When She Was Bad: “Buffy cannot do this alone. She needs her friends, so her friends are part of her fight, and yes, she won’t always be able to protect them. That’s the deal she makes – the deal we make – with the show.”
Innocence: “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.”
From the first seconds of this episode you know it will be bad. We see Buffy and Xander dancing as friends, their relationship anxieties settled after the shakedown of the previous episode. We see Willow and Cordy chatting as friends, their friendship starting to bloom, also after the previous episode. They seem happy. Then we see that Angel is there watching them.
And then, awfully, we hear Angel’s voice.
We’ve had Buffy lose her position as protagonist before, in The Dark Age, when Giles seized control of the narrative and held on to it for most of the episode. But this, putting us inside Angel’s head from moment one – we know this is a lot worse. Because the rules of television are inexorable. If someone narrates the beginning of an episode, they will narrate the end of it. Angel has us in his power.
He makes us watch Buffy in her bedroom, her safe place. And as we watch her, she checks the window, she settles down to sleep, and there’s a fade transition that suggests we’ve moved to her perspective. She’s the title character, grabbing her rightful control of the narrative. We can breathe out.
But it’s a bait and switch. Angel is in the room. There is no escape.
Angel – Angelus, really – has already threatened to reach outside the bounds of the narrative and harm the viewer. Here he follows through on that threat, kidnapping us, forcing us into his head, controlling the editing and the framing of the episode so we have to listen to his words and see the world through his eyes. He owns this story. He’s been waiting for this.
The credits play, storming Buffy back into the narrative, and the Scoobies have a war council in the library. But Angel has upset the balance: ordinary students come in wanting books. The bubble of narrative expectation has been punctured. Since the beginning we’ve recognized that this show features real threats, but that promise has continually struggled to assert itself against the structures and expectations of weekly action-adventure television. Those structures can’t be relied on, because Jonathan’s in the library.
As if sensing that the structure of their narrative is shifting, Buffy and her friends start pushing back themselves. One of the cardinal rules of vampires is the power of invitation: but if there’s magic in the world, then that rule can be chucked out the window, right? That’s just using one narrative device to take down another.
Buffy tells Joyce that Angel is threatening her, and the metaphor is abruptly altered. Back in Innocence, Angel was the cool boy who sleeps with the girl then mocks her for giving in to him. Now, he’s the ex-boyfriend who won’t let go. The scary one. Like the first metaphor, this one is far too familiar for too many women. Ex-partners who commit violence against the woman who left them – this is such a well of sorrow I can’t bear to even allude to real cases. This is the darkest metaphorical territory we have yet entered through this show. Angel, again, reaching out of the show to hurt us. And inside the show, Angel counters Buffy’s attempt to seize the narrative by telling Joyce they had slept together, forcing Joyce to assume a direct parental role – something she usually doesn’t have space to do. Whatever Buffy and her friends do, he is ready with a way to hurt them right back.
Buffy doesn’t stop trying. She speaks with Jenny. The show wants them to be enemies or to be friends, because that’s how narratives usually work, but Buffy doesn’t submit to this distinction. She doesn’t forgive Jenny, but she gives her permission to be with Giles anyway, ignoring what the structures of television narrative would expect of her. The show is breaking into pieces all around her and she’s trying to make her people as strong and safe as she can.
Jenny. Such a fun character, a rulebreaker from her first appearance as a “technopagan”, a provocateur to counterbalance Giles, a passionate but still cerebral figure who in a way unites the best features of the entire rest of the Scooby gang. And she’s trying to break the rules again here – trying to restore Angel’s soul. She’s a minor character, not even in the opening credits, and there’s no way a standard TV narrative will let her do this. But she cracks it. She breaks the code, translates the ritual, saves it on a floppy disk, all in time for her romantic rendezvous with Giles.
But Angel controls this narrative.
The chase through the school is shot differently to anything we’ve seen before now. We’ve seen other chase sequences in Sunnydale High, but this one just keeps going. It slowly becomes clear, we’re not in a TV show any more – we’re in a movie where women get hunted down and killed.
Jenny runs right into his arms.
Angel has held the narrative all episode and used it to thoroughly violate the show, to finally demonstrate what it means to have “real threat”.
Now Buffy can kill him.
* The magic shop is great: “Oh, you’re in the trade!”
* The phone call where Buffy and Willow are told by Giles that Jenny is dead is utterly heartbreaking. Willow’s breakdown is hard to watch. In the whole seven seasons of this show, this moment affected me the most, and it’s a scene I will never forget.
* There’s a common story online saying Jenny was only chosen to be Angel’s victim when Oz became a fan favourite. I can’t find any source for this but it’s on wikipedia and the Buffy wiki among other places. Count me as unconvinced – Oz hasn’t even had a connection with the Scoobies until just a few episodes ago, and I find it hard to believe that lengthy buildup to set up Willow’s boyfriend would be followed by immediately killing him to traumatise Willow. Giles is a much more sensible character to carry this trauma, and Jenny is a character who is much closer-to-home for the Scoobies as a group. So I think this is probably just fan theory, or someone on staff misremembering. I might be wrong of course, but I can’t find anything authoritative on this.