I’ve been pretty useless about mentioning episode writers in these things. Probably the main reason is that the kind of analysis I’m doing – reverse engineering the underlying story structure of whole seasons – works best if you pretend Buffy is an expression of a single harmonious vision rather than the result of a bunch of creative people pushing and pulling on ideas with frenzied showrunner Whedon putting his hands on everything and mostly pulling it all into the lines he wants. But even so, it’s worth shining some light here on Marti Noxon. She will become a crucial figure in the Buffy story, and a fairly controversial one (her twitter bio: “I ruined Buffy and I will RUIN YOU TOO”). She’s written a bunch of episodes this season, starting up with the What’s My Line duo, but they’ve mostly been unpromising assignments – weirdo misfire Bad Eggs, water-carrying setup episode Surprise, and last-minute fill-in Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered. This is another placeholder ep, marking time between Passion and the season finale, but (unlike last week’s offering) it finds some very fruitful space to explore, and I think here’s where Noxon’s voice really cuts through for the first time.
The episode is a ghost story, continuing the process of the show working through the classic monster repertoire for its non-vampire non-demon stories. Given Buffy‘s emphasis on emotional consequence, it might seem odd that they’ve waited this long – after all, what is a ghost but an emotional consequence that can throw things around the room? But ghosts are actually not a straightforward fit for the show because they don’t metaphor easily. A ghost story is stubbornly literal about its emotional content.
The genius of this episode is that it chases that literality right down the rabbit hole. The ghosts in the story are two dead lovers who died in an (apparent) murder-suicide and possess people to repeat the tragedy over and over, unable to find closure. The story works its way to an astonishing conclusion where the ghosts possess Buffy and Angel, forcing them to re-enact a tragic, doomed love affair, a situation that echoes their own tortured story. This is the perfect inverse of the usual metaphor-monster approach but it works just as well. (It also cleverly takes the meta approach that is the show’s hallmark down a level; instead of having the show’s characters making subtle comment on the story they are part of, we have Buffy & Angel’s relationship commenting silently on the ghost’s story.)
It’s a very clever set of moves to make, and yes it does load up the melodrama that will become a Noxon trademark, but she absolutely nails the heart of the story, finding a new way to examine the Buffy/Angel romance and make the characters (and us) feel the pain of its loss. When the ghosts find their peace, and Angel is released from the spell, he simply reels from the experience and flees. It’s a completely convincing moment, and thematically powerful.
The episode also tracks a very important subplot where Giles attributes the haunting to Jenny, until Willow forces him to admit to himself that it couldn’t be her. His grief is palpable throughout, as is the deep compassion shown to him by the other characters, and his acceptance that it isn’t Jenny is a gentle, crucial step in his process of moving on. This also perfectly fits in with the show’s method of resolving the problem of Jesse – Giles has to show the emotional wounds he suffered from Jenny’s awful fate, but through the love of his friends he is guided towards peace.
In fact, the whole episode in a sense echoes this solution to the problem of Jesse. The haunting takes place because the ghosts cannot move past their emotional anguish, and they are only released when they find a way to continue their scene past its usual end point (because undead Angel is not killed by the reenacted murder) and they are able to forgive each other. Love and acceptance are the answer. Buffy spends the whole episode seeing herself in this situation and refusing to forgive herself, and we know she can’t resolve these questions until she does confront Angel face-to-face. Her final scene in the episode makes a marvellous choice of showing she’s been affected profoundly by the experience, but refusing to draw it into some kind of pat lesson:
Buffy: A part of me just doesn’t understand why she would forgive him.
Giles: Does it matter?
Buffy: No. I guess not.
It all comes together as a superb and unexpected way to highlight these themes and this relationship before things come to an awful end. The episode isn’t flawless – the other aspects of the haunting (snakes, wasps, an arm in a locker) feel completely out of place – but its emotional heart is fierce and true. And that feels like Noxon to me.
* Great to see Snyder again, and to reiterate his awareness of the supernatural truth, complete with portentous namedrop of “the Mayor”.
* Willow gets some huge moments in this episode, where she for the first time steps into the world of magic. I’d forgotten how directly her movement into magic was attributable to Jenny’s “technopagan” identity.
* The episode’s final reveal is marvellous too – this show has such confidence it can give an episode ending to a bad guy secretly standing up, and it WORKS.