Gobsmacked. That was me after reading the last page of 'After The Fall' #3. There may even have been a few words of incredulous profanity uttered... It certainly wasn't a development I was anticipating; but with hindsight it's perfectly logical, as all the best surprise twists are.
So, on with the review.
I was a bit confused by the voiceover on the first page: I was actually thinking it might be Spike talking until I realised it was Angel. From the state of the Playboy Mansion it seems that Spike is still, as Buffy once called him, a pig. I was also amused by the fact that there's not one but two bras hanging from the light fittings in his bedroom.
So 'Primordial' Sanskrit is apparently the language spoken by the God-King of the Primordium and her subjects, rather than, say, the language spoken by the Aryan invaders of India in the second millennium BCE. Okay. And the plot reveal in this episode is that Angel had decided that either Illyria killed the people in Westwood, with Spike's help, because she's emotionally unstable - or that a person or persons unknown faked the scene to implicate them. My only question now is whether that was indeed Gunn's plan, to make Angel suspect Spike - or if he's pulling some sort of double bluff that's yet to be revealed. We also learn in the final scene of this issue that the other demon Lords of LA really have jumped to the conclusion that Illyria is the one who killed Kr'ph - so Gunn's scheme worked there at least.
With hindsight, when Illyria tells Angel he's "half of what you were" and Angel replies "Tell me about it", that's a big clue to the reveal on the final page. I'm not sure why Angel thinks a pistol will be more effective than stabbing her with a big steak-knife... and I'm wondering if the 'click' was him discovering the gun was empty, or him actually pulling the trigger but learning that Illyria is once again fast enough to even dodge bullets.
They used the Mutari generator (thanks, Brian, for the reference to save me looking it up!) to suck away Illyria's time-control powers in 'Time Bomb'; but it's suggested here that they're returning now she's in Hell. Hence the uncontrolled jumps through time during the fight. I assume the different colored text boxes indicate the thoughts of present-day Angel (the ones in white) and alternate-history Angel (the ones in blue, yellow, green and blue again). In order, the timeslips seem to be:
1. 18th century Angel - is this Liam or Angelus? He has no clue who Illyria is here.
2. Angel from the episode 'Smile Time'. He now thinks the woman in front of him is Fred.
3. Angel in some sort of futuristic plant room or even a spaceship corridor. He remembers Illyria as a face from his past.
4. A baby. I assume from context that this is baby Angel/Liam and not, say, Connor. His thoughts are those you'd expect from a baby remembering the womb. The only confusing thing is why this timeslip is the last one, when the others were in chronological order. Unless Angel is going to be reborn as a newborn infant at some point in the future?
And Angel notices Illyria hesitates to kill him, and leaps to the conclusion that there may be something of Fred left inside her. Which we've all been suspecting too, of course. :-) Interesting that he's having moral qualms as to whether he should exploit this against Illyria. I wonder if Illyria's comment about when Angel's gone "we move forward" is significant? Would killing him break the barrier around Los Angeles? And when Spike casually answers Angel's question about 'when is this?' with 'still now', does that mean he's accustomed to Illyria's uncontrollable time-slips already?
If Illyria were a human male, I'd say she was engaging in testosterone-fuelled showing off in her attempt to defeat Angel's dragon. But the motives of godlike demonic rulers of the primordial age before humanity are unfathomable to mere mortals. :-) She doesn't appear to actually hurt the dragon at all, but she's pretty much invulnerable to anything it does to her too. The fight scene reminded me of a couple of things, actually, though I don't know if they were conscious influences: the battle between Tok, Beck and the giant monkey in 'Shadow Puppets' (which was an equally irrelevant battle while the main character had a plot-related conversation); and the scene in 'Fray' where Melaka is swallowed by the Gateway (though that might just be two people having the same idea independently).
'Fred Sonja' is a highly amusing pop-culture reference. :-)
And we get the reveal of what Spike was really up to. Again, 'After The Fall' really isn't stringing us along with big multi-episode mysteries. The fact that Connor was working with Spike as well as Angel was an interesting twist... and from Angel's perspective, I bet that's 'twist' as in 'knives' and 'wounds'. And Spike's 'harem' is actually a vigilante army - I wonder if all of them are scantily clad demon babes, or if the more modest or more male members of his army are simply not invited to his after-work parties?
Also, while some of the women are clearly demonic, others are apparently human... so I wonder if this is the solution of the mystery about where Los Angeles's Slayer population ended up? [Trivia Alert: 2,000 Slayers out of a population of 6 billion means one per three million people - so five from Los Angeles if they're evenly distributed. They may not be, of course - or for that matter, the 2,000 Slayers Buffy knows about may be mostly from the Western world, and she's never been able to track down or contact the thousands of Slayers who were called in China and India.] It's also interesting to compare Spike's army of women warriors with the very similar force Buffy has put together - although of course Buffy's troops wear Kevlar jackets and combat boots, not skimpy bikinis. I imagine Buffy would have a few Words to exchange with Spike if they ever get to compare notes. :-)
A small revelation: Wesley doesn't know about Illyria. And Angel's not telling him, in order to spare his feelings.
Now we get to meet the remaining Lords of Los Angeles. Is it just me, or is the Lord of Santa Monica either the loan-shark demon from 'Tabula Rasa' or one of his close relatives? Also, note that the Lords consider Illyria, not Spike, to be the true ruler of Beverley Hills. Looks like he was just spinning stories last issue.
I don't know if Angel's declaration of war and battle with the Seven Lords is going to be the mainstay of the arc or just the first stage of it, but it certainly kicks things into high gear. Angel seems to be making it up as he goes along here, but I wonder if he does have something special planned, that Wesley doesn't know about...
And then the big reveal: Angel isn't a vampire anymore. OMG. The casual mention of him 'not being half of what he used to be' earlier on falls into place now, as does why he was using Wolfram & Hart's healing resources so much in previous issues. And why we've never seen him vamping out so far. Everybody else in LA seems to assume that he's still a vampire, though, so he's clearly keeping it secret - perhaps to hide his weakness. That invites the question as to what abilities he has now; obviously not vampiric healing. He's still an extremely competent fighter, however - and he managed to put Spike on the floor with a single punch (though admittedly Spike was drunk at the time). That kind of implies he's still got more than human strength - although unlike 'Buffy', 'Angel' tended to downplay the physical differences between vampires and humans. Of course, Angel says he's not a vampire, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he's human - that's only an assumption.
So is this the Shanshu? "The vampire with a soul, once he fulfills his destiny, survives the coming darkness, the apocalyptic battles, a few plagues, and the fiends that will be unleashed, will Shanshu. Become human." It seems to fit. Angel supposedly signed it away in 'Not Fade Away', but I've always been a bit dubious about that... a prophecy is not a contract, and traditionally, attempting to avoid a prophecy only makes it even more likely to come true. "I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra." If it's true, it's deeply ironic that what was supposed to be Angel's reward has in fact been twisted into part of his punishment.
However, it's not necessarily the Shanshu. In 'Asylum', Brian Lynch introduced a type of demon - a Ringel - which can drain away other demons' powers in its presence - including Spike's ability to go into gameface and (presumably) to use his other vampiric powers. It's possible that a similar kind of effect on a larger scale is at work here, rather than that Angel is actually human.,
I'm sure we'll find out soon...