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?
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.)
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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 Tor.com. 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.