Thursday, July 16, 2009

Illyria's Greatest Gift

I had a really tough time typing this blog post. This usually happens when I'm so profoundly moved by something, anything I write usually comes out looking pretty lame in comparison. What really struck me on Sunday night as I watched the Angel series finale, "Not Fade Away", was Illyria's all-consuming love for Wesley. When I wrote about this episode before in "Tell Me Lies," I was struggling with the concept of how much we were seeing were Illyria's genuine emotions and how much she was being influenced by Fred's memories. Now I realize that, although Fred's memories undoubtedly had some influence, those were still Illyria's genuine emotions and tears we were seeing on our TV screens.

(If you're interested, I'd encourage you to read "Tell Me Lies" referenced above and another one of my posts, "Let's Go to Work!", since they cover some key areas that I won't be covering in this post.)

I found some validation for my new-found interpretation in Roz Kaveney's excellent Slayage article, "A Sense of the Ending: Schrodinger's Angel". According to Kaveney,
In an interview at the Hyperion convention, Amy Acker said that Joss Whedon redirected the scene having realized that it was not about Wesley's love for Illyria or Fred, but about Illyria's love for Wesley.
Indeed, Illyria's love for Wesley Wyndam-Pryce shined through not only during his death scene, but throughout the entire episode as she was constantly casting him longing glances and otherwise staying close to his side. Again, I could sense this aspect the first time I viewed the episode, but for whatever reason, it didn't make much of an impact on me, probably because I was focusing more on Wesley.

At the very beginning of "Not Fade Away", the audience knew that Illyria was bleeding and lying on the floor in Spike's apartment after Hamilton grabbed Drogyn and dragged him away to be killed by Angel at the Circle of the Black Thorn initiation ceremony. When Angel found out that Illyria had been with Drogyn, he alerted the rest of the crew that she was in danger.

(To back up a bit, this was Angel's first inkling that Illyria would be willing to work on their side in the final showdown with the Senior Partners.) Spike, Wesley, Gunn and Lorne found Illyria face down on the floor when they arrived at Spike's apartment. Wes, who had been studiously ignoring Illyria prior to that time, immediately dropped his past hurt and rushed over to her side to take care of her.

When Wesley was ignoring Illyria in the previous episode, "Power Play", I couldn't help but think that the fact that he might have been too broken up to face her wasn't the whole story. I also felt that his Wesley the Watcher persona was kicking in, and he was ignoring her to Prove a Point, to make sure that she was completely getting the message that it really hurt him when she morphed into "the Burkle persona". There was a lot of parent/child dynamics at play whenever Wesley went into his full Watcher mode. It was like he understood that children need to learn their lessons through explanations, demonstrations and participation. The lesson came to a grinding halt as soon as he found Illyria barely conscious on the floor at Spike's apartment.

When the gang rushed in to save Illyria, Spike led the charge, which was logical since it was his apartment. However, instead of rushing immediately over to Illyria to check on her, he carefully ran over to her other side (as did Charles Gunn), clearing the way for Wesley to take the lead in providing her care and comfort. Illyria was clearly Wesley's girl in everyone's minds.

When Wesley bent down, gently rolled her over and lifted her to more of an upright position, the camera was on Illyria's face most of the time as her eyes fluttered open and focused on Wesley. What a sight that must have been for her to see! I also noticed that Wesley was quite careful as he cradled her in his arms. He didn't lean Illyria into his shoulder as one would expect a lover to be held. Instead, as he crouched down, he kept her at arm's length as much as possible.

As Wesley made it quite clear several times, he didn't love Illyria as a romantic partner, but all his actions supported the notion that he cared enough about her to want to protect and cherish her. He grew to respect Illyria for being a person in her own right, and warmed into his role as being her guide as she learned to adapt to a totally foreign environment. She was no longer Illyria the Powerful, but Illyria the confused young (so to speak) woman, not wholly unlike Fred as she learned to adapt to her home planet after surviving five hellish years in Pylea.

This scene where Wesley and Illyria spent their final afternoon together was particularly poignant for me since it became apparent a little later on in the episode that, although Wesley and Illyria were presumably alone for several hours and had plenty to talk about, they apparently did not reach any particular understanding about their situation. I had blogged before about how incredibly erotic I thought the scene was, as Wesley gently applied the medicated bandages to Illyria's neck. Upon viewing it on Sunday night, I noticed that the focus was mostly on Illyria's unmistakenly ecstatic reactions to Wesley's touch. Wesley, although gentle and caring, was, unfortunately for Illyria, as cryptic as ever. He offered perhaps little glimpses of loving warmth to her, but was careful to keep as many traces as he could under wraps. In this instance, he was figuratively keeping her at arm's length in what was perhaps an attempt to not raise her hopes or lead her on by allowing her to think he had more feelings for her than he actually did.

I'm not up on the different types of love as chronicled by ancient and medieval philosophers and storytellers. But I do know there are many different types of love in the world that just do not seem to be accepted in popular Western culture. We're allowed to love our spouses, mates, children, other family members, pets and our countries, but very little else. For example, using the term "love" in the context of same-sex friends is strictly verboten. I'll say that Wesley deeply loved Illyria in his own way, but it was not a romantic type of love. I've gone on ad nauseum about Wesley the Watcher and tried to explain in various ways his deep-seated need to cherish and nurture women. Illyria offered herself as potentially his most satisfying opportunity to indulge in his Watcher instincts. However, she had the misfortune of falling in love with him. Their relationship was another one of those tragic instances where, like with Wesley and Lilah, two people are not in the same place at the same time within the relationship.

I also couldn't help but notice that early in the scene, while Illyria was sitting on the edge of the bed while Wesley prepared the bandages, she looked and had the composure of a trusting little girl waiting for a parent to make things better for her. This helped reinforce the unmistakeable element of Wesley also acting as a father-figure for Illyria.

Another sad thing about this scene was that, although Wesley fully knew the gravity of the situation, he refused to treat that afternoon as being part of his last day on earth. He had the perfect opportunity to tell someone who loved him about all of his special little secrets and insights he'd held dear throughout his life. If Wesley could not allow himself to be physically intimate with Illyria, he could have chosen to be emotionally intimate, which probably would have given her immense satisfaction. One has to remember that, as powerful as Illyria was, it could have equally been her last day on earth as well!

Was Wesley being selfish in denying Illyria a chance to spend her potentially final moments with him the way that she wanted? Intimacy is a two-way street. Maybe Illyria had some final thoughts she wanted to share, but it's hard to open up when you feel that the other person will not open up in return.

In certain ways, I can't fault Wesley for his attitude. One thing I have to keep reminding myself is that when people go through feelings of abandonment, like when you suffer through a breakup or a loss of a loved one, stress hormones are released in the body that negatively affect all sorts of physiological functions. You literally hurt at these times, and that's why you hear people suffering through grief saying "I can't go through with" whatever needs to be done. Wesley was going through all sorts of physical and emotional pain with the loss of Fred, and the stress of seeing Illyria transform herself into Fred, coupled with fully facing the fact that it could have been his last day on earth, was probably too much for him to bear.

Illyria could not understand why Wesley would turn down the most profound gift she could offer him, but he didn't seem to take the opportunity to fully explain his feelings either. In their next scene together, where Angel was handing out the assignments to everyone at Spike's apartment, Illyria stood by Wesley's side and gazed lovingly at him as Angel told him of his plan to have Wesley take out Cyvus Vail. As everyone was leaving the apartment, Illyria pointedly selected Charles to tell him (with a bit of malice in her voice) not to die, since he was "not unpleasant" to her eyes. Illyria was looking toward Wesley as she said that to Charles, which made it an obvious reference to Wesley's refusal to take up her offer to change into Fred. (And don't think I'm missing the obvious, that Illyria knew from Fred's past memories that Fred and Charles had been a couple at one time.) That was when I realized that Wes and Illyria had unfortunately squandered an opportunity during their last hours together to leave with some sort of mutual understanding.

Illyria held up and waited for Wesley as he gave his final look to Angel, and they walked out together looking like a great couple. Despite some missed opportunities, they were still a team. I also noticed throughout their relationship that Illyria seemed to be tagging along with Wesley, rather than vice versa. Wesley did not often go out of his way to be with Illyria, but by the same token he rarely chased her away.

Now, finally to Wesley's wonderful but heartbreaking death scene. One thing that absolutely made little impression on me on first viewing was when Wesley informed Illyria, who rushed in as he was collapsing, that "..it was good that you came". I was astonished that I had missed the significance of that statement the first time around! He was actually putting aside his thoughts of Fred for a moment and appreciating Illyria! Perhaps I didn't fully understand during my first viewing that Wesley was not known for thanking people or expressing his gratitude for what they were doing for him.

Illyria asked one more time if she could lie to him, and this time, Wesley was ready. I really believe that he was fully aware that it was Illyria pouring out her heart to him as he lay dying, and it really was her tears being shed, and her kisses she was offering. I also think Wes was fully aware of the significance of Illyria's gift, and he accepted her gift with all of his heart and soul. As a Watcher guiding a demon as she adapted to her new world, it must have given Wes a profound sense of satisfaction to see that Illyria had developed a spirit for self-sacrifice at such an early stage of her development.

One way of looking at this situation is that Wesley, in their final afternoon together, was rejecting a simple invitation from Illyria to engage in role-playing. A person can lose himself in make-believe and still be able to tell the difference between a truth and lie. As Wes lay dying, he was finally able to lose all of his inhibitions and tell both Illyria, in person, and Fred, in spirit, "I love you". Illyria, speaking on behalf of herself and Fred, was able to tell him "I love you" in return. Her "My love, oh my love" was one of the most heartbreaking words I'd ever heard on the screen.

Another way to look at their final moment was that for once, their roles were reversed. Illyria was acting as the parent telling a bedtime story, and Wesley was the child in need of comforting. Normally it would have been very difficult for Wesley to give up control in a situation like that.

Much has been written about "the lie" that Illyria told Wesley, that soon he and Fred would be together again. I have to admit that this particular lie has always bothered me. I personally hate it when someone makes a false statement to try to comfort me or calm me down. However, if Wesley was in a state where he could be comforted by a lie, then I'm all for it.

As awful as that moment was for Illyria, I'm glad she used his death to inspire her to kill Cyvus Vail and to continue fighting the big fight. I know she recognized Wesley as being a great teacher, and life would have been unbearable for her if Wesley hadn't taken an interest in her well-being. I'm also glad that she got what she needed from Wesley during their final moments together, which was validation that he accepted her right to exist in our world, and proof that he truly did love and care for her.

Wesley suffered a horrible death, but Illyria's presence made his final moments a lot more bearable. He was a good man, and in a way, Illyria was one of his finest creations as he brought her over, by example, to the side of good. She destroyed the love of his life, but Wesley was able to put aside his grief and feel compassion for a creature who was truly lost and frightened in her new world. We saw all of Wesley's finest qualities in his final days, as he exhibited his courage and bravery, his strong leadership abilities, and his loyalty, intelligence, gentleness, compassion and a sense of idealism that never seemed to truly waiver.

Idle Thoughts. I had written before how touched I was by the long look exchanged by Angel and Wesley in Spike's apartment, as they both seemed to know that would be the last time they saw each other alive. Similarly, I was touched but somewhat saddened by the short duration of the final handshake between Charles and Wesley. The first time I saw the episode I wasn't aware of the deep friendship that the two shared that somehow seemed to survive all of the personal issues they suffered through. I'm glad the two of them had at least a little bit of a final moment together.

I noticed Wesley switched into a turtleneck sweater when he went home to get the medical supplies he needed to take care of Illyria. He was still wearing that turtleneck during his death scene. I developed a theory a few months ago that Wesley seemed to wear turtlenecks whenever he achieved perfect love with Fred.

"Power Play" had a fine example of how Angel's positive influences rubbed off on Wesley when Wesley said, "Angel dedicated his life to helping others, not because he had to, but because it was a path he'd chosen. If he's been swayed from that, influenced... then maybe there's still time. We can bring him back. He'd do the same for any of us, regardless of our actions."

(Final Note: My apologies for any typos. Blogger is currently having all sorts of problems with their spellcheck function.)

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