“Normal Again,” by Diego Gutierrez
A week after the XandAnya wedding misfires so spectacularly, we find Buffy walking the streets of Sunnydale in a somewhat peculiar outfit, reading from a list of newly rented apartments. This is a search for the Trio—hurrah for being proactive!—and she’s about to hit paydirt.
Or maybe not. The Trio are just smart enough to put out a security camera and keep an eye peeled for the Slayer. Unfortunately, they’ve put Jonathan on watch and he has dozed off. Warren hits him with a squirt gun and he admits to having slept poorly since Katrina’s murder.
His partners in crime are not so sure he’s entitled to his feels.
In fact, there’s a perceptible and growing rift among the three: Jonathan’s obvious feelings of guilt and his mistrust of Warren are a little too obvious. In the past, he and Andrew, united, could counter-balance Warren, at least enough to make him lie about what he was up to. But now Andrew has thrown in with Warren. It’s an unpleasant power shift: we can see they’ll be plotting, soon, to do Jonathan in.
Instead of busting out the violence, they’re arguing about boredom and cabin fever when they finally notice Buffy. Warren tells Andrew to “deploy his little friend.” This means to summon a demon who looks a little like an underfed Sontaran. In the ensuing fight, said Sontaran stabs Buffy with a single Wolverine-like claw, and suddenly she’s in a hospital, getting injected and fighting with orderlies.
Only for a second, though. Then she’s back in the here and now. There’s no sign of the demon or the Trio.
Over at UC Sunnydale, I’m faintly surprised (as I always am at this point) to see Willow still in university. Not that she’s in class. Instead, she’s rehearsing an attempt to ask Tara out on a date. This falls apart when she sees her beloved connecting with a friend and exchanging friendly cheek kisses. Willow gets the wrong idea and bolts; Tara sees her and looks hurt and/or concerned.
Buffy’s day, meanwhile, continues to alternate between surreal and depressing. Over at the Doublejob, Lorraine the manager transforms briefly into a doctor offering delicious, relaxing psych meds. Who wouldn’t say yes to that over flipping burgers?
After her shift, she finds Willow online looking for Xander e-mails. We learn that he is apparently AWOL, and Anya is, as far as they know, looking for him. Buffy asks why Willow isn’t up out with Tara, and gets brought up to speed on the inconclusive ‘other woman’ sighting. Buffy is supportive and reassuring.
Then Xander walks in, effectively eliminating one source of suspense. I’m glad he’s back, and so are they. Hugs abound.
Xander’s in bad shape. He’s incoherent about how badly he screwed up; he’s falling apart without Anya. Continuing the theme of supportiveness, Buffy says, “We all screw up. Sometimes we get what we need anyway.”
Which carries us, quite nicely, to Spike.
Because Spike missed the end of the wedding, he has to get filled in on the meltdown. Buffy tells him—in a rather warm and homey little scene—and even though Spike is the guy who usually sees clearly, he’s surprised. Nanoseconds later, Xander shows up. Everyone’s in a crappy state anyway so the men bristle and snark, about that and other things. They’re gliding toward actual violence when Buffy swoons... and then ends up back in the asylum.
Buffy does not like the asylum. She tries to shut it all out and it looks like she might make a go of it. Then the doctor tells her she’s got guests, and it’s her parents.
It’s rather hard to say no to seeing Mom in the not-dead flesh again. But she shakes it off, deswooning herself back to the graveyard, and reality.
XanDillow help her up, Xander tossing a final insult at Spike before they go. It’s a bit of a last straw—he starts to realize he’s had it with being treated like highly convenient dirt by Buffy’s friends.
Once everyone is home, to my surprise, Buffy tells the gang, including Dawn, everything. She even mentions about her parents being alive and together.
The next time she she switches back, the doctor is telling the Summers Senior how Buffy might recover and even lead a normal life, at home, with them... if she rejects her heroic delusions and everything she’s built around them.
The meta is lying pretty thick on the ground here, as the doctor describes the hero’s journey Buffy is embarking on. They talk about Dawn, and the way each season’s big bad villain has gotten bigger and badder... right up until the moment that Buffy’s subconscious came up with a pathetic Trio of nerds for her to fight.
The doctor’s argument is that the Trio proves Buffy can no longer sustain the delusion of grand battles against huge monsters. Her whole imagined heroic world is coming apart.
But the Trio doesn’t know that. Warren and Andrew slipped out to fetch heist supplies while Jonathan was sleeping. They squabble—Jonathan wants to go out too—and Warren vetoes that.
Back in Sunnydale, Buffy is moping over a picture of Joyce, Hank, and her young self.
Willow tells her they’ve identified the Sontaran and it’ll all be okay, but Buffy is thinking about how detached she has been. “Every day I try to snap out of it,” she says. Willow assures her that she’s not in an institution and never has been, and Buffy confesses that the parents committed her when she first discovered vampirekind. Suddenly she’s afraid she’s been in the asylum the whole time.
With the fingernail demon properly identified, Xander and Spike go a-hunting. Xander gets to use Willow’s trank gun. This makes me miss Oz, a little.
As they’re hunting, Dawn makes soothing tea for her sister. Buffy tries to reassure her she’ll be okay, then abruptly breaks into stern parent mode, telling Dawn the grades have to come up. She accuses her of letting Willow do her chores. It seems a little peculiar and erratic; she’s trying to remind herself that this is her life and she needs to get on it.
The scene switches to Joyce, in the hospital, trying to get Buffy to say “I don’t have a sister.”
When she does, Dawn hears it. And boy is she pissed off: “It’s your ideal reality and I’m not even a part of it.”
(I’d be mad, too.)
But a cure is on the way! Spike and Xander have captured the monster. They restrain it in the basement—Xander gets a few bonks for his leaving-Anya pains—and Willow breaks off the Wolverine nail and brews an antidote.
Buffy is, quietly, reluctant to drink it. And so Willow foolishly leaves Spike in charge of making sure it happens. I say foolishly because not only has the Bloody proven several times to be unreliable, but every now and then he does brag about how he’s evil and would love to see them all die.
Buffy tells him he’s not part of her life and he replies with a somewhat startling barrage of angry assertions. (A lot of the dialog in this seems ever so slightly off.) Buffy’s not drawn to the darkness, as he initially thought, but simply addicted to misery. He tells her she should get over her martyr complex and try to be happy, and that he’s going to tell the others about their affair.
With the charming prospect of being outed as a Spuff-loving pervert hanging over her head, she declines to drink the yummy fix-it brew.
(Ewww, it doesn’t look yummy.)
She pours it out, goes back to the asylum, and tells the doctor and the parents that she wants to be healthy and stay with them.
So that’s all good, in its way, except that the pathway to health is, according to the doctor, a process of ridding her mind of those things that supported the hallucinations. Meaning: her friends.
“Last summer when you had your awakening, it was them that pulled you back in,” he reminds her.
This is where this episode gets very sticky and contentious. It strongly implies that the heavenly dimension the four amigos pulled Buffy out of was this everyday world where she’s not superpowered and her parents are still together.
Textually this clashes with her description to Spike of Heaven, where time didn’t mean anything and nothing had form.
Anyway, if she wants to stay in the arguably new heaven of my parents are alive and undivorced, she has to do whatever it takes to get rid of the Scoobies and the siblings.
With that revelation, she’s back in the, um, real world. And she’s serious about this whole get healthy thing. In no time at all she’s got Willow and Xander tied up in the basement, and she’s hunting Dawn. That’s delightfully horror-movie in its sensibilities and direction, and I enjoy it.
Dawn is packing to run away to Janice’s as the hunt begins.
“What’s more real, a sick girl in an institution or a supergirl chosen to fight demons and save the world?” Buffy asks, as Dawn tries to convince her she’s behaving wrong-headedly.
It’s a short chase. She drags Dawn downstairs and lets the Sontaran out of its restraints.
The Scoobies, for all that they’re bound, gagged and Spikeless, do pretty well against him for awhile. Xander starts by manfully kicking at the demon, who kindly, though accidentally, releases his hands. Then Tara comes downstairs, no doubt in search of that date she didn’t get asked on earlier. Using magic, she releases the girls and smacks the demon with a shelf.
Tara is knocked out of the fight when Buffy trips her, sending her tumbling down the stairs. (Which is a cool possible point of divergence: if Buffy had killed Tara, rather than Warren, what might have happened with Dark Willow?)
Back in asylumland, Joyce is telling Buffy to be strong, kill her friends, and believe in herself. It’s a two-layered pep talk, much of its content as easily applicable to the depression Buffy’s been battling as the attempt to leave her friends dead on the basement floor.
Then Joyce promises that she and Hank will always be there for her. This, I think, is the minute the delusion loses its power. She knows better.
“You’re right,” Buffy says. “Thank you. Goodbye.”
Then she goes and saves her friends.
Maybe it’s only because it’s preceded by “Hell’s Bells,” but I found “Normal Again” easier to watch and, in a sense, rather optimistic. Xander is given a preview of his personal disaster scenario for a marriage with Anya—he sees the worst in himself being brought to awful fruition, and he cuts and runs. A week later, Buffy sees how badly damaged he’s been by his own failure to rise to the occasion... and she sees it just as she is being tempted by something pretty damned enticing.
I don’t think it’s an accident that Xander’s bad choice so closely follows her decision to stay with the fight.
What she draws from this hallucinatory experience is that she wants to get better. At first this means withdrawing to the world of imaginary Hank and Joyce, but before she sacrifices her friends on the altar of delusion, Buffy does what Xander didn’t—she recommits to the harder path.
It’s not fear of losing the Scoobies and Dawn that makes her go back and save them, it’s that she knows Joyce is right: she has to fight on, she does have strength enough, and she will, in time, find it.
Next time: Anya makes some choices.
A.M. Dellamonica has tons of fiction up here on Tor.com! Her ‘baby werewolf has two mommies,’ story, “The Cage,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. There’s also “Among the Silvering Herd,” the first of a series of stories called The Gales. (Watch for the second of The Gales, “The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti”!)