Buffy has been a series about the dangers of physical attraction right from the opening scene of the very first episode, so we have been building up to this moment for a long time, but why is this such a strong theme? What is Joss Whedon trying to say?
With Xander and Cordelia, a secondary focus here, it’s a much clearer picture. They have allowed their hormones to dictate their behaviour, and ignored how their toxic relationship could hurt others and themselves. Last time we saw how bad the relationship is for Xander’s self-esteem. This time, we see the harm it does to Xander’s friendship with Willow, when she accidentally finds out. The wound it inflicts on her is laid bare when she reminds Xander of the “We Hate Cordelia Club, of which you are the treasurer”. It’s a funny line, but it also illustrates the extent to which this vacuous bully has made their lives a misery in the past.
“It just means you’d rather be with somebody you hate than be with me.”
Ouch. That hurts. Willow is misunderstanding the extent to which Xander’s hormones are doing the thinking for him, and how that actually doesn’t say anything about his friendship with Willow, but equally Xander has failed to consider the inevitability of this reaction.
“I don’t understand it, I don’t want to understand it, you have gross emotional problems, and things are not okay between us.”
Of course, his “gross emotional problem” is being a 17 year old boy. The horror Buffy has to face as a consequence of consummating her relationship with Angel is less clear as a morality lesson. It was a loving relationship and they did nothing wrong. As a cautionary tale about how a man can change after he gets his oats it doesn’t really work, because Angel as we knew him would not have changed. As Giles points out at the end, Angel did love Buffy. So the most obvious interpretation is simply wrong. Instead, the point of all this is that it simply isn’t fair, and that’s made abundantly clear when Buffy confronts the treacherous Jenny:
“Angel was supposed to pay for what he did to my people.”
“And me, what was I supposed to be paying for?”
And there we have it. There’s no answer to that question. Buffy did nothing wrong.
With Xander, Cordelia, Giles, Jenny and Buffy all suffering broken relationships, Willow and Oz remain our only ray of sunshine, and that’s because they are doing things the right way. Oz won’t have their first kiss be about Willow feeling hurt over Xander, but he explains that with understanding and wisdom, not with recrimination, and Willow respects and admires him for that.
This is the most viewed episode of Buffy ever, and quite rightly so. If you’ve watched it you will know it’s brilliant, which is why I didn’t want to fill an article with gushing praise, but I’ll just finish up by indulging in a quick rundown of the elements of this episode that I think are not just good, but add up to some amazing storytelling from Whedon:
Joyce noticing that something has changed in Buffy when she returns home because of her maternal instinct.
The endlessly sublime dialogue: “She made me feel like a human being. That’s not the kind of thing you just forgive.”
The dramatic irony of Angel turning up at the school while Willow and Xander still have no idea.
“Giles, shut up.” Willow the teenage girl’s intuition about what Buffy the teenage girl has just been through, before she says a word about it to anyone. Suddenly Willow seems very grown up.
“You want to hurt her, just like you hurt me.” The parallel between Angel’s two female obsessions: Drusilla and Buffy.
Buffy attacking Jenny in front of her students.
The twist with Angel turning up to kill Uncle Enyos, at exactly the moment the narrative flow primes us for Buffy & co to arrive there instead.
Xander remembering his military knowledge from Halloween, and using that to be the unexpected hero of this story. Great use of continuity.
The way the “no weapon forged can stop him” thing doesn’t take into account the invention of new weapons, and I don’t think anybody watching will have guessed that far ahead of time, because it’s a genre clash, similar to when somebody pulls out a gun in Buffy. Always a surprise.
Buffy inevitably failing to kill Angel, but at least giving him a kick in the balls.
The haunting, sad moment at the end, where Buffy can’t bring herself to make a birthday wish: “I’ll just let it burn.”
But I have to end with that beautiful moment in the car between Buffy and Giles, when he proves beyond any doubt what a wonderful father figure he has become to her.
“The coming months are going to be hard, I suspect on all of us, but if it’s guilt you’re looking for, Buffy, I’m not your man. All you will get from me is my support and my respect.”
The tears in Buffy’s eyes say it all. Nothing in her world will ever be quite the same again… but she’s not alone. RP
The view from the Sunnydale Press…
Guilty as charged: I really thought the series was about to take a nose dive but as the second part of the “worst episode so far” opens, I noticed something: “Written and directed by Joss Whedon”. Could victory be snatched from the jaws of defeat? By God, yes!
It’s hard to put into words just how impressed I am. The last episode was genuinely bad. This episode comes along and helps us understand what happened at the end of the first half of the story. Allow me to segue: fans of the Junkyard know we love Doctor Who and I’m reminded of many a 2-part Doctor Who story where the first part is astoundingly lame, but the second part rockets to astronomical heights. (Just think of Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways or The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang!) That’s sort of what happened here. We had a supremely lame first part (like Daleks deciding to host a game show network) and then a really deeply moving second part (like saying goodbye to the Doctor). But I think what Whedon does is ruthless. Angel had a curse put on him that if he ever had a moment of genuine peace and happiness, he’d lose his soul. What leads him to that? Sex with the now-17-year-old Buffy Summers. This gives us a chance to see the pain a teen girl goes through when the guy who claimed to love her rejects her after his “conquest”. Her heartbreak is believably acted by Gellar, and it’s palpable to the audience. Whedon has done an incredible job weaving stories together that use fiction to address real life teen issues. This happens to be a brutal way to achieve that but he does it well. I’m slightly reluctant on one side of it though; the fact that we’re attributing Angel’s actions to a curse. I feel like it’s giving him a free pass in some ways. It’s a very real thing a young woman might go through but by adding the horror element of a curse, I feel it takes away some of the culpability of the character. Yeah, we don’t want to hate Angel, I get it, but the fact is, his actions are his actions. Brushing it under the carpet with a technicality doesn’t change the way Buffy feels about him and the way he treated her.
To double down on his ability to address real life issues using the smokescreen of fantasy, we have the Willow/Xander situation. “You’d rather be with someone you hate than be with me!” Wow, Willow doesn’t deserve that heartbreak. She rallies her spirits knowing she has to be there for her friend and that speaks well of her. Having to see Xander with a girl who they all think he hates is a low blow. When she tries to make Xander jealous by being with Oz, Seth Green plays the character to perfection, really making him a stellar member of the gang. He explains the situation for what it is and gets through to Willow because Willow is smart! She and Xander are still a great team, but the relationship I want to see happen now more than ever is that of Willow and Oz. But the hits don’t end there! We go still one step further when Giles backs Buffy over Jenny, telling her to get lost because that’s what Buffy asked for. (Although I do hope they reconcile!) Later in the car, Giles really wins the day by supporting Buffy since she feels at her lowest. His few words speak volumes. After the last episode, I wasn’t sure what to think, but this cast utterly shines! Oh, and they still manage to maintain some humor even through a particularly rough episode.
Cordelia: “Well, does looking at guns make you wanna have sex?”
Xander: “I’m 17. Looking at linoleum makes me wanna have sex!”
Not content to take this multi-level victory and shove it in my face, Whedon goes still one step further: he shows us that he has been paying attention to continuity. When Xander raids the army base, he has a lot of military knowledge, all acquired earlier this season during Halloween when he “became” a soldier. The only question I have is: does Willow remember what it was like being a ghost? Does Buffy have memories of the 1800s? Surely Xander can’t be alone with his memories? “Oh no. Here’s a lower place!” Well, Cordelia, I don’t want to speak ill of the episode because it really was pretty spectacular in ways I really didn’t see coming but you’re not wrong; there are some weak spots. The opening of Angel attacking the smoker only for him to turn and blow smoke from his mouth was gross and unnecessary. It suffered from the cheesiness of the previous episode. Also, the entire mall attack leaves a lot of questions. I’m consistently asking: if this happened in real life, do we come close to a real reaction and the answer is a resounding no. Would no one react? Where were the police? The fire department? And what of the theft at the barracks? A rocket launcher was stolen!! Surely Sunnydale News will be reporting on that! Xander might be recognized and arrested. Sadly, some things will probably be brushed under the carpet in the hopes that we don’t think too deeply about them. In a way, I say, who cares? The thing to remember is science fiction is at its best when it’s talking about real life issues but masking it under the guise of fantasy. Whedon does a stunning job of doing just that!
Yeah, the nature of the show means we have to accept some things even if they are a bit weak in logic. But a good message makes up for a lot! Even the defeat of the Judge was truly marvelous. No weapon forged could defeat him. Buffy says “that was then!” Yeah, this dude is old and maybe no weapon from the days of yore could touch him. But how does he fare against a rocket? “What’s that do?” It blows you to pieces, pal. Good luck getting better from that. Really great work. I’ve seen more the a few hints that Whedon might be a genius and this episode really “spiked” his score. If this momentum continues, I’m going to enjoy this next phase of the show… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Phases