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Watching Buffy: s03e20 “The Prom”

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High school is hell. This is the concept Buffy has run with right from the first episode, when new kid Buffy opted out of popularity to hide with the weird kids in the library. From there she and her friends would take on all the pains of late adolescence, as filtered into monstrous metaphorical form.

Over this last run of episodes, as graduation day approaches, the show has remembered it’s set in high school. Earshot coloured in Sunnydale High, and Choices began the process of resolving outstanding questions. This episode carries on from both of these, solidifying the show’s high school context and locking down more conclusions to get ready for the end.

The heart of this episode is the prom, perhaps the one moment in high school where even in the real world people are beguiled by mythic metaphor. For Buffy, it is a last chance to party before the coming apocalypse, a precious opportunity for her friends that she will protect at all costs. Her own belief in the magic of prom and its promise of “one perfect high school moment” is, unfortunately, broken early in this episode when Angel unilaterally ends their relationship.

Marti Noxon carries a bad reputation in the received wisdom of Buffy fandom, accused of overloading the show with melodrama. Whether or not she earns that rep later on, the breakup scene between Buffy and Angel is breathtaking. It runs long, a two-hander that takes its time and gives Sarah Michelle Gellar plenty of space to walk the audience through every beat of Buffy’s internal journey. It is painful and very believable. It’s clear Angel’s already made up his mind, and Buffy’s anger at this is palpable – “Who are you to tell me what’s right for me? You think I haven’t thought about this?” But there’s no way to say Angel is wrong. It’s an utterly believable split, the same fracture in their relationship that almost led Angel to kill himself in Amends but played out in a different way. And it’s so downbeat, so simple. There isn’t even a precipitating incident, except perhaps for the Mayor and Joyce who separately deliver the same message that Angel is clearly already thinking. The relationship comes to pieces quietly, because Angel thought about it long enough to lose his faith in its future. It’s not the way we’d expect a TV show to break up its central romance, it’s too quiet, too sensible. The contrast with the usual mode of TV storytelling gives it extra impact. It feels solid. It feels irreversible. It feels real. That’s why Buffy’s line at the end of the scene strikes so deep: “Is this really happening?”

By way of answer, the show dissolves to a shot of the moon. Dissolves aren’t really part of the show’s visual language, and neither is a wide establishing shot; the show keeps its edits tight and clean and holds its eye on the world immediate to the Scoobies. With this edit, which leads into shots of Buffy and then Angel alone, the show tells us that the split is real. Buffy’s life just changed forever.

We’re still in this moment as we land on Buffy trying to make sense of it by spilling her guts to newly-confirmed BFF Willow. And she says out loud what the show has already told us: “But he’s right. I mean, I think, maybe in the long run, that he’s right.” And then she breaks down into sobs, and it’s powerful to see her so undone, because she is so strong and capable now, so indomitable in the full bloom of her slayer authority. The show keeps its promise: real emotions when bad things happen.

Buffy pulls out of her funk only when it becomes clear the prom is under threat: “I’m going to give you all a nice, fun, normal evening if I have to kill every single person on the face of the earth to do it.” It’s another moment of closure, the ultimate expression of Buffy’s relationship to the school and to her friends – as the Chosen One she has slowly come to recognize she needs her friends, but she is also ready to sacrifice herself for them and be their champion. We also get a further demonstration of the team in action, with Buffy as the effective general, again showing us the outcome of three seasons of team development. We even get Willow throwing down some hacking prowess, a callback to the very beginning of the Scooby Gang working together. But there’s one further note of conclusion here: as Buffy takes responsibility for her friends’ happiness, her friends step back and allow her to do this. It’s a group dynamic that is settled and mature, and it is satisfying to see.

More closure, this episode finally puts an end to Xander’s troubling and obsessive behaviour towards Cordelia. For some time now he has been cruelly attacking her, an unpleasant habit that arose from his own insecurities after betraying her. In this episode he finds that things are going poorly for her, and it shocks him out of this pattern, reminding him that she is a human being. In a rare generous gesture, he pays for her prom dress, and they have a genuine moment of mutual respect and despite-everything affection at the prom. For too long Xander’s behaviour towards Cordy has echoed uncomfortably with the dark core of male entitlement shown in The Pack, but his generosity here – not just buying the dress, but covering up her fall from grace, giving her a simple, friendly compliment, giving her the last word, and not imposing on her evening at all – speak of a Xander who is not in thrall to those weaknesses. It comes far too late to make Xander any kind of shiny exemplar, but it is a healthy and welcome change.

The episode also provides a contrast to Xander’s escape from toxic masculinity, by presenting an episode villain who is completely engulfed in the same. The prom is threatened by a school student named Tucker, whose entire motivation for mass murder is getting turned down by the girl he asked to go with him. The show displays its contempt for this with a flashback that is merciless in its brevity, but the premise stings in the present moment, after several mass murders in schools motivated by exactly and precisely this kind of petty self-loathing. The show has unwittingly struck on the perfect expression of its thematic interest in the female perspective by allowing Buffy to close out her high-school years with an unequivocal victory over a pitiful red pill/MRA ideologue.

The climax of the episode, however, isn’t anything to do with the monsters. It comes in an unexpected addition to the prizegiving ceremony, where Jonathan – just saved from suicide by Buffy one episode ago – gives Buffy an award on behalf of all the students: “We’re not good friends. Most of us never found the time to get to know you, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t noticed you…. Most of the people here have been saved by you, or helped by you at one time or another… So the senior class, offers its thanks.”

And the students of Sunnydale High all turn to celebrate Buffy, and the moment echoes back through every episode we’ve seen, every moment in this school, when Buffy’s courage and sacrifice was seen, and was remembered. The senior class become one with the audience, and we know Buffy deserves her perfect high school moment, complete with Angel to take her in his arms and dance.

Buffy wins. She defeats high school by discovering its true face – a community of people who see the good in others and, stumbling and hesitant, show them love as best they can. A community facing real threat, but blessed with real emotion, enough that they can see the guarding angel who’s been among them from the start.

The show always claimed that high school was hell. Turns out it was heaven all along.

Other notes:
* We finally discover where Angel gets his blood, underlining yet again how little the show cares about procedural questions like “where does Angel get his blood”.
* Joyce coming to see Angel plays as a really nice, gentle moment. Buffy would no doubt be furious at Joyce interfering in her life, but the show is basically on Joyce’s side here.
* The Giles-Buffy relationship is beautifully played here as well. His deep fatherly concern and his profound respect for her both resonate in the moments when he learns of her breakup with Angel and congratulates her at the prom.
* For all the unpleasant overtones that now attach to Tucker’s revenge scheme, it is genuinely hilarious how he trained the beasts to attack formal attire by forcing them to binge-watch Carrie, Pretty in Pink, and the Prom Night franchise.
* Anya returns in this episode, and while she is kind of irrelevant to the action she makes an immediate impression. This is an almost entirely new take on the character compared to her previous outings, displaying an arresting mixture of blunt speech, social naivete, and a helpless awareness of stormy emotions. She is utterly irresistible.
* The show has trained us to expect dream sequences now, so when we see Buffy and Angel getting married we know what’s going on. But the show has a swerve – it’s actually Angel’s dream this time. In retrospect it’s obvious, because it’s way out of character for Buffy to dream about getting married.

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