June 7th, 2010
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“The Future is Ours”
In many ways, “Graduation Day” is a story simply told.
Filled to the brim with shared anxieties and common goals, the two-part season finale is almost claustrophobic in its focus on how our central characters respond to the circumstances which are threatening to change their lives forever. Conveniently conflating graduation and ascension, the series uses the end of the world as a way to exaggerate (within reason) the fear of the future, the uncertainty which defines high school students as they prepare to enter the real world.
As two hours of television, it’s a densely plotted rollercoaster which operates in carefully designed half measures which create conflict and chaos without losing sight of the psychological ramifications within the episode’s action; as the conclusion of Buffy’s finest season to date, it’s a reminder of the ways in which the series has forever blurred the line between human and demon to the point where empathy is no longer a one-way street, uniting the series in a way that it may never be able to achieve again.
I didn’t get to talk about the episodes leading up to this one due to time restrictions, but they are all part of the series’ journey to this point: “Enemies” reveals that Faith is unquestionably joined with the Mayor, while “Choices” brings the Mayor into Sunnydale High and gives him a chance to get in Angel’s head about his relationship with Buffy (I’ll get to “Earshot” a bit later). And in “The Prom,” that final moment of Buffy’s school chums acknowledging her work in saving them from assured destruction on countless occasions is a nice bit of foreshadowing for where we eventually end up in “Graduation Day: Part Two.”
In some ways the reason I didn’t write about those episodes in detail is that they did feel like setup, which isn’t a problem so long as the payoff is successful. “Graduation Day” is only as strong as it is because these episodes showed us the development of Mayor Wilkins’ relationship with Faith, and because they allowed Faith and Buffy’s feud to fester enough that we buy its explosive conclusion (of sorts) in the finale. I could have written about the incremental steps by which Angel and Buffy’s relationship came to a close (again, of sorts), but what happens to them in the finale adds a great deal of complexity to those earlier developments. They’re all strong episodes, but they’re really strongest when you consider them as the prologue to the ascension.
There’s a risk with any sort of endgame like the Mayor’s ascension, as the characters spend so much time talking about it that it needs to live up to those expectations. What works about the ascension is that the show is never content to simply use the threat of the event to tell its stories: because the Mayor is such an interesting character, and because he now has Faith on his side, every episode is building character relationships as much as it’s building towards the moment when the Mayor will suddenly become the essence of a demon. Sure, that becomes the action climax of the finale, but it’s not enough to carry this story, and Whedon is smart not to allow it to do any heavy lifting. The ascension is in some ways the afterthought, the threat which motivates the characters and yet in no way defines them. The idea that the Mayor’s human weaknesses remain even once he takes his demon form is a fine example of this, indicative of the notion that no ascension can change that which we’ve seen develop over the past few seasons.
“Graduation Day” has many parallels, but the most telling is the way that the Mayor’s relationship with Faith mirrors both Buffy’s relationship with Giles and Angel’s concern for Buffy. There was a point where it seemed like the Mayor was heading into some unsavory territory with Faith, as Harry Groener is creepy enough that “pervert” doesn’t seem to be entirely far-fetched for his character. But over time we’ve seen Wilkins become a surrogate father for Faith, not unlike how Giles has become a surrogate father for Buffy. The Mayor has always straddled that line between demon and human in a humorous fashion, stopping amidst a discussion of the supernatural to comment on something mundane, but in Faith we saw a relationship that we found familiar. That scene in the hospital is perhaps the most telling of all, shifting in one shot from Angel having delivered Buffy’s body to the emergency room to Wilkins standing over Faith’s comatose body as he searches for his revenge. When he tries to kill Buffy in that moment, is isn’t an attempt to keep her from stopping his ascension, it’s an act of fiery revenge, and one we can compare to Giles’ paternal affection or Angel’s love for Buffy.
That hospital scene is done in close proximity, bringing the two sides of the conflict into contact with one another within a neutral space which leaves all of the tension to the characters themselves. It’s not dissimilar to Faith and Buffy’s fight, which all takes place in close quarters – the apartment is fairly cramped (being a set, and all), and even when they fall out to the balcony it creates a small space made even smaller by the use of handcuffs. The series has spent the entire season building up Buffy and Faith as characters, along with Mayor Wilkins and Buffy as antagonist/protagonist, but rather than blowing their conflicts into epic proportions everything remains on a small scale until the ascension. These types of small scenes refuse to allow the battle between Buffy and the Mayor, or Buffy and Faith, become a small part of a broader struggle to save the world: at every point until the climactic battle, the entire episode is intensely personal, a mean feat considering that the end of the world is the central threat within the episode.
That’s Whedon’s modus operandi here, though, as all of the characters are forced to ask themselves what they would do if this is truly the end of their lives. For Angel and Buffy, they’re facing the end of their relationship and have to ask themselves what kind of future they are going to have if they do survive. Meanwhile, Oz and Willow wonder what would happen if they never get another chance to be together; as a result, Oz and Willow consummate their relationship, while by comparison Angel and Buffy cross a different threshold, Buffy forcing Angel to feed off of her in an unquestionably erotic ritual which shatters a barrier within their relationship which allows Angel to remain alive but which in some ways pushes them further apart. It’s perhaps the tragic equivalent to Cordelia and Wesley’s realization that they share absolutely zero romantic chemistry: your boyfriend feeding off your blood is not dissimilar from an awkward kiss or one’s “first time” (except for the obvious differences of degree), as it’s something that forever changes a relationship. Buffy and Angel’s connection is nothing even close to normal, but by offering both romantic and comic equivalents to the same situation it helps keep their star-crossed tragiromance from seeming too out of place.
Whenever you create a finale like this one, which ends with the entire student body banding together in order to fight off a horde of vampires and the embodiment of an enormous snake-like demon who used to be the town’s mayor, you risk losing everything else which happened in the season (or the rest of the finale). Buffy’s decision to kill Faith (or put her into a coma, as the case may be) is a huge moral step for the character, and there’s a risk that the focus of the conclusion could lose the gravity of those actions. However, the episode makes the argument throughout that a graduation is more about the journey than about receiving that piece of paper, and the same goes for Buffy. The dream sequence where Faith informs Buffy how to defeat (or distract) the Mayor is a fine example of the ways in which Faith’s doesn’t leave Buffy’s memory. It is Faith, after all, that leads the Mayor (in demon form) to chase Buffy through Sunnydale High, eventually arriving to Xander’s “Demon Shower” gift of a heaping pile of explosives. Her near-death (I know enough to know that the coma isn’t going to last) experience is allowed to remain ethically complex, as Whedon doesn’t let Buffy off the hook so much as he forces her to live with her decision and demonstrates her growth and maturity in being capable of doing so.
And that is ultimately the meaning of graduation in an episode like this one: it’s about Buffy stepping out from under the Watchers’ Council and charting her own path, and about the series moving beyond high school to something bigger. I was expecting more people to die in the episode to be honest (I’ll get to the one major death in the bullets), as in some ways I’ve come to understand Whedon’s major event episodes to be in some capacity defined by who doesn’t survive until the end of them. However, you realize at a certain point that people don’t need to die for things to change. Buffy nearly kills Faith, and Angel nearly kills Buffy, and the psychological impacts of those events are almost as powerful as if they had truly died.
Graduation isn’t a definitive ending, it’s a crossroads on a student’s journey into adulthood, and “Graduation Day” feels like it’s designed to play the same role. This is the end of Mayor Wilkins’ story, yes, and in that sense it’s a bit sad: Groener was fantastic, the characters was complex in his human/demon dualities, and one could imagine how this season could have just kept going on forever and remaining entertaining based simply on his presence. However, sometimes a show has to evolve beyond a particular story, for better or for worse: I am acutely aware of some of those who believe that the show falls off from this point, and some have even suggested that I abandon the show in favour of Angel due to the dropoff in quality. However, while I may or may not end up agreeing with them in the end, I’m not watching this in order to simply enjoy myself: I’m watching to see the series evolve, and so I’m more excited than concerned by the divisive nature of the coming seasons.
For now, “Graduation Day” stands as the sort of finale while delivers a healthy dose of action without losing sight of the season which came before it, perfectly capturing the qualities which made season three so strong while also identifying the ways in which those elements (Faith, Wilkins, Angel and Buffy’s relationship) evolved beyond their initial introductions to get to this point – it may not have the sort of bold glimpse of the future which defines a finale like Lost’s “Through the Looking Glass,” but it contains the same sense of built-up tension being released in an entertaining fashion which resonates emotionally for all involved. If I had ever doubted the claims that Whedon is particularly strong with finales, I think “Graduation Day” would end that doubt once and for all.
- I’ll be ruling on the future viewing schedule on Wednesday, in case you’re dying of suspense.
- As I noted on Twitter, the circumstances surrounding “Earshot” being held from airing as a result of the Columbine shootings are really intriguing – when watching the episode, I wasn’t aware of how the situation played out, and I noticed some lines and some images that seemed to hit a bit close to home. I can actually see why they pulled “Earshot” from air (especially the line about school shootings being “all the rage” or something similar), but what I don’t understand is why “Graduation Day Part 2” was treated in the same fashion. Yes, students are armed in their fight against the demon, and they collect the supplies necessary in order to blow up the school, but it’s very clearly being used to fight a killer demon, while “Earshot” uses Buffy’s newfound supernatural mind reading powers to discover an unquestionably human plot. Either way, it’s something I’m curious to come back to once I feel safe browsing Wikipedia and the web in further detail on issues like this one.
- A moment of silence for Principal Snyder is in order: in some ways the third season never really got to spend much time with Snyder, never fully allowed to become part of the Mayor’s plot and left as a sort of nuisance, but that makes his death here (complaining that the demon was ruining the order of the graduation as oppose to panicking about the giant demon) all the more saddening. With the series leaving the high school setting, Snyder’s death was predictable and certainly a bit funny, but I quite liked the guy and felt bad for him (and for enjoying his death a bit too much).
- The other big movement in this episode (and previous episodes) was bringing Anya closer to the fold. Her interest in Xander, seen both in “The Prom” and here, is being played with just the right amount of humour, as she struggles to engage with her newfound human emotions while simultaneously being disgusted by the very notion of them. As noted, the season has a very clear message of merging the demonic and the human, and Anya is a fine example of that, so her continued presence in the series will be a way for that to continue to evolve.
- It’s unique coming to the series from my perspective, as I can make comparisons that those watching at the time would never have: for example, the handcuff fighting sent me to an episode of Chuck from earlier this season, while the “school bands together to fight against demon” felt a lot like the conclusions to a large number of the Harry Potter books. It’s sort of like reading the Bible after you’ve watched Star Wars in a way, realizing that the order in which we view things colours our impressions of their connections with one another. I know that, if anything, it was Rowling who cribbed from Whedon (I don’t think there’s any sort of cribbing involved, they’re not exactly original ideas), but yet I can’t help but read it the other way, which is (hopefully) part of the fun of this project.