[Review by S. van Houten – “Iguana-on-a-stick”]
[Writer: Steven S. DeKnight | Director: Steven S. DeKnight | Aired: 03/04/2004]
“Is that the world we’re fighting for? The right to be heartless, an uncaring shell? To be dead inside?”
Fred is dead, but not quite gone. The line I quoted just now, spoken by Fred late last season, will have gained an awful new significance to the people of Angel Investigations and us viewers of the show. Fred is gone, and the game has changed. We need only watch the way this new Fred-like creature moves – like a puppet not quite used to its new strings – or listen to its cold, inhuman voice to realise this.
“A Hole in the World” [5×15] began with a deceptively happy interlude. Even when we leave aside the flashbacks to Fred’s Texas family, we saw Angel’s team be content and at ease with each other in a way they had not been since Season 3. This in itself will have set off the warning signals in the seasoned Whedon-viewer, and indeed the episode was one brutal upset after another of this happy status-quo as Fred suffered a lingering torturous death.
“Shells” starts with pain and grief and ends with melancholy despair. And yet, to that same seasoned Whedon-viewer its plot actually is much more surprising and subversive. At first we think we have been in a place like this before: in “Innocence” and after “Seeing Red.” To some extent this happened in “Reunion” [2×10]. The friend-turned-enemy and the big-bad-antagonist-emerging-halfway-through-the-season are old staples of Angel and its progenitor show. Illyria seems to fit right in this mould as she spends the episode flinging about our grieving heroes like ninepins, plots to gather her army of doom, and conquer the earth. She has the charisma as well as the power to be a credible villain, eviscerating friend and foe alike with carefully dosed contempt. It is she who coins the episode’s title by cruelly referring to Fred as “the shell I’m in.”
No more than half an hour later we see a lost god-king and a broken human opening up to one another and finding a twisted sort of comfort each other’s presence. The game has changed again, and at the episode’s end the immediate threat has gone and the status quo has almost been restored. Almost, but not quite. What’s left of Fred may have returned to the fold, there may be no new grand antagonist to fight or new apocalypse threatening the earth, but the impact these two episodes have had on the characters is here to stay. Nearly everything that comes next is driven by what took place here. It has left nobody unchanged. And this episode is where we see these changes happen.
Along the way, “Shells” pulls none of its punches. Its sheer momentum is quite astonishing. Even when re-watching there is no time to pause for breath or consider the implications until after the final credits roll. Until then each scene leads into the next with a sense of inevitability that drags me along for the ride and leaves me faintly surprised when I discover it is already over.
The story goes out of its way to make clear right from the start that even though the characters try every trick and exploit every loop-hole they can find they will not be able to bring Fred back. In fact, the scenes where Angel confers with Giles or discusses the various ways people come back to life in the Whedonverse are the only parts of the episode that flag a little. Info-dumps about magic-rules are a necessary evil to set the scene and establish the stakes, though: Fred is gone, an ancient goddess walks the earth in her body and the question at hand isn’t so much whether the team can bring themselves to attack someone looking like their friend, as whether they stand a chance against Illyria at all.
At this point the answer to that question is a resounding “no.” Some of Angel’s best action-sequences are in this episode, and mostly they involve Illyria wiping the floor with our heroes. I particularly enjoyed Angel getting thrown through two windows and down twenty stories of W&H HQ while Illyria, using her ability to manipulate time, grabs Knox, walks out of the building and passes underneath the falling Angel before he even hits the ground. Angel & Co. do little better in the second confrontation. Illyria herself judges their efforts with one lip-curling word: “Unimpressive.” In the end she is undone not by anything the protagonists have done or achieved, but simply by the ravages time has wreaked in her long absence, leaving her adrift and uncertain of her place and purpose in this strange new world.
In another episode or on another show this might have been a cheap or unsatisfying way to resolve the plot without any real resolution. Yet here it makes a great deal of thematic sense. Neither “A Hole in the World” [5×15] nor “Shells” were ever about fighting an external foe. The first was about impotence in the face of losing a friend (or a lover). The second is about dealing with that loss. A victory over Illyria through force of arms would not have made that any easier. So instead we get to explore the same theme from Illyria’s perspective, and witness enemies draw comfort from one another in a world that can be harsh and uncaring.
In keeping with this theme, the bulk of this episode is spent dealing with everybody’s reactions to Fred’s death and it’s Illyria-shaped aftermath. And I do mean everybody. Well, except Lorne. We only see him very briefly and his reaction is mostly delayed until next episode. But even Harmony has a few good scenes with some actual character-development. There are callbacks to her sort-of friendship with Fred (“We went out for drinks all the… once”) and her role questioning Eve in “You’re Welcome” [5×12]. She even tries to comfort Wesley (“The girl of your dreams loved you. That’s more than most people ever get.”) and cleverly figures out how to extract information from Knox’ mobile phone. For the space of one episode Harmony’s new-found place as a regular in the credit sequence seems deserved, rather than a cynical attempt to obfuscate the lack of other female characters on the show.
The main relevance of “Shells” is as a turning point for the characters of Angel, Gunn and Wesley. Of the three, Angel is probably the least affected by Fred’s death, but his failures still hit him at his core. He was the one in charge. He was the one who made the “executive decision” to come to W&H. What happened to Fred is in no small part his responsibility, and he knows it: “There’s a lot we could’ve done. Starting with not coming to Wolfram & Hart in the first place.” He initially shows this by blustering a lot and refusing to accept what is happening. He tries to get Fred resurrected, tries to summon help from Willow and the Scoobies, and he tries to substitute stubbornness for good planning:
SPIKE: “Any idea on HOW we’re supposed to track Fred, or Illyria, or whatever the hell that thing was?”
ANGEL: “We just do it. That’s all.”
You have to admire Angel’s gumption, if not his sense. Yet for all that this is a positive development for Angel; he’s taking responsibility and he’s taking charge. After a season which revisited Angel’s lack of purpose and direction again and again, this marks the moment where we start seeing permanent and consistent change. In “Shells” Angel keeps the team on track and focussed on dealing with Illyria despite everybody’s personal pain. In the next few episodes we will see him reach out to both Gunn and Wesley to help them with their struggles and he will take steps to actively discover Wolfram & Hart’s plans and deal with them rather than simply waiting for their next move, ultimately culminating in the Circle of the Black Thorn plot. Leaving aside his (understandable) stumble when Connor unexpectedly comes back into his life in “Origin” [5×18] and his (out of place and silly) shenanigans stalking Buffy in Italy in “The Girl in Question” [5×20], it’s a whole new Angel we see from this point onwards.
Gunn, on the other hand, hits rock bottom in this episode. We’ve seen it coming for a while now, and so has Gunn. Rather than making the storyline predictable, though, it adds a sense of tragedy. At the start of the episode Gunn is in that terrible frame of mind, where you know you’re about to be caught with some damning secret, and you keep telling lies – anything to put off the inevitable for another few moments. It’s almost a relief when you finally get caught and are forced to come clean. If Wesley is the most grief-stricken by Fred’s death, Gunn is the most haunted. He may have gone through a few bad spots in earlier seasons, like in “That Old Gang of Mine” [3×03] or “Double or Nothing” [3×18], but never like this. Not coincidentally, this also leaves me more invested in and fascinated by his character than ever before. This is good television. Cruel to its characters, but good.
Strong writing and acting on J. August Richard’s part help a lot. We hear the guilt breaking his voice as Wesley, oblivious to his secrets, apologises to him. When Gunn is questioning Knox and Dr. Sparrow behind the back of his friends, we can see how he’s projecting his guilt on them. When he is begging the doctor to undo the brain-upgrade if only it can bring Fred back, we can feel his desperate sincerity. And when an unstable, shotgun-toting Wesley finally calls him on his lies, his broken confession still takes me by surprise. “I didn’t think it would be one of us. I didn’t think it would be Fred.” There, summed up in one line, we have the potential for corruption that came with the move to Wolfram & Hart fully on display. And yet, Gunn never loses my sympathy. Just like Wesley, I can understand why he did it and forgive it. Charles Gunn always knew the deal he made was too good to be true, but he was afraid and weak and human. He didn’t listen to his better instincts and now he pays the price. Wesley takes his revenge, but it hardly matters to him. Gunn is his own harshest judge. In “Underneath” [5×17] we will find out just how far he is prepared to go in the name of atonement.
For now, Wesley takes matters into his own hands and stabs his former friend. I actually agree with Wesley’s reasoning: Gunn’s greater crime lay in keeping these potentially vital secrets when Fred fell ill. There is a possibility, however remote, that Fred could have been saved if they had questioned doctor Sparrow and discovered what was happening straight away. I do not, of course, agree with Wesley’s actions, but they are hardly surprising considering whom we’re dealing with.
Of all the characters, Wesley was touched the most deeply by the events of “A Hole in the World” [5×15]: ”You didn’t feel her die.” We only need to see his broken, tear-streaked face at the start of the episode to recognise the depth of his grief. These moments of naked emotion are rare, though. Wesley deals with his pain by clamping a tight lid on it and immersing himself in the work at hand. He staves off his inevitable collapse by continuously moving forward. Now characters grieving over dead lovers and Englishmen keeping a stiff upper lip are pretty much old-hat and Wesley’s grief could have easily been trite. Again, the writing and acting help, but what truly elevates his scenes is our knowledge of his history; how he came to this place and how this informs the way he acts now.
Take his dramatic confrontation with Gunn I discussed just now. We know Wesley is unstable and highly capable of cold-blooded violence in situations like this. Last episode we saw him shoot a man in the leg with far less excuse. In “Lineage” [5×07] he emptied his gun in what appeared to be his own father without hesitating even a second. The same high-strung tense control and subdued anger he showed then are on display here, and because we recognise this the tension in this scene is even higher. There is another parallel to be drawn though, less obvious but just as relevant. A few years earlier Wesley was in a situation not unlike Gunn’s, even though he cannot quite remember at this point. In “Forgiving” [3×17] Angel tried to kill Wesley for his role in Connor’s abduction. Angel carefully made sure that Wesley was fully aware of what was happening before exploding in a hot rage and trying to kill him. In the current scene, Wesley – unlike Angel – lets Gunn tell his side of the story, then calmly explains his own reasoning for condemning his former friend, puts away his shotgun, selects a knife and stabs him in a non-lethal fashion. Therefore, as well as showing an escalation of Wesley’s previous behaviour the scene illustrates the differences between him and Angel when put in similar circumstances.
The scene also immediately puts us in mind of the darker, more ruthless and driven Wesley we saw in Season 4. The way he later kills Knox (in the middle of Angel’s heroic speech about the value of human life, much to my amusement) only reinforces this impression. During the expeditions with Faith in “Release” [4×14] we saw a Wesley acting quite similarly to the one we see here. This makes sense; those events took place just after Wesley had been forced to decapitate his lover for fear she might become a vampire. At the time, he had hallucinated a conversation with her as he was standing over her corpse and working up the courage to do what he must. “Shells” starts with Wesley once again taking an axe to the corpse of a girlfriend, only this time she has becomes a monster and is actually talking to him. The consistency of Wesley’s actions when in such a state of mind demonstrates how well defined his character is, but this is no simple re-hash. Unlike his Season 4 incarnation, this Wesley isn’t embittered and alienated from his friends, and perhaps because of that he realises he is crossing lines and doing the wrong things for the wrong reasons. He just can’t help himself. That is why he later confesses to Illyria: “I am probably the last man in the world to teach you what is right.”
Meanwhile, when the tables turn at the end of this episode and Wesley agrees to help Illyria find her way in the world, he is coming full circle to his début on Buffy as he takes on the role of Watcher once more. His failures back then started him on the path that led him here. Who could have predicted anything remotely like this when that licorice-popping, rules-quoting, naïve popinjay first walked on scene in “Bad Girls?” Wesley’s journey is fascinating to watch and this episode is where a lot of it comes together.
He doesn’t quite take the ‘top character’ prize where this episode is concerned, though. I would be remiss not to include a paragraph focussing on just how amazing Amy Acker is in the role of Illyria. When I first watched Angel I wasn’t terribly impressed by the character of Fred and consequently didn’t think all that much of Acker either. This is the episode that opened my eyes, something that has only been reinforced by subsequently seeing her in a variety of other roles. Illyria remains her most memorable performance, though. It is obvious from the start just how inhuman this character is, and it’s not just because of the blue make-up or fancy contact-lenses. We see it in the way she moves, like her body is an ill-fitting suit of borrowed clothes. She makes it seem awkward but still makes me believe in the power hidden underneath. We see it in the confidence of her gestures and we hear it in the cold, clinical tones of her voice. This is someone to whom we are but ants to be studied while she has nothing better to occupy her interest. If I read her lines on paper they seem ridiculous. Pompous, overblown, corny. And yet she sells those words. She makes me believe she is an ancient Lovecraftian horror hiding in the body of this petite human. Colour me impressed.
For Illyria herself this is the start of her half-season arc. She doesn’t have much time on the show, but she definitely makes the most of it. Here we see her at her purest and most inhuman: utterly disgusted with this new world she finds herself in and the humans that inhabit it, seeking to pick up her reign of terror just where it left off. She immediately demonstrates her extreme arrogance and confidence, as well as her talent for deadpan put-downs and one-liners. The contempt she conveys is hilarious, particularly when it’s directed at the obnoxiously fawning Knox. I wouldn’t quite call it a sense of humour, but it’s closer than most villains on the show get. She also immediately demonstrates her other humanising trait, the one that will most define her in the episodes to come: her curiosity. (Interestingly enough, the very trait that got Fred killed.) She questions allies and enemies alike; Knox, Wesley, Angel. She tries to understand their motivations. In this episodes she is simply trying to know her enemies, but this will soon change. We’ve barely become acquainted with Illyria as an unapologetic force of nature before the cracks start showing. No matter how inhuman she looks and acts, we can feel her dismay at the loss of her world and everything she knew. It leaves her adrift and purposeless in a strange world. At first it seems very odd that she should seek out her enemy, the man who killed her Qwa’ha Xahn, but in retrospect it makes a lot of sense. Both from her own experiences and from what lingers of Fred’s memories, Wesley is the only thing in the world she knows.
It is the pivotal scene of the episode. All the dramatic slow-motion confrontations, all of Angel’s and Illyria’s pontificating on morality and power, all the shocking injuries and deaths — all of it recedes into the background during to that final quiet conversation. Everything changes the moment Illyria speaks Wesley’s name (she never addresses anybody by name) and asks for his help. Why does she agree to abide by Wesley’s rules against killing? The way Wesley opens up is equally surprising, though. Has he ever openly talked about his hopes and dreams (or lack thereof) to anyone before? Wesley has always been a private, quiet person. What few details we learned about his deeper feelings were uncovered in those moments he did not guard his tongue quite carefully enough and let something slip about the way his father treated him, or how he saw himself as a failure. Yet in this place and at this time all those walls have been broken down. He has no need to hide anything from Illyria; a stranger who is not even human. She becomes his confessional, even though he still hates her. Earlier he tried to manipulate her into returning to captivity, and later on he will try again. In the meantime he actually tries to teach her what he can. She thinks he is far beneath her, a shabby substitute for a Qwa’ha Xahn, and will soon be aggravated with his lack of deference. In a way they both agree to live a lie. They know the other cannot truly provide what they are looking for. And yet they cannot let go.
“We cling to what is gone. Is there anything in this life but grief?”
“There’s love. There’s hope…for some. There’s hope that you’ll find something worthy… that your life will lead you to some joy… that after everything… you can still be surprised.”
“Is that enough? Is that enough to live on?”
There is no answer.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Spike trying to cheer Angel up by mocking mini-bar bottles.
+ Angel finally mentioning Cordelia. His line about not being able to lose another team-member in the same fashion goes some way to easing my irritation with the way she was ignored in the first part of the season and it also retroactively justifies Angel’s extreme reactions to Fred’s illness in the previous episode.
+ Angel (or maybe it was Gunn’s idea) for once using those oft-mentioned resources W&H offer. They bring a squad of gun-toting security goons when they go to confront Illyria in the science-lab. Of course, all these manage to do is look stupid and knock over a beaker as Illyria time-warps away, but it’s nice to see the AI gang remembering they have actual employees now.
+ Full circle: “Shells” ends where “A Hole in the World” [5×15] began; with a flashback of Fred leaving Texas for LA. The context has changed greatly, though. Where the first was bittersweet but seemingly optimistic, this one is purely tragic. We now know what fate awaits her.
+ No matter how much I dislike episodes ending with songs and montages, the one featured here gets to me. The reaction-shots of the characters are very powerful, the song is wonderfully melancholy and the final shot is heart-breaking.
+ Full circle: Disregarding the ending-montage, “Shells” itself also ends where it began; with a conversation between Wesley and Illyria. Again the context has changed immensely. Where the first scene is full of terrible grief, hatred and contempt the last has these characters find a connection.
– How come the AI team never tried contacting Giles or Willow to help Cordelia when she was in her coma?
– Why didn’t doctor Sparrow flee? He must have known the game was up. Gunn knew he was involved. Why did he stay to get tortured by Spike?
* Everybody makes a big deal about Fred’s soul being gone forever, but the sources for this information aren’t the most reliable, and the last scene demonstrates that at least some of Fred’s memories survive. Over the rest of the season this will be demonstrated, as Illyria starts to manifest more and more traits of Fred’s, culminating in picture-perfect impersonations in “The Girl in Question” [5×20] and “Not Fade Away” [5×22].