The demon Moloch the Corruptor, the main villain of the episode, has the name of an ancient Semitic god known for demanding human sacrifices, children in particular. (This is incidentally the episode with the first ‘historical’ flashback we get in the show, which is inaccurate since it is supposed to be from the Middle Ages, but it’s set in 1418 Italy, which was very much in the Renaissance.) This Moloch is a charismatic leader who seduces his followers, found among teenagers and young adults, with promises of power, knowledge or love, demanding their love and devotion and killing them once he gets it. While the episode first seems focused on the dangers of Internet dating/friendships (Willow meets Moloch online, under the assumed identity of “Malcolm”, and falls for him), including child abusers who look for their victims in chat rooms, the demon trapped in a book and then transferred to the computer and gaining new power through Internet, is an obvious metaphor for dangerous populist ideologies, which can spread through books (such as, say, “Mein Kampf” or “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”), but even more so through the Internet, which generally involves less censorship or control and a more wide audience. The debate about computers and the Internet – with two opposing views represented by Giles and Jenny - ends on a more balanced view: new technologies are in itself not any more ‘evil’ than the old books, but printed word is not obsolete in the computer age. Giles explains his love of books through his love of their physicality, their smell and touch; Moloch ends up confirming this view – despite the power he can have through the Internet, he wants to also be corporeal again, to be able to touch.
Xander shows jealousy over Willow’s relationship with ‘Malcolm’, and Buffy calls him on it. Even though Xander says he is not interested in Willow in a romantic way, he is used to being the main man in Willow’s life. This jealousy will resurface in a stronger way when Willow starts dating Oz.
I’m still not sure if the development of Willow’s sexuality in the later seasons was completely believable in the light of the early seasons, but I do think that it was more convincing than it would have been if Buffy or Xander had had a “gay now” storyline (apparently, Whedon planned to make either Willow or Xander gay, and Seth Green’s departure in season 4 was one of the factors that decided who it would be), and a scene in this episode that shows the difference between Buffy’s and Willow’s attitude to men and dating is one of the moments that can be used to support the later development of sexuality. She was not a very sexual character in the early seasons, her first crush was on her childhood friend, and one may say that her crushes/relationships were more about being drawn to someone’s personality than about physical attraction. This is certainly the case in this episode – she falls for a “boy” she has never seen, based on their interaction online, while Buffy is unable to understand how one can fall for someone if they don’t know what the person looks like (the worst thing she can imagine is if Willow found out Malcolm had a hairy back :D). Willow and Xander both got seduced by dangerous people because they longed to have someone pay attention to them, but in Xander’s case it was a hot teacher who showed sexual interest in him, while Willow fell for a guy online who seemed sensitive, intelligent and interested in her – which may fall into the gender stereotype, but in this case it seems to be more about the difference in personality. For Buffy, it’s a combination of both – physical attraction plays a significant part in her interest in men, but personality is as important: she is drawn to mystery and to the aura of maturity and confidence (which is why goofy Xander doesn’t stand a chance), and, like Willow, she wants to be accepted for what she is. (Although it has to be said that at this point Willow still seems to think that beauty equals goodness and that you can tell the book by its cover - she says Malcolm can’t have a hairy back because “he doesn’t look seem someone who has a hairy back”.)
Moloch is an early example how romantic rhetoric can be dangerous and destructive and how it can be used to used to seduce and mislead, which is something we’ll see more of later (most notably in season 8), all the more so when it’s combined with big promises of power, specialness and happiness (he promises to give Willow the world, which is very similar to what Darla told Liam as she was about to sire him, and it also recalls Drusilla/William, and, again, season 8). Willow rejects his possessive, controlling and immoral ‘love’ as something that isn’t love at all, which is another one of show’s frequent themes – if selfish love should be considered love. It’s worth mentioning that Willow saw through ‘Malcolm’ before she knew he was a demon (as soon as he started acting suspicious and tried to turn her against Buffy), showing once again that she is not gullible or blinded by her feelings, just like she did with Hyena!Xander.
Recurring characters introduced: Jenny Calendar. The (mildly) belligerent sexual tension between her and Giles is set up from the start, and here they also represent two different attitudes towards modern technologies – Giles is an old-fashioned lover of books who distrusts or despises computers and Internet, while Jenny, computer science teacher, identifies as a techno-pagan.
Best scene: The ending – Buffy, Willow and Xander compare their love lives and the fact that their love interests all turned out to be demons:
Buffy: "Let's face it. None of us are ever gonna have a happy, normal
Xander: "We're doomed!"
(They all laugh and then suddenly stop and freeze, looking unhappy.)
Buffy: "This guy could be anybody. He could be weird or crazy or old or...he
could be a circus freak--he's probably a circus freak!"
Xander: "Yeah, I mean we read about it all the time. You know, people meet on
the net, they talk, they get together, have dinner, a show... horrible axe murder."
Buffy: "Willow, axe murdered by a circus freak!"
Giles: "I'll be back in the Middle Ages."
Jenny: "Did you ever leave?"
Other observations: You know that the episode was shot in 1997 when a character replies to “I met him online” with: "On line to what?"
Xander mentions his uncle (is this the first mention of the infamous Uncle Rory?) who used to work “in a floor-sweeping capacity” in the computer lab.
Continuity check: Buffy refers to Angel as “The one boy I had the hots for since I moved here” – so Owen has indeed been completely forgotten, or is she saying she wasn’t really attracted to him?
Inconsistencies: Buffy’s birthday in her school file is 24/10/1980, but later we learn that she is born in 1981 (according to the inscription on her grave in both “Nightmares” and “The Gift”).
Pop culture references: The title refers to “I, Robot" by Isaac Assimov, “Tarzan”, and an episode of “The Outer Limits”. A monk in the episode is called Thelonius – a pun on the name of the jazz musician Thelonius Monk. Buffy compares herself to Spiderman (“My spider sense if tingling”). The name of one of Moloch’s student minions is Dave, which may be a reference to "2001 Space Odyssey” – Dave is the name of the astronaut who discovers that the computer HAL has gone mad and killed everyone else on the ship. The other minion is called Fritz, which is a possible homage to Fritz Lang. One of Lang’s best known films, “Metropolis”, features a fantasy scene in which the main character, after an accident in which several workers were killed, sees the factory machine as the monstrous Moloch devouring humans. Another one of his famous films, “M”, is about a pedophiliac serial killer who kills children, who is at one point marked with the letter “M” on his clothes. In this episode, Fritz carves the letter “M” into his arm.
Foreshadowing (?): The last scene (with Buffy, Xander and Willow saying that they’re never going to ever have happy, normal relationships) is very fitting for the episode that starts the Giles/Jenny romance, which will end tragically. It’s also quite prophetic, though some of them will have happy relationships for a while, but even then the ‘normal’ part is questionable, since so many of the Scoobies' love interests will be demons, vampires or werewolves. Willow’s comment that Malcolm can’t possibly have a hairty back since he doesn’t seem like that kind of person becomes ironic when we know that in about a year Willow will have a boyfriend who gets very hairy once a month!
There’s a lot of irony in Buffy saying "OK you have a secret, that's not allowed" to Willow, since she will herself be keeping many secrets from her friends in the following seasons. And while Buffy is making an excellent point when she asks Willow how much she really knows about the “wonderful” Malcolm, there’s some irony in the fact that Buffy doesn’t really know Angel that well.
(EDIT: I first gave it 2.5, but in retrospect, after my re-rewatch, I've decided to change it to 2.0, even though I haven't changed any of the opinions about the episode; it's just that I was forced to reevaluate my initial ratings since it's weaker than a few of the episodes I've rated 2.5)