There's a wind of change in the air. And I'm not talking about my adverse reaction to my own home cooking.
Down in Sunnydale, Buffy and her friends are on the cusp of leaving school and moving on to pastures new. While Xander's contemplating a bohemian life on the road, Buffy and Willow are about to embark on that next stepping stone to a good job. The question is, where do they go to university?
We've fortunately missed out on the university interviews, which, if my experience is anything to go by, consists of spotty, patronising boffins firing sneering questions so tricky that even Paxo would be silenced into submission. Evidently, Willow has had an easier press, given that she's drowning in acceptances from Harvard to Oxford. Buffy, on the other hand, has to consider her future, given that her calling as the Slayer won't exactly allow her a life of tea and scones in an English university.
Decisions, decisions. About the only saving grace is that the crusty old knight from Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade isn't there to tell Buffy and Willow that they have chosen poorly. The poor selecter in this case is Faith, Sunnydale's somewhat feistier answer to Walter Donovan, who's chosen the Mug Of The Mayor. Faith has no such qualms about turning her back on what could have been possible friends, since the Mayor's about to send her on a mission to up the ante in his crusade to bring some order to Sunnydale.
Having bribed, sorry, enchanted Faith with a gift-wrapped box of a massive great knife (which borders on machete), the Mayor wants a similar package of his own. It's a typically ominous sounding present, going by the name of The Box Of Gavrok. Doctor Who fans may be relieved to know that the box isn't the craftmanship of raw meat knawing freak Gavrok from Delta And The Bannermen. But if they're looking to Classic Doctor Who stories for clues, then perhaps they should try Planet Of The Spiders, since the box contains five billion of the critters. To be precise, the creatures seem to be a hybrid of spider and beetle, scuttling around like Billy-O and leaving hapless security guards' faces bloody and unrecognisable. It's a pitch perfect exercise in sending '90s kids behind the sofa, given that the good Doctor was still in temporary exile in 1999.
Choices is a quiet episode but in its unassuming way, it's both entertaining and pivotal to future plot strands. To be fair, not a great deal happens. The Scooby Gang go on a quest to get the Box for themselves, accidentally leave Willow behind, and then trade her for the Box. It's a plot that's simpler than adding two and two together, but it's the little details that make it a quietly important episode. Quiet rage, for example. Is that even doable? Oz proves that it can be done, during the argument over whether to save Willow or to leave her to the less than tender mercies of Faith and the Mayor. Oz makes the whole argument academic by smashing a crucial pot needed in a ritual to destroy the Box. He doesn't scream or shout or say anything, but this unusually emotive outburst proves that you wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of Oz. Seth Green plays this perfectly, especially in his facial expression after smashing the pot – it's a shame that he's about to enter the last phase of his Buffy career, since Oz and Willow fit so well together.
Talking of Willow, this episode is further proof that the character's come a long way from the Wouldn't Say Boo To A Goose days of the first season. We've seen Willow's confidence grow and develop over the past couple of seasons, but it ascends to a whole new level in Choices. Not only does she use her growing powers as a witch to dust a vampire with a floating pencil, she also stands up to a grumpy Faith who catches her in the middle of some Ascension swotting.
It's a great scene, this one. It's well written and gets right to the heart of the matter. When the chips are down, despite Faith's snarling and knife waving, she's still a little bit pathetic. “I know you had a tough life,” says Willow. “I know that some people think you had a lot of bad breaks. Well, boo hoo! Poor you. You know, you had a lot more in your life than some people. I mean, you had friends in your life like Buffy. Now you have no one. You were a Slayer and now you're nothing. You're just a big selfish, worthless waste.” Faith's smile visibly vanishes after Willow also tells her that it's way too late for her to be helped by Buffy and her friends. Maybe Faith's had her fair share of family issues when she was growing up, but Willow's speech puts Faith's whole self-absorbed attitude into perspective. On this occasion, Willow is the representative of the crusty old knight from Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade – except with a few more harsh words of reality than just a sniffy “You chose poorly”.
Mind you, it looks like for a millisecond that Faith may be questioning her allegiance with the Mayor. After the tense face-off (literally for the security guys) with the Gavrok spiders, there's a quick look of uncertainty on Faith's face. It's possible that she's realised that she's gotten herself into something out of her depth. While the Mayor has boasted about his unkillable status, this is the first time she's seen it first hand. Despite getting a faceful of spider, the Mayor soon shakes these wounds off (to the strains of typically eerie Christophe Beck music). Faith is told twice by the Mayor to scoot off, and maybe deep down, for a fraction of a second, she's questioning her decision to side with the forces of darkness.
We're seeing some new sides to the Mayor here. While he's the sunniest bad guy in town, for the first time we see the full force of his rage. “Well, this is very unfortunate. I just had this conference room redecorated, for Pete's sake. At taxpayers' expense,” he begins before smashing a chair to smithereens after learning that Buffy and the gang have got the Box. This is where the Nice Guy/Bad Guy approach pays off, since the whole smiley Flanders-esque front is a façade for something much darker. The Mayor's in full flow here, taking a typically flippant approach to the first meeting with Buffy (“I feel like we should all be wearing trench coats!”).
But the thing with these age-old baddies is that they can see the world for what it is, and the Mayor's not fooled by Buffy and Angel's denialsville relationship: “I mean, come on. What kind of a life can you offer her? I don't see a lot of Sunday picnics in the offing. I see skulking in the shadows, hiding from the sun. She's a blossoming young girl and you want to keep her from the life she should have until it has passed her by. My God! I think that's a little selfish.” It's ironic that the bad guy can see that this is a relationship that can't have a long shelf life – and despite their denials at the end, it's clear that Buffy and Angel have some heart-breaking choices of their own to consider in the near future.
For what's supposed to be a quiet little episode, there's actually lots of noise coming through – especially with further plot developments. Willow's confidence. The Mayor's power. Buffy and Angel's doomed love affair. There's even a sting in the tail for Cordelia, who's mysteriously seen to be working in a clothes shop near the end of the episode. Clearly something's not adding up there, given that Cordy used to be able to afford the swankiest clothes that money could buy. All of these plot points will be returned to, not just in the final three episodes of the season, but with some of them (Willow's powers, Cordy's finances), they'll be expanded on in future seasons of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel.
A key factor in the success of Choices is the smart writing from David Fury. There's actually quite a lot of dialogue-heavy set-pieces in Choices, but Fury makes this dialogue come alive with vivid imagery (The Mayor's unflattering description of his wife's old age, for example), energy and wit – it never slips into stale or pompous mode, but provides great opportunities for bonafide acting talent to flex their acting muscles further.
With that in mind, Alyson Hannigan and Harry Groener steal the show in this one. Hannigan not only continues to make Willow a likeable, fun character, she also adds new elements of quiet authority and subtle steel. Her confrontation with Faith is a pivotal moment in the series, and Hannigan's excellent acting does justice to Fury's perfect scripting. Harry Groener gets to showcase the darker side of the Mayor, and he does it very well. He also brings the dialogue-laden chinwag with Buffy and Angel to vivid life, relishing the words he's got and making what could have been a dry, forgettable scene into something more memorable.
An under-rated episode, Choices still has much going for it. The direction is of the highest calibre from James A Contner, who adds stylish touches to the episode, such as the Bond-esque rescue of the Box of Gavrok or the shadowy confrontation in the school. Those spider beetle things are done very well – they move like greased lightning and the grisly make up jobs for the near-faceless victims are very effective. Christophe Beck's music also adds to the flavour, in particular the atmospheric music for when Faith picks up the Box, and also the creepy mood music in the school as the inhabitants of the Box make their move.
All in all, there's little to criticise here – although Wesley continues to be an annoying fifth wheel (and the regulars sure have made it clear that they don't want him around), and Snyder's on curiously muted form this episode. Apart from that, it's an episode that surprises in that one of the lesser talked about stories turns out to be hugely enjoyable. Choices manages to move plot pieces into place for the future while recounting a good story in its own right.
Can prom antics and graduation japes keep the momentum? Find out soon...