Doppelgangland is a watershed moment for Willow, and a Whedon episode to boot. Throughout the series so far I’ve pointed to moments where we’ve gotten glimpses of a powerful and assertive woman beneath Willow’s indecisive outer persona. Here those elements are brought into the light, in an episode that even Joss Whedon picked for one of his personal top 10 in the entire series.

At the feet of the demon D’Hoffram, Anja is pleading for the powers of the wish back that she had been wielding for a thousand years.

“And now I’m stuck at Sunnydale. And I’m flunking math.”

At school Willow and Buffy are keeping sharp for battle, Willow by practicing a little pencil levitation and Buffy with some sit-ups. It’s interesting to me how Willow seems unconcerned to be doing this in front of the other students. Almost as if the other students are aware of the supernatural world, even if it goes unspoken between. Buffy explains that as a result of Allan’s murder she and Faith are being put through some physical and psychological examinations.

“She hasn’t exactly had it easy.”

I’ve read some disparaging remarks about how Buffy treated Faith so far this season but from my perspective it seems like Buffy has been one of Faith’s greatest advocates. She went to bat for her on behalf of Giles. She stands up for her here with a jealous Willow. I never read her actions in the previous two parter as levying judgement but rather demanding responsibility.

Snyder (dear God I missed you Snyder) assigns Willow to tutor school basketball star Percey West in history. Assigns is probably a word a little too nice for Snyder.

“I know you want to help your school out. Ask me how I know.” – “How do y…” – “I. just. know.”

Percy instantly assumes she’s going to be writing the paper for him and Willow seems ready to acquiesce. As she does often in her life

“Willow get on the computer. I want you to take another pass at accessing those files.” – “Ok.”

An exhausted Wesley enters the library with a placid Faith. Faith watches Willow trying to hack the mayor’s personal files on her computer and promptly passes the information onto Wilkins.

It’s hard to describe in proper detail how much I love watching Faith and the Wilkins together and in writing this I genuinely struggle to figure out why I’m so smitten. I think it’s because they are reflections of each other. In this season we’ve watched Faith struggle for a connection, and stumble due to her own trust issues as well as some missteps by the people around her. You could see her reaching for love and connection but unable to break past those barriers. But the Mayor knows she’s duplicitous. He sees all sides of her. She can be herself. It may be evil, underhanded, and unhealthy. But their relationship feels…honest. And I think she reflects his own dichotomy. The Mayor is evil with a sweet side and Faith is sweet with an evil side.

In addition, and rather uniquely in Faith’s experience with me, the Mayor shows no interest in her as a sexual object.

“Thanks sugar daddy.” – “Now Faith, I don’t know any of that now. I’m a family man. Now lets kill your little friend.”

It’s the first time we see Faith totally joyful. On the other hand Willow is feeling unappreciated and uncool. She storms away from Buffy and Xander and runs into Anja. Anja asks her to do a spell. She gets excited at the prospect of getting to do anything with even a hint of danger outside her wheelhouse.

Anja brings out a plate with a picture of her power center from The Wish and the two of them engage in the spell. The magic causes a vision in Willow of the Wish’s hellscape, in which she and Xander have been turned, Sunnydale is in chaos, and many people have died. In her reverie she accidentally pours the sand over her own hand instead of the plate, bringing vampire’d Willow in from the other dimension. Minor quibble here given her physical arrangement with Anja it seemed almost inevitable to me that the sand miss the plate.

At the Bronze, vamp Willow runs into Percy who demands an explanation for why she isn’t off writing his homework assignment. Xander finds Vamp-Willow who mistakes him for her chilly beau.

“Hands. Hands in new places.” – “You’re alive.”

Buffy and Xander confuse Vamp and normal Willow, believing normal Will has been turned.

“Get off me.”

Vamp Willow takes out Wilkin’s minion vamps and turns them into her gang members. They set out to turn the world into the the Wish-verse. Meanwhile Xander and Buffy have told Giles about Willows death.

“She was truly, the finest of all of us.”

Willow enters and everyone realizes something else is going on. At the Bronze, Dingos Ate My Baby are setting up. Anja is at the bar trying to order a beer. And Angel is looking for Buffy. And that’s the moment Vamp Willow with her new crew bust in and try to take things over. Vamp Willow demonstrates the gravity of the situation to her hostages. She first licks and then drains one of the female onlookers.

Anja has sorted out the details of what’s going on and offers to send Vamp Willow home. All she needs to do is get normal Willow to cast a spell. Willow is jumped by her double who tries to…ahh…entice her to her side of the tracks. She tosses her and Willow grabs the Oz gun and tranquilizes her double.

“It’s horrible. Evil. And I think I’m kinda gay.”

Buffy comes up with the idea of using Willow as a decoy and sending the vamps out one at a time.

“You know I think I heard something out there? Why don’t you go check.”

At the Bronze, Anja susses out what’s exactly going on and Willow screams for help. The gang breaks in and takes down the minions. This fight in the Bronze is one of my favorite so far. It’s not an episode particularly well known for the battle but all of the editing is quick, the choreography is very fluid, the violence feels brutal and realistic, and there’s very very little of ‘Oh look the stunt double.’

And in the final scene the gang goes out of their way to send Vamp Willow back to her own dimension.

“I know she’s not me but I can’t kill her.”

Of course the universe is an uncaring one, even for vampires.

So in the name of covering all our bases let’s start with the obvious first. The title Doppelgangland is a wordplay of doppelganger and gangland. According to Wikipedia, a doppelganger is a look-alike or double of a living person, in some traditions as a harbinger of bad luck and in other traditions and stories…an evil twin. Vamp Willow is the doppelganger and she forms her own crew to engage in a bit a of gangland violence. Then again it is Willow who takes her Vamp selfs part in the episode so then who is the real doppelganger?

All of this is of course a model for Buffy and her doppelganger, Faith – the dark side of Buffy’s Slayer half.

“You can’t stand me having a blast because you know it could be you.”

What we have here is Willow experiencing the psychological process of individuation that we talked about in the episode Homecoming, something Buffy went through with Cordy when they both went for the Homecoming queen title. Quick refresher, the Wikipedian definition of inviduation says that it’s a developmental process during which innate elements of personality, the components of the immature psyche, and the experiences of the person’s life become integrated over time into a well-functioning whole. More simply, we come to understand our own innate immature impulses and how to live with them as adults.

“I just thought…homecoming queen…”

Here, Willow is still stung over Buffy’s unwillingness to bring her with in Bad Girls, something they never really reconciled due to Buffy needing to confess to someone about Allen. And she has misidentified the source of problems in her life as not being a Bad Girl herself

In casting the spell she brings Vamp Willow into this reality. Initially she refers to the vamp version as though it were mostly a dupe of herself, describing the Vamp version in the first person.

“That’s me as a vampire? I’m so evil and skanky. And I think I’m kind of gay.”

This sets up the opportunity to become the doppelganger and take the Vamps place, experiencing all the things that she THOUGHT she wanted. In the form of a hot leather outfit that could be the distant cousin of her outfit from Halloween.

“Gosh look at those.”

She gets to play the evil part and participate in the battles she wasn’t able to in Bad Girls, and finally comes to an understanding.

“I just can’t kill her. I mean, I know she’s not me. We have a big nothing in common but still…”

My takeaway here is we are NOT our dark halves. Our impulses. Buffy is not Faith, something vividly demonstrated in the form of an echo.

“Faith No…” “Buffy no”

But those desires demand our acknowledgment. They are a part of us, unable to be removed psychically or surgically, and with an explosive potential that increases in volatility the harder we deny their existence. Only in self-acceptance is there the true possibility for freedom.

Willow is never the same again after this episode.

Doppelgangland is a Whedon episode. The Whedon written and directed phenomena on Buffy is such a dramatic one. Whedon episodes just feel funnier, crisper, sharper. On fire with ideas and substance. And Doppelgangland is probably one of his best. If I tried to make a highlight reel of the episodes great lines the review would be as long as the episode itself.

“Magic is dangerous Anja. It’s not be toyed with. Now if you’ll excuse me I have someone else’s homework to do.”

As good as Doppelgangland is, and trust me it is good. Amazing in fact. The problem for me is not anything to do with the episode but it’s role in the season arc. It completely undercuts the drama and moral outrage that Bad Girls and Consequences were attempting to drum up. We spent an entire very talky episode with Faith and Buffy discussing the morality and justification of murder, the both Utilitarian or Objectivism-like qualifications for when it’s acceptable. It felt like we were poised for a very Amends or Lie to Me like thesis about the nature of morality. Faith nearly strangled to death one of our beloved Scoobies. And as a result of all that we get, the Slayers having to take some physical and psych exams?

As much as I treasure the sites and sounds of the boulevard this sudden left turn took us down I can’t help but feel a little disoriented by the whole thing. That’s not really a strike against the episode itself, more a continuation of a season arc that has felt a little less sure of itself then Season 2’s did. It’s like having a friend with this amazing personality but crippling shyness that refuses to let it be seen very often.

But Doppelgangland is still a treasure – perhaps the greatest episode in the series to date.