[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Jane Espenson | Director: James A. Contner | Aired: 10/19/1999]
Wow, “The Harsh Light of Day” is a loaded episode with a comparatively irrelevant stand-alone plot on the side. There’s a big difference between the stand-alone style of “Living Conditions” [4×02] , where there’s very little character insight, to this one though. Spike’s back, Harmony’s a vampire, Buffy and Parker have sex, Xander and Anya have sex, and more. There’s a lot to talk about, so let’s begin!
While we get some interesting material involving Anya and Harmony, the focus here is squarely on Buffy. She goes through quite the emotional roller coaster and it’s all perfectly woven into the main story. The episode begins at the Bronze with Buffy lusting over Parker through his reflection, which in retrospect turns out to be a telling metaphor. (Side note: Using a mirror to spot someone is a tested technique which I myself have used on a few occasions.) Willow gets Buffy to admit that she is “having lusty wrong feelings” towards Parker and adds that it’s not wrong to have those feelings because they’re both “grown-ups.” Unfortunately, I think Willow is being a bit too short-sided and aggressive here. Some people have sex just for the sex, like Parker, but to others sex means something more, like Buffy. So jumping into sex based purely on “lusty wrong feelings” isn’t a very smart move for Buffy — it will only set her up for being hurt.
The big problem with Parker is that he doesn’t just come out and say he just wants sex. He manipulates Buffy into thinking he’s a considerate nice guy who genuinely wants to learn more about her, and not just enough so he can get her into the sack. Normally I’d say that Buffy’s too smart to be duped by this routine, but I’ve got to admit that Parker’s got his game down perfectly. When I first watched him talk with her I, like Buffy, thought he was what he seemed. He snags sympathy points from fake stories about his dad dying and says stuff like “I’m not doing the deep, get sympathy routine.” Yet he is doing the deep, get sympathy routine and it is really tough to tell whether or not he’s geniune. He takes a chance when telling Buffy “It made me think about, you know, living for now,” but she buys it and Parker knows he’s got a ripe one.
All of that leads to the party where Buffy decides to “make a choice” and have sex with Parker. With Angel gone, life in a dorm, and her strong desire to move past Angel, I do understand where she’s coming from. The following morning Parker outright lies to her and says he’ll call her later. At this point Buffy feels really good about her decision (“it was nice”) and is absolutely excited about developing what she shared with him into something more. Gellar acted the hell out of this episode, from the early scenes with Parker to the decision to make “a choice” to the nervous excitement afterwards with Willow to the anticipation, heartbreak, and confusion that follows. Willow keeps pointing out how everything’s a discovery. While that is more or less true for what the characters are experiencing, I personally never felt there was much to discover in college aside from how to get my ass kicked by exams in a whole new way. Of course I’m a pretty atypical college student in more ways than one, so maybe imparting my own experiences aren’t that useful in this case.
Buffy’s personal woes are wonderfully weaved into the search for Spike, which has become a higher priority. While Buffy is searching she is constantly checking her messages, anxiously awaiting Parker’s promised call. The call, of course, never comes and Buffy collapses on her bed in pain. She’s able to eventually track Parker down and finds him using his sympathy speech on another girl already. Parker says he “had fun,” and Buffy replies, “You had fun? Was that all it was?” In Buffy’s mind sex is an intimate experience that is indicative of something more (a sentiment I certainly agree with). Parker says, “I’m starting to feel like you felt what? Some kind of commitment? Are you sure that’s what you want right now?” The truth is, yes, that is what she wants right now. She wants a boyfriend, a lover, and a companion. It pains me tremendously to see Buffy think that Parker’s cold reaction is her fault and to see her even apologize to him. I really feel for her and am right there with her. No one likes to be used, and that’s what Parker did here.
Back in “Surprise” [2×13] I proposed the idea that Buffy simply wasn’t emotionally mature enough to have sex yet. That isn’t a problem anymore though. The mistake she makes here is that she jumped in the sack with a guy she only knew for a week. This is thankfully an experience she learns from. For now she has to deal with the consequences of her hasty rush to move past Angel, and nobody knows how to force Buffy into seeing these consequences better than Spike. In their fight outside he gets some really truthful jabs in and jumps right to the heart of the matter. He says, “So, you let Parker take a poke, eh? Didn’t seem like you knew each other that well. … Did he play the sensitive lad and get you to seduce him? That’s a good trick if the girl’s thick enough to buy it.” While these comments are blunt and pouring salt in a wound, Spike is completely correct in his analysis of the situation. He also gets her stirred up enough to gain her focus back and snatch the gem from him.
This whole ordeal is succinctly captured by Willow’s helpful “he’s a poophead” speech. Buffy still wishes that she can make it work with Parker. Even after Parker and Spike’s comments she still has trouble believing that someone actually just used her for sex. Buffy still feels that it’s her fault he doesn’t want anything to do with her beyond that. In time she’ll fully realize the only thing she was at fault for was falling for it. I have to say I am extremely impressed with how carefully, naturally, maturely, and in-character all of this was dealt with. Kudos to the writers (and Espenson) for having Buffy’s second sexual experience be an important event that’s not washed over. I also like the ripples we see from this in the next couple episodes.
Buffy’s not the only one encountering problems with a second sexual encounter. Anya’s back in town and is very confused about how relationships develop. She’s spent a thousand years inflicting vengeance on the unfaithful, so she knows how to deal with the end of relationships, but the beginning of them is completely new territory for her. She takes her usual direct approach and succeeds in confusing the hell out of Xander. She comes on strong and he can only respond with “Anya. Slow down there. In fact, come to a screeching halt. See these things kind of have to develop on their own.” She then understandably asks, “Okay. How?” Xander then proves he doesn’t have any answers: “I don’t know. I just – happens.” Later on she stops by his room in the basement and, in a hilarious scene, drops all her clothes and proposes to have “sexual intercourse” with him. His response is to squeeze a juicebox empty and shake. Awesome. To his credit he attempts to resist her nude physical advancement by saying that they aren’t ready for this yet, but he quickly gives in. Afterwards they don’t look particularly satisfied and appear to be even more confused.
We find out that Spike’s new girlfriend is Harmony of all people. At first it seems ludicrous that a vampire like Spike would allow himself to be with someone like her, but once we begin to see how their relationship functions things begin to make more sense. The only way that Harmony can gain Spike’s affections is through sex, and we can see that Spike’s not satisfied by it at all. He’s nice enough to take her out to a party, but after a while his limit is reached and he just stakes her. Fortunately for her she was wearing the invulnerability gem at the time. Spike’s noticeably different now that Drusilla isn’t in the picture anymore; he’s a lot harsher. Listening to Harmony run on about France all day is likely a large part of why he’s acting this way, because in “The Initiative” [4×07] we see his swagger briefly returned to him when he escapes an Initiative holding cell. Even though Harmony is incredibly annoying, I can’t help but feel sorry for her when she remains loyal to Spike and doesn’t tell the Scoobies where he is.
It all ends on a really fitting note. We have Buffy, Anya, and Harmony all walking outside physically near each other, but emotionally isolated. They all seem to realize that sex isn’t the key to lasting happiness and that it often leads to much confusion. All in all this is a superb and probing episode which really focuses on the characters. My only complaint lies with the main plot of Spike trying to retrieve the gem — it’s just not very interesting. Also, we know Spike isn’t going to get to keep something that makes him invincible, so no real tension is generated. Although that fact slights the episode a notch, it’s still close to top notch. All the characters are in a really new, uncomfortable, and unexplored state. “The Harsh Light of Day” successfully reflects that feeling and does it in vivid style.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ It’s awesome that they care enough about continuity to keep bringing Devin, from Oz’s band, back. He’s been around since early S2!
+ Harmony actually chatting with Willow before biting her, and then running off with the warning that her boyfriend will be mad.
+ Over the last couple of seasons Angel has been referred to as a ‘puppy’ several times.
+ Jobless Xander working at jobless Giles’ home.
+ Buffy indirectly calling Spike the most tolerant guy in the world because Harmony is his girlfriend.
+ Buffy and Parker running into Spike and Harmony at the party.
+ Harmony revealing that Spike is searching for the gem and that Drusilla dumped him for a fungus demon.
+ Buffy’s burst of laughter in response to the thought that her and Spike dated before.