Tuesday, July 14, 2015

BtVS: Becoming: Season 2, “School Hard”

Covering “School Hard,” in which two pivotal characters arrive, and bring something great along with them.

            Initially, I didn’t think I’d be devoting an entire post to “School Hard.” As I remembered things, this was an episode primarily notable for introducing Drusilla and Spike, and, I reasoned, there would be plenty of time to talk about both, so there was no need to do the super obvious thing and discuss them at length here.
            This is why proceeding in order is such a boon, because in addition to bringing two more great characters into the world, “School Hard” is probably the first great episode of the show.
            Let’s not mince words—a significant portion of what makes this episode great is Spike (Drusilla has a less active role in the proceedings), but as “Angel” the episode reminds us, a great character doesn’t necessarily ensure a great episode, how that character gets used is just as important (and in fairness to “Angel,” neither the show nor the character were in a place to use him as well as it would). And this episode uses him great. Spike comes blasting onto the scene with an entrance so memorable it was iconic pretty much instantly (though I’ll quibble that the score is more symphonic black metal than Spike’s tastes), establishing this episode as that classic old saw of Buffy trying to balance her civilian life, where the ever unctuous Snyder insists she help host Parents Night on Thursday, and her Slayer life, where the Anointed One is sure to lead his followers in an attack on the Night of St. Vigeous that Jenny is pretty sure will be on Saturday, when their power will be at its peak. But as any existentialist could have told her, you only get one life, and Buffy’s plans get smashed like so many windows Spike leads his gang through when he takes a page from his great-grandsire Darla’s book (though he identifies Angel as his sire, this gets retconned) and attacks the school on Thurday. What ensues is the Die Hard riff we were promised in the title—a structure that may not be deep, but you’d have to try really damn hard to make not fun—and it’s as tense and intricate and thrilling and exciting as you could want. Even the score gets in on the act with a bit of a John Carpenter flourish. In theory, it could have been all these things without Spike, but I don’t want to get too counterfactual just yet. Besides, would you really want the episode without he and Dru?
            No, you really don’t. They were kinda necessary at this point.
            Even though he mocks “that Anne Rice crap,” Spike and Drusilla more closely align the show with that tradition, insofar as they have personalities. Thus far, the show’s vampires have critically lacked in personality. Absalom was a pretty significant step up in that regard, but when “sort of preacher-y” counts as a significant step up, you got problems. Default mode for the rest of the Order, Master included, was “portentious.” By contrast, Spike and Drusilla burst with liveliness and lived-in quirks, and they have a funny, even touching relationship, with Spike as the caring nursemaid, and Dru encouraging him to make nice with the locals, in addition to the obvious primacy they invest in each other. We’ll have the chance to talk about Dru later, in an episode where she does a bit more. For now, suffice to say, even though Riddle Talking Crazy People bug the shit out of me, I like Dru a lot—here, her particular crazy seems suitably theatrical, and even dangerous.
            Spike feels especially dangerous and scary, amid his swaggering contempt and love of all sorts of violence, which is something the show has really struggled to make its vampires feel. He even gets to be scary in multiple modes, whether it’s engaging in ominous banter, being the classic vampire stalker predator, or raging through the halls of Sunnydale High berating his henchman while taunting Buffy to Come Out to Play-yay. But we also learn that Angel is scared by his arrival, which is a pretty good indicator of the danger he presents, and, the most important bit of backstory we’re given, we learn he’s killed both Slayers he’s met previously—I was going to say this makes Spike scarier as it puts him on equal footing with Buffy, but it really doesn’t, it makes him way scarier, as he’s tangibly more powerful.
            But he and Buffy are united in one important aspect—they are both rankling against dogma. In his first full-blown scene, Spike openly mocks the overblown pomposity of a standard issue portentous Order vampire, he doesn’t hold much truck with standing around and chanting, and he abandons the advantage of the sacred Feast of St. Vigeous. In later episodes, this sort of thing would get portrayed as unwise impetuousness or even stupidity in Spike, but I much prefer to think of it as it’s presented here—methodical cunning. After all, what gives him the greater advantage: nebulous powers that are apparently peaking some night his enemy likely (indeed, does) know about, or pure surprise? The show gives us a solid answer when Spike comes within seconds of adding a third dead Slayer to his impressive CV.
            He fails, though, because Buffy has been fighting her own, significantly less flashy battle against dogma. Giles asserts the Slayer must fight her battles alone, but she instead has friends helping her, and a mother, who is the one who stops Spike from delivering the killing blow, in her life (Spike notes this situation as both unexpected and unusual). Even Giles isn’t quite as dogmatic as he initially appears—in the opening moments of Spike’s siege, he has loaded up with weapons and is ready to charge to Buffy’s aid. He tells Jenny by way of explanation that he has to go because he is Buffy’s Watcher, apparently forgetting what it means to “watch.”
            But the episode doesn’t end with Spike defeated. In fact, he can’t even make it through offering penance with a straight face, cackling with glee about how much he enjoyed this failure before he grabs the Annoying One by the scruff, and tosses him into a handy sunlight execution cage (that may sound sarcastic, but I bet that thing saw frequent use). “From now on, we’re going to have a little less ritual and a little more fun around here!” he declares.
            There aren’t any vampires around to hear him, but there’s a reason for that. He was talking to us.

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