Breaking Up is “____” to Do
May 14th, 2010
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I watched seven episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s third season in a single day, and came to an important realization: I didn’t really want to stop.
Yes, this week’s posts have been particularly tough to write because most the episodes have been really strong, and there are some interesting things at play that I know I want to be able to comment on but that I don’t necessarily want to stop in order to comment on.
What I’ve decided to do is take a look at how some of the show’s recurring elements throughout these episodes are handled, as I think it’s the best way to get to each episode without writing about each individually (which just isn’t something I have time for, at least not right now). In the process, I’ll effectively review all seven of them in some capacity, but I’m hoping that the connections between episodes (not necessarily in theme so much as structure or technique) will add some additional value.
The first thing that we need to discuss in the stretch between “Homecoming” and “Gingerbread” is the way the show lays the groundwork for Xander and Willow’s indiscretions and the consequences therein. While Angel and Buffy’s relationship (which I’ll get to when I look at “Amends” in a bit more detail on Sunday) has mythology on its side, Xander/Cordelia and Willow/Oz are both normal teenage relationships, although ones which have their own complications. The show seemed to shut the door on Xander and Willow earlier on, so to reopen it is going to take a bit of work, and this series of episodes does a couple of subtle things in order to create the circumstances where the dissolution of these relationships is both logical and heartbreaking, and shows how attempts to reconcile the relationships are in their own way just as complicated as Angel and Buffy’s struggles with curse and prophecy.
I read (okay, glanced at) the Wikipedia blurb about “Homecoming” before I actually watched it, and I thought it seemed strange that Buffy and Cordelia would once again be feuding. The show has nicely integrated Cordelia into this group of friends, and while the character hasn’t been fundamentally changed it is clear that she has sort of “come around” to Buffy and the gang. Ultimately, the episode needs them to be rivals so that there can be conflict when they’re trapped in the wonder that is Slayerfest ’98, but David Greenwalt does a nice job of drawing from each characters’ strengths and insecurities to explain their feud. Cordelia is still enough of a strong-minded character that she would forget those friendships when Buffy threatens to challenge her reign at Sunnydale, and Buffy’s just insecure enough that she would run against her in an effort to win out. That their feud would put Buffy and Cordelia into danger – as a change of plans with the limo has Cordelia, rather than Faith, trapped in Mr. Trick’s entrepreneurial endeavour – is the icing on the cake, and the episode has a lot of fun with that story.
However, it also lays the groundwork for the idea that Cordelia remains at odds with certain parts of this group, and that her old life has not been abandoned just because she’s dating Xander. “Revelations” obviously threatens the unity of the group in regards to Angel’s return (more on that episode on Sunday), but the work in “Homecoming” serves a similar function in terms of showing some of the unspoken tensions which may not emerge in standalone episodes that don’t focus on particular characters or relationships. The episode ends with Cordelia and Buffy reconciling over some fun “World’s Most Dangerous Game” playing, and then promptly losing the crown in a wonderful closing bit, but the long-term impact of the episode was preparing us for that idea that in a few episodes Cordelia would be opposed to Buffy for different reasons.
In terms of Willow and Xander’s relationship, the show rekindle their connection in “Homecoming” with some less than subtle “fancy clothes make feelings emerge” storytelling which I don’t entirely buy. I think there’s a point where Xander came down too hard on the idea of their relationship for me to accept he’d so casually fall into a makeout session, but I’ll be fair: we saw in “Becoming” that Xander loves Willow as a friend enough that it could some day evolve into something more, so my issue is more the speed than the very fact of the matter. However, note that the next time we see them “together” is much more subtle. I will talk about “Band Candy” some more when I chat about the Mayor tomorrow, but I loved how the candy was designed to only marginally affect the teenage characters. It made for little moments like Xander and Willow taking their flirtations that one step too far, playing footsie in study hall, that they might not have otherwise done; It’s a great way for the show to prepare us for the fact that their connection isn’t “going away,” and to use a device which has much larger functions for the purpose of ongoing character development is just some really smart long-form storytelling.
“Lovers Walk” is an episode that primarily works because of how gosh darn excited I was to see Spike (I had a fist pump moment), but the episode nicely spirals into something much darker. If you’re going to have Xander and Willow get to second base within a “Monster of the Week” story, it needs to be one that doesn’t feel like they’ve been possessed or that it was entirely a heat of the moment decision. Here, because Spike is back in town in a self-destructive and depressive mood driven by the inherently human emotion of love, it allows the show to create some substantial threats while remaining grounded in something emotional rather than demonic. Cordelia ends up being injured by a structural collapse rather than an errant crossbow arrow or a villainous creature, and there isn’t that sense that this only happened because of the situation. Sure, Willow and Xander started making out because they thought they were going to die, but that speeds up the inevitable more than sparking something that wasn’t there before, and the show has no romantic notions about that fact.
I was a bit disappointed that “The Wish” so quickly killed off Cordelia and became a story about “Sunnydale without Buffy,” not so much because the latter wasn’t interesting (it was) but because I think there was more time to be spent with Cordelia after the breakup. The episode makes the argument that you can’t wish something away, or that there are consequences to trying to live in fantasy rather than reality, but then it sort of indulges the fantasy a bit too long without really connecting it back to Cordelia’s struggle. It completely rings true that Cordelia would turn against Xander considering the pain she felt in “Lovers Walk,” but while we got some time to see Cordelia’s side of the story (and the pain it caused her, which we can clearly see now that we’ve been beyond her cold exterior for quite some time) it sort of veered away from her emotions. I get the idea that we’re supposed to be somewhat shocked by the deaths we see (Angel dying to save Buffy, Buffy about to die at the hands of the Master, etc.), so Cordelia’s death captures just how terrible this particular reality is for our characters, but it doesn’t allow it to be cathartic for her character so much as it takes advantage of her anger to start a different story.
I’m sure that the show intends on going into this in more detail, as this storyline hasn’t been fully played out with either couple. The show is smart not to rush into reconciliation with Cordelia and Xander: it makes sense that Willow and Oz (considering their personalities) would work to get it together slowly but surely, as Oz is pretty much the last character left with a romantic outlook on life and this seemed like more of a bump in the road for him than any sort of dealbreker, but it would be too much is people as stubborn as Xander and Cordelia would be able to get past their hangups at this stage (or, perhaps, ever). The show is definitely committed to long-term ramifications from characters actions (as shown in “Revelations,” where Angel’s return shows both Xander and Giles [justifiably] hung up on his previous actions), and this is just as true when dealing with more subtle indiscretions which don’t involve torture and the like.
Admittedly, I’m not the kind of viewer who tends to be a shipper in general, especially when I know enough about the series to know that neither of these relationships lasts forever or is destined to be (Luke and Lorelai, this is not). So, for me, the interesting thing about this particular series of events is how they have to navigate their way into the conflict with some subtle touches in early episodes, eventually building to the high drama which in turn leads to some definitive (but still mostly subtle) consequences. It’s choreographed without being too choreographed, turning around quite a bit of story in a short period of time and managing it within some episodes that have plenty of other things going on.
- It was sort of startling to see guns enter into the picture in “Homecoming” – the show usually isn’t so much with the explosions and gunfire, and it added an extra element of danger that set the episode’s action apart. I know from my limited experience with the show in the past that the show’s firepower changes over time, so I’ll be curious to see how that evolution takes place.
- I really liked how they managed Spike in “Lovers Walk”: the pathetic side doesn’t entirely take away the murderous side, which means that we don’t necessarily fear for Xander and Willow’s lives but we do still view Spike as a threat (as he kills the shopkeeper and all). And yet, despite all of that, we still love the guy, and his “My Way” sing-along to end the episode was a great deal of fun.
- This pretty much goes without saying, but both Charisma Carpenter and Alyson Hannigan were fantastic throughout this storyline, the former in particular.