It would have been all too easy in a series set in a school to have the main characters with no other recurring cast, just writing in new additional supporting characters as per the requirements of each story. Buffy isn’t like that, and a larger world has been built around Buffy and her friends, including several familiar faces that pop up occasionally such as Jonathan, Larry, Harmony, and now Amy is back for the first time since her first season appearance. Despite suffering at the hands of her mother’s witchcraft, she is now dabbling in the dark arts herself, which is a clever representation of a child patterning after the self-defeating behaviour of a parent. Unusually, it is Xander who needs Amy’s help and drives the episode forward, but this is very much Xander’s episode, and those are always fun.
The action here takes place against the backdrop of Valentines Day, and it’s not a good one for anyone. Willow is the only one having fun, but her enjoyment is ruined by Xander in the end. As for the rest of them, Buffy is alone and suffering from the obsession of her ex, Giles and Jenny are still apart, Angel gets one up on Spike in the most twisted way possible, presenting Dru with a human heart which she appreciates much more than jewellery, and Cordelia breaks up with Xander.
It’s obvious why Cordelia does that. Her reputation has suffered, and she’s not quite yet in a place where that doesn’t matter to her. It’s tempting to look at her as the same shallow character we saw at the start of the first season, but the journey she goes through during this episode proves that she is not. Instead, she hits a major bump in the road, faced with the prospect of losing everything that has been familiar to her for years. She has to summon up the courage to walk away from everything that makes her Cordelia, and Xander isn’t quite giving her enough of a reason to do that, until he proves accidentally how much she means to him. It’s a bit twisted, because he casts the spell for reasons of revenge, so he can break up with her and make her suffer. That’s never addressed, but luckily Cordelia never finds out about that. He was perhaps lying to Amy and himself and really did want her to love him again because he was broken-hearted. That’s never made explicit, but the clue is Amy’s insistence that the spell-caster’s motives have to be pure. Xander hand-waves the problem away with his talk of pure revenge, but that won’t fool an attentive viewer. Xander and Cordelia have clearly fallen in love, but neither of them have been admitting that to themselves, trapped in the awkwardness of their clash of different lives and personalities.
This is a very funny episode, playing to Nicholas Brendon’s strengths as an actor. In particular I loved the slow-motion shot of Xander walking through the school while all the girls are going wild for him and all the men hate him. It’s worth watching that scene through a couple of times, because some of the expressions on the extras’ faces are hilarious. But this isn’t just an excuse for comedy. The episode works by steadily escalating the situation. Things get worse and worse and worse. Just when you think things can’t get any worse, Buffy gets turned into a rat… and then Willow shows up with an axe… and then Buffy nearly gets eaten by a cat.
This could so easily have been an episode where Xander hits rock bottom and stays there, and it comes close to doing that. He cuts a lonely figure after Cordelia dumps him, Buffy starts going after him but he can’t act on that, Giles talks to him like a father who is bitterly disappointed in his son, and he alienates almost everyone, including Willow, who is deeply hurt by what happened. But the writer builds him back up again at the end, because Buffy admires him for not taking advantage of her, while Cordelia basically abandons her whole life just to be with him. At the start of the episode their relationship was twisted and bad for their self esteem. By the end it’s simply two teenagers in love. So maybe I was wrong when I said this is Xander’s episode. The character development Cordelia goes through is huge, without ever quite losing that sharp edge that makes her fun to watch:
“I’ll date whoever the hell I want to date, no matter how lame he is.”
Turns out this was Cordelia’s episode, after all. RP
The view from the Sunnydale Press…
My first thought when this episode started was that we were in for another of those weak ones. The opening isn’t very captivating with Buffy and Xander fighting a vampire in the cemetery. I mean, the issue there is that Buffy could have popped the vampire like a balloon the split second it was coming out of the ground while it was focused on Xander, but she fails to because she’s up for a fight first. But it wasn’t long before I realize that, like Babylon 5’s A View From the Gallery, this is a comedy episode. Once you accept that, it’s actually quite good. Then it doubles down in the last minute and goes straight for our hearts.
The episode again addresses teen life, this time with rejection and dating. Willow still loves Xander even though she is genuinely happy with Oz. Xander loves Buffy. Buffy loves Angel. Spike loves Dru who seems to love Angel more. I mean, things are all over the map but then, that’s the way of the teenage heart, isn’t it? (Well, maybe that doesn’t help the explanation around Dru…) But Xander also loves Cordelia and she breaks off their relationship because of her reputation. This leads Xander to ask for the help of an old friend. All the way back in season one, we met Amy whose mother was a witch. Xander asks for Amy’s help to put a spell on Cordelia for one reason alone: he wants to hurt her like she hurt him.
“It’s time for me to act like a man. And HIDE!” This is a very clear moral lesson: be careful what you wish for. Or actually, have good intentions, because bad ones backfire. Ok, maybe the message isn’t so clear because both of those are the end result. Xander ends up being lusted for almost to death. (A good lesson indeed because none of my teen friends were witches and I often regretted that, having aimed for the same goals as Xander. He nearly died. I didn’t. So lesson learned; don’t look back with regret – that could have killed me!)
“Okay, what now? You don’t like my locker combination?” Of course, even as a comedy episode, there’s loads that just don’t make sense. Buffy shows up in school in nothing but a raincoat. Yes, this is California but surely even with her witchcraft-induced hunger, that wasn’t going to go over well with the school. And speaking of the black magic, do kids have to ask for permission to stay in school late at night to perform rituals? I never thought to ask that at my school. When all the girls attack Buffy’s house, a lot of damage is done to the home yet her mom accepts “scavenger hunt” as a reason for it? How much will that set her back? She has to replace the back door and at least one window! And I was a little creeped out by the adult women groping Xander. (Though the actor must have had the best time filming this episode!) Oh and is it me, or does Oz’s hair change color episodically?
“Who died and made you Elvis?” What made me love the episode is actually the ending. The witchcraft bit is resolved too easily but when Cordelia finds the strength of character to stand up to her “friends” and choses to be with Xander, I applauded! That was a lovely moment. She’s always been that “extra” member of the team, but always slightly on the outside. This has firmly put her on the inside in my eyes. (And no complaints from me!)
This show has managed to bounce all over the place but it is developing character and is aware of its own past, which I take as a very good sign. I’d like a bit more logic, but I can turn a blind eye when the story is fun. This one really does feel more like a comedy but it is also laced with horror. As I said, one must be careful with one’s wishes; that was the lesson of The Monkey’s Paw! Xander learned just what his need for revenge could lead to and it almost cost him his life. He was driven by lust and that can only take him down. Maybe the only way forward is true passion. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Passion