This is peak Buffy. The highest viewership ratings, the greatest critical acclaim, the favourite episode of the show’s creator, the archetypal metaphor-as-monster, the definitive “what people want is not what they need” Whedon storytelling decision. The last eight episodes of excellence have led to this, making television history. This is why you came.
The first people you see are Spike and Drusilla and the newly-assembled demon, the Judge. It’s a brief sequence offering a minuscule recap, a few character beats, and a tiny bit of exposition. It isn’t there to excite or illuminate. It’s there for rhythm. It’s ushering you back into the fiction, giving you a chance to find yourself there again. It’s the rollercoaster cranking up to the first high at the start of the ride. You breathe out and in. You hold on as it comes into view:
Buffy, alone in Angel’s bed.
Then Angel. Hurting in the rain, still. His pain stops as a woman approaches him. She looks a bit like Buffy, blonde, red jacket, but older, smoking a cigarette, hanging out in an alley. A prostitute as surrogate for the leading lady. This is not a category of character we’ve seen before. Angel has stumbled outside the frame, dragging the camera with him to somewhere colder, more desperate. Yet even here, the instincts of ordinary people are good and kind. The woman comes to offer help. Then you watch Angel kill her. He murders her swiftly and callously, then mocks her with a breath.
He mocks her and smiles.
You feel the show tilt on its axis.
Credits play, and you nod your head to the propulsive music. Then you’re in the Summers home. Joyce finds Buffy just after she sneaks in from her night with Angel. Buffy’s knowledge that she has just lost her virginity is all over her face. (You know exactly what’s going on inside Buffy’s head, because Sarah Michelle Gellar has a special talent for taking you along on Buffy’s internal journey.) Joyce senses something, and starts to say Buffy looks different or changed – but she stops, leaving her sentence hanging, unfinished. You hold on to that ambiguity.
The library. The Scooby Gang confer with Buffy. You can see the pieces being arranged for the next phase of the story. Along the way, Xander is mean to Cordelia. It’s the exact kind of snarky put-down he’s been throwing all season but now they are a secret couple, it snags you – because it’s about Buffy, and her importance, and because Xander does love Buffy more than he loves Cordelia. And you know in that instant he always will. And you see that Cordelia knows it too. A tiny throwaway moment but Whedon finds another knife to twist. Everything is working in this episode, everything raising the stakes, everything charged with emotion.
The Factory, and Angel saunters in to join Spike and Dru. The Judge tries to harm him and fails, proving to them that Angel has changed. Proving the same to you, reinforcing the implication of that cruel murder before. It is sinking in: this isn’t pretend. They’re not kidding around.
Library. Xander tries to apologise to Cordelia, and she doesn’t let him, but they make out anyway. You are just wondering how you came to feel so much empathy for Cordelia when the pair are discovered by Willow. Alyson Hannigan uses her special powers to make you feel every part of her devastation. You knew this was coming, and it is exactly what it had to be, and you hoped that somehow you could get through this without hurting Willow, but you can’t. She has to get hurt. You have to feel it.
Angel’s apartment. Buffy finds him and is so relieved – and you tense up, because Angel just said he was going to destroy her. But he doesn’t threaten her. He is… almost gentle. His casual attitude and his belittling words are given so little weight. And you see Buffy try to understand, you see her connecting the dots. Review the dialogue in this scene and you discover it is so bare, so simple, there’s almost nothing there at all, because it was written specifically for Gellar’s talents. You are there with her, every moment, as her self-assurance crumbles. “Was I not good?” And you see how Angel is choosing to destroy her, the sheer pettiness of it, and it’s breathtaking. The metaphor in this episode is widely shorthanded as “the boy who turns into an asshole after sleeping with you”, which is accurate, but it misses out a whole layer in what’s going on. The interaction is coded in the status politics of high school existence. Everything Angel says is an expression of power and distance as channeled through the iconography of high school bad boy popularity, because this is the culmination of the vampires-as-cool-kids imagery that’s been deployed since episode three. The cool kids are good at adult stuff, and the uncool kids or the kids who secretly fear they are uncool – which is to say, you – are not. That boy you liked is too cool for you. You thought he loved you but he was just using you. You don’t measure up. You know about this feeling, this nightmare. It happened to you or to one of your friends, or maybe just to someone you wished was your friend. But it happened. Because high school is hell.
Jenny and her uncle. It’s a jarring sequence for you not just because it follows Angel’s awful betrayal, but because it’s still a very strange development. Jenny’s secret gypsy heritage and mission concerning Angel is hard to reconcile with everything you’ve seen before now. Uncle Vincent Schiavelli is superb of course but it feels forced and perhaps inauthentic in an episode where everything else rings so true. But the scene adds to the rhythm of the episode, letting you catch your breath with a side character while you process, and you start to realize that Angel is only just starting.
The school. Willow and Xander reach an uncomfortable truce, and are interrupted by Angel. The scene plays as straight terror, with shadows and isolation and an audience who knows badness is there as a coiled snake. It is no accident Angel targets Willow. She is a lightning rod for our emotions. That’s why the writers choose Willow, you know that. But Angel knows it too. Angel goes after Willow because he knows it will hurt everyone who loves her. And you love Willow, right? She’s fictional, but so what? After all those real emotions and real threats, you have a connection with her. How can you not? You love her. And Angel knows. He is targeting Willow to reach out of the television and hurt you, too.
Xander figures it out. Jenny is already there, and Buffy too who knows the moment she sees. The characters catch up to you in a rush. The show wants you right there with them. But it’s Xander who makes the move, takes the risk, frees Willow, sees Angel off without anyone getting killed. His role in the Scooby Gang – Willow is the heart, Cordelia the truthteller, Giles the conscience – he is the instinct. He gets it wrong as often as he gets it right, more often, but he is necessary, and sometimes he is the only one who can save the moment. Right now, Buffy can’t fight Angel. She can see, she can say, but she cannot yet do. It’s too big. You’re with her.
Then in the library, the gang piece it together and Buffy realizes this change happened because they slept together. It’s too much for her. (Willow, of course, instantly understands.) We’ve already left any close analogy to the source of the metaphor – when boys sleep with girls and don’t call them again, they don’t start a campaign of terror to make the girl guilty. But it doesn’t matter. The metaphor was just the crank that wound up this nightmare. What matters now is that Buffy feels terrible and there’s no way out.
Factory. Angel returns. You watch him put Spike in his place. It’s fascinating to watch. Angel the villain starts making sense to you as a character. You discover he’s fun to watch. That’s an awful moment.
Buffy’s room. She sleeps, cries, dreams – then school, confronting Jenny. Again the show burns through a secret, puts it out in the open as quick as possible. You’re still not convinced about this plotline but Buffy’s rage gives her and you something else to feel, gives you a focus. Anger at Angel’s betrayal is seamlessly transferred on to Jenny.
Angel kills the gypsy man.
Oz’s van. It is such a relief to see Oz. This episode has been pushing your emotions into bad places and he is reliably a source of sanity and delight. And while Xander and Cordelia steal army weaponry, revealing comics-style continuity links to the events of Halloween where this run of storytelling began, you get a moment of perfect Oz, albeit one where he doesn’t give Willow, or you, what you want. Instead he gives you what you need. It’s the only joy you will feel this episode.
Jenny, Giles and Buffy find the gypsy man. Buffy knows, now, deep down, what you’ve feared. There is no way out of this: she must kill Angel. At the factory. Angel usurps Spike. The season has, at last, its Big Bad. At the school, Buffy takes control, telling Jenny to bugger off, snapping out orders, coming into her own. What’s My Line had Buffy embracing her slayer identity and power; and here is the test. Giles dismisses Jenny as Buffy says. There is no question where the power lies.
The mall, as you saw just eight days ago. The surprise of the rocket launcher, upending “no weapon forged” as a comedy beat, somehow finding levity in this awfulness and shortcircuiting the great battle with the Judge (3/4 swerve!) so the episode can focus on what really matters:
Angel in the rain, as he was at the start of the episode. Now you/Buffy are ready. Now you can fight. And you defeat him, but you can’t kill him yet. You let him go, knowing he will kill again. You have no choice, because to kill Angel would be to tumble irrevocably into the problem of Jesse. Threat is real. Emotions are real. What possible future can there be, apart from misery?
Giles and Buffy speak at last, and your heart breaks because Giles refuses to be disappointed in Buffy. He is full of love. Love is the answer to the problem of Jesse. Love will carry Buffy forward. Love will carry you forward.
Buffy with her mother. At the beginning of the episode Joyce stopped short of saying Buffy looked different. Now, she says it clearly: “You look the same to me.”
You don’t feel the same.
You watch to the end of the credits. The little monster says “Grr Arrgh”.
It’s just perfect TV.