There is a long tradition of parallel universe episodes in science-fiction, and The Wish immediately reminded me of the mirror universe episodes of Star Trek and Doctor Who’s Inferno. They are nearly always a huge amount of fun, because they give us a chance to see our favourite characters acting in a completely unfamiliar manner, and the actors obviously enjoy making them as well. Sci-fi and fantasy are genres that are joined at the hip, so the idea easily translates to the Buffy universe, with a wish being granted so that history has followed a different course.
By necessity we never quite get a punchline to this. The whole point of the episode is Cordelia’s belief that her life would be better if Buffy had never come to Sunnydale. She’s very wrong about that. Tragically wrong. But because we inevitably have to hit a big reset button at the end, she never gets to find out how wrong she is. Only the viewers get to see what would happen, because the Cordelia who gets to experience that is dead and gone. By the way, that’s a stroke of genius. This is set up quite clearly as Cordelia’s episode. She’s our focal character, the main protagonist of the episode, the person we assume is going to have to put things back the way they were before… and then she gets killed. It’s one of two very clever tonal shifts during the episode, the second being the moment that watching the alternative versions of our favourite characters suddenly stops being fun, as everyone dies in slow motion.
Although it’s slightly frustrating that Cordelia never learns how much better life is with Buffy around, it’s doubly frustrating that Buffy never learns that either. It reminds me of Doctor Who, where the Doctor is occasionally accused of bringing death and destruction wherever he goes, simply because he is the one who is always there fighting evil. It’s a childish but perfectly natural conclusion to draw from what appears to be rather than what is. It ties in with the very human tendency to assume that correlation is the same thing as causation. Similarly, because Buffy saves Cordelia’s life from a vampire and Cordelia ends up propelled into the trash, Buffy gets the blame for the whole thing. She is, after all, always around when that kind of thing happens. But she’s the protector, not the villain. So the episode is a huge amount of fun, but there is no takeaway for anyone. Nobody learns. Nobody grows.
Thankfully, there is evidence that Cordelia has already grown as a character, and it’s right there when her former friends are making fun of her. The fact that those airheads shun her should be a badge of honour, but she’s not quite ready to be proud of being somebody who doesn’t fit in with their group of superficiality yet. However, her conduct towards others is very different to the Cordy we knew at the start of the first season, and our clear indication of that is her reaction to the Jonathan joke. It’s an incredibly cruel moment because it’s not just about Harmony being mean to Cordelia. It’s also Harmony holding up Jonathan as a prime example of loserdom. He’s collateral damage in her joke. Charisma Carpenter pitches Cordelia’s reaction to that just right, because she is clearly just as upset for poor, downtrodden Jonathan as she is for herself. It’s a sad situation all round, and she conveys that in a way that indicates her emotional growth from where she used to be.
The other interesting thing is how Buffy behaves, in her non-Sunnydale version. She is very reminiscent of the way Faith conducts herself. She says “I don’t play well with others,” and then she heads off to try to take on an army of vampires all by herself, inevitably getting herself killed. She thinks the answer to everything lies at the pointy end of her stake. This is Buffy without her friends, and she’s basically Faith, so although this isn’t Faith’s episode it’s worth keeping in mind that the path Faith has been treading so far is not simply an indication of a slayer with a different personality. Faith is Faith because she doesn’t have friends.
Some readers might feel I have skirted around the edges of this episode, but I don’t think it’s particularly interesting to talk about how fun it is to see Willow being a pervy vamp, or the enduring legacy of her “bored now” catchphrase, or having the Master back, or Xander and Willow being leather-clad vampires. All that stuff is obviously huge fun, but it’s the issues raised by the episode that are really interesting. We are also left with a loose end. Anya has lost her powers, but she’s still around. Maybe there was more to this episode’s resolution than a big reset button after all… RP
The view from the Sunnydale Press…
Opening an episode with a Cthulhuesque squid-faced demon is definitely a good way to catch my attention. If I had one wish for this series, it would be for more creatures like this. Actually, no… wait… I’d want the relationships between Oz and Willow & Xander and Cordelia to be fixed. But one of the things that took me a while to grasp with Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that the character development takes a surprisingly realistic arc. People don’t just get over things and the series takes place, more or less, in real time where the big gaps only occur during season breaks. It seems most episodes take place about a week apart. So what makes me think the couples would be over the betrayal already? Hope, perhaps. Alas, what progress we make is… well, close to zero through this episode. You can imagine how annoyed I’d be with an episode where no progress is made, right? Wrong. This episode takes place exactly as it should since Cordelia makes a wish and the audience experiences a defunct timeline; a timeline where Buffy never came to Sunnydale. (Well, that’s not strictly true – she does eventually, but not soon enough to have saved people!)
Most good genre series play with the idea of a parallel timeline. Star Trek might be one of the earliest of the big franchises to do it with Mirror, Mirror. Deep Space Nine, Enterprise and Discovery have all visited that same timeline all to varying degrees of success. Doctor Who gave us our first taste with Inferno and in the modern era, The Rise of the Cybermen. Perhaps Doctor Who’s most profound alternate timeline episode however is Turn Left, where we see what happened to the world without the Doctor there to save us. It is a stunning episode! Buffy is a mix of genre tv, taking elements of fantasy, horror and sci-fi, and the parallel timeline is as memorable as what we experienced with Doctor Who. If someone told me the wish-demon was a member of the Trickster’s brigade, I’d believe it in a heartbeat! Cordelia’s wish shows us a Sunnydale where Buffy absence has lead to the death of many of her friends and those that are still around are still the miserable wretches we had come to know in our timeline. Xander and Willow are still together but as undead monsters serving the Master (giving us another great Cordelia moment of frustration). It was clear to me that someone did their homework, figuring out how the world would be different without Buffy. I did question what happened to the Master’s original lieutenants; where were they? Sure, it doesn’t impact much because there are so many variables, but it did make me wonder. The story takes the old adage “be careful what you wish for” and shows us just how dangerous a wish could be. Sometimes it’s better to accept the devil you know. Or in this series’ case, the demon you know!
Like the Doctor Who episode, we are shown the true horror of Buffy’s absence and, as a slow motion battle takes place, the raw impact of losing our hero becomes evident. But it also does more than that: it shows the impact of her friends. The woman that shows up to “save the day” is evidently Buffy but she’s not our Buffy and as the audience we are shown how her friends helped shape her. This Buffy is a rude, gum-chewing, spitting piece of nastiness ready to ignore good advice and kick some vampire butt. (Although I did laugh when she called Giles, “Jeeves”.) She may look like our Buffy, barring a small scar, but she’s not Buffy! So when she loses the battle and is killed by the Master just as Giles destroys the necklace that made the wish happen, we’re seeing not just the importance of the lead character but also of her friends. In our world, we can rest easier knowing that Buffy and her friends are together. Or are they!? Maybe this will give Cordelia some time to think. Oh, I guess not – she doesn’t remember it. Well, I guess that’s to be expected; it didn’t happen after all. I guess I have to wait still one more episode to know where that develops. This episode failed to ease my worry; if anything, it exacerbated it because now I know how bad things can get without our hero and her friends!
The slo-mo fight scene was beautifully shot with the desperate music playing as our friends are dispatched one by one. It’s hard to criticize anything about this episode, but I do have one small gripe. What time does school let out? If everyone knows there’s a demonic force at work (also in Cleveland, apparently), and kids have to get home by sundown, where did Cordelia live that she was still walking by the time the sun went down? And you can’t say “remember she didn’t have a car” because the janitorial chap said no cars are allowed. (Though I didn’t quite grasp why!) I admit, it’s a small thing in the grand scheme. The character building is just too good to let a thing like that take away from a great episode.
I specifically want to call out two things. Even in a desperate situation, Cordelia has some great lines (“I mean, the clothes alone…”). She knows something is terribly wrong but still can’t be anyone but who she is. You’ve got to love her! (A small sub-point about Charisma Carpenter is that she has possibly the most stunning smile in TV history.) The other actual item to mention is Oz’s comment to Willow; a deeply insightful one as Willow desperately wants to talk to him: “The reason you want to talk is so you can feel better about yourself.” Ouch. But um… yeah, he’s not wrong. He never outwardly says he doesn’t want to be with her or is unwilling to forgive her; he just needs time. And so the episode leaves things unresolved for the gang but as realistically as I could imagine it. The writing has been outstanding and the character arcs have been surprisingly believable for a show about vampires and demons and hellmouths. I just hope that somehow the gang will be able to get back together and make amends. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Amends
For a time when the multiverse was becoming quite popular in SF TV, Buffy’s chance for such an episode certainly had a lot of potential. It’s easily the best way to appreciate the impact of our heroes. Thanks for your reviews.
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I love this episode. I also wonder what the deal was with students not being allowed cars. Maybe it was explained in a cut scene? Maybe vampires are attracted to cars, along with bright colours.
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