I’ve said for most of Angel’s run that Charles Gunn was a good character in need of a good story. Ever the valuable supporting playing, he also invariably stumbled anytime the spotlight found him. I’d say “careful what you wish for,” but Gunn’s pain this season is our gain. Like most great stories (and great Whedon stories in particular), Gunn’s involves making the protagonist suffer; not that Gunn hadn’t suffered before, but a vamped sister we never knew and a failed relationship we never cared about weren’t the most resonant of threads. All of the “just the muscle” whining finally paid big dividends this season and it was fitting that the finale brought the character back to his roots.
This identity crisis worked where past ones had failed by, ironically, embracing Gunn’s second banana status. Gunn’s (not so) excellent adventure with Gwen actually had the effect of confirming that he was just the muscle, Angel’s sidekick; the need to show us how awesome Gunn is implies that he actually isn’t all that awesome. In contrast, the feather really is magic this season. Gunn doesn’t already have everything he needs inside of him and so he gets Wolfram & Hart to put it there. His “untapped potential” is nothing more than a rationalization and, considering its source, one to be dismissed immediately.
Charles Gunn, attorney at law could not be further removed from Charles Gunn, heroic street kid; new hair, new suit, new cavalier attitude about allowing evil incorporated to tinker with his mind. No longer a street-wise kid defending his own because The Man can’t or won’t, Gunn’s become The Man, defending the evil elite because… well, that’s the business he’s in. It’s the most immediate look at where compromise would take the team over the course the season. Where the rest of the crew lose the mission by bits and pieces, Gunn abandons it right out of the gate. And he’s happy about it.
The old Gunn would’ve been rightly disgusted by lawyers cutting deals on the golf course. This one boasts about it, in between singing through the workday and telling everyone how much he loves his job. Comeuppance is inevitable under these circumstances but, where a lesser series would’ve had Gunn save Fred through a combination of a good heart and some street smarts, there’s no simplistic “be yourself” messaging here. Fred dies as a consequence of Gunn’s decision; the “real Gunn” isn’t relevant to the outcome. And so he’s left hating what he’s become but with no validation of who he was.
That’s a rather lengthy preamble to actually talking about Gunn’s role in the finale, but 1) context is important and 2) Gunn doesn’t actually get to do a lot here. “Not Fade Away” is a packed episode and it’s necessary that some characters get less attention than others but, considering where Gunn’s coming from, his character doesn’t need a lot of screen time. All that’s necessary to resolve the seemingly irreconcilable limbo is a trip home. He even gets to underscore one of the show’s themes to boot.
I hadn’t given Annie much any thought since season two but seeing the Buffyverse’s oldest recurring character one last time is a very nice touch, and one that feels completely organic. Of course Gunn would go back to his old hood for his “last day.” And of course it would be Annie that he meets. He doesn’t set out to find her, but she’s a far better fit than his old crew; those bridges were burned long before he joined Wolfram & Hart and he’d have failed to connect with even if he’d found them. Having had an identity crisis (or several) of her own, she’s well prepped to help him with his, although that’s not how Gunn presents the problem. Much as he might be looking to reconnect with his past, Gunn doesn’t take the opportunity to reminisce with Annie, he cuts right to the crushingly depressing chase:
What if I told you it doesn’t help? What would you do if you found out that none of it matters? That’s it’s all controlled by forces more powerful and uncaring than we can conceive and they will never let it get better down here. What would you do?
Gunn’s problem isn’t just a mere identity crisis, it’s an existential one. It’s not the inability to go back to being his old self that has him despairing, it’s the belief that his old self was worthless. He’s tasted firsthand the awesome power that Wolfram & Hart wields; by his own estimation, he did more good in a single day at the firm than he could’ve in lifetime on the street. He’s rightfully rejected working with evil in order to do “good,” but where does that leave him? Outside the firm Gunn isn’t merely “just the muscle,” he’s muscle applied in a futile task. What’s the point in fighting when it can’t possibly have any impact, when those with real power can obliterate your work with the stroke of a pen, if they even care to notice it?
Anne’s simple solution to this crushing abyss of despair? “Get the truck packed before the new stuff gets here,” or, “ignore the problem and it’ll go away.” This shouldn’t work. It can’t work. And yet it does. Gunn doesn’t bemoan what he’s done and what he’s lost when she asks for his help; he gets to work. Nothing’s changed; the firm still is what it is and still does what it does, but it can’t keep Annie from helping people. And it can’t stop Gunn either once he leaves behind the Holland Manners school of moral reasoning. Whatever awesome power the firm might wield, it can only stop good people from helping each other if they let it. This is the same lesson Angel learned way back in season two, albeit stated less dramatically. Gunn wants to help, and this simple fact says far more about who he is than anything he’s done in the past. “The smallest act of kindness can be the greatest thing in the world.”
I didn’t even get to Gunn’s part of the final fight. It’s fitting that the ex-inner city youth be the one to take down the ultimate in political corruption, though I don’t think it’s all that relevant as Gunn’s arc actually concluded in his conversation with Annie. I did appreciate the fake out of him getting swarmed by vampires though. I was pretty certain he’d bought it then and there.
This review has made me think about how dividing the characters for their “last day” provides an opportunity to explore different elements of the series. Angel’s been an incredibly diverse series over its run and paying homage to all its elements in a single episode was a difficult tasks at which this format succeeds admirably (thanks god they didn’t do a clip show). Lorne’s exit was neck deep in the darkness and moral ambiguity that frequented the season. Gunn’s presents its light and hope. The show’s generally done a pretty good job balancing the two and so their presence next to each other doesn’t feel out of place.
Comparison’s with the Buffy finale certainly don’t do the first series any favours, but they are rather inevitable. Right now I’m thinking about the fact that both involve the heroes being rushed by an overwhelming force of enemies. But where Buffy gave us a fairly absurd victory, Angel delivered a defeat so thoroughly earned that it could be called a victory. Not that Buffy should’ve ended with a fatal last stand, that would’ve been out of synch with the themes of the show, but Buffy’s army only wins if the First’s isn’t nearly as powerful as previously thought. The strength of good and the weakness of evil are certainly in line with what that show was about, but it does mean that Buffy’s final victory was against an incorporeal chump. Yay?
In contrast to Buffy’s consistent triumphalism, Angel delivers on its fatalism. The Senior Partners are every bit as powerful as they were made out to be, and when they unleash their full might the heroes really don’t stand a chance. There is no deus ex amulet for Angel and his crew. They face their final fight just as overmatched as they always were and, in doing so, prove that the Senior Partners AREN’T all that powerful. Wolfram & Hart’s operates by corrupting good people, and they’ve been focused on doing so to Angel since season one. They’ve failed. Again. I’ll take that over a crated Hellmouth any day.