“Same Time, Same Place,” by Douglas Petrie
This episode has a very literal title: the time is 9:24, and the place is the airport, at least in the beginning. We know this because we get an unnecessarily good eyeful of the airport clock and, below it, a bunch of insignificant—yet moderately memorable—deplaning passengers. Once that’s established, we go to Buffy, Dawn, and Xander, who are anxiously waiting for Willow to arrive. Xander has a yellow crayon sign and some understandable pride over having saved the world from the destructive rage of his oldest friend.
Pride aside, they’re all finding it a little weird, this upcoming reunion. The tension only increases when Buffy’s obliged to confess that Willow didn’t exactly finish what she was up to in England, this thing with Giles and his coven friends that Xander and Dawn are calling a recovery course.
“She didn’t finish not being evil?” Dawn demands.
While they’re freaking out about Willow’s failure to unlock the No Longer Keen to Fry the Planet achievement, Xander notices that everyone is now off the plane from London... and all that awkwardness they were worried about has come to a fizzle.
Same time, same place: we go back to 9:24 and the same shot of the same airport, and this time Willow’s squeezed into a space between the various plane-exiting extras. Strangely, nobody’s there waiting for her.
This may be another of those small plot set-ups that works less well in the age of everyone having a cell phone. Nowadays, we all start texting whoever’s picking us up, as soon as we’re on the ground.
Elsewhere in Sunnydale, a graffiti artist is being mocked and then attacked by an overly chatty monster. I bet the city is covered in half-finished tags.
Willow arrives at the Summers home—we get a microwave clock, this time, to show us some time has passed—and nobody’s there. She wanders through the empty house, looking sad and worried as she searches for her loved ones. She homes in on the spot where Tara died. Bummer. She finds the family phone list, and she’s not on it. Double bummer.
Then she goes running downstairs when she thinks she hears the door. But nobody’s there, as far as she can tell, and so she settles down on the couch to snooze out the wait until they arrive.
By now it’s easy to figure out that Buffy, Xander and Dawn slammed that door when they arrived home. They’ve checked that Willow got on a plane in London and are wondering if she got off at O’Hare. They worry that she’s evil again. When Willow came bolting downstairs, they heard her. But a search of the house reveals nobody home but them.
Back in London, Buffy reports, Giles is feeling guilty about having let Willow go. Buffy herself has some guilt. Dawn points out that if Willow has scampered off, it’s her responsibility to come back. That by default, she’s the one in the wrong. Buffy, somewhat reluctantly, agrees. She’s fully aware that this doesn’t bode well, and she really doesn’t want to fight Willow again, but part of her is hoping for the best.
The three of them vanish and we go back to Willow, asleep on the couch, in a transition that has something marvellously fairy-tale about it. She wakes—still no friends. She tries to call Giles and doesn’t get through; doesn’t leave a message either. It’s poignant and sad.
Then she heads to the boarded-up Magic Box, where Anya sees her. Hurrah, Anya sees her! Less of a hurrah is that Anya is emphatically not so happy to see her. Willow expresses penitence, for having hurt Anya and trashed her place of employment. She tells her to go ahead and let her have it, verbally, which sucks the wind out of whatever vengeful lecture Anya was gearing up to deliver.
Anya tells her about the gang’s ties to the new high school: Buffy and Xander both working onsite, Dawn possibly attending classes—though we all doubt it, don’t we?—and Spike on rat patrol in the basement. She suggests Willow try the construction site if she’s looking for Xander.
As a result, Willow and BuffXander end up in the same time and place again, unaware of each other, and simultaneously finding some deeply gruesome skinless corpses. Willow flees, making creaky ladder noises that the others hear but don’t really register. They’re too busy worrying they’re seeing the second going of Warren.
Willow’s next stop is the basement of the high school. Like Anya, Spike can see her. Spike is still running the Gabbling William operating system, though, so the only thing he says that she really understands is an observation that the most recent town flaying, prior to yesterday, was her doing.
It’s a weird and disjointed scene, as seen from her POV, but then Buffy and Xander arrive. Or, really, it turns out they were there almost all along. Amazingly enough, Spike’s half of the conversation makes marginally more sense the second time through. (The writing on this particular encounter is especially deft, I think, and James Marsters does well it it.)
He does try to tell Buffy what’s going on, but his on-point utterances: “My money’s on the witch” and “Red’s a bad girl” only serve to incriminate Willow further in her friends’ eyes. In his unhelpful kook way, he then wanders off.
What’s a deeply confused invisible witch with jetlag to do? Willow runs back to Anya, looking for help and, perhaps sympathy. They do a search for demons, the same spell Willow and Tara did, the one Tara sabotaged way back when. Oh, we miss Tara! They find evidence of many demons at the high school, so many that they set the map on fire, damaging Anya’s carpet, and dampening her afternoon surge of Scooby spirit.
Willow asks Anya to teleport to the most likely location of the suspected skin-eater, a cave, and we learn that she cannot teleport anymore unless it’s on official business. This is a punishment for her withdrawn that wormifying spell on Ronnie the nasty boyfriend last week.
The two women connect, briefly, over the painful reality of their having been viciously villainous, and their fears surrounding being evil again. Then Willow makes for the cave.
Demon-hunting of a more old-school Giles variety, meanwhile, has taken over the Buffy household. Dawn is officially a researcher now, searching indexes of nasty beings, checking both for demons that flay and demons that skin.
Buffy’s feeling antsy and concerned, overcome by that urge she gets to just go out and pummel whoever shows up. When Dawn finds the likely culprit, she’s afraid to let herself believe it isn’t Willow. But Dawn is persuasive, and it turns out that what they need next is someone who can detect the traces of blood left behind by the monster, a messy eater by the name of Gnarl.
Hmmm, blood trackers, Buffy thinks. Wouldn’t it be nice and distracting to coax Spike out of the school basement?
Nice or not, he’s certainly distracted. He leads them to a cave, babbling all the while. It is the same cave Willow tried to have Anya scout out. She is already there.
The demon starts taunting Willow—they all hear it—and then rushes the Scoobies. Dawn gets scratched and paralyzed. The gang flees, collapsing the cave exit as they go, with the tactical idea of keeping the thing trapped until they make it back. Which is good as far as it goes, except that it leaves InvisiWillow locked in with Gnarl.
Gnarl is so very happy that the Scoobs have abandoned his supper. He scratches and paralyzes her, and goes on at long and not very loquacious length about how the gang must have left her there deliberately. Clearly he likes his food with angst when he can’t get hot sauce. He’s lapping at the blood in her belly wound when we switch to the gang, who are just arriving home with Paralyzed Dawn.
They snatch up the books and read the rest of the Gnarl entry. (Um, guys? Why not read the whole thing before you leave? Or in the car?) Dawn’s scratch-inflicted paralysis lasts, it turns out, until Gnarl dies.
The upside of this is that Buffy has a good reason to head back to that cave pretty quickly. And what with Gnarl being a taunter, the kind of guy who likes to play with his food, he is digesting Willow very slowly indeed. There might be something left for Buffy to find and save, if only she can manage to see it.
The poetic justice here in “Same Time, Same Place,” is pretty thick on the ground. Willow didn’t torture Warren for long, but that was only because she didn’t want her friends to stop her. Having tormented and skinned him, she now faces a slow and agonizing death by the same means. Added to that is the emotional desolation of believing that her friends may have put her in this box—that she might have been judged deserving of such a fate.
Gnarl’s table manners one of the more gory things seen on BtVS, in my opinion. I flinched every time he stripped himself a noodle-sized hunk of Willow and slurped it down.
Buffy and Xander develop a random idea that Anya needs to stay with Dawn while they return to the scene of the cave-in. She reveals that Dawn is posable—which is funny—and then manages to also come ’round to mentioning about how she helped Willow earlier that day. The truth comes out, and since she also knows Gnarl, BuffXander obliges her to come along with them. Dawn didn’t need a sitter after all, I guess.
There’s a sprint back to the cave. Combat begins, and Anya reveals that Willow’s right there on the floor, somewhat hurt. BuffXander still can’t see her.
As the fight continues, Anya tells Willow she’s not alone. She’s paralyzed and bleeding from the belly, but she’s almost pathetically happy and relieved to learn she wasn’t deliberately abandoned to a horrible death.
In time, Buffy stabs Gnarl in the foot, to fix him in place and then—foreshadowing much?—she drives her thumbs into his eye sockets to kill him. When she does, Dawn falls off the couch, where the gang left her. Now Willow can move, too. Except, really, she’s too hurt.
Anya, the one person who can see everyone in the cave, sprints off to fetch an ambulance, leaving Buffy and Xander to talk to Willow, even though they can’t see or hear her. Somehow she manages to reappear, and they get their reunion at last. There’s nothing like having the flesh nibbled off your abdominal cavity to ease those awkward tensions, right?
Next day, Willow’s meditating in her room and Buffy interrupts. They feel their way through their first real conversation since the big end-of-season showdown.
Willow confesses to having inadvertently caused their mutual inability to see each other. She was feeling unready, and scared of being rejected. Buffy has a confession to make, too: she thought Willow might be guilty of the flaying.
It’s a pleasing conversation. Mutual goodwill and trust is reestablished, and in the end the bond is strong enough that Buffy offers Willow some of her strength, by way of helping her grow her Gnarl-eaten belly back. They are friends again, connecting in all the ways they weren’t able to manage last season. The only thing missing is some kind of heart to heart between the two of them over Angel.
And on that happy note, we’ll leave them, holding hands and knitting epidermis together.
Next: You’ve saved one doomed teen, you’ve saved them all, right?
A.M. Dellamonica has a book’s worth 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”!)