Friday, 24 August 2012

Buffy Season Three

Anne written and directed by Joss Whedon

What’s it about: Buffy is living in LA and having a thoroughly miserable time…

The Chosen One: ‘This is something that you are just going to have to live with…’ It doesn’t say much for the opening episode of the season when all the best scenes don’t feature the titular character. Buffy living is living as a waitress in a restaurant and has succumbed to a desolate, broken hearted existence. It’s a tragic look for one episode but come the latter half of season six this would be the norm! As if things weren’t bad enough Buffy has to serve the most loved up couple in the restaurant – this is the sort of observable character marker that Buffy usually manages to disguise behind wit but all humour has been bled out of the character at this point. When it comes to comforting Lily over the loss of her boyfriend Buffy is experiencing a dearth of compassion and is very much of the ‘deal with it’ mindset. She’s still trying to come to terms with her own decision last year and it is spilling over into the latest mystery she has been dragged into but as is becoming the norm (When She Was Bad, I Only Have Eyes For You) she does come across as unlikable as a result. When Buffy finally cracks a joke (and a smile) and starts kicking some demon butt I could feel the audience releasing a collective sigh. It’s a long time coming. The last scene should have been where the episode began with Buffy being embraced by Joyce and returning to her life. Now we have to deal with her skipping town next week.

Ripper: Did anybody else notice that suddenly the library is a hub of activity? Is this what happens at the beginning of every year as the students raid it for their books for the academic year ahead? Giles is jumping on every lead that could lead to Buffy but even he is starting to give up hope that he will ever see her again.

Witchy Willow: Willow isn’t sure how she feels about Oz repeating a grade but it does mean that she will be able to spend more time with him.

Gorgeous Geek: School is starting soon and Xander is excited to catch up with Cordelia after her summer vacation and Willow is eager for her first homework assignment – I’m not sure which of them I fear for more! 

Caustic Cordy: ‘Can you complain louder so all the vampires leave?' – taking Cordelia vampire hunting is a big mistake because she and Xander have unfinished business and she doesn’t shut up. I love that they finally get to make out in the ashes of a dusted vampire.

The Good: The best scenes that this episode flaunts sees Willow, Xander and Oz trying to step into Buffy’s shoes and patrol the graveyards at night and keep the vampire menace at bay. Fortunately they are really bad at this with one of them having two left feet, one more interested in fancy talk (‘come and get it big boy!’) and the other has no ability whatsoever at throwing stakes. There must be a premium of vampires in Sunnydale at this precise moment. Check out the next time Buffy skips town (or rather falls off the mortal coil) in three years time and how adept the Scoobies are at dusting by then. The hellish factory setting is a massively ambitions location that is well realised even if it feels like it needs more space to be truly cinematic. The trouble is its confined to a ten minute climax when there are far more storytelling possibilities there than the dreary back streets of LA. There is much to shout home about Joss Whedon’s pedestrian direction of this episode until the climax which features the longest and most visually impressive fight sequence to date. There’s spotlights arcing back and forth, sparks flying and Buffy weaves through vats carving out a path of devastation.

The Bad: Buffy and Angel embracing on the beach at sunset is a gloriously romantic image but its rather undercut (deliberately) by Buffy’s actual state affairs living in a grotty bedsit in LA. Its one of my biggest problems with this episode (and the series Angel too), LA is made out to fell like a cold, unwelcoming place rather than the thriving metropolis that it actually is. I would usually welcome a change of scenery like this (Sunnydale based season five could have done with a little more movement) but the drizzly, ugly back streets of LA are a minefield of despair which paint the city as the last place you would want to visit. Of all the guest characters they could have brought back we are treated to the return of one of the loser cultists that wanted to turn into a vampire in Lie to Me. Lily ‘sugar is nice’ is a little too naïve to be entirely believable and the way she leeches off of everybody around her for support grates from her first scene onwards. It might be mean but I was secretly pleased that she was handed Buffy’s dead end LA life at the end of the episode and was quietly forgotten despite Buffy’s promise to contact her. She’s just too dull to give a damn about. Some people might say that Anne’s narrative is economic but I would say its obvious. People are going missing in LA and old people are wandering the streets saying ‘I am no one’ with a preacher offering salvation to anybody down on their luck that he meets. Anybody with half a brain can connect A to B to C when there is nothing else to distract you. Its not so much a mystery as a logic puzzle. An easy one. Evil religious figures are pretty tedious (and predictable) unless they are played by Nathan Fillion (even I was surprised when his Preacher Caleb turned out to be such a chilling foe in season seven). Carlos Jacott is far more convincing as the gentle preacher than he is as the demon prison warden – as soon as his mask is ripped off he is camping it up for all he is worth (‘you’ve got guts…I’d like to slice them open and play with them!’).

Moment to Watch Out For: The scene that took me aback the most was Joyce blaming Giles for taking his daughter away from her. In hindsight it shouldn’t be so unexpected because she is simply lashing out because she is aching for her daughter and ultimately Giles did help to keep this massive commitment in her life from her mother. It just feels cold and Giles does the puppy dog eyes look which always gets me on side.

Fashion Statement: How gorgeous does Willow look in her little purple hat? I pretty much love her image from this point on. No matter how outrageous her colour scheme gets.

Result: Firstly I would like to point out that picking up the pieces from the season two finale is not an easy task. Since Anne fails to do that its basically a forgettable stepping stone between last season and the fallout next week. Its such a shame that we left Buffy in such a dark place because it is a real drag to start what is probably Buffy’s most confident year on such a depressing note. It was brave for a show that has perfected a winning formula to not rest on its laurels and open with something a bit different (especially with the change of location to LA) but Anne is a miserable slog when I was expecting something far more welcoming. If there is a message here it is that Buffy needs Sunnydale (because her solo investigations lack any charm) just as much as Sunnydale needs her (its made clear that she is adhesive that holds her friends and family together) which makes this episode where they are separated the discordant odd man out. If your idea of a fun time is waiting for Buffy to realise this and having a wretched time on that learning curve then you are welcome to it. Because Dead Mans Party now has to handle what should have been the openers responsibility its not until the third that this season really begins. Telling a story over time like this might be a realistic approach but it tests the patience of this viewer who wants Buffy back at its bright, brilliant best: 5/10

Dead Man’s Party written by Marti Noxon and directed by James Whitmore, Jnr

What’s it about: Buffy is back in Sunnydale but things aren’t how she left them…

The Chosen One: I’m the first person to come down hard on Buffy when she is acting selfishly but I’m not sure if there will be another moment in the series where I feel more for the character. Everybody is just horrible to her and it feels entirely unjustified. I simply cannot comprehend why Willow and Xander are so alienated from Buffy who has been missing for three months. Which is whole long she went missing between seasons last year staying with her dad. It would appear that Joyce is the one who is treating her the most casually, trying to slip back into the mother and daughter routine but they have more issues than anybody. Yes Buffy made some bad choices but it bothers me that the Scoobies seem to have forgotten how her life was systematically torn to pieces towards the end of season two. True they don’t know what happened with Angel but even so (but given the fact that the world didn’t end they sure could make a bloody good guess), I would have thought they would have cut her a little slack but this episode sees them giving her a relentless torrent of abuse that feels wildly out of character. I was with Buffy all the way when she decided to pack her bags again and leave – I wanted to be out of there as much as she did with everybody behaving so oddly! I’ve never felt more embarrassed for Buffy (and for Joyce) when her mother lets rip at her in front of her friends after having too much to drink. She thinks that Buffy ran away to punish her for handling the news about her being the Slayer badly. Buffy has been on a downward spiral of misery since Surprise last season and I thought coming home would bring some relief for the character but this is worse than ever with all of her friends having a good kick whilst she’s down.

Ripper: Giles is just about the only character that reacts well to Buffy’s return and he is physically relived by her presence, unable to stop smiling.

Witchy Willow: A lovely intimate dinner where they can all talk their way through their problems becomes a rowdy party full of faceless nobodies – Willow and Xander (like most of this episode) really misjudge this one. Willow seems to be far more interested in listening to the band than talking to Buffy which felt really heartless. When she finally tells Buffy what her problem is – that she is dating a werewolf and studying witchcraft and didn’t have anybody to confide her feelings to – I couldn’t believe that she would alienate Buffy so completely when she has tons of friends around her who would be more than willing to listen. I nearly always love Willow so this episode really took me aback for being a rare case of sending me into a Rosenberg rage.

Gorgeous Geek: The worst interpretation of Xander bar none. He doesn’t quite know how to react to her return and fortunately they are saved from the moment by a particularly savage vampire gracing the scene with his presence. Xander goes from ‘what a great party, everybody must have missed you a lot’ to ‘taking off like you did was incredibly selfish and stupid’ in the space of about five minutes. I’ve always appreciated Xander for being an honest character but here it feels as though he is just putting in his tupenny’s worth because everybody else is. Nicky Brendon is especially awful in this scene, giving line readings as though Xander is enjoying making Buffy suffer. I would have a hard time forgiving him for the spiteful things he said at the party.

Mr Snidey: ‘I have not only eh right but also nearly physical sensation of pleasure…’ Snyder doesn’t want Buffy back at Sunnydale High and gets all kinds of tingly feelings in letting her know. He hated Buffy before her stunts in Becoming so I can buy his detestable attitude.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘How did you find her?’ ‘I pretty much know the address’ – it doesn’t take that much to impress me!
‘Thanks for stopping by and dying…’ – Buffy’s not-so-touching eulogy for the stray cat that she and Joyce bury.
‘It seems that people I didn’t even know missed me.’
‘Do you like my mask, isn’t it pretty, it raises the dead! Americans.’
‘Time out, Xander. Put yourself in Buffy’s shoes for just a minute. I’m Buffy, freak of nature, right? Naturally I pick a freak for a boyfriend and he turns into Mr Killing Spree which is pretty much my fault…’ – Cordelia tries to empathise with Buffy. Oh dear.

The Bad: Buffy is right that the piece of primitive art that Joyce adorns the house with is ‘angry at the room’, its bloody hideous and she deserves all the destruction that ensues for even contemplating ‘brightening up the place’ with it! And don’t even get me started on the scene of the cat coming back to life and pulling itself out of the mud! Pat is a particularly irritating character (anybody with that sort of enforced cheeriness is hiding something in their closet) and I was pleased when she was killed in action as I couldn’t see recurring potential. Buffy overhears her mother saying that it has been worse since she has come home which is precisely the sort of irritating plot device that I thought had gone out with the arc. Almost as obvious as Joyce making her domestic with Buffy public, screaming at her in front of everybody that she knows – its cringeworthy to endure. The argument where everybody chips in to have a go at Buffy is so loathsome that I cannot believe the show dared to repeat the exercise in season seven (I do think it was pulled off better in that case buts its still desperately unlikable television). The zombies turning up to trash the house is a welcome relief, not because its an improvement to the episode (because its ridiculously camp and overdone) but because the appallingly scripted domestic is brought to an impromptu end. After watching The Walking Dead these camp comedy zombies simply don’t make the grade and there is very little in the way of justification of this subplot. Just a few lines about the mask but no real substance whatsoever. I’m assuming there is no need for secrecy in Sunnydale anymore since this is a very public attack of zombies. It would appear that because Joyce knows about Buffy’s secret lifestyle now there is no need to protect the secrets of the supernatural from the rest of the populace. Spare us from Pat, evil incarnate with her creed of ‘I live, you die…’ After the fight all of the issues seem to have evaporated completely with everybody loving Buffy again because she has saved their lives. I’m shocked at such inadequate characterisation coming after the superlative work last season.

Moment to Watch Out For: The best scene by far is Giles turning nasty with Snyder and being willing to convince him to give her another chance at enrolling back at Sunnydale High. I love it when he gets to show his teeth. Its just rare enough to make an impact each time.

Orchestra: Christophe Beck realises there is no hope for this episode so all the subtlety he was injecting into the show last year goes out the window and he plumps for a hyper dramatic Omen-inspired score as the zombies go on the prowl. 

Result: One of my least favourite Buffy episodes of all time because I know the show is capable of much more than this nonsense. Is this really written by the same Marti Noxon who gave us Surprise, Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered and I Only Have Eyes For You last year? Dead Man’s Party is full of angry sentiment, poor characterisation, duff monsters and clichéd domestics that wouldn’t be out of place in a poor soap opera. The juxtaposition of the party which turns into a domestic and the zombie attack is too noisy and energetic and it felt like I was being assaulted with too much at once. The show has never felt more like a god awful made for TV American teen genre movie. Buffy has a real issue with kick starting its seasons in an effective way – to my knowledge only seasons one and five and get it right with all the others plumping for something too low key, jarringly game changing or utterly depressing to watch. I prefer to think of season three as starting with Faith, Hope and Mr Trick because that is where the all the arc elements are introduced and the two episodes that come before it a bizarre fever where nobody is behaving in the way that they should. Dead Man’s Party gets us where we need to be (pushing the reset button so everybody is friends again) but takes possibly the most loathsome route possible, tossing in some half baked zombies for good measure. To say this is inadequate television does the term a disservice, I found this far more likely as the alternative dimension story than The Wish: 2/10

Faith, Hope and Trick written by David Greenwalt and directed by James A. Contner

What’s it about: Faith is a rogue Slayer, Hope is a lad who has the hots for Buffy and Trick is a smart talking vamp who has just set up shop in Sunnydale…

The Chosen One: ‘Hello my life, how I’ve missed you!’- me too Buffy! Allowing for David Boreanaz’s contractual appearance and pre-empting his return at the end of the episode, Buffy’s dreams about Angel are getting more disturbing. Things are never calm for Buffy for long and whilst she has managed to get herself back into school there is a new slayer in town who can do pretty much everything Buffy can and she seems to enjoy it too. Faith gets on with her family and her friends (and her fries) and naturally Buffy is envious. With another Slayer in town Joyce sees the opportunity for her daughter to abandon her calling and get on with her life. Joyce realises that she still has so much to learn about what she has missed out in Buffy’s secret life and she learns that one time her daughter almost didn’t come home one night when facing the Master. The friction between Buffy and Faith is immediately and compelling – Faith is used to being her own Slayer without rules and Buffy doesn’t want somebody coming to her town and taking over her life. Gellar and Dushku spark off each other so well and it is compelling watching how their relationship slowly deteriorates over the season. Buffy has been holding back the truth about killing Angel for so long now that it comes as a relief to be able to say the words out loud.

Ripper: The way Giles dresses up the way he is trying to help Buffy come to terms with her demons as official Watcher business is very touching. This isn’t just Giles being British and avoiding the sentiment, he is a genuinely sensitive man who can see that his Slayer needs to share her pain. It’s a great honour to be invited to the Watcher’s retreat in the Cotswolds…or so Giles hears since he has never been asked.

Witchy Willow: Straight of the mark I got the sense that my Willow was back, not that vile harpy that made Buffy’s life hell in the previous instalment. I loved her panicked reaction to being carried off campus by her friends and her insistence that Buffy does a cute half smile thing whenever she is flirting with boys. It transpires that Willow has been messing about with more magic than Giles suspected and he warns her of the dangers. If she had listened… 

Caustic Cordy: Fortunately we have Cordelia on hand to remind us of how much of a slut Faith is and to explain how she came to be a Slayer. Sometimes having so many characters around can be really useful when there is plenty of exposition.

Five By Five: Faith is one of my favourite characters in Buffy and she makes an immediate impact in her debut episode. She goes on an incredible journey across this show and spin off Angel and is involved in some of the all time most dramatic shows. Whilst What’s My Line was a superior story, Kendra never rocked the boat in the same way that Faith did. It really feels like Whedon has missed a trick and is going back for another go the way things should have been the first time around. Faith stirs things up amongst the Scoobies, bringing with her a lot of new opportunities to look at the same characters in fresh ways. She’s dressed to kill, partying like her life depended on it and luring vampires out of the Bronze to kick them crap out of them. She makes a terrific impression of Xander and Willow, especially the former when she says that slaying makes her feel hungry and horny! She’s fine with Oz being a werewolf as long as he doesn’t start humping her leg and she tells Giles that she thinks he is young and cute but disturbingly I rather think she finds all boys that way. She has such barely restrained anger that when she gets the chance she pummels a vampire rather than just staking him, putting Buffy’s life at stake. In the space of one episode Faith goes from being a hyper confident Slayer to a frightened girl running away from her past – they are two very different characters but Dushku makes the transition look seamless. The only reason I felt anything at all about Kakistos is because the otherwise badass Faith is terrified of him – I guess that’s what happens when you see your Watcher being slaughtered. Faith feels like a one shot character, the sort that joins Buffy for a single episode all the time (like Ethan Rayne and Ford from season two) and its genuinely exciting news that she is to join to the cast for the rest of the season.

Mr Snidey: Two appearance so early in the season? Maybe Snyder is going to have more of a presence this year. He has to face down the wrath of two Summers women who have permission from the school board for Buffy to return to school. Joyce’s ‘ner ner ne ner ner’ made me howl. There’s another mention of the mysterious Mayor and it makes Snyder look seriously worried.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You really do need to find the fun, B….uffy.
‘Big love, big loss. You had to move on but your not’ – whilst Faith is being facetious she does rather sum up the Buffy/Angel relationship well!

The Good: Cleverly Greenwalt introduces Mr Trick in exactly the same way he brought in Spike, cruising into town in a car. But the differences between them are immediate – whereas Spike smashed through a sign a clapped out old banger to show what a rebel without a cause he was, Trick smoothly glides into town in a limousine and eats the drive-thru worker. Considering this introduction you could well think that Trick is going to be around for the entire season and it’s a real shame that he is dispatched as soon as he is because I found his sharp talking (apparently Sunnydale is ‘not a haven for the bruvvas’) attitude a scream. Scott Hope on the other hand is a bit too much of a mummy’s boy for Buffy (although she hasn’t met Riley yet). The trouble with him is that he seems genuinely lovely (and he’s quite cute too) and the way he keeps tripping onto the scene at the worst possible times to ask Buffy out might have you slapping your forehead with your palm. Xander and Willow taking Faith on the guided tour of Sunnydale High’s near-death spots made me chuckle…you forget how much ground they have covered in that one location already.

The Bad: As a vampire who is so old that he is cloven hoofed you would think that Kakistos would make more of an impression but there is so much happening in this piece that he’s shunted off to the sidelines. About the most notable thing about him is how much crazy fun the characters have punning his name!

Moment to Watch Out For: The last scene is gorgeous, fading to black as Buffy places her ring from Angel in the mansion as if there relationship has finally come to a natural end. It feels as though the credits should come up. Suddenly there is a small beam of light and Angel is tossed out of Hell in a dramatic encore. Suddenly this show is playing mind games with its audience again.

Foreboding: ‘Its probably a good thing you were an only child…’ Don’t tempt fate Joyce!

Result: What a fine episode. Faith, Hope and Trick kick starts season three (finally!) and with the introduction of Faith and the return of Angel there are suddenly very exciting things to talk about. Eliza Dushku bursts onto the scene like a ball of manic energy and makes her first appearance as Faith as memorable as possible, raging with sex appeal, anger and whole host of issues. If the consensus of whether a character is successful or not is based on how much the audience what to spend more time with them then lets consider Faith an complete success. The decision to base the rest of the season around the actions of a rogue Slayer was inspired and there is much potent drama to come. Greenwalt plays some wonderful mind games with the audience concerning the Buffy/Angel arc too, apparently putting it bed with some gentle consul from Giles before slashing through all of that with his unexpected return at the climax. Throughout there are great moments for all the Scoobies (Willow is back to being as a cute as a button, just the way I like her!) and some nice jokes although Scott Hope doesn’t look like he has a hope in hell as a long time partner of Buffy’s (he’s far too nice). I did love Mr Trick though and hope to see much more of this sassy chatting vampire. More like this please: 8/10

Beauty and the Beasts written by Marti Noxon and directed by James Whitmore, Jnr

What’s it about: A spree of savage murders throws suspicion onto Oz…

The Chosen One: ‘Buffy Summers reporting for sanity!’ We haven’t enjoyed a savage fight between Buffy and Angel since last year and I have really missed them. Gellar has to express a great deal of emotion when she first sees Angel again and to her credit the moment comes across as a real shock. It becomes a race between Buffy and Willow to discover whether it is their boyfriend that is committing these vicious attacks. I realise that people sometimes need to confront their demons but Buffy violently dragging Debbie over to the mirror to look at her black eye feels in its own way as abusive as how Pete was handling her.

Ripper: Nobody can condemn Xander quite like Giles does, he has that disappointed, furious tone down pat by now. Can you imagine what people would say if they came into the library first thing to borrow a book only to find a naked boy locked away in a cage? Anthony Head makes Giles’ discussion of monsters, how some can be redeemed and how others are completely without mercy, quite chilling. Its all in the delivery.

Witchy Willow: Sweetly Willow reads to Oz during his wolfie periods and has come to treat the full moon periods as a routine, locking her boyfriend up in a cage. She has only seen half a Monty of Oz and Xander is intrigued to know which half (I think we all know…). The way Oz has to slouch off to his cell whilst trying to storm out dramatically (which is clearly not his forte since he has to explain to all and sundry what he is doing – they probably would have thought he was just going for a pee!). Holding back from showing Oz’s feelings means that it impacts more when he does. He doesn’t want to hurt Willow but he also doesn’t want her to see what he becomes under a full moon and orders her away.

Gorgeous Geek: Oh Xander, could you be more of a cretin at times? This week he promises to keep an eye on Oz whilst he prowls the stacks and the second Willow’s back is turned he’s up on the table and shutting his eyes! 

Puppy Dog Eyes: The big question on my lips is whether Angel is still evil or not. I did like how we are never allowed to get complacent about Angel’s return. Clearly the writers are eager to get him and Buffy back together and going gooey eyed but they are taking their time to make the process as realistic as possible. What feels like it should be a tender moment between Buffy and her chained up beast of a boyfriend (Beck is trying to stir all kinds of romantic feelings with his music) is cut short as he lunges for her. Its only at the climax that Angel comes to Buffy’s rescue and we realise that there might be some residual feeling there.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Just a thought – poker, not your game.’

The Good: The beast attack of the teaser is very dynamically directed. We see the attack from the creatures point of view and the camera moves savagely fast. I really liked Mr Platt, the school counsellor and thought it was a shame that he was cut out of the series as quick as he arrived. He could have been a much needed sense of assurance amongst all the insanity on this show. In his one scene with Buffy he manages to be understanding but at the same time give Buffy a dose of cold water to make her come to her senses and realise things aren’t quite as bad as she thinks. Phil Lewis gets the short straw, he invests a lot of charm into his brief appearance and it would have been great to see some more of him. Pointing the finger at both Oz and Angel are a decent couple of red herrings because this is one of the few shows that I don’t need any trouble imagining their heroes as killers.

The Bad: The theme of this episode seems to be ‘all men are beasts’ which is mouthed by Faith quite early on and there seems to be a horribly misogynistic streak running through this. It really surprises me that a piece that sees women suffering relentlessly is written by a woman. I’m not sure how comfortable I am about a show that is set in High School parodying abuse towards women, the two seem oddly tasteless when juxtaposed by each other. The message is blurry too with the moral seemingly that all men have it in them to hurt women and yet all the candidates it chooses to explore have had the choice taken out of their hands. Oz and Angel are only murderous because they can succumb to their demon sides. Pete is supposed to be the focus of all this hate but he has been sipping some juice that gives him the appearance of a demon – so again it feels as if this isn’t really his fault. I never got the impression that any of the men in this episode are vile just because they are despite how much Buffy and others try and tell us otherwise. I also don’t enjoy watching women getting beat upon and cowering in corners with blood streaming from their noses. I’m certain that’s not the sort of female empowerment that Joss Whedon was aiming for when he kick started this series. The way Debbie tries to comfort Peter after he has been knocking her about sat very uncomfortably with me too. They’ve tried to tweak it but the werewolf costume is still awful. Actually I’m trying to think when I’ve ever seen a werewolf costume that isn’t awful. Scott is attentive, polite and complimentary…it comes as no surprise to me that he turns out to be gay in season seven! The werewolf bouncing along the school corridors made me howl with laughter – I pity the poor actor who had to make that happen. The Pete/Debbie subplot is so underwritten that we only find out after the narrative has come to end how he became so twisted – he mixed a potion to become Mr Macho and it all went wrong. I cannot believe that was just tossed in as a throwaway line at the end as an explanation. Debbie being killed just feels wrong, her character suffering right until the end. How horrible. Can’t any nice characters on this show be given some slack otherwise what is the point of our heroes? Buffy goes to some pains to point out that this was a killing of a woman by a man, unsubtly underlining this episodes message that has been obscured by murky writing. As if to compound the problems this story is bookended by sickly poetry that would make a pre-pubescent blush.

Moment to Watch Out For: The scene where Buffy visits the counsellor and he is clearly dead and the way she spills her beans out to his back. I’m not sure if its supposed to be funny or dramatic but it comes across as really tasteless. There is a nasty streak that is developing in season three (Anne thrived on hopelessness, Dead Man’s Party was obsessed with having Buffy’s friends spewing poison, Faith, Hope and Trick introduced the troubled and viciously angry Faith) and its starting to feel as if nobody on this show is going to get a happy ending.

Fashion Statement: It seems almost appropriate that in an episode that promotes women being portrayed so badly that Buffy should be stupid enough to run after Pete in high heels.

Orchestra: Keep your ear ready for Beck’s score during the animal attacks and he employs an effective pan pipe theme.

Result: It feels that, between seasons, Marti Noxon has simply forgotten how to write for this show. There is an awful lot of aggressive sentiment in this episode and very little humour which makes it a pretty depressing, angst ridden hour. Appropriately the direction is brutal and unflinching but the damage has already been done with a script that flaunts some disturbing ideals. The way Debbie is mercilessly killed by her boyfriend seems to suggest there is no way out of an abusive relationship and the way Buffy answers violence towards women by returning the favour with her fists is equally uncomfortable. The use of the green liquid that turns Pete into such a monster is a not very subtle parody of alcoholism turning men into abusive bastards but I’m not sure if I’m entirely happy with this show touching on such ugly ideas given its High School setting. It might have felt more at home in a few years once the characters and the show had grown up but the way Noxon angrily handles the themes is extremely muddy, as though she had a point to make but it got lost somewhere. The script seems to want to be all things – a character study of Oz, a sermon on female victimisation, a whodunnit and a progression of the Buffy/Angel storyline but because it is trying to juggle too much it doesn’t give any of these elements the time they need to breathe. The performances are strong (Danielle Weeks is a little too good as beaten down Debbie) but this is 45 minutes of unrelenting misery. As Faith told Buffy in the previous episode, this show really needs to learn how to find the fun again: 5/10

Homecoming written and directed by David Greenwalt

What’s it about: ‘You crazy freak!’ ‘Vapid whore!’ Buffy and Cordelia square off against each other for the title of Homecoming Queen…

The Chosen One: ‘Why is it every time I go somewhere with you it always ends in violence and terror?’ Scott dumping Buffy so suddenly feels very wrong. Its almost as if the writers have suddenly realised with Angel back on the scene that there is nowhere for this relationship to go. It wouldn’t be so jarring if they hadn’t arranged to go to the Homecoming dance just two scenes previously – there is something about how this plays out to manipulate the audience that feels wide of the mark. The shot of her alone and in pain kind of sums up the tone of this season so far. At least we’re torn away from the sorrow immediately with suggestions of a Slayer hunt ahead. Poor Buffy, none of her teachers seem to remember who she is, she misses out on the yearbook photo – in her own words she is a ‘non person.’ So its great that she tries to turn all that around and coax her inner Prom Queen out and give Cordelia a run for her money in the bitch stakes (a contest that she has no chance of winning but let’s not tell her that). The guilty look on Buffy’s friends faces perfectly encapsulates the feeling when two people in a group of friends fall out and you forced to try and choose who to favour. She wants to be Homecoming Queen because it is her chance to be normal for five minutes in a life that has become nothing but duty, violence and death.

Witchy Willow: I’ve always been of the persuasion that cheating is wrong unless the person indulging in it is in some way wronged by their other half (not revenge tactics or anything like that…more like if they were in an abusive relationship and were seeking comfort elsewhere…). Whenever it has been portrayed on television I have always found myself on the side of the unknowing partner who is carrying deludedly as if nothing has happened because as far as they are concerned, nothing has. Willow and Xander throw a definitive spanner into those very black and white works (I think I’ve mixed my metaphors there but you get the picture) because I cannot find it in myself to dislike them for their indulgence here and in subsequent episodes. Its not an impulsive thing, nor is it to hurt anybody, it’s the natural coming together of two people who should have done this long before they found better halves. Its something that they needed to get out of their systems before they both moved on with their lives (especially Willow who reacted very badly when she found out that Xander was with Cordelia ever after she had hooked up with Oz). I don’t think it was every going to last or be more than a brief liaison but it had to happen so they knew that it wasn’t to be. At the same time you have Cordelia (who I adore) and Oz (who is the only character who can exude cuteness without emoting) completely unaware that their partners are straying. This is going to lead to interesting developments I’m sure… The kiss itself is so beautifully done with both characters stepping into that room as adolescents and as soon they have changed into their Homecoming outfits they magically become adults which stirs up instant feelings.

Caustic Cordy: ‘How can you think its okay to talk to people like this?’ The best Cordelia episode yet, including Out of Sight, Out of Mind. Everybody needs somebody in their life like Cordelia who is willing to cut through the red tape known as subtlety and get straight to the point. If not you would all be a bunch of friends with no clue what the others are feeling and not doing anything particularly interesting. I have my very own Cordelia here in Eastbourne and she is equally infuriating and wonderful for the very same reasons. Cordelia isn’t necessarily a bad person, just a thoughtful one and when she sees an opportunity to grab a couple of votes for Homecoming Queen she forgets all about Buffy and the fact that she might want to have her photo in the yearbook. For her being the Homecoming Queen is a big deal because it means that she was somebody when she was at High School, Buffy has a lot of other stuff to define her but this is the best that Cordelia can hope for. She’s so desperate to win she’ll even admit to the geeks that she’s been doing the Vulcan death grip since she was four! Once she is in danger, Cordelia falls to pieces until Buffy ignites that fire within and she goes nuts with the spatula of death (this has to be seen to be believed!).

Five By Five: Faith’s nasty little trick on Scott Hope proves that she’s all bad.

Puppy Dog Eyes: I love the distant look on Angel’s face when Buffy mentions Giles, as though he has forgotten all about him and the others in his underworld torments. Suddenly, and with great clarity, he remembers the torments that he brought down on all of Buffy’s friends and realises that he is going to have to repent.

The Mayor: Its not unusual for a show like Buffy to wait this long to reveal its villain of the year – Glory is introduced in episode five of the fifth season and Willow isn’t unveiled until the last five episodes of season six (that might explain why that year lacks focus). There has been an awful lot to tie up after the end of season two and three of the first four episodes of this season have been burdened with the fact that Buffy had to be re-introduced, have it out with her friends and renew her acquaintance with Angel. Only Faith, Hope and Trick has made any real effort to feel as if anything original is going on this season. Now, finally, we’re ready for the big guns to be brought out. Mr Trick is back and he’s in the employ of the mysterious Sunnydale Mayor who has name has been ominously mentioned since the middle of season two. Imagine my surprise then when he isn’t a terrifying hulk of a man as I had imagined but a charming, effusive, well mannered character played by the wonderfully likable Harry Groener. Leave it to Buffy to introduce one of the most likable character to hit the screen and have him turn out to be the bad guy.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘We all have a desire to win! Human, vampire…whatever the hell you are my brother, you got a spiny looking head thing…I aint never seen that before…’
‘Your brain isn’t even connected to your mouth, is it?’
‘We have to find Buffy – something terrible has happened! Just kidding, thought I’d give you a scare…’ – even Giles has lightened up this week!
‘Buffy and I have taken out four of your cronies. Including your girlfriend’ ‘Wife!’ ‘Whatever.’

The Good: The High School yearbook photos are a perfect chance to go to cheese factor ten and it’s a statement of how well defined these characters are that you can sum up their personality in their poses (Cordelia wins biggest fake smile, Xander tries to look dashing, Willow looks like a lost puppy dog and Oz expresses no emotion whatsoever). Somebody hold me down before I explode like a great, yucky blister…Slayer Fest is such a glorious idea and now there are a couple of them to hunt down it is the perfect time to indulge in such a crazy notion. There are all manner of memorable assassins who are queuing up to take a pop at Buffy and Faith and its also an opportunity to bring back Gorch, the second half of the Texan vampire double act that made no impact whatsoever in last years Bad Eggs. In this setting he is a shoe-in and feels right at home with his ridiculous vampiric Prom queen on his arm. Take the opportunity to read Buffy’s ‘competition’ board because there are some real gems on there (under weaknesses you have ‘few friends’, ‘bad skin’ and ‘Xander’). Buffy’s tactics include putting her posters over everybody else’s, preying on the boys chivalry and handing out muffins whilst Cordelia favours sexually exploiting men, giving out even bigger baskets of goodies and even bribing people! Just when you think that the violence is all over Buffy discovers the bugs in their corsages and we are treated to the gorgeous shot of snipers treading very lightly through the school corridors. I’m sorry but could this episode get any better? Yes it can because the two assassins gun each other down! Mr Trick falling into the employ of the Mayor is a pleasing development, it’s the coming together of two great villains. The final gag that both Buffy and Cordelia have lost the title to Holly and Michelle is just about perfect.

Moment to Watch Out For: The whole sequence of Buffy and Cordelia in the woods is to be treasured. There’s explosions, rat traps, rifles, spatulas, rocket launchers, blood suckers, spiny things and even bigger explosions. Playing out amongst this madness is the bitch fight from hell as Buffy and Cordelia take out their frustrations on each other whilst proving that actually they can work together really well. Its dazzlingly funny and frantic and ten minutes of televisual bliss.

Fashion Statement: Buffy and Faith working out in tight tops and shorts might be enough to force some men into apoplectic shock. Needless to say everybody looks phenomenal in their Homecoming outfits, especially Buffy and Cordelia. What a shame they don’t get to show them off.

Orchestra: I love the hyper cool refrain that Beck uses every time the assassins spy o or approach Buffy. He’s had the chance to indulge in a full on James Bond-esque score this week and he really runs with it.

Result: ‘I promised myself I wasn’t going to cry…’ Gloriously inventive and fun, Homecoming sees a season shrug off all the baggage of the previous year and indulge in some knockout entertainment. You’ve got two equally fantastic competitions taking place; Buffy and Cordelia vying for Homecoming Queen and a group of assassins coming together to take down a Slayer or two. They both work well individually but when the two plots come together at the climax its as energetic, as funny and as exciting as Buffy has ever been. Homecoming proves what a terrifying combination Buffy and Cordelia are when they are pissed off and that there is nothing better than being hunted by assassins to sort out all of your issues with each other. What a shame that David Greenwalt should depart Buffy on an episode that sees him at his creative zenith. His scripts until now have been a mixture of the ridiculous (Teachers Pet, Reptile Boy) and the sublime (School Hard) but its in his swansong for Buffy that he manages to get the balance of the comedy and the drama absolutely spot on. I guess Angel’s gain is Buffy’s loss. Still this isn’t the time to mourn as its such a deliriously pleasurable instalment, packed with strong character material for all of the regulars, technically very impressive (watch out for the camera angle where Buffy punches the audience right in the face) and giving Christophe Beck the chance to go all James Bond on us. When I think back on all seven years of Buffy the Vampire Slayer it is episodes like Homecoming that make me smile the most. If you are having a bad day, dig it out and watch it. You wont regret it: 10/10

Band Candy written by Jane Espenson and directed by Michael Lange

What’s it about: What could possibly cause Giles, Joyce and Snyder to behave like children?

The Chosen One: The trouble with Buffy academically is that she isn’t incapable of proving her intelligence, it is just hard for her to shake the idea that she isn’t intellectual and engage herself. The way she tries to complete the SATs without even hearing all of the answers is a perfect example of this. She’s looking to learn to drive but Joyce isn’t keen for her to take on another responsibility. She is worried that Buffy will have an easier opportunity to run away if the she gets the desire to again. In a two way tug of war, Giles and Joyce are monopolising all of Buffy’s time and so naturally she pits one against the other in order to breathe. The look of disappointment on their faces when they realise that they have been had is priceless. The way that Kristine Sutherland subtly starts taking on the characteristics of a teenager is masterful, she doesn’t go all out like some actresses would have and give the game away but instead acts a little looser and adopts a far more placid attitude. As soon as Joyce gives Buffy the car keys her Spidey senses should be tingling but she is so happy to be let of the leash for a short time she grabs them and runs. Joyce as a teenager is less concerned with the massive dent that Buffy has put in her car and is instead mortified that she ever bought such a ‘geek machine.’

Ripper: Anthony Head makes Giles look like such an effortlessly believable character that sometimes it is easy to forget that there is an actor underneath that giving 100% to make it so. Band Candy gives Head a chance to prove just how versatile an actor he is by playing the younger Giles as a cockney, laid back tearaway who isn’t interested in any of things that his older counterpart would consider characterful. What’s most impressive is how effortlessly real he makes this look too. He’ll smash a window to steal a feather boa from a shop for his bird and picks a fight with a cop because he doesn’t like his attitude. Having Ethan and Giles come together during this episode was a stroke of genius because they knew each other when Giles was this age and have since had some dramatic encounters. It means this looser, more violent Giles can have his way with his nemesis without consequences.

Witchy Willow: Xander and Willow continue their not-so-innocent (although they have a good stab at making it look so) flirting, playing footsies under the table during class right in front of the completely unaware Cordelia.

Caustic Cordy: Cordy suggests that she has layers but to be honest I prefer her without them. Perhaps that’s why I was less keen on her character once she moved over to Angel.

Puppy Dog Eyes: I can think of better things to do with my time than watching Angel doing Tai Chi. If he’s going to spend the rest of the year being this wet let’s toss him to Los Angeles right now. He was much more fun when he was trying to disembowel Buffy last year, now he’s back to giving her moon eyes and asking about her love life.

Mr Snidey: ‘I am so stoked!’ How lovely for Armin Shimmerman to get to do something other than act the evil Nazi (despite the fact that he is so good at that). He really adopts the child like attitude of a socially inept geek who has trouble identifying with the cool kids and talking to the girls. He is exactly the sort of child that I expected him to be and I can see why he enjoys making popular and beautiful kids suffer now that he is in a position of authority in a place where he was so neglected as a child. Snyder tries too hard to be cool that its painful that he can never succeed and he desperately needs the approval of his peer to feel included. The way he follows Buffy and the gang around and is desperate not to be ditched is very telling and the sigh he releases when Joyce shows absolutely no interest in him broke my heart. It is very easy to see how he wound up so wound up as an adult.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘These things are selling like hot cakes which is ironic because the hot cakes really aren’t moving.’
‘Summers! You drive like a spaz!’
‘You’re my Slayer – go knock his teeth down his throat!’

The Good: Ethan Rayne is back in Sunnydale which can only mean bad things for our heroes. I’m starting to see the connection between his inclusion automatically equalling a great episode. Few things on Buffy are as disturbing as the Bronze full of wrinklies; dancing, getting off with each other and chugging down booze. The rendition of Louie Louie is as funny as it is painful. When the children start looking like the responsible ones – be scared! Mr Trick snapping the neck of a lackey as an example to others for not sampling the merchandise is swift and brutal. I really love this guy. The last scene is an absolute peach as Buffy walks away unawares and the audience watch Joyce and Giles’ discomfort as we realise that they did far more than kiss during their time together as kids. I can’t wait to explore that further.

The Bad: I realised that this show is called Buffy the Vampire Slayer but it has always been more of an ensemble than a showcase for the titular character. Until now. Season three has shown a surprising obsession with Buffy to the detriment of the rest of the cast and it feels like ages since we have had a really great showcase for Willow or Xander. The first fifteen minutes of Band Candy drag a bit because we go over the same old ground of Buffy not taking her responsibilities seriously and trying to live a normal life – we dealt with that in season (Never Kiss a Guy on the First Date) and season two (Bad Eggs) and now it is starting to feel like old hat. Thankfully by the end of season three the whole outlook of the show will change, Giles becomes pretty redundant in Buffy’s life and she is free of Joyce’s clutches so their endless tug of war over her responsibilities isn’t dragged out for a fourth airing. The tribute/baby stealing subplot feels desperately tacked on considering this what the whole insane scenario has been about. The trouble is the stuff with Joyce, Snyder and Giles is so much fun that you don’t really care that a bunch of babies about to sacrificed and that should never be the case. The way the Mayor ducks out of sight to avoid having his first confrontation with Buffy feels a little chicken – perhaps he just shouldn’t have been there. CGI has come on in leaps and bounds since this episode was produced and the snake that attacks Buffy and co during the climax is probably best forgotten.

Moment to Watch Out For: There are so many little moments when the scenes between Joyce and Giles feel achingly real, its almost as if the actors are using this opportunity as a cathartic experience to relive the painful moments of adolescence and try and understand them. I love it when Giles is more interested in his album than the pretty girl that is trying to impress him and how she is desperately trying to understand the music like he does so he pays attention to her. Miss Barton made me howl with her ‘right on’ dialogue and attitude (‘are there any nachos in here little tree?’). I wish we could have seen more of her.

Fashion Statement: Honestly Willow, could you look any cuter? This week she is wearing an orange fuzzy jumper which literally screams hug me. Once he gets out of a suit and into a loose fitting white T-shirt, Anthony Head drops about twenty years and stirs the loins.

Result: ‘I don’t like this…they could have heart attacks!’ Candy bars with a supernatural ingredient that turns all adults into children? For a pitch that sounds like it came out of the New Adventures of Superman’s waste bin it is executed surprisingly well and proves to have a great deal to say about the characters whilst making me laugh my head off. It’s a fantastic reminder of the arsenal of acting talent that show has on offer away from the Scoobies and Anthony Head, Kristine Sutherland and Armin Shimmerman all embrace the insane premise and wring every subtlety they can out of it. You might think that pretending to act like a kid would be easy for any actor to pull off but this could so easily have been cringeworthy when instead the cast make it funny, thoughtful and very touching. Its not a perfect episode by any means because it takes a little too long to get to the fun stuff (covering the same old ground of Buffy’s responsibilities in the first fifteen minutes) and the monster of the week leaves a lot to be desired. Countering that is the gorgeous turns by Ethan Rayne, the Mayor and Mr Trick (this show has a wealth of fantastic recurring villains by this point), great laughs (its worth watching this one just to see Buffy’s reaction to her mum and Giles tonguing each other) and the winning opportunity to put Buffy in the role of looking after the adults in her life. For its flaws this is a classy episode and one that is far, far better than an description of its plot would suggest: 8/10

Revelations written by Doug Petrie and directed by James A. Contner

What’s it about: Secrets spill when Faith’s new Watcher shows up in Sunnydale and she’s looking for a very particular gauntlet…

The Chosen One: Her friends are starting to notice that Buffy has been off gallivanting a lot lately and suspect that she might have a new boyfriend. Never in their wildest dreams would they ever suspect that she has been off tending to her old boyfriend who tried to kill them all last year. Giles makes a very succinct point that Buffy must have known that seeing Angel was wrong otherwise she would have told her friends.

Ripper: Just about the worst insult you could fling at Giles is that his collection of books is inadequate (he’s stuffy like that) and so naturally that is where Gwendolyn takes her first thrust with the dagger. The suggest that he has become ‘too American’ appals Giles (and Buffy) and is worth a snigger. When Giles turns on Buffy and says she has no respect for him or the job that he performs after learning that she has been harbouring Angel and hasn’t told him you can see the hurt in her eyes.

Witchy Willow: Willow and Xander are trying desperately hard to pretend that nothing has gone on between them that the guilt of what they are hiding from Oz and Cordelia is coming off them in waves. Willow doesn’t harbour any ill will towards Buffy for hiding the truth about Angel because she has a whopper all of her own. She’s ready to tell Buffy about her and Xander but a pesky demon gets in the way and she chickens out afterwards.

Gorgeous Geek: Of all the people that could have stumbled upon Buffy and Angel kissing it had to be Xander because it causes the most explosive reaction. Xander asking to come with Faith to watch her kill Angel is deeply uncomfortable viewing because he knows that Buffy would be in a world of pain to learn of such an act of spite. Sometimes I have to question whether these guys are friends after all. The fact that Xander is on his high horse whilst at the same time cheating on his girlfriend feels very hypocritical and its not even portrayed in a compensatory way (because that’s left to Willow). When he tells Buffy that Faith has gone after Angel, he looks as if he is enjoying the moment. Basically Xander is just portrayed as a jerk and that’s not acceptable. By the end of this episode I was willing something really nasty to happen to him. Fortunately he walks straight in between Buffy and Faith whilst they are fighting and suffers as a result.

Five By Five: Its long past time that this season focussed on Faith again as since she has been introduced she has been relegated to more of a cameo role rather than anything substantial. This is where her journey really begins and it starts with her and Buffy fighting side by side, hanging out and generally enjoying their time together. I thought I would mention that because by the end of the season they are attempting tear bloody strips off of each other. Faith has had bad luck with her guys so far and so her take on boys is ‘get some, get gone.’ Buffy doesn’t want to share her Angel issues with Faith and it’s the first sign of cracks appearing between them because Faith is happy to share everything with her (probably a little too much). When she learns that Angel is alive and on the flimsy evidence of Giles being knocked unconscious (she should have been around last year, it happened in every other episode!) she goes on a vicious rampage to dust his vampiric ass. It almost feels as though she is doing it out of spite to hurt Buffy which doesn’t really sit well with what we were seeing between the two girls at the beginning of the episode. However it does get us where we need to be by its conclusion with an awkward, uncomfortable atmosphere between the two of them.

Puppy Dog Eyes: Watching Buffy and Angel perform yoga exercises together is another way of showing them indulging in intimate exercises without breaking the censors out in a sweat. Its also the third episode this year where Angel is seen wandering around half naked. Whilst this is something I wouldn’t usually object to he has been back for four episodes now and hasn’t done anything remotely interesting. Given how riveting he was come Becoming last season it feels like a waste of the character and the actor. The sitcom antics of the two of them trying to resist kissing each other is so dreary, I desperately wanted them to get sweaty so he could turn nasty again and do something interesting.

The Bad: Whilst I wouldn’t want to see the levels of hate thrown at Buffy that were shown in Dead Man’s Party again in a hurry, I found the scene where her friends sat around and discussed Angel to be slightly subdued. It felt muted and underdone, as if it needed a few more rehearsals to bring the emotion bubbling to the surface. Only Giles’ reaction when everybody has gone penetrates. Too many unhappy co-incidences see Angel and Faith kicking the crap out of each other to be believable (he believes that she is Lagos, she believes that he has attacked her Watcher). I don’t mind flawed characters but too much of this script seems to feature out regular characters making mistakes – Buffy hiding Angel, Willow and Xander cheating, Faith protecting the villain. These characters were far more savvy last year. When Mrs Post puts the glove that she has sought after on this becomes a hideously over the top superhero movie (although Beck’s score is pure b-movie) with her tossing out bolts of destructive energy and screaming in a plummy British accent (‘Tar-Krimm!’). And she’s taken out in record time. Its all a bit naff to be honest.

The Indifferent: Gwendolyn Post seems to be an intriguing new character to begin with (and she certainly makes a more effective entrance than Wesley) and is played with clipped, British precision by Serena Thomas Scott. It appears that the show is ready to indulge in battle of the Watchers and give Giles somebody to butt heads with but alas this is all a red herring and all the good work that is realised in the first half of this episode is wasted when it is revealed that she was a villain after all. Because Faith and the audience buys into this new character it feels like a cheat to have our faith (hoho) shattered quite this quickly. It feels like a waste of potential, which is something I don’t often accuse Buffy off. It also doesn’t help that once her hand is revealed the character goes from being an amusing (and irritating) thorn in Giles’ side to a bog standard melodramatic villainess not worth investing in. It’s the first instance that the Watcher’s Council is less of an ally and more of a roll of red tape that would happily bind Buffy and Giles until they are easily manipulated.

Moment to Watch Out For: The Buffy/Faith fight scene is directed with destructive energy and offers hope for similarly manic bitch fights in the future.

Result: ‘Sounds like we missed a lot of fun’ ‘Then we’re telling it wrong!’ An unlikable hour of television where all of the regulars are at each others throats again. And just after we have started to have fun with them too. Revelations feels like it should be an event episode of Buffy but like Anne and Dead Man’s Party the show seems to have lost the ability to pull off the dramatic shifts with the same gravitas as last year and these gear changing episodes lack any humour whatsoever. Its more scenes of Buffy looking defiant in the face of her friends accusations and we know how fun they are. It feels as if the writers barely know the characters anymore as they behave in an increasingly unpleasant fashion. The Gwendolyn Post plotline feels like salvation to begin with and its lovely to see Faith back in the limelight but much of the potential of this pairing is squandered on a melodramatic and violent final ten minutes. Why the Angel plotline is moving at such a ponderous pace and a storyline about Faith’s new Watcher is rushed within one episode baffles me especially when its clear which has more prospects. Even the demon this week is shite. I always imagined season three of Buffy as a creative high for the show but thus far it has been pretty dreary with the odd high point. Let’s hope the show regains its chutzpah soon: 4/10

Lovers Walk written by Dan Vebber and directed by David Semel

What’s it about: Spike’s back and he’s got a score to settle with Buffy…

The Chosen One: ‘All day its been congratulations – go away!’ Buffy has never really considered going to college somewhere other than Sunnydale because of her calling but when she hears both her mother and her Watcher suggest the same thing it gives her pause for thought. She might have a future ahead of her after all. With Faith in town it might be possible for her to move on (for a time). When Angel suggests that she should get away as soon as possible it is the last thing Buffy wants to hear but he’s playing the martyr because its what she needs to hear. She would probably be happy to coast unless she is pushed into action. Buffy almost (almost…) stakes Spike here but imagine all the beating and fighting and romping that she would have missed out on in subsequent seasons. She sighs resignedly at the thought of having fight side by side with Spike but its such a glorious affirmation of how this show moves on and evolves. This time last year they would happily have slaughtered one another. Buffy knows of only one way that she and Angel will never be together again and that is if he tells her that he doesn’t love her. Its something that he cannot do.

Witchy Willow: Academic achievement gets Willow a little excited, academic achievement from Buffy makes her explode like a pus filled boil on the verge of eruption. But, you know, a cute one. Her reaction to Oz’s gift of a Pez witch made me melt. Alison Hannigan has a way of delivering dialogue that just makes my heart sing. The Pez witch bizarrely becomes the symbol of everything that she has with Oz, despite the fact that she is still desperately attracted to Xander. Oh the joys of being a teenager again!

Gorgeous Geek: As soon as Xander is offered the chance of a double date with Willow and Oz (considering he is secretly smooching one of those two) he should have run for the hills rather than saying that ‘it could have potential.’ He doesn’t just like the suggestion, he actively pursues it. Does he want to be caught? Whilst Willow seems to exuding enough guilt for the pair of them Xander now seems to be actively enjoying the role of the love rat. What has happened to him this year? Doesn’t he remember the hell he went through to bag a girl as hot as Cordelia last year? Despite all of this I still felt sorry for him when Cordelia rejected him at the conclusion. There’s something about that hang dog expression that really tugs at the heart strings.

Caustic Cordy: Cordelia tested really well but has had some experience in covering up the fact that she is, in fact, really smart. Xander has been upgraded to locker door material which means they must be getting serious in her eyes (although in true Cordelia style she thinks she looks really cute in them too).

Puppy Dog Eyes: It takes Spike to bash Buffy and Angel’s heads together and remind them that they ache to be with each other. To get on with it rather than continually kidding themselves and keeping each other at arms length. Man, we really need this character around full time. We could have cut to the chase about four episodes back. What’s so great about this scene is that Buffy and Angel have been treating Spike like a punch bag and he manages to floor both of them with his emotional honesty.

The Mayor: He suggests that this year is far too important to have distractions like Spike around town thus neatly skipping over last years threat and paving the way for what is to come.

Undead Brit: ‘She said we could still be friends…’ Spike is back and its about damn time. He rolls into town in exactly the same way he was introduced last year, except this time he falls out of the car drunk with beer cans scattering in his wake. Clearly things have not gone well for him since he left Sunnydale. He finds Drusilla’s burnt, scared and blistered collection of dolls and aches to be with his lover in one breath and sets about destroying them and cursing her name the next. He’s a contradiction of volatile emotions and that’s just how I love him and it proves to be quite portentous because this exact mixture of feelings will be transferred to Buffy in a few years time. Many an actor has sunk trying to play drunk but that is not a problem with James Marsters who seems very comfortable playing these scenes (his comedy fall gets a laugh every time). The truce with Buffy made Drusilla feel that Spike had gone soft and that he was no longer demon enough for her. Its fair enough, collaborating with the enemy is hardly the nastiest thing you can do. Spike lays all of this on Willow as though he is a guest on the Jerry Springer Show and she doesn’t know whether to comfort him or run away. Reminiscing about killing a homeless guy on a bench and considering that ‘the good times’ is something only Buffy could get away with. His plan to find Dru, tie her up and torture her until she likes him again seems as level headed an epiphany as he was ever going to reach. The image of him rocking out of town to ‘My Way’ has been seared into my brain. What a happy way to end a gorgeous episode.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘She saw these scores and her head spun around and exploded’ ‘I’ve been on the Hellmouth too long. That was metaphorical, yes?’
‘So do you really need to resort to the black arts to keep our hormones in check?’ ‘At this point I’m thinking no.’
‘Love isn’t brains, its blood. Blood screaming inside you to work its will. I may be loves bitch but at least I’m man enough to admit it.’

The Good: The scenes between Willow and Spike are really effective because for once one of the Scoobies remembers to be positively terrified by the threat that is facing her rather than making smart remarks. Spike is more unpredictable than ever and poor, sweet Willow is abused and manhandled in his drunken rage (her reaction to him shoving a broken bottle in her face is especially terrifying). It’s a scene that goes through several transitions very skilfully from Spike threatening her to confiding her to coming on to her. Marsters changers gear with consummate skill. Massive laughs come when Spike turns up at Joyce’s house and I thought that her cards were marked but instead we cut to her making him a drink and listening to all of his woes. Sometimes shoving together two characters that under ordinary circumstances would never work becomes a joy simply for how unusual it is and these two definitely have something. Having Angel show up and Joyce thinking he is the threat when Spike making over the top vamp faces behind her back is a fantastic joke. Talk about a comedy of role reversals. As Oz and Cordelia join forces to find their respective partners there is a growing feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach…there can only be one reason to bring these two characters together. The inevitable moment that sees them stumble on Xander and Willow making out (because it was always going to end that way…there’s no way Whedon would allow such an act to go unpunished) saw me watching through my fingers. The way Cordelia is then punished for Xander’s indiscretion is masterfully done because it is the last thing you would ever suspect. The fight sequence in which they pretty much demolish the Magic Shop is one of the most impressively staged yet (and nothing could have prepared me for my reaction to Spike continually hitting a vampires head on a table screaming ‘baby like his supper?’).

Moment to Watch Out For: Whilst I wanted to mention the Joyce/Spike interaction here, I had to go with the funeral misdirection at the end which is one of the greatest visual gags I have ever seen a show pull off. I remember being blown away by the audacity of it when I first saw it and wishing that more shows could fool me in such a hilarious way. The way it is shot, the stirring music and the Scooby look-alikes at the funeral is just perfect. I’ve been chasing moments like this ever since.

Foreboding: Its so weird to see the Magic Shop featuring in the show before it became a main feature retrospectively. There’s no hint here that it will become the shows new library in future seasons.

Result: ‘Now that was fun! Ohh…don’t tell me that wasn’t fun?’ This episode should have been called ‘Love’s Bitch.’ Confident, funny and a delight to watch, Lovers Walk’s only failing is that there isn’t a great deal of plot but considering so much of this episode features the Scoobies finding their awesomeness again I can’t complain too much. For the first time this season the focus is dragged away from Buffy and equal weight is given to Willow and Xander’s dilemma and the fabulous return of Spike. Re-inventing his character as a tragic lover is a masterstroke and is expertly played by James Marsters and is something that would stay with the series until the very last episode. This episode is constantly subverting your expectations and throwing up surprises while at the same time introducing some new elements (going to college) and bringing long overdue plotlines to a close. The jokes are funny, the fight scenes exciting and we close on the most memorable of villain departures. Its only when the show is over that you realise that not a great deal has happened but you’ve been too busy laughing and crying to notice. Amazingly the way that this show gets us to fall in love with its characters is to put them through hell and the closing montage sees them all in various states of depression as our hearts bleed for them. What a shame that this would be Spike’s only appearance this year because he brings something very special to this show: 9/10

The Wish written by Marti Noxon and directed by David Greenwalt

What’s it about: Cordelia’s mouth finally gets her (and the entire world) in a how heap of trouble…

The Chosen One: Boo for the not so subtle scar that splits Buffy’s lips in the alternative universe (has the writer been watching Doctor Who’s Inferno?) but yay for Gellar’s subdued, powerful performance as a Slayer without a Watcher that has had to find her way in a world where she has failed at her calling. ‘The world is what it is…we fight, we die’ is pretty much Buffy’s creed and doesn’t it sound an awful lot like another Slayer that has recently arrived in our version of Sunnydale. What this episode proves is that without Giles, her friends and her family Buffy could have so easily have wound up as cynical and as brutal as Faith. What a shame they couldn’t have met in this episode, I bet that would have been one hell of a cat fight.

Ripper: When you’ve a actor like Anthony Head in your cast anything is possible. He plays the alternative Giles as though that is the character he has always been playing, a nervous man who is always looking over his shoulder and anticipating fresh horrors. He makes the moment of Cordelia’s death really count for something emotionally as he forces himself to watch it.

Witchy Willow: The result of having Oz and Cordelia discover their respective other halves smooching is that the threesome of Buffy, Willow and Xander feels tighter than ever. Whilst this time next year they will all be in relationships again, it seems quite fitting that this trio should be this close during their last few months at High School before they step out in to the big wide world. It almost makes you think that’s what the whole secret affair plot was all about, not to drive a wedge through the periphery characters’ hearts but to bring the primary characters on this show closer together. Oz manages to tell Willow to leave him alone in such a nice way that it actually makes her feel ten times worse than had he rejected her outright. In truth she is only pursuing him to make her own pain go away. Its in these moments of bitter honesty that Noxon’s writing is at its best.

Gorgeous Geek: Xander is trying to contact Cordy whilst being the target of her ‘I’m having so much more fun than you right now’ campaign. His result is try and suggest a greater level of mirth than either he and Willow are feeling and its cringeworthy.

Caustic Cordy: Its not often that we are privy to Cordelia hurting which makes it all the more affecting when we do. Her reaction to being rejected is to turn up at school in a come-bite-me outfit and confront all of the friends that she lost last year for choosing Xander as a boyfriend. At first it looks like she might have gotten away with it but they are just lulling her into a false sense of security so they can twist the knife even deeper. She’s no longer the hottest babe at school because she has been dating one of the dweebs and the only offers that she gets are from the Jocks for a quick fumble in secret. Just when she seems to be picking herself up again Buffy tackles a vampire and she ends up arse first in a dumpster. Rather than accepting responsibility for her own actions, Cordelia lays all the blame of her recent misfortunes on Buffy’s doorstep. Isn’t it a blast that Cordy doesn’t spend an age trying to figure out why everything is different, she just accepts that she is in an alternative reality. She’s pretty perceptive like that!

Vengeance Demon: I had forgotten that Anya was introduced quite some way before the character she replaces on the show left. I’d also forgotten that she and Cordelia joined forces in this episode to wreck havoc upon Sunnydale. It’s a winning double act of sarcasm and one liners and it’s a shame that it wasn’t pushed further throughout the rest of the season. Emma Caulfield is quite a find and manages from her first appearance to her last to win my heart without ever trying to (she’s evil and she’s often working for her own benefit). There is just something about the way she plays this character that is honest and extremely likable. I love that Anya describes Xander as an ‘utter loser’ when ultimately he is the thing that she and Cordy have in common the most. She is revealed to be the patron saint of scorned women and has the ability to grant wishes to punish them. The irony is that by the end of the series there are few characters that have been scorned as much as Anya. When the reset is switched and Anya is trapped in our world without her powers, in retrospect it is one of the most important moments of the third season.

Puppy Dog Eyes: In this alternative world Angel is little more than a titillating distraction for Willow whilst the sun is up and she can’t go out and play. I don’t see this as much of an alteration from ‘our’ Angel who has done nothing of note so far this year and has been tucked away to provide the series with the odd moment of male nudity or emotional confrontation. He’s got victim stamped all over his head in both realities. Angel waited for Buffy to come to Sunnydale just as our Angel did in the original timeline except this time she didn’t come. Or at least far, far too late. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Your logic does not resemble our Earth logic.’
‘We really are living in a golden age.’

The Good: One of the most brilliantly surreal sequences to kick start a Buffy episode, the camera glides over a leafy glen in what looks to be the start of an episode of Little House on the Prairie which then settles on what appears to be a demon having a piss. Cue to comic antics featuring a Zoidberg-esque monster, strangulated misunderstandings and a distinct lack of poof-ness! Somehow they manage to make us care deeply for Jonathan and Cordelia with the cringe making suggestion that the two of them pair up. Lovely little details abound in the alternative dimension from cloves of garlic hanging from school lockers to the subdued fashions on display and vacant seats in class. Larry is a welcome sight for sore eyes…but not as much as the Master who steps back into the series as though he has never been away and happily reminds me of how awesome he was and how little of him we got to enjoy. Mark Metcalf hasn’t lost his penchant for world weariness mixed with a sarcastic streak of humour. His relationship with the evil versions of Xander and Willow is gorgeous to watch. In this reality the night belongs the vampires and the Bronze is a sleazy haunt where they can party and play with innocent victims hanging in cages. The atmosphere is electrifying and you kind of wish (have I learnt nothing?) that they could inject a little of that Lost Boys party atmosphere into ‘our’ reality. Having a fight take place in slow motion might feel like a pretentious decision for a director to make but the final set piece is hugely memorable because of it. Several of the main characters are killed, Christophe Beck’s glorious score stresses the importance of the scene and we cut back to Giles and Anya re-instating the shows message (‘How do you know that the other world is any better than this?’ ‘Because it has to be…’). Isn’t it wonderful that Angel is dusted in this reality and Buffy walks straight through his scattering of ashes without a thought for him? And Oz being able to help stake Willow is strangely therapeutic.

The Bad: As funny as that opening sequence is that monster costume is diabolical. It would appear that Marti Noxon still hasn’t developed a sense of urgency in her narrative and once again takes over half of the episode to get to the fun stuff (see all What’s My Line and Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered). I realise she needed to set up why Cordelia is so upset that she inadvertently changed the way of the world but she pretty much achieves that in the pre title sequence. As a result of indulging in Cordelia’s pain we spend less time in the crazy alternative dimension which is where all the fun stuff lies.

Moment to Watch Out For: ‘She’s still alive here see – for the freshness!’ The very notion of mass production vampirism sees old fashioned horror tropes joining forces with contemporary technological developments to create something that is truly unforgettable. The sight of the machine which stabs the victims and empties their body of plasma only to run along the pipes to a tap where your worker day vampire can enjoy a refreshingly warm and thick beverage has to be seen to be believed. A lot of thought has been put into this throwaway concept and its awesome to behold. Its also really amusing that the victim is one of the girls that was horrid to Cordelia earlier in the episode. That’ll learn yer.

Fashion Statement: Willow in dungarees – cuteness personified. Willow in the leather – kinkiness personified! The vampiric Xander and Willow from the alternative reality that Cordelia creates absolutely look the part of seductive, sensual creatures of the night. I’m almost willing to bet that there is an entire website out there right now devoted to their sexual antics in fan/slash fiction. And who can blame them with Willow decked in leather and straddling her very own puppy (Angel). When Xander is powdered up there is something of a look of Robert Pattinson about him. The way Xander grabs Willows head and forces her deeper into Cordelia’s necks as they suck her dry might just be the most loin stirringly perverse thing this show has ever offered up. There are illusions to threesomes, S&M (‘too hard…there’s no such thing’), voyeurism (‘no thanks baby…I just want to watch you go…’) and all sorts of sexual fetishes here…all disguised by the vampiric theme. What a way to pass all this by the censors.

Foreboding: As if this wasn’t a delicious side step enough, we get a return appearance of evil-Willow later in the season (Dopplegangland). You would think that her catchphrase (‘bored now…’) would only appear alongside this character but its most memorable use comes far into the shows run and from the mouth of ‘our’ Willow (Villains).

Result: ‘I wish Buffy Summers had never come to Sunnydale…’ Every show has taken a peek through the looking glass to see how differently things might have turned out but few of them with the delight and relish than Buffy does here. The way that Marti Noxon has us follow Cordelia’s story for the first half of the episode and then cruelly kills her off and thus cutting her narrative dead hasn’t been achieved with this much brutal efficiency and surprise since Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho ripped Janet Leigh from a film that until that point had been all about her. Its beautifully done, almost as if Cordelia was just our gateway to this dimension and once we’ve made that step she is disposable. Once we are there the treats keep coming; there’s an atmosphere of doom as thick as treacle, the dazzling return of the Master, Nick Brendon and Alison Hannigan’s gloriously perverse performances as their alter egos, the sick audacity of the mechanised vampirism and a fight scene that sees several of the regular characters die in spectacular fashion. David Greenwalt’s direction deserves a great deal of credit as he builds a  convincing world that would be terrifying to be a part of but is an absolute joy to visit. When this show comes together to create something truly memorable there really is nothing like it and The Wish is one such example, a cherishable one-off that ticks all of my boxes. Its inventive, dark and perverse and there really is nothing else on television like it: 10/10

Amends written and directed by Joss Whedon

What’s it about: Its Christmas time in Sunnydale and Angel is haunted with visions of his victims…

The Chosen One: Buffy’s idea of a perfect Christmas is quiet and humble. Just her mum, some presents and dinner. Joyce forces Buffy to invite Faith for Christmas whereas she outright dismisses that idea of Giles coming along. Unresolved issues, much?

Ripper: The scene where Angel turns up on Giles’ doorstep is loaded with tension. This is the first instance since Angel’s return where I felt a real moment of frisson. Let’s face it we’ve explored Buffy and Angel’s on/off relationship to death by now but Angel and Giles have some real unfinished business. He killed his girlfriend in the most brutal and cruel way possible and tortured Giles towards the end of his reign of terror last year…Anthony Head plays the scene with a slightly smug, subdued menace which had me on tenterhooks.

Witchy Willow: I don’t recall Willow’s Jewish heritage being rammed down our throats before and that’s a good thing. Some characters are built around this sort of thing and it can get tiresome (whereas it is used to great comic effect with others like Howard in The Big Bang Theory). It almost feels as though the writers cannot think of anything to do with Oz beyond being Willow’s girlfriend and thus incorporating him into the group so he has a very quick about turn decision about being with her again after his beautiful rejection scene in the last episode. Whilst it is beautifully performed and scripted, it does feel a little like the emotional ramifications have been skipped over in favour of getting Seth Green involved again. Which is almost completely justified by the wonderful moment where Willow tries in her own special way to seduce him with a smoking hot red dress and cheesy music. The chemistry between these characters is at its best here with both actors feeding off each others performance. They are just so delightful!

Gorgeous Geek: Xander agreeing to help with Angel’s healing is just about the first thing he has done all season that has enamoured me with him. Its almost as if the last eight episodes or so have been a bad dream and my lovely, mushy, slightly daft Xander Harris is back. Its about damn time.

Five By Five: The fact that Faith has decorated her little hovel with fairy lights to add a little Christmas cheer is really devastating. She doesn’t want to seem desperate for company and so talks about a big party that she has been invited to on Christmas day. Buffy knows she is lying, we know she is lying and it’s a touching statement of how far she is willing to go to protect her lone wolf image that she would rather spend the most family oriented day of the year on her own to save face. How can you not feel something when Faith then shows up on the day with her ‘crappy’ presents? Its blatantly manipulative and yet at the same time very touching. Damn you, Whedon!

Puppy Dog Eyes: The best use of Angel in the whole of season three and tapping into the strength of the flashback format that made Becoming Part I such a success, finally we see this character step out of the shadows where he has been sequestered away and enjoying some powerful material. Angel is being haunted by memories of his victims past and for a while I thought this might be a take on Scrooge’s tale. Seeing one of his victims on the streets of the modern day Sunnydale was completely unexpected and proves that this is going to much more than a rip off of A Christmas Carol. Whedon makes sure that the flashbacks to the people that Angel has killed are truly despicable like the poor serving wench who is sure to mention her darling child waiting for her at home just before he sinks his teeth into her neck (‘he’ll make a fine dessert…’). The difference between Angel and other beasts was that he didn’t just kill to feed, he took more kinds of pleasure in it than any other creature that stalks the planet. Before he was a vampire he was a drunken, whoring layabout and a terrible disappointment to his parents, a worthless being before he was ever a monster. The pain and torture of his redemption is actually the best part of his life, the best man he has ever been. What the First doesn’t realise is that Angel would rather kill himself rather than kill Buffy and steps out into the (lack of) cold to greet the sun when it rises. This is more set up for the spin off show Angel as Buffy teaches him that he has the chance to make amends for the bad things he has done in the past. Strong is fighting even though it is hard and painful and every day but Buffy thinks that they will fight together. The last lesson he has to learn is that whilst tethered to Buffy he is impotent and he needs to break free of that relationship to truly begin his redemptive path.  One last sacrifice in order to find himself. But that is all to come…

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The First Evil. Beyond sin, beyond death. I am the thing the darkness fears.’
‘I know everything that you do because you did it to me.’

The Good: Nothing says Christmas more than snow on the cobble stones during the Victorian Times and this flashback into Angel’s past is as packed with historical detail and as atmospheric as you would hope for. First we see one of Angel’s victims in contemporary times, then we see Buffy appear in one of Angel’s dreams and then Buffy snaps out of a dream at exactly the same time as Angel proving that they are sharing the visions. Whedon is so good at subverting our expectations like this. He makes it look so natural. Robia LaMorte gives a surprisingly vicious turn as the evil sprite version of Jenny, whispering nasties into Angel’s ear and torturing him further. Buffy and Angel’s shared erotic dream certainly raises and eyebrow (and only an eyebrow…there’s far too much crushing of silk pyjamas to make this a truly hot and sweaty scene) and the climaxes with him devouring her neck. The First is a tenebrous, insidious foe that not only has an army of creepy looking harbingers to do their bidding but manages to get inside your head and destroy you from within. No wonder Whedon chose to bring this villain back as the ultimate antagonist in the final season, it gave him the chance to run through a whole cast of characters that have been killed off and make the last year the ultimate Buffy experience. The First’s desire here is to haunt Angel’s every waking moment and drive him to kill Buffy…obviously getting her out of the way before its larger plan comes into operation.

The Bad: David Boreanaz’s Irish accent still leaves a great deal to be desired. Is it churlish to say that Buffy finds Angel awfully quick given that she has the whole of Sunnydale to search?

Moment to Watch Out For: ‘Because I want you so badly. I want to take comfort in you and I know it will cost me my soul and a part of me doesn’t care…’ David Boreanaz gives what is comfortably his most emotive performance in the series as Buffy confronts a suicidal Angel at sunrise. You can hear the pain breaking in his voice and its truly affecting. Gellar is no slouch either, breaking my heart with his pleas to her dead lover but she still has a long way to go in this series and would deliver emotional hits time and again (for the record I still think her finest achievement is in The Body). Lovely Joss Whedon dialogue, a subtle Christophe Beck score, sensitive performances from the leads…this is one climax that is all about character and on that level it delivers in spades. I even love the snow coming down…its schmaltzy sure but then much of this episode is and that’s not a bad thing every once and a while.

Orchestra: Extra points for Christophe Beck’s hauntingly solemn violin score. Love the stirrings of Pachabel’s Canon that plays during the party scene, my favourite piece of classical music.

Foreboding: The debut appearance of the First, the Bringers and the idea that dead people can be resurrected in visions. All would be back in force in season seven.

Result: A Buffy Christmas special? Some people might tell you that this isn’t quite up to the standard of most episodes with those credits but I think that’s baloney. Amends is a beautiful episode that only stumbles in its open ended last act when it leaves the Big Bad of the week in limbo because it was too good an opportunity not to bring back. This sentimental drama is compensated by the return of some old faces (Jenny and Willie), a decent use of Angel for the first time this year, more sumptuous flashbacks and a justifiably emotional conclusion between Buffy and Angel. Considering this is set in the hottest of places, Whedon expertly conjures up a yuletide atmosphere by setting most the show at night and concentrating on the closeness of the characters. He understands these people better than anybody else and makes sure that everybody dazzles and gives the audience a moment where their bellies glow with that special Christmassy warmth. It looks gorgeous too with some fine period detail and some hug-your-loved-ones snowy landscapes. It’s the third episode in a row that has delivered big time and it really feels that all of the characters are moving in the right direction, rediscovering the magic that made me fall for them in the first place. Angel has rarely been handled better: 9/10

Gingerbread written by Jane Espenson and directed by James Whitmore, Jnr

What’s it about: Two children are found dead and Joyce’s reaction leads to a total intrusion into Buffy’s calling…

The Chosen One: ‘I battle evil but I don’t really win. The bad keeps coming back and getting stronger…’ Joyce thinks she is being oh-so supportive of Buffy by turning up and watching her slaying but actually it proves to be the worst kind of distraction. She’s trying to be a good parent by being involved but there are some parts of her daughters life (such as he being in mortal danger on a nightly basis) that she should just steer clear of. Buffy is so upset about her mothers reaction to the death of the two children she angrily states that she wants Giles to reconsider the Slayers don’t kill people rule – given the unexpected developments that lie just around the corner that is remarkably prescient. When Joyce turns up at school as well it starts to feel like an intrusion into every aspect of Buffy’s life. Joyce’s speech to the town is one of those moments when your stomach starts to feel heavy, where an episode enters into all kinds of uncomfortable areas. It’s a great feeling. Interestingly even Buffy starts to suspect Willow as she finds the witches symbol doodled on her pad…its insidious the way the accusation spreads. Joyce pointing out that Sunnydale doesn’t seem to be running out of vampires and that Buffy’s role is merely reactionary rather than a real response does hold some weight. 

Ripper: The show is taking every opportunity to make things awkward between Giles and Joyce and this is probably the first time they have seen each other since their night of wild teenage passion. It’s a lovely running gag and Head and Sutherland play it so well (‘rumour about us?’). How many times has Giles been knocked unconscious?

Witchy Willow: Her reaction to Joyce bandying the term witchcraft as a possible reason for the murders is wonderful, especially when both she and Amy are sitting at the table. We get to meet Willow’s mother for the first time and she is every bit as abstract, mousy and disinterested in her daughter as I imagined her to be. She failed to notice that Willow cut her hair short…over five months ago. She thinks Willow dabbling into witchcraft is a cry for help and tries to impose discipline. The witchcraft angle has added subtly to the show and I’m pleased to see it gaining more prominence. There is something very, very scary about her mother screaming ‘get your coat witch!’ and dragging her to a public burning to be cleansed. For Willow it is utterly destabilising.

Gorgeous Geek: Xander is in over compensation mode, trying to show Oz that there is absolutely, definitely nothing going on between him and Willow anymore and proving to be far more suspicious as a result. Having them work together to save Willow really breaks the ice between them.

Caustic Cordy: Since her break up with Xander Cordelia has resorted to more of a walk on part rather than part of the ensemble. This is not a development that I’m happy with. Her not so subtle way of waking Giles up isn’t to waft smelling salts under his nose but to hit him continually around the face. Hard.

Puppy Dog Eyes: The worry over the deaths has spread so far that people are even talking to Angel. They must be desperate.

Mr Snidey: Snyder is in his element as MOO starts to take charge and gives him the right to start searching through the children’s lockers and come down even harder on them. What he considers a glorious day for Principals is a complete invasion of privacy.

The Mayor: It occurs to me that we are halfway through the season and he hasn’t actually done anything remotely troublesome to the regular characters yet. I realise season long villains usually take a while to establish themselves but aside from steal some babies for a giant snake to eat (I mean who hasn’t done that?) he hasn’t proven to be at all effective. Odd.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You can’t make it right’ says Joyce about the deaths that Buffy to face and she has a point. Buffy can avenge murders and she can destroy the victims who have been turned into vampires but ultimately she cannot make what has happened right.
‘Someone with a soul did this?’
‘Silence is this town’s disease…’
‘Lift a finger against me and you’ll have to answer to MOO.’
‘You will not see Bunny Summers again!’
‘I don’t know about you but I’m going to go trade my cow for some beans!’
‘I swear one of these days you’re going to wake up in a coma!’

The Good: Murdering children is probably a step too far for Buffy with its flirtations with reality but its feet tucked neatly into fantasy. Ultimately this turns out to be nothing of the sort, an illusion to work up the parents into a frenzy and its still one of my favourite examples of art manipulating life. What Jane Espenson is trying to do here is get the audience (us) as worked about the murders as the adults within the episode, to show that actually what she portrays within the show isn’t that far from the truth. What’s fascinating is that Buffy itself was a victim of exactly the same kind of reactionary thinking that this episode explores when Earshot was pulled not long after the High School massacre. You can completely understand parents reactions to senseless murder (especially of children) but striking out at every possible cause feels like over compensation (and isn’t it weird how its often not the parents of the victims that have the strongest and most violent reactions to such crimes). There are often a plethora of potential reasons that people die and frankly you would have to bring the whole world to a standstill to stop the potential of these things happening. Its not fair but it happens and hate groups such as the one that forms here really don’t do anybody any good. Things go from having good intentions but quickly develop into mob mentality  and irrational accusations, people feeding off each others paranoia. At first it seems like a good thing that the parents of Sunnydale are finally asking the right questions about the people they have lost in their lives – its always baffled me why a town with such a terrifying mortality rate should go about their merry lives without wondering why. But these inquiries soon become an invasive and a darker edge creeps into their work. I like the fact that Espenson chucks in a red herring about Amy and her coven, making us think for a while that this might be the work of witches and that MOO might actually sniff out something evil. The handheld camera work as the school lockers are broken in to proves to get right in the faces of the worried children, it’s a surprisingly dramatic moment. The banning of Giles books also feels important, a symbol from the ignorance of history. How great is Snyder holding up the bags of herbs and elements as a not-so-subtle but very powerful metaphor for a drugs find at the school? I’m really pleased that the two ghostly children don’t show up until over halfway through the episode allowing the illusion that this is a straight drama for quite some time but ultimately this is a fantasy show and their quietly taunting appearance is creepy. Buffy makes a great point about how adults being killed being just as horrific…and yet it’s the children that provoke the strongest reactions. The panic has spread to such a point that nobody has asked the obvious questions – who are the children and who are their parents? I love stories that are influenced by myth and fairytales and how I missed the Hansel and Gretel overtones is beyond me. The creators or Once Upon a Time and Grimm must have been paying attention to the ‘fairytales are real’ idea.

Moment to Watch Out For: There are so many little moments of joy throughout this episode it is hard to choose just one. Even when the realisation of the monster is a disappointment, Buffy’s ‘did I get it?’ stake through the neck and Oz and Xander’s dramatic fall from grace totally salvages the moment.

Foreboding: In a moment of unforgettable witchcraft Amy turns herself into a rat to escape her bonds. She winds up in Buffy’s bedroom in a cage. Remember that, because its important later.

Result: ‘MOO just wants to weed out the offensive material…’ Every time I watch Gingerbread, the more contemporary and relevant I think it feels. I love how Jane Espenson manages to pen a script that is both insidiously dark and laugh out loud funny, often in the same scene and how she explores the theme of parental finger pointing and literally murders it. The way that control is slowly but forcefully taken out of the hands of our heroes is frightening, the momentum builds until the audience realises that there is something very wrong with this scenario. What’s impressive is how for at least half of the episode there doesn’t seem to be a supernatural element to this episode at all, it feels like a real paranoiac nightmare with serious implications for the Scoobies. Its always great to see more of Joyce and she gets a great role here, bolstered by the appearance of Willow’s mother and the ever-festering Principal Snyder. As I have already mentioned the jokes come fast as the atmosphere thickens around the heroes and even at the climax when there is a literal witch burning ceremony the show is bolstered by the glorious antics of the Oz, Xander, Cordelia and Giles trying to save to save the day. The fairytale influences add a great deal and some terrifying history is dredged up (can anybody say Salem?) and the only disappointment is the eventual appearance of the demon of the week. This is another confident episode that switches moods with such balls and it handles its themes deftly and with real intelligence. Masterfully done, halfway through season three and the show is producing consistent magic (hohoho): 9/10

Helpless written by David Fury and directed by James A. Contner

What’s it about: Buffy’s 18th lingers and she seems to be getting weaker and weaker…

The Chosen One: As well as all the other anxieties in her life Buffy now has birthday angst after last years spectacularly cruel events. Every time this girl gets her hopes up somehow they manage to be dashed so we shouldn’t be all that surprised when the equivalent of a Dear John letter arrives from her dad explaining why he can’t be there to fulfil their birthday tradition ice show. Sweetly Buffy tries to reach out to Giles as a father figure replacement to go with her and it broke my heart to see that he wasn’t reciprocating that feeling. Other things on his mind no doubt. Buffy has stared into the heart of evil and now she is afraid that she wont be able to fight it anymore and that really scares her. It surprised me how comfortable Sarah Michelle Gellar was at playing the victim given that I am so used to her strutting about firing witty quips and kung fu moves. Buffy proves her worth with her brains rather than her brawn, giving Kralik some holy water to swig his pills down with.

Ripper: It was going to take something quite powerful for Buffy to invest her trust in Giles again after this betrayal and the sacrifice of his job and reputation must surely count. This is the first stage towards Giles being slowly removed from Buffy’s life in an official capacity before he decides to look after her simply because he cares for her. Travers points out that Giles has a fathers love for Buffy (a point that the episode has already made but these two knuckle heads needed somebody to point it out to them) and the image of him gently treating Buffy’s wounds is very touching.

Caustic Cordy: At first I thought Buffy being beaten on by a college jock was going to be a blatant narrative kick to prove how weak she has become but following that up with Cordelia’s gorgeous girly punches was inspired. I had to pause to wait until I had stopped laughing.

Puppy Dog Eyes: There’s a certain tension every time things get hot and sweaty between Buffy and Angel. They can’t take things too far otherwise we will have another homicidal maniac on our hands but they can barely resist tearing each others clothes off and getting at it. Whedon loves playing these kind of cruel tricks with his characters. At first I thought shoving a romantic scene in the heart of this episode was tonally quite jarring but for Buffy to learn that Angel was stalking her long before Sunnydale it was worth it. Mind you his dialogue is definitely of the sickly variety. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘First of all…posse? Passe!
‘It’s a time honoured rite of passage’ ‘Its an archaic exercise in cruelty.’
‘I have a problem with mothers…I’m aware of that.’
‘She passed…you didn’t.’

The Good: Its one of the very few instances when a staking scene in a graveyard actually manages to surprise. These moments would become second nature time fillers in the later seasons but the writer exploits that here but turning the tables of Buffy and almost having her stabbed by her own stake. At this stage we don’t know who Quentin Travers is so the episode has some fun showing the construction of the house of horrors which could be the work of any villain. There is something extremely creepy about Giles hypnotising Buffy and sticking a needle into her arm without her even being aware of it…there has to be a pretty good reason for it (like the time he was taken over by mutant brain sucking eggs) but there way it is filmed and scored it is pure horror movie. For Buffy to have attracted the talent of an actor of Harris Yulin’s calibre it must have had quite the reputation at this point and he provides a chillingly cold and calculated turn as Quentin Travers. Jeff Kober transpires to be the perfect choice to play the villainous Kralik since its one of the few times that a man is more terrifying before his transformation into a vampire. He’s not only scary but really charismatic with it…we haven’t seen a vampire this impressive since Spike rocked up into town. Its unsurprising that he was asked back for a stint as a different character in season six. The sequence in the middle of the episode where Buffy is menaced by vampires could have come straight from I Know What You Did Last Summer (also starring Sarah Michelle Gellar) as it is filmed in a very similar, high octane way. I wasn’t sure how many more kisses to horror movies they could have crammed in to this episode once Kralik starting taking Polaroid’s of a bound Joyce in a darkened room. Sure there was room for the shower scene in Psycho? Bloodied corpses littering a filthy old house…the final set piece is one memorably horrid image after another. Kralik weakening at the very moment he has Buffy in his clutches might seem a little too calculated had his weakness not been emphasised again and again during the show. The way she catches him out is inspired.

The Bad: I’m not sure why the fellow from Enterprise (Dominic Keating) should turn into such a willing servant just because Kralik sired him. The way he behaved you would imagine a whole set of pre-programmed instructions were transmitted with that bite.

Moment to Watch Out For: The performances of Anthony Stewart Head and Sarah Michelle Gellar when Giles admits that he has been deliberately weakening Buffy. This is where the real meat is on this show – not the mushy stuff between Buffy and Angel.

Fashion Statement: Driving home the Little Red Riding Hood parody, Buffy is attacked by Kralik on the streets wearing a blood red coat. Kralik disguised in it on Buffy’s doorstep might be taking the homage a little too far but we’ll let them off because it’s a great story to riff from.

Orchestra: I love how the score goes full on Psycho when Giles realises that events at the Slayer house of horrors has gone awry.

Result: It’s the early scenes where Helpless scores its best moments with Giles behaving in an insidious fashion and Buffy slowly losing everything that makes her unique. With Haris Yulin and Jeff Kober providing some sterling support and a director that is convinced he’s putting together a mini horror movie you have an episode which is thick with atmosphere and tension. This could have played out in a very predictable way once we realised that Buffy was being set up but instead David Fury twists and turns the plot showing us a Slayer training method that has gone disastrously wrong. This isn’t the wittiest, cleverest or most shocking episode of Buffy but it’s a phenomenal example of this show aiming for a particular genre and getting it as close to perfect as I would hope for. Helpless is fantastically acted, atmospherically directed and with the introduction of the poisonous Watchers Council it opens out the show in a very promising way: 8/10

The Zeppo written by Dan Vebber and directed by James Whitmore. Jnr

What’s it about: A night in the life of Xander Harris…

Ripper: Some of the gags in this  episode are deeply unsubtle but others such as Giles pondering that there is something wrong in the air when there is a risen zombie in a car in the foreground had me howling. Perhaps they stripped of being a Watcher for a reason.

Witchy Willow: More magic from Willow who is conducting smoke spells which mist up events when the Scoobies want to invade a nest of nasties. Oz exudes cool simply by owning himself and not trying to shove that in everybody’s faces.

Gorgeous Geek: Whatever happened to Alexander Harris? During the first two seasons I always felt like he was an integral part of the team but this year I honestly cannot remember him contributing anything of note (aside from acting like a twazzock in Dead Mans Party and sub plot about him and Willow kissing). It was long past time we addressed the issue of his sidelining and The Zeppo more than acknowledges it, it builds an entire episode around it. He’s the character that Simon and I most fight over but I only think that is because he is so wonderfully flawed and its easy to find those imperfections irritating rather than endearing. He can be sweet, selfless and giving but he can also jump to snap judgements, condemn people far too quickly and gets jealous and irrational at the drop of a hat. He was somewhat self involved at the beginning of the season and then when he lost the love of his life due to fooling around he became self involved in a whole different way. Neither look particularly suited him so it’s a relief to be able to say that he is back to being sweet, geeky and gorgeous here. It accentuates how much of a loser this guy is whilst reminding us of what a hero he is at the same time. Its amazing how turning this guy into a victim makes him the most vulnerable and likable character on the show.

Watching him try and get the cool kids to throw him a ball so he can look like part of the gang in front of Cordelia is cringeworthy because you know it is going to go spectacularly wrong (and it does). There’s a moment of pure Sheldon Cooper when Jack asks Xander if he is retarded and he replies that his mum made him take a test when he was seven. When he rocks up in the cheesiest car known to man you realise that he has completely over thought what he can contribute to the gang. Its when he’s being embarrassed publicly that you feel the most for him and how he doesn’t even try and pretend otherwise. I really love the way that things spiral out of control for Xander, one mistake compounds another and before he knows it he has been swept along into a life of crime and debauchery. When the chips are down and a bunch of the undead threaten to make Xander one of them you can always rely on him to run away like a big girly girl. Isn’t it glorious that the usual sexual politics are subverted and for Xander losing his virginity to Faith is a massive deal with emotional consequences whereas to her its just another lay because she was feeling a bit horny. Mind you speaking as somebody who lost his virginity in a similarly unfortunate way Xander really should have saved that moment for somebody special. There’s a number of terrific gags around Xander trying to sound like a tough guy and either losing the head of the person he is trying to extract information from and losing the interest of one he is trying to threaten. Xander gets to prove his worth by facing his greatest fear, standing up to a bully and saving the day in secret. That’s his ‘thing’ that he can selflessly help his friends in ways they can never understand and praise him for because nobody is ever watching him. Xander finds his cool by quietly ignoring Cordelia’s barbed comments and walking away from her, leaving her befuddled.

Caustic Cordy: Cordelia really drives home that all of the rest of the Scoobies have super powers or things that make them unique and Xander is just…well Xander. She’s enjoying punishing Xander because of how he turned her life upside down and knows exactly the right nerves to pinch.

Five By Five: A fight without a kill for Faith is the height of dissatisfaction and the only way she can satisfy those down low tickles is to have a good long scratch. Fortunately Xander just happens to  be on hand.

Puppy Dog Eyes: Some very clever observations made about Buffy and Angel in a script that isn’t that concerned with them. The cut to their argument is so ridiculously over the top angst ridden but isn’t actually performed any differently to similar scenes in I Only Have Eyes For You and Amends. The only difference is that the climactic emotional moments in those episode have been slowly built up to throughout the episode whereas here we jump to their emotional anguish blind. Again its almost like seeing the show through a non fans eyes and coming away thinking that perhaps this show is invariably hysterical. Its also a worthy point that Buffy and Angel are so wrapped up in their own drama that they cannot see that anybody else might have problems of their own. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Of all the humiliations you’ve had that I’ve witnessed…that was the latest.
‘Two guys wrestling! But not in a gay way…’
‘I’m not dying to be in the gang if you get the pun there…’

The Good: I have seen much, much worse monster costumes that have graced entire episodes wasted on the pre titles sequence which I hope shows a sign that the designers are getting more confident. Dan Vebber cleverly decides to turn what is the norm on Buffy on its head and have the B plot take prominence (Xander’s identity issues) whilst the A plot (the end of the world) is shunted off to the sidelines. As a result we get to the action the way Xander usually sees it, not quite engaging with the main action like Buffy or Giles but standing at the sidelines and offering as much support as possible. Buffy is so confident at this point that in the middle of an episode that has barely touched on the supernatural a dead man can be brought back to life and nobody even bats an eyelid (well except Lysette who runs off screaming) and the action carries on where it left off. Because we only get peeks at the main action and how deadly seriously everybody takes it its like we are put in the place of the television viewer who doesn’t enjoy shows like Buffy and turns over to get a brief glimpse of what we are missing out on. Seeing it in sudden melodramatic bursts like that reveals just how camp and ridiculous this show can seem to a non fan. Once the energy levels raise it is a steady stream adrenaline right through until the finale, not even pausing when Xander and Faith wind up in her apartment and grapple each other for some hot and sweaty sex. The silent bomb ticking conclusion is almost unbearably tense.

The Bad: It’s a shame that we have to cut away from Xander at all and that this couldn’t have been a complete ‘day in the life of.’ The first time this happens is an exposition scene between Buffy and Giles and Xander is usually always around for those moments anyway. Jack carries around a knife that would seem like overkill in the middle of the rainforest surrounded by shrieking creatures (‘…it may technically be a sword’). A flick knife wouldn’t do? Unfortunately the scenes of rowdy kids tearing through the streets and behaving like thugs doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest. I know people who would consider this kind of night the height of cool but to me its just a lot of pointless noise and violence. In an episode that sports some very impressive make up work it’s a shame that it has to feature the return of the b-movie puppet monster from the Hellmouth.

Moment to Watch Out For: Its when the story is set entirely in the school and the two plots are running side by side with the emphasis on Xander’s activities to the detriment of the Hellmouth madness when the episode really hits its stride. It should have this assured throughout. When the two storylines meet its for little more than a cheap gag of Xander being confronted with one of the Hellmouth’s heads bursting from a wall.

Orchestra: Beck’s comedy violins are back in action in a Xander-centric comedy episode and whilst the music is as memorable as ever it doesn’t quite have the catchiness of Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered. Extra points for the way the score transforms the episode into a cheesy porn movie as Xander and Faith get down and dirty.

Foreboding: ‘What shall we do with the Trio here? Shall we burn them?’ Oh Buffy, if only you knew…

Result: ‘Did I mention that I was having a very strange night?’ Otherwise known as Alexander Harris’ secret adventure. The Zeppo is a confident and unique episode of Buffy that doesn’t quite pull off what it is attempting but has a damn good crack at the whip anyway. The writers suggest that Xander is shunted off to the sidelines and treated disrespectfully by the characters when it is they who should be condemned for shoehorning him into that position. I can understand why people wouldn’t enjoy this episode if you aren’t a fan of Xander and feel at arms length from the main action but that is rather the point of the show and as a chance to re-discover what a great guy he is at heart and why he is such an integral part of the team it is invaluable. The Zeppo makes me wonder what adventures Oz, Cordy and Willow are having when the show obsesses about Buffy and Angel. There’s a feeling of trying to have their cake and eat it by focussing so much on Xander and cutting back to where the action is happening without him whereas this would make its point far more succinctly if we saw every scene through Xander’s eyes. There’s also a feeling of throwing in everything but the kitchen sink by giving everybody something to do which does add to the whirlwind momentum of the piece but also gives it quite a schizophrenic feel. I don’t want to be too hard on an episode that this again pushing the limits of what the show can do and has this many great lines and scenes but The Zeppo is only a mild success and could have done with another revision before making it to the screen. Nick Brendon excels though: 7/10

Bad Girls written by Douglas Petrie and directed by Michael Lange

What’s it about: Two Slayers having fun…

The Chosen One: This is the episode that has been brewing for a long time. The one where Buffy takes  a walk on the wild side with Faith and realises that that life isn’t for her. She starts enjoying the violence of their work a little too much, defying authority, splits High School in the middle of a test and dances like a slut on heat. Okay this is pretty soft stuff but for the whiter than white Buffy it’s a massive departure from the norm.

Ripper: Giles and Wesley polishing their glasses in unison is much funnier than it has any right to be. With Wesley around suddenly Giles has turned into a British action hero, displaying formidable combat skills that have hitherto been unseen. I prefer him as a contemplative mentor.

Witchy Willow: A consequence of Buffy hanging out so much with Faith is that Willow feels like she is being left behind by the Slayer again.

Gorgeous Geek: Poor Xander, he doesn’t see a great future ahead for himself. I would like to be able to tell him that of the three main Scoobies he is the one that will secure a trade that will bring constant financial security but he probably wouldn’t listen.

Five By Five: ‘Being the Slayer is very simple. Want. Take. Have.’ Faith considers friends little more than commodities to use and discard (like she did with Xander in The Zeppo). It was only when I was watching this episode that I realised that I see an awful lot of my sister in Faith. Loves emasculating men, uncontrollable sexual urges, terrifyingly unpredictable behaviour…and the way she always tries to turn everything into a sexual metaphor to shock and gain attention is uncannily familiar. The same way that my family rejected my sister for her outrageous behaviour, thus Buffy and her friends reject Faith. Not so much because she doesn’t conform to their code of conduct but because she doesn’t conform to any rules. There is something savage about her. You wouldn’t invite a tiger into you social circle in case it decided to eat you up and spit you out and there is a similar wildness in Faith. The more you try and control her, the more she acts out and the more dangerous she is to the people around her. The fact that Faith goes back to the corpse after murdering the Deputy Mayor is very telling, she might try and pretend that this act of violence is nothing but she is deeply troubled that she has killed a person. Instead of facing up to that mistake she chooses to bury it deep and pretend that she doesn’t care. Those feelings of anger and regret will start to emerge soon…

Puppy Dog Eyes: Interestingly when Buffy starts behaving like a rebellious teenage girl Angel doesn’t like what he sees. He’s used to the passive, love struck girl who falls into his arms at the drop of a hat.

The Mayor: Astonishing that we are nearly two thirds through the season and the Mayor hasn’t even been revealed to the regular characters as the villain of the season or done anything but be a mild annoyance. Okay so he tried to murder a bunch of babies but that was more upsetting and less of a hindrance to the Scoobies. When you compare him to, say, Glory, who makes her presence known very early on in season five and develops into a strong, memorable villain then the Mayor just doesn’t compare. Harry Groener is likable in the role but he just isn’t given enough to do. He’s very good at talking ominously and keeps referring to his Ascension but at this stage of the game we have no idea what that might be referring to. Mind you anybody who has a tick list of the most mundane tasks and ‘become invincible’ somewhere in the middle can’t be all bad.

Posh Watcher: ‘I didn’t get this job because of my looks!’ People didn’t like Wesley at this stage and found that he improved greatly once he had taken the leap to the sister series Angel and beefed up. I’m kind of on the fence with the character in either show, he kind of works as both a comic buffoon and a tortured soul and Alexis Denisof is certainly a very capable actor but I just never really took to the character himself. His backstory never felt very rich and his contribution to Buffy felt arbitrary, as though he was just there to point out how great Giles was in comparison. Like most of the Angel characters, I found him a little too bland and forgettable. He’s a total puppet of the Council at this point so someone to be mocked and derided on a regular basis and treated by the script writers as something of a joke. If an episode is getting dull then you can always count on Wesley to slip on a banana skin. Buffy is usually good at adding new characters which instantly leap out of the screen and appeal (Spike, Drusilla, Faith) but this time the result was only a partial success. By the end of the season he has chalked up some little worth but this deliberately irritating character had an awful lot to proof to even get to that stage. Wesley is all talk that he is the new Watcher in town with fresh ideas and approaches but when he is forced into danger he’s all nervous tics and compliance.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Faith you don’t get it…you killed a man!’ ‘No, you don’t get it. I don’t care.

The Good: I really enjoy the way this show walks its characters through all the usual American school experiences but adds a supernatural twist to them. We’ve experienced Homecoming with assassination attempts, we’re about to enjoy Prom with vicious homicidal dog monsters and currently Buffy and her gang are looking to their futures at university (which given past form will come with its own helping of supernatural weirdness). I like it when this show has the guts to push the violence away from something comical (as in of a comic) into darker, get the censor sweaty areas. Buffy having her head held underwater is a tense moment and the director cuts the soundtrack entirely so we are completely focussed on the violence of the act. I thought I was going to shove Balthazar’s costume into the section below but upon watching the episode I came away quite repulsed. Its clearly a great rubbery costume that an actor has been lost in but all those layers of blubbery fat being spooned with water and Christian Clemenson’s grotesque performance really turn this into something quite nasty. Just think of him as the Master after he ate too many people (because the mask is very similar). You wont see a monster like this in any other show because it veers on the side of the ridiculous but that’s to Buffy’s credit that they are willing to take risks like this. Mind you the hand waving does get a little camp after a while.

The Bad: With a costume that looks like a giant spot waiting to explode with pus it comes as a disappointment when Balthazar is merely electrocuted. The head splitting effect at the climax isn’t as competent as it should be. I would have gone with a sword through the chest which could have been pulled off far more simply and realistically.

Moment to Watch Out For: The dramatic high point of this story comes when Faith accidentally stakes the Deputy Mayor thinking that he is a vampire. The director never shies away from the horror of the moment, blood dribbling from his mouth as he loses the life in his eyes. It’s the act that finally divides Buffy and Faith proving that it is their morality that is the main difference between them. 

Foreboding: Is this the first visit to the crypt that will become Spike’s residence in later seasons?

Result: An awkward episode because it flirts with greatness (Buffy’s drowning, the disgusting monster costume, the downbeat ending) but none of the ingredients quite come together to make a satisfying whole. For every innovation that works (the Mayor finally starting to emerge) there is one that fails to make the grade (Wesley feels like an unnecessary addition to the cast) and ultimately the road Bad Girls takes Buffy down is a complete dead end. Because of the stretch of superb standalone episodes in the middle of the season this years arc suffers because it has turned up late to the party. Faith’s rising wildness and the Mayor stepping from the shadows feels almost like an afterthought rather than the lynchpin events of the year. Saying that there is a certain brutal flair to the direction that does capture the frenzy that Buffy is teased into but even that feeling of events running away with themselves was handled better last week with Xander. Bad Girls wants to be far more controversial than it has the balls to be and whilst the developments of the last few scenes show promise it is a long time getting to them: 6/10

Consequences written by Marti Noxon and directed by Michael Gershman

What’s it about: This imaginatively title episodes deals with the consequences of the Deputy Mayor’s death…

The Chosen One: Buffy is crushed by the guilt from Faith killing the Deputy Mayor and it is dominating her dreams. When Buffy describes the feelings of guilt as something dirty like something sick has creeped inside of her she doesn’t realise she is describing herself post The Gift.

Witchy Willow: I honestly do not understand Willow’s severe over reaction to the news that Xander lost his virginity to Faith. Did she think they would do the wild thing for the first time together? In case she has forgotten she was already caught kissing with him earlier this season and has already (and fortunately since if I was Oz I would not have been so forgiving) dealt with the consequences of that. So why lose it so spectacularly over this? Is she just that upset that he lost his cherry in such a pointless and arbitrary way? Coupling that with Willow’s jealousy over how much time Buffy is spending with Faith (which is more explicable if still less than appealing) and you have to wonder if Marti Noxon understands this character at all. Its one of the few episodes where Alyson Hannigan’s sweet performance cannot rise above the poor writing. Strange that when Xander had beef with Angel and suggested that they kill him last year it felt very reactionary and personal but when Willow suggests that the same thing about Faith (okay not killing her but leaving her to the Council) it feels far more reasonable and understandable. Maybe it comes down to the performance.

Gorgeous Geek: Xander offers to help out by talking to Faith but is pretty much told he was little more than a living sex toy to her. Used and then discarded. Why would he be offended by that?

Caustic Cordy: You can always count on Cordelia to stumble into something that isn’t quite working and give it a bit of credence. I am of course referring to the introduction of Wesley with Cordy being the only character willing to give him a chance. Because she fancies the ass off him. Its hard to believe these two will turn out to be the closest of friends on the new show.

Five By Five: It was a genuine mistake but Faith’s habit of brushing everything under the carpet the way she does is ultimately going to led to a form of self destruction. She states that because they have saved the world so many times they are still in the plus column when it comes to saving lives and that one murder doesn’t exactly tip the scales but she doesn’t really believe it.

Puppy Dog Eyes: Ultimately Angel is the only character who can put two and two together and figure that the Slayers had some part in the Deputy Mayor’s death. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘First you terrorise her and then you put her back on the streets.’

The Good: There is something very creepy about Buffy and Faith picking through a dead mans apartment and making less than favourable observations. Was the Deputy Mayor coming to Buffy to help them realise what they have been unbelievably blind to so far this year – that the Mayor is up to no good?

The Bad: Straight of the bat this looks set to be a particularly depressing hour of Buffy from Marti Noxon with an unimpressive, badly paced and depressing teaser. Given the fact that when asked to investigate the Deputy Mayor’s death guilt is coming off of Buffy in waves and Faith is as cool as a cucumber you would have to be blind to realise that they weren’t involved. Perhaps both Wesley and Giles were cleaning their glasses at the same time again. I cannot believe they the only way Noxon could find to link the Mayor and Mr Trick was for the Slayers to almost bump into them in a corridor. That just seems lazy and unimaginative. At first I thought Giles was very clever to see through Faith’s deception but the fact he managed to see that she is ‘utterly unable to accept responsibility’ when she is telling him the precise opposite is taking things a bit too far. Had Faith overheard the conversation between Buffy and Giles plotting against it might have made for a more interesting episode. Instead it is Wesley in that role who decides to phone the Council and make everything ten times worse than it already is, thus negating any goodwill the audience might be feeling towards him. I find the scene where Faith threatens to rape Xander utterly tasteless and uncomfortable. Not because it’s a woman overpowering and threatening a man but because I’m not sure if this the sort of areas that this show should be delving into unless it is willing to deal with the consequences of them. Its extremely well performed and brave that they were willing to go that far but afterwards the emotional ramifications are completely forgotten. When the same thing happened to Buffy in season six it was given a great deal of exploration but because Xander is a guy he should just get over it? Its another example of the way fiction is starting to emasculate men in a very uncomfortable way (see also my review of Fair Haven in Voyager season six). Just when things look like they might be spicing up between Buffy and Faith and we are going to experience their first fight to near death a group of vampires turns up and distracts them from their spat. Because God forbid anything really out of the ordinary happened here. How could they kill off Mr Trick like a bog standard vampire? Imagine if they had done that to Spike? Even his final line lacks punch. What a waste. The point is that because the Mayor now has Faith on side he doesn’t need Mr Trick but there is no reason that he couldn’t have his own arsenal of ‘anti-Scoobies’ to threaten Buffy and her friends.

There seems to be something very strange about the plotting of this season that has gone ever so slightly awry. Whilst the first half of season two was a bit dodgy they at least paced the introduction of the characters really well (Spike and Drusilla being introduced in episode three so that by the end of the year they had been well developed and given plenty to do). Season three introduced Faith early but then failed to do anything with the character until Bad Girls (aside from a very small sub plot in Amends and proof of how naïve she can be in Revelations) and the Mayor came along in Band Candy and has failed to do anything of note at all as of yet. Eliza Dushku and Harry Groener are too good to waste sitting on the sidelines and we should have been at this stage during the first third of the year. Imagine if Faith was working for the Mayor throughout most of the season and it was only revealed at this point. What a great twist that would be. What is the supernatural happenings in Sunnydale this season were all a direct result of the Mayor’s meddling in otherworldly affairs and part of his grand plan. I’m used to this show being far more intricate and less lackadaisical with its arc storylines. Besides which if we had pushed these developments back to earlier in the year we might have avoided episodes like Dead Mans Party, Beauty and the Beasts and Revelations which really could have done with excising.

Moment to Watch Out For: Faith getting there before Buffy and laying the blame on the Deputy Mayor’s death at her doorstep is a fabulously callous moment. The one moment where my heart skipped a beat during this episode.

Result: ‘Maybe she belongs behind bars?’ Ponderous and uninvolving, this is not the standard I have come to expect from Buffy. It transpires that after a spectacular output in season two, Marti Noxon’s efforts this year have either turned out to be phenomenal (The Wish) or diabolical (Dead Mans Party) with very little ground in between. With its depressing storyline, bizarre out of character moments and lack of pace or excitement, Consequences definitely falls in the category of the latter. There is no great revelation in the fact that Faith is out of control, just that we should have reached the promise at the end of the episode much earlier in the year. Killing off one off one the more promising new characters to show up this year, Mr Trick, in such an unimpressive way is another big problem. If he had to go then a random staking is not what I was hoping for. Faith is an interesting character and watching her go off the rails certainly has its dramatic moments (too dramatic in her near rape and murder of Xander) but if you want to see how this sort of thing ought to be done check out Five By Five/Sanctuary in season one of Angel. And that’s one of the rare times that I will recommend that show. Consequences pushes too hard in some areas (Buffy’s guilt, Willow’s tears over Xander’s nocturnal activities) and not hard enough in others (the consequences of what Xander goes through, what Faith is really feeling) and ultimately you have a hollow piece that is pretty unpleasant to watch: 4/10

Dopplegangland written and directed by Joss Whedon

What’s it about: Normal Willow and Evil Willow and they both have some lessons to learn about themselves…

The Chosen One: Its all Buffy’s fault. If only she hadn’t called her reliable.

Witchy Willow: Every since Willow learnt of Miss Calendar’s dabblance into magic she has been reading up and learning the tricks of the trade even to the point where a spell was vital during the dramatic events of the climax of season two. There has barely been an episode go by this year where it hasn’t been mentioned and Gingerbread revealed how it could be viewed in a very negative light. It was about time that it had another airing and Joss Whedon uses it as a catalyst to explore Willow’s character in a darkly comical way. He takes her back to the gorgeous, likable character we all know and love after a few weeks of some stranger filling in her role. She’s teamed up with Percy, her polar opposite academically to try and tutor him into shape. He thinks he can bully her into doing all of his coursework and Dopplegangland charts how she finds the confidence to be the sort of person to say no to that kind of harassment. Willow is having something of an identity crisis, bored of being the one everybody turns to when they need help with a subject (or considered ‘old reliable’ as she is here). Alyson Hannigan’s turn as Evil Willow is something that I have never forgotten, right up there with Nana Visitor’s awesome performance as the evil version of Kira in DS9. She plays the role with a touch of tragedy, a woman who doesn’t understand why the world has changed but who is determined to have as much fun as possible regardless. In her own twisted, iniquitous, kinky way she is just as vulnerable and as likable as our Willow. Perhaps by seeing her ‘kind of gay’ alter ego awakens something that has been hiding away inside herself for a while. In the scenes of the two Willows interacting you can see an actress investing so much of herself in two distinct roles, ensuring that they both come across as real people. When it comes to it Willow cannot see her alter ego killed by Buffy and begs for her not to stake her. Percy giving her and apple in the last scene is just the most gorgeous thing ever.

Gorgeous Geek: Willow was the best of all of them. Much, much better than Xander.

Vengeance Demon: ‘For a thousand years I wielded the power of the Wish. I brought ruin to heads of unfaithful men. I brought forth destruction and chaos for the pleasure of the Lower Beings. I was feared and worshipped across the mortal globe. And now I’m stuck at Sunnydale High!’ Anya steps up from a one shot wonder to a recurring character in this episode and its about damn time because she is somebody who I consider synonymous with this show. Its great to see such an early appearance of D’Hoffryn as played by the unmistakable Andy Umberger, a deliciously likable and yet utterly callous individual with the ability to ‘fold back time.’  Anya is far too savvy to be fooled by Willow’s fake evil act.

Caustic Cordy: Even thought she isn’t a regular player these days Cordelia still manages to steal the limelight whenever she appears. Clearly she still has beef with Willow and since this is the first opportunity to give her a few straight facts about stealing peoples boyfriends whilst she is locked in a cage she relishes the chance to take the opportunity. For Evil Willow this is like a nightmare within a nightmare. She spares a quick thought for poor, undead Willow before turning her attention back to far more important things such as her love life.

Five By Five: Suddenly things are much more interesting as Faith is an undercover mole for the Mayor and reporting back everything she hears with regards to the Scoobies trying to bring him down. The relationship between Faith and the Mayor kicks ass too, he treats her like the daughter she never had and lavishes her with gifts for the betrayal of her friends. Whilst this is clearly going to end badly for Faith (its not called Faith the Vampire Slayer after all) it is nice to see her getting some good luck for a change and being treated.

Puppy Dog Eyes: ‘Are you looking for Buffy?’ ‘As always’ In two lines of dialogue Whedon explains why Angel needs to get himself a new life. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You want us to breed?’
‘I swear I’m just trying to find my necklace’ ‘Well did you try looking behind the sofa in Hell?
‘Now if you’ll excuse me I have someone else’s homework to do!’
‘Geez who died? Oh God who died?
‘Something very strange is happening’ ‘Can you believe the Watcher’s Council let this guy go?’
‘So evil and skanky…and I think I’m kind of gay.’
‘Gosh look at those!’ Willow discovers her boobs in her new uplifting leather outfit.
‘Do I have something on my neck?’ ‘Not yet.’
‘I’m a blood sucking fiend! Look at my outfit!’
‘This world’s no fun’ ‘You noticed that too?’
‘Hands! Hands!
Oh f-

The Good: The comic mistake of thinking that Willow has been turned into a vampire is mined for every gag. The shocked reactions of Giles, Buffy and Xander when they stumble on this erroneous information and how they handle our Willow when they discover that she isn’t dead are some of the funniest scenes of the year, expertly played by the cast. My favourite moment is the hug the three of them share. This is how these characters should be interacting. Or at least far more than they have been this year. I love how bringing the evil Willow into our world allows all of converging plots of the season to collide, even down to her kicking the shit out of the Mayor’s henchmen who think that she is our Willow. Shoving Willow into the role of her sinister counterpart is a moment of genius on Joss Whedon’s part as she stumbles her way through the role (‘I don’t like that you dare question me…maybe I’ll have my minions take you out back and kill you horribly’) and gives secret signals to Oz. Even Wesley is funny in this setting, a camp and bumbling hero who saves Cordelia from a fate worse than death (I don’t know what’s more amusing – his girly scream when Cordelia reveals herself behind him or his pathetic growl when he tries to act tough).

Moment to Watch Out For: Evil Willow being transported back to the point where she was murdered is an exquisite final gag. At least she had a few extra hours, even if they were in our boring world.

Fashion Statement: Almost as if to deliberately suggest the difference between the two Willow’s through their fashion one enters our world wearing kinky black leather whilst our Willow is decked out in a fuzzy pink jumper. Oz’s hair has been black of late and it’s a look that really sorts him. Hopefully the only episode where Willow lusts after herself…why is it always lesbian alter egos/ Why can’t I cut a break and have two Xander’s getting it on?

Orchestra: More comedy stylings from the consistently impressive Christophe Beck. I particularly love the fairground score when the two Willows first meet. We’re really going to lose something when he moves on to films.

Result: What a return to form as two worlds collide with unexpectedly hilarious results. Willow has been a little overshadowed by the dramatic events of late (and some might even say mis-characterised) and so it’s a healthy reminder of how magnificent a character she is and what Alyson Hannigan is capable of. By focussing primarily on one character rather than trying to spread the weight of the episode through the entire ensemble this is the tightest script in what feels like ages. And the funniest. Joss Whedon enjoyed putting Angel through the emotional ringer in Amends but Dopplegangland proves what an amusing writer he is when he chooses the script lurches from one delightful moment to the next. Its an show that is packed full of lovely character moments and allows the cast to show off the glowing chemistry between them all and you might just find that’s the longest section of quoted dialogue for any episode. Joss Whedon proves once again that when he is on form (which is nine times out of ten…its just those pesky openers that elude him) he can rarely be mastered handling his creations. Sometimes you just have to stare into the face of another you to realise that actually, you’re not so bad. Dopplegangland is the sunniest episode in a while and also one of the most engaging this year: 9/10

Enemies written by Douglas Petrie and directed by David Grossman

What’s it about: Faith is tasked with bringing Angelus back to life…

The Chosen One: This is the very sweet ‘just before Angel dumps you and allows you to move on with your life’ period where the two star crossed lovers try and pretend they can have a normal relationship full of things like going to the pictures. You have to admire their naiveté. They can’t take their relationship any further otherwise he will turn into a blood sucking fiend and whilst Angel manages to soothe Buffy’s concerns that he must be frustrated…I was wondering just how long she could continue without scoring a bulls eye again. Jealousy is one of those emotions that writers insist on pushing on characters despite the fact that it is tedious to watch and I have rarely seen it dealt with in any manner other than ones which push TV shows to melodramatic extremes. What they set up here is very clever, using Buffy’s jealousy to convince Faith that Angel has turned bad again. Had they left it there I would have been more than satisfied. In fact they needed to see Buffy pouting away when Faith wasn’t around to convince the audience that what was happening was real. But a consequence of this charade is that Buffy genuinely wonders whether Angel was more attracted to Faith. Which lingers on long after this episode and the games they are playing. Considering what they have been through together makes absolutely no sense, human nature be damned. Which makes me wonder whether all this was worth it.

Witchy Willow: There are still some magical secrets that Giles doesn’t think Willow is ready for. He should have been even stricter with her. 

Caustic Cordy: The awkward sexual chemistry between Cordelia and Wesley continues – has there ever been less horny pairing on a show? One salacious, smoking hot student and one prim and proper, stiff upper lipped Watcher. I do enjoy how she makes Wesley sweat but I don’t think this was ever a coupling that could have ever gone anywhere.

Five By Five: Faith killing the Deputy Mayor, that was an accident. Faith murdering Skyler and stealing the books of Ascension, that was pre-meditated. She suddenly feels like a much more dangerous character, without that leash that stopped her from losing control. Buffy is a constant reminder of everything that she is not – loyal, moral and looking out for other people. Its almost as if when she is in the same vicinity as the character that she has pushes their differences to extremes just to be her own person. There is a genuine feeling of reaching out when she turns to Angel for support, that she genuinely doesn’t like the direction her life has taken. However it is in her nature to try and take what others have so she can’t resist trying to push herself onto him, another way to hurt perfect, whiter than white, Buffy. Watch Faith as Angelus is torturing Buffy, she is really getting off on the hurt and at this point there doesn’t look as if there is any redemption for the character. All that loathing and tension between Buffy and Faith is exposed in a long dialogue scene. Faith’s jealousy is much more untamed prospect because its not the moping around kind but one which sees her trying to take Buffy’s life away from her in a very personal and brutal way. Faith’s problem is that she is right - if Buffy hadn't survived the events of Prophecy Girl (and skipping all that unfortunate Kendra business) this should have been her town. 

Puppy Dog Eyes: Angelus is back! Let joy be uncontained! He’s brutal, sexy, witty and dangerous…why did they ever bring this guy back as the castrated Buffy-whipped version? David Boreanaz looks genuinely relieved to be let off the leash and allowed to chew the scenery for a bit, growling out his dialogue and getting physical with more Slayers than he can shake a stick at. The fact that this is all an act surprised me even more – who knew that Angel had it in him? I especially loved it when he punched Angel just for the hell of it, just because he bugs him.

The Mayor: The more we hang around this guy, the more I like him, the more I wish we could have gotten to this point earlier in the season (I know, I know…I keep going on about that). He’s so gentle with Faith, using her as a mole and instrument for killing but at the same time taking on a parental role and trying to turn her into more of a lady. I love that he pours her a glass of milk when she’s stressing out, its such a fatherly thing to do. We learn that Wilkins is over 100 years old and not human and with his invincible powers he is started to feel like a far more formidable foe. Turns out he built Sunnydale for demons to feed on and come Graduation Day he is going to get paid. Oooh…ominous. Rather wonderfully when Faith fails in her mission the Mayor isn’t in the slightest bit unhappy with her. His smile could turn any defeat into a victory.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘What ever happened to the still beating heart of a virgin? No one has any standards anymore…’
‘This is supposed to be my town!’

The Bad: They should have kept Mr Trick around, brought Faith into the fold and turned Angel bad again for real. Imagine that as a team against Buffy and the Scoobies.

Moment to Watch Out For: It’s Eliza Dushku. It must be. Despite everything that she has done to try and hurt Buffy I still felt sorry for her when the lie was exposed and she realised what a sap she had been. This is somebody who has proven to be a ruthless killer, a betrayer of her friends and a woman who revels in emasculating men. She’s a nasty piece of work. And I still felt sorry for her. What an incredible character.

Result: A much more interesting version of  the same story that was told in Consequences, Enemies is far more intriguing because Faith has already turned to the Dark Side and now its time to expose her. The reason this works so well is that there is no indication that Faith is walking into a trap because the audience is being taken for a ride too which makes the final sting all the more satisfying because we experience it with her. I love all the subterfuge; Faith pretends to reach out to Angel to turn him and Angel pretends to be bad to out her. It brings out the best in Eliza Dushku (she’s always fantastic but the material is much worthier of her this week) and David Boreanaz (who has been wimping off in the shadows this year so to watch him bear his fangs again is a delight) and the second half of the episode is practically devoted entirely to them. Faith and Angelus make a far more likable and horny couple than the usual dreary Buffy/Angel pairing and its presented as such an appealing lie I wish it could have been real. Still the moment the lie is disclosed is one of the most dramatic moments of the year. A strong performance piece with lots of character arcs building, its starting to feel like season three is going to go out with some spectacular drama: 8/10

Earshot written by Jane Espenson and directed by Regis B. Kimble

What’s it about: Buffy has been granted telepathic powers but it turns out to be a curse that almost drives her insane…

The Chosen One: Jealous Buffy is deeply unappealing, I thought Angel was the one area where she didn’t doubt herself. The gag that it might be a boy demon and Buffy might grow a penis really made me laugh. At first Buffy thinks that being able to read peoples thoughts telepathically is a positive gift because she is only human and its like having the ability to peek into everybody’s diary. Giles also sees it in a constructive light but for slightly less shallow reasons – Buffy can anticipate her opponents moves and turn their plans against them. Proving she is just as flawed as all the people whose thoughts she suddenly has insight into, Buffy heads to Angel and rather cruelly tries to manipulate him into revealing his true feelings about Faith so she can read what he is really thinking. Because it is such an invasive gift no bugger wants to be around Buffy anymore…the simple fact that they know that she can hear their thoughts means that their thoughts turn towards the negative. They immediately start thinking about the things they don’t want her to know that they think. Joyce tries to avoid her daughter because she desperate for her not to discover that she had sex with Giles on the hood of a police car. Twice.

Ripper: Giles tries to rouse the kids into thinking they can defeat the Mayor but climaxes his speech with the rather confidence killing ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen.’ Can you believe the Watcher’s Council let this guy go?

Witchy Willow: Oz is having an honest kind of a day and admits that he loves lameness and always heads straight to the obituaries when he reads the school newspaper. I think he might just be trying to be funny. Willow fears that Buffy will be stronger than her academically now when that is her ‘thing.’ Oz’s thoughts match his gentle personality and are very self reflective and thoughtful.

Gorgeous Geek: Of course all Xander thinks about is sex, he’s a teenage boy! And its especially worse when he’s trying not to think about sex. Xander jokily suggests that Lunch Lady Doris is trying to kill all the students and in a moment of inspiration he turns out to be right! Nobody said this show was short of cheek. 

Caustic Cordy: Of all the Scoobies I think I found Cordelia’s direct route from her brain to her mouth the funniest because it reveals that she doesn’t shy away from outing a single thought that creeps into her mind. She literally is as unpretentious as she seems. 

Mr Snidey: ‘Principal Snyder has Walk Like an Egyptian stuck in his head…’

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I thought I saw a four legged demon…but it was just a dog.’
‘Hi Mr Beech. I was just wondering if you were planning on killing a bunch of people tomorrow? Oh, its for the yearbook.’
‘It looks quiet down there. Its not. Its deafening.’

The Good: Having a character suddenly being able to get inside of the heads of the other regulars is such a fantastic idea and loaded with potential I’m surprised there has never been a show where a character can do this all the time (there may very well have been, I just don’t happen to have seen it – wait, the new version of The Tomorrow People?). Torchwood (as usual) completely fudged the idea and showed how it shouldn’t be done (it was basically people thinking about sex a lot which is par for the course on that show and why the regulars remained unlikable ciphers for too long). Its down to Buffy to make a great mystery tale out of it and to explore the comic and dramatic possibilities latent in the idea. So many of our thoughts are unconscious and uncontrollable and aren’t supposed to be taken literally they are so fleeting and so I love that Willow can be saying something and thinking the precise opposite at the same time. It doesn’t mean that she is a bad person, she’s just human. If people could hear each others thoughts all the time I don’t think society would be able to function as well as it does because you would remove all of the pretence that means people can get along with their daily lives in the blissful silence that they are accepted/liked/appreciated when sometimes that just isn’t the case. Suddenly kindly old teachers take on a sinister edge, fellow students are perverts and friends aren’t always as complimentary as they would like you to believe. We get to see the sort of masks that people put up to disguise their real thoughts. Nancy’s multiple ‘I could do that’ and ‘I hate her’ get progressively funnier. The assault of voices thoughts on Buffy is disorientingly realised, the camera swinging around her in a dizzying fashion. Suddenly being able to walk into everybody’s lives is a terrifying path to insanity. The mystery is cleverly layered like a good Agatha Christie with an obvious suspect who turns out to be entirely innocent (Freddie), a surprising suspect who is made to look guilty when he only wants to end his own life (Jonathan) and a farcical suspect who nobody would point the finger at (except Xander) who transpires to be the killer (Lunch Lady Doris). The way Espenson weaves her magic through this cast is culprits, emphasising all the wrong people (Freddie under the desk, Jonathan clutching a rifle) whilst ignoring the guilty parties, is rather wonderful. Larry’s cameo made me cheer and its great that he’s out and proud these days. You might find the second, far less serious climax of Lunch Lady Doris pouring rat poison into the cafeteria food something of a come down after the high drama in the clock tower but I for one needed a laugh after that intensity. Her motive (‘you eat and you eat…’) is hilariously vague. Giles walks into a tree.

The Bad: Last weeks demon was very cunningly done with a headpiece that covered most of its face and just the eyes making the most impact. It was just creepy enough to be believable. This week its back to creatures from the Black Lagoon and all hope of credence has fled the building. Whilst Wesley is still patronising Giles, the Scoobies are all still patronising Wesley and I don’t get why the writers insist on having them behave in a bullish way like this? Especially when, for all his faults, he is only trying to help. I realise that it helps to sustain the mystery but it does seem odd that everybody’s internal monologues are spoke with their own voice except the person who is thinking of wiping all the students – that person thinks with both a boy and a girls voice so there is an open field of suspects. I don’t entirely buy the ‘life imitates art’ argument but I do believe in a certain degree of respect if a tragedy has taken place. Whilst it’s a little ridiculous that repeat screenings of the opening episode of the Lone Gunmen are unlikely because it eerily foretold the events of 9/11, I do understand why this was shelved until the end of the season when it describes High School shootings as ‘bordering on trendy.’ Regardless of the real life events that surrounded Earshot, I’m not sure if that line should have made the final cut. The stunt double for Lunch Lady Doris was really thin. It wouldn’t matter so much if the actress playing Lunch Lady Doris well…wasn’t.

Moment to Watch Out For: ‘Everybody down there is ignoring your pain because they’re too busy with their own. The beautiful ones, the popular ones, the guys that pick on you…everyone…’ Massive kudos for having the balls to pull off the climax in the clock tower. For once the culmination of a Buffy episode isn’t fantasy based in the slightest and instead relies solely on a shocking and poignant real life scenario. It looks as though Jonathan is going to start firing away from the clock tower when in fact he is so lonely and in pain that he only wants to kill himself in a way that will finally get him noticed. Its real heart in the mouth stuff, not just because of the contemporary horrors that it imitates but also because of the outstanding performances of Danny Strong and Sarah Michelle Gellar. Fantastic music too. If you want to discover what Buffy is all about then look no further, this is a study of teenage suffering at its best. Its the pinnacle of what the show achieved in its High School setting.

Orchestra: One of the magnificent Christophe Beck’s finest scores (that means its very, very good indeed) which lunges from high drama to high comedy in a heartbeat. The music that accompanies Jonathan’s dramatic preparations in the clock tower might (Hush aside) be my favourite piece on this entire show. It cuts right through the fun of the episode to the heart of the tragedy. 

Result: Earshot is a genuinely classic episode of Buffy with a killer premise, a great central mystery, loads of awesome jokes and a dramatic conclusion that lingers in the mind long after you have finished watching. Its also one of those Buffy episodes that takes a long time getting to the good stuff since it is a third into the episode before Buffy’s new gift asserts itself. When a terrific plot like this comes along you realise just how self reflective the show has become of late and its great to see the Scoobies investigating something that doesn’t directly involve their personal lives. Jane Espenson’s script walks a fine line between comedy and high drama and excels at both, cumulating in an unforgettably tense and touching conclusion between Buffy and Jonathan in the clock tower. Given the standard of the second season this is the sort of episode I would expect Buffy to be churning out far more frequently in its third year but it really pleases me to see it finally matching and even surpassing the quality of the best episodes last year. There’s a great deal of fun to had with Buffy reading her friends thoughts and great deal of pain too and it amazes me that a TV show with such a ridiculous title can produce a work that has some many profound things to say about the human psyche. As you might have guessed I was mightily impressed with this, another example that shows that when Buffy was on form it had everything you could possibly want from a TV show. A top ten episode: 10/10

Choices written by David Fury and directed by James A. Contner

What’s it about: Giant face sucking spiders, of course!

The Chosen One: How lovely to hear Joyce saying how proud she is of Buffy. I’m so used to seeing a permanent look of disappointment or hurt on her face because the drama of being the mother of a Slayer that it is a genuinely sunny moment when she basks in her daughters acceptance to a great university. Buffy is down in the dumps because her gig as the Slayer means that she is permanently tied to this town which rather narrows her options. To sweeten the pill she learns that Willow (who has the choice of pretty much any university) will be joining her at UC Sunnydale. The two of them romping about in the autumnal leaves makes my heart sing. It’s the first time that Buffy and the Mayor come face to face as adversaries…four episodes before the end of the season. That must be some kind of record, surely?

Ripper: Giles practically explodes like a giant pus filled boil when Willow hands him the pages she ripped from the books of Ascension. He’s such a magnificent geek.

Witchy Willow: Excited, Willow has been accepted into Oxford where apparently they make Giles’. She proves that she not just a pretty face by staking a vampire that is threatening to have a little taste of her and almost succeeding in escaping the Mayor’s clutches. She should have tossed a few magic spells their way. I think coming face to face with her evil gay doppelganger did Willow the world of good. She’s really come out her shell and started to assert herself. She has decided that what she wants to do with her life is fight evil and help people and I think that is a laudable life goal.

Gorgeous Geek: Xander is setting out to prove he is a bohemian, anti-establishment sort and plans on setting out on a road trip to find himself after Graduation. I wonder how he is going to get on with that. Xander and Oz should work together more often, there’s some very likable chemistry there and lots of room for comic potential. In this female oriented show its nice to see some guy time. Its great that they can talk about Willow without any tension between them as well. That Oz is one forgiving guy. 

Caustic Cordy: Buffy is so good at laying seeds in early episodes that come to fruition later on and you can see that sort of forward thinking at work in the scene in the boutique where Xander decides to vent at Cordy. It looks like she is shopping when in fact her father has fallen on hard times and she is forced to work in her spare time to be able to afford her dress for Prom. All we see in this episode is Cordy perusing the dresses, the pay off will come next week.

Five By Five: The twisted relationship between Faith and the Mayor continues apace with him buying her a gift as a thank you that turns out to be a deadly weapon. Faith is proving herself as the Mayor’s personal assassin, murdering those that dare to stand in his path to ascension. She doesn’t even flinch at the act of saw a mans arm off to remove his handcuffs.

Puppy Dog Eyes: ‘If you don’t mind a bit of fatherly advice I just don’t see a future for you two. I don’t sense a lasting relationship. And not just because I plan to kill the both of you but you’ve got a bumpy road ahead. You kids! You don’t like to think about the future, you don’t like to make plans. You’re immortal, she’s not. Any moment of true happiness will turn you evil. What kind of a life can you offer her? I don’t see a lot of Sunday picnics in the offing, I see skulking in the shadows, hiding from the sun. She’s a blossoming young girl and you want to keep her from the life she should have until its passed her by and by God I think that’s a little selfish…’ Spike gave Buffy and Angel similar advice earlier in the season. Why is it that the psychopaths on this show understand our heroes better than they do themselves? The Mayor really touches a nerve with Angel here, so much so he makes a vital life choice for both him and Buffy on the strength of this argument.

Mr Snidey: Clearly Armin Shimmerman has been busy with DS9 this year as he has only contributed to two episodes in a major way (Band Candy and Gingerbread). They absence makes the heart grow fonder and it is such a delight to see him back dogging the footsteps of the Scoobies. You can count on Snyder barging in at the wrong moment and he busts up what he thinks is a drugs raid only to discover that his employer is involved. Watching Snyder go from stern authority figure to snivelling toady in a breath made me grin from ear to ear.

The Mayor: He’s nice as pie as long as things are going his way but as soon as Faith oversteps the mark his attitude changes in a heartbeat.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I can learn and have scones!’
‘Did you get permission to eat the hostage?’
‘Why couldn’t you be dealing drugs like normal people?’

The Good: Its great watching Buffy, Willow and Angel trying to steal the Mayor’s gift because instead of seasoned professionals they are like Mission Impossible - the Amateurs. Buffy hanging on a wire as the alarms sound around her is very funny and far more believable than had this played out as a expert act of thievery. It’s a shame that the stunt doubles faces are seen in shot so many times because the fight sequences themselves are fast paced and really pack a punch this week. Of all the Scoobies to abduct Willow is the best option (as seen in Lovers Walk) because she is so cute its like torturing a kitten. And nobody wants to see that. Whilst there is a great deal to like about Choices it is basically running on the spot for 45 minutes without progressing wither the Mayor’s or Faith’s story in slightest. To keep everything in a holding pattern like this (the Mayor could have just eaten the spiders at the beginning of the episode and rendered the entire hostage scenario moot) and suggest that big things are coming is quite a feat and David Fury manages this by distracting us and giving all the likable guest cast a great deal to do (Cordelia, Oz, Wesley and Faith all get great moments). I had quite a few guesses as to what might be inside the box but giant face sucking spiders was not amongst them. More fool me because it’s a fabulously nasty visual (especially the mangled face of the police officer after he has been smothered) and tensely directed set piece. Its one of the very rare times when practically all the cast are together in one scene (only Cordelia and Joyce are missing) and it’s a chance to sit back and assess what an battery of talent this show has at its disposal.

The Bad: They really aren’t making a great case for Wesley. If he has nothing useful to contribute to the group (they pretty much have their plan devised whilst he just gets snippy on the sidelines) and they aren’t going to respect him (this is the second time in as many episodes where all of the Scoobies walk out on him whilst he is trying to assert his authority) then what is the point of him? Is he just there to be a pain in the ass and abused? Even when he has a real point to make (the box could be more important than Willow in the long run, as harsh as that sounds) he is insulted and ignored. Strangely when Giles makes the same point about Dawn in The Gift nobody bats an eyelid.

Moment to Watch Out For: The confrontation between Willow and Faith has been a long time coming and who ever knew that Willow had it in her to be quite this vicious? She pretty much tells Faith she is a loser for tossing away all the opportunities she was given when she came to Sunnydale and gets a fist in the face for her troubles. It’s a really charged scene, played to perfection by two psyched up actresses.

Result: Choices might be a quiet episode (especially in the wake of last weeks incredible drama) but it is still a heck of a lot more amiable than many a season three episode. There is plenty of energy (and I don’t just mean the terrific action sequences), room for all of the recurring characters to shine and it feels as if the cast are gearing up to the finale in a very positive way. There’s plenty of talk about the Mayor’s ascension but his story doesn’t actually progress at all here. However it is one of the most essential episodes in the interminable Buffy/Angel arc where they are finally made to realise that they have no future together. And Willow continues to emerge as the shows strongest character, making some very important choices about her future and facing up to her fears. This is precisely the sort of tone and content they should have been aiming for in this seasons opening episodes, nothing that will blow you mind off but a chance to luxuriate with some of the warmest characters television has to offer. Choices makes me glad that David Fury is sticking with the show in the wake of the great Angel exodus because there is so much heart in his writing: 8/10

The Prom written by Marti Noxon and directed by David Solomon

What’s it about: Moving on…

The Chosen One: Buffy is in the headspace of slowly moving into Angel’s place, getting draws in his bedroom and staying the night more often. When she mentions the Prom he suddenly realises (like her behaviour doesn’t point it out on a regular occasion) just how very young that she is compared to him. I’m so pleased that it was Joyce and not Giles that went to Angel and advised him to free Buffy from her bond with him. It would have been so easy for her mentor to have played that part but her mother understands more than anyone that in matters of love she is just another teenage girl who cannot see beyond the next time she is going to hang out with her boyfriend. Its one of those times when you wonder why Kristine Sutherland isn’t given more dramatic opportunities on this show (she’s usually shoehorned into cuddly mumsy moments) because she has an intensity about her that is mesmerising to watch. This is a show that isn’t afraid to lay on the tears to provoke its audience so you would think that I would be accustomed to it by now but this time there is a real primal tragedy to Sarah Michelle Gellar’s performance as she collapses in bed. It really feels as though somebody has ripped out her heart and she is feeling the pain (the only other time I have seen grief this well acted in telefantasy was the first Bad Wolf Bay scene between Rose and the Doctor in Doctor Who’s Doomsday). She has a moment of ‘woe is me’ but is soon selflessly thinking of others again, determined to give her friends a Prom to remember even if she has to slaughter every hell hound on the planet.

Ripper: Anthony Stewart works wonders with nothing but a stare. You can see how proud he is of his Slayer when she works so hard to give her friends a good time on their Prom night. Giles doesn’t even try and pretend that Angel leaving is bad thing, he just offers his support.

Gorgeous Geek: Poor Xander doesn’t have a great deal of options when it comes to his date to the Prom. Its either Anya (the only girl to have asked him out) or the sock puppet of love otherwise known as his hand (not the only time this show will resort to masturbation humour). He pays off Cordelia’s dress because no matter how much they fight he still loves her very much and wants her to have the perfect Prom night she has always dreamed of. Remember how appallingly Marti Noxon wrote for Xander in Dead Mans Party? This more than makes up for that.

Vengeance Demon: Its time to celebrate because this is the point where Anya the Vengeance Demon becomes a regular character on this show. From this point right the way through to Chosen in season seven. If that means we have to lose Cordelia (or to be more accurate as a consequence of losing Cordelia) then so be it. It also marks the point where she drops her hatred of all men and starts to fixate on the one man who will become more important to her than anybody since Olaf of the Troll (more on that later).

Caustic Cordy: Wesley almost chokes on his own drool when he spots Cordelia in her Prom dress. 

Puppy Dog Eyes: Telling Buffy that he is leaving for LA is probably one the hardest things he has ever had to do. Its also the moment where I really came to appreciate him in the non demon variety (because until now he never matched up to Angelus) because it is an entirely selfless act that will cause him as much pain as it will her. Sometimes the right thing can also be the most painful thing and thinking with your head instead of your heart is never easy. He could do with brushing up on his break up speeches though, calling a relationship a freak show isn’t perhaps the way I would let somebody down. He knows she is going to push and push (especially after everything they have been through to get to this point) so Angel has slap her around the face (metaphorically speaking, this doesn’t turn into a bitch fight) and tell her he doesn’t want to be with her. Buffy is rather brutal with him when they meet up again but what exactly does he expect after he has made her feel so awful, even if it is for her own good? 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I’ve seen you looking at my breasts!’ ‘No offence but when a guy does that it just means his eyes are open.’

The Good: Buffy has a better batting average than most shows when it comes to dream sequences and this is one of the best. Since it was never going to happen on screen its nice to Buffy and Angel tie the knot and the director ensures there is perfect silence and lots of long, lingering shots of the church and how empty it is to emphasise the wrongness of the event. The burning Buffy effigy in a wedding dress is superbly realised and quite nightmarish. Noxon cleverly dovetails the Cordelia and the Hell Dog plots in the middle of the episode, the beasts attacking her in her new place of work so the final twist of why they are so hungry for students in finery makes sense. Buffy is the only show I can think where the build up to a disaster is so well done that the lamest of motivations for the killer who wants to put it into action doesn’t impact in the slightest. Lunch Lady Doris had no good reason to want to poison everybody in Earshot and Tucker is planning on releasing the hell hounds for no other reason than he couldn’t get a date for the Prom. The way the episode skips over this in a second (and a completely non reaction from Buffy who has seen it all before) works a charm. Thanks to some remarkably physical stunt men inside the costumes and the director working over time with some dramatic POV shots the hell hounds somehow (because if you study them statically they look pretty duff) become a credible threat.

The Bad: Keith Topping made a very good point in his very good if slightly hyperbolic (oh the irony coming from me…) Buffy episode guides that this episode managed to completely miss the censors when it features a student who genuinely wants to massacre his peers (whereas Earshot which implied it but actually turned out to be about suicide was banned until the end of the year). It all depends on the method, one is too close to real life (a shot gun in a clock tower is a very potent image) whereas the other is comfortably fantasy based (hell dogs).

Moment to Watch Out For: ‘We’re not good friends. Most of us didn’t have the time to get to know you but that doesn’t mean we haven’t noticed you. We don’t talk about it much but its no secret that Sunnydale High isn’t like other High Schools. A lot of weird stuff happens here. But whenever there was a problem and something creepy happened you seemed to show up and stop it. Most of the people here have been saved by you or helped by you at one time or another. Would proud to say that the class of ’99 has the lowest mortality rate of any graduating class in Sunnydale history. And we know at least part of that is because of you…’ I think had anybody other than Jonathan presented Buffy with her award I would have had an allergic reaction to it. Earshot was such a landmark episode and their conversation in the clock tower exposed the heart of what this show is about. To have the two of them reunited in such a gloriously happy moment somehow feels very right. Buffy does consistently put her own happiness on the backburner to protect other people so its lovely to see that it is both noticed and appreciated. I may have said ‘awww’ out loud.

Fashion Statement: Needles to say this uncannily gorgeous cast all look stunning in their Prom gear but especially Sarah Michelle Gellar and Alyson Hannigan. Its almost enough to turn a man straight.

Foreboding: Tucker might seem like your everyday student psychopath (there is a higher number of those in Sunnydale than in any other school, except perhaps the one that young Clark Kent goes to) but he turns out to be the brother of Andrew who winds up being one of the best characters in the later years of Buffy.

Result: I’m the guy who watched High School Musical, Enchanted and Hairspray and came away with a smile on his face. I can handle a whole lot of twee. The Prom threatens to send my schmaltz-o-meter into overdrive but what saves it are the touches of tragedy that Marti Noxon adds to remind us that moving on is not all gooey-goodness. Buffy suffers the paralysing news that Angel is leaving her and for the first time since Amends their relationship scores a big emotional high. Besides there is nothing wrong with a bit of mushiness every now and again – Angel gives Buffy one last magical dance, Xander proves how much he cares for Cordelia, Anya finally gets her man and Buffy realises how much her peers appreciate everything she has done for them. Awwww. Buffy is about to make its most dramatic shift away from the show we recognise and lose several key members of the cast. This is the perfect time to pause and reflect on their success and if that edges into self congratulation then I think they have more than earned that right. Marvel at how gorgeous the cast look, tap your feet to the fantastic soundtrack and enjoy the anticipation of a show that is about to change in a very big way. The Prom deserves our indulge because holds up everything that worked about the High School setting on this show one last time: 9/10

Graduation Day Part One written and directed by Joss Whedon

What’s it about: The Mayor’s ascension approaches…

The Chosen One: I might be the most popular person saying this but I’m pleased that Angel is leaving this show. Watch the argument between Buffy and Angel in the middle of the episode and see how predictable these scenes have become. Buffy acts like a stroppy teenager, Angel is better than all that, Sarah Michelle Gellar clenches her teeth and strains out dialogue about not being able to cope and David Boreanaz looks mildly disinterested and restrained the whole time. It’s a relationship that had one year longer than it deserved (had the climax to Becoming been the end of their love/hate affair it would have been unforgettable) and season three has bothered to evolve things but instead been content to give the audience more of the same. I’m not advocating the introduction of Riley Finn (more on that guy later) but when a show that revels in impulsive gestures like Buffy becomes this obvious then it is time to shake things up a bit. Buffy doesn’t entirely get the idea of Graduation but as the episode progresses she begins to understand that it is a rite of passage and hers is less about her academic achievement and emergence into adulthood and more about discovering her independence from the Council and their politics. Buffy is also a rogue Slayer now and with Giles to guide her I’m sure she will go far.

Witchy Willow: I love the facade that surrounds moments like Graduation when people that you loathe approach you and ask you to sign their books as a sign of how popular they are. Even if they spent the last ten years making your life hell. Willow is just going to miss everything, even the drinks machine that always vends her the wrong can. Willow’s first sexual experience comes after one of her gorgeous little rants with Oz trying to calm her down. It really feels as though she has waited for the right moment since they might never get this opportunity again. In comparison to the Buffy/Angel angst, the scenes between Willow and Oz (especially post coital) make my heart melt. I think its down to exposure, one has been rubbed in our faces in a pretty dramatic way whereas the other has been fed to us in much more manageable, likable chunks.

Gorgeous Geek: Xander is channelling the moral of this show that nobody escapes High School unpunished…except he doesn’t think he is going to survive at all.

Vengeance Demon: She’s trying to adjust to life in one place with no powers and reaches out to Xander despite their disastrous date at the Prom. Long before she is integrated into the Scoobies she proves that she not just a pretty face with tales of vengeance but she has information on a great many demons and historical events. There’s still tension between Willow and Anya that lingers and will continue to do so for years to come. Anya has come to care about Xander so much the though of anything happening to him makes her feel nauseous and where she would have just skipped town in the past, here she begs him to come with her.

Five By Five: We got to the stage now where if Faith comes a knocking it means you have opened the door to a stranger for the last time. Her confidence and playfulness (almost making Lester believe she has come to seduce him) adds layers of menace to what could be a very simple murder.

Mr Snidey: Its clever that right at the last minute Snyder becomes less of a villain and more of an nervous pawn in the Mayor’s plans.

The Mayor: Despite the fact that he has been working towards this moment for so many years, Wilkins wants to share his ascension with Faith and use it to show the world what a powerful girl she is. Its that personable touch that makes him so damn genial, at times you just can’t imagine him hurting anybody

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Plus its high in fibre and what’s the point of becoming an immortal demon if you’re not regular?’

The Good: Isn’t it wonderful that the shows central location (the library) is a public place and the villain can simple waltz inside and put everybody on edge. The only time this isn’t the case is during seasons four (Giles’ apartment becomes their central haunt) and seven (Buffy’s house). Giles might drive a sword through his chest and Buffy might give him some mouth (both commendable) but to all intents and purposes the Mayor simply walks into their safe place, frighten them all into silence and then skips out again. He’s as cool as a cucumber that one. The image of Faith hiding inside the a neon U of the Sunnydale sign after having shot Angel is a potent one. It’s not a very subtle gag but Xander pulling open the pages of the book to reveal the size of the demon that the Mayor is going to turn into really made me chuckle. I love spiders so the sight of the Mayor enjoy them in an all you can eat buffet style has no effect on me whatsoever but I have some very arachnophobic friends and the sight of their spindly legs hanging out of his mouth would make them gag.

The Bad: If I were the Mayor I would be perfectly happy with being immortal. I wouldn’t need the extra kick of turning into a giant snake as well. There’s a very apparent boom mike in the first shot of Joyce in this episode.

Moment to Watch Out For: The torrent of violence that erupts between Buffy and Faith is a sight to behold. Finally Buffy takes the fight to her nemesis, not just because she needs something from her but because she is the reason Angel is hurting in the first place. In Buffy’s head there is probably a beautiful symmetry to Faith being both the problem and the solution but she never stops to consider that she is going to have to murder her in order to make this work. Faith was always going to die kicking and screaming and for once it feels like a fight could genuinely lead to the death of somebody important. Between them they manage to completely trash Faith’s apartment with a brutal exchange of blows. If were asked what the height of choreographed fight scenes was on Buffy, this explosion of hatred would spring to mind. Coupled with a Christophe Beck score that emphasizes every blow, it’s the highlight of the episode.

Fashion Statement: Oz has had a really short haircut and it suits him just fine. Almost to emphasis her cuteness to the nth degree Willow has a backpack which is a giant yellow smile and rides the geekiest red bike to school. She’s come a long way since Welcome to the Hellmouth but essentially is still the same old Willow.

Result: The first part of Graduation Day is an amalgamation of Choices and The Prom, running on the spot and trying to avoid the conclusion on the Mayor storyline without offering anything new and anticipating the changes to come. Despite flaws, it works for primarily the same reason because it’s a genuine joy to spend time with the regulars in this setting for the last time and it is this character work that keeps us distracted to the fact that the story hasn’t actually developed a great deal. There’s a skill to building up to a grand finale and its something that Buffy does extremely well and for once I had the feeling that not everybody was going to survive. The only thing that knocks this down a notch is the interminable angst between Buffy and Angel because it feels like we have been here too many times already. The only thing that makes these scenes bearable is the fact that I know he will be skipping town very shortly. Compensation comes in the form of the unforgettable whirlwind of violence between Buffy and Faith. Their rivalry has emerged as one of the highlights of the season and this where all of that aggression and jealousy pays off, resulting in a lengthly fight sequence the like of which we have never seen on this show. This isn’t a perfect episode of Buffy but there is much to admire. I hope the conclusion can live up to the promise: 7/10

Graduation Day Part Two written and directed by Joss Whedon

What’s it about: The battle between the Scoobies and the Mayor…

The Chosen One: Its been a strange old year for Buffy, not quite to the standard of soul destruction as last year but she has still grown a great deal. She has found her voice (telling the Council to go jump), surprised her mother (by excelling academically and being accepted into so many good universities) and found her niche as the glue that keeps all of her friends together. At first she was held back by the drag of Angel but ultimately that has proven to be the biggest learning curve. Both parties were forced to grow up and look at their relationship subjectively (speeches by Spike and the Mayor helped a great deal) and see that despite their feelings for each other they wouldn’t have much of a future together. Its nice that we didn’t end the season drowned in angst like last year (as good as that was) but with her silently saying goodbye to Angel and realising that it doesn’t mean the world is going to end. The future lies that way.

Witchy Willow: With Angel dying, Buffy in the fight for her life and the mayor on the crest of becoming an immortal demon, Willow feels guilty because she has had the best night of her life with Oz. 

Caustic Cordy: Naturally everything that Buffy decides to do has a profound effect on Cordelia and her new wannabe honey Wesley is leaving the country because Buffy has decided to go solo. Cordy is especially confused since Giles continues to hang around like a big loser despite the fact that his services are no longer required. Because the Mayor is allergic to germs Cordelia in her divine wisdom suggests chasing after him with a box that has EBOLA written on it. I wish they had tried that. The pay off to the Wesley/Cordelia flirtation is a kiss that is so awkward and unsexy it is actually quite painful to watch! With Wesley taking his glasses off, a tight two shot of the two actors looking deep into each others eyes and Christophe Beck setting the scene with his music you would be forgiven for thinking that this would be a stirringly romantic moment. Its so wonderfully, deliberately awful I was left in tears of laughter.

Five By Five: Buffy has always been able to walk into other peoples dreams and it allows for a gentle moment between her a Faith before they are torn apart. I’d like to think that at the last moment she wanted to repent for what she has put Buffy through and that is why she gives her the strength to wake up. The sight of Faith bruised and beaten in the hospital bed is a startling one but not very surprising. Given her choices this year I think this is where she was always heading.

Puppy Dog Eyes: Had a show for Angel not been on the cards this would have been the perfect opportunity to kill him off. Either way, I think his departure from the show will be a positive move. But before he goes there is time for one last startling scene between them as she punches him until she provokes the demon out and forces him to suck her blood. This is probably the most seductive and dramatic moment of intimacy between them, Buffy is literally giving her life for her lover, letting him feed off her life. Despite the blood its played and shot like a particularly raunchy sex scene. I get that Angel has to leave (in fact I understand and encourage that) but I’m starting to wonder if he actively enjoys hurting Buffy now by telling her he isn’t going to say goodbye once the fight is over. Why to encourage her before the battle. We haven’t even met him yet but Riley already feels like a real keeper. I really love that the final moments between them aren’t grand and melodramatic (although walking away in the mist is a bit much) but a moment of silence and acceptance from both parties.

Mr Snidey: I would have perhaps liked to have seen more of Snyder in his final appearance but the fact that he goes the way of his predecessor (especially when he made such a song and dance about it when he joined Sunnydale High) is wonderful.

The Mayor: With a show like Buffy that chose to separate its seasons into individual story arcs a certain amount of comparison is inevitable. Ultimately season three wound up being very like season one, both the Master and the Mayor hanging around for most of the year and only coming into their own at the last minute. The only real difference being that this year has twice as many episodes so it feels far more slack paced and time wasting. The Angelus arc in season two was so vivid and shocking because the bad guy was somebody very personal to the Scoobies and he was extremely pro active in making their lives as horrific as possible. In comparison the Mayor is a nice guy who just happens to want to take over the world and didn’t even meet Buffy until the year was almost over. She wasn’t even aware of his existence until Consequences, two thirds into the season. As good as Harry Groener is and as twisted his relationship with Faith has become, we spent far too long waiting for anything to happen with this storyline and by the time it does its time to wrap it all up. As you can guess its not one of my favourites despite all he positives you can throw at it. Its less a fault of the characters or the actors or even the direction that they decide to take the show in (which with Faith in particular is dark and delicious), its just that they (the Mayor in particular) simply aren’t given enough to do. Picking through the dramatic detritus of Faith’s apartment, the Mayor turns in to a full on anxious parent.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Congratulations to the class of 1999. You all proved more or less adequate.’

The Good: The parallels between Buffy and Faith continue as they both lie in hospital at the same time after suffering fatal wounds. I love how the camera swings from one room to the next, from one narrative to the next. There is a real tenseness to the thought of the Mayor realising that the girl who put Faith in a coma is in the next room. Harry Groener plays that moment with great skill, not displaying one flash of emotion as he walks into Buffy’s room and starts smothering her. The Mayor doesn’t even care that he has been spotted trying to commit murder, he just wants Buffy punished at this point. At the eleventh hour Wesley finally makes good by joining the fight and defying their orders. I’m still not certain all that awkward comedy and unpleasant abuse was worth it for this small moment of triumph but at least its something. Its only when the Scoobies start assembling an army (consisting of character such as Percy. Harmony, Jonathan and Larry) that you realise that the show has built throng of recognisable characters. The flaming arrows that combust vampires are way cool. The kids go kicking and screaming and massacring their way out of High School and considering the hell it has proven to be I think that’s a real moment of triumph. The POV shots of the Dick the Snake pursing Buffy through the High School are far more effective than actually seeing the CGI creature tearing through the corridors. They should have stuck with that.

The Bad: I do have to question what the point of teaming up the Mayor and Faith was if they were going to remove her from the final episode so completely. This has all been leading up to him having to accept she is in a coma? Damp squib much? I was hoping for her to turn on him at the last minute or for him to repay her loyalty with a clean death. Something more than nothing. I can see that Whedon was going for the epic jugular with Buffy turning up at Graduation with an entire army of students loaded with weapons but it is somehow less impressive than when the Scoobies defeat the monster of the week on their own. We learnt about the ascension late in the year and it turns out to be something rather more commonplace than I had hoped for – this is the sort of transformation that we see every week in Buffy (Reptile Boy with its physically effects was more impressive). 

Moment to Watch Out For: Talk about biting off more than you can chew with the Mayor’s ascension – Buffy clearly doesn’t have the budget to pull off either the Mayor bursting from his own body or the giant CGI snake that he becomes and so the riveting climax that we have been building to for months feels a little underwhelming. Why does the Mayor want to be a big snake? What is his motive for this? To literally chomp his way through his constituency?

Foreboding: ‘Little Miss Muffet counting down from 730…’ Plus Harmony is eaten by a vampire which will prove to be a more significant moment than the two seconds of screen time it gets here next year.

Result: ‘Today all the pain, all the work, all the excitement is finally over…’ Given that they are the culmination of what a show has achieved in a year season finales seem to come under scrutiny more than any other episodes. If you are a show like Buffy that starts building up to the climax from the beginning of the year they have an awful lot to live up to. Graduation Day is a good episode of Buffy with some nice character work, funny scenes, adrenalin fuelled action and a real sense of occasion. It also suffers from being the stuttering final step in a frankly ill thought out arc that has left this season feeling disjointed and badly paced. Whilst I was basking in the high drama of Angel feeding from Buffy and Mayor’s violent vengeance for Faith’s injuries I was disappointed by the final sequence of events because it felt as though I had been led up the garden path. I was promised big things from the Mayor’s ascension and all he did was turn into a giant (and frankly unconvincing) green snake. You can see the show struggling to make this Graduation as epic as possible but the budget cannot support Whedon’s vision and perhaps a little more subtlety and little less blockbuster would have helped matters. Last year climaxed on a no-budget moment between Buffy and Angel which was far more memorable than this frenzy of violence. As long as you are invested into the drama it doesn’t make how spectacular it looks. Overall the Graduation Day two parter was very watchable but in no way Buffy at its finest. Fantastic scenes (the Buffy/Faith fight, the Mayor smothering Buffy) but a sense that this could have been condensed into a tighter, hour long spectacular. Plus given her departure from the show I would have expected more participation from Cordelia. Buffy and friends survive Sunnydale High only to blow up it up upon leaving. There is something very cathartic about that: 7/10


Anonymous said...

Nobody on the show does get a happy ending. It's kind of Joss Whedon's MO. (In reference to your comments in "Moments to Watch Out For" for "Beauty and the Beasts".)

Unknown said...

I loved how this season deconstructed the idea of "Sunnydale is just weird and on a Hellmouth" and showed how there was a greater meaning behind it, with the Mayor's hundred-year plan. In "Earshot" I personally loved the reference to people's mundane acceptance of Sunnydale's high mortality rate, with the school newspaper having an entire obituaries section. I just wish this season had delved a little more into that.