The first Cordelia-centric episode, in which a wallflower literally disappears after being ignored by students and faculty, presents us with yet another high school social archetype: the kid no one notices, the plain Jane, the nobody. Also, the episode where I discover why I think Cordelia’s character from the first season doesn’t work for me.
Marcie, the invisible girl, might at first come across as sympathetic, even though she nearly bludgeons a boy to death with a baseball bat (in the locker room – which is almost as dangerous as the cemetery at this point). The discovery of her yearbook, peppered with “have a nice summer” signatures, gives us a glimpse of her sad existence as something akin to playing an out-of-focus extra in everyone else’s lives, even Xander’s and Willow’s. I felt awful for her at first, recalling the kids in my high school who I would briefly muse about – the ones with few friends, who seldom talked, who seemed to fade into the crowd, and who I might never notice missing if they never showed up in class again. There really are Marcies in the world – I see the YA and adult versions even today – and I find them actually somewhat fascinating. They have an allure that promises a hidden soul underneath the blasé surface. What lies beneath the painfully plain exterior, however, may not be such a delight to discover.
Marcie, it turns out, bears some similarity to Dave and Fritz from I, Robot… You, Jane in that though she doesn’t move in a coveted social milieu, or any milieu for that matter, such outcast status does not equate to goodness or depth of character. Marcie is even worse than Dave or even Fritz. She doesn’t need a Moloch to lead her astray; Marcie is the monster-of-the-week. The implicit question that she asks with her scene-of-the-crime scrawlings – Look, Listen, Learn – angrily demands that we ask who made her the monster.
In Marcie’s mind, Cordelia is that answer, and so we have our first real focus on Cordy, which brings me to the first really problematic character in the series. I like Charisma Carpenter in the role, but Cordelia’s dialogue runs too far over the top. Almost every utterance stamps her as “egomaniacal, snobbish bitch,” making her far more of a cartoon than a character on the order of, say, the stammering but sweet Willow or the foot-in-mouth goof Xander (who both struck me as too cartoonish on my first series viewing but not my second).
In this episode, Whedon & Co. try to backtrack on that slightly, showing Cordy to be concerned with her grades (and willing to work for them, unlike Buffy), and in a conversation with Buffy just before being kidnapped, to feel just as alone as the other high school kids. This confession rings false to me, since all we have ever seen in Cordelia is making hateful fashion critiques (especially to Willow) and misconstruing nearly everything including student murders to center on herself – almost sociopathically. Nothing she has said or done up until this point has remotely suggested an inner life, so it’s hard to accept that there is one when it’s so awkwardly dropped on us.
Confession: In high school, I would have been friends with Cordelia, but not really Willow or Xander. However, her relentless meanness and disdainful classism would have exhausted me to the point of keeping her at a clear distance, close enough so that I could say she was my friend but far enough so that I wouldn’t have to soak in her cruelty and self-centeredness.
I lived rather painfully the crux of Cordy’s conversation with Buffy: It’s better to be popular and alone than alone and alone. My high school self really, really gets that, so I get Cordelia, which is why I wish she were less of a caricature of a superficial high school alpha bitch and more of a smart mean girl with hints of thoughtfulness.
Then I could empathize more with her in the conclusion, when she and Buffy are bound to May Queen thrones, Cordy in her formal dress and tiara, while a deranged Marcie pops open a torture kit and prepares to disfigure Cordelia, so much so that she promises children will stop and stare. It’s a fine bit of villainous speechifying that would fit comfortably into a low-grade horror film, yet the coda takes us toward another realm entirely.
The end, when government agents drag away our invisible girl to a special school apparently for other invisible teenagers, points to The Initiative in s4 – as well as to The Cabin in the Woods – wherein secret government agencies collude with the occult.
Too bad Sunnydale High never got a visit from that schoolmarm for the invisible! The underground agency surely could have used Buffy and Faith, though Giles would have thrown a grade-A fit at the competition in dark suits and sunglasses. Black ops secret agents might be worse than Wesley!