Living Conditions
Written by: Marti Noxon
Directed by: David Grossman
Air Date: Oct 12, 1999

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Buffy! I couldn’t be more thrilled. Even the theme song made me a little too happy, earlier today. Its been such a long time since I last sat down with an episode of this show it feels like forever ago. I even sat through the “previously on…” segment so as to make certain I was as fresh as I could be without rewatching every episode – again! – up to this point. It is exciting to be back. And what an episode to come back into the show on! “Living Conditions” takes the best theme from the previous three seasons, namely a demon used as a metaphor or symbol for a real life issue or struggle, and turns it on its head in the best of ways by having Buffy’s roommate, Cathy – introduced in the previous episode… from two Novembers ago! – and channels the Whedon charm by bringing to light the old fashioned “roommates are hell” scenario. If you’ve been to college and you got stuck with someone you didn’t know as your first year roommate, you know many of these issues aren’t far off.

Its played for comedy sake, for the most part. Buffy and Cathy trade verbal blows and eventually come to real blows when it is officially revealed that she is, in fact, a demon. Its a fantastic twist that we probably see coming a bit, but is played perfectly by the cast so as to make the surprise of it all feel legit. The look on SMG’s face, for example, when she pulls Cathy’s fake human face off before muttering a perfectly delivered “…….I KNEW it!” is pure delight, as are the looks on Xander and Oz’s faces when they stumble into the dorm room to find whirling inferno portals happening at their feet. All of this is funny, as are the shots fired in the great dorm room war, from the window battle to the struggle over sweaters. Even the opening, before things get too crazy is pretty comical, what with the Celine Dion posters and the Cher on repeat. The best moment, pictured below, is when Buffy finally gets done playing around and introduces Cathy to “share time” by chugging every last drop of milk in her carton.

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While the comedy is good and the nasty battle the two have in the dorm is well set, the most interesting part about everything is that there is such a nasty, dark undercurrent throughout the episode. The dreams Buffy had been having every night? Yeah, those were happening. She really had blood poured down her throat and scorpions draped across her, weird symbols drawn on her torso. And then there’s Parker, the other doof introduced this season, aside from Riley. At this point in the show he’s just some older dude that clearly has taken an interest in Buffy. But if you know what comes, you can already see the groundwork being laid out. Look at him after he tells her he “has [her] back” in the lunch line. Where do his eyes go immediately once her back is turned? Its a creepy, gross moment.

There is other groundwork laid out in this episode as well, such as Oz sensing a currently un-named Veruca and vice versa, Xander feeling like he has no place within the gang anymore, and Giles trying to move on with his life as best he can. These things each come front and center as the season progresses, but for now, not so much. But each one of these three get to interact with Buffy in either new or at the very least interesting ways. Oz goes on a patrol and is, well, Oz. Xander and Oz also are left to watch a tied up, crazed Buffy which ends, well, predictably. But the one interaction that feels the most interesting is the chat Buffy has with Giles after he wraps up his morning run. And jump. And bend. and frolic. Its telling of their relationship, even though he is no longer her Watcher, that she continues to go to him as a mentor figure and he continues to be the best father figure he can for her. This relationship will only continue to get complicated from here.

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On top of all this, the sparsely used camera zooms and extra loud sound effects really drive home both the comedy and the paranoia. Watch Buffy’s eyes squint as catsup drips on her borrowed sweater. Or listen for the sound of eggs cracking or pencils tapping. Its played, again, for laughs but it brings the sense that Buffy is both crazy and hyper-aware up front.

Overall, these early college-years episodes seem mostly fit to set up larger threats that come later, what with the brief glimpses of armed military types in the background or creepy new possible-boyfriends. If there is any one thing that might have brought this episode to even greater heights, it would have been to have it placed later in the season. I understand that they wanted to move Willow into Buffy’s dorm and all that, but if they’d developed Cathy, had her hang around and be more and more annoying as the season progressed, the eventual payoff this episode would have had could have made it a breakthrough moment. Even if it was just four or five more episodes down the road. As it stands now, Cathy is no better than any of the other one-timers that show up and die. She is a bit better because we have more time with her than normal, but it ain’t much. Just seems like a wasted opportunity.

Episode Rating: 88

Additional Notes:
-Best line? Oz: “Well you killed that bench.”
-People remark that Buffy sounding like Cordelia. Have they heard her, lately?
-Parker’s tips on storing food for later consumption is totally legit. Guilty.
-Willow is instructed to put her poster right in the same spot Cathy’s Celine poster was placed. Its a cute touch
-As is Buffy’s eyes zooming in on Willow eating the other half of her PB&J
-No Joyce Summers, yet. 😦 I miss her
-Did I mention I was excited to be back watching these episodes? I missed them, too
-Buffy trying to leave at the start of the episode, only to be continuously cornered by Cathy is hilarious
-I would have tried to kill Cathy, too
-TOENAILS!

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