After the Xander-defining showcase of “The Zeppo,” it was high time for Willow to grab the spotlight. I know from my past Buffy-related reading (including the comments on this column) that “Doppelgangland” ranks right up there with “The Zeppo” in terms of fan-love, and I am not about to offer any kind of critical corrective. “Doppelgangland” is terrific on myriad levels, from the dialogue to the plot twists to the multiple spot-on character moments. But mostly it’s a top-drawer episode for the way it binds the Buffyverse together, by demonstrating how adept the writing staff is at remembering everything they’ve done on the show before, and re-using the elements that still have plenty of juice in them. (Given that "Dopplegangland" is credited to Joss Whedon himself—who also directed—that shouldn’t be a huge surprise.)
First off, “Dopplegangland” brings back Anya, a seemingly throwaway character who first appeared a few weeks ago in “The Wish.” Ever since she lost her amulet and failed to sustain an alternate Sunnydale reality, Anya’s been trapped in the body of “a mortal… a child… and I’m flunking math.” When her demonic supervisor refuses to help her retrieve the amulet, Anya calls on Willow, who’s anxious for a chance to practice some black magic, especially since lately her leisure time’s been taken up by the demands of others. Oz didn’t invite her to one of his out-of-town gigs because he figured she’d be too busy. Principal Snyder wants to “match” her with Sunnydale basketball star Percy—“You want us to breed?” Willow asks—so that she can help him get good grades and “avoid the debacle of last year’s swim team.” And even Buffy damns Willow with faint praise, calling her “Old Reliable.”
So it’s no wonder that when Anya asks for help casting a spell, Willow jumps at the chance. (“Is it dangerous? Can we pretend it is?”) But when Willow gets a glimpse of where the amulet actually is—locked inside an alternate universe where everything’s awful and her friends are being tormented—she abandons the spell and offers a suggestion of where Anya might find her treasure. “Did you try looking inside the sofa… in Hell?”
While Willow and Anya’s spell doesn’t succeed in retrieving the amulet from Dark Sunnydale, they do pull something over… namely Vampire Willow, with her goth gear and petulant “bored now” tone. VM promptly makes her way to The Bronze, and when she realizes that she’s no longer in the world of chaos and evil that she loves so much, she decides to recreate it, starting with grabbing the first teenage girl she sees, licking her throat and taking a bite. Then she addresses the room: “Questions? Comments?”
Though this episode was mainly about Alyson Hannigan letting her awesomeness shine, the rest of the cast was hardly shortchanged. If anything, what I liked most about “Dopplegangland”—well, maybe second-most, after Hannigan—was the way the Willow crisis brings her friends together. I enjoyed the dynamic between Angel and Oz, who seem surprisingly chummy when they run into each other at The Bronze, prior to Vampire Willow’s arrival. And I liked Oz’s steely resolve when VW begins her reign of terror. (“Get Buffy… do it now,” he orders Angel, and Angel immediately obeys.) I also liked the hangdog expressions on the faces of the gang when they think Willow—“the best of us”—has turned. (She was “way better than me,” Xander sighs, to which Giles replies, “Much, much better.”) Then when Old Reliable Willow turns up alive, Giles hugs her, and ORW asks, “You all didn’t happen to do a bunch of drugs, did you?” These are the kind of character beats that endear a show to its loyal viewers, while simultaneously creating a world that feels lived-in and richly detailed. It doesn’t take a big budget to do this; it takes smart, caring writers.
“Dopplegangland” plays out masterfully, with the gang drugging and caging Vampire Willow and letting Old Reliable Willow take her place at The Bronze so that she can subvert the burgeoning vampire uprising from within. Only no matter how much ORW tries to convince the creatures of the night that she’s a badass—“I’m a bloodsucking fiend! Look at my outfit!”—she can’t completely suppress her sunny side, which emerges in her chipper, “Hi! I’m back!” when she arrives at The Bronze, and in a sly little smile and wave she gives to Oz at the edge of the room. She also can’t resist using her big rally-the-troops speech to chastise herself for her own faults, which include “getting cranky with her friends for no reason.”
Interestingly, when Cordelia comes across Vampire Willow in the library cage, she uses the opportunity to give a speech as well, about the evils of boyfriend-stealing. (Then she almost gets killed, before the still-smitten Wesley saves her.) And when ORW gets to spend time with VW, she assesses her counterpart in a personal way, noting, “I’m so evil and skanky, and I think I’m kind of gay.” (And yes, I know that’s foreshadowing.) So ORW feels sympathy for VW, who represents sides of herself that she recognizes, even if they’re buried deep. When VW grumbles, “This world’s no fun,” ORW says, somewhat heartbreakingly, “You noticed that too?” Then she gives herself a hug—“Hands! Hands!”—and sends VW back to her own world… just in time to get stabbed.
All three of the episodes this week have great twist endings, but the Lost-lover in me likes this one the best. Character, destiny—these things are hard to change. Whatever happened, happened. Dead is dead.
One character I neglected—intentionally—to mention in “Dopplegangland” is Faith, who’s been allowed back into the Slayer family provisionally, provided that she adheres to Wesley’s training regimen and psych-profiling. (“It’s just like fun, only boring,” Faith complains.) But while she’s making nice with Buffy, she’s secretly spying for The Mayor, who’s set her up in a sweet apartment with its own gym and Playstation. She’s become like Terra from the ‘80s Teen Titans comics—she’s so full of rage and arrogance that she’d rather soar on the dark side than make her way up slowly with the white-hats. As Buffy notes, Faith will “never be on the cover of Sanity Fair.”
But the irony of Faith’s choice is that she’s cast her lot in with a man who—though evil as all get-out—is as much of a square as Wesley or Giles. He’s a family man (though we’ve yet to meet his family) who won’t mess around with Faith, and instead asks her to drink her milk, wear her hair back, and not to worry so much about being part of “the in-crowd.” When she’s feeling blue, he offers to cheer her up with miniature golf. He’s just like Ward Cleaver, if Ward had built an entire town “for demons to feed on.”
In “Enemies,” Faith’s alliance with The Mayor gets revealed in dramatic fashion, though not before a lot of conversations about values, held between a disparate lot of characters. When Giles learns that a horned demon has offered to sell Buffy and Faith The Books Of Ascension for cash instead of the still-beating heart of a virgin, he’s disappointed in what the world has come to. (“No one has any standards anymore.”) When Cordelia asks Wesley what he’s doing on Friday night, he hems and haws, saying, “As always… my sacred duty as a watcher… prevents me… Why?” And when Willow suggests to Buffy that Faith might try to steal Angel away because he meets her standards for a guy—“Is he breathing?” she quips, to which Buffy replies, “Actually, no”—Buffy ignores Willow’s Faith-hate and focuses on the possibility that Angel might respond to someone else’s advances.
Of course Faith’s real plan is to get Angel to lose his soul again—via sex or via demonic intervention—so that he’ll kill Buffy and clear the way for The Mayor’s ascension. It’s a dangerous game they’re playing, given how uncontrollable Angelus can be. But everything seems to be breaking their way. A powerful spell seems to turn Angel bad, and then he gets Faith to introduce him to The Mayor so he can get the lowdown on all their plans. Then he and Buffy reveal that this was all a trap. (Faith should’ve heeded Ms. Post’s “advice” back in “Revelations”… “You’re an idiot.”)
The sting-reveal in “Enemies” was very cool, and I’m always happy to see David Boreanaz playing something other than “brooding.” (He’s much more fun when he gets to smile and crack jokes.) But I’d be lying if I said I had a moment’s worry that Angel had gone rogue again. Once again, any plot developments with Angel are hurt a little by my knowledge that he’s going to have his own show soon. Even if Angel had turned, I figured I was in for some kind of quick talking-down scene, which would’ve lessened the impact of the original soul-loss in Season Two. I was glad “Enemies” didn’t go that route. Still, I wasn’t as worried as I might’ve been if I’d seen this episode back in 1999.
In the end, sting or not, Buffy remains unnerved by Angel’s play-acting with Faith, and decides that they should “take a break” from their relationship. If there’s one thing I learned from ‘90s TV, it’s that you never want to be on a break from the person you love. But this has been a long time coming. Back in “Helpless,” Angel responded to Buffy’s snarky question about whether he was “satisfied” with a bitter, “I’m not sure that’s the word.” In “Enemies” he claims to Buffy that he can be close to her and kiss her and hold her and not worry about losing his soul again, in part because he knows where the line is, and in part because even though being with her is torture, “It feels nice, just to feel.”
Meanwhile, I’m sitting on my couch, thinking, “Careful… careful.”
Let me get my one major complaint about “Earshot” out of the way, before I praise what the episode does well. I can’t stand how mind-reading is depicted in movies and on TV. I don’t know about you, but if I’m sitting around and my mind is wandering, rarely do I think in complete, cogent sentences. If I’m working on a piece of writing, sure; or if I’m driving in my car and thinking through a problem, or if I’m lying in bed at night, unable to sleep. But if I’m sitting in a room with other people, listening to a conversation, I’m not maintaining my own running commentary in my mind. So every time Buffy read someone’s thoughts in “Earshot,” I cringed a little. I thought back to that awful, awful movie What Women Want, and that awful, awful scene where Helen Hunt not only thinks about Mel Gibson’s crotch but visibly flinches while she’s doing it.
Now, with that out of the way, let me talk about what I really liked about “Earshot,” starting with its theme. When Buffy gets a little silvery demon blood on her, she becomes infected with an “aspect of the demon” which allows her to hear thoughts—a gift which comes to her right as someone at Sunnydale High is planning to kill a large chunk of the student population. Because this episode was originally scheduled to air one week after the Columbine massacre, “Earshot” was yanked from the Buffy rotation and didn’t show up until September, and yet if anything, “Earshot” is something of a palliative amid the late ‘90s epidemic of school violence—an epidemic that Xander notes is “bordering on trendy at this point.” Specifically, when Buffy gains access to what all her peers are thinking, she learns that everyone’s got problems that they’re suffering through, silently and alone. No one’s got a corner on pain.
This is a lesson she passes on to Jonathan, Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s resident über-loser, who’s decided the best way to handle years of rejection from Sunnydale teens is to take a high-powered rifle and… shoot himself. (Why he needed a rifle for this and not a pistol—besides the fact that a rifle is more misleading to the audience—is another matter altogether.) And once Doyle gets lectured about how he’s not actually a unique little snowflake—a lecture that might’ve prompted me to commit suicide—Buffy tracks down the real mass-murderer-to-be, who turns out to be Sunnydale High’s cafeteria lunch lady.
That’s yet another neat—and amusing—Buffy twist, and it comes at the end of an episode packed with funny business. As annoyed as I may have been about the way our heroine’s mind-reading was portrayed, it led to a lot of poignant and/or hilarious insight into what’s going through her friends’ heads. Like when Xander learns that Buffy can read “our every impulse and fantasy" and he immediately thinks, “Oh God.” Or when Willow frets that Buffy’s “hardly human any more.” Or when Oz philosophizes that if Buffy contains his thoughts, he ceases to exist. Or when Buffy learns that her mom had sex with Giles. On the hood of a police car. Twice.
If I’d been watching Buffy back in 1999 and I’d seen “The Zeppo” and “Doppelgangland” so close together, with so many great episodes surrounding them, I think I would’ve been one of those folks grabbing everyone I knew by the collar and demanding that they watch this show. I'm regretting a life un-led.
-Willow, on floating a pencil: “It’s all about emotional control. Plus, obviously, magic.”
-I know that for the purposes of TV, Vampire Willow couldn’t have been nude for the last third of “Dopplegangland,” but it still doesn’t make much sense for the gang to strip her, then dress her in Old Reliable Willow’s pink outfit—especially since the outfit in question was rather layered. Would you like to slip pink tights onto an unconscious vampre?
-A clever dialogue parallel between Vampire Willow and Old Reliable Willow. First, VW spots Xander at The Bronze and momentarily brightens, saying, “Xander, you’re alive!” Then she realizes he’s not a vampire, and mutters, “Oh, you’re alive.” Later, when ORW comes across her friends in premature mourning, she jokes, “Jeez, who died?” The, remembering the town she lives in, she asks more solemnly, “Oh god, who died?” Interesting to hear what each character would find disappointing.
-Film critic corner: Buffy and Angel attend the erotic movie Le Banquet D’Amelia in “Enemies.” Their assessment: “Very artistic.”
-In the history of the war between vampires and slayers, has a slayer ever become a vampire? Or do the slayers just get killed?
-Creepy confession from The Mayor: “There’s more than one way to skin a cat. And I happen to know that’s true.”
-Faith actually refers to The Scooby Gang as “The Scooby Gang.” I’ve avoided doing that myself since—if I’m not mistaken—the term’s only come up once before on the show. Also it strikes me as a little cutesy, and not all that descriptive of the actual way the gang operates. Perhaps I’ll become more comfortable with it over time.
-Hadn’t seen Joyce in a while before she popped up in “Enemies.” I was kind of surprised by how accepting she was of Angel when he showed up at her doorstep with Faith.
-Whenever I’ve seen Jonathan on the show in the past, I’ve said to myself, “Isn’t that the guy from Gilmore Girls?” but I’ve never bothered to check until this week. The answer? Yes it is. Danny Strong, a.k.a. “Doyle,” the long-suffering boyfriend of Paris Geller.
-“Were you planning on killing a bunch of people tomorrow? It’s for the yearbook.”
-They sure do study a lot of Shakespeare at Sunnydale High.
-Banner headline in Sunnydale High’s newspaper: “Apathy On The Rise. No One Cares.”
-Angel quips to Buffy that he’s “dying” to get rid of his immortality. Then without cracking a smile he says, “I’m a funny guy.” That’s the Angel I’d like to see more of.
-Though Angel and Buffy are technically on a break, they do spend a lot of time together in “Earshot.” Angel even nurses Buffy back to health from her demon-infection. “He fed me the heart of a demon,” Buffy confesses to Willow, to which she gushes, “See that’s how it should work.”
-A great set of episodes for Oz. In addition to what’s noted above, I also liked how he pointed out to his bandmates that “professional bands know up to six, seven chords,” and how he claimed that when he reads the school paper he “always goes straight to the obits,” and how when Xander says that he almost had an expression on his face, Oz replies, “I felt one coming on, I won’t lie.” But my favorite Oz bit may have been his reply to Freddy’s review of Dingoes Ate My Baby, where the budding critic complains that the band plays their instruments as though they have sausages for fingers: “No, it’s fair.”
-Some fine, fine Xander moments in this set too: Him shaking his cross when Old Reliable Willow doesn’t recoil from it; him asking whether Giles’ secret stash of books has “any engravings I should know about;” and him returning from his “shakedown” of Willy claiming that he beat him up… applied some pressure… asked politely… offered a bribe.” (The follow-up to this admission is even better: “Does the council reimburse?” he asks. To which Giles replies, “Did you get a receipt?”)
-Two less splashy but still hilarious Willow lines: “Go. I give you leave to go,” and “Ow, ow. It’s all happy, but ow.”
-Ever wanted to be a florist?
Blog notes: Next week I’ll be covering the remaining four episodes of Season Three. Then I’ll be taking a week off before commencing Season Four, which I’m going to cover in the same fashion: three episodes a week, leading up to a final four-episode post on September 4th, right before the fall TV season and the Toronto Film Festival commence and whisk me away from Sunnydale. And guess what? I bought the complete Angel box set last week, so I’m going to be watching Angel Season One while I’m watching Buffy Season Four... though I’m not really going to be “covering” Angel per se, because I can’t handle six episode write-ups a week. Instead I’ll just be making a couple of Angel notes each week, and making sure that I’m up-to-date on all the crossovers. Then next summer, when I resume Buffy-blogging, I intend to cover both shows simultaneously, in full. More details on that later.