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Watching Buffy: s03e09 “The Wish”

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The hidden connection between Xander and Willow was revealed last week, with predictably devastating consequences for their respective romantic partners. This episode is dedicated to the fallout. Mostly the focus stays on Cordelia, but the interaction between Oz and Willow is of course the most painful: Oz gives Willow a smackdown that is so clear and gentle and insightful it is almost kind, and therefore it hurts the most.

Willow has always been the audience’s emotional conduit into the fiction, and so we could expect to be wounded there. Our relationship with Cordelia, however, is much more ambiguous. She has been part of the Scooby Gang for a long time but has never been admitted to the inner circle. Although her role as truthseer/truthsayer hasn’t been used much lately, she still maintains the outsider’s position. Her relationship with Xander has consistently been seen as unusual and inexplicable, including by the characters themselves. After an event like this, any realistic emotional reaction would likely see Cordelia distance herself from the gang, and therefore from the show. It is entirely unclear what the show is going to do with her now: the show tacitly acknowledges this by positioning her symbolic destruction of the Scooby gang, by chopping up a photo and burning the others, into the pre-credits climax.

Apart from a perfunctory demon at the cold open and a perfunctory vampire just before the first commercials, the whole first act is monster-free, and mostly devoted to Cordelia. Crucially, we see her bedroom for the first (and only) time, helping us identify with a character who has often been kept at a distance by the show. Then it’s the return of Harmony, who is predictably cruel to Cordelia, but even more so by the handsome popular guy who suggests they might hook up as long as it’s “someplace private”. These scenes do all kinds of work – they of course show Cordelia heartbroken and looking for comfort, but also reinforce our empathy by reminding us that she made a socially-costly choice in choosing Xander, one that refuted something previously core to her identity. Cordelia is not just betrayed, she is also suddenly isolated.

The show takes the time to show us all the ways in which Cordelia is wounded because her heartbreak is to assume fairy-tale power in this episode. She meets a new girl, Anya, and they bond instantly (in a way that rhymes with Cordelia and Buffy’s first, friendly, encounter in the very first episode). However, it turns out Anya is a demon who lures Cordelia into making a vengeful wish – that Buffy had never come to Sunnydale – and then grants it.

This is a form of metaphor monster – “what if your hurt feelings came to life?” It’s interesting to note just how much power the show gives Cordelia’s emotional injury, sufficient to overwrite reality itself. Cordelia finds herself in a dangerous, burned-out Sunnydale, fearful and beset by vampires after the Master successfully rose from his imprisonment. The ruined town is presented vividly, with much of the logic of nightmare, slowly heaping unsettling revelation upon unsettling revelation until we meet Xander and Willow – both vampires in the new reality. Cordelia is narrowly rescued by Giles and his helpers, and learns that this is indeed the world she wished for.

This is (if I remember right) the most dramatic change caused by magic in the whole series, approached only by a similar effect in season four’s Superstar (which, not coincidentally, was also driven by intense personal anguish). It is incredibly effective. The model for this kind of story is Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge witnesses a dark future that awaits if he does not change his ways. The more recent and more apposite exemplar is It’s A Wonderful Life, in which George Bailey is shown what his town would be like if he’d never been born, and discovers it an awful and dark place. The structure of these tales is clear: the dreamer has a vision of an unpleasant reality, and has a change of heart about the world and their place within it. And so the audience is set up for a breathtaking swerve: Xander the vampire kills Cordelia. Cut to commercial.

Even in a show that delights in subverting audience expectations, this is an exceptional act of rug-pulling, perhaps the most unexpected reversal ever pulled off by the show. It echoes the early twist in Psycho, and not much else: Western storytelling methods have trained us to accept that our primary point-of-view character early on will remain so to the end (and will probably grow as a person along the way). By ditching Cordelia – and at the half-way point, not waiting for the three-quarter – the episode throws out the rulebook and lets us know we are off the beaten narrative track from here on in. Watch out folks, this is bat country.

The rest of the episode continues a brutal tour of the alternative Sunnydale, culminating in a nasty showdown where the returned Buffy and the other remaining good guys engage in a lethal showdown against the Master where pretty much everyone dies before Giles grabs Anya’s magical necklace and smashes it, restoring things to normal. We see Cordelia make her wish, but Anya can no longer grant it; delightedly, Cordelia proceeds to make many more vengeful wishes as the episode ends, having learned no lessons and had no change of heart. The experience was not for her benefit, in the end. It was for ours.

This dark alternative was presented for the audience. It shows us that the show is playing fair, holding to its commitment to real threats. It shows us that this is a story worth telling – that the battles Buffy and friends fight matter to the world. It shows us new aspects of familiar characters (Willow!), and how they have influenced each other (the hardbitten friendless Buffy). And it gives us the visceral thrill of showing how bad things could be if the bad guys won.

Marvel Comics geeks of a certain vintage – approximately the vintage of Joss Whedon, as it happens – will already know where I’m going with this. “The Wish” is a riff on It’s a Wonderful Life, sure, but more than that, it is a very specific take on Marvel’s What If.

The original, classic run of What If was from 1977 to 1984, roughly contemporaneous with the Claremont X-Men run beloved of Whedon and cited by him as a major influence on Buffy. It was the creation of Roy Thomas, a comics superfan turned pro, and displayed his enthusiasm for continuity and winding the many strands of Marvel comics publishing into a single coherent universe. In each issue, a comics tale was reimagined as alternate history: what if things went a different way? Usually this ended with tragic death, often with mass death and destruction, and occasionally the end of the universe itself. Every aspect of the wishverse is right out of the What If? playbook: the triumphant villain, the good-guys-turned-bad, the death and despair.

Within the shared Marvel universe that Roy Thomas loved so much, these imagined alternate histories didn’t matter. They were described as other dimensions or other worlds, but by their nature they couldn’t influence the main reality. They were purely provided as entertainment for the reader, and the effect was to give the experience of depth to this imagined world. A world that can sustain alternate histories is a world that has a history; a world where the fates of characters can change is a world where those fates matter. All stories are imaginary, but this kind of dark counterpart elevates these stories into a special kind of imagined space. Buffy is not just a story – it is a story world.

This claim sits oddly with the show’s gleeful shrugs when it comes to building a believable world outside the main protagonists and their emotional lives. Perhaps it can only be taken seriously as a restatement of the principle of emotional reality: after all, the wish that creates our vision of a different world arises from emotion, and this vision is clearly focused on corruptions of the core relationships amongst our cast.

The events of the previous episode didn’t just send Cordelia careening away from the core cast of this show – they also convincingly argued that Buffy and Angel cannot remain in the same narrative space together without tearing each other apart. If Buffy is a story world, then these emotional trajectories can be followed through: Angel and Cordelia don’t need to stay in Sunnydale, with Buffy. There is a whole wide world out there full of possibilities, and though it might not make much sense in terms of logic, it sure does make sense in terms of passion.

Other thoughts:
* Buffy’s in Cleveland! The idea of Cleveland as another Hellmouth is a minor bit of series lore the show will return to several times, although it never particularly takes it seriously. (Remember, the world doesn’t need to make logical sense!)
* Buffy in the wishverse joins the long tradition of alternate-universe-person with a scar across their face.
* This is a wonderful episode, but there is one note that clunks. The Master – delightfully revived by Mark Metcalfe – reveals his big plan is making an automated blood factory. Once again, technology and the supernatural don’t feel right together on this show, and it doesn’t feel of a piece with the rest of the stuff in the episode or with what we know of the Master. It’s always seemed clear that vampires like hunting, and drinking straight from the source.

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