Most episodes of Buffy set out to do just one thing. One episode gets Buffy back to Sunnydale, another rebuilds broken bridges with her friends, to take two recent examples. But sometimes the show rolls out an episode that covers off a whole big mess of things inside that broadcast television hour.
Such episodes are usually written by Joss Whedon. This one is written by reliable stalwart of the writing team, David Greenwalt. The title divides the episode into three, so let’s start there.
As much as Cordy is the truth-teller, Oz is the audience-speaker, the one who makes observations like those we make at home in our living rooms watching the show. So of course he catches on first: “I’m gonna go out on a limb and say there’s a new Slayer in town.” The whole gang has just followed Buffy out of the Bronze, after seeing a vampire guy (spotted by his out-of-date style in a conscious callback to the first episode) head through the doors with an apparently-vulnerable girl. They all watch, amazed, as she turns the tables on the vampire, borrowing Buffy’s stake to dust him. She knows who Buffy is, thanks her for the assist, and strides past them all without a backwards glance.
As character introductions go, this is pretty special. It is, of course, a note-perfect depiction of Whedon’s initial idea that became the Buffy concept, the vulnerable girl in the alley who turns out to be not so vulnerable. It is also the first time it’s actually been done – the original film script and the actual film that was made and the unreleased pilot episode and the actual first television episode all introduced Buffy Summers in a different way (the latter two by inverting the idea and having the girl be a vampire, not a slayer). However, although it is a pure representation of that initial swerve, it plays very differently to an audience (both in the fiction and in reality) who already know the world contains slight young women who happen to be ultimate badasses.
The details of Faith’s introduction here all communicate plenty. She embodies confidence, passion and instinct, which are all highly charged elements of the Buffy world.
Faith’s sheer confidence (social, physical and especially sexual) is a marked contrast with every one of the Scoobies, and it is clear she has no doubts about her capability in everything she does in this scene – dancing and slaying. Having an audience doesn’t bother her in the least. And though she is clearly on the same side as everyone else, this marks her as a foil for the whole group. The core Scoobies are all basically the awkward ones in their high school world – even Buffy, who ostensibly has a background as a popular girl, was reinvented early on as a natural member of the uncool club. (The expanded Scooby crew, Oz and Cordy, are allowed to be not-awkward, but both of them have explicitly disengaged from that world so they still don’t count as high-status cool kids.) Season two did have its cool kids, of course – the vampires. Here, exactly one season later, we finally get a cool kid on the side of the Scooby gang.
(Note that the show doesn’t go out of its way to emphasise this tension. As noted above, the show goes to commercial on Faith walking past the group without looking back at them, which is how you code a status gap in filmic/theatrical performance. Typically this exact move sets up some action where the characters try to get the attention of this other character – see countless high-school romance stories. However, right after the commercial, everyone’s sitting together and Faith is eagerly telling stories of her adventures. You’re spared any scenes of the Scoobies running after her and asking her to explain, or any other beat that tracks from the low status Faith has just bestowed on Buffy and her friends. The act transition disguises this missing moment, even if you’re watching with no ad break, but its absence creates a feeling of Faith hanging out being slightly too good to be true.)
Faith’s passion is also clearly evident. She doesn’t just know she’s good at dancing and fighting – she loves doing both. This is likewise out of place with every other character. The core cast are all reserved to a fault, and the show draws much of its drama – and humour – from the slow and stumbling way the characters cope with, and overcome, their hesitations. (Again, Cordy and Oz both dodge this – neither is reserved, but they are not passionate either.) She clearly likes her life, and after two seasons of Buffy slowly coming to terms with what it means to be a slayer, it’s a shocking comparison to see someone so happily integrated and comfortable with their fate. The unspoken challenge to Buffy is clear: why is this so hard for you, B? As the episode proceeds, Buffy shows herself to be quite aware of this challenge, and feeling quite threatened by it.
Faith’s reliance on instinct is also right on display. She’s clearly not following any plan by dancing with the vampire for ages before going outside with him. She isn’t being efficient or directed by introducing herself to Buffy while in the middle of a fight. In fact, she didn’t even have a stake on her and had no particular plan to acquire one – luckily Buffy happened to provide. She doesn’t need to think things through, here, she just dives headfirst and trusts that she’ll be able to figure it out as she goes.
Unlike the other two, this trait is not entirely absent from the Scoobies. I’ve suggested before that the core four at the heart of the show each foreground and represent a different attribute of a complete person. Giles is conscience and reason, both aspects of self-awareness and reflection, whereas Willow (despite her nerdiness) is the emotional core of the group – the conflict between head and heart is shown in this very episode when Giles warns Willow about delving carelessly into magic. Xander has had the duty of representing instinct, reliably speaking out of turn, following his gut, and getting in over his head. Faith’s appearance on the scene seems very likely to step on his toes. At the least, it puts a spotlight on some of the growing problems with Xander as a character.
Let’s do a quick review of those, actually. Throughout the last season, the show struggled to figure out exactly what to do with Xander. He was the “normal guy”, the doofus with a good heart, but most of his plot contributions seemed to be about him making stupid mistakes so everything gets worse for everyone. He’s also stuck as a representative of threatened masculinity, so more often than not the dumb stuff he says has a layer of unpleasant gendered foolishness that could make it hard to like him. This very episode has a case in point: Xander calls Buffy a “little slut” for expressing interest in going on a date. He’s just teasing her; the joke he’s making is that she isn’t even remotely being a “little slut”. However, the joke relies on an uncomfortable and misogynistic set of assumptions. (In response to this well-meaning but wrongheaded teasing, Buffy punches Xander a little too hard, or perhaps not remotely hard enough.) Now that Faith’s appeared, also with the instinct trait on display, the weaknesses in Xander’s character stand out more clearly: he’s not only the voice of (thwarted, nice-guy) patriarchy, he is also by design impotent in comparison to Buffy. Just this little scene with Faith underlines how, as a character, Xander’s been set up to fail, and in the world of Buffy where emotional consequences are real, he’s either going to learn and change, or he’s going to get bitter and self-righteous. Keep an eye on him.
Speaking of the word “slut” – Cordy uses it to describe Faith, having spotted her on the dancefloor. It’s another unpleasant beat, almost forgiveable because it comes from Cordelia who spent a season-and-a-half exercising her power by policing other women – that takes a while to get over. It’s a pity none of the other characters are given a rebuke to this, although it’s kinda in character that none of them would chastise Cordelia for this comment – the closest to a paragon present would be Oz, who is characterized above all by his tendency towards silence. (If only we could glimpse what he was thinking…) As it happens, the best rebuke to the comment comes (in delayed form) from Faith herself. Her introduction as a positive character, her mythological importance as a new Slayer, and her continuing role as a major character for this season, all serve to shout down this comment, or perhaps to put it in the context Faith would – as a pathetic attempt to insult her for being command of her sexuality. This show has a female perspective and feminist ideals, and Faith’s arrival immediately shows some weaknesses there.
Not that she’s an instant corrective or a perfect feminist. Faith is pointedly graceless, over-fond of violence, and in the same way her three primary attributes are conveyed immediately, it is also immediately clear how they can flip to become weaknesses: overconfident, overemotional, unthinking. When the episode and reveals that Faith does have weaknesses, in this case a fear of the vampire who killed her watcher, we are set up to wonder if she will listen to Buffy’s appeals to take responsibility and stay. (Not coincidentally, this is a speech she would have been unable to give with sincerity just one episode ago.) Then the vampires short-circuit the question by turning up anyway. Faith’s courage falters, but Buffy’s example gives her the presence of mind to move past her fears and take the monstrous vampire down.
And then we jump to Giles confirming that Faith will stick around, for the time being at least. Buffy is pleased, herself coming to terms with the fact that Faith is also a slayer (easier now it’s clear she has some personal qualities Faith is lacking). The contrasts Faith represents are going to provide plenty of drama, that much is obvious. Faith is a hard contrast with Buffy, the same way Cordelia was intended to be right at the start of season one. Kendra was also a contrast, but not one with much teeth – taking a bunch of awkward kids and showing them someone even nerdier was never going to be a convincing existential challenge. But here, the library nerds suddenly have to deal with someone cool in their circle, and that is definitely going to shake things up. It’s a delicious development, because as much as the dramatic conflicts are clear, the future is wide open – this could go in all kinds of directions. For the first time in Buffy’s history, it really is impossible to predict what is coming next.
The introduction of Buffy’s new love interest is accomplished with such economy that it is instantly clear any romance between the two characters is doomed. Buffy is sitting with her friends just outside school when Willow delivers an info-dump worthy of the ones Giles delivers from his dusty tomes: “Ooo, Scott Hope at eleven o’clock. He likes you. He wanted to ask you out last year, but you weren’t ready then. But I think you’re ready now, or at least in the state of pre-readiness to make conversation, or-or to do that thing with your mouth that boys like.” (The double entendre finish is spectacularly forced, but the show gets away with it because Alyson Hannigan.)
Willow’s right that Scott likes Buffy and intends to ask her out; she’s right to be positive about this, because Scott is painstakingly set up throughout this episode as a nice, normal guy; but she’s not quite right about Buffy’s readiness. This is what the Scott Hope portion of the episode is about: Buffy’s personal baggage. We’ve seen in the first episode of the season that Buffy realizes she needs to go home to heal, and that’s where she belongs anyway; in the second episode we saw her reconnect with her friends and her mother. Now it’s time to actually show the impact of that healing, in accordance with the show’s established method of getting past the traumas it inflicts on its characters. Buffy needs to angst a bit, and then the show, and we the audience, will let her get on with the quips and the stakings.
Willow’s misapprehension here is simply because she doesn’t quite appreciate the magnitude of Buffy’s sorrow. She doesn’t know – no-one but Buffy herself knows – that Angel had recovered his soul at the time Buffy had to kill him. She’s underestimating just how messed up that experience was. Another intense dream about Angel, this one unmistakeably driven by her sense of guilt, marks out her unfinished business.
Buffy’s stated motivation is to get her life back so she can “do normal stuff”. This isn’t the same desire that animated Buffy back in season one – her normal has shifted. Patrolling cemeteries and beheading demons is part of her life now, but she also wants the other half, school and friends and time for picnics. Principal Snyder grudgingly readmitting Buffy to Sunnydale High is part of this throughline, and the victory over this petty villain is very entertaining.
So she’s back in high school, hanging with her friends, and has a normal boy to awkward-flirt with – everything is falling into place, except of course that big unresolved unpleasantness that haunts her dreams. And that’s brought to a head by Giles gently probing her for details in order to bind the demon that caused all this mess. Buffy dodges, rather than relive the worst day of her life in excruciating detail, let alone share its full awfulness.
Wait a second. Here’s a question: why does she she dodge? She’s already reliving that worst day over and over again; and does she really think her friends couldn’t handle the truth about Angel’s soul being restored? She’s returned to Sunnydale to heal, and she would heal best by sharing with her friends and receiving their acceptance and love. What’s really holding her back? Is it just dramatic contrivance, to spin an episode out of this plot point and force Buffy to earn her way out of misery? That’s certainly part of it, but is that all? Is there a strong organic reason why Buffy should so vividly keep this secret?
Well, yes, there is, and it comes down to Buffy’s fundamental character. From very early on, Buffy the slayer has been exceptional for surrounding herself with friends. But over and over again she has shown a fierce intent to step away from her team and carry the load and risk herself. This is a fundamental feature of Buffy’s character, or more pointedly it is her fundamental flaw. It could be called a martyr complex, or an ego problem, or any number of other things, but it boils down to the same thing: Buffy will always try and go it alone, and she will succeed often enough that she’ll always underestimate the problems such an approach can create. It is a lesson she will have to learn over and over again, and it will create almost all her major problems from here until the end of the series.
This time, she learns the lesson by witnessing that same instinct, to go it alone, almost get Faith killed. So in a move that shows her developing maturity, Buffy volunteers to Willow and Giles the truth about Angel, that he was cured when she killed him. The moment is played very simply and gently, and to the right audience – the head and the heart. It’s lovely. And then Buffy can go and respond positively to Scott, and to demonstrate closure with Angel by putting down the ring he gave her at the place where she killed him. Time to move on.
(Except, of course, Angel comes back, precisely at the moment Buffy gets over him. Why now? Because this show wants her to suffer. She knew that rule when she came back to town.)
Joss Whedon has never been strong on race. Gender – he’s not too bad on gender. There’s no shortage of people giving him fierce critiques for how he addresses gender in his creative works (and, I should say, often making compelling points) but the fact is, he put Buffy on the screen, and she remains a titanic figure in terms of female representation in the media. (Back when Buffy was new we dared to hope the world was changing – but the fact Buffy’s still the titan shows it hasn’t changed as much as it could’ve.) There will always and forever be a convincing case that Joss Whedon pretty much did right by gender.
I don’t know that anyone has tried to say the same about how he addresses race. He’s not a total washout on the subject – Firefly had a few people of colour in its core cast, which is more than a lot of TV manages – but by and large his casting tends towards Whitey McWhitersons everywhere you look. And while Joss Whedon is not the singular deciding power behind any of his works, this show, his first, is the clearest expression of this failing. Sunnydale High is an astonishingly whitebread high school for California. While it’s fairly plausible there aren’t many black students thanks to effective segregation, California’s enormous Hispanic population and significant Asian population are both massively under-represented, even as background extras. After two complete seasons with only Kendra repping people of colour – and that being something of a misfire as well – it’s turned into a known issue.
Enter Mister Trick, a black man in a limo ordering a drink in the drive-thru. “Sunnydale. Town’s got quaint, and the people: he called me sir, don’t you miss that? Admittedly, not a haven for the brothers – strictly the Caucasian persuasion in the ‘dale – but you gotta stand up and salute their death rate.”
This entrance, and Trick himself, hang a lampshade (poorly!) on the show’s racial deficiencies, but litigating that isn’t what I’m most interested in here. The real function of this move is worldbuilding. The “Caucasian persuasion” of Sunnydale is not offered up by the show to excuse its lack of diversity, but rather to signal something about the wider world.
When your show’s title character is at high school, with friends at high school, and one significant older character who works at the high school… Well, that puts some boundaries around your show, and it’s tricky to step outside of them. (Cast your mind back to season one’s terrible effort.) Since then, the show has been carefully building some of the foundations it needs to successfully expand beyond high school. Principal Snyder’s connection to the mysterious Mayor has been a quietly developing subplot for a long time, for example. Sunnydale High is being put into context here: it is just one fragment of something larger.
It’s important to note that this worldbuilding is not intending to logically extend the things we know about the Buffy world into a coherent and consistent wider universe. This show doesn’t give the slightest damn about that: witness any story where the police appear. (Or, even more tellingly, any story where they don’t.) Or look at the Watcher’s Council: in this very episode we learn that Buffy is infamous in Watcher circles, and also that Giles doesn’t get invited to Watcher events. This doesn’t make a lick of sense. Sure, it can be justified if you bend over backwards a ways, but why bother? The show doesn’t care. It’s interested in establishing this wider world solely in order to tell more, and better, stories about Buffy and her friends.
So here, Mr Trick arrives on the scene. He’s a vampire with a gimmick of being tech-savvy and calculatingly self-interested. He is, in other words, an expression of urban power, in sharp contrast to the sheltered small-town suburbs of Sunnydale. And with his arrival we see the vampire metaphor shift again – the cool kids Rebel-Without-A-Cause-ing all over the place have had their moment. For this season, vampires (and those around them) are going to represent technocratic exploitation and the callous misuse of power. The smart young teenagers who are our heroes are going to discover that it isn’t school bullies playing status games who are the real sources of pain in the world – it’s distant suits pursuing their selfish ends, inflicting misery on the small and vulnerable along the way. Not for nothing is Mr Trick’s first victim in town a minimum-wage worker at a fast food joint. So the message of Mr Trick being a black man is the same as the message of him wearing that suit: Sunnydale is a sheltered little haven, and that’s about to change.
Oh, and hey, who else has just arrived in Sunnydale with a big-city attitude? Good thing Faith is on the side of the angels, right?
* The best moment in the episode is actually a very minor one, plotwise. Giles reveals to Willow that there never was a binding spell, and he just wanted Buffy to open up.
* When Faith flirts with Giles, Buffy asks for a show of hands to express everyone’s disgust at the idea. Willow just smiles.
* Oz gives Scott Hope bonus points for using the word “mosey”.
* Joyce: “Probably because you were an only child.” Heh.
* Although Cordelia Chase is almost the epitome of whiteness, Charisma Carpenter is Latina! I had no idea.
* Angel butt.