Last episode I talked about how the show had built up a lot of confidence and then promptly screwed up. This time around, they stick the landing – with style. If this episode was a talent show entrant, it would win the prize.
It surprises me that this episode has a poor reputation. It’s charming as hell. The show is relishing being itself, telling here a story that only Buffy the Vampire Slayer could tell, and the gags are interwoven with horror flourishes and solid character work in a way that shows off the potential of the Buffy formula.
Most of all, this episode wants to show off the 3/4-ish swerve that is steadily becoming a more important part of the Buffy style. This show doesn’t just want to keep you entertained, it wants to utterly wrongfoot you at least once an episode. The promise to the viewers is clear: we will surprise you.
Surprise, genuine surprise, is rare on television. The Twilight Zone traded in surprise, but most other classics of television found that surprise didn’t deliver what they needed. Structure and repetition were the things that kept viewers happy and kept them coming back. Now and then TV did offer surprises planned and unplanned, but these were memorable precisely because they cut against the ethos of the times. By the 90s, surprises were more frequently encountered on the screen, especially on the fringe networks where shock and surprise had value. They still didn’t have too much penetration in weekly scripted comedies and dramas, where they tended to be saved for “sweeps week” episodes where surprises were teased in advance to create a ratings bump. And here was this new young show deciding to make surprise one of the stylistic anchors of their whole endeavour.
Of course this goes right back to the pilot episode and the death of Jesse – the idea that noone, and nothing is safe. The flipside of that is, everything is possible, and this episode lays that out in the most clear-cut way possible.
So, the story. This episode is about a sinister ventriloquist’s dummy. Mysterious deaths are happening at the school talent show, and the dummy (and its owner) are implicated. The audience even sees the doll stalking Buffy. And yet the sinister dummy motif is openly mocked throughout the first half of the the episode. The show is taunting us: do you really think we’d go there, to the living ventriloquist’s dummy, the stupidest of all horror motifs? Can you guess what we’ve got up our sleeve? Here, let’s tease that the new Principal is the villain! Ha, that’s too obvious a swerve. Or is it?
This gamesmanship will only work if the reveal, when it comes, lives up to the hype. And they nail it. The dummy is alive! But – wait a second – it’s a good guy? It’s a demon hunter?
People who, like me, have fallen in love with the Buffy mythos are inured to its flourishes of weirdness and goofiness. This episode is where all that really starts up. Once you introduce an animate ventriloquist dummy demon hunter, you have opened a road to kooksville and put up a welcome sign. But that’s not the whole story, of course: Sid the dummy isn’t just a piece of weirdness, he is a character in every sense, and given both respect and sympathy by the script. They don’t just play him straight, they put him right at the centre of the episode’s dramatic arc. There was no other show that could tell this story. Buffy was marking its territory.
With 9 episodes down, Buffy isn’t done growing yet. It hasn’t properly started grappling with the problem of Jesse, and the dense emotional content that will become the show’s backbone isn’t in place. But so much else is right there to see in this episode, and that’s why I think the bad reputation is inexplicable. This is far and away my favourite story in season 1.
* The show’s confidence is also on show in the willingness to let the cast play a bit more loosely, encouraging and keeping some ad libs, like Xander’s “redrum” and – this one’s perfection and signals the actress’s future anchoring a long-running sitcom – Willow freezing and running off-stage. There’s also a marvellous gag where Giles brings all the young performers in for a “power circle” just before the show starts. Hilariously deadpan.
* Poor dead Morgan was the smartest kid in school. So were the demon-abused computer geeks in episode 8. It doesn’t pay to be a geek in Sunnydale High!
* Sinister, nasty, slimy Principal Snyder is introduced this episode. He immediately starts laying the groundwork for the world of Sunnydale beyond the confines of the school.
* More signs of the influence of 70s/80s Marvel Comics on this show: the subtle continuity references when Snyder refers to the school’s reputation for “Suicide, missing persons, spontaneous cheerleader combustion…”; the willingness to embrace goofiness plays to me very much like the stranger end of 70s Marvel, particularly the work of Steve Gerber – Sid the demon hunting dummy would fit right into his Defenders run.
* But most of all, this episode plays out like every single superhero team-up – two heroes meet, have a fight due to a misunderstanding (they each think the other is a demon), then figure out their mistake and team up to take out the bad guy.