Illyria’s a hard character to write about, given the relatively short time we’ve had to get to know her. It’s tempting to try to chart some continuity between her and Fred and while I don’t deny that this might be there, it isn’t really how I understand the character. It’s equally tempting to simply slot her into Angel’s redemption paradigm; she’s a being who once did incalculable evil and, after some mystical intervention, doesn’t anymore. But Illyria’s crimes don’t seem to weigh on her in the slightest and there’s no design for vengeance or punishment in her fall; it’s simply a consequence of her existing in this place and time. Why then, does she fight for the good guys? There are multiple possible explanations (see Fred continuity) but, for me, Illyria speaks to the transformative (rather than moral) aspect of redemption; Illyria must become something other than what she was not because it’s “right” but because it’s the only way to live in this world. That’s certainly present in the rest of the characters’ quests for redemption but, for Illyria, it’s the only reason. Her motives aren’t moral, they’re a desperate search for agency.
From the perspective of us mortals, Illyria’s a super being; a thoroughly arrogant super being with zero sympathy for human frailty and an inclination for conquest. Even after being crammed into a fragile shell, having the greater part of her power zapped away, and getting slapped around by Hamilton, it’s still difficult to see her as vulnerable. But that’s not how she sees things. From Illyria’s perspective, she’s a cripple. No, that doesn’t really cover it. She’s a crippled infant caged in a burning building. That’s about as helpless an image as I can conjure at the moment and it still can’t come close to lost omnipotence. Illyria complains incessantly about how much she’s lost, but we can really only appreciate it on an intellectual level. By any measure she might use, there’s no way she can have any meaningful impact on the world but, unlike Angel, Illyria can’t draw strength from the realization that nothing we do matters; she’s coming from a place and time where what she did was all that mattered, literally, and this sets the bar for agency well beyond the small victories Angel & co. are typically forced to accept.
That would seem to be the perfect argument for not signing up with the heroes. Such insignificance is the stuff apocalyptic super villainy is made of but, while they certainly teased the possibility that she might go that way, it was never a real option for reasons beyond narrative convenience. Much as Illyria might despise the world, she’s smart enough to know that destroying it wouldn’t add any meaning to her existence, nor would allying with or trying to supplant the Senior Partners. No amount of power she might gain could be significant in comparison to what she once held, and so power must cease to be her metric.
It’s odd to see Ms. “adaptation is compromise” as struggling to change, and yet that’s exactly what she’s done since discovering her army was dust. For her part, her relationship with Wesley is founded on learning to live in this world, and the mere acknowledgment that she has something to learn is an astonishing compromise for the “god king of the primordium.” Primarily, that learning seems focused on building relationships with those around her. Wes is the most obvious case, but she also finds herself growing closer to the other “vermin” as well; she wishes to keep Spike as a pet, tries to instruct Angel in the true nature of power, and finds Gunn is not unpleasant to her eyes. She even makes an explicit appeal to explore human relations when she first assumes Fred’s form. Whatever she might say, these aren’t the acts of a being looking to reclaim what she had.
Relationships are the cornerstone of Angel’s quest for redemption. It’s his connections to the world that keeps him from sliding back into darkness. That’s not the risk of for Illyria as her former self is beyond her reach, but the connection to others is the key to her moving forward. Much as she might be motivated by revenge in the final fight, she’s also operating as part of the team, directing her anger against her assigned targets rather than against the one that hurt her. And then it’s off to check on Wesley rather than wreak more carnage.
I’ve already talked extensively about the Wes/Fred/Illyria farewell so, skipping over that, let’s look at the fallout. Wesley’s death leaves Illyria shaken far more than any experiment in human behavior could account for. As she puts it, “I grieve for him. I cannot seem to control it… I wish to do more violence.” There’s still plenty of the old Illyria here in the desire to shred her enemies, but there’s also an acknowledgement that that she’s being driven by something beyond her control. For the all-powerful God-King this must be almost as humiliating as Hamilton’s boot heel, but there’s no reservation in the admission. In her final moments, Illyria’s stopped trying to assert her dominance over the world around her and accepted the two-ways street we mortals need to contend with.
I struggled with this one and it certainly shows. The truth is that I didn’t really know what to say about Illyria; lots of ideas but no real coherent post. I could keep struggling to improve it, but it’s already taken enough time. I know exactly what I want to say about Angel, so the next post should be a lot quicker.
It’s hard to slot Illyria into the whole “elements of the series” theme. She certainly gives us the romantic side in her farewell to Wes; and that’s eyeballs deep tragic-Whedon-style romance for anyone keeping score.
I will shred my adversaries. Pull their eyes out just enough to turn them towards their mewing, mutilated faces.
You’re a very inspirational person.
I just rewatched the episode in preparation for my Angel write up and that exploding Vale-skull really is lousy. Illyria putting her fist through Lorne’s chest in “Time Bomb” was equally grisly and could’ve borne a repeat here.
I had to have been tough to come up with worthwhile opponents for everyone’s final fight, but Illyria certainly got stuck with the worst of lot. Why send your big gun against the second-stringers?