Most TV shows have a tone that is fairly easy to understand. Lots of cops-investigating-murders shows run on furrowed brows and gallows humour; most sitcoms have families and friends who love each other despite wacky misadventures. Some shows go for more tonal complexity: Shonda Rhimes makes hugely successful TV that drops near-campy levels of romance all over gut-punching procedural problems; Mitch Hurwitz’s Arrested Development dares you to like the miserable, self-absorbed characters at the heart of the show; Justin Roiland & Dan Harmon’s Rick & Morty makes you both laugh and cry every time a character suffers a messy death.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer encapsulates in its title one of the most challenging tonal mixes of all: horror-comedy. What a misbegotten subgenre, populated with countless misfires that all came about because someone thought “they both involve tension and release – this is gonna be easy!” This is the wrong thought. It is not easy. If you’re not careful, you end up with moments like Pee-Wee Herman’s death scene in one particular horror-comedy film called “Buffy the Vampire Slayer“. Ahem.
It is, of course, not impossible to get right. There was a particularly good batch in the 80s, Fright Night, Ghostbusters, Return of the Living Dead, Evil Dead 2, and a few others, but the list of failures is long. My personal take on why it’s so hard is that most horror effects rely on trapping you inside the fiction, and most comedic effects function by positioning you outside the fiction, and it’s really hard to move back and forth. There’s no reliable route to get around this, and each of the successful films above finds its own solution: they tell a horror story with a dusting of comedy (Fright Night), they tell a comedic story with a dusting of horror (Ghostbusters), they go right through conventional sensibilities and burst out the other side laughing and wielding a chainsaw (Evil Dead 2).
Nonetheless, the Buffy TV show wants to be legitimately scary (it is committed to presenting real threats to its characters) and also legitimately funny. But it doesn’t stop there. If those two contrasting tones weren’t enough of a challenge, the show adds a third: it wants to deliver dramatic, realistic character beats as well. It wants to be a tense horror/delightful comedy/authentic drama. That mixture’s a high degree of difficulty.
Over the last two seasons the show has slowly been getting more skilled at managing these tone differences, and now in season three it is routinely pulling off tonal gymnastics that would have been unthinkable just half-a-season back. This episode is a showcase performance in getting terror, laughter and feels working in harmony.
“Lovers Walk” brings the return of Spike, the scary enemy who had worked so well as a threat in season two. His first appearance in School Hard had given the show a shot of fierce new energy, throwing out the staid vampire threat from season one and replacing it with something that felt much more dangerous and unpredictable. Across the long season Spike was never undermined, and even his period diminished in a wheelchair turned into a reveal of just how canny and dangerous he was. Finally he entered into a very uneasy alliance with Buffy to regain lost ground, then exited the show on his own terms. He remained a scary figure right to the end, even while the show played some delightful deadpan comedy off his cruel wit and that final team-up of convenience.
Spike returns to the show in rather a different state than he left, highlighting the contrast by having him once again crash into the Sunnydale sign on arrival, but this time because he is a pathetic drunken mess as opposed to a fearsome vandal. The show is delightfully clear about how we’re meant to take this: the cut to Spike happens on Cordelia saying “what kind of moron would want to come back here?” Yep – last season’s scary vampire is now comic relief.
And what comic relief he is! Peering drunkenly through the window at Angel, muttering to himself that he’s not afraid even while he slinks away, then tripping over himself and knocking himself out, to being woken by the sunrise setting his hands on fire. Next stomping into a magic shop and ineffectually demanding some kind of lurid curse, oblivious to the magnitude of his decline.
However. Willow enters and leaves the scene, and we swing back to Spike expecting more of the same, but the show pivots right under our feet. Vamp-face on, he cruelly murders the helpful shopkeeper. It is terrifying. And suddenly he’s moving through the narrative with deadly purpose, using Xander to kidnap Willow and then brutally threatening her with a broken bottle.
But this wasn’t just a bait-and-switch, dishing up comedy pathetic Spike before surprising us with his true badass self again. The show continues to use him for laughs: he makes Willow listen to his tale of woe and weeps on her shoulder, prompting her to pat his knee and say “there there”; but then it spins right back to terror, as he homes in on her neck and openly covets her blood. And then both tones at once, as Willow says she might not succeed at what he is asking, and he replies: “Well, if at first you don’t succeed, I’ll kill him [Xander], and you try again.”
The episode continues to pull off this interaction between laughs and horror. The mid-episode climax: Spike turns up at Buffy’s home and finds Joyce, alone and undefended. Of course we’re terrified for her – but the show cuts to reveal Spike sharing his heartbreak with Joyce over hot chocolates. (He asks for the little marshmallows.)
Then Angel appears, correctly identifies that Spike is dangerous- but Joyce knows him only as a threat and refuses to let him in. Spike taunts Angel, pretending to bite Joyce. It’s hilarious and yet we know he’s not kidding – he could turn on Joyce in a moment and kill her without a second thought.
Only when Buffy arrives on the scene does Spike’s deadly threat recede into neutral. The show doesn’t make the slightest effort to maintain tension over Spike’s use of Willow and Xander as collateral, with Buffy guessing very early “he’s probably just got them locked up in the factory.” And yet tension doesn’t disappear. We know by now that the show can pivot fast, and Spike’s threat could be reawakened. But more importantly, we know that Spike is a wild card. He can push the story in all kinds of unexpected directions. He knocks things down and stirs things up, and his presence means nothing is safe.
Which is how we end up with one of the most devastating scenes in the whole run of Buffy: when Oz and Cordelia, who have been so charming and positive and in love with their respective partners, bravely risk their lives to rescue Willow and Xander, only to discover them kissing. This is the show extracting its pound of emotional flesh. There must be pain.
Meanwhile, Spike tears apart the veil that keeps Buffy and Angel from being honest about their feelings for each other with one of the show’s most memorable speeches: “You’re *not* friends. You’ll never be friends. You’ll be in love till it kills you both. You’ll fight, and you’ll shag, and you’ll hate each other till it makes you quiver, but you’ll never be friends. Love isn’t brains, children, it’s blood… blood screaming inside you to work its will. I may be love’s bitch, but at least I’m man enough to admit it.”
And still the show isn’t done with the tone switches. Right as Spike rediscovers his true bad self, as he’s starting to seem scary and capable again, he offers the best laugh of the episode: “Oh, sod the spell. Your friends are at the factory.”
There, Cordelia has fallen on some rebar and is horrifically wounded. With Xander, the betrayer, kneeling at her side, she murmurs some final words, then lies still as the camera holds sombre and steady. And we cut to a funeral. And the show immediately shouts “PSYCH!” and has Buffy and Willow talk about how Cordelia’s going to be okay.
These are just the biggest back-and-forth moments this episode; there are plenty more, and several that manage to be hilarious and terrifying at the same moment. This episode makes it look easy, when it really, really isn’t. It’s a sign of how the show has grown, and how good it has become at being what it is. Season two gets the accolades but season three is a clear step up in quality in pretty much every way imaginable.
The show is pulling off these gymnastics and landing beautifully. But how? What is allowing the show to balance comedy and horror so effectively? Not to mention making room for dramatic feels as a third tone! Every tonally complex show has to figure out its own solution to this puzzle. What is Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s?
The answer is right there in front of us, hiding in plain sight. That third tone, the one about realistic characters and emotions? Despite appearances, that doesn’t actually make things more complicated. The third tone allows the first two to work together. How do you make comedy and horror work in harmony? You make them happen to people who feel real.
This episode is the best example so far of the show successfully hitting all three tones, comedy, horror, and personal drama, and switching between them so seamlessly that they are clearly one united whole; each aspect strengthens the rest. It is a significant achievement, something that marks Buffy out as special, that justifies its reputation and importance.
And my instinct, of course, is to cycle right back to where this watching project began: the problem of Jesse, the tension that arose from the show’s core mission to have real threat and real emotions while still being fun to watch. We saw in season two how the show solved the problem of Jesse, but we’ve never really considered why it even tried. What was so important about those principles in the first place? Striving to make a show with real threat (horror) and real emotions (personal drama) that is fun to watch (comedy) – what becomes possible as a result? What makes it worthwhile?
This episode becomes possible. This episode makes it worthwhile. And many more such episodes to come.
* Apparently Buffy nails the SATs? Where does that come from? Huh. The show at least has the grace to lampshade it. Cordy is also academically gifted – the Scoobies are basically the school’s smartest kids. (Except Xander.)
* The precredits climax landing on Spike’s arrival is the second climax that works only if you’ve watched the show before. As the show’s mythology grows, they’ll rely on this more and more.
* The Mayor as big bad doesn’t really work yet. He’s funny and interesting but he doesn’t seem to be up to anything much – he’s very reactive.
* Willow turning to magic straightaway to solve problems – that’s some character that’ll stick.
* The writer for this ep is Dan Vebber, who only wrote one other episode for Buffy. That one’s a cracker too, as we’ll see soon enough.