At the end of the second season, Buffy had saved the world by sending her boyfriend and friendly vampire Angel to Hell. Or at least the demon dimension that passes for Hell in this series. She was also suspected of the murder of Kendra, the second slayer who was called when Buffy temporarily died, and kicked out of school. After a fight with her mother, she left town.
The third season starts with Buffy's friends fighting vampires, while Giles and Buffy's Mom try to find her. Buffy has moved to another town and is working as a waitress in a diner. A pretty demeaning job where the customers feel it's okay to slap her on the bottom. And Buffy, who could easily break these guys in two, does nothing about it. Boy is she depressed.
One day a young couple comes in. They have elaborate tattoos of their names on their arms. They are also broke, street kids. The girl thinks she recognizes Buffy. Later we learn she was one of the group of vampire worshippers Buffy saved from Spike. Now she's taken a different name and a different, although no more successful, lifestyle.
Buffy just can't stop from helping people. When the girl comes to her,
seeking her missing boyfriend Buffy helps her search. And she discovers
the boy, now horribly aged. Which leads her to some weird demon cult
which is kidnapping runaway kids, torturing them for centuries in the
demon dimension where time runs differently, and releasing them to die
as old men and women on Earth.
I was really surprised to learn Buffy had truly run off. I had assumed she had just gone to her father. But she isn't your average runaway. She has a job and is supporting herself. Not in luxury, but not too badly. She isn't fleeing responsibility, she's fleeing her fate. She just doesn't want the burden of being the Slayer any more.
But things just aren't that easy. When a man is about to be hit by a car, she saves him. When asked for help, she gives it. When she is in the demon dimension the demons force everyone to say they are nobody. They attempt to squash all individuality. A demon guard walks down the line of teenagers, beating them and making them deny their identity. When he comes to Buffy and asks who she is, she says "I'm Buffy the Vampire Slayer". This is a recognition of her identity. It's a recognition that she didn't become the slayer, she always was. Being the slayer isn't just a matter of being strong, it's a matter of feeling the responsibility to set things right. Like a lot of teenagers, Buffy is searching for herself, and in this climactic moment she finds her true identity.
All of which sheds some light on the confrontation between Giles and Buffy's mother. She blames Giles for Buffy's flight. From her perspective, Giles turned her daughter into the slayer. But that isn't the case. Giles is merely trying to help Buffy come to grips with her identity, not force it upon her. Buffy has come to realize that. And with that realization she is able to defeat the demonic forces of despair and return home.
I found this the most frightening episode of Buffy. In the past she has faced demons and monsters of various sorts. Here, she deals with a real problem. Runaway kids giving into despair. Their lives wasted. We know Buffy came close to this. And we know it happens all the time in the real world.
Identity is at the core of this episode. Buffy tries to abandon her slayer identity. She becomes Anne. But when the chips are down, she realizes that Buffy is who she really is. And the girl she befriends, who routinely changes her name, now adopts the Anne persona. Unlike Buffy, she's still searching to find who she really is. And I guess that's the saddest thing about this episode.
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