3.09. The Wish
I love alternate universe stories, and this is one of the best AU episodes I’ve seen. A great AU story is not just fun but reveals something important about the characters, and about how much circumstances shape who we are and what our lives can be. The Wish
is a very revealing episode, to a greater extent than I was aware the first time I watched it.
Some people think this episode is overrated, because it’s a standalone that isn’t directly connected to the main arc of season 3, and because 2/3 of it are AU events that none of the characters remember (except Anya). I disagree: the purpose of the episode is for us to see what Sunnydale would have been like without Buffy, and what Buffy would be like if she didn’t have friends and ties to the world. The Wish
shows a Sunnydale as a hellish dystopia, a town ruled and terrorized by vampires, and much darker versions of the characters we know. This is actually very relevant to the season – one of its main themes are community and ties between people – and to the show as a whole.
The first 15 minutes of the episode are set in the normal world and deal with the fallout of Lovers Walk
. Willow, Xander and Buffy are moping together over their breakups. Willow’s and Xander’s mutual attraction seems to have disappeared, but their friendship is another relationship that has suffered and is never going to be the same – Xander learns this when he tries to innocently touch Willow’s hand the way they used to do before, but Willow makes it clear that it’s not OK anymore after what they did. They are only interested in making Oz and Cordy forgive them and take them back. Willow is less unsuccessful – Oz has told her that he needs time to sort out his feelings. I love the matter-of-fact way Oz replies when Willow keeps stalking him at school and asking him to let her talk to him again: “Look, I'm sorry this is hard for you. But I told you what I need. So I can't help feeling like the reason you want to talk is so you can feel better about yourself. That's not my problem.“ Willow can indeed be self-absorbed and obsessed with the need to make everything ’right’ immediately. One of the things I love the most about Oz is that, no matter how much he loves her, he’ll always tell her openly when she’s going about things the wrong way.
Cordy’a reaction is very different - she burns Xander’s photos and wants nothing to do with him. Her pain is not just about being betrayed by Xander, but about being humiliated in front of her peers. I wonder how the Cordettes and others at school even found out about what happened with her and Xander. If they know who Xander cheated with (it’s not clear if they do), we don’t see Oz subjected to any humiliating comments about his girlfriend cheating on him – but it may be simply because Oz doesn’t care what other people think anyway, so it wouldn’t be a source of pain for him, the way it certainly is for Cordy, who is on the other end of the spectrum when it comes to caring about her status. She is very sympathetic here; we feel her humiliation as the former “Cordettes”, now lead by Harmony, with typical high school cattiness, pretend to be her friends, only to mock her, telling her that Jonathan is the right guy for her and that maybe he won’t cheat on her, at least not immediately. We see this from Cordy’s POV, but spare a thought for the constantly bullied Jonathan, who is insulted even worse by being shown as an embodiment of an undesirable male that a woman would be insulted to settle for. Another moment that drives home how low Cordy’s status in school has sunk is her conversation with a jock that she’s just using to make Xander jealous, but who tells her that he can’t allow his status to sunk by being seen with a “Xander Harris castoff” but that he’ll be happy to date her in secret. Cordy is mortified, but this is the same way she treated Xander a year ago. Cordy’s and Xander’s games, as they are both trying to make the other think they’re over them, almost make me root for the couple again (or I would, if I didn’t already know that it goes nowhere).
Even though Cordy isn’t hanging out with the Scoobies anymore, Buffy makes it clear to Xander that she’s not OK with “us vs Cordy” attitude, and tries to comfort her, explaining that friendships have helped her deal with her own relationship pain. But Cordy is focusing on the wrong things – even though Buffy the only person to offer her genuine friendship and understanding, and even though she saves her from a vampire once again, Cordy instead blames her for incidentally pushing her into a dumpster while saving her life, which resulted in her being mocked by the Cordettes again. For all her character growth, she still doesn’t realize that being mocked by her former friends pales in comparison with dying. With that amazing human ability to blame completely wrong people for their troubles, she blames Buffy for all that’s gone wrong with her life, even explaining her attraction for Xander as a result of Buffy having made him “marginally cooler by hanging out with him”. That’s interesting – Cordy always calls Buffy a freak, but this is an admission that she actually finds her cool. I think that a lot of Cordy’s resentment of Buffy is because she secretly admires her. Meanwhile she’s turning to the other person who seems to be trying to be a friend but who’s actually just pretending because she has an agenda – Anya.
Recurring characters introduced:
Anya is first introduced in this episode, as a new student who hangs out with the Cordettes (Anya describes it s Harmony following her around) who befriends Cordy, but who is really vengeance demon Anyanka, described by Wishverse Giles as the “patron saint of scorned women”. But judging by her comments about the Wishverse (“I had no idea her wish would be so exciting”) she cares more about doing some carnage than about the women whose wishes she grants. It’s funny to see Anya bond with Cordy by bashing Xander, since they’re Xander’s former and future girlfriend, respectively. Anya was meant to be a one-time MOW, and her portrayal of someone who has no clue how humans behave clashes with her characterization in this episode. She’s doing perfectly well pretending to be human and even exchanging fashion tips with Cordy.
The introduction of vengeance demons is a big addition to the mythology
: their powers are far greater than those of most monsters we’ve seen so far – including being able to change the fabric of time and erase certain people or events from existence. On the other hand, their powers are limited by what other people wish, and they can lose them really easily – Giles smashing Anya’s amulet was enough to not just reverse the effect of Cordy’s wish, but to strip Anyanka of her powers. (You’d think she’d be more careful not to let Cordy keep on wearing it!)
From the moment Anya, to Cordy’s shock, goes into demon face and grants her wish that Buffy had never come to Sunnydale, the rest of the episode almost all takes place in the new alternate reality, which has apparently replaced the old one. Cordy is at first overjoyed to learn that she’s still super-popular – Harmony and the Cordettes are sucking up to her, the same jock feels honored she’s even going to think about his invitation to go with him to a school event – but there are warning signs: Harmony and the others are dressed very conservatively, the event the jock invites her to is called the Winter Brunch, the classroom is half-empty, the teacher and students can’t wait to run away home before sunset, and the school holds something called the Monthly Memorial. Since the moment Harmony tells Cordy that Xander and Willow are dead, the episode feels more and more sinister. The town streets are empty, there is a curfew, everything is closed – it’s like a ghost town.
In this universe, Buffy wasn’t there to stop the Master from rising (in Welcome to the Hellmouth/The Harvest
) and he is practically the ruler of the twon. He lives in the place we know well, the factory, while the Bronze is a favorite vampire hangout, where they keep humans in cages when they aren’t draining them. Willow and Xander have become his closest and most vicious disciples, a particularly twisted and cruel vampire couple. Alyson Hannigan and Nicholas Brandon are amazing as the evil versions of their characters. The best part is that they are still recognizable as Willow and Xander. Vamp Xander is a leather-clad macho guy – Xander probably wishes at times he could be that kind of confident, sexy tough guy, minus the evil part – but he reminds me somewhat of what Xander is like when he stops joking and when he’s really angry or determined. But we’ve already seen evil Xander, and vamp Xander is a lot like the hyena-possessed Xander from The Pack
, so it’s vamp Willow who is the real revelation: she has the same cutesy mannerisms, but she’s incredibly creepy and sadistic. With her red-black corset and her legendary catchphrase “Bored now”, she’s the star of the episode so much that Joss later wrote Doppelgangland
just to bring her back.
Giles never became a Slayer’s Watcher, but he became the leader of a group of good guys fighting the vampires, known as “the White Hats” (a callback to Giles’ speech from Lie to Me
) – him, Oz, Larry and a girl called Nancy, who gets killed later on. Angel went to Sunnydale and waited for Buffy, but when she didn’t come, he tried to stop the Master and was captured, held as a slave, or a pet – Willow calls him a “puppy” - and tortured for fun by Master’s lackeys. Master probably wanted to punish for betraying his species, and he could kill two birds with one stone by giving him as a toy to his disciples. It’s interesting that the Master, the embodiment of vampire traditionalism in season 1, has decided that the future lies in the use of contemporary human technology and in mass production, “a truly demonic concept”: the big event is the opening of the new plant that drains humans, allowing for a much quicker production of blood. I imagine that must be unsatisfying for the vampires who enjoy the hunt, or derive great pleasure from draining their victims. But the Master mentions that he lost the thrill of the kill long time ago – and here he represents the type of evil that’s all about the wide-scale power and the contemporary industrialized society where people are treated as meat (something we saw in Anne
, where humans were used as expendable work force, and similarly dehumanized). He is another demonic patriarchal father figure who holds political power over the community, just like the Big Bad of season 3; the Mayor is just a lot more polished, charming and human-looking, and therefore more insidious. However, the plant doesn’t seem necessary if the vampires don’t find a much larger number of victims, so I always took it as a sign that Master was planning to expand his influence outside of Sunnydale.
Cordy dies halfway through the episode, and the focus shifts to Giles and Buffy. Giles remembers what she Cordy about the existence of another world and about Buffy making the difference, and decides to call Buffy’s Watcher in Cleveland to ask for Buffy to come to Sunnydale. This proves not to be the solution; it’s more important that Giles realized how important the amulet was and took it with him. Wishverse Buffy is a cold, hard, cynical person, a lone hero without friends and human connections (“I don’t play well with others”). She has a scar on her face, and she is psychologically scarred. She’s openly contemptuos of Giles and Angel, mocks Angel’s offer of help and is very unimpressed with his idolization of her, asking him if he’s trying to get into her pants. This Buffy is in some ways similar to Faith, but there are differences, too: Faith enjoys her powers and loves to have fun; Wishverse Buffy doesn’t seem to feel joy in anything, she isn’t trying to appear cool or be liked by anyone, she is only interested in slaying and dresses in a perfunctory way (the way it would’ve made sense for Kendra to dress, based on her personality), but isn’t a rule-follower or a believer in her duty and isn’t even close to her Watcher. Her personality is summed up in this exchange:
Buffy: World is what it is. We fight, we die. Wishing doesn't change that.
Giles: I have to believe in a better world.
Buffy: Go ahead. I have to live in this one.
There are some people who criticize Buffy’s character for her supposed “weaknesses” seen in her investment in/dependence on her love interests or her friends; but The Wish
makes it clear that lonely, self-sufficient Buffy is ultimately a weaker and less successful Slayer: she ends up losing to the Master quite easily. The ‘girly’ normal world Buffy was at first transfixed by fear and thrall, but she had a friend to save her, and she came back stronger and defeated him straight away.
The Wishverse has its own history, and Cordy was a part of it; if it was a Cordy who, like everyone else, had no idea about the other world, how did she turn into the Cordy who came straight from the normal universe, wearing the same dress, and remembered everything? Or does everyone in the new world just have fake memories, except for her?
What is the Mayor’s role in this Sunnydale? It seems the Master is just in control of Sunnydale and the world wasn’t overrun with vampires; does that mean that what Buffy stopped in The Harvest
wasn’t an actual apocalypse? Why is everyone in town still living there? Can’t they run away during the day? How much does the outside world know about what’s going on in Sunnydale, and if they don’t know, how come they haven’t found out? Why doesn’t the US government react? Why didn’t Giles call other Watchers or Buffy before, why did he need Cordy to tell him that Buffy would change things? Or are things as bad in the rest of the world?
Darla and Jesse are probably dead, but how did it happen? Did Jesse sire Xander, or was Jesse just food and never sired, since they didn’t need to use him as bait? Did Willow sire Xander or the other way round? This brilliant fic
about Willow siring Xander gives a very plausible scenario how it might have happened. I think that the more likely scenario is that Willow and Xander were sired much later, not at the time corresponding to the pilot: Xander refers to Cordy as an old crush, which means that he developed feelings for her at some point (there was no Buffy for him to fall in love with), but they presumably never hooked up, since she never started hanging out with the “losers” because of Buffy.
Is Oz still a werewolf in Wishverse? That had nothing to with Buffy; on the other hand, maybe he didn’t hang out with his extended family much in this reality, so didn’t get bitten by his cousin.
Did Spike and Dru come to Sunnydale? I can’t imagine Spike ever being willing to accept Master’s authority, so probably not.
What happened to Joyce? If Buffy had had a healthy relationship with her mother, I don’t think she would have turned out the way she did. There are many different speculations in fandom – that Joyce was killed by a vampire, that she was murdered by the Council who blamed it on the monsters, or that Buffy was in mental hospital and ran away from it and never came back home. This great fic
, mostly focused on a particularly twisted Wishverse Spuffy dynamic, has a scenario about Joyce’s death that would explain why Buffy is so damaged.
Cordy dies first, killed by Willow and Xander (there’s a metaphorical parallel with the way they were ‘bad guys’ and hurt Cordy in the normal reality). During the fight at the factory, Angel is staked by Xander, and dies calling out Buffy’s name; of course, she doesn’t bat an eyelid over the death a temporary vampire ally she’s just met. Xander is staked by Buffy. Willow gets impaled on a plank by Oz. Finally, Buffy and the Master push everyone else out of the way to have their big showdown; Master kills Buffy easily, breaking her neck, fulfilling the prophecy “The Master will rise and the Slayer will die”. Out of Buffy’s three deaths on the show, one was a suicide while the other two times she was killed by the Master. All deaths are reversed when Giles smashes Anyanka’s amulet.
The fight at the factory, with the slow-motion deaths of most of the main cast s
et to one of the best musical scores in the show (“Slayer’s Elegy” by Christophe Beck) is such a great, moving scene that it feels profoundly sad– it’s not just that they all die, it’s that they never had those relationships and those people never meant anything to Buffy, before she ends her short, sad life. Somehow that gets me despite the fact that all the events are quickly reversed.
Someone has put this scene on YT, though a few very important seconds are missing – Giles’s reply to Anyanka: “You trusting fool, what makes you think that the other world is better than this one?” “Because it has to be”.
Xander: And they burst in rescuing us, without even knocking? I mean this is really all their fault.
Buffy: Your logic does not resemble our Earth logic.
(This is a line I like to quote in appropriate situations.)
In the normal worldWillow is following in Buffy’s footsteps by wearing Overalls of Pain, while Cordy is overcompensating, wearing even more glamorous clothes than usually – red leather jacket and skirt to school, bright red dress to the Bronze, and a bright blue dress next day to school, which she ends up in the Wishverse with. Harmony describes it a “come-and-bite me outfit”; humans dress in drab clothes, because they believe that vampires are attracted to bright colors. This seems as naïve as the idea that you won’t get raped if you don’t dress “provocatively”. Giles is not wearing tweed, but sweaters. Vampires wear the usual vamp fashion –Xander wears a black leather jacket, and Willow is rocking a black and red corset, dark red lipstick and heavy makeup.
Lots of kink in Wishverse, and not in a good way. The squick factor is really high (though the sexual connotations of the killing and torture are only subtextual but still obvious). The way Willow and Xander both drain Cordy at the same time makes them look like a serial killer couple raping and killing their victims together. And they’re making Giles watch it. Willow enjoys torturing her “puppy” Angel’s and licks his face while she’s doing it, and Xander loves to watch Willow torture Angel.
: We see Angel’s bare chest when Willow is torturing him, and later he shows Buffy his burn marks to prove that he hates the Master.
Pop culture references:
Lollopalooza: Xander calls his and Willow’s present condition “Guilt-a-palooza”. Cordy calls the Wishverse “Bizarro land”. Anya sarcastically calls it “the brave new world”, a phrase from The Tempest
that is better known as the title of Aldous Huxley’s anti-utopic novel.
The line“Bored now” is so much more loaded after you’ve seen season 6. Vamp Willow has more in common with human Willow than you’d have thought at first.
Ironic in hindsight
: it’s amusing that one of Cordy’s wishes that Anya can’t grant at the end of the episode is that “Xander never knows the touch of a woman again”.