May 29th, 2010
“Different circumstances, that could be me.”
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When I remarked a while ago that I intended on focusing on fewer individual episodes during Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s third season, there was a resounding chorus which indicated that “Doppelgangland” absolutely had to be one of them. Not one to fight against a group capable of such raucous consensus, I made a note of it and so here we are.
However, let’s rewind for a second to that initial moment where the episode was suggested so heavily. At the time, since the commenters were so kind as to avoid spoilers, I had no idea why they were suggesting “Doppelgangland;” while when we eventually get to an episode like “Hush” I know enough about the plot to have some sense of what to anticipate, here I have no expectations beyond the comment hype. Is everyone so interested in it because it features a huge step forward for the mythology (like “Surprise”/”Innocence?”), or is it that the episode offers something different that has captured fans’ collective attention?
Part of what makes Buffy so great is that there isn’t just one kind of “good” episode, which meant that all of the hype in the world couldn’t have kept “Doppelgangland” from being at least a bit mysterious when I sat down to watch it. I can’t entirely speak for those who requested the episode, but I can say for me personally that this one’s worth writing about because it’s a barrel full of fun which doesn’t feel like it sacrifices the show’s complexity to achieve such enjoyment. The episode is a rumination on Willow’s unique place as both the most “innocent” (through her general attitude in life) and the most “corrupted” (through the dark arts) of the Scoobies, and the dualities therein give Alyson Hannigan some fantastic material and simultaneously become a thematic consideration that is meaningful to the series’s larger narrative.
When I wrote about “The Wish,” people indicated that Anyanka would be returning in the future, so in some ways this episode offers what could be considered a payoff to that particular episode. As I noted in that review, I was actually a bit disappointed that “The Wish” felt like it did little to connect its concept to Cordelia’s character: I understood after the fact that it was never intended to serve that function, but to me the concept of the alternate reality where Buffy never arrived in Sunnydale and the Master rose and turned Xander and Willow into vampires only reaches its full potential when we see how the characters respond to it. Having Cordelia die as she did may have been realistic, but after her breakup with Xander the character has been marginalized, and that episode remains a missed opportunity to better orient the viewer to her new position on the periphery of the series’ action.
Really, “The Wish” could have been Cordelia’s “The Zeppo,” where Xander’s unique position within the group was investigated through his own side-adventure dominating the narrative despite a largely unseen apocalyptic threat being battled by the other characters. I really liked “The Zeppo” – and liked “The Wish” for what it was, just so we’re clear – but felt it sort of elided some of the series’ complexity. It implied that in order to really understand Xander’s role in the group, we had to abandon the rest of the show’s characters and its larger world and see Xander caught up in a different type of story. I’m not arguing it was ineffective, or that the humorous glimpses into the battle against the monster emerging from the Hellmouth weren’t enjoyable, but rather that its tongue-and-cheek approach is much like Xander himself: capable of some strong moments of emotion, but ultimately playing the role of comic relief more often than not. I like the meaning behind that, in that telling Xander’s story results in an episode which like Xander sits at an awkward (though enjoyable) intersection of the series’ mythology and its sense of humour, but it does result in an episode with less “meaning” to the series as a whole.
Cue “Doppelgangland,” in which Joss Whedon does everything I hoped these two episodes would be able to do and retroactively convinces me that perhaps I expected too much from these earlier segments. While I liked the alternate universe in theory, it seemed to be missing that connection to our characters beyond the novelty factor, so I was thrilled to see Whedon transport Vampire Willow into our universe. And while I liked the idea of investigating the different role each character plays in the broader conflict, I wanted to see the show accomplish this within a less self-contained storyline, so I was equally thrilled to see Willow’s identity episode play out on a larger scale. I don’t know if I’m entirely satisfied with the work the show has done with Cordelia after her breakup with Xander, but this episode takes the structures and ideas present in those episodes to the next level, which is exactly what you want to see from a series as it evolves.
It helps that Willow is one of the show’s most versatile characters, which is what makes the grand scale of the episode work. As noted above, she is perhaps the show’s most “innocent” character in terms of her general demeanor, and yet she is also the most capable of veering towards darkness due to her dalliances in the black arts (and yes, for those of you reading this who have seen the entire series, I do know how portentous this statement is). It is perhaps the clearest duality of any of the show’s characters: while Giles’ past is still fairly mysterious, and the complicated relationship between Angel’s vampiric qualities and his soul is, well, complicated, Willow wears her heart on her knitted sweaters, and when she become possessed (in a sense) at the conclusion of “Becoming” we jumped less because of what was happening and more because of who it was happening to and the juxtaposition therein.
“Doppelgangland” nicely captures this by focusing on Willow’s discovery that she has “OD’d on virtue” and has subsequently developed a reputation as someone willing to be pushed around, someone who is reliable to a fault. Some people actually take advantage of this part of her personality: seizing on her willingness to teach Ms. Calendar’s class following her death, Principal Snyder uses that precedent to coerce Willow into doing a star basketball player’s homework. Meanwhile, other characters have just sort of gotten used to it: Giles orders her to complete a task on the computer in a brisk fashion because he knows that it’s something she enjoys doing, while Buffy and Xander expect her to purposefully bomb a test to avoid wrecking the curve because she’s always offering to help them with their homework. When Willow gets sucked into Anya’s attempts to regain her amulet and connect with the other world, it’s because she wants to live dangerously; of course, once she actually sees the glimpses of what Anya wants to visit, her sensibilities waver and she realizes that she doesn’t want to live dangerously so much as she wants to answer that hypothetical “What If” question which “The Wish” brought to the surface.
As much as Vampire Willow was fun in “The Wish,” Alyson Hannigan just lets loose here and the result is both really interesting and really entertaining. It’s amazing the emotional rollercoaster that results from the story: you get the pleasure of seeing Willow attack Percy (who was earlier such a dick to her about his Roosevelt paper) followed by the horror that Buffy and Xander experience when they believe Willow to be dead. Plus, at that point in the story, we don’t know if the two Willows have switched places or something else entirely, so we too wonder whether something darker has happened to Willow than we would presume. The show can then shift into our Willow being very weirded out by the presence of a sexed-up and “a little gay” version of herself, followed by Willow’s attempt to walk in Vampire Willow’s shoes (or, in particular, her attempt to wear her dominatrix outfit). That it manages to do all of this is pretty impressive, and Hannigan is really fantastic in terms of expanding Vampire Willow into a more fleshed out character (who has her own arc of sorts, struggling to return home to where she’s comfortable only to die just as she did in “The Wish”) while also capturing Willow’s response to this insurrection.
It really all comes down to that final scene, where Willow tries to convince Anya and the vampires that she is, in fact, Vampire Willow. It’s a wonderful scene for the small moments like Willow sneaking in a wave to Oz to let him know what’s up or her inability to speak in anything close to an intimidating tone of voice – Hannigan is a great comic actress, so we eat all of that up. However, I love when she starts talking about why it was that she had to kill Willow, and she starts discussing all of the personal weaknesses she was attempting to overcome earlier in the episode. Of course, we understand that she is transcending those qualities through her bravery within this scene, and that in her ability to spin this tale and help rescue Oz and the rest of the innocents in the Bronze she is proving both the value of her reliability and the sometimes dangerous lengths she is willing to go to in order to help out those she loves. While Vampire Willow does provide a sort of basic “look what you’d be like if you went entirely over to darkness and stopped being yourself” comparative, it also forces Willow to engage with the balance within her life and find a way to figure it all out. By the end of the episode, you feel like Willow has a much clearer understanding of where she is more comfortable, with the added bonus that Percy is terrified of what she might be capable of – rather than changing the character, it simply gives her a new outlook on her own life.
It also fits in nicely with some of the series’ current storylines, including one that the episode advances without really spending much time with it. We see Faith earlier in the episode as she’s returning from the Slayer Test of sorts, and then we see her getting comfortable in her new living arrangements organized by Mayor Wilkins, but she disappears after that. However, the quote at the beginning of the post is about Faith and not Willow, a comment Buffy makes as she reflects on Faith’s struggles following her accidental killing of the Deputy mayor. The idea that different circumstances could result in a different outcome is one of life’s basic instincts, but with a character like Faith she’s avoiding it entirely. She chooses to side with the Mayor because she feels she should be embracing rather than “confronting” the violent side of her personality, as that is in some ways easier than going through the psychoanalytic testing that the Watchers’ Council is subjecting them to. Faith hasn’t become evil so much as she has decided to ignore her sense of duality and become something different, playing a role just as much as Willow was playing a role when she put on that leather number. She is just better at it than Willow is, and while the episode doesn’t try to put a button of her story as it relates to this subject Whedon’s script makes a lot of nice subtle connections on that level which maintain narrative momentum within an episode that otherwise focuses in on a single character.
However, while there is definite value to those sort of broader ruminations on the season, what makes “Doppelgangland” stand out is just how fun it is. For example, as much as the way everyone responds to Willow’s supposed death says something about their real appreciation for the character, their discussion of how much more important she was than Xander or Giles’ explosive hug were brilliant comic moments that worked within those meanings. Similarly, as much as Willow confronting Vampire Willow made for some meaningful character study, the image of Alyson Hannigan licking her own neck managed to be so creepy and uncanny that it overcame the special effects that show the series’ age (but were surely impressive for the time). And the show even worked in some signs of future developments as Cordelia puts on a sexy dress to visit with Wesley and her beau of sorts saves her from Vampire Willow in an interesting little side story. It’s not like the episode got so caught up in alternate dimensions or one specific character that it forgot about everyone else; “Doppelgangland” is momentous not because it changes or shifts the series in any particular way, but because it offers a microcosm of the show’s ability to engage with complex notions of plot and character while still capturing the little things which endear us to the series as a whole.
In other words, the Cultural Catchup Commenters (CCCs?) certainly got this one right.
- I noticed that Angel had a different answer to Buffy’s open question about whether or not vampires draw any of their personality traits from the human they once were from the one he gives, a change he makes to keep Willow from being even more weirded out by it all. I presume that this speaks to the ongoing conversation about Liam/Angel that’s been going on in the comments, as well as likely many future vampires in the series’ narrative.
- My one complaint: I hate to go back to my issues about “The Wish,” but it seems unfair that Cordelia’s attempt to have an honest conversation with a caged Willow about her breakup with Xander both happens mainly offscreen and ends up being false closure. Like with “The Wish,” I think the character’s post-breakup position deserves an episode of its own, so the tease was unappreciated. That said, I thought this was a nice first step for her and Wesley, should the show be heading in that direction.
- Speaking of Wesley, interesting to note the transformation over the course of these episodes: sure, the commenters prepared me for the idea that he would have an “arc,” but right off the bat it seems like the character’s quirks have become part of the show’s universe here in a way they weren’t in the previous episodes. I particularly loved his jump when Cordelia put her hand on his back – wonderful comedy from Denisof.
- I don’t have any sort of substantial affection for Oz, but I missed his “voice” in the series: his realistic take on every situation (like his “radical reading of the text” remark regarding Willow’s anxiety over not getting invited to his gig) is a nice antidote to some of the other voices on the series, and his absence in certain episodes has been noted (although subtly).
- Really enjoyed the moment in the final moments where the two Willows both scoff at Anya’s vow to return and smite them all in the future – scoffing is an underappreciated art, and that Hannigan could bring two different yet similar scoffs to the table shows truly quality acting.
- I’m all for Whedon’s quirky dialogue in most instances, but I thought “Sanity Fair” was an example of Joss taking it too far.
- I think this was mentioned earlier as something someone wanted comment on, but I thought the music really sold the tone of this episode quite well: it may have been a bit too bouncy as if to indicate which parts of the episode we were supposed to be finding funny, but I liked the effect it had in those scenes regardless of whether it may have been a bit too prescriptive. So long as the prescription is the right one I’m not particularly concerned, so I quite enjoyed that part of the episode.