It’s a Joss Whedon joint! The showrunner slips into the writer-director cockpit once again, this time not to deliver a major turning point in the show’s narrative arc, but just the write the hell out of a great episode premise. But I do wonder how exactly this came about. Or put another way, what was this episode going to be about, before it had to be about Vampire Willow?
You see, Emma Caulfield (who played Anya) says she was signed up front for two episodes in season three – her debut in The Wish, and a follow-up episode that ended up being this one. I think it’s likely she’s right, because Wish ends with the villain in fine health and still committed to wickedness, albeit without her crucial power. It’s a dangling loose end that the show usually makes a point of tying off.
In which case, the writers’ room always knew there would be a chaser to The Wish where Anya came back. On their big planning board they must have written up “Anya 2: Electric Boogaloo” or something. But whatever ideas they might have had for the episode would’ve been quickly scratched out as soon as they saw what was happening on Wish. Alyson Hannigan as Vampire Willow was incredible. The part would have looked good on the page, sure, but until they saw Alyson Hannigan in the makeup, saw her performance, they couldn’t have known that they’d struck a rich vein of gold. (The world sure didn’t end up clamouring for more Vampire Xander, or for more Vampire Buffy for that matter.)
I think it’s likely that Joss went right into the writers’ room after watching Wish dailies and put his name on the board: “I’ve got this one.” He wanted to write for Vampire Willow.
And credit where it’s due (presumably Whedon, but who knows for sure): bringing Vampire Willow into the regular world is a stupendous idea. It ties in so much that’s going on with Willow right now. She’s been working all season on self-development – her affair with Xander, her steady exploration of magic, and her frequent leadership of the Scoobies have all deeply expanded her role as resident nerdy girl and emotional lightning rod. Confronting her with an alternate self is a powerful way to drag all of these aspects into the foreground and force her to address some of her issues.
In an early scene, Willow is carefully levitating a pencil while talking to Buffy, and she says something about how magic works that we’ve never heard before: “magic is all about emotional control.” This is a perfect frame, giving magic a clear character-defining function. Almost all dramatic storytelling is about characters struggling with the emotions provoked by this or that event, so it’s a very potent model – I’m almost surprised I’ve never heard this formula stated so baldly before now. (Note that this description doesn’t really fit with how we’ve seen magic used before (Amy ratting herself in a panic) or how we’ll see it after this point (basically everything in season six), but I don’t see this as an inconsistency – it’s just a stage of understanding Willow’s going through.)
So this story specifically becomes focused on how Willow is, despite appearances, a mess of upset and anxiety just below the surface. Her reaction to mention of Faith is a case in point – she loses control of herself entirely. This is a callback to the moment last episode when she worked out that Xander and Faith had slept together, and the show gave us a brief, unremarked-on shot of her sobbing in the bathroom at the news.
As well as this, the show starts pushing Willow back into earlier forms of herself – her fashion sense dials back to a look more in keeping with early season two, and Snyder saddles her with a dumb jock needing academic help (another season two move – Snyder even references the swim team). The dumb jock in turn leans on her to just do all the work for him. All of this pressure makes it very believable and relatable that Willow decides she’s going to stop holding herself back and take some risks.
Oddly enough, this comes right after the two-part “bad influence” story where Buffy decided she was going to stop holding herself back and take some risks. That didn’t go so well. Willow follows the pattern herself, as she meets Anya and is lured into helping her with a spell. When she sees a vision of the Wish alternate reality, she breaks the spell. Well, there’s that lesson learned – Willow walks away from Anya, aware she had gone too far.
So that complete character arc for Willow – I’m a rebel and I’ll take risks! Oh no that went wrong I’ve learned my lesson! – is just setup for the real meat of the story. The spell works just well enough to bring Vampire Willow through to Sunnydale. She walks down the street, horrified by what she sees (in a shot that matches Cordy’s reaction to the devastated Sunnydale of the Wish universe.)
What we get from here is a beautiful comedy of personal growth, where the vampiric Willow is able to solve real-Willow’s problems by being badass (the show gives her the same prowl-of-dominance that Xander did in The Pack), and then real Willow must access her own hidden depths in order to impersonate vampiric Willow and save the day. Along the way, we get superlative character comedy between the Scoobies and their wider circle, and more than a few hits of solid drama. (Seth Green, as per usual, absolutely nails his very short scene witnessing his girlfriend as a vampire.)
But the beautiful part is the conclusion, where Willow – having exceeded her own expectations, and proved to herself that she isn’t just the nerdy anxious girl – is true to her empathic nature, demanding the group spare her vampiric doppelganger. It’s a simple gesture, and it doesn’t play as heroic or naive or anything at all on that axis. It is clearly pitched as a much more personal decision, and the metaphorical reading is clear: Willow knows that she has complexity inside her, and potential untapped, and just like everyone else, part of that is the potential for evil. Willow’s self-insight gives her a powerful sense of kinship with her other self. It’s a great gesture for the story, and for the overall philosophical point being made by this show, about the nature of identity, and the choices that we make. The show doesn’t explicitly endorse Willow’s choice, but it respects it, and I think it would be a hardhearted audience member who didn’t feel the same. We’ve learned something about Willow, here, but I think her example helps us learn something about ourselves.
Willow: I’m so evil and… skanky. And I think I’m kinda gay.
Buffy: Willow, just remember, a vampire’s personality has nothing to do with the person it was.
Angel: Well, actually… (off Buffy’s look) That’s a good point.
* Anya returns! She’s still a pretty shaky character, but there’s the definite shape of what she will become here in her immense frustration.
* Sunnydale High still has a basketball team? Who knew!
* The tranq gun works on Vampire Willow. So if it works on vampires… why don’t the Scoobies start carrying it around with them on patrol? (Because this is not the sort of story where that happens, of course.)
* The perils of the huge ensemble – Faith appears early then disappears, Angel waits until the show’s half done before he appears, and Cordelia doesn’t make an appearance until an astonishing 32 minutes have gone by. The show really has no idea what to do with Cordelia in these episodes.
* The Mayor is finally interacting with someone interesting, namely Faith, but it’s still very hard to read what’s happening here. Faith’s move to his side was undercooked in the previous episode and this sheds little light – she likes the fancy apartment he’s got for her, but Faith has never been motivated by wealth or luxury. The Mayor tells her he’s a family man, but we don’t even get any information about how to take that – is he? If he is, where are they? The Mayor remains a fairly frustrating figure, despite being very amusing and a little creepy, because although he signifies the wider world, he seems to possess no real links to that world – no governmental responsibilities, no family relationships, no ambitions or concerns other than his villainous supernatural ones. Maybe next episode we’ll finally get a handle on the guy…