The end of the season is finally upon us! What a fantastic finale! This episode has quite different goals than part two though. The highlight of the proceedings are the stunning sequences in earlier time periods where we learn how the players 'became' who they are today. The associated people are Angel, Drusilla, and Buffy. There is also important and interesting backstory that really ties things together. The other standout moment was the entire fight in the library and Buffy's frantic run back to the school.
The history sequences are so important to this episode I'm going to cover each one of them in some detail. It all begins with Angel who we find out, as a human in 1753, was a bit of a womanizer and a drunk, but an innocent drunk. He spots Darla and in a drunken stuper says, "show me you world." This sequence is beautifully shot and when Darla bleeds her chest and makes Angel drink from it a powerful music cue swells over top. This music continues throughout the rest of the introduction where Angelus is watching Buffy fight from afar.
Next, in 1860, we see a human Drusilla in a church attempting to repent for her 'sins.' She goes into the confessional to talk with the priest, only the priest is being killed by Angelus. Drusilla then talks to Angelus thinking he's the priest and reveals that she has visions. Angelus uses this opportunity to start poisoning her mind and telling her she's a devil child and should just give in to evil. He then ends the conversation by telling Drusilla, "god is watching you." This is really quite creepy because Angelus thinks of himself as god over Drusilla from this point on. After this he goes on to kill off her entire family, throw at her every form of mental torture known to man, and then turn her into a vampire on the day she was to become a nun! This is why she's completely insane now.
In 1898 we see Angelus being punished for killing the beloved girl of a Gypsy clan with the restoration of his soul. We can see that at first he doesn't remember anything he'd done (this happens again in "Becoming Pt. 2" [2x22]). Thus begins Angel's reign of isolation and brooding (though not quite yet as we find out in AtS S2 episode "Darla"). Angel soon after fled to America where he hung around doing much of nothing for a good many years.
Then, in 1996, Whistler (a character who was to have been the demon with the visions on AtS, but didn't because of casting issues) convinces him to check out the new Slayer who just got called in Los Angeles. In this fantastic sequence we see Buffy's first watcher, Merrick, explaining to her that she is the Slayer. The scene in Buffy's bathroom where she's crying while her parents are arguing is really heartbreaking, especially since we know that she gets expelled from her school and her parents divorce. Angel hides in the background as Buffy fights her first vampire. She seems to have made quite the impression on Angel, so he heads back to Whistler and agrees to help this Slayer. All of this sets up Angel's character for when Buffy first meets him in the pilot, "Welcome to the Hellmouth" (1x01). This new information connects with Angel's S1 arc perfectly and is simply really cool to know.
All of that's a lot of really useful backstory on some of the characters and is incredibly enjoyable to see. This brings us back to the current situation: Angelus is trying to bring forth the demon Acathla to suck all living life into hell. Here's where my only only complaint of this episode is. That complaint is the plot is kind of stupid. Why would Angelus want every living thing sucked into hell? There would be nothing to eat if that happened! Pretty dumb plan. The only reason why I'm not going to make a bigger deal out of this is because it acts as a fantastic catalyst for character development and overall forward plot movement in the grand scheme of the series. They could have had a better plot, but I can forgive the stupidity of the plan because of its effect on all the characters. I suppose you could explain it by saying Angelus has gone completely insane, but then he still comes across as a bit out of character. His torturing antics are far scarier than this.
There are a couple big character scenes in the middle of all the chaos. The most notable one is the big library encounter after Buffy and Willow discover the Spell of Restoration on that floppy disk left on the ground in "Passion" (2x17). This propagates the confusing question of whether they should even try to restore Angel's soul rather than simply killing him for what he's done. The big outburst between Xander and Giles is particularly powerful as Giles is inclined to restore Angel's soul because it appears to be what Jenny died for. Buffy is pretty much just confused with the whole situation and isn't sure what to do, at first.
In the same scene, Xander lays the harsh reality onto Buffy when he says, "You can paint this any way you want. But the way I see it is that you wanna forget all about Ms. Calendar's murder so you can get your boyfriend back." Willow can't believe she heard Xander say that as she can somewhat understand Buffy's emotional state. This comment creates quite the wedge between Buffy and Xander which appears in "Dead Man's Party" (3x02).
The end of this episode is utterly superb and is the perfect lead-in for part two. Angelus is being smart again and uses his knowledge gained in "When She Was Bad" (2x01) against Buffy. He lures her away from the library so the vampires can capture Giles, and then tells her about the plan after he knows his vampires are done, thus leaving him free to torture Giles. The vampire attack at the library is suitably brutal. Xander's arm is snapped, Willow is put in a coma, Giles is knocked out then caputured, and Kendra's throat is slit by Drusilla. All of this chaos culminates in Buffy's frantic run through the town to get back to the school. The slow motion part as she turns the corner into the school hallway with Whistler's voice over about the "big moments" (see final quote below) is heartbreaking.
My final judgement on this episode is that it introduces great backstory, puts a lot of main characters in danger, kills Kendra thus enabling the activation of Faith (a much better character), and is extremely entertaining. It only misses the coveted P score because of Angelus' stupidity in wanting to bring forth Acathla.