See...this is the kind of "rule number 1 in the Jossverse" execution we LIKE.
Wikipedia has the details of this soul-crushing (and yet morally positive) episode here.
Happiness is forbidden in the Jossverse! So sayeth the pen bully! (hey, if he can call God the "sky bully", I can call him, the God of his own fiction, a pen bully) That is rule #1 and everyone knows it. Which means Tara is DOOMED. (which, as we know from watching the entire canon, is one episode away from coming true). Congrats to Joss, however, for blowing up Xander/Anya for good (until the series' final two episodes) in an incredibly unsettling and yet morally positive way. Let me explain what I mean:
- There is a very clear imperative against vengeance here. Anya spends the whole episode looking for a way to destroy Xander because, she claims, he deserves to be punished for what he did in "Hell's Bells." Only one problem with that. Exacting vengeance won't heal that wound - the one she finally admits to when sufficiently drunk - the one where some part of her feels like the broken wedding was her fault and just wants to be with the one she loves. Inflicting pain isn't a way to make your own stop - it's not about who deserves mercy, it's personal (your own life and your own soul are at risk). Her coitus with Spike (and his horrified reaction) make her realize that vengeance isn't going to solve her problems and she turns down her chance.
- The lack of a soul comes through again for Spike. He wants to tell Buffy's friends about their sexual dalliances because he wants her to accept him as her equal - notice that no part of that desire involves anything good for Buffy. Whatever he thinks he feels for her, it isn't true love if he can only imagine how his decisions affect HIM. Naturally, this outlook leads him to not only have sex with Anya, but then drop the bomb about his having had sex with Buffy at the worst possible time, as if to make a point (and twist the knife a little for Xander and for Buffy).
- Meanwhile, Dawn goes on a tour of the places she robbed and, in her own way, makes retribution for her bad acts, confessing her crimes to Buffy along the way. Later, Dawn expresses a desire to be with Buffy when she patrols because what she really wants is to be a part of Buffy's life...not just for Buffy to be a part of hers, and correctly realizes that Buffy's life will always revolve around slaying.
- And thank goodness we had a positive example of how to forgive someone who's wronged you in Tara and Willow. They put in a little bit of awkward time testing to see if the chemistry is still there and then Tara decides to forgo her excessive caution and leap with both feet and her whole heart. Forgiving someone isn't just about making life better for them...letting go of the hurt and learning to love them again is good for YOU too. Tara figures this out just in time to spend her last days happy (not that she knows this). I'm so glad Drew Greenberg included this positive experience in the episode so that the message about the evils of vengeance and anger could be more easily revealed.
Whedon's writers seem to have a very good understanding of relationships - why they succeed and why they fail. They exploit that on a weekly basis, including in this episode. The characterization is spot on, the acting follows (a lot easier to give a good performance when the lines make sense) and the message resonates with this reviewer.
My one complaint with this script is the unnecessary goofiness between Tara and Willow...I get that they were in an awkward situation, both desperately wanting to be with the other and both unsure of whether this desire was a good thing, but it turned out a bit...schoolyard-ish. The rest is really impressive work.
Nicolas Brendan's performance dominates my thoughts after watching the show, but I don't want to overlook Emma Caulfield here...her performance AFTER she does the deed with Spike (while the two of them were still in the Magic Box) is terribly effective...that disgusted/awkward look, those wounded eyes...she really nailed that whole sequence. I'm sorry, however...Amber Benson is a big part of why the Tara/Willow stuff doesn't work that well in this episode (until the last scene)...I've never been wowed by her acting, and it does feel a bit off here, yet again.
See my comments above...this one is all about the message for me. The soap-opera stuff keeps the viewer engaged...but it's the pro-humane, almost (dare I say) Christian message that keeps me happy years after I first watched it.