[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Ben Edlund | Director: Vern Gillum | Aired: 04/28/2004]
Amy Acker. Incredible. Review, done.
But seriously, just how great is Amy Acker? In “Time Bomb” we get to see Illyria be the focal point of a solid, intriguing, and entertaining episode. It’s such a shame Fred was such an underdeveloped character, because Illyria gives Acker far more to do from an acting standpoint and is much more exciting to watch — and I even liked Fred a lot in early Season 3!
In some ways Illyria reminds me of Drusilla. They’re both characters that seem a little unhinged and kooky, like half of their consciousness is in another dimension. On the surface they both appear to be spouting inane, albeit highly amusing, ramblings, but there is far more meaning to it all than initially meets the eye. In the case of Illyria, she speaks as a former ruler with a position of ultimate power. The fact that the Senior Partners are terrified of her — Hamilton expresses an awful lot of transparent concern to Wesley — speaks volumes. It’s not Illyria’s intent, but her ramblings reveal a lot of insight into what’s required to use and maintain that amount of power.
When Angel gets caught up in Illyria’s wake later in the episode she is confounded by how this has happened. This allows Angel to change the outcome of their deaths. While Illyria is equivocating about how all of this is possible — which is against her own words (“I didn’t give you a chance, that you learn when you become a king!”) — Wesley is afforded the time to suck the power out of her, effectively defeating her. The limitations of humanity simply couldn’t contain her power, to which she blames as a weakness of the species (ha). This thematically reminds us of the larger stakes at play. It’s probably a good thing, too, and serves as a metaphor for what ultimate power does to a human; it eventually breaks containment and destroys everything in its orbit. We’re at our best when we accomplish things the hard way and voluntarily share our power with others to do even greater things.
Illyria confronts Wesley about his attempt to change her back into Fred by shattering the Orlon Window in “Origin” [5×18]. This “betrayal” is why she assumes Wesley is trying to kill her with the energy dampening device later. But Wesley can’t bring himself to do it, so he nonchalantly lies to Angel — partly as a jab for meddling with his memory — while he finds a way to contain Illyria. It’s interesting how Illyria says, “Betrayal was a neutral word in my day. As unjudged a word as ‘water’, or ‘breeze’. No. Perhaps I only bothered because I am bothered.” Whether it’s a residue from being in Fred’s body or genuine affection for Wesley, Illyria is already becoming humanized by not being able to live up to her own words of being completely dispassionate. This scene hints at the fact the she will be becoming even further humanized by the end of the episode.
Although Acker gives a tremendous performance, “Time Bomb” really sets the stage for the last arc of the show and serves to help Angel formulate a plan against the Senior Partners that they’ll least expect. Thematically, “Time Bomb” is about how the powerful maintain their power and how it is possible — if it is possible — to beat them. Even among the powerful, though, there are two contrasting yet successful methods on display: Wolfram and Hart with the ‘long-term sneaky’ game and Illyria with the ‘overwhelming power and dispassion’ game. While Illyria was locked away in the Deeper Well, Wolfram and Hart — who had no power in her day — rose to the top and now wield the kind of power and influence that she wants back. Wesley wonders why she is even staying at Wolfram and Hart, but Angel’s answer is right on the money: “because this place reeks of influence. She had everything, Wes. Everything. You think she’s not looking to get that back?”
Looking to get that influence back is exactly what Illyria works towards until time begins becoming undone. Angel asks Wesley, “Why would she take on any risk for us?” He aptly responds, “I doubt this poses a risk to her. She has the power of a god,” and he’s right. Illyria does the gang a favor in rescuing Gunn as a play for power over them, and of Wolfram and Hart — they now owe her. One might even call it a “Power Play” [5×21]. Throughout “Time Bomb” Angel is trying to work out his next move but the Illyria threat forces him to pay attention to her every move. In this process he picks up some interesting ideas about how she sees the world, which helps him think of how to deal a blow to Wolfram and Hart that they won’t see coming. This is why Illyria’s intentions in “Time Bomb” will be mirrored by Angel in the final two episodes.
Where Illyria has a clear purpose, Angel finds himself confused. This can be summed up in an exchange where Wesley asks Gunn what he’s looking for now that he’s back. Gunn’s response, “a compass,” is quite reflective of not only his current state, but also Angel’s. Wolfram and Hart have lost their only real power over Angel (“what you owe me”) thanks to the events of “Origin” [5×18] and Connor getting his memories back. When you throw in Cordelia’s death, Fred’s death, and the utter lack of a dent he’s made in the silent apocalypse, Angel’s frustrated by what he has to show for all of these losses.
Thus far Angel has simply kept the corporate machine moving. Sure the gang has made minor changes in the corporate culture and occasionally done good on small terms, but they’ve also been compromised — by necessity — to keep the business running. The Senior Partners know Angel’s moral reservations, thus his limitations, which is why they’re comfortable with him running the show in the first place. “Time Bomb”, and Illyria, ends up playing a pivotal role in leading Angel to make a decision of which direction to go in, even if it’s a dangerous one that could have consequences that outweigh the benefits. This makes the episode an important one for Angel’s development.
The training scene between Illyria and Spike is key to understanding Angel’s actions at the end of the episode (with the baby and the Fell Brethren). Even though Spike lands a couple successful hits on Illyria due to his adaptation, Illyria’s argument is that “adaptation is compromise” and will eventually be the losing technique — somewhat proven when she slaughters everyone. This is a notion Angel will soon take to heart after Illyria elaborates in what is some delightful dialogue: “You learn to destroy everything that’s not utterly yours. All that matters is victory. That’s how your reign persists. You’re a slave to an insane construct. You are moral. A true ruler is as moral as a hurricane, empty but for the force of his gale. But you… trapped in the web of the Wolf, the Ram, the Hart. So much power here, and you quibble at its price. If you want to win a war, you must serve no master but your ambition.”
The situation with the woman and her baby that is always in the background of “Time Bomb” is there to give Angel yet another ambiguous situation. Does he continue to walk that fine line like he has all season, or does he put all his eggs in one basket and go for the big prize no matter the cost? Gunn verbalizes the dilemma using his experience in the holding dimension: “Do you know what the worst part of that place was? Wasn’t the basement. At least there, you knew where you stood. Demon was gonna cut your heart out and show it to you. Nah. It was the fake life they gave you upstairs. The wife, kids, all the icing on the family cake. But somewhere underneath it, there was the nagging certainty that it was all lies, that all the smiles and the birthday candles and the homework were just there to hide the horror. Is that all we’re doing here — just hiding the horror?”
At the end of the “Time Bomb” there are two options presented as possible directions the characters can go regarding the ambiguous situation they’re in at Wolfram and Hart. Either they can begin fighting the good fight again and work as a team to help individuals again — running Wolfram and Hart be damned — or they can completely buy into Wolfram and Hart — go all-in — and try to knock them down from the inside, even if only for a moment, by playing their game. Gunn obviously represents the former of these options and encourages the mother to not sign the contract with the Fell Brethren. Angel represents the latter option as he shuts the door on Gunn and gets the mother to sign the contract while Hamilton watches. Angel’s plan of subterfuge comes to a head in “Not Fade Away” [5×22], but I’m skeptical of its validity. It’s ballsy, no doubt, but it also brings on considerable collateral damage.
At the end of the day I’m reminded of Holland Manners’ speech to Angel in “Reprise” [2×15] about the Home Office: it’s the battle for human souls here on Earth. If Angel wants to beat the Senior Partners for good, that is where he needs to make an impact. Killing all the players of the apocalypse is, to steal a Breaking Bad phrase, a half-measure. These demons will be replaced and the wheels of evil will continue to spin, conspiring in the corruption of humanity. To beat the mechanisms of evil, change has to happen on a societal level, but that can only start by inspiring one human soul at a time. This is best done through, to quote what Angel has forgotten, living “as though the world were as it should be, to show it what it can be.”
In other words, the solution lies in living life by example to inspire others to raise their hopes and standards, and then trying to create positive change one day at a time. Not an easy thing to do! But it remains the most powerful tool against societal degradation, and “evil”, that we have. And it’s a constant process. So it’s safe to say that I’m with Gunn on this one (and Anne in “Not Fade Away” [5×22]). I can sympathize with Angel’s desperation to directly hurt the Senior Partners, but that doesn’t make it worth the cost. If anything, it feels like a return of the Angel in Season 2 who fired all of his friends so he could take down the Senior Partners. His motive may be different now, and he eventually brings his colleagues into the dive off the deep end, but the end result won’t be all that different. It all comes back to that elevator ride with Holland.
By the end of “Time Bomb” Angel has a clarity of purpose that he was previously lacking, and in large part thanks to Illyria’s journey through fractured time. This is why Angel’s changed his tune on whether Illyria might make the team — he realizes that he need not trust her to think she might be useful to him in the future. This is also a great episode for Illyria who becomes much more defined as a character. When all the dust settles, she’s yet further humanized, which will provide her plenty to wrestle with in the future thus making her an even more interesting character.
“Time Bomb” is a fun and structurally solid outing that smoothly transitions the show into the final leg of its journey. It’s lacking a little on the emotional side and isn’t the deepest episode out there, but it’s got a really nice blend of elements to make for yet another welcome outing. After the blip that is “The Girl in Question” [5×20], it’s go time for the Angel finale! Oh, and one more thing…
Amy Acker. Incredible. Review, done.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Illyria’s solution for getting Gunn out of the holding dimension is hilarious.
+ Wesley being suitably scatterbrained after getting his memories back in “Origin” [5×18]. He has to adjust to himself all over again.
+ Illyria informing Spike he has permission to leave her presence.
+ Wesley subtly tipping off his small betrayal of Angel later in the episode by being not-so convinced that Illyria needs to die in the meeting room.
+ I love Adam Baldwin’s portrayal of the just slightly too transparent business man.
+ Lorne’s jab at Eve. Ha.
+ The ease at which Illyria demolishes the entire group. That is a cool scene.
+ The consistency in the Buffyverse regarding beings that are all-powerful. They can’t exist in our reality for very long without having a weakness or coming apart at the seams. I’m reminded of how, in Buffy Season 5, Glory could only exist with that kind of power by sharing her body with a mortal, Ben.
+ Poor Wesley. He knows Illyria isn’t Fred, but he “needs” the image of her to keep going nonetheless. Tragic.
– I really don’t like how Lorne is made out to be a complete clown this episode
* The title, “Time Bomb”, refers to the plot, but also to Angel, who will effectively ‘go off’ in “Not Fade Away” [5×22].