“Hell’s Bells,” by Rebecca Rand Kirshner
What’s a TV wedding without horror in the form of ritual bridesmaid humiliation? “Hell’s Bells” opens on another decoy moment, with Buffy and Willow apparently contemplating some great monster to be fought.
In fact, the awfulness is just bright green gowns with silly sleeves. The best that can be said about them is that the two best friends are, once again, equally condemned to fashion embarassment. (If this season is largely about Buffy suffering, it’s about Willow suffering in parallel.)
The dresses look good on nobody, as we’ll see when Tara and Dawn turn up. But Anya loves them! Today is on track to be the happiest day of her whole life, and as we ease into watching the little wedding that couldn’t possibly, I already feel terrible for her.
And for myself. “Hell’s Bells” is one of those episodes that is excruciating to watch from the get-go. I might actually prefer another round of “Doublemeat Palace,” complete with edible props.
It’s not as though Xander is having any fun, either. He’s coping with his horrible relatives and an apartment full of demonic houseguests. He and Anya have explained her many friends as circus folk. It’s working, more or less. I might have gone with “people who dress up as minor Star Trek aliens,” but there you go. Xander’s mom is far less interested in the tentacles on the bride’s side of the room than she is on whether she will be in any of the pictures. Dad’s just wondering where his next drink will come from.
We all knew, of course, that the Harris family had to be pretty damned icky. Though Xander is charming and brave and loyal and hardworking, it’s in spite of his family of origin, not so much because. And—as we are about to be reminded, in painstaking detail—he’s not, precisely, undamaged. We’ve talked before about his tendency to say mean and belittling things to both Cordelia and Anya. Here, now, we get a close-up view of the model for that adorable behavior—Dad’s not just a boozer, he’s a bully.
He’s also got his behavioral defaults set onto a sort of widescatter racist mode. He isn’t sure what the demons are exactly, but he’s prejudiced against them all the same. It’s ever so attractive.
The side show is Xander’s cousin Carol who, in a weird turn, is wearing his cufflinks on her earlobes. But once he’s retrieved them, he declares: “Nothing on earth can stop this wedding now!”
Don’t say things like that, Xander! Don’t you know that TV weddings have a shockingly high fail rate? You’re just begging for some old man with a red umbrella and vengeance on his mind to appear out of nowhere and frak it all up.
The circus folk themselves, interestingly enough, are all polite and well-spoken, better educated than the Harris clan and for the most part better behaved. Did Anya not hang out with the more slaughtery run of demonkind? We know she was exceedingly lethal, for a very long time. Who was her crowd? Are they all displaying excellent company manners?
At first, and despite the genetic family drama, everyone who matters to the ceremony is happy and anticipating the grand event. Buffy squeezes Xander into his cummerbund and ties his bow tie. She tells him he’s glowing. He says he’s happy and it makes her mist up.
XandAnya, she says, give her hope. By which she means hope for a functional relationship, somewhere in her future. Oh, dear.
WillTara, meanwhile, are helping Anya with her dress and listening to her vows, which are innocent and charming in that delightfully frank Anya way. They’re beautiful and touching and so very doomed. “I get to be with my best friend forever!” she warbles.
Nobody notices the ominous downpour outside.
One of the things about the douring of BtVS is that it used to be very much the standard that each episode had a “B” story, a second thing that would counterbalance and break up the main event. At this point in the series run, though, we see less and less of that. A few weeks ago we spent what seemed like hours, with Buffy, learning the Doublemeat ropes. Now, though we get a few subplotty romance moments here and there, mostly involving the continued thawing between WillTara, we’re all wedding all the time.
So instead of catching a breather wherein the Trio, say, tries to raise Katrina from the dead or a temp keeps phoning with desperate questions as she tries to run the Magic Box for Anya or Ethan Rayne, having cleverly escaped the government, attempts to lace the reception goodies with leftover band candy, or Giles goes “Hmmm,” in London, over prophecies to be revealed later, we just stick with the awfulness. Xander’s Uncle Rory has his arm around a caterer and is pestering Dawn, who is also in a horrible dress. D’Hoffryn shows up and then so does Halfreck. The latter is all keen to see if Dawn wants to take another wish for a spin.
Come on, Dawnie—get creative! You’ve had time to ponder this. “I wish the Hellmouth would close.” “I wish I was the darned Slayer, not Buffy.” “I wish someone would give me ten thousand bucks every time I had cause to scream in terror.”
And Spike? He shows up—uninvited, one assumes—with a date. From this we can deduce that Buffy has managed to stick to her “I’m dumping you” guns for an entire week.
As the demons politely try to mingle with the Harrises, we see it’s going about as well as it would at any wedding where the merging families have such apocalyptically glaring differences. The old guy with the umbrella, meanwhile, is circling, trying to get a moment alone with Xander. There’s a brief second where it looks like Buffy will keep the two of them apart, but then Dawn bounds up to announce that Spike brought, as she puts it, a ‘skank.’
Buffy, naturally, bustles off to see. And kaboom, Xander meets...
...who is the old guy?
Well, he claims he’s Future Xander, just before handing Pre-Marital Xander what looks awfully like an Orb of Thessala. (All those orbs look the same. I’m sure Dad Harris would back me up on this.) Anyway, Umbrella Man is so very lying about the being Xander part, but he gets away with it.
At this point, Buffy is peacekeeping, hauling Dad Harris away from the bar for some serious sobering up, while Xander finds himself mired in terrible visions. We get half-demon kids and Xander drinking in front of a football game with a busted-up back. We get an unpleasant restaurant scene. We get a fight in the kitchen about Anya’s infidelity.
Finally, we get Xander hitting Anya with a frying pan.
He comes out of it filled with perfectly natural guilt, horror and self-loathing. “Is she okay? What did I do?”
The old man tells him he can’t marry Anya. Sometimes, he says, two people can only bring each other pain.
And, with that, we transition into a little check-in on Spuffy.
It’s a thoroughly twisted scene. She tells him his “friend” is a very nice attempt to make her feel jealous, and she further admits that she is actually hurt by it. She also says she knows she deserves it.
Spike replies that it’s nice to watch her be happy, even if it’s only happy for XandAnya joy. He thanks her for admitting that he’s high enough on her radar to feel jealousy at all.
It’s so grown-up, especially compared to what’s happening in the church. There’s a point where you’re almost sorry they didn’t somehow breed, because they’d make great exes, raising a teen half-vamp together. I suppose that’s kind of what Dawn is for.
Umbrella man’s malevolent work is done. Willow finds a thoroughly freaked out Xander in the back room with the food and the coffee urns. She gives him a big hug and doesn’t see that he’s losing his mind with the OMG, I’m going to hurt Anya. He asks for a minute to work on his vows and bolts as soon as she’s got her frightful dress turned.
Anya is still working on hers, and they’re still incredibly sweet, though Tara vetoes her use of sex poodle in a public environment.
Suddenly it’s aisle time. There’s a string quartet!! Everyone’s ready for the festivities to start when Willow announces to Buffy that Xander has vanished. She tells Buffy to stall.
Anya starts on her vows again and she talks about how Xander helped her become a person, even as he flees into the rain. There’s no joke to be found here. It’s heartbreaking.
As the delay stretches, the guests start acting up. The Xander parents want to blame Anya. Halfrek, ever the scorned inner child, experiences sibling jealousy when D’Hoffryn expresses concern for the bride. Buffy finds herself leading charades and conducting an impromptu variety show.
Then Dawn tips it to Anya that Xander’s missing, just as a brawl breaks out between the nice demons and the not so nice human guests. Willow rescues Tara from it—smouldering moment there—and Anya moves through the crowd looking for Xander. Cousin Carol, she of the cufflinked earlobes, points out Umbrella Man.
Anya confronts him, and it turns out it’s not so much an elderly Xander. Really, he’s more of a guy she turned into a demon in Chicago in 1914. He’s tall, gloaty, and delighted when she bursts into tears. He’d follow up by tearing her apart in her wedding dress, except that Buffy comes to the rescue.
Xander, bless his tardy heart, arrives too, and helps with the coup de grace. What would he have done if he’d returned and Umbrella Xander wasn’t there, in all his demon glory, begging to get killed? We’ll never know. Anyway, Anya tells him the visions were lies and bellows for everyone to sit down so the wedding can go forward.
But Xander’s too deeply rattled; he says he’s not ready, that he can’t do it. He looks at his parents being horrible to each other and he can’t bring himself to make the leap of faith. He’s too afraid of hurting Anya. So, of course, he hurts her.
He apologizes and leaves, and Anya walks up the aisle in a state of utter devastation. Did I mention that this is painful to watch?
In the aftermath, the bridesmaids are gathered in a stunned little group, talking about how wretched Anya must feel. Xander takes a room at a crappy motel while Anya remains at their place, tragic and heartbroken. D’Hoffryn is on hand to console her.
Part of the cruelty of this episode is that it raises a question that comes up often in fiction: do formerly bad characters deserve to have really awesome things, like Xander, happen to them? In real life, what we get and what we reasonably expect can be wildly unrelated: deserve, I have concluded, may be one of the nastiest ideas going. But in fiction, writers get to mete out cosmic justice.
So: Anya spent centuries taking revenge on men who screwed up their relationships. Is she entitled to a lifetime of happiness with the boy of her choosing? I know we like Anya by now. I, for one, totally adore her. Does that mean she should get her happily ever after? Would we, as an audience, sit easy with that?
Aren’t any of the guys she punished entitled to register an objection?
D’Hoffryn, not surprisingly, says no. In fact, he blames Xander to such a great extent that he offers Anya her old vengeance job back. We don’t find out if she says yes before the credits roll.
Next: Or maybe it was all a dream?
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”!)