To me, "The Killer in Me" is by far the worst episode of the entire show. Unfortunately, I cannot describe how bad it is in just a few sentences, so I have to write this entire essay to explain why it ranks so poorly.
One of the proposed alternate titles for this episode is "Racism:The Birth of a Nation::Pedophilia:__________." For those who are not familiar with the classic version of the SAT test (the test that Buffy, Willow, Cordelia et al. took early in the third season), this alternate title refers to the analogy section of the verbal test. Students taking this section of the test would be faced with a series of questions like:
This would be read as "Shoe is to Foot as Glove is to __________?" with the single colon representing the phrase "is to" and the double colon indicating the word "as." In this situation, one of the four answer choices would be "Hand" because a shoe is worn on a foot and a glove is worn on a hand. Admittedly, real questions were much harder and designed to test the student's vocabulary.
The Birth of a Nation (1915) is, in some ways, is one of the greatest films ever made (one way in which it is very different from this episode). The main problem is that it presents a very racist view of the history of the United States in the years immediately following the American Civil War. The film portrays white Southerners being subjected to the tyranny of recently freed slaves who wanted nothing more than to marry white women, with the suggestion that marrying white women was the equivalent of, or euphemism for, raping white women.
In the climax of the film, the heroes formed the Ku Klux Klan in order to battle the evil African-Americans and to protect white women and Southern life. The film did not present the truth of what was going on at the time so much as it presented what many racists in the American South believe went on at the time. My main moral objection to "The Killer in Me" is that, as The Birth of a Nation represented a distorted reality of race relations seen as truth by racists, "The Killer in Me" represents a distorted reality of relationships between adults and minors seen as truth by pedophiles.
Many pedophiles do not view themselves as predators who coerce or force minors into sexual relationships against their will. Instead, these pedophiles convince themselves that minors are sexual beings who usually instigate relationships with adults and that the adults are simply adhering to the minors' wishes.
In this episode, Kennedy was clearly the instigator. She contrived the date with Willow and encouraged her to stay when Willow tried to leave. She initiated the kiss that turned Willow into Warren, and she continued to resist Willow's attempts to push her away. Willow simply gave in to the date, stayed when Kennedy asked her to, let Kennedy kiss her, and allowed Kennedy to tag along.
I have little doubt that the typical fifteen-year-old girl has sexual feelings, sometimes for people of the same sex. Occasionally, such a person might flirt with someone older. However, minors who do so with the confidence, forcefulness, and insistence that Kennedy showed in this episode are very rare outside the fantasies of pedophiles. As a result, this episode always felt to me as more of a pedophile fantasy than anything that could happen in reality, even within the mythology of Sunnydale.
I am aware that the age of consent in some nations is fifteen years old and that there is no magical event that makes someone mature enough to have sex on her eighteenth birthday when she was not mature enough the day before. Still, a line has to be drawn somewhere, and the state of California draws that line at eighteen years old. Also, I admit that I use the term "pedophile" a bit more loosely than I should as there probably is a meaningful difference between an adult attracted to adolescents and an adult attracted to a young child, even though acting on either attraction is illegal in California.
In earlier episode reviews, I have noted how quickly the characters seemed to have forgotten Tara. For example, in "Bargaining," it was clear that Buffy's death a few months earlier was still very much on the characters' minds. However, in an equal amount of time after Tara's death, she was largely forgotten.
I liked the idea introduced in "The Killer in Me" that Willow had been in semi-denial about Tara's death. This is plausible because Tara was no longer a part of Willow's daily life before Tara died. In the six months before Tara died, she existed in Willow's mind more as a hope for the future than as someone Willow interacted with on a frequent basis. Theoretically, Willow could continue to do so after Tara's death.
At some point, Willow will have to be shaken into reality and begin mourning. I do not know why a kiss from Kennedy would do what a visit to Tara's grave did not, but that is not much of a concern for me. The problem that I have is that the moment that Willow was shaken from her denial was the moment she decided that she could let Tara's death go and move on with her life.
This episode perpetuated the idea that mourning is a bad thing that needs to be overcome. However, mourning is a necessary process for a person to cognitively process a traumatic loss. Once Willow fully realized that Tara was gone and never coming back, the mourning process begun in earnest. Mourning, particularly after an important loss, is not a quick process and takes months, perhaps even years. By having Willow move on almost right away, the episode suggested that Tara's death was not much of a loss for Willow.
One major difference between The Birth of a Nation and "The Killer in Me" is that The Birth of a Nation would be a great film without the racism. "The Killer in Me," on the other hand, would still be a bad episode without the other issues. For example, the Willow/Warren switching was handled poorly.
As best as I can tell, all the other characters, except maybe Amy, saw only Warren from the moment that Kennedy kissed Willow for the first time until Kennedy kissed Willow for the second time. We, on the other hand, saw both Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Warren (Adam Busch). The constant switching between Adam Busch and Alyson Hannigan did not serve the episode well.
Situations in which character A has the appearance of character B can be handled different ways. Sometimes, the actor who normally plays character A continues to play the character even though all the other characters see character B. This has the advantage of ensuring that character A is played by the one person who best knows how to play that character even if the audience sees something very different from what the other characters see. Other times, the actor who normally plays character B plays character A. This has the advantage of letting the audience see what all the other characters see.
A good example of the second method is "Who Are You?" In that episode, when the characters were interacting with someone who looked like Buffy, we saw someone who looked like Buffy. When the characters were interacting with someone who looked like Faith, we saw someone who looked like Faith. Normally, this would include the disadvantage of someone other than Eliza Dushku playing Faith and someone other than Sarah Michelle Gellar playing Buffy. However, the actresses were so good that the disadvantage vanished. In fact, I rate Sarah Michelle Gellar's performance in that episode as being one of the two best acting performances of all 144 episodes (along with Alyson Hannigan's performance in "Doppelgangland").
The combination of the two methods in "The Killer in Me" dropped the advantages that each of the methods normally possess while keeping the drawbacks. We saw someone who was supposed to be a blend of two characters. Therefore, there is no single actor who was best to play the character, which eliminates any advantage of familiarity. Furthermore, the switching between the two actors meant that the audience was seeing something different from what the other characters were seeing.
Personally, I believe that it is best to have the audience see the same person that the other characters see. However, this requires top level actors. Sarah Michelle Gellar and Eliza Dushku were up to the task in "Who Are You?" I am not convinced that Adam Busch was good enough to pull this off in "The Killer in Me." Alyson Hannigan was OK in channeling Warren, but Adam Busch did not pull off Willow. I do not consider this much of a criticism of Busch, because he was asked to do something that most actors would not be able to do. Still, this is a reason not to do so in the first place.
Finally, the Is Giles Alive? plot line was far too contrived to be worthy of Buffy. The audience sees the characters for only 42 minutes per episode, 22 episodes per year, with no single character being on screen for all 42 minutes. Therefore, it is moderately plausible not to see a character touch anything or be touched during that character's few minutes on screen. However, are we really to believe that Giles can live with a large number of people and not have any of them notice that he never touched anything? Every other time that Giles returned to Sunnydale, Anya gave him a hug almost immediately. Why would she not do so now? Did Giles not eat anything in Sunnydale? Did he not have any dirty laundry? Did he not sleep in a bed with as little privacy as the other characters had? Even if Giles were intentionally testing the other characters' observational powers, the contrivances necessary to carry off the ruse would be very implausible.
This plot line was just a dumb joke. "Sleeper" ended on the cliffhanger of Giles possibly about to meet the sharp end of an ax. It is OK to end an episode this way only if the following episode began with Giles either dying or not dying. When "Never Leave Me" failed to resolve that cliffhanger, the show was just playing with the audience. When Giles returned to town in "Bring on the Night" and did not touch anything, the show was taking a joke too far. I am glad that the plot line is finally resolved, but it never should have gone past "Never Leave Me."
I do not want to sound too negative, even if this episode makes me feel that way. Instead, I want to suggest how the episode could have better accomplished its goals depending on what those goals are.
Many people were upset about Tara's death and suggested that it was motivated by homophobia. As a result, the writers probably felt a lot of pressure to introduce another lesbian relationship. If this were the only goal of the episode, then it would have been better to create one between two potential slayers. A relationship between two fifteen-year-olds is much less creepy than one between a fifteen-year-old and an adult. Furthermore, if Willow were not involved in the relationship, people would be less likely to compare the new relationship to the Willow / Tara relationship, a comparison that would make nearly any relationship look bad.
In some interviews, Joss Whedon suggested that the writers feared falling into a celibate lesbian cliché if they kept Willow single that year. However, needing to pair off the lesbian character with someone perpetuates the stereotype that homosexuality is just about sex. The writers were perfectly fine with keeping the other characters single. Dawn has never had a steady love interest; Giles has not had one since the fourth season, even if one counts Olivia; and Buffy, Xander, Spike, and Anya have been celibate all year. In fact, Anya's celibacy has been a running joke in "Never Leave Me" and "Showtime." Still, there is a better way to pair Willow with someone.
According to Giles, the First Evil has made war on both potential slayers and on watchers. If surviving potential slayers were coming to Sunnydale for protection, why not have a few watchers come as well? Instead of pairing Willow off with a fifteen-year-old potential slayer, Willow could pair off with a thirty-year-old watcher.
This also accomplishes a second goal that the writers had: pairing Willow with what some writers call the "Anti-Tara," someone experienced and comfortable with her sexuality. This would be far more plausible with an adult than with a fifteen year old. Many fifteen year olds pretend to be comfortable and experienced with their sexuality, but this is almost always bravado. Very few fifteen year olds are truly experienced and comfortable with their sexuality regardless of whether they are male, female, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or heterosexual. Faith's comfort and experience was used as an early sign that she was not emotionally stable. Some fans even used that to speculate about possible abuse in Faith's past. On the other hand, it is much more possible that a thirty-year-old would be experienced and comfortable with her sexuality. Pairing Willow with a watcher would have been much better than pairing her with a potential slayer.
If the point of the episode were instead to have Willow turn into Warren to symbolize her guilt over losing Tara, then no relationship with a minor is necessary.
One possibility would be to set up the episode by having a performer at the Bronze who is generally considered to be mainstream but would have extra significance to lesbians, such as Melissa Etheridge or the Indigo Girls. Willow might be a bit reluctant to go, but the other characters would convince her to go. While there, she would meet a few lesbians and have a good time dancing with and perhaps flirting with them, perhaps to the point of a chaste kiss on the cheek like Tara had with her "friend" in "Normal Again." Willow would be quite happy when she got back home.
The next morning, she would wake up as Warren. The episode would continue as it did, except that Kennedy would have joined the other potential slayers on the quest (and perhaps ended up in the trunk with Molly). Xander could easily have played the role that Kennedy played in this episode, minus the kissing. This would also provide the added bonus of the fact that Xander actually was in the backyard when Warren shot Tara and Buffy in "Seeing Red."
Buffy has had weak episodes before. "Some Assembly Required," "Gingerbread," and "Pangs" are three episodes that quickly come to mind. However, never in the history of the show has anything as terrible as "The Killer in Me" been allowed to carry the title "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Not even the season eight comic books sunk this low.