"Touch Me and Die, Vermin!": The Psychoanalysis of Illyria
The last great new character to be added to Angel was Illyria, the former hell goddess who takes over the body of the beloved Fred. Through examining the crucial Illyria episode "Time Bomb" through the lens of psychoanalysis, can we learn what makes her tick?
The events in the Angel Season Five episode “Time Bomb” (5.19) unveil former hell goddess Illyria’s humanistic development. Her path toward becoming more human is tedious, much like the path humans face in their daily struggles. While her dreams are more grandiose than those of mere humans, she becomes a relatable character experiencing a very humanlike existence. Angel, which captures the culture and language of present day Los Angeles, meets the important criterion for using psychoanalysis (the study of psychological behavior) to evaluate a text: it conveys the sense of a lived experience (Parker, p. 314). The psychoanalytic theory developed by psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan offers a framework for understanding the process Illyria undergoes. Lacan posits that “all individuals are fragmented: No one is whole” (Bressler, p. 129). His theory focuses on “understanding the human psyche” by looking at the individual’s “divided self” (Ibid, p. 131).
Lacan’s theory is specifically relevant to Illyria’s experiences as she endures the two key elements to his theory, lack and fragmentation. According to Lacan, lack stems from a desire to return to the Imaginary Order. In fiction, the Imaginary Order is typically represented as a place where an individual feels whole. Illyria’s Imaginary Order is the world as it once was when she ruled it eons ago. The desire for the unattainable Imaginary Order results in fragmentation (a breakdown of the psyche) in the Real Order, which consists of the physical universe and all the things within it (Bressler, p. 129). The Real Order is the reality in which any person exists, whether he or she wants to or not. For Illyria, the Real Order is modern day Los Angeles, which to her is both limiting and suffocating. She must reconcile her loss in order to overcome lack and fragmentation in the Real Order.
In literature, both language and profound experiences such as death are often used to depict fragmentation. Both of these devices illustrate Illyria’s fragmentation throughout the episode “Time Bomb". Language is used as a “symbolic system which provide(s) a communicational bridge” between individuals, allowing them to make sense of things after events have occurred (Parker, p. 307). This helps the characters and the viewers process the events around them as the actions in the episode force Illyria through a painful physical and mental fragmentation that will lead to her death.
In the earlier episode “Shells” (5.16) Illyria initially sought her Imaginary Order by visiting her ancient temple, which is now empty and desolate. With her army gone, she resides at Wolfram and Hart as a lost god without a kingdom or followers. Wesley Wyndam-Price has accepted the task of being Illyria’s guide to this world, the Real Order. As author Jes Battis discusses in his book Chosen Families in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, when Illyria first asks Wesley to be her guide, she is not concerned about “human attachments". Her initial interests are “entirely clinical” (p. 127). However, in “Time Bomb” Illyria’s powers become unstable, and she is on the brink of destruction. As she enters the state of mind that Lacan identifies as fragmentation, she starts to demonstrate human emotions.
In the opening of “Time Bomb”, Illyria has left this dimension to retrieve Angel’s colleague Charles Gunn, imprisoned in another dimension. When Wesley informs Angel of her act, they agree she is unpredictable, and Angel concludes she is not doing this for the benefit of their team. As they argue over their attitudes toward Illyria, Wesley explains that she has the “power of a god” while Angel claims all she has now is the “ego of a god". Wesley reminds him that she was once ruler of the world, and acknowledges that she will never accept any of them as peers. Angel concludes that Illyria remains at Wolfram and Hart only because it “reeks of influence".
The statements both men make reflect the very struggle Illyria is experiencing in her divided self: she is forced to live in the Real Order while longing to return to the Imaginary Order. Upon her return with Gunn, Illyria calmly holds him by the throat, acknowledging that he is precious to the others. Considering her understanding of the world, Wesley agrees they owe her a debt for returning him safely. Illyria accepts this and releases Gunn from her deathly grip. She never requests repayment, as she is satisfied by the power she holds in attaining indebtedness. Despite the fact that she has no kingdom to rule, she is still a god demanding authority...