It's finale time. In true Buffy style, everything's rapidly going to pot for the Slayer and her pals. Ms Calendar is dishing out reports of doom about weird cat births and kids born with their eyes the wrong way round. Xander reaches rock bottom with his love life. And worst of all, Buffy herself is staring death in the face after the rediscovered Codex includes a terrible prophecy that predicts her demise.
Just your average day in the life of a Scooby Gang member then. Prophecy Girl is Whedon's first shot at creating a mini apocalypse for the small screen. Future season finales will up the ante, but all closing epics have to start somewhere. With that in mind, Prophecy Girl is not half bad, combining action, taut drama and copious amounts of wit to form a memorable parting shot for the first season.
A good season finale needs to tie up all the loose ends, and Prophecy Girl ticks all the boxes. The Master finally succeeds in breaking free from his smelly grotto. Buffy embraces her destiny as Slayer. The Buffy/Xander/Willow lurve triangle comes to a head. Whedon's canny enough not to tick the boxes in routine fashion, luckily. A simple act of asking someone out to a prom is turned into a tragi-comic world of pain, for example. Poor old Xander. With the Spring Fling approaching, he decides to lay his cards on the table and proclaim his wish to be Buffy boyfriend material. Inevitably, his advances are rebuffed (“I don't handle rejection well. Funny! Considering all the practice I've had, huh?”), but what's worse is his clumsy attempt to invite Willow instead. Being sloppy seconds is not Willow's idea of hi-jinks, leaving a devastated Xander left alone with 20 Country Music Greats to nurse him through his love pains. An inevitable plot path, but one that still pulls out all the emotional stops, thanks to the top quality writing and the performances from Nicholas Brendon, Alyson Hannigan and Sarah Michelle Gellar.
Gellar's on fire in this one, in fact. Buff-eting from one emotion to another – quiet sadness, fury and resigned determination – it's hard to believe that Gellar was only 20 when she filmed this, since she gives a top-flight performance that belies her age.
And of course, a sentence like that officially classes me as an old fart.
The piece-de-resistance of this acting triumph is the scene in which Buffy overhears Giles and Angel discussing the prophecy of her death. Gellar portrays a Slayer who's at first incredulous, then furious, then scared. A good burst of explosive rage always works, and Gellar plays a blinder with lines such as “READ ME THE SIGNS! TELL ME MY FORTUNE!!” By contrast, her quiet declaration of not wishing to die at 16 works just as well. Even if the series hadn't quite managed big blockbustery effects just yet, it didn't matter, since a bit of good acting can make just as big an impact.
Gellar aside, all the acting's excellent in this episode. Alyson Hannigan perfectly conveys Willow's horror at finding her dead friends in the aftermath of a vampire attack. “I go to that room every day,” says a tearful Willow. “And when I walked in there, it... it wasn't our world any more. They made it theirs. And they had fun.” The episode curiously doesn't feature many guest stars, but the regulars more than hold their own.
With regret, it's goodbye to the first Buffy baddie for a bit. Old fruit punch mouth departs this mortal coil in grisly fashion. Is it a case of too little, too late for the Master though? As I've mentioned before, while he's played to perfection by Mark Metcalf, a lot of the time the Master is reduced to skulking furiously in his cavern. Which he does again for most of Prophecy Girl. It's not until the end of the third act that he gets to free himself, and even then, when he does reach the surface, he doesn't do much apart from shout out “MY WORLD!” a lot.
Having said that, the Master gets his usual quota of top lines, the best of which are: “Whaddya think? 5.1?”; “Oh good (!) The feeble banter portion of the fight” and “By the way, I like your dress”. Shame the Master never got to live up to his reputation as an awe-inspiring monster, but the witty lines and Metcalf's performance still cement him as a quintessential Buffy villain.
Good lines and good acting go a long way in Buffy, and they boost the strength of Prophecy Girl considerably. It's also exciting, well directed and bursting at the seams with action.
However, it's not quite perfect. The weird monster thing that breaks free in the library looks a bit clunky, but then since when do bad effects damage a story's reputation? No, the real problem for me is that the main concept of Buffy dying turns out to be a bit of a cop-out.
Admittedly, the build-up to this is done well. Having taken the Annoying One by the hand (can't this kid actually go out and steal some new clothes, or something?), Buffy engages in a tense game of cat and mouse in the Master's lair. It's all given an ironic twist when the Master hisses that if Buffy hadn't come, then he could never leave. But then the Master also says that “Prophecies are tricky creatures”, and the prophecy of Buffy's death inevitably just becomes 'Buffy dies, but then comes back to life again' after a bit of resuscitation from Xander. I've gone on about this annoying trend in Doctor Who enough, given that post-2005 Who seems to do this on a regular basis. Whether it was a non-companion death prophecy in Journey's End or multiple non-deaths in Moffat's spell as executive producer, it's a frustrating trend for two reasons. One, it's a massive cop-out, and two, it's not a good message to be sending out to kids who maybe haven't experienced death first hand yet.
What's more, in Prophecy Girl, Buffy's resurrection leads to her stomping about with a smug expression on her face. There's a cringe-inducing bit when Cordelia screeches “Somebody help!!!”, and then the theme tune cuts in to accompany a zooming-sideways shot of Buffy clomping along with a smug grin (and the arch “Oh look, a bad guy” line doesn't help matters either). It looks a bit cheesy and naff, and is a regrettable blemish on an otherwise flawless production.
To be honest though, much as I dislike the old 'cheating death' ploy, Prophecy Girl still works well. It's a story that typically for the series, brushes in different strokes of mood and tempo. The fast pace and action sometimes pause for quiet character breathers such as the two-hander between Buffy and Joyce – a nice moment that quietly reminisces about Joyce's days at school and ponders on the irony of how Buffy has her whole future ahead of her. Whedon already has his characters down to a tee, and despite being only one season, Buffy has afforded a lot of character development for the regulars. It's nice that the episode sets things up for the future. There's Xander's blatant dislike of Angel (“At the end of the day, I pretty much think you're a vampire”), which will be justified halfway through the next season. Giles and Jenny Calendar are working together even more as a team, after their initial frostiness, leading to a fully-fledged romance. Even more so, Cordelia is starting to integrate with the Scooby Gang, even ending up in the library for more than three seconds. All of these, plus the ramifications of Buffy's 'death' will be built on and expanded in the second season.
As it is, Prophecy Girl caps off a strong début season with considerable style. The Master is finally thwarted – and the effect his skin flying off to leave behind a skeleton is very well done. Buffy lives to fight another day. And the regulars get to go and let their hair down at the Spring Fling (“We saved the world, I say we party”). A new term lies around the corner for Buffy and her friends – who knows what lies in store?