One of the many things I appreciate about Joss Whedon’s shows is that they wrap up at the end of the year. Viewers aren’t left with a big lingering battle about to unfold at the finale; each season finishes as though the story’s over. Sure, there are loose threads to pick up later, and some of them are mighty tantalizing threads at that, but even so you get that bit of satisfaction that comes from experiencing a story’s end.
(This is merely a taste thing, and I’m sure some of you prefer the cliffhanger. Which is cool too, of course!)
Like all storytelling choices, this rhythm has its repercussions. In the case of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it means that the Sunnydale slaying season is essentially a nine-month proposition, (like hockey, but with death!) especially in those early years when the gang is chained to the school calendar. Evil winters at the Hellmouth; like migratory waterfowl, the demons splash down in California every September. They eat civilians, build their numbers and chase after power. By May, the really dangerous vamps are dead, fleeing or at the very least trounced and licking their wounds deep underground. This gives the Slayer downtime to… well, it varies from year to year. After S1, Buffy heads off to L.A. to wheedle shoes out of her father and mope about having died at the Master’s hands.
(We can deduce from this that Buffy’s already not one to view resurrection as a glass-half-full situation.)
So as autumn returns, Willow and Xander are having a little end-of-summer moment, a brush with the possibility of the relationship Willow wants so badly. Then the first flocks of vampires return, quashing romance and incidentally bringing their primary predator with them.
“When She Was Bad” begins with a little handful of reunions, a collection of scenes wherein everyone close to Buffy goes “Hey, you’re back!” and, in return, gets a chilly hint at how she’s in pretty rough shape emotionally. She’s mean to Cordelia, tells Angel she’s so-so over him, beats the stuffing out of her practice dummy, and torments Xander with the infamous Sexay Dance. She’s so far out of line that Cordelia tries to talk sense to her.
Willow and Xander, meanwhile, have gone to Giles and complained that Buffy’s been enchanted, or possessed or something magical and bad. Giles counters their adorable and innocent theory with one of his own: Buffy has big “I was kilt and now I’m not, so much” issues. It’s classic self-destructive behavior—alienate your support system, go it alone, fail, and then yell “I told you I was doomed!” as vampires devour you. You all remember this one from undergraduate psychology courses, I’m sure.
Things get worse in Buffyland, of course, when it turns off that the fall kick-off to the Evil Season is grabbing Cordelia, all as part of a larger plan to resurrect the Master. The Scoobies assemble to talk strategy, and Buffy attempts to cut them loose, triggering the first big team meltdown of the show. Our Slayer takes a lot of crap from her friends, mother and Watcher over the years, and at times I found this incredibly painful to watch. This time, though, I have to say—they were pretty gentle, and their complaints seemed pretty fair. Willow points out that she’s walking into a trap. Buffy’s all shrug, while Giles seems on the fence… probably because part of him agrees that Buffy shouldn’t be taking her fellow teens out on the hunt.
She runs off to the Bronze, alone, to save what turns out to be a decoy Cordelia. The minions of the Anointed One grab Miss Calendar, Willow, and Giles, leaving Xander behind to ladle out guilt and clue her in on the scheme.
Then Buffy casually tortures their vampire prisoner for info on where the resurrection’s going to happen.
Yeah. Torture. This is morally allowed under what I call the Orc convention—I’ll write more about this another time, but essentially it’s the idea that the forces of evil use soulless cannon fodder, guys who are happy being evil and who have no capacity for any kind of redemption. The heroes aren’t being unheroic if they maltreat soulless beings, the rationale goes. There’s no moral ambiguity and we can all just skate past it. We don’t have to pause and go “Ick” and think ill of anyone for beating on orcs. Good thing there are no nice demons in the Buffyverse… well, none yet anyway.
In this case, the torture always seemed a little ill-considered to me, because they want the vampire girl to talk, and yet Buffy shoved a cross down her gob.
Okay, digression over: the torture works, and we’re off to the final fight scene! Yayyy! Buffy takes out her issues on the Master’s bones with a sledgehammer, Angel moves in for the hug, and the way is paved for a warm and fuzzy Core Four reconciliation at school the next day.
“When She was Bad” makes a decent epilogue to the Master story arc. It serves as a recap of the story so far, and simultaneously reconnects us with all the important folk of the S2 Buffyverse: not just the kids, Angel and Giles, but characters like Joyce, Principal Snyder and Jenny Calendar. And with the school year begun and slaying season open for business, things are picking up, because the bitter winds of fall are blowing Spike and Drusilla ever closer to the Hellmouth.