Aug 27 2012 2:00pm

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Rewatch: Pomp and Carnage

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Graduation Day

School is wrapping up and the Scoobies are saying goodbye. They are getting their graduation gowns and signing each other’s yearbooks, and Willow in particular is full of nostalgia. It’s almost warm and fuzzy, at least until Xander drops the news that the Mayor is giving their commencement speech.

Faith, of course, isn’t in school. Without that all-important diploma, all she can do with her day is kill a random volcanologist. The Mayor is proud and grateful, and pays her with a pink girly dress to wear to his big speech.

Having his number one delinquent vivisect an hombre of science is, however, a tactical error on the Mayor’s part. The homicide puts poor Dead Lester on Buffy’s radar, and she starts investigating why anyone would bother killing an apparently harmless researcher.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Graduation Day

At around the same time, the otherwise stalled investigation gets a second break in the form of Anya asking Xander out. She enjoyed the prom enough to want another date, and in the process of not so enthusiastically saying yes, Xander tells her there’s an Ascension on.

To which Anya is all “Been there, done that, fleeing the time zone now.”

This leads to her giving the gang the scoop about how vampires and other demons—the ones Buffy has been slaying all this time—are tainted with humanity. Ascensions, on the other hand, are all about purity. Wilkins is going to be, among other things, big. Big enough to need a volcano-sized weapon to take him down. Enter—or rather exit—Lester.

This little detail about demons makes explicit a thing that has been seeping into the Buffyverse ever since Whistler turned up. In general, the demons of those early episodes were all bad, all the time. Buffy could kill them without remorse or even a twinge of angst because they weren’t people: they were orcs, hell-creatures, incapable of good or redemption. Her adversaries poofed away, bloodless kills, guilt-free. But over the past twenty or so episodes, someone’s broken out the shades of gray paint pot, and we’ve started seeing goodish representatives of demonkind. (And on Angel the Series, as you know, we’re going to see more. Like Doyle. Like Lorne.)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Graduation Day

There’s a sense in which this is annoyingly messy worldbuilding. The Buffyverse does retain its all soulless vampires are bad rule—so poof away, Buffy—but I think more morality and judgment should come into what she does to demonkind. If some of them can be good, or goodish, they shouldn’t necessarily be subject to summary execution the second they attack the Slayer. Oh, sure, that’s indicative of evil intent. But they might just be trying to save themselves, right?

So that’s a bit of a rant, I know.

A more sensible evolution from the end of last year is the scene where Buffy asks Joyce to leave town. In S2, mother and daughter are at loggerheads—the world needs saving, Joyce is reeling from having learned Buffy’s secret identity, and by the end of the shouting, she’s given her kid the heave ho and don’t come back speech. Now a year has passed and Joyce trusts Buffy to get the job done.

The bulk of the “Graduation Day, Part 1” story, though, comes together when Buffy goes off to Dead Lester’s apartment and ends up arguing with Angel. Faith shoots Angel up with poison. Perhaps unwisely, she chooses a toxin to which her own blood is the cure.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Graduation Day

Once Buffy knows that drinking a Slayer will prevent Angel’s death, she goes streaking across town for much-anticipated (by me, at least) one on one fisticuffs with Faith.

I love all the Buffy/Faith fights—I think they’re among the best-choreographed battles in the series, and this one is no exception. It’s exciting, destructive, the patter is snappy and the ending, where Buffy stabs Faith but loses her in the cliffhanger (balconyhanger?), is brilliant.

As yet another bon mot packed Joss Whedon script, “Graduation Day” is full of incredible bits worth mentioning. There’s Xander to Anya — “I’m sorry I give you barfy feelings.” There’s Faith and the Mayor’s last scene together, just hanging out, in which they talk about spider-eating and Faith’s inability to sit still. There’s “We don’t knock during dark rituals?” There’s Oz, panicking, and Buffy outgrowing the Council as personified by Wes.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Graduation Day

And that’s just the first half and the stuff I remember offhand!!

A week later, the Mayor is consumed by worry about Faith. It’s touching—in case anyone doubted, he’s not just faking his affection for her. Xander and Giles are researching Ascension tactics and Cordelia wants to know why Wesley was fired.

Buffy, meanwhile, goes to the mansion. She doesn’t have a live Faith or a dead Faith on hand to feed her honey. Willow and Oz are mushily, sweetly in lust and don’t really think through possible reasons to not leave the two of them alone. 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Graduation Day

It was always going to come to this, wasn’t it? Buffy getting consumed by Angel. She gets the demon within Angel to come out and drink her. Angelus wants to live, even if his own personal Bruce Banner has nobler ideas.

What happens doesn’t look fun for anyone involved. But once he’s restored, Angel rushes Buffy to the hospital. They put her in the monster attack ward, right beside Faith. This is handy, because we get to see how Faith is doing, and to absorb the all-important news that Buffy did not succeed in her first foray into premeditated murder.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Graduation Day

And, for the prize, we also see the Mayor freaking out. There’s a nice clash between him and Angel. Then Angel has to go tell the Scoobies why he’s all better. Xander and Giles hit him hard with the guilt-stick and send him away. It was probably time for him to have one last good mope at the mansion anyway.

What’s next? It’s the lovely Buffy and Faith goodbye scene, which happens in one of their dreams. Or perhaps both of their dreams. Faith gives Buffy (yet another) key to defeating the Mayor. Is it really Faith who does this? Is she, in the end, a little more loyal to Buffy than to the forces of evil? I’m not sure. Buffy’s prophecy abilities are more than up to the challenge of coming up with this insight herself. What do you think?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Graduation Day

Anyway, Buffy gets up and she’s good to go. And by go I mean recruit the entire student body to fight off the Mayor and blow up the school. She makes the plan in which Xander is key guy. Xander is happy to be key and we are happy to see him there. The rest of the senior class is, I have no doubt, happy to be exploding their alma mater.

But first, the library needs packing and the foot soldiers on both sides must be armed and warned not to snack. We get some pre-combat preparation on both sides. Wesley and Cordelia kiss, which turns out to be a big mistake for all involved. So it goes. Bye for now, Wes.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Graduation Day

Finally, the ceremony itself begins. The Mayor’s speech isn’t bad, really. It’s like it was composed by a professional writer who knows what’s been up at Sunnydale High—very appropriate to the end of the high school cycle for Buffy, entirely right for the end of season. It gets cut off by the transformation, and there’s a fantastic shot of all the students, staring up at SnakeWilkins without actually running away.

Then they rip off their gowns and show their weapons and you just have to bust out cheering. 

Xander gets everyone in-line and directs the battle. Jonathan lives, Larry dies, Harmony apparently has time to suck a little blood off the vamp who killed her. Snyder gets eaten and nobody is sorry. Well, I’m a little sorry, but it was going to be hard working Armin Shimerman into college stories.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Graduation Day

Buffy’s big Faith-inspired strategy turns out to be taunting the Mayor with Faith’s knife, sprinting to the library, and hopping out the window so she and Giles can blow up the school. Gosh! And hurrah!

Then it’s all goodbye, as every graduation should be. We get the final Buffy Angel angsty eye action, and then the gang looking at high school.

And yes, I know the exploding of a school isn’t cheerworthy in the real world, but it’s a great extension of that high school plus horror movies combination that was S1-3 BtVS, and so entirely fitting.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Graduation Day

“Graduation Day,” like “Earshot,” did fall into a rescheduling tangle because of its content and the overlap with the Columbine massacre. In Canada, both parts aired once before the networks pulled the episodes until fall. I’d taped it, so one of the things I remember about the summer that followed was hearing from the various people who got to watch it as the video made its way back and forth to friends across the U.S. 

And what did we all love about the season wrap-up, whenever we happened to see it? The Mayor is an awesome villain, but it’s Faith’s defection that really puts the fire in this story. The core of this finale is the Buffy/Faith battle in the first half, and then the way that the entire graduating class, Scoobies included, pulls together to fight off danger in the second.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Graduation Day

The gang’s graduation from high school is a transition by fire to adulthood, in other words. Buffy throws off her nominal authority figures, steps away from her high school boyfriend, and begins charting a course not only for herself, but for the whole team. The senior class, meanwhile, takes responsibility for its collective survival.

Next: Any of you following us off to college?

A.M. Dellamonica has two novelettes up here on First up: an urban fantasy about a baby werewolf, “The Cage” which made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. There’s also “Among the Silvering Herd.” In October, watch for a novelette, “Wild Things,” that ties into the world of her award winning novel Indigo Springs and its sequel, Blue Magic.

Mordicai Knode
1. mordicai
They're all just orcs, huh?


Wait, I should figure out a better orc emoticon.

2. Cybersnark
It should also be noted that Faith's slaying of the volcanologist is the setup for one of the funniest sight gags in Season 7.
Jack Flynn
3. JackofMidworld
LOL Somehow, I knew that the "just orcs" would come up.

It's been a while since I actually watched these episodes but I always thought that it really was Faith talking to Buffy (maybe a mingling of prophets?), but that may be because Faith was (by the end of Buffy & Angel, anyway) one of my favorite characters (yeah, I have a lot of favorites, sue me). She and Spike both had such big character arcs, growing so much from where they started; inspiring, really.
Scot Taylor
4. flapdragon
What happens doesn’t look fun for anyone involved.

Are you kidding. This, THIS is the ultimate Buffy/Angel sex scene; forget "Innocence/Surprise." This scene, which wouldn't have worked without the chemistry between Gellar and Boreanaz, is dangerous, highly charged with eroticism, and shows total surrender on Buffy's part as she FORCES Angel to take what he needs. She arches her back; she moans; she finds out, really and truly, what it means to be TAKEN; for his part, Angel doesn't hold back once given permission. This is the Buffyverse's equilvalent of "Last Tango in Paris," and big props to Joss and the actors for pulling it off so breathtakingly.
Scot Taylor
5. flapdragon
Cybersnark, my memory fails; what sight gag is that?
6. Gardner Dozois
I always feel kind of bad for Principle Synder, actually. Although the character has always been a dick, he DOES die trying to defend his pupils and stop the Big Snake from eating them (if in a rather stupid way), and yet nobody spares him a moment of regret once he's gone. The Mayor eating Synder brings up once again the question of just how much did Synder know about the Mayor's plan when? Obviously, he knew that something Evil was up with the Mayor, but it's hard to believe he'd have invited the Mayor to speak at Graduation if he knew that the Mayor intended to eat everybody there, including himself.

The vampire idea of tactics are as bad here as they would later be on TRUE BLOOD--charge forward in a big group and begin drinking people at random. I never understood how Harmony gets turned during the melee. Creating a vampire doesn't call for as elaborate a ritual here as it does on TRUE BLOOD, but it does call for draining the human almost dry and then forcing them to drink some of your own blood in return. They had time to do all that in the middle of this confused fight, with vampires getting staked all around them? And then the body has to lie around for a day or so until it rises again the next night. Wouldn't the authorities have picked up Harmony's body and taken it to the morgue? Or did the vampire carry her off and stash her somewhere? Why would they bother, with everything else that's going on?

I agree with flapdragon about the erotically charged subtext of the Angel and Buffy scene. That to the side, it also shows Buffy trusting totally in Angel; if he doesn't stop drinking in time, she's dead, and she knows it. There's a very similar scene in TRUE BLOOD (a show that obviously owes a lot to BUFFY) where Sookie forces a nearly comotose Bill to drink from her, and it almost kills her, and she ends up in the hospital. (Although since vampire blood has magic healing propereties in that show, which it doesn't in BUFFY, Bill saves her by going to the hospital and forcing her to feed on HIM.)

A very good two-part episode, and one of the best season finales in the whole series, in a show that's had several good ones. Loved the Mayor flying into a rage over Faith's injury, the relationship between Buffy and Faith, that continued in their dreams, the fact that everybody, even Jonathan and Wesley (although they could have allowed him to be a little less totally ineffectual during the battle; at least he gave it the old college try, though, and showed willing) banded together to rise up against the Mayor.

The episode also has the perfect last line:

"Take a minute to reflect. We survived."

"The battle?"

"No--high school."

Everyone who's ever been in high school can appreciate that one.

Boy, that kiss between Cordelia and Wesely must have been the greatest anti-erotic experience of all time, considering how hot to trot both of them were beforehand. I can see Cordelia getting turned off, but men are usually less fussy than that.
7. JimmyMac80
@5 Andrew telling the potentials about the time Faith killed a Vulcan.
Mordicai Knode
8. mordicai
6. Gardner Dozois
" are usually less fussy than that."
& it must take a LOT of fussy to be so fussy that Charisma Carpenter doesn't cut the mustard...
David Goldfarb
9. David_Goldfarb
Years later, some of the dialogue from the battle planning stays with me:

CORDELIA: There could not be a more ridiculous plan.
OZ: We attack the mayor with hummus.
CORDELIA: I stand corrected.
OZ: Just trying to keep things in perspective.

and then a bit later, when they're trying to figure out the mayor's weak points, Cordelia suggests trying to work on his fear of germs...

CORDELIA: ...we could maybe take a box and label it "Ebola Virus"!
XANDER: I'm starting to like that hummus plan.
OZ: He'll never see it coming.
john mullen
10. johntheirishmongol
I will agree that the Buffy/Angel neck nibbling scene was perhaps the most erotic of the show. And on the other end of the scale, Wes/Cordy was so awkward it was funny.

This was also the first of many Buffy/Angel goodbyes, and they were all well done.

After this episode, you could use the Robert Lynn Aspirin version of demons as demension travelers. It works as well as any.

There were some great lines in these episodes, the high school line being one of them. The one my wife and I use most though is Buffy's line at the end of the fight when she couldn't thing anymore: "Tree pretty, fire bad" is perfect for when the day is finished and its just been a sucky day.
11. JohnnyMac
"Then they rip off their gowns and show their weapons and you just have to burst out cheering." YES!

I love this scene. It sums up one the core values of the show: When darkness covers the sky and the monsters are coming for you, what is the proper response? Cringe? Scream? Run? No, fight back. No guarantee you will win but far better to die fighting than cowering.
12. a1ay
Also sets up one of the best lines in a later series, after the team hear the explanation of Adam's complicated, evil and fairly disgusting plan to take over the world:
"Does anybody else really miss the Mayor now? You know, 'I just want to be a big snake'?"
Emma Rosloff
13. emmarosloff
This really is a triumphant episode. Piggybacking on the "Class Protector" moment, the students of Sunnydale high have finally come to terms with their peculiar situation as inhabitants of a Hellmouth. I seem to recall that the viewer was not in on the plan, either, so it made it all the more spectacular to see the graduating class rise up and start kicking ass.

Love the scene with Buffy and Angel, and I agree that it's certainly erotic in nature -- further evidence of Buffy's "monster-in-her-man" fetish. Cause come on, it totally is a fetish. So of course being bitten by her vampire lover is going to get her hot. That's almost a no-brainer, but it's still delicious to see her surrender like that, to throw caution to the wind.

Sure, the Ascencion may be on and the world's survival may depend largely on her (as usual), but it doesn't stop her irrationally accepting the possibility of death so that Angel won't, I guess... die... again. It says a lot about how much he means to her, that her self-righteousness and sense of civic duty would fall entirely by the wayside.

Also really dug the Mayor's outburst in the hospital -- a reminder, that, oh yeah, this is the Big Bad, not just Mr. picnics and pink dresses and good hygeine. Raises the creep-factor substaintially, and of course, gives him all the more reason to wreak havoc in his grief over Faith. A nice upping of the stakes there.

As for the inconsistency of Joss's worldbuilding, I got the sense that he really was just worldbuilding as he went, often inserting new laws into his universe and trying to make them consistent only after that fact, because let's face it, at 22 episodes a season it's gotta be tough to create an interesting plot every week.

One of the benefits of modern day television is that seasons are half as long, so quality in general can be higher, both the story itself and the production value of the episode. While I'm happy to have so much Buffy to consume, I'm sure that had the show been made more recently we'd have less inconsistent worldbuilding, and maybe even a tighter overarching plot, not that I'm complaining... I think, overall, Joss did an excellent job, start to finish, even as he was getting his bearings.
Alyx Dellamonica
14. AMDellamonica
It's erotic, yes. You are all right. It still doesn't look fun to me. But that is, perhaps, a quibble.

Emma, I hear what you're saying about the tighter writing on shorter TV seasons. But you lose things too, and I would fear in Buffy's case what would've been lost with an 18 or 13 episode season might have been things like "The Zeppo."

Gardner--yeah. Snyder deserved slightly better. Slightly.
Emma Rosloff
15. emmarosloff
Alyx -- You make a perfectly good point! It would be a shame to lose such priceless episodes. Buffy was able to capitlize on that particular era of television by giving us so much of a good thing. I'm not bemoaning the show's format, by any means. In fact, I largely forgive Joss for his somewhat inconsistent worldbuilding, for how good his worldbuilding was, all things considered. That, coupled with so many fully drawn characters and memorable moments, and a ton of laughs, makes this show one of my all-time favorites.
Alyx Dellamonica
16. AMDellamonica
Yes. It's weird doing this eppie by eppie breakdown. The essays would be boring if they were all: "Ohhh, Joss, every little thing you do is magic!" But sometimes it seems petty to point out the few things they got wrong. Thanks for all the fun, guys, but you missed a spot. Know what I mean?
17. General Vagueness
re: 6. Gardner Dozois, We're taking a moment...
definitely some of my favorite episodes of Buffy or anything for that matter...
and we're done.
18. NullNix
flapdragon, not only is the Buffy/Angel scene explicitly sexually charged, but just like a certain seriously sexually-subtexted scene in the next season it is juxtaposed with another character actually explicitly getting it on. (The first time round, Buffy is getting the subtext, Willow the text: the second time around, their positions are reversed.)

(In _The I in Team_ there is a similar intercut making it clear that, yes, there is quite a lot of Freudian subtext involved in this whole slaying thing, and making it clear that slaying definitely makes Buffy 'hungry and horny' too. Joss likes this technique.)
19. NullNix
I can't help noticing that the prophecy/dream sequence doesn't just contain a foreshadowing of Buffy's death and a disguised mention of Dawn -- it also contains the first ever explicit reference to Slayers as cats. This is repeated exactly a year later, in _Restless_ (though a few minutes earlier in that episode than the dream is in this one).

So two episodes set exactly a year apart contain the same pair of references in opposite order (slayers as cats and the Dawn/Buffy's-death reference, which death of course occurs exactly a year later still). Of course, _Restless_ is so very full of metaphor that it's not too surprising that any given image used up to that point in Buffy is repeated there... but it's fairly clear that by the end of season three they at least had some idea that they were going to end season five with a serious bang. (I'm fairly sure they knew they'd be killing Joyce in season five by that point, too.)
Alyx Dellamonica
20. AMDellamonica
I'll have to watch for more Slayers as cats references. I do remember being amazed that Faith was able to predict the date of Buffy's death a season in advance.
21. Nicoclaws
Hello ! Rewatching a year after you here, and following your nice blogging !
I never rewatched this season before, don't know why. It was a blast ! Nothing to add here except to ask if I was the only one who laughed stupidly at the penis joke when Buffy called the big serpent "Dick" ? Way to go against patriarcal authority, Buffy !

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