Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Tor.com

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Rewatch: History Lessons

Three episodes bridge the gap between “Passion” and the two-part finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s second season, and each has at least one foot in the past. “Killed by Death” explores a loss in Buffy’s childhood, while “I Only Have Eyes for You” evokes a poltergeist from the Fifties. In “Go Fish,” a coach and the school nurse use Soviet fish fumes from the Cold War (say that three times fast!) to chemically enhance the swim team, with typical Hellmouthy results.

“Killed by Death” opens with Buffy staggering through another day at the office, only to find herself confronted by the Sunnydale Health and Wellness Committee, a.k.a. her friends who think she should drag her flu-ridden and feverish butt to bed and leave them to fight evil. Buffy resists this argument on the grounds that multiple cross-wielding teens do not equal a Slayer, and Angelus helpfully puts in an appearance to prove her point. Working together, the gang fends him off, barely, just in time for Buffy to keel and get herself rushed to the emergency room.

Sunnydale being Sunnydale, its hospital is inhabited by a monster called Der Kinderstod, an invisible-to-grownups Freddy Krueger type who sucks the life out of the young. As a child, Buffy saw her cousin killed by one of these things—she didn’t see Freddie, but did witness Celia’s horrific, screaming end. This time her temperature’s so high she gets a glimpse, and wonders: was that a real thing?

But then, in the morning, there’s a dead girl. Definitely real.

Her friends are divided, though, on whether there’s a monster. Giles and Cordy suggest that unresolved trauma and woe over Celia’s death, plus delirium, have got Buffy seeing things. People do die in hospitals, after all. Willow uses her mad logic skillz to point out that even if this is true, people also tend to catch fatal cases of monster attack from the Hellmouth. Xander cannot be bothered with invisible things like germs and Kinderstods, and mostly just wants to keep Angelus from making icky flower deliveries to Buffy’s room.

If the writing on BtVS had been more uneven—if it had been a Once Upon a Time, say—”Killed by Death” might have been remembered as a pretty good episode. It tells a creepy story, it’s witty, and the confrontation between Xander and Angelus is outstanding. Xandelia’s wrangle over jealousy is nuanced and believable. Buffy is creditably heroic, and the story’s conclusion even leaves us laughing—”Awww, he drew you a picture!”

But this is an episode that is overshadowed by the many even-cooler stories that precede and follow it. It just doesn’t make a lot of fannish fave lists—before this go-round, I think I’d watched it all of twice—even though there’s nothing much wrong with it.

Much the same could be said for “I Only Have Eyes for You.” Personally, though, I’ve always had true, true love for this episode.

The story’s this: back in 1955, teacher Grace had an affair with student James. When she came to her senses and dumped him for his own good, he couldn’t handle it. He shot her, he shot himself . . . and now, with the Sadie Hawkins dance coming, bringing with it the anniversary of the murder-suicide, the spirits are restless.

The ill-fated lovers take over a pair of random kids, and are replaying their death scene when Buffy happens by and prevents the shooting. The gun vanishes and the girl insists they weren’t breaking up, and that’s really the only clue that something mystical is happening. Tawdry break-ups look the same from decade to decade, after all, unless the person dumping you has lost his soul. Next night, the show starts again. Giles is up, this time, but he’s too late to save an unlucky teacher from the janitor who finds himself in James’s thrall.

Then snakes take over the cafeteria…

(I admit, that part baffles me too)

… and a random, disembodied arm attacks Xander…

(ditto)

and Giles concludes that not only is there a poltergeist on the loose, but that it’s Jenny. 

It’s obviously not Jenny. Reptiles? Locker monsters? But Giles wants it to be her, and this in turn makes him effectively useless in the quest for an answer to what the hell is really going on?

This might be more of a problem, except that James wants to be caught. He flings his yearbook into Buffy’s path, and sends her visions laden with clues about the affair with Grace. Even without their research guru and his enormous dusty tomes, the younger Scoobies search up the truth pretty handily.

“I Only have Eyes for You” is jammed with tasty little building blocks for future BtVS events: we learn that Principal Snyder is fully aware that there’s a Hellmouth on campus, and that the cops and the Mayor brought him in to keep some kind of lid on it. Willow takes advantage of Giles’s distracted state to attempt her first ever magical spell, while Angelus moves his undead family to the mansion where the final battle of the season will ultimately play out. Last and so not least, we realize Spike isn’t wheelchair-bound anymore. And he’s hiding it from Angelus and Dru! We don’t quite know how, but it’s clear Buffy’s caught a tactical break at last!

The heart of the story, though, is once again Buffy and Giles, and the grief they both feel over their lost loves. James has homed in on Buffy because she’s radiating sadness and guilt; she misses Angel, and feels enormous responsibility over the events that turned him back into Angelus. Both Buffy and Giles would give just about anything for one last contact, an opportunity to apologize, to say goodbye.

But it’s James who gets forgiven, when—in a neat little gender reversal—the last person to get themselves possessed by Grace is Angelus himself. He and Buffy play out the scene we’ve already seen twice before, and this time, thanks to the plague of wasps surrounding the school…

(Which you just have to go with, if for no reason besides that it facilitates the plot. Wasps, snakes and locker monsters are apparently poltergeisty.)

… there’s nobody to intervene.

Sarah Michelle Gellar’s face as James realizes he’s shot Grace, again, is unforgettable. It’s great acting. And then he goes off to the music room to finish out the re-enactment, to put a bullet in Buffy’s brain.

But imaginary bullets can’t kill vampires. So Grace hustles her meatheaded vamp-puppet upstairs to say “Hey, honey, stop torturing yourself and others. It’s all cool.”

The sheer genius of this is that it gives Buffy and Angelus one last scene together where they aren’t fighting. They get a last kiss, a little moment where Buffy gets to hope . . . and then the kicker, when that flame of hope gets crushed. Afterward, she gets to open up to Giles about her sadness, and her own inability to forgive herself. She doesn’t move on, exactly, but had things gone differently—had Angel never returned to Sunnydale—this might have marked the first step to acceptance.

“Go Fish,” meanwhile, is officially my least favorite BtVS ever. (What’s yours, folks?) I actually considered pretending it hadn’t ever happened, just to see if you’d notice.

Instead, I did something I’ve tried a couple times now when I’ve been reviewing one of these episodes: posting comments to Twitter with the hashtag #buffyrewatch.

In an attempt to amend my bad attitude, I did this with “Go Fish,” to see if I could scare up some supporters.

And a few—very few—people did reply with passionate arguments for the episode’s virtues. These boiled down to: Nicholas Brendan in a Speedo, and Cordelia’s plaid skirt. (I do also remember that one of you folks mentioned Willow’s interrogation of Jonathan, a few weeks back. So noted.)

The plot: the swim team is winning and obnoxious, and then someone appears to be eating them. Buffy tries to protect the next victim, and Xander goes undercover to figure out what’s going on. What’s going on looks briefly like steroids, but then it turns out that the Soviet fish fumes in the sauna are transforming the swim guys into creatures from the deep. Soon enough, the responsible parties are killed by their own oceanic creations, and Xander and the other survivors are getting plasma infusions.

The first two thirds of “Go Fish” were quite a bit better than I remembered. The directing’s a bit stodgy, but the script (by David Fury and Elin Hampton) has some good lines. I enjoyed Buffy’s bad shadowing attempt, her ploy to cover her stalking of Gage by claiming to be a swim groupie, and the bit when Angelus attacks Gage and he gets on board—”Yes, tiny blonde, protect me! Honest, I even laughed.

But once the story boils down to figuring out who’s turning the swimmers into monsters, the story eases down to the pace of dental surgery.

It’s not that “Go Fish” isn’t trying to be about something—it is. There’s good material in the exploration of teen athletes, the pressure to win and the way school spirit can be used an excuse to overlook bullying in all its glorious forms. It’s entirely worthwhile to have examined the perks (and steroids) given to star athletes, and the price paid by their less studly classmates. Snyder’s blithe dismissal of Buffy when Cameron attacks her and the nurse castigating her for wearing slutty clothes . . . it’s great raw material. This is what BtVS did brilliantly in these first three years—take a real high school situation, add monsters, and blow us away.

But somehow, this particular attempt never comes to any coherent point.

And that’s all right, because we’re done with history until now. You know what’s coming next, right? Let’s all move on to “Becoming.”


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. She also has a second story up here called “Among the Silvering Herd.”

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