Great Episodes is a series of blogs on my all-time favorite episodes of, well, everything.
A lot happened in Seasons 4 and 5 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I know this because I skipped ahead from Season 3 to 6 and it was a totally different show.
This was back when binge-watching meant gathering up DVDs, and the dear friend who’d lent me Seasons 1 to 3 — while I was in the midst of a minor depression and had no desire to watch a “vampire show” — only had 6 and 7, and left me on the hunt for the seasons in the middle.
I got back to them, eventually, and had that clever introduction to everyone’s Buffy-character-they-love-to-hate, Dawn.
Poor Dawn. She was miserable and mopey, but she also was created out of some grand astronomical event, her mother was dead and her sister killed vampires. Not an easy life, and it would be easy to see sorrowful Dawn, in a moment of vulnerability, let her guard down to a guideance counselor who offered a listening ear.
We find out later in “Older and Far Away,” that she’d been tricked, in typical Buffy-demon fashion: enacting “justice” by imposing a punishment with far-reaching and unpleasant effects.
The title is from the J.G. Ballard novel Empire of the Sun, which I haven’t read, but apparently involves a young boy who experiences an extended period away from his parents during wartime. When they are reunited, he feels a lack of emotional intimacy.
“As Dr. Ransome stood formally on the terrace in his American uniform, Jim had wanted to explain to his parents everything that he and the doctor had done together, but his mother and father had been through their own war. For all their affection for him, they seemed older and far away.” (J.G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun, p. 278)
This is my favorite Buffy episode, although I often find it hard to pinpoint exactly why. It moves slowly and the collection of characters goes through a virtual S-graph of emotional experiences. The energy between and among the Scooby gang and a few strangers shifts in subtle but dramatic ways. It is compelling, particularly in the second half, and does an extraordinary job of advancing the plot in a quiet, but meaningful, way.
In the beginning, the gang is meeting up at Buffy’s house to celebrate her birthday. There are a few unexpected guests: Xander and Anya bring a cute young man in a red shirt, Richard, as a possible love interest for Buffy. She’s invited her friend Sophie, from work. Spike shows up unannounced, bringing along his friend Clem whom Buffy remembered from that poker game where the stakes were kittens.
Despite the mismatch of personnel, everyone gets along and settles into a peaceful environment of mutual acceptance. No one seems to care about Clem’s “skin condition,” Sophie’s multiple allergies, or Richard’s general naivete about the whole world of magic and demons — a world one would think the entire town of Sunnydale would understand by this point. The group’s playing games and no one wants to leave.
Until they realize, the next morning, that they can’t leave. They are trapped in the house, and will be for another two days. Sophie will begin to panic. Anya will respond to the cramped quarters by pressuring Willow to use her magic skills, even though she’s in recovery. Viewers find out Willow’s not gotten rid of all of her magic supplies. Dawn’s penchant for stealing from The Magic Box will come out in dramatic fashion, with Anya seeming more hurt than angry.
The group experiences, more than anything, time — a point made by Halfrek in the last scenes when she at first refuses to lift the curse. “All you’ve got is time,” she tells them. Over those few days, Tara finds a neutral space to connect with Willow, Anya turns to Xander in the face of fear, and Buffy finally stops running around long enough to listen to Dawn. At the end, everyone leaves, except Buffy, who stays home with her long-suffering sister.