Besides "Restless", we haven't had an episode since "The Zeppo" that focused so heavily on Xander. Also, unlike "The Zeppo", the growth gained here actually sticks. While this, and the clever way it's achieved, is the primary reason this episode succeeds, it's not the only one. Anya is staggeringly hilarious and the first outward sign of Buffy and Riley's relationship ending is all right here. The fact of the matter is that this is Xander's "Doppelgangland", and it works for many of the same reasons that episode worked.
Everything begins by immediately reminding us of Xander's problems in S4 that were expertly illuminated in "Restless", and that's the fact he's stuck in his drunken parents' basement. Xander, Anya, Buffy, and Riley are all hanging out together there watching TV while Xanders' parents come home and have a fight upstairs. In addition to showing us Xander's decision to start looking for a new place, which is continued development from his abuse in "Buffy vs. Dracula" because he does this before being split in two, I found that Buffy making fun of the Chinese kung-fu movie, saying they're doing it all wrong was cute. This also reminds me of the theme that this is the stuff Buffy thinks about by herself, and that Riley just isn't the same way. The beginning of "Halloween" springs to mind when Buffy tells Angel, "Dates are things normal girls have. Girls who have time to think about nail polish and facials. You know what I think about? Ambush tactics. Beheading. Not exactly the stuff dreams are made
Anyway, the group all heads out together to check out a potential new place for Xander. I really love everything about this scene from the random observations about the ceiling fan to the coy smiling when Xander and Anya are having a spat to Buffy and Riley kissing in the bedroom. The important thing to dwell on, though, is Anya being terribly inappropiate again in front of everyone, and then getting into a little squabble with Xander over the apartment. Xander's comments here, "wait until things come together," are awfully reminiscent of his comments about announcing their marriage in "After Life". Xander's smart to be careful, but he can't always use that as an excuse to hide behind his worry of making changes and living with those changes.
This episode's plot device is one used many times before in genre shows, but in true BtVS fashion, a surprising twist is placed on top of it. This surprising twist isn't just surprising for the sake of it, but rather it has very huge ramifications for Xander. I love how the double isn't evil, like it would be on a lesser show, but rather the more confident aspect of Xander's personality. This secret is kept from us until late in the episode, and this works beautifully because it both plays with expectations along with showing Xander what he is capable of when he has faith in himself. I made a point early in the review to mention that he begins looking for an apartment before getting split in two. What this episode provides is a firm solidification of his feeling that it's time to move on with his life.
We're lead to believe Weak Xander is the real one because Xander often lets the weaker characteristics of his personality be more prominent in his life, hence why us as the audience would feel he's not acting very different from normal. This is why Confident Xander seems so alien, which is really fun to watch in retrospect. Now, armed with what already happens, we can take a look at Confident Xander with a new eye. Here lies the part of Xander that is sure of who he is, sure of what he wants, and, well, confident. All of these things are a part of Xander already, but he doesn't really conciously know. He often panders to his weaker qualities because I think it's just easier to. It's hard to realize your potential and then sieze it to its fullest extent -- it takes work. I love the messege this episode promotes: everyone has strong and weak assets within them, but learning to take a hold of your strong assets, even if it takes some courage and work, will make you a better person.
Weak Xander unfortunately gets stuck with many of Xander's more negative qualities. He feels the demon that took his shape is living his life better than he is. I can sympathize with his depression and comments that maybe the demon should just keep his life, because he's not doing anything great with it anyway. How powerful is it, then, when he finds out that the double is actually part of him as well? What a confidence boost. And it's one he actually holds on for life. Wonderful!
This weaker part of Xander is also the one to put Buffy on this huge pedestal, while Confident Xander is ready to take charge himself to deal with the situation although he still values Buffy's abilities as an asset to him. It's interesting to me that in Xander's last big episode, "The Zeppo", he says out loud "I'm outta my league! Buffy'll know what to do" and here he says "I need It will take some time, but by S7 Xander learns he doesn't need Buffy to handle a lot of things in his life -- that he has a lot more confidence and strength than he thinks he does. Confident Xander is walking proof of that here and I feel that this is the part of Xander we see take the more dominant role in his personality in S7.
Even in his lowest state, he realizes he does have one thing worth living for: Anya. I love Willow's surprise here: "really?" We first discover how much Xander cared for her in "Hush", but here we see that their relationship has become something much more powerful. It's not until "Into the Woods", though, that he tells her his strong feelings, which takes their relationship to a whole new level. Both Confident Xander and Weak Xander are shown to care deeply for her -- it's obvious that his love for her is within his entire being, not just a shade of it.
While all of this great Xander character exploration is happening, we find out that Anya's feeling truly mortal for the first time because of her injury. How amazing that the writers not only remember about her injury from "Real Me", but also that they used it as a springboard for insight into Anya and her fears. Confident Xander's words of care and love for Anya as she's worried about aging and dying are touching. When Weak Xander charges in through the door, Anya at first chooses Confident Xander to stay close to. After some more consideration, she can't choose between them -- she loves them both equally. I also like how Weak Xander is at a loss for words to defend himself. This feels realistic under the circumstances.
Aside from Xander and Anya, both Buffy and Riley get some time in the spotlight. Their chat in the car is really telling and it foreshadows their huge problems to come in a big way. Riley shows that, while he has a hard time with some of Buffy's characteristics at times, he does love all of Buffy and wants to make it work. Buffy's expression after Riley explains himself is one of serious doubt. She shows through these doubts that that she doesn't fully trust Riley's feelings for her and, as a result, does not deeply love him. Later in the episode, during the fight with Toth, Riley takes him on and gets beat up while Buffy easily defeats him, which provides even more setup. This is all very subtly and intelligently written. Awesome!
At the very end, Riley sees the friction, but love, between Xander and Anya and fully realizes and articulates to Xander that Buffy doesn't love him in that same way. I feel it's an important piece of dialogue, so I'm going to just quote Riley saying it: "Hey, I'm well aware of how lucky I am. Like, lottery lucky. Buffy's like nobody else in the world. When I'm with her it's like ... it's like I'm split in two. Half of me is just ... on fire, going crazy if I'm not touching her. The other half ... is so still and peaceful ... just perfectly content. Just knows: this is the one. But she doesn't love Riley's honesty with Xander here shocks him, and I think allows the two of them to bond in a way they never could before. This is a friendship that will be subtle but existent until Riley leaves town.
The only thing that I didn't like about this episode was a rare spotty patch of writing. I really don't like how the saleswoman starts hitting on Confident Xander that hard just because he's dressed better and talking smoother. I mean, sure she'd interact with him in a more positive light, but this is way too extreme. Barring that small flaw, though, this is an excellent episode which probes a lot of character issues in a smart, witty, subtle, and intelligent manner. I feel this is about on par with Willow's "Doppelgangland" for the affect it has on Xander, although that episode is a bit more amusing. Great, great stuff.