After a couple of episodes that focused strongly on Buffy, Faith, and Adam, the season’s theme of self-identity veers into unexpected territory with this installment. Essentially a professional version of the everyday fanfic “Mary Sue” staple, this is all about someone trying to escape one’s reality through creation of fantasy world. In the process, much is revealed about the characters and what they believe about themselves.
Everyone sees in Jonathan, thanks to his spell, the person that they wish they could be. In some cases, it’s the effect of the spell; it’s as if a little bit of everyone was stolen away so that Jonathan could be the best at everything at all times. But that also serves to emphasize, for many of the characters, the qualities that they struggle with about themselves.
Right from the beginning, the effects are obvious on Buffy and Giles. Buffy lacks her usual confidence and sharpness, which is remarkably like the person that Buffy had been in the season premiere. This actually helps to explain why Buffy is able to recognize that something is very wrong as the episode unfolds; Buffy has been in this psychological space before, and she was able to work past it.
Giles, on the other hand, seems obsessed with gaining some sense of approval for his efforts. The suggestion is that he feels like his life is lacking a clear direction and meaning, and that his purpose as Buffy’s mentor has lost much of its necessity. The fact is that Giles doesn’t know what to do without the Watchers; as the series would later demonstrate, he eventually finds a way to resolve that inner conflict when the opportunity presents itself.
If this episode had focused entirely on the fallout of Faith’s seduction of Riley, then it might have been a bit tiring. Allowing the healing process to take place within the context of Jonathan’s fantasy world is a brilliant move. Jonathan points out exactly what many fans assumed in the previous episode: Buffy is disappointed that Riley couldn’t do what she could do with Giles in “A New Man”. Using the “Mary Sue” of Jonathan to point it out is really just a different spin on exposition, letting the audience understand Buffy’s emotional state while keeping things interesting.
Beyond the sight gag of Jonathan working with the soldiers of the Initiative, that scene reveals important aspects of the season arc. For one, it firmly connects the Initiative to a military operation, secret or otherwise. It also highlights the fact that the Initiative is completely unprepared for an adversary with the intelligence and purpose like Adam. Jonathan gets to deliver more exposition on Adam (including producing design specs that really shouldn’t exist), setting the stage for the end of the season.
Like Buffy, Riley’s emotional state is explored in his conversation with Jonathan. Another intriguing question comes up: even in her confused state, did Faith rock Riley’s world? After everything that Faith mentioned to Spike, one has to wonder if she didn’t use a few of those tricks on Riley. It’s unlikely, since Faith wasn’t operating in her usual vixen mode, but Buffy’s concerns on that end would be sensible.
Turning to Xander and Anya, some interesting aspects of their relationship are revealed. Xander, not surprisingly, has some serious self-confidence issues. He’s constantly worried about whether or not he’ll prove worthy of Anya’s near-constant attentions. Anya’s obsession with all things Jonathan doesn’t help. One can speculate that this is indicative of an obsessive personality in general, based on her transition to human life and the need for something to give her a consistent feeling of comforting normality. (There’s also an odd return to the “Is Xander gay?” motif of earlier seasons, but it’s not that meaningful.)
What’s most interesting about Jonathan in this episode, beyond how his spell throws the format off kilter, is how he chooses to live out the world of his spell. He could simply be rich and beloved, but it goes beyond that. He genuinely wants to help people, and it genuinely bothers him that Karen is hurt because of something related to his spell. He immediately recognizes that the creature is a product of his choice, and for the rest of the episode, Jonathan deals with the fact that he can’t allow others to be hurt, even if he gets everything he wants in the process. (This becomes very important to his character in the sixth season.)
Even Adam’s reaction is revealing. Adam responds in such a way as to explain the depth of his perception and how he interprets it. Clearly, Adam thinks of himself as being far more powerful than he really is, but he’s still gathering data and trying to build his understanding of his purpose and being from that data. It’s exactly what all self-aware beings do; most of them simply don’t have self-diagnostic programs to help them along!
Getting Riley to the point where he takes Buffy’s side, despite the evidence of his own senses, was a big part of this episode. Riley is a lot closer to seeing the world from outside of the Initiative’s perspective. Unfortunately, this also means that his strongest material is nearly at an end; once his character arc is done, his presence is little more than a distraction in the fifth season. But that moment also mirrors Buffy’s realization in the season premiere, where she grabs onto reality, despite the momentary lack of self-confidence.
In another early hint at what would come to pass between Buffy and Spike, Spike shows a remarkable amount of attraction to the Slayer. For that matter, she’s rather attracted back. This is possible foreshadowing for the sixth season (Joss plans a couple seasons ahead, after all), since a lack of confidence and self-worth opens the door for her attraction to dark things. After everything Faith said to Spike in the previous episode, there’s certainly a lot of reason for him to consider what it would be like!
One thing doesn’t quite come together. The Scoobies figure out that in order for Jonathan to become a paragon of everything good, then the monster is supposed to be a paragon of everything bad. Except, of course, that the monster is rather unimpressive. Conceptually, it works; in practice, it simply wasn’t possible.
As Jonathan comes to the realization that he must accept who he is, rather than endanger others in the process of trying to be a paragon, Buffy comes to the realization (at least on a certain level) of who she is supposed to be. In essence, she is realizing what it really means to be a Slayer. That leads directly into the eventual consequence of the fourth season: Buffy’s search for self-identity turns into a quest to understand what it means to be a Slayer.
As a diversion (and even as a distraction), the Jonathan/”Mary Sue” concept worked well enough. It’s not the kind of episode that one watches very often, but when running through the DVDs, it’s a pleasant change of pace. Jane Espenson gets to show her best snark, and the cast gets to play things a little differently than usual. It’s rare for commentary on fanfic and the season’s theme get to have so much in common!