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Watching Buffy: s03e19 “Choices”

BuffyChoices

Buffy will always be remembered as a high school show. “High school really is hell” is the catchy high concept that sums up what this show was about. Buffy, Xander and Willow hanging out in the school library, making plans to fight vampires with Giles? That’s the show, always and forever. (Example: just this week Buffy made it as far as the semi-finals in Vulture.com’s “best high school show of all time” bracket.)

This memory is wrong, of course. Buffy was at high school for little more than a third of the series run, and it had mostly stopped caring about the school by the halfway point of those episodes. When last week’s episode suddenly devoted screen time to the school, it came as a shock, a surprise reminder that yes, these characters were in fact high school students. (Vulture published an explainer for Buffy’s failure to progress to the final, acknowledging that the show is about much more than just high school.)

The high school label will stick around regardless. In high school Buffy became something exceptional in season two, and delivered ambition and quality in season three. With this episode, the end of high school comes looming into view. It isn’t entirely clear how the next season will work. Buffy isn’t much of a high school show, but it still uses that setting to keep its narrative together. What’s going to happen next? How big a transformation will this be?

The show is heading for a format change that will have a bigger impact that anything else in the its history. While the change will not be as momentous as other shows that take their high school setting seriously and then have to transition to a wholly new set of concerns upon graduation, it will still adjust the context and relationships of every character and change the context of every threat. More importantly, it will pull the rug out from under that high concept: high school might have been hell, but the characters are almost out of high school.

Effecting change on this scale takes a bit of time and care to do properly, and that’s why the end of Buffy starts here. The closing quartet of episodes that are all concerned with resolving the many ongoing threads that have animated the show through this season, and in fact through its whole existence. There is a lot to get through, and four episodes will prove barely enough.

Before closing things off, though, the show finally puts its major antagonist in the picture. Last season Angelus arrived too soon and the show struggled to delay the inevitable confrontation, but this time the show has held the Mayor back and he and Faith are peaking at just the right time.

The relationship between Faith and the Mayor is depicted clearly in a vivid fragment where the Mayor gives Faith a gift-wrapped present. Faith’s attitude and sass disappear as soon as the Mayor chides her, showing Faith is desperate for the kind of father-figure approval the Mayor can provide. He gives her the performance of love and security while at the same time encouraging her most anti-social tendencies – an unlikely combination that Faith has not, of course, been able to find anywhere else. Faith’s relationship with the Mayor is an interesting contrast with the approaches of Giles (I will treat you as an adult, don’t disappoint me) and Wesley (I will treat you as an errant child, but I have no claim to authority), and even with her erstwhile mentor Buffy (I will be your friend but we have to be honest with each other).

Faith’s character is certainly thriving in the Mayor’s care, for a certain definition of thriving. She murders another human in this episode, assassinating him from behind and from a distance in the absence of provocation. This behaviour is deeply disturbing – even the vampire sent to help her is creeped out by her eagerness to mutilate the body in order to free her prize. As ever in this season, it is hard to see how this storyline can end – Buffy is firmly against killing, but it doesn’t seem like Faith can be stopped without killing her, and her brutal cruelty doesn’t leave much room for redemption.

The Mayor, meanwhile, finally gets some context as he explains that he did have a family, a wife who died of old age while his immortality kept him alive. It doesn’t really make him any easier to understand as a villain, but it provides some depth and complexity that has been absent in the character before now. Delightfully, he uses his experience as a reason to tell Angel and Buffy that their relationship is similarly doomed, and his message strikes home in just the same way Spike’s warnings of doom resonated earlier in the season.

The episode does turn its attention to resolution, starting with a look at the competence of the Scooby Gang. A lot of genre entertainment generates pleasure from “competence porn”, the joy of watching skillful people do hard jobs with aplomb. This show has never done this. For all of season one, much of season two and even into this season the group have often been presented as defiantly, gleefully amateurish in their approach to fighting bad guys and saving the world. In this episode, however, they are operating with a smooth operational confidence. The episode takes on the structure of a heist movie, complete with a Mission Impossible “dangling from cables to uplift the treasure” sequence. Every member of the team has a role to play and does the job with care, deferring always to Buffy’s leadership. It doesn’t quite go according to plan, of course, but that’s perfectly in keeping with our expectations of a heist narrative – and more importantly, none of the problems are seen to arise from character flaws or poor decisions on the part of our heroes. Indeed, the only reason it doesn’t come off is because of Faith, whose position as a counterpart to Buffy allows her to be disruptive to the best-laid plans.

Until this reveal, however, it is very enjoyable to watch the team work so well together. We’ve seen them stumble and fail and mess up over and over again, and seeing them do the job so well is a pleasurable culmination of three seasons of growth and improvement. The show was never concerned with high school as a place for education, but the skillful spycraft on display here is a solid proxy for it. What we are given in this episode is a bunch of characters who have mastered their craft and are ready to graduate.

After we learn about Willow’s capture, the focus of the episode shifts rapidly. As the group negotiate a hostage exchange with the Mayor, the episode makes a significant swerve by giving Willow some meaty hero beats. Although her image has always been shy, gentle, squeamish, anxious, and caring, Willow has been capable of steel right from go – her big moment in The Pack was an early highlight. But nothing before now has prepared us for the resourceful courage Willow displays here, luring a vampire in to attack her so she can use her magic to stake it with a pencil, then forgoing a chance to escape in order to uncover more about the Mayor’s plans, and then upon being discovered by Faith she shows even her deep empathy has limits as she delivers some home truths to the current vampire slayer: “You’re just a big selfish, worthless waste.” While her decision to sit and read in a corner for an hour wasn’t terribly wise, it does mean she can deliver some crucial information about the Mayor’s plan.

This is all about dealing with the first bump in the road for the show: keeping the cast together. Buffy wants to go to a university far away, but her obligation to the Hellmouth will keep her in place. Her friends, however, have no such obligations. In fact, the show has embraced the fact that Willow should have opportunities to go almost anywhere in the world. Her hero turn in this episode serves as justification for her choice to stay. She is badass enough to pull her own weight, and she has clearly bought into the mission: “And I just realized that that’s what I want to do. Fight evil, help people. I mean, I think it’s worth doing. And I don’t think you do it because you have to. It’s a good fight, Buffy, and I want in.”

Buffy’s response: “I kind of love you.” And their relationship does appear to go up another level in this episode, as Willow’s and Buffy’s friendship becomes very strong and very special. If there is true love in this show, it exists between Willow and Buffy, and how right that this story with its devotion to a female point of view should so resoundingly celebrate strong female friendship.

Sadly, this comes at the expense of Oz. He is not entirely absent, of course. He gets a cracker of a scene in the middle, cutting short the gang’s discussion of the train problem by smashing the magical preparation he’d put together earlier. Seth Green, as usual, delivers beautifully, but after that he is thoroughly sidelined, and ignored entirely when Willow is recovered to allow the show to focus on the relationship Willow has with Buffy. This is, unfortunately, symptomatic of the way Oz has been treated throughout the season – he does everything so well, but is given frustratingly little to do. After this episode it is easy to imagine Seth Green looking again at his contracts and thinking very carefully about whether he wants to return for season four.

Other notes:
* The episode puts some attention on Xander. Even in the episodes where he is well-handled, his obsessive negativity towards Cordelia weighs him down. This is a burden the show needs to shift, and we get some groundwork for this in this episode. Notably, Xander is clearly portrayed as being out of line here – Willow tells him off for his attitude towards Cordelia (perhaps too gently, but still), and later we see him visibly give into the temptation to be an abusive ass towards her. It is a positive for the show to be portraying Xander’s poor behaviour as actively unpleasant, as opposed to an amusing comedy moment. This episode doesn’t actually resolve any of this, instead laying the groundwork for next time.
* Xander reading On the Road – well, that book won’t make him any more of a feminist, but a road trip actually sounds like a really good idea for the character.
* Not everything in the ep goes smoothly. It has to really work hard to contrive a circumstance where the monsters get out of the box – Snyder bursting in on what he suspects is a drug deal with a security guard who will act like an idiot. This is bizarrely out of sync with three seasons of genre expectation, full of late-night activity in the school with no security guards to be seen. It’s also out of step with Snyder’s own awareness of the supernatural and his position as a more complicated foil than he first appeared to be. Finally this forces a set-up in the first act where we have a sequence of Snyder shaking down two random students, completely disconnected from everything around it. Elegant plotting this is not, a shame in an episode that otherwise works so well.
* No better sign of just how little Buffy cares about believable world-building than seeing the Mayor operates his sinister schemes right out of the front door of city hall.
* Faith is aided by a vampire in a deeply unfashionable shirt. Nice to see this motif again.

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