Covering from “Beneath You” to “Help,” in which this isn’t exactly Friday Night Lights.
“I keep coming back because I’ve been with these characters so long” is a common refrain when a show is in a downturn. But what do you do when those characters have become something utterly unlike what made me love them?
Willow’s stuck talking like she has a wicked head cold, talking about energy, and connection, and Gaia. Spike’s being a theatrically crazy, delivering lines simultaneously over and under written, too expository and too meaningless. Xander’s just there. These episodes look like they should be fun and enjoyable and full of drama. Anya turned a guy into a demon worm! Spike’s soul is revealed! Willow returns! Demonic cults wander the halls, and tragedy strikes! And yet nothing hits. Spike and Anya in a barroom brawl, that should be great. Instead, it just is.
“Beneath You” tells basically the only story to be told with Anya as a vengeance demon (Anya does something that needs to be fixed), but it really is just there to clue Buffy in on Spike’s condition. This is perhaps why the bar brawl doesn’t elicit the right response (that and the fact that the scene is mostly everyone explaining their tormented sexual histories with each other), because the centerpiece is Anya noticing his soul and commenting on it, yet not actually commenting on it. I hate hate hate scenes like this, where a character says things like “You have it. How did you do it?” without just saying what the fuck it is because it’s not the right time to say.
Obviously, there needed to be ramifications of Spike becoming ensouled—his self-harming scratches over his heart, which he says is where he tried to “tear it out” (I let that one slide), is a great example. But his insanity, as it’s written, is obnoxious nonsense, especially if it’s supposed to be him consumed with guilt (honestly, it isn’t all that clear). His constant dialogue about “the Girl,” referring to Buffy, is just annoying, especially as he recaps stuff we already know or could at least intuit, less drawing a line between him getting his soul back and his assault on Buffy and more scribbling a big black line with a black marker held in a closed fist between them.
“Same Time, Same Place” benefits from having a creepy villain. Gnarl’s pretty cool, and his sing-song fairy-tale dialogue actually works. The foundational idea of the episode itself—no one can see Willow and she cannot see them—is interesting enough. But.
You know, the Scoobs have always been quite forgiving among their own, sometimes straining credulity a bit in the process, most especially last season when an episode pointed out that everyone just shrugged off Buffy going nuts and trying to kill them all. But Willow well and truly crossed a line last season, and unlike when Angelus tried to do something similar, well, the show quite simply didn’t do a good enough job establishing that Dark Willow (a term the show itself never employs) was sufficiently distinct from Willow in the same way Angel is different from Angelus, or that they were that distinct at all, really. The show’s pretty cavalier about Willow’s attempt to annihilate all of creation—Angel at least got his soul back and spent a few centuries in hell, Willow spent summer abroad (though given how congested she sounds, maybe she’s had really bad allergies the whole time).
There are all sorts of ways the Dark Willow story could have gone, but they went with one where she tried to destroy the world, not accidentally or as an unexpected consequence of an unwise course of action, but because, magic drug addled or not, she decided it needed destroying. Hard as it may have been, I think she should have had to permanently leave the Scoobs in the wake of that, whether that means dying or something else, to show there were still consequences. What I actually think is they shouldn’t have done that story the way they did at all, but this is what we have, and in what we have, it seems ridiculous for Buffy, Xander, and Dawn to be waiting at the airport with a “Welcome Home Willow” sign after she tried to burn the Earth to a crisp, and the fact that the crisis of the episode is instigated by Willow subconsciously magicing up the situation, which gets brushed off with a “guess I still have a long way to go” or somesuch, it’s just…a good baddie can only gloss over so much in an episode.
Finally, we have “Help,” an episode I seem to think is fondly remembered, by and large, features Buffy, while acclimating to her quasi-counselor job, meeting a troubled girl named Cass who can tell the future.
She knows the future.
Anyway, the really ill-fitting part of “Help” is how the show tries on harsh social realism, as Buffy meets with the abused, neglected, depressed, horny, and at risk. The show’s trying, but it’s an incredibly awkward fit. While the show has always dealt with the youth and their issues, and has often done so well, those issues were pretty general, and well, to be frank, from a pretty privileged perspective. It’s trafficked in thin supernatural metaphors, and focused on things like first loves and deciding which college to go to. I don’t quite trust it to do right by the Latino kid who keeps insisting he doesn’t want to talk in a way that signals he clearly wants to, so instead Buffy focuses on saving the blonde white girl. Admittedly, Cass says she’s going to die on Friday, but, you know, it’s kind of hard not to notice.
Cass is made to elicit emotion—small and fragile looking, but philosophical and resigned to a certain fate with a noble grace, which is why I don’t think this episode works all that well, because she’s so transparently manipulative even before she delivers a speech very like the sort Buffy used to deliver about how she just wants to go to dances and do her homework and be normal while the plaintive piano music plaints on plaintively in the background. Anyway, Buffy saves her from being sacrificed in a demonic ritual on Friday night by eternal high school bully the Oldest Home Improvement Kid (ranking his bully performances: Tokyo Drift then Veronica Mars then this), only for her to drop dead of a vague heart issue. It’s not exactly Mr. Prezbo at Tilghman Middle, in no small part because Buffy doesn’t learn to do what she can for every student instead of trying to save just one, she’s just sad about it (or maybe she does learn, I’ll admit I sort of tuned out for a bit).
As for the bully, he gets bit by a demon, and Buffy dismisses him with “My office hours are 9 to 4.” Buffy has never taken a gentle hand with bad guys, and the bully is especially odious, but this seems both excessively callous and even reckless to leave someone, however evil, wounded by a demon to bleed to death.The road before me sure isn’t getting any shorter.