Opinion piece (and somewhat of a TV review): Graduation Day, Part 1 and 2, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

SPOILER ALERT

Please forgive me for my gushing hyperbole, but these two episodes, which ended Buffy‘s third season, are like an operatic tragedy. There’s revenge, betrayal, fallen heroes, tragic villains, redemption in dreams, self-sacrifice, doomed love, and a violent climax. It’s also unabashedly complex in some of its morals, even if it does have a neat ending, and has what may be my favourite Buffy villain, at least from its earliest seasons: Mayor Richard Wilkins III.

    mayor-wilkins_480x360
    “As a local businessman and former Scout, I believe in this town… ‘srighttobeinfestedwithdemons, what?” – Not Actual Dialogue

Mayor Wilkins is a mix of Norman Rockwell, Robert Baden-Powell, Mephistopheles and Satan. He’s an “aw shucks”, old-fashioned, mild-mannered conservative; demonic tempter with a smile and a debt book; and a rageful, sadistic monster. You may recognise a Psycho reference in the picture above. Try comparing it with this:

    NormanBates

The link is, of course, their stuffed birds, placed at a predatory angle in Psycho, as if ready to swoop down and attack Norman Bates, but nestled submissively behind Wilkins. Wilkins is stronger-willed than Bates, though he uses a similar mask. Sportingly played by Harry Groener, he could have stepped out of a Rockwell painting.

    Norman_Rockwell-_Beyond_the_Easel
    “I support this Scouting troop… ‘srighttobeinfestedwithdemons, what?”

His dialogue’s filled with throwaway gags and mannerisms like straightening a couch throw, forbidding swears and reading Family Circus, a newspaper funny which pretty much symbolises the American middle-class. What’s brilliant about Groener’s performance is that, even at the height of Wilkins’ “gee whiz!” jollity, his Leave It to Beaver ebullience, something sounds hollow.

His laugh is never quite natural; oh, it emerges from his genuine personality all right, but it’s never the laugh of a straightforward, well-meaning man. If Hannibal Lecter wore tweed suits and preached family values, he’d look a lot like Mayor Wilkins.

The plots of both “Graduation Day”s revolve around Wilkins, a demon from Sunnydale’s past, becoming immortal and preparing to “ascend”. On Sunnydale High’s class of 1999′s graduation day, he’ll lead an army of demons in feeding on the town and gain his true, hellish form.

    naked-mole-rat
    Not quite.

Meanwhile, Buffy and her co-Slayer, Faith, are locked in a battle of wills. After accidentally killing the Mayor’s aide, a mortal man, Faith’s emotional trauma leads her into evil. She’s got a taste for blood and has crossed the boundary between good and evil, having felt freed from her moral bondage to humans. Like the best pop culture baddies, Faith illustrates the thin line between superheroes and supervillains. Batman and the Joker are both, after all, extraordinary people, just on opposite sides of the moral dichotomy. Spiderman taught us that with great power comes great responsibility. A hero’s responsibility is to others, a villain’s to himself.

    Faithstake
    Faith, in “let’s cuddle” mode.

Faith is such an important character because she brings a mortal element to the side of evil, and humanises Wilkins, who might have seemed like just another black-and-white devil. In fact, their relationship may be the most poignant part of these episodes. Better recognised is Buffy and good vampire Angel’s doomed love affair, but Faith and Wilkins share a more complex, pseudo-familial bond. Faith sees in him the strong, rewarding father figure she never had, and he perhaps sees in her an adopted daughter, as well as a confirmation of his ego (he turned a Slayer).

There never seems to be anything sexual between them, which is just as well, because that’s what a lesser, lazier show would have done, with Wilkins played by a strapping young stud as opposed to a country club shareholder.

    mayor-wilkins_480x360
    “As a local businessman and former Scout, I support this country club… ‘srighttobeinfestedwithdemons, what?”

Listen to Wilkins’ dialogue – “my Faith doesn’t like to be cooped up” – or his behaviour in the hospital when she’s rendered comatose by Buffy. His grief is simple and sad; he caresses her face, says soothing words, then tries to suffocate her assailant in a fit of rage, regaining his composure when Angel attacks him. (Why none of the hospital staff were that concerned by their mayor trying to kill a teenage girl is another matter.)

    doctors-nurse
    “The head of the PTA’s just going nuts in the maternity ward, no biggie.”

During the climactic battle, Buffy leads Wilkins into a trap by showing him the knife she used on Faith, saying that she slid it inside her “like butter”. Even in his demonic form, Wilkins is moved. In this respect he’s more complex than his predecessors in the Buffy canon, though they were also weakened by affection (vampire Spike had his bride, Drusilla, and the Master favoured Darla, a female subordinate).

Moving away from the baddies, Buffy and Angel’s story arc is a little more straightforward, but also compelling. The romance side of Buffy tends to grate on me, though I accept it goes with teen horror territory, and it’s handled much better than in other vampire series (naming no names).

    Edward-bella-staring-woods
    “Love means never having to say you’re sorry for violating your privacy.”

The fight between Buffy and Faith, caused by the latter’s poisoning of Angel with such a substance that only a Slayer’s blood can heal him, is the centrepiece of “Graduation Day”‘s drama, like Hamlet’s murder of Polonius in Shakespeare’s play. It’s a turning point, a definitive step towards the climax. It leads to a moment of sacrifice for Buffy which, though quickly resolved in the narrative, has just as great a dramatic importance as Faith’s betrayal, because it defines her character, just like Faith’s betrayal did hers. The moment when Buffy, having failed to procure Faith’s blood for Angel, gives him her own symbolises not only her commitment to him, but the sacrifice she’s made for all of Sunnydale. She bleeds and she suffers and she gives herself for them. She’s like Jesus with boobs and a stake.

The climactic battle between Wilkins, his undead posse and Sunnydale High’s graduating class is a masterpiece of plotting, directing and choreography. When the students become soldiers, ripping off their scholars’ gowns to reveal hidden arsenals, a heedless militaristic joy envelops the story, as everything descends into a gruesome free-for-all. Buffy’s friend Xander, recalling his adventures in the season 3 episode “Band Candy”, goes commando in the literal sense, while their other pal Willow links arms with her classmates and boyfriend, Oz, to charge Wilkins’ vampire posse. It’s a glorious end to a glorious couple of episodes in the Buffy canon, which proved how moving and intelligent dark fantasy can be.

    Buffy_Revelations
    “We have more PTSD in our left tits than Iraq and Vietnam combined.”

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