This is another great example of the show’s use of supernatural as a metaphor for a real life problem. This time it’s the classic SF/F theme of invisibility, which is here a metaphor for outcasts, people who get ignored and who would desperately want to be seen. As we learn in this episode, the Hellmouth makes metaphorical invisibility into a literal one. The invisible girl Marcie (Clea DuVall) is arguably the first sympathetic villain of the show. Cordelia, her intended victim and counterpart, shows she has some unexpected depths, and starts getting friendlier to the Scoobies, if only because she needs Buffy’s help when she realizes that the invisible villain is targeting her, by first going after the people in her circle and then after herself.
The main theme of the episode is loneliness and what it’s like to be an outcast. We’ve seen that Buffy has been an outcast one since she was called and lost her previous ‘popular girl’ status in Hemery High; most Sunnydale students seem to think of her as a weird girl, a freak, and are perhaps a little scared of her (Cordelia says in this episode that she knows Buffy has a lot of weapons and that she thought she was in a gang), which is why Marcie thought that Buffy could understand her (even if Buffy’s problem is the opposite from Marcie’s – she stands out too much while Marcie wasn’t remarkable in any way and never stood out at all.) In this episode there’s an atypical moment when Buffy feels excluded even from her friends, when Xander and Willow are wrapped up in laughing over something from their past, and Buffy is reminded that they’ve known each other for far longer than they’ve known her. (This is something that will become irrelevant in the next years when the Scoobies’ shared experiences.) We’ve also seen that Willow and Xander also get mocked by Cordelia and her gang and aren’t the most ‘popular’ in school, with their nerd/geek status, but some other students have it worse, like Kyle from “The Pack” who was the favorite target of the bullies. But Marcie turns out to be the ultimate outcast - she literally had no friends, she’s not mocked or hated or bullied, but simply ignored by everyone, students and teachers alike. Everybody unintentionally victimized her, including Willow and Xander. Cordelia on the other hand seems like the complete opposite of Marcie, with her status of the most “popular” girl in the school, and a bunch of sycophants following her around all the time. The flashbacks make it easy to sympathize with Marcie, while Cordelia is very unsympathetic, as when Marcie is making unsuccessful attempts to talk to Cordy and her circle, and her minions ignore Marcie’s joke but Cordelia then repeats her joke and gets everyone to laugh (since they’re not really paying attention to what she’s saying anyway). But the irony is that Cordelia’s “popularity” is actually very questionable – some people like the Scoobies despise her, while the people who are always around her and seem to hang on to her every word are actually trying to up their own status, and most of them don’t really seem to know or care about her as a person, and as it turns out she’s aware of it. The guy she is dating, Mitch, doesn’t even know what color her eyes are, and both of them are mostly interested in each other just as trophies to look good on each other’s arm and in pictures. She seems to be the most visible person in the school, but at the same time nobody really sees her. It’s also interesting that Cordelia is aware of how badly she treats people and casually calls herself evil (about Marcie: “Wow, she is evil, way eviler than me”). Cordelia is not just Buffy’s frenemy but a reminder of what Buffy used to be before she found out she was a Slayer (Buffy mentions she used to be the “May Queen” in her old school, and in this episode Cordelia is about to be crowned “May Queen” at the Spring dance), and Cordy opening up to her prompts Buffy to admit for the first time that things weren’t that great when she was “popular” in LA because she always felt something was missing from her life (one of the first signs of Buffy accepting her calling as a part of her life, rather than something that has been forced upon her). Buffy ends up saving Cordelia for the 3rd time (“The Harvest”, “Witch”) but the new almost-friendship between Cordy and the Scooby gang doesn’t last, since peer pressure is too strong and Cordy is still not ready to lose her status by hanging out with a bunch of ‘losers’. She’ll get there later.
There’s a meta moment early in the episode in the scene where the class are having a discussion about the difference between hero and protagonist. In the show as a whole, Buffy is both, but one can say that this episode is more about Marcie, who can be seen as a villain/antagonist, but maybe also as a protagonist in this particular story (but not the hero) – in a way that Shylock is the villain/antagonist of The Merchant of Venice, but has been treated as the protagonist in many contemporary productions. Another scene has the class discussing The Merchant of Venice, introducing the theme of the episode - an angry, vengeful outcast, and drawing a parallel between Shylock and Marcie. Willow is unsurprisingly the one to defend him, probably not so much because she’s Jewish but because she also feels unappreciated and, as we later see, has a strong vindictive streak. Cordelia's unsympathetic view of Shylock, while presented as one of 'Cordy's wacky interpretations of classics', is in fact probably closer to the original idea of the play, and she makes a good point except for the irony that she's the one talking about someone being self-centered. But Marcie actually proves her right in the end – as a result of what happened to her, she has become self-absorbed and can’t see that everyone else has their problems and feels lonely as well. Nowadays we're so used to that "if they prick us, don't we bleed?" speech being used as an example of the downtrodden and oppressed groups of people speaking up and demanding to be heard, that we forget that Shylock's speech is not about equality but about vengeance, he is saying that he has a desire and a right to vengeance just like the Christians do. Of course he tries to represent it as justice, but it's really revenge. And just like Shylock, Marcie is a sympathetic villain, but she's still the villain of the piece. No matter how much we can't help but feel sorry for her and sympathize with her for what happened to her, the fact is that she cruelly and intentionally tried to hurt people in a way that's very disproportionate to the cause; Antonio (like the other Christians) treated Shylock with contempt, so Shylock wants to have him killed in a gruesome way; Cordelia (like the other students and even teachers) ignored Marcie, so she wants to horribly disfigure her, not to mention trying to kill innocent people as collateral damage. Buffy realizes that this is where Marcie crossed the line - yes, you've suffered, but you're still not justified in what you're doing and you need to be stopped.
A B-plot has Angel coming to see Giles to talk to him about a book of prophecy. This is the first time Angel and Giles meet, and is Giles is extremely uncomfortable – that’s probably the first time he’s had a conversation with a vampire. Another addition to the mythology: it is confirmed that vampires have no reflection. (Which makes me wonder how Angel styles his hair. ;) ) There’s a moment of show’s classic self-irony when Giles says that a vampire in love with a Slayer is “poetic, in a maudlin sort of way”. Later on
Angel saves the lives of Giles, Xander and Willow (who were ticked and trapped in the basement by Marcie with gas leaking) but they don't thank him and Xander isn't any nicer to him.
Snyder has some funny moments in this episode, showing again that he cares a lot more about the order and the good image of the school rather than the wellbeing of students, and Xander and Willow show again how useful they can be in their non-superpowered way when they come up with a way to distract Snyder with a story about Mitch suing the school. The ending of the episode is very X-Files-ish (the men in black taking Marcie to the government facility with invisible kids learning skills such as infiltration and assassination), which makes me smile since I used to be a big X-phile.
Cordelia: This is all about me! Me, me, me!
Xander: Wow, for once she is right.
Cordelia: Um, I know we had our differences… but despite that… I know we share this feeling, deep inside…
Cordelia: People who think their problems are so huge craze me. Like this time I sort of ran over this girl on her bike. It was the most traumatizing event of *my* life, and she's trying to make it about *her* leg! Like *my* pain meant nothing.
Best/Most meaningful lines:
Cordelia: Hey! You think I'm never lonely because I'm so cute and popular? I can be surrounded by people and be completely alone. It's not like any of them really know me. I don't even know if they like me half the time. People just want to be in a popular zone. Sometimes when I talk, everyone's so busy agreeing with me, they don't hear a word I say.
Buffy: Well, if you feel so alone, then why do you work so hard at being popular?
Cordelia: Well, it beats being alone all by yourself.
Pop culture references: The Merchant of Venice (yes, it counts as pop culture because Shakespeare was a popular entertainer).
The prophecy Angel talks about is the subject of the season finale “Prophecy Girl”. When Buffy and Cordelia are tied up in the chairs of May King and Queen and about to be disfigured or killed by Marcie, it seems like foreshadowing for Buffy being the “sacrifice” needed to free the Master.
Buffy will try to beat Cordelia for the title of the May Queen in season 3 “Homecoming” and will try to bribe the voters with chocolate just like Cordy did in this episode.
More irony when Willow wonders if the invisible girl is a witch and says the Scoobies can fight a witch (referring to the events of the episode Witch).
This isn’t the last time someone is invisible on BtVS - Buffy will turn invisible in S6 ”Gone”, while Willow will be invisible to her friends in S7 “Same Time, Same Place”.
Buffy says the invisible girl is petty for a god. She hasn’t met a god yet, when she does in season 5 she’ll learn just how petty and self-absorbed gods can be!
Cordelia’s speech about feeling alone despite being surrounded by people and being popular sounds a bit like Buffy surrounded by adoring Slayers in S8.