that something’s wrong with him and figuring out what that is makes for a compelling piece of television.
The cold open may well be the best this series has ever done and while it isn’t quite enough to sustain the “is Angel evil?” question over the episode’s entire run, it comes damn close. As I’ve said before, the biggest flaw with Angel’s alleged heel turn is that it feels a bit out of nowhere. Flawed as he’s become this season, giving the baby to the Fell Brethren didn’t really feel like the culmination of anything and making it a merely side note last week didn’t help matters (oops, I spoke of it). The solution is elegant in its simplicity: have him kill Drogyn.
I’m not alone in having initially assumed when Drogyn died that this episode would show us exactly how Angel became Angelus again and seeing him lying next to Nina was the perfect way to get us off that track. After an instant’s frustration at what appeared to be a lazy excuse to steal his soul we learn that things are actually looking up for Angel, or at least they should be. Having sex without any nasty aftermath will brighten anyone’s day, but Angel didn’t even think this was possible a few weeks ago. Now he’s lying naked in the sunshine with beautiful woman… and he’s not happy. Not just not perfectly happy, but not even particularly happy. The murder we just witnessed tells us that Angel’s apprehension is more than just his usual brooding and his denial of being a hero suggests that what’s to follow might just be worse than the return of Angelus.
The audience has the advantage of seeing Angel express reservations about the path he’s on but, even without this, I still think the team’s a bit too quick to conclude that Angel’s gone over to the dark side. He certainly gives them plenty of reason to think so; ignoring people close to him, supporting a demonic senator, prioritizing Hamilton over his team, but isn’t the obvious conclusion that he’s up to something and not that he’s gone over? Still, it’s a leap worth making in service of such a great story and keeping the team on the outside not only helps sell Angel’s shift to the Circle but gives the excellent scene in which he tries to explain his “alleged” reasoning.
I say “alleged” because I don’t think that we can entirely write off Angel’s ode to power:
You [Lorne] didn’t spend your life obsessed with good and evil. You do that, you get swallowed, lost in the minutia. Good, bad, Angel, Angelus— None of it makes a difference. I wish it did, but, you know, an ant with the best intentions or the most diabolical schemes is just exactly an ant. There is one thing in this business, in this apocalypse that we call a world that matters: Power. Power tips the scale, power sets the course, and until I have real power, global power, I have nothing. I accomplish nothing.
There’s certainly some playing to the cameras here but I think that there’s more than a little honesty as well. Everything Angel’s done may just be an elaborate scheme to win the Circle’s trust, but that doesn’t change what he’s had to (and will soon) sacrifice for that cause. Angel’s compromised almost everything that makes him a hero in pursuit of power and, however “good” his intention for its use, this fact is hard to justify.
“None of it makes a difference” is an old sentiment for this series and much as we might wish that Angel could still see this as a source of strength, it’s understandable that he doesn’t. Fred’s death is the reason he offers in his final confrontation with the team and that may just qualify as a counter to the show’s old existential morality. If nothing matters then Fred’s death was just another random tragedy in an empty world and that’s more than Angel can stand. If he can make difference, stop the machine however briefly, have “one shining moment” then Fred and everything else he’s lost might actually mean something. Precisely what that something is is far from certain, but it’s tantalizing enough to get his crew on board. As lead-ins to the big finish go, you couldn’t ask for a better one.
I think that what Angel’s really sacrificed here is his image of heroism. He’s taking a stand against evil at great personal cost and there’s certainly something heroic in that, but it’s far from the glorious ideal he’s been aspiring to since the series premiere. The “good fight” has become messy, ambiguous, and rife with collateral damage. It’s a huge step for the character, given how central his ego has always been, but it’s unclear if it’s a forward one.
Minor quibble: Angel’s cryptic messages to Wes don’t make a lot of sense in retrospect. Why drop clues for the ally you’re trying to distance yourself from? It’s far too convenient that Wes’ investigation played into Angel’s plan rather than undermining it.
Major quibble: Couldn’t we have heard of the Circle before this week? As “the Senior Partner’s instrument on earth” they would seem to occupy a central part of the show’s mythology and introducing them at this point feels like a cheat even if most of the individual players were established.
Illyria and Drogyn playing Crash Bandicoot is pure existential comedy gold.
So, “Not Fade Away” is next week and I’m afraid my thoughts on this episode can’t be contained in a single review. Not only is it the best series finale ever made, it’s my own farewell to the Buffyverse and I’ve struggled with how to approach it, particularly after the sour-taste left by “Chosen.” My solution is to do a series of character spotlights culminating with Angel in a few weeks. I always loved how the finale gave each member of the crew their own personal moment and it seems fitting my review mirror this approach. Or maybe I just can’t let go. In either case, the final length of this marathon starts next week.