FEATURE: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - The Wish
Buffy struggles to come to terms with having Angel in her life. Willow and Xander have been caught in a clinch by Oz and Cordelia, their relationships breaking up as a result.
One of Buffy's many themes is 'be careful what you wish for', which is wise really considering that everyone lives in a place where wishes can be granted by pretty much any so-powered demon, witch or warlock that you come across. Cordelia learns the lesson the very hard way after she decides to try and right the wrongs that Xander has done to her, not by laying the blame at Xander's feet, but instead at Buffy's. Her logic is that Buffy's appearance in Sunnydale disturbed the status quo so much that Cordelia ended up falling for Xander. When she wishes that Buffy never came to Sunnydale in front of vengeance demon Anyanka, she gets exactly that, but the consequences aren't exactly what she imagined.
Series episodes that take place in a bizarro version of the usual events are often amongst the most entertaining, offering a virtual blank slate for the writers to go a little wacky with their ideas. The Wish is one such episode and its alternate reality does not disappoint. Usually, the 'reset' at the end of the episode is something that particularly annoys me because it makes an episode feel pointless. However, in Buffy, the question of 'what happened if Buffy never arrived in Sunnydale?' is a pretty spectacular one and writer Marti Noxon and director David Greenwalt go to town on the concept. This isn't an episode for the characters to develop; it's one in which the audience learns just how vital the concept of friends and family is to the show and the Scoobies.
In order to do this, The Wish strips everything back, taking away all the people and relationships we've come to rely on and tearing them apart. Sunnydale becomes a vampire-ridden post-apocalyptic wasteland in which the High School populous has been decimated by the Master's forces, including Xander and Willow, now all vamped up and wearing leather. The other characters' paths are altered too without Buffy there to rally them; Giles never becomes a Watcher and is instead left leading the opposing human forces, including a not-so-meathead Larry and Oz, the Master was never killed by Buffy and so reigns supreme whilst Angel is locked in a cage and tortured whenever Willow feels like it. And Buffy? She's all badass and clearly unable to reconcile her high school life with the tortures of being a Slayer on a Hellmouth in Cleveland, Ohio.
The horror alone of seeing Buffy a little more on the Faith side of slaying is enough to make this episode a standout and Sarah Michelle Gellar's performance is great. She clearly revels getting a chance to play up the soldier side of the character and sells it, combat suited, jackbooted and with a nasty lip scar to match. Her entrance is brilliant, a stark contrast to her first appearance in the series itself. Here, she's heard before she is seen, her victims flying through the air and saving Giles from them all. Even Gellar's diminutive frame looks imposing in the low-angled shot that introduces the new, more mercenary Buffy.
She's not the only one having fun as we get our first glimpse of Alyson Hannigan's Evil Willow, here in vampiric and slightly kinky form with her catchphrase 'bored now' making its first appearance as well. It's fun that her relationship with Xander carries on into this world too, showing how they were always going to remain friends. Even with fangs. Not everyone fares so well in the transition. Bless Nicholas Brendon. He can carry the humour and the emotional stuff well, but he doesn't make a very good villain, particularly next to the returning Mark Metcalf as the first season's Big Bad, the Master.
There are a lot of neat links and twists made across the episode to the Sunnydale we know and love. Cordelia's transition from the old town to the new bizarro version is expertly done, handling a wealth of exposition in just a couple of short scenes. The audience quickly learns that vampires have taken over, the humans have brought in several rules to ensure that people stay safe with the vampire threat and the usual hangouts like The Bronze have been taken over. These few scenes cut quickly to the chase and allows the meat of the episode to be taken up with the fight against the Master and Giles' quest to stop Anyanka's creation.
The character work that has gone into all of the previous episodes before getting to this one guarantees that the final, climactic battle packs a visceral punch. The slow motion fight that sees Xander staked by Buffy without ever being friends, Oz dust Willow, Angel staked with barely a reaction from Buffy and then having her neck broken by the Master still galls even after all this time. It's a haunting moment and scored beautifully, offering a glimpse at what might have been. Even though we know that Giles will smash Anyanka's amulet and ensure that Buffy's not really dead, we still have to go through it and see these characters destroy each other.
There's a couple of nitpicky questions that could be asked of this episode (Where's Darla and Luke if Angel and Buffy never killed them? Why is Jesse not alive? Should Jenny be there too?) but largely, it's something particularly brilliant. When it comes to the character of Buffy, it highlights just how different she is from her predecessors in the 'true' version of Sunnydale. Bizarro Buffy is practically dead inside already and holds her life pretty cheaply, having nothing to cling on to in the world because she never met Xander, Willow or Giles. Even Cordelia is defended by her at some point in the episode.
Like many episodes throughout the series' run, the concept of family is central to the proceedings, but here it is not so much for the characters' benefit, as it is in Tara-centric Season Four episode, the conveniently titled Family, but for the audience. It offers a brief glimpse into Buffy's world if she really was as alone as previous Slayers had been before her, if she didn't have the guidance of Giles in her life and if she lost everything she needed to keep her going. It's no small leap to say that the Buffy of The Wish is very similar in tone to the Buffy that returns from the dead in Season Six when she is struggling to reconnect with the world around her. Okay, she doesn't wear combat fatigues and spit on her shoes, but there's that same steely coldness that creeps into her reactions.
There's also an interesting parallel drawn between the suffering Cordelia and Bizarro Buffy. Although Cordy would never like to admit it, she shares a lot in common with Buffy and that's what makes their relationship so fractious. Buffy attempts to offer Cordelia her support, in much the same way that Cordy offered Buffy hers during When She Was Bad. Their conversation even takes place in the exact same spot outside The Bronze. Neither particularly wants to acknowledge their common ground, but The Wish highlights it another way. Cordelia finds herself abandoned by both the Scoobies and her old friends in the normal world as well as being comically out of touch with the Bizarro one. Buffy too is alone, unwilling to work with others to achieve anything. Both characters don't survive to the end of the Bizarro timeline. For both characters, their isolation proves to be their undoing.
As I said at the beginning of the post, usually the reset button is a concept I abhor in television episodes because it's usually just an excuse to play in another sandbox for a bit whilst leaving the original unattended and undeveloped. However, The Wish is a masterful example, one that offers a chance to glimpse something so far away from the usual state of affairs whilst also allowing the audience to develop their understanding of the characters involved. Plus, Anya's arrived. That's never a bad thing.
Quote of the Week:
Anyanka: You trusting fool! How do you know the other world is any better than this?
Giles: Because it has to be.
Let's Get Trivial: This won't be the last time we see this reality. We'll check back in later in the season with Doppelgangland.
Inventive Kill: An unnamed Cordette is exsanguinated as the Master perfects the mass production of blood. I'm also really happy I just got to use the word 'exsanguinated'.
Demonology 101: The Pergamum Codex prophecy that comes to pass in Prophecy Girl with Buffy's death at the hands of the Master happens once again here, confirming that there really was no way of thwarting it.
Sunnydale Who's Who: Said Cordette drained in the factory process is played by Nicole Bilderback, who would later go on to star in Bring It On with fellow Buffy alumni Eliza Dushku and Clare Kramer (Glory).
You can check out Becky's review of previous episode, Lovers' Walk, here.