Previously on Buffy, then, the first two episodes of season 7 happened – there’s a brief recap of what’s going on with Willow and Giles in England, and a reminder of what happened in Beneath You. It’s a curiously short previously on, especially given how long the one for Beneath You was, especially since this episode also relies heavily on what’s gone before.
Anyway, we open at Sunnydale airport (or at least an airport, because I thought Sunnydale was supposed to be a really small town?) where Buffy, Dawn and Xander are waiting to welcome Willow off the plane. Xander’s made a Welcome Home Willow sign using yellow crayon, a reference to the way he convinced her not to destroy the world at the end of season 6, and Buffy and Dawn mock him because it’s not easy to read. They’re really mean, those two. And it turns out it doesn’t matter, anyway, because Willow never gets off the plane.
Then the scene at the airport replays – we know it’s the same scene, because there’s a family disembarking where the son drops a bag and the father complains about it – only this time, Buffy, Dawn and Xander aren’t there, but Willow is. No-one greets her off the plane – it’s been a long time since I watched Buffy, granted, but did something happen to her parents? Why aren’t they ever mentioned in this episode? How come they just allowed Giles to drag her off to England for months on end? Enquiring minds want to know.
After the credits, we see a kid spraying graffiti on a wall. Something flits past the camera, then an oddly camp, playfully creepy voice speaks to the kid out of the darkness. A glimpse of long talons is about all we get as the kid meets his death. There’s a moral here, kids: take your friends along when you’re spraying graffiti late at night in the bad part of town.
In Scooby Gang-related matters, Willow turns up at Buffy’s house, lets herself in, and has a good old poke around. She pauses to have a flashback to Tara’s death at the bedroom window, then curls up on the sofa to go to sleep. At which point I noticed her outfit is really strange: she’s wearing a leather jacket over a frilly shirt and some pinstriped trousers. Considering the connotations of black leather on Willow in the past (i.e. evil vampire Willow) that seems a bit… well, it seems like something you’re supposed to notice, anyway. That, or I pay way too much attention to meaningless details.
As with the airport scene, the same scene in Buffy’s house replays, with Buffy, Dawn and Xander coming home, discussing where Willow could be and whether she’s gone evil again or not. Buffy calls Giles, who apparently blames himself for not realising she wasn’t ready to come home yet – even though she told him she wasn’t? – and everyone sits around feeling a bit sorry for themselves.
The next day, Willow bumps into Anya, who can see her, and they have a little heart-to-heart sitting on the pavement outside the ruins of The Magic Box. It’s nice that they’re bonding. Anya fills Willow in on where everyone is (including that “Spike’s insane in the basement”, which seems generous considering the beatdown he delivered to her in the previous episode) and Willow sets off for the highschool to find everyone. To get in, she climbs over the wall to the building site, which is odd considering that Buffy always manages to just walk in uninvited and unchallenged. She conveniently discovers the corpse of the graffiti kid – now utterly devoid of skin – and runs off to find Spike. Cut yet another one of those scenes that play twice, only this time with the added comedy value of crazy Spike seeming to talk to himself when really he’s talking to Buffy or Willow, each completely unknown to one another. The conceit is starting to get a little bit tired now, because you can already tell that’s what’s going on, so you essentially have to sit through the same scene twice. And Spike’s insanity is starting to grate on my nerves now, too.
I’m starting to realise that part of what I didn’t like about this season the first time around is that everyone is so damaged. And that’s entirely to be expected, considering all they’ve gone through, but it’s also really depressing to watch. Buffy’s exhausted and cynical and still reeling from being almost raped; Xander’s heartbroken; Anya’s heartbroken and a demon; Willow’s recovering from killing people and almost destroying the world because she was heartbroken after the death of her lover; Giles is almost completely absent; and Spike’s got a chip in his head, a newly returned soul, and something evil messing with his brain. It’s not exactly a recipe for easy comedy, is it? It’d be wrong for the show to try to pretend everything that had happened had left no marks at all on anyone, but it makes this season particularly hard to watch.
Post-Spike, Willow goes to Anya for help. There’s a nice moment when, in telling Anya about the flayed corpse, they simultaneously ask and reply “Was it you? No!” and then Willow gets Anya to help her perform a spell. Anya asks “This isn’t going to get all sexy, is it?” and it’s then I realise that the spell Willow’s doing is one she did with Tara once, to reveal the locations of all the demons in Sunnydale. There’s another nice moment between the two of them as Anya confides that vengeance is starting to take a toll on her, and she’s not enjoying it any more, and then Willow over-empathises.
Willow sets off for the place she thinks it’s most likely the skin-ripping demon will be – a cave underneath a cliff that’s never before been seen on the show, although Sunnydale’s really small. Or something.
Meanwhile, Dawn has become the new season 2 Willow and has managed to figure out, using various demon databases, what the skin-ripping demon is likely to be, but Buffy ignores her because she thinks it’s actually Willow doing the flaying. Seems the demon has long fingernails that drip paralysing poison, which it also uses to peel the skin off its victims so that it can eat it. Ewwwwww. The three Scoobies use Spike to follow the trail of blood from the construction site, and end up, once again, at the same place at the same time as Willow. Unfortunately, the skin-ripping demon – known as Gnarl – attacks Dawn, causing Buffy and Xander to carry her out of the cave, blocking the entrance as they leave – sealing Willow in the cave with Gnarl.
Xander and Buffy get Dawn home only to discover that the paralysis is permanent until the demon is killed, meaning Buffy has to go back to the cave. Yay! The following scene requires some active suspension of disbelief, because it’s really clumsily executed – Buffy and Xander decide that leaving Dawn alone and paralysed could lead to her choking on her own vomit and dying, so they call Anya – with whom they were in a fight last episode? – to come over and babysit. Then Anya reveals that she knows what the demon is, and also that she’s seen Willow and knows Willow was heading off to the caves, so Buffy insists Anya goes along with them, ultimately leaving Dawn alone to choke on her own vomit after all. Basically, the whole “call Anya to come look after Dawn” idea was just to bring her over so that she could explain what’s going on to Buffy and Xander, and go along with them to the caves so that at least someone who can actually see Willow would be there, and it’s not very well concealed. Still, considering how few characters there are to work with at the moment, Anya had to get dragged in somehow, so I’ll let it go.
Gnarl peeling off Willow’s skin is really, really gross and scary. I’m not sure why they decided to give him that camp, sing-songy voice and prediliction for speaking in rhyme, but it does make him even creepier, so maybe it was a good call. As expected, Buffy dispatches him fairly easily – gouging his eyes out with her thumbs, much to Xander’s foreshadowy disgust – and Willow reappears. Turns out her insecurity about whether or not her friends would want her back resulted in a spell hiding them from her and her from them – good job she never cared much about Spike and Anya’s opinions!
The final scene, shamefully, made me tear up a little bit. Buffy goes to talk to Willow about everything that’s happened, and Willow explains about the power of Mother Earth and the connectedness of all things and all the rest of it. She also explains that she’s using magic to regrow her skin, but she’s running out of strength – yet it hurts too much not to at least try. Buffy offers her her strength, and they sit cross-legged and holding hands on the bed, and it’s really… touching. Yeah. Cough. Think there’s, er, something in my eye. Ahem.