The string of BtVS episodes that follow Angel’s loss of his soul—the second half of S2, in other words—are all about love. Last week we looked at “Phases,” wherein Willow and Oz move out of their un-holding pattern of chaste dating and into one of the coziest and longest-lastingest romances on the show. And now we’re up to Valentine’s day 1998, and the next evolution in the fractious Xandelia relationship.
The trouble begins when Harmony and the other sheep start ripping Cordy a new one for hanging with Xander. Or maybe it begins when she buys in.
It was inevitable, given their respective roles within the Sunnydale student population, that Cordy’s social stock would plummet once her fling with Xander came to light. He’s pretty, all right, but there’s that huge class gulf, not to mention his intermittent tendency to be dorky. Later in the series run, we get more concrete proof that Xander’s a genuine nerd—his Babylon 5 memorabilia and working knowledge of the Klingon language come up. But even now, despite his looks, wit and conspicuous bravery under fire, he’s one of the picked on. Not chosen, you might say.
Xander’s also not scholastically inclined, which cuts him a cosmic break in this episode: he’s gloating over an expected mediocre grade on his American Lit paper when he sees Amy working some magic on their teacher, Mrs. Beakman.
One way or another, the boy apparently has to go if Cordy wants to remain queen bee of the Sunnydale High hive.
The thing about Cordy—and Charisma Carpenter was always great at getting this across—is she’s too smart for the role she’s chosen to play in the day to day drama that is high school. She wants the perks of being at the top of the pecking order, but she knows deep down that Scoobying is more important. Buffy has saved her life more than once, and she’s drawn to the gang for reasons that probably run the gamut from hard-headed self-preservation to a real sense of moral obligation.
(Plus, also, lust for Xander.)
In TV romance, the timing on these things is always as bad as it can possibly be, and so all Cordy’s caring what others think insecurities come to a head as Xander decides to up his romantic game for Valentine’s Day. He’s purchased the necklace, rehearsed the speech, and got Buffy to pick out some clothes for him. He’s working himself up to make a play for the role of honest-to-Hellmouth official boyfriend to Ms. Chase.
Angelus is getting serious at the same time. He loooooves Valentine’s Day. Hearts, flowers, puppies, stalking... it’s his favorite! Even as Giles is warning Buffy that things could get uglier than ever before, he’s out ripping the still-beating heart from a store clerk as a present for Dru, and trying to decide who to kill next and how. It’s all very gleeful, in that macabre and delicious Boreanaz way.
Spike suggests ripping Buffy’s lungs out. Angelus opines that this lacks poetry.
“Doesn’t have to,” Spike says. “What rhymes with lungs?”
(My list: bungs, dungs, hungs, rungs, tongues. Should’ve gone with spleen, Spike.)
Later, at the Bronze, Cordy gets another slice of steaming ostracism pie from Harmony and crew. Xander carpes the diem and trots out his speech, which is genuinely affecting. The heart part of Cordy is all, “Wow.” The mouth part dumps him all the same.
Next day, everyone’s laughing at Xander. Not one person is all, “Wow, you dated up for awhile, go you!” Little surprise that he grabs Amy, cutting straight to the blackmail, and demands a love spell.
Love spells always go wrong. That’s what they’re for, right? Xander’s idea is to make Cordy want him again, the better to dump her back. The effect is to make every woman (on Earth?) except Cordelia fall in deep, obsessive love with him. So first Buffy evinces her first real glimmer of interest in Xander, and he dares to hope he’s come out ahead. Then Amy turns up, quoting from the same pick-up manual, because she’s into him too. Oh, damn.
All too soon this leads to yet another SunnyDale High patented Walk of ... well, the only one ashamed in this particular walk is Xander himself. The straight girls and female staff are all lusting and the straight boys are all jealous. (The gay kids? On a field trip, maybe.) He confesses to Giles—fortunately for him, Jenny turns up and starts groping, so there’s no awkward ’why don’t you believe me?’ phase to this conversation.
“Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” is so funny it’s hard to mock it. This episode offers an endless cascade of fannish delights. Buffy’s attempt to striptease Xander into submission, a sort of reprise of her “When She Was Bad” sexy dance? It’s golden. The scene is only topped by Xander’s proving himself a gentleman when he rejects her. Then there’s the moment when Amy piles in and turns the Slayer into a rodent. Which is no small trick for a newbie. It also has the handy story-serving side effect of ensuring that Buffy doesn’t dismember one of her dearest friends right then and there.
Oz? He gets to be a loyal and protective boyfriend, smack Xander in the kisser and, as a bonus, chases a naked rat Buffy into the basement.
Giles gets to say “wittering on,” which I find charming.
In time, the rejected women of Sunnydale start getting pretty upset that Xander’s not into or perhaps just servicing them, and their rage finds its focus in Cordelia. Axe-wielding Willow heads up the mob. Joyce sings age-inappropriate back-up, and even Dru gets in on the action. Dru saves Xander from Angelus, and the mob saves Xander from Dru. Cordelia pulls him out of the mosh and they retreat to the very basement where they first kissed while Giles tries to get Amy to fix Buffy and undo the love spell. Whew! It wasn’t even a two-parter.
A few weeks ago some of you took issue with Buffy’s seduction attempt, noting that given her relative sexual inexperience, it’s an awfully confident gambit. It’s a good point. Overall, though, Marti Noxon’s script for this episode is watertight. The only thing I noticed on rewatch was that Willow’s axe seems to get taken away at several points during the the wacky chase hijinks... and yet, it also seems to keep coming back to her.
The spell breaks and the action ends with a wonderful Xander-Buffy wrapup scene. And then there’s the moment when Cordy finds the strength to silence Harmony and the other lambs, to not only accept that Xander is what she wants, but that she herself is something more than an empty-headed mannequin.
Next: Brace yourselves, folks, because we’ve made it to “Passion.” Grrr. Arrr.
A.M. Dellamonica has a short story up here on Tor.com — an urban fantasy about a baby werewolf, “The Cage” which made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. She also has a second story up here called “Among the Silvering Herd.”