In Season Four, Wesley fully embraces his inner-badass.
In Season Four, Wesley fully embraces his inner-badass. He is no longer even vaguely reminiscent of the Wesley first seen in Sunnydale. He has traded his glasses for contacts, a clean shave for a perennial five o’clock shadow, and his genuine if unrequited love for Fred for a sexual “relationship” with Lilah. Wesley’s relationship with Lilah goes to demonstrate his complete turn in character. Where he was completely loyal to Angel before, he now goes genuinely rogue and fights the good fight on his own. There is no room for regrets with the new Wesley. He runs his own crew, and is now in complete control.
The only problem is that he has sacrificed his morals. Where his ambiguity assisted him when he was still on the good side of the fence, his actions have left him bitter and alone, and much darker than before. Wesley spends his time with Lilah because he needs to be in control, he hates that the man he was before wasn’t good enough for them, so he goes out to prove he doesn’t need Angel or their rules. Lilah will do things for him that Fred never would, namely entice his sexual desires. He doesn’t have to feel for her initially, because he has everything that he could want out of her. He doesn’t have to risk all of the feelings that Fred blew off, the friendship Gunn took for granted, or the loyalty that Angel couldn’t fully understand.
Wesley eventually leaves Lilah to face his feelings for Fred and salvage his relationship with Angel Investigations. He understands that in order truly to be happy in life it isn’t enough being fulfilled in mind and body, he needs the fulfillment of the heart. It is then that his darkness starts to fade and we come to see a more confident, yet shaded, character. Wesley faces his inner turmoil.
Wesley is nonetheless saddened by Lilah’s death, primarily because he knows that their relationship was one of passion and lust that could never become one of love. He hates himself for what happened to Lilah because he wishes she could have made it out alive, could have done better for herself. He even believes that their interactions might have been the purest thing in her life, however wrong they were. He moves on because he must, because as always, he will go for the greater good. While Whedon certainly explored the torrential depths of sexual, lust driven relationships (Buffy and Spike for example) in other aspects, Wesley and Lilah resonated because both of their characters were, again, human. In a show rife with the supernatural, the moments that hit closest to home are the ones that most closely resemble daily life. Wesley compromised his inner morals for satisfaction, and it isn’t good enough.
The awesome transformation that we see in Season Four shows how Wesley is now capable of seeking exactly what he wants, no matter the cost, which means he is ready to fight for Fred. Fred, like Wesley’s father, is one of the key relationships that define his character. It is Wesley’s love for Fred that initially causes him to reintegrate himself into the group, and her obvious feelings for him that lead him finally to kiss her. When this leads to an all out brawl with Gunn, Wesley actually takes the upper hand, landing the last shot. Naturally, in full Whedon fashion, Fred is put off by Wesley’s resorting to violence, despite the attraction that she seemingly has to his new persona.
Starting with the final episode of Season Four and throughout Season Five, Wesley’s relationship with Fred is slowly explored. The whole group has had their mind wiped, leaving everyone void of memories involving Connor. Therefore, all of the horrible things that happened as a result of Wesley stealing Connor are gone, making him part of the group again. While it is unclear how much of Season Four is actually known to the group, Wesley still remembers Lilah, as she introduces him to Wolfram & Hart. His only reason for joining the tour initially is to release Lilah from her contract with Wolfram & Hart, which turns out to be binding even after death. Wesley’s defining moments in Season Five are all a result of his relationship with Fred. The pair interacts flirtatiously throughout the season, until finally in the episode “Lineage” (5.7), his true feelings are finally revealed.
It is in “Lineage” that Whedon finally places Wesley’s love for Fred and need for approbation from his father at odds. Both of these things are highly symbolic of Wesley’s inner turmoil and personal progress, and also of the human need to find one’s own path in life apart from the “lineage” created by one’s father. For Wesley, the series of events in this episode symbolizes many things. When Wesley shoots a cyborg that he believes to be his father in order to save Fred, it is clear that his love for her outweighs anything, and that he has finally faced his father. By instinctually, without hesitation, murdering what he truly believed to be his father, he finally faces the man that had tormented every aspect of his life. He was willing to brush off the negative impact of Roger Wyndam-Pryce for years, until it directly impacted the one thing he truly wanted in life. He could have faced years more of torment as long as there was some hope that he would find love with Fred, proving that he was worthy of someone’s love that he could in fact love back; so when she was threatened, he did what he had to do to keep that future secure. At the end of the episode, however, he attempts to call his father and is again disapprovingly brushed off. Happy that he had not killed his father, he reaches out to the real man, and is once again rebuffed. He loves Fred, but until he can finally have her, he cannot prove his father wrong.
Wesley’s final tragedy occurs with the death of Fred. As soon as he finally expresses his love for her, she is gone, taken over by an ancient primordial force, the hell goddess Illyria. It is rewarding to the audience to see Fred finally fall for Wes, and the viewer is rewarded a temporary moment of hope for the couple. Then, before they could even begin their romance, she is gone. Wesley’s life is now aimless. He cracks, stabbing Gunn for his inadvertent involvement, before he kills Fred’s assistant Knox for choosing Fred as the vessel for Illyria. He clings to Illyria, because she looks like Fred. Later, he finds that Angel has wiped his mind, and smashes the Orlon Window, a device that built the reality. When things go racing back to him, he sees the things he has done, and retreats into his old self, ready to fight alongside Angel.
Whedon never allowed Wesley a happy ending, because the character is made continually to struggle. He had, for fleeting moments, perfect bliss with the love of his life. That was his happy ending. Everything afterwards was an Epilogue. However, by guiding Illyria, he finds a new purpose. He wishes to teach her how to interact with the world, but only on the condition that she never take on the persona of Fred. This shows that he is trying to deal with her death.
Finally, when the last fight comes, he is there to do his part; by taking on the demon Cyvus Vail, the man who created the false memories he had for a portion of his time at Wolfram & Hart. Whedon again, upon finding that Angel was being cancelled at the end of Season Five, asked Denisof if he wanted Wesley to live or die. Denisof chose death, giving the audience a sad ending to the character, but an ending nonetheless. Denisof’s choice was wise. By allowing the audience to see Wesley’s complete transformation from beginning to end, the audience is allowed to see the true tragic scope of the man’s life.
Wesley is fatally stabbed while taking on Vail, and in his dying moments Illyria arrives. Asking him if he would like for her “to lie” to him by transforming herself into the Fred that he loved, he replies, “Yes, thank you, yes.” His last moments are spent looking into the face of the woman he loves. Whedon gives us the perfect tragic hero through Wesley’s death.
Wesley Wyndam-Pryce is one of the best developed characters in the Whedonverse. His choices go to prove that even the best of men are often not rewarded for their actions. There is no shanshu for Wesley, and while Angel fights for the eventual rewards, Wesley does because he must, because somewhere in time he became the badass demon hunter he once dreamed of being. There are no big open questions about Wesley; the audience sees all of his development. With Angel, there are hundreds of years of unexplored backstory (the most obvious being What happened when he was in hell for 100 years?), but with Wesley, the viewer witnesses his complete rise and fall.
Where it was often difficult, yet feasible, to cope with Angel’s redemption due to his being a supernatural creature, an anomaly, Wesley was far more interesting because he was in fact completely human. When his throat is slit trying to save his best friend’s son, or when he begins sleeping with his worst enemy, or battles the emotional wounds of his father, he shows problems that while arguably hyperbolic are nonetheless representative of human possibilities. He doesn’t have an invulnerable body or Angel’s tortured soul; he has a shotgun and a purpose. His journey is painful because he doesn’t get everything he wants. Whedon only allows him to be with Fred end because he knows that soon she will die and Wesley will again be brought back to square one.
From “Head Boy” to badass, Wesley shows true human growth in Whedon’s work. If Wesley had lived, he would have continued fighting the good fight, despite the tragedies that plagued him; not because he is superhuman, but because he is man, and good men will always fight for what he believes in. Joss Whedon blessed the pantheon of pop culture with his creation of Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, and television will be hard pressed to find such a deep, evolving character. From keeping a girl in a cage in his closet, to weeping over his dead lover in his arms, the dynamic, chilling emotional portrayal of Wesley should be recognized as one of the greatest contributions Whedon has made.
Wesley is a man with issues, who ultimately dies. However cynical that may be, he is a perfect example of the human condition. He loves, hates, screws, kills, suppresses, fights, cries, and dies. He never receives the approval of his father, doesn’t end up in a white picket fence with his soul mate, and ultimately dies before his time. Wesley Wyndam-Pryce is Whedon’s truest tragic hero, always wanting, seldom rewarded, and eventually dead.