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Watching Buffy: s03e12 “Helpless”

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The relationship between Buffy and Giles sits at the centre of the show but is never the centre of attention. He was initially a stuffy patriarchal authority but across the first season, Buffy slowly won him over, until he adopted an unorthodox style that complemented her own. In the second season their relationship was shown to be strong and loving, with Giles giving Buffy support (and, occasionally, correction) in what was very much a parental mode. It is no accident that Buffy has been without an actual father! Giles has been shown to consistently be the conscience of the show, the higher-order Freudian superego that keeps the other aspects of the show’s character balance in check. Giles the character has been broadened and explored in other ways too, through his romance with Jenny Calendar, and subsequent loss and hardening; but throughout, he has been the show’s bedrock, a reliable presence who only wavers in the most extreme circumstances, and the one who gives comfort and safety to Buffy on her very worst days.

With this context in place, the first act break in this episode gives us a devastating revelation: Giles has been hypnotising Buffy and secretly injecting her with some drug or other. The betrayal is absolutely enormous. It isn’t absolutely clear that these injections are the source of the lethargy that is affecting Buffy – just one episode previous, after all, the first act break was Willow’s involvement in a sinister ritual that turned out to be innocent in nature – but the act itself is violation enough, a deeply creepy penetration of Buffy’s bodily autonomy without her knowledge or consent. This alludes to the crime of drugging a woman and then sexually assaulting her, which even in metaphor is a horrific association with Giles. While shocking, this intrusion into our safe assumptions about Giles is one the core themes of the show: women are hurt by men.

This episode puts at the forefront a problem with the show’s structure that has sat quietly unaddressed since the end of season one: even though her personal relationship with Giles has changed, Buffy is still subject to a large patriarchal institution. It turns out that Giles’s betrayal is mandated by his own masters, the Watcher’s Council. We have heard much about them before now – most recently, that they tend to exclude Giles from their activities – but this is the first appearance on-screen of the embodiment of establishment power that is Quentin Travers. Giles cannot protect her from the Council. Women are hurt by men, and the Watcher/Slayer relationship, even in the ameliorated form existing between Giles and Buffy, is impossible to fully reconcile with this theme.

The Council was never made to be looked at closely. If there is an global organisation with the resources to put a highly-trained occult researcher into an undercover role in a school she’s going to attend – well, then, surely the global org can deliver other support too, especially given Buffy seems to keep saving the world. Of course, this would violate the thematic structure of the show – Buffy cannot be part of a large organisation or all the metaphors break down! So the Council is portrayed as distant and virtually uninterested in Buffy and her activities. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, but we roll with it, because that’s how we get the show we want to watch.

It is notable, though, that the Council’s first appearance in the series is through a violation of Buffy’s autonomy that is inexcusable and abhorrent. The nature of the Council is being made absolutely clear by this storytelling choice: although they speak loftily of the importance of their work, they exist to harm those with less power. They are tainted and corrupt and inimical to Buffy.

The drama of the episode arises from two questions: how will Buffy manage to overcome this dramatic trial? How will Giles respond to the test of his character posed by his part in the abuse of Buffy? Both are answered in most dramatic fashion.

The challenge Buffy faces is depicted with as much intensity as anything in the series. Without her powers, she is extremely vulnerable, and the show makes you feel it by deploying the visual structure of a horror film – doubly effective because of the jarring awareness that it is powerful Buffy stumbling about in terror here. (The only precedent for the sustained and terrifying chase sequence is the one where Angelus hunted Jenny Calendar through the school, and that ended in a shocking fashion.) The episode’s monster, Kralik, is a fantastic threat, charismatic and unnerving and full of personality – exactly the kind of figure that could carry the dramatic weight of doing something really bad to the show’s balance. The showdown between Buffy and Kralik, when it comes at last, is again right out of a horror movie, Buffy as final girl, and edge-of-seat terrifying to watch. It would be easy to let down this storyline with a resolution that feels false, Buffy winning because she must for the show to continue, but the show doesn’t drop the ball here. It finds a beautiful resolution where Buffy outsmarts Kralik, and her victory feels totally earned.

The challenge to Giles is similarly powerful, albeit less breathlessly thrilling. The parental aspects of his relationship to Buffy are highlighted by the failure of Buffy’s father to come through for her, and the presence of Joyce in the narrative, and even the clear evocation of Buffy’s teenage sexuality in her sweaty sparring session with Angel and the suspiciously phallic crystal (another reading of Giles’s intrusive injection is a father sedating and annulling the sexual urges of his daughter, because he doesn’t want her to be a sexually independent being).

Obviously and unsurprisingly, Giles does not hold the line for Travers and the Council, but defects to confess the truth to Buffy. And here the show does not do the unsurprising thing: Buffy does not forgive and appreciate Giles’s confession. She is horrified and repulsed and flees from him, forcing him to appreciate that his actions were even more awful than he has admitted to himself. Later, after the danger is past, Giles faces the consequences of his actions: he is summarily dismissed from the Council and his role as Buffy’s Watcher. Although he is affronted because he sees this as a disruption of his relationship with Buffy, it is in fact the best thing that could happen for their relationship: he is freed of the tainted institution and can give Buffy support without the unsettling structural power hanging over their every interaction. There is a lovely scene where they reconcile as he gently, silently tends her wounds.

The show reasserts its fundamental opposition to structures where men claim power over women. The imbalance that has been part of the show since the first episode is finally expunged, and patriarchy is properly undercut. The show celebrates the occasion in typically distinctive style: by ending on Xander failing to open a jar. Just one more great moment in an episode full of them. Buffy‘s third season continues to excel.

Other notes:
* Typically Whedon geek reference, where Xander and Oz debate types of kryptonite. This kind of nerdery has become a lot more common in the years since this show!
* And, as is now customary, some gratuitous continuity references to Amy the rat and even Kendra’s stake, Mr Pointy.
* Angel confesses to Buffy that he saw her before she became a slayer. It plays… weirdly. Their relationship is kind of fuzzy and strange here, guilt-wracked self-denial replaced with a kind of self-deprecating chemistry.
* One interesting switch on a recent episode – once again Buffy steps up to stop some schoolyard bullying, but this time the guy she steps to doesn’t even know who she is. This isn’t really a continuity error – it’s a big school! – but it does jar.

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