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It’s amazing that these two Buffy episodes were made only a year apart. The character development between the two is staggering. I’ll admit, these aren’t the most obvious two episodes to compare and contrast. One of them is the second part of a two-parter. It already has a companion piece. There are other episodes of Buffy that had built-in sequels somewhere down the line. “Halloween” is followed up with “Fear Itself.” “Fool for Love” has a direct sequel in “Lies My Parents Told Me.” And I considered both of those.
But I wanted to explore “Bad Girls” and “Who Are You” side-by-side, because they both mark a turning point for the same person. Faith is an immensely rich character. When I took a course on Buffy in my freshman year of college, we had an entire three-hour lecture just devoted to Faith. She’s a character who has a wealth of subtlety hiding behind her wildly unsubtle personality.
Both of these episodes hinge on how Buffy and Faith relate to one another (or don’t) and how they see each other. And—as is made obvious in “Who Are You”—how they see things in each other that they might not love about themselves.
When Buffy and Faith first met, they could not stand each other. Faith wanted to be friends, Buffy felt like Faith was moving in on her life and her family. But that’s only because Faith didn’t actually have those things for herself. She was like an introvert who finally found a circle of friends. They’ve been quiet so long that once they find people they can talk to, they come on strong. That’s how Faith was introduced to Buffy’s entire social circle.
“Bad Girls” is about giving us the hope that Buffy and Faith can finally get along before brutally stripping that away. The connection between them becomes clear. Buffy does admire Faith for doing whatever she wants. She wishes she could do that, but she’s afraid. And she ultimately resents Faith for that. The episode spends most of its time showing us that Buffy and Faith can actually work together, even if it comes at the cost of Buffy’s other friends. Faith is more in tune with the primal instincts of being a Slayer and she’s introducing Buffy to these things for the first time.
Like all great horror, the decisions that come about from the end of this episode are reactionary. When they accidentally kill the deputy mayor, Buffy is snapped back into her own strict sense of morality. Faith handles it in a completely different way. It’s as if she’s been dealing with this hanging question she’d never reveal to someone else of “Am I a good person?” From just about every scene, she clearly has her doubts. She’s terrified of the answer. Taking a human life is almost a relief for her. It’s an easy way to say “OK, I guess I’m not a good person, at least now I know.”
In the end, “Bad Girls” is about Faith trying to strip Buffy away from her world so that Faith can adopt her into her own. That’s a key point when we consider the general theme of “Who Are You.”
The second half of a two-parter beginning with “This Year’s Girl,” “Who Are You” is literally about Faith switching bodies with Buffy. She wants Buffy out of the way so she can take over Buffy’s life. It’s not even about being Buffy, which is obvious in that she completely changes Buffy’s style to reflect her own. She wears the things she would wear, not the things Buffy would ever wear. Faith’s actions in this episode aren’t about being another person. It’s all about having everything Buffy has.
The first thing Faith did when she met Buffy was to try to take over her friends and her life. In “Who Are You” she is given the opportunity to do that. Buffy and Faith were always at odds because they didn’t understand each other. “Bad Girls” sees them together all the time, envious of the other person, because they each think the other has it better in some ways than they do. Allowing them to switch bodies gives both Buffy and Faith an understanding of the other that they could never have reached on their own.
“Bad Girls” explores Faith’s arc by starting out with her kicking ass, fighting evil, even if she’s reckless. By the end of that episode, we’ve lost hope for her character. She turns her back on the idea of being a hero, of doing the right thing, and it doesn’t even look like she has a basic understanding of what the right thing even is.
“Who Are You” is the complete reverse. The episode kicks off with Faith acting like an actual super villain. She tricked Buffy into coming into contact with a device that would switch their bodies. It’s something that the Joker would have tried back in the ‘60s. But the brilliance of this show is that it would turn the most ridiculous concepts into explorations of the most poignant possible themes.
Faith learns what it’s like to live in Buffy’s world, to be surrounded by the friends, the family. While she loves it at first, she’s overwhelmed by the intimacy of it. She can’t wait to get out. Buffy, meanwhile, learns what it’s like in Faith’s world, to have nothing and no one. To be treated like crap.
By the end of the episode, Faith winds up in the completely opposite place of where she found herself at the end of “Bad Girls.” She’s on her own, yes, but killing the deputy mayor taught her “I did a bad thing, I knew I had to be a bad person.” In this episode, she sees something that she knows she can stop—in fact, something where she knows she is the only one who can stop it—and decides to act on that. She saves lives in a way that finally comes natural to her.
The best, most understated part of “Who Are You” is Faith’s repetition of the line “Because it’s wrong.” The first time we hear it, she practices it in front of the mirror. Mocking Buffy, because it’s a stupid thing that Buffy would say. When she says it again later on, it’s to torment Spike. She’s still mocking Buffy. She’s mocking both of them. When the vampire at the end asks her why he can’t kill these people, Faith responds with “Because it’s wrong” in the most organic way possible. She doesn’t question it. It’s the instinctive, obvious answer.
Both “Bad Girls” and “Who Are You” set Faith on character arcs, but the two arcs are incredibly different. “Bad Girls” is the beginning of her dark turn. It’s the start of her spiral into thrill-killing and sets her on the course to be one of Buffy’s toughest enemies. “Who Are You” brings back that spark of hope, but it’s not clear-cut. It’s earned. This is not “The Episode Where Faith Turns Good.” The two episodes parallel and contrast each other in much smarter ways than that. Both are the start of something. Both plant a seed.
One introduces the catalyst that sets Faith spiraling into the dark side, the other lets us know—and more importantly, lets her know—that there’s actually hope for her, for the very first time.