FEATURE: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Graduation Day Parts 1 & 2
Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Mayor plans his Ascension with Faith as his right-hand Slayer. Angel has told Buffy that he plans to leave Sunnydale after the Mayor is stopped and head to LA whilst Xander appears to have a burgeoning, if confrontational, relationship with Anya.
Hello! We are back in business. I know it has been a long time and for anyone who has been waiting around for this next post (waves to all two of you), I do apologise for the gap between S3E20 and S3E21/22. Life stuff got in the way and we all know how that sucks when it gets in the way of Buffy watching (pun very much intended). However, I'm ready and raring to go once more and for those of you who are unaware, I shall also be watching Angel alongside Buffy as the God Whedon intended. These will begin after next week's The Freshman so as to line up the various crossover episodes on the way. So, without much more ado, let's pick up where we left off.
"Congratulations to the class of 1999. You all proved more or less adequate..."
As the gang prepare to graduate from Sunnydale High and move just down the road to UC Sunnydale, the Mayor ramps up his endgame, building towards the Ascension. He starts to tie up loose ends, inadvertently revealing to the Scoobies that he will turn into a whacking great demon which they can actually kill, as well as using Faith to distract Buffy by poisoning Angel. It leads the two Slayers to finally battle it out, but Buffy soon works out ways of saving both Angel and defeating the Mayor. Calling on the students of Sunnydale High, Graduation Day brings the fight to the Mayor.
First of all, praise must go to Harry Groener as Mayor Richard Wilkins III, the perfect kind of mundane evil and still one of the series' most memorable villains: "we don't knock during dark rituals?" He spends much of the first parter lurking in the background, mostly focusing on his relationship with Faith and his almost personable threat to the Scoobies. The second part moves him straight to the forefront, his grief for Faith moving him to try and suffocate Buffy. In that moment, he becomes a physical threat to the Scoobies, no longer a distant foe, but someone who can be stopped and killed. There's also his commencement speech is littered with the kind of macabre puns that play into his genteel humour whilst his final words, "oh, gosh" are just perfect.
The build-up to this climax is also pitch perfect as several characters are forced into life-changing decisions. Buffy turns her back on the Watcher's Council and because they are in England, they can't tell which way her back is turned. Xander is confident that he's going to die, but nevertheless refuses to run away with Anya, knowing that his place is to fight alongside Buffy until the very end. Oz and Willow take the next step in their relationship when they sleep together on the eve of Graduation, another step in the journey that is Willow becoming awesome, then evil, then awesome again (it also disproves that whole weird thread that has cropped up about sex being bad for women in Buffy, which it is if you cherrypick examples and ignore everything else).
There is also the fight that everyone has been waiting for since the gang realised Faith was a few apples short of a bushel and let's face it, she does a really stupid thing in targeting Angel. The Buffy-Faith clash is one of the most brutally choreographed fights the show produced in its run, an emotional, violent battle to the death/coma. The outcome of Faith escaping and lapsing into a coma also means that Buffy doesn't cross that line into killing a human, despite Faith's supernatural status and the whole stabbing thing. She still remains unequivocally on the side of good.
The episodes also make it clear that Buffy and Faith's connection isn't over. Their weird collaborative dream brings back the idea that dreams are a big deal as a Slayer; Faith's cryptic dialogue is actually referencing Dawn's arrival in the fifth season with 'Little Miss Muffet' - she's later called 'curds and whey' by a crazy man who sees her true status as The Key. It's a neat little scene that not only forecasts Dawn, but the trippy, prophetic dreamstate that would return in the pattern-breaking fourth season finale, Restless.
Way back in my look at The Prom, I mentioned that I happen to think Graduation Day (both parts) is the best finale that Buffy came up with during its seven season run. It's a tough one to call because each finale finishes off their respective season perfectly, no matter the quality that has gone before. However, Graduation Day aligns not only with a season finale, but also with a kind of life finale, that of finishing high school. 'High School is Hell' has often been the mantra of the first three seasons and the finale forms the apotheosis of that idea as Sunnydale High becomes a literal battleground.
The montage that flows between the good and evil planning session is so well-edited as the two generals, Buffy and the Mayor, rally their respective forces. In the school scenes, everything is tinged with a bittersweetness as Buffy capitalises on the gratitude and faith in her that was demonstrated at The Prom, calling on the Scoobies' connections across campus to rally the students into an ad hoc army in which social boundaries cease to exist. That moment when they reveal their weaponry and start to fight is still emotional. Seeing Harmony, Larry and Jonathan fight alongside the Scoobies for the first and, in some cases, last time is one of the most joyous moments in the series as a whole; the traditionally canon fodder students get to fight their own battles and beat the bad guys. And seriously, how badass does Percy look fighting alongside Angel?
The final scene as the gang sit amongst the wreckage of the now-exploded Sunnydale High is the perfect encapsulation of that bittersweet feeling; the relief of having survived high school with your friends, as well as having defeated a hokey SFX great, big snake. It's a quiet scene, nothing but a brief reflection, but the Scoobies win and get to fight another day.
Picking this was absolutely the most difficult decision I've had so far because it's a finale packed full of great lines. However, I couldn't not go with a classic Ozism. Quote of the Week:
Cordelia: I personally don't think it's possible to come up with a crazier plan.
Oz: We attack the Mayor with hummus.
Cordelia: I stand corrected.
Oz: Just keeping things in perspective.
Let's Get Trivial: Cordelia bags her first vampire in the final battle.
Demonology 101: Harmony's bite proves to be more than fatal and she returns as the world's most hilarious vampire later in the fourth season.
You can read Becky's look at The Prom here.