Tuesday, July 14, 2015

BtVS: Becoming: Season 2, Episodes 4-6

Covering from “Inca Mummy Girl” to “Halloween,” wherein we stutter a bit but recover quickly.

            When I dreaded the beginning of season 2 having issues, what I imagined looked a lot like “Inca Mummy Girl” and “Reptile Boy.” Neither is strictly awful, but they’re both pretty uninspired. The former is a return to the “Xander is besotted with a comely and obvious demon who descends on the school” format. Said Inca Mummy Girl is at least a bit sympathetic, though everyone looks especially stupid ignoring her highly suspicious behavior. Between the Bodyguard who seems to leap from nowhere and Xander’s full regression to obnoxious territorial dick, it really feels like season 1 leftovers.
            The latter, erm, well. Well, to get right to it, “Reptile Boy” is about Cordelia dragging Buffy to a frat house party, where they end up drugged to unconsciousness, and awake to find they are to be sacrificed to the demon all the frat pigs worship. There’s kind of no subtext or metaphor, really, it’s just this very uncomfortable, sadly too-plausible scenario that only veers into the supernatural at the very end, when instead of rape there’s a snake man. Horror, and vampires especially, have a strong undercurrent of sexual violence, but this is simultaneously too laid bare and too ridiculous for the show to really handle properly. Also, it’s an episode like “When She Was Bad” in that Buffy is foul-mooded most of the time, but this time moody and mopey rather than fun and vampy. So it’s both uncomfortable, and not very fun.
            So why, then, did I lump “Halloween,” one of the all-time great episodes, in with these slabs, instead of the obvious run of banger eps it leads off?
            Because I’m aware that, despite being a central character, I hadn’t talked about Willow very much.
            This isn’t the fault of either of us, it’s unfortunately just how the character was built. As initially conceived, she’s very shy and passive and supportive, so she’s taken that role in most episodes—helping, obviously, and playing her part, but taking things as they come. Certainly, her biggest episode being “I Robot, You Jane” didn’t help much. Still, important as she is, she hasn’t been foregrounded all that often. So when I saw that “Halloween” built upon moments and stories from those duds, I elected not to let Willow lose her moment again.
            Part of the reason she has gotten lost in shuffling is due to how she handles her axis of the Buffy-Xander-Willow triangle, which is a good thing, actually. Xander has borne mentioning due to his overbearing assholery in this regard, but Willow has been doing her pining and suffering in silence, which makes her circumstance sadder, but also more mature, all of which makes her much more sympathetic when it comes to her unrequited longing. But this also means that we usually just get a quick bit where that unrequited longing is significant (usually in the context of and contrasted to Xander’s unrequited longing) before it returns to the character’s undercurrent. But it remains near the surface in “Inca Mummy Girl” long enough, I’m pretty sure, to be resolved. She pines, she looks rather miserable, she self-pities, she talks with BFF Buffy about it, but she ultimately acts like a grown up and suggests Xander date the mummy he’s into.
            Being “grown up” sometimes has strange ramifications on this show, OK?
            Next episode, she stands up for, well, not herself, this is early Willow we’re talking about, she stands up for Buffy, shouting at Giles and Angel for their treatment of her, then quickly admitting that shouting didn’t make her feel better.
            Which seems to lead quite naturally into “Halloween,” the (rightly) much beloved episode where everyone becomes their Halloween costumes. I think it’s best described as “a romp,” a fun, goofy, joke-leaden time, and probably one of the best episodes for enticing new viewers.
            The mastermind behind this Halloween madness, Ethan Rayne, says his plan is a “be careful what you wish for” sort of deal, well suited for a day everyone is encouraged to dress up as something else. I don’t quite buy this line of thinking though. It’s a bit too simplistic and obvious, and besides, Xander becomes a bold, commanding, competent soldier under the spell—I don’t think he finds much to regret there. No, suitably, everyone’s experience of becoming their costumes is different.
            For Buffy, there’s some supreme irony—she chose her costume to evoke the ladies of Angel’s 16th century youth (side note: much of the Buffy and Angel tension in these episodes feels really rote and lame, it’s fairly obvious they’re destined, trying to make Cordelia an obstacle is just sort of weird and absurd). And when she actually is one, she’s utterly useless and vulnerable (Spike, again, comes within seconds of killing her). There’s some ill-planned wishing there, admittedly, but I think also some commentary on the impulse to attempt to reshape ourselves for the sake of someone else. The stinger: Angel hated 16th century girls.
            As for our girl Willow, Buffy encourages her to use Halloween as an excuse to try a bold new look, so she elects to skank up her look a bit, before ultimately chickening out in favor of a bilious sack of a ghost costume. When the spell takes effect, she becomes a ghost in a way she certainly would not have wished for, as she intangibles through her ghost costume, leaving her exposed in the kit she had wanted to hide (Giles gets the best laugh of a very funny episode when he asks “A ghost of what, exactly?”). She still has her proper sense of self, but she can’t interact with the environment, she can’t do research, she can’t even turn book pages, so she has no choice but to do something she never would otherwise do—she has to take charge. It turns out she’s pretty good at it.
            Hanging out in the margins of these episodes is that dude who piloted the Normandy for me, curious about who she is. Is he important, do you suppose?
            Costumes aren’t just for kids, though, grownups have them too. Some of them have to be put on every day. Giles has been, to our eyes, uptight and bookish, and while no great warrior, at least confident enough in a fight to not get killed. Until, at least, he tracks down Ethan, a figure from his past, and gives him a vicious beating with the air of someone who has done this many times, until the sorcerer tells him how to end the spell.
            It wouldn’t be Halloween if masks didn’t slip a little.

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