Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Buffy Rewatch: The End of the Beginning

Season 3 wraps up with "Choices", "The Prom", and "Graduation Day (Parts 1 and 2)".

"Look at you. All dressed up in big sister's clothes."

Here's the thing: endings matter. When you tell a story that spans multiple episodes (or a whole season... or multiple seasons), and you have control over when and how that story ends, the ending itself is important. A great ending can salvage questionable earlier episodes, and a weak ending (no matter how great what came before actually was) can leave viewers frustrated. And I think that's part of the reason why I rank seasons 2 and 5 ahead of season 3: I'm just not a huge fan of "Graduation Day".

In the brilliant finales of seasons 2 and 5 (and also 7, and to a certain extent 6), the action of the episode and the emotional journeys of the characters crystallize together perfectly, and the effect is overwhelming. But in season 3, I think the story (the plot threads and the logistics of the final battle scene) overwhelm the characters - and, perhaps, Whedon himself. But we'll get back to that momentarily.

"Choices" is a strong episode, and an important one in Willow's continuing development. The differences between pre- and post-"Doppelgangland" Willow are already apparent. Her increasing powers as a witch will continue to be important in later seasons, but here her new confidence is clear. Not only does she make the active choice to stay in Sunnydale for university (*), but she stands up to Faith. In response to Faith's taunt that Willow would convince her that it's not too late: "It's way too late. You know, it didn't have to be this way. But you made your choice. I know you had a tough life. I know that some people think you had a lot of bad breaks. Well, boo hoo! Poor you. You know, you had a lot more in your life than some people.  I mean, you had friends in your life like Buffy. Now you have no one. You were a Slayer and now you're nothing. You're just a big selfish, worthless waste."

(* Yes, she was accepted everywhere she applied, and no, there's no way that Whedon would let Willow leave. But her reasons for staying in Sunnydale - fighting evil, helping people, becoming a "bad-ass Wiccan" - are valid.)

"The Prom" is another episode I love. Writer Marti Noxon's scripts are often overwrought, but her script for "The Prom" is just perfectly... wrought. After chatting with Joyce, Angel dumps Buffy. We all knew it had to happen, but Gellar sells the bejeezus out of it in Buffy's final argument with Angel ("I want my life to be with you." "I don't." That exchange still kills me.) and in the post-breakup breakdown with Willow.

And all that happens before we get the scene with Jonathan and the Class Protector award. SUCH a great scene; it still gives me goosebumps. (With the postponed airing of "Earshot" in 1999, it seemed really strange for Jonathan to give her the award; with the episodes airing in their proper order, it makes much more sense.) And Angel gives her a "perfect high-school moment" at the end, and we all sniffle and swoon. (I'm not made of stone, people.)

Back to "Graduation Day". I suppose it could be argued that how well a BUFFY finale works depends in part on how well the episode hides the coincidences required for the action to occur. (In season 2, Angel's blood opens the portal, so of COURSE it also closes the portal. In season 5... well, we'll talk about that in a couple of months.) Here, of COURSE the only cure for the poison that Faith used on Angel is to drain the blood of a Slayer. And of COURSE the Mayor's ascension was timed EXACTLY for the moment that he was giving his speech at the Sunnydale High graduation ceremony.

My big problem with the action in the finale is the number of people it puts in jeopardy. The Scoobies know that the Mayor's Ascension will occur during the graduation ceremony; Buffy even sends Joyce out of town, for Joyce's own safety. But what about all the other students? And all the other parents? There are a lot of people involved in the battle at the end - and while I get the point of involving all the graduates both because of their appreciation of Buffy's work and because they're now adults - it was, for me, an unsatisfactorily developed plotline. (Thanks for being there, Larry and Harmony. Sorry about that whole dying (*) thing.)

(* Harmony appears A LOT less in the first three seasons than I remembered. I'm glad this isn't the last we'll see of her.)

There were definitely things I loved in the finale, though. Mainly, almost everything involving Faith. I love the twisted father/daughter relationship that developed between her and Mayor Wilkins, and Harry Groener (who was fantastic all season) really knocks it out of the park when Mayor Wilkins sees Faith in the coma. And I love the Faith/Buffy scenes - particularly that hint-dropping dream sequence. ("Miles to go; Little Miss Muffet counting down from 7-3-0" still gives me chills.) Faith may be in a coma now, but in a lot of ways she's just at the beginning of her journey to becoming five by five. See you (briefly) next season, Faith.

"Choices": A
"The Prom": A
"Graduation Day, Part 1": A-
"Graduation Day, Part 2": B

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