This is the episode with the dance.
Buffy returns to Sunnydale after a summer away, and finds the vampires are stirring again too. Buffy reconnects with her gang of friends but something is amiss – she is carrying some bad psychology after the events of season one. Finally the vampires trick Buffy into leaving her friends unguarded so they can kill ’em to raise the Master from the dead, but Buffy still turns up in time to save them. The end. The primary focus here is Buffy’s emotional journey: she’s not over the nasty events that closed last season – she accepted her role and her fate, and she died (and got better).
The show, too, seems like it’s not over season one. The episode spends its whole runtime threatening to revive elements of season one that we thought we were done with. The love triangle is explicitly revived, with tension playing out between Willow, Xander and Buffy in pointed emotional setpieces. Buffy’s dad is back along with those family tensions. The Anointed One, minor figure on the villain side last season, is driving the plot as the opposing force. Even the Master is brought back, despite his death, and his return to prominence is threatened. (A nightmare about his return marks the point where Buffy transitions from “unhappy” to “outright unpleasant to be around”.)
This episode is like a mirror image of “Prophecy Girl”. Both episodes are weighted with the narrative of season one. “Prophecy Girl” was threw that narrative on the ground so hard it smashed, but this episode threatens to pick up all those broken pieces and start carrying them again. Essentially this whole episode is about television narrative expectations – that change can never be trusted, that shows find safe story structures and then hide there forever. If television has its way, then season two of Buffy will be much the same as season one. That’s how it works. Buffy Summers will be trapped in reiterations of season one forever.
Buffy, however, gets to push back. (Her name’s in the title after all.) She needs to break out of season one and force this show to allow real change. She’s not happy about it, though. She has no illusions about any of this – the Slayer path promises her misery, and while she made her choice, she still resents it. Given all this, her attempt to break free takes the form of some bad behaviour. And so we get the dance.
The dance. For my dollars, one of the best scenes in the whole run of the show, and probably the cruelest. In one mesmerising turn, Buffy crushes all three of her closest friends. Willow and Angel can only watch as she dances seductively with Xander, but Xander himself gets the worst of it, a nightmarish punishment for his behaviour in season one. But it’s not only her friends she’s destroying. Here, Buffy is destroying herself. She’s directly attacking the version of her that we saw the previous year, and trapping herself in cruelty that she can’t take back. It’s devastating and definitive. As of that moment, season one is dead. There’s no return possible.
But there’s still a whole vampire plotline to resolve of course, and that can’t happen until Buffy is pulled out of her destructive spiral: tearing down the old must eventually give way to rebuilding into a new form. And the tool the show uses to jolt Buffy across the line is, of course, Cordelia. As was established late last season, her role is truthspeaker, and so she is the only one who can call Buffy out for her bad behaviour and give her a new course.
Here the show brings in a second concern – if the show is rebuilding, what form will it take? Specifically, is this a show where a bunch of ordinary people help the Slayer with impunity, or is it a show which takes its threats seriously? (Notably, this also counts as unfinished business from season one – Buffy faced the Master alone, without help from her friends, who had other battles to fight. So does she need her friends helping her at all?)
Buffy goes to fight the vampires alone, telling her friends that they are a burden, and she can’t protect them – the show will kill them if it can. This, of course, is the trap. Buffy cannot do this alone. She needs her friends, so her friends are part of her fight, and yes, she won’t always be able to protect them. That’s the deal she makes – the deal we make – with the show. If we are to have Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then we have to accept this package: real emotions, real threats.
Yes, it’s the problem of Jesse again, emphatically re-emphasised for the start of season two. This is a show where threats are real, and it’s a show where emotions are real. And the risk of holding both those two ideas is that your show will descend into misery – in the same way Buffy descended in this episode. The show accepts this risk, and in the episode’s conclusion it points the way forward. Buffy crushes the Master’s bones into dust, but more importantly, in the next scene Willow and Xander welcome her with friendship despite her behaviour to them. Here the show for the first time presents a possible answer to the problem of Jesse: the past can be overcome, because people love each other.
It’s good they have an answer in mind, because this season is going to get rough.
* Buffy’s dance as an act of self-destruction jibes nicely with the tendency towards martyrdom that Pearce has identified in his rewatch, and also feeds into the discussion between Alasdair and myself about whether Buffy in Prophecy Girl was choosing life or choosing death… All in the comments on the “Prophecy Girl” entry. I’ve been getting some great comments on these posts you guys, well worth trawling back through and reading them.
* Part of Buffy’s brand is making pop culture references (itself a bit of a 90s phenomenon) – reinforced by the cheeky decision to open season two with two characters playing a film-quote game.
* Speaking of which, check out the sheer confidence it takes to launch your second season with a whole episode of your lead character as an unappealing bitch. This is the show’s gambit to win over new viewers? I’m not sure how exactly Whedon is doing it, but he’s making unsafe choices and getting them past head office, and it’s exciting to watch.
* Jenny Calendar is back! Her character gets rounded out with a view little dialogue bits – imagining her at Burning Man sure puts her claim of being a “technopagan” into context! But I like the subtle moment where she says “Hey kids”, a phrase Giles would never utter, giving her relationship to the others a different flavour without compromising her status as a senior figure.
* “We got to wear robes” says Willow about the burial of the Master’s bones. I love it.
* Following what Ben has suggested in comments, I intend to track writers during season two and see if anything interesting (to me) emerges. This episode was written by Joss Whedon. Ok then.