Overall Rating: 9.0
That skin-eating demon - very Gollum-like in manner and appearance and yet...oh so much eviler - was f***ing scary!!
The plot details can be found at the Wikipedia (here).
I love what they're doing with Willow's magical abilities now. Her magic is becoming innate - that is how I've always pictured it to be for truly powerful witches when I am thinking about a fantastic world setting. I also love what they're doing with Dawn - she's finally moving from protected preteen to capable scooby. The humor involved between her and her sister works well as she grows up, much to Buffy's chagrin. But all of that background is just fulfilling flavor that plays nicely against a well-executed two-sided story that plays on our instinctual fears almost as effectively as "Hush" (almost, but not quite. :) ). Who among us hasn't heard something in the air while alone and sped our pace walking to the safety of home or burrowed a bit more deeply under the blanket? Maybe you didn't picture exactly Gnarl at your door, but damn if that isn't a close representation of the worst case scenario. It's no mistake that Gnarl gets Willow in a vulnerable position and the imagery is very similar to what you might see from a sexual predator (right down to the ghastly sound of him slurping at her belly - although a rapist isn't doing that to drink blood, just to assert sexual control and satisfy some lewd fantasy). I'll echo Xander and say "ggyyyaaaaahhhhh!!" It's also no mistake that Buffy kills Gnarl by gouging out his eyes - they tell would-be rape victims to do this to fight off their attackers.
Major props to the art department for making a really gross, scary looking Gnarl...major props to the psych department (heh) for having such a strong grasp for what the scoobies have to deal with in accepting Willow back after what she'd done. And major props to Whedon and his writers for insisting that Willow truly EARN her way back while still allowing Buffy to be her strength and source of unconditional love. The moment at the end when Buffy offers up her own strength to help Willow grow back her lost skin is one of the sweetest moments in franchise history. And I *love* how the scenes are cut together to show both sides - especially when Willow and the Scoobies are taking to Spike at the same time, thus increasing the logic in his dialogue.
Effective humor, effective villain, perfect characterization...what more could a guy ask for? Other than Emma Caulfield prancing across the screen naked I suppose (kidding!).
Now that she has something more consequential to do, Michelle Trachtenberg is coming into her own as an actress and has some nice moments here. I think, however, that the big winner this week has to be Alyson Hannigan.
Although this one is mostly about the "yikes!" factor of Gnarl, the emotional theme is right on point. Whether we deserve forgiveness is not the point - we must accept ourselves first before we can be accepted back by those we have wronged.