“It’s today. It’s the end of everything.”
It’s apocalypse now, as The Fades reaches its much-anticipated climax this week. Paul’s dreams of the end of everything are becoming more frequent, as Reborn Fades wander the deserted streets in search of fresh meat. But we know from last week that Paul’s visions of the future can be changed. Or is it just that he doesn’t have the full picture yet?
This final episode paid off in spades all the concepts and plotlines that have been so carefully set up through the series’ run. I had been slightly worried that writer Jack Thorne wouldn’t be able tie the myriad of imaginative concepts and likeable characters up satisfactorily, but actually this really did. Almost – because then there was that coda…
But to begin at the beginning: it was a nice touch, in keeping with the story’s continuity, that Mac’s “previously on” recap was delivered from inside the boot of Neil’s Vauxhall Vectra, into which he’d been unceremoniously shoved at the end of the previous episode. You could tell this was going to be a dark episode when even Mac was so downbeat: “In the beginning was the word. And the word was shit.” It set a grim tone that was reinforced by some atmospheric montage shots of the deserted town, with bodies lying strewn on pavements and in rivers. (Incidentally, thanks to Alex from the Love and Liberty blog for enlightening me that this “everytown” is mostly South Oxhey and surrounding areas of Watford.)
Clearly then, the Fades had won; a fact hammered home by John as he led his little troupe of Reborn acolytes into the office of the Mayor, pausing briefly to chomp on an unfortunate council employee who hadn’t had the sense to get out of town. Joe Dempsie continued to impress as John, who, like all the best villains, had believable motivations; as he put it, angrily, “70 years of suffering!” Dempsie managed to convey a real sense of threat and menace without descending into Blofeld-style melodramatics, even when likening his story to that of Lot and the Sodomites.
John was so scary precisely because he didn’t want the problems solved. Possibly mad after his decades long post-mortem ordeal, he’s happier as a flesh eating revenant than he would be to Ascend. And with the last Ascension point closed by Paul, his followers seem to feel the same. But Dr Tremlett made some sense when he pointed out that there were no people left here to eat any more, and they should move on. John, however, was fixated on killing Paul, his motives murky. Was it out of a genuine sense of strategy, knowing that if his Reborns were to thrive, he had to remove the only one who could stop them? That’s what he told them, but the way he clasped the now-gone Natalie’s necklace suggested that there was more than a hint of revenge there, and those out for revenge rarely think clearly.
That such an outlandish villain could have such an understandable, even sympathetic set of motivations is a mark of how well Thorne writes characters. But John wasn’t the only villain this week. Building on the hints of single-minded fanaticism that had been present throughout the series, Neil emerged as just as dangerous a threat, leaving Paul caught between two polar opposites of psychosis. Johnny Harris has been excellent as Neil from the beginning, never a sympathetic mentor figure in the Obi-Wan Kenobi mould; so when he dragged Jay out at gunpoint to coerce Paul into going along with his plan, it was a very convincing threat.
And I have to say, given how well the character had been built up, it was perfectly believable that he did, ultimately, shoot her. The only problem, if it can be said to be that, was that Neil’s fanaticism had been built up so well that it almost seemed a foregone conclusion, but that in no way lessened the shock. Clearly, this was a story that was taking no prisoners, and any of the characters who’d been so lovingly and likeably drawn was fair game.
I was a little surprised that Paul, having failed to heal her (this limit on his power felt necessary to inject the sort of jeopardy often missing from superhero stories), would so quiescently follow Neil, capitulating to his plan to kill John. But really, what choice did Paul have? Jay was gone, but Neil still had his mum, his sister and his best friend salted away in undisclosed locations. With the threat that real, obviously Paul would have no choice.
The scene of all three confronting each other amid gunfire in the Mayor’s office was directed with a masterful tension, as they taunted, cajoled and exposed each other’s weaknesses. John’s contemptuous assessment of Neil as an orphan who nobody liked echoed Neil’s earlier, revealing, exchange with Mac when he confessed that, as an orphan with no friends who saw dead people, he’d once thought he was Jesus Christ – probably the ultimate sign of monomania. But John came off no better, rejecting Paul’s attempts to help him. So I couldn’t help letting out the first of several “Yay!”s this episode as Paul, tiring of both of them, stood up and threatened to blast them both with his hand rays before dashing off to fix the real Ascension point – the disused shopping centre where he’d first found Neil, John and Sarah.
Sarah too was getting some closure. Having been unable to resist trying to kill Mark while having sex with him, she’d fled to threaten John – as much as she could – before having a soul-baring tussle with Alice, the last of the Angelics. As Alice told her the unpalatable truth that, as an Angelic, she just didn’t do well enough, it gave her a necessary resolve. Paul had told her that the visions of the future could be changed; and she had to do that before Paul’s watch reached the fateful time of 4.20, at which John would stab him to death.
Mac, meanwhile, had been locked into a shipping container with Anna, as they resolved the love/hate relationship built up over the series. Well, sort of resolved it, anyway. Locked in a container surrounded by hungry Fades trying to smash their way in is an odd situation in which to confess your undying love, but Mac managed it. In an episode full of performances turned up to 11, Daniel Kaluuya still managed to steal every scene he was in, even outdoing the excellent Lily Loveless as Anna. Nevertheless, Anna too continued her journey towards being sympathetic as she started to thaw towards Mac – though perhaps not as much as he believed!
Of course, that scene wouldn’t have worked so well if Paul and Anna’s mum had been locked in there with them. If I have a real criticism of this conclusion, it’s that both she and Sarah’s husband Mark didn’t really get a resolution to their storylines. Neither, really, did Mac’s dad, though there was at least some kind of circular conclusion as he ended up rescuing Paul’s mum from where she was tied up in her house. Mark, meanwhile, just got the hell out of town with Vicky, his recent on-off shag.
As with all the characters, these had been well-drawn enough that I’d hoped for their storylines to end with something more conclusive than just tailing off or leaving. But I can perhaps excuse Jack Thorne in the sense that these characters were necessary for the more important one to play off, and he’s a good enough writer that even if secondary, they came off as fully rounded personalities. Perhaps if there’s a second series we can see more of what happened to them…
And a second series there may well be, if the end of this is anything to judge by – though I’m not sure that’s such a good idea. It all climaxed with a heartstopping confrontation between Paul and John in the disused underground shopping centre where it all began, and we realised that Paul’s visions of an ashy apocalypse were premonitions of this event; as he reopened the howling beam of Ascension from beneath the fountain, ash rained down all over the place.As foreseen, John showed up to stop him, and a really rather brutal fight ensued.
One of the things I’ve always liked about teenage fantasy fiction books – unlike their childrens’ TV equivalents – is that the books don’t shy away from putting the heroes through the physical wringer. We got that here in spades as Paul was shot, and beaten, and had his hand broken by John with a wince-makingly believable ‘crack’ sound. But just as it looked like the premonition was all coming true, Sarah popped up to redeem herself, by interposing herself between John’s fatal shard of broken glass and Paul. At which point, Paul, already rather badly injured, surprisingly threw himself off the high balcony they were now on.
And here I couldn’t resist another “Yay!” as Paul’s wings extended and he flew. A true Angelic, with emphasis on the ‘Angel’, he hovered above the Ascension point, blasting power into it until it reopened fully, at which point all the Reborn Fades disintegrated into a shower of light, then formed into birds and flew off. (A word about the birds, incidentally – I think this is inspired by Stephen King’s The Dark Half, where, as in many cultures, birds are characterised as psychopomps, their duty to escort recently deceased souls to the afterlife.)
So Mac and Anna were saved as Dr Tremlett and the other Reborns melted away, while fittingly, John’s much-delayed Ascension actually seemed really painful. But in the end he went too, and the shot faded out on Paul’s watch, showing that fateful time of 4.20. Was he dead? It seemed not, as Anna and Mac found him bloodied and crying sitting on a shopping trolley. But as Neil cowered in the doorway of the Angelic HQ, muttering that, “you don’t mess with Ascension”, the grey skies turned red. Clearly it’s not all over, and it’s far from clear that the Paul we saw was properly alive, given the injuries he’d suffered.
As I said, I’m not sure this is a good idea. This has been a compelling, enjoyable story, but the ‘cliffhanger’ ending felt a little tacked on, as though somebody at BBC3 had had a premonition that the show would be a great success and asked Jack Thorne if a second series was possible. While I appreciate that viewers will always want more of something they enjoyed, I thought that the show had had a proper ending and probably should have been left to stand alone as a great story. The classic children’s fantasy TV that this often reminded me of tended to do just that; I don’t recall TV execs clamouring for a second series of Children of the Stones or The Changes.
Of course, that’s all just theorising, and Thorne may have always had a continuation planned. If and when it happens, I hope it can live up to this story, which has been one of the best bits of fantasy TV in ages. A lot of people said it started slow, with too much of the Skins-influenced bits of Paul’s ordinary life, but I actually thought these were essential in building the characters and the environment they inhabited. It was also an obvious tribute to the comics that must have influenced Thorne; the superhero leading a double life as an average everyman like Clark Kent or Peter Parker. I thought the two strands were deftly interwoven throughout, cleverly combining into one big supernatural thriller by the final two episodes.
The dialogue and the cast were superb throughout, too. Iain de Caestecker as Paul perhaps suffered a little from being in the shadow of the more voluble Daniel Kaluuya as Mac, but he had the sort of intense introversion you see in the better superheroes; notably Michael Keaton’s Batman. Johnny Harris is fast becoming a guarantee of gritty, scary hard men who nonetheless have tragic vulnerabilities. I’m continually impressed with Lily Loveless, who also put in a great turn as a homeless girl in The Sarah Jane Adventures, transmitted while The Fades was halfway through. And how good was it to see Daniela Nardini again?
I’ve loved this show all the way through, and have to congratulate Jack Thorne on creating such a complex and imaginative mythology from scratch. As I say, I do rather wish it had been left to stand alone as one story. But equally, if the second series can live up to this one, I may change that opinion.