This should’ve been a great episode. Hell, it needed to be great. Not only have two main characters done little more than plan for it all season, one of them caps it with one of the biggest dick moves a character can make. I actually don’t think it’s inconceivable that Xander would leave Anya at the altar, but such a turn required a lot of finesse to feel earned, and finesse is far removed from “Hell’s Bells” as it seems more concerned with emulating every sitcom wedding episode ever than with doing the necessary character work.
I’ll admit that my expectations for this episode may have been unfairly high. It wasn’t the bride and groom’s extended planning that had me hyped, it was the six years of subtle suggestions that Xander’s home life was unhappy, if not abusive. It was easy to miss, considering this was never the sort of show to confront something as dark as child abuse against one of its principles, but there were hints, typically played for comedy; Xander doesn’t want to go home, tee-hee; Xander’s sleeping in the yard, haha. If you missed those, there still the fact that the First Slayer manifested as Xander’s father when ripping his heart out. So, whatever the specifics, there’s clearly baggage there and that’s ample fodder for great storytelling.
Sadly, Xander’s family is presented largely as embarrassing rather than abusive. I shouldn’t criticize the episode for what it isn’t, but ending up like them, and becoming his father in particular, is his alleged motive for leaving the woman he loves and it takes a lot more than montage of an illusory future to sell us on this choice. Surely Xander could’ve at least have spent some time interacting with them over the course of this hour. Had the pattern abuse been established, the shot of him murdering Anya would’ve played as far more chilling.
Instead, we get wacky wedding hijinx, with demons! I can understand the temptation for Buffy to add “the wedding episode” to its genre-bending repertoire, but surely there were important things to focus on than culture clashes, lecherous uncles, and drunken parents. The jokes aren’t that bad in themselves, but they are beside the point and take up way too much screen time. The worst moment is probably when Buffy awkwardly tries to stall the assembled guests. We’ve seen this bit a hundred times before and, given what Xander’s just witnessed, we’d much rather be spending our time with him.
That’s probably the crux of the problem with this episode, it doesn’t seem to particularly care about the issues at stake. A long look and a single line from Xander towards the end try to tie his experience into all the craziness isn’t really sufficient. This is the story of our everyman deciding that he’s incapable of ever having a happy marriage because his own experience with family has been universally terrible. That’s painfully bleak and this episode needed to embrace it or just let the marriage go ahead.
I wonder whether making the old man really be Xander from the future would’ve made this episode better or worse? The conclusion certainly felt like a copout, but the alternative might have simply added more unearned weight.
Buffy and Spike are probably the best part of this episode, which is unfortunate when it’s someone else’s wedding. Willow and Tara also manage to outshine the bride and groom, nice to see the two of them and their glances.
Alternatively, this episode could’ve been “about” Anya’s past as a Vengeance Demon coming back to haunt her. Not quite as interesting as the potential Xander story, but still better than what we got.
The music as Anya walked down the aisle was a bit much. What the story failed to achieve through difficult character work, it tried (and failed) to do with cheap manipulation.