Never mind a broken heart, Xander's in greater danger of all of his limbs getting smashed to pieces. Just your average Sunnydale Valentine's Day then.
If Phases presented Buffy's assertion that men are predatory ghouls, then Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered gleefully shows that women are just as capable of an axe-fuelled, hair-pulling rampage. Thanks to Amy's sketchy spell casting, Xander is finding that breaking Cordelia's heart is a tougher proposition than the token nutty chocolate in the box. As a result, the females of Sunnydale have fallen head over heels in love with Xander. But while this is Xander's ideal fantasy scenario on paper, it's considerably less rosy in reality.
Never let it be said that Buffy The Vampire Slayer ignores a special themed holiday. Christmas. Halloween. Thanksgiving. Valentine's Day is scrawled on the Buffy calendar with this smart little masterpiece from Marti Noxon. In true Buffy style, it's the light-hearted last snack before the axe falls (think also of I Was Made To Love You, which breezily rambles along for 40 minutes before delivering an unexpected blow to the gut).
While the show prides itself on bringing a heady mix of drama and horror to the masses, it's also more than capable of producing 45 minute slices of black humour. Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered may contain its share of ripped out hearts, axe-totin' Willows and creepy Valentine messages, but it's a laugh-a-minute caper that's very enjoyable.
Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered also subtly promotes Buffy's core theme of 'Don't follow the crowd, think for yourself'. It's a message that's been a long time coming for Cordelia, but by the end of the story, she's finally learnt that being part of the in crowd isn't all that. Cordelia's relationship with Xander hasn't gone unnoticed by her little band of Cordettes. “When are you two gonna start wearing cute little matching outfits?” sneers Harmony. “Cos I'm planning to vomit!” Cordy is placed between a rock and a hard place, forced to choose between her geek and her cool gang. Somewhat inevitably, at the Valentine's Day do, she dumps Xander with all the grace of dropping an over-stuffed cheese and onion burger on to the floor.
Poor old Xander really seems to have zero luck with girls. He's been given the brush-off by his beloved Buffy. He's alternated between smooches and name calling with Cordy. Despite this, he's ready to take the next step with her, to the point where he buys her a swanky necklace. Jewellery and true love never pair well for Xander (think of his ill-advised choice of gift for Buffy in Witch). And despite going to the do as a cocktail barman from 1976, Xander finds that his efforts have been wasted, thanks to Cordelia's obsession with being the coolest kid in class. “I mean, what, were you running low on dramatic irony?” he asks a guilty Cordelia. It's the ultimate humiliation signature to his roll call of loser shame.
But that danger of being a sheep manifests itself after Xander's and Amy's love spell backfires. Having blackmailed Amy (who's been wangling Ms Beakman's homework), Xander is determined to earn back just a smidgen of dignity. “I want some respect around here,” he tells Amy. “I want – for once – to come out ahead. I want the Hellmouth to be working for me.” Rather than win back her love, he's set on getting Cordelia to fall in love with him, just so he can dump her instead.
Inevitably, the spell goes awry, and the entire female population (bar Cordy) becomes pre-occupied with just one thought: to nab the heart of Xander, even literally, it seems. Buffy. Willow. Harmony. Jenny Calendar. Joyce. Even Drusilla and Angelus (!) are spellbound by Xander. It's a clever showcase of the episode's main message (and the whole show's, come to that), in that there's nothing wrong with being an individual, as opposed to being part of the unit. Following the crowd, it seems, can only lead to irrational madness, mob mentality, and hair pulling. Buffy The Vampire Slayer has always championed the outsider, with its central gang of geeky misfits who don't really fit into the clique. It's a healthy message for anyone at home watching who's been bullied or picked on or ignored.
One of the most gratifying examples of this message comes at the end of Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered, when Cordelia finally loses her rag with her big-haired acolytes. It's interesting how the Scooby experience has had a positive effect on Cordelia. In the first season, she wouldn't have had anything to do with Buffy and her friends, but slowly, she's learnt that there's much more to coolness than discussing designer labels and frat parties. “Do you know what you are, Harm?” rages Cordy. “You're a sheep. All you ever do is what everyone else does, just so you can say you did it first. And here I am scrambling for your approval when I'm WAY cooler than you are 'cos I'm not a sheep?” Can someone hire this girl as the warm-up act for rubbish Stepford dance snooze, Strictly Come Dancing? The audience seems to contain so many clapping, cackling, spontaneous ovation-giving sheep that you could count them and get to sleep in precisely 30 seconds.
Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered marks the real turning point for Cordelia. The season's been gradually softening her character anyway, and while she's still quick to chip in with a sarcastic, tell-it-like-it-is quip, there's less of the abrasive bitchiness that lumbered her character in the first season. There's the sense that Cordelia dumps Xander at the dance with a heavy heart. When she's asked to return the necklace, she discreetly takes it from around her neck, while pretending to fetch it from her locker. Not many TV shows can take a bitchy character and subtly steer them on a more mature path, but Cordelia proves that it can be done on this show with great skill.
Ultimately, though, this is an episode that revolves around Xander. It's rare in TV programmes and in movies that the geek gets the girl, but by the end of the story, he's walking hand in hand with Cordy rather than hiding in a broom cupboard with her. While he admittedly causes the mess in the first place, he still shows signs of growing up later on. Buffy in a mac, stilettos and nowt else may be the stuff of Xander's dreams, but he's mature enough to know that it's not real enough for him to take advantage: “You're only here because of a spell. I mean, if I thought you had one clue what it would mean to me...But you don't. So I can't.” When things are back to normal, Buffy's still grateful for Xander's words: “It meant a lot to me what you said...You came through. There might just be hope for you yet.” As a reward, Xander finally wins back Cordelia.
Marti Noxon is very good at creating these scenarios which warn “Be careful what you wish for”. She'll take this concept to extremes with the next season's Wish episode – Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered is a fantastic tryout, and explores Xander's wish in highly amusing fashion. “Every woman in Sunnydale wants to make me her cuddle monkey – which may sound swell on paper!” he stammers to a furious Giles. It's the lesser candidates who prove to be a hoot: Harmony and her hair-pulling outrage that Cordy could treat Xander so badly; Joyce and her innuendo-laden offer of a snack; Drusilla and her offer of eternal life (“We couldn't just start with a coffee?” asks Xander. “A movie maybe?”)... One of the greatest sequences of this tale is the one in which Xander walks in slow-mo fear down a corridor full of adoring females to the strains of the 1974 Average White Band funkathon, Got The Love. Great stuff, and one of the many neat touches that pepper this story.
In between this Xander-led craziness, there's still time to sneak in a bit of drama. Angelus is stepping up the creep factor little by little. He delivers a box of a dozen red roses to Buffy, complete with an ominous greetings card that says “SOON”. Giles tells Buffy that Angelus tends to go to town on Valentine's Day – presumably because it's a day that stands for everything that he hates. Still, he gives Drusilla a heart greeting – it's covered in blood and organ gunk, but it's just the way that the mad vampire dame likes it. Angelus is only doffing gross presents just to wind up Spike, who's sitting in quietly seething rage at a new rival for his Dru's affections. At this point it's an insignificant plot point, but it'll take on greater meaning in the dying throes of the season when Spike enters into an uneasy alliance to get rid of the pesky gel-head once and for all.
With Sarah Michelle Gellar off filming an episode of Saturday Night Live, Bewitched Bothered And Bewildered is something of a Buffy-lite episode. She's conveniently turned into a rat for half the episode, so it's left to the other regulars to carry the show. Which they do in fine style. Anthony Head provides the huffy calm at the eye of the storm (“It's not love – it's obsession. Selfish, banal obsession!”) as Giles rages against Xander's costly blunder. Alyson Hannigan gets to play against type as an insane Willow, blinded by love for her best friend (she does this very well). Charisma Carpenter successfully makes the bridge from bitchy, self-obsessed cheerleader to a warmer, compassionate Cordy. But it's Nicholas Brendon who makes the most of his time in the spotlight, combining high comedy and goofy vulnerability to great effect in a scene-stealing turn.
It's good to have some of the semi-regulars back, such as Mercedes McNab's ditzy Harmony or Elizabeth Anne Allen's Amy. Amy's evidently not learnt a thing after the whole cheerleading try-out fiasco in Witch, and is now following in her mother's footsteps as a spell-throwing witch. It's a smart bit of continuity and one that will have greater consequences in those cheerful few months known as Season Six. Jenny Calendar also gets to have a bit of fun before the stormy weather of Passion, engaging in lovestruck verbal sparring with an angry Giles.
For those who prefer their Buffy The Vampire Slayer on the serious, dramatic side, the lighter-hearted stuff may not be their cup of tea. Myself, episodes such as Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered make for a good balance, adding humour to horror.
Even in the goofiest stories, there's a good-hearted message to latch on to, and this Valentine's Day craziness is no exception. Funny, smart and well performed by everyone, you may find yourself falling head over heels for Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered.