Chris Claremont took over the Marvel Comic The Uncanny X-Men for issue #94, cover date May 1975. Joss Whedon was about to turn eleven. And since the golden age of
science fiction comics is twelve, he was perfectly placed to soak up Claremont’s heady mix of outsized action and soap operatics across the coming years. Claremont’s X-Men work is known for its strong female characters and closely-tracked emotions, and the influences on Whedon’s vision for Buffy the Vampire Slayer are obvious. Like other Marvel books, continuity was celebrated, with returning villains a particularly common occurrence. Plot threads would deliberately be left dangling, relationships between characters would constantly change under the influence of dramatic events, and shocking revelations would be made that change your understanding of a character. You were constantly reminded that the story you were reading was just a component in a larger narrative, one that a casual reader might not fully understand.
The first season of Buffy had the Claremontian strong female characters and sympathetic emotions, but it was also very episodic, with only occasional and superficial nods to continuity and development. From the start of season two a clear shift was evident as Whedon and his team started encouraging continuity and pushing characters into arcs of change. In this, the eighth episode of the second season, Buffy slips entirely out of the world of self-contained episodes and becomes the television equivalent of a Chris Claremont comic: full of action, full of emotions, and comprehensible only as part of a greater whole.
Sure, you could watch this episode as your first Buffy and you’d be fine. Scary stuff happens, there’s jokes, it’s an engaging way to spend your time. But you’d also spend the whole episode thinking “I’ve arrived in the middle of something”. This episode draws on multiple plot threads spun out over this season and the last: the flirtation between Giles and Jenny, the changing relationship between Giles and Buffy, the mystery of Giles’ past with Ethan Rayne, the uncertain position Angel holds with the rest of the group, to name the most prominent examples. As of now the show doesn’t just reward the committed, it aims directly at them and leaves casual viewers to fend for themselves. It’s a daring move. Buffy wasn’t the first show to bring in continuity-dense ongoing narrative to weekly drama/action TV, but this mode was still uncommon. The move was also very savvy indeed, because it turned out that the show’s audience was ready to commit, and commit hard.
A commitment to long-form structures allows (requires?) a heightened engagement with the show’s ensemble. This episode delivers something genuinely new: a Giles spotlight episode. Giles is an odd character, both inside the core group (because he knows the truth) and outside of it (because he’s an adult). When a show about being a teenager at high school suddenly turns its focus upon an adult… well, what does happen?
The precredits sequence has a man seeking Giles getting killed by a very creepy monster. His screams for help are drowned out by Buffy’s aerobics music, which is perhaps the cruelest gag in the series so far, but also puts us gently in the Giles frame of mind – he spends the sequence complaining about the noise. But this is just softening us up for what we get right after the credits: a spooky dream sequence like the ones that bothered Buffy in season one, only this time it’s Giles having the rough sleep. And once we get that shot of Giles in his PJs, our point of view is locked in with him for the first time. Not coincidentally, it’s clear we’re about the get some insight into Giles’s dubious history, as hinted at just two episodes previous.
We get some time with our Buffy/Xander/Willow trio, as they talk about and speculate about Giles, before handing off to the man himself. Away from the young people we track Giles through a lovely moment with Jenny Calendar, who continues to be charmingly forthright about what she wants, and then crash right into trouble: there are police in the library investigating the murder of the precredits victim.
Now this is a shocking moment for this show. There have been quite a few deaths on this show before, several of them on-campus, but apart from the brief moment at the end of School Hard, the police haven’t been seen once. (And they were only seen in that episode to make the point that they absolutely wouldn’t be investigating the death.) A murder investigation is simply not part of the way stories work in Buffy. We have to suspend our disbelief for metaphor monsters to keep threatening high schoolers, and police investigations put all of that in doubt.
What this signifies, of course, is that we are not in a Buffy story any more. We are in a Giles story. He’s an adult, the gatekeeper to the real world, and handing him the point of view means opening the door to all kinds of adult complications. Speaking of doors – shortly afterward he closes his door in Buffy’s face, refusing to allow her to reclaim the POV of her own show. And a few scenes after that we see that the logic of Giles-POV is asserting itself over the entire show, when Buffy makes the uncharacteristic suggestion of handing Ethan Rayne over to the police, instead of electing to just beat the snot out of him. We’re in the Giles show now, whether we like it or not – and it’s clear from Giles’s behaviour that no-one’s going to like this one.
The monster, a possessing demon, seizes control of Jenny Calendar. We then have an unnerving sequence where demon-Jenny tries to follow through on real-Jenny’s promises by seducing Giles. And so we see the merit of Giles’s caution and reserve – he doesn’t give in to a demon, of course, but more importantly, he refuses to take advantage of a situation where consent is unclear. Nice work, Giles.
So, Giles has shown his worth by remaining steadfast and moral in the face of temptation, but he’s also shown he’s unworthy of carrying the show by shutting Buffy out in the first place. Time for the title character to grab control of her own show again. She does so, of course, by kicking in the door that Giles had previously closed in her face. She stomps in to save Giles from Jenny, and the truth comes out about Giles’s youthful foolishness, meddling with powerful forces that are now coming to kill him (and his old mate Ethan – the point isn’t made strongly, but Giles’ old circle is a clear parallel to the current group around Buffy).
With Buffy reinstated as protagonist for the final section of the show, we get a rush of problem-solving and ass-kicking. Willow figures out a way to out-manoeuvre the demon and Angel shows up at just the right time to make it happen. Of course, the police disappear from the narrative entirely.
Then we get a concluding moment between Giles and Jenny. Traditionally in this kind of adventure narrative, jeopardy like this brings a couple closer together – but this show is not that show. In accordance with the principles of genuine emotion and genuine threat, Jenny is unnerved by her experience and doesn’t want to pursue a relationship with Giles any more. It’s a very human reaction, and completely unexpected in terms of television storytelling, although perhaps not as surprising if considered as a relative of the unlucky sad sacks of Marvel comics. It’s also a further illumination as to how this show intends to manage the Problem of Jesse: by embracing the misery, when it comes, so the bright spots shine all the brighter in comparison.
The episode closes, as it must, with an exchange between Buffy and Giles, where Buffy reflects on her greater understanding of Giles as a person. She takes on the role of adviser and comforter to him – a direct mirror of the closing moments of the previous episode. The most interesting thing in this exchange is so small you almost miss it, however. Giles says “I never wanted you to see that side of me.” Note that he speaks in the present tense. The Giles that Ethan calls Ripper, the short-sighted and angry and foolish and dangerous Giles, is not gone. Ripper isn’t a youthful phase he grew out of – it’s an aspect of his personality that remains, suppressed but far from gone. This conversation with Buffy is the start of Giles’s slow journey to accept that side of himself. We have not seen the last of Ripper.
* Curious that Buffy’s breaking up a blood heist – surely it’s preferable that vampires drink stolen blood supplies rather than go out hunting for the fresh variety? And doesn’t Angel get his blood from supplies like this? This is all glossed, typically for this show, which never really pays much attention to where all these vampires are getting their blood. The real-world implications of a vampire plague in Sunnydale would belong in the Giles show, but they have no place in Buffy.
* There’s a great bit where Xander can’t stop Ethan, but Cordy promptly nutsacks him and he goes down. There’s some great Xander-Cordy action throughout this episode showing their growing sympatico – Xander grabs Cordy to protect her, Cordy asks Xander to explain things – but they still talk about how much they hate each other at every opportunity. The show is canny here, quietly priming us for something to happen between these characters but always hiding it in the periphery of scenes so it never gets soap-opera obvious.
* It’s unpleasant to see the show go after Jenny, who’s such a fun character. Luckily it all turns out all right! Phew, it’s good to know she’s safe from now on!
* This episode has a superlative three-quarter swerve: Buffy gets betrayed by Ethan Rayne. After spending the whole episode convincing you that they wouldn’t do the most obvious thing in the world, they then do the most obvious thing in the world. Love it.
* Crazy green backlight as demon Jenny arrives at Ethan’s shop. It goes out as she comes in. Traffic lights? Or is a Russell Mulcahy film being shot outside?
* “We’ve got to figure out how to solve this problem and we have to do it now!” *sips cup of tea*