Once there was a girl whose life went bad. Vampire romance turned into vampire horror, until it became just too much for her. So she ran away. She left her home and every friend she had and disappeared into the anonymous big city. She had had enough. She just wanted a simple life. She wanted out. And it worked, for a while. She wasn’t happy, but she was safe.
Then she met Buffy Summers again, and it all went horribly wrong.
The first episode of season three of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has crucial work to do. When we last saw Buffy, she had run away from Sunnydale and the show. Now it’s time to bring her back. But in order to do this, the episode delivers a truly unexpected return. Chantarelle from Lie to Me, a vampire groupie who narrowly escaped slaughter, reappears here. Even in a show that makes a point of treasuring its bit players and revels in comics-style continuity callbacks, this is an astonishing move. She was a minor element in a minor episode, notable only for her clueless optimism. Why on earth would the show build such a crucial plotline around her reappearance?
Like the first episode of season two, this episode is about recovering from the weight of the previous season. Once again, the title character has lost her way and is trying out a different identity, deliberately out of step with audience expectations. Both episodes launch 22-episode seasons in which Buffy must slay some vampires, so for the following 21 episodes to function, they have repair work to do. The Buffy of “When She Was Bad” was troubled and angry, but her recovery to normality was fairly easily achieved. This time the path is not so simple: Buffy had to kill the man she loved, the man who betrayed her and murdered her friend, and whose betrayal was precipitated by her own actions. This is a heavy burden, and true to its founding principles, the show does not stint on the weight. Season two began with Buffy’s return to Sunnydale, but this season she is resolutely away from her friends and family, trying to make a new life. She is alone.
How to bring Buffy back? There are of course countless ways this could be accomplished, but the obvious options are not as suitable as they might first appear. The show could simply contrive a reason to force her back – she forgot something crucial, or she has a message she must deliver,or she discovers a crucial threat to Sunnydale that she decides she can’t ignore. Yet none of these easy answers would address the substance of her departure. Buffy could be made to return and stay, but the emotional reality of her return would be lacking, and in this show, that hurts. Similarly, Buffy’s return could be facilitated by one of the core cast – Cordelia is an obvious candidate, still in her role as truthteller and dispeller of self-delusion, and with a built-in reason to be in Los Angeles as well. But no, even there, the move would be hard to sell. If Buffy comes back because she is persuaded, or because of something temporary, then her true discomfort would remain unaddressed. The troubles ahead would either drive her away again, or destroy the reality of her character.
The truth is, Buffy knows that if she returns to Sunnydale and to the title role of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then there is more pain ahead of her, more heartbreak, more suffering. She has not passed through a nightmare and come out the other side, but simply glimpsed the horror that awaits her. To be in Sunnydale is to be part of the anguish and certain harm that will be delivered to her life and the lives of all those around her. And so she fled.
The reason she understands is that she senses the rules of the universe around her. She believes she is fated for pain because she is aware that she lives in a reality governed by higher laws. She is a character in fiction, and part of a narrative, and although she is not quite aware of that, she sees enough. The world she lives in is one of realistic pain and realistic threat, but little else stands up to scrutiny. The writers cannot help but make her sense this truth, her above all, because she was created with a self-awareness and insight that is crucial to her whole character, and to maintain the veil from here on would neuter her.
Call it the problem of Anne. Either Buffy’s reflective awareness is stunted, harming her character, or she lives in knowledge and desires only to flee the trap that is this show. How can the show thread the needle?
Buffy is in Los Angeles, living alone, working a thankless job in a diner. The music sting as she does not react to sexual harassment reveals everything we need to know about her: she is hiding from herself. If she stops being Buffy the Vampire Slayer, if she can just be Anne, then she might escape the narrative entirely. She might be forgotten. We, the audience, might let her be. But then Chantarelle, now Lily, appears in her diner with her friend Ricky. Buffy runs from this sign of her past but she meets Lily again later, outside. And then she sees an old man about to be run down, and she cannot help herself: she saves him. Soon after, Lily asks for help: Ricky is missing.
And so we see why Lily is here. Buffy needed a character from her past, one to remind her of the value of her old life, and also to show her that her fate would never leave her alone. It helps the storytelling more if character is tangential enough that Buffy would feel no obligation to them, and innocent enough that she would not be able to feel manipulated. Lily fits all these criteria.
There’s more. Whether Lily was chosen deliberately and strategically for this reason, or it is just creative coincidence, her earlier episode resonates heavily with this one. The great arc of Season 2 began in earnest in Halloween, and Lie to Me immediately followed, encapsulating the whole tragedy of season two in a single episode – someone Buffy loved and trusted turned on her, and his death shook her to the core. Life is hard and complicated, and people die, and it hurts like hell.
Lie to Me was also the episode where the show charted a course back from this kind of trauma: through the love and support of friends. Giles lied to Buffy that everything would be fine; she drew strength not from his lie, but from the fact he cared enough to tell it. The narrative principles of this show inevitably traumatise the characters, but they recover through love. Buffy is hiding from the trauma, but Lily’s appearance proves to her that the trauma will always find her. All that she has accomplished by fleeing is to cut her off from the only remedy to her pain: the love of her friends.
So Buffy makes her choice. She decides not to hide any more. She embraces her identity and her role. She goes to save Lily and avenge Rickie, and finds herself in a slave-ridden hell. She asserts her identity as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (note the invocation of the title of the show, the first time Buffy has ever said it), but then indicates that she is adopting a new strategy. Hiding hasn’t worked. She is going to grab her fate with both hands and take as much control of it as she can. The new direction is signalled in her very next line of dialogue: “Anyone who’s not having fun here, follow me.”
Fun has been conspicuously absent from this story. Buffy has been miserable, and has found only further misery. Enough of that. The show has always believed in true threat and true emotions, but also in joy and laughter. It has always been fun. It has to be fun. Fun is the point. And Buffy’s going to make things fun if it kills her.
Moments later, as Buffy takes control, becomes a leader, and dominates the bad guys, there is an incredible hero shot, the camera coming down on a crane past Buffy on a platform waiting for the bad guys to come at her… And then a huge run-and-punch fight scene that takes the show’s action choreography to a new level. Ending, of course, with the main bad guy finally getting a moment where it looks like he is back in control, holding Lily (of course) at knifepoint. He tells Buffy she has disobeyed, and Buffy’s response? “Yeah, but it was fun.” And then: the bad guy, ranting, grandstanding, steps forward while Lily drifts out of focus behind him.
So Lily uses this as an opportunity and pushes him off the platform to his defeat.
It’s rip-roaring punch-the-air great, and it’s also hilariously meta. It’s hard to read the moment as anything but the show itself intervening again, giving a minor character the chance to unseat a powerful villain via the simple power of blocking. It’s so dumb it’s delightful, and it feels like this is the show *wooing Buffy back*. Yes, there will be pain, you can’t hide from that. But there will also be moments like this.
This is the answer to the problem of Anne. The show is striking a deal with Buffy. She will go back and be herself again, the title character, and she will face the pain. In return, the show will let her be a hero – her kind of hero, the kind of hero who knows too many narrative rules to be safe. The kind of hero who would deliver a coup de grace on a trapped enemy – while comparing herself to Gandhi, no less. A different Buffy. A Buffy who we can believe will go back to Sunnydale, and stay. The show makes with her the same deal it makes with us, the audience: we need to laugh and cheer as well as cry.
The episode ends with Buffy and her mother reunited in a wordless embrace. We’re back. But there’s still some work to do…
* Lily also originated in an episode by Joss Whedon, who is writing this episode – when he cast his mind back for a character to use, she would have been right there.
* Buffy’s working at a place called “Helen’s Kitchen”. The Hel’s Kitchen joke must have been a bridge too far.
* The demon wearing a human mask saying “do you know how long it takes to glue on?” – well I lol’d.
* All of the above completely ignores the parallel storyline in Sunnydale where everyone’s coping with Buffy’s absence. It’s pretty good stuff – the Scoobies trying to slay vampires and not being much good, a subtle demonstration of how intensely Giles is feeling Buffy’s absence, the surprisingly frank discussion between Joyce and Giles about his role in her life, Willow being in charge and thriving at it, it’s all good stuff. But to call out two particular shining lights here:
* Seth Green in the credits! The beautiful moment where Oz throws a stake at a vampire and misses underlines his worth to this show.
* and Cordy just being perfect everywhere, still! There’s a lovely moment where Cordelia and Willow reunite after summer and instantly smile and chat as close friends, which is such an incredible and yet believable contrast to season one. But even better the weird relationship she has with the show’s misfit child of instinct, Xander, where they both talk themselves out of being honest with each other and need to bicker themselves into a life-threatening situation before they can get past their own issues. The problems with Xander continue to grow this season but right now it’s a lovely sequence.
* Now that the core cast have figured out that they’re not really in the real world, the world stops trying so hard to pretend, with amusing results, notably Larry (another recurring bit player) saying “If we can focus, keep discipline, and not have quite as many mysterious deaths, Sunnydale is gonna rule!”
* Although, this episode does feature the extremely rare sight of students in the school library…