"Mom, dead people are talking to you. Do the math."
In January, I tried to review an episode every Sunday afternoon. Last Sunday was no exception. I started watching Gingerbread, and about ten minutes in, I thought, you know what? I would rather take a nap than watch this episode. And I've preferred napping every day this past week.
Why? Imagine how not surprised I was to find out it was a Jane Espenson episode.
Consider the opening scene. Buffy is on patrol when she gets a surprise visit from Joyce, who nonchalantly wanders into the graveyard and says, "Is it a vampire? I brought you a snack!" "The slaying is kind of an alone thing!" Buffy responds. Two lines of dialogue in, and I can already tell that this is a Jane Espenson episode. How? Because I'm already irritated. Nobody talks like this. Nobody acts like this. And by the time the episode is through, Ms. Espenson will have done her worst to each character arc.
But it's not all bad.
Buffy runs off to fight a vampire, and Joyce discovers the corpses of two dead children on the playground that is apparently in the middle of a cemetery. For a show with such a high body count, we haven't yet seen dead kids, and the moral indignation is staggering. Joyce gently cries on Buffy's shoulder and says that even if Buffy finds the killer, she can't make it right. "Ok, just calm down!" Buffy says. Yes, that is a totally normal human reaction.
Buffy hounds Giles for information. She doesn't like seeing dead kids, but she also don't life the effect it had on her mother. What's more, when Giles suggests that the symbols found on the kids' hands implies a ritual sacrifice by a human cult, Buffy asks for special permission to kill them. Uhh...
At school, Amy from Witch turns up out of nowhere with dark lipstick and a new dye job, which can't mean anything but "evil child-killing cult."
Joyce pops into the cafeteria to tell Buffy she's called a town vigil to address the murders, which kinda tramples all over Buffy's sleuthing turf.
At the vigil, we get our first (and, I believe, last) look at Willow's mom. Worth noting is that the Scoobies' parents are so insignificant as to be invisible (we'll never see Xander or Cordelia's family). They've been replaced by Joyce and Giles--not just for Buffy, but for all the Scoobies. Remember this.
Mrs. Willow proves her insignificance by being a neglectful parent who refers to Buffy as "Bunny" and didn't even realize Willow got her hair cut ages ago.
The Mayor opens the vigil with a rousing speech about the inherent good in Sunnydale. Then Joyce follows up with a speech declaring that the Mayor is "dead wrong." She appeals to the grown-ups of Sunnydale who have sat by too long pretending that the town isn't run by monsters and turning a blind eye to all the PCP gangs. And on some level she's right, but ignoring the totally obliviousness of the residents of Sunnydale has become a necessity as the show grows out of its Season One goofiness. Bringing it up here puts Buffy and Joyce in opposition to one another, and Joyce actually identifies slayers by name in front of the whole town. She urges the adults to take back the town from the vampires and the slayers, as if the two are part of the same destructive force.
In case you weren't sure if this episode was going to turn into a Holocaust allegory, Joyce creates a bunch of picket signs and banners with pictures of the dead kids that say NEVER AGAIN. You stay classy, Espenson.
We then get a montage of the dweeb bully from Boy Meets World and Amy wearing hoods and chanting over animal skulls. It's not quite as delightful as Amy's mom dipping Barbies into a cauldron of gack in Cheerleader, but it gives off the same air of 90s mystical wrongdoing. Then, shock of shocks, we see Willow is in on the cultish behavior! And what's more, they're worshipping at the symbol found on the dead childrens' hands! Could Willow be evil?
Fear not. The show allows you to suspect Willow for about five seconds before you realize she is way too adorable to kill babies. For example, when Buffy finds the symbol drawn in Willow's notebook, Willow defends herself by saying, "I do doodle. You too. You do doodle too!" And then I hit my head against the sharp pointy corner of my desk.
At this moment, the Sunnydale police storm in to confiscate all of Giles' books and dig through the students' lockers. In case you weren't sure if this is also a Salem witch hunt allegory, they're convinced that the murders were the work of witches and, with the mounting evidence of the creepy symbol and other facts from Giles' research, it looks like they're right. Willow insists that she and her witch brethren were actually creating a protection spell for Buffy, and we all believe her. Hugs!
Principal Snyder defends these actions as being ordained by Mothers Opposing the Occult (MOO), spearheaded by none other than Joyce. Buffy confronts her at home, which has become the impromptu MOO headquarters. This scene is actually quite well-written and plays on the tension between Slayer Buffy and her bemused mother. Buffy feels that Joyce doesn't appreciate the importance of the work she does and is interfering with her ability to fight the forces of darkness. In real life, this would seem like a bratty way for a teenager to cling onto some semblance of power in a world where she can't do much. But as in most coming-of-age fiction, kids have all the power and adults barely exist. This episode could have worked if it stuck to this idea--what responsibility should the parents (Joyce and Giles) take on, and what can they afford to let go? But that will all go flying off the rails soon enough.
Mrs. Willow rifles through all the creepy witch stuff confiscated from Willow's locker, and intellectualizes Willow's behavior as teenage rebellion indicative of her age group. I have to say that Mrs. Willow's characterization is pretty hilarious, if not totally over the top. She talks to Willow like an academic Dr. Phil, and tsk-tsks when Willow announces that she's dating a musician.
Angel appears for one scene per his contract to comfort Buffy, who is sulking in the graveyard. She whines that Joyce thinks her Slayer duties are "fruitless. No fruit for Buffy!" ESPENSON.
One constructive thing that comes out of their conversation is the fact that people are reacting a bit too strongly to the deaths of these children in a town where 50 people die per week. Buffy runs to the library and tells Giles that nobody even knows the identity of the kids, and some adorable 1998-style internet research reveals that the exact same children have turned up dead every 50 years.
Giles spins some exposition about how fairy tales can be real, and the fairy tale in question is that of Hansel and Gretel. Apparently, at the end of Hansel and Gretel, the two kids run to town and convince everyone that the evil lady in the candy house is a witch, tho I seem to recall the part where she tries to cook them in an oven more strongly. Giles insists that this demon operates by preying upon peoples' worst fears and turning communities against each other, like that episode of the Twilight Zone. Luckily, the episode stops just short of placing these demons at the center of the Holocaust.
Remember this: the demon doesn't cast a spell. It doesn't use voodoo mind control. Its power lies in persuasion. This implies that the reactions of each individual to the demon are completely their own. REMEMBER THIS.
Boy Meets World dweeb warns the Scoobies that a mob, led by his dad, turned up, beat him, and dragged him (and Amy) to city hall or some such place. This mob breaks into Willow's bedroom, with Mrs. Willow shouting, "I said get your coat, witch!"
Buffy and Giles rush to the Summers home to tell Joyce about the demon, only to have Joyce chloroform them both. She turns to the specter of the two dead children (one of whom holds a bottle that says "Chloroform" for plot purposes) and says, "You were right. It was easy."
Buffy comes to tied to a stake alongside Willow and Amy. Joyce holds a flaming torch to Buffy and basically says, well Buffy, all I wanted was a good daughter, and instead I got you! (The logic of holding a large human/book bonfire indoors is not questioned.)
Amy is pissed so she turns herself into a rat and runs away. Buffy, not knowing how to turn herself into a rat, tearfully appeals to Joyce, begging her to see reason, and confronting her with the fact that she's, you know, trying to burn her daughter at the stake. Joyce's response? "You earned this!"
Just in the nick of time, Giles turns up to chant some Latin, and Cordelia takes a fire hose to the crowd. And then the fire, once she stops having so much fun hosing people down.
Giles' spell turns the kids into a big gross thing, which gets impaled by Buffy's stake. Then Xander and Oz, who went on their own mission to save Buffy and Willow, drop through the ceiling uselessly. Yes, this entire scene is funny. I'm not to proud to admit it.
What isn't funny, however, is the fact that Joyce was ready to burn her daughter at the stake. If Espenson absolutely had to go to this extreme, she could have at least:
1. Stipulated that the demon casts a spell and the people affected are not in control of their actions. Espenson, you write for a show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You can take these liberties.
2. If you wanted to go full tilt with Joyce's attempt to maintain control, make this episode SOMBER.
Up until this point, nothing on the show has even approached the severity and sinisterness of Joyce trying to burn Buffy at the stake of her own volition. Only it doesn't read that way, because the episode is goofy and full of slapstick humor. It still would have been strange in Season One, but by this point, it is downright stupid to trash a character that has been built up as the show's matriarch. This episode just takes an ax to Joyce. Buffy is a character-driven show, and I'm far more interested in preserving the show's relationships than Espenson's right to be funny.
I have a theory that Jane Espenson has never actually watched Buffy. This is yet another episode that comes clunking in, has nothing to do with the season plot, hijacks all of the careful work the show has done for the sake of some jokes, and will have a far stronger effect than it should. Spoilers: nobody will ever again mention the events of this episode. We will be asked to forget it ever happened. No explanation will be given for Joyce's actions and there will be no repercussions. But when you, the viewer, continue watching, you won't forget that Joyce tried to kill Buffy. How could you?
Favorite moment: As usual, Cordelia saves the day. After Joyce chloroforms Giles, Cordelia slaps him over and over until he comes to. Then she tells him that one of these days he's going to "wake up in a coma," and when Giles mentions something about going to stop Hansel and Gretel, says, "Just to be clear, the brain damage happened before I slapped you."