I may have been too hasty in declaring “Nightmares” the high point of season one, as “Prophecy Girl” is much better than I remember. Yes, there’s nothing terribly inventive about this episode, but it’s a near-clinic in how to execute a finale. The stakes get raised, the storylines get paid off, and all the players are involved. What’s most impressive is how thoroughly organic all this feels to the rest of the season, like the heightened intensity is a natural product of what’s happened before. That is the key element of any finale.
Naturally, this episode revolves around the Buffy/Master showdown that’s been brewing since the premiere, but it’s more than just a fight with another exceptionally virile vampire. Giles’ translation of a prophecy reveals that Buffy is doomed to die in this fight. Buffy’s no longer just risking her life to save the world, now she’s facing certain death. Or not. Upon learning her fate, Buffy does what any sane sixteen year old would do, she quits. The exchange between her and Giles is moving and carried as much by how much we’ve grown to care for these characters as it is by Gellar and Head’s performance, which is thoroughly A-game. Restraint is the better part of drama here as two characters struggling not to cry is far more affecting than any sobs could be.
Buffy’s pulled back into the fight after some students are slaughtered in the school’s AV room. There’s been plenty of death at Sunnydale High this season, but the gore’s been rather light; a corpse falls out of a locker, visible for but a second, and there’s a screaming reaction shot. Here we get a long look at multiple drained bodies and a grim shot of cartoons on a blood-smeared television. It’s enough to freak Willow, the seasoned-Scooby, out. There are some more not-quite-restrained tears as she explains this to Buffy (Allyson Hannigan proving her own acting chops). The “you have to save the world” argument is personalized and the Slayer’s back in the game. It’s a nice microcosm of the season’s to slay or not to slay debate.
The episode remains strong with Buffy having a frightening encounter with the Master, dying, and then being revived by Xander’s CPR. At this point, the story’s effectively over as we have no doubt that she’s come back stronger, faster, and ready to dust her foes. As a result, the final fight is rather anti-climactic. Still, the Master is dust, the Hellmouth is closed, and everyone gets to go to the dance. All-in-all, it’s a fine conclusion to the first season.
The other post-revival misstep was the ass-kicking to the main theme. The stunts still aren’t ready to be an action movie and it just felt a little silly.
Other satisfying payoffs: Xander finally works up the guts to ask Buffy out, gets rejected, then regains some self-respect in saving her life; Willow’s still in love with Xander but is unwilling to be his second choice, good for her; Giles steps up to protect Buffy, effectively admitting that their relationship goes beyond that of Watcher/Slayer; Angel gets over the reluctance he’s had all season and commits to open battle against the Master.
Requisite True Blood Comparison: Restraint earlier in the season is what made this finale work. The cast was always capable of these performances, but we needed to care about the characters first. The art department was always capable of that gore, but we would’ve been desensitized if we’d seen it earlier. The writers could’ve played the “certain death” card at any time, but playing twice would’ve gutted it. The lesson here is that holding back in the initial episodes is what allows for payoffs later on. I honestly think the travesty that was True Blood is what made me appreciate how well plotted this episode is.
Restraint also carried the day within this episode itself; the relationships all took significant steps forward, but there were no game-changers; things were significantly gorier, but not that far removed from what we’d seen before; the drama was certainly heightened, but still within the bounds of the show. A different as it was, this still felt like an episode of Buffy.