Thursday, 3 January 2013

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, 3.9 & 3.10 – 'The Wish' & 'Amends'

Thursday, 3 January 2013
Buffy: World is what it is. We fight, we die. Wishing doesn't change that.
Giles: I have to believe in a better world.
Buffy: Go ahead. I have to live in this one.

There have been hundreds of stories involving alternate universes, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer was always going to tackle this sub-genre in some way or another. The result was "THE WISH" from Marti Noxon; a terrific episode that made up for in entertainment value what it lacked in originality. The "be careful what you wish for..." moral has been done to death, but I had a huge amount of fun watching this Sunnydale dystopia—which not only allowed the lead actors to act out of character (which is always great), but also turned Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) into the lead for awhile, and enabled the return of season 1 arch-villain The Master (Mark Metcalfe)...

For the first act, "The Wish" was actually a very different episode to what it became. It was more concerned with exploring the aftermath of Cordelia and Xander's (Nicholas Brendon) split, and to a lesser extent the simultaneous Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Oz (Seth Green) breakup. Cordelia undoubtedly took things the hardest, and it was easy to feel sympathy for her as she tried to claw her way back into the affections of the "mean girl" clique she'd spurned to date "a geek" like Xander. Their rejection of her was tough to watch, and led to the unexpected moment when the most compassionate member of Harmony's (Mercedes McNab) group—a girl called Anya (Emma Caulfield), who's actually a wish-granting demon called Anyanka who fulfils Cordelia's desire for a Buffy-less world.

A part of me was a little frustrated "The Wish" transformed into a totally different story at this juncture, but it quickly won me over again. Like all such stories, it's enjoyable to see recognisable characters acting differently (as the preceding "Band Candy" also proved), so it was great to see Cordelia slowly realise the utopia where she's popular again masks a frightening truth. The Master was never defeated because Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) never existed, and now has a plan to mass-harvest blood from captive humans; lovers Willow and Xander are this timeline's version of Spike and Drusilla; Giles (Anthony Head) is running a shambolic anti-vampire operation with Oz; Angel (David Boreanaz) is Willow's pet "puppy" she keeps behind bars; and this world's Slayer is apparently busy fighting evil in the higher priority of Cleveland.

This was obviously a story that mainly relied on the pleasure derives from seeing a very different version of Sunnydale, but I found it had enough surprises to keep me interested once the novelties wore off. The biggest shock was killing Cordelia halfway through, as she was firmly positioned as the heroine of "The Wish"—although I hope this wasn't because writer Marti Noxon didn't think Carpenter could carry a whole hour on her shoulders. It was a little annoying, speaking as a fan of Cordelia, that she wasn't allowed to be more active in the story she'd started, as Buffy inevitably returned, but part of this show's whole approach is to do what's least likely. It entertained, it surprised, some of the cast got to play opposites of their characters, and it was a great time all round.

Angel: Look, I'm weak. I've never been anything else. It's not the demon in me that needs killing, Buffy. It's the man.
Buffy: You're weak. Everybody is. Everybody fails. Maybe this evil did bring you back; but if it did, it's because it needs you. And that means that you can hurt it. Angel, you have the power to do real good, to make amends. But if you die now, then all that you ever were was a monster.

It's the first Christmas-themed episode of BtVS, and a predictably strong and memorable once seeing as it was written and directed by Joss Whedon. There's no denying that the show raises its game whenever he's behind the reigns, and "AMENDS" had plenty to enjoy—especially if you're a 'shipper of Buffy/Angel. Christmas is a time of forgiveness, ghosts and miracles, so it was very apt that "Amends" wove all three into its story.

Of primary concern was Angel beginning to crack under the strain of his deep remorse for a past spent killing innocent people, becoming haunted by a few ghosts from his past that included school teacher Jenny (Robia LaMorte). He learned that he was only returned to Earth because an incorporeal entity known as the First Evil wants him to revert to his old ways and kill The Slayer, and this knowledge started to push Angel down a path of self-destruction. Elsewhere, forgiveness was also on the cards regarding Oz and Willow, with the former deciding to give his ex-girlfriend a second chance after she cheated on him with Xander. I'm so relieved the writers appear to backing off from the idea that Willow and Xander are somehow perfect for each other, because Seth Green and Alyson Hannigan are physically and mentally a much better fit. The romantic scene where Willow put on a sexy dress, lit some candles, put on a Barry White album, and tried to lose her virginity to Oz was incredibly touching and very nicely played by the actors. I'm not a particular fan of Hannigan in this show, but she's at her best when awkward Willow's earnestness feels so natural.

Of course, it was with Angel where the real heart of this festive offering lay. The character's a bit of a sap when he has a human soul, but also incredibly sympathetic. We really need an episode where Angel is allowed back into the group, so I particularly enjoyed the moment he asked Giles for help with his troubling dreams and visions—only to be treated with incredible suspicion at the business end of a crossbow. And it remains true that BtVS just feels a lot more adult whenever Sarah Michelle Gellar and David Boreanaz share the screen together, as arguably the only two younger characters that are equipped to handle material above one-liners and sardonic quips. The scene where Buffy had to talk Angel out of committing suicide by standing in front of a sunrise was strong evidence for that, and even made the potential cheesiness of a miraculous snowfall across Sunnydale work. You need a bit of sentimentality in a Christmas episode, right?

There were lots of brilliant smaller moments in "Amends", too. It was good to see Faith (Eliza Dushku) patching things up with Buffy and going to the Summers house for Christmas; I laughed at the scene where two vampires quietly left a bar the second The Slayer was announced as entering by Willy the Snitch (Saverio Guerra); there was more suggestion that Joyce may become romantically involved with Giles at some point; it was great to have a few more flashbacks of Angel's life in Ireland (when he was about three weeks away from perfecting Jason King facial hair); and the return of Robia LaMorte was handled very nicely (making this episode something of a sequel to season 2's four-star "Passion"). "Amends" was a great episode with some excellent scenes, only really let down by a sluggish pace at times and a villain that never quite sank its teeth in. But the sheer warmth of the storytelling and focus on Buffy/Angel, both pulling at your heartstrings, saw it through some wobbles.

written by Marti Noxon (3.9) & Joss Whedon (3.10) / directed by David Greenwalt (3.9) & Joss Whedon (3.10) / 8 & 15 December 1998 / The WB