This week, the guardians of television have deemed it appropriate for us to see, finally, the season finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The episode — the conclusion of a two-parter entitled ”Graduation Day” — was yanked by The WB in the wake of April’s Littleton shootings because, a press release from network CEO Jamie Kellner stated, ”the timing of the finale coincided with the over 35,000 combined junior high, high school, and college graduation ceremonies being conducted nationally.” The implication: Airing the show on its original May 25 date might have inspired copycat violence. The finale plot turns on the transformation of the town mayor into a gigantic lizard monster, with the student body uniting to defend itself against this creature. Yeah, there’s an incitement to real-life violence.
The WB’s pusillanimous decision aside, the finale, when combined with its first part (both written and directed by series creator Joss Whedon), is intensely satisfying. This week’s hour is, inevitably, action oriented; the whole season has built to this all-stops-out showdown between Sarah Michelle Gellar’s grim, heartbroken Buffy and Harry Groener’s often hilarious yet gruesomely sadistic mayor of Sunnydale. We fans also knew that this episode would have to provide a suitably romantic exit for Buffy’s brooding vampire boyfriend, Angel (David Boreanaz), since that character is being given his own series come fall.
”Graduation Day, Part 2” pays off on all counts and a few more. The mayor dispatches an army of demons to decimate the Sunnydale student body, with a strict admonition: ”And boys? Let’s watch the swearing.” This joke serves as Whedon’s quick wink and sneer at the pop-culture witch-hunters (and network CEOs) who are intent on keeping TV entertainment as toothless as possible.
But nearly everyone gets to bare his or her fangs here. Angel, near death after being speared by a poison-tipped arrow shot by renegade vampire slayer Faith (Eliza Dushku), will live only if he drains the blood of a slayer, and, in a scene that is at once squirmy and erotic, Buffy insists that that blood be her own. Whedon has a gift for gothic tragedy laced with hard-boiled dialogue. ”I’m talking about watching my lover die,” Buffy had said tersely to her waffling watcher, Wesley (Alexis Denisos), in the May 18 first part — a bold declaration that must have left many young female viewers cheering tearily. Similarly, in this concluding episode, Angel tells Buffy huskily: ”I’m not gonna say goodbye…. I’m just gonna go.”
The May 18 show was highlighted by the creepy relationship between the mayor and Faith — part father-daughter, part Humbert-Lolita. In this week’s show, we almost literally lose our Faith — she’s lying in a coma for most of the episode, but there’s a brilliant, tender dream sequence in which Buffy imagines them as allies once more. Again and again, Buffy the Vampire Slayer — whether it’s in the friendship between Buffy and Willow (Alyson Hannigan), the bond between Buffy and her mother (Kristine Sutherland), or the competition between Buffy and Faith — demonstrates relationships between women in rich, complex ways that television rarely takes the time to ponder.
I don’t want to give away too much of the rock-‘em-sock-‘em climax. The mayor undergoes his long-awaited ”ascension” — he consumes a box of vile-looking supernatural insects that transform him into an all-powerful monster (I was sad to see Groener, who’s been so exemplarily snide, go) — and the final battle is suitably gaudy, as over-the-top as the first part of ”Graduation Day” was graceful and emotional. The final moment is a little glib. ”We survived,” says werewolf boy Oz (Seth Green). Buffy agrees: ”It was a hell of a battle.” Oz demurs. ”Not the battle — high school.”
Viewed another way, however, ”Graduation Day, Part 2” is brilliantly open-ended. What will Buffy, Willow, Oz, and Xander (Nicholas Brendon) do post-high school? Who, if anyone, will become Buffy’s love interest? If Buffy will no longer take orders from Wesley and the Watchers Council, what is the role of her former, better watcher, Giles (Anthony Stewart Head)? Let’s face it, when it comes to Buffy, we’re protective: We are all watchers. Grade for the entire season: A