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Buffy the Vampire Slayer Rewatch: Vamp of a Thousand Faces

Why am I doing one essay on “School Hard” and “Halloween”?

Easy. They’ve got the same plot: Spike tries to kill Buffy while she’s vulnerable. Swing and a miss, you might say, and swing again.

This may sound like a complaint, but “School Hard” and “Halloween” are wonderful episodes. They illustrate why there’s nothing wrong with presenting the same plot to viewers, or readers, if you tell a different story each time. This is the truth that makes episodic TV, and much of Western fiction, possible. It’s not so much about what happens, right? It’s about how, to whom, where and why.

So take Spike’s strikes one and two. In “School Hard,” having taken it into his head to kill Buffy, he goes straight for the goal. It’s obvious he thinks success is a foregone conclusion. He’s overconfident, perhaps, but not suicidally so. Sure, he blows off Saint Vigeous Day, but he brings lots of muscle when he attacks the Sunnydale High School, and he takes the additional precaution of changing Buffy’s bad-girl schoolmate Sheila, planting an inside vamp. As spur-of-the-moment assassination attempts go, it’s more thoughtful than anything the Master ever came up with. 

Even so, the real challenge to the Slayer’s safety isn’t that vampires are coming after her in force… it’s that they have so many tasty parent-teacher-student hostages to choose from, that one of them is Joyce Summers, and Buffy has to keep all of them alive and protect her secret ID in the bargain.

I sympathized with Joyce throughout the run of BtVS, but I often found her hard to like, and this was never more of a problem for me than in S2. She’s not in on her daughter’s secret life—I get that. Slaying has indirectly cost her both home and job, and she’s in the dark about what’s really going on. Yup, that sucks. There’s nothing she can do but flail, trying to assert some control, to impose order on a demon-riddled world. She can’t win. 

Joyce Buffy’s mom in Buffy the Vampire Slayer School Hard

But the real reason Joyce grates on my nerves boils down to this: in dramas whose principal characters are in high school, the parents rarely get to shine. It is their natural role to be antagonists.

“School Hard,” you see, when stripped of its vamps-try-to-kill-Buffy, again, storyline, is all about authority figures. These stories are a staple of shows like BtVS because they’re a ready-made source of conflict for the kids. Parents armed with curfews, arbitrary, detention-wielding teachers, coaches who can or won’t put you on the starting line-up, cops, doctors, bosses, and hey, the Watcher’s Council… adults are a ready-made cornucopia of plot devices primed to bamboozle, thwart, humiliate and otherwise force young heroes to get creative with the rebellion. So in this episode we get to see Principal Snyder abusing his position just for the joy of watching Buffy suffer, while Spike rages at Angel, his sire, for abandoning him.

When Snyder decides he’s going to give her the worst possible report on her daughter, it plays into Joyce’s fear that she’s somehow raised a baby criminal. She’s too ready to believe, perhaps, and again, this is understandable. But I still think “Oh, come on!” when she’s angry at her daughter. To her credit, she’s the one parent figure who gets to come through, in this episode. First she saves Buffy from Spike. Then, more importantly, she sets aside Snyder’s opinion.

But I was talking about Spike, wasn’t I?

It’s no accident that Spike’s final act in “School Hard” is to torch his current boss. He restores his cool, despite defeat, and shows himself to still be a badass by ridding Sunnydale of the Anointed One, exposing poor little Andrew J. Ferchland to the sun before he can get any older and make the whole child vampire storyline more complicated than it deserves to be.

Buffy and Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer Halloween

The subject matter of “Halloween,” meanwhile, touches on another big recurring teen-show theme. It’s the question of identity: the whole “Who am I, who do I want to be?” thing. Buffy wants to impress Angel by transforming herself into a proper, privileged and pampered maiden. Willow struggles with bravery and body image. Xander worries that he’ll get a reputation for cowardice. The cherry on the sundae is getting that first tantalizing hint that Giles isn’t really the stuffy librarian he’s always seemed to be.

Man, this stuff is so well written! Well done, David Greenwalt!

In these early episodes, Spike has no issues with his identity. He’s William the Bloody, mate. He’s killed two slayers. He’s a guy who seriously doesn’t need to claim to have been at the Crucifixion. He’s a remorseless killing machine, a sadistic party animal, and a devoted spouse to Drusilla, in the bargain. 

For many fans, this is Spike at his peak. He has no lack of confidence—and certainty is sexy—no backstory, no baggage. He has no regrets, just a good old homicidal sense of fun. His delight in “Halloween”—when Ethan works his spell on the costumed trick or treaters—is almost childlike.

Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer Halloween

In an evil way, early Spike is almost an innocent. It is something of a shame it didn’t last longer.

Next week I am going to glance through many episodes that were perfectly good entertainment but don’t rate a whole blog entry to themselves. If you want to convince me that “Reptile Boy” was the high point of the BtVS run and it should get a tome’s worth of analysis, start typing now


A.M. Dellamonica has a short story up here on Tor.com — an urban fantasy about a baby werewolf, “The Cage” which made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010.

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