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This was Olaf-ing Matter

Buffy Episode 7.5 Selfless
AirDate: 22nd Oct 02

Remember that slide I was claiming the new Buffy season was embarking on? Well you can scratch that, because some new guy named Drew Goddard managed to cook up a little powderkeg called 'Selfless' that kept me on the edge of my seat for an hour that whipped by in what felt like ten minutes. Wow! What a meaty episode (strange praise from a vegetarian), filled with everything I could ask for in a Buffy tale: Big laughs, deep sadness, new details about a main character's history brought to light, a sexy new look for another, the death of a recurring character, the brief return of last season's Big Bad, some gripping conflict between friends, and even a musical number! Am I leaving anything out? Probably, but maybe we'll figure out what as we pick through it together.

Dawn continues to be the source of good chuckles, as evidenced by the way she coached Willow about how to fit in on her return to school. It's as much a credit to the way Joss and the writers have allowed her to grow up as it is Michelle's maturing skills as an actor. She has great comedic timing and Dawn gets more likable all the time.

The first shot of Anya and the mess she made at the frat house was absolutely chilling. For all her talk of slaughter over the years she's been in Sunnydale, we've never actually seen her do something this vicious and gruesome. I suppose the secret is out that I'm an admirer of Anya (duh), so it was especially shocking for me to realize that the bloodbath the long crawling shot was leading us through was her doing. She had the face of a traumatized soldier as this awareness dawned on her as well. It was the first of a few times throughout the episode where I remember feeling disbelief that things had reached such a tragic point. See? It's always the heartbreaker episodes that suck me in.

To really appreciate how far things have come, we must go, as the borrowed face of the Master said in episode 7.1, "right back to the beginning." For a character to remain intriguing, it's often best to retain some degree of mystery surrounding it. Spike was given plenty of time to develop as first a villain, then an unwilling accomplice before we were finally allowed to see his origin and his human side back in the pre-vamp days. Any sooner and it could have drastically reduced his dramatic punch in the various seasons' plotlines. Joss brought Spike along with great care and allowed us to understand him in tiny increments before finally handing over the book so we could flip to the first chapter. With this last piece of the puzzle in hand, we could finally progress to the next stage, where we would come to understand and love the man inside the monster.

There are a lot of similarities between the tales of Spike and Anya. Both accepted their demon status willingly, as a direct response to being tired of the vulnerability that comes with being human. For many years they raged and tortured and slaughtered and had one hell of a good time doing it, until they suddenly found themselves stripped of the unholy mantles that gave them the identities they cherished so dearly (Spike from the chip and Anya from her destroyed pendant and D'hoffryn's lack of sympathy for her situation). In both cases, what initially seemed like a curse ended up being more of a gift, as they came to value their second shot at humanity and the relationships that were formed as a result. Sadly, these relationships only led them back to the same kind of pain that initially launched them on their demonic voyages. Here's where the similarities end, as Spike's heartache led him to try and become even more human (without fully realizing the cost), and Anya's prompted her to accept a chance to return to her old ways, as if the years she spent with Xander & his friends had never happened. Unfortunately it was apparent to everyone but Anya that it was too late to just put on a new pendant and punch the clock and expect to feel like a demon again. You can take the girl out of humanity…

I'm going to have to clamp down on the lecture or I'll never get through the episode. So where was I? Right –- The Origin of both Anya and Olaf the Troll was a real treat. I love a good flashback, and it was a nice touch to present it in the form of a grainy old movie. The dialogue was well written and full of laughs (Again, Drew Goddard, what did we do to deserve you and your flexible talents?). While I wouldn't say we got an explanation for Anya's fear of bunnies, it was still a generous in-joke for the faithful to show her as an enthusiastic breeder of the fluffy little bastards .

In 'Triangle' from Season 5, they established that Olaf was Anya's ex, but I don't think we knew back then that he was actually part of her debut as a vengeance demon. His first appearance as a troll was very Python-esque and it was nice to see that he took to it right away, gleefully chasing the villagers around. Enter D'hoffryn with a lucrative offer and the sympathetic ear that Anya (Aud!) had been craving all along.

Which was exactly what Spike thought he had as he poured his heart out to Buffy in the basement. I've been waiting for him to draw some kind of comparison between his own delusional madness and Dru's, and wouldn't it just make for a fascinating evening if she showed up now? With everything that's gone on between them, it was sweet to see Buffy being so sensitive to his plight, just as it was a cold revelation as we realized right along with Spike that what seemed like help was really just another symptom of the problem. Enter the real Buffy with a much firmer brand of advice, but when you think about it, telling him to get his skinny ass out of the basement was probably much more helpful than just saying that everything would be okay. Does he really have nowhere else to go? Who's living in Angel's old digs? Or can't they just give Clem notice to pack up and find a new crypt (I haven't forgotten you, Clem baby, and we're all eagerly awaiting your return to the screen)?

I mentioned that a regular got a hot new look. It wasn't exactly a full makeover, but DAMN, Ms. Rosenberg! You must still be the Big Bad, because you're killing me with that red ensemble. Think back – great episodes often go hand in hand with Willow looking extra cute, and this was clearly no exception. We also heard some details about what became of her education last year. Of course! She magicked her way into straight A's. While I don't advocate the use of the dark arts to manipulate your grades, I'm sure you'll agree that she's smarter and better read than most of the kids on campus so it's not as serious a crime as if someone who wasn't already a super-genius did it. Let's just say that it's the least of her misdeeds, so we'll let it go.
There's been good chemistry between Willow & Anya so far this season. Despite the fact that they've often butted heads in the past, and continue to, they also have a lot in common now. Willow understands all too well the abuse of power in the name of vengeance.

Speaking of vengeance, that was quite a number Anya did on the frat boys, but I have to again credit Drew Goddard for crafting a scenario that made me (almost) as angry as she was. What a bunch of pricks! If they had tricked that girl into being the only one wearing a costume at their party, I might have been inclined to tell her to chill out. But their little game was about as coldhearted as it gets and SOME measure of retribution was definitely in order.

This show gives good funny, but it's always managed to nail the creepy horror, too (remember that serial killer vamp that kidnapped Joyce and Buffy had to take him on without her Slayer-strength?). Willow walked into a house full of blood complete with a traumatized young lady in the closet and a giant spider. Yee-ikes! I'm sure anyone with bug fears got the grade A willies when that thing came up behind her. Will's little struggle with the spider brought about one of the other key moments of the night, the return of the black contact lenses and the tough talk. I actually thought, "Shut your whimpering mouth" was a bit of an awkward line, since she didn't even talk like that at the peak of her scariness last season, but the point was made. Giles and the coven in Westbury did a lot to help her, but that blackness is just below the surface and it doesn't take much for it to rise up. From beneath you it devours, Will, so be careful.

But I always get a kick out of it when powerful beings get a sniff of what Willow's got under the hood and they slink away, clearly outgunned. Sweet (the singin' & dancin' demon) did it last year, and it's delicious that sheepish, nerdy Willow has grown up to be the kind of person that fears next to no one when she's pissed off. She barged into Anya's apartment and Hallie got sent to her room like Rudy Huxtable. Joss really wanted to emphasize the series' initial theme of female empowerment this year, and ain't no female powerful like our Willow.

Speaking of mighty women, thanks for sidekicking, Xander. Where would the Slayer be without her puffy buddy to ditch work and watch her back on an afternoon's spider hunt? Seeing a long shot of the X-man in broad daylight, I must again remark that he seems to be aging at a rate of about ten years per season for the last two or three. I watched the two of them walking together and thought, "Who's the 40 year old guy Buffy's hanging out with? Oh…"

Do you think all of Sunnydale, like Buffy's graduating class, knows her as the local protector who occasionally runs by with weapons, or does she still get funny looks for walking through town with a SWORD? With all the destruction, violence and unsolved murders, I expect the cops have pretty much resigned themselves to taking long naps and writing the occasional parking ticket for Marti Noxon (yes, we're getting to her).

Another Anya flashback brought us even more destruction & violence, this time from Russia in 1905. From the moment we first noticed that Kali Rocha played both Halfrek and Spike's pre-vamp object of desire, Cecily, speculation ran rampant that they were one and the same. When the two finally came face to face and obviously recognized each other, it was all but a sure thing. So when this flashback showed Hallie speaking with a highbred English accent, I thought we'd finally get some indication of how and why she enlisted. But no, it was not to be and now, sadly, we may never learn the truth.

The argument between Buffy & Xander over a Slayer's duty was intense, and will forever rank in my mind as one of the most powerfully electrifying exchanges in the show's history. Kudos to the deep emotional conviction of both SMG and Nick Brendon, as they really threw themselves into their performances and it paid off in spades. Each point and counterpoint hit me like a punch, and I was overwhelmed by the amount of naked truth that came screaming out of their mouths. It boiled up to a fever pitch, with both of them believing fiercely that they were arguing on the only side that mattered. But didn't it just slam to a violent halt when Buffy brought up having to kill Angel? Xander was so convinced that Buffy was speaking from a position of logic and duty and didn't understand the emotional cost of killing a loved one, but when she reminded him that she understands it like no one ever could, my heart shot into my throat and I know it wasn't the only one to do so. As exciting as Buffy & Anya's fight to the death was, I'll be amazed if anything ends up taking this scene's title of Battle of the Year.

Even knowing Anya is a demon and capable of taking and throwing a punch (as we saw in 7.2), I was surprised at her combat skills. She went toe to toe with Buffy and even had the edge for most of the fight, and I think when Buffy finally bested her and put a sword through her chest (in the same way she killed Angel, right?), it was voluntary on Anya's part. I think before the fight even started Anya decided that there was only one way out of the shambles her life was in -- there was no place for her as a human, and she couldn't cut it as a vengeance demon. She knew deep down that her slaughter at the frat house was finally going to force Buffy's hand (apparently it was a conclusion they had both considered before), and I don't think she minded. Since I've been so adamant about avoiding spoilers this season, I honestly thought as the sword went in that we were watching Anya's final episode – which is precisely why it's great to be spoiler free. You never know what's going to happen next (who wouldn't want that?).
I continued to think I was saying goodbye to my beloved Anya when her death scene drifted into a flashback from last year, set the night before the events of 'Once More With Feeling'. At this point I also want to give a tip of the hat to the musical return of Mustard Guy and Parking Ticket Lady (David Fury & Marti Noxon, respectively), as we heard them in a duet outside Xander & Anya's apartment in this scene. Anya's song was cute and had some great lines, such as:

"I've boned a troll I've wreaked some wrath But on the whole I've had no path I like to bowl, I'm good with math But who am I?"

And I particularly loved "Mrs. Anya lame-ass made-up maiden name Harris!"

But as much as I was enjoying the song (which was still nowhere near as good as 'I'll Never Tell'), I had the grim sense throughout that it was going to precede her actual demise, as if the last thought she had was of her happiest time with Xander. Sniff.

But no, you can't keep a good demon down, and it clearly takes more than a sword through the chest to take out one of the vengeance variety. Now how DO you kill one? Let's bring in D'hoffryn to demonstrate.

I've always really liked D'hoffryn, because he's good for a laugh. They give him great funny dialogue whenever he's around, and it's always been hilarious to see such a powerful bad guy climb down off his pedestal to make small talk or attend a wedding. But since a great episode shows us sides to characters that we've never seen before, it was time for Big D to flex his evil muscles and show us exactly what Anya was referring to when she said in 7.2 that "You do NOT want to see him angry. Trust me." Again, I thought the moment had come when we were about to witness Anya's final demise, and the false-ending even made perfect sense because this time her death was going to be meaningful, as she righted her tragic wrong and sacrificed herself so that those jerk-ass frat boys might live. But when D'hoffryn told her that there was going to be a serious penalty for reversing this vengeance, he wasn't kidding. Hi Hallie! Oh. Bye, Hallie. So much for ever hearing the full story of Cecily.

Before D'hoffryn's smug departure, he sent chills up my spine by invoking this season's ominous catchphrase, implying that sparing Anya's life won't matter in the long run. "From beneath you, it devours. All good things in time." I tell you, every time someone says that on Buffy, a wolf howls outside my window. Or a car alarm goes off (more often it's the latter).
Xander & Anya's exchange outside was touching, and a wistful epilogue to a very eventful episode. It's almost as if we followed Anya through 1122 years to see her come to this moment, crying and feeling lost on a street in Sunnydale, but still finding small comfort in the faintest glimmer of hope. Beautiful.

Take care, everybody.

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