[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Rebecca Rand Kirshner | Director: David Solomon | Aired: 03/05/2002]
Anya says, “this is the happiest day of my whole life,” which is immediately followed by a burst of thunder from a storm outside — an obvious bit of symbolism that lays out what we’re about to experience. “Hell’s Bells” is an episode very firmly centered around characters. Its plot is so scarce it‘s almost not even there, which doesn’t bother me one bit. While I think several aspects of it could have been tighter, I find myself enjoying the vast majority of it. Xander’s decision to leave Anya right before the wedding is handled excellently — both the writing and the acting. Do I like the decision to split them up? Well, that’s a complicated question. I guess the answer would be “I’m not sure.” While, personally, I would have loved to see Xander work through his fright and get married anyway, I think he probably made the right decision. Willow sums it up perfectly: “I feel like I should be hating Xander. But I can’t. I just… I just hope he’s okay.”
For all the bits and pieces touched on, Xander’s really the focus of the episode. Right from the start we catch a glimpse of the now infamous Uncle Rory, whose failed jokes only succeed in making Xander annoyed. We’ve heard for quite some time about how bad his family is, but for the first time we see it first hand. Let me say that they definitely live up to expectations, which is not a good thing for Xander. Even catching the quickest glimpse of Xander’s relatives makes it clear why Xander has the committment issues he does. I mean, wow, those are some annoying people. I also love how Anya’s demons are, in general, so much more well behaved and polite about the entire ceremony. This just goes to show that humans can act like demons all the same.
There are two crucial moments for Xander here: the false vision and breaking up with Anya. The demon’s orb shows Xander his nightmare vision of his future with Anya. Buffy’s dead for good, he’s crippled, Anya hates him, they have kids who hate them, and then finally Xander gets so angry at Anya he acts out in violence. Real or not, this is what Xander’s been, mostly subconciously, nervous about all season. He had the jitters for months and kept waiting and waiting to announce their wedding. Then, in “Once More, with Feeling” [6×07] , many of these fears get sung out loud, except no one wants to directly address them in fear of what might happen if they go down that route. When fears and problems like these aren’t communicated before the wedding, good luck doing it after.
I believe Xander’s root fear is that he’s going to turn into his dad. Without a strong role model of a father, or a family for that matter, I completely sympathize with Xander’s concerns. He rethinks this wedding not simply out of his own fear, but also because of how that fear and how his past might end up hurting Anya down the road. Marriage isn’t something that should be treated lightly, imho, and I feel that, although extremely painful now, if Xander really isn’t ready yet, he made the right decision. It feels like too many people get married without knowing their partners or, more importantly, themselves all that well. Without that basic understanding of themselves, how can they ever hope to consistently communicate with each other?
The thing is, as extreme as some of Xander’s worries are (pushed to the surface by the phony vision), many of them aren’t so extreme; many of them really reflect how a lot of families, unfortunately, end up relating. We can also see a massive influence of Xander’s parents in his nightmare version of himself. To sum it up: he’s got issues! These issues should be fully recognized and worked out, on an individual level, before attempting a “for life” union with another person. Before you can share your life with someone, you’ve got to know yourself. On a side note, the acting from both Nicholas Brendon and Emma Caulfield was excellent in that phony vision sequence — I completely bought the situations that were seen.
What I’ve just got through saying is finally verbalized by Xander himself as he painfully breaks it off with Anya: “It wasn’t you. It wasn’t you I was hating. I had these thoughts, and… fears before this. Maybe we just went too fast … We can’t start over. If this is a mistake, it’s forever, and … I don’t want to hurt you. Not that way. I’m sorry. I am so sorry.” Xander’s talk with Anya at the end is potent because what he says is just so genuine. He’s not trying to be mean; he doesn’t want to hurt Anya. He does this because he’s simply and genuinely not ready for that kind of commitment.
When he looks back at this dad furious at his mom, likely drunk, Xander sees in himself the potential to be like that, and he doesn’t want to risk hurting Anya down the road. I think all of us have confidence in the guy, but that’s not what’s important. Like Xander says about marriage, “If this is a mistake, it’s forever. And I don’t want to hurt you. Not that way.” Essentially, Xander needs to find out what we already know about him. The only way to do this is to be alone with oneself, and find that peace and understanding within. The one thing Xander’s truly at fault here for is his timing. He should have have a serious chat with Anya about all this after Buffy died or, at the very latest, after “Once More, with Feeling” [6×07] .
Moving onto Anya, I’ll say that even though she gets the brunt of the pain here, she’s not a complete innocent either, as this demon’s timely appearance proves. Anya’s hilarious, yet ultimately meaningful vows, say a lot about her. All throughout the episode she struggles to get her vows just right, which parallels how she’s struggled to become more human over the years. It’s sadly ironic how the moment she finally gets her vows worked out just right is when Xander leaves. I wholly sympathize with Xander, while still being slightly angry at him for him awful timing, and feel absolutely awful for Anya. One might be tempted to call this cosmic payback for all her years as a vengeance demon, but, innocent or not, I just don’t think she deserved this.
Anya says, “Okay. For the last time. ‘I, Anya, want to marry you, Xander, because… I love you and I’ll always love you. And… before I knew you, I was like a completely different person. Not even a person, really… and I had seen what love could do to people, and it was… hurt and sadness. Alone was better. And then, suddenly there was you, and… you knew me. You saw me, and it was this… thing. You make me feel safe and warm. So, I get it now. I finally get love, Xander. I really do.'” This wonderful speech sums up just how far Anya’s come, but also highlights where she needs to go. Her relationship with Xander took her from an ex-demon to a person. Now only she can make the change from a person to herself.
The old man/demon points out that Anya is “as vindictive as ever.” We know he’s so wrong, though, as we’ve come to be shown through Anya’s actions and growth. For example, Anya is very fair to Dawn in “Older and Far Away” [6×14] after finding out she was stolen from. Anya’s definately grown, but most of that growth is still entwined in her relationship with Xander. Since becoming human, she’s never figured out who she is, as an individual. Although I’m torn on the issue of whether they should have gotten married, I think I’ll settle on looking at it this way: I, personally, wanted to see them get married, and am very sad it never happened. But, from a character perspective, I think it’s more fruitful to have them not get married and figure themselves out first. As I’ve pointed out, they both have serious obstacles they must overcome before being ready for a successful marriage.
I found it interesting that D’Hoffryn is the one there for Anya at the end. When in panic, Anya returns to what she knows: vengeance. Only, as a surprise to her, she can’t do it anymore; she’s not like she was before knowing Xander — she’s changed. This arc for Anya will climax during S7’s “Selfless” [7×05] : Anya’s best single episode in the entire series, where she fully comes to the same realizations I’ve pointed out here.
Although the episode focuses on Anya and Xander, Buffy gets a few nice scenes, some of which reflect good follow-through from “As You Were” [6×15] . Buffy tells Xander how happy she is for him and how it gives her hope that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. But they don’t get married and the next episode is the gut-wrenching “Normal Again” [6×17] , so maybe it wasn’t the best idea to ride all her hopes on Xander.
I like how even though Buffy broke it off with Spike in the previous episode, she’s still a little hurt that Spike has a “new girl” (obviously just there to make Buffy jealous). I love how all of this is played lightly by both the episode and the characters. Spike and Buffy’s conversation is just lovely. Mature and lovely. Buffy really is “glowing,” radioactivity notwithstanding. Buffy also gives Spike the confirmation he wanted that she still cares about him.
Buffy tries to tell Spike that she “pretty much deserve[s]” Spike trying to make her feel bad a little, although Spike won’t have any of it. At the end of “As You Were” [6×15] Buffy finally stood up and told herself and Spike that not only was she hurting herself in this relationship, but she was using Spike in the process. Soulless demon or not, he didn’t deserve how she treated him some of the time. Spike says, “It’s nice to see you happy. Even them. I don’t see it a lot.” It can be seen here that they’re both hurt by the situation. Spike, especially, seems very unhappy — not necessarily at Buffy, but more at the situation they’re in. This is only going to get worse for Spike in the next couple episodes.
In conclusion, “Hell’s Bells” isn’t exactly a spectacular episode, but there’s not much I can find wrong with it either. The humor is mostly humorous, the drama is mostly dramatic, and the characters have fundamentally grown and learned things about themselves, painful as it is. Although it’s bit rough around the edges and a couple of scenes don’t quite work as well as intended (mainly involving some of the interactions between Xander’s family and Anya’s demons), I still really like this episode. I also find myself torn between what I want and what I think is best for the characters, which is almost always a sign of a show doing something right. Beyond the tough decisions, though, there’s not a lot of depth here, which ultimately ends up holding it back a bit as well. When factoring all this in, I’m thinking “quite good, but not great.”
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Buffy and Willow sharing a special moment of hatred towards their brides maid dresses.
+ It’s just amazing to me how people like Uncle Rory manage to ever be allowed to speak, yet there’s people like him all over the place. Poor Xander!
+ Willow and Tara flirting while helping Anya get her dress on.
+ It’s D’Hoffryn!! He doesn’t even need to say anything at this point. Simply his presence is entertaining.
+ Spike’s date is hilarious. Just some random goth chick who likely has not the slightest clue what Spike is.
+ I love Xander’s reaction to the old guy claiming he’s him from the future. “Oh, from the future! For a minute I thought you were a nutball but now that you’re from the future-”
+ Willow and Xander’s interaction is also just… beautiful. I also love the nod to continuity with them in formal wear (see “Homecoming” [3×05] ).
+ Buffy’s excuse for Xander’s dissappearance? “The minister had to perform an emergency C-section.”
+ Clem raising his hand when Buffy asks if anyone is from out of town.
+ Dawn and the horn guy comparing how messed up each other’s families are. The mutual answer: “I guess they’re all pretty messed up.”
+ Willow wanting to cover the dead demon with flowers.
– The two “families” erupting into a big fight. This is a little over-the-top for my tastes, and felt unnecessary.