If a well-past-its-prime, geek-based sitcom can claim that it all started with a big bang in its theme song, then Buffy The Vampire Slayer's third season finale suggests otherwise.
For alas, the original Sunnydale High school is on the critical list, rendered unrecognisable and burnt out in a bid to rid the world of the antics of Mayor Wilkins once and for all. It'll take a good three years to put this to rights – quite what the Sunnydale High teachers are supposed to do now is open to speculation. Mr Beech will probably end up retiring and sniping at youngsters on the back seat of the bus. Mr Miller, the cheery Hangman beardy chap may ask out Miss Murray on a date and end up flying off to the Bahamas in a whirlwind romance. Sunnydale High itself though will be out of bounds for a spell – except to curtain cut quasi-army refugees looking for a place to kip while on the run from the world's most boring military monster organisation.
Graduation Day is the two-part finale to what's been one of the most successful seasons of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. It's a season chock full of classics such as The Wish, Band Candy, Earshot, Doppelgängland, and even most of the lesser known episodes are of the highest order. As a result, Graduation Day has a lot to live up to. It needs to round up all of the ongoing plot strands such as the Mayor, Faith, leaving school, Buffy's status in the Watcher's Council etc... But it also needs to meet the high standards set so far this season, not to mention the last season finale biggie, Becoming.
The general feeling is that while Becoming is the bigger heart-breaker of the two, Graduation Day is the explosive, action-packed rollercoaster. A closer look at the two finales suggests that thematically, they're two peas in a pod. Both stories deal with Buffy facing the end of an era and also the loss of Angel. In Becoming, Buffy is kicked out of school, leaves home and is forced to give up the love of her life in a tear-jerking maelstrom of drama. Graduation Day essentially repeats the pattern – she's no longer at school by the time the story's over; she'll be leaving home for university, and more crucially, she's forced to give up the love of her life again.
The main difference is the tone. Whereas the tone of Becoming was shrouded in misery, the tone of Graduation Day is more of maturing triumph. It's the end of an era for Buffy, but this time, she's mostly calling the shots, planning a battle that this time not only involves all her friends, but the students of Sunnydale High. With Angel walking off into misty dry ice, having exorcised her grief in The Prom, Buffy's final silent farewell look is one of sad but resigned acceptance that the relationship would never have worked out.
The title of the story arguably doesn't just refer to Buffy walking a way with a rolled up piece of paper while dressed in a silly robe and mortar board. Buffy's also graduating and moving forward in her life. She's fast growing up, not only accepting that her time with Angel has to come to an end, but also that she no longer needs the Watcher's Council. The season's been quietly building up this latter notion. More often than not, Watcher's Council members are portrayed as by-the-book, ineffectual dullards who constantly fail to see the bigger picture. Quentin Travers. Wesley. Even Gwendolyn Post's stiff-upper-lip greed failed big time. While Giles was fired, he's still been much more help to Buffy, meaning that she is more than capable of going it alone – free to fight vampires and demons without the millstone of the Council around her neck. In fact, from now on, whenever the Council do show up, they seem to become more and more ineffectual and more of a burden to Buffy. So she's making the right call in this episode, choosing a more independent path – even if it does leave Wesley somewhat high and dry.
Going back to my original point about the comparisons with Becoming, Graduation Day is also different in that there's no sense of creating a mess to clear up at the start of next season. This two-parter is more concerned about signing off the first phase of this successful franchise. Both The Freshman and the Angel pilot, City Of, will essentially act as reboots for Buffy and Angel as they adapt to brand new lives and challenges. The main mission of Graduation Day is to clean up the ongoing plots of the season so far.
Whether or not it succeeds is another question though. Take the sub-plot concerning the infected Angel. To throw Buffy off the trail, Faith decides to shoot that poison arrow – not through Angel's huh-huh-heart – but right into his bloodstream, meaning a long and slow and fatal end. It's not as easy as ABC for Buffy either – conveniently, the only cure to this disease is the blood of a Slayer. Which means that Buffy now has a reason to be out for Faith's blood. I'm not sure if this quite squares with Buffy's whole crisis of Faith in the Bad Girls/Consequences episode, when she was aghast to be involved in the death of a regular human being. Faith, for all her superpowers, is still flesh and blood, and yet Buffy is still more than happy to plunge a great big knife into her chest.
Admittedly, there seems to be no other cure for Angel's predicament and with time running out, Buffy doesn't really have any other choice. But it feels like this plot has been shoehorned in to the story – merely to mark time before the big showdown with the Mayor. It's obvious that Angel will somehow live to fight another day, given that he's got his own show coming up, and for all the drama with Buffy having to resign herself to being the backup plan for Angel's cure, it's all dealt with relatively quickly. Buffy's taken to hospital. Run a few tests. Cleanish bill of health. Next.
Faith, on the other hand, ends up spending the all-important last episode in a coma – which kind of seems like a let down, given the big build up to her dark side conversion. In hindsight, Faith's story is far from over, and in the bigger picture, she'll have far more to do in both this series and Angel. But it's still a little disappointing that she doesn't have so much to do in the final act. Quite what Faith would have made of her boss turning into a big CGI snake can only be guessed at.
The other main issue I have with Graduation Day is the Mayor's odd decision to turn himself into a great big snake. If he's looking to restore some order to Sunnydale, he'd be far better off keeping his human form. Wilkins as a human can manage to fit into buildings, and more to the point, keep that element of surprise – not to mention avoiding the whole problem of “Once he's a snake, he can be killed” shtick.
Lots of doomy warnings are given about the Mayor's final transformation, and the omens aren't good. There's a multi-page drawing in a book, which unsettles both Xander and Giles. Even the normally unflappable Anya is rattled by the coming Ascension – Emma Caulfield plays this very well, and like her turn in The Wish, she plays it straight down the line. The only weird thing about Anya's welcome reappearance is that she says that she's packed her car full of goodies ready to vamoose. And yet, in Triangle, it's revealed that she can't drive. The only likely explanation for this is that D'Hoffryn's worked some sort of kibosh on Anya's driving skills as a punishment for her calling him a bastard in Something Blue.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the Mayor's transformation is that the snake isn't creepy at all, and is much less effective than plain old human form Wilkins. CGI effects can't convey subtle voice cadences or facial tics in the same way that people can. Which is a shame, since the Mayor's been at his creepy best throughout. He strolls nonchalantly into the library, and even after being skewered like a chicken kebab, he's still terrifyingly flippant. This genial nonchalance, however, is slowly starting to melt away – especially when Wilkins finds out that something's happened to Faith. More than ever, she's the daughter that he's proud of, gushing at her in her Ascension dress and rewarding her with an ice cream. Take that daughter figure away and he's unnervingly unhinged. “FIND HER!!!” he screams at his minions in the wreckage of Faith's pad, before quietly gimbling “She'll be alright” over and over to himself.
There's also that disturbing scene in the hospital when he quietly and calmly suffocates Buffy with his hand – even in full view of everyone. He's not bothered by this at all – he's only interested in killing the girl who put Faith into a coma. This most human of baddies is a far more interesting proposition than a boring old CGI snake, and Harry Groener's ability to go from the likeable father figure into a quietly chilling killer means that he'll be much missed after this episode's through. It's too bad that the earlier episodes of the season took a little bit too long in building up the Mayor, but his appearances in the second half added up to a brilliantly memorable baddie.
It's these two pivotal grumbles that add up to Graduation Day being a very good rather than a spectacular finale. Like many a Joss Whedon script, the success of the story lies just as much in the finer details. Quiet character moments like Willow even missing snidey Harmony, Anya persuading a reluctant Xander to go with her, Oz finally making the moment happen with Willow, and Cordy finally making the moment stop with Wesley. After a dramatic build-up and a crescendo of music, Cordelia's and Wesley's kiss must rank as one of the most inept smooches witnessed on TV. Wesley, in particular, seems to be doing some strange imaginary swimming movements in between gasping for air while exchanging tonsils with Cordy.
Graduation Day is also careful to remember the bit players in the Sunnydale High story. It's interesting to see Snyder go from being the authoritarian control freak to a hapless stooge of Wilkins. There's that bit when we see Snyder alone in the graduation area – if you didn't know better, there's the smallest flicker of worry crossing his face in un-Snyder-like fashion. As soon as Wilkins says that the debt to Snyder will be paid in full, it's only a matter of time until he ends up in the same predicament as his predecessor. I'm sure many a viewer broke out the champagne the moment Snyder got gobbled up by Snake Mayor.
Elsewhere, lots of old faces come back, including Harmony, Jonathan, Percy, Anya and Larry. Larry apart, they'll still be back in the future – some on a less permanent basis than others, but this is one of the great things about the show. The lesser characters have as much depth and thought to them as the regulars – having a good plot's all well and good, but it's your characters who provide the vital world building and depth to that plot.
Whedon goes for broke in an action-packed battle to the death. Tearing their graduation robes off to reveal causal get-up and copious amounts of fire power, the students get to play their part in bringing down the Mayor's reign of terror. It's hard to keep up with the dizzying amount of action on display, and Whedon's fast paced camera work propels the action on and on like a motor car coming into the home stretch. Whedon's camera work and sense of the epic also means that Buffy's and Faith's fight is of grandstanding proportions, a maelstrom of kicking, punching, jabbing and throwing, all to the sounds of Christophe Beck apparently doing the same thing with orchestral musical instruments.
It's this emphasis on the action that ensures that Graduation Day wraps up the season in barnstorming, enjoyable style. Because of the Poisoned Angel subplot and the silly Mayor Snake (who bizarrely says “Well, gosh” when confronted with a library full of explosives), it's not as perfect as it could have been.
But taken with a less critical eye, this two-parter provides the fans with everything they could want. Great acting from the regulars and the guests alike. Superb direction and effects. Plenty of quirky humour from Willow's Chopper bike through to Xander's great one liner “The suspense is killing Angel”. It generally succeeds in tying up the loose ends of this season, and offers a memorable exit for Angel and Cordy as regulars (Cordy finally lands herself her first vampire kill while Angel's final silent walk into the night alone is suitably downbeat and nicely underplayed). It's the end of an era and the opening of a new one as Buffy faces the trials and tribulations of college life in Season Four...