[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Drew Goddard | Director: Michael Gershman | Aired: 04/15/2003]
“Dirty Girls” is an exciting and surprising episode, but is also one that is slowed by a focus on plot and unnecessarily long introductions. Interspersed into the plot are some great character scenes, a dash of humor, and some shocking moments. Added all up it’s a bit of a jumble, but it mostly works.
Nathan Fillion, of Firefly fame, enters the Buffyverse with some flair, but his introduction is not entirely successful. On one hand, we’ve got a nicely creepy and tangible villain. On the other, I think the episode would have benefited from seeing even less of Caleb than we did. All of those “sermon” scenes with the First only served to diminish his entrance. I would have preferred the “less is more” mantra while maintaining his ‘performance’ at the end of the episode. This would have given “Empty Places” some extra material to fill in some of the blanks around Caleb’s personality and motivations.
A larger problem that Caleb represents is that he usurps the First! It’s obviously not cool to have your main villain upstaged by a new guy who appears towards the end of the season. I see this mostly as a failure of the writers to capitalize on what they had started in “Conversations with Dead People” [7×07] and “Sleeper” [7×08]. Although Caleb mostly works here, we quickly find out there’s not much to him and that he’s essentially just the First’s brute. I feel a lot more could have been done here, with a much more pyschologically scary First Evil and the tangible Caleb as its current manifestation in this world. Had the First been used better before now and Caleb had deeper characterization and motives, this same setup could have been downright explosive. Instead we get something that’s certainly still entertaining and compelling to watch, but not nearly as mythic and complex as the end of the series deserved.
Also suffering the introduction syndrome is Faith, who we are re-introduced to far too many times. From Willow’s reminder of Buffy and Faith not being “study buddies” to the graveyard reunion with Buffy to Andrew’s entire — admittedly funny — monologue about the ‘dark slayer.’ It all reeks of overkill to me. Fortunately, Eliza Dushku seems up to the task of showing us a complex and newer version of Faith, and is obviously very comfortable in this role. The Faith we see now is much more mature, experienced, and in control of herself. Angel did a great job with her. By the way, to those of you who haven’t seen Angel yet, I fully recommend all of the Faith episodes along with the show as a whole.
Although seeing Faith interact with everyone was fun, my favorite interaction was seeing her with Spike. Together they are hilarious and genuine, obviously having a ton in common at this point. Again, I love the continuity and the humor. When they first meet in the graveyard they have a fun exchange of words and punches. The meat of their similarities comes out during the sublime basement chat though. This is two complex, well-established characters having a realistic and wholly entertaining conversation where they find a level of connection in their respective histories. I think this scene might just be the highlight of the episode. This is effortless, awesome character work. Kudos to Drew Goddard on the writing side, and kudos to Dushku and Marsters for the seemingly effortless acting.
It’s wonderful to see a follow-up to the huge events in “Lies My Parents Told Me” [7×17] (although this is not unexpected on Buffy), with Buffy re-iterating to Wood that she meant what she said to him before, but qualified it with a peace offering, also telling him she needs him on her side. Then he, amusingly, fires her! I can understand Buffy’s apprehension about leading the girls into battle, but Wood’s right: they need to be tested. It’s just unfortunate that their first real test had to be against Caleb.
Although Buffy falls into Caleb’s trap, I really appreciate that there’s a good reason for it. Buffy’s not just blindly going into the vinyard for ##### and giggles, it’s like what Wood said earlier in the episode: “maybe you should test them [in battle].” Buffy hopes to use this opportunity to apply more force than Caleb expects thereby getting a solid win and that needed real-world experience the potentials don’t yet have. With how much Buffy can take and with such strong allies behind her, I’m not the slightest bit surprised by her confidence. What happened, simply put, is that Buffy vastly underestimated Caleb and the force behind him. There was no real way for her to find that out, though, without some sort of encounter. Remember Buffy’s speech back in “Bring on the Night” [7×10], about taking the fight to the enemy? Well, this is her living up to her ‘campaign promises.’ The fact it didn’t work out well doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good — albeit risky — move at the time.
With my defense of Buffy’s position put aside, others in the group like Giles make excellent counterpoints. This message from Caleb, about having something of Buffy’s, is clearly intended to be a trap and everyone knows it. While everyone is collaboratively formulating their attack strategy, Spike even wisely makes mention of the “bait and switch,” of which Angelus used to devastating effect back in “Becoming Pt. 1” [2×21] (“And she falls for it every time!”). Buffy, remembering the past and using her allies’ advice agrees to leave Willow behind to protect the ones who aren’t part of the attack on Caleb. The one problem with this idea is that if I were Caleb, I’d be much more scared of Willow than Buffy at this point, despite Willow’s apprehension about her power.
Although I sympathize with Buffy’s plan, nobody else is really convinced by it, and that’s something Buffy really needed to factor more heavily into her decision. Despite having a gutsy move that may, indeed, give them a big win, Buffy must put aside her own ego and ideas in lieu of disagreement from all of her closest advisers. I do like how Faith’s the only other one totally digging the plan, which is true to character. Faith says, “Hey, I’m with you. Drop me in the hornet’s nest, what the hell.”
All of the potentials are also incredibly nervous about this entire assault and some even express extreme doubt at Buffy’s motivations. Xander, though, sets them all straight by briefing them on fight tactics and then going into a beautiful speech on his experiences and trust in Buffy that has been built over the last seven years: “I’ve been through more battles with Buffy than you all can ever imagine. She’s stopped everything that’s ever come up against her. She’s laid down her life, literally, to protect the people around her. This girl has died two times, and she’s still standing. You’re scared? That’s smart. You got questions? You should. But you doubt her motives, you think Buffy’s all about the kill, then you take the little bus to battle. I’ve seen her heart, and this time not literally. And I’m telling you, right now, she cares more about your lives than you will ever know. You gotta trust her. She’s earned it.”
One of my favorite images of the entire series is in this episode, one which gives me a massive sense of perspective and satisfaction. This is the scene where Buffy leads the group to assault Caleb’s lair. What we have here is this amazingly diverse group of people — the damaged, the lonely, the scarred, the reformed, and the innocent — working and fighting together under a common banner. It’s a truly inspiring image that reminds me of how many awesome events I’ve witnessed in this show — of all the character development it took to get us here. We have grown with all of these people, some for one year (the potentials), some for ~5 years (Faith), some for ~6 years (Spike), and some for the entire series (the Scoobies). And now, through all those trials and struggles from various points in the series, they’re all here… together. Just… amazing.
The vinyard fight itself is particularly brutal. Caleb shows what he’s capable of and the resulting damage to the group is immeasurable. Not to diminish the pain Xander goes through here, but be thankful that Whedon didn’t have his way and have Xander actually killed like originally planned. I was particularly impressed with how they showed off Caleb’s power. He can just casually punch and kick people across the room. I also loved that we got shown a preview of how he can be beat, as at the end of the encounter Buffy uses her superior speed and agility to dodge the bulky Caleb and whack him across the room. We’ll see an expansion of this strategy in “Touched” [7×20].
Throughout the episode we got several hints as to Xander’s awful fate. His fun opening dream involving lots of girls and a pillow fight is, in retrospect, very thematically relevant as it plays into Caleb’s whole ‘dirty girls’ motif. He also makes a special point of noting to the potentials that “everything’s got eyes.” Whether Caleb intended it or not, damaging Xander so badly really does achieve an effect of completely demoralizing the entire group.
“Dirty Girls” is a very solid episode that does a lot right. It’s got action, character development, drama, and some big shocks. Where it gets taken a down a notch is with its excessive introductions and unpolished feel. Its overall focus on plot doesn’t do it any favors either, as the plot is pretty simple: Caleb comes to town and draws Buffy into a massacre. There’s enough strong moments and great scenes, though, that most of the flaws can be accounted for but pushed aside for what’s a pretty entertaining episode of Buffy.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Faith’s back!
+ Dawn’s brief reunion with Faith. Dawn says, “Does she have to stay here? Because there’s some nice hotels that welcome tried-to-kill-your-sister types.”
+ Andrew thinking Faith killed a Vulcanologist, not a Volcanologist.
+ Buffy’s pre-fight recon and prep work. Hey, at least she’s trying!
– Andrew warns all the girls about Faith, but how would Andrew know what Faith’s past is? Also, why does this information get lost on the Potentials in the next episode when Faith gets elected as their new leader?
– During the fight with Caleb, I was a bit dismayed at how little everyone Caleb killed or maimed reacted. For example, why didn’t Xander flail around his other arm to try to stop him? Although useless, instinct would have us all at least trying.