Here we go. The episodes leading up to this feel like shakedown runs, but here this show goes into high gear. This is where Buffy the show becomes Buffy the classic TV show, launching into a sustained run of excellence, hitting new heights every couple weeks and still climbing, just nailing every aspect of its premise and execution and having a massive influence on the world of TV in the process. Even with one loser in the mix (Bad Eggs), this must count as one of the greatest runs of TV ever produced.
And it starts right in the precredits. It’s a vamp-fighting sequence, bread-and-butter for the opening spot. But this one is an exceptional example. It’s funny. The fight is in a pumpkin patch and it leads to vampires being pelted with pumpkins, a scarecrow getting a stake through the heart, and some silly business with a haywagon and the pumpkin patch sign.
It’s also clever and portentous: there’s another vamp filming this battle on a camcorder, and seeing Buffy through the lens is instantly creepy, making her seem very vulnerable, while also nodding to the meta that this post-modern show loves to reference – the villain, like us, watches Buffy through a screen, and has a position of power over her as a result. (They didn’t forget the comedy here either – the camcorder’s battery is in the process of dying out.)
That’s the show’s offer: we do scary, and we do funny, and we do self-awareness. Like that stuff? Stick around.
There’s one other feature of the opening worth noting: not a single word of dialogue. Buffy says nothing. The vamp says nothing. There’s no ominous voice-over. It’s just action, but the storytelling couldn’t be clearer. There could be no greater sign of the show’s increasing confidence.
But here’s another anyway, just a few minutes later:
Buffy: I was gonna stay in and veg. The one night a year things are supposed to be quiet for me.
Xander: Halloween quiet? Oh, I figured it’d be a big old vamp scare-apalooza.
Buffy: Not according to Giles. He swears that tomorrow night is, like, dead for the undead. They stay in.
The casualness of this exchange – note how this exposition would usually be delivered by a stammering Giles in dramatic tones – hides some genius. For the first time in the series it is suggested the monsters of the night have their own social rules – they aren’t just horrific aberrations of our world, but a whole self-contained counterpoint to it. This puts the creatures of the night in an essentially satirical frame, as despite their otherwordly nature they still embrace mundane habits like taking a night off. The show gestured to this a bit in season one, where the Master would sometimes undercut his own bombast, but this is a bolder act, wrapping the show’s deadly horrors in the logic of comedy – it’s only a step or two away from the Sheepdog & Wolf Looney Tunes where the two enemies exchange small talk and clock in before beginning their vicious struggle.
The “night off on Halloween” has the curious effect of raising the tension instead of lowering it – we’re watching an episode of the show so something exciting has to happen, and it has to originate outside the normal boundaries of the show’s monster logic. It threatens to upset our expectations of what can happen on this show. In the end the danger doesn’t really deliver that kind of conceptual upheaval – the big shake-up is still a few episodes away – but it does remind the viewer not to get comfortable.
Monsters taking the night off on Halloween reinforces the message from School Hard about what kind of bad guys we’re dealing with here. The implication is, unmistakeably, that the vampires think Halloween is beneath them. Once again, the vampires are being set up as the cool kids, the rule-breakers, the ones who grew up too fast. They ‘re natural enemies for the sheltered nerds of the Sunnydale School Library.
And just one more sign of the show’s faith in itself: we’re over fifteen minutes deep before the supernatural threat finally turns up. That time is spent investing in character stories, and we get to explore the episode’s theme in a different way: while the show overall is revelling in its confidence, the characters are suffering from a lack of same. Questions of confidence beset the whole crew, giving us a good opportunity to check in on all our characters as season two gets properly rolling. The nature of the threat – costumes that turn the wearer into whatever they depict – allows this exploration to get charmingly literal.
Buffy’s lack of confidence falls in the usual place – her love life. She is still a bit in awe of Angel, and finds herself wanting next to Cordelia. She has just started dating Angel, her first romantic connection of the series, and it’s natural for her to be anxious about it. She ends up becoming a fainting, weak Ye Olden Times lady like those in Angel’s past.
Xander’s lack of confidence is in his “manliness”, specifically his reputation among other men. This follows on from Inca Mummy Girl where his fundamental heroism was affirmed, complicating the picture by showing that the opinions of others are crucial to his sense of identity, which is a very human failing. It’s also, unfortunately, not an encouraging direction for the character, and Xander comes across as even more foolish than usual. Still, it’s neat to see him transform into a badass military man.
Willow’s lack of confidence is in her sexuality – no-one notices her, and she thinks if she tries to act on her feelings she’d just make a fool of herself. This was hinted at in Inca Mummy Girl, where we were reminded that her attraction to Xander was unrequited and her only other romantic prospect in the series was a computer demon. The viewer is in a privileged position to know that her confidence is due a bump because she’s caught the attention of Oz, but once again Willow herself doesn’t find this out. And just as well – it gives her a chance to improve her confidence on her own terms, rather than because some boy likes her.
At the halfway mark the episode turns into a Willow showcase, because her confidence needs actual work, whereas Buffy and Xander basically need to get over themselves. Willow’s thematically perfect ghost costume ends up trapping her in the sexy outfit she’d chickened out of wearing, and she’s forced to guide everyone through the crisis and solve the mystery (which, pleasingly, she and Giles do in about ten seconds). She nails it, basically, and by the end she’s almost catching up to the viewers in how she sees herself. Finally she’s ready to actually meet Oz.
Giles also gets an arc. It’s weighted a bit differently, but you could describe his reserved personality as lacking in confidence. In the library sequence he is as stuffy and boring as he’s ever been, and Buffy saying Jenny Calendar liked him manages to throw him completely. This demonstration of Giles the stick in the mud is just setting us up for the three-quarter swerve, when we find out Giles was also known as Ripper, and has some kind of dark and dangerous past he’s not divulged before. The Giles we see facing down Ethan Rayne is a rougher, steelier version of the librarian.
So in this episode, all our core characters get some new layers and some reversals of expectations. They all get deeper and stronger and more interesting. This is the magic of season two – your groundwork is done, but your cast and situation is still fresh. Season two is your big chance to make something special – and this enormously fun episode demonstrates this show intends to be very special indeed.
* There’s some hilarious attention to continuity when the show remembers that Cordelia still hasn’t discovered Angel is a vampire, and plays it for lovely black comedy. (When Cordy is told Angel’s parents are dead, her first response is “oh good”!)
* And yet the show forgets its own rules about invitations with a random vampire in the Summers house. Like the breathing stuff, this show is much more interested in the consistency of its characters than the consistency of its fictional monster logic.
* Cordelia and Xander get another nice moment. Their characters have great chemistry right now.
* Spike basically just wanders through the episode being cooler than everything else. Until Buffy pummels him of course – and lets him get away. (This confrontation is superhero comic logic, once again.)
* Hmm, could’ve done without the pirate rape threat from Larry. Hi recurring bit player Larry, welcome to the show!