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Watching Buffy: s02e18 “Killed By Death”

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Buffy has been *roaring* along, building momentum and confidence and impact to such a height that last week’s episode slammed into the viewer like a freight train. And to follow that – well, here’s the thing. The writing team have been using a long-form storytelling strategy where you take the 22 episodes of a standard US network TV season, and you treat those like chapters of your story. You put your pieces in place in the first chapters, you tighten the noose and build to a strong midpoint confrontation that foreshadows the rest of the story, then you put your big switch-up reversal to reveal a whole new horrifying challenge. Then you build up that new horror in intensity until it hits a peak of awfulness, and then you ride the inevitability of that right into climax mode.

Up until now, it’s all worked beautifully. Sadly, the plan squeals off the tracks right here. In a 22-chapter story, chapters 18, 19 and 20 can focus on building up to the climax, drawing all the threads together and preparing the ground, but in a serialised TV series, it doesn’t work like that. The show has found itself with three episodes to fill in before it can allow the final conflict to happen. Each episode has to be a unit of storytelling in its own right, not just buildup to the end, and while you can make an episodic story do that build-up work, it’s not easy.

So we have Killed By Death, with the unenviable task of explaining why Buffy has to have a few more adventures when she has every motivation to bring this whole saga with Angel to an end. It stalls for time in the most shameless way possible: Buffy suddenly gets sick. And the point is underlined not just by having Xander say “you’re too sick to fight Angel”, but having Angel turn up himself to demonstrate the same.

So the viewers, like Buffy, are forced to go to the hospital when they’d rather be doing something else.

The show drops Buffy into a spooky situation where there’s a monster stalking sick children. We’re kept off-balance by some ER-style handheld camerawork and a weird flashback sequence to Buffy as a child, where it’s hard to even work out that the child we see is young Buffy. This leads to a tragic backstory revelation: Buffy’s cousin was killed by a monster years ago,

The backstory feels very out-of-place in the greater Buffy mythology. That’s because it jars with the kind of ongoing, iconic comics-continuity narrative this show employs. The revelation that the monster killed her cousin
when they were both children belongs to a different kind of story, a filmic self-contained structure where the protagonist is intimately connected to the horror and overcomes her emotional wounds through the cathartic act of defeating it. It is no accident that we never hear about Celia or Buffy’s extended family ever again.

This is the second time an episode has focused on a threat to children, and like Nightmares, it doesn’t marry up with the thematic interests of the show. (Giles’ line “Well, sometimes small children *do* see something we adults don’t: us. Our true selves, our, our… our hidden faces.” is perhaps the low point of the whole season.)

Overall the episode is just out of alignment with where Buffy is at by now. The proof is in the resolution of the threat. I can just imagine the story conference: “Look, maybe she just punches him so hard he dies and that’s the end,” and everyone shrugs in resignation. They have two more episodes to fill in before they can get to the next part of the real story. D’oh.

Other thoughts:
* SMG continues to show unexpected versatility. Her ravings are genuine and quite moving.
* The showdown in the hospital, Xander vs. Angel, is simply superb. Xander is really working as a character at last.
* But the show’s MVP right now is Cordelia. They have her character down now, and she is extremely useful for storytelling – she drags subtext into text with great efficiency, and that makes it much easier for the show to play its tricks of subvert or outmaneuvering that messaging. She’s instant laughs, instant sexy, instant pathos, instant plot. She rules.
* I LOVE the final scene where Buffy, Xander and Willow are all insensitive teens to Joyce. Charming.

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