And finally, the Master gets his day! Where is a conveniently stake-shaped broken table when you need one?
This is a really solid finale episode. I like the Hook Man parallels at the beginning, with Cordelia and her boyfriend. It’s also a nice callback to the first episode where Darla and the random guy were sneaking around in the school. It’s a cool way to both remind us where we started and show how far we’ve come. Instead of Cordelia and her boyfriend being attacked, Buffy kills the vampire easily and walks off, which is a great parallel to the opening of “Welcome to the Hellmouth.”
There’s a lot to love in this episode. There’s really a lot of great plot movement, character development, and themes established that pay off in the next few seasons. Cordelia spending more time with Buffy, Willow, and Xander, Giles looking at Buffy like a daughter, Xander’s unrequited thing (and his ability to be petty and vindictive), Willow’s sense of right and wrong and her determination to stand up for herself, even to her friends. Most obviously, there’s also how Buffy and Angel interact, their sexual tension and also their ability to work as a team.
This episode also works because it gives Buffy actual stakes. At first, after Xander’s fairly heartwrenching attempt at asking Buffy out and her gentle refusal, Buffy feels like quitting would be fine. Xander’s angry at her, she can’t have Angel because he’s a vampire, and Giles has been keeping things from her, so why not just bail on her responsibilities and let the Master rise? But there’s also Willow, and her tremulous, tearful confession that it feels like the vampires are making the world theirs, and Cordelia, who is Buffy’s mirror image, and the countless students and other people whose lives will have lasting consequences if Buffy doesn’t face up to her responsibilities. And there’s Buffy’s mom.
Giles gets a lot of very controlled, desperate moments in this episode, and Anthony Head does a marvelous job keeping his performance believable and muted while still giving us the sense of danger. In fact, his underreacting is just as effective as Buffy’s anger and frustration in the scene where she finally finds out what’s been bothering him. There’s also a nice role-reversal at the end, where he tries to be the one to take on the Master and they end up arguing about it with Buffy in the role he’d normally take and him coming off sounding like the teenager.
My favorite Willow moment in the whole first season (maybe the entire series?) is also in this episode–it’s the moment when she finally gets what she wanted, Xander asks her out, and she says no. The way her face falls when he starts asking her, and the way she steels herself a little before telling him why she won’t go with him, it’s all so perfect. It makes Willow human and strong in a way that makes me love her for the first time in the series.
Xander also gets some quality moments here. There’s not just his bitterness over Buffy’s rejecting him, there’s also his interaction with Angel. I love his “prove me wrong” speech to Angel, I love that he threatens Angel with the cross to get him to go along with the plan. I also love that even though he’s the one who brings Buffy back, he doesn’t lord it over Angel, and he doesn’t try to use that to get Buffy to accept his overtures after all. He knows there’s a line, and he knows this is not the place or time or way to push it.
The acting in this episode is stellar. Massive props to Sarah Michelle Gellar and Anthony Head in particular. The whole scene in the library where Buffy finds out she’s going to die is just so wrenching and raw. SMG plays it so well that I can’t help but compare it to people finding out they have a fatal disease. Her quick jump through denial, anger, and depression is great, too. I love that we get to see her struggling here like we haven’t before. She’s so young and so real here. It never gets overdramatic or melodramatic. Anthony Head is great, too, letting himself react and respond in a more passive way, which is just such a great way to show how helpless and lost Giles feels.
And of course, that scene has some of my favorite Awkward Turtle Angel moments. Poor guy’s just like, “Um? Please don’t throw things?” but in a way that makes it feel like he’s not just in the scene but also feeling the emotions a boyfriend or family member would feel in the situation and reacting to that by trying to fix it. The whole scene is just played so well by all three of them, and the tension and weight of it is underscored (heh, or not) by the lack of music in the scene, which is especially evident almost immediately after the scene ends when the score kicks back in over the transition shot.
This episode also does things like give us a reason all of these weird things have been going on at the high school and not somewhere else–the Hellmouth is under the high school, so of course the weirdness is going to happen there. It brings in more traditional vampire mythology–that vampires can hypnotize their victims. It also reminds us that Angel has always known exactly how to get to the Master, but nobody thought to ask him.
I grant you, the white dress Buffy wears for most of the episode is a little on-the-nose with the virgin sacrifice metaphor, but it also highlights that she is good and pure of heart, and the Master (who wears black leather) is not good.
In the end, this episode is about doing hard things. It’s about facing up to reality, even if that reality means dying. It’s about facing a challenge and overcoming it, and about not being afraid of something just because it seems impossible. It’s a really great metaphor for transitioning into adulthood, and for accepting yourself and your changing position in the world. Who doesn’t identify with that?