“Why can’t I stay?”
Those are the last words of Winifred Burkle, before her soul is destroyed and her body claimed by an ancient evil known as Illyria. But the line also speaks to what we look for so often from the medium of television, and expresses how Joss Whedon’s shows both reward and defy our wants.
One of the key elements that distinguishes TV from other narrative artforms is in the way its dispensed: in discrete periodic installments. The advent of DVD box sets and streaming video is in the process of transforming that, but for now, most of us still watch our shows week-to-week, and the majority of TV-viewers even make an effort to watch shows on the day they air. It’s ritualistic: if it’s Wednesday night, I look forward to visiting my friends in Chatswin; if it’s Sunday, I check in on what’s going on with the lawyers at Lockhart/Gardner. I like these characters. I like these places. Even when a particular episode is especially tense, the show itself is a comfort.
Few TV writer/producers have been as consistently successful as Whedon at creating those kinds of inviting worlds, populated by engaging people. But Whedon can’t leave well-enough alone. Buffy The Vampire Slayer could’ve easily have been a fun TV series about witty teenagers who kill monsters and then hang out happily together. Angel could’ve been much the same, only with grown-ups and goofy L.A. phonies. And those would’ve been good shows: the horror equivalent of some breezy cabler like Royal Pains or Burn Notice, at once easy to enjoy and easy to forget once the hour is up. But instead, Whedon and his writers have taken full advantage of the affection fans have for their creations. The characters in Buffy and Angel (and Dollhouse and Firefly too) take dark turns, make unforgivable mistakes, hurt each other, and die. They just die. And we watch, helpless, as these places we like to visit and these heroes we’ve come to love are transformed almost beyond recognition, while we plead, “Why can’t I stay?”
“A Hole In The World” and “Shells” are yoked together, with the latter featuring scenes and lines of dialogue that echo the former. In “A Hole In The World,” Fred dies. And in “Shells,” we find out that she’s really dead—that this isn’t some temporary displacement. By the time these episodes are done, Wes will be wracked with grief, Gunn will feel overcome by guilt, and Lorne will see his generally upbeat disposition drop into abject despair. I’m not going to lie: these episodes hurt.
Of course they wouldn’t hurt so much if they weren’t so suspenseful, so funny—so fundamentally entertaining. We get to take a good, long look at the non-tragic version of Angel before Whedon and company bring the pain. We see Gunn playfully messing with Wes, pretending that he and Fred are getting back together. (And note the look on Wes’ face during that exchange; he’s crushed but not surprised, because Wes always seems to expect the worst when it comes to his potential happiness.) We also get an amusing running gag involving Spike and Angel’s argument over whether a caveman could beat an astronaut in a fight. (And note how this foreshadows the story of Illyria, a primitive force who by the end of “Shells” will find herself trapped in a world that she never made. Also note that the sides Spike and Angel take in this debate roughly approximates their individual opinions of mankind, a race that Illyria could do without.)
Then Fred examines a sarcophagus that has been delivered to her lab, and a burst of some kind of powdery substance shoots out of an opening in the container and into her lungs. The Wolfram & Hart doctors check her out and say she’s fine, but later, when she runs into Lorne, he sings to her and she sings to him, and he gets a terrifying “read” from Fred, just as she begins coughing up blood. The revised diagnosis? Her organs are cooking from within, as some kind of supernatural force seizes control of her body.
The way our heroes respond to the crisis is telling. When Fred half-jokes, “I’m a mummy, aren’t I?” Spike—who appreciates that Fred was so kind and helpful to him when he returned to this plane of existence—reassures her that he’s fought a lot of mummies and, “None were as pretty as you. Almost none.” Wesley sinks deep into research on how to save Fred, and when he finds out that one of the W&H employees isn’t doing the same, he shoots the poor bastard in the leg. And Lorne—sweet, sweet Lorne, for whom Fred has always shown unconditional affection—takes command of the interrogation of the always-suspicious Eve, punching her in the face and demanding that she sing so that he can see if she had anything to do with what happened. (The answer? She’s clean. But her prospects are bleak. “If I was facing your future,” Lorne sneers, “I’d make like Carmen Miranda and die.”)
As for Angel, he makes sure that everyone knows the stakes here, saying, “Winnifred Burkle. Go.” Unfortunately, mere steely resolve can’t fix this problem. Various leads and legwork lead Angel and Spike to jet over to England to the site of “The Deeper Well,” which is where the “Old Ones” are buried. Wes has learned all about Illyria—the Old One that is clawing its way back into our world—and believes that at The Deeper Well, Angel and Spike will be able to draw Illyria back to where she belongs. And Wes is right. But when Angel and Spike speak to the Well’s keeper (an old acquaintance of Angel’s named Drogyn), they’re told that in the process of ripping Illyria out of Fred and into the Well, the force will pass through and destroy everyone it encounters between California and the UK. That’s potentially hundreds of thousands of lives lost. Angel knows that Fred would never want to be accountable for that many deaths, so he chooses to do nothing.
It probably helps that Angel’s making that decision to sacrifice Fred thousands of miles away from where she’s dying. For Wes—and for those of us watching at home—the experience of watching Fred slip away is so horrifying that no cost would seem too dear. Initially, she’s limping around Wolfram & Hart, looking ghostly and blue. Then Wesley takes her back to her apartment, where she sobs when she realizes that she can’t remember the name of her stuffed bunny, and admits that part of her is preoccupied by how terrible she must look to Wes. (He tells her she’s beautiful, and a still-lucid, still-wonderful Fred quips, “You’ve always liked splotchy girls.”) Then Wes reads A Little Princess to her, confesses that he’s loved her since even before he knew her, and holds her as she slips away.
Enter Illyria. And commence “Shells.”
The second part of this two-parter is even more harrowing than the first, because it’s all but devoid of levity. (“A Hole In The World” was written and directed by Whedon, and “Shells” was written and directed by Steven S. DeKnight; there’s not a huge difference between the approaches of any given Angel helmer, but DeKnight is generally more at home with grim intensity, while Whedon tends to work a little more sparkle into the darkness.) Once Wes determines that Fred is really gone and that Illyria has control of her body, he tries—and fails—to kill the beast. Illyria then flees Fred’s apartment to begin the process of rallying her disciples and reclaiming her army in order to rid the Earth of the scourge of humanity. But her quest leads her right back to Wolfram & Hart, where two of those disciples reside: Dr. Sparrow, who exploited Gunn’s desperate need for smarts to get him to sign for Illyria’s sarcophagus in the first place; and Knox, who revealed at the end of “A Hole In The World” that he was the one who deemed Fred “worthy” to be Illyria’s vessel.
“Shells” proceeds on two tracks simultaneously. The first track has to do with subduing Illyria before she can make strides toward taking over the world. This isn’t easy to do, especially once Illyria draws on the power of her sarcophagus to gain a sleek body-armor. She zips out of Wolfram & Hart—moving so fast that everyone else looks like they’re in slow-motion—and when she arrives at the spot in L.A. where the gateway to her extra-dimensional temple is tucked away, she easily dodges and beats back Spike and Angel’s attempts to hack her to death with their swords. After all that though, Illyria discovers that her temple is in ruins and her army has been destroyed. She’s a demon without means, or purpose—which makes her much less of a threat.
The second track has to do with whether Fred can still be saved. On the way home, Angel and Spike philosophize about what it means to be “gone” in their particular social circle. (Spike notes that he was “flash-fried in a pillar of fire saving the world… I got better.”) Ultimately though, they determine that if Fred’s soul has been destroyed—as they have been assured it has—then they’re powerless. All that’s left is the assigning of blame.
Gunn takes on a heavy share of guilt, since he unknowingly signed away Fred’s life for the sake of a little legal acumen. Before he finds out what’s what, he visits the White Room to talk to the Senior Partners via the panther, but instead finds that the panther has been replaced by an image of himself, representing his own culpability in the damage being done. And “Gunn” tells himself that he can’t trade his life for Fred’s because he’s already given it to the firm.
And then there’s Knox, the one most directly responsible for Fred’s death. “Is my life in peril?” he asks Angel at one point, which prompts Angel to give a big speech about how he protects even the worst of humanity. But then Wesley just shoots Knox dead. (“Were you even listening?” Angel sighs.) This cold-blooded assassination shouldn’t be too surprising, coming from a man who wounded an underling in the previous episode just for lack of focus.
In the end, if “A Hole In The World” is about Fred, then “Shells” is about Wesley, who has plenty of experience with how to be icy, resentful and self-pitying. He even lashes out at Fred in absentia at one point, saying that she might’ve been okay if her natural curiosity hadn’t let her to investigate the sarcophagus. (“I think I hate her a little for that,” Wes whispers.) It’s because Wes is who he is that he makes the choice he does at the end of “Shells.” Illyria returns to Wolfram & Hart after leaving her ruined temple, because she has nowhere else to go and there are traces of Fred’s memories and feelings still within her. She asks Wes to be her new “Qwa’ha Xahn,” and help her understand humanity, with all of its disgusting emotions and grief. And Wes agrees, because he’s the kind of person who’ll torture himself by clinging to a demon in the form of a dead loved one.
So here we are, Angel fans. Fred is gone, but Amy Acker remains, now playing Illyria. Is this then still the same place we enjoy visiting, week after week?
The cruel brilliance of Whedon is that he’s willing to push us more than he has to—to destroy what is beautiful in his shows, perhaps because he wants us to feel his own deep pessimism toward the fantasy of unconditional happiness. Whedon’s a Marvel Comics kind of guy, raised on heroes who bicker and stories that never conclude but just get more and more complicated. The characters stay the same, but the take on them varies, year by year, storyline by storyline, creator by creator. How much can be altered before something essential is lost?
At the end of “Shells,” Illyria adopts Fred’s voice for Wes, saying, once more, “Why can’t I stay?” And then the episode flashes back to the moment when Fred said goodbye to her parents and moved to Los Angeles—a moment that also opens “A Hole In The World.” Back at the beginning of this two-parter, the scene with Fred and her folks is light, as her dad disparages the “city of angels” and Fred makes sure she has her bunny. (Feigenbaum!) Fred promises that she’ll be dull and boring in L.A., and then the scene cuts to her blasting tiny demons with a flame-thower. It’s a funny juxtaposition, but also an indicator of how plans—and people—change. Because of circumstance. Because of a sense of duty. Or because there’s a rot to mankind that eventually spreads to even the best of us.
“There’s a hole in the world,” Spike says at the end of part one, as he stares down a shaft at The Deeper Well. “Feels like we ought to have known.”
Ah, but you should’ve known, Spike. After all, this world was created by Joss Whedon.
- I’m using “she” for Illyria even though I’m thinking “it” might be more appropriate. But given that Illyria’s apparently going to be around for a while in Fred’s body, it makes sense for writing purposes to go ahead an assign a gender.
- I’ve read some of you commenting on this season’s “bromance” between Angel and Spike, which really comes to fruition in these two episodes. In “A Hole In The World,” Angel is suggesting that any kind of friendship between the two of them is untenable, and that Spike should probably leave. (“Are you saying we should start annoying other people?” Spike cracks.) But by the end of the episode, the two of them are fighting side by side, unleashing killer moves from their shared past. And then in “Shells,” Spike officially declines Angel’s offer to set him up as a champion anywhere in the world, saying that Fred would’ve wanted him to stay. And it’s a good thing, too. As awesome as the idea of Globe-Trotting Hero Spike might be, our never-as-aloof-as-he-pretends-to-be vampire has something of a lost look on his face when Angel suggests that he should be out on his own. It’s a little like the look on Illyria’s face as she finds her way back to Fred’s office at Wolfram & Hart. (And not coincidentally, I’m sure.)
- As in-synch as Angel and Spike are outside The Deeper Well—as they hold hands and remember “St. Petersburg”—they’re a little off at the start of “A Hole In The World,” when they’re fighting tiny demons in the sewers. This is summed up well by one funny image: Spike’s sword, through Angel’s torso, with a little dead demon dangling off the end, nestled against Angel’s back.
- When Angel finds Eve in Lindsay’s old apartment, he mutters, “Well I’ll be damned all over again….”
- When Lorne asks Eve to sing, he requests that it be nothing by Diane Warren “except ‘Rhythm Of The Night.’ Eve chooses to sing “L.A. Song,” which we’ve previously heard sung by our old pal Lindsey.
- Sometimes when I’m watching these episodes, I jot things down that struck me as especially funny, or that I think might be relevant to the piece. And then when it comes time to write the review, these notes get dropped, either because I can’t find a good place for them—not even here in Stray Observations—or because they end up not being meaningful. All of which is my way of saying that I really don’t know what to do with the moment where Gunn sings Gilbert & Sullivan to himself. (“Three little maaaaids….”) At the time it seemed so amusing, as well as being a way to reinforce the resumption of Gunn’s legal faculties. But after “Shells” it’s just… sad.
- That said, I remain delighted by Gunn’s comparison of Illyria’s rapid escape to Barry Allen. (Or Jay Garrick. Or Wally West.)
- One other fleeting moment of humor in “Shells” occurs when Illyria takes a good look at Knox and says, “My last Qwa’ha Xahn was taller.”
- The Slayer Group’s continued distrust of Wolfram & Hart serves a dramatic purpose here, explaining why Angel and company will have to go it alone against Illyria, with no help from Willow or Giles to try and retrieve Fred’s soul. (Which, as they don’t yet know, has been destroyed anyway.) In the larger scheme of things, the scene where Angel gets rebuffed by Giles on the phone isn’t strictly necessary, but I always appreciate it when Angel’s writers respect the fans enough to acknowledge the show’s larger universe.
- Spike, holding up a miniature whiskey bottle on the plane: “Here’s a drink that is very far away….”
- After “Shells,” I see what you some of you mean when you complain that Cordelia never got a proper mourning. It is sort of a Whedonverse tradition to use the episode after a major loss to lick wounds, at least a little. Fred definitely gets her due. Cordy, not so much.
- Did the astronauts have weapons?
- Hate to do it, gang, but after all this intense drama, I’m going to need a short breather before getting into the last six episodes of the series. (Or, to be more honest, I have three work-intensive features due next week, and need every spare hour I can muster.) So I’m taking next week off. As near as I can tell, this loosely mirrors what happened when these episodes aired. It appears there was a month break between “Shells” and “Underneath.” So… tradition?