[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Joss Whedon | Director: Joss Whedon | Aired: 06/02/1997]
This is a really good – yet not quite great – conclusion in what amounts to a pretty uneven season. “Prophecy Girl” is smart in the way that it hones in on the core themes of the series so far, and then amplifies the drama surrounding them. Several really powerful scenes build to the episode’s climax, but that climax then fails to live up to its dramatic setup. I’m not sure what happened, but “Prophecy Girl” very noticeably weakens during its last act with a jarring shift towards the comical.
“Prophecy Girl” still has the trappings of a Season 1 episode, yet it feels distinctly different all the same. Whedon’s directing debut is just so far above anything else in the season. From the performances he gets out of the cast (especially Gellar) to how he frames the characters to how he is able to capture a sense of ambiance otherwise missing from the season, this is an important step in the right direction that signals the show’s about to step up its game.
The sloppy ending, which I’ll talk about soon, is such a distracting oddity. “Prophecy Girl” is so deliberate in its tone and direction until then. Take the lovely opening scene, for example, where Buffy is fighting an ordinary vampire, yet it is anything but ordinary in how it is directed. Whedon’s touch behind the camera makes its presence known. All in slow-motion, Buffy is knocked on her back, gets back up, sees the “monster” grinning at her with anticipation, pulls out her hidden stake, sees the monster lose his smirk, and then gloriously smirks back at him. The slow-motion then fades away into real time, and Buffy dispatches the vampire with ease. This is a beautiful callback (and not the only one in “Prophecy Girl”) to the central concept behind the show, about the girl victim not turning out to be as helpless as her attacker thought – ‘subversion’ is the victor once again.
Despite doing a conceptual callback to start things off, what “Prophecy Girl” really cares about is sacrifice. This has been a recurring theme throughout the season, with both “Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01] and “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date” [1×05] touching on the issue the most directly. While Buffy has seen some of the smaller costs of having to give up on the life she wants for herself, this is the first time the extent of her devotion is fiercely tested. There’s this wonderfully subtle beat, shortly before the emotional explosion in the library, where we see Buffy grabbing a stake out of her locker while a few students, likely in route to a sporting practice, casually stroll by her in a playful mood. For just a moment, Buffy tilts her head in a sigh, and then walks in the opposite direction towards the serious peril that awaits her. This is both a literal and figurative nod to the sacrifices Buffy is making every day for the unknowing people around her. This resonates with me so much precisely because it sets up just how hard the terrible news that follows hits her. Not only does Buffy not get to indulge in very much fun, but what’s her reward for that sacrifice? Death.
Buffy overhears the awful prophecy from afar, where Giles says to Angel that Buffy is prophesized to imminently “face the Master. And she will die.” The fact that we know she does die, albeit only briefly (for now), makes this entire scene that much more potent. Gellar plays Buffy’s reaction to this news with a tremendous amount of realism that still touches me today. We see an initial burst of laughter followed by a pang of concern, a burst of anger, and then some tears. It adds up to being a very tender moment, and the first hard-hitting emotional beat of the show that really sticks. This entire scene is a complete success on every level I can think of.
In response to this haunting news, Buffy tries to evade her fate – she’s just not ready or willing to accept death this easily or early, no matter the cause. This is also a subtle callback to “Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01], where we see that she wants no part in being the Slayer. When she tears off the cross Angel gave to her, also in “Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01], and throws it on the ground, we witness a clear symbolic moment. The cross, of course, is a symbol of sacrifice. This moment is a rejection of the sacrifice asked of her, which only happens because she had never fully embraced it in the first place. Throughout this season her role as the Slayer is internalized as a huge annoyance – a distraction from what she wants her life to be. This reaction is, of course, a thematic echo of her desire to remain a child and continue to evade the onset of adolescence. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that the cross is also a symbol of salvation, which becomes particularly relevant a bit later in the episode.
Buffy tries not only to avoid this situation but to actively run from it, telling her mom to leave town for the weekend with her (side note: there are some interesting parallels to Buffy’s reaction to impending death here and Anya’s journey of the same throughout the series). This leads to a wonderful conversation with Joyce (about a school dance), and an analogy about how facing a bad situation can lead to unexpected and rewarding outcomes. And, hey, at least Buffy gets a pretty white dress out of it!
After talking with her mom and learning about vampires encroaching further onto school grounds (from a frightened Willow), Buffy finally accepts the purpose her role serves in this world, even if she doesn’t like it. Buffy is beginning to realize (but still has a long ways to go) that being the Slayer isn’t the distraction — it’s those ever-present risky personal temptations that are the real distractions. These temptations are given form throughout the season thanks to the Hellmouth and those that live there. Amy’s mom, Owen, Marcie, the Master, and others all emerge as the true distractions, or villains, to Buffy’s successful transition into adolescence. Of course, as Buffy begins to grow up, the distractions also grow up, but that’s a discussion for Season 2. 😉
With only an adamant and noble Giles, who understands the stakes well, in the way, Buffy punches him out and picks up her cross, thus signifying her acceptance of what that symbol means. This is an important moment as she tells Giles “that’s not how it goes. I’m the Slayer,” which shows us that she’s now beginning to take ownership of this incredible burden. This doesn’t mean she will suddenly stop trying to have that ‘normal life’ – that takes a couple more years – but it does mean that Buffy at least understands the grave importance of her calling. My only quibble with this acceptance is the brevity in which it happens within the context of this episode, but it’s a defining moment nonetheless.
When Buffy enters the Master’s lair, some relevant words are exchanged. The Master tells her that she isn’t the “hunter,” but rather the (sacrificial) “lamb.” While this statement is partially true, particularly in this precise moment, what’s so amazing about Buffy is that, in reality, she’s both. Buffy will come to sacrifice a lot in the years to come, but she will also become a much stronger fighter as well. The Master’s statement can also be read as relating to the controlling nature of the Watcher’s Council – Buffy’s a “lamb” to them as well. This is why it’s such a triumph when Buffy redefines what being the Slayer means throughout the series, and eventually upends its very definition in the series finale, “Chosen” [7×22]. The connection between the hunted and the lamb is particularly relevant when looking ahead to Season 5’s exploration of the Slayer’s nature, and what Buffy learns from it. I’m reminded of the thrilling season opening ‘hunt’ in “Buffy vs. Dracula” [5×01]. These experiences are all stepping stones to the series’ thrilling endgame.
The reality of the situation in the here and now, though, is a Buffy who still gets frozen in place by the Master’s paralyzing gaze, as prophesized by her nightmares in earlier episodes. It’s here where the Master breaks the bad news to her: it’s her blood that allows him to go free! This is a brutal moment for Buffy in which we see a lone tear stream down her face right before she gets bitten. This bite is shot in a way that has quite the sexual subtext. This is likely purposeful, and represents the death knell of Buffy the child. This forceful violation of her innocence plays as a setup for where the show’s heading next season (see “Innocence” [2×14]). After this moment, Buffy has metaphorically stepped on that long, hard road to adulthood. It’ll take her until “The Gift” [5×22] before she makes it there, but at least she’s now on the path. What is the name of this road, you might ask? It’s called adolescence. No matter how often Buffy may want to look back, life will force her forward, as it always does, and will in the Season 2 opener, “When She Was Bad” [2×01]. Gosh, these prophecies sure are manipulative little things, aren’t they?
The sacrificial theme of “Prophecy Girl” and how it relates to Buffy’s growth is the very best of what the episode has to offer, but there are also a few other positives that warrant discussion. Xander asking Buffy out to a dance has been a long time coming for the season, and the entire scene is written and performed just marvelously – it’s all so achingly real. I can totally understand Xander’s nervousness, as it’s really tough for some people to put themselves out there like that. As a detached viewer, I have to admit that Xander’s complete obliviousness to Buffy’s disinterest in him throughout the season was a little aggravating, but things look mighty different when I put myself in his shoes. Despite all the clues and hints from Buffy, Xander was crushing hard and needed the finality that Buffy gives him here. Rejection is never easy though, and I even feel bad for Buffy having to be the agent of rejection for Xander. At least she was as gentle and honest about it as she probably could have been.
Another scene I appreciated was Willow’s consolation of Xander, which ends up being yet another rejection to him. I found it fantastic that Willow stood up for herself and didn’t settle for being Xander’s castoff date, despite being absolutely wild about him. She tells him, “You think that’s my idea of hijinks?” It’s a great moment for Willow, and a not-so great one for Xander. The one thing in the world that’s always there for Xander, though, is country music: “the music of pain.”
For all there is to applaud in “Prophecy Girl,” it’s unfortunately got some notable flaws as well. For starters, there’s the scene where Willow and Cordelia find some dead boys they know at the school. While the scene itself is actually pretty creepy and does a good job at relaying the feeling that the demons are invading the places in the characters’ world they view as safe, I would have liked a lot more build-up to this moment in previous episodes. A moment like this could have resonated a lot more strongly if this had been a slow burn kind of deal.
What’s far more problematic, though, is Willow’s reaction in front of Buffy in response to this. I think the scene is very well acted, and is important in that it’s the final straw for Buffy to recognize what she must do, but I just don’t buy it at all. There have been so many deaths of people Willow’s known at school throughout the season, all to no tears or even a fleeting comment afterwards. So many characters have showed up for an episode only to get killed off and never mentioned again. There was even Jesse, who apparently warranted no mention after his death. Why is it that Willow is only now so affected by the death of her classmates? It just doesn’t add up, and results in the scene feeling a little manipulative. This is the kind of scene that could have resonated quite a bit had there been foundation built for it throughout the season.
If I had to isolate the single biggest problem in “Prophecy Girl,” though, it would have to be how it all falls apart after Buffy gets resuscitated. I really don’t know what happened here, but the writing, editing, tone, and directing all abruptly change for the worse. Most of “Prophecy Girl” is meticulously directed and has a wonderful dramatic heft to it. Yet in the last act it jarringly races towards the comical, which is tonally dissonant with what just came before, and is not the blended ‘laughs in the drama’ the show will become known for. There are girls screaming, terrible effects, a cheesy and out-of-place use of the theme song, confusion over why Buffy feels suddenly “strong,” and then the overly comical and easy second fight with the Master (“comical” as in I felt the dialogue was kind of funny, but grossly out of place). It’s just a shame to see so much effort go awry at the end.
With all that said, I did enjoy the very final scene. Buffy is both physically and emotionally scarred, although it’s the latter that will haunt her over the summer and into the Season 2 premiere, “When She Was Bad” [2×01]. The earlier dramatic tone seems to be restored for this final moment, and all is well again. As Buffy somewhat somberly says, “we saved the world. I say we party!”
“Prophecy Girl” aims really high and almost gets there, but it’s missing the necessary buildings blocks to fully resonate. Also, the complete collapse of the episode’s measured tone in its final act does a disservice to what was shaping up to be a really coherent episode. I still feel this is a substantive, entertaining, and memorable finale, but it’s definitely not quite all it could have been. Despite its mistakes, it’s still one of the best episodes of the season.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Xander practicing asking Buffy out on a very receptive Willow.
+ The Master getting all excited over the earthquake.
+ Buffy trying to postpone going to biology class by using a panicked Giles (over the prophecy).
+ Xander living up to his statement and actually listening to country music.
+ All the commotion over Buffy’s dress. It’s a basic dress, but I really like it.
+ Buffy just looks so bad-### with the leather coat (from Angel), white dress (from Joyce), cross (from Angel), and crossbow (from Giles) combo. Bad-### and super pretty, simultaneously!
+ The music is the best of the season. Still, that’s not saying much.
+ Xander freaking out over thinking Angel was looking at his neck.
+ The Master giving into Buffy’s desire for a quick conclusion to their confrontation.
+ In the final moments Buffy says “I’m hungry. Is anybody else hungry? I’m really, really hungry.” Slaying seems to do that to Buffy, as Faith will come to point out… among other things. 🙂
– When the Anointed One shows Buffy the Master’s lair, why doesn’t she just kill him? Why let him go?
– The “she’s dead” moment from Angel at the end of the act, followed immediately by “no, she’s not dead.” This is a bit anticlimactic of a beat considering the immediate reversal.
– Cordelia of all people showing up at the right moment, and then crashing through the doors of the school. It stretches convenience and credibility a bit too much.
* Xander says “Guess a guy’s gotta be undead to make time with you.” This alludes to Xander’s persistent jealously and intense dislike of Angel.