There's something about evil striking you when you're alone that is naturally pretty terrifying. Dawn's vignette in Conversations with Dead People is the most overtly horrible, but both Willow and Andrew fall prey to a more insidious evil, the type that burrows into your head and tries to rattle you on a purely emotional level. Most of the characters here are targeted in ways that could potentially do the most damage to their separate sensibilities. Dawn is all blood and horror and carnage, becoming a real slasher movie victim as she's terrorized by the great beyond. Willow is lured in by niceties and the promise of emotional connection. Andrew has his vulnerability zeroed in on, a big bad using his weird infatuation with Warren as an instigator for brutal murder. This is a very special episode, confirmed by that gorgeous opening sequence with Angie Hart singing and the title and time-stamp appearing on-screen, and another season seven success.
Dawn's story is Poltergeist horror at its finest, opening with great comedy (I love the 'what channel are you watching?' bit) but with that creepy underlying tension beneath the surface. Doesn't anybody in the horror genre ever turn on a damn light?? The following scenes are genuinely intense, Jane Espenson throwing every 'haunted house' trope into the pot while continuing to rattle even the most strong-minded viewer. Joyce's final warning, vague as it may be and even vaguer as the season continues, works really well here -- already setting up a feeling of division within the ranks of the show's core cast.
Willow's scenes are wonderful in execution, but stumble a little under greater scrutiny. Azura Skye is perfectly chilling in that last scene, practically spitting antagonism and cruelty as she lays the groundwork for the evil about to come, and how much stronger 'it' is than anything else the Scoobies have faced before. Equally terrifying is that stunning CGI shot where she essentially collapses in on herself, her distorted smile giving way to her whole body being engulfed in a ball of nothing. Ugh. Unfortunately, however, things sort of fall apart on closer inspection, since it doesn't make a whole lot of sense for this 'thing' to not be Tara. It's that rare example of behind-the-scenes issues denting the power of a story, since a Cassie-shaped 'conduit' for Tara feels needlessly elaborate and pretty risky as a strategy. Eventually, it's an idea that you just need to run with, contrived as it may be.
Similarly, contrivance affects the very arrival of Andrew and Jonathan, another plot that comes off as unnecessarily elaborate a scheme. Did this big bad really need to hit Mexico and lure back two extraneous characters for a simple blood ritual? It's admittedly silly. Regardless, on-screen, this story is entertaining. The nerd banter didn't bug me as much as it did during their season six appearances, while Warren's dead-eyed presence, lingering around on the fringes of Andrew's sight-line, is terrifying. Jonathan's demise is affecting, too, in particular his ponderous claim that he misses high school. You can see where he's coming from, considering he at least had some sort of role back then, unpopular as he was. What is he now? A directionless, moronic pseudo-rapist with a psychopath for a best friend... I don't particularly care about Jonathan anymore, which sucks, but my old-time goodwill for him hasn't been entirely eclipsed by his season six behavior. Andrew, on the other hand, still infuriates on a moral level.
Buffy is the only character removed from the big bad antagonism plaguing the rest of the cast, and instead experiences a night of self-analysis and convoluted banter with an old Sunnydale High classmate... who is now a vampire. These scenes are particularly interesting, especially whenever discussion is brought back to Buffy's own perception of herself: "I feel like I'm better than them -- superior." It's an exchange that brings to the forefront the isolation of the slayer, and how nobody, try as they might, can ever truly understand what that means or how a slayer feels. Watching season seven again, it's so interesting how this theme keeps coming back -- Buffy trying to figure out who she is and if she really feels at home within a group, regardless of how strong her friends are. Referencing her own woes during season six and her own desire for self-punishment, it's an interesting series of scenes that feel radically different to the rest of the hour but are arguably stronger as a result.
Finally, Spike is killing again. I love the intriguing decision to keep his scenes at arm's length, the audience treated like a voyeur as we watch him becoming almost more human, what with the comfortable flirtation at the Bronze with an attractive blonde, followed by the romantic walk home. Only for it all to come crashing down when he suddenly tears her neck out.
Conversations with Dead People isn't flawless, and plotholes dent the impact of at least two storylines, but it's still one of the most arresting Buffy hours -- an episode that looks and feels different, and sets up what (at this point, at least) promises to be an extraordinary villain for the show's final run. A
Guest stars Danny Strong (Jonathan Levinson); Adam Busch (Warren Meers); Tom Lenk (Andrew Wells); Jonathan M. Woodward (Holden Webster); Azura Skye (Cassie Newton); Kristine Sutherland (Joyce Summers)
Writers Jane Espenson, Drew Goddard Director Nick Marck