Buffy: Anya, tell them about the alternate universes.
Anya: Oh, okay. Um… say you really like shrimp a lot. Or we could say you don’t like shrimp at all. “Blah, I wish there weren’t any shrimp,” you’d say to yourself –
Buffy: Stop! You’re saying it wrong.
After our detour to the Angel-verse, we’re back in Sunnydale to pick up with the Scooby Gang. Chronologically, this episode takes place prior to the events on Angel ““ just keep that in mind, since it affects an important subplot.
So, “Superstar!”! Among the Buffy one-offs, “Superstar” ranks right up there in my personal best-of list. Dweebish, sad Jonathan was always oddly endearing in his brief high school cameos, so having an entire episode built around him was a nice surprise. Having an entire episode built around the central conceit that he’s the vampire slayer who killed the mayor, destroyed The Master, and saved the world (a lot) was a ballsy choice that paid off in a big way.
Back in “Earshot,” Jonathan tried to kill himself and wound up in a therapy group as a result. Someone else in the group had an augmentation spell that he shared with Jonathan, which he used, as you do, to make his life better. More significant. More central. It’s easy to see the appeal for someone like him ““ Jonathan was always a bit player in everyone else’s play. Even in “Earshot.” in which Buffy discovers him before his suicide attempt, that wasn’t the central focus of the episode ““ it was just something Buffy stumbled upon, while looking for something important. With his spell, everyone else is now a bit player in his life.
(Before we get into the whole “what happens” thing, let’s take a moment to discuss the implications of this spell. A relative magical novice like Jonathan is able to cast a spell which literally creates an entirely new universe. Willow has been studying magic for years and can’t consistently cast powerful spells. Tara is a hereditary witch with an impressive breadth of knowledge and doesn’t cast spells that create new universe. Anyanka could have ““ and did, in “The Wish” ““ but she was a thousand-year-old vengeance demon and that was sort of her shtick. But, no, according to the rules of this world, a complete magical newbie reorders the entire world on a whim. If it’s really that easy to do, how can anyone be sure that their “reality” is the “right” one? )
Jonathan’s spell puts him at the center of everything. He’s a best selling author. He’s a basketball player ““ which is funny on several levels, not the least of which is his height, which is played as a visual gag throughout the episode. He has his own sneaker. He has groupies. He plays retro throw back lounge music. He has a swimsuit calendar. The whole thing is one gigantic juvenile fantasy, everything thrown at the wall and everything sticking. It also fits a very specific idea of smooth, confident masculinity. James Bondian, if you will.
The interesting thing about that aspect of the episode is that Jonathan’s newly-enhanced masculinity comes at other people’s expense, most significantly Buffy. Within this world, he’s the head demon hunter and a number of Buffy’s accomplishments ““ the class protector award, The Mayor, The Master ““ are attributed to him, so Buffy’s Slayerness has to become less important (“Shouldn’t being The Slayer mean something?”) And the show chooses to show Buffy’s decreased powers by increasing stereotypical female traits ““ she’s still strong, but she’s not good at using her strength. She looks for approval from Jonathan, as well as direction and planning. She’s unsure of herself. While getting some romantic advice from Jonathan, she fixes his coffee for him. Spike makes a gross pass at her and she doesn’t know how to respond ““ it’s Jonathan who throws Spike up against a wall and warns him against bothering Buffy. Spike calls her a “Betty” and a “fluffy attack kitten.” She’s lesser, and in this world, lesser means “more girly.”
The plot is fairly simple ““ Jonathan casts the spell, his spell creates a monster that terrorizes the town, Buffy figures it out, monster is killed, things go back to normal. The heart of it is seeing Jonathan inserted into an increasing series of ridiculous situations. See Jonathan kill a nest of vampires! See Jonathan sign autographs! See Jonathan playing at The Bronze! See Jonathan consulting with The Initiative! See Jonathan bed Swedish twins! (Luckily, we don’t really “see” that part.)
After the events of “Who Are You,” Buffy and Riley are on thin ice. She can’t forgive him for not knowing it wasn’t her in her own body, and he doesn’t understand how to apologize so it matters. And Jonathan fixes this too, offering solid advice in private to both Buffy and Riley, and then dedicating his new song to them at the Bronze so they’re forced to dance with each other. And after the spell is ended, the last thing Jonathan talks to Buffy about is her relationship and how she might fix it. It’s a sweet gesture, and that’s why Buffy is able to go to LA and tell Angel she’s in a great romance with a fantastic guy ““ because Jonathan made it possible.
At the end of it, “Superstar” is largely a story about loneliness ““ that’s at the heart of Jonathan’s motivation ““ so it just kills me at the end of the episode he’s walking off by himself. Buffy’s encountered him so many times and never seemed to strike up even a cursory friendship with him. I know that he just, you know, manipulated the entire world to his own benefit and endangered everyone around him, but he’s just so.. Jonathan, so it’s hard to be mad at him. Come on, Buffy! You forgave Angel for a lot worse!
One of the really great things about the show is the way they’ve slipped in very vital plot points into what seems a throwaway episode. I’m not sure I even noticed this aspect the first time I saw it ““ I was just as distracted as anyone else by the novelty of Jonathan the Vampire Slayer. But let’s look at what we’re given:
- Tara and Willow are totally into each other. We’ve known this, of course, since FaithBuffy figured it out back in “Who Are You,” but there’s a number of lingering looks in this episode. The way Willow looks at Tara and grabs her hand before they split up for the evening is so obvious, it’s almost ridiculous that the Scooby Gang is surprised by their relationship.
- The Initiative is under investigation by the government because of Maggie’s secret project.
- Adam was explicitly designed to destroy things. He’s not a super soldier, he’s an engineered serial killer.
- Adam is powered by a uranium power source hidden in his chest. He can only be destroyed by destroying the source, and oh, won’t this be important in a couple of weeks.