“There is nothing that I want” was nearly the title of this post. An understated summation of the bleakest of mindsets, delivered with complete conviction and full of bitterness that falls just short of self-pity; it’s the perfect Wesley line. Except that it’s not. Much as I think of latter-season Wes as an uncompromising badass with a penchant for self-destruction, that’s not how he makes his exit. Deathbed repentance would seem to be the ultimate cheat for a character so committed to being miserable, but Wesley and Fred’s farewell capitalizes on the shows themes of redemption and forgiveness and delivers an emotional closure that feels entirely earned.
Unlike the rest of the crew, Wes doesn’t spend his last day trying to find himself, a fact that’s both surprising and appropriate for the character that may be the most lost. While everyone has had their sense of self challenged to some extent this season, Wesley’s the only one who seems incapable of turning this loss around. Spike keeps fighting the good fight even if it’s not his destiny; Gunn will continue to use his legal acumen for good even if came from an evil place; and Angel will continue to defy the Senior Partners even if he can’t do so as a hero. There is no “even if” for Wesley. With Fred dead, he aspires to nothing.
The only thing that’s seemed to motivate Wes since Winifred’s death is his obsession over her killer and it’s not even the sort of vengeance-driven obsession that would at least let him move forward. “Forward” doesn’t necessarily mean anywhere good where vengeance is concerned, but any movement would be better than the paralyzed agony that Wes has built for himself. Obsession over Illyria is like staring at pictures of a lost loved one only with a lot more knife twisting. Illyria’s not just an image of Fred; she’s a warped combination of Fred and Fred’s killer, a perversion of everything Wes loved and living reminder of what he’s lost. And he doesn’t just spend all his time with her, he studies her, teaches her, tries to understand her, and even empathizes with her. As twisted obsessions go, this one’s hard to top.
The dark, self-destructive place that Wesley’s in should be familiar to the audience, it’s season 3/4 Wes on steroids. Back then he was merely convinced of his own damnation, a belief that had him forsaking his friends, plotting to murder professors, and rolling in the dirt with Lilah. But even from this dark place he continued to fight for what’s right, channeling all the spite and bitterness towards helping people even as he refused to help himself. He doesn’t have that this time around. Unable to see past Illyria, Wesley can’t put his energies into anything else. His pain only motivates him toward more pain.
Illyria assuming Fred’s shape seemed to snap Wes out of this spiral, finally giving him more suffering than he could stand. He distances himself from her, starts to notice what’s going on with his friends, evens tries to help people. But this doesn’t exactly last long, does it? Wesley’s like an addict after a bad trip; “never again” only lasts a few days and then he’s rushing to Illyria’s side after she’s hurt. Is it any wonder he chooses to spend his “last day” day treating Illyria’s wounds? For him, this counts as finding himself, bringing us to the succinct summation of who he is now:
[why] Don’t I go off and have one last perfect day? Smell the flowers, of sky dive, or have a go with Mistress Spanks-A-Lot, or whatever the hell one is supposed to do in this situation […] There is no sunset or painting or finely-aged scotch that’s going to sum up my life and make tonight any… There is nothing that I want.
Much as Wes denied wanting anything to do with his old friends at the outset of season four, his protests here are just a mask for how deeply hurt he is. The difference is that there’s no one for him to reconnect with, “… Fred is gone, and to pretend anything else would be lie.” It’s not only Illyria assuming Fred’s shape that Wesley objects to, it’s “pretending” that anything in this world might make him happy. He wants what he can never have and so he must deny the possibility of wanting anything he could have, to do so would make her death something other than all-consuming and he’s not capable of that. And so he makes time with his lover’s twisted doppelganger, justifying self-torment in the name of truth. This last day, such a perfect encapsulation of the character, ends with a knife twisting in his guts. Almost.
By the standards Wes has been living by for years, he completely pussed out in the end; choosing to accept a comforting lie rather than confront harsh truths. He should’ve followed up the incredible badassery of sending Vale flying across the room with some stoicism and a grim quip. Thank god he didn’t. There’s certainly a lot of wish fulfillment in getting to see Wes and Fred together one last time, but this is more than a mere indulgence for the audience. The emotions in their goodbye are real and, more importantly, earned, making our response to it equally real.
What makes this something other than a literal death-bed swerve, a last minute cheat to spare us all a 100% tragic ending for Wesley? I think that the answer lies in his words to Illyria back in episode (?):
There’s hope… for some. There’s hope that you might find something worthy… that your life will lead you to some joy… that, after everything… you can still be surprised.
It was unclear whether or not Wesley included himself among those who could hope and the episode would seem to confirm that he doesn’t; hope is dependent on desire and not on truth. But then he accepts a lie. Not only is Wesley accepting falsehood as comfort, he’s doing so from his twisted obsession, a being whose sole purpose (for him) has been to serve as a reminder of everything he’s lost. In allowing Illyia to be kind to him they are both transformed. He becomes something other than the bitter, broken man with a chip on his shoulder and she becomes something other than the broken god, former destroyer of worlds, lately fragile shell. Neither one of them have time to explore what they now are, but that doesn’t make it any less real. They’ve both opened themselves up to the possibility of something other than pain and loss and, in this, the lie has become something real.
Well, that’s another absurd gap between reviews. Thanks again for everyone’s patience.
As you may have gathered from this and other write-ups, Wes is indisputably my favourite Angel character. His arc from Buffy s3/Angel s1 to here is extreme, but it still feels organic. It’s a testament to the talents of both Denisof and the writer’s room that they were able to pull this off.
As badass moments go, it’s pretty hard too top Wesley’s last shot at Vale. Too bad they had to follow it up with the lackluster skull-punch. It was a good idea but, with the limits of TV FX, should’ve likely been traded for something less flashy.
In the “elements of the series” vein, this episode certainly capitalized on its strength with romantic relationships specifically and character relationships in the general. Wes/Fred was the slowest of slow burns and Wes/Illyria did an awful lot in a short amount of time. The emotional punch here hinges on how invested we are in both relationships.
Further to the above, it also puts a pin the in the “redemption through connection” theme. The absence of connection was certainly a big part of the teams fall this season and it’s nice to its positive power reaffirmed here.
On the Buffy comparison side, THIS is how you do character death. Need I say more?
Next week (I hope), the Crippled God.