Headbang/air drum extra-hard to the theme tune, kids, because Jane Espenson is in the house! Espenson is royalty in the world of geek-culture TV-writing, which is not as much of a niche as it sounds when put like that. Anyway, this is the show where she earned her crown (er, because crowns are totally earned, monarchy is a meritocracy, shut up.) Her fingerprints are all over this ep: it is sharply assembled, full of acute character moments, and funny as hell.
This is one of those episodes where everyone goes a bit weird. In this case, some fundraising chocolate carries a lick of magic that sends all the adults in town hurtling back into teenage revelry, leaving the teenage Scoobies to keep everything together and save the day. The adults-acting-immature gags are fun but the juice of this wacky premise is in the show’s three main adult characters. Joyce, Giles, and Principal Snyder fall under the chocolate spell and cutting loose. The reversal is, of course, established pre-chocolate by reinforcing the status of these characters as the responsible voices of restraint in Buffy’s life. Notably, Buffy is caught out by Giles and Joyce who discover she has been lying to both of them to hide private activities. The two adults team up, parent and parental-equivalent, to deliver a clear message to Buffy that she is being immature. Buffy doesn’t want to listen.
It’s a nice little conflict, because both sides have a point. Joyce and Giles are right to be concerned that Buffy is playing them off against each other, and about her actual whereabouts when she is at large. Yet Buffy hasn’t exactly been going out partying – she is secretly going to help and tend to the recovering Angel. This isn’t a secret she feels she can share with the others in her life. While it is arguable whether or not she is being responsible in doing this, it’s hard to make an accusation of immaturity stick. And yet when she is called on it, Buffy reacts by expressing frustration that she is being over-managed and over-scheduled, saying that she feels treated like a child. This isn’t exactly what Buffy is being asked to address, but it feels very plausible for Buffy to respond to the situation in this way – it feels like a smart character beat, in other words.
Then the adults all change and Buffy (with her friends) has to step up and manage the very people who were just managing her. It’s a blast seeing Giles, Joyce, and Snyder as youth gone wild. (Particularly Giles – Tony Head brings the brutal punk-magician Ripper, discussed several times in season two, to vivid life here but very cleverly makes his defining trait vanity. I’m very curious how he landed on that character note, but it is just perfect.)
If you slow down and think about it, what we see does pose a few questions – pretty much all the adults go out of control, although in the real world teenagers display all manner of different behaviours besides hedonic excess, the Scoobies being a case in point. Perhaps the chocolate forces those who eat it into a party mode – in which case, why wasn’t Xander affected? (Well, because it’s a joke about Xander.) Now, I don’t know that this is something the production team ever thought about, but I think there are good answers to these questions. Namely: the adults we see acting out aren’t actually behaving like teenagers again. Instead, they are acting out a middle-aged perspective of what it was like to be young. They are expressing their own stereotypes, like people pulled out of the audience at a hypnosis dinner show. Teen!Joyce and Teen!Giles and Teen!Snyder aren’t meant to be perfect expressions of their teenage years, instead they represent how they presently imagine their old selves.
So this whole line of action, apart from being hilarious to watch, is also a solid reinforcement of a thematic pillar for the whole series: parents just don’t understand. The show has fought from the start to portray its teenage characters with depth and to allow them emotional continuity, and part of that is showing how they are consistently underestimated by the adults and authority figures in their lives. Snyder doesn’t develop empathy for his errant charges as a result of his teenage experience – quite the opposite, it reinforces his dislike and resentment, because he has only had his stereotypes confirmed.
And yet, the funny teenage versions of Giles, Joyce and Snyder all manage to be revelatory about who these characters are, and what complexities and history lie beneath the surface. The teenage Scoobies will never be able to look at any of these adults the same way again. Despite themselves, the Scoobies are saddled with empathy for their authority figures. It’s a lovely trick for the show to do both these narrative jobs with the same conceit!
Anyway, it’s good stuff, and I don’t have much more to say about it because it’s good stuff. The Mayor and Mr Trick are sacrificing babies to a demon, which is a pretty good way to demonstrate to your audience that the bad guy is a bad guy. Ethan Rayne reappears as an instrument of this plan, and he is once again played for comedy, to wonderful effect. Actually, the show misses a trick here – it cuts to commercial-break on the reveal of Ethan Rayne (the first time the show has used an unexplained continuity reference as a climax), and it fails to cut to commercial-break on Giles with a cigarette. So there you go. The episode is flawed after all.
* Willow and Xander footsie is painful to watch.
* But topless Angel tai chi is the most hilarious thing I’ve ever seen.