Twenty years ago, on July 13, 1999, Buffy graduated from high school. In the final episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s third season, the mortarboard-wearing Scooby Gang took up arms against both a legion of vampires and a giant, snakelike demon intent on devouring Sunnydale High’s entire senior class. The episode was a milestone for the struggling WB series, but “Graduation Day Part 2” made headlines in 1999 for a different reason: it was postponed for two months in the wake of the Columbine High School massacre, amid concerns that violence on film and television had motivated the killers. Earlier this summer, Yahoo Entertainment asked Alyson Hannigan, who played Buffy’s brainy best friend, Willow, and Seth Green, who played Willow’s laidback musician boyfriend, Oz, what they remembered about the graduation episode and the ensuing controversy.
“Isn’t that one where I'm shooting flaming arrows?” Green said. “Yeah, I remember that.”
In the climactic scene of “Graduation Day Part 2,” Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her friends were on the front lines of a massive battle, in which the student body wielded flamethrowers, wooden stakes, crossbows, crucifixes, and other fantastical weapons against the undead onslaught.
“I just remember all the different times that that show made me feel like a badass,” said Green, whose character also happened to be a werewolf. “I’d played some tough characters before, but I never got to play a guy that fought with monsters or shot flaming weapons. So I just remember thinking, ‘This is the coolest and silliest job I've ever had.’”
Hannigan has a different memory, concerning her now-husband Alexis Denisof. In the episode, Denisof’s character, Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, introduced in Season 3 as a bumbling coward, bravely chose to stay and fight alongside Buffy. True to form, however, he was knocked out in the first two minutes of the battle and spent the rest of the episode moaning on the ground. Denisof’s absence from the big fight was major disappointment for Hannigan, who was eager to spend the long hours of location shooting with her crush.
“I was really excited because I was like, ‘Oh, man, we're gonna be here for so long,’ Hannigan said. “He was my buddy and we weren't dating at that time, but I obviously had a major crush on him. So I was like, ‘We're gonna have so much fun!’ And then I was like, ‘What do you mean you're going home?’ I guess Joss [Whedon, the series creator] was like, ‘OK, so do you want to have a big epic thing, or do you just want to get knocked out?’ And he was like, ‘Oh, that's so funny. Great.’”
Both actors also remember dealing with the fallout over the episode’s violent content and postponement. During a promotional appearance on Regis and Kathy Lee, Hannigan was put in the awkward position of having to justify “Graduation Day Part 2” to hosts who weren’t at all familiar with Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
“I remember Kathie Lee being kind of rude about the show, and it was sort of evident that she hadn't seen the episode,” said Hannigan. “I was just like, ‘Well, that's not what it's about. We don't have a lot of guns on our show.’ I just remember not knowing what to do in that situation of, I feel like I need to defend our show because it isn’t like that, but I don't know what to do, because it's your show and I don't want to be rude.”
At the same time, Green was defending his acting choices on multiple fronts.
“Columbine was such a big deal,” he recalled. “I actually had a movie called Idle Hands come out the week after that happened, and it came under fire because it was a horror-comedy about kids in school being murdered by a demon. And everyone wanted to know how I felt about entertainment's responsibility in messaging violence to kids. And I remember thinking, ‘There's a real mental health problem that kind of supersedes the influence of entertainment. And if we're more attentive to talking to each other, versus trying to police music and video games, I think we're in a better place. Let’s talk about the root of mental illness, or how to deal with kids who feel lonely or bullied. You know, no one is really talking about gun control.’”
In retrospect, Green believes Graduation Part 2 was “a very positive exploration” of the very issues it was accused of exploiting. “If anybody watched the Buffy episode, you would have seen that it was not exploitative,” he said. “In fact, it tried to address the root of the issue: what would cause someone to even get to that place, emotionally, where they would want to take someone else's life?”
That said, Hannigan thinks the WB made “a wise decision” to delay the episode in the wake of a national tragedy. “That was a horrible, horrible time and you don't want to upset anybody in such a time of such sadness,” she said. “Especially because, it's a TV show. If it's going to make anybody even more upset in such an upsetting time, then it can be postponed and it’s okay. They did the right thing.”
But when it comes to Denisof skipping out on the finale, Hannigan is less forgiving. “I was so mad that he got to go home!” she says of her husband, with whom she has two children. “I just felt like he cheated me out of a lot of fun and just silliness.
With a laugh, she added, “You know what, I'm going to be mad at him when I get home. Twenty years later, I’m going to punish him. Thanks for reminding me!”
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