Monday, August 27, 2012

Angel: Shells (5.16)

There's an enormous shift in tone here, understandable considering the tragic hour it follows, but it's still something that rattles. As an introduction to Illyria, however, Shells is ridiculously successful. It's not the first time a character has been taken over by something evil (we've seen variations on this plot device repeatedly over the years on Buffy and Angel), but Amy Acker is so shockingly convincing as this cold, uber-powerful titan that you get completely suckered in by her character. A strange mix of Glory (with the minion worship), Anya (the total lack of understanding when it comes to humans) and some kind of relentless machine, Illyria is a wonderful addition to the cast.

With that in mind, Shells does a great job of subverting expectations. Whenever we've seen something like this before, there's always some form of get-out clause. But the idea that Fred's entire being and spirit has been entirely removed from any form of existence is insanely horrible, the show going out of its way to ensure that we don't think for one second that there's any chance of her coming back. Furthering that, though, Illyria quickly becomes a tragic character on her own. While we enter Shells believing she'll probably be the next big bad, Illyria turns out to be another example of the futility theme that is running through this arc. This is an event that has been in motion for millions of years, and yet it winds up a crushing disappointment when it's finally activated.

Illyria's temple is gone, her Army of Doom (a crazily melodramatic name that Spike hilariously mocks upon hearing it) has died out, and she's left *gasp* a 'shell' of her former self. Now she just hangs around, unable to actually do anything other than linger. It's just a wonderful concept, particularly after that stunning final scene in which Wesley offers to help her, but only because she bears the face of the woman he loved. This story is inherently heartbreaking, and the decision to make Illyria something of a victim in her own right is a ballsy, but successful, move.

You also feel so much for Gunn. Everybody was tempted by Wolfram & Hart's initial offer, but most of the ensemble have stayed true to their origins during the move. But Gunn experienced an enormous makeover as a result, finally becoming somebody greater than the directionless muscle that he was stuck as for so long. It's an addiction, though. When your power begins to depart, you do everything you can to get it back, in denial of any potential repercussions. It's another tragedy, and Gunn's guilt and Wesley's unstable anger over it are both so crushing in their believability.

Shells follows up on the grand sense of scope set by A Hole of the World, while remaining satisfying as a character piece, particularly in Wesley's characterization and how strong Illyria is as a new player. Jonathan M. Woodward is perfect as the horrifyingly grotesque Knox, and that final montage just breaks you. Some of the humor feels awkward at points, and I'm not sure Harmony's presence entirely works considering how awful everything is at this moment in time, but generally this is another ambitious game-changer for the show, pushing the cast into the deeper unknown. A-

Guest stars
Mercedes McNab (Harmony Kendall); Jonathan M. Woodward (Knox); Marc Vann (Dr. Sparrow); Jennifer Griffin (Trish Burkle)
Writer Steven S. DeKnight Director Steven S. DeKnight


  1. Loved your review for A Hole in the World, it really made me want to go back and watch the episode again. I've only seen the majority of Angel once, and you definitely brought up things I had never even thought about in that review. Don't have enough to say about that episode though, so just thought I'd leave that here. Anyway...

    Don't really have much to say about the loss of Fred. It's pretty devastating, and she probably was my favourite character, particularly last season, but Amy Acker's entire performance as Illyria is so impressive that it doesn't really bother me. I'm always surprised when an actor completely changes up their performances from role to role, even though that is the job, on paper, anyway. Even when I loved an actor, a lot of the time they might be playing a variation on the same role. Everything about Illyria is different than Fred - the deeper voice, the head tilts, the way she walks, the eyes, everything. I'm really surprised Amy Acker isn't the lead on her own show right now, because she's always so good (love love loved her on Dollhouse, too).

    Maybe kind of spoilery comment ahead since I can't remember which episode it comes

    Love the moment when Angel and spike go at Illyria with swords - 'Unimpressive'. Is that even this episode? My memory is failing me here, but it's pretty cool.

  2. The "unimpressive" bit is from Shells, so no spoilers. Incredible scene, I agree.

    Also agree so much about Amy Acker. Like I wrote, the whole "possessed by evil" thing is a genre tradition and every actor usually gets to try that out once they're on a show like this, but she just brings it to a whole different level. There's literally nothing of Fred there anymore, she's this complete embodiment of a separate character. I know it sounds strange, like you said, because it's their job, but I've personally never seen such a shocking turnaround.

    Also agree about Acker not having her own show yet. I remember she blew everybody out of the water on Dollhouse, and you would have thought a show like that (all about playing vastly different personalities) would be more her forte than it was Eliza Dushku's. But I guess Eliza was the 'name' at that point in time.

    Thanks, buddy.