Covering “Where the Wild Things Are” and “New Moon Rising,” in which we’re having fun already! Woohoo!
Another haunted frat house party shows up in “Where the Wild Things Are,” with Xander noting the reoccurrence. I could make the case, though, that it distinguishes itself from “Fear, Itself” by being more weird than scary, and being about much more than the trivialness of our characters’ fears. The story, in which Buffy and Riley are held captive by their lust, which is seized upon by the lingering psychic energy of the traumas inflicted on the adolescent orphans who resided in Initiative House when it was an orphanage, could actually be about how college kids are still often held in thrall of pubescent impulses, or it could be about the irreconcilable Puritanical and Libertine messages inflicted on American youth. But, hoh man, that sounds like a lot of boring work. I’d much rather talk about Anya.
Anya’s great! She’s been a presence most of the season, but this is the first time, I think, she’s in the thick of it and single-handedly saves an episode because she enlivens it so much—most of the particularly funny bits or interesting developments involve her somehow(her swooniness over Giles as coffee shop balladeer is the funniest), if they aren’t directly driven by her, and this is probably the episode that sealed a lot of love for the character. The supernatural sitch being as weird as it is (and almost off-brand, more X-Files than the usual Buffy situation), and with the show not fully committed to the direction Willow and Tara are headed, it’s good to have something to hold onto better than a bit of a window into what life is like in Initiative House (unsurprisingly, it’s very bro-y). Granted, it’s a Xander and Anya story rather than just an Anya story, but it does follow her much more than might have been done in the past, as she runs into Spike at the Bronze, where they have some beers (gasp!) and commiserate over their diminished stature (“You take the killing for granted.”). This easily could have been reduced to a series of jokes about Xander’s nutty girlfriend and the trials she puts him through with her nuttiness, but it takes her fears and her baggage seriously. Some hold to the thinking that season 4 regresses on the maturity Xander developed through season 3 and reduced him to a series of job jokes. True as it is that he’s had a series of jobs that were jokes and which have made him look pretty comical, he does still show maturity when he talks with Anya about relationships being work, or how a simple fight doesn’t mean her worst fears are coming to pass, even as he still shows a lot of lingering immaturity when he tells her who she shouldn’t be hanging out with (“Hey, it’s Hostile 17! How ya doing, Hostile 17?”). It’s a little unclear how exactly their argument gets resolved, it could be as simple as the joke about her reminding him to skip a midlife crisis showing her that he is in for the long haul, or it could be that they can both rile each other enough to get into arguments over their sex life in front of children and parents who just want some ice cream.
I don’t know how much censor meddling was involved with the Tara and Willow relationship, but I’m sure there was a lot of it, just based on how laughably thin the subtext of much of their magic has been, climaxing, pun intended, with their sweaty, gasping spell in “Who Are You?” Xander and Anya get to go on about her ravishment or unravishment, while Willow and Tara are consigned to levitating flowers and plucking their petals (like I said, the subtext is laughably thin). But, this relationship is rightly remembered as an early milestone in homosexual representation, which is not to say that makes the double-standard not stupid. It’s stupid, but people don’t often start smart when it comes to these things. Eventually, though, the show was going to have to make it crystal clear what was going on between the two, which comes to pass in “New Moon Rising,” prompted, sensibly, by Oz coming back to town with his werewolf affliction seemingly under control.
We all recall in “Doppelgangland” how Willow observed that the vampire Willow seemed a bit gay, an off-handed joke at the time that retroactively became foreshadowing. Fact is, these developments hadn’t been considered yet, and when they were considered, both Willow and Xander were counted as possibilities. To some, this indicates that Willow being gay is arbitrary, and in the sense that she’s a fictional character who has to be written for, it is, along with everything else about her existence, but it still works, much better than an alternate reality where they decided upon Xander. But while we would have looked Xander’s rather gay panicky dealings with Larry in a different light, I do think it would be a more difficult contortion, especially given his cross-purposed conversation with Buffy at the end of “Phases” (“How do we act around him now?”) which sounds much more like he’s grappling with ideas of gayness externally and socially rather than internally and sexually.
Besides, such a world would probably have far less Anya, and as a wise sage once said “just don’t ask me to live there.” The personalities in our reality just complement so nicely, with Xander and Anya as the oil and vinegar into which we dip bread. Anyway.
Willow is similarly better off with Tara. As clunky and unfair as their forced demureness was, it made their relationship feel very tender and deep. Tara isn’t as flashy a character as Anya, but I like her all the same, returning a soft-spoken, reserved, shy vibe to the show that Willow hasn’t been able to bring for a while now. But there is the small matter of Willow’s other tender, deep relationship to deal with.
There isn’t too much to say about Oz’s return. He has some control over his transformations, but not perfect control as Tara unfortunately discovers. It’s mostly the shock of realizing what’s going on between Tara and Willow that prompts his change, and he remains the decent sort he’s always been, commanding Tara to flee while he can, and acknowledges it was unreasonable to think he could just slot himself back into Willow’s life before wishing her well and taking off to refine his control. Oh yeah, and there’s some business where he’s caught and tortured by the Initiative, and Riley learns a valuable lesson about not shooting everything in the face. And Adam’s doing some vague stuff, including ingratiating himself to Spike.
In the end, though, it returns to Willow and Tara. It’s about time Tara got more involved with the gang, poor girl has been regularly assaulted by monsters and had to flee from them through college halls, hopefully that abates some.