We know by now that this show isn’t afraid to mess you up. So when the broad comedy opener of Buffy’s mum bringing her a snack while she hunts vampires – a joke that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Scooby Doo – suddenly swerves into an unnerving tableau of murdered children, it hits harder than it might on any other show. The show has been working up the ability to punch the viewer in the chest like this for a long time, funny enough that you laugh along, and yet able to kill off Jenny Calendar in brutal fashion and make you feel every moment. In the audience, it takes you a moment to take it in, and the credit music is pounding before you catch up and remember that kids don’t die in horror stories from the USA. With only a few exceptions, if there’s a kid or an animal in your horror film, they’ll make it intact to the final scene. (One of the many unnerving delights of insane Italian horror flick Demons is its eagerness to turn both a pet and a child into grisly victims of the monsters. If you were raised on a diet of US horror, as I was, then you’ll get the full jarring effect of the culture clash.)
It isn’t at all clear what the show is doing, but it is obvious you’re out of familiar territory. After the credits, we’re straight in on a police investigation scene, which once again signals a violation of the usual narrative rules in place around the show. Buffy‘s narrative world is collapsing. It actually started to break even before the kids were revealed, when Joyce identified a random vampire as “Mr Sanderson from the bank!” Very rarely does the show give its vampires identities and human pasts, and I think this is the only time it’s someone from the “normal” adult world.
Continuing the theme, when Buffy reports to Giles on the crime, Giles almost immediately voices the idea that the culprit might be a person, not a monster. If I remember correctly, this is not something he has ever said before now, which seems a bit strange if there is (as Buffy mentions) an important Slayer rule against killing humans. He’s never much needed to say it before now, of course – the show is called Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the narrative therefore provides vampires and monsters to slay. But in this episode, the bounds of the narrative have been shaken, and the possibilities are broader.
This episode, then, presents a collapse of Buffy‘s fundamental narrative structure. The proximate cause is the two dead children, an event so shocking it cannot be contained within standard Buffy. On a deeper level, however, this collapse is caused by something else: the looming presence of the world beyond high school.
The fundamental metaphor and mythology of the show thus far has been intensely linked with the high school experience. Keeping this association intact has forced the show to weird contrivances. (Remember a season ago in What’s My Line, Part 2 when a police officer visiting the school turned out to be an armed assassin who tried to execute someone? Remember how no-one ever referred back to this moment?) For some time, however, the show has been sketching the outline of a world beyond the school. This is a tricky process – the high school setting is well-established and insular, and it isn’t clear how to make the rest of the world function next to it.
Especially because, as this episode shows, that “rest of world” is not inclined to sit passively outside the school fences. As soon as it is invoked in this episode, it begins an intrusion into the safe and familiar world of the show. As Buffy says to her mother in a school corridor, “his hall is about school, and you’re about home. Mix them, my world dissolves.” The show has been mixing them more and more this season with the introduction of the Mayor as a major villain, and the narrative collapse in this episode is the dissolving world of which Buffy speaks. There is no greater symbol of the extent of this intrusion, and the way it wrecks the show’s narrative structure, than the sight of police officers confiscating books from the school library: what are these occult tomes doing there anyway?
This intrusion is, cleverly, itself an element of the high school experience. The parental/adult world’s interference is explicitly tied into the kind of moral panic that runs through a community from time to time, and which is inevitably focused on the misdeeds (real or imagined) of independent teenagers. Partner to the confiscation of library books is a scene where school lockers are searched, filmed as a queasy handheld sequence that disrupts the visual vocabulary of the show as much as the events violate its fictional structure. Amy the witch is marched away after something is found in her locker, which directly evokes a panic over drugs on campus (the contraband in question is even a baggie of herbs). The flip side of this panic is the dismal truth that the adult world mostly does not pay attention to teenage existence. Parents mostly don’t care, and so when they do look, everything appears shocking. It’s a difficult bind.
This whole process of collapse and disruption reaches its apex when Joyce voices a criticism of the show that only becomes visible when the usual narrative structure is pulled apart:
Buffy: …you have to let me handle this. It’s what I do.
Joyce: But is it really? I mean, you patrol, you slay. Evil pops up, you undo it. And that’s great! But is Sunnydale getting any better? Are they running out of vampires?
Buffy: I don’t think that you run out of…
Joyce: It’s not your fault. You don’t have a plan. You just react to things. It’s bound to be kind of fruitless.
Buffy doesn’t have a good response, of course. How can she? The episode is challenging fundamental aspects of the show’s premise. Bringing Buffy into the wider world means these difficult questions need to be addressed, and Joyce’s words hang in the air, aching for response, and it becomes clear that this episode might just change everything.
Then the show reveals that Joyce is being haunted by the two dead children, and everything goes spectacularly off the rails.
It turns out the children are a monster, the adults are being mentally influenced to act out of character (again – Band Candy wasn’t that long ago!), and everything goes absurd very quickly with Amy and Willow and Buffy tied to stakes to be burned as witches. Somehow pointing out the children don’t seem to have parents is enough to break the spell (huh), but not before there’s a wildly uneven attempt at a farcical comedic action showdown.
The back half of the episode abandons all the important material that was in play. It’s a shame. This season is the final season of the-show-as-it-is. The high school setting is about to run out as the cast all graduate. The characters and the show both share the queasy knowledge that the end is coming and what the hell will you do next? Everything in the world beyond school starts to matter. Many a show before now has foundered on the rocks that lie just outside the safe harbour of the high school setting. Buffy has no intention of finishing at the end of season three, so the invocation of the wider world this season performs a very important function of readying the show for this change. But every time you reach further into that wider world, you run the risk of the show collapsing in on itself, as happened here.
And for all that, the show still answers Joyce’s question, and gives once again a clear statement of purpose, one that reaches beyond the high school setting and shows just why the show is confident it can sustain itself against a wider canvas.
Angel: Buffy, you know, I’m still figuring things out. There’s a lot I don’t understand. But I do know it’s important to keep fighting. I learned that from you.
Buffy: But we never…
Angel: We never win.
Buffy: Not completely.
Angel: We never will. That’s not why we fight. We do it ’cause there’s things worth fighting for.
Earlier in the episode, two bullies start causing trouble for vulnerable goth kid Michael. That’s why Buffy fights. And she just has to show her face to make the bullies back down. She’s done with high school, and ready for the wider world.
* A bunch of characters get good moments that don’t amount to much here. Once again, Oz is basically wasted, despite the amazing line: “Just so we’re clear you guys know you’re nuts, right?” He is funny as hell, but contributes nothing at all to the story.
* Returning player Amy is similarly squandered. She’s the narrative’s object, not it’s subject, with her only clear action in her own right being turning herself into a rat to escape being burned alive. Amusingly, she doesn’t turn back into a human at the end of the episode – this is classic Claremont-style long-form plotting.
* Even Willow, who should by rights have a big role in this story considering it features her mum and directly challenges her growing involvement in witchcraft, ends up with little of consequence to do. Although you do get a lovely first-ad-break cliffhanger of seeing Willow involved in a small witchy ritual with Amy and Michael – the early placement of this shock revelation allows the audience to enjoy it while knowing full well they’re not actually bad guys.