Things in the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer build to the events of “The Wish” and then fall off, just a bit, giving us a breather before we drop into Buffy’s latest horrific birthday, the arrival of Wesley, and Faith’s big downward spiral.
So in one sense, “Amends” and “Gingerbread” are the eye of the hurricane, the slack weeks on the Slayerwatch. Which is saying something: it’s downtime where all Buffy has to deal with is a little brush with the First Evil and, oh yeah, almost getting burned alive by her mother.
Though there’s nothing much wrong with it, I was nevertheless surprised when I saw that “Amends” had been written and directed by Joss Whedon—usually his episodes pack more of a punch. This one’s not quite a whimper, but it doesn’t really bang, either. The story goes thusly: Angel starts having big ol’ guilt dreams about the people he killed when he was a vampire. He runs into Buffy and is spooked enough to get her worrying; in time, he’s scared enough to consult Giles, who is still holding a grudge over that whole “You killed my girlfriend and tortured me” thing.
To which Angel’s all, “Yeah, sorry, but why am I back on Earth?”
Good question! The murdered dream-peeps, who by now include Jenny Calendar among their number, claim the answer is that they brought him; they’re urging Angel to give in to his dark side and go on a killing spree, with Buffy as the opening ceremonies.
But we’ve all been there, seen that, and so the Scoobies swing into research mode. They work out that the would-be puppetmaster is the First, and Buffy tracks down its Bringers for a punch-fest. All very well and good, but Angel has decided the answer to his problems is to work on his tan for a second or two. Buffy shows up, barely in time, can’t convince him to come indoors, and soon they’re punching each other and yelling and it’s too late . . . or it would be, except that the oft-mentioned Powers that Be of Angel the series decide to dispatch their top vampire-saving blizzard to the Hellmouth.
“Amends” is something like a holiday stocking filled with comparatively minor treats. We get our last sight of Robia La Morte as Jenny, our first wee glimpse of the S7 Big Bad, a little bit of Joyce and Faith, and a swing back in a romantic direction. By the time it’s all over, I’m not sure anyone has really made amends. But Buffy and Angel have got themselves some consequence-free dream-nookie, a walk out during shopping hours, and are somehow, magically, a couple again.
Oz, too, has decided to give forgiving Willow a shot. (There could have been nookie there, too—she even puts on Barry White!—but he turns her down. And not for the first time! You’d almost think one of these crazy kids was gay!)
Not so much in the treat category, this time around, is everything to do with Xander. Cordelia is standing firm on being so very done with him, and we also officially hear, for the first time, that his home life is pretty much appalling.
A week later, Buffy’s out patrolling, all alone and Faithless, when Joyce brings her a snack. This is so incredibly sweet it’s unbelievable, am I right? She wants to see the slaying. She wants to cheer from the sidelines! I am all for this.
When an obliging undead Mr. Sanderson from the bank turns up to serve as a live demo of Buffy’s nightly warm-up, everything seems on-track for a beautiful mother-daughter bonding experience. Then, instead, Joyce finds the bodies of two small children.
Not surprisingly, she’s shattered by the experience. Ignoring Buffy’s usual modus operandi, she summons the townspeople, publicizes the crime, gives Snyder an excuse to be awesomely oily and search all the lockers at school. She tells the Mayor that Sunnydale damn well isn’t a good town, in a genuinely moving speech, and forms MOO—Mothers Opposed to the Occult.
It’s not just an overreaction, of course. It’s magic. In “Gingerbread,” we learn that a hideous demon stages the murders of the two kids every fifty years. He then appears to a leader of the horrified townsfolk—in this case Joyce—as the slaughtered kids, using his patsy to whips up a mob. The group then kills whoever looks witchiest to them. The demon presumably feeds off of the bad time.
So MOO latches onto Buffy, Willow, and Amy Madison.
“Gingerbread” marks the one and only appearance of Willow’s mother, Sheila, and if I’d been needing a reason to continue making up with Joyce, her parenting style would be it. Sheila is the queen of not listening. Really, it’s something of a miracle that Willow didn’t try to destroy the world sooner if that’s what she’s living with.
While Sheila is undermining her kid’s confidence, Joyce appears to be doing the same. But even though she’s under a spell and plotting murder, I can’t help thinking she’s asking some tough and depressing and rather legitimate questions about the nature of Buffy’s calling. The Slayer beats evil back, she points out, but there’s always more.
This is a theme that comes up often in Angel the series, of course, and I’m betting in cop bars around the world.
Sheila proceeds from grounding Willow and being generally annoying to being Joyce’s partner in trying to burn their daughters. They pick an indoor venue for the book-and-teen-burning, which is baffling. Amy turns herself into a rat to avoid the flames, and remains that way, mostly, until “Smashed.”
In S1 I talked about Buffy and how she builds not just a circle of friends but an ever-expanding resource base. Something that’s interesting about “Gingerbread,” is that she and Willow get rescued not once by the whole team but twice, by two halves of it. First Giles and Cordy show up and reveal the demon for what it truly is, allowing Buffy to spear it. But Xander and Oz, though they are a little slower due to manfully climbing through the building ducts, are on their way too as this is happening. They’d have got the job done, I’m sure.
And Angel and Faith were out there, somewhere, on the benches.
Not quite filler but simply less exciting than their fellows, these episodes show up, build some bridges to a variety future seasons’ storylines, entertain us all for an hour and then fade into the scenery. But this is only really apparent on rewatch.
“Amends” and “Gingerbread” are good enough episodes—they just aren’t the shining lights of S3; not only aren’t they “Graduation,” they don’t quite rise to standard set by “Band Candy” or “Bad Girls.” Every class has to have a few C students, right?
Next: Very Unhappy Birthday, some more.
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.”