Watching Buffy: s01e09 “Puppet Show”

Pictured: a piece of wood shaped like a person, and also oh forget it you can do the rest of the joke yourself

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.

Other thoughts:
* 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.

10 thoughts on “Watching Buffy: s01e09 “Puppet Show””

  1. You keep talking about the 3/4 swerve. Do these episodes lose a lot in the rewatching when you already knowing all about what happens?

  2. An excellent question. I am honestly not sure of my answer. What you describe sounds like a real risk for this kind of storytelling! But I’m leaning towards “no”, meaning the episodes relish the surprise but they don’t rely on them so there’s plenty else to keep me entertained. That research saying that spoilers don’t ruin our enjoyment springs to mind too. Still, I’m not committed to that answer – I’ll try and keep it in mind as I keep going and see where I land. What do you reckon, do you think the big-surprise episodes suffer on a rewatch?

  3. I would say that it gives me something to look forward to. I can watch the build up, see how it’s crafted, and know there’s a good pay off coming.
    There must be something in it, otherwise DVD sales wouldn’t be what they are.

  4. Yeah, that sounds right – there’s definitely satisfaction in seeing the buildup and the twist.

  5. Urban fantasies are all a bit like operas – you sing what can’t be said. The mythology you invoke each episode addresses a concern that can’t be tackled head-on. What deeper or wider psychological issue is tackled by this episode? For what is the creepy dummy a metaphor? The trouble is, I think, that compared to other episodes, this doesn’t deal with anything larger than it looks like it’s dealing with.

  6. It doesn’t always have to be as crude as “the creepy dummy must be the metaphor of the week” though. There’s a lot more going on than the dummy A-plot. Consider, for example, that this is the episode that introduces Principal Snyder. The episode pairs him with the dummy, using them both as red herrings for the real villain – only for Snyder to emerge as the most insidious villain of the show, an authority figure who wields his petty amount of power as a weapon for two entire series. He’s one of those teachers who points their finger at troubled kids and predicts a bad end (just like a couple of teachers I had who lined up to say “I told you so” when one particularly troubled kid grew up to be involved in a murder – a kid I don’t remember anyone trying to help despite his circumstances being bad enough to make the news; they seemed to regard him as an irredeemably bad egg, just as Snyder regards Buffy).

  7. My heart’s not wholly into putting up much of a fight on that one – you’re basically on the money! If we’re thinking though, about the basic story currency of Buffy, it’s the myth-as-metaphor; that’s something they lean on until the final shot of the final episode. This episode doesn’t deal much in that currency. If we’re looking for reasons why it’s under-rated, it seems like a good place to start our investigation.

    The natural follow-up question is how Snyder interacts with the mythology: how is he fundamentally, mythologically, different from, say, Van Clemmons? I think Fluty had to go because he had no entry into the real world Buffy inhabits, while Snyder is a gate-keeper and cleaner. In particular, Snyder’s relationship to and with the Mayor is a crucial one. The Mayor is my favourite of the Big Bad’s, and Snyder is useful for scouting out the territory that the Mayor will occupy.

  8. For what it’s worth, I think that the dummy does work within the highschool-is-hell metaphorical framing. I think Sid represents the world of adults – the growing, weird realisation among young folks that oldies are actually people, the past is just a variation on the present, and real life didn’t just begin with our generation. It’s about engendering a kind of humility, and making intergenerational connections possible. It’s not a very strong metaphorical angle, and it isn’t very “hellish” – although it fits into a general age-appropriate theme of young-people-being-put-in-their-place (see also: Snyder). Still, I think it’s there: Sid is an old-fashioned doll containing the spirit of an old man, who is nevertheless completely engaged in the most urgent business of youth – demonhunting.

  9. That said, I appreciate Alasdair’s suggestion that the lack of metaphor might contribute to lack of popularity. That would still work if the metaphor is low-key, as I’m suggesting.

    I’m expecting I’ll have lots more to say about Snyder as I go along. I think you’re both right there – Pearce noting the scale of his villainous effect, and Alasdair that he functions as a gatekeeper into the wider world where the Mayor is operating.

  10. I think Alasdair is spot on tagging Snyder as a gatekeeper and as a cleaner. Snyder knows that the school is on a Hellmouth and that monsters regularly kill students, but rather than deal with it, he covers it up. He’s more concerned with the semblance of order than with actively preventing problems. We’ve seen too many instances of this sort of thing in the real world, the Steubenville rape case being a particularly visible example.

    It’s also crucial to his character that he’s a bad cop who thinks he’s a good cop, but he isn’t actually corrupt, just mean-spirited and misguided. (Jumping considerably ahead, note his confusion when the Mayor stops him from arresting Buffy, and his further outrage when at the disruption of the Graduation Ceremony; he doesn’t ever realise how out of his depth he is, and after all of his snide comments about Flutey being eaten he ends up with the same fate.)

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