[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: David Fury and Elin Hampton | Director: David Semel | Aired: 05/05/1998]
Ouch. “Go Fish”, similar to “Killed by Death” [2×18], has the unenviable position of being placed between excellent episodes. Unlike “Killed by Death” [2×18], though, this placement is problematic more to its own inadequacies than to the strength of its neighbors. It’s like a sandwich with stale fish in the middle (or, for Willow, an Oreo Cookie with a sour center).
In a season so consistent with its themes, “Go Fish” only vaguely ties into them, which is honestly a little disappointing. The themes it does tackle are, for the most part, ridiculously heavy-handed. “Go Fish” is funny at times though — Buffy’s on fire with the fish jokes! I’ll grant it that, but otherwise there’s not a lot of value here in what is probably the only outright skippable episode in the season. It could be argued that not skipping it is actually a detriment to the flow and overall excellence of this final stretch of the season.
One small piece of follow-up from the incredibly cathartic “I Only Have Eyes for You” [2×19] is that we now see Buffy with more of a lightly contemplative temperament, where she seems far more at peace than before. Buffy’s quips are even starting to return in force, which is always a sign that she is in a better state of mind. This is indicative of what I think is the most relevant theme I can see any evidence of in “Go Fish”: moving on, or letting go. Note that the episode starts and ends with a shot of the ocean, which I think symbolizes the absorption and dispersion of Buffy’s recent self-loathing; it’s the final grace note to Buffy moving beyond those feelings. Also a nice touch is how men are still trying to blame Buffy for everything in “Go Fish”, but she isn’t taking it at face value anymore.
Another example of this is Cordelia’s very funny monologue to a fish man she mistakes for Xander:
Oh, my God! Xander! It’s me, Cordelia? I know you can’t answer me, but… God, this is all my fault. You joined the swim team to impress me. You were so courageous. And you looked really hot in those Speedos… and I want you to know that I still care about you, no matter what you look like. And… and we can still date. Or, or not. I mean… I understand if you wanna see other fish. I’ll do everything I can to make your quality of life better. Whether that means little bath toys or whatever.
This kind of reads as a break-up speech to me, and if you were to swap Cordelia for Buffy and the fish man for Angel, I can imagine that she’d want to express something very similar to this… except perhaps without all the fish references. The final scene of the episode, where she decides not to hunt the fish men, feels like it’s metaphorically standing in for letting go of any anger and frustration left over from how her relationship with Angel “ended”. Maybe. With “Go Fish”, I feel like I kind of have to stretch things a bit to figure how they fit into the otherwise clear themes of Season 2.
Speaking of clarity, one of the most obvious points of “Go Fish” is a ridiculously ham-fisted PSA against steroid use in high school athletes. Good message; silly delivery. The coach of the swim team is a cartoon villain with the subtlety of a fart joke — the latter probably still being funnier. David Fury, in his first writing stint on Buffy (with Elin Hampton) — how did he get hired based on this!? — somehow manages to tie this plot into old Soviet “experiments with fish DNA on their Olympic swimmers.” Really. The only way I can see how this ties into the season is maybe in the notion of pushing consequences into the future for the sake of current happiness.
The subject “Go Fish” seems to have on its mind the most are issues related to the privileges American men get in exchange for athletic success, which is shown to include some very crude and submissive sexual expectations of the girls they desire. Although unfocused, this certainly fits in with Season 2’s focus on sex. Xander, lack of self-confidence and all, condemns the perks offered to the jocks yet is simultaneously jealous of them.
“Go Fish” isn’t particularly subtle with its portrayal of this topic though. We see several examples of this, such as Snyder basically ordering Willow to artificially improve Gage’s grade, Cameron’s creepy expectation that Buffy should submit to his advances in the car despite just telling him that she was enjoying the lack of “romantic pressure,” Cameron later claiming Buffy led him on, the coach instructing Buffy to dress modestly even though her outfit was actually reasonably modest, and, well, this gross line: “boys have other needs.” To quote from the great philosopher, Xander Harris: “On behalf of my gender, hey.”
I think the point “Go Fish” is trying to make is that when men abuse and perpetuate these “rewards” for traditional measures of success and the institutions that support them, they eventually turn into monsters from the inside out, hence the gross eviscerations. The themes of “Phases” [2×15] seem fairly relevant here, with its musings on the different ways to express one’s sexuality and the associated consequences with each approach. These jocks are acting dangerously close to Angelus, i.e. letting their sexuality run wild without conscience or control.
Wealth, too, has its own protections and privileges, which is what Cordelia personifies. This is why she doesn’t have any issues whatsoever with the way the system is set up:
CORDELIA: Xander, I know you take pride in being the voice of the common wuss, but the truth is, certain people are entitled to special privileges. They’re called ‘winners’. That’s the way the world works.
XANDER: And what about that nutty ‘all men are created equal’ thing?
CORDELIA: Propaganda spouted out by the ugly and less deserving.
Of course, we’ll be seeing Cordelia sing an entirely different tune when her family loses all their wealth in late Season 3 (see “The Prom” [3×20]).
Thanks to Buffy the outlook isn’t entirely hopeless though! “Go Fish” eventually flips the script and shows Buffy in the role of the creepy stalker while attempting to protect Gage, the next death suspect, continuously glancing his way. Buffy is staring at Gage in the way young guys often stare down girls, and what do you know: he doesn’t take too kindly to it — “This me-and-my-shadow act? It’s getting old. What do you want from me?,” he tells Buffy, who responds with “Obviously my sex appeal is on the fritz today, so I’ll just give it to you straight. There’s something lurking out there, and it’s making fillets of the populace, and I think you might be next.”
As the song in the background at the Bronze explains, “If you’d listen, we wouldn’t have to go through this.” Gage thinks she’s nuts though, saying, “You’re one twisted sister, you know that? Cam told me about your games. Go find someone else to harass.” Then he walks right into Angelus, who is continuing to try to pick off Buffy’s classmates only to once again be rebuffed by the insanity that is Sunnydale.
It’s funny how after Buffy defends him from Angelus, Gage suddenly changes his tune towards her: “Hey, walk me home?” This is also a fun little role reversal — we’re used to hearing the girl ask the guy to walk her home for protection — which is a less weighty spin on the reversal we witnessed in “I Only Have Eyes for You” [2×19]. It’s quite amusing, and to Gage’s credit he totally warms up to Buffy after this and kind of becomes her groupie… until, you know, he becomes a fish monster and all. This is also a reminder of Buffy’s true power: her ability to positively change people rather than simply save or destroy them.
While “Go Fish” may have some scattered thematic nuggets and a few fun moments, it has equally as much dead weight. The entire episode is overwhelmed with lengthy scenes of flat/mechanical exposition. The creepy tone from the last several episodes has vanished, replaced with a whole lot of random gross. Christophe Beck’s absence is also felt, although Shawn Clement and Sean Murray’s uninspired score kind of befits such a generic, uninspired episode. “Go Fish” also struggles to avoid boring stretches, with only the occasional joke providing any consolation.
There’s some humor and a bit of depth — scattered and unfocused though it is — to be found in “Go Fish”, but there’s precious little character relevance. Buffy has shown what it is capable of when on top of its game, so I expect something a lot more meaty and a little less fishy than what’s being served here. With a little less thematic redundancy, a little more coherence, and a lot more character relevance, “Go Fish” may had attained some measure of importance, but it just can’t quite get there.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Jonathan sighting! He’s not having a very good time, either, which turns out to be a nice setup for “Earshot” [3×18]. Willow may have inadvertently given him the idea for “Superstar” [4×17] too.
+ Cordelia showing off her knowledge of old U.S. presidents.
+ Cordelia’s hilarious drawing of Xander’s fish man suspect.
+ Willow getting really excited over the idea of interrogating Jonathan, which only leads her to finding out he peed in the pool.
+ All the girls in shock over Xander in a Speedo.
+ Buffy mocking the silly notion of forcing ‘school spirit’ down students’ throats. I never much cared for all that false bravado either.
+ Angelus’ presence makes everything better, but he really doesn’t do anything here.
+ Buffy pulling a pin out of her hair to use as a weapon — awesome!
+ Xander punching out the coach! A little too easy, but go Xander!
+ Xander helping Buffy get out of the fish tank.
+ Buffy still trying to save the coach even after all the crap he pulled. That’s our girl. 🙂
+ Nicholas Brendon clearly being in great shape is a bit out of place for Xander.
* Cordelia’s monologue to what she thinks is Fish Xander — “I mean… I understand if you want to see other fish” — ends up foreshadowing Xander and Willow’s little tryst in Season 3. Turns out Cordelia, justifiably, won’t be so understanding then.