Title: Queen Elizabeth meets The Terminator
Spoilers: All of BTVS and ATS.
My work: London Calling - Chelsea
Illyria is the regular character with the fewest number of episodes on ATS, and the one we barely got to know before the show was taken away. Illyria is also by far the most ancient character to appear as a regular -- literally one of the Old Ones, the Demons Pure who ruled this world before the rise of man.
Illyria is also intensely problematic when it comes to pronouns.
The jailer charged with guarding the entombed Old Ones in the Deeper Well refers to Illyria as it. The native form we see in Wesley's book in 'Shells' shows at least four arms capable of wielding weapons, and considerably more tentacles - certainly nothing human, not in this original form which provides the underlying sentience and drives of the character. Illyria claims the title of God King of the Primordium, Shaper of Things. Illyria is never called a Goddess or a Queen. Illyria was a great monarch of the demon age of creatures very different to our world. Illyria is a God - beyond human or the half-breeds that are the vampires, and certainly beyond the confines of gender, if not the dead shell she's stuck with inhabiting.
But that shell is female. Hamilton, who acts for the Wolf, the Ram and the Hart which knew 'her' back in the old days, refers to her as female, as do the other regulars as they face her in battle, in the struggle to understand and ultimately become part of a team. In English, it is rather rude to refer to a person as 'it' or a 'thing'. It's certainly not the respect Illyria would expect as 'Her' due. So though the titles Illyria claims are 'male', and 'she' is such a different species that the language of human gender is problematic when applied to this character, this essay will use the convention 'she' when referring to Illyria.
Our introduction to her is as the gust of air that infects Fred in 'A Hole in the World'. Her essence liquefies Fred's organs and hardens her skin to remake the body into a shell that will allow Illyria to re-enter this world - her world, the one she once ruled, the one that was taken from her when she was killed and laid to rest in the Deeper Well. But the Old Ones don't die like humans or vampires do; their essences persist, and Illyria was both feared and beloved. Even after millions of years she has acolytes willing to help her to return to the world. Which she does when, after an excruciatingly long drawn out death, she takes over Fred's body, turns her eyes and hair blue and stands up saying, "This will do."
A moment that made this girl sit up and say, "Ooh, it most certainly will!"
Then there were the fight scenes in 'Shells', the beautiful, beautiful fight scenes with Spike, Angel and Wes against a god who kicks their butts so gorgeously. And the stunning shot of the fallen god amidst the ruins of her temple, fingers running the dust of ages through her fingers, immense power turned to ashes -- all of which appealed to the Romantic Poets lover in me.
Illyria is the literal embodiment of the poem 'Ozymandias' by Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."
How could I not be fascinated by her?
But it was when I started writing Illyria for Samson and the Broken Dolls, that I looked for the hook that would let me into the essential truth of the character, so I could do her justice and keep her in character. I found it in the City of Angel interview with Amy Acker.
Joss continued, 'I want you to be Queen Elizabeth meets The Terminator.'
And Bang, Illyria fell into place for me and proved fascinating to write.
The Queen Elizabeth Joss referred to isn't the old lady who resides in Buckingham Palace - the symbolic figurehead with no real power. It's the first Elizabeth. Elizabeth Tudor, Gloriana, the Virgin Queen (cue that ME sex is bad for empowered women baggage again), the abused girl that lost everything but won through to steer her nation to victory against insurmountable odds. The Absolute Monarch who destroyed her enemies - the last absolute monarch really, before the subjects started to get axe happy themselves. The woman who ruled a court of worshipping men - just as Illyria takes Fred's boys - and was utterly ruthless in achieving her and her kingdom's aims, despite the personal costs. The queen that was both beloved and feared, and whose myths have persisted and form a crucial part of the English sense of themselves and their history - all of which Joss was exposed to at school here.
Myths he's blended with modern ones in his own inimitable style to produce Illyria. Just as elements of Fred blend into Illyria.
The Terminator part of the character is the simplest, so I'll start there.
She can modulate her form. The battle armour that crawls up the blue mottled skin of what appears to be a totally human shell shares Illyria's ability to change appearance. We see skin turn to gauntlet as she turns to punch. In the show, she only appears looking like Illyria with and without armour and looking like Fred. But that ability to shift her appearance is intriguing, as well as useful to Illyria in exploring her emotions and those who interest her.
Illyria is alien. She isn't human. Her original form is free of the taint of humanity that affects all the demons we're introduced to on the show, especially the vampire half-breeds. Illyria is a killing machine. She was a great warrior of the demon age, and a spectacular warrior even contained in an unfamiliar body where even her face is not her own. Her movements in this strange body are inhuman, jerky, mechanical or insectoid, but inhumanly efficient as well as powerful. With one sweep of the arm she can throw Angel from his kingdom. She cocks her head to study the car containing her targets in 'NFA' and totals both. Wesley's standard procedure when faced with demonic possession of the women he loves - decapitation - fails when a battle-axe doesn't even scratch Illyria. She can seize control the swords of both Spike and Angel and toss them around the room with her bare hands.
She kills ruthlessly and efficiently. She does so both before and after she gets the second set of memories in Origin. She's the second god we've seen in the Jossverse, but unlike Glory Illyria is utterly sane. Utterly committed to her goals, and supremely indifferent if those goals require the death of the entire Fang Gang - and why shouldn't she be, she's a god and we're all so tiny to her - but completely sane.
She's a god. She makes morality. Human morals are only of concern to her as far as they ensure the humans (or human hybrids that are the vampires) fulfil the terms she agrees with them. She agrees not to kill at the end of 'Shells', and to co-operate with the testing of her powers in 'Origin', because it suits her purposes. It ensures her the guide she needs to study her new world. It's a deal she breaks with no guilt when she is convinced they have broken faith with her and tried to kill her again, breaking her out of linear progression as a result.
Illyria is a character that embodies agency. She might choose to spend hours counting oxygen molecules or communing with the green (before that's ripped away from her), if that's what interests or pleases her. But she's not a character that can be treated like a potted fern, placed in the corner to look scenic or to add comic relief. Illyria will always have an agenda of her own.
It may be an agenda that results in cleansing humans from this world - as she aims to do in reclaiming her army and her world in 'Shells'. It might be looking for personal vengeance against the enemies that beat and humiliated her like she does in 'NFA'. It might be a simple need to do more violence to try and assuage her very real grief at Wesley's death. It may be many things, but there will always be a reason for her actions.
And she will take action. She's an absolute monarch, accustomed to rule and to take decisive action to maintain that rule. She will take cold, logical and rapid measures to maintain her power. The order that she kills the boys in 'Time Bomb' shows that all too well. She kills the white haired one first (the one that's worked out her moves and learnt how to get his blows to connect) as he's the most immediately dangerous. She knocks Angel out of the fight before taking out Wes and his ranged weapon as the next most dangerous threat. Lorne is killed as an almost irrelevant afterthought. Angel is killed last with a quick-witted and practical use of the fight environment to provide the necessary weaponry. Terminator meets monarch out to preserve her power at all costs.
She scorns adaptation as compromise. But out of time and place, shorn of army, worshippers, and much of her own power, she does prove adaptable and it's that that pragmatic choice which ensures her survival. She absolutely hates it, and tries to retain her power to the point of destruction, but when presented with a choice that lets her live by the guide she's chosen, she ceases to resist - though she does not cease in protesting.
It is her choice to take a guide - the watcher who becomes her chief councillor - in the strange world that's grown up while she slept the sleep of death in the Deeper Well that is key to her continued existence. It gives her the knowledge and understanding she needs to survive, and she knows full well that without survival there is no power. And power is everything to her. "To never die... and to conquer all, that is winning."
She knows worship as well as she does power, and it has appeal to the God-King as her due, but she doesn't seem to respect those that worship. She demands it, as her right from the 'worms and sub-creatures', but those that do fall to their knees in service are not the ones she develops attachments to. It's those that refuse - Wes and Spike - that she does bond with, however reluctantly. It seems to be that same quality of defiance mixed with understanding (expressed differently by watcher and vampire, but essentially the same response) that interests her in the two Englishmen and influences her choice of guide and pet.
Both Spike and Wes see Fred in Illyria, and that hurts them as well as making them vulnerable to her. But Spike has vampire senses to tell him that she's not Fred. The man that loved Fred desperately for years in Wes would like very much to believe the lie that she's not gone. But though that desire influences his actions with Illyria, until he's dying (and the lie can do no harm), the watcher tries very hard to continue to see through illusions. Accordingly, both men see Illyria amid the echoes of Fred, not just the reminder of the dead girl both loved in their own ways. Both men are a challenge, provide her with the information she needs to survive in a changed world, and both are the ones she is willing to show any vulnerability to.
The relationships between god and vampire (communication through mutually enjoyable conflict and similar experiences) and god and human (communication through verbal interplay and a shared past between human and shell) are presented differently. But the underlying dynamics drawing them together have a great deal of similarity. It's not a coincidence that the main pairings in fic are Illyria/Wes and Illyria/Spike. It's also not a coincidence that the two most important relationship in the life of Elizabeth Tudor were the conflict/sexually shaded one with Robert Dudley and the 'purer' more cerebral/how to rule/survive in a hostile world one with Lord Burleigh. The parallels with the codings of Illyria's relationship with Spike and Wes seem evident.
Though they are her two closest relationships, they aren't the only one. Just as Elizabeth also kept a court of fighting, feuding, plotting and devoted men around her, so did Fred, and Illyria inherits them.
Angel also refuses to bend the knee, but in his case, she relates to him as one ruler to another - regarding herself as the older and wiser one ruler (if one suffering the temporary absence of kingdom) advising the upstart. They lock horns as both are accustomed to being rulers of their own realm, and that conflict is unlikely to ever end until one of the other is gone or dead, since neither will ever truly yield to the other. Accordingly, neither will show the other their weaknesses or vulnerabilities, for fear of weakening their respective positions of power, and they are likely to remain in a state of uneasy detente at best.
If it best served Illyria's interests to decapitate him again, she would. Personal intervention from those she has reluctantly developed bonds with would earn them her listening to their case for mercy, or imprisonment. But if faced with an Illyria or Angel choice, there wouldn't be one in her mind, because in her mind, she is what matters. For her, it's All About Illyria.
For Lorne, it's all about Fred. He sees Illyria as a, "Walking obituary" of the girl he loved. Accordingly he disappears into the bottle and into trying to avoid his own grief, fears, guilt that he should have seen what would happen when Knox sang, and most of all tries to avoid seeing Illyria herself. Though he does try to be as friendly as he can when he has no choice but to see her, he would far rather avoid her, and the two characters have very little to do with each other.
Angel and Spike also have to deal with some very real guilt in their choice to not save Fred and condemn hundreds of thousands, whole cities in her place. And Illyria is a walking reminder of the woman she killed with, "As little malice as a viral phage." But vampire senses help them differentiate her from Fred and that helps them to deal with her as Illyria. Wes has the most personal reasons to want to see the Fred in her, but tries to stay a watcher in an insane situation. He has massive problems - exacerbated by his own dual sets of memories - doing it while coping with his own grief. but he mostly manages. Lorne retreats to get away from addressing the problem.
Gunn has his own problems, with his guilt over his culpability in signing the paper that freed Illyria's sarcophagus, the deceit in not coming clean over that damaging Angel's trust in him, the stabbing by his best friend, the atonement by having his heart cut out daily for weeks. An atonement that ends when Illyria rescues him.
This is something she does to put Angel and Wesley in her debt, her power, and so strengthen her position in a very uncertain world. She responds to Wes' understanding why she's done it, but seems at this point to have little concern for Gunn himself - holding him by the throat until her point has been made. The more vulnerable Illyria after her power-down does express concern for Gunn in requesting he not die as he is not unpleasing to her eyes. This concern has echoes with Fred's care for her old love turned one of her boys, as well as Illyria's desire for intact allies at this point.
Which brings us to the last of Fred's boys - Knox. The one that worshipped her and was rejected, but who chose her to embody his god, killing her and destroying her soul in the process.
Knox is her first guide as her high priest - the Qwa'ha Xahn whose placing of her sacraments next to his heart calls her to him. It's what she knows, it's an appropriate relationship for a God King, but she develops no affection for him, treating Knox's potential death with all the personal concern of a scientist for a bug that's being experimented on. Wesley kills him, and she is angry at Wes' presumption in killing what belongs to her, but she cares nothing for Knox himself. He has fulfilled his purpose and hers in opening the locked door to her temple and that's all that matters.
In his place, she takes Wesley as her guide, her watcher, and the bulk of her arc is spent with him. He tells Angel that he doesn't love this thing, but he needs her right now. He tries to destroy her, to bring back Fred by breaking the Window of Orlon, and undo the reality change. But all he succeeds in doing is returning his own missing memories to add to the false ones of the mind wipe. Illyria also gets an additional set of memories to add to the fragments of Fred that she was left with when Fred's brain collapsed. Those memories add the original, missing true memories to the mind-wiped fragments of Fred left in Illyria.
It is important to remember how much Fred is present in Illyria and which version of Fred those are when writing her. Illyria has complete knowledge of herself (just as Adam did on BTVS) and knows that Fred changed when her memory did. That self-awareness, and the fact that she's used to living seven lives at once, means she copes well with the new set of memories without the problems Wes experiences in integrating the changes. But while the Fred influence is different pre and post 'Origin', it is important to note that the increased dose of Fred memories do not stop Illyria from killing any of Fred's boys in 'Time Bomb'. Fred's memories are a powerful tool for Illyria to use in adapting to her world, and they do affect and interest Illyria, but it is Illyria who remains in control.
Though Fred's power is, "Not to let them take me," and the memories that are all that are left of her do influence Illyria relationships with all of Fred's boys. It comes through in her finding Gunn not un-pleasing to her eyes and not wanting him to die. It's certainly a strong factor in her choice of Wes as guide, along with her knowledge that his feelings for Fred make him the most easily manipulatable. A choice that proves correct when his attempt at bringing back Fred in 'Origin' fails and he faces Angel ordering him to find a way to kill her, but instead conspires to find a way to save her.
She detests the diminished power and the loss of senses humans can only guess at that result from this. She loses the song of the green, the ability to walk between worlds, stop and slow time and much of her physical strength. She remains a powerful fighter, far stronger than the vampires (when not hopped up on the blood of the Senior Partners) but compared to what she's used to, she's undoubtedly weaker personally and in relation to her enemies.
And she has enemies that date back to the time of the Old Ones. The Wolf, the Ram and the Hart know her of old, and they don't want her around, they don't want her alive at all. But they leave it to Angel to dispose of her; they do remain big on wanting things on their schedule. The SPs were weak in Illyria's time, but they've upgraded while she lay dead, and in a weakened state she is vulnerable to them and to the other enemies a great monarch accumulates over aeons and dimensions. She knows this. She is a monarch herself and knows that weakness is met with death. It's why she remains with those who have affection for the shell and power to wield.
The experience of being less than she once was is one in which she does find common ground with her 'pet'. Spike spends time with her, challenges her, has the ability to see that she's not Fred, frustrates her enough to interest her, and is able to relate to her losses and offer a way to vent the frustrations in both hitting him in mutually enjoyable sparring and demon hunting. She does develop some attachment to him early on, in her own unique way, in asking for him as a pet, and some respect in killing him first as the most dangerous threat.
There is certainly groundwork done for a Spike/Illyria relationship. The mutually enjoyable snark/sparring, her desire to keep him as a 'pet', his asking her out on a 'perfect date' (post the 'move on from Buffy' episode) is all far more than some ships get. And post NFA, assuming they both survived the alley, there's certainly ingredients there to work with when she's lost someone she cares for and that's an experience he knows all too well.
But the bulk of Illyria's emotional arc is spent with Wes. He annoys her. He won't worship her, though he needs her as much as she does him. She's intrigued by the memories of Fred's emotions she's been left with and wants to explore them - much as the scientist explored phenomena that piqued her interest.
It's not that Illyria doesn't know what emotions are. She does. She's encountered ones we might only guess at. She has "Walked worlds of smoke and half-truths, intangible. Worlds of torment and of unnameable beauty. Opaline towers as high as small moons. Glaciers that rippled with insensate lust." She knows Wesley's grief for what it is, even if she finds it, "Offal, in her mouth."
It's not until he's dying that Illyria recognises that she has developed affections for this human (as fits the ME MO), but she does recognise what those feelings are and tries hard to make his passing as easy as she can. The lie contains some truth - if not that about Fred waiting for him. With her soul destroyed and her body consumed to give life to Illyria, the only shards of Fred left are the sets of memories in Illyria. Those are the ones she leans on to transform form and voice to that of the dead woman, to give what she can to the man that loved Fred. But those shards do bleed across to the god, and the emotions of god and dead woman are real. It's those very real emotions that make a god weep as she destroys the man that killed Wesley and leads to the grief she can't seem to control as she faces the forces of her ancient enemies in that alley.
The image of Darla that tried to stop Connor from sacrificing a virgin told him that she had Darla's memories, and said that was what made a person who they were. The vampires remember who they were before they were demonised. Illyria has her own memories, the fragments left by Fred's collapsing mind as she died, and the overlay of the returned memories from the breaking of the Window of Orlon. She's a mass of memory and demonic power all wrapped up in a dead shell.
Though Illyria would be horrified to be used as a tool to examine 'sub-creatures', she's the perfect mirror to look at the vampires and see what makes them tick. She's in fact a great contrast to them. Vampires take their sentience, driving obsessions and feelings from the human host, twisted around by animation of the body by a largely mindless demon. Illyria's sentience is all from the Old One, but with the addition of access to much of the memory of the host. Though Illyria remains pre-eminent, the more Illyria accesses Fred's memories, the more those memories seem to influence her relationships and actions. Memories are a crucial part of who a person is, after all.
Fred changed when her memories did. With no part of her mind containing memories of loving Wes, it's questionable whether Illyria would have felt what she did when he died, at least that fast into the relationship. But that set of memories were there, and they did open the door to Illyria developing feelings for Wes as they interacted. Therefore, the memories of who Fred was, how she thought and felt and how that feeds into the character of Illyria are vital to understanding those shadings and influence that do bleed through to the god as she explores them.
They also fit the model.
Fred, like Elizabeth, was a survivor. One survived five years as a slave, a hunted runaway and utterly alone in hell. The other went through much the same crucible in a lethal Tudor court. Fred, unique to every major character in the Jossverse, had two good, functional parents with whom she has a mutually loving relationship. This is in contrast to Elizabeth. But where she had a mother lost to her father's sword and an adolescence where an abusive step-father nearly caused her own execution, Fred did experience betrayal by a father figure who sent her to hell where she was most definitely abused as a cow slave.
As a result, both women develop powerful survival skills and surround themselves with adoring men with complementary and competing skill sets, each of which she forms one-on-one relationships with. This helps ensure the woman's power and survival as the men form her court - be it around a throne or a dying woman's bedside - and compete constructively for her attention. Attention that is returned, in varying ways, so locking in the devotion. That network of one-on-one relationships form the memories Illyria inherits along with the men, and she uses that knowledge and the power it brings to accomplish her own ends. Though she is new to this world, despite her great age, and can push her research too far (as Fred might do with her lab experiments), as she does with examining Wes and the Burkles' feelings in 'The Girl In Question'.
However, for such an ancient character, she learns quickly and her emotional breakthroughs and growth are rapid as well as real. No matter how much Fred's feelings and emotions are replayed or bleed through to the god as she explores them, it is Illyria that smashes Vail's head with a single punch for killing her Wesley and taunting her, and asks Gunn to try not to die. It's Illyria that is the character on the screen, and though I did like Fred, it's Illyria that I find fascinating to read and write.
Speaking of which, the fic.
She's one of the newest characters on the show and in the fandom, and one that had the misfortune to appear just as the show was killed. As a result, there hasn't been as much fic about her as there might otherwise have been. She's also a character many people express worries about capturing her pov. This is a problem often dealt with by using other characters pov with her as a main character. It also has the advantage of reducing Illyria's wordiness' effect on killing the pacing of a story.
She can be tricky to write, to allow yourself to let go far enough into the OTT which you need to reach in writing a god. But once you go with it, and really run with the character's complete megalomania and vulnerability in all she's lost, the results can magnificent and huge fun. How often do you get to try writing a God? It's heady stuff - if one best tackled using appropriate disclaimers.
Illyria also offers some interesting dynamics to explore with the other ATS characters. She inhabits (from what we saw) a human body from tongue to fingers, albeit one whose skin and hair is mottled with blue markings. We saw it. It's a body that has been re-modelled to fit the power and systems of a god - ones that include a circulatory system that bleeds. It's reasonable to assume that NC 17 (after a suitable build up of the relationship being taken to that point) is possible.
As is exploring some really interesting pre and post 'NFA' situations, issues and relationships with her as a main character.
My own take on the character is explored in Samson and the Broken Dolls, which starts in the 'NFA' alley.
Good places to start looking for Illyria fic is the eponymous _illyria and the Spike/Illyria community spillyria, where kantayra has written both epics and shorts.
I would certainly recommend Lindt's Lost in the Supermarket and denny_dc's Generals, and If Wishes Were God Kings
spikendru has written some great fun pieces, such as Illyria and the Magic Potion.
estepheia's Mind Over Matter is mainly very hot Spike/Gunn, but the Illyria and the S/I of it are un-missible.
But there are plenty of stories of the God-King waiting still to be written. I know I'm dying to read them. I hope this essay helps inspire maybe one or two of them.