Thursday, July 9, 2009

Best Teacher in the World

Tragedy has struck! My cable system apparently lost their feed to TNT for a while yesterday morning, and I was unable to record Angel Season 5's "A Hole in the World" and the first half or so of "Shells".

(I previously wrote about "A Hole in the World" here.)

I've been cheated out of a good cry during Fred and Wesley's final moments together, so I'll have to wait until Wesley Wyndam-Pryce dies in "Not Fade Away" before I can have my breakdown. The only consolation is that I wanted to start focusing on Wesley's strange but wonderful relationship with Illyria, and the part of "Shells" I was able to watch contains some truly profound dialogue between the two characters. I really wanted to see everything as I'm writing up these blog posts, but I'll have to rely on my memory for certain parts.

Rather predictably, Wesley tried to kill Illyria almost immediately after she took over Fred's body. In fact, he (and others) tried to kill her several times in the beginning of her story arc. What I found fascinating is that, although I wouldn't exactly say Illyria simply shook off all of those attempts on her life, it didn't seem to faze her that much either. I'm theorizing that death, destruction and cruelty were integral parts of her everyday demon lives, so it might not have seemed that strange to find out that people wanted to see her dead.

In their very first encounter, Wes and Illyria let each other know very quickly how disgusting they found each other. In this instance, it didn't faze Illyria at all that Wesley tried to kill her. A few moments later she became angry and threw him across the room, but it was almost like a child's blow-up for her. Presumably, she got over her anger quite quickly.

Profound things were happening for both Wesley and Illyria from they moment they first met, setting the tone for their relationship for the duration of the series. Obviously for Wes, he had to deal with an alien presence inhabiting the "shell" of the love of his life. Although Fred was gone in spirit, her physical presence had to set his emotions churning around inside him at almost unimaginably gutwrenching speeds.

For Illyria, Wesley had imprinted himself on her, literally since he was the first person she saw after her "birth". Just think of Konrad Lorenz who studied the imprinting process on the baby geese he was raising. Illyria also had to contend with all of those "electrical spasms" and "memories" funneling into her "function system", which presumably included some of Fred's emotional responses.

The great challenge for me while I watch the rest of the series is to try to see if a small part of Fred's soul was actually living on inside Illyria, or if Illyria was wrestling with the emotions she was feeling for the first time courtesy of the fact she was inhabiting a human host. In other words, were the emotions she was experiencing hers or Fred's? I prefer to think that Illyria was struggling with her very own newfound emotions, because the alternative is just too distressing for me. Although I have this very strong built-in bias, I'll try to keep an open mind toward other possibilities.

This will be an almost overwhelming task, but I'll also be struggling with the concepts of "soul" and whether a "partial soul" can ever really exist.

Throughout Wesley's interactions with Illyria, Wesley was brutally honest, which Illyria seemed to appreciate. Illyria herself was honest, but then we'd expect that from a demon. Demons weren't raised in a world of social niceties and little white lies. Wesley, with his experience and training, understood that, and fully admitted that he hated her and wanted to kill her.

Predictably, everyone tried to kill Illyria it seems. I was struck with how she had ample opportunity to kill just about everyone around her, but she chose not to. Perhaps you don't kill things that you don't perceive as being real threats?

When Illyria and Knox arrived at the temple, and when everyone tried to kill her again, I was impressed with how Wesley immediately jumped through the time portal behind her. When you're stricken with grief and have nothing to lose, it makes it all that much easier to stand up to a powerful ancient demon.

Illyria was convinced that she would be able to raise her army, but her entire world came crashing to an end when she found her temple in ruins. Her army had abandoned her long ago. Illyria, instead of going all psycho and destroying Wesley and everyone else she could lay her hands on, sank to her knees instead. (Fred's gentle influence?). That look she gave Wesley when he put the gun to her head was heartbreaking, with it's mixture of pain, sadness, bewilderment, and confusion. Luckily for Illyria, she was able to escape back through the time portal before Wesley had a chance to kill her.

In the next scene, Angel, Spike and Wesley were discussing their little problem about Illyria. Angel didn't come right out and say it, but he implied that they would need to regroup and then try to kill Illyria again. Wes seemed to agree with Angel's plan, but his heart didn't seem to be fully into it. I'm not sure if it was because he wanted to keep Illyria alive or if he was too overcome with grief to be interested in much of anything else.

Wes then started to lovingly pack up Fred's things in her lab office. His face softened considerably as he handled her things, and you could see the tension start to drain away from him. Unfortunately for him, Illyria chose that moment to walk into the office. When Wesley angrily asked her why she was there, it occurred to me that perhaps she had been on her own for a bit after they all left the temple. The previous scene with Angel, Spike and Wesley was about the difficulties in hunting her down as well as killing her.

What then unfolded was probably one of the most moving scenes I'd ever seen in my life. Amy Acker was beautifully vulnerable as the once-mighty demon forced to live within her new limitations. Alexis Denisof put in a powerful performance as a man literally coming face-to-face with his grief, struggling to stay in control. The scene was quite soft and languid, with long pauses in between the phrasings of the dialogue. Wesley kept a steady gaze on Illyria almost the entire time, somewhat posturing for control, but perhaps in an attempt to keep back his tears as he forced himself to focus on Illyria.

Illyria stated that she was uncertain why she came back, but acknowledged that it was an important place for the "shell". Wesley again angrily told her that the "shell" had a name. Illyria was busily trying to digest a few difficult concepts at once; first, that lowly humans seemed to find it very important to have "names"; and second, those lowly humans with "names" suffer from enormous grief when another human dies.

Illyria then surprised Wesley, and perhaps gave him a little hope, when she informed him that, although Fred couldn't return to him, "...there are fragments. When her brain collapsed, electrical spasms channeled into my function system... memories." She then innocently, like it was a little child's trick, played out one of Fred's last moments of her life, and was again bewildered at Wesley's angry reaction.

He told Illyria to leave, but she told him quite honestly she had no place to go and implied she could not survive on her own. Perhaps Fred's influence was keeping her with Wesley, but I really think Illyria wanted to stay with him as well. As dysfunctional as their relationship was, theirs was the only relationship Illyria had. I think she could sense his bravery, and appreciated his honesty and gentle strength. Wesley again wished her dead, and "returned to ash".

At that point, Illyria astonished me with her eminent practicality. She wasn't going to go on a rampage and start destroying the world. She accepted her fate of being locked in human form, and wanted to learn to function within that world. At that point, I was reminded of a book that I read about the Romanov family after the Russian Revolution. The suddenly-impoverished grand dukes and princes had a very difficult time adapting to civilian life, whereas the grand duchesses and princesses shook off all of their pride and set about supporting themselves and their families. One grand duchess even got a job working in a jewelry counter in a New York department store!

Illyria then voiced her confidence that Wesley would be able to teach her. Significantly, she ended her statement by calling him by name, "Wesley". She was already beginning to learn the importance of names, and I think Wesley appreciated the effort. It must have crushed Wes to hear that she wanted to stay with him, forcing him to continuously acknowledge his grief, but he didn't reject her offer out of hand. He warned her that she'd need to be willing to change her ways and to not kill anyone.

Illyria immediately confronted Wesley with the fact that he killed Knox. (I'm not sure what bothered her more, the fact that he killed Knox, or that he defied his "leader" Angel.) Wes immediately admitted that he killed Knox because Knox had killed the woman that he loved. Illyria, already committed to being the pupil, thought perhaps that the killing of Knox was justified? Wesley, in what I thought was a pivotal (and extremely moving) piece of dialogue, informed her,

WESLEY: No. It wasn't just. I'm probably the last man in the world to teach you what's right.

ILLYRIA: But you will. If I abide, you will help me.

WESLEY: (softly) Yes.

ILLYRIA: Because I look like her?

WESLEY: (whispers) Yes.

Wesley was wrong. He was actually the best man in the world to teach Illyria what was right, and Illyria sensed it. Besides the fact that he was brilliant and knew a lot about her ancient world, Wesley also knew that there were no easy answers. His life, once again, was turned upside down and he had to struggle to find his way through his own world. Illyria had her own struggles getting through life, and Wesley could empathize with her and validate her feelings of confusion. She didn't need someone who had all of the easy answers. Illyria was extremely intelligent and needed someone who could struggle along with her as she asked all of those difficult answers.

Wesley acknowledged he was helping Illyria because she looked like Fred. What a terrible burden to have lost someone yet be constantly faced with a genuine reminder of who that loved one used to be. Yet, I'm convinced his natural Wesley the Watcher instinct kicked in, where he sensed the opportunity of a lifetime to be able to engage in his innate need to act as guardian, teacher, protector and nurturer to a woman who desperately needed his help.

I've mentioned before that acting as the Watcher seemed to give Wesley some sort of innocent, yet erotic thrill. Indeed, like with Faith in Season 4, all of his moments with Illyria had strong erotic undercurrents. The eroticism would not have manifested itself if Wesley was confronted with a male demon trying to make its way in the world. You can certainly say something's going on in a relationship when the male brings out the softness in a woman, and the woman brings out both the strength and protective instinct in the male.

Idle Thoughts. Once again, just before he stabbed Charles, Wesley showed that a person really ought to run out of the room the moment he lowers his voice and starts to act sympathetic.

I almost can't do justice to the topic of Angel's great leadership abilities. Although he told Wesley in no uncertain terms that stabbing Charles was not the right thing to do, he was able to calm Wes down and get him to focus on the problem at hand. Giving in to his grief and going all psycho on Angel was not an option. I thought it was cute how Angel forgave Wesley for shooting Knox right in the middle of his inspirational speech about how he would fight to the death to protect a human being.

I never liked Knox. Like Eve, I was never sure if I was supposed to find his idiosyncrasies endearing or just irritating.

Harmony really shined in this episode, by feeling real grief over the loss of Fred, and for her tough love with Charles. I loved how at the end of her scene with Charles, she rubbed his shoulders, comforting him even though his actions led to Fred's death. For being an evil vampire, she really did have a lot of soulful qualities.

Spike once again foreshadowed the final fight when he told Angel he sensed the big battle brewing. Spike, who along with Cordelia, knew that dealing with Wolfram & Hart would lead to no good, correctly stated that Fred was the first casualty in the battle. Her death provided a strong reality check. Although Spike and Angel pretended they didn't particularly like each other, their real friendship became more apparent in every episode. I always appreciated seeing Spike's senses of honor and duty come out to the forefront, and I was happy to see him pass up Europe in favor of staying in Los Angeles for the final fight.

When Illyria and Wesley were gazing down at her sarcophagus from the lab's upper level, I couldn't help but make comparisons to a child and her crib. The child might feel totally imprisoned by her crib, but will feel quite reluctant to see the crib leave her room after graduating to the big girl's bed.

I appreciated seeing Illyria in the closing montage where everyone else was mourning the loss of Fred. It was great that the producers were acknowleding Illyria's own sense of loss and bewilderment as she tried to make her way in a world where no one seemed to care about her. She could sense that it would be next to impossible to fill Fred's shoes, and she would face nothing but resentment from people for a long time to come.

It was wonderful to see the producers give Amy Acker such a wonderful opportunity to expand her acting range. She and Alexis Denisof had such a strong emotional chemistry as Illyria and Wesley.

I finally allowed myself a respectable cry during the flashback moments when Fred kissed her mother goodbye and jumped into her car to start her new life in California. Fred hardly even looked back in her eagerness to leave. Her enthusiasm was extremely poignant, as she seemed to be looking forward to a life filled with a lot of wonderfully exciting opportunities. I even noticed how quickly her car picked up speed as she raced away from her childhood home. It's amazing how Fred had to die before I could fully appreciate her character.

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