It’s been a while, but this episode offers one of those three-quarter twists this show does so well. It even lands exactly on the 3/4 cliffhanger. Gwendolyn Post, the officious new watcher who has arrived to supervise Faith, is revealed to actually be a naughty bad one. It’s a great twist because she already gave the show plenty of juice: she’s a logical plot development, a direct challenge to Giles, and a threat to the integrity of the Scoobies while being impossible to easily dismiss. She was even thematically on point, an oblivious adult authority for the teens to cope with and rebel against. The show throws all that out the window to make her a one-and-done villain, so presumably it thinks it’s getting something important in return.
Quick summary: at the beginning of the episode Buffy and Faith are slaying together, focused and happy and literally in sync. Then Mrs Post turns up and immediately assumes the Watcher role for Faith and Buffy, to Giles’s chagrin. She warns the group that a demon called Lagos is hunting a magical glove in Sunnydale. When the group exclude her to have a secret meeting about Angel, she manipulates Faith into finding out more. Shortly thereafter, Giles tells her the location of the glove. She knocks him out and rushes to Angel’s to take the glove, tricking Faith into fighting with Buffy before revealing her villainy and being (inevitably) destroyed. The final scene is Buffy and Faith again, but Buffy’s secrets have changed the relationship. Buffy says “you can trust me” but Faith isn’t interested. They are out of sync, their harmony in pieces.
Buffy’s transgressions against Faith are, by any reasonable standard, minor. They make for a pretty weak lever to split her and Faith, even with that relationship being new. The implication is that Faith’s retreat from Buffy is a response to the whole situation with Gwendolyn Post and Angel and so forth. This points directly at her central character flaw, essentially a fear of vulnerability. It’s smart character work from the show once again, eschewing any simple action/reaction model of behaviour for something messier and more authentically human – note also that, although Faith is shown that Post had been corrupted, she still takes Post’s advice on answering a knock at the door and adopts her description of her room as “Spartan”.
(Faith’s character flaw is also set up as an interesting mirror of Buffy’s: the motivations and methods are very different, but both of them retreat from other people and try to handle everything themselves when the pressure comes on.)
Faith’s retreat from Buffy marks the start of an actual storyline about her, and while it’s obviously a significant development and something that will be central to the season’s arc overall, it wasn’t at all an expected development and it’s very hard to anticipate what will follow – it is a shift that could play out in all kinds of ways. Once again, season three manages to avoid predictability, especially in comparison with the arc in season two which drew great power from its inevitability.
This is obviously a significant development for the show, but in my view it isn’t the most interesting thing going on in this episode. In fact, I don’t even think it’s the most important thing happening here. My nominee for both is how this episode handles Xander.
It’s been clear for a while the show is having issues with the character of Xander Harris. Just a few episodes ago Xander hit a new low, callously abandoning his post to nap when he was supposed to be guarding Oz. This was basically using him for a cheap joke and making him carry the idiot ball so the plot worked out more easily. Both of these are signs the show is struggling to make him work in the ensemble. This isn’t a surprise: a male character representing instinct is always going to struggle to make a good impression in a show with a female perspective, and having his strongest early episode also be the one that makes him an attempted rapist has tainted the character at a deep level.
Two episodes back, the show took a dramatic step to find a way to get some use out of Xander by throwing him into an affair with Willow. It’s a potent, divisive move (the kind of ruthless development that will become something of a trademark – or a cliche – for Whedon’s work) and it infuses every hang-out scene among the Scoobies with some edge-of-the-seat anxiety. Suddenly the audience has every reason to care a great deal about what Xander is doing, because there’s so much at stake – no less than the happiness of Willow, Oz and Cordelia (the three most beloved members of the cast). One thing it doesn’t do is engender any greater sympathy for Xander. I’d expect reactions to this affair are largely driven by where the audience member might sit on their view of Xander – specifically, if they see him as a terminal waste of space, then they’ll hate him for messing up so bad and they might see Willow’s actions as a betrayal of her character by the writers. And by this stage of the show’s history, a lot of people were over Xander. The many years since broadcast have not been kind to the character either.
Xander as he has been portrayed in the previous two seasons has given ample reason for dismay. While he has had several key moments of heroism and good character, his common role in stories from week to week seems to have become “make a thoughtless comment exemplifying male insensitivity and entitlement, and then blunder into a monster and fall down”. The show’s engine runs very easily on those kinds of comments and that kind of blunder, so it’s unsurprising Xander is used in this way over and over again, but it does make it very hard to cheer for him.
Almost in spite of this, Xander has been changing and growing. Xander at the start of season three is different from Xander of season one in many many ways. He is no longer hung up on Buffy, is no longer cruelly oblivious to Willow’s feelings, he is no longer unconvinced of his value as a human being. With the exception of his callous failure to watch Oz recently, he has moved beyond the truely clueless selfishness of his early teenage boy portrayal. These are positive steps, but they don’t seem to be helping: Xander still doesn’t feel right. There’s a simple reason why: the show has made changes in Xander by taking away some of his most egregious negative traits, but they have failed to give him any new aspects to make up for these losses. Xander in season three is in a real sense less of a character than he was in season one, because he has gotten past many of his hangups and now just bumbles along. Until this recent affair with Willow, the show just hasn’t found anything for him to actively do except comment on the action and get into trouble. It’s obvious they don’t have any idea any more what he is for.
In this episode, new writer Doug Petrie delivers a portrayal of Xander that provides the best vision so far of what he can be to the ensemble. (Petrie, like Jane Espenson last week, is another s3 recruit who stays with the show to the end then goes on to greater things.) Under Petrie’s pen, Xander gets plenty of interesting beats.
The episode begins in the Bronze, where Xander is trying to hang out in a group with Willow without encouraging their forbidden attraction; when he accidentally touches her hand, he recoils so much that he makes a gigantic spectacle of himself. He gracefully accepts the humiliation, clearly at peace with his traditional role as clumsy goof.
In the library, he bristles at being ordered around by Giles, but still starts to get stuck into the work, recognizing it’s important. Willow approaches him and rubs her temples to try and relieve her discomfort. He reaches out to do it for her, and she protests weakly, knowing the chemistry between them is dangerous. Xander listens to her, and stops. Whereupon Willow launches herself at him, and they kiss passionately until they are interrupted. Giles tells them of a suspicious location, and Xander volunteers to check it out, partly to get away from temptation with Willow and to (as he puts it to himself) alleviate his guilt.
All of the above is solid, featuring the best parts of Xander – he is trying hard to do the right thing, struggling with his instincts, at peace with the trouble he lands himself in. These are aspects of Xander we’ve seen before, although never quite with this clarity. But from this point on, things get much more interesting, as Xander sees Angel, alive and well – and then sees Buffy and Angel kissing.
Now this is a potent revelation. Xander was, throughout the previous season, the only one who opposed Buffy’s relationship with Angel. Giving the discovery to him is a clear callback to this. However, his response is not to simply blunder in and confront them. Instead, he hurries to Giles, which is unquestionably the best possible thing to do in the situation.
Giles makes the call to stage a kind of intervention with Buffy, and Xander’s first words here are compelling:
Buffy: It’s not what you think.
Xander: Hope not. Because I think you’re harboring a vicious killer.
This is a side of Xander we’ve seen from time to time, most memorably in episode two this season when Xander dressed Buffy down for how her behaviour had affected her friends. There, his anger seemed unfair and unkind, although perfectly understandable and human. Here, it stings because he makes a very good point, and he continues to hammer it home, even naming Jenny Calendar.
Let’s be clear about what the show is doing, here: it is not saying Xander is right. None of the other characters are as upset as he is, even Cordelia, and most of them are taken aback by the cruel way he is making his point. And yet, no-one contradicts him, and everyone else is making watered-down versions of the same complaint. When Buffy challenges Xander, accusing him of being motivated by jealousy, the rebuke just doesn’t work – while not even Xander would reasonably deny there might be jealousy in the mix somewhere, his behaviour clearly comes from a different place. Xander doesn’t even need to defend himself, as he is overtaken by the final word from Giles, who echoes Xander’s words: “Nor shall I remind you that you’ve jeopardized the lives of all that you hold dear by harboring a known murderer. But sadly, I must remind you that Angel tortured me… for hours… for pleasure. You should have told me he was alive. You didn’t. You have no respect for me, or the job I perform.”
This is, quite frankly, an incredible sequence, drawing on two seasons of character and story to find powerful fractures and put them under pressure, and Xander’s right at the heart of it. His flaws are vividly on display but for the first time in a while he’s doing something, pushing hard in a direction, and it works well.
We next see Xander at the Bronze, shooting pool and talking with Faith. This is a startling little sequence, as Xander’s dialogue is in a different register to anything we’ve heard before. He is normally extremely verbose (the default for many Buffyverse characters) but here he’s using clipped sentences with the blunt almost-poetry of a noir character. This matches his behaviour: he goes out of his way to point Faith at Angel, and offers to join her in going to slay him.
When they get to the library to grab some weapons, they discover Giles has been attacked. Faith instantly assumes it’s Angel, but Xander doesn’t. His instincts – so often used to get him in trouble – here give him exactly the right steer. He figures out some reasons why it probably wasn’t Angel responsible, but Faith of course doesn’t listen to him.
Buffy appears, and here Xander does something unexpected, coldly suggesting Angel was responsible for attacking Giles, and telling her Faith has gone to kill him. Buffy is appalled, but Xander is unrepentant. It’s a very interesting move for the character. He then pitches in to fix the problem, and later puts his body on the line to stop the slayers fighting each other.
His final note in the episode is another encounter with Buffy. She asks him if they are cool, and he tells her he trusts her. He doesn’t apologise for “leaning towards the postal”, and Buffy doesn’t ask one, knowing that he did have a point.
This view of Xander is a fascinating step change for the character. The hardened take on the character works surprisingly well, as does the clear indication that he is no longer thoughtlessly following his instincts (which are obviously improving regardless). Here is a Xander Harris who offers something new to the ensemble – a willingness to call it as he sees it, matched with judgments that are starting to show their worth; a fearless ability to challenge the other characters when he thinks they’re out of line, but founded on a commitment to the work; an egoless acceptance of his role as a goof and goat, which also allows him to say and do things the others wouldn’t even consider. This is a Xander who still brings “instinct” to the table, but does so in a way that is effective and distinctive and can drive situations forward in new and productive ways. The show has finally found a way to make Xander work.
If they can only make it stick…
* There’s a bit of a bait-and-switch at the top of the episode – it is called “Revelations” and it starts with Willow and Xander being awkward, but their infidelities are not revealed this week.
* Tony Head steals the open – supervising the Slayer duo and then reacting to the arrival of Gwendolyn Post – all without saying a single word. He also gets the best moment in the episode, Giles giving Buffy a private dressing down for keeping Angel secret and reminding her that Angel tortured him. It’s one of the few times in the series where adult/mature authority is given proper moral power, and it hits hard.
* Giles is once again shown to be somewhat forgotten and mistreated by the council, which continues to make zero sense given he is sitting on a powerful Hellmouth and serving as pointman to a Slayer who just came back from the dead. But it makes thematic sense I guess, so we roll with it.
* Sarah Michelle Gellar, whose soap training makes her an ace at communicating what’s going on in Buffy’s head, absolutely sells Buffy’s raw desire for Angel. It’s actually not a common performance beat for a young woman – they are typically the objects of physical desire, not the ones doing the desiring.
* Oz really doesn’t get much to do this ep, but his band play at the Bronze once again. Cordelia is also shaded out almost completely to allow a focus on the core Scoobies. This has become a big ensemble and it’s hard to manage everyone!