Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Buffy Blog "Graduation Day"

“Graduation Day” written and directed by Buffy’s creator Joss Whedon is, in this viewers opinion, a superbly written, superbly directed, superbly edited, nicely paced, and superbly acted episode. It is a thrilling ride with pauses enough for the Scoobies, well some of the Scoobies anyway, to relax a bit and for viewers like me to catch their breath. And it is a great way to end yet another thrilling year of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

There is enough stuff going on in “Graduation Day” to keep a host of critics and academics writing essays for years. In many ways season three of Buffy (if not seasons one and two too) has been heading toward Sunnydale High School graduation day since it began. Graduation, that rite of passage when adolescent teenagehood ends and young adulthood begins, has been a theme that has wound its way through season three of Buffy as our Scoobies have struggled with relationships, senses of self, sexuality, and the choices they make. Nowhere is this sense of old endings and new beginnings more apparent than in “Graduation Day”.

Endings first. The Buffy/Angel relationship is winding down to its final conclusion, well perhaps it’s not so final conclusion. In “The Prom” Angel told Buffy that he was going to leave Buffy and Sunnydale if he survived the “Ascension”. In “Graduation Day” Angel tells Buffy that he is not even going to say goodbye. He is just going to leave.

But sometime endings are not that easy. Faith, still smarting from Angel’s rejection in “Enemies”, and trying to turn Buffy’s attention away from the evil matter of the moment, the mayor’s “ascension”, shoots an arrow into an Angel arguing once again with Buffy about their relationship. It was not Angel’s heart that Faith was aiming for and missed. Her intention, as soon becomes apparent, was to poison our Vampire with a soul. The arrow tip she shoots has a deadly poison smeared on it. Learning that the only thing that can cure Angel of the poison Faith as shot into Angel is the blood of the Slayer—once again blood plays an important role in the Buffyverse—Buffy goes off in search of Slayer blood to cure her “lover”. Buffy, in other words, goes off to kill Faith.

Buffy injures Faith but she is not able to bring her to Angel so he can drink her blood. It is Buffy who forces Angel to drink her blood in a sexually charged scene (Whedon, in an interview on the season three DVD set notes that the metaphor is pretty close to the surface). This doesn’t stop Angel doing what he said he will do. At the end of the battle between the mayor and the Scoobies our vampire with a soul leaves Sunnydale without saying goodbye. Buffy glimpses her white knight briefly before he turns his back on our Slayer and disappears into the smoke and darkness (very noir) that remain from the epic battle just fought and won. Whither Angel? A new beginning?

“Graduation Day” also brings the Buffy and Faith arc to a conclusion, at least for the moment. I say for the moment because in Buffy, as all devoted viewers should know by now, endings aren’t necessarily always endings. Sometimes they lead to new beginnings or new beginnings enmeshed in old endings. Thanks to the Xandman, who is quickly becoming the Scooby you need to go to when you need to find one of those hard to find persons (he found the address of the demon who wanted to sell Buffy and Faith the “Books of Ascension” in“Enemies” if you recall), Buffy, dressed in red and black, red the colour of blood—a foreshadowing of what is shortly to come?—and black—symbolising that Buffy is a double of Faith?—tracks “big sis” down to the apartment the mayor has put our rogue Slayer up in. The result is the second great epic battle in the Buffy and Faith saga. The first, of course, was in “Revelations”. The end result of this Slayer on Slayer fight is rather different from the first. Buffy, uses the knife the mayor gave Faith—there has to be a psychoanalytical critic out there who can make much oedipal and electra hay out of this—to gut our rogue Slayer (the red blood that matches Buffy’s red slacks). Faith, however, does not go easily into the you’ll be fed to Angel night. Before Buffy can grab her, Faith hits Buffy knocking her backwards and throws herself down from her third storey (?) landing into a bed of a passing lorry. Faith has managed to snatch one little victory out of the mouth defeat.

Another ending: When the Watcher’s Council won’t help the Scoobies find a cure for the poison that is killing Angel, it is not their policy, Wesley says, “to cure vampires, Buffy graduates from, quits, the Watcher’s Council leaving Wesley without a job.

And another: The Wesley/Cordelia romance is in full bloom. Cordelia even comes into the library to demand an explanation for why Wesley is planning to return to England. She is told by Giles that it is because Buffy has quit the Council. In the Buffyverse, however, romances don’t always, don’t even usually, last very long. Wesley’s and Cordy’s doesn’t last long at all. When Wesley and Cordy’s lips meets as both are doing their duty by packing books in preparation for the final battle with the mayor—a sure tip off to the careful viewer that something big is about to take place in the library—the Wes and Cordy romance comes to an inglorious end with one of the worst kisses ever seen on the screen, big or small, in film and television history.

And now the big ending or conclusion: the mayor ascends as planned, eats Snyder who berates the mayor for his unacceptable behaviour and the disorder he causes (earning a bit of redemption in the process?), and kills Larry (Ron expresses sadness since he really liked the character of Larry) who like the “white hat” he was in “The Wish” is fighting the good fight on our Scoobies side. Buffy is able to turn the fight in our heroes direction when she finds the mayor’s Achilles heel with a little help from Angel—Angel tells Buffy that the mayor was seriously crazed when he learned Faith was in a comma thanks to Buffy—and a lot of help from Faith—Faith and Buffy share a dream in which Faith tells Buffy that the mayor’s weakness is his “[h]uman weakness”. Buffy uses the mayor’s human weakness for Faith by goading him into chasing her through the Sunnydale High halls into the library where Giles blows him to kingdom come. The big bad of season three is no more.

Speaking of new or possibly new beginnings coming from seeming endings: Wesley now a former Watcher is decked by a vampire within the first few seconds of the epic battle with the mayor’s forces and spends the rest of the battle writing in pain on the sidewalk. Whither Wesley? Harmony is bitten during the epic battle. Whither Harm? Willow and Oz move their relationship into new territory when they, in the midst of melancholia about the coming battle against the mayor during his ascension, they have sex not once but twice, the first in Willow’s bedroom and the second in Oz’s van. Whither Willow and Oz? Faith is alive but in a coma. Does the fact that Faith helps Buffy in their collective dream represent a new beginning for Faith? Has Faith reconciled with Buffy? Has Faith earned some level of redemption?

And then there’s that big ending and big new beginning: “Graduation Day” ends with a bit of the happiness of those usual happy Hollywood endings. The mayor has been defeated and is dead. The Scoobies have graduated from high school. Willow and Buffy will soon be off to the University of California, Sunnydale. But there is also sadness and pain: Larry is dead, Harm may be dead, Wes is injured and is no longer Buffy’s Watcher, Faith is in a coma, Angel has left to where we don’t know, Giles no longer is a Watcher and , since the library has been destroyed, is presumably without a job, Cordelia can’t go to college, and Xander’s future, though he was “key guy” in the battle against the mayor (remember when he was the Zeppo in “The Zeppo?) doesn’t seem the best or the brightest. Viewers, well this viewer anyway, can’t help but be a little unsettled by the question of where our Scoobies might going?

Harry Groener’s characterization of the mayor as a largely genial throughout season three makes the anger that erupts periodically out of the mayor (“Choices”, “Graduation Day”) all the more effective. Speaking of the mayor and anger, the tense scene when the mayor enters the sanctum of the Scobbies, the Sunnydale High School library and the confrontation scene between the mayor and Angel (David Boreanaz) in the hospital after Angel saves Buffy from the Wilkins’s attempt to kill her by cutting off her air, is brilliantly done by all concerned.

The mayor was yet another one of those complex big bads that Buffy does so well and that you see far to little in television and film. In particular he was the father, the good father that his surrogate daughter Faith needed. Nowhere is this clearer than in “Graduation Day” where Mayor Wilkins tells Faith how lovely she looks in the new (if overly bright) dress she wears that he has just bought her, how the Ascension isn’t only his day but also her day to “blossom”, how no father could be prouder of her than he is, and how there is no way she could ever let him down. These shots in the self-esteem arm are just what Faith needs.

Though the mayor has built Sunnydale for his Ascension and so he can feed on the people of Sunnydale after his ascension one gets the mayor really believes what he says. As Joss Whedon points out in the interview on “Graduation Day” in the season DVD set the mayor’s speech on graduation day describes what Buffy up to this point has been all about.
...It's been a
long road getting here (to graduation day), for you, for
Sunnydale... there's been achievement,
joy, good times... and there's been grief.
There's been loss. Some people who
should be here today, aren't.
He's looking right at Buffy. She's looking right back.
MAYOR (cont'd)
But we are. Journey's end. And what
is a journey? Is it just distance traveled?
Time spent? No. It's what happens on
the way, it's the things that shape you.
At the end of the journey, you're not the
same. Today is about change. Graduation
doesn't just mean your circumstances change,
it means you do. You ascend to a higher
level. Nothing will ever be the same. Nothing.
Buffy has been a journey of change for Buffy, Willow, Xander, Giles, Cordelia, Angel, Giles, and Faith and nothing will ever again be the same.

The Shape of Things to Come?: In the Faith and Buffy dream Buffy tells Faith that “[t]heres” something I’m supposed to be doing”. Faith responds with the cryptic “[o]h yeah. Miles to go. Little Miss Muffet counting down from 7-3-0 .” For what this means wait for season four’s “This Year’s Girl”, “Restless”, and season five.

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