In the interim of waiting for Person of Interest to return (May 3rd, people, bookmark that date!), I decided to re-watch Angel. It had been a year or so since I had last done so and whenever I re-watch a Whedon project, I know I have a lot to look forward to. Not just because I’m aware of the generally consistently brilliant storylines, but because I always seem to discover something new each time—be it some sneaky foreshadowing or something more personal like a newfound love or hatred for a character.
During this particular re-watch, what really struck me is just how much I love Illyria. Though I was certainly already a member of her fan club, my appreciation for her has grown even stronger, largely because of how confoundedly misunderstood her character is.
It’s easy to denounce Illyria, under the belief that she is accountable for the demise of Fred. I don’t hold Illyria responsible at all and I’ll tell you why: she didn’t choose Fred as her vessel—Knox did. There is no doubt in my mind that if Illyria could have chosen her vessel, she would have selected someone far more imposing. If you were a pure-bred demonic God-King, would you honestly pick a willowy 20-something human to contain you and all of your might? Probably not.
“A Hole in the World” is undoubtedly one of, if not the most harrowing episodes in the Buffyverse to watch. As fans know, it essentially consists of the audience getting to watch Fred slowly die for 40-odd minutes. By no means is it an easy watch and most fans will agree that it came as a shock. Yet, in a way that is perhaps grotesque, it remains my favourite episode in the series because of how terrifically it was executed. If you have the DVDs, I implore you to watch it with the commentary from Joss Whedon, Alexis Denisof, and Amy Acker. Throughout most of it, they’re uncharacteristically quiet and just hearing them share their on-set experiences makes the whole ordeal even sadder. Everyone involved who was working on it was distraught, which tells you just how important and meaningful Fred’s character was (and still is) to many.
Before I get deeply into discussing Illyria, it’s only fair I write about Fred first—you can’t have Illyria as we know her without Fred, nor Fred without Illyria.
Even those who dislike Fred can surely objectively see why she’s such a popular character: she underwent an enormous amount of positive character development, and was a ray of sunshine in oft-gloomy times for Angel Investigations. Rather unfairly, her character is often compared to other Buffyverse fan favourite Willow Rosenberg. This is always one comparison that I struggle with. Only on a base level are they similar with their love of science, intellectualism, and intelligence. Other than that, they couldn’t be more different. From the moment that Fred was introduced, she was a fighter, due to environmental circumstances; as opposed to Willow who, while assisted Buffy, certainly couldn’t be considered much of a fighter in the early seasons. Even as the seasons progressed, Willow generally worked with magick rather than really getting her hands dirty. Fred never had the internal supernatural element and was simply a young physicist whom had been accidentally introduced to the supernatural world, whereas Willow had insisted on helping out Buffy and later on using magick. There’s also the matter of how, no matter how dark things got for Fred, she never went “dark”—her actions in”Supersymmetry” were ultimately for the greater good. I think that she was completely justified in her quest for vengeance and even though she was vexed, she didn’t try and end the world because of her pain. Suffice to say, Fred is anything but a Willow clone, which is an insulting phrase (I have unfortunately heard) to both deeply compelling characters and actresses.
Back to Illyria. In my humble opinion, she is easily one of the more unique characters that the Buffyverse has to offer. The Old Ones were mentioned as far back as Buffy‘s “Welcome to the Hellmouth” yet it was Angel that really fleshed out the concept in the form of Illyria by giving the audience a chance to see one in action for eight terrific episodes; a consummation, as it were. For me, the saddest part of Angel‘s premature cancellation is that we didn’t get to see more Illyria. I have read several times that in season six, Joss Whedon was planning on having Fred return and wrestle for control over her body. While that obviously didn’t come to fruition on screen, it has happened in the Angel and Faith comics, which I must say, are well worth reading.
Illyria’s powers are just one of many brilliant aspects to her character. What we saw on screen doesn’t even begin to skim the surface of what she’s truly capable of and that was awesome enough. Who else could destroy Team Angel in around 16 seconds tops? None of the other Big Bads shown in either series came close to taking out the heroes in such a short amount of time. Lest we forget that was Illyria in a weakened state too! One of the most interesting things I learned about her while reading one of the issues of the Only Human comic mini-series is that absorbing her power kills even extremely powerful demons who are close to Old Ones in the demonic hierarchy. Her true, monstrous form even has the ability to warp time itself, as shown in the comics. In short: don’t screw with Illyria.
Perhaps the main attraction of her character to me is what she represents and how she develops in such a short span of time. When you think about it, Illyria is basically just an alien stuck in a world she doesn’t understand. It almost translates in a child-like manner (something I’m positive is down to Acker’s contributions as an actress) and I have often found myself feeling sorry for her. Yet she isn’t content with simply not understanding the world and giving up, instead, she enlists the help of Wesley—she wants to learn about human life and how she can integrate better. The dynamic between Illyria and Wesley is easily one of my favourite things about the entire series. It’s extremely poetic in the respect that Wesley is willing to help a pure-bred demon just because it is inhabiting the body of the woman he loved. Illyria acknowledges that and wishes to explore the Fred and Wesley dynamic further, even offering to assume the form of Fred for him, but he declines. Later, in one of the most iconic Buffyverse scenes, Wesley agrees to let her lie to him and he dies in the arms of “Fred” with a smile on his face.
Another dynamic which I thoroughly enjoyed watching was that of Illyria and Spike. Spike’s bold quips to her and Illyria’s… unusual ways of showing affection towards him made for some serious comedic material amidst the darkness.
My personal top Illyria moment takes place in “The Girl in Question” where she assumes Fred’s form for the Burkles without any prompting. There’s obviously something not quite right about “Fred” but her parents can’t quite ascertain what. The tension created from this alone is chilling but pales in comparison to the scene where Illyria talks in her usual regally strict tone while in Fred’s form. It’s highly unnerving and something that I would deem unmissable in the series; subtle yet full of lasting impact. It might not be flashy to look at or laden with powerful music, but it’s the mannerisms that Amy conveys that make it so special. In fact, it’s this episode that cemented Amy as my favourite actress of all time and I still consider it one of the top moments in her acting career.
To conclude, Illyria is a character full of layers both small and large. She looks like Fred, but they’re different characters and are both worthy of being intellectually examined. Dismissing Illyria dismisses how much of a phenomenal actress Amy Acker really is because if not for Illyria, we would never have been treated to the glorious moments that Amy so wonderfully conveyed. Introducing Illyria also gave the other actors a chance to explore previously uncharted waters and the writers a chance to add in all of the brilliant dynamics I mentioned. That’s why I say that Illyria matters.