Season #3, Episode #20: The Prom
"I'm gonna give you all a nice, fun, normal evening if I have to kill every person on the face of the Earth to do it!"
Let me begin by saying this. The Prom is not a very good episode. Most of it is actually tedious. Not in the way that it's poorly written, but in the way that it's a necessary plot episode to drive the final nail in the coffin of the Buffy/Angel romance.
It's been clear that Buffy and Angel won't stay together since season 2. Their relationship doesn't evolve in season 3. It stagnates. Like so many young romances, it overstays its welcome and then some, circling back to the beginning over and over despite Buffy's insistence that they're doing just fine.
Maybe it's because Angel is about 238042348 years old, but he never gave off the impression that he was confident in the longevity of their relationship. In fact, when Spike, the Mayor, Giles, Joyce, Xander, Cordelia, and the First aren't busy explaining to Buffy and Angel why their love is doomed, Angel is more than happy to take up the torch. Buffy doesn't listen, and they pretend it never happened. This was portrayed beautifully in Amends, aka the episode that makes me cry like a total sap. But episode after episode of this--true to life or not--doesn't make for good television.
With that said, The Prom is still one of my favorite Buffy episodes. It fills you with the sort of dopey goodwill that all the cynicism you've cultivated over the years just can't deny. It doesn't have anything new or deep to say, and it doesn't exhibit any of the--dare I say it--craft found in better Buffy episodes. But it has a lot of heart, and one very strategically placed Rolling Stones cover.
On with it, then!
If you need any indication that the Buffy/Angel romance has run its course, I accidentally wrote the following sentence in my notes to describe the opening scene: "Edward watches Buffy while she sleeps."
The two of them had retired to Angel's home, which I couldn't identify; is this the bedroom of his creepy graveyard lair? Or did he rent a nice studio and I just forgot about it? Buffy, tired from patrolling, passed out the night before and wakes up up with terrible bedhead. She wants to primp, but Angel reminds her that he doesn't have any mirrors. What's more, she suggests that they go to prom together, and it's like he doesn't even CARE about prom!
Back at Angel's charming open concept apartment with hardwood floors, he discovers a notebook that Buffy left behind on which she drew "Buffy and Angel 4ever!"
Believe it or not, but I was in high school once too. And while I remember very little, I do remember writing song lyrics in the margins of my notes and practice tattoos on myself because I just had a lot of emotions. But it seems peculiar, though maybe not unheard of, for a high school senior to write "Buffy and Angel 4ever!!" on her notebook, let alone Buffy, who not one year ago stabbed Angel and pushed him through a hell vortex.
Joyce makes a surprise visit to tell Angel what so many have told him before--Buffy and Angel are not 4ever. Angel is not averse to this intervention--ever stalwart and true, he knows what's best for Buffy and doesn't want to stand in her way. Plus, as he says, "I'm old enough to be her ancestor."
Back at the library, much to Giles's dismay, all the Scoobies can talk about are their prom get-ups. Willow probably says something about wearing a knit sweater with pom poms and some nice OshKosh B'Gosh overalls; Buffy bought a pink dress that is going to make Angel "lose it." Not the best phrasing.
In stark contrast with Buffy's obliviousness, we cut to Angel having a Dream of Great Metaphoric Significance that Buffy/Angel shippers across the world have probably screencapped within an inch of its life and hung the prints all over their walls. He and Buffy are in a chapel having a very traditional wedding, although it appears nobody showed up, but hey, nobody's wedding is perfect.
At least Buffy is wearing an awesome wedding dress! Which, when they exit the chapel, bursts into flame, along with Buffy. Again I say that nobody's wedding is perfect!
Buffy turns to Willow for post-breakup support. And I'll admit it. The scenes of Buffy grappling with the breakup get to me, the way Amends got to me. It's because Sarah Michelle Gellar is sooo good. She is so good at crying. Every time she cries, just forget it.
Xander goes tuxedo shopping and spots Cordelia still pining over the same beautiful dress from Earshot. Only before he can get any quips in about her shopping addiction, he discovers that she's actually a shopgirl. Her dad got busted for tax evasion and her family lost everything--their house, their ability to send Cordelia to college, and money for a prom dress. Xander pauses to process this dramatic turn of events, and gets mauled by a hellhound. Wait, what? I think I looked away for a second and missed something.
With some help from Cordelia's knowledge of fashion and the security camera footage of the store, the Scoobies realize that the hellhound went after somebody in formal wear. The culprit, caught on film, is Tucker, a Sunnydale High student we have never heard of and of whom we will never hear again. They put two and two together and figure out that he is training these hellhounds to attack kids at the prom. While some less creative types may just choose to cancel the prom, Buffy rejects this failure of imagination. She's going to give Sunnydale High a prom--a really good one! Even if it means she has to kill everyone in the world!!
I'm no psychologist, but one MIGHT say that Buffy is deflecting. She wanted the prom to be her one perfect high school moment--all of her birthdays have sucked, Homecoming was a wash, and her graduation day will be spent fighting the Mayor during his ascension. But if she can't be with Angel at the prom, she'll focus her energies into making sure the rest of her class can enjoy the prom for her. Buffy expresses this to Giles, bravely making her way through dialogue such as: "Should I tell them they can't spend tonight with their honeys, of all nights?"
She tracks down Tucker's hellhound warehouse where she discovers he locked them all in cages and forced them to watch high school movies about prom to train them to attack teenagers in formal wear. And why would a seemingly normal teenager resort to such drastic measures? When Buffy asks him, we get a hilarious (but dark) five-second flashback to Tucker asking a girl to the prom and getting rejected.
Buffy dispenses of the hellhounds easily. The monster factor in The Prom is a bit of a red herring--in fact, the only part of the episode that anybody cares about or remembers doesn't begin until Buffy turns up at the prom in her pink dress that will make Angel lose it.
She asks Willow and Oz how the prom has been so far, to which Oz responds, "Strangely affecting. I got all teared up when they played We Are Family." "Strangely affecting" may be the perfect way to describe this episode.
"We're not good friends. Most of us never found the time to get to know you. But that doesn't mean we haven't noticed you. We don't talk about it much but it's no secret that Sunnydale High isn't like other high schools. A lot of weird stuff happens here. (Zombies! Hyena people! Snyder!) But whenever there was a problem or something creepy happened you seemed to show up and stop it. Most of the people here have been saved by you or helped by you at one time or another. We're proud to say that the class of '99 has the lowest mortality rate of any class in Sunnydale History! And we know at least part of that is because of you. So the senior class offers its thanks and gives you this...It's from all of us. And it has written here: 'Buffy Summers--Class Protector.'"
Jonathan then presents her with pink sparkly umbrella that will totes make Angel lose it.
It's such a high school movie moment--the kind that would make the hellhounds flip--but there's a reason why those moments are so strangely affecting. It's the same reason the Buffy/Angel romance is so strangely affecting. It's wish fulfillment. It's the idea of a transcendent moment in time, and a sense of closure. These moments rarely if ever occur in real life. Buffy certainly never thought she'd get her perfect high school moment. She's not voted the Prom Queen, and she doesn't get a makeover and win over the heart of the quarterback. For a Slayer, this is the perfect high school moment.
And if that wasn't enough, she gets that sense of closure, too. Angel turns up at the prom, tux and all, for one final slow dance. Part of me wishes this were his last scene on the show. They say enough to one another to show that they understand he has to leave, without belaboring the point. And then they dance in silence to The Sundays' cover of "Wild Horses." And then the credits roll. And I'm not crying, you're crying!!
Cordelia leaves the shop for the night and finds out that her dress has been bought and paid for by Xander. This may be the first instance that I've ever felt compelled to write, "Awwww, nicely done Xander!"