On This Day in TV History: An Iconic ‘Buffy the Vampire’ Body Swap We Never Recovered From
We're checking for Buffy, not a concussion.
Few TV shows can boast a run as long and beloved as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the WB’s smash-hit teen supernatural drama series whose seven-season run forever shifted the landscape of television, especially teen dramas. When it comes to iconic episodes, though, it would probably be faster to name episodes that aren’t home-runs as opposed to ones that are: From the heartbreaking “The Body” to the trailblazing musical episode “Once More, With Feeling” or the memory-loss romp “Tabula Rasa,” Buffy‘s run is peppered with fan favorite after fan favorite. But in a sea of standouts, season four’s “Who Are You” is an iconic entry in its own right — a classic body swap premise that gave Sarah Michelle Gellar and Eliza Dushku the chance to flex both their dramatic and comedic muscles unlike ever before.
“Who Are You” aired February 29, 2000, as the second half of a two-parter that started with season four episode fifteen “This Year’s Girl”, which saw anti-hero/rogue slayer Faith Lehane (Dushku) finally awake from her coma and seeking revenge on Buffy and the rest of the Scoobies. The episode ends with Faith using a trinket called a Draconian Katra to swap bodies with Buffy, teeing up “Who Are You” for all sorts of classic body-swap shenanigans as Faith wreaks havoc on Buffy’s life.
Any Buffy episode that features Faith will always be one worth revisiting. The show is chock full of memorable characters but Faith’s cynicism and recklessness made her the perfect foil for the more straight-laced and dutiful Buffy. In what almost feels like a culmination of their seasons-long relationship, “Who Are You” puts the stark differences between the two slayers under intense scrutiny: not just using the body swap as a vehicle for comedic moments and Scooby gang hijinks (though there’s certainly plenty of that) but as a way to conclude Faith’s arc as a villain and start her on the long path to redemption.
Though we’ve gotten insights into Faith’s perspective before, putting her in Buffy’s body justified devoting a significant chunk of the runtime to following her around—after all, when Sarah Michelle Gellar gets the chance to play Faith, you’re going to highlight it as much as possible. But more than just giving SMG the chance to slouch and scowl and play with Faith’s punk attitude in Buffy’s body, “Who Are You” also uses the opportunity to explore Faith’s own deep-seated insecurities and fears in a way the show otherwise couldn’t have managed without the body swap.
Before “Who Are You”, Faith was used mostly as an aforementioned foil for Buffy — a cautionary tale about what could happen if she didn’t have a support system around her and a steadfast watcher in Giles. But in “Who Are You”, we get to watch Faith as she operates on her own, and it quickly becomes clear that even when she has all the power she wants to wield, there’s a surprising self-doubt and trauma-riddled insecurity that quickly surfaces, which comes to a head when she sleeps with Buffy’s then-boyfriend Riley.
Though Faith having sex with Riley while in Buffy’s body becomes an eventual sticking point in the Buffy/Riley relationship, the beat also reveals that Faith has her own internalized fears and reservations about the men in her life, and she ends up rejecting Riley and fleeing after the deed is done, uncharacteristically shaken and clearly upset after the altercation. While it may be hard to entirely empathize with her in that moment—she did, after all, sexually assault Riley—it’s not often that we see Faith truly terrified, making the scene all the more impactful.
The arc is a beautifully and brutally written one for Faith, but what makes the narrative truly powerful (and what makes the episode as a whole work so well) are Sarah Michelle Gellar and Eliza Dushku’s performances. As bizarre as it is to see someone that looks like Faith begging Giles to recognize her as Buffy, Eliza Dushku does a remarkable job of emulating many of Buffy’s physical and verbal tendencies — everything from her posture to the cadence of her voice screams Buffy.
As stellar as she is, though, it’s unquestionably Sarah Michelle Gellar’s performance as Faith in Buffy’s body that’s the episode’s biggest takeaway—a fully realized comedic and dramatic performance that not only demonstrates how much range she has as an actress, but how deeply she understands Faith as a character. After spending so much of the series seeing Faith as an unflappable badass, SMG lends her tremendous depth and vulnerability, highlighted in Faith’s terrified, confused reaction after sleeping with Riley.
The sequence of Faith in Buffy’s bathroom is another iconic one that works on multiple levels. Faith pulling faces in the mirror and trying to emulate Buffy’s heroic attitude isn’t just funny, it’s also a fascinating insight into how Faith’s mind works, and her desire (conscious or unconscious) to be Buffy. The two slayers spend the entire series with their fates intertwined, but “Who Are You” is a perfect encapsulation of their relationship, made all the more effective by a pair of series-best performances from Sarah Michelle Gellar and Eliza Dushku.
(featured image: The WB)
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