This is the episode where we finally discover more about a Buffy character who’s been there from the beginning but has mostly just come across as a vapid popular girl. At this point in the show’s history, it was impossible to know how important she would later become! Well, the journey from side player to important feature really begins right here. That’s right, this is the episode where we are properly introduced to Harmony Kendall.
Also, Cordelia Chase. We’ll get to her in a moment.
Harmony gets her name in this episode. Oddly enough, she is the longest-running character in the entire Buffy television mythology. She first appeared in the unaired pilot for Buffy, and she was also in the final episode of Angel, the beginning and the end of the Buffy-verse. (If you discount the unaired pilot because it was unaired, then she drops below Angel to second place – by only one episode.) Her longevity tells us a few things about this show – here are three I can think of right off the bat:
- This is a show that loves to hold on to its bit players. (Harmony is not the only background face from the unaired pilot who eventually turns into a significant character.) That’s another sign of the show’s comics-inspired commitment to build a world around the characters and reward loyal and attentive viewers.
- Harmony, or a character like her, is useful for storytelling. Mean, dumb, and popular, Harmony is a great contrast character for the show’s central figures, who repeatedly choose to be kind, smart and unpopular. Her poor judgement and mean streak also mean she’s an easy excuse to make a bad situation worse – always handy for writers who need to hit four climactic moments every episode.
- Harmony, or a character like her, is useful for the theme and tone. This show needs to find laughs, and Harmony is essentially a comedic figure – even in these early episodes where she’s played straight as a mean girl, the show’s stance on such people is essentially that of mockery. Not only that, but she’s a female comedic figure, and when you look at the entire Buffy/Angel mythos, there are precious few of those. For all its limitations and flaws, the Buffyverse tries hard to speak with a female voice, and Harmony is a useful contributor to that goal.
Which brings us to Cordelia. At the start of this episode, Cordelia sits in the mean girl chair that Harmony will later occupy. She was intended to serve the show’s themes and narrative by being Buffy’s dark reflection, the representation of what Buffy might be like if she hadn’t pursued the slayer path. However, Buffy rapidly became a different sort of character and the mean girl just wasn’t so important to the stories the show pursued. So this episode, the show makes the moves it needs to make Cordelia relevant again.
A change like this isn’t easy. You need to take an audience from one view of a character at the beginning to a completely different view by the end. To set up the change, the episode revisits the relationship between Buffy and Cordelia. Buffy has a clumsy moment, spilling her weapons on the floor in front of Cordelia, exactly the same move from the pilot. Clumsiness like this is out of character for Buffy by now, but needs must, and it neatly shows the massive status difference between the two.
We also get some deft character work, with one of Buffy‘s increasingly rare classroom scenes. Cordy is intensely insensitive to Shylock’s famous “if you prick us, do we not bleed” speech. This is the kind of move high school shows often makes with the vapid mean girl – the amusingly skewed interpretation of something that shows how self-involved they are. But the show is ahead of the game here, because it upends this cliche by making Cordelia absolutely right. Shylock *is* self-involved, and he should get over himself. But then, before you’ve even realised she’s hit the nail on the head, she seamlessly moves to some actual self-involvement (“I ran over her leg and she thought it was all about her!”), and it’s all the funnier because it comes right after the Shylock bit. Without drawing attention to it, the show is complicating her character, and suddenly giving her a power that she will carry forward: Cordy starts being right far more often than she’s wrong. And if all this complication wasn’t enough, the scene next has Cordelia asking her teacher for academic help. We haven’t seen her asking for help before, and an interest in academic success isn’t a strong feature of the mean girl archetype, so with only a few lines of dialogue Cordelia’s character has irrevocably shifted from how she seemed in every previous appearance.
So with all this at work, we are set up for a bigger swerve in Cordy’s character and role. First, when the bad supernatural trouble kicks off, Cordelia goes to find Buffy to ask for help. Despite the status differences, she acknowledges that Buffy has power in this domain and she isn’t too proud or stupid to ask her for help. And then, building further on this, Buffy and Cordy get to have a heart-to-heart – which, in line with Cordy’s new role as truthspeaker, comes in the form of Cordy pointing out Buffy has misjudged her. It’s a short scene, but perfectly executed to reframe everything about Cordelia. It changes her position in the show. Cordelia is no longer Buffy’s dark reflection, now she’s the one who says what no-one else will say, the outsider perspective, the reminder of the need for humility, the unexpected intrusion that forces reconsideration.
Cordy’s thank you to Buffy at the end is a moment that’s been earned. This is a significant change in the basic structure of the show. It’s not a big change, Cordy isn’t really a core character despite being in the credits, but it is a clear sign once again that Buffy is not afraid to make changes and to allow its premise to shift and its characters to change and grow (or die). This is priming the audience for the next episode, which doubles down on these kinds of structural change.
The monster in this episode is related to these themes, but unfortunately the links aren’t very strong. Marcie, the villain of the piece, is invisible, and she turned invisible because no-one noticed her. She’s a successful example of the monster-as-metaphor approach Buffy shoots for – her power and her villainous motivation both derive from social exclusion, with Cordelia as the most powerful excluder. (Willow and Xander also implicated, however.) There are obvious connections between Marcie feeling invisible and Cordelia and Buffy feeling that no-one really knows them, but you can’t push this too far – true social isolation is much less pleasant than Cordelia’s and Buffy’s complaint of being misunderstood. It makes Marcie a deeply sympathetic character, as she is presented very much as an innocent.
Turning Marcie into an exciting Buffy episode turned out to be a little bit harder, though, and ultimately the episode decided to throw out that sympathy. Invisible Marcie’s behaviour is simply inexcusable, and probably sociopathic. She uses her invisibility to physically assault and injure unsuspecting victims, which is far beyond any reasonable response to Cordelia’s meanness. I’d be curious about an alternative run at this episode where Marcie’s revenge was more petty and in keeping with the “crimes” against her, and the threat developed not through her aggression and malice but through some other means such as escalating unintended consequences. I think the drama in such an episode would be much more engaging, but the story would obviously be harder to put together, and you’d also lose the hilariously pointed coda where Marcie is recruited by the government.
It’s also possible to read Marcie’s extreme behaviour as the show refusing to abide by the rules for how female power is exercised. If the invisible foe was a male character, would I have taken such exception to his use of violence? Probably not, if I’m honest. And it’s worth noting that the idea for Marcie comes from Joss Whedon’s own feelings and experiences in high school. There is nothing about invisibility that demands the character be female. Marcie could even be seen as closing a loop on gendered stereotypes – she is so profoundly diminished by her feminine meekness and mildness, that she becomes perfectly suited for unfettered masculine violence.
This brings up one of the underlying themes hiding in plain sight in Buffy – girls can punch stuff too! – and it is quite a profound one, a sharp rebuke to the sexist idea that women fight their battles through words, particularly through gossip and verbal cruelty. Which is, I suppose, another reason why the “vapid popular mean girl” is a useful figure in the narrative world Buffy is constructing. Cordelia can’t be that character any more, but narrative abhors a vaccuum, and luckily Harmony was right there waiting to be sucked into position. Welcome to the hellmouth, Harm!
* According to wiki, this episode is also known as “Invisible Girl”. That’s how I always think of it. Not sure where that name comes from – early TV listings maybe?
* The comics-style structure of Buffy is again visible in the scene where Angel visits Giles in the library. This scene is entirely there to set up future developments, and it’s done exactly the same way Chris Claremont would introduce an upcoming storyline in an issue of Uncanny X-Men.
* The discussion of non-mystical explanations for Marcie’s invisibility is neat – if perception can become reality, then we have a ready-made mechanism for literalising metaphors. It’s perhaps too easy, though, or it makes the mechanics of the storytelling too obvious, because the show doesn’t really use this kind of explanation again. (At the same time, moving it into the non-mystical realm justifies the intervention of government at the end.)
* The “Be my deputy!” bit is lovely because of Willow and Xander’s goofy delivery. This bit is in the show to reinforce Buffy’s isolation, but to my mind it justifies itself as the only depiction I’ve ever seen of how bizarre an in-joke can be when seen from the outside.