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Watching Buffy: s03e05 “Homecoming”

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You see it coming, the end of Buffy and Scott. The episode begins with awkward-cute agreeing to go to the homecoming dance together, and Buffy gives Scott a cute kiss – but then cuts straight to Angel. The cut underlines that Buffy isn’t over him. And then Buffy tells Angel she’s seeing Scott, and you know the end is close. But it keeps going, with Buffy talking about how great he is for her – and just as you’re getting exasperated – WE GET IT SHOW WE GET IT – there’s a smash cut to Scott saying “I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”

And this is before the credits, even. The show knows its game here – the characters don’t get to be happy, but as much as that is predictable, it can still surprise and wrongfoot us. Still, the doom-laden fate of Buffy/Scott, required by her ongoing connection to Angel, is an unpleasant portent for the other Scoobies. That opening scene has Buffy and Scott bring cute together in front of two other couples. In this show, however, a strong relationship is just a disaster waiting to happen, and Scott’s pre-credits dismissal of Buffy is a sign that we shouldn’t get too comfortable with either of those relationships either.

These couples are very different. Willow, of course, is paired with Oz. They are the two nicest characters on the show, and it’s a lovely pairing. Often TV pairs its nice characters with sparkier, dangerous partners as an unexpected plot development and an easy source of ongoing conflict, but Buffy has paired its most sensitive and empathetic character with its kindest and wisest one. There are no obvious sources of conflict between them – Oz’s lack of ambition vs. Willow’s sense of responsibility to one’s potential, perhaps, but that’s not a strong line to chase. Instead, the show has indulged itself with a relationship that exists simply to show happiness on-screen. Willow’s anxious over-thinking plays beautifully alongside Oz’s laconic discernment, and it’s evident how their relationship works, and how they complement and challenge each other without ever being conflicted. There’s a maturity in the show to have such confidence in this relationship – and it’s obviously no accident, given how carefully Oz was introduced. In a show where the characters experience real trauma, putting Oz and Willow on screen is a welcome relief.

Xander, meanwhile, is paired with Cordelia. This is a fundamentally unstable relationship, begun in secrecy and denial, with both parties regularly wondering why they are together. The characters also seem to be on contrary paths in relation to the show as a whole. Cordelia was introduced as a foil for Buffy, proved immediately to be redundant, and twisted in the wind for the whole first season before she was given some character depth and a reason to befriend the Scoobies. She has gone on to become increasingly valuable to the show, her function as truthteller making her an incredibly useful tool for the writers as well as a constantly refreshing presence. She steals scene after scene, and although she never threatens to really be a core character, she is regularly the show’s MVP. Xander, meanwhile, was introduced as a core character, the identification point for every boy in the audience, a point-of-view character whose centrality rivaled Buffy herself. His feelings for Buffy anchored the first season. Throughout season one and two he slowly grew up, not getting over Buffy but finding peace with the fact she didn’t share his interest, and showing his heroism several times, coming through when it counted. But he could never escape some aspects of his character – his thoughtless/instinctive response to problems and threats, and his defensive, anxious masculinity. He screwed up in some unpleasant ways, and as the show’s premise demanded it try harder to live up to its feminist ideals, he continued to be out of step. As Cordelia became more essential to the show, he has become less essential, and even problematic. The show, by this point, was flailing as it tried to find the right way to make Xander work. That flailing reaches a culmination in this episode, with a very risky move indeed.

The episode is mostly played as farce, although the stakes remain life-or-death. Buffy’s setback with Scott leads to the awakening of her “prom queen within” – the otherwise-forgotten backstory that had Buffy as the social elite of her previous school. This was never massively convincing given Buffy’s immediate alliance with the nerds and outcasts in the very first episode, and has only become less comprehensible over the two-seasons-plus since. The episode just shrugs and trusts we’ll go along with Buffy taking on Cordelia to get voted Homecoming Queen, and we do, because seeing Buffy suddenly want something so ordinary is hugely refreshing in contrast to her epic melodramatic trauma saga with Angel.

However, complications arise thanks to Mr Trick, who has set up a Slayer-hunting contest using his contacts in the supernatural world. (Notably, the bad guys are all at the silly end of serious – a returning Lyle Gorch, a patently ridiculous lizard monster, Kraftwerk as high-powered assassins, and a guy named “Jungle Bob”.) Buffy & Cordelia, thrown together in this crisis, find a way to newly respect each other and their mastery of their respective domains. It all plays as buddy comedy, and it’s delightful to see the show’s two best assets playing directly against each other. And the episode finishes on a note that is just perfect – as we see Buffy & Cordy, together at the dance, hear the announcement that there is a tie for Homecoming Queen! Everyone who has ever seen a TV show knows exactly what’s coming next – which is why it’s so satisfying when the show swerve to make two other people we’ve never heard of the joint Homecoming Queens. This is a minor episode for sure, but it plays out so well.

Except. That one move, right?

Willow and Xander are getting ready for the dance together. Getting into their nice clothes. And you can see their friendship, their history together – something the show has never underlined too much so it does feel fresh and light here. And Xander works in this scene, you can see why Willow likes having him around. Xander the friend – there he is! That’s what we’ve been missing!

But the show isn’t done, because part of that friendship was Willow’s love for Xander, and Xander’s borderline-callous romantic disinterest in Willow. And when they see each other dressed up, it’s a shock to them – a “here we are, growing up” moment.

But. The scene keeps going. It’s the longest single scene this episode, the longest in a while in fact. It keeps going, sticking with them as they are drawn to each other. As they get closer and closer, slowly. As they dance. As they lean in. As they, finally, gently, kiss. Taking time so the audience buys the reawakening of that old interest. And it’s believable enough – there are so many reasons why these two characters might spiral back together here. Sure, there are also many, many reasons why they wouldn’t – other paths, happier paths, where their two relationships might carry on allowing all these characters to stay in good places.

But by now we know what the show thinks of paths like that.

So Willow and Xander kiss, and they want to kiss again, and they are conflicted, and it can’t end well, it just can’t, and Xander is suddenly integral to the drama once again. He matters. Simple. The show just needed to wreck the happiness of every one of his friends.

Other notes:
* Trick’s plan is a bit weird. He’s in it to make some cash off contestant deposits, sure, but we just saw Trick excusing himself from a fight when there was nothing in it for him. Whereas here he not only sets up an assassination program against two Slayers, unprovoked – but he introduces it personally with a recorded video, and makes sure all the assassins know who he is so they can give him up. Why would he put a target on his chest in the event a Slayer survives? Why not just leave town? It’s inconsistent with what we’ve seen, but we still don’t know much about Trick, so it isn’t a big ask to let it slide. Also, this is a comedy episode – the rules of logic ease off a little bit here.
* We also get the on-screen introduction of the Mayor, spoken of in portentous tones for some time now. He gets an amazing introduction scene – smiling, polite, worrying about cleanliness and manners while seeing Trick as a potential ally for whatever dark scheme he has underway. The world of Buffy has been expanding for a while and here’s the next layer of the onion.
* Cordelia intimidating Lyle Gorch into running away is about as triumphant a moment as there’s ever been in this show.

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