Covering from “Enemies” to “The Prom,” in which once you’ve hit your lowest, you find you can still ascend.
So much happens in these episodes. Faith’s treachery is revealed. Buffy, Angel, and Giles engage in a deadly game. Jonathan becomes a character. The dalliances of Joyce and Giles come to light. Willow is taken hostage and mucks about the belly of the beast. Oz smashes a bowl. The Mayor eats a box of spiders. Cordelia gets a job. Anya gets Xander to take her to the prom. Xander shows some real selflessness and makes things right by Cordelia.
The big through-line, however, is Buffy and Angel.
Usually, I’m pretty averse to being asked to take shared love between mortals and immortals seriously. The power dynamics and experiences are just too skeewompus for me to accept them as anything but a writer’s construction and a wish fulfillment fantasy. Fair enough on the latter, but it can be tough to invest in. The most well-known offender in this regard is Twilight, which I confess I’m not too familiar with, but I can easily see the main thrust—a centuries-old immortal finds appeal in an average (or, as I’ve been told, quite dull) high-schooler? Doesn’t seem too authentic.
For some reason, though, Buffy and Angel’s love has a modicum of legitimacy, enough for me to invest in it. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one, perhaps the core reason, is that as the Slayer, Buffy does hold some sort of mystic, profound connection with the vampires, which, accordingly, makes their relationship easier to digest and accept. It helps that the show doesn’t pitch their love as anything less than doomed.
While we’ve had a few episodes of Buffy and Angel (Bangel? Buffgel? Angffy? Not sure what the approved combo name is here) enjoying a seemingly untainted, angstless rapport, under the assumption that they now know what the boundaries of their relationship are—after taking Spike’s insight that they will never be friends and separating, Buffy’s inhibitions didn’t go back to where they were before “Bad Girls,” and they decided to push things the opposite direction. They slay vampires alongside each other, toss around couple-y pet names, get all handsy, do synchronized sexy tai chi, languish about while Angel’s in an a-shirt, and basically do everything a couple might right up to the point where clothes start having to come off. Basically, they’re playing with fire, particularly recklessly in light of Angel’s “Amends” admission that his weak human soul was wracked by temptation and a yearning to be unburdened. They need a reminder of the stakes they’re monkeying with.
And one comes when the Mayor gets Faith to try to steal Angel’s soul—a plot luckily intercepted because Giles is a good matchmaker—prompting them to plot a counter plot, where Angel will pretend to turn on his allies and see what information he can glean from Faith and the Mayor. An ingenious plan, with only one problem. Buffy and Angel aren’t “allies,” they are lovers who cannot be lovers because if they were, he would become the unconscionably evil thing she asks him to pretend to be. It’s all pretend, but even the charade is enough to terrify the both of them, a potent reminder of what happens should their vigilance prove less than eternal, a real possibility if they keep accidentally taking in French erotica on movie night.
But Buffy is still very young, and despite her frequent seriousness, she’s still quite impetuous and a bit heedless of ramifications, pretty clearly illustrated when some demon blood in “Earshot” gives her telepathy. For her, there is only the upside of such an ability, the downsides or ethical matters (best exhibited by Oz’s profound inner monologue contrasted with his blasé outward utterance) don’t occur to her until far too late. Wouldn’t she be better off not knowing her mother fucked Giles on a police car twice (while it’s crude to put that way, if ever there was a time to use the verb “fuck,” it’s on a police car)? Likewise, she ignores the existing and growing signs that she and Angel aren’t going to work long term, thinking instead of how he force-fed her a curative demon’s heart.
For Angel’s part…well, he’s already said he’s weak.
Aside: “Earshot” is notable, because not only is it very good (all of these episodes are very good, point of fact), but it’s also an episode whose airing was delayed in deference to the Columbine shootings, since it’s about a bitter psychotic vowing to kill everyone at a school and the misdirect sees Jonathan bringing an absurdly impractical gun to kill himself with. Nineteen hundred and ninety-nine, a quaint time when we thought the shooting of children ought provoke a national response.
But there is one person in Sunnydale with rare insight into the problems that face intermortality couples—Mayor Richard Wilkins, of course. As he says, it isn’t a pretty picture. The Mayor’s evil 50’s patriarch song and dance masks a manipulative soul (his scenes with Faith bear all the hallmarks of emotional abuse—praise, rewards, and affections undercut with the threat of their being taken away while he also, of course, continually and disingenuously measures her against Buffy), and like the best manipulators, everything he says is true. It’s especially true when he focuses his attack on Angel, and says the things we’ve all be thinking about their relationship. Did he really get pulled from a hell dimension just to be a celibate, melanin-deprived albatross who could turn evil at any time about her neck? How is he supposed to star in a spin-off if he’s still cuddling the star of his old show?
Right though he is, the Mayor lacks credibility, as Oz might observe. But Joyce doesn’t—indeed, after seeing her metamorphosis into her moony, daffy teenage self in “Band Candy,” we can conclude Joyce has some keen insights into Buffy’s mooniness, and how as the mature half of the relationship (his 272 birthdays out-scaling her 18), it will fall to him to make the mature decision. Buffy may snidely dismiss the notion that she’s just a swooning schoolgirl, but she is still scrawling “Buffy & Angel 4evar!” on her notebooks.
To my memory, “The Prom” is the last episode truly dedicated to Buffy’s irreconcilable desire for a normal youth, and her calling—it’s the one where she truly accepts how irreconcilable those things are. She can’t have the one perfect high school memory where her boy wears a killer tuxedo and takes her to prom where they dance to Fat Boy Slim, because that boy is a vampire roughly contemporary with Immanuel Kant, and he doesn’t quite get prom. What she can do, though, is ensure everyone else gets to praise each other like they should, while she makes herself a sad simulacrum of the experience, stashing her dress along with her weapons so she can arrive stag.
But while Buffy makes herself a sad simulacrum, what she actually gets is better than the cliché she wants, when her class acknowledges her many sacrifices and dub her Class Protector. And then, for one last night, her boy shows up in a killer tuxedo for a slow dance.
What lingers about “The Prom,” though, isn’t that last dance, sweet as it is. No, it’s the Class Protector award that’s saying something, as Giles observes, an act of uncharacteristic graciousness from a mass of children. Season 3 has largely been a critique of the structures of society, the institution of power, the authority to exploit. And no institution has been crueler or more capricious than school. But here so near the end, it’s the real school, the students and staff who make it up, who make the case for something stronger. The community of being human.
So give it up for the lowest mortality rate in Sunnydale High history! Woooooo!
Costuming Alert!: You thought I might not call out Xander, didn’t you. Oh, no. If anything, I have the best footing in calling out Xander, as in the day I aimed for a more punk rocky version of Oz’s thrift store junk style, but more often than not hit the Xander end of the spectrum. And homeboy delivers in these episodes, delivers so much I have two alerts, and I’m skipping his using a polo as an undershirt.
First…I mean, Jesus Christ. It’s not fucking Christmas, dude (either in “Earshot’s” intended April airing, or its September actual airing), and this thing would suck even then.
Second…motherfucker, for real, ruffled trim? Like some kind of half-assed pirate? My god.