Because the lives of high school students essentially have a soft reboot every fall, Buffy must do the same as we watch the characters get back into the swing of things, this time with the new complication of Buffy's absence. This lets us examine the "life without Buffy" scenario only hinted at in season two's premiere. Giles is particularly well-served by this subplot as we see him suddenly realize that Joyce holds him accountable for Buffy's actions, which drops unexpected guilt in his lap. Clearly Joss loves punishing Giles. Anyway, I can't help but feel Joyce is out of line here. She accuses Giles of backseat parenting Buffy behind her back, but he's hardly to blame for Joyce's stunning obliviousness. Meanwhile, with Buffy's dominating presence absent from Sunnydale High, two humorous relationship subplots are allowed to flourish: Xander and Cordelia miscalculate the need to play it cool, while Willow deals with Oz's unexpected continued presence at Sunnydale High.
"Gets easier. Takes practice."
Over in Los Angeles, Buffy is living a dreary life and charting territory well outside the established world of the show. This gives Joss room to stretch his legs in both the script and the direction, which work together to show the bleak state in which Buffy finds herself. In one particularly great scene, Buffy just sits in her apartment, doing nothing. The long shot of her with a can of food in her hand is so heartbreaking.
The re-introduction of Lily (previously known as Chantarelle from "Lie to Me") is a bit out of left field, and I'm not sure the character was ever interesting enough to warrant another appearance (perhaps the actress was just pleasant to work with), but this isn't her last Buffyverse appearance at any rate. Regardless, Buffy being drawn into her plight seems like an early rehearsal for the themes of Angel. I can almost hear the phrase "We Help the Helpless." In any case, her reluctance to get involved is understandable, and it leads to a great moment where Ken essentially goads her by claiming to know all about her (when in fact he doesn't know a damn thing). Eventually Buffy realizes that she can't use the traumatic events of season two as an excuse to give up. Instead she has to keep going. Cue fight sequence. It does a great job of getting Buffy back on her feet and driving her back to Sunnydale without ignoring the reasons she left.
Joss could have opened the season with Buffy getting off the bus and telling everyone that she needed to "find herself" or some other such horrible cliché. Instead, he actually shows us that Buffy realistically develops from one place to another over the course of the episode, and yes, she does in fact "find herself." But we get to see that that actually means something here.
By ending the episode with Buffy's reunion with her mother (a great scene, by the way), Joss leaves the episode in a place where it hasn't quite fulfilled what we expect from a finale. "When She Was Bad" had Buffy awkwardly reintegrating herself into life in Sunnydale as she unpacked her baggage from the previous season's finale, but this episode sorts through the baggage without giving Buffy the "soft reset" needed above. We haven't seen her reunite with the other members of the main cast, and we haven't even worked through the legal troubles that plagued her in "Becoming (Part 2)." But given what this episode is able to do instead, I'm happy to defer those another week.
- The opening titles have seen some changes, with a new arrangement of Nerf Herder's music, a new title card, and the addition of Oz. David Boreanaz's continued presence in the titles... well, it certainly carries some implications, doesn't it?
- Carlos Jacott, who plays Ken in this episode, also features in minor guest roles in Angel and Firefly (as different characters, of course). Back in the day, people used to refer to this as a "Whedon Hat Trick," referring to an actor who appeared in all three Whedon shows. This was before Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog and Dollhouse existed, so the term doesn't apply in the way it used to, but it goes to show that Mutant Enemy likes re-using performance (which will come as a surprise to nobody).