This is my favorite episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Since BtVS is my favorite television show, that means that this episode represents my favorite television episode of all time. While many other episodes in this series come close, none other can evoke the same range of polar opposite emotions from me. In one moment I'm literally rolling on the floor, uncontrollably laughing, while in another I'm literally crying (and I don't cry when watching film). In addition to the awesome range of emotions brought out in me, there is perfect pacing, perfect music, and one memorable scene after another nonstop from the beginning of the episode until the credits roll. This episode is utterly perfect and represents the pinnacle of episodic television. The entire season built up to this point and the payoff is beyond comparison. So without further generalized praise from me, lets get started with the review!
It begins right where part one left off, with Buffy being arrested for suspected murder. Buffy knows she doesn't have time to deal with the cops so she throws one of them on the ground and flees the scene nearly being shot in the head in the process by another cop. She ends up at the hostipal to see how everyone is. The scene in Willow's hospital room shows just how far Cordelia has come this year. She went from resident bitch in S1 to slightly caring bitch in S2. Now at the end of the season she is showing genuine concern and care for both Xander and Willow. This kind of slow and natural character development is truly rare on television, but this series has it in spades as exemplified by Cordelia here.
As much as most of the characters have evolved in this season, the focus here is squarely on Buffy. Whistler says to her, "In the end, you're always by yourself. You're all you've got. That's the point." This is a truly complicated statement. To some extent, Buffy will always be cut off from others because she is the Slayer. She explains this to Xander again during "Selfless" (7x05). But at the same time Buffy does have friends which make a tremendous difference in helping to keep her rooted in this world. This is something that gives her strength and makes her a unique Slayer, made evident by Spike in "Fool for Love" (5x07).
Buffy may very well be always alone dealing with Slayer duties, but when it comes to her raw emotions and sharing them with others she will never be alone because of her existing and created family. This is why when faced with her boyfriend leaving her, her mother dying, and having to sacrifice her sister, Buffy admits she simply cannot comprehend 'life' anymore. She can't believe she's being ask to sacrifice her own sister after everything she's been through. So instead she sacrifices herself to save her sister in "The Gift" (5x22). When Buffy's emotional support buckles she becomes useless and that death wish Spike says all Slayers have creeps to the surface.
The Whistler talk leads directly to the Spike scene by the police car. It actually makes a ton of sense for Spike to help Buffy after what Angelus has put him through. Spike is not only hilarious here, but also offers up more insight into his character. A lot of people complain that in "Innocence" (2x14) he wanted to destroy the world but now he is interestingly defending it. Well, when Spike's immobilized, unhappy, and downing bottles of alcohol, he'll do anything to make himself feel better. In "Doomed" (4x11) he tries to stake himself because he's so unhappy about not being able to kill things anymore. I pretty much figure in "Innocence" (2x14) he was so unhappy he took the risk of bringing The Judge back just to see some killing. I'm sure he wouldn't have let The Judge extinguish everything. Spike tells Buffy, "'I want to destroy the world.' That's just tough guy talk."
While on the subject of the awesome Spike I'll mention how much I love the back and forth glances between Spike and Buffy as they walk up to her house. Boy it's refreshing to see him out and about again. Buffy explains Spike's presence to her mom by saying, "I'm in a rock band with Spike here." This is a hilarious scene where Joyce also finally finds out Buffy is the Slayer, for real. When they get inside Buffy calls Willow to make sure everyone's okay. While she's on the phone there's a literal "rolling on the floor laughing" moment: Spike and Joyce spending extended quiet time in the living room together.
Unfortunately (in some respect) all the fun quickly ends when Joyce demands Buffy stops running out and gives her some answers. This ignites a very powerful scene between Buffy and her mother in the kitchen. Joyce grabs on tight and tells her, "Buffy, you need help!" This reminds me of "Normal Again" (6x17). We discover there that Buffy had been instiutialized in a mental hospital for a couple weeks right after she became the Slayer. Only after she stopped talking about vampires did the doctors release her. Because of this background, Joyce's ultimatum "if you walk out that door don't even think about coming back!" is extremely realistic. The scene really hits the authentic cord for me, though, because my mother has given me that same ultimatum a couple times before in my youth! The desparate ultimatum by Joyce of course backfires and Buffy leaves home.
So she just got kicked out of her own home by her mom and now she's got to save the world as thanks for it. First she needs the sword Kendra brought so she stops by the library to pick it up. This is when Principal Snyder uses his first truly golden opportunity to expel Buffy. It is truly gut-wrenching to see poor Buffy being expelled from school right after being kicked out of her home. I feel so sad and sympathetic for her right here. Amazingly, her pain is about to be amplified several times more.
At this point it would appear Buffy has lost everything: her home, her school, and her friends (in the sense of they can't help her at all). She heads back to Giles' apartment to get the scoop on how to use the sword from Whistler, who points out that she still has one thing left to lose: herself. This brings me to another complaint other people have. It's said that she only needs Angel's 'blood' to close the vortex. However, Whistler says, "one blow will send the both back to hell." It's obvious that the writers intended Angel needing to go to hell with Acathla in order to close the portal. This ambiguity doesn't bother me in the slightest because I clearly know what was intended.
So Buffy's heading in for the final showdown when Xander comes out of the woods to relay a message from Willow. He was supposed to tell her Willow is trying to curse Angel again, but instead he directly lies to her and says Willow said, "kick his ass." This lie comes out into the open in "Selfless" (7x05) in a big way. It's interesting to ponder whether he helped Buffy with that lie or ended up damaging her. There are many opinions on the matter but I tend to lean on the side that the lie hurt her. It can be argued that he lied for her own good so that she wouldn't be emotionally distracted and wind up jeopordizing the world. I don't buy that at all because I know Xander's character. He's hated Angel from the moment he first saw him and hates him even more now. Xander doesn't want Angel to get his soul back, he wants him gone. I see Xander's lie as a selfish move and one that ended up probably causing Buffy an entire summer of grief. If you don't buy my argument, just take a look at how eager Xander is to kill a soulful Angel with Faith in "Revelations" (3x07).
The final confrontation and swordfight between Buffy and Angelus is extremely entertaining, incredibly well done, completely believable, and incredibly personal. Angelus gets the upper hand and has Buffy defenseless in a corner where he tells her, "Now that's everything, huh? No weapons... No friends... No hope. Take all that away... and what's left?" Buffy's inner strength finally shows up and she sternly answers Angelus with, "ME." She fantastically stops the sword between her palms, gets back up, and begins to lay the hurt on Angelus until he's without any weapons, beat up, and ready to be sent to hell. Willow's spell succeeds in a knick of time, though, and Angel's soul is restored...
...and they live happily ever after...no wait, we're watching a Joss Whedon show where happy endings don't happen. Instead of getting your typical happy ending that every other show has, BtVS decides to go in a completely new direction. This leads to the most beautiful acting I've ever seen, done by the wonderful Sarah Michelle Gellar. You can feel the massive sense of relief in her when she initially realizes Angel is back. This makes it really painful when you see her relief and joy quickly transform into shock and grief as she realizes she must stab Angel, her true love, into the demon (banishing him to eternal hell) in order to close the vortex and save the world. She tells him to close his eyes, kisses him one last time (with utter devastation on her face), then stabs him onto the demon. The moment right after the vortex is closed is the most tear-inducing thing I've ever witnessed on film. Her slow dissolve into absolute grief, pain, and sorrow puts me in tears every single time I see it alone.
Now that's what I call entertainment! There could not have been a more satisfying conclusion to this season. Kudos to everyone involved and especially to Joss Whedon for crafting his tightest script to date. This is television at its finest and is something to be treasured. I see this episode as going down in history as a new age classic of the love story gone sour. Buffy has officially taken her first big step towards adulthood and won't be looking back!