[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Drew Z. Greenberg | Director: James A. Contner | Aired: 04/29/2003]
With only four episodes left in the entire series, I have to express my disappointment that an episode as troubled as what we have here exists. At a point when the series should be burning brightly in one final burst, what we instead have is a candle flickering wildly with a wind that keeps threatening to blow it out. “Empty Places” isn’t a disaster, but it’s an unfortunately problematic episode that culminates in an awkward sequence in which there’s a rare display of out-of-character behavior at a critical moment. This sequence is so surprising because the episode gets so much of the character material correct earlier on, which suggests to me that perhaps several writers had their hands in this script, despite Drew Z. Greenberg getting the credit for it.
The theme of “Empty Places” is, expectedly, tied to the title. This is represented in several different ways, from the literal meaning of everyone leaving town and the high school being empty to the more emotional meaning of how Xander’s injury is impacting the heart and spirit of the group to Buffy being kicked out of her house and left all alone again, linking us back with the slayer issues explored in “Conversations with Dead People” [7×07]. To the episode’s credit, there’s a handful of effective character scenes that are actually quite affecting. So without further ado, I’ll just jump into it!
The scene with Xander in the hospital is suitably touching. Even with what happened, Xander is still admirably cracking jokes. Willow’s breakdown, although expected, was moving nonetheless thanks to the wonderful Alyson Hannigan, who sadly hasn’t had much to do since earlier in the season. I feel pretty awful for Xander, and have to admit that Buffy seems a little cold to him. But we soon find out that she’s just concealing her pain, because “The mission is what matters,” not spending buddy time with a hurt Xander. Buffy is staying focused on the ultimate goal of defeating the First. So, while a little difficult to see in the hospital scene, Buffy’s muted, yet present, reaction to Xander’s injury is very much in line with the themes and development of the season.
With that said, I really appreciated the scene where Dawn tries hard to pry information out of Buffy over Xander’s state. Buffy just keeps her head down and Faith can see that Buffy is distressed about it and wisely hints that Dawn move onto another subject. Buffy simply softly responds “okay.” In this brief moment and the subsequent scene — Buffy looking at an old photo of her, Willow, and Xander together — it’s increasingly obvious that Buffy’s working really hard to hold back her pain over what happened to Xander. It’s nice to see Buffy’s care for her friends reinforced amidst a season where she’s had to put aside her personal feelings to lead a group of girls into battle.
The ‘education’ scene with Anya and Andrew, while somewhat humorous, is also kind of stupid. Anya oddly assumes the Potentials are super strong. I think she would be briefed well enough on what’s going on to know that the Potentials are not super strong and that even Buffy herself didn’t push hard enough on the ubervamp in “Bring on the Night” [7×10] to actually dust it. Amanda then says that apparently “nothing” will help in fighting Caleb. What!? I know they all got beat down pretty hard in “Dirty Girls” [7×18], but come on, they have in no way tried everything! Their attack strategy against Caleb was essentially Buffy’s usual ‘brute force’ method, and that really didn’t work out very well. There are other strategies to try. These comments and reactions don’t feel realistic to me and sadly show cracks of sloppy writing on the wall.
At the school, Buffy has another encounter with Caleb. I find myself a little confused as to the point of this scene. We know Caleb’s exceedingly strong, and we already know he’s a misogynistic crazy person who uses religion only as his costume, completely ignoring its values. So we gain exactly what by seeing him knock Buffy unconcious again? Caleb is already becoming a one-note villain, and he sadly stays that way.
Poor Nathan Fillion gets stuck with an uninteresting character, although I give him props for playing Caleb creepy to the max. In “Dirty Girls” [7×18] he was new enough to be intruiging, but now we’ve already seen that there’s nothing more to him, and that’s a real shame. This is furthered by the scene where he talks to the First in what’s an annoying case of the evil villains spouting off their plans to the viewers. Ugh! Scenes like this make me dearly miss the colorful villains of times past, from Angelus to the Mayor to Glory to even Warren. Warren was a misogynist yet was also a more complex character with some real issues and development underlying his madness.
Buffy and Giles have a rare quiet moment to catch up with each other when she returns from the school. Although Buffy has due cause to be a little peeved at Giles’ actions a couple episodes ago and to be cautious surrounding his decisions regarding Spike, her comment about Spike being the only one watching her back is truly uncalled for. I know she’s tired, I know she’s frustrated, but to slap all her allies in the face with a comment like that isn’t fair. Note that I’m not saying she was out of character, but rather just that she behaved poorly. It’s also intruiging to note how Buffy and Giles’ roles are somewhat reversed at the end of the scene, with Giles taking the position that the girls needed to let loose a little bit and Buffy being the one who thinks it’s unacceptable in a time of crisis. Oh the delicious irony.
The scene at the Bronze, with many of the girls getting drunk and then fighting some hellmouth-infused cops, is a little excessive (pun most definitely intended). I understand blowing off a little steam, but it seems to me the only reason why this scene existed was because the plot gods wanted it to happen, thereby giving Buffy a valid excuse to be peeved at the girls (and Faith) thereby setting up the troubled scene at the end of the episode. The plotting here was far too transparent to even have a remote chance at succeeding.
One good thing to come of that scene, though, is the resulting discussion between Buffy and Faith. Buffy is overly aggressive and not remotely in the mood to listen to what actually happened, but Faith is also unfair trying to use what happened at the vinyard — a plan Faith supported — as an argument against Buffy. Buffy smacks Faith down, and in a new display of behavior from Faith (on BtVS that is), we see her not retaliate. This not only shows the growth of Faith as an individual, but also the self-awareness that she stepped over the line with her comment and kind of deserved it. As Faith tells Wood later, she didn’t hit back because “other things matter more.” This is a wonderful continuation of Faith’s multi-series arc.
Ah, and then there’s the revolt scene. Buffy explains a plan to the entire group which requires a return to the vinyard. First of all, Buffy’s logic makes sense to me but she’s got absolutely no proof — something Faith and Giles correctly point out. It’s all conjecture, and you can’t go running back into Caleb’s lair with just conjecture. So the extremely unenthusiastic response from everyone is completely justified. Buffy loses further ground with defensiveness around this very risky plan and then throwing the Spike card out there once again. Besides Giles and Wood, I don’t understand why Buffy thinks anyone is trying to work behind her back or undermine her authority. I’m quite baffled by why she continues to think that only Spike has her back in this episode. With all this said, the group — especially Giles — did throw this leadership role onto Buffy, telling her ‘it’s all up to you now’ back in “Never Leave Me” [7×09]. It’s not entirely fair to throw this burden of leadership onto her only to swipe it away from under her feet when things get rough.
The major thing that bugs me about this scene, though, is how Willow and Xander in particular are so quick to claim that Buffy’s judgement is impaired without even trying to quickly pull Buffy aside, maybe outside the house, and have a more personal chit-chat about what’s going on. It felt very unnatural to me to have all of these final decisions and judgements made so abruptly (on all sides) without anyone even attempting to suggest taking a step back and really talk it out. Well, anyone besides Faith. Good on her for suggesting a little breather and not at all intending to take over Buffy’s leadership role. I actually found it to be fairly touching when Buffy, tearfully, hands the reins over to Faith without the slightest hint of anger or jealousy — just sadness and concern over what all her previous work might end up leading to.
Anya even throws herself into the mix, having a little fit about Buffy not necessarily deserving her leadership title. This just shows how little she understands the nature of the Slayer and all it entails. What she says to Buffy has got to be painful for Buffy to hear because it’s so, so untrue. Buffy’s in no way ‘lucky’ being chosen to be the Slayer, which is something she’s verbalized on countless occasions. Being the Slayer has a few neat benefits and a whole lot of huge drawbacks!
It sits with me just fine that the Potentials would revolt against Buffy and even choose Faith over her, but for Willow and Xander (and to a lesser extent Dawn) to do it is out-of-character and a little absurd. Trusting Faith to lead over Buffy!? The same Faith who almost killed Xander with her bare hands and put a knife to Willow’s throat in S3? I know Faith’s changed, but that change has occurred on Angel and hasn’t been personally witnessed by anyone on this side of the network pond. Sure Willow saw Faith help Angel a bit, but that’s hardly a reason to so quickly call Buffy’s judgement impaired and put her stock in Faith. Wow. I’m not used to seeing such blatantly poor characterization on this show, but here it is! If you’re wondering why the score is as low as it is, thank this scene. Thankfully the character problems are largely isolated to this episode.
To sum all this up, I suppose the end result is that “Empty Places” simply fails to come together. Between the barebone plot, schizophrenic character writing, and overall sloppy feel, this is quite the troubled episode — more so due to its proximity to the final episode of the series. Thankfully it’s not all bad though, and a number of quality character scenes and discussions keep the episode relevant beyond the basic plot points. It’s a mixed bag, but one that manages to just have enough merit for it to remain afloat.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Buffy’s reaction when Clem says that he thinks no one can stop what’s happening. It’s all in SMG’s eyes. Insta-chuckle for me.
+ The concept of the Hellmouth’s energy causing the cops to go overboard with their sense of “justice.”
+ Andrew’s drawings of Anya’s ‘education’ of the potentials. He even writes down ‘breakup sex’ on the board. Haha.
+ Andrew’s burning anger at Faith for stealing his hot pocket.
+ Andrew and Spike sharing their love of the blooming onion. Perfect.
+ Faith and Wood hitting it off.
+ Xander’s return to the Summers’ home with the warm welcome.
– How would the cops know Faith has returned to Sunnydale? We know they’re incompetent and Faith hasn’t exactly been strutting around town making a ruckus. What gives?
– Despite the throwaway comment, I was still a little perplexed seeing so many people dancing around at a club when pretty much everyone is flocking town due to, one would assume, rampant murder and shadowy people roaming the streets.
– Anyone want to slap Rona for her stupid comment after Buffy gets kicked out? It’s not out of character for her, but it’s so downright cruel that I have to list it here.