Feb 27 2012 2:00pm

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Rewatch: Vamp of a Thousand Faces

Spike and Drusilla in Buffy the Vampire Slayer School Hard

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 — an urban fantasy about a baby werewolf, “The Cage” which made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010.

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Constance Sublette
1. Zorra
It's impressive that certain of the choices the writers made in Season 2's Halloween episode for more than one of the characters, but one in particular, grow more significant in the following seasons.

One imagines the writers more than once, stumped as to how to get 'er done in the following seasons, slap the forehead and go -- "Hey! remember what we did with Xander long ago? Why don't we etc. etc. etc."

Love, C.
Anthony Pero
2. anthonypero
Yea! Spike!

William the Bloody, indeed. I have to admit, I prefer my Spike complicated. I prefer all my characters complicated.
Gardner Dozois
3. Gardner Dozois
"Halloween" was one of my favorite, and certainly one of the funniest, early Buffy episodes, although I always thought that it was too bad that Buffy HADN'T been wearing a Xena costume--would have made for a fun episode in a whole different way.

I loved the whole hint that Giles--Ripper--had a hidden, dark, sinister past, had perhaps even been evil in a former life, and I really, really wanted it to turn out that he somehow HAD been Jack the Ripper in another existence, perhaps cured by magic and given life to live over again as a Watcher as penance. That it turned out that he'd been a soccer hooligan instead, even one that dabbled in black magic, was a serious letdown for me, and I think dumped the promise of where this storyline could have lead. Along similar lines, I thought retrofitting Spike with the whole foppish, foolish poet backstory was a mistake, and serious diminished the character; it took him awhile to recover from it.

As for Spike in general, as the actor once said, he never knew which Spike they wanted him to play when he came in for work in the morning, bad guy, secret good guy, vicious killer, comic relief, whatever. This introductory series was him as a pure vampire badass, something that got compromised later in ways that made him not really fit in with the show's concept of a vampire (see my comments at the end of the comments on last week's installment)--although even here, he's clearly in love with Drusilla in a way that soulless vampires are not supposed to be capable of, a way that Angelius, for instance, clearly never felt about Darla.

As for "School Hard," as I said earlier, the most delightful part of this episode is that although Buffy knows a major vampire attack is coming, she's MUCH more worried about it being Parent/Teacher night and what Principle Synder is going to say about her to her mother.

And after going through all this, Joyce STILL doesn't realize that there are such things as vampires. She must be the most oblivious person in the world. Even after having her house attacked by zombies, she still doesn't realize that there's anything supernatural going on in Sunnydale. This obliviousness got kind of annoying after awhile.
Anthony Pero
4. anthonypero
I thought they lampshaded the whole "Joyve doesn't know" thing in a later episode... that she, and the whole town, really, were willfully ignoring it. Can't remember the episode off the top of my head... I've only seen the show twice through.
Jack Flynn
5. JackofMidworld
My (arguably) two favorite characters in the whole canon are Spike & Faith, both characters that ended up fighting for redemption, spite of themselves. Having seen the ensouled Spike more recently than the original vampire badass one, I had all-but-forgotten how vicious he really was.

As far as Joyce being oblivious, I just chalked it up to the whole "the mind rationalizes what it can and forgets what it can't explain away" mindset (that thought process also explains how there can be a hellmouth under Sunnydale and Cleveland without the US having had a "nuclear accident" to cover them both up).
Ilan Lerman
6. Ilan
Ah, Spike. Along with Wesley, he has one of the most interesting arcs over the entirety of Buffy/Angel. I liked the retrofitting of his poet persona and thought it did fit. He's portrayed as darkly romantic with Drusilla from the outset, and all that bluster and bad-assedness is a classic over-compensation for his prevous self.

Lets not forget that by the end of this series he's already teaming up with Buffy (sitting having tea with Joyce in the living room) after half a series of emasculation in a wheelchair watching Angelus romp around with his girlfriend. He's already a complex figure by the end of season 2 and the seeds of everything that happens to him are sown in this season. There are undoubtedly misteps along the way (Angel season 5 sees him too often as comic relief and occasionally takes him
criminally out of character, but he's often the best thing about season 6 and 7.
Gardner Dozois
7. Lsana
You can count me as one who loved Spike as he was here and really didn't care for where he went by Season 5. Spike was a character who made you see...well, to put it in Star Wars terms, see the temptation of the Dark Side. You look at the Master and the Annoying One and their followers, and you think, being evil sucks. Spike was a character who was completely evil and had a blast doing it. It wasn't that he wasn't "complicated" in the sense of having depth and conflicting motives, it was that he had all that while being completely and irredemably evil.

On the Annoying One's fate, two things:

1. I am kind of curious where that story line was supposed to go. I suspect that if Joss Whedon said, "Eh, seemed like a good idea at the time but didn't really work" he was right, but I admit that I wonder.

2. Arguably my favorite line in the series: "I'm very sorry. If I had it to do again...oh, who am I kidding. If I had it to do again, I'd do the exact same thing, only I'd do this first!"
john mullen
8. johntheirishmongol
I enjoyed Spike pretty much anyway he came on, except when he got maudlin and whiny. He was a lot better when he had Dru to play off of and do things for. Speaking of Dru, I would love to have seen more episodes with her in it since she was delightfully and insanely evil. It would have been good to give her an episode without the other vamps, either Spike or Darla, to see what she would have done.

Joyce knew things were going on around her but she didn't want to admit it. Like a lot of parents, she avoided the confrontation and hoped everything would turn out ok. She did have some great moments, however, and stiicking up for Buffy against the principal was one of the better of them. I loved the episode where she was Rippers gf, they were both wonderful in that. I didn't get so much soccer punk from him as a kind of British Bowery boy.
Gardner Dozois
9. JimmyMac80
@4 There's several instances of the show mentioning people ignoring the weirdness, the first being in the Harvest where Giles states, "People have a tendency to rationalize what they can and forget what they can't." In Gingerbread there's mention of the unusual deaths, "How many of us have, have lost someone who, who just disappeared? Or, or got skinned? Or suffered neck rupture?" It ends the episode with Willow mentioning her mom forgetting almost killing her, "Hmm, sort of. She's doing that selective memory thing your mom used to be so good at."

@Lsana 1) The Annoying One was killed because the actor grew 6inches and since vampires aren't supposed to grow anymore they wrote him out. That's why he's sitting in almost every scene he's in.
Gardner Dozois
10. Gardner Dozois
Just in time, too. The character was becoming really annoying, and boring as well. Spike and Drusilla made much more interesting and flamboyent Big Bads.

Same reason they got rid of the little kid on LOST after the first season. He grew too much.
Alyx Dellamonica
11. AMDellamonica
Yes, undead kids are problematic unless you can get undead underaged actors. There's just no getting around the fact that they get bigger. And then their undead actor parents are murder.

I've been thinking about Giles as Ripper as Jack the Ripper since you mentioned it, Gardner, and I'm not sure I believe it would work. It'd be a lot for Giles to live down, and Buffy's already full of characters who done bad and have to redeem themselves. It might make Giles a little too much a mirror of Angel/us, I think, and wouldn't enhance either of them.

That isn't to say I wasn't also disappointed by the big revelation of Giles's youthful badness. Some legitimately bad thing he would have had to live down would have worked for me, but I'm still groping after what would satisfy that desire and leave him sufficiently untarnished to be, well, Giles.

The cluelessness of Joyce and others... you can see they know it's a weak area, and they do the best they can. I gave them kudos for only holding onto it for two seasons. (On my blog right now there's a lengthy babble about many current TV shows, and one commenter says she just gave up on Merlin because the Arthur doesn't know he's a wizard thing has gone on too long.)
Michael Ikeda
12. mikeda
Gardner Dozois@3
made him not really fit in with the show's concept of a vampire

Not so much the show's concept of a vampire as the Watchers Council's concept of a vampire.
Gardner Dozois
13. Gardner Dozois
I don't know, I think making Giles a mirror of Angel, someone who did some horrible things in the past but was trying to attone for them, might have been very interesting actually. Certainly would have added a layer of complexity to their relationship. And Buffy would have had to adjust to it once she found out, which would have added complexity to their relationship too.

The problem is that if there can be good vampires (other than those cursed with the return of their soul), vampires who try to do good or at least do no harm, then it changes the concept of the show, which is that vampires are evil predators, literal demons with a connection to Hell. They're wrestling with this now on TRUE BLOOD too, and it's even more accute on BUFFY, since possession by demons has not been evoked to explain vampires on TRUE BLOOD (basically, even the vampires say that nobody knows why vampires exist). They ran into this with demons on ANGEL, where they admited that there could be Good Demons, even whole demon races that did no harm, and then basically demons became a metaphor for illegal immigrants, perhaps appropriately for a show set in Los Angeles.
Gardner Dozois
14. JasonD
I always identified very strongly with Spike's entire character arc, especially considering his backstory pre-Vamping. What you're seeing at the start of Season 2 when he and Dru are introduced is a character that started out as a spineless nothing and is overcompensating. His whole personality reeks of empty bluster. You show me a guy who has never done something over the top and reckless to impress a girl, and I'll show you a unicorn farting a rainbow.

While your typical rank-and-file Vamp grunt is certainly no more complicated than a bloodthirsty demon, there are exceptional cases that are more complex and retain some of their human characteristics, like the capacity for critical thinking, planning, and complex emotions such as love, obsession, jealousy, and revenge. The Big Bad Vamps have all been like this; Angelus, Spike, Dru, Darla, the Master, and others I may be forgetting. So having a vamp with the capacity for good or love is not so far out of the box, just something that is very rare, and since the Hellmouth tends to attract the very rare, it's no surprise to me that it would crop up in the show so often.

Also, the issue with Joyce and the town at large ignoring everything could be explained in terms used in the old pen-and-paper game Hunter: the Reckoning. Only a select few are even able to perceive supernatural evils working behind the facade of normal life, while the vast majority of people will simply refuse to acknowledge the existance of such forces. That's what sets the players apart, their ability to recognize the threats at all. All of the principle characters in B:tVS are exceptional in some way (except for Xander, because he's a male protagonist in a Whedon world, but that's a gripe for another time) and this exceptional quality is what allows their eyes and minds to be open in the first place.
Tomas Gerst
15. IamnotSpam
Excellent job, everyones said everything I even hald thought about so I will leave you with one thought. What if Willow had kept the hooker outfit on instead of the ghost one over it in Halloween. I forget was it a hooker outfit or a bad kitty. What cool things might she have learned. Hey dont throw things at me, I was only kidding.
Gardner Dozois
16. Gardner Dozois
I forgot one other thing I thought was a missed joke in "Halloween." Angel is fighting with a vampire in the kitchen, and he shouts to the amniseaic Buffy, "A stake! Hand me a stake!" First time I saw the episode, I expected her to look around in panic and then--they ARE in the kitchen, afterall--hand him a steak. The kind you eat. I suppose they didn't do that because it would have been too difficult to explain what a steak was doing lying there, but it would have been very funny.
Anthony Pero
17. anthonypero
Groan. I would have groaned. lol. Unless it was Spike that got the steak instead of the stake. Then he could have given one of his patented "What the bloody hell!?!?!" looks. Spike was good for schtick
Alyx Dellamonica
18. AMDellamonica
Gardner, I am with you 100% on the sometimes there are good demons concept mucking up the universe. It must've been too hard to resist.
Dan Layman-Kennedy
19. maestro23
Young Rupert Giles wasn't a soccer hooligan; he was John bloody Constantine.

And deliberately so, I suspect, on the part of the writers, who you can catch a couple of times in S2 trying to quietly write episodes for Hellblazer: The TV Series, and doing a pretty good job of it too. (The next Ethan Rayne ep, in particular, could have been dropped into the Delano run almost without anyone noticing.) And Ripper isn't the only place you can spot the influence, either; if Giles is John Constantine grown wise and respectable, then Spike is the Laughing Magician in vampire drag, trenchcoat, cigarettes, wisecracks and all.

More generally, "Halloween" lays some interesting thematic groundwork for the series in the way it deals with mirrored characters. The head of Janus is significant on a number of levels - notably in that Rupert/Ethan and Angel/Spike both represent branches from the same path (and I'm sure there are others). This is a thread that's going to run throughout the rest of the show in one way or another - especially in S3, but beyond there as well.
Gardner Dozois
20. Gardner Dozois
I'm not really familar with Constantine, so I missed any references to it.
Dan Layman-Kennedy
21. maestro23
Oh, I don't think the Hellblazer parallels are completely necessary to appreciate S2, only that it's interesting to note where the creators seemed to have intended to go with the character.

Personally, I think they didn't push that aspect far enough to get the picture of Ripper they'd probably intended to paint: a gifted but anarchic young mystic, over-prone to self-destructive behavior and dabbling in bad magic, who was clever and lucky enough to keep ahead of the Pit while the bodies of his friends and colleagues piled around him. That would've been a dark past for Giles worthy of the hints, but the writing team mostly let it go - maybe out of concern of not ripping off their source material too grievously - and so we got a couple of tantalizing hints of that sort of thing, but not near enough. So a viewer who wasn't aware of the popcult subtext could be forgiven for seeing young Ripper as a sort of second-tier Richard Thompson character with a paperback De Vermis Mysteriis in his back pocket.
Gardner Dozois
22. JimmyMac80
@15 Willow would have remained Willow, since the hooker outfit wasn't bought from Ethan's. Plus, it would have ruined a good bit of character developmnt for her in the episode.

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