Buffy The Vampire Slayer Reviews: Doppelgängland

It comes to a pretty pass if the most rebellious thing in your life is eating a banana outside of lunch.

A monkey wouldn't think twice about eating a banana whether it's 10am, 3pm or 11.30 at night. Eric would throw lunchtime caution to the wind when gobbling a banana to turn into superhero Bananaman. But for Willow Rosenberg, chomping on a banana whenever she pleases depressingly sums up her current mid-teen crisis. Her friends are taking her for granted. The new Slayer in town is a double-crossing sleaze. Worst of all, Snyder's using her in his ongoing plan to give a free pass to every arrogant jock gracing the halls of Sunnydale High with only tinned meat for brains.

It's fitting that Buffy The Vampire Slayer's 50th episode pays tribute to one of its best loved characters. Ironically, I've come across many an article and list that puts Willow ahead of Buffy herself in the popularity stakes. It's a case of right scripting and casting – the script writers invest a lot into creating a good, emphatic, three-dimensional character. But at the same time, the right actress is needed to take that great writing to the next level.

Alyson Hannigan is one of those actresses with the Midas touch. It's telling that she's not just remembered as Willow, but as Michele Flaherty in the American Pie movies and as Lily Aldrin in How I Met Your Mother. What endears so many to Hannigan's portrayal of Willow is a combination of subtle quirks, a talent for showing genuine emotion and also the key factor of likeability. Even in the darker days of the sixth season, it's still hard not to feel sorry for Willow and her predicament, and a lot of that is down to Hannigan's finely tuned portrayal.

Doppelgängland is a tribute to all things Willow, and an episode that makes the most of Hannigan's considerable acting capabilities. With such a title as Doppelgängland, it's not too hard to deduce that somehow Willow's dark alter ego from The Wish is involved. Alternate reality Willow is plucked from her world like a goldfish being plucked from its bowl.

The clever thing with this episode is how it mirrors Cordelia's uncomprehending reaction to being stuck in a different world. This isn't Alternate Willow's world any more. People aren't being used as vampire snacks. Xander's alive. The Master's dead and sledgehammered into skeletal pieces. Alternate Willow's finding that the fun's gone from this world – much like the real Willow, who's become a doormat to virtually every Sunnydale resident.

The name of the episode spreads further than the obvious trick of putting two Willows together. If anything, Alternate Willow's mere presence reflects the frustration of other characters in the series. Regular Willow is the most obvious example. She's feeling like everyone's taking her for granted, with her friends always regarding her as reliable and dependable. Snyder's instruction for Percy tutorage is the last straw – he's another alumni from the Bragging, Arrogant Jock School, bossing Willow around within seconds of Snyder's request and demanding that she does his homework for him. That's the problem with being the easy-going good egg: you become the human equivalent of a pavement.

Attempting to crack the good egg is a returning Anya, who's in a particularly lousy mood in this episode. Stuck in a high school and flunking maths, this once mighty vengeance demon is suffering the ultimate humiliation. She's forced to be a humble mortal. Despite begging before her nonplussed boss, D'Hoffryn, she's still banished from reaping the powers of the wish. Anya and Vampire Willow are very much of the same cloth. Their old powers aren't really of much use in the ordinary Sunnydale. Despite it being a haven for mystical convergence, there are times when Sunnydale is so... regular. Even when trying to buy a beer at The Bronze, Anya's thwarted. Not by a demon. Not by a vampire. But by the crushing tedium of a by-the-book jobsworth barman. “I'm 1120 years old!” she yells, thumping the bar so hard it's in danger of cracking in two. “Just gimme a friggin' beer!” To which non-plussed barman guy just mumbles “ID” in a flat monotone.

It's little wonder that Anya attempts to flush out Willow when she later impersonates her vampire double in The Bronze. It's the nearest she's been to vengeance for a few months now, and she pounces on Willow's ruse with evident gusto. “If she's a vampire, then I'm the creature from the black lagoon,” she snarls. The thing with Anya is that in her early days of being a humble mortal, she's so desperate to fit in. After vampire lackey Alfonse is turned to dust, she even has the nerve to give Willow a great big grin as if she was only joking and now wants to be her buddy. Instead of offering her the hand of friendship, Willow offers Anya the fist of pain, right in the jaw. It's really not Anya's day.

But it's Vampire Willow who's feeling the most isolated. It's in the first moments of her arrival in normal Sunnydale that we get to see how lost Vampire Willow is. Alyson Hannigan's frowning facial expressions sell the vampire's confused isolation as she mooches forlornly around Sunnydale and The Bronze – all to the morose strains of a woman with an unkempt bale of hay on her head crooning about a chair in her head or some such nonsense. “Everything's different,” she scowls to a baffled Xander. There's no chaos or madness in this relatively ordered Sunnydale, leaving Evil Willow like a fish out of water.

It's great seeing the reactions of the Sunnydale residents to Willow's apparent conversion to fangs and human munchies. Percy's left aghast and terrified after Evil Willow throws him through the air like a javelin. Better still are the reactions of the Scooby Gang, who are left horrified at the prospect of their friend becoming an evil member of the undead. The scene in the library sees them looking shocked to the core, too tired and numb even for tears. After a season which has seen them frequently at loggerheads, it's nice to see the Scoobies united again, especially the way in which they swamp the real Willow with hugs (I'm also liking Xander's shaking of the cross, as if it's run out of batteries).

If some of the characters aren't having fun, at least the audience is. Like many a story in this season, Doppelgängland's central premise is a stock theme from many other cult TV shows. Following on from the parallel world, good guy betrayal and changed personalities, it's a case of seeing double. Meglos. The Enemy Within. You name it, sci-fi fans have had double the fun before. Doppelgängland makes the most of two Alyson Hannigans for the price of one with a brilliant, witty script.

Joss Whedon may be turning in uncharacteristically chipper scripts this season, but Doppelgängland makes no compromises when it comes to high quality. The good thing about the two Willows is that it carries on the progression of the real Willow. Two seasons ago, it's debatable whether Willow would have had the nerve to impersonate her evil alter ego, but here, despite her nerves, she gives it a good old go. There's that fantastic bit in which Willow pretends to be bad and then gives a cheeky grin and wave to a captive Oz (Seth Green's subtle facial expression as Oz manages to combine relief, delight and pride in less than five seconds).

By the end of this episode, she's literally faced her own demon and escaped unscathed – even to the point where she almost feels sorry for her alter ego. Willow has come a long way since the shy, retiring days of Welcome To The Hellmouth, and in this episode, she starts to learn even more about herself (and maybe even down to her future preferences when it comes to relationships). It's also fun to see the vampire Willow try and largely fail to raise hell in this more sedate version of Sunnydale. She's locked in a cage for one act and is forced to listen to Cordelia's bleatings about the ethics of boyfriend stealing. The real Sunnydale for Willow is like a playground without the swings and roundabout. She only manages one kill (and it's notable that in typical Whedon continuity style, Sandy comes back two seasons later) before her fun's ruined by the Scooby Gang who have made this town theirs.

The effect of the two Willows in the same scene is achieved very well here, with lots of quick cutting from one Willow to the other, plus some good green screen work. Sterling direction from Joss Whedon, who pulls out all the stops to deliver another third season masterpiece. After the relatively ponderous Bad Girls/Consequences, it's back to what the show does best – providing equal moments of horror and humour.

There are many moments of magic to be enjoyed this episode. Away from the two Willows, the strange but effective father/daughter relationship of the Mayor and Faith is slowly starting to develop. He spoils Faith like a proud father, providing her with a new apartment and a Playstation in return for helping to dispose of Buffy and her friends. It's now standard for the Mayor to randomly drop an off-kilter bit of disturbing dialogue into his jovial train of thought. After saying that no Slayer of his is going to live in a fleabag hotel, the Mayor blatantly announces that Willow should be killed. It's horror at its most effective, because it's mixed up with everyday talk of shoes on beds. Perhaps the only grumble is the way in which Faith manages to carry on with her former friends as though nothing had happened. There's a bit of frostiness, but that's as far as it goes, which – after the events of last time – seems like a bit of a surprise.

Wesley, however, fresh from messing up Faith's rehabilitation, does get to provide the funniest moment of this episode. His pathetic shooing away of Evil Willow is funny enough but it's then out-laughed by his hilarious girly scream of terror after Cordy taps him on the shoulder.

Although the regulars get a fair slice of the action, Alyson Hannigan gets to steal the limelight, and quite right too. Hannigan does a superb job as both Willows, although she's effectively playing four lots of Willow, given that both incarnations try their best to impersonate each other. That's a lot to ask, but Hannigan carries this off with much aplomb. Despite the evilness of Vampire Willow, Hannigan plays her with a sad, melancholic air that makes the viewer almost feel sorry for a vicious monster.

The third season is fit to burst with many classics, and Doppelgängland is one of the best of the lot. The witty and sunny script from Joss Whedon is served well by his impressive production. It's frequently funny. And of course, Alyson Hannigan gets to steal the show and prove that a Buffy world without Willow would be like a coffee shop without cups. Another virtually flawless episode.