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Buffy’s Graduation Scene Signals the Ascension of the Series

There are a lot of memorable parts of the Season 3 finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Graduation Day, Part 2”. From beginning to end, the episode represents some of the show’s best writing and character development. But Buffy’s graduation scene, featuring the climactic battle between the Scoobys and the Mayor and his minions as they try to prevent his ascension is one of the most iconic scenes of the whole series.

Setting the Stage

“Graduation Day, Part 1” ended with the showdown between Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Faith (Eliza Dushku) that had built up all season. Buffy winds up stabbing Faith, which leaves her incapacitated and confined to a hospital bed for the finale. (Though Faith does get to show up and guide Buffy around in her dreams, so she isn’t entirely absent.) The finale starts out with an update on Angel’s predicament—he is dying of some sort of sickness that can only be cured by drinking a slayer. There is also an indication that Angel (David Boreanaz) expected Buffy to deliver Faith to him as a sort of sacrifice. (I didn’t rewatch Part 1, and I don’t remember, but is that accurate?) Instead of Faith though, Buffy offers herself to him.

Which results in a scene just as offputting and problematic as that sounds. Buffy voluntarily offers up her neck to Angel so he can feed on her and as he does Joss Whedon’s direction takes on a decidedly erotic tone, as do Gellar and Boreanez’s acting choices. Especially in hindsight, it gets a little hard to watch. But the scene exists to get Buffy incapacitated and into the same hospital as Faith, and once that happens, Buffy is put at the mercy of the grieving Mayor of Sunnydale.

Harry Groener’s performance as Mayor Richard Wilkins III is one of the most deliciously memorable villains in television history. The aww-shucks demeanor and germophobia were always the perfect masks for the evil that lurks beneath. Now, he is in the hospital fretting over Faith, who, while she had been his tool and puppet, he obviously also cares for. This leads to some great confrontations with Buffy and the Scoobys but ultimately just serves as the prelude. The Mayor has planned his ascension into the demon Olvikan for the 100th Anniversary of Sunnydale’s founding and it is set to happen during Buffy’s graduation ceremony at Sunnydale High School.

Buffy and Willow look on from the stands in graduation robes, surrounded by other students
“Oh my God. He is going to do the entire speech!”

The Speech

The entire season, really the entire series up to this point, has been building to Buffy’s graduation scene. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was after all conceived as a story about a high-school girl who happened to fight evil supernatural forces. The end of that part of the story had to happen somehow, but the way it plays out is more of a culmination than viewers of the show may have expected. The graduation ceremony itself takes up over 11 minutes of running time and contains some of the most ambitious effects, staging, and choreography that the show had tried up until that point. Some of those parts have certainly had a more lasting impact than others.

The emotional center of the scene is the interplay between the Mayor and Buffy. As Wilkins gives his speech he starts to stare down Buffy, talking about the people who can’t be with them, and who should be with them. Hilariously, the Mayor drones in front of the assembled masses for several minutes before he gets to the “big finish” (even if he does have to skip his section on Civic Pride). Groener’s incredible performance kicks everything up another notch here at the end. The tension keeps building as this speech ramps up, with cutaways to the crowd and the growing sense of dread becoming ever more palpable, even as the speech itself continues to be exactly the type of trite nonsense that politicians always deliver at graduation.

Eventually, the sky darkens and Wilkins does take on the form of Olvikan—a giant snake creature. The transformation and snake effects are done entirely in computer animation and it is safe to say that they have not held up well to over 20 years of innovation. While in human form the Mayor was a marvel—a smart and vicious villain with recognizable human traits and weaknesses. This giant, computerized, snake monster has none of that. That fact casts a bit of a pall over the rest of the scene. Any show with the budget limitations that Buffy had to endure would have been better off to take the Jaws tack with the revelations and unfortunately, they decided instead to put their limitations on full display.

The Mayor transforms

The Direction

A lot of that has to do with Joss Whedon’s limited skills as a director. No matter what has happened to his legacy, it is true that Whedon became a pretty skilled director. But that is not the case for “Graduation Day: Part 2”—throughout the episode the camera positioning is clunky and awkward, and the less said about the lighting the better. (I’ll just say, I wish someone would have unplugged a few of the lights so there was some contrast in any of the frames.) But that all pales in comparison to the issues during Buffy’s graduation scene.

The staging of the fight scene following the Mayor’s transformation is just awkward. The assembled students fight the giant snake in front of them. But then they move, as a group, to some stairs in the middle of the school and are attacked from behind by the Mayor’s vampire minions. This leads to some hilarious interplay as extras seemingly throw themselves into the onrushing vampires for no reason. Then Angel and additional minions arrive as reinforcements but everything becomes a jumbled mess. It all seems as though the director had no real understanding of how any of it would look on screen, and that’s a shame as it seems clear it could have been an epic battle, even on the show’s limited budget.

That may make it seem like the scene is bad, but that’s simply not the case. Like the show itself, Buffy’s graduation scene succeeds despite its limitations. Even in the midst of the chaos, the show’s real strengths shine through. The writing, acting, and character work continue to shine no matter how weird the direction and blocking seems to become. During this scene, each of the main characters gets a moment to shine and it becomes impossible not to get swept away with them.

Angel, Wesley, and the rest of the backup arrive

The Real Transformation

Just as the Mayor transforms, Buffy calls out to the assembled class to attack and everyone in attendance is revealed to be armed to the teeth. The great part about this is that the entire Sunnydale Class of 1999 essentially has a character arc. They started the series as vapid teenagers, unable to understand the evil around them, and acting horribly toward Buffy and the rest of the Scoobies. But now, after three years of work, three years of being there side by side with the Slayer, they are finally able to move past all that and act to save themselves and fight alongside our heroes. The moment and the entire idea speak to the themes of identity and transformation that are at the heart of what makes the series so appealing and indelible.

With our main characters, while all of them would change significantly from here, this scene allowed them to be at their best in the service of each other. Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) got to dust a vamp, and it is framed in such a way that you can tell she is good at it, and that she enjoys it. Xander (Nicholas Brendan) leads the troops, even though this is just because he was “Army Guy” at Halloween and his actual skills are really suspect, but this may be the most heroism he displays in the entire series (OK, I admit, I’m not a Xander guy.)

The others all get their moments too, but this conflict is really between Buffy and the Mayor and it is in their interactions that it reaches its climax. Buffy orders the others away and gets the giant snake’s attention all to herself. Once she does, she pulls out the dagger that she used to stab Faith and taunts him with it. Somehow, the tech team behind this ridiculous CGI snake monstrosity is able to give it the perfect emotional response. The snake is the mayor at that moment, hurt, angry, and seeking revenge for the loss of Faith. Buffy leads him into the school, all the way to the library, which is strapped with explosives. “Well gosh,” Mayor Wilkins, Olivkar the demon, says as he explodes. With that Buffy’s graduation scene comes to its conclusion. And it is perfect. 

Buffy standing in the darkness holding Faith's knife

The Legacy

The destruction of Sunnydale High, and the library in particular, was unexpected. The library had been the symbolic home of the entire series—like the bar in Cheers or the study room in Community— this was where we found these characters at their most at ease with the world. Its destruction is the perfect capper to this scene and in turn the capper of the show up until this point.

With this 15 minute scene Buffy The Vampire Slayer really cemented its legacy as TV series. The season-long arc came to a head in the most satisfying possible way with the Mayor living up to his billing as both the most well-rounded and most dangerous villain the Scooby’s had yet faced. This scene contained all the tropes of televised high-school graduations while at the same time completely subverting them to the thematic and emotional needs of the characters. Also, Buffy and Giles (Anthony Stewart-Head) got to blow up the entire school to save the world. And what’s more “high-school” than that?

Written by Clay Dockery

Clay Dockery is an actor, author, and impresario extraordinaire. They are the co-editor of Why I Geek: An Anthology of Fandom Origin Stories and was the co-head organizer and creative director of MISTI-Con, Coal Hill Con, and The West Wing Weekend fandom conventions. They live in New York City with their girlfriend and their two chonky cats.

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  1. “There is also an indication that Angel (David Boreanaz) expected Buffy to deliver Faith to him as a sort of sacrifice. (I didn’t rewatch Part 1, and I don’t remember, but is that accurate?)”

    Yes, after learning that only a Slayer’s blood could cure Angel, Buffy went off to find Faith to bring her to heal Angel, they fight, Buffy stabs Faith, but Faith jumps off the building onto a passing wagon so that she cannot be used to cure Angel.

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