In this episode, Buffy feels isolated from her friends and mother after her return to Sunnydale. Then zombies crash a party and that fixes everything.
Well, eventually. The zombies don’t really get mixed into Buffy’s storyline until the 3/4 mark of the episode, and until then we’re following her through some uninterrupted angst. The show initially has Buffy and her friends greet each other awkwardly but happily, but the relationships swiftly spiral into awkwardness: Joyce is full of smiles and tries too hard to be accommodating, but can’t help seeding every conversation with passive aggressive frustration; Willow is friendly and pleased to see her, but then avoids her while claiming not to be avoiding her; Xander is gleeful at her return, but also can’t help but voice his resentment. All this growing isolation is beautifully depicted, nicely underplayed with awkward silences and off-looks. The message Buffy takes from this is that returning home was a mistake: while she might be ready to return to Sunnydale, Sunnydale doesn’t really want her back. And so she gets ready to leave. Here, finally, the unspoken tensions come to a head as everybody discovers her attempt to leave, and it finally provokes everyone to say what’s on their mind. And then, zombies.
This is a solid metaphor monster episode. Metaphor monsters were initially meant to incarnate the horrors of high school life, but the zombies in this episode represent a much more general phenomenon. This is a sign of the show’s shift in focus, as it owns up to the fact that it was never about high school and teenagers at all, but rather about life in general. (After all, what is drama about teens but a metaphorical representation of proper drama about adults? Cough.)
The show hangs a lampshade on a metaphorical reading for the zombies:
Xander: You know, maybe you don’t want to hear it, Buffy, but taking off like you did was incredibly selfish and stupid.
Buffy: Okay! Okay. I screwed up. I know this. But you have no idea! You have, you have no idea what happened to me or what I was feeling!
Xander: Did you even try talking to anybody?
Buffy: There was nothing that anybody could do. Okay? I just had to deal with this on my own.
Xander: Yeah, and you see how well *that* one worked out. You can’t just bury stuff, Buffy. It’ll come right back up to get you.
Xander is calling out Buffy’s avoidant behaviour, fleeing Sunnydale without telling anyone, but the zombies also represent Joyce and the Scoobies giving Buffy fake smiles and denying that anything’s different or wrong. The conflict that drives this whole episode is about people not saying what they’re feeling, which is clearly presented as toxic: the weight of what is unspoken is far more dangerous than anything that could be said.
This is an amusingly self-serving message, as far as drama goes. On the one hand, fictional drama in general, and television drama in particular, sustains itself on matters unspoken. So many dramatic plots would be resolved swiftly and without much consequence if one character would just tell the other character something. Often the reasons why this talk is withheld are tenuous or absent entirely: they say nothing because the story demands it. (A notable subset: they never mentioned the secret because it hadn’t even been invented until the current episode is written.)
On the other hand, while fiction thrives on revelation and laying bare the resentments and secrets and concerns that sit between two characters, the real world does not always align with this. Real people often withhold their private thoughts. Their relationships may change or end as a result, but they also might continue pretty much as they did before. Telling people things doesn’t always solve problems, and can create many new ones. People aren’t stories, and popular fictions are poorly placed to moralize about secrecy and discretion. (See also: crappy 70s/80s therapy culture telling people to “be honest”.)
Buffy‘s plotting has always been happy to use dramatic contrivance – indeed, the final straw that has Buffy packing her bags is when she just happens to conveniently overhear when her mother finally confides her discomfort to a conveniently-introduced new friend. However, this show has always held itself to a higher standard than most pop culture in the dimension of emotions and emotional consequences, and this episode provides a solid showcase for this. The trouble among the friends is finally expressed with brutal honesty, which gets so unpleasant that Oz interposes himself to stop people really hurting each other emotionally; but the seeds are set for this conflict across the episode through many small awkward interactions, and the clear sense that everyone involved is only figuring out how they feel as they go along. Authentic emotional is even played for farce, setting up the old trope of a teenage party getting bigger than expected by having the core characters feel too awkward to face each other in a small group.
It’s notable that Buffy’s closest friends Willow and Xander carry most of the load here in making Buffy unhappy. Her relationship with her mother is obviously more powerful and more important, but it’s also somewhat expected that there would be issues between them. Willow’s and Xander’s anger at Buffy feels unfair and entirely human, and without the grounding of unconditional parental love the stakes even feel slightly higher. All of which points at the other central figure in Buffy’s life, Giles, who is a counterpoint to all of the above. He, alone, expresses nothing but satisfaction and relief in her return. His quiet relief, alone in his kitchen listening to Buffy and her friends, is enormously affecting. And as a bonus, because Giles doesn’t need to walk a path of forgiveness and acceptance, he is freed up to provide an absolutely hilarious performance in the zombie throughline that sits as a solid B-plot throughout the episode.
The action concludes with the shocking (and never-again-mentioned) death of Joyce’s best friend (shades of Ted, and a reminder that the emotional continuity so prized by this show is rarely applied to secondary characters like Joyce), and a runaround showdown where the gaze of the evil mask is crucial for no metaphorical reason worth discussing. The action itself is used to resolve the character conflict: basically, they all accept their interpersonal issues don’t count for much when zombies and vampires and demons are around and Buffy has a job to do smacking them down. The metaphor works – let the bad blood come out into the open, have the fight, then relax. Curiously, the metaphor positions the disputing friends on the same side, with the dissension between as the enemy that must be controlled – it’s a very interesting way to frame things, and it helps the resumption of friendship among the Scoobies feel both organic and earned even though none of the harsh words exchanged earlier have been addressed in the least.
* It’s a shame that when the show finally pulls a story out of Joyce’s gallery as a source of weird stuff, it’s with a Nigerian mask that she calls “primitive”. Perhaps it’s a blessing they mostly forget about the gallery.
* Is the zombie cat a deliberate reference to Pet Semetary?
* Snyder’s threat to keep Buffy out of school is obviously a false jeopardy – the TV show makes it inevitable she’ll be readmitted, so the dramatic question becomes, how (and under what terms) will Snyder be defeated? It is very satisfying to have Giles step in to put Snyder in his place, continuing the movement of his character into the badass role.
* Buffy finds in the basement a photo of Willow, her and Xander… but this framed photo is only a year old, right? What’s it doing in the basement?
* Another appearance of the Cyclops/Wolverine joke from X-Men: Cordelia: How do we know it’s really you and not zombie Giles? / Giles: Cordelia, do stop being tiresome. / Cordelia: It’s him.
* While I’m completely on board with the relationship depicted between Willow and Buffy this episode, the very final sequence, where they trade friendly insults? It just doesn’t feel right to me. Not entirely sure why.