Saturday, October 8, 2011

Buffy The Vampire Slayer Graduates Into Something Pretty Fantastic With "Graduation Day Parts 1 & 2!"

The Good: Funny, Quirky, Action-packed, Decent character development, Good acting
The Bad: Fairly predictable plot
The Basics: In a near-perfect two-parter, Buffy takes on the Mayor after being forced to take out Faith, the rogue Slayer, on her "Graduation Day!"

Buffy The Vampire Slayer is a show that did a pretty remarkable job at reinventing itself as needed over the course of the seven years it was on. Some might wonder why a show would need to restart itself so frequently, but to those of us who watched it, this is less of a mystery and more of a selling point. To that end, there are a few milestones that were pretty much essential times when the series needed to reboot. The first major one was at the beginning of the fourth season. The reason for that reboot was quite simple: in the third season finale, "Graduation Day, Parts 1 and 2" Buffy Summers and her friends graduate from high school.

For sure, the show could have tried to keep the Scooby gang Seniors forever (anyone looking closely in the first season will catch that Buffy is listed as a Senior on one of the computer monitors, despite being reduced to a sophomore for the television series), but wisely, Joss Whedon and the other show runners kept the group evolving, growing and growing up. As a result, "Graduation Day" represents the closing of the high school chapter of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and for those who like the richness of the metaphor in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, this might make for the most sensible ending point of the series.

"Graduation Day, Part 1" finds the Mayor of Sunnydale in a state of virtual invincibility as the day of his Ascension nears. At Graduation, he will become something different, something horrible and in preparation for that, he has made himself impervious to any attacks from Buffy and her gang. Defended by his own Slayer, Faith, the Mayor seems poised to destroy Sunnydale and transform into something that could threaten the entire world. Recalling all that they know about the Mayor and the Ascension, Buffy and Angel - with Anya's help - stumble on part of the key to defeating the Mayor and Buffy commits to taking out Faith.

As Faith and Buffy fight for their lives against one another, Giles and Xander make preparations for graduation and a fallback for the impending Ascension.

In "Graduation Day, Part 2," a deeply wounded Buffy gets the last of what she needs to defeat the Mayor from the comatose Faith. Armed with the information and a plan, Buffy makes her fellow students into an army to survive the legions of vampires the Mayor has called in to protect him in Faith's absence during his Ascension.

In some ways, "Graduation Day" is a predictable Buffy The Vampire Slayer season finale. The Big Bad of the season is rearing its ugly head and it is about time for Buffy to put an end to it. This series does a pretty decent job of building up the evil force for an entire year, but then, by the end of the season finale, one way or another, the creature is dispatched. In this fashion, for all of its greatness and decency as a television program, "Graduation Day, Parts 1 and 2" are not terribly surprising. The viewer has a pretty decent idea that the Mayor will be defeated and Sunnydale will go on.

But, in true Joss Whedon fashion, the mystery in this two-parter is: at what price will Buffy and her gang succeed? Angel has already - in prior episodes - alluded to his intent to leave Sunnydale and Buffy behind following the Ascension. In reality, Angel is off to star in his own spin-off and that's a fine excuse for him to make the plot a little more complicated. But the true gem of the price of Buffy's success comes in a three second (if that) throwaway shot that will change everything. Yes, one of the supplemental characters is taken out in the finale in a way that makes them a much more interesting character when they recur from this point forth!

And, in truth, what makes "Graduation Day" so interesting is the character work. After a large part of the season at each other's throats, Buffy and Faith come to a head with their conflict, just as the romance between Buffy and Angel is more or less resolved as well. The thing here is that Buffy has always been an archetype for good and Faith has been far more chaotic. In the second part of "Graduation Day," Buffy and Faith share a special link and it is in that meeting that Faith is given the opportunity to show her true colors.

As well, the Mayor has always been a more intriguing villain than most because he is nowhere near as monolithic as most of the Big Bads in the Buffy universe. Instead, he has been quirky, often expressing a disgust at germs. He is known to be at least as old as Sunnydale itself and he has maintained a special relationship with Faith that provides the young woman with the closest to a father figure that she has ever had. Following Buffy dispatching Faith, the Mayor proves his character by illustrating that he still has a love for Faith and that is a clever and decent trait that makes him possibly the most interesting Big Bad to come along.

"Graduation Day's" gimmick hinges - yet again - on the second season episode "Halloween" and it does not spoil anything to say that Xander's legendary Army training from that episode is part of what allows Buffy to achieve her victory. It's a card that keeps getting played and this might well be one of the last times that it is played reasonably and well, in a fashion that the viewer thinks is plausible. The clever aspect of it is that while Xander's character is enhanced with Army training from a spell gone wrong, none of his peers have had such luck. As a result, the carnage that comes up in the climactic battle after the sun is blotted out is realistic and deadly to many of its participants.

In fact, arguably the only character that does not have any real growth in the two-parter is Principal Snyder. But, he has his moment and having met Armin Shimerman at various conventions, he is quite pleased with the resolution to Snyder's arc.

"Graduation Day" works as well as it does because of three truly outstanding performances (and some fun CGI work). The actors who truly move this two-parter are Harry Groener, Eliza Dushku, and Sarah Michelle Gellar. Groener plays the Mayor and as Richard Wilkins III prepares to Ascend, Groener is given the difficult task of making the Mayor seem quirky and confident without being seen as ridiculous or just offbeat for the sake of offbeat. He does this in large part through his body language. He manages to keep a very serious posture, no matter what comes out of his mouth. And when the Mayor discovers Faith has been wounded, it is Groener's eyes that one needs to be watching because he sells the plot point that's coming through the performance there.

Similarly, Eliza Dushku makes the viewer believe that Faith is not all bad. Dushku takes a pretty simple script - especially for the second part - and layers her character with real depth involving her ability to emote with her voice. Indeed, after the big battle scenes, it is Dushku's quiet performance as a wounded Faith that makes her worth watching. And the scenes she shares with Groener are precious.

But it is Sarah Michelle Gellar who is charged with selling the reality of the extreme situations that Buffy is put into in this two parter. Gellar takes the role seriously and she makes Buffy into a serious character, transforming her finally from a pawn or tool into a true leader. Gellar infuses Buffy with serious confidence in this episode, especially in the climax of it, that makes the episode work wonderfully.

This is one of the essential episodes (or two episodes) of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and it is one that will appeal to anyone who likes a good action-adventure story. It will be appreciated much more by those who have seen - at least - the rest of the third season as the entire season has been building to this. It's fun either way and it does manage to be something more as well.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Buffy The Vampire Slayer - The Complete Third Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the graduation season here!
or the complete series is available here!

"Graduation Day, Part 1" - 9.5/10
"Graduation Day, Part 2" - 10/10
VHS - 8.5/10

For other television reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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