[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Joss Whedon | Director: Joss Whedon | Aired: 10/05/1999]
Here we are, the beginning of a new era in the series. This is an episode which does most things fantastically right and a couple things horrendously wrong. Unfortunately one of the wongs is a pretty significant “no-no.” What Whedon did do right here is manage to perfectly capture what it feels like during the initial days of the university experience. There are a ton of nice touches like all the people handing out annoying flyers, endless dumb rallies, that feeling of being completely overwhelmed by the size and amount of people flowing through the walkways, and the freedom from the terrible trapped feeling experienced in high school. Even though Buffy knows she’s got friends on campus somewhere, it really doesn’t matter because she’s still absolutely lost and alone in the mob of students. Aside from the commentary on college life, the dialog was the snappiest it has been since Whedon’s own “Doppelgangland” [3×16] . This episode is downright hilarious a large portion of the time.
I’ll begin this time with my few, but major, complaints. The first is the pop culture professor that makes Buffy stand up, yells at her, and throws her out of the classroom. I’ve been going to college and university for over four years now and that has never happened. I’ve had a professor throw students out of a class for not showing up at the first couple lectures, but at least she didn’t viciously throw them out. Also, instructors rarely care if you’re whispering quietly to a classmate. This scene ended up feeling like a manipulative way to get us to feel sympathy for Buffy and that’s not very fair to the viewer.
My other major complaint lies with Buffy’s fight with Sunday, the leader of the campus vampire gang. Buffy gets her ### kicked and there’s no explanation for it. Whedon seemed to be pulling the “my real life is affecting me” card, but in this case it’s not founded. Her first days at college aren’t that traumatic and just back in “The Prom” [3×20] she says to Giles, “kicking ### is comfort food.” She should have disposed of the group of vamps quickly and should have felt better about her real life issues because of it. When moping at the Bronze, Xander asks her, “Ok Buff, what’s the ‘what’ here?” She responds, “It’s just, what if I can’t cut it? … Slaying, everything.” I can completely understand why Buffy has doubts about making it in university, but making it in slaying? Earlier in this episode she says that it was a slay-heavy summer! She’s fought the Master, Spike, Angelus, a rouge Slayer, and a giant snake. Where in the world is this doubt about slaying coming from? In this respect I feel that Buffy regresses back to where she was in S1, and that’s ultimately the largest problem with this episode; this is where nearly all of the points get knocked off.
There are some nice touches scattered throughout the negative though. I love what they’re doing with Giles! He’s got no job and is trying to reestablish some resemblence of a life again. When Buffy walks in on Giles in a bathrobe with his girlfriend, Olivia, we feel Buffy’s shock. When first watching their interaction it seems as though Giles comes off as harsh, but we then later see what he was trying to do. He wants her to start growing up and being able to take charge without him being there to help her. This is a really good idea but he should have found a much subtler way to do this, which he later realises when coming to Buffy’s aid too late at the end.
Giles isn’t the only one that is giving Buffy the message that it’s time to move on. When she returns to a familiar environment, her home, she finds that her mom has filled her room with packing crates. Joyce has also already accepted that Buffy’s not the same little girl anymore. This continues to fuel Buffy’s loneliness. All of this stuff is genuinely significant to watch as I myself have felt exactly like this during certain transition periods.
This is why when Xander chats with her at the Bronze, our reaction is equivalent to Buffy’s: utter joy. Xander imparts a piece of wisdom from his own experiences. It seems to me that he’s not only drawing on all of his experiences with Buffy over the last few years, but also his failed road trip and even his experience in “The Zeppo” [3×13] . At one point in that episode Xander says, “Oh, man, I’m outta my league! Buffy’ll know what to do.” That’s genuinely what he thinks though. So when he warmingly tells Buffy, “when it’s dark and I’m all alone and I’m scared or freaked out or whatever, I always think, ‘What would Buffy do?’ You’re my hero,” he actually means it. Then, in typical Whedon style, he undercuts the touching moment with an awesome joke: “Ok, sometimes when it’s dark and I’m all alone I think, ‘What is Buffy wearing?'” This entire exchange reminds me, once again, why I love this series so much. Also, Xander’s insightful speeches will become a staple of his over the new few years. In “Potential” [7×12] Dawn tells Xander “Maybe that’s your power … Seeing. Knowing.” Many critics of S7 discount Xander’s speech to Dawn and the attention brought to him “seeing and knowing” as out of character. Well, I think they’re wrong; look at this episode, among others, for proof.
To wrap this up I’ll say that the succulent-for-the-ear dialog and the few good Xander and Giles moments of insight all combine to save this episode from mediocrity, but just barely. The regression of the Buffy character really hurts what could have been a knock-out episode, and that’s truly a shame. I really do love the material aside those couple big negatives.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Willow helping Buffy choose classes to take while the vamp they were waiting for decides he shouldn’t even bother trying to fight the Slayer.
+ Willow and Buffy trading the silly flyers.
+ Buffy’s reaction to Kathy’s Celine Dion poster!
+ Sunday and her group are fun villains for a light season opener.
+ Angel’s phone call that Buffy doesn’t know about.
+ Buffy thinking she sees Angel at the Bronze.
– Military in the middle of a school campus? Out in the open? With guns!? Come on! Already I don’t buy it.
* Professor Walsh says, “Those of you who don’t will come to know me by the name my TAs use, and think I don’t know about, ‘The Evil ##### Monster of Death.'” That’s an amusing bit of foresight.