When fans think of classic Buffy episodes, this one usually gets mentioned as a favorite - and for good reason.
Wikipedia has a summary.
This was a brilliant way to look at the "unreality" of the entire sixth season and to use Buffy's feeling of detachment in a frightening and, ultimately, progressive way. Not to mention a fun way to poke at the seeming inconsistencies in the overall plot arc created by Dawn's arrival and Buffy's death and resurrection. Ever since Buffy returned from the dead, she has been fighting a feeling of detachment brought on by her grief at losing that heavenly existence she once had. Here, it finally comes to a head after she is attached with a very convincing delusion of herself in a mental institution. She is, more or less, given a choice - believe that her life as she knows it has been a lie of her own making and that she's just a schizophrenic child trapped in her own mind or accept that her crazy, screwed up world as a Vampire Slayer is the real world, despite the brutality of that existence. In the former, her mother and father are there to care for her and the weight of the world is not on her shoulders - she's just a girl, vulnerable like the rest of us. In the latter, she's a superhero, but must deal with the consequences of her actions and the actions of her messed up friends and family. Which would YOU choose?
What I like about how they told this story:
- The creepy final scene. We are not allowed to completely relax and accept the positive outcome as we see the delusional Buffy in the mental ward checked out (gone into her supposed dream world) and her parents grieving. Which world is real? Obviously, they're going to continue to tell stories in the one we know, but we can always wonder, just a little bit.
- The confrontation with Dawn. First, Buffy confronts the bizarre insertion of her sister into the story in the delusion (being told to say she has no sister). Then, in the real world, Dawn - despite having heard this declaration - falls back on the truth (that she loves and needs Buffy in her life) when Buffy threatens to capture her and feed her to the demon. We're not totally there yet, but Buffy is beginning to realize that she can't go on doing things the way they've been done - she can't keep taking the easiest road possible with Dawn. And neither can Dawn go on pretending everything is fine when it so obviously is not, what with her grades slipping and her kleptomania and the general lack of closeness between the girls.
- Spike's role. In pushing Buffy over the edge into, momentarily, choosing the life of the insane and helpless girl, Spike demonstrates once and for all that he's not capable of real love in this state and that he's not truly reformed. It's still all about him and what's best for his needs. I get that Buffy used and discarded him and I get that the emotional yo-yo'ing she's exhibited in the past year must have been highly confusing, but he chooses the cruelest and most selfish way of expressing his anger, as usual.
- Buffy's Mom: playing the role of some little voice in her subconscious mind even in a delusional world, Joyce reminds Buffy one more time that she is stronger than this...deserves a better life than the one she would be choosing (or has chosen throughout sixth season). That's now two past confidantes of hers that have given her the same basic advice. A third one will be the charm (Giles...and in the season finale).
There are other little details...but the bottom line is that this episode is artistically brilliant on its own but perfectly timed for effect. Buffy, going through the motions of a life she doesn't want, is much more receptive to the frightening notion that she's living in her own grandiose delusion and the delusion is much more likely to play a role in real character development. Nice work by all...including a free-lance writer (Nice one, Mr. Diego Gutierrez!).
This script is without flaws and will be scored as such. Brilliant effort from someone with a great grasp on the characters despite not being on the regular writing staff.
SMG overplays the crazy stuff in the mental ward delusion IMHO...her emotional reactions should probably have been more physical and less reactive (i.e. she shouldn't have been curled in a corner and flailing about without actually moving...she should have been acting out how she feels in the Slayer world...on her feet and pacing in agitation and fear...less hammy facial reactions, more frantic pacing). But otherwise, the acting is top notch...especially Trachtenberg and SMG in the Slayer world and interacting with each other.
We'd all like to be taken care of. In some sense, it's very freeing to be the one who needs help...the one who relies on others...the vulnerable one...the victim. But there can be no doubt that Buffy made the right decision by choosing to take responsibility for her life in the end.