The 1946 Frank Capra classic It’s A Wonderful Life has endured, and not just as a holiday favorite that still gets yearly sold-out showings in December revival screenings across the country. The narrative itself is remarkably fungible—the tale of an unhappy man finding redemption through being shown the true value of his life has been done and re-done in numerous forms, especially on television. TV shows as varied as Married…With Children and Dallas have done glosses on this tale, in more or less direct parodies of the original. (And the film itself was actually an adaptation of the short story “The Greatest Gift,” by Philip Van Doren Stern.)
But perhaps its most lasting impact has been not through the direct homages, but rather the way its influence has been filtered into new stories. Much has been made of its “alternate timeline” twist, in which George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is shown what life would be like if he had never been born. Less remarked upon, however, is the bleak and dispiriting worldview of its lead character, a depression that leads to his intended suicide. And in this way, it has few followers as devout in tone as Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s season-three episode “Amends.”
“I’m an atheist, but it’s hard to ignore the idea of a ‘Christmas miracle’ here,” episode writer-director (and showrunner) Joss Whedon has said regarding this Christmas-set installment of the series about a badass teenage fighter of the undead, and on that count, this 11th episode of the season delivers admirably. And while the show’s relationships and mythology are dense and complex, rewarding the attentive fan, it also needs remarkably little setup for the casual viewer. Angel (David Boreanaz), the vampire with a soul (and Buffy’s would-be paramour, if only he didn’t turn evil when he experienced a moment of true happiness), finds himself haunted by the ghosts of those he killed during his decades of murderous bloodsucking, prior to his ensouling. These ghosts are actually an embodiment of The First, the original entity of evil in the world. Tormented, and without hope that it will end, he heads outside, intent on letting the sunrise burn him up, as per vampire-in-sunlight SOP. As Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) races to defeat the forces of The First and free Angel from his all-too-literal demons, Angel looks down upon the town of Sunnydale, ready to commit suicide, à la George Bailey on the bridge.
What this episode captures, and what so few other “holiday special” episodes of TV fail to appreciate, is just how dark Christmas despair can get. As any hotline operator can attest, the Yuletide season is noteworthy for the spike in suicide attempts it annually garners. And that downbeat statistic is only one way in which the end of the year triggers depression in people. It’s not hard to understand why: For almost a month straight, we’re surrounded by expressions of love and togetherness, from the endless advertising of close-knit families gathered around a tree to seemingly all areas of media and popular culture conveying the romance and intimacy of those who have others to love. Small wonder, then, that those currently lacking a similarly intimate relationship among friends or family find themselves plunged into a holiday depression.
And as holiday depressions go, it’s hard to top the kind embodied by Angel. Boreanaz’s tortured vamp isn’t just dealing with the painful solitude imposed on him by being unable to follow through on his love for Buffy. No, his torment is actualized in human form—specifically, the form of the many victims he’s killed over the years. The episode opens on a flashback to his evil-vamp days, as we see him relish consuming the blood of an innocent young man. When he springs awake, and we learn that it was only a dream, there’s a moment of calm, with the common understanding that nightmares end when we wake up. But for Angel, the nightmares continue: Not only does he see his victims’ images in the real world, they talk to him, mocking him, continually reminding him of the damage and pain he can never undo.
On top of that, The First’s plan soon becomes clear: It brought Angel here to kill Buffy. Taking the form of Jenny Calendar, the love of Buffy’s mentor, Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), The First continually reminds Angel that all this torment could be over—all he has to do is kill Buffy. On first thought, this seems like an obvious no-go; why on Earth would he kill the woman he loves? And The First clearly mistakes his capacity for suffering—after all, this vampire with a soul has been brooding in the shadows for 100 years, punishing himself for his past crimes.
But The First is willing to accept Angel’s Plan B: killing himself. Unable to live with the suffering he’s caused, and seeing no respite from the endless taunting by the spirits around him, he heads out to Kingman’s Bluff to await the sunrise. And this commitment to ultimate depression, to showing how people can sink so low they see no recourse, is where Buffy excels. Even when she rushes to prevent his suicide, the words they exchange are positively brutal. “Am I a righteous man?” he cries, begging her to try and see him as he sees himself, someone who has caused untold pain and death. But even more pitiful is his lack of hope, for his real indictment comes with the knowledge that if he ever gave in to his seemingly benign desire for the woman he loves, he would become evil—“and a part of me doesn’t care,” he concludes. That knowledge of his weakness is also what seals his self-verdict.
This is what treacly Christmas fluff usually gets wrong: The darkness before the light, the balancing of sadness and hope. What sets “Amends” apart isn’t only its willingness to wallow in the bleakness, but in its refusal to sugarcoat its ending with uplifting life lessons or sudden emotional turnarounds. What eventually leads to Angel’s survival isn’t some heartfelt plea on Buffy’s behalf, or a cheap and sudden change of heart. No, it’s an act of God. An out-of-nowhere snowfall hits the normally heatstroke-friendly California town of Sunnydale, the thick white clouds blotting out the sunrise, and sparing his life. It may be a deus ex machina, but unlike most such narrative tricks, this one feels remarkably true to life. Because it doesn’t inspire any hackneyed “I see the error of my ways” speeches. He survives the night solely because the lack of sun lasts longer than he was expecting. Like many in real life, there’s no sudden reversal of circumstances; he simply endures another day.
For an episode of Buffy, it’s awfully light on laughs. Coming in the middle of a season considered by many to be the apex of the series, it does what so many of the Whedon-crafted episodes do, and what so many of his imitators fail to understand: It uses the central conceit as a way to push forward the main characters’ storylines, while still allowing the episode to function wholly on its own. Like his justly lauded season six trick of the musical episode, it can be appreciated on its own terms, but works even better when slotted into the larger arc of the season. His characters end the episode in a different place than they began, both emotionally and narratively, but it never feels like an insular world requiring justification beyond its characters and milieu.
That’s not to say there aren’t jokes, and good ones. A subplot involving best friend Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and her efforts to get back together with ex-boyfriend Oz is mined for both pathos and laughs, as their genuine emotional bond is somewhat scrambled by her efforts to seduce him anew by playing Barry White. Group frenemy Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter) boasts of her winter vacation ski trip to Aspen—with actual snow, she emphasizes. “I hear that helps,” Buffy responds mildly. But these are all sidebars to the main event, some breathing room to help leaven the heaviness of Whedon’s central conceit: Namely, that the holidays can bring unremitting gloom, and sometimes, the best way to get through it is simply enduring. “It’s hard, and it’s painful, and it’s every day,” Buffy tells Angel. And no amount of miraculous snowfall is going to change that.
Note: This piece originally ran in 2015 as part of our New Christmas Canon series, where The A.V. Club looked beyond Rudolph’s nose and Zuzu’s petals to highlight entertainment from the ’90s, ’00s, and ’10s that has become a seasonal staple—or deserves to.