The scene that sticks with me is the conversation Xander has with Willow after Buffy turns him down:
Xander: Hey, I know what we’ll do! We can go! Be my date! We’ll, we’ll have a great time! We’ll dance, we’ll go wild… Whadaya say?
Xander: Good! What?
Willow: There’s no way.
Xander: (exhales) Willow, come on!
Willow: You think I wanna go to the dance with you and watch you wish you were at the dance with her? You think that’s my idea of hijinks? You should know better.
Xander: (exhales) I didn’t think.
Willow: I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you. I’ll see you on Monday.
It’s the “you should know better” that stings the most, because it’s aiming not just at Xander, but also at us, the viewers. You think this works like television, where my emotions don’t function? No. Welcome to the real world.
Well, not exactly the real world. The extremely-stylised and artificial world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is nonetheless a world in which people have real emotions. This is it, the final part of the show’s formula, showing up for the last dance. Right at the start I talked about the problem of Jesse, which is the challenge of combining real threat and real emotion without destroying the show in the process. There was some hesitation in that discussion, though, because the “real emotion” part of that equation wasn’t yet in place. Across the season, you saw a few flashes of the show’s emerging commitment to real emotion: the scene with Buffy and her father in Nightmares, some of the Buffy/Angel stuff in Angel, some of the Willow/Xander stuff in The Pack. But here it all comes together in what is a mission statement for the show: our characters feel every punch. And to emphasise the point, it punches them, over and over again.
The punches land because of the other part of that formula: real threat. Again, real threat has turned up a few times this season: the pack hunting Willow, Darla biting Joyce – but in this episode the show makes it stick, most notably when vampires kill Cordelia’s boyfriend on the school grounds, and when the prophecy demands that Buffy die. There are plenty of lesser threats in there too, such as upset in the unspoken love triangle between Xander, Willow and Buffy.
It turns out that real emotions require real threats. Without threat, emotion doesn’t have enough provocation, nor enough consequence, to feel significant for storytelling. And conversely, without emotion, threat doesn’t ever really matter to us – if we don’t have a chance to feel the effects through the characters, then it just can’t hurt us. It isn’t balancing threats and emotions that threatens the funny, fizzy tone of the show – it’s their mere existence. Real threats and real emotions are intertwined, and they inevitably drag a narrative towards misery.
How can you weight a TV show with these burdens and still try and be funny and fun? This is the fundamental question at the heart of this show, its core ambition. For that matter – why would you even try? This was clearly Joss Whedon’s vision for Buffy, but did he just not realise going in how hard it would be? And when the difficulty did become clear, why didn’t he change course? The problem of Jesse, in the end, illuminates the purpose of this show. Buffy is saying something about life beyond “high school is pretty rough you guys”, and the high school setting is just a convenient microcosm to talk about bigger questions. It will take a while for the show to articulate this question properly and give a clear answer, but there is a sense of it right in this episode: life will try to harm you, and you will be hurt and scared, but the right response is to stand up and keep fighting and keep making jokes and keep loving your friends. In the face of misery, that funny and fizzy tone isn’t ignorance – it is defiance.
So, the episode. Buffy faces down the Master, the Hellmouth opens and tentacles come out, everyone stands together to fight them, Buffy dies (3/4 swerve!) but is revived, the Master gets killed in the library. Plenty happens. The episode makes a point of using every one of its assets to the fullest. Sarah Michelle Gellar gets two knockout sequences. First in the achingly awkward scene where she tells Xander she’s not interested in him romantically – this is the longest scene in the episode and Gellar just nails every aspect of it, using her ability to communicate what’s going on inside her head to take you through every moment of her discomfort. Then, even more so, in the scene where Buffy discovers she’s fated to die that night, and where she has the entirely natural reaction of throwing it all in and walking away.
Nick Brendan’s Xander channels all his flop-sweat hopefulness into that long, long scene with Gellar, and it kind of makes sense of the character’s behaviour all season, his awful teen boy behaviour feels much less odious when you know this sharp lesson is ahead of him. Alyson Hannigan’s Willow does her full big-eyed emotion to give us a snap between the eyes at the deaths at the school, ensuring we can’t dodge this awful intrusion. And Anthony Stewart Head gets to do every part of Giles, enriching and deepening his character and showing that being the grown-up can mean many different things.
Plus, Cordy is right in the mix, and the very appealing Jenny Calendar makes a reappearance and is more or less inducted into the core cast.
But that’s not all! Lots of things get resolved. Among them:
- The love triangle. Xander admits his feelings for Buffy and asks her out; she refuses. Willow acknowledges her feelings for Xander but accepts they aren’t returned. After just twelve episodes, the show is done with the love triangle and ready to move on.
- Cordelia’s opposition to the gang. Most of this change happened last episode, but it is brought into a wider context here. Cordelia is friendly with Willow and ends up fully involved in the climax. She’s still an outside element, but she’s no longer in opposition to them.
- Buffy’s core issue this season, balancing her desire for a normal high school life with her Slayer responsibilities. The choice is made brutally stark: if she chooses to be a Slayer, she’ll die tonight. She chooses to be Slayer anyway. This question is resolved.
- Giles’s relationship with Buffy – is he the cool and distant Watcher, using her like a pawn on a chessboard, or a father figure, concerned about her welfare and seeking to keep her safe? Here Giles defies his own rules and indeed prophecy itself, trying to keep Buffy safe. Their relationship is now much more equal, and much more emotionally complete.
Each of these is a prominent part of season one. The show tosses all of them away. This is a show committed to reinvention. It’s the flipside of the problem of Jesse – real change is possible, too. It’s an interesting move for a show with a future – they throw out the moves that work for them so they don’t get stale. But they have to trust they’ll find new moves that also work. I understand Whedon and his team having that confidence, but they’re not the only ones calling the shots. If this was a bigger show, I doubt they’d get permission from higher-ups to make such radical changes.
Luckily, Buffy wasn’t big. It was small. Very small, with a name people couldn’t take seriously. People underestimated it, never guessing just how hard it could punch.
Hmmm. That description reminds me of someone.
* You know, it strikes me that this would actually be a perfectly effective first episode. Is the rest of season one redundant?
* To my eyes, the opening fight scene is shot differently to previous fight scenes. Buffy comes into her own fully here. She is fierce, dominant, tough: the Slayer, fully-formed.
* Willow talks about being in “the club”, which is better than “the Slayerettes”. The definitive nickname for the Slaying gang is still a while away!
* The show has a nice nudge at the audience where it leads you to expect the big climax at the Bronze, one of the show’s two standing sets. Then it reveals, no, the big climax is at the Library, the same boring place you’ve been in all season!
* That Anointed One kid turns out to have been a bit of a waste of time, huh? The perils of making story as you go – sometimes you realise that gun on the mantelpiece doesn’t actually need to get fired, oh well.
* Cordelia’s troubled driving is a callback to her driving lesson way back in episode three.
* Angel’s not having breath is funny given he can speak, and will thereafter be completely ignored by the show. Nevertheless it gives Xander a suitably downbeat moment of heroism – building on his courage in Nightmares, where (as Maire pointed out to me) we saw Xander willingly face his greatest fear for his friends.
* After Buffy’s resuscitation she says something like “I feel strong, I feel different”. This is interesting – and something the show doesn’t make much of thereafter. Still, the implication is clear, that she becomes at this moment “slayer plus”, something other than she was before. This could be read as an escape from patriarchical control – but all of that subtext is some way from being developed. As it is, this is just an intriguing dangling thread.