[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Marti Noxon | Director: David Solomon | Aired: 05/14/2002]
“Girl is running on pure fury. I’ve never felt anything like it.” – Rack
The truth is, gentle readers, that we haven’t felt anything like this before either. “Villains” is a near-perfect episode that lets Willow’s magic — which has been slowly building and occasionally crackling for four years now — blow wide open, and in chilling fashion. This is what four years of build-up warrants! Actually, it warrants more than just one episode of this kind of awesome, but I’ll address that in my next couple reviews.
Alyson Hannigan absolutely steals the show this entire episode, and deserves loud cheering for it! Willow storms into the Magic Box with her opening salvo, and sucks all the dark magic books dry. I really have to commend the effects in this scene: they look creepily great, especially the red text moving up Willow’s skin. Her icy-cool detachment from reality is extremely, well, chilling. The scene where Willow matter-of-factly saves Buffy’s life and then softly — but in a fake way — addresses Xander and Buffy afterwards is particularly praise-worthy. That’s a tough emotional state to pull off on screen, but Aly nailed it.
The scene where Willow magically stops a bus that she believes Warren is in is wonderfully charged as Buffy frantically tries to give her ‘motivational speaker’ talk to get Willow to back down, but it isn’t close to working right now. Xander also tries to appeal to Willow’s senses by telling her “You said it yourself, Will – the magic’s too strong, there’s no coming back from it.” Willow responds, in what is possibly the line of the episode, “I’m not coming back.” Wow. On this series we can take her belief in that at face value.
Although most of this episode is a frenetic charge to hunt down Warren, I want to take the time to applaud the details. Willow’s creepy blood-soaked locator spell, for one, is darkly poetic: she finds Warren through the blood of his victim. Once found, I really enjoyed the scene in the woods, which is also extremely creepy yet super cool. I love every moment of this sequence, from the effects to the acting to the dialogue. Just wonderful.
When the big ‘talking’ scene came, I found myself impressed with how the writers dispensed with unneeded dialogue and just jumped right to the heart of the matter. Willow is able to very quickly get to the heart of Warren’s reality when she, nearly immediately after finding him, makes a mirage of Katrina appear. This leads to Warren bluntly showing the disgusting man he is, once again. How he expects to win over Willow’s sensibilities after everything he’s just said and done is beyond me, yet he tries nonetheless, and to no avail.
Willow’s flaying of Warren is honestly — and to this day — probably the most shocking thing I’ve ever seen on television. Seeing a main character of a show rip the skin off another human being, and then have that fact be a part of the character from that point on is truly daring and quite unique. This act makes the “bored now” reference to Vampire Willow in S3 all the more relevant and startling. Although I won’t shed a tear at Warren’s death, Willow’s method of execution is particularly brutal. Flaying? Jeez! After this act, there’s certainly no denying that the show’s earned our fear for not only Willow, but everyone around her.
Before I let Warren disappear into the flame for good, there’s a few remaining things to mention. It’s been pointed out to me that there are some parallels between Warren and Spike at work in recent episodes, especially “Seeing Red” [6×19] . I can definitely see a bit of that. It’s interesting how each of them reacts to their respective bad deeds: Warren gloats and then tries to run away out of fear for himself while Spike is confused and also runs away, but with resolve to correct his deficiencies and become a better individual. It’s obvious who made the right choice, and who made the wrong choice here. By the end of this season, though, both Spike (as we knew him) and Warren (literally) are dead.
“Villains” is an extremely face-paced episode of Buffy, but there is one noticeable moment when the action calms down. This is the significant morality discussion between Buffy, Xander, and Dawn at the Summers’ house. Personally, I think this conversation is brilliant because it is not only relavant to the situation at hand, but it also is a checkpoint in Buffy’s development as a leader. I pointed out in my review of “Consequences” [3×15] that “Buffy doesn’t have a lot of answers because she’s still young and figuring out things for herself.” Although Buffy always had a core foundation of good values, she didn’t really know how to defend how she felt and give real-world application to those values, as she was experiencing things for the first time.
Buffy’s changed over the years; she’s grown, matured, and learned. In “Villains” we now see a Buffy that defends Warren’s right to life, despite what he’s done, and with a strong conviction. We don’t see doubt in Buffy’s stance anymore — she knows what she believes in and makes a case to back it up. Xander and Dawn want him dead, but Buffy makes the case that “the human world has its own rules for dealing with people like [Warren].” She goes on to say that “There are limits to what we can do. There should be.” These words feel very much built from her experiences, especially with Faith in S3, who wanted free reign to do whatever she wanted to do.
Although I admire Buffy’s moral conviction and feels she’s correct, I also won’t shed a tear when Warren dies. I say Warren’s fair game for Willow, but in no way does she have the right to go after Jonathan and Andrew. That’s really stepping over the line. I’m glad that, although Buffy doesn’t want Willow to kill Warren, she still makes a distinction between that and killing innocents like Jonathan and Andrew. And yes, they’re not completely innocent, but in terms of murder, they are.
To wrap my thoughts up, I’ll say that this is a pretty unique episode of this series, from the tone to the pacing to content. I’m very proud of the writers that they are still willing to take risks with their characters, and that they’re sticking to their own rules. Natural deaths cannot be revoked. Likewise, major character-altering events cannot be undone. This gives the entire series a much larger sense of authenticity and reality than it would have otherwise possessed. I cannot thank the writers enough for these attributes.
“Villains” is, simply put, a relevant and significant character moment for Willow that is extremely dark yet still a complete blast to watch. It combines many of the best elements of S6 while dropping the lagging bits. I don’t feel it quite deserves the transcendence of a perfect score due to a lack of a little more underlying intelligence, but it’s about as close to one as it gets.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Clem! He’s the only “happy” part of the episode.
+ Jonathan’s terror of being in “the big house” really solidifies the theme of the season: “This is real life and nobody’s coming to get us.”
+ I totally admire Spike’s guts in actually fighting for the return of his soul. Although he knows he needs the soul to have any shred of a chance of making things right with Buffy, I honestly believe he has no idea of what he’s really getting himself into.
+ Although obvious from Willow’s point of view, I still like the writers pointing out that Anya would have dealt out Willow’s vengeance on Warren for her if wished, but Willow wants to do this herself.
+ Warren being mocked by the demon community right when he feels at his highest. This takes him down quite the big notch and makes him realize how much trouble he’s gotten himself into.
+ Warren going to see Rack is a nice use of a throwaway character from a previous episode. He can “feel” Willow’s after Warren, being fueled by “pure fury.”
+ Dawn comes home, alone, to find Tara dead. After all that’s happened this season and last, I have the utmost sympathy for this poor girl. She ends up spending the whole day cowered in a corner, staring at Tara’s dead body, weeping. Very sad.
– Spike sure got far fast! Is he in Africa or something? That’s stretching believeability a bit.
* The expression on Buffy’s face when she hears that Anya’s got her vengeance on again shows her extreme concern, and heavily hints at their confrontation in “Selfless” [7×05].