The third and final space-filler episode between Passion and the finale is a comedy episode with lots of Xander. Buffy has built up its ability to zig and zag through tones and moods but if that sounds less than credible as a diversion in the middle of the worst crisis imaginable, you’re right, it is.
The episode starts with a gruesome image of victims being skinned alive, and reveals a mysterious sea monster clearly inspired by the Gill-man of the Black Lagoon films. The Scooby gang end up investigating the Sunnydale High Swim Team, who are using performance-enhancing drugs that turn them into sea monsters. That’s the premise, but the don’t-do-performance-enhancing-drugs message is so heavyhanded it plays as parody, and it turns out the episode has a few other things on its mind.
Buffy meets swimmer Cameron, who wins her interest with his poetic/philosophical ruminations on the sea. Of course, in a reprise of Reptile Boy, he’s deeply involved in the trouble and not as nice as he appears. This becomes apparent as soon as he gets alone with Buffy in his car, when he turns the encounter sexual, tries to convince her she wants him to, and locks her in with him when she tries to leave. After that when he lays a hand on her she smashes his face into the steering wheel, breaking his nose. That’s unpleasant enough, but the episode’s only getting started: Snyder witnesses this and Buffy finds herself in the high-school courtroom of the principal’s office. Here, Cameron goes directly to blaming Buffy: “I don’t know what happened. I mean, first she leads me on, then she goes schizo on me.” Cameron’s importance to the school’s sporting fortunes is directly invoked, and the swim coach walks Cameron away with a shot at Buffy: “…try to dress more appropriately from now on. This isn’t a dance club.”
This is part of the show’s continuing interest in what has come to be called rape culture, here with a focus on the culture of entitlement and victim-blaming that surrounds high status young men in high school and serves to promote, protect, and excuse sexually predatory behaviour. However, unlike Reptile Boy which based its narrative on similar ground, this episode refuses to mitigate the troubles here with a supernatural flourish. Cameron wasn’t trying to recruit Buffy into a cult or suck on her blood, and the school isn’t protecting him due to a demonic bargain or to fulfill a dark prophecy. It’s all simply literal: a high school boy simply assumes the girl he’s with will accept his sexual advances, blames her for the trouble when she refuses, and is protected by the school.
This is refreshing. Buffy is intended to be powerful enough to violate the scripts about young women, and throughout the show she has thrown down every instance of patriarchal oppression thus far (with the exception, of course, of the still-unfolding danger of Angel). It is salutary to remind viewers (and Buffy herself) that these scripts can envelop a young woman in a whole social structure with a vested interest in her failure. Buffy is strong enough to break Cameron’s nose, but there is nothing her chosen status can do that will stop society around her from turning on her for harming the untouchable golden boy. Without occasional reminders like this, Buffy’s messaging would start to look like a fairy-tale feminism where every threat to gender equality could be neutralized if women just learned some martial arts and pumped themselves with just a smidgen of super-strength. The show is intended to be fundamentally empowering, but it has to stay honest about the limitations of its message as well.
However, this also plays weirdly in the larger narrative of the season. As mentioned, we’re currently carrying the open wound of Angel’s murder of Jenny Calendar, an ongoing reminder of Buffy’s limitations and a potent metaphorical invocation of the insidious power of rape culture. Moving Buffy into a headspace where she can be the focus of this Cameron storyline is not entirely unbelievable, but it does feel deeply unnecessary, especially when the next episode is driven right from the start by Buffy’s furious focus on Angel. Both of the previous interludes manage to sustain some psychological continuity from Passion, but this story can’t manage it.
This plotline, about the institutional sexism protecting these powerful young men, is resolved piecemeal. Swim team star Gage is humbled by Buffy’s saving him from Angel, and asks her to walk him home, symbolically removing their power; the institutional protection is shown to be in service of a deeply corrupt (fishmonster-creating) system, and therefore shown to be illegitimate. However, the episode can’t resist ending the narrative on a particularly sour note, where Buffy is captured by the coach and threatened with being literally raped to death by the fish monsters that were once powerful young men; this fate instead befalls the coach himself. There is no ambiguity or reading-in here, it is made very clear in dialogue: “So, what, you’re just gonna feed me to ’em?” “Oh, they’ve already had their dinner. But boys have other needs.” And later, “Those boys really love their coach.” I’m going to say that again to give it due emphasis: Buffy is threatened with being raped to death. The Coach is raped to death. Buffy reacts with quips, and the show’s zippy pacing carries you through the moment, but by any measure this is a deeply unpleasant and entirely unnecessary denouement.
For all the joy to be had in the episode – series-MVP Cordelia’s incredible speech to the monster she thinks is Xander! – it is hard to get past the deeply unpleasant content threaded throughout, making this episode a hard one to love. I think it’s quite likely the creative team fumbled this episode because they were so focused on what was coming up – it isn’t the first time they’ve done that, after all. And as with that previous instance, they knew that they were about to lay down something very special indeed.
* The ep was written by David Fury and his wife. It’s Fury’s first episode, and he’ll be another important figure for Buffy down the line, but it’s hard to work out what’s up with this story – was it a spec script he was shopping around that got him the writing job? Possibly.
* Sunnydale has a beach! Who knew.
* Jonathan gets bullied, and is unhappy that Buffy intervenes to help him. (Xander’s played this same tune before.) He ends up becoming a legitimate subplot for the first time, a big step up for the recurring bit player. Willow accuses him of summoning a hellbeast, even…
* Speaking of Xander, he gets a big surprise-sexy-body moment where the girls all ogle him. The moment is delightfully undercut by Nick Brendan’s anxious flapping, one of the best uses the show has found for this schtick. Sadly, the Xander moment that sticks with me is his snarling zinger calling Buffy a “swim team perk”.
* Putting over the steroid-abuse narrative regrettably means forcing Snyder to act out of character – the idea of Snyder bending the rules for sports stars doesn’t mesh with anything previously established about him, and the “be a team player” mantra is equally jarring.
* There’s a meta moment where Willow refers to Sunnydale High’s unfeasibly large mortality rate – weirdly, this plays against a moment later on when Buffy tells swimmer A that, hey, you know how swimmer B and C got viciously killed? You might be next! And he’s all meeeh, no biggie.
* Nurse in the water under the grill is a riff on Aliens, right?
* Giles: “Either we’ll find an effective antidote or…” *walks away*