Covering from “The Wish” to “Gingerbread,” in which everyone dies. For real.
Just to get it out of the way: it’s Anya’s first episode! Cheers!
She isn’t much of a factor in “The Wish,” and in truth, she isn’t really “Anya,” though her human form identifies as such. She’s really Anyanka, Patron Saint of Scorned Women, and as such she’s mostly here to serve as a demonic conduit for Cordelia’s pain, which find expression in a hellish dystopian alternate reality. The closest she comes to anything Anya-esque is her escalating frustration and umbrage at the end when she’s rendered powerless (though I’d forgotten the eventual irony that she was drawn to Sunnydale because of Xander and spends much of her time in this episode trying to steer the conversation into how he sucks).
Like any fan of this sort of pulpish, comic-y genre fare, I love a hellish dystopian alternate reality. They’re a chance to indulge in worst-case-scenario speculation and revel in cracked avatars of characters without consequence. And the hellish dystopia “The Wish” delivers is pretty great. The Master, Lord of Sunnydale, with the cold, cruel Xander at his dexter side and sadistically sensual Willow upon the sinister! Angel, their broken captive! Giles, despairing but resolute, leading a battle-weary Oz, Larry, and, uh, some girl in futile war! And, of course, a Buffy who doesn’t seem to be Buffy at all, but blends Faith’s growing bitterness with Kendra’s lack of an outside life, a Slayer who truly is just a weapon, and throws herself heedlessly into combat, intent only to kill until she herself is killed.
There’s more than just the thrill of alternate events and dark incarnations of our heroes at work in “The Wish.” The carnage of the episode mirrors and comments upon the emotional havoc that’s been wreaked over the past few episodes (“This is the world we made,” Anyanka says). As it was her pain that caused this alternate reality, you’d expect Cordelia to be involved in restoring the main timeline, but instead she’s killed by the very people who caused her pain, and in a manner that strongly evokes a three-way, no less. Xander kills Angel. Buffy stakes Xander and walks away as if he were just one of the Three. Oz kills Willow. And none of them have any idea what they mean to each other. Fortunately, Giles restores the world (“ because it has to be” better, he says), leaving the core crew laughing it up on a sunny day.
And supporting my contention that the Master was mostly felled by budget, I think he’s actually pretty good here, suitably villainous and imperious when he has minions to imperiate over.
So, the First. There will be plenty of time to really dissect the First, Lordy how there will be time and spoiler alert it won’t be pretty. Anyway, while Lovecraftian cosmic horror has been a possibility since the pilot episodes (where we hear about “the Old Ones”), the First is the show’s…goddamit the first attempt to really invoke the idea, and shows up in the show’s first and if memory serves only Christmas episode. It’s called “Amends.” Guess what everyone makes. No one has more amends to make than Angel, of course, but unlike Willow and Oz or Buffy and Faith (scenes which are pretty sweet), most everyone he wronged is dead. The First’s torment of him and the mystery of his return to this earthly dimension leads to an attempted suicide, which Buffy tries to stop, and they talk about capitalized concepts for a while—Good, Punishment, Fighting, etc—until it miraculously snows because something not the First has plans for him. Some good ideas are expressed here, such as Angel’s problem isn’t his demon but rather the man who is weak enough to want Buffy despite the certainty of damnation, but Angel’s dilemma feels most resonant when Giles only speaks to him with crossbow in hand.
Cosmic horror is a very intellectual exercise, as the intellect is what it directly attacks—it’s founded in the sense that there are forces in the universe larger, vaster, and too incomprehensible for your puny brain to handle, and that are utterly indifferent to your existence. Supposedly, the First is that, a primordial entity, the force from which originated all evil, beyond anyone’s comprehension or understanding. In theory, the interest such an entity takes in Buffy and Angel elevates their status. Problem is, Buffy and the show meet this force with the usual mockery, which could make Buffy look a bit dim as she’s unable or unwilling to grasp the difference between the usual blustery vampire and cosmic horror, but since we know she’s not, so it ends up making the First look like a cheap ghost, even if it is one wearing Jenny. In the end, Angel doesn’t learn what brought him back, but had he done so it may have rent his mind worse than any non-Euclidean city—you can’t star in a spin-off if you’re tortured in another dimension, dude.
A stronger reminder of the hole Jenny left appears in the next episode, as book-deprived Giles has to battle with a computer. While the main thrust of Joyce and Willow’s mom getting tricked by demons into going Tipper Gore seems quaintly 90’s (and also evokes a very 80’s paranoia of satanic cults) in light of what modern mobs get up to, much of “Gingerbread” retains relevance. Buffy may take the fact that the only thing anyone knows about the tragically dead moppets is that they are dead as a sure sign that demonic forces are at work, but they look more like the way such tragedies usually get treated to everyone else.
Fitting given the Mayor’s brief appearance even if he has little bearing on the action, we’re also back dealing with the structural forces that have been such a concern this season, as Joyce makes a clear something we’ve long suspected—everyone in Sunnydale knows evil stalks their town, and they choose to ignore it. And, of course, the most primal of authorities and institutions, parent and child, is thrown into chaos here, too. There is, in fact, a lot going on in “Gingerbread”—parents, boundaries, the madness of mobs, bullying of outsiders, censorship, a lot of themes that actually end up working well together. But in the midst of her demon-induced insanity, Joyce does raise some good points about Buffy’s campaign against evil. She can’t be everywhere, can she? Why does she keep slaying if she actually hasn’t made things better? Buffy is unfortunately a little too young to point out that just because improvement will never be done doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the effort.
And it ends with perhaps the most BtVS climax ever—Cordelia hosing down the crowd while Giles shouts in German, and Buffy asking if the stake she’s tied to killed the demon, as Xander and Oz crash gracelessly in from above. “We’re here to save you,” they say.Quite the tableau.