It’s almost surprising we’re half-way through season three, with only a few episodes left before high school is just a memory, and the show is only now getting to the Bad Influence story. You know the one: don’t hang out with the wrong crowd, or they will lead you astray. You’ve seen it in a dozen films and TV shows, and there’s an even chance you’ve lived it. The Bad Influence story is one of the fundamental morality tales of youth, and it is intimately entwined with high school, that era of surging hormones, growing independence, and very poor judgment. It also has a surprising amount of resonance with the threat of the vampire – you can see the outlines of the Bad Influence story in Dracula, with Mina watching in prudish horror as Lucy falls under the sway of a sexily alluring bad boy.
Despite this, the show has avoided the Bad Influence story so far, and it isn’t too hard to see why. The Bad Influence story is about the normal kid who is led astray by the glamour of rule-breaking, but in this show, there is no normal kid. These kids are the nerds. They hang out in the library and obsess about their subcultural thing and exist a step or two removed from the social world of high school. Why would a heartthrob rebel influence them? They’ve got coding/larping/vampire-slaying to do, dammit! In fact the show’s effectively run a Good Influence story on Cordelia, who is no longer a mean socialite, and now limits her sniping to the very deserving target that is Xander.
The closest the show has to a normal kid is Buffy. She has been tempted by a sexy older-man rule-breaker, but one so diligently moral the show really had to stretch to make Buffy compromise herself for him (for example, her unlikely decision not to tell her friends he had returned from death). She’s also been the rule-breaker herself – Snyder identified her early on as the Bad Influence on Willow and Xander, but again her clear commitment to doing good rather undermined that allegation. Even her influence on Giles, luring him away from the accepted practices of the Watcher’s Council, is clearly presented in the show as a good thing (witness Kendra’s growing acceptance of their unorthodox partnership).
Buffy herself, her character, has never really been tested. She has been a good girl for forty-seven episodes. When the show starts easing her into temptation here, it immediately feels heavy with accumulated potential energy. It also feels entirely organic because of the show’s patience with the Bad Influence.
Which is to say, Faith finally has a role in the story as of this episode. She’s been kicking around since episode three but apart from featuring in the seventh episode (the one with false watcher Gwendolyn Post) she’s basically contributed nothing of substance to the show. Even Oz and Cordy have had bigger impacts on the series narrative. She’s become just another member of the ensemble, turning up to deliver sass and sex appeal. For such an epic character – the new Slayer, the new Chosen One, Buffy’s counterpart self – her impact has been underwhelming.
While somewhat unsatisfying, that’s been part of the show’s long game. We’ve become comfortable with Faith and her rebellious appeal – in fact, we’ve enjoyed it, because while she hasn’t been given much to do, she’s stolen a lot of scenes along the way. When Buffy actually starts paying attention to her message, it makes sense immediately, because we’ve been getting comfortable with it too.
Like most Bad Influence stories featuring young women, this is all about sex. The episode opens with Faith quizzing Buffy on why she hasn’t slept with Xander, and mocking her for worrying that sex might ruin a friendship. Later Faith talks about the charge she gets from slaying a vampire, and challenging Buffy to say “staking a vamp doesn’t get you a little bit juiced…” Later, obviously excited by the new world Faith is showing her, Buffy sneaks out of class to fight vampires and then hits the Bronze to get into some sexy dancing. She wraps her legs around Angel when he shows up. All of this is very out of character for the sexually reserved Buffy, very in character for the sexually adventurous Faith, and yet somehow it’s easy to go along with simply because we (and Buffy) have had so long to get used to how Faith moves through the world.
That gets us to the halfway point. The mid-episode cliffhanger is a clear sign that we’re in trouble, as Faith and Buffy get stopped by two police officers. The police always serve as an intrusive presence in Buffy, breaking the logic of the story world and dragging the whole narrative towards collapse. They don’t respect the rules of story, and they can tear apart the whole structure of the show if they are provoked. You don’t mess with the police.
Faith immediately pulls Buffy into messing with the police.
In most Bad Influence stories, this is the climax. This is where the kid who’s just playing at rebellion realizes that nothing lies down that path but misery and pain and prison and diseases and every other dark future their parents and teachers warned them about, and they tearfully renounce badness and split with their “bad influence”, expressing only pity for that rebel’s empty lifestyle. Here, however, things are going to play out differently. This show presents a heightened world, where a cheerful teenage girl engages in deadly battle with vampires while keeping up with her homework. The police signal the upset, but they do not mark its final form. The true crisis happens when an overeager and careless Faith accidentally kills a human.
It’s a genuinely shocking moment. The victim is a minor recurring character, and to see him bleed out after being murdered by Faith is deeply unsettling. That’s the three-quarter climax, and it’s a heck of a good swerve.
It’s also fraudulent.
This show has evolved substantially from its early presentation of the supernatural. In season one, the enemy were almost all cruel and weird murderers – the glorified serial killers that were the Master’s vampires, and an array of inhuman devouring demons. Since then, the show has slowly shifted the enemy to suggest that there is an entire supernatural subculture out there, a hidden world with its own rules and rumours and seedy dive bar hangouts. Key vampires like Spike and the Gorches and Mr Trick have had personalities with more human dimension than the Master or Darla managed in season one. Demons like Anyanka appear to have personal depth and internal lives. Questionable figures like Ethan Rayne hover around the edges, greying out the moral boundaries between good and evil. The villains have become people, and the Buffy universe is vastly richer as a result.
However, the meaning of the Slayer has changed as a consequence. The idea of a young girl who murders a succession of irredeemably cruel murderers, as in season one, is black-and-white enough that we can round down the moral questions and end up with a fun monster-fighting show. The idea of that young girl murdering a bunch of people – even if they are bad people – doesn’t sit as smoothly. And yet that is what this show has become. This is a show about a vigilante murderer, and we are encouraged to overlook this fact simply because the victims don’t exactly fit our category of “human”. They are people who laugh and love, but they are demons or vampires or whatever as well, and that means Buffy and Faith can kill them with impunity. It’s fundamentally false, as is immediately apparent when you consider who among the Scoobies would even support the death penalty. (Xander, maybe?) And yet they all jauntily participate in the execution of any monster who crosses their path.
This is another faultline in the moral world of the show, and this episode seems to walk right along it without really pausing to properly consider its ramifications. The epic crisis in this episode occurs because Faith kills a human, and we do feel it. But I think we feel it because we have seen Allan Finch a few times before now and we understand him to be potentially sympathetic. It isn’t because he is a human that we are shocked by his death at Faith’s hands, but because he is a non-combatant, even an innocent.
The show doesn’t seem to see it this way. Buffy and Faith fall out over the murder of a human, not the murder of an innocent. (Would Buffy be so concerned if Faith had killed a demon who had done no more or less harm than Allan Finch?) For all that this crisis is not on solid ground, it is still remarkably effective. Faith reveals to Buffy that she doesn’t feel at all bad for what she did, and in fact she has disposed of the body. Again, we’re meant to be shocked at her amorality, but we’ve been watching Buffy kill for two seasons now, and so Faith’s reaction does carry a certain layer of sense.
The police arrival at the midpoint shattered the walls that keep this show safe in its own little world of monsters and vampires; Faith is showing that she doesn’t intend to show the wider world any greater respect. The relationship between Buffy and Faith finally has a real conflict driving it, and it’s a good one, but if they aren’t careful they could knock the whole show off-kilter. Best of all, we are once again in a situation where it’s impossible to know what will happen next.
* The Mayor is finally back on the scene, once again lurking in the background and performing a weird magic ritual. Several moments sell his character beautifully – laughing at the anodyne Family Circus cartoon, then reacting with distaste to Mr Trick’s affection for Marmaduke because he’s unhygienic. Opening a cupboard full of sinister magic objects to retrieve… a packet of cleansing wipes. Crossing “become invincible” off a very mundane to-do list.
* Mr Trick is still not in any kind of focus. He and the Mayor are so far removed from the Scooby Gang that it’s hard to really invest in them emotionally as bad guys.
* The new watcher Wesley arrives – he’s a nicely played comedy character, but he’s mostly treated with respect by the show. Until the end of the episode when he’s capture and promptly spills every secret he has. Way to throw the guy under the bus in his first appearance, show. Can’t see how he’ll be sticking around!
* Xander’s eye-twitch whenever Buffy says Faith’s name is genuinely funny, but his desperate attempt to insult Cordelia’s clothing for being like a hooker is another sign of how making the instinct character also the voice of masculinity leads you right into trouble.
* There’s a story a few places around the net that the original plan for the episode was to end with Buffy discovering Faith has killed herself, and this was only changed because the creative team liked what Faith brought to the show. I find myself unconvinced by this story – it might contain a small bead of truth, but it just doesn’t sound right for the show. (Not to mention that it doesn’t seem to go anywhere or provoke any action from anyone, it just ends Faith’s story abruptly.) I’d welcome a link to any of the show’s actual creators commenting on this idea.