Lover's Walk ended with everyone on his own and miserable about it. This episode begins with at least the core group (Buffy, Willow, Xander) together and reasonably happy. They are having a Sunday picnic, although they are also getting a little demon slaying in on the side. However, the happiness is not complete. Buffy worries that Faith did not come. She says Faith has been reclusive lately and that's not good for a slayer's mental health. Xander says he has phoned Cordelia dozens of times leaving messages, but she hasn't called back. And Willow is happy that Monday is a school day so she can see Oz and try to get back together again. Willow and Xander agree the kiss was a big mistake and should never happen again.
Cut to Cordelia, sitting on her bed, listening to Xander's messages, ignoring them, cutting up a picture of the gang (herself, Buffy, Willow, Xander) and burning it. This is a woman scorned.
The next day at school, Cordelia arrives. She is dressed to kill and intent on putting her old preXander life back together again. She is met by her old gang, including Harmony and a new girl Anya. Anya comments favourably on her Prada bag, but it soon becomes apparent that the old gang led by Harmony are making fun of her. Things get worse as Cordelia finds that the popular boys are no longer interested in seeing her, at least not in public. But she is determined to make Xander suffer. And Anya, who apparently doesn't think much of Harmony, is willing to be her friend.
At the same time, Willow tries to patch things up with Oz. But all he wants is to be left alone. Willow finds this hard to deal with and Oz suggests her continuing to talk to him is really an attempt to make her feel better, not an attempt to help him. This effectively ends all conversation.
That night at the Bronze, Cordelia is doing a good job of looking like she's having fun. Xander and Willow try to follow suit, but fail miserably. When Cordelia leaves, Buffy follows her and tries to talk to her about how she feels. But a vampire shows up, a fight ensues, and Cordelia ends up in a pile of garbage, just in time for Harmony and her gang to walk by and laugh at her.
The next day at school, Cordelia tells Anya that all her problems started when Buffy arrived in Sunnydale. Anya gives Cordelia her locket, Cordelia wishes Buffy had never come, Anya suddenly turns into a demon and says "done". The next thing we know, Cordelia is alone. She walks into the school to find everyone drably dressed, but also her role as queen of Sunnydale high intact. Harmony is her friend again and there is no Buffy. Only she soon learns there is no Xander or Willow either. They are dead. And there's a curfew.
Walking home, in this new reality kids don't have cars, she meets Xander and Willow. Only they are vampires, roughly comparable to Spike and Dru. They chase her and she is saved by Giles, Oz and some others. She goes to the library with Giles and tries to explain what has happened. Meanwhile, the Master (Buffy never killed him so he rose and took over Sunnydale) sends Xander and Willow to kill Cordelia. They do.
But Giles sees the locket and realizes it holds some secret. He also calls Cleveland (that's where Buffy is in this reality) and tries to get her to come to Sunnydale. He does some research on the locket and realizes that it belongs to Anyanka, a demon who is the patron of scorned women. Meanwhile, the Master rewards Willow by allowing her to torture Angel. Buffy never showed up in Sunnydale and he was taken captive by the Master.
Buffy finally arrives. But this is a no nonsense Buffy with poor fashion sense. A little like Faith without the huge chip on her shoulder. Buffy decides to storm the Master's lair. Giles stays home to try to solve the riddle of Anyanka. He has learnt that all her deeds can be undone by destroying her power center. But he doesn't know what that is.
Buffy encounters Angel at the Bronze, but all the others are gone to
the factory. Angel takes Buffy there and they discover the Master
plans to use the technology of mass production to speed up the killing
and blood draining process. She and Angel attack. They free the
prisoners and a great fight scene ensues. Meanwhile, Giles summons
Anyanka and realizes the locket she wears is the source of her power.
He grabs it and goes to smash it. Back at the factory, Xander
kills Angel, Buffy kills Xander, Oz kills Willow, and the Master kills
Buffy. But Giles smashes the locket and we are returned to Cordelia
wishing Buffy had never arrived.
It's A Wonderful Life. Or is it? When Giles smashes Anyanka's power center, she asks how he can be sure the world he will return them to is any better than the one he is in. He says it has to be. But I think this is a matter of perspective. From a vampire versus people perspective, it's probably better. From Cordelia's perspective, maybe not. True, the world is not as happy a place as it used to be. But she's dead and not feeling it. Unlike the pain she is going through in her reality. And the same might apply to the others. Or maybe it's just a wash. Maybe the pleasure or pain of any reality is the same as any other, just moved around a bit.
The leather s&m look of the vampires (and it was good to see the Master again), the torture scenes, the industrialization of death, these all brought the Nazis and WWII to mind. And that makes the link to It's A Wonderful Life a little stronger, since that film also spanned the war years. The comparison goes deeper. Life had an angel striving to gain his wings. The Wish had a demon who loses her power. Life had the evil banker who took over the town and figuratively drained the townsfolk of their life's blood. Wish had the Master who took over the town and literally drained the townsfolk of their life's blood.
But what I liked best about this episode was not the homage to It's A Wonderful Life, as good as that was, nor the great slo-mo fight scene (which comes about because once again Buffy foolishly goes to face the Master alone), but the insight it gave us into Cordelia. One of the things that makes Buffy a great show is the fullness of the secondary characters. Cordelia seemed a one dimensional creature for most of the first season. But she soon became much more. And with the breakup with Xander, she has definitely achieved full fledged humanity.
I know some people will complain that this episode used the old reset switch technique, basically making everything that happened meaningless. I understand how they feel since I got mad at X-Files doing the same thing in its recent two parter Dreamland. But I think this episode was different. In addition to the interesting dark parody of It's A Wonderful Life, we get some real character insight. Mostly into Cordelia.
Cordelia has always come across as strong and independent. She had the strength to abandon her old gang when she realized she really cared for Xander. She had the strength to face down a vampire in Homecoming. Cordelia once said that tact is another word for lying, that she would rather tell the truth. But now she is facing the toughest battle of her life, and lies seem a comfort. She has to decide whether she is willing to take Xander back. Whether she can live with his momentary (and who knows where it will really lead) straying. So she lies. Not to Xander but to herself. She tells herself that she doesn't want Xander. That she can live more happily without him. That she would prefer a universe in which she had never become close to him.
That's the universe Anyanka gives her. It's the universe Cordelia thinks is her dream world but it's really her nightmare. She's queen of the ball, but there is no ball. Buffy (the girl Xander lusted after for the first two seasons) isn't there. But her absence means pretty well everything that's fun, and especially the Bronze, is gone. Willow, her current nemesis, is dead. But so is Xander and in death they have bonded forever. When Cordelia realizes this, she's more upset than ever.
Originally, she wanted Buffy to never have come because she thought it was her presence that had led to Cordelia's relationship with Xander and the pain it brought. But when she realizes that even in a Sunnydale without Buffy she still wants Xander and he's still unavailable, she wants Buffy back. I think she comes to the realization that the pain of Xander's betrayal is better than never having been loved at all. Of course, things don't work out since Willow and Xander, in the ultimate betrayal, kill her.
The big misfortune in this episode is that Cordelia doesn't remember anything that happened. But at least it gives us some perspective on what she's going through. This is Cordelia's Anne, her flight from the unpleasant reality of life. I hope, like Buffy, she comes to realize she has to go home again.
We get a little development of some other characters as well. Buffy gets a chance to be the emotionally strong and supportive person. She points out a natural bond between herself and Cordelia. Both fell in love with someone totally opposed to them (the geek Xander and the vampire Angel). Both were betrayed by their lovers. Through the series, Cordelia has been Buffy's alter ego. Both had the trappings of high school popularity. Buffy gave it up to fulfill her destiny. Cordelia gave it up for Xander. Buffy did the right thing. I hope Cordelia decides she did, too.
The other character we get some insight into is Willow. For the first time in this series, Willow comes off as less than nice. And I don't just mean in her role as leatherclad vampire dominatrix. I mean in her relationship with Oz. Oz is right, Willow is trying to make herself feel better, not trying to do anything for Oz. She is casting herself as the victim when she is really the villain. And that's got to be a first.
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