Covering “Helpless” and “The Zeppo,” in which there are no cakes, birthday or otherwise.
So why does Buffy reconcile with Giles?
The Scoobs tend to be a pretty forgiving lot at this stage, a side effect of the show’s episodic nature and sporadic pace. Angel saves Willow from a magic lightning blast, and, well, Giles in particular doesn’t forgive and forget, but it at least allowed everyone to tolerate his continued existence. Right now, the show isn’t particularly interested in maintaining long-term schisms in its core, so it quickly provides reasons for those schisms to start healing.
And there are a whole bushel of reasons for Buffy to accept Giles’ continued presence in her life. Some don’t think there’s that reconciliation until “The Zeppo,” and an unseen act of heroism on Giles’ part that Buffy calls “the bravest thing I’ve ever seen,” but I don’t see enough tension between them throughout that episode, even before he learns the world is ending again. It could be because Travers highlights that Giles has “a father’s love” for her, and while I think it was impactful for her to hear someone else say it, she’s pretty smart, she already knows that—she tries to get him to fill-in for her biological father, after all. She may well be thinking of times she let Giles down, but I doubt that, more likely she’s thinking of how panicked he was once the Cruciamentum went wrong, not so much because that clears him somehow, but more because she’s scared and hurt and needs comfort from somewhere. Mostly, though, I think they reconcile because Buffy recognizes that he was misused and misled by authority and institution too.
“Helpless” is the most potent exploration of the season’s pet theme so far. BtVS has, thus far, not particularly relied on police or local politics, but the Watchers Council has been an important institution to the show from the beginning. They’ve been distant, and it’s implied they’re quite orthodox and probably none-too-fun, and “Revelations” showed they could be inept, but “Helpless” is the first time they are antagonistic. And more than a little dumb, frankly. The fact that the Cruciamentum occurs “if” the Slayer turns 18 and not “when” sort of highlights how brutally short a Slayer’s life could be, so you’d think they might want to utilize any that manage to gain any sort of experience.
Plenty of superheroes temporarily lose their powers and specialness. Your achetypal scene of the hero dealing with this loss usually has them encountering a circumstance where they might normally intervene—usually it’s a mugging or the distant wail of sirens—but notably here, even though she does have some tough encounters with vampires, Buffy’s main encounters with her loss are in having to endure catcalls in silence, or not being able to wale on a jerk who feels Cordelia is obligated to flirt with him. Buffy, basically, finds it intolerable to deal with the everyday micro-aggressions that are part of a woman’s life without her superpowers, which makes you wonder how Willow and Cordy herself cope.
After all that, I really needed a laugh. Good thing “The Zeppo” came next, a strong contender for the show’s funniest episode.
I was pretty down on Xander in the earliest episodes, mainly because he was a real raging jackass. And the jackass hasn’t really gone away, and, speaking as a jackass, I’d tell him it never really will. But, he’s at least become more sympathetic in his jackassness, rather than just pathetic.
Which seems like an odd thing to say in “The Zeppo,” which hinges on his patheticness. Except it doesn’t. In fact, a frequently raised criticism of this episode is that it hinges on a false narrative—from the very first episodes, Xander has been valorous and brave in the face of supernatural horror, and thus shown his value. This, though, misses several points, first and foremost, the show has heightened, or fantasticalized everyone’s roles, as Cordelia at her most meta points out. The Slayer. The Watcher. The Witch. The Werewolf. All parts of the supernatural, combat-heavy machine of the show. And Xander remains the Dude, or the Normal. To us, the viewers, “The Normal” is a trope and a key role, but Xander isn’t a viewer, he’s living this strangeness. And for a long time, say about three and a half seasons, he was one of many Norms, but now he’s the only one, and partially that’s entirely his fault.
I’m sure at least part of the Xander-Cordelia breakup was motivated by a desire to restore the adversarial relationship the two had. The side-effect, though, is that Cordelia becomes, among her many other roles and statuses, a walking, sentient symbol of Xander’s inadequacies and failings. After all, Willow, with whom he cheated, made up rather quickly with her partner, and he has not been able to do the same. Worse, since Cordelia is Cordelia, this symbol of his failings is weaponized. And while we might quibble with the severity of Cordy’s wrath and rebukes (much like we might take issue with how Xander expresses his concerns over say, Angel), she is justified, and he knows it. Little wonder he feels inadequate—few things on Earth feel as inadequate as a teenage boy.
Those feelings of inadequacy leads to him asking the oldest question in the universe: “What is cool?” he asks Oz (asking a werewolf guitarist is a pretty good choice), and what singular quality can he grasp to attain it. Will it allow him to stand up to goons like Jack in the same way he stands up to monstrous evil? After his crazed night, picking up chicks, chauffeuring a zombie gang, getting deflowered by Faith (set to some real prime 90’s quasi-Enigma porno music), defusing bombs and dropping badass quips in the face of death (“I like the quiet.”), he seems to realize the two questions are connected. He fights evil, and that’s pretty cool. And indeed, once he realizes Jack is a necromancer, his fear is more or less neutralized. One also hopes he learns not to waste time trying to force it.
As for the show, it shows its singular quality throughout. It can let the end of the world play out as a side-story, checking in at a few very typical points, all played straight and very funny accordingly—Giles seeks the aid of indifferent higher powers, Buffy and Angel have a conversation with a lot of capital letters, resigned farewells are made, there’s even a mid-episode action beat, and “My God…it’s grown!” But for a while, a bit of silliness about reanimated bad kids trying to blow up the school takes precedent, because it’s that cool.