So, Xander falls for a woman who is actually a monster, and yes the show is fully aware they already did this story. They’re having a second go the same reason anyone has a second go – they want to get it right this time.
This episode has some character work to do, too. As we’ve seen, the Willow-Xander-Buffy love triangle (really an unrequited-love-chain I guess?) was resolved in the season one finale, and its end was reiterated in the first episode of this season. This raises some questions – what is going on among the trio now, exactly? We saw that Buffy, Willow and Xander have love for each other at the end of When She Was Bad, and we saw them happily dancing together in School Hard, so we know they are in a good place with each other. But the intense romantic feelings of teenagers don’t untangle easily, and if this show is going to live up to its promise of real emotions then it needs to look harder.
But let’s start with the monster. Inca Mummy Girl (her real name is never revealed) is a complex character. She was an innocent girl chosen for an unpleasant fate, and now she is willing to sacrifice people in order to experience some of the joys she missed before. Her powers are classic Bathory – draining the life from other people to maintain her own youth! It’s really just vampirism in a slightly different form (a form traditionally marked as feminine, in fact, with its emphasis on looking youthful).
The show takes care to portray Inca Mummy Girl with sympathy, but also to point out repeatedly that her murders are horrific and inexcusable. It’s an effective balance, and she remains understandable even when she decisively chooses murder at the end.
So, what’s the monster-as-metaphor this time? The argument she has with her bodyguard points the way – he insists she must accept her fate rather than hurting other people. This is ultimately a monstrous riff on that blinkered teenage selfishness where you think the whole world revolves around you, and anyone (usually a parent) who stops you doing what you want is a monster who is ruining your life! The show is savvy enough to complicate this metaphor, because the people who sacrificed the Inca Mummy Girl were indeed monstrously unfair, and submitting to her fate will indeed ruin her life. So the show cleverly has its cake and eats it too – it criticises that selfishness while also agreeing that teenagers can be right about stuff.
This metaphor works just fine. She is a moral counterpoint to Buffy, who explicitly notes the parallels between them (although Xander has to remind Buffy that she made a different choice when she was faced with death). It also ties her to Xander, who is at the centre of this episode. Xander’s behaviour in season one was pretty awful, although the show tried to make it forgivable. Xander even had a heroic redemption after hitting rock bottom in Prophecy Girl. His post-redemption relationship with Buffy is given a lot of time this episode, and it’s pretty damn healthy. There’s hope for him after all!
But Xander still manifests the fundamental flaw of patriarchy: thinking the whole world revolves around you. (That’s also the fundamental flaw of teenagers, it’s just people who ain’t white male heterosexuals get it knocked out of them faster.) For all his obvious love for Willow – he outright states it, even – he still hurts her, over and over again, by not considering her feelings. And because it’s Willow getting hurt, the show knows you will feel that pain thanks to Alyson Hannigan’s talent for being a wounded puppy. These harmful acts don’t make Xander a villain, far from it – but he doesn’t get to be an uncomplicated hero either.
The climax brings Xander’s and IMG’s respective selfishnesses into collision. Xander is the one who demands the Inca Mummy Girl leave Willow alone – if she’s going to murder anyone, it’s got to be him. It’s his turn to step up to his responsibilities, the same test that Buffy passed, and that Inca Mummy Girl failed. For all is failures with the day-to-day business of not being a dick, when the choices are clear, he chooses well. After saving him from the consequences of his sacrifice here, Buffy gives her endorsement by comparing this to his saving her from her sacrifice in Prophecy Girl. Through Buffy, the show forgives him his weaknesses. The implication is that he will learn to see himself more clearly and do better all ’round. He’ll grow up. It’s a hopeful moment.
Willow, meanwhile, drifts along in the wake of Xander’s journey. She’s not over him, and she’s stuck. She doesn’t even get any dialogue after Xander makes his big heroic stand to save her life. All you get from this episode is that Willow feels unnoticed. However, even though Willow doesn’t get to address this problem, the show solves it for her by having someone notice her. This is quite heartening too – Willow hasn’t been doing anything wrong, after all, and by introducing Oz the show acknowledges this. In the rhythm of the episode the Oz scenes are very strange – why are we suddenly cutting away to some random other person? – but because we have been primed to sympathy for Willow this episode they work, another hopeful moment, and an emphatic expansion of possibilities for our core characters and the show.
* When you appeal to a sympathetic villain with the power of love, the villain is supposed to have a crisis of conscience and repent. Hasn’t Inca Mummy Girl seen any movies! Oh well okay I guess she hasn’t. This is the episode’s biggest swerve.
* Who’s that near-victim? Hey, it’s Jonathan! Like Harmony, he’s another bit player from the unaired pilot who returned in a very minor role in the regular series and ended up becoming an important part of the story.
* This ep was written by Matt Kiene and Joe Reinkemeyer, who were also behind The Pack, another episode that did smart work with the monster-as-metaphor. The Pack had a significant rewrite from Joss Whedon, though, and I suspect this episode did as well.