[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Joss Whedon | Director: Joss Whedon | Aired: 09/15/1997]
When forced to boil down what Buffy the Vampire Slayer is about into one phrase, I’d have to go with ‘growing up.’ As I alluded to throughout the Season 1 reviews, the show is constructed in a way that details the childhood (S1), adolescence (S2-S5), and young adulthood (S6-S7) of Buffy Summers. It also doesn’t shy away from exploring the messiness of the transitions between each phase. Season 1 of Buffy dealt with the last hurrah of the relative simplicity of Buffy’s childhood mind, whereas “When She Was Bad” forces her forward with a very painful transition into the confusing world of adolescence. The complexity of the show and the characters grows with the complexity of its themes, and that is certainly the case with the marvelous second season of Buffy.
Season 2 makes an immediate visual impact by establishing the Buffy staple of having a tone uniquely suited to its themes. Point me to any season, and not one of them feels like any other. A lot of creative work goes into making this happen, from the writing to the directing to the lighting to the music, and more. When it comes to Season 2, its tone is used to highlight the operatic, romantic undertones that pulsate throughout the season, best exemplified by its surreal and moody music choices, dim lighting, warm color tones, gritty/grainy picture, and more intimate directing. “When She Was Bad” oozes with this tone, from top to bottom.
What exactly does Season 2 explore though? Well, the very first scene of the episode begins to answer that question by visualizing the season’s thematic thrust. Willow and Xander mention that it’s been a slow summer, vampire-wise, yet the moment when they close in for a kiss a vampire suddenly appears between them. The camera even frames the two of them being visually separated by the vampire, whose face is pressed up right in the middle of the camera. Just as Willow and Xander’s romantic moment metaphorically spawns a demon, Buffy and Angel’s much larger moment (in “Surprise” [2×13]) spawn a much more dangerous demon.
Principal Snyder gives us some additional clues to what’s really going on. It’s interesting how he describes the students of Sunnydale High: “There are children everywhere, like locusts, crawling around mindlessly bent on feeding and mating, destroying everything in sight in their relentless, pointless desire to exist … they’re just a bunch of hormonal time bombs” [emphasis mine]. This reads as a sub-textual warning that allowing hormones and sexuality to dominate your identity is inherently dangerous, encourages risky decision-making, and often leads to many unforeseen consequences physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Xander even states that “lust! And, uh, thrift” are the demons they face outside of school. He may have been sarcastic in his response to Cordelia, but the show’s playing it straight with us. An awakening adolescent sexuality is not a small part of what Season 2 has on its mind. This is explored in a variety of different ways through the numerous new couplings that form throughout the season.
In addition to establishing what Season 2 is focused on, “When She Was Bad” doesn’t forget to look back on what came before; it knows how important emotional follow-through is. “Prophecy Girl” [1×12] had such an action-filled, abrupt ending that the only emotional fallout we got to see from Buffy’s traumatic drowning was a somber and vaguely fearful “loser” as she looked down at the Master’s remains. For such a pivotal event in Buffy’s life, it would be hollow to begin Season 2 with a care-free Buffy, all ready to get on with her life. Different traumas require different amounts of follow-through (Season 3 nay, Season 6 yay), and I’m pleased to say that “When She Was Bad” satisfies in this regard; for this particular trauma, at this particular time, one episode is all we need to prove the show is staying honest.
Excellent follow-through isn’t just about throwing in some token lines about the past; it’s something that has to be felt. Although Season 1 had moments that showed us that it was capable of that kind of emotional connection (especially in “Prophecy Girl” [1×12]), it didn’t make it a priority. “When She Was Bad” tells us that this is no longer the case as it throws us into Buffy’s mind in a complex way that nothing in Season 1 can match. It focuses on the immediacy of her struggles, while strongly hinting at the dangers that lie ahead of her. This is accomplished in several ways, some of which include how she interacts with her parents and friends, and what her nightmares are trying to say.
Although Cordelia doesn’t seem all that important in “When She Was Bad,” her brief comedic moments have more relevance than you might think. Cordelia overdramatically says of her summer, “It’s a nightmare, a total nightmare,” and then “That kind of adversity builds character.” Later on, her first conversation with Buffy even brings back memories of the night of the Master’s demise. Well, Buffy is having nightmares about her experience with the Master, which forces her to have to grow up in order to move on, whether she likes it or not. Huh, look at that.
Through Cordelia we get insight into Buffy; what seemed inconsequential is ultimately insightful. As mentioned in the Season 1 Review, this reinforces Cordelia’s place as an Alt-Buffy – the kind of person Buffy might have been had she not been called as the Slayer. Being called as the Slayer (i.e. to grow up) forced Buffy to be humbled by life at a very young age, which is why Buffy and Cordelia might say similar things about their summer, but their meaning is very different from each other. But it’s no surprise that Buffy’s behavior in this episode gets her compared to Cordelia. This is also one of many examples of Buffy wielding humor like a sword that cuts through to painful emotional truths.
What we learn of Buffy’s summer turns out to be very pertinent to her journey in “When She Was Bad.” Her dad tells Joyce that “she wasn’t sulking or brooding… just distant. There was no connection. The more time we spent together the more I felt like she was nowhere to be seen.” These words are very carefully chosen by Whedon, because we see them used to describe Buffy’s struggles as the Slayer numerous times throughout the show (“Restless” [4×22] and “Conversations with Dead People” [7×07] immediately come to mind). They also clue us into what the core themes of the episode are: isolation, loneliness, and not fitting in.
While Buffy’s outward angst may be quite explicit, “When She Was Bad” renders its underlying themes with a superb amount of restraint and subtlety. Notice how Buffy lags behind her friends at school? She then tries to avoid eye contact with Giles when he gently asks her how she’s doing. Her response, a sarcastic but unenthused “I’m alive and kicking” (I love the joke in there about kick-staking the vampire in the teaser), is illuminating. The morbid humor implies that something’s dreadfully wrong. Buffy goes on to tell Giles, “I just work here,” suggesting that she now sees her duty as the Slayer as a job rather than a calling. In “Prophecy Girl” [1×12] Buffy may have taken ownership of being the Slayer — i.e. she’s not trying to actively run away from it anymore — but she still sees it as an obligation rather than an intrinsic part of who she is. “What’s My Line? Pt. 1” [2×09] will explore this theme in more detail.
Later that night, Buffy has a prophetic nightmare that is incredibly insightful. Beyond hinting to her that the Master isn’t quite gone yet, it exposes the current state of her friendships. In the nightmare, we see Willow and Xander ask Buffy trivial questions while showing off the tightness of their friendship with each other (by swapping snacks without words). When Giles comes in as a proxy for the Master and begins choking her — preventing her from breathing, a la the drowning in “Prophecy Girl” [1×12] — Willow and Xander continue chomping on their snacks as if nothing’s happening. This makes Buffy conscious of several important facts: she feels (1) isolated from her friends, (2) that her friends don’t care about what she’s gone through and have already moved on, and (3) that she’s got no support system to deal with this trauma and is completely alone.
When she pulls off Giles’ face to reveal the Master, it suggests that on some level Buffy is angry at Giles for being the one that metaphorically forced her to grow up before she wanted to; the one who kept lecturing her about responsibility throughout Season 1; the one who found out she was going to die. Giles is representative of duty — the ‘job’ — that led Buffy to death, and right now his presence is a reminder of how dangerous her life really is.
It’s interesting how before this nightmare Buffy isn’t particularly harsh towards anyone – removed, sure, but not hostile – instead taking her frustration out during the training sequence. The nightmare, though, causes an immediate shift in behavior to where she becomes increasingly reactive and hostile to those around her. Angel is the first to get the brunt of this when he appears in her bedroom window, which, can I just take a moment to say, is kind of creepy. Buffy even brings up stalking later in the episode. I don’t believe these details are accidents. Consider how this feeling will be played out when Angelus is unleashed, and particularly in “Passion” [2×17] — the setup being done here is haunting.
Getting back to their conversation, when Angel says, “don’t underestimate the Anointed One because he looks like a child; he has power over them,” it really brings home what the Anointed One himself represents: permanent childhood, and the power that can hold over an adolescent who simultaneously wants to grow up but is fearful of that growth (to understand this feeling visually, go watch Dawn’s dance with Sweet in “Once More, with Feeling” [6×07]). This is why as soon as Buffy accepts the path forward by the end of the episode, the Anointed One loses all of his power (and will be casually killed off in “School Hard” [2×03]).
Buffy quickly tires of Angel’s usual doom and gloom talk, and although he asks how she’s doing, he’s clearly not there to give her comfort and understanding – he’s there to talk ‘work.’ Despite making it clear she wanted Angel to leave, it is very heartening to hear Buffy say that she missed him, despite that he likely didn’t hear it. This is Whedon’s way of reassuring us that we haven’t completely lost Buffy over the summer – she’s still the person we knew from Season 1 and will be able work through what she’s going through. This is one of those little moments that go a long way, because it makes it that much easier to sympathize with Buffy even as she behaves poorly.
In the car the next day, Joyce makes an honest attempt to find out what’s wrong so she can help her daughter, but this only serves to make Buffy feel even more isolated. This is because she can’t share this trauma with her mom (thanks to Giles instructing her not to, and because Joyce might freak out). That’s just plain rough: you’re going through a traumatic experience and you can’t tell you parents in fear of, at best, misunderstanding and, at worst, endangering them! At this point Buffy is feeling trapped in an ever-tightening box of pain, and she’s terrified of what awaits her in the future.
The lyrics of the song playing during this scene emphasize this: “It doesn’t matter what I want/It doesn’t matter what I need/It doesn’t matter if I cry/Don’t matter if I bleed/You’ve been on a road/Don’t know where it goes or where it leads.” Despite no one intentionally trying to make her feel bad, the ignorance and indifference to Buffy’s life lead her to feel detached from everyone – perhaps even above them (not unlike how Marcie, of “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” [1×11], felt, albeit to an extreme degree). Buffy even tells Willow to “grow up,” which is right in line with what this episode is all about. Buffy’s stepped on that road to adulthood, but Willow and Xander haven’t caught up with her yet, instead making jokes about groping.
When Cordelia stops Buffy outside the Bronze later in the episode, she tells Buffy to “get over it,” which is truthfully what needs to happen. But that’s usually easier said than done. When you’re in this kind of downward emotional spiral it’s very difficult to get out before hitting rock bottom, at which time everything comes pouring out all at once. Cordelia brings an important reality into focus: Buffy’s acting like a child in this episode. She wants understanding, comfort, and someone to take care of her, and she’s lashing out because she’s not getting any of it. But she’s not a child anymore. The time has come where she must grow up a bit and face these emotions all by herself.
As harsh as this is, that’s what being an adult is often about. To an extent, you’re all you’ve got, particularly when you don’t have a very strong family. When Buffy walks back to the Master’s grave after the whole dancing incident (which I’ll discuss in a moment), she is shocked to see her fears rising from the grave again. The thought of the Master being back is both terrifying and painful. The music and lighting in this scene — notice the blue moonlight streaking across the graveyard, a symbol of the life of the Slayer — are really spine-tingling, and such an improvement over Season 1!
All of this brings me to the brilliant dance scene. I opened the review with some comments about how the tone of the show has dramatically changed, but this scene at the Bronze really brings it home. Buffy is ice cold towards Angel, probably because he’s on the right track by asking her what she’s afraid of – something she doesn’t want to confront. After casting him off, she plays Xander like a fiddle. Buffy targets him like this for multiple reasons: (1) to stick it to Angel for suggesting that her behavior has anything to do with him, (2) to pay Xander back for his incessant fawning over and idolization of her, and (3) to punish him for treating her experience last year so casually.
The actual dance just might be the most unique I’ve ever seen put to film. It is a pure outpour of emotion set to odd, surreal music. The reactions from everyone are perfect: Willow shows concern and heartbreak, Angel shows confusion, and Cordelia looks like she’s seen this before (which leads to that pep-talk outside the Bronze). I love how Whedon directs this scene — the guy really knows what he’s doing. It’s one of those moments where acting, directing, and music all come together to create something really special (and it won’t be the last time we get this confluence of elements this season — see “I Only Have Eyes for You” [2×19], for one example).
On the acting side, Nicholas Brendon and Sarah Michelle Gellar knock the scene out of the park. Xander initially shows confused excitement at getting to have this moment with Buffy — a desire he spelled out clearly in “Prophecy Girl” [1×12] right before she kindly rejected him. Buffy, though, takes the lead and mocks him with her sensuality, even going so far as asking, “Did I ever thank you for saving my life?”, and then taunting, “Don’t you wish I would?” Buffy moves herself in a deliberately intimate, sensual manner that is exceptionally moody, but utterly brutal. More than anything else, this scene is a dramatic rendition of Buffy’s sexual awakening, a staple of adolescence.
Whedon lets Buffy be in the moment, thereby allowing the scene to breathe. The camera slowly circles Buffy as she casually sways her body to the music, eventually turning her back to Xander and rubbing up against him — not in a crass way; rather, in an intimate way that establishes her sexual dominance over him. Care to take a guess at what the lyrics of the music are at this very moment? Not surprisingly, they’re revealing and thematically prophetic: “A woman in the moon is swinging to the earth.” The moon and moonlight are constant symbols of Buffy’s struggles throughout the entire show, so much so that the moon appears in the opening credits, with the title written right on top of it.
What does the moon represent? Well, for Buffy, it is being covered in darkness, isolation, and loneliness. This lyric is speaking to Buffy’s constant feeling of separation from those around her (being “in the moon”), and attempts to connect with them are intermittent and fleeting (“swinging to the earth”). This is a major — albeit understandable — struggle for Buffy, an issue that will take years for her to work through and come to fully understand (see “Conversations with Dead People” [7×07]).
All of the elements in this scene blend together perfectly, from the camera to the lyrics in the background to Buffy literally “swinging” to the beat of her life – physically ‘there’ with Xander (the lyrics even going on to say, “I’m riding on a camel that has big eyes”), but emotionally and spiritually out of reach. This is spellbinding television, and a marquee moment in Season 2 that is impossible to ignore.
At this point, Xander and Willow think Buffy is possessed. Giles, on the other hand, is far closer to the truth, which is that Buffy is displaying a lot of the signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He now understands that she experienced an emotional and physical trauma, and, as an adult, is the voice of reason. But there are limits to his understanding. He doesn’t know that she’s having what turn out to be prophetic nightmares about the Master again; he doesn’t know how distant and isolated she feels from her parents and friends. This is why he can explain and contextualize her behavior, but he isn’t able to help her much — that she must do on her own.
Now Buffy has nowhere left to fall. When she finds out that her friends have been captured for a ritual sacrifice, Buffy recognizes that her self-indulgence has put them at risk. This breaks down her attitude and forces her to begin facing her internal demons by defeating actual ones, which takes us to the big showdown near the end of the episode. Buffy gets a massive cathartic release by slaughtering a ton of vampires and demolishing the Master’s remains with a sledgehammer. As the Master’s bones go flying every which way, Buffy gets a healthy ‘in memorandum’ cry over the fact that her childhood is forever gone – it’s time to move on to the challenges that await her in adolescence, which will end up making this trauma look like a day at the spa. On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, supernatural foes are always metaphorical obstacles to growing up, which brings us back to what the show is really about.
Cordelia unknowingly makes a good point at the end of the episode, saying, “It stays with you forever. No matter what they tell you, none of that rust and blood and grime comes out. I mean, you can dry clean till judgment day. You are living with those stains.” This is getting at the fact that, no matter how much the characters may want to forget these emotional traumas, they can’t; Buffy will carry this experience with her forever, and it helps shapes the woman she will become. I also see this, on a meta-textual level, as making a statement that the show is largely done with episodes where the characters don’t remember anything. The writers are forcing Buffy to grow up, so they have to force the show to grow up too.
The very final scene in the classroom may be overly melodramatic (no thanks to the only lazy song choice in the episode), but it speaks to another theme that will become more prominent as the season progresses: the healing power of forgiveness. Buffy is worried that her self-involvement has destroyed her friendships. But, good friends as they are, Willow and Xander save a seat in class and make Buffy feel welcome again – they’ve forgiven her, which shows that they now understand her a little bit better. Is this moment a bit cheesy? Yeah, it is, but after everything Buffy went through, it feels earned.
“When She Was Bad” is an accomplished and rousing opener that gets Season 2 out of the gate on fire, and has really grown on me over time. Its flaws are minor and inconsequential, leaving us with an underrated episode that is densely packed with emotional intimacy, significant character development, an incredible amount of deceptively subtle details (that went over my head even after several previous viewings), extensive thematic relevance, and a boatload of ominous foreshadowing for the rest of the season. “When She Was Bad” displays a storytelling maturity that just wasn’t there in Season 1, which is a really good sign for what’s ahead. Welcome to Season 2!
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Yay for Christophe Beck! The music (score) is a massive improvement over Season 1. I’m thrilled I don’t have to talk about bad music on a regular basis anymore!
+ Giles and Jenny are really fun to watch together. More than that is their importance as the only adult example of a developing relationship – they set an example of how to do it right.
+ The training session is a little over-the-top, but it serves its purpose to clue Giles into Buffy’s state of mind. Plus, it’s always fun seeing Buffy’s strength wear out Giles.
+ Absalom is a vampire with personality! I’d say it’s a shame he died so fast, but we get Spike in his place.
+ Willow’s attempt to recreate the romantic moment at the beginning of the episode is so adorable… until Xander makes it heartbreaking.
+ Giles’ disgusted reaction to drinking the pink soda.
+ Vampire torture via cross-in-the-mouth. Nice.
+ When Buffy tells Angel, “I’m gonna kill them all,” it’s a nice little callback to “Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01]. Then, Buffy didn’t want to get “extra-curricular” with vampires unless she had to. No longer: Buffy’s changed.
+ Buffy’s vampire-dusting entrance to the ceremony to resurrect the Master: funny and punctual.
+ The big fight scene at the end is pretty well done.
+ The Anointed One’s ending quote: “I hate that girl!”
+ Not a fan of Jenny’s hair in this episode.
+ The teeth on the decoy vampire at the Bronze are really silly-looking.
+ The episode risks overdoing Buffy’s angst with the approach it takes, and for brief moments I think it does, but not by much.
* Xander nearly kisses Willow. This shows that Xander and Willow have some romantic feelings for each other, something which is brought up again in “Homecoming” [3×05].
* Joyce says, “I’ll just be happy if she makes it through the school year.” Well, Buffy doesn’t, and Joyce is very unhappy about it.
* Principal Snyder says, “That Summers girl. I smell trouble. I smell expulsion, and just the faintest aroma of jail.” By the end of the season Buffy gets expelled from school, kicked out of her house, and becomes a wanted murder suspect.
* The lyrics in the dance scene bear a striking resemblance to the opening and closing lyrics in “Conversations with Dead People” [7×07]. Both episodes touch on/deal with Buffy’s isolation, loneliness, and the way in which these emotions manifest (i.e. the superiority/inferiority complex).
* Xander got the brunt of Buffy’s display of sexual dominance, but Angel doesn’t get off easy either. Buffy tells him, “Think you can take me? Oh, c’mon! I mean, you must’ve thought about it. What would happen if it ever came down to a fight, you vampire, me the Slayer. I mean, you must’ve wondered! Well, why don’t we find out? Come on! Kick my ass.” She’s going to really regret having said this when “Innocence” [2×14] comes around.
* At the end of the episode Giles says, “Buffy, you acted wrongly, I admit that. But believe me… that was hardly the worst mistake you’ll ever make.” This line is highly reminiscent of what he’ll be telling her at the end of “Innocence” [2×14], showing that Giles is not only correct here, but also incredibly respectful and understanding of Buffy.
* “When She Was Bad” is like a vignette of Season 6, as both the episode and the season show us how Buffy deals with the trauma resulting from her death.