Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Buffy Rewatch: Just a Girl

Season 3 reaches the halfway point with "Amends", "Gingerbread", and "Helpless".

"I can't just be a person. I can't be helpless like that."

So I managed to get a few weeks behind on the Buffy Rewatch.

Part of the reason was an amazing trip to New York, but we've been back for three weeks now, so that's no excuse. This group of episodes features one of my absolute favorite episodes of the series, and I wanted to try to devote more time/effort to writing about it, but at this rate it'll be August before I get around to it, so let's just jump right back in.

Over the next couple of weeks, I'll get back on track. Based on the schedule I put together in January, I'm supposed to be finishing season 3 this week. That's clearly not going to happen, but I plan on being fully caught up in the next couple of weeks. Look for a couple of double-post weeks!

A couple of months ago, the good folks of Previously TV inducted "Amends" into their "Nonac", the inverse-canon, the bad episodes of otherwise good/great TV series. And while I think they're too harsh on it (there are a few much MUCH worse episodes), it's far from the best episode of season 3. The Buffy/Angel stuff is definitely overwrought, but it's not Marti Noxon-overwrought, you know? But I can't completely write off this episode, because of Willow's attempted seduction of Oz. Those two remain the cutest. (Then again, Buffy and Angel in the snow. Ugh.)

"Gingerbread" puts Joyce and Willow's mom Sheila front-and-center; they start a literal witch-hunt in Sunnydale. It's always interesting when outsiders or the general public get brought into things - and it's also a sign of the storylines broadening beyond the Scoobies, the villains, and all these secret battles that most people in Sunnydale High (and Sunnydale in general) seem unaware of. (This becomes a huge point, of course, towards the end of season 3.)

The episode starts out very dark, with Buffy and Joyce (who'd tagged along for a night of slaying) discovering the dead bodies of two very young kids in a playground. BUFFY as a series usually avoided (to its benefit) involving small children - and, I guess, technically it does here, too - but for a while, this episode feels darker than most.

And the episode ends with an awkward sort-of-reset-to-zero, which at least it acknowledges. Willow says of her mom, to Buffy: "She's doing that whole repressed memory thing that your mom used to be so good at." (Oh yeah, and Amy ends the episode trapped as a rat, in a nice callback to the spell she used on Buffy in season 2's "Bewitched, Bothered, & Bewildered".) It's an ok episode, but it really pales in comparison to what comes next.

There are two sequences in "Helpless" that may be the scariest of the series. Buffy has lost her powers - it's a Watchers Council-mandated rite of passage for the Slayer on her 18th birthday, but she doesn't know that - and finds her life in jeopardy as she's hunted by vampires. "Helpless" flips the premise of the series on its head - and remember that the premise of the series was to flip on its head the standard horror movie premise of a pretty, helpless girl in danger. Seeing Buffy without her usual powers is scary enough; the very effective direction of the two sequences (by James A. Contner) adds to the white-knuckle terror.

"Helpless" also introduced Harris Yulin as Quentin Travers, giving us our first look at someone on the Watchers Council other than Giles. We'll talk more about the Watchers Council later - but I will say that I wish the series spent a little more time with them than it actually does, though they effectively represent The Establishment against which Whedon's heroes often rebel.

As good as the scary part of the episode is, the emotional aspect of the story is even better. At its heart, "Helpless" is about the bond between Buffy and Giles. Gellar and Head are both in peak form here. Head, in particular: Giles (who hates what he's doing) can barely bring himself to look at Buffy throughout the episode. After working together for almost three years, after Buffy's death in "Prophecy Girl" and Jenny's death in "Passion" and everything else they've been through, there's clearly a much stronger bond between Giles and Buffy than Watcher/Slayer. Quentin (perhaps too obviously?) underlines this, saying that Giles has "a father's love" for Buffy.

Earlier in the season, Giles felt betrayed by Buffy because she hadn't told him about Angel's return; here, Buffy (rightly) felt betrayed by Giles. Though Giles is fired as her Watcher by the end of the episode (meaning we're soon to see Wesley, yay!), they also begin the process of healing their broken relationship.

The climactic sequence of "Helpless" is, I think, reminiscent of the X-FILES episode "Irresistible", where Scully was kidnapped by the escalating fetishist Donnie Pfaster. I know I've made the BUFFY/X-FILES comparison before - often in the context of "BUFFY feels like a knock-off of X-FILES" - but I mean it differently here. "Irresistible" was one of the all-time great episodes of THE X-FILES, and "Helpless" is one of the all-time great episode of BUFFY.

"Amends": C
"Gingerbread": B
"Helpless": A+

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