You know what I’ve been asking myself a lot this last week? Why me? Why do *I* get impaled? Why do I get bitten by snakes? Why do I fall for incredible losers? And, you know, I think I’ve finally figured it out. What my problem is. It’s Buffy Summers.
Oh, “The Wish.” There are two AU episodes over the arc of Buffy and both of them are massive downers. They make the hanging out in Sunnydale with the Mayor look positively delightful. We won’t get to “Normal Again” until the sixth season (and before anyone argues that it’s not an AU episode, remember that the closing shot wasn’t set in Sunnydale but at the hospital), but here we are with Cordy and her evil fairy godmother.
Like a lot of Buffy episodes, the set up is fairly simple. After the events of “Lover’s Walk,” Willow and Xander are suffering social and romantic upheaval. Cordelia has been in the hospital and is just returning to school. Buffy, for once, can claim Wise One status on romantic matters but has no wise advice to share. Cordelia finds that dating Xander and hanging out with the Scooby Gang has irreparably harmed her social standing–Harmony is Queen Bee now and she’s not moving back to sidekick status. Her only friend, Anya, turns out to be an evil fairy vengeance demon trying to goad Cordy into making a terrible wish to bring equally terrible harm to Xander, but she’s barking up the wrong metaphorical tree.
For whatever reason, Cordelia places all the blame for her woes solidly on the slim shoulders of one Buffy Summers, Vampire Slayer. When she wishes that Buffy had never come to Sunnydale, Anya flies into action.
“Wish”-Sunnydale sucks. Let’s just get that right out of the way. By preventing Buffy from coming to Sunnydale, The Master is able to rise and dominate the town. (In my imagination, I’ve decided that he and the Mayor battled for underworld control.) The mortality rate is way up. Everyone dresses in drab colors. The school cancels classes one day a month for memorial services and the Winter Formal has become the Winter Brunch. The Winter Brunch. What do you wear to something like that? Worst of all, The Bronze has been totally overrun by all those people who hung out at the vampire club in “Lie to Me.” At least the citizens no longer pretend they don’t know what a vampire is.
Cordelia is at first thrilled to find out she’s still the queen of mean, but that’s hardly anything to brag about. It doesn’t take long to figure out the downside to this wish – oh, like running into your now-vampired ex making out with the (undead) girl he cheated on you with.
No way! I wish us into bizarro-land, and you guys are still together?! I cannot win!
She’s rescued, but not for long, by Giles and his band of white hats. And then she gets murdered.
Lots of shows do “It’s a Wonderful Life” episodes but I can’t think of a single one where the “wisher” ends up getting killed. Even knowing it’s going to happen, Cordy’s death at Willow and Xander’s hands – risquely shot as a mÃ©nage a trois – packs a punch. Poor Cordy. She really can’t win.
The thrill of the episode, of course, once Cordelia’s storyline is out of the way, is in the “What If-ing” the show indulges in. And like everything else, all the AU development seems absolutely grounded in character development. We see the first glimpse of Willow’s cruel and capricious streak. What happens to Xander when his bad impulses aren’t held in check by his friends. (Mini rightly points out that Xander is styled very close to Spike’s look in previous episodes.) Giles, a decent guy with a deep belief in doing what’s right heads an anti-vampire squad with Oz, another fundamentally decent and brave human being. Larry, whose bravery in Real Sunnydale concerned him coming out as gay and apologizing for his self-hating behavior, is also among the White Hats, plus Random Girl who dies.
We never do exactly find out what kept Buffy except that she now operates out of Cleveland (a show in-joke, since Cleveland’s demonic activity has been commented on before). When she shows up, finally, in Sunnydale, she’s a hard, bitter fighter. What always made Buffy different was her humanity, which she kept by hanging onto friends and family. This Buffy is basically Faith on steroids – she hunts and kills. A little slaying machine. She’s not interested in saving anyone – just doing her job.
A lot of the emotional impact of the show is contained in the last fight scene – Buffy, with a rescued Angel (a tortured captive of the Master), shows up at the factory to put an end to the world’s slowest automation line. All hell breaks loose. Buffy and Xander fight, with her staking him and walking away from the puff of dust that was once her dear friend. Oz and Larry stake Willow. Angel takes a crossbow bolt in the heart and dies with her name on his lips, reaching out for her – and this always gets me – Buffy walks through his disintegrating body. She breathes in the dust of the vampire who loved her without even blinking.
And then the Master and Buffy fight and he kills her again, but Xander isn’t there to bring her back. And she dies, again, for us, but without love or friends or family, another Slayer gone.
Giles reverses the wish by destroying Anya’s power center, rendering her mortal and stuck in Real Sunnydale. Most of the episode took place in the shadows, but we close in sunlight, Buffy and her friends laughing together.