Covering from “Sleeper” to “Showtime,” in which the wall I face is twenty feet thick, four hundred times harder than diamond.
Very recently, there was a brilliant Doctor Who episode, where the Doctor spent four and a half billion years refusing to give in and give up, punching his way through a wall rather than surrender, dying horribly and summoning a new copy to repeat the process all over again. Every time, however, he does have a moment of doubt, when he falters and wants to give up. But he can’t, it’s not in his nature however much he wishes it were.
I know the feeling.
I don’t even know where to begin with all this, so I might as well start with the First, the ultimate in Buffy villains. Adam was dull. Glory was shrill. The Trio was lame. Willow was miscalculated. And yet the First dominates over them all by combining elements of each into an overwhelming singularity from which no drama can escape. Yes, it is the Worst Buffy Villain, and I know the Great One himself said he thought Adam was the worst, but he is wrong, so very wrong. At least with Adam, there was other stuff going on.
Spinning right out of the last few minutes of “Conversations with Dead People,” “Sleeper” has Buffy and Spike realizing the still unnamed First has been manipulating him into killing people. To what end? Really, to no end, except I guess it’s an Evil thing to do. It’s not to build an army, it’s not conditioning Spike to eventually kill Buffy, it’s not manipulating Buffy into killing Spike, and it’s not trying to recruit Spike to its side, so what the hell is the point of this? Deny Spike’s use as an asset? Then just kill him.
And “Sleeper” is by far the best of these, because as cluttered as it is by the First’s non-plans, at least other things are happening. Buffy and Spike’s independent investigations into what is going on with Spike are…well, I’m not generous enough to call them compelling, but that’s the best term compared to what comes next. The attempt to connect all the dots of Spike’s madness doesn’t work at all (he’s incoherent when under the First’s thrall!…except for when he is deadly focused under the First’s thrall), and Buffy’s motivation for not staking Spike seems to mostly be that he is a fan-favorite character on her show, but still. Still what? At least it seems like there’s an idea that will come to fruition here.
“Never Leave Me” features all the thrilling action of our brave heroes researching and failing to discover anything for 45 minutes of episode, while Spike is tied to a chair. Then Andrew gets tied to a chair, too. Andrew enters the picture again because apparently his murder of Jonathan failed to produce enough CG blood for whatever the First had planned with the evil manhole cover. So the new plan is to slaughter a piglet, which, I know Jonathan is short and all, but he is larger than a 15 pound piglet, and undiagnosed anemia or not, he has more blood in him than the couple of bags he gets from the butcher shop that brings him across Willow’s path. Yes, that his the elegant manner he is folded into the main tale—he bumps into one of our main characters while he’s at the store on an illogical errand. There’s some interrogation, and then the First gets Spike to attack Andrew, so everyone assumes the First wants Andrew, all a deception so that no one is the wiser when it’s Bringers snatch away Spike, because it’s going to use Spike’s blood on the evil manhole, which summons the Ultravamp.
Come. The Fuck. On!
You had Spike for weeks before Buffy even knew he was in the basement! And, once you no longer had him, and instead of any one or any thing else, because, apparently, the evil manhole isn’t picky on blood, you use someone Buffy is highly likely to come looking for? Giles tells us next episode that the First has “unimaginable resources” and “eternity to act,” as this bullshit is his intricate master plan. Granted, the Ultravamp, or Turok-Han if you prefer, is a very impressive henchman, if by “very impressive” I mean “pretty dull.”
The real frustrating thing about this run is, obviously, how sloppy it is. Events are haphazard and dumb, and the characters, which used to make up for story failings, are mostly treading water, just doing things. Xander spends most of these episodes fixing windows, for Christ’s sake. Buffy’s fervent faith in Spike is based around some vague moment that escaped my notice. Willow quivers and quakes at the thought of even the simplest spell, and yet the big twist of “Showtime” needs her to already have a spell up for no reason. Spike is tortured with drowning despite not needing to breathe. And into this, Giles arrives bringing the infamous Potentials with him, a whole gaggle of ill-defined characters, but this time with poor accents. Of these, the most memorably is Kennedy, who oozes so much forced coolness she’s almost instantly the most obnoxious and hateful character on the show. Then there’s the other two, chavy Mollie and estuary Annabelle (both of whom seemed to have come by the accents by way of SoCal)—Mollie quakes and worries, while Annabelle insists on respect for Mr. Giles, and chides others for expecting weapons before the Slayer thinks they’re ready.
And yet Annabelle is the one who runs away from the Summers Manse and gets killed by the Turok-Han. While you might be tempted to call this a twist, there is nowhere near the depth of character required to justify that—“We must respect Mr. Giles” and “We’ll have weapons when the Slayer decides” constitute about 50% of her lines. I’m not just saying this because of the two I much preferred Annabelle’s intermittent, half-assed accent to Mollie’s aggressively terrible accent. That is to say, it bovvered me.
What also stands out is how much of what transpires here is for us, and not in a good way. In quite illogical or irritatingly manipulative ways. We’re meant to wonder if Giles is Giles or the First through these episodes, but maintaining that ambiguity limits Giles to doing nothing but standing and talking, delivering exposition, and it seems silly that the characters never notice that Giles doesn’t, like, open doors or sit down or, you know, eat, or change out of his heavy coat indoors. Unlike in days past, in these episodes Giles only exists when we’re watching him, to keep the ambiguity going. Similarly, up until the grand reveal that Buffy, Willow, and Xander have orchestrated the final fight against the Ultravamp, they all act like there isn’t an orchestration, even when there are no Potentials around to see what they are doing, because we’re still around, and they need to trick us, too. Of course, the entire plan comes together in a mental only teleconference we aren’t privy to (and again, Willow is supposed to not be doing magic), which is just plain a cheap trick. Anyway, the grand learning moment for the Potentials is also undercut by the fact that Buffy doesn’t actually teach them anything. She beats the Ultravamp because she…fights? Harder? Buffy changes up nothing in her strategy or style, and the Potentials are stopped from interfering, so obviously they weren’t supposed to get fired up and fight themselves. No, Buffy wins because as we’ve discussed before, she can win when she decides to do so. She’s the protagonist, which is fine until she tries to impart that as a stratagem to others.
The sloppiest thing of all though, I bet, is something that rarely gets noticed. When Buffy tells Spike he attacked Andrew, she clarifies to his quizzical expression “Tucker’s brother.” Tucker. Villain of “The Prom.” Which happened while Spike was probably in Mexico. But then, the point wasn’t to remind Spike of “The Prom,” it was to remind us of “The Prom.”
That’s definitely not a comparison that does these episodes any favors.