[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Marti Noxon | Director: David Greenwalt | Aired: 12/08/1998]
When deciding what score to give an episode I factor in a lot of different things. An episode gets a perfect score because there are no critical flaws in it and it’s just so good that I don’t need to justify why it’s perfect, it simply is. This episode is the exception to what I just said. Because the dreaded “reset button” is used I considered giving this a lower score. After all, none of the characters remember anything that happened afterwards thereby making that entire portion of the episode essentially irrelevant. At least that’s what happens most of the time when the “reset button” is used. It happened more times than I can count (or that I’d like to admit I sat through) on Star Trek: Voyager.
There are several things that make this episode different though. The first is that under three quarters of the episode takes place in the alternate reality; the first quarter is important and is remembered by all the characters. The second is that although none of the characters remember anything from the experience, the viewers do, and this is important because we learn vital tidbits about the main characters in the process. The third is that the series doesn’t ever do this again. And finally, the fourth, is that this world, where Buffy never came to Sunnydale, is extremely interesting, entertaining, dark, and well done.
This episode has two distinct ‘sections’ which are connected through Cordelia. Both of these ‘sections’ are, well, perfect. In the beginning we get some ultra light fun where Buffy slays a corny demon and the group continues their picnic like nothing happened; business as usual. It’s here when Xander asks Buffy how she deals with the pain of lost love (and I think he also means life in general). She responds, “I have you guys.” The slow dissolution of the Scoobies in the following seasons is why everything will eventually break apart. They don’t feel like they “have each other” anymore which is why they keep secrets and grow increasingly separated. This happens to a lot of people when they go to college and out into the work world.
I liked seeing Oz’s rejection of Willow’s plea for talk. Oz knows that Willow wants to talk with him about what she did so she can feel better about herself. He suitably replies to this by saying “that’s not my problem.” The scene at the Bronze picks up on all these points while Buffy, Willow, and Xander are moping around and chatting with each other. Xander’s trying to move on as soon as possible, Willow feels horrible and wants to make it right with Oz, and Buffy is just kind of confused about everything.
Cordelia attempts to slide back into her old persona again with ease. Happily, and a testament to her character’s growth, this doesn’t succeed. When unhappy and covered in trash Cordelia comes to the realization that all of her problems stem from Buffy. Anyanka is attempting to get Cordelia to wish something bad upon Xander, but instead ends up granting a different kind of wish. Cordelia wishes that Buffy had never come to Sunnydale in the first place in the hopes that she’d never get tangled up in the supernatural and end up getting together with Xander. She’s obviously angry at both Willow and Xander, but by her reaction at the news that they’re both dead we can see that she didn’t really hate them. It becomes increasingly obvious to her that Buffy is not the cause of her pain.
It’s interesting that in the Buffy-less Sunnydale Willow and Xander are vampires. One might argue that Willow got bit during the events of “Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01] , but remember that it was Buffy who told her to “seize the day” which was the reason she went out into the crowd in the first place. Nevertheless, it still makes sense that eventually one of these two would have been bit and then would have immediately went to change the other. Willow as a vampire is actually pretty terrifying. At first she comes off as a joke but we see her true colors when torturing Angel. Xander rubs off as very much like his human personality. He follows others’ leads and works as an underling. Willow takes change and is a powerful minion under the Master. This fits with what we know of Willow’s continually growing self confidence.
What’s truly the most shocking, though, is how different Buffy is. She is very battle worn, tired, humorless, and has that “death wish” that Spike says all slayers have in “Fool for Love” [5×07] . She partially lets the Master snap her neck because she’s so tired of fighting. The look on her face leading up to her death says everything. It shows that she is already dead on the inside. Buffy is not a ‘special’ Slayer in this reality. She fights alone and dies just like all the girls before her. The only thing that makes her unique is that she has to live in a world where the hellmouth is open. When I first saw this episode I found myself wanting to see more of this Buffy’s life and how she got to the point she was at. There’s a reason why we’re seeing Buffy’s story in the real world though: she’s a unique Slayer there and that is part of what makes her so interesting. What we need to see in an episode like this is a glimpse at how all the main characters would have turned out had Buffy not arrived, and the episode does just that. We never knew pre-Sunnydale Buffy in the first place, so seeing more of her story in this alternate reality wouldn’t be terribly interesting.
The episode wraps up with a very chilling battle where Xander kills Angel (how ironic is that), Buffy kills Xander, Oz kills Willow, and the Master kills Buffy, all with beautifully haunting music running over top. Giles destroys Anyanka’s power center in the middle of all this and reality is restored back to normal where we see Buffy, Willow, and Xander together and, more or less, happy. To sum this up, I got everything I needed to get from an episode like this. There was time spent dealing with the aftermath of the previous episode, a dark look into an alternate reality Sunnydale, lots of subtle character foreshadowing, and a beautifully chilling ending. Perfect, but I think you already knew that.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Xander claims to have left 60 or 70 calls on Cordelia’s answering machine and actually did.
+ A mention of Amy, which sets up her appearance in the next episode.
+ Xander fake-laughing at Buffy and Willow to make it appear to Cordelia that he’s moved on.
+ The Bronze being infested by vampires and the place where they all hang out. It’s also fun seeing the Master back, above ground, and basically running Sunnydale. I wonder where the Mayor is.
+ Willow and Xander killing Cordelia together in an odd sensual vampiric embrace.
+ The Master making use of modern technology. There’s a reason why this guy’s lived so long.
* Anyanka wishes to help bring vengeance onto Xander because of what he did to Cordelia. It’s interesting that she’s trying to do the same thing over three years later (“Entropy” [6×18] ) because Xander leaves her at the altar (“Hell’s Bells” [6×16] ).
* The general atmosphere and the characters are in a very similar place to that of the later seasons (S5-S7). Willow’s evil, Angel is out of the picture, Buffy’s a complete loner and dies. These are all things that, more or less, happen over the course of the series.