Watching Buffy: s03e12 “Helpless”


The relationship between Buffy and Giles sits at the centre of the show but is never the centre of attention. He was initially a stuffy patriarchal authority but across the first season, Buffy slowly won him over, until he adopted an unorthodox style that complemented her own. In the second season their relationship was shown to be strong and loving, with Giles giving Buffy support (and, occasionally, correction) in what was very much a parental mode. It is no accident that Buffy has been without an actual father! Giles has been shown to consistently be the conscience of the show, the higher-order Freudian superego that keeps the other aspects of the show’s character balance in check. Giles the character has been broadened and explored in other ways too, through his romance with Jenny Calendar, and subsequent loss and hardening; but throughout, he has been the show’s bedrock, a reliable presence who only wavers in the most extreme circumstances, and the one who gives comfort and safety to Buffy on her very worst days.

With this context in place, the first act break in this episode gives us a devastating revelation: Giles has been hypnotising Buffy and secretly injecting her with some drug or other. The betrayal is absolutely enormous. It isn’t absolutely clear that these injections are the source of the lethargy that is affecting Buffy – just one episode previous, after all, the first act break was Willow’s involvement in a sinister ritual that turned out to be innocent in nature – but the act itself is violation enough, a deeply creepy penetration of Buffy’s bodily autonomy without her knowledge or consent. This alludes to the crime of drugging a woman and then sexually assaulting her, which even in metaphor is a horrific association with Giles. While shocking, this intrusion into our safe assumptions about Giles is one the core themes of the show: women are hurt by men.

This episode puts at the forefront a problem with the show’s structure that has sat quietly unaddressed since the end of season one: even though her personal relationship with Giles has changed, Buffy is still subject to a large patriarchal institution. It turns out that Giles’s betrayal is mandated by his own masters, the Watcher’s Council. We have heard much about them before now – most recently, that they tend to exclude Giles from their activities – but this is the first appearance on-screen of the embodiment of establishment power that is Quentin Travers. Giles cannot protect her from the Council. Women are hurt by men, and the Watcher/Slayer relationship, even in the ameliorated form existing between Giles and Buffy, is impossible to fully reconcile with this theme.

The Council was never made to be looked at closely. If there is an global organisation with the resources to put a highly-trained occult researcher into an undercover role in a school she’s going to attend – well, then, surely the global org can deliver other support too, especially given Buffy seems to keep saving the world. Of course, this would violate the thematic structure of the show – Buffy cannot be part of a large organisation or all the metaphors break down! So the Council is portrayed as distant and virtually uninterested in Buffy and her activities. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, but we roll with it, because that’s how we get the show we want to watch.

It is notable, though, that the Council’s first appearance in the series is through a violation of Buffy’s autonomy that is inexcusable and abhorrent. The nature of the Council is being made absolutely clear by this storytelling choice: although they speak loftily of the importance of their work, they exist to harm those with less power. They are tainted and corrupt and inimical to Buffy.

The drama of the episode arises from two questions: how will Buffy manage to overcome this dramatic trial? How will Giles respond to the test of his character posed by his part in the abuse of Buffy? Both are answered in most dramatic fashion.

The challenge Buffy faces is depicted with as much intensity as anything in the series. Without her powers, she is extremely vulnerable, and the show makes you feel it by deploying the visual structure of a horror film – doubly effective because of the jarring awareness that it is powerful Buffy stumbling about in terror here. (The only precedent for the sustained and terrifying chase sequence is the one where Angelus hunted Jenny Calendar through the school, and that ended in a shocking fashion.) The episode’s monster, Kralik, is a fantastic threat, charismatic and unnerving and full of personality – exactly the kind of figure that could carry the dramatic weight of doing something really bad to the show’s balance. The showdown between Buffy and Kralik, when it comes at last, is again right out of a horror movie, Buffy as final girl, and edge-of-seat terrifying to watch. It would be easy to let down this storyline with a resolution that feels false, Buffy winning because she must for the show to continue, but the show doesn’t drop the ball here. It finds a beautiful resolution where Buffy outsmarts Kralik, and her victory feels totally earned.

The challenge to Giles is similarly powerful, albeit less breathlessly thrilling. The parental aspects of his relationship to Buffy are highlighted by the failure of Buffy’s father to come through for her, and the presence of Joyce in the narrative, and even the clear evocation of Buffy’s teenage sexuality in her sweaty sparring session with Angel and the suspiciously phallic crystal (another reading of Giles’s intrusive injection is a father sedating and annulling the sexual urges of his daughter, because he doesn’t want her to be a sexually independent being).

Obviously and unsurprisingly, Giles does not hold the line for Travers and the Council, but defects to confess the truth to Buffy. And here the show does not do the unsurprising thing: Buffy does not forgive and appreciate Giles’s confession. She is horrified and repulsed and flees from him, forcing him to appreciate that his actions were even more awful than he has admitted to himself. Later, after the danger is past, Giles faces the consequences of his actions: he is summarily dismissed from the Council and his role as Buffy’s Watcher. Although he is affronted because he sees this as a disruption of his relationship with Buffy, it is in fact the best thing that could happen for their relationship: he is freed of the tainted institution and can give Buffy support without the unsettling structural power hanging over their every interaction. There is a lovely scene where they reconcile as he gently, silently tends her wounds.

The show reasserts its fundamental opposition to structures where men claim power over women. The imbalance that has been part of the show since the first episode is finally expunged, and patriarchy is properly undercut. The show celebrates the occasion in typically distinctive style: by ending on Xander failing to open a jar. Just one more great moment in an episode full of them. Buffy‘s third season continues to excel.

Other notes:
* Typically Whedon geek reference, where Xander and Oz debate types of kryptonite. This kind of nerdery has become a lot more common in the years since this show!
* And, as is now customary, some gratuitous continuity references to Amy the rat and even Kendra’s stake, Mr Pointy.
* Angel confesses to Buffy that he saw her before she became a slayer. It plays… weirdly. Their relationship is kind of fuzzy and strange here, guilt-wracked self-denial replaced with a kind of self-deprecating chemistry.
* One interesting switch on a recent episode – once again Buffy steps up to stop some schoolyard bullying, but this time the guy she steps to doesn’t even know who she is. This isn’t really a continuity error – it’s a big school! – but it does jar.

Watching Buffy: s03e11 “Gingerbread”


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.

Other thoughts:
* 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.

Watching Buffy: s03e10 “Amends”

SMG gives awesome face-crumple.

The Buffy audience learned before the end of season two that Angel was getting his own spinoff show. This wasn’t just the secret insider info of the superfans, either, but commonplace knowledge discussed in the TV Guide. The audience knew as they watched season three that Angel would be gone by season four. Buffy and Angel can’t end up together, because they are going to be on different television shows, and there’s no fate more final than that.

Has there ever been another romance on TV that went down like this? The Buffy-Angel relationship was central to the show as it reached its greatest heights of public awareness and broke through to become a critical favourite. The show was on the WB, so there had to be yearning and makeouts and two beautiful people hot for each other. It was also a Whedon show, which meant emotional tragedy, so the two lovers were pitted against each other against their will. Everything else in the show – and yes, there was a lot of everything else – revolved around the central fulcrum of Buffy/Angel. The show had not overplayed its hand with these characters either, taking its time to bring them together, making sure there was plenty more to explore between them. And now, with this love story at the peak of its importance to the narrative of the show, and not even close to being exhausted, the decision is made to end it?

Splitting up a show’s central relationship to give one of the characters a spinoff – why would you do that? Even if you had faith that Angel could sustain a new show (and based on what we’d seen thus far, it was hard to see how this would work), how do you make sure you don’t wound Buffy in the process of extracting him? What if you end up with two broken shows and no working ones? And what the heck do you do with Angel in the meantime?

The show’s central romance becomes in season three a kind of slow unraveling, and the viewers can only root for them to find the least painful way to their separate futures. The characters already seemed to have a sense of what was before them, with both Buffy and Angel reluctant to resume their romance early on. This came to a head in Lovers Walk as Spike got under their skin with his claim that they couldn’t stay together without destroying each other. But the chemistry and history between these characters can’t be undone by a single speech, no matter how potent it is; the point needs to be made over and over again before it feels real. And, as ever, emotional reality is key in this show.

This episode’s purpose is to continue the unraveling, to pull a few more threads loose from the Buffy/Angel relationship, but to ensure each movement and change feels authentic. The episode (a Whedon joint) puts a focus on Angel, an important move to ensure the coming separation is mutual and thus sustainable. (Also, a bit of a test run for giving Angel the narrative focus ahead of his solo debut.) Angel is haunted by nightmares of his past sins and visions of his victims. He is being tormented by something called The First, or The First Evil, which no-one else can see, and slowly he is losing control of himself. The First seeks to drive him to kill Buffy, but even in his disoriented state he cannot do it, and resolves to kill himself instead.

What is the First? Giles knows it as an ancient power of evil. By its own account it is “something that you can’t even conceive… Beyond sin, beyond death. I am the thing the darkness fears. You’ll never see me, but I am everywhere. Every being, every thought, every drop of hate.” Angel decides to kill himself instead. “You’re not supposed to die. This isn’t the plan. But it’ll do.” Note that word, “plan”. The First claims that it (in concert with unidentified other powers, it uses the word “we”) brought Angel back from the hell dimension, and wants him to transform back into Angelus. Is this a reasonable goal for the First Evil, to bring Angelus back? And if it is – why is Angel’s suicide an acceptable alternate?

There is no attempt to make this aspect of the plot make any particular sense. Perhaps it is simplest to return to the metafictional lens. This positions the show itself as an entity with motives in the fiction, namely to make Buffy and her friends suffer. For example, Angel returned from the hell dimension precisely at the moment his return would cause the most harm. The First’s motivations suddenly make sense if we understand it as an expression of the show’s own need for antagonism and pressure. The show can freely threaten both Buffy and Angel, knowing that it needs both of them to headline their shows the following season – of all the characters to pick on, these two have absolute plot immunity. It doesn’t therefore worry that either of them will die, because they cannot. What matters is they are both pushed to a point of absolute breakdown, so they can split apart. Angel becoming Angelus and Angel trying to end his own life both work to collapse the Buffy/Angel relationship, so they are both acceptable to the First.

As things transpire, Angel attempts to kill himself by facing the sunrise, and Buffy runs to stop him. The conversation they have is extraordinary. Angel says he is too weak to resist his darkness and it is better for everyone that he die, but Buffy refuses to accept that he should give in. When Angel calls his self-destruction an act of strength, Buffy’s reply gives him pause: “Strong is fighting! It’s hard, and it’s painful, and it’s every
day. It’s what we have to do. And we can do it together.” This is as good an expression of the core ethos of the Buffy/Angel cosmology as you’ll find. And to underline the point, it starts to snow.

The snow is something of a controversial moment in Buffy. Whedon suggested it as a potential act of God, but certainly not necessarily the Christian God; a higher power, saving Angel from the sunrise, and giving him a sign of absolution. It was too crazy, too inexplicable, too sickly-sweet, too deus ex machina for many viewers. For me, it feels like the perfect ending. If the First is the show itself expressing its need to harm the characters, the snow is the show’s compassionate love for them. Angel and Buffy walk through the snowfall holding hands, their romance in a strange and breaking place, their world unsteady and uncertain, but the moment abundant with beauty and connection and meaning. Fighting is hard and painful and every day; but sometimes, if you’re lucky, it might just snow.

Other thoughts:
* What would the show be doing if Angel wasn’t spun off? Would the storyline be working out the same way? It is very hard to say. There is always pressure in an ongoing television show to avoid settling into a comfortable pattern, and Whedon has already shown his eagerness in this regard, casually throwing out patterns almost as soon as they get established. A sustained happy-ever-after for Buffy and Angel was never a possibility. At the same time, Angel was an important part of the show and a big drawcard for the audience, and it’s hard to see him getting written out – even if Whedon wanted to, the producers might have balked. The way most shows handle these twin pressures is to end up playing mix-and-match with relationships, giving every combination of established cast a chance to have a romantic connection with each other until the possibilities are exhausted. Thanks to the Angel spinoff show, Buffy manages to (mostly) escape this phenomenon (although Angel itself won’t do quite so well).
* Some cracking scenes in this one. Angel going to Giles for help, and the sudden appearance of Jenny Calendar; Cordelia’s justified coldness; the return of Willy’s demon bar (and Xander as comedy goofball again); Willow’s attempted sexytimes with Oz.
* But also some stuff that doesn’t quite land. The flashbacks never quite work, and the First doesn’t come together as a foe. The whole episode feels unbalanced structurally, which I think is a sign of ambition rather than carelessness but it still doesn’t feel right to me.
* Nice to see Faith again, and to see her joining Joyce and Buffy for Christmas.
* There’s some interesting juice in the idea of Angel’s ultimate weakness being his sexual desire for Buffy, given the association between vampires and rape culture that the show gestures towards on a regular basis.
* Buffy says to Angel: “You have the power to make amends. On your own series.” (slight paraphrase)

Watching Buffy: s03e09 “The Wish”


The hidden connection between Xander and Willow was revealed last week, with predictably devastating consequences for their respective romantic partners. This episode is dedicated to the fallout. Mostly the focus stays on Cordelia, but the interaction between Oz and Willow is of course the most painful: Oz gives Willow a smackdown that is so clear and gentle and insightful it is almost kind, and therefore it hurts the most.

Willow has always been the audience’s emotional conduit into the fiction, and so we could expect to be wounded there. Our relationship with Cordelia, however, is much more ambiguous. She has been part of the Scooby Gang for a long time but has never been admitted to the inner circle. Although her role as truthseer/truthsayer hasn’t been used much lately, she still maintains the outsider’s position. Her relationship with Xander has consistently been seen as unusual and inexplicable, including by the characters themselves. After an event like this, any realistic emotional reaction would likely see Cordelia distance herself from the gang, and therefore from the show. It is entirely unclear what the show is going to do with her now: the show tacitly acknowledges this by positioning her symbolic destruction of the Scooby gang, by chopping up a photo and burning the others, into the pre-credits climax.

Apart from a perfunctory demon at the cold open and a perfunctory vampire just before the first commercials, the whole first act is monster-free, and mostly devoted to Cordelia. Crucially, we see her bedroom for the first (and only) time, helping us identify with a character who has often been kept at a distance by the show. Then it’s the return of Harmony, who is predictably cruel to Cordelia, but even more so by the handsome popular guy who suggests they might hook up as long as it’s “someplace private”. These scenes do all kinds of work – they of course show Cordelia heartbroken and looking for comfort, but also reinforce our empathy by reminding us that she made a socially-costly choice in choosing Xander, one that refuted something previously core to her identity. Cordelia is not just betrayed, she is also suddenly isolated.

The show takes the time to show us all the ways in which Cordelia is wounded because her heartbreak is to assume fairy-tale power in this episode. She meets a new girl, Anya, and they bond instantly (in a way that rhymes with Cordelia and Buffy’s first, friendly, encounter in the very first episode). However, it turns out Anya is a demon who lures Cordelia into making a vengeful wish – that Buffy had never come to Sunnydale – and then grants it.

This is a form of metaphor monster – “what if your hurt feelings came to life?” It’s interesting to note just how much power the show gives Cordelia’s emotional injury, sufficient to overwrite reality itself. Cordelia finds herself in a dangerous, burned-out Sunnydale, fearful and beset by vampires after the Master successfully rose from his imprisonment. The ruined town is presented vividly, with much of the logic of nightmare, slowly heaping unsettling revelation upon unsettling revelation until we meet Xander and Willow – both vampires in the new reality. Cordelia is narrowly rescued by Giles and his helpers, and learns that this is indeed the world she wished for.

This is (if I remember right) the most dramatic change caused by magic in the whole series, approached only by a similar effect in season four’s Superstar (which, not coincidentally, was also driven by intense personal anguish). It is incredibly effective. The model for this kind of story is Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge witnesses a dark future that awaits if he does not change his ways. The more recent and more apposite exemplar is It’s A Wonderful Life, in which George Bailey is shown what his town would be like if he’d never been born, and discovers it an awful and dark place. The structure of these tales is clear: the dreamer has a vision of an unpleasant reality, and has a change of heart about the world and their place within it. And so the audience is set up for a breathtaking swerve: Xander the vampire kills Cordelia. Cut to commercial.

Even in a show that delights in subverting audience expectations, this is an exceptional act of rug-pulling, perhaps the most unexpected reversal ever pulled off by the show. It echoes the early twist in Psycho, and not much else: Western storytelling methods have trained us to accept that our primary point-of-view character early on will remain so to the end (and will probably grow as a person along the way). By ditching Cordelia – and at the half-way point, not waiting for the three-quarter – the episode throws out the rulebook and lets us know we are off the beaten narrative track from here on in. Watch out folks, this is bat country.

The rest of the episode continues a brutal tour of the alternative Sunnydale, culminating in a nasty showdown where the returned Buffy and the other remaining good guys engage in a lethal showdown against the Master where pretty much everyone dies before Giles grabs Anya’s magical necklace and smashes it, restoring things to normal. We see Cordelia make her wish, but Anya can no longer grant it; delightedly, Cordelia proceeds to make many more vengeful wishes as the episode ends, having learned no lessons and had no change of heart. The experience was not for her benefit, in the end. It was for ours.

This dark alternative was presented for the audience. It shows us that the show is playing fair, holding to its commitment to real threats. It shows us that this is a story worth telling – that the battles Buffy and friends fight matter to the world. It shows us new aspects of familiar characters (Willow!), and how they have influenced each other (the hardbitten friendless Buffy). And it gives us the visceral thrill of showing how bad things could be if the bad guys won.

Marvel Comics geeks of a certain vintage – approximately the vintage of Joss Whedon, as it happens – will already know where I’m going with this. “The Wish” is a riff on It’s a Wonderful Life, sure, but more than that, it is a very specific take on Marvel’s What If.

The original, classic run of What If was from 1977 to 1984, roughly contemporaneous with the Claremont X-Men run beloved of Whedon and cited by him as a major influence on Buffy. It was the creation of Roy Thomas, a comics superfan turned pro, and displayed his enthusiasm for continuity and winding the many strands of Marvel comics publishing into a single coherent universe. In each issue, a comics tale was reimagined as alternate history: what if things went a different way? Usually this ended with tragic death, often with mass death and destruction, and occasionally the end of the universe itself. Every aspect of the wishverse is right out of the What If? playbook: the triumphant villain, the good-guys-turned-bad, the death and despair.

Within the shared Marvel universe that Roy Thomas loved so much, these imagined alternate histories didn’t matter. They were described as other dimensions or other worlds, but by their nature they couldn’t influence the main reality. They were purely provided as entertainment for the reader, and the effect was to give the experience of depth to this imagined world. A world that can sustain alternate histories is a world that has a history; a world where the fates of characters can change is a world where those fates matter. All stories are imaginary, but this kind of dark counterpart elevates these stories into a special kind of imagined space. Buffy is not just a story – it is a story world.

This claim sits oddly with the show’s gleeful shrugs when it comes to building a believable world outside the main protagonists and their emotional lives. Perhaps it can only be taken seriously as a restatement of the principle of emotional reality: after all, the wish that creates our vision of a different world arises from emotion, and this vision is clearly focused on corruptions of the core relationships amongst our cast.

The events of the previous episode didn’t just send Cordelia careening away from the core cast of this show – they also convincingly argued that Buffy and Angel cannot remain in the same narrative space together without tearing each other apart. If Buffy is a story world, then these emotional trajectories can be followed through: Angel and Cordelia don’t need to stay in Sunnydale, with Buffy. There is a whole wide world out there full of possibilities, and though it might not make much sense in terms of logic, it sure does make sense in terms of passion.

Other thoughts:
* Buffy’s in Cleveland! The idea of Cleveland as another Hellmouth is a minor bit of series lore the show will return to several times, although it never particularly takes it seriously. (Remember, the world doesn’t need to make logical sense!)
* Buffy in the wishverse joins the long tradition of alternate-universe-person with a scar across their face.
* This is a wonderful episode, but there is one note that clunks. The Master – delightfully revived by Mark Metcalfe – reveals his big plan is making an automated blood factory. Once again, technology and the supernatural don’t feel right together on this show, and it doesn’t feel of a piece with the rest of the stuff in the episode or with what we know of the Master. It’s always seemed clear that vampires like hunting, and drinking straight from the source.

Watching Buffy: s03e08 “Lovers Walk”


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.

Other notes:
* 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.

Watching Buffy: s03e07 “Revelations”


It’s been a while, but this episode offers one of those three-quarter twists this show does so well. It even lands exactly on the 3/4 cliffhanger. Gwendolyn Post, the officious new watcher who has arrived to supervise Faith, is revealed to actually be a naughty bad one. It’s a great twist because she already gave the show plenty of juice: she’s a logical plot development, a direct challenge to Giles, and a threat to the integrity of the Scoobies while being impossible to easily dismiss. She was even thematically on point, an oblivious adult authority for the teens to cope with and rebel against. The show throws all that out the window to make her a one-and-done villain, so presumably it thinks it’s getting something important in return.

Quick summary: at the beginning of the episode Buffy and Faith are slaying together, focused and happy and literally in sync. Then Mrs Post turns up and immediately assumes the Watcher role for Faith and Buffy, to Giles’s chagrin. She warns the group that a demon called Lagos is hunting a magical glove in Sunnydale. When the group exclude her to have a secret meeting about Angel, she manipulates Faith into finding out more. Shortly thereafter, Giles tells her the location of the glove. She knocks him out and rushes to Angel’s to take the glove, tricking Faith into fighting with Buffy before revealing her villainy and being (inevitably) destroyed. The final scene is Buffy and Faith again, but Buffy’s secrets have changed the relationship. Buffy says “you can trust me” but Faith isn’t interested. They are out of sync, their harmony in pieces.

Buffy’s transgressions against Faith are, by any reasonable standard, minor. They make for a pretty weak lever to split her and Faith, even with that relationship being new. The implication is that Faith’s retreat from Buffy is a response to the whole situation with Gwendolyn Post and Angel and so forth. This points directly at her central character flaw, essentially a fear of vulnerability. It’s smart character work from the show once again, eschewing any simple action/reaction model of behaviour for something messier and more authentically human – note also that, although Faith is shown that Post had been corrupted, she still takes Post’s advice on answering a knock at the door and adopts her description of her room as “Spartan”.

(Faith’s character flaw is also set up as an interesting mirror of Buffy’s: the motivations and methods are very different, but both of them retreat from other people and try to handle everything themselves when the pressure comes on.)

Faith’s retreat from Buffy marks the start of an actual storyline about her, and while it’s obviously a significant development and something that will be central to the season’s arc overall, it wasn’t at all an expected development and it’s very hard to anticipate what will follow – it is a shift that could play out in all kinds of ways. Once again, season three manages to avoid predictability, especially in comparison with the arc in season two which drew great power from its inevitability.

This is obviously a significant development for the show, but in my view it isn’t the most interesting thing going on in this episode. In fact, I don’t even think it’s the most important thing happening here. My nominee for both is how this episode handles Xander.

It’s been clear for a while the show is having issues with the character of Xander Harris. Just a few episodes ago Xander hit a new low, callously abandoning his post to nap when he was supposed to be guarding Oz. This was basically using him for a cheap joke and making him carry the idiot ball so the plot worked out more easily. Both of these are signs the show is struggling to make him work in the ensemble. This isn’t a surprise: a male character representing instinct is always going to struggle to make a good impression in a show with a female perspective, and having his strongest early episode also be the one that makes him an attempted rapist has tainted the character at a deep level.

Two episodes back, the show took a dramatic step to find a way to get some use out of Xander by throwing him into an affair with Willow. It’s a potent, divisive move (the kind of ruthless development that will become something of a trademark – or a cliche – for Whedon’s work) and it infuses every hang-out scene among the Scoobies with some edge-of-the-seat anxiety. Suddenly the audience has every reason to care a great deal about what Xander is doing, because there’s so much at stake – no less than the happiness of Willow, Oz and Cordelia (the three most beloved members of the cast). One thing it doesn’t do is engender any greater sympathy for Xander. I’d expect reactions to this affair are largely driven by where the audience member might sit on their view of Xander – specifically, if they see him as a terminal waste of space, then they’ll hate him for messing up so bad and they might see Willow’s actions as a betrayal of her character by the writers. And by this stage of the show’s history, a lot of people were over Xander. The many years since broadcast have not been kind to the character either.

Xander as he has been portrayed in the previous two seasons has given ample reason for dismay. While he has had several key moments of heroism and good character, his common role in stories from week to week seems to have become “make a thoughtless comment exemplifying male insensitivity and entitlement, and then blunder into a monster and fall down”. The show’s engine runs very easily on those kinds of comments and that kind of blunder, so it’s unsurprising Xander is used in this way over and over again, but it does make it very hard to cheer for him.

Almost in spite of this, Xander has been changing and growing. Xander at the start of season three is different from Xander of season one in many many ways. He is no longer hung up on Buffy, is no longer cruelly oblivious to Willow’s feelings, he is no longer unconvinced of his value as a human being. With the exception of his callous failure to watch Oz recently, he has moved beyond the truely clueless selfishness of his early teenage boy portrayal. These are positive steps, but they don’t seem to be helping: Xander still doesn’t feel right. There’s a simple reason why: the show has made changes in Xander by taking away some of his most egregious negative traits, but they have failed to give him any new aspects to make up for these losses. Xander in season three is in a real sense less of a character than he was in season one, because he has gotten past many of his hangups and now just bumbles along. Until this recent affair with Willow, the show just hasn’t found anything for him to actively do except comment on the action and get into trouble. It’s obvious they don’t have any idea any more what he is for.

In this episode, new writer Doug Petrie delivers a portrayal of Xander that provides the best vision so far of what he can be to the ensemble. (Petrie, like Jane Espenson last week, is another s3 recruit who stays with the show to the end then goes on to greater things.) Under Petrie’s pen, Xander gets plenty of interesting beats.

The episode begins in the Bronze, where Xander is trying to hang out in a group with Willow without encouraging their forbidden attraction; when he accidentally touches her hand, he recoils so much that he makes a gigantic spectacle of himself. He gracefully accepts the humiliation, clearly at peace with his traditional role as clumsy goof.

In the library, he bristles at being ordered around by Giles, but still starts to get stuck into the work, recognizing it’s important. Willow approaches him and rubs her temples to try and relieve her discomfort. He reaches out to do it for her, and she protests weakly, knowing the chemistry between them is dangerous. Xander listens to her, and stops. Whereupon Willow launches herself at him, and they kiss passionately until they are interrupted. Giles tells them of a suspicious location, and Xander volunteers to check it out, partly to get away from temptation with Willow and to (as he puts it to himself) alleviate his guilt.

All of the above is solid, featuring the best parts of Xander – he is trying hard to do the right thing, struggling with his instincts, at peace with the trouble he lands himself in. These are aspects of Xander we’ve seen before, although never quite with this clarity. But from this point on, things get much more interesting, as Xander sees Angel, alive and well – and then sees Buffy and Angel kissing.

Now this is a potent revelation. Xander was, throughout the previous season, the only one who opposed Buffy’s relationship with Angel. Giving the discovery to him is a clear callback to this. However, his response is not to simply blunder in and confront them. Instead, he hurries to Giles, which is unquestionably the best possible thing to do in the situation.

Giles makes the call to stage a kind of intervention with Buffy, and Xander’s first words here are compelling:
Buffy: It’s not what you think.
Xander: Hope not. Because I think you’re harboring a vicious killer.

This is a side of Xander we’ve seen from time to time, most memorably in episode two this season when Xander dressed Buffy down for how her behaviour had affected her friends. There, his anger seemed unfair and unkind, although perfectly understandable and human. Here, it stings because he makes a very good point, and he continues to hammer it home, even naming Jenny Calendar.

Let’s be clear about what the show is doing, here: it is not saying Xander is right. None of the other characters are as upset as he is, even Cordelia, and most of them are taken aback by the cruel way he is making his point. And yet, no-one contradicts him, and everyone else is making watered-down versions of the same complaint. When Buffy challenges Xander, accusing him of being motivated by jealousy, the rebuke just doesn’t work – while not even Xander would reasonably deny there might be jealousy in the mix somewhere, his behaviour clearly comes from a different place. Xander doesn’t even need to defend himself, as he is overtaken by the final word from Giles, who echoes Xander’s words: “Nor shall I remind you that you’ve jeopardized the lives of all that you hold dear by harboring a known murderer. But sadly, I must remind you that Angel tortured me… for hours… for pleasure. You should have told me he was alive. You didn’t. You have no respect for me, or the job I perform.”

This is, quite frankly, an incredible sequence, drawing on two seasons of character and story to find powerful fractures and put them under pressure, and Xander’s right at the heart of it. His flaws are vividly on display but for the first time in a while he’s doing something, pushing hard in a direction, and it works well.

We next see Xander at the Bronze, shooting pool and talking with Faith. This is a startling little sequence, as Xander’s dialogue is in a different register to anything we’ve heard before. He is normally extremely verbose (the default for many Buffyverse characters) but here he’s using clipped sentences with the blunt almost-poetry of a noir character. This matches his behaviour: he goes out of his way to point Faith at Angel, and offers to join her in going to slay him.

When they get to the library to grab some weapons, they discover Giles has been attacked. Faith instantly assumes it’s Angel, but Xander doesn’t. His instincts – so often used to get him in trouble – here give him exactly the right steer. He figures out some reasons why it probably wasn’t Angel responsible, but Faith of course doesn’t listen to him.

Buffy appears, and here Xander does something unexpected, coldly suggesting Angel was responsible for attacking Giles, and telling her Faith has gone to kill him. Buffy is appalled, but Xander is unrepentant. It’s a very interesting move for the character. He then pitches in to fix the problem, and later puts his body on the line to stop the slayers fighting each other.

His final note in the episode is another encounter with Buffy. She asks him if they are cool, and he tells her he trusts her. He doesn’t apologise for “leaning towards the postal”, and Buffy doesn’t ask one, knowing that he did have a point.

This view of Xander is a fascinating step change for the character. The hardened take on the character works surprisingly well, as does the clear indication that he is no longer thoughtlessly following his instincts (which are obviously improving regardless). Here is a Xander Harris who offers something new to the ensemble – a willingness to call it as he sees it, matched with judgments that are starting to show their worth; a fearless ability to challenge the other characters when he thinks they’re out of line, but founded on a commitment to the work; an egoless acceptance of his role as a goof and goat, which also allows him to say and do things the others wouldn’t even consider. This is a Xander who still brings “instinct” to the table, but does so in a way that is effective and distinctive and can drive situations forward in new and productive ways. The show has finally found a way to make Xander work.

If they can only make it stick…

Other thoughts:
* There’s a bit of a bait-and-switch at the top of the episode – it is called “Revelations” and it starts with Willow and Xander being awkward, but their infidelities are not revealed this week.
* Tony Head steals the open – supervising the Slayer duo and then reacting to the arrival of Gwendolyn Post – all without saying a single word. He also gets the best moment in the episode, Giles giving Buffy a private dressing down for keeping Angel secret and reminding her that Angel tortured him. It’s one of the few times in the series where adult/mature authority is given proper moral power, and it hits hard.
* Giles is once again shown to be somewhat forgotten and mistreated by the council, which continues to make zero sense given he is sitting on a powerful Hellmouth and serving as pointman to a Slayer who just came back from the dead. But it makes thematic sense I guess, so we roll with it.
* Sarah Michelle Gellar, whose soap training makes her an ace at communicating what’s going on in Buffy’s head, absolutely sells Buffy’s raw desire for Angel. It’s actually not a common performance beat for a young woman – they are typically the objects of physical desire, not the ones doing the desiring.
* Oz really doesn’t get much to do this ep, but his band play at the Bronze once again. Cordelia is also shaded out almost completely to allow a focus on the core Scoobies. This has become a big ensemble and it’s hard to manage everyone!

Watching Buffy: s03e06 “Band Candy”


Headbang/air drum extra-hard to the theme tune, kids, because Jane Espenson is in the house! Espenson is royalty in the world of geek-culture TV-writing, which is not as much of a niche as it sounds when put like that. Anyway, this is the show where she earned her crown (er, because crowns are totally earned, monarchy is a meritocracy, shut up.) Her fingerprints are all over this ep: it is sharply assembled, full of acute character moments, and funny as hell.

This is one of those episodes where everyone goes a bit weird. In this case, some fundraising chocolate carries a lick of magic that sends all the adults in town hurtling back into teenage revelry, leaving the teenage Scoobies to keep everything together and save the day. The adults-acting-immature gags are fun but the juice of this wacky premise is in the show’s three main adult characters. Joyce, Giles, and Principal Snyder fall under the chocolate spell and cutting loose. The reversal is, of course, established pre-chocolate by reinforcing the status of these characters as the responsible voices of restraint in Buffy’s life. Notably, Buffy is caught out by Giles and Joyce who discover she has been lying to both of them to hide private activities. The two adults team up, parent and parental-equivalent, to deliver a clear message to Buffy that she is being immature. Buffy doesn’t want to listen.

It’s a nice little conflict, because both sides have a point. Joyce and Giles are right to be concerned that Buffy is playing them off against each other, and about her actual whereabouts when she is at large. Yet Buffy hasn’t exactly been going out partying – she is secretly going to help and tend to the recovering Angel. This isn’t a secret she feels she can share with the others in her life. While it is arguable whether or not she is being responsible in doing this, it’s hard to make an accusation of immaturity stick. And yet when she is called on it, Buffy reacts by expressing frustration that she is being over-managed and over-scheduled, saying that she feels treated like a child. This isn’t exactly what Buffy is being asked to address, but it feels very plausible for Buffy to respond to the situation in this way – it feels like a smart character beat, in other words.

Then the adults all change and Buffy (with her friends) has to step up and manage the very people who were just managing her. It’s a blast seeing Giles, Joyce, and Snyder as youth gone wild. (Particularly Giles – Tony Head brings the brutal punk-magician Ripper, discussed several times in season two, to vivid life here but very cleverly makes his defining trait vanity. I’m very curious how he landed on that character note, but it is just perfect.)

If you slow down and think about it, what we see does pose a few questions – pretty much all the adults go out of control, although in the real world teenagers display all manner of different behaviours besides hedonic excess, the Scoobies being a case in point. Perhaps the chocolate forces those who eat it into a party mode – in which case, why wasn’t Xander affected? (Well, because it’s a joke about Xander.) Now, I don’t know that this is something the production team ever thought about, but I think there are good answers to these questions. Namely: the adults we see acting out aren’t actually behaving like teenagers again. Instead, they are acting out a middle-aged perspective of what it was like to be young. They are expressing their own stereotypes, like people pulled out of the audience at a hypnosis dinner show. Teen!Joyce and Teen!Giles and Teen!Snyder aren’t meant to be perfect expressions of their teenage years, instead they represent how they presently imagine their old selves.

So this whole line of action, apart from being hilarious to watch, is also a solid reinforcement of a thematic pillar for the whole series: parents just don’t understand. The show has fought from the start to portray its teenage characters with depth and to allow them emotional continuity, and part of that is showing how they are consistently underestimated by the adults and authority figures in their lives. Snyder doesn’t develop empathy for his errant charges as a result of his teenage experience – quite the opposite, it reinforces his dislike and resentment, because he has only had his stereotypes confirmed.

And yet, the funny teenage versions of Giles, Joyce and Snyder all manage to be revelatory about who these characters are, and what complexities and history lie beneath the surface. The teenage Scoobies will never be able to look at any of these adults the same way again. Despite themselves, the Scoobies are saddled with empathy for their authority figures. It’s a lovely trick for the show to do both these narrative jobs with the same conceit!

Anyway, it’s good stuff, and I don’t have much more to say about it because it’s good stuff. The Mayor and Mr Trick are sacrificing babies to a demon, which is a pretty good way to demonstrate to your audience that the bad guy is a bad guy. Ethan Rayne reappears as an instrument of this plan, and he is once again played for comedy, to wonderful effect. Actually, the show misses a trick here – it cuts to commercial-break on the reveal of Ethan Rayne (the first time the show has used an unexplained continuity reference as a climax), and it fails to cut to commercial-break on Giles with a cigarette. So there you go. The episode is flawed after all.

Other thoughts:
* Willow and Xander footsie is painful to watch.
* But topless Angel tai chi is the most hilarious thing I’ve ever seen.

Watching Buffy: s03e05 “Homecoming”


You see it coming, the end of Buffy and Scott. The episode begins with awkward-cute agreeing to go to the homecoming dance together, and Buffy gives Scott a cute kiss – but then cuts straight to Angel. The cut underlines that Buffy isn’t over him. And then Buffy tells Angel she’s seeing Scott, and you know the end is close. But it keeps going, with Buffy talking about how great he is for her – and just as you’re getting exasperated – WE GET IT SHOW WE GET IT – there’s a smash cut to Scott saying “I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”

And this is before the credits, even. The show knows its game here – the characters don’t get to be happy, but as much as that is predictable, it can still surprise and wrongfoot us. Still, the doom-laden fate of Buffy/Scott, required by her ongoing connection to Angel, is an unpleasant portent for the other Scoobies. That opening scene has Buffy and Scott bring cute together in front of two other couples. In this show, however, a strong relationship is just a disaster waiting to happen, and Scott’s pre-credits dismissal of Buffy is a sign that we shouldn’t get too comfortable with either of those relationships either.

These couples are very different. Willow, of course, is paired with Oz. They are the two nicest characters on the show, and it’s a lovely pairing. Often TV pairs its nice characters with sparkier, dangerous partners as an unexpected plot development and an easy source of ongoing conflict, but Buffy has paired its most sensitive and empathetic character with its kindest and wisest one. There are no obvious sources of conflict between them – Oz’s lack of ambition vs. Willow’s sense of responsibility to one’s potential, perhaps, but that’s not a strong line to chase. Instead, the show has indulged itself with a relationship that exists simply to show happiness on-screen. Willow’s anxious over-thinking plays beautifully alongside Oz’s laconic discernment, and it’s evident how their relationship works, and how they complement and challenge each other without ever being conflicted. There’s a maturity in the show to have such confidence in this relationship – and it’s obviously no accident, given how carefully Oz was introduced. In a show where the characters experience real trauma, putting Oz and Willow on screen is a welcome relief.

Xander, meanwhile, is paired with Cordelia. This is a fundamentally unstable relationship, begun in secrecy and denial, with both parties regularly wondering why they are together. The characters also seem to be on contrary paths in relation to the show as a whole. Cordelia was introduced as a foil for Buffy, proved immediately to be redundant, and twisted in the wind for the whole first season before she was given some character depth and a reason to befriend the Scoobies. She has gone on to become increasingly valuable to the show, her function as truthteller making her an incredibly useful tool for the writers as well as a constantly refreshing presence. She steals scene after scene, and although she never threatens to really be a core character, she is regularly the show’s MVP. Xander, meanwhile, was introduced as a core character, the identification point for every boy in the audience, a point-of-view character whose centrality rivaled Buffy herself. His feelings for Buffy anchored the first season. Throughout season one and two he slowly grew up, not getting over Buffy but finding peace with the fact she didn’t share his interest, and showing his heroism several times, coming through when it counted. But he could never escape some aspects of his character – his thoughtless/instinctive response to problems and threats, and his defensive, anxious masculinity. He screwed up in some unpleasant ways, and as the show’s premise demanded it try harder to live up to its feminist ideals, he continued to be out of step. As Cordelia became more essential to the show, he has become less essential, and even problematic. The show, by this point, was flailing as it tried to find the right way to make Xander work. That flailing reaches a culmination in this episode, with a very risky move indeed.

The episode is mostly played as farce, although the stakes remain life-or-death. Buffy’s setback with Scott leads to the awakening of her “prom queen within” – the otherwise-forgotten backstory that had Buffy as the social elite of her previous school. This was never massively convincing given Buffy’s immediate alliance with the nerds and outcasts in the very first episode, and has only become less comprehensible over the two-seasons-plus since. The episode just shrugs and trusts we’ll go along with Buffy taking on Cordelia to get voted Homecoming Queen, and we do, because seeing Buffy suddenly want something so ordinary is hugely refreshing in contrast to her epic melodramatic trauma saga with Angel.

However, complications arise thanks to Mr Trick, who has set up a Slayer-hunting contest using his contacts in the supernatural world. (Notably, the bad guys are all at the silly end of serious – a returning Lyle Gorch, a patently ridiculous lizard monster, Kraftwerk as high-powered assassins, and a guy named “Jungle Bob”.) Buffy & Cordelia, thrown together in this crisis, find a way to newly respect each other and their mastery of their respective domains. It all plays as buddy comedy, and it’s delightful to see the show’s two best assets playing directly against each other. And the episode finishes on a note that is just perfect – as we see Buffy & Cordy, together at the dance, hear the announcement that there is a tie for Homecoming Queen! Everyone who has ever seen a TV show knows exactly what’s coming next – which is why it’s so satisfying when the show swerve to make two other people we’ve never heard of the joint Homecoming Queens. This is a minor episode for sure, but it plays out so well.

Except. That one move, right?

Willow and Xander are getting ready for the dance together. Getting into their nice clothes. And you can see their friendship, their history together – something the show has never underlined too much so it does feel fresh and light here. And Xander works in this scene, you can see why Willow likes having him around. Xander the friend – there he is! That’s what we’ve been missing!

But the show isn’t done, because part of that friendship was Willow’s love for Xander, and Xander’s borderline-callous romantic disinterest in Willow. And when they see each other dressed up, it’s a shock to them – a “here we are, growing up” moment.

But. The scene keeps going. It’s the longest single scene this episode, the longest in a while in fact. It keeps going, sticking with them as they are drawn to each other. As they get closer and closer, slowly. As they dance. As they lean in. As they, finally, gently, kiss. Taking time so the audience buys the reawakening of that old interest. And it’s believable enough – there are so many reasons why these two characters might spiral back together here. Sure, there are also many, many reasons why they wouldn’t – other paths, happier paths, where their two relationships might carry on allowing all these characters to stay in good places.

But by now we know what the show thinks of paths like that.

So Willow and Xander kiss, and they want to kiss again, and they are conflicted, and it can’t end well, it just can’t, and Xander is suddenly integral to the drama once again. He matters. Simple. The show just needed to wreck the happiness of every one of his friends.

Other notes:
* Trick’s plan is a bit weird. He’s in it to make some cash off contestant deposits, sure, but we just saw Trick excusing himself from a fight when there was nothing in it for him. Whereas here he not only sets up an assassination program against two Slayers, unprovoked – but he introduces it personally with a recorded video, and makes sure all the assassins know who he is so they can give him up. Why would he put a target on his chest in the event a Slayer survives? Why not just leave town? It’s inconsistent with what we’ve seen, but we still don’t know much about Trick, so it isn’t a big ask to let it slide. Also, this is a comedy episode – the rules of logic ease off a little bit here.
* We also get the on-screen introduction of the Mayor, spoken of in portentous tones for some time now. He gets an amazing introduction scene – smiling, polite, worrying about cleanliness and manners while seeing Trick as a potential ally for whatever dark scheme he has underway. The world of Buffy has been expanding for a while and here’s the next layer of the onion.
* Cordelia intimidating Lyle Gorch into running away is about as triumphant a moment as there’s ever been in this show.

Watching Buffy: s03e04 “Beauty and the Beasts”


Buffy has, from the very beginning, tried to be about things. The monsters were always a general metaphor for the many ways in which life sucks when you’re a teenager, and Buffy and the Scoobies were a metaphor for how teenagers can rise to challenges beyond the expectations of their teachers, their parents, and themselves. Often the show leaned harder on this, and the monstrous threat would be a specific metaphor for one aspect of teenaged life-suckery; in the world Buffy created, these metaphor monsters could be potent pieces of symbolism.

This episode by Marti Noxon takes that idea of addressing issues to a new level of blunt clarity. We meet Pete and Debbie, who seem happy and normal and friendly. However, we also see them when they are alone, and we learn Pete is jealous and controlling. Debbie is afraid of him. He is verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive, and Debbie covers for him. When Pete calms down from his rages, he blames Debbie for provoking him and begs forgiveness. She does forgive him. She loves him. When his violence is revealed, she tries to protect him. This is their conversation (source):

Debbie: Pete! You’re all right! God, you’re all right.
She throws her arms around him and hugs him close, but he doesn’t hug her back.
Debbie: She almost shot you. Did you see? I stopped her.
She lets go of her hug and looks at him.
Debbie: You have to leave, get out of Sunnydale. She knows.
Pete: How did she know, Debbie? Did you run your big mouth?
Debbie: (frightened) No! She just knew. It seemed like she just knew.
Pete: So you filled in the blanks!
He shoves her to the floor.
Debbie: (screams) NO! (looks up at him) No!
Pete: But what did I expect from a screw-up like you?
Debbie: (Shakes her head) I-I didn’t… Pete…
Pete: You’re nothing but a waste of space.
He moves to grab her.
Debbie: No!

The camera cuts away as Pete kills Debbie.

There are many depictions of partner abuse in popular media. The wife with the black eye is depressingly common. But among that mass of stories, this stands out for its brutality. There’s no escape here, no 3/4 swerve to reverse expectations. There is a monstrous metaphor here: the mood swings that keep love alive in an abusive romance are rendered as literal Jekyll-and-Hyde transformations. This metaphor provides no cover, however, and it is not intended to do so. It’s barely even symbolism at all, only there to provide the story with a genre trapping (and to allow the abusive Pete to go toe-to-toe with a werewolf and a slayer).

And there’s something very powerful in this. Buffy vs. monstrous abusive boyfriend is as pure an expression of the show’s feminist viewpoint as you could get. It feels, though, like dangerous ground for the show. There’s prior form for trouble: when it stops hiding behind metaphor, Buffy‘s storytelling starts to lose its moorings. The significant precursor here is Ted, where Buffy’s new stepdad was a dangerous and controlling man underneath his pleasant facade. Not coincidentally, that was another episode about domestic violence, and while the episode itself was a success, it achieved this by sacrificing consistency with the rest of the series.

This episode, however, manages these risks much more successfully. Partly this is the result of the show’s greater maturity. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has paid its dues and shown in the intensity of season two that it can deal with heavy themes with care and impact. It is hard to imagine such a bluntly violent storyline in earlier seasons. Crucially, the show also manages risk by putting the violent relationship one step away from the regular characters. Pete and Debbie are not friends of any of the group, and so everything that happens here is allowed to be brutal without creating more trauma for the core cast.

This social isolation from Buffy and her friends creates its own narrative problems – this feels in some ways like a Very Special Episode, those stalwarts of 80s TV where shows would address difficult and intense topics inside a single episode. As Vulture points out in its just published secret history of the Very Special Episode, one of the reasons these episodes went out of fashion was the rise of serialised stories; attempting to do justice to some of these important issues inside standard commercial running time rarely ended well. Introducing two brand-new friends and immediately revealing their awful secret feels clumsy and inauthentic in a series that trades on comics-style continuity and ongoing subplots.

However, I feel like this episode gets away with it, for two reasons. Firstly it manages this through the point of connection between Pete and Debbie and the Scoobies: Scott Hope, the lovely normal guy with whom Buffy’s embarking on a very hesitant dating relationship. Pete and Debbie are his best friends. It’s actually very refreshing for any TV show to acknowledge that part of the experience of a new boyfriend or girlfriend is meeting their social circle: the vast majority of TV shows have boyfriends coming and going without any sign that they have other people in their lives at all. We care about these new arrivals because their appearance is organic to the narrative and their friendship with Scott is a mark in their favour, so the introduction works well, and we can forgive the swift revelation of the truth because we believe Buffy and her friends are now skilled at uncovering these sorts of secrets once contact is made.

The second reason for the episode’s success is by locating this narrative within a strong thematic throughline for the episode. It isn’t just about Pete and Debbie, but about masculinity. Faith shoots from the hip in a bout of truthtelling that bites some of Cordelia’s style: “All men are beasts, Buffy… It’s not cynical. I mean, it’s realistic. Every guy from Manimal down to Mr. I-Love-The-English-Patient has beast in him. And I don’t care how sensitive they act. They’re all still just in it for the chase.”

So let’s take a moment to check out the other men in the story.

Scott Hope
He’s still lovely and funny and kind. He’s not particularly memorable in the grand scheme of Buffy, but’s that’s a point in his favour – he isn’t trying to hog any spotlight, he doesn’t screw up in dramatic fashion, he doesn’t dominate. He’s just happy to be spending time with Buffy. It’s lovely to watch, honestly. But by the end of this episode, he is shattered. His two best friends, who he’s known since they were all preschoolers, are dead in a murder-suicide. The abuse plotline is too far from the Scoobies to give any of them trauma, but Scott catches a huge dose of it here. Poor Scott.

We spend a lot of time with Oz this episode, for a change. He’s still a werewolf and Willow and the Scoobies take turns watching him as he spends wolf nights in lockup. The weight of werewolfiness is obviously wearing him down, and when he believes he might be responsible for a murder, he is sickened. In fact, Oz is pretty much perfect, with Seth Green again showing his dramatic and comedic acting chops are on a level above everyone else on the show as he sells every single beat. (“Uh, you know that thing where you bail in the middle of an upsetting conversation? I have to do that. It’s kinda dramatic, I know, but… sometimes, it’s a necessary guy thing.”
As a side-note, we also get more of Oz as the quiet wise observer, as he’s the one who figures out what’s happening with Pete and Debbie. As a second side-note, shirtless Oz.

If you’re looking for an episode where the show officially throws up its hands and gives up trying to “fix” Xander, you could do worse than his first scene here, where he promises Willow he won’t fall asleep while watching Oz-wolf, and then promptly settles down for a sleep as soon as she’s out of the room. As it happens the show has some good moves still to make with Xander, but it might yet be too little, too late.

Giles doesn’t get to do much this episode, but he does have a good conversation with Buffy, showing again their mature relationship, confessing his personal experiences after Jenny’s death to help Buffy reflect on her own grief process. He also calls out Xander for his failures. There is one curious note here, where Buffy asks about Angel returning from torture in a hell dimension, and Giles suggests there are “two types of monster. The first, uh, can be redeemed, or more importantly, wants to be redeemed. The second is void of humanity, cannot respond to reason… or love.” Within the framework of this episode, it’s clear where Pete should sit – void of humanity, with no desire for redemption – but it feels like an off-note, attributing abusive behaviour like Pete’s to some personal deviance or deficiency and denying the possibility of a social/contextual contribution to his violence. Still, a small point, and Giles’ views shouldn’t be taken as the show’s.

Mr Platt
The excellent Mr Platt is Buffy’s counsellor. He is a fun character, provoking Buffy to tell the story of her and Angel with the monstrous flavour stripped way, revealing the metaphor. It’s the show basically showing its cards. He’s a great character and useful for the kinds of exposition the show sometimes has to work hard to shoe-horn in. The kind of stories we’ve seen in this show – heck, in this episode – cry out for this kind of figure. He’d be a great regular character and would reduce the pressure on the characters. So, by the inevitable calculus of Buffy’s commitment to real threat, he has to die. (Sadly, as he’s just the third significant black character to be introduced on this show. Sigh.)

Shirtless Angel
And finally, Angel. He’s back, he’s bestial, he has no shirt. Buffy finds him, and in a very interesting move, keeps his return a secret. This is a shockingly great storytelling decision, a pure expression of the character flaw we saw just last episode, Buffy’s tendency to take things on herself. She wonders if the violence is Angel’s doing, and is relieved when it turns out Pete was responsible – even more so when Angel kills Pete to save her, then collapses before her, revealing he is still himself (and simultaneously resolving the problem of what to do about Pete, saving Buffy from becoming a killer…)

So this broad tour of masculinity does gently support Faith’s point. All of the other male characters are (more or less) uncorrupted, with the partial and notable exception of Xander. And yet the central theme of dangerous masculinity is reinforced because all of these men fret about their own potential for darkness – Angel is struggling to express his humanity, Oz is distraught about what his wolf-side might have done, Giles sees wickedness as a philosophical problem, Xander tries to hide his failings even from himself, and even Mr Platt clearly has no illusions about masculine failings. This gives the episode what it needs to make a particularly tricky episode land. A very special episode, indeed.

Watching Buffy: s03e03 “Faith, Hope & Trick”


Most episodes of Buffy set out to do just one thing. One episode gets Buffy back to Sunnydale, another rebuilds broken bridges with her friends, to take two recent examples. But sometimes the show rolls out an episode that covers off a whole big mess of things inside that broadcast television hour.

Such episodes are usually written by Joss Whedon. This one is written by reliable stalwart of the writing team, David Greenwalt. The title divides the episode into three, so let’s start there.

As much as Cordy is the truth-teller, Oz is the audience-speaker, the one who makes observations like those we make at home in our living rooms watching the show. So of course he catches on first: “I’m gonna go out on a limb and say there’s a new Slayer in town.” The whole gang has just followed Buffy out of the Bronze, after seeing a vampire guy (spotted by his out-of-date style in a conscious callback to the first episode) head through the doors with an apparently-vulnerable girl. They all watch, amazed, as she turns the tables on the vampire, borrowing Buffy’s stake to dust him. She knows who Buffy is, thanks her for the assist, and strides past them all without a backwards glance.

As character introductions go, this is pretty special. It is, of course, a note-perfect depiction of Whedon’s initial idea that became the Buffy concept, the vulnerable girl in the alley who turns out to be not so vulnerable. It is also the first time it’s actually been done – the original film script and the actual film that was made and the unreleased pilot episode and the actual first television episode all introduced Buffy Summers in a different way (the latter two by inverting the idea and having the girl be a vampire, not a slayer). However, although it is a pure representation of that initial swerve, it plays very differently to an audience (both in the fiction and in reality) who already know the world contains slight young women who happen to be ultimate badasses.

The details of Faith’s introduction here all communicate plenty. She embodies confidence, passion and instinct, which are all highly charged elements of the Buffy world.

Faith’s sheer confidence (social, physical and especially sexual) is a marked contrast with every one of the Scoobies, and it is clear she has no doubts about her capability in everything she does in this scene – dancing and slaying. Having an audience doesn’t bother her in the least. And though she is clearly on the same side as everyone else, this marks her as a foil for the whole group. The core Scoobies are all basically the awkward ones in their high school world – even Buffy, who ostensibly has a background as a popular girl, was reinvented early on as a natural member of the uncool club. (The expanded Scooby crew, Oz and Cordy, are allowed to be not-awkward, but both of them have explicitly disengaged from that world so they still don’t count as high-status cool kids.) Season two did have its cool kids, of course – the vampires. Here, exactly one season later, we finally get a cool kid on the side of the Scooby gang.

(Note that the show doesn’t go out of its way to emphasise this tension. As noted above, the show goes to commercial on Faith walking past the group without looking back at them, which is how you code a status gap in filmic/theatrical performance. Typically this exact move sets up some action where the characters try to get the attention of this other character – see countless high-school romance stories. However, right after the commercial, everyone’s sitting together and Faith is eagerly telling stories of her adventures. You’re spared any scenes of the Scoobies running after her and asking her to explain, or any other beat that tracks from the low status Faith has just bestowed on Buffy and her friends. The act transition disguises this missing moment, even if you’re watching with no ad break, but its absence creates a feeling of Faith hanging out being slightly too good to be true.)

Faith’s passion is also clearly evident. She doesn’t just know she’s good at dancing and fighting – she loves doing both. This is likewise out of place with every other character. The core cast are all reserved to a fault, and the show draws much of its drama – and humour – from the slow and stumbling way the characters cope with, and overcome, their hesitations. (Again, Cordy and Oz both dodge this – neither is reserved, but they are not passionate either.) She clearly likes her life, and after two seasons of Buffy slowly coming to terms with what it means to be a slayer, it’s a shocking comparison to see someone so happily integrated and comfortable with their fate. The unspoken challenge to Buffy is clear: why is this so hard for you, B? As the episode proceeds, Buffy shows herself to be quite aware of this challenge, and feeling quite threatened by it.

Faith’s reliance on instinct is also right on display. She’s clearly not following any plan by dancing with the vampire for ages before going outside with him. She isn’t being efficient or directed by introducing herself to Buffy while in the middle of a fight. In fact, she didn’t even have a stake on her and had no particular plan to acquire one – luckily Buffy happened to provide. She doesn’t need to think things through, here, she just dives headfirst and trusts that she’ll be able to figure it out as she goes.

Unlike the other two, this trait is not entirely absent from the Scoobies. I’ve suggested before that the core four at the heart of the show each foreground and represent a different attribute of a complete person. Giles is conscience and reason, both aspects of self-awareness and reflection, whereas Willow (despite her nerdiness) is the emotional core of the group – the conflict between head and heart is shown in this very episode when Giles warns Willow about delving carelessly into magic. Xander has had the duty of representing instinct, reliably speaking out of turn, following his gut, and getting in over his head. Faith’s appearance on the scene seems very likely to step on his toes. At the least, it puts a spotlight on some of the growing problems with Xander as a character.

Let’s do a quick review of those, actually. Throughout the last season, the show struggled to figure out exactly what to do with Xander. He was the “normal guy”, the doofus with a good heart, but most of his plot contributions seemed to be about him making stupid mistakes so everything gets worse for everyone. He’s also stuck as a representative of threatened masculinity, so more often than not the dumb stuff he says has a layer of unpleasant gendered foolishness that could make it hard to like him. This very episode has a case in point: Xander calls Buffy a “little slut” for expressing interest in going on a date. He’s just teasing her; the joke he’s making is that she isn’t even remotely being a “little slut”. However, the joke relies on an uncomfortable and misogynistic set of assumptions. (In response to this well-meaning but wrongheaded teasing, Buffy punches Xander a little too hard, or perhaps not remotely hard enough.) Now that Faith’s appeared, also with the instinct trait on display, the weaknesses in Xander’s character stand out more clearly: he’s not only the voice of (thwarted, nice-guy) patriarchy, he is also by design impotent in comparison to Buffy. Just this little scene with Faith underlines how, as a character, Xander’s been set up to fail, and in the world of Buffy where emotional consequences are real, he’s either going to learn and change, or he’s going to get bitter and self-righteous. Keep an eye on him.

Speaking of the word “slut” – Cordy uses it to describe Faith, having spotted her on the dancefloor. It’s another unpleasant beat, almost forgiveable because it comes from Cordelia who spent a season-and-a-half exercising her power by policing other women – that takes a while to get over. It’s a pity none of the other characters are given a rebuke to this, although it’s kinda in character that none of them would chastise Cordelia for this comment – the closest to a paragon present would be Oz, who is characterized above all by his tendency towards silence. (If only we could glimpse what he was thinking…) As it happens, the best rebuke to the comment comes (in delayed form) from Faith herself. Her introduction as a positive character, her mythological importance as a new Slayer, and her continuing role as a major character for this season, all serve to shout down this comment, or perhaps to put it in the context Faith would – as a pathetic attempt to insult her for being command of her sexuality. This show has a female perspective and feminist ideals, and Faith’s arrival immediately shows some weaknesses there.

Not that she’s an instant corrective or a perfect feminist. Faith is pointedly graceless, over-fond of violence, and in the same way her three primary attributes are conveyed immediately, it is also immediately clear how they can flip to become weaknesses: overconfident, overemotional, unthinking. When the episode and reveals that Faith does have weaknesses, in this case a fear of the vampire who killed her watcher, we are set up to wonder if she will listen to Buffy’s appeals to take responsibility and stay. (Not coincidentally, this is a speech she would have been unable to give with sincerity just one episode ago.) Then the vampires short-circuit the question by turning up anyway. Faith’s courage falters, but Buffy’s example gives her the presence of mind to move past her fears and take the monstrous vampire down.

And then we jump to Giles confirming that Faith will stick around, for the time being at least. Buffy is pleased, herself coming to terms with the fact that Faith is also a slayer (easier now it’s clear she has some personal qualities Faith is lacking). The contrasts Faith represents are going to provide plenty of drama, that much is obvious. Faith is a hard contrast with Buffy, the same way Cordelia was intended to be right at the start of season one. Kendra was also a contrast, but not one with much teeth – taking a bunch of awkward kids and showing them someone even nerdier was never going to be a convincing existential challenge. But here, the library nerds suddenly have to deal with someone cool in their circle, and that is definitely going to shake things up. It’s a delicious development, because as much as the dramatic conflicts are clear, the future is wide open – this could go in all kinds of directions. For the first time in Buffy’s history, it really is impossible to predict what is coming next.

The introduction of Buffy’s new love interest is accomplished with such economy that it is instantly clear any romance between the two characters is doomed. Buffy is sitting with her friends just outside school when Willow delivers an info-dump worthy of the ones Giles delivers from his dusty tomes: “Ooo, Scott Hope at eleven o’clock. He likes you. He wanted to ask you out last year, but you weren’t ready then. But I think you’re ready now, or at least in the state of pre-readiness to make conversation, or-or to do that thing with your mouth that boys like.” (The double entendre finish is spectacularly forced, but the show gets away with it because Alyson Hannigan.)

Willow’s right that Scott likes Buffy and intends to ask her out; she’s right to be positive about this, because Scott is painstakingly set up throughout this episode as a nice, normal guy; but she’s not quite right about Buffy’s readiness. This is what the Scott Hope portion of the episode is about: Buffy’s personal baggage. We’ve seen in the first episode of the season that Buffy realizes she needs to go home to heal, and that’s where she belongs anyway; in the second episode we saw her reconnect with her friends and her mother. Now it’s time to actually show the impact of that healing, in accordance with the show’s established method of getting past the traumas it inflicts on its characters. Buffy needs to angst a bit, and then the show, and we the audience, will let her get on with the quips and the stakings.

Willow’s misapprehension here is simply because she doesn’t quite appreciate the magnitude of Buffy’s sorrow. She doesn’t know – no-one but Buffy herself knows – that Angel had recovered his soul at the time Buffy had to kill him. She’s underestimating just how messed up that experience was. Another intense dream about Angel, this one unmistakeably driven by her sense of guilt, marks out her unfinished business.

Buffy’s stated motivation is to get her life back so she can “do normal stuff”. This isn’t the same desire that animated Buffy back in season one – her normal has shifted. Patrolling cemeteries and beheading demons is part of her life now, but she also wants the other half, school and friends and time for picnics. Principal Snyder grudgingly readmitting Buffy to Sunnydale High is part of this throughline, and the victory over this petty villain is very entertaining.

So she’s back in high school, hanging with her friends, and has a normal boy to awkward-flirt with – everything is falling into place, except of course that big unresolved unpleasantness that haunts her dreams. And that’s brought to a head by Giles gently probing her for details in order to bind the demon that caused all this mess. Buffy dodges, rather than relive the worst day of her life in excruciating detail, let alone share its full awfulness.

Wait a second. Here’s a question: why does she she dodge? She’s already reliving that worst day over and over again; and does she really think her friends couldn’t handle the truth about Angel’s soul being restored? She’s returned to Sunnydale to heal, and she would heal best by sharing with her friends and receiving their acceptance and love. What’s really holding her back? Is it just dramatic contrivance, to spin an episode out of this plot point and force Buffy to earn her way out of misery? That’s certainly part of it, but is that all? Is there a strong organic reason why Buffy should so vividly keep this secret?

Well, yes, there is, and it comes down to Buffy’s fundamental character. From very early on, Buffy the slayer has been exceptional for surrounding herself with friends. But over and over again she has shown a fierce intent to step away from her team and carry the load and risk herself. This is a fundamental feature of Buffy’s character, or more pointedly it is her fundamental flaw. It could be called a martyr complex, or an ego problem, or any number of other things, but it boils down to the same thing: Buffy will always try and go it alone, and she will succeed often enough that she’ll always underestimate the problems such an approach can create. It is a lesson she will have to learn over and over again, and it will create almost all her major problems from here until the end of the series.

This time, she learns the lesson by witnessing that same instinct, to go it alone, almost get Faith killed. So in a move that shows her developing maturity, Buffy volunteers to Willow and Giles the truth about Angel, that he was cured when she killed him. The moment is played very simply and gently, and to the right audience – the head and the heart. It’s lovely. And then Buffy can go and respond positively to Scott, and to demonstrate closure with Angel by putting down the ring he gave her at the place where she killed him. Time to move on.

(Except, of course, Angel comes back, precisely at the moment Buffy gets over him. Why now? Because this show wants her to suffer. She knew that rule when she came back to town.)

Joss Whedon has never been strong on race. Gender – he’s not too bad on gender. There’s no shortage of people giving him fierce critiques for how he addresses gender in his creative works (and, I should say, often making compelling points) but the fact is, he put Buffy on the screen, and she remains a titanic figure in terms of female representation in the media. (Back when Buffy was new we dared to hope the world was changing – but the fact Buffy’s still the titan shows it hasn’t changed as much as it could’ve.) There will always and forever be a convincing case that Joss Whedon pretty much did right by gender.

I don’t know that anyone has tried to say the same about how he addresses race. He’s not a total washout on the subject – Firefly had a few people of colour in its core cast, which is more than a lot of TV manages – but by and large his casting tends towards Whitey McWhitersons everywhere you look. And while Joss Whedon is not the singular deciding power behind any of his works, this show, his first, is the clearest expression of this failing. Sunnydale High is an astonishingly whitebread high school for California. While it’s fairly plausible there aren’t many black students thanks to effective segregation, California’s enormous Hispanic population and significant Asian population are both massively under-represented, even as background extras. After two complete seasons with only Kendra repping people of colour – and that being something of a misfire as well – it’s turned into a known issue.

Enter Mister Trick, a black man in a limo ordering a drink in the drive-thru. “Sunnydale. Town’s got quaint, and the people: he called me sir, don’t you miss that? Admittedly, not a haven for the brothers – strictly the Caucasian persuasion in the ‘dale – but you gotta stand up and salute their death rate.”

This entrance, and Trick himself, hang a lampshade (poorly!) on the show’s racial deficiencies, but litigating that isn’t what I’m most interested in here. The real function of this move is worldbuilding. The “Caucasian persuasion” of Sunnydale is not offered up by the show to excuse its lack of diversity, but rather to signal something about the wider world.

When your show’s title character is at high school, with friends at high school, and one significant older character who works at the high school… Well, that puts some boundaries around your show, and it’s tricky to step outside of them. (Cast your mind back to season one’s terrible effort.) Since then, the show has been carefully building some of the foundations it needs to successfully expand beyond high school. Principal Snyder’s connection to the mysterious Mayor has been a quietly developing subplot for a long time, for example. Sunnydale High is being put into context here: it is just one fragment of something larger.

It’s important to note that this worldbuilding is not intending to logically extend the things we know about the Buffy world into a coherent and consistent wider universe. This show doesn’t give the slightest damn about that: witness any story where the police appear. (Or, even more tellingly, any story where they don’t.) Or look at the Watcher’s Council: in this very episode we learn that Buffy is infamous in Watcher circles, and also that Giles doesn’t get invited to Watcher events. This doesn’t make a lick of sense. Sure, it can be justified if you bend over backwards a ways, but why bother? The show doesn’t care. It’s interested in establishing this wider world solely in order to tell more, and better, stories about Buffy and her friends.

So here, Mr Trick arrives on the scene. He’s a vampire with a gimmick of being tech-savvy and calculatingly self-interested. He is, in other words, an expression of urban power, in sharp contrast to the sheltered small-town suburbs of Sunnydale. And with his arrival we see the vampire metaphor shift again – the cool kids Rebel-Without-A-Cause-ing all over the place have had their moment. For this season, vampires (and those around them) are going to represent technocratic exploitation and the callous misuse of power. The smart young teenagers who are our heroes are going to discover that it isn’t school bullies playing status games who are the real sources of pain in the world – it’s distant suits pursuing their selfish ends, inflicting misery on the small and vulnerable along the way. Not for nothing is Mr Trick’s first victim in town a minimum-wage worker at a fast food joint. So the message of Mr Trick being a black man is the same as the message of him wearing that suit: Sunnydale is a sheltered little haven, and that’s about to change.

Oh, and hey, who else has just arrived in Sunnydale with a big-city attitude? Good thing Faith is on the side of the angels, right?

Other notes:
* The best moment in the episode is actually a very minor one, plotwise. Giles reveals to Willow that there never was a binding spell, and he just wanted Buffy to open up.
* When Faith flirts with Giles, Buffy asks for a show of hands to express everyone’s disgust at the idea. Willow just smiles.
* Oz gives Scott Hope bonus points for using the word “mosey”.
* Joyce: “Probably because you were an only child.” Heh.
* Although Cordelia Chase is almost the epitome of whiteness, Charisma Carpenter is Latina! I had no idea.
* Angel butt.