The arrival of Spike & Dru has changed up the vampire metaphor at work in the show. Now vampires are the cool kids, the dangerous ones who get into fights and have sex and don’t do their homework. This episode takes this imagery and swerves it hilariously, by introducing a subculture of wannabe vampires. They desperately want to be in with the cool kids, even if they don’t really understand what that means.
The Vampire groupies are played for laughs – there’s a fantastic gag, one of the best in the whole series, when Angel sees a groupie dressed just like he is – but it also allows them some beats of tragedy because the groupies are obviously much more like the nerds and outcasts of the library than the cool kids of vampiredom. Their attraction to the cool kids is understandable, but their sheer cluelessness is almost painful to watch, because we know – we have seen – that Spike and Drusilla and their kind are dangerous to be around.
The groupies, desperately wanting more, mirror the emotion running in the main cast this week: jealousy. One of Buffy’s old friends has turned up, and Angel (and Xander) get jealous, but Buffy saw Angel with Drusilla, so she gets jealous too, and Spike gets jealous when he finds out Dru talked to Angel, and everyone’s pretty messed up with their jealousy.
The show’s principles are in action here – even though this show is full of vampires and silly groupies, it promises to take emotions seriously. All of these jealousies are not random, they are based on the insecurities built into each character. Spike knows Angel and Dru have history, and Buffy knows that Angel has a past gien his enormous age difference. Angel knows Buffy is a young girl with a life of her own that might have no place for him. Etc, etc.
This swirl of jealousy is actually just groundwork for even higher stakes. The insecurities drive the characters to expose themselves and that pushes their relationships to new places. Most notably, Angel asks Buffy if she loves him, and she says the words. That’s a big deal. But the show doesn’t stop there, moving on to use this moment to address the reality of Angel-as-love-interest. Angel confesses the horrific crimes of which he is guilty. It’s a crucial moment for the show – and a clear-eyed look at what exactly Buffy’s romance entails. (The show underlines that Angel is right to bring this up, despite his personal change this past overhangs the present – remember, at the start of the episode Angel saw Drusilla try to kill a child, and he let her go without a fight. The world looks different when you’re a vampire, even a vampire with a soul.)
Which brings us back to the groupies, specifically to Ford, Buffy’s old friend. His beliefs and hopes are also focused in a vampiric direction. Does he understand the horror he’s opening himself up to? The show equivocates on this a bit – Ford is played partly as clueless, and partly as ruthless. A late revelation that he’s terminally ill is meant to justify his embrace of horror, but it doesn’t quite work – it doesn’t really explain anything by itself, just muddies up the picture even more.
Nevertheless, the show ultimately makes clear that Ford doesn’t really appreciate what he’s dealing with, and in so doing it makes us uneasy about Buffy’s entanglement with Angel. In Ford’s fate we see the show’s principles unstintingly applied: the threats are real. There is no forgiveness for Ford, no easy out. He makes bad choices and he is killed. The show’s other principle is for the characters to experience real emotions as a result of this trauma, and this hurts Buffy. The final scene of the episode has Buffy and Giles by Ford’s grave, and we see her carry that weight: “Does it ever get any easier?”
And so we stare directly at the problem of Jesse. (If you’ve been following these posts you’re sick of me mentioning it, but for completeness, it’s this: putting real threat and real emotion into your stories threatens to trap you in misery.) Ford’s death has shaken Buffy. Yes, the loss is different: Jesse was an innocent casualty, whereas Ford betrayed Buffy and brought his death upon himself. But this just makes the loss all the more painful: Ford’s death is awful, but his betrayal is agonizing.
Back when Jesse was killed, the show didn’t know how to engage with the emotional impact that would follow, and so it dodged the issue entirely. Nineteen episodes later, the show has built up the emotional repertoire to embrace a character’s pain, confident that it can find its way back to joy. And in the final exchange of the episode, it demonstrates exactly how it intends to resolve the problem of Jesse. Buffy asks Giles if life will ever get easier:
Giles: What do you want me to say?
Buffy: Lie to me.
Giles: Yes, it’s terribly simple.
Giles: The good guys are always stalwart and true, the bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies, and everybody lives happily ever after.
Life is hard and complicated, and people die, and it hurts like hell. Faced with this, Buffy asks Giles to lie to her. And – in a final confirmation that he has abandoned his Watcher remove – he does. And it is unconvincing, and of course it was always meant to be, because the lie is not the point. The point is, he gave Buffy what she needed.
We stave off despair by leaning on each other. It’s love, of course. The pathway from misery back to joy is simply love.
* Unsurprisingly, given this one pretty much gives a thesis statement for the show, this is a Joss Whedon joint. Accordingly, the dialogue is heavy with his Buffy-speak: “You made him do that thing where he’s gone!” – and a sex joke that other writers wouldn’t dare: “Of course I had no idea what it was about.”
* Not to mention that the whole arc of the season is foreshadowed in this episode in Angel’s horrific past and Ford’s painful betrayal.
* The comic-book style storytelling goes full Claremont with some juicy backstory revealed (Buffy’s past life, Angel’s past life) and some continuity threads deliberately dropped now to be picked up later (a book is stolen from the library, Willow invites Angel into her home).
* Wisely, the show never goes back to the vamp groupies, and it mostly forgets about how normal people might react to a world where vampires are real. Doing so would torpedo the metaphorical work it’s trying to do – it’s hard to keep up the idea that monsters are metaphors if they’re forced to interact with normal people as well. (Later on, in the Angel spin-off, the show’s purpose is different, allowing a return to this well.)
* hello Chanterelle, another of Buffy’s recurring bit players – we’ll probably end up talking more about her later.