Across three seasons, this show has honed a skillful technique of using supernatural elements to expose and explore widely-shared teenage concerns. Strangely, while this episode offers up a supernatural feature that is extremely well-suited to Buffy‘s method of monstrous metaphor, it then ignores the most obvious and potent aspect of teenage experience so exposed.
In the commentary, Espenson says the episode began with the idea of a student using magic to cheat on a test, and grew from there into a “be careful what you wish for” story – Buffy wishes she knew what Angel thought about Faith, and when she gains the power to find out, it almost kills her. You can see how this idea expanded into its final form, but the episode also shows an uncharacteristic insensitivity to the inner lives and priorities of teenagers. With all the shenanigans around mind-reading that fill the second act, we get only glimpses of what would surely be its most potent aspect, the fundamental anxiety among teenagers (and people in general): “What do they really think of me?”
Perhaps this is because of the nature of Buffy herself. She is a strong, independent figure who has happily defied convention throughout her story. If any character really didn’t give a toss about what other people thought of them, surely it would be Buffy? This superficially seems right, but I think the show itself has discouraged this kind of view of Buffy’s character. Although her courage and independence have been mainstays, the show has also been at pains to show her as flawed and human, hauling the same raft of emotional baggage as her fellow teens, and the desire for approval from those around her is absolutely in keeping with this. Indeed the very first mindreading Buffy experiences after discovering her power has her reacting with surprise and delight that a boy in the hall finds her attractive. It is hard to accept Buffy’s lack of interest then in her status in the eyes of others.
(To underline the point – there is of course a character in the show who has could convincingly be a telepath with no interest in the opinions others have of him. The show has spent a long time establishing Oz’s imperturbability, and the comparison between his characterization and Buffy’s is stark.)
Although the episode continues to give Buffy no curiosity about how she is seen by others, it keeps pointing in that direction. Buffy’s first thought of what to do with the power is to stand out in class with (telepathically stolen) insights into Othello. It’s a weird scene, straddling a logic gap – Buffy uses the power to impress people, but doesn’t use it to see if other people are actually impressed.
The teacher, continuing to discuss Othello, addresses the gap directly: “We all have our little internal Iagos, that tell us our husbands or our girlfriends or whatever, don’t really love us. But you never really see what’s in someone’s heart.” This leads directly to Buffy approaching Angel and attempting to use the power on him. However, once again, Buffy doesn’t try to discover what he thinks of her, only what he thinks about Faith.
Continuing the theme, when the Scooby gang gather again in the library to discuss Buffy’s power, her telepathy reveals mostly what the others think about themselves and each other, rather than what they think about Buffy. This is not really a moment where we’d expect Buffy to be fishing for their thoughts of her, but still the absence of these thoughts shows the episode is simply disinterested in this question.
Shortly after, Buffy is overwhelmed by the telepathy, and the power disappears for the remainder of the episode. Throughout, Buffy has been uninterested in what others think of her, and no-one else seems to be thinking of her anyway judging by the sampling of thoughts we hear. There’s some merit in this – although I maintain Buffy’s lack of curiosity is strange, it is not at all surprising that we don’t hear much from others. The eventual cure for teenage anxiety about how other people think of you is the slow-dawning discovery that mostly, they don’t. Other people aren’t thinking about you, they’re thinking about themselves.
Indeed, it is healthy for the show to finally gesture towards putting some context around the Scooby gang. Sunnydale High has always been extremely poorly drawn, clearly a prop for stories about the Scoobies than anything that had a real existence in its own right; filling it with students who are seen to be thinking about themselves redresses this balance. (Whether this is too little, too late, or just in time for the finale of Buffy’s school years, is down to the subjective taste of the viewer.)
The episode’s “whodunnit” structure, initiated when Buffy overhears the thoughts of someone intending to kill everyone, means the episode needs a raft of suspects. Espenson is forced to offer a whole roster of Sunnydale bit players to fill out the edges, including returning character Percy the jock, and a key role for perpetual featured extra Jonathan. There are some delightful touches here, including the revelation that Sunnydale High has a school newspaper, leading to perhaps my all-time favourite Oz quip, delivered in typically deadpan style by Seth Green:
Willow: The school paper is edging on depressing lately. You guys notice that?
Oz: I don’t know. I always go straight to the obits.
As it happens, that missing feature of Buffy’s telepathic experience – “What do they really think of me? They don’t.” – turns out to be the crux of the episode’s resolution. Buffy confronts Jonathan, who is in the school clock tower with a gun, and delivers exactly this truth as a way of talking him down: “Every single person down there is ignoring your pain because they’re too busy with their own.” It seems clear to me that the episode would have been improved by setting this up more clearly and portraying Buffy more honestly, having her try and use her power to see what other people think of her, and then discovering they mostly aren’t doing so at all. The omission is not disastrous, but it does make the story feel slightly off, like it’s failed to grasp something essential about the emotions of its characters. Mostly, I think this is important because it points out just how rarely this show gets the emotional stuff wrong. This weird little show about a teenage monster hunter and her geeky friends has become so consistently good at nailing character emotions and motivations that even this small oddity stands out.
And one of the reasons that matters is because of the infamy attached to this episode. It was held back from broadcast due to its depiction of a potential school shooting just a week after Columbine. Add to this an attempted suicide, and you have some weighty material for the monster-hunting show. Yet three seasons of intense emotional clarity have earned Buffy the right to tell this story, and never once in this episode do these intense aspects feel gratuitous or mishandled. This is difficult material, addressed with great skill while still being gloriously fun and funny. Pop culture can ask for no more than this.
* I like the show having Buffy try to use her power to read Angel’s thoughts. It’s at the very least rude, and conceivably an awful intrusion – not Buffy’s proudest moment, for sure. But very human, and a nice and believable flaw for our protagonist.
* Perhaps thankfully, the show doesn’t dwell on the rape culture aspects it usually approaches through metaphor – Buffy’s initial mind-reading experiences clearly trouble her for this reason, and she later comments “…the boys at this school are seriously disturbed.”. That’s enough to demonstrate awareness of the issue, but also to allow the show to look at other things.
* Cordelia is, without explanation, back in the Scooby Gang, helping out with the investigation. The show still doesn’t really know what to do with Cordelia – she’ll be out of the group again next week – but I think including her in the scene actually shows the character some respect. It is a relief to see her there, even if it might be inferred her motivation is not “help because it’s important and I’m a good person and to hell with Xander” but rather “help as a way of getting close to Wesley”.
* That said, the gag that Cordy’s thoughts are identical with her dialogue is too funny to get grumpy about.
* Xander, meanwhile, is being misused again. His panicked thoughts about sex and naked women are entirely to be expected, but using the investigation as an excuse for flirting with women is the kind of cheap gag that the show really needs to let go of if they want to keep him around. Likewise, his hero moment at the end, running around throwing jello to the ground, is dialed too far into pathetic physical comedy when it would be amusing enough (and less damaging) played straight.
* The character story of the episode, however, is of course Jonathan. After three long seasons as a running gag, he suddenly gets a meaty dramatic scene and becomes an important part of the overall Buffy tapestry. Funnily enough, he doesn’t even appear until minute 22 – that’s pretty late when you’re setting up a mystery!
* “On the front of a police car? Twice?”