Graduation Day, Part 1
Written and Directed by: Joss Whedon
Air Date: May 18, 1999

So Faith is all fucked up, now. She starts the episode by running a blade into some geologist’s gut because he might have known something miniscule about the Mayor’s Ascension (would he have been useful at all? Or even known about if he hadn’t been stabbed? Logic suggests otherwise). She’s come a long way. When she stabbed the deputy mayor in “Bad Girls” she was afraid and full of grief. In “Enemies” she had a brawl to the death with a demon that ended in a brutal murder and you could tell she felt iffy about it. Even in “Choices” she shot a guy with an arrow, but it was from a distance. Not up close, not personal. Now she’s in over her head. And she’s got no where else to go but out of the picture. Which is exactly what happens in Part 1’s thrilling final moments, the rooftop brawl, the handcuffs, and the knife to the gut (poetic justice? I think so). Yes, this stuff happens at the end of the episode, but its the real highlight of the whole thing, isn’t it? I mean, its what the season was coming down to between the Slayers. It was all about this  moment.

And that’s not saying the rest of the episode was a slumpy lump of dump. It was all setup for the second half, yes, but it had its moments. Noted chief amongst them would be the return of Anya – who becomes a staple of the group later – who has actually seen an Ascension before, and knows how nasty they can be. Her character comes across in these early episodes as naive, yes, but predominately comical. Here, we get a bit of depth to her. Its a nice way to use a side character like this, and one I applaud. The other big moments are when Wesley informs Buffy and Giles that the council refuses to help her and then Buffy more or less quits. The shock of it all on Wesley’s part is true to character and expertly handled by actor Denisof. The ramifications of this business will be felt for years to come, but for now it simply means that Buffy can act on her own and in the next episode we’ll see her really take charge. Goddamned charge.

The other major setup in this episode is Faith shooting Angel with a poison that can only be cured by Slayer blood, ingested by the vampire infected with it. This is the thing that leads Buffy to finally settle all scores with her fallen Slayer cohort, and the thing that drives a knife into Faith’s gut. The payoff of it all, as with most things in this two-parter, isn’t fully realized until the second half, but I guess that’s how they keep ya watchin’, yeah? The moment Buffy realizes she’s going to have to kill Faith is a great one because SMG – yet again, as I always say – plays it all in the eyes. You can see her come to terms with it, even if she doesn’t have the stones for it when the moment comes. The look on her eyes here compared to the one she has when she’s done the deed is a great bit of comparison as far as her acting goes. Good enough for me.

Also? Oz and Willow have sex! Yay! As I’ve always said, the Oz+Willow relationship is one of my favorites on the show, despite my love for Willow+Tara. Their lovemaking seals the deal, though, as far as I’m concerned. Willow’s small rant after is so darned cute and perfect, as is Oz’s response. His curt dialogue is always a blessing for a show featuring over-spoken individuals. These two have tried to make things work after the whole Willow/Xander fiasco and, unlike the latter and Cordelia, they made it work. Good on them!

Then there’s the Mayor who has tons of great scenes with almost everyone. His Father/Daughter nature with Faith is really played up in the scene where he gives her a summer dress, and his conversation with Snyder is perfect and showcases just how far reaching his power is in the town, as well as rewards Snyder with all of his years of service, helping to keep things in line at the school. But its when he stops in at the library to taunt his enemies that he really shines, talking about how horrific his actions are going to be, and how far he’s going to go before he’s done. Its good that he’s invulnerable, too, seeing as how Giles was quick to thrust a sword right through him. And I’m glad he didn’t start any shit; I love that he was just a human with normal human abilities. It adds to both his evil nature and his character.

The second part of the episode is where the real meat of the story takes place, but the ride getting there was a strong one. Full of brawls, verbal charm, sharp wit, and great moments of development, the episode ends with a real sense of tension as all the players move into their final positions for the last episode of the season. Faith is out of the picture, Angel is sure to die, and The Mayor is pissed at the loss of his surrogate daughter. Its a bit of a nail-biter, to be sure, and Whedon expertly carries it all on his shoulders as the primary creative force behind the episode. Thank god for him, by the way. How lame my life would be if he hadn’t shown up.

Episode Rating: 92

Additional Notes:
-Willow and Harmony signing each other’s yearbooks, much like Buffy not being interested in going to graduation, is so true to high school culture
-I love that Giles has become kind of a badass since season one. Its nice that he goes through this transformation because it will help make Wesley’s eventual evolution all the more legit
-Speaking of badass, he single-handedly takes Wesley on in a fencing match while reading a newspaper. Talk about skill advancement
-Best comical moment is when Xander unfolds those pages to show how large/long the Mayor will be when he Ascends
-Angel’s worst entrance ever