Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Episode: “The Prom” (May 11, 1999)
Synopsis by Jason Henderson
It’s the Big Night, Prom, when hearts are broken, disco balls sparkle, and Hellhounds bark at the doors of the High School Gym. Can Buffy, reeling in the wake of a break-up with Angel, keep it a night to remember in al the right ways for everyone else?
Buffy: Sarah Michelle Gellar
Willow: Alyson Hannigan
Xander: Nicholas Brendan
Oz: Seth Green
Angel: David Boreanaz
Joyce: Kristine Sutherland
Giles: Anthony Stewart Head
Cordelia: Charisma Carpenter
We open in the Buffy rendition of “Wake up Little Suzy,” with Buffy awakening in the morning after a chaste night in Angel’s arms. (They take post-patrol naps; this one got carried away.) Anyone who’s wondering what the big deal is will try to remember our stalwart heroine is still in high school, Angel is a vampire, and if the pair ever have sex he’ll become a demon.
Speaking of demons, demon senior Anya is slowly transitioning into life as a high school senior (she got trapped here at the end of THE WISH). Anya, man-hating harpy that she is, needs a date for the prom, and somehow Xander is man enough to say yes. (Especially since Xander figures it’s Anya or a sock puppet.)
Buffy’s Mom pays a visit to Angel to gently explain that whatever Buffy appears to be, she’s still a twelfth-grader, whereas Angel is hundreds of years old, and maybe it would be best if he laid off the little girls. (“Do the right thing, even if she isn’t able to.”)
The Slayer Gang’s minds are filled with all things prom while a caged, vicious Hellhound snarls in some secret place. Meanwhile, Angel dreams that he marries Buffy, and she burns up in the sunlight.
Angel picks a fight with Buffy in the very next scene, suggesting she’s “too into this stuff” (meaning the prom) and breaking up with her then and there. “You deserve more... something outside demons and darkness.” Angel announces he’s leaving after the Ascension “if we survive.”
Thankfully, Willow, supportive though she is, agrees that breaking up with Angel is ultimately the right thing. But Buffy wails that right now she’s “trying to keep from dying.”
Xander makes a thrilling discovery- - ex-girlfriend and rich ho Cordelia has fallen on hard times; her family lost its money in a tax dispute and now Cordy has to work at a formal wear store to buy a dress on layaway. This revelation is interrupted by the attack of a Hellhound, which busts into the store and eats a guy in a tuxedo.
Xander gets to flex his chivalry in the very next scene when he keeps Cordy’s reduced means a secret while the Gang discovers the identity of the Hellhound keeper after turning up his image on a videotape of the attack. The keeper, a random geek named Tucker, has posted threats on the Internet promising that the students' big night will be their last. The Gang worry that the Hellhound is going to Osterize the prom, Buffy vows that a good time will be had by all; she’ll keep the hounds away.
Buffy finds Tucker’s address when she goes to the place where he buys cow brains to feed his Hellhounds. She has a brief run-in with Angel and is on her way.
Cordy leaves work for the prom, disappointed that she didn’t finish paying for the dress she wanted. But there’s a surprise: someone paid the dress off for her.
Xander’s already having a tough enough time listening to date Anya prattle on about men she’s killed through the ages when Cordelia walks in, a long-legged, slim-hipped and low-cut vision of High Cordiness.
Just, just wait a second. Ah.
Anyway, Wesley’s heart rate soars at the sight of Cordelia and he takes Cordy’s arm; they run into Xander and her demon date, allowing Cordy to thank her ex for his silent help.
Meanwhile, Buffy gets to the geek’s house too late to stop his release of three Hellhounds. They’re already clawing their way towards the Prom. She dispatches all three fairly quickly, changes into her dress, and heads for Prom after a hard day’s work.
After Xander loses class clown, Buffy receives an award in appreciation from the Class of ’99: Class Protector. The award is a gaudy umbrella, but the letter from the class is genuine and appreciative. Buffy has quietly and unassumingly come from obscurity to save nearly every student in a school besieged by the forces of Hell. She has not made a lot of friends, but she has not gone unnoticed. (The Class of ’99 boasts the lowest mortality rate in Sunnydale History.)
Basking in a wonderful evening, Giles dismissively gives Wesley permission to ask Cordelia to dance. “For God’s sake, man, she’s eighteen. And you have the emotional maturity of a blueberry scone. Just have at it, would you, and stop fluttering about.” Even Xander and Anya seem to have a nice time.
It’s almost anti-climactic when Angel shows up for a dance. For us, not for Buffy. As the Sundays play “Wild Horses,” we fade out.
This is an excellent episode for several reasons, not the least of which is how deftly it deals with the very premise of Buffy. What started out as a show about a girl who has to forsake her popularity for a secret war against the forces of darkness has gradually morphed into a show about a girl finding herself and her place among her peers. It’s clear by now that the people of Sunnydale, for whatever reason they remain, are aware of the Hellmouth, and the children have come to recognize Buffy as their champion. In high school terms, Buffy ends her year as a person with a special place. This isn’t the life or identity she intended- - and whatever is?- - but it’s a good life, and a good identity.
This is also the episode where Angel breaks up with Buffy yet again, and probably for the last time before he heads off to spin-offs unknown. His breakup fits within a long tradition of Hollywood movie breakups that happen right before the big dance. (Down in those tunnels where the dead may arise I swore I heard Molly Ringwald yelling “Whaaaat aboouttt Praaawwww-aaahhhmm?”) But let’s face it, Angel’s breakup speech is absolutely right. He is old enough to be her ancestor, they'll never have a future together, and the very nature of such romances, at least in fiction, is that they're doomed. Buffy should go find herself a nice psycho hunter, a young Frank Black to hang with.
But hey, if anything, this ep reminds us that Buffy’s still a high school student. (She scrawls “Angel + Buffy 4 Ever” on her notebook. I wonder if she also writes, over and over, Buffy Angelus. Buffy Summers-Angelus. Buffy Angelus Summers.) The poor thing takes her breakup like the Holocaust at the same time that she shows deftness and skill in her professional handling of the Hellhounds.
Also just wonderful is the brilliant teaming of Anya and Xander. Anya’s delightfully pathetic as the millennia-old demon struggling with her new identity as a twelfth-grader, and the way she asks Xander to the prom is adorable: men are evil, she says. I kill them. Um, do you want to go or not?
Tucker, the dweeb whose decided to ruin Prom for everyone, is revealed to have developed his desire for murderous revenge because a girl said “no” when he asked her to go with him. Sounds good to me. In real life we struggle with the idea that losers snap when they stub their toes; in fiction we take it in stride.
I did wonder, if Willow can break into Tucker’s email account, why did Buffy have to go to the meat place to get his address? Couldn’t Willow pull that out of school records? Of course, then she wouldn’t have run into Angel.
Xander, by the way, wins major points with Cordelia, who may well warm to him after he deftly hid the truth about her reduced means and paid off the balance on her dress. Cordy assumes Xander will be gleeful and mean; instead he’s understanding and gentle, probably because his means have always been pretty reduced. They’ll be back together, however briefly, before she’s gone.
The Prom becomes a set piece to showcase the characters. Anya’s a brilliant date for Xander, regaling him with gory man-killing tales but finally shutting up to slow dance; Wesley summoning the inappropriate gumption to ask Cordelia to dance; Willow and Oz twirling in the background without incident or care.
I also enjoyed Giles at the Prom, the only true adult around, genuinely pleased to see Buffy make her debut as Protector. He’s been sculpted into Buffy’s resident father, and his pride is well-portrayed. “I had no idea that children en masse could be gracious,” he says.
This leaves me sort of unimpressed when Angel arrives, because it’s sort of like the Navy boyfriend showing up to make sure he’s a part of his high school girlfriend’s memory of her big night. If Angel wanted out of her life, he would have stayed away. But we all know the truth about that.
Dialogue at the Zero Hour of a Break-up:
Angel: “It’s nothing.”
Buffy: “No, you have something face.”
Buffy, on Angel dropping her before the Big Night: “He’s 243 years old, he doesn’t exactly get the prom.”
Giles, suggesting he might be able to talk Buffy through her breakup:
“I understand this involves ice cream of some kind.”