As the school year winds down, our heroine finds herself faced with a simple question: What the hell is she going to do with the rest of her life? Hence the title of this episode: “Choices.” And Buffy’s not the only one with a decision to make. Willow’s apparently gotten into every college in America and a few overseas—including Oxford, “where they make Gileses… I can learn and have scones!”—while Xander’s considering skipping college and pulling a Kerouac, and a suddenly destitute Cordelia’s just trying to make enough money at the formalwear shop to buy a discount dress for prom. Buffy cracks jokes about her approach to the future—“I have to have a plan? Really? I can’t just be proactive with pep?”—but in actuality her response to all the mounting uncertainty is a strong one. She decides to get on top of things, and clean up some messes. This is a common, healthy response to anxiety, right? You may have money woes, romantic woes, health woes, parenting woes or any number of other woes, but you can still take out the trash, do the dishes and straighten the hall closet. Some things you can control.
In Buffy’s case, she has a glimmer of hope that she might actually be able to go to Northwestern in the fall like she wants to. (“Monsters, demons, worlds in peril… I’m sure they have all that stuff in Illinois”) If she can stop The Mayor’s Ascension, and if she can stabilize Sunnydale’s demon problem such that Giles and Wesley can handle things while she’s away, then maybe she go away to college. (And if she promises to clean up after it, then maybe she can have a puppy.)
Stage one of Buffy’s plan involves retrieving an ancient box that The Mayor has just had delivered to Sunnydale as part of his Ascension preparation. The box has been seized by Faith, who shoots the courier with a bow-and-arrow. (Random vamp: “You killed him!” Faith: “What are you, the narrator?”) To steal the box, Buffy and her support team concoct an elaborate Mission Impossible-esque plan, but everything goes awry. First off, no one thinks to wear a watch. Then Buffy’s suspension-rigging gets jammed. Then Willow gets nabbed.
There’s a strong element of gamesmanship at this point in the season between Buffy’s side and The Mayor’s side. Everyone knows who’s who, and for the most part what’s what. The Mayor’s confident enough that he can walk right up and chat with the gang as though they were all about to play a game of softball against each other, not to have a life-or-death struggle for the fate of the world. And The Mayor knows his adversaries well enough that he can offer them a difficult choice, confident that they’ll do what he expects them to do. The good guys want to destroy The Mayor’s box by burning it in sacred fire on a ceremonial pedestal. If they do that, the bad guys will kill Willow. It’s Willow’s life against the potential slaughter of thousands—maybe millions. A no-brainer, right? Gotta save Will. (Oz actually takes the choice out of everyone’s hands by destroying the pedestal.)
“Choices” is an exciting episode, marked by an especially rousing score and some of the best fight scenes I’ve yet seen on the show. (The stunt coordinators have clearly been studying their Hong Kong action movies here at the end of Season Three.) And it builds to a creepy climax wherein we learn that The Mayor’s box contains 50,000,000,000 deadly giant spiders. (No sweat for The Mayor, who quips, “Raise your hand if you’re invulnerable!”) But I mostly liked “Choices” for the way it seems to complete the maturation process of Willow. The ironic part of the gang risking all of Sunnydale to save Willow is that she can apparently handle herself just fine. She manipulates Faith—partly by reminding the traitor that she’s made her own “choice,” and a bad one to boot—and is on the verge of escaping on her own when her friends call The Mayor to make their deal. Alyson Hannigan plays Willow with such quiet confidence in this episode that she’s almost off-model. I wondered a few times whether I was seeing what Hannigan’s really like when she’s not playing a role.
I also liked how “Choices” reinforced its theme in nearly every plot point, line of dialogue and set dressing. The episode opens with Buffy and Angel in a rut, fighting evil every night in part because it’s all they can do together. (“That’s something you don’t see every day… unless you’re me,” Buffy sighs.) And it ends with Angel contemplating ending their relationship, for Buffy’s own good. Meanwhile, in the final fight at Sunnydale High, a poster hangs on the wall: “Just Say No.” These are the choices grown-ups expect their kids to be making: Cut-and-dried moral choices about drugs, sex, cheating on tests and the like. But as children mature, they learn that there’s so much more out there to say no to.
A reader asked me via Twitter last week whether I thought Buffy’s depiction of high school—something I criticized as being too shallow and clichéd back in Season One—had improved over the course of the series. And I have to say, with Buffy’s high school era now quickly drawing to a close, that while the Sunnydale High material definitely got better, it was never consistently great. Which is fine. I mean, I don’t watch Lost to see how people use their wits and wherewithal to survive on a desert island, and I don’t really watch Buffy to see kids having cram sessions for midterms. After a while, high school just becomes The Place Where Things Happen on Buffy, and—aside from an episode here or there—not so much What The Show Is About.
Still, here at the end of Season Three the specifics of high school life are playing a bigger role on Buffy than they have since early in Season One. Our heroes have been talking about standardized tests and college admission and big school dances and, ultimately, graduation and saying goodbye. Here in “The Prom,” Buffy and Angel share a moment that I think a lot of young lovers experience right before the end of their senior year: a painful break-up. There’s something about the prom—with its grown-up clothes and secret drinking and furtive sexual encounters—that panics some teenagers, and makes them want to back away quickly from all the trappings of adulthood and couplehood. It’s as though grown-up reality is lurking in the shadows, like a demon waiting to get out.
And speaking of demons waiting to get out, “The Prom” features several, all cage-trained by a vengeful Sunnydale geek named Tucker Wells, who was turned down for a date to the dance and responds by showing videotapes of slasher films and John Hughes movies to his army of night, so that they’ll learn to attack guys in tuxedos and young ladies in party dresses. Luckily for Sunnydale High, since Buffy finds herself without an Angel on prom night, she volunteers to spend her evening slaying, so that he her friends can have one more good time together.
And it is a good time, mostly. Oz and Willow get all swoony, though Xander has to endure the nonstop chatter of Anya—who asked him to the prom by saying, “Men are evil… will you go with me?”—and the disappointment of losing the title of Class Clown to a guy who wears funny hats. (“Anyone can be a prop class clown!” he complains.) Then, at the end of the night, Buffy gets one last dance with Angel, who comes through for her right after her classmates honor her for helping them have “the lowest mortality rate of any graduating class in Sunnydale history.”
I don’t have a lot to say about “The Prom” except that it was a sweet episode—a nice, low-stakes palate-cleanser before the coming apocalypse. In some ways it’s the most “high school-y” episode of the series, because more than anything, it’s an adolescent fantasy come to life. What sullen high school student hasn’t dreamed of the day when his or her classmates would finally appreciate them? It was satisfying to see Buffy have that moment—and essential in some ways to what comes to next.
Early in Buffy’s two-part Season Three finale, Xander arrives late to class and gets jokingly chastised by his teacher for missing an important pre-graduation assignment: playing Hangman. Later, Buffy grumbles to her Mom that there’s something pointless and silly about all the ritual surrounding graduation. Everything’s a foregone conclusion. Everyone knows who made it through and who didn’t, and nearly everyone knows what they’re going to be doing after they get their diplomas. In the meantime there’s all this… waiting. And saying goodbye to people that you’re still going to be seeing tomorrow, and the next day, and probably for the next few weeks and months. But that’s the way big rites of passage work. You’ve got to sit through the ceremony first.
“Graduation Day” is all about the little steps along the way to something greater. Over the course of two hours, Oz and Willow sleep together for the first time (and a lot more times after that), Faith poisons Angel, Buffy battles Faith and puts her into a coma, Buffy lets Angel feed on her so that he’ll be healed, Wesley quits the Watchers’ Council so that he can be of more help to Buffy, and Buffy enlists the entire student body to help her thwart The Mayor’s plan to Ascend (by becoming an enormous Mayor-worm) at the end of his commencement speech. And yet out of everything that happens in the finale, it’s the speech that intrigues me more than the Ascension. The Mayor’s been working on that speech for over a hundred years, and he intends to deliver it in full, even as Willow and Buffy sit anxiously among their fellow graduates, muttering, “Man, just ascend already.” Sorry, gals. There are no fast-forward buttons in life (or death).
“Graduation Day” is a wonderfully calibrated mix of life-lessons, dramatic moments, thrilling heroics and well-observed character interactions. On the latter count we have The Mayor giving Faith a pretty pink dress and promising her that after The Ascension, “Any boys that manage to survive will be lining up to take you out.” We also have Anya confessing to Xander that, “When I think that something might happen to you I feel bad inside, like I might vomit,” shortly before chastising him for not fleeing town with her. (“I hope you die… aren’t we going to kiss?”) We have Principal Snyder revealing that much of his partnership with The Mayor has been due to his own mania for order. (Snyder’s idea of a graduation speech: “This is a time of celebration so sit still and be quiet.”) We have The Mayor grumbling when his minions interrupt him while he’s eating his high-fiber giant spiders. (“We don’t knock during dark rituals?”) We have Oz suggesting that the only crazier plan than Buffy’s would be if they “attack The Mayor with hummus… he’ll never see it comin’.” We have Cordelia suggesting that they play on The Mayor’s fear of germs by chasing him around with a box marked “Ebola Virus.” We have Giles subtly rebuking Angel for almost killing Buffy by telling him he won’t be needed since “the sun will be up soon.” And we have Xander warning Buffy not to kill Faith, saying “I just don’t want to lose you”—meaning he doesn’t want her to take a turn toward the callous and deadly.
The finale ends with the moving sight of Buffy’s classmates—under the direction of Xander, still retaining some military training from Season Two’s “Halloween”—taking arms against The Mayor and his vampire army. I gotta say, my heart kind of soared at this ending. It was better than Braveheart. For one thing, Buffy has managed to sprinkle enough recurring characters throughout the previous three years that I recognized a lot of Sunnydale class of ’99. (Goodbye, Harmony… unless we see you again in vampire form, which knowing this show is quite likely.) For another, the big moment at the end of “The Prom” sets up the “Graduation Day” ending perfectly. Now that Buffy knows what she means to her peers, she feels comfortable welcoming them into her struggle.
When you’ve got an episode as well-plotted, emotional, exciting and satisfying as this—capped off by a painful but necessary goodbye between Buffy and Angel—there’s only one thing to say.
I’ve got very little beef with Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s third season. I mentioned early on that I felt Joss Whedon and company had found the right mix of characters and tone with this season, and aside from some lesser episodes here and there, I don’t think the quality wavered much. I wish it had been a better season for Xander, who outside of “The Zeppo” was sort of under-utilized (and even debsaed a little). But it was a fine season for Willow, and Oz (a character who became more reliably amusing and effective as the year wore on), and I certainly can’t complain about our main villain, The Mayor, so perfectly played by Harry Groener. Whenever I sit down to watch a new sci-fi/fantasy/horror/adventure-themed TV show these days, I’m usually put off from the get-go either by how frivolous it all is or how damnably dour. It’s awfully hard to mix the light with the serious as well as Buffy does in this season. Even when things are at their worst for our heroes, the show is a joy to watch.
-“Of the two people here, which is the boss of me?”
-Good insight into Principal Snyder’s character as he walks across campus and suspects every student conversation is about something else entirely. “My lunch… is that the new drug lingo?”
-After Faith takes a cookie from The Mayor’s plate, he carefully puts cling-wrap over the rest.
- The Mayor, after giving a fancy knife to Faith, warns, “You be careful not to put anybody’s eyes out with that thing… until I tell you to.”
-Oz and Xander have to make Willow’s potion using her stick-figure diagram. (Oz: “That’s me… see the guitar?”)
-I know Angel has his reasons for dumping Buffy, but with The Ascension coming up, it’s a bad time for our heroine to be crushingly depressed. (“I understand that this sort of thing requires ice cream,” mutters Giles, helpfully.)
-It’s interesting that Angel dreams of Buffy in “The Prom,” just as Buffy dreamed of Angel at the start of the season. Such fearful symmetry.
-Cordelia expects Xander to be able to zoom in on the videotape of the formalwear store, just like they do on TV. Later Oz asks Xander to pause the tape, and he sighs, “Guys, it’s just a normal VCR! It doesn’t… oh, wait.”
-Willow, worrying about her post-coital demeanor: “Should this be a quiet moment?”
-Xander, defining Anya’s view of men: “Men like sports. Men watch the action movie. They eat the beef and enjoy to look at the bosoms.”
-Cordelia and Wesley’s love affair comes to an unexpected in when they kiss each other—twice—in the heat of passion and terror and discover to their mutual chagrin that neither of them enjoy it very much.
-The picture of the demon that The Mayor is going to become is contained on a four-page foldout. Xander: “We’re going to need a bigger boat.”
-“It’s a good thing no one ever wanted to check any of these books out huh?”
-The scene where Angel drinks from Buffy is creepy and romantic and wonderfully operatic. I love that Whedon is willing to risk going over the top here. You have to swing big to drive one over the fence.
-Shouldn’t Angel have a DNR order? I mean, doesn’t he want to die?
-You’d think the staff at Sunnydale Hospital would be more familiar with vampire wounds.
-I’m assuming there will be repercussions to Buffy defying the Council. I’ve often wondered just what power they have over her, ultimately. Perhaps part of her growing up is realizing that she doesn’t really have to answer to anyone but herself. More thoughts on this from me next season, I’m sure.
-Beverage chat: Willow, praising Sunnydale High’s faulty soda machine, says wistfully, “I push you for root beer, you give me Coke.” Giles, defying a cultural stereotype, asks for coffee, confessing, “Tea is soothing. I wish to be tense.”
-Some ugly, ugly CGI on the Mayor-worm. Ah well. I guess perfection is unattainable.
-When “Graduation Day” originally aired, fans had to wait two months between the first and second part of the episode, due to Columbine sensitivity. That must’ve sucked.
Blog notes: And speaking of time off, just a reminder that I’m taking a break next week. I’ll be back in two weeks with the first three episodes of Season Four (and the first three episodes of Angel, in short-note form). Also, apologies for the relative lateness of this post. I had my final edit all done and then the posting failed, which meant I lost my edit and had to start all over again using my first draft. I hope I didn't make any glaring mistakes the second time through.