Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Helpless

Season #3, Episode #12: Helpless

"You have a father's love for the child, and that is useless to the cause."


If I found Gingerbread a bit too frivolous and goofy for its subject matter, then Helpless is the other side of the same coin. One does not watch Helpless, but rather slogs through it in all its heaviness and murkiness.

At Angel's lair, it seems his party planner assembled an impressive spread of wine, grapes, cheese, and sparkling water on a sensual blanket, complete with scented candles. Or, you can imagine Angel going to the grocery store and painstakingly selecting the plumpest grapes and then arranging his bounty on the floor, possibly shirtless.

You may recall that Buffy and Angel are not together. Or are they? At this point, I'm not sure the show remembers where they left off in the great romance. And anyway, the whole romantic scene turns out to be a nonsensical joke as Buffy and Angel are actually training. Their training gets a little frisky, and it is awkward. Luckily David Boreanaz and SMG have plenty of practice by now in the "look like we almost accidentally made out and feel super awkward about it" department, with SMG specializing in the "mutter about homework or training with Giles and hastily run away" stage exit.

After a training session with Giles that consists of staring at various big stones, Buffy heads to the cemetery to patrol, and nearly gets staked by a vampire. At the least opportune moment, her strength goes. Plus, now she's really bad at darts.

Giles suggests that Buffy might be sick, which Buffy insists can't be true, because her birthday is coming up. She'll celebrate at the ice show with her deadbeat dad, unseen since Season One's Nightmares. If she can't go, her dad will be heartbroken.

So you'll be shocked to find out that deadbeat dad backed out, leaving Buffy some nice flowers and a broken heart. We'll have to see how this stacks up against her past birthdays, which included Angel becoming Angelus in Surprise and zombies crashing (and Xander being a douche) in Dead Man's Party.

Tragically, Buffy goes to Giles and asks him to take her to the ice show instead. Giles is too busy trying to get Buffy to stare at some more rocks. She zonks out, hypnotized, and Giles sneakily pulls out a syringe and injects her with something yellow and dangerous-looking.

If you're like me, you are currently flipping out. Buffy just essentially called you "daddy" and now you're doing what?

Meanwhile, a creepy old British guy in a dilapidated building alludes to the "Slayer's training" while staring at a big gross-looking box. Since we've learned that British people who aren't Giles are uniformly evil, and that Giles may actually be secretly evil, we can guess that the two are in cahoots.

Sure enough, Giles goes to have afternoon tea in the creepy building with the creepy old man, because British people must drink tea in frilly cups no matter the circumstances. Creepy old man (who turns out to be a member of the Watchers Council) alludes to a Slayer rite of passage to take place on her 18th birthday--she'll be locked in the dilapidated building with "the thing" inside of the box, weak and defenseless, in order to test her cunning and creativity. But Giles feels this rite is "an archaic exercise in cruelty." He argues that if anyone the Council had contact with an actual Slayer, they would realize their cruelty. So Giles may help to betray and weaken Buffy, but at least he's not happy about it!

The Scoobies research in vain to find the cause of Buffy's weakening power, and poor Giles has to play along. Buffy considers that losing her powers wouldn't be the end of the world. In earlier seasons, she may have greeted the news with joy. But her eagerness to find a cure shows just how much she's changed over time.

She heads to Angel's lair where he gives her an old-timey book for her birthday. But she's out of sorts, wondering what the point of her life will be if she loses her powers. She's seen too much to go back to the way things were. Then Angel tells her some incredibly creepy stuff about how he saw her when she was a ditzy 16-year-old and that he loved her and wanted to protect her heart, yadda yadda, let's just forget this ever happened.

Back at dilapidated building, two British lackeys are charged with feeding the scary psychopathic vampire in the box his tranquilizers. He manages to burst out and turn one of them into a vampire. Bad timing for Giles, who turns up to meet with the Council member, only to find a trail of blood.

The vampires, however, have left the building.They come after Buffy, who is wandering in the street experiencing life as a normal teenager. She's hassled by cat-callers and can't even come up with a witty comeback pun. When she's found by the two vampires, all she can do is run screaming into the street, trying to flag down cars and begging for help. Just in time, Giles turns up in his adorable car to rescue her. It's actually chilling to watch Buffy resorting to hysterics to save herself without the aid of physical strength.

At the library, Giles tells Buffy about his dastardly deeds and the forthcoming test. He insists that he had no choice in the matter and that he answers to the Council. But this isn't good enough for Buffy, who tries to throw the syringe box at his head and, touchingly, misses. She tells him she doesn't know who he is anymore, and there are many tears. Some may be your own.

Psycho vampire shows up at the Summers home and kidnaps Joyce, leaving a set of creepy Polaroids directing Buffy to the dilapidated building. Her dad(s) may have disappointed her, and her Slayer strength may be gone, but her sense of duty to Joyce is strong as ever, so she limps in sad overalls to face the test after all.

Psycho vampire ties Joyce up and takes Polaroids of her, all while expounding on his mommy issues. He killed and ate his mother, and when he turns Buffy into a vampire too, he promises Joyce's face will be the first thing Buffy eats. God, this episode is joyless.

Giles gives the Council guy a piece of his mind, saying that he doesn't give a rat's ass about the Council's orders. (That's a direct quote, btw.) But when he finds out that Buffy entered the field of play, he rushes off to her defense. He may be the worst Watcher, but he's a good pal!

What ensues is a cat and mouse chase through the dilapidated building. This is probably the scariest sequence in a Buffy episode (tho Hush has its moments). Watching Buffy without her powers is more disturbing than you might imagine. Serial killer vampires with mommy issues, also quite disturbing. Put them in a creepy old building together, and what do you get?

For example, Buffy holds up a crucifix in her trembling hand, and psycho vampire pulls it toward his stomach, pushing it lower and lower, expressing how good it feels.

Buffy enters a pitch black room, pulls the light switch, and finds hundreds of Polaroids of Joyce decorating the walls. I mean come on, that must have taken psycho vampire longer than it took Angel to run to Costco for sensual grapes.


Plus, the Polaroids themselves...


Buffy's cunning prevails, as she replaces the vampire's cup of water with holy water just in time for him to take his pills. Giles shows up just in time to take care of the second vampire and exchange a knowing glance with Buffy.


The Council member congratulates Buffy back at the library (to which Buffy responds, "Bite me,") but he has less than praise for Giles. He fires Giles as Buffy's Watcher. It's not yet clear how this will change things for the Scoobies, but when Giles kneels down to tend to Buffy's gaping head wound, you know that their relationship will be okay.

I had absolutely no fun writing this review. I had no fun watching the episode. I remember watching this once before with audio commentary, and the writer of the episode complained that fans didn't like it because they don't want to see any fissure in the Scoobies. Or maybe they didn't like it because it's extraordinarily bleak and joyless, and throws in one twisted disturbing twist after another. It's not just Giles, who is directly compared to Buffy's father, letting Buffy down. It isn't just him injecting her with poison. It's not just the cruelty of the test itself. It's the trails of blood, the eviscerated corpses, the sexual violence, the mommy issues, the many loving Polaroids of Joyce bound and gagged, the scenes of Buffy running around scared out of her mind.

With that said, the skeleton of the episode is probably necessary for the arc of the season, so at least this isn't an Espenson-esque exercise in trashing Giles for no apparent reason. The entire structure of the Council has no place on the show past Season One, as Giles has integrated into the Scoobies and distanced himself from his origins. Consider Kendra, who was the perfect Council-approved Slayer but didn't have Buffy's passion. Over time, the concept of a bunch of stodgy British men waging a war that only one teenage girl will fight will be exposed as a patriarchal structure that calls the entire ethics of a Slayer into question. It was time for Giles to part ways with the Council for good and become more than Buffy's patronizing babysitter.

But did the episode have to be so gross?

Favorite moment: Again, Team Cordelia. She gets cornered by an oafish jock at school. Buffy tries to toss him aside, but because she's weak, he easily pushes her away. This does not please Cordelia, who starts pounding on him. Ahh, some lightness!

Also, knowing what comes next...The Zeppo!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Gingerbread

Season #3, Episode #11: Gingerbread

"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."

Team Cordelia.