"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!