Some thoughts on the last episode of Angel as moral fiction.
Angel, in his final episode, is not a heroic figure. He makes the wrong strategic decisions and becomes a tragic villain. That is, he does, if we judge him by the wisdom of our best moral philosphers, and consider his actions within the infrastructure of our own world. Angel breaks with the moral code he's established for himself as an ensouled being. He commits a series of despicable acts -- as a prelude to an ill-considered stand against overwhelming evil.
I know that Joss Whedon tells you the rules of the Buffy/Angel world are different. In that world there really are supernatural, evil forces, which act upon the characters. Lovecraftian eldritch dooms are attempting to rule (Buffy) or already rule (recent Angel) the world; and they really should be Stopped.
But even within the context of Whedon's usual Buffyverse, the sensibility of Angel's final campaign seems debatable. Angel might go on for years and years, quietly improving quality of life for the supernaturally-afflicted. He could take a leaf from the book of Gunn's social worker friend: "load the truck" and set up business in a new location. But that's not what this Angel episode is about. Apocalypse is coming. Has to come. The eldritch dooms rule the world, and may foreclose on it Real Soon Now.
Once the Mutant Enemy script writers get you to accept the passion of this premise (or the less-fatalistic Buffy version: "One Eldritch Doom Can Spoil Your Whole Day"), they go to work on your sense of situational ethics. Our suppressed visceral responses to evils in _this world_ become fair game for externalization in the Buffy/Angel world. This does, I'll concede, constitute art.
What it does not constitute, in many individual episodes, in my opinion, is well-constructed moral fiction. This is my ongoing beef with Buffy and Angel.
What we're led to experience in the series finale of Angel is not the evocation of pathos for a tragic villain. What we're given, instead, is a flash of existential courage over the plight of a Dark Knight. "Let us be moved by this tale to go out and renew our own heroic battles with evil. There's only one way to go out -- singing! " (Or slashing at goblins with sharp metal instruments, if we've grown up in a slightly different context of economics, politics, and pop art.)
The most successful thing that Joss Whedon does to make this trick work is to employ good actors and script writers (with excellent ears for dialog and well-developed senses of irony). The less successful thing (from my point of view) is to proffer superficially-logical justifications for the metaphysics of his universe, using directorial manipulation combined with spectacle to make those metaphysics feel credible to us.
As far as I'm concerned, the last few episodes of Angel destroy any resonance with Angel-as-Dark Knight that were successfully established in earlier episodes. Compare/contrast with Frank Miller's Dark Knight. Miller's world jabs at our sensibilities. His Batman shocks us. But despite the presence of super-powered evil in Miller's world, his Dark Knight refrains from crossing certain lines. Batman's shocking pragmatism does not negate the moral force of his courage.
In the last few episodes of Angel, Whedon stacks the deck (as I think he often did in Buffy). He manipulates his metaphysics so that the ultimate actions of the characters are less likely to be categorized, a priori, as immoral or two-dimensional. (As usual, the script writers feint on a scene-by-scene basis. "Uh-oh. This one is out of character doing good|evil. But no! It's the opposite of what you thought. So there!")
For me, Angel was entertaining TV in the early episodes, which showed him as a Chandleresque detective in the City of Night. The show was entertaining, sometimes, in episodes that showed a supernatural being trying to survive -- and cope with other (comically-ironic or horrifying) supernatural beings. (I will continue to remember Wesley's desperate plea to the loa that manifested, in one episode, by incarnating as a Bob's Big Boy hamburger sign.) I think Angel was less successful as a Dark Shadows romantic soap opera, and dull as a Lovecraftian (or Stephen King-ian) horror surrogate. I wish I had the text for the paper Umberto Eco is supposed to have written about apocalyptic horror themes in American TV shows, in which he calls them signifiers of the corrupting influence of corporate capitalism. I have a feeling he might have been on to something about memes that show up in Buffy and Angel. </ljcut>