Buffy has been shaking down its approach for seven episodes now, and it clearly feels good about how it’s going. The Angel reveal is in the bag, and the show is clearly ready to spend the back half of the season showing what it can do!
Naturally, it immediately screws up.
The story in this episode: Willow gets an internet boyfriend who turns out to be a demon. If the self-awareness and fashion choices don’t already tip you off, this storyline dates the show precisely to a few years in the mid/late 90s. There was a very narrow window of time where “mysterious internet boyfriend” was a thing. The internet was starting to become a visual environment and making waves in the wider world, but users still played in a text-only world. It was a good time to be online – hey there SCFBBS alumni – but also a short-lived one.
Anyway, the show figures it can take this core idea and make good Buffy out of it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Let’s count some of the ways this episode fluffs it:
One: It fails Willow. The show doesn’t actually have much idea what to do with Willow. As with Cordelia, she’s in the opening credits but what does she actually contribute? She’s Buffy’s best friend, OK, sure – that means she listens to Buffy sigh about Angel. And she’s in unrequited love with Xander, so she gets to sigh at him while he sighs about Buffy. And she’s in the know about fighting evil, so she gets to help out/be captured whenever an extra character is needed to help out/be captured. Oh yeah, she’s a hacker – in the 90s every show had a computer hacker – so she gets to supply crucial plot information whenever the writers need to throw it in. These are all useful things when you’re writing a scene and you need to get on to the interesting stuff, but they sure don’t add up to a character you root for or a character who generates stories and drama.
Just two episodes ago the show had started to figure out what it had in Willow and Alyson Hannigan. Sadly, this episode puts her right at the centre and it still has nothing to offer her. She is a lonely wallflower geek, so naturally she gets obsessive about a mysterious internet boyfriend who gives her the attention she craves, but he turns out to be a demon so whoops, and that’s all really. It’s a waste. The show doesn’t even give her the minimal respect this plotline affords – her obsession is sudden and happens offscreen (she goes from “I have a cute boyfriend” to “I’m cutting classes and you don’t understand wooo” literally overnight), she doesn’t get to work out her boyfriend is a demon until he kidnaps her, and oh yeah he kidnaps her. At least she gets to yell at him at the end before he smacks her to the ground, and she lies there while Buffy deals with him! Oh okay that’s no good either. Sigh.
Hindsight gives us some comfort though – as with Cordelia, we know the writers’ll figure out what to do with Willow, and soon.
Two: the metaphor sucks. Yes, sometimes people who claim to be nice on the internet are not actually nice. This is metaphorically represented by making the internet boyfriend a demon. Well, I guess it counts?
Three: the monster sucks. The show has its best-looking monster yet for the demon Moloch – but you only see it briefly in the opening prologue sequence. Then the show has its worst-looking monster yet when Moloch turns into a cyberdemon for the final act. It’s such a misjudged visual, it’s kind of embarrassing. In between, the demon hangs out in a high school intranet and romances Willow while controlling some other people and it just isn’t very interesting or good.
Four: the tone is all over the place. The episode goes from goofy and stupid to really dark and back again like a drunk driver weaving back and forth across the centre line. The demon has one high school boy murder another while faking it as a suicide, which is one of the darkest scenes in the entire series, but then right after there’s a poor graphic of a demon face saying BOO on the library computer and it’s just silly.
Five: the scale is off. This one is an interesting one – it’s a rule that isn’t obvious, so the show could probably only learn it by breaching it. But if you are a show about teenagers in high school facing monstrous representations of teenage life problems, then your scale is high school life and you have to stick with that. In this story, there’s a big factory staffed by dozens of adult workers under the spell of the demon. It’s too big. It violates the high school rule. If there’s all those adults there, then what happens to them? Where are the police? What do they have to do with high school life? It just doesn’t feel right – it’s the wrong sort of show to have that kind of setup. (Now those who know what’s coming know season 3 does step resoundingly outside the high school scale with an enemy who’s part of the wider world – but note that the show has been diligently setting up this move since, well, since the very next episode. You can get there, but you have to lay the groundwork first.)
Six: technology and magic don’t mix. I’m not even really sure why this is, but mixing technology and magic/supernatural stuff just doesn’t seem to combine well in the Buffy aesthetic. This episode tries hard to mix and match, and it just clunks – Giles fretting about the endless damage the demon could do now it is loose on the internet just seems stupid. New character Jenny Calendar is a “techno-pagan” but that mostly comes to mean “pagan who uses the internet sometimes”. Willow is a hacker and (spoiler!) in time she does a little magic but never ties the two together. As the show goes on, it shows little interest in bringing these back together again. (Until season four, of course. We’ll get there.)
So the episode just doesn’t work. But that’s not to say it’s without merit. There is one part of this episode that is worth remembering and celebrating, however: the final scene. It features our core group of friends sitting together discussing their doomed love lives. And they all laugh! And then the laughter fades out into a miserable silence. It’s a great scene that does cool stuff.
It’s a parody of many other shows that liked to close on the cast sharing a joke together, only here they let the laughs die away into silence. Also, note the self-awareness of the trio knowing they’re doomed. Both of these put Buffy firmly in the post-modernist mode of self-aware 90s entertainment, and combined into one scene they come close to breaking the fourth wall and knowing they are characters in a TV show.
But I’m most interested in the specific references to previous episodes: “Hey, did you forget? The one boy I’ve had the hots for since I’ve moved here turned out to be a vampire.” / “Right, and the teacher I had a crush on? Giant praying mantis?” This signals one of the key structural influences on Buffy: comic books, specifically Marvel superhero comics. Casual but obsessive references to past stories like this had a key role in creating “the Marvel universe”, and it’s easy to imagine the caption box that would appear in the corner of the panel here: “Episodes 4 and 7, Slayerettes! – Japin’ Joss”. These references send a message to viewers: this show knows it has a past, and it will use that past to enrich the present. The show isn’t just telling stories – it’s building a world.
* If “Never Kill A Boy On The First Date” is the best episode title in all of Buffy, this one is clearly the worst. The WORST.
* Xander isn’t awful this episode, and there’s a nice bit where Buffy calls him on enjoying being the object of Willow’s unrequited adoration, although she of course lets him off pretty easy.
* Librarians everywhere will snort at the show’s attempt to sell librarians vs. technology opposition to create conflict between Giles and Jenny. Librarians, of course, embrace tech harder than anyone not actually involved in tech. Get-out clause: Giles is not a real librarian.
* Speaking of the show feeling like it knows what it’s about – this episode actually contains a cheeky parody of its own surprise 3/4 swerves, setting up Jenny Calendar to be revealed at the 3/4 mark as a villain (c.f. the zookeeper in The Pack), but then revealing she’s a heroic technopagan. (It was the 90s, we’re all lucky she didn’t call herself a cyberpagan.)
* Jenny is kinda fun, and her flirtation with Giles is cute. I hope they bring her back.