Covering from “Killed by Death” to “Go Fish,” in which we have to be patient, but we are given a great model.
There are advantages to BtVS not cannonballing into the deep end of the serialization pool, but one big problem with its approach is the inconsistent ebb and flow. At times, it can feel like there is a lack of urgency, as it can seem like the heroes being a little lax while they wait for the villain’s next play and kill time before the finale. Angelus doesn’t actually suffer from this issue as much as others will—his big plan, after all, is to torment Buffy because he thinks it’s funny—but some later seasons would buckle under contriving reasons Buffy can’t just tool up and put an end to the apocalyptic plans before there are actual holes in the sky. He’s not immune, though, “Passion” is great enough I didn’t want to sully it, but it does seem a little absurd that no one thought to uninvited Angelus from their homes until then. Coming off the high of “Passion” really highlights this issue, as before the season’s climax we get an episode that sucks, one that’s trivial, and a real classic in between.
As contrivances to hold off the inevitable final showdown between Buffy and Angelus go, the fact that he, Dru, and seemingly crippled Spike are hiding out is pretty good. Because Buffy gets sick, less so, which makes the episode immediately following “Passion,” one “Killed by Death,” a real bummer. Look, I’m very aware that the flu isn’t a trivial as we like to think in the modern day, but here we have Buffy being carted about in a wheelchair, wrapped in a goddamn quilt like she’s dying of consumption in 1815? Come on. While the demon is pretty cool and the idea undergirding him pretty good, but this is all way too contrived and hacky. After weeks of careful characterization, it sucks to see Buffy suddenly given a highly specific quirk (Fear of Hospitals), traceable back to one solitary event—the reveal that this was actually an encounter with the demon doesn’t really redeem it.
Third is “Go Fish.” This episode is slight and probably not very good, but I still rather enjoy its loopiness. It’s another take on “The Pack,” but with some school sports culture and a healthy serving of the Lovecraft classic “The Shadow over Innsmouth” mixed in this time. School sports culture is a pretty large concept, and while there’s some business with performance enhancers and adult enablers and what we have come to think of as rape culture, the attitude towards the team is largely the ungenerous perspective of the embittered teenage nerd—as one once, I should know. Great as the show can be with the individual teenage experience, it isn’t always great with culture. Still, it’s got fishmen, Xander’s inept undercover mission (“Steroids! Where are they?!), Wentworth Miller dropping “Bro!” a lot, and the swim coach beginning his villainous speech with “After the fall of the Soviet Union…” so they’re fishmen that are the product of Soviet super-science. Oh, and Buffy’s rocking Jack Purcells, the extra cool Converse. There’s an inane threat of sexual violence at the end, but at least it turns out to be equal-opportunity for a change.
Angelus appears in both, not being killed and having a fairly unconvincing scene with Xander in the former, and trying to feed of a unwitting fishman in the latter, but neither is very substantial. Tellingly, he and his relationship with Buffy are major presences in the strongest episode of this particular batch.
“I Only Have Eyes for You” is credited to Marti Noxon, who will eventually become a very important figure in the show’s meta-lore for reasons I will have plenty of time to get into later. For now, I think it suffices to say that, given her later output, she may be responsible for the show having concerns with feminism and gender issues deeper than the basic idea of girl fights monsters. I have no special insight on this, just a suspicion. But this is the first episode I’ve noted she’s written, and it turns out to be the first one that’s genuinely challenging.
In addition to being challenging, the ep also has a creepy ghost story, romantic anguish, a tragedy, and moves the Angelus story ahead on several fronts while containing a few needed character beats and quality small details. It has a lovely little story for Giles and Willow as they continue to deal with the loss of Jenny. Even the montage of the exorcism is well-observed and revealing, as Cordelia is extra emphatic once the malign spirits touch her (“I shall totally confront and expel all evil!” is a solid laugh line) while Xander shows some rare studiousness and seriousness during the incantation. Meanwhile, Angelus starts really antagonizing Spike by putting the moves on Dru, until at the end Spike reveals (again, for our sake) he’s not crippled at all, and has his own intentions.
At the center, though, is James and Grace, the spirits whose doomed love traps them so they trap others in acting out their doomed fate—the highly gendered act of violence that is the murder-suicide—forcing anyone handy into playing out their deaths over and over with no change until, ironically, Grace grabs hold of someone who is already dead. Buffy nurses a very specific rage for James and declares him unworthy of sympathy (not without cause, he is a murderer, after all), despite Giles’ sage counsel that we don’t forgive people because they deserve it. And when Buffy gets seized into the spirits drama, everyone assumes that there is no one to play James’ role, no, it turns out Buffy is to be James, with Angelus playing Grace, affording both the opportunity to achieve the understanding and grace (she isn’t subtly named) James’ rashness denied them both.
After the ordeal, Buffy tells Giles that James clearly empathized with her (“I guess”), but she doesn’t mention they ways she empathized with James. They are there, though, even before she is possessed, she spits some good bile about how James “destroyed the one person he loved most in a moment of blind passion,” which, man, sure sounds like how she probably feels about her plight. Even Cordelia notes that Buffy is over-identifying, turning her rage against herself outward. And both she and James want the same thing—forgiveness from the one they wronged, no matter how unintentional the wrong was. James gets his wish, and Buffy gets a simulacrum (while Angelus, perhaps reminded of what he used to be, flees immediately and tries to scrub the “love” away), but even then, Buffy cannot fathom how Grace could forgive James, nor, presumably, how Angel could forgive her.It’s incredibly fraught, full of implication and significance worthy of study far more deep and critical than what I’m attempting here. Like I said, it’s very challenging. What is the significance of Buffy and James identifying with each other, and what are the implications of this switched role in expressly gendered violence? This doesn’t feel like the off-handed and rather ill-advised statement that the fishmen need to get it on, there is an obvious intention here in the endless cycle of man James killing woman Grace, with other slotted into their roles. And it may be as simple as that—energy is best spent breaking the cycle.