Aug 13 2012 2:00pm

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Rewatch: Things of Death and Beauty

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Choices

We open “Choices” with Faith and the Mayor, the latter cutting it up as he gives her an extremely sharp object and, inevitably, more cookies. By now they are both relishing his evil dad role. Faith still calls him ’Boss,’ but the dynamics are obviously a chosen family version of a father-daughter bond. It’s a good mirror to the Buffy-Giles relationship; there’s affection in both cases, but Faith and Wilkins are visibly playing at it, while Buffy and Giles are the real deal.

Speaking of Buffy and her nearest dearests, she and Angel are fighting vampires and wondering if this is going to be the pattern of their relationship forever, or at least until Buffy’s too old and creaky to commit slay. The scene parodies the classic ’you never take me anywhere’ convo. It’s giggleworthy and not too heavy, even though it raises an important question: really, what are they gonna do about Them?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Choices

It’s no surprise that our Slayer is feeling trapped. Choiceless, even. She’s been accepted into a bunch of pretty cool universities. But with Faith playing center for Team Evil, there’s little chance that Buffy can ever leave Sunnydale. Unless she can, I dunno, find a way to empty the town and reduce it to a smoking crater in the earth, she is ever so stuck. She’s also facing the prospect of being left behind by her peers, because Willow has gotten into every university on the face of the planet.

(Xander isn’t going on to school. But he’s already made other plans, plans that also involve leaving, at least for awhile. Plans that Cordy mocks violently.)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Choices

Restless, dissatisfied, Buffy decides to have one more kick at the freedom can. She asks her two Watchers if she can win a “get out of Sunnydale Free” ticket by stopping the Ascension. If she can figure out what the Mayor’s up to and then stop him before it happens, why not? Yay for being proactive!

So what is the Mayor up to? Faith has been busy fetching a box of five billion hideous death spiders for his pre-ascension chow-down. Buffy works this out by beating up one of the vampire minions, and the gang decides that being proactive means hitting City Hall and stealing the box. Bye bye Ascension, hello college life in Illinois! The Scoobies borrow a page from Mission Impossible and prove they’re a finely-tuned plan-making machine, complete with a thief-winch. Wesley, who is at this point more of a spare part than a cog, is largely ignored in this scene and resents it mightily.

Buffy, Angel and Willow go after the box. They set off an alarm, there’s a brawl, and what nobody notices is that in the ensuing rush to get away, Willow gets grabbed by Faith.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Choices

Ever ruthless, Wesley argues that this is a fair trade. Hello, he says. Thousands of lives against one team supergenius? Deal! Oz, in yet another of his most wonderful moments (are there any other kind? Not until next year, I say!) demonstrates his fine grasp of rhetoric by smashing the question to pieces. Buffy, who was never ever going to sacrifice her BFF, has Giles set up an exchange of hostages.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Choices

“Choices” is one of those episodes where Willow utterly rocks. You pointed out that when I reviewed “Doppelgängland,” I forgot to say Alyson Hannigan is great four times over: as herself, as VampWillow, as herself pretending to be VampWillow and finally as VampWillow faking Fuzzy. Mea culpa. She is awesome in that, but she’s great in this one too. She’s wholly her nerdy, curious and increasingly steely self. It’s subtler, maybe—less leather involved—but it’s no less terrific.

This is also one of those classic Buffyverse set-up stories, where one story’s winding down and another’s on the build, and everyone is getting put into position for the future stuff. It’s as though the battle’s not over and they’re already being reassigned. Even as the Scoobies move towards their big showdown with the Mayor, they’re being nudged into place for next year. Cordy is suddenly selling dresses so she can achieve Closure with Xander before taking a hazardous job as Angel’s administrative assistant. Willow becomes the girl who sticks a vamp in the heart with a pencil, who reads the Books of Ascension when she ought to be escaping from City Hall. (I know you can’t fight City Hall, but can you flee from there?) In her confrontation with Faith, she has a crucial epiphany.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Choices

It’s so right, isn’t it, that it’s Faith who catalyzes this discovery? Faith is, in a sense, the first person Willow has really felt she had to compete with. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, she’s somehow always felt like she was running second to Faith in the who does Buffy love? superfriend sweepstakes.

So she stays and spies and tells Faith it’s too late for her in a fantastic monologue, and somewhere in there as she’s getting punched in the face for speaking her mind, she also makes a crucial college-related decision.

After the gang’s head to head with the Mayor, when they swap Willow, leads to Angel making some choices. We don’t find out about those right away, but everything the Mayor says about the big doomed Slayer/Cursed-Immortal, No Sex, no growing old together love story is on point. Angel is too old for her, and Buffy does deserve someone alive. Come on, dude. Grow up and go have your own show already.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Choices

But it’s not all “where are we going to college?’ and “what will we do when we’re suddenly adults next season?” in “Choices.” Because what’s an episode of BtVS without some hideous death spider combat and a few dead extras?

At this point, at least the first time around, we the audience didn’t know about the contents of the Box of Gavrock. That’s where Principal Snyder and two disposable cops come in. He thinks there’s a drug deal going down, which shows how little attention he’s been paying lately to what goes on in his school. Since he did know, at one time, we must assume that Sunnydale Adult-Onset Denial Syndrome has sunk its teeth deep into Armin Shimmerman.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Choices

Anyway, one of the cops he brings along for the bust lets the spiders out, and pays the usual terrible price for opening the locked magical trunk. Never open the locked magical trunk, folks. Both gangs have to fight the spiders and Faith loses her shiny new knife in the process. This is really too bad for her, as we’ll see later. Even the knife’s getting placed on the board.

But for now, the Mayor bails with his box and his foster daughter, the Ascension’s still a go, and we get to have a happy nobody died Scooby reunion. Willow gets to be exceedingly cool, to come up with the key Ascension pages she ripped out of the magical tome. (Would season one Willow rip pages out of a book? She is obviously already well on her way to being at least temporarily evil.)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Choices

Along the way, Buffy realizes there is no getting out of the Hellmouth. Bummer! But Willow isn’t done being awesome. She has decided to go to UC Sunnydale. It’s not because Sunnydale has a good university. (What are the odds? Their staff turnover must be pretty damned high.) But Willow has decided to sign on for the fight against evil, much in the way that Xander does in “The Zeppo.” She’s going to stay with her friend who needs her, because she’s not Faith. Because she’s loyal and she wants to be in on an important fight.

(And she wants to become a power-mad magic-dependent world-destroying fool for love, but that’s all in the future.)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Choices

If the episode stopped there, you might even take it for a bit of a happily ever after. Instead, we get an uneasy epilogue. The story wraps up on a quiet chord about the characters to be departing soonest—we realize Cordy’s working in the Prom Dress store, and that Buffy and Angel have been seriously disquieted by the Mayor’s lecture. Graduation’s coming, and the future is uncertain.

But first: Ham, Eggs, Dogfood, Spam and Prom!

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.

1. Lynda
Great recap, but I disagree about Faith and the Mayor. Their bond is real, as are their feelings for each other. I am curious as to what makes you believe this is only a sort of act on their parts, or do you believe that bad characters and people are not capable of actual affection and love? In the Buffyverse I would say Spike alone proves that is not true.
Brandon Daggerhart
2. BDaggerhart
"It’s a good mirror to the Buffy-Giles relationship; there’s affection in both cases, but Faith and Wilkins are visibly playing at it, while Buffy and Giles are the real deal."
I really don't agree with that on the Faith/Mayor part. I actually find their relationship to be - though creepy and evil - filled with real and true emotion. He very obviously actually cares for her as you can see when he visits her in the hospital (soon), and also after his Ascension, when Buffy uses her dagger to make him chase her. And Faith very much cares for him, likely viewing him as the only father figure in her life who was actually looking out for her, and wasn't trying to bed her.

Edit: Like Lynda said! :)
3. Lsana
This was always one of the episodes that made me most uncomfortable with the Scooby Gang, because of course, Wesley is 100% right: there is no way they should give the box back to the Mayor in order to get Willow back. Rather than give him the box and pray that there is some other way to stop the Ascension, destroy the box and find another way to rescue Willow. Yeah, they do stop the Ascension, but they didn't know they'd be able to at the time. And it's not like they do it casualty-free either: all those who died on graduation day did so because of this decision here.
treebee72 _
4. treebee72
@Lsana, yeah, it always bugged me that they didn't even try to come up with an alternative plan of action or discuss a rescue mission. But, it was Wesley who brought up that making the trade was wrong, so that automatically made it the 'best and only' option.

And no way Sunnydale has a UC, a State College sure, but no way a UC.
5. Gardner Dozois
Hate to say so, but I strongly agree with Lynda and TankSpill. One of the most interesting things about the Faith/Mayor relationship is that there IS warmth and real father/daughter feeling between Faith and the Mayor, regardless of the fact that they're both Evil. I think this is demonstrated beyond any doubt in the Mayor's reaction in the hospital to Faith having been stabbed and his reaction to Buffy's taunting him with Faith's knife once he becomes a Big Snake--to say nothing of the video tape he leaves behind for her to play in the next season. This is very sophisticated for TV, particularly network TV of the day, where it's usually taken for granted that evil people who do bad things are incapable ot loyalty or warmth or love, especially non-sexual family love.

Lsana has a definite point. If they'd been willing to sacrifice Willow--who, after all, took her chances going into a dangerous situation with her eyes open, like a good soldier--they'd have saved the lives of a lot of innocent people later on. It's hard to believe that the Scoobies would have been able to make the decision to sacrifice Willow, but it's not difficult to see them staging some kind of desperate last-ditch raid on the Mayor's office to get Willow back; after all, they have two superpowerful people on their side to use as a strike force (plus whatever magical abilities Giles possesses, which vary from episdode to episode), and the Mayor, while physically invulnerable, does not himself possess super-strength, so might not be able to stop them from snatching Willow and running, even if he'd quickly recover from whatever damage they dealt out to him.

What Principle Synder knew when is puzzling. Obviously, he knows enough to cover up vampire attacks on the school, but it's hard to imagine him inviting the Mayor to speak at Graduation if he knew that he was going to turn into a Giant Snake and eat everybody, especially as one of the ones he eats is him.
Alyx Dellamonica
6. AMDellamonica
Lynda, Tankspill, Gardner, you've misunderstood me. (Which is my fault for not being clearer. Sorry.)

I never meant to imply the Mayor and Faith don't care for each other. They do--that's indisputable. But they are still both performing their father-daughter roles. They're doing it up a bit. It's not easy and relaxed and sincere and who they are, the way it is with Buffy and Giles. It's like a shiny new car they're driving around in.

The Mayor's an inveterate faker anyway: he's pretending to be Mister Squeaky Clean when he's a spider-eating demon wannabe. Here, he's fond of Faith and he's taking on the part of her father figure, but he's also admiring himself as he takes on the Role of Dad.

Whereas later, when he gives her the pink dress and they talk about what's to come, I feel he's speaking from his evil heart.
Emma Rosloff
7. emmarosloff
One of the themes I've noticed in Whedon's work is the importance of friendship, and along those lines, the notion that nobody gets left behind. It's interesting to see how that plays in this context -- Wesley is definitely the voice of reason, here, and has a point: Willow's life stacked against the fate of the world seems minuscule, and I agree they should've at least tried to come up with an alternate plan before simply handing over the box and hoping for the best.

But this is where Buffy is more like a comic book -- for the Scoobies, impending Apocalypse is more or less a constant. They're the crusaders ever and always at the front lines, so it stands to reason that that constant state of near world-ending would inevitably warp their priorities. Sure, they're always looking out for the greater good, but they have their own sanity to mind.

While realistically, they should be losing (and recruiting new) people left and right, the Scoobies almost all manage to make it through, time and time again. They become seasoned, and more and more indispensable as time wears on, not just for their budding skills, but for their devotion to the cause and each other.

Let's call it Power Rangers Syndrome -- the Rangers are not simply all individuals, fighting side by side, they're a team that's greater than the sum of its parts. The Power Rangers couldn't become 'Megazord' (I had to look that up, I swear I didn't remember that off the top of my head) unless all of them were present and fighting fit.

While the Scoobies don't really have a 'mega' form (except, perhaps, at the climax of season four), working as a team is generally the only thing that gets them out alive. In essence, it's their greatest strength, but that also makes it their greatest weakness. This episode, aptly named 'Choices', illustrates this rather well.

With all this in mind, it's much easier for me to understand how Buffy and the crew could be so quick to rationalize getting Willow back at any cost. Without her, it's like they've already lost, because they can only fight the big bad battle in 'mega' form. Keeping the team alive then becomes as high a priority as keeping the world from ending, and when you're facing those high stakes as often as they do, I could see how they could come to weigh the two priorities equally.

Is this a somewhat unrealistic, ultimately damning philosophy? Perhaps, but that's what makes Buffy more like a comic book -- the rules of reality don't necessarily apply. It's only really in the endgame; the battle against the First, that we start to lose people for real, and Buffy has to accept that part of war means just that; leaving people behind. But even then, it's mostly just Slayerettes we hadn't grown super attached to, anyway (except, I guess, for Anya... there had to be at least one impactful death, and then Spike... until season 5 of Angel revs up, anyway).
Ian Johnson
8. IanPJohnson
@4: If Merced has a UC, then I can believe that Sunnydale does.
9. Jim Parish
I don't think you can separate Buffy's choice in this episode from the events of Becoming, Part 2. She's already, once, saved the world, at the cost of the life of someone she loves, and it nearly destroyed her. Come hell or high water, she's not doing it again - not this time, and not later.
Michael Ikeda
10. mikeda

Wesley did have a talent in S3 for saying things that should have been seriously considered in a way that practically ensured they wouldn't be.


Also, Sunnydale in the Buffyverse is in basically the same location occupied by Santa Barbara in our world. And Santa Barbara has a UC campus.
11. Dr. Thanatos
Sunnydale has whatever is needed, whether it's a UC, a haunted cemetary, a military base, an abandoned evil church; it's like the Town of Requirement.

Which reminds me:
Mayor vs Snape?
Dark Willow vs Voldemort? vs Witch King?
Anya vs Luna Lovegood?
Dawn vs Harvey? (the Pookah, not the giant baby)

Let the games begin!
Jack Flynn
12. JackofMidworld
emmarosloff - I was reading your post and grinning to myself how it almost sounds like you're describing a table-top RPG group where the PCs always survive even when the rest of the hirelings fall by the way, but then I had a realization (well, more of a remember-ization, but still): Buffy was the first slayer to survive more than a couple of years after being activated, and why was that? Because she's breaking the rules and instead of just her Watcher, she has a support group that none of the other slayers before her had.

With that thought guiding Buffy, even if it was just a glimmer in the back of her head and not a coherent thought, she'd know that letting Willow go and breaking up the band wasn't just a bad idea, but a suicidal one.
john mullen
13. johntheirishmongol
The Mayor and Faith really had chemistry together and were quite good. He certainly knew the right kind of toys to get her excited.

One of the things I liked about this episode was the little bits, like Cordy working at the dress shop, which was a set up for the Prom Night.

There was no doubt that Willow would be trade bait. While we might reasonably say that it was a sacrifice that could be made, these are not military that really think that way, but high school kids that are as close as family.
Jason Parker
14. tarbis
Never try to figure out Sunnydale geography. You'll just end up asking where the airport, docks, beach, and river went at the end of season seven.

Storywise it would have been better for the Scoobies to at least try a rescue or a bluff or anything other than giving the villian the tool to become more powerful (leading to the deaths of Larry, Synder, and all the people that Vamp-Harmony will eat). Destroy box then attempt rescue would have been a workable plan. In terms of making an episode it probably would have put them over time and over budget.

I'm not sure it's fair to say that Faith is the first person Willow competed with. She competed with Buffy for Xander's attention. Then with Cordelia for Xander's attention. Then with Faith for Buffy and given her reaction to the news about Xander's virginity she put herself in competition with Faith for him too. She is a pretty possessive person with a need to one up people. In the case of stealing the pages it worked to everyone's advantage.

What really sold this episode for me was the Mayor's speech to Angel. It wasn't the best written speech, but it was well delivered and the part about his wife was very humanizing for the Mayor and helped sell his connection with Faith, the daughter he never raised. The look of absolute annoyance and disgust at the end really sold it.
15. Gardner Dozois
@6. Actually, I disagree. The really fascinating thing about the Mayor is that he really IS Mr. Squeeky Clean, while AT THE SAME TIME being a spider-eating demon wanabee. He doesn't scruple to kill people, but while ordering their deaths will wince in genuine displeasure and annoyance when one of his minions uses "bad language."
Constance Sublette
16. Zorra
"It’s as though the battle’s not over and they’re already being reassigned."

Great generals do think that way, or so I've read. Personally, I know nothing about being a bad general, much less a great one!

But I've also read that you need to be thinking about the peace after the war before the war is finished. Lincoln definitely did. Too bad the Bads killed him before he could really get to work on that. But Seward and later, General - President Grant, tried to follow what they thought Lincoln intended. Then, frackin' Andrew Johnson, and the consequent impeachment battle taking all eyes in D.C. off the point (but then, that's what Johnson got accomplished -- Reconstruction and the plans to integrate the freemen into full citizenship totally derailed).

Love, C.
Ian Johnson
17. IanPJohnson
@8: True. However, UC Sunnydale is nothing like UC Santa Barbara, being that it was filmed at UCLA and had all its dorms named after UC Santa Cruz colleges.
john mullen
18. johntheirishmongol
With the exception of the docks, I always felt it was more Riverside than Santa Barbara.
Alyx Dellamonica
19. AMDellamonica
Jim - what you say about her sacrificing Angel is so true.

Emma--megaform! love it!!

Gardner--I dunno. I think he's a rotten interior and a squeaky clean exterior, and I don't have it in me to believe that both can be real. Or, rather... hmmm. The exterior isn't a presentation of good, but it's meant to pass for it?
20. Gardner Dozois
I think people can be sincerely Good and Bad at the same time--after all, Hitler was kind to his dog, and his dog loved him. That doesn't cut much ice with his millions of victims.

I don't think that the Mayor is putting on a Squeaky Clean act, I think he really IS Squeaky Clean--but most of the ways in which he is are superficial: it doesn't matter that much if you think people shouldn't swear (and I think he sincerely believes that they shouldn't, and it pains him when they do; it's not an act intended to convince people that he's Good) if at the same time you're okay with feeding babies to demons and killing thousands of people.
Emma Rosloff
21. emmarosloff

It's totally like a tabletop game. I mean, the characters are essentially 'leveling up' as the show progresses (gaining experience from their many random encounters and season ending boss fights), acquring more skills, some of them multi-classing, even getting to 'epic' (case and point: Willow). And whenever they go out on missions they're always making decisions based on party dynamic. Characters come and go, as well, bringing their own strengths and weaknesses to the mix. And the core Scoobies all have something special about them (a class, essentially) -- whether they're a witch (Willow, Tara), a vampire (Angel, Spike), a slayer (Buffy, Kendra, Faith), a werewolf (Oz), or an ex-demon (Anya). Giles is basically a wizard. Xander may be the foil, but he still clocks a hell of a lot of field time and offers moral support. He's like a bard.

My boyfriend and I were constantly making comparisons this last watch through, to the effect of: 'High will score', or 'Failed her save'. There's even an episode where Xander think he's found their monster in the course of his research and Anya has to point out that he's reading a DnD monster manual. They're very much an adventuring party. Same thing happens in Angel, although it takes him a little longer to get his gang together. At one point they have to bring Willow in to turn Angelus back into Angel. They're basically saying 'Help! This quest is too high level for us!'

This is all just further evidence of Joss Whedon's epic nerdiness (and mine too!).


I agree that the Mayor manages to make you believe both! That's what I love about him... he made me believe he was genuine all the way through, despite appalling evidence to the contrary.
22. General Vagueness
"Would season one Willow rip pages out of a book? She is obviously already well on her way to being at least temporarily evil."
I chuckled

I'd say the mayor is pretty much every definition of twisted, which says to me he's a psychopath, and one who happens to know all kinds of supernatural ins and outs and be, well, kind of evil (not everyone that's pscyhopathic is evil or bad or a killer).
It could be even simpler: he grew up being against swearing, smoking, unnecessary public disruption, and whatever other little things come up, and old habits and mindsets are hard to break (in this case well over 100 years old).
Jack Flynn
23. JackofMidworld
@emmarosloff - I do the same thing when I'm watching a show (I'm constantly saying "Nat 20!" or "Critical fail!"). And the idea of Xander as the bard of the party is totally awesome!

And I think General Vagueness may be on to something; a side-thought of that is, besides just growing up a certain way/with a certain mindset, there's the possibility that once the evil started to kick in, he may have faked "the good" for so long that he's actually become the mask he's been wearing for the last couple of decades.
Alyx Dellamonica
24. AMDellamonica
Gardner: Okay, you are right. What you say here is true.

I like your analysis that the squeaky clean comes in part of being from the past, Vagueness.

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