Just as you go through life, you'll find that things change. New job. New friends. New family. But from time to time, the past will poke its head round the door, whether it's the chance meeting of an old buddy or the inevitable school reunion. Surely fully grown adults want to forget the days of detentions, bad dinners and corridors that smell like used espadrilles?
So far, Buffy The Vampire's Slayer's third season has introduced new faces and dynamics to the equation, such as a new Slayer in town and new baddies to face. And then a face from the past comes crashing into the Sunnydale welcome sign with all the grace of an elephant running the London Marathon.
Welcome back to Spike, last seen leaving town in Becoming. This time around, he's minus a certain loopy missus with a penchant for eyeless dolls and babbling nonsense. Drusilla's had enough of the Billy Idol With Fangs, and has apparently turned to something called a Chaos Demon on the rebound. Naturally, Spike's lovesick, and in the case of how much booze he's necking, this may well be a literal case.
Spike's temporary return to Sunnydale acts as a dummy run for his full time status in the next season. The good thing about the Buffy production team is that they are not averse to keeping a popular character on full time if they can see the potential (think also of Anya, Wesley and Harmony, who will become a full-time player towards the end of Angel's fifth season). Newcomer Dan Vebber tests the water with Spike's portrayal in this story, and as a result, the vampire becomes a complex character. It's already seen in an early scene in which Spike revisits his old haunt, remembering the time he had with Drusilla. While he's capable of killing, Spike also lets his heart rule his head, and having ironically sung a bar or two of My Way, he starts crying as he struggles to cope with his break-up. This then turns into full-blown rage, as he knocks all of Drusilla's charred dolls to the floor. On the one hand, he's a violent monster. On the other he's a pitiable wretch.
It's a hard line to tread, but what emerges is a multi-faceted character, who's by turns scary, pathetic and also very, very funny. Another great example of this is the scene in which Spike forces Willow to do a love spell that will bring Drusilla back to him. One minute he's threatening her with a broken bottle in the face (and Alyson Hannigan's reactions as Willow really sell the threat here), and the next minute he's crying on her shoulder as he remembers how Drusilla only wanted to be friends. Switching between these different shades of Spike doesn't sound easy to pull off, but James Marsters manages the rapid changes magnificently.
The thing with Spike is that it would have been all too easy to create a generic vampire who goes around killing and twirling an imaginary pantomime moustache. What Spike brings to the table is far more interesting. Because his heart rules his head, this means he gets hurt by the women he falls for, even the unlikely future choices. It's a personality trait that will be examined in further depth in stories such as Fool For Love and Lies My Parents Told Me. While he's capable of bringing fear and terror, he's also prone to getting his heart broken all too easily, and this adds an extra dimension to the character.
Unpredictable? You could say that. After Buffy hears Spike greet Joyce on the phone, you'd think that the next scene will involve Buffy's mother in deadly danger. In fact, Joyce has put the kettle on and is chinwagging with Spike about his problems. The idea that Spike picks and chooses who to kill is one that's both interesting and funny at the same time. A cold blooded killer having tea with a mother isn't the sort of scenario presented in your average vampire TV show, but this is another example of Buffy The Vampire Slayer throwing the rulebook into the shredder.
Furthermore, there's more fun to be had, when Angel attempts to help Joyce, but is trapped by the protection spell from Passion. Spike's facial expressions and pretend biting behind Joyce are priceless, and just one of many hilarious moments dotted throughout this episode.
It's not an episode that's particularly big on plot. Basically, Spike captures Willow and Xander in a bid to get Willow to do a love spell, while later battling a clutch of vampire lackeys sent by the Mayor to prevent any rocking of boats. What makes the episode is the inter-action between the characters. The over-riding theme of this episode is the painful old break-up. Spike's presence in Sunnydale sets off a chain reaction that will break up all three of the regular couples: Buffy and Angel. Willow and Oz. Xander and Cordelia. Admittedly, some of these break-ups will stay more permanent than others, but the end of this episode sees all six looking utterly miserable.
Lover's Walk is the episode in which Willow's and Xander's secret thing for each other is finally out in the open with devastating consequences, especially for Cordelia. There's nothing like pre-empting the inevitable. In Willow's case, she gets a present of a pez witch from Oz. In Xander's case, he discovers that Cordelia has photos of him on her inner locker door. Both their partners are showing how much they mean to them, and yet Willow and Xander continue the charade. The final insult is when both Oz and Cordelia try to help their partners that they find them in mid clinch, leading Cordelia to fall down a hole and get impaled on a pole. Karmic payback for her behaviour in the first season? It's all too easy to remember Cordy's actions in the first season, but again, it's the sign of a skilled production team who know what they're doing when they make you feel sorry for a formerly bitchy character. The neat sight gag of the funeral fades into the hospital scene in which an upset Cordy gives Xander the final brush-off.
Mercifully, this Willow 4 Xander sub-plot is at an end, and it's still a little unclear as to why or how Willow and Xander ever thought they would get away with it. Xander, in particular, seems to relish the chance of getting caught in the act, given his eager desire for a double date at the bowling alley. While the jury's still out on Willow and Oz, it looks like there's zero hope for Xander and Cordelia – again, karma's come back to slap Xander in the face with a wet fish after his previous judgemental outbursts in Dead Man's Party and Revelations. It's telling that from this moment on, Xander will become a lot more supportive and less gung-ho about judging his friends on what he thinks are questionable decisions.
Buffy and Angel, though? Currently taking a long vacation in Denial Land, taking a long walk along the beach and burying their heads in the sand in between building sandcastles. Having already been through the whole soul losing problem, Buffy and Angel nevertheless are sailing too close to the wind. It's a relationship that's doomed more than Private Frazer in a tussle with a zombie in a haunted house.
Despite their claims that they are friends, Spike sees right through this: “You'll never be friends. You'll be in love till it kills you both. You'll fight, and you'll shag, and you'll hate each other till it makes you quiver, but you'll never be friends. Love isn't brains, children, it's blood... blood screaming inside you to work its will.” It's ironic that Spike the bad guy sees the Bungel relationship for what it is, and it's a trick that will be pulled again later in the season by an even bigger fiend. “We're not friends,” says Buffy at the end of the episode. “We never were. And I can fool Giles, and I can fool my friends, but I can't fool myself. Or Spike, for some reason. What I want from you I can never have.” Despite this, it's not quite over for the lovestruck duo just yet...
Surveying the broken heart wreckage he's just unleashed in Sunnydale, Spike leaves a happy man, bellowing along to Gary Oldman's version of My Way in his car. It seems that the only cure for his broken heart is to break others' hearts himself. It's typical Spike behaviour, but thanks to a scene-stealing turn from James Marsters, it's a dead cert that he'll be back. As a dummy run for his regular stint from Season Four, Lover's Walk works very well. It shows how Spike can still manage to kill other vampires (it's in his best interests, naturally), and pre-empts next season's similar killing sprees. The script provides Spike with plenty of memorable lines that veer from the typically insulting (he goes all infantile name-calling when dealing with Angel) through to the typically incompetent: “He's probably just got them locked up in the factory,” snickers Buffy, while on the hunt for Xander and Willow. “Well, hey, how thick do you think I am?” blusters Spike in retaliation.
Lover's Walk is also starting to move the pieces into place for the Scooby Gang's future education. Despite Buffy's long face, she does well with her SAT results, opening up the possibilities of furthering her education. Even Giles suggests that her education should come first: “I'm not suggesting that you ignore your calling, but, um, you need to look to your future.” While the last season pokes its head around the door, new avenues are opening up. Not just with the prospect of university and a life beyond the corridors of Sunnydale High, but with Willow's growing interest in magic. While Willow is trying to solve the problem between her and Xander with a de-lusting spell, it's the start of a path that will lead to greater reliance on spells and magic, that ultimately gets out of control. It's a good example of how Buffy The Vampire Slayer isn't interested in creating quick, disposable bits of sofa popcorn fluff. It's rewarding the long-term viewers by exploring longer character paths and building foundations for the future.
As it stands, Lover's Walk is another strong example of how the show had well and truly hit its stride this season. The episode contains the right mixture of horror (the sudden death of the Magic Shop woman) and humour, not to mention the inevitable three-way triad of heartbreak between the three couples. Joss Whedon sure doesn't like to make things easy for the regulars in his shows, and Dan Vebber's well-constructed script ensures that this is the case.
With one eye on the future (where do the couples go from here as they gaze miserably ahead in the end musical montage) and the other on the past, Lover's Walk provides a great one-off appearance for Spike this season and also another example of the confident, stylish storytelling that the Buffy crew were reaching for and getting.