I’m devoted to so many of the SF subgenres—I like everything from a hair-raising horror novel to a rollicking space opera—but alternate history holds a special place in my heart. That warping of real world events, the mix and match of history’s big names, the reimagining of our shared past and above all, the eerie, brain-melting delight of starting to feel, at least momentarily, as if the alternate reality is more creditable than the world I live in... as a reader and a writer, that’s a storytelling high I never tire of.
So I think it says something that the Buffyverse is so real to me that I have exactly this kind of love for “The Wish.” This little glimpse of a Sunnydale that, thankfully, never was reveals it to be a dreadful and sorrow-filled place, but even so its existence gives me a thrill.
Sorrow-filled is as good a state as any to describe Cordelia as she returns to school after her near death by rebar in “Lovers Walk.” There’s a build to her appearance, first: Xander, Willow and Buffy battle a disposable but not dustable demon. There’s nostalgia in this scene, because it reminds us of the kids they were a couple years ago. It is nice to see the three of them hanging out and fighting together. But it’s sad, too, because they’re all dumped and bummed, and (except for Buffy, arguably) they have only themselves to blame.
Fast forward to Monday: Willow does some ineffective groveling at the feet of Oz and receives a typical dose of lycanthropic “I see through you” for her pains. Then poor Cordy shows up at school, looking like a million bucks, pretending she hasn’t a care in a world. Harmony et. al immediately take the opportunity to break the illusion. They trot out Jonathan as a possible successor to Xander, none too subtly reminding her that she bucked the laws of their pack when she took the latter on as a boyfriend.
(As I watched, this makes me wonder—who in their right mind would tell Harmony, or anyone, what had happened? But then I thought it through and remembered that Oz had no reason to keep quiet. Then I thought: who does Oz talk to?)
Random irrelevant thoughts aside, what matters is that Cordelia is, all unawares, beaming out the equivalent of a Batsignal for the patron saint of scorned women. Who knew there even was one? But there is, at least in the Buffyverse, and as with all these rewatch first appearances, it’s delightfully weird to see Anyanka turn up, lurking in Harmony’s shadow. It’s even weirder to see her on a mission to utterly destroy Xander Harris. (Hi, Emma Caulfield! There’s so much in store for you! And here we are with no idea you’ll even be on the show again!)
Anya introduces herself, praises Cordy’s fashion sense, disses Harmony and then proceeds straight to the fishing for vengeance possibilities. You never could fault her work ethic. “Don’t you wish . . .?” She just dangles the bait right out there.
At first, Cordy isn’t biting, not until she finds herself on the edge of a Buffy/vampire battle (this vampire, like the demon earlier, has nothing to do with the plot beyond being an excuse for a fight scene). Cordy is thrown into garbage. Unlike Penny from Doctor Horrible’s Sing-along Blog, she notices. So do her alleged friends.
Next day, as she’s processing that fun event with Anya, she utters the fateful words: “I wish Buffy Summers had never come to Sunnydale.”
And you know, for about a nanosecond it all looks good. The upside of a Buffy-free California is immediately apparent. Cordelia Chase is once again the queen of Sunnydale High. Everybody wants to be her brunch buddy.
But the town itself is all tattered and post-apocalyptic, and since she’s not actually dumb, it doesn’t take Cordy long to decide that the scary veiny good fairy has offered her a raw deal. The clothing’s bad, she can’t drive and then, oh yeah, the town’s overrun by vampires, chief among them Willow and Xander.
(Is anyone else sad that we never got a separate VampXander episode, a boy version of “Dopplegangland”?)
The big fun of the alternate timeline, naturally, is seeing where our favorite characters could have ended up had things been different. So there’s Xandillow. Pale complexions, leather gear, bloodlust and all, our former fave Scoobies are now the treasured pets of a risen Master, who has the Hellmouth firmly under his camptastic boot. There’s nary a sign of previous treasured pet Darla, which makes me think Angel got to her in his failed attempt to be a solo do-gooder.
Cordelia finds herself offended that even in this reality, Xander and Willow are a romantic item. She finds herself even more offended that they’re, you know, trying to eat her. Fortunately, she gets a reprieve in when Giles, Oz, and Dead Gay Larry (I know, he isn’t actually dead yet in either reality, but he’s been DGL on all the posting boards since Graduation, and that’s starting to be ages ago) show up.
Sadly for Cordy, she’s already spilled to Xander her Holmes-like deduction that things were better in the Buffy version of Sunnydale civic history. Since the Master has big plans and isn’t looking to see a Slayer messing in his affairs, he sends them back to finish the job. Xander and Willow do just that, executing Cordy while Giles watches. Some great wish, Anya! Thanks!
By way of response, Giles calls Buffy’s watcher and begs for aid. She’s all hard and scarred and doesn’t play well with others. As for her alternate comes-with-soul one true love, the Master has given Willow permission to torture him with matches. Apparently killing Cordelia isn’t its own reward.
Buffy makes straight for the Bronze, where she springs Angel in mid-mope and they learn the Master’s scheme involves running an industrial exsanguination operation on the remnants of the city’s warm-blooded population. A big fight breaks out—The Slayer, Angel and Oz/Larry on one hand are pitted against Xandillow and all the Master’s other minions.
Back at his utterly cool apartment, meanwhile, Giles is doing what he does best—using his enormous brain to make sense of Cordelia’s last words, figuring out that Anyanka’s behind it all and that her power center is vulnerable. He summons her, gets some stuffing kicked out of him and then threatens to unmake Cordelia’s questionable vengeance by smashing Anya’s necklace.
“How do you know the other world’s any better than this one?” Anya demands.
“Because it has to be,” he says. And the proof is in the beautifully directed intercut combat scene, where we see a series of heart-stopping images of our beloved Scoobies as they unknowingly destroy each other: Angel, getting dusted by a Xander who doesn’t even know he’s making an alternate self’s dreams come true, Buffy driving a stake into Xander without so much as a backward glance. We see Larry and Oz teaming up to skewer VampWillow.
And then, finally, Buffy once again loses to the Master. This makes me wonder about the date—is this all occurring a few years ago, on the scheduled “Buffy will face the Master and die” day? Is Kendra next, with Faith waiting in the wings, and where’s the Mayor now?
But we’ll never know, because Giles puts it all right with a big tinkly smash of magic gem, and Anya’s left choking and flailing in disbelief as Cordy wishes for Willow to be covered in money hair.
Next up: the Ghost of Robia LaPast
A.M. Dellamonica’s alternate history novella about Joan of Arc, “A Key to the Illuminated Heretic,” was short-listed for the 2005 Sidewise Award. Here at Tor.com, she has two other stories you can read: “The Cage,” and “Among the Silvering Herd.”