Mar 5 2012 2:00pm

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Rewatch: Pop Quiz

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was, in my opinion, one of the first shows to do arc writing perfectly, to build up a large conflict, bit by bit, in tightly-focused episodes... and then to bust out the huge, game-changing developments that took our breath away. Wham! Then they’d do it again: seem to ease off, move into self-contained stories so the Scoobies could catch their breath—and we could too!—and meanwhile, relentlessly, working up to the next big explosion.

As season two inched toward the events of “What’s My Line,” viewers were treated to a scattering of those more intimate stories. I’ll call them one-offs, or standalones, but I recognize that’s not quite accurate. Each had ties to the bigger plot, after all, and most had at least a little bit of Spike and Drusilla (who, in those early weeks, appeared to be the year’s big villains).

Like pretty much everything in BtVS, these stand-alone episodes started out well, and got better and better: by S3, as I’m sure you all remember, we get “Dopplegangland” and “The Zeppo.”

But we’re not there yet. Here’s a quick review of some of the less-remembered but still essential components of S2:

“Some Assembly Required”: A sad and sensitive boy genius finds himself trying to Frankenstein up a bride for his undead brother, and his creepy sidekick fixes on the idea of using Cordelia for the last few parts.

Sunnydale High sees an incredible number of tragedies, but this episode captures the aftermath in a way that seems particularly real. Perhaps it’s because the loss of football hero Daryl Epps is both in the past and in no way supernatural; it’s just one of those pointless tragedies that can happen anywhere, one that rips a likable kid out of the high school community, leaving those who were closest to him to flounder in grief and isolation.

It is brilliant material to marry to Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s book about the fear of death and the price of playing God.

This episode is also one of the first to show that futuristic science fiction tech is as much a part of the Buffyverse as magic. This little bit of worldbuilding comes into many a later story: it foreshadows everything from the Initiative to the Trio’s freeze-ray. (It also makes it fun to imagine what would have happened if Willow had gone the Tony Stark route instead of becoming being more of a Doctor Strange.)

I particularly admire Cordelia in this episode. Once she knows the score, she really works to save herself... which is no mean trick when you’re strapped to a metal gurney and an undead guy and the head of the Yearbook Committee are working themselves up to decapitate you.

“Inca Mummy Girl”: Xander falls for that shy-but-sexy routine that all the cute mummies pull out when they’re afraid of being sent back to the museum storage vaults.

Nicholas Brendan gets a great opportunity to showcase Xander’s best qualities here. He’s charming enough to sweep Ampata off her feet, and his willingness to sacrifice himself to save Willow is a moment of classic Xander heroism. (And he looks great as the man with no name.)

Other good things about “Inca Mummy Girl”: getting to see Buffy relate, all too closely, with the fate of the virgin sacrifice. We also get an early glimpse of Jonathan Levinson, who was pretty much invisible to me the first time I saw these episodes, but if you look closely, you’ll see him almost becoming mummy kibble. This episode is also our introduction to Oz, who shows his excellent taste with his wow-at-first-sight reaction to Willow’s dance costume.

“Inca Mummy Girl” is a sign of things to come in S2, because this year’s storylines are jam-packed with romances, proto-romances, and love, love, twisted and broken love.

“Reptile Boy”: Here we have the opposite of love, as we get treated to the age-old moral lesson: never take an open drink from a fraternity man. The high point of this story for me is Xander’s one-line recap: “Starve a snake, lose a fortune. The rich really are different.”

Xander’s humiliation at the hands of the fraternity, on the other hand, is painful to watch. That Buffy ends up at the party with Cordelia is an improbability that the writer and cast sell very nicely, and I love the scene when she and Giles hash it out, later, and he acknowledges that he’s been driving her too hard.

The outstanding moments in “Reptile Boy,” though, are all Willow, and there’s nothing better than when she lays into Giles and Angel: “You’re gonna live forever, you don’t have time for a cup of coffee?”

“Lie to Me”: As the Buffyverse develops, it becomes more and more apparent that the existence of vampires and other monsters isn’t really a secret: the knowledge is right there, waiting for anyone who’s willing to let go of denial. (I’m looking at you, Joyce.)

So of course there’s a club of vampire wannabes in Sunnydale, romanticizing about The Lonely Ones and exchanging Sekrit Goth Handshakes in the old bomb shelter while they wait for someone to come along and exploit them.

So much happens in “Lie to Me” that it’s easy to miss a key revelation that comes our way when Angel admits the truth about Dru to Buffy... his vampire self is obsessive, especially when it comes to women. This truth becomes all too tragically evident later, but it’s slipped in sideways, a thin wafer of honesty tucked amid the storm of lies that is the episode’s meat.

The fib-fest starts when Buffy sees Angel with Dru. He denies having been out—out of understandable shame over having created her, and because he felt obliged, because of their past history, to give her a chance to flee before he or Buffy staked her. The sighting and the lie are enough to knock the Slayer off her game, making her vulnerable when her old pal from L.A., Ford, shows up.

Ford too is filled with lies, as well as cancer cells, and since he’s on borrowed time, he’s let go of that aforementioned denial about the supernatural. He’s decided to trade Buffy and everyone in the local “Vampires Yay!” club to Spike, in exchange for immortality.

Because of the fug of lies, the gang is tossed into new configurations. Buffy is hanging with Ford, and so Xander, Willow and Angel visit the vampire club in what ends up being a thoroughly priceless scene. BtVS is at its best when it’s combining these bleak storylines with humor, and David Boreanaz was often at his most endearing when the gang was making fun of him. So there’s a dig about his clothes that goes down very smoothly indeed, and foreshadows some of my favorite moments on Angel.

More importantly for BtVS/Angel trivia hounds, we also see Chantarelle, who becomes Lily, who eventually becomes Anne and ends up in L.A.

“Lie to Me” is very much a perfect example of a one-off episode. It isn’t one of those stories that comes up on fans’ fave lists, but it’s tight: it gives us some laughs, but its subject matter is heartbreaking real-world stuff. It’s all about betrayal and dishonesty. The question of why we lie, and when, resonates throughout. We see Angel briefly trying to wriggle out of confessing past sins. Ford, made a con-man by a very real desperation to avoid death, wreaks an incredible amount of damage. And finally, the lovely Buffy/Giles scene at the end, which touches on the yearning we all sometimes feel for the simple world of childhood, where parents get to tell comforting lies to protect our innocence, is a perfect capper.

And then there’s Spike, who’s so not a liar. He doesn’t have to turn Ford, but he does it. He shows an odd kind of evil honor, in other words, by following through on their deal despite the fact that he didn’t get what he wanted from it, and doesn’t like Ford in the first place.

This fight in the Vamp Fan Bunker of Death also marks the first fatal blow to Spike’s self-confidence. In their previous fights, Buffy is saved by Joyce and then Giles. This time, she defeats Spike all by herself by using his love for Dru against him. From this moment forward, it’s apparent that the slayer of Slayers doesn’t really believe he can beat Buffy on his own terms.

Last but so not least: “The Dark Age.” Who could resist the urge to dirty up Giles a little? It turns out he ran away from his Watcher destiny and found himself a little pseudo-drug scene. He rode motorcycles, he listened to... The Bay City Rollers? Wow, you’re all thinking—badass. And to get a buzz on, he and his friends summoned Eyghon and took turns being possessed. For the high. Maybe ceremonial candles were cheaper than illicit substances.

Yeah. This isn’t something you want to examine too closely if you’re looking for plausibility in your teen-centered vampire hunting TV show. Some of you mentioned that you expected something more from Ethan’s dark hints about his shared past with Giles. That more could have been made of the references to what Giles was ’capable of’ and his nickname, Ripper.

(Hey! We do find out, later, that he was also a shoplifter!)

Seriously, I’m with you. I could happily have watched a multi-episode arc where that whole Ripper past unspooled in some dark and more interesting fashion.

Weakness of backstory aside, “The Dark Age” itself isn’t a bad episode, and in retrospect it turns out to be quite a workhorse for the developing S2 arc. Buffy and Giles are made more equal partners by the revelation that he wasn’t actually a studious, hardworking, embrace-my-destiny kind of teen. There’s important movement in the Giles and Jenny romance, a break in their slide to intimacy. Instead of becoming closer, they’re estranged. It’s only in retrospect that we see this for the set-up that it is.

In the meantime, it’s just sad for Giles on every front: the friends of his youth get slaughtered, his Slayer sees he has feet of clay, he’s obliged to look stubbly and unkempt for several scenes in a row, and in the end that girl he’s falling for becomes not so keen on him for several weeks.

As for the fans, we get to watch Robin Sachs chew scenery, inspiring a mountain of Ethan/Ripper fanfic in the process. Really, if all this episode had done was pave the way for “Band Candy,” that might have been enough.

Luckily for Buffy, Giles, Jenny and Ethan too, Willow comes up with a brilliant (and a little cold-blooded, I thought) strategy for beating the latest unbeatable. Angel is only too willing to step up in the role of Experimental Magical Punching Bag. The Scoobies prevail, and Ethan survives to emphatically not fight another day.


Next week’s homework: What’s My Line?

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.

1. Mouette
Mm, some excellent and memorable episodes in here, but agree that none of them are really enough for their own post (saving perhaps Lie to Me, because it is awesomely painful).

And just damn. S2 Buffy is wonderful storytelling, yes, yes it is. *noms*. Great reviews and thought-provokings :)
2. JimmyMac80
Lie to Me is one of my favorite episodes, a lot of great one liners, and some really great scenes between Buffy and Angel when he admits creating Drusilla, Buffy and Ford after she's trapped, and of course the ending with Buffy and Giles.
3. Nicoclaws
I know that episode appears later, but I loved to rewatch the Go Fish episode for the interrogation of Jonathan by Willow. So many lines that shines, after the events of the end of the series.
Alyx Dellamonica
4. AMDellamonica
Nicoclaws, that interrogation of Jonathan is the high point of what is my all-time least fave episode of BtVS. Thank you for reminding me!
5. Gardner Dozois
I didn't much like "Inca Mummy Girl." It's one of my least favorite early episdodes, along with "Go Fish" and the earlier one about the Praying Mantis Lady that tries to eat Xander--it shows you that BUFFY could have been much less interesting if they hadn't ever moved beyond their Lowest Common Denominator monster-of-the-week episodes. There's also a real YA feel to these episodes and much of the first season that they later moved increasingly away from. If these had been the only episodes I ever caught, I probably wouldn't have bothered to stick with the show. Fortunately I caught some later episodes (Season Three, maybe? don't really remember) and then went back and caught up on old episodes, which were being rerun regularly on some TV channel back then.

"Lie to Me" and "The Dark Age" (and even "Reptile Boy," the weakest of the three) were better and more complicated, although you know what I think of the revelation of Giles's relatively innocuous past. Still think they missed a major opportunity for a plotline there, with perhaps even Giles reverting to his old personality, like Angel turning into Angelius, via a spell from Ethan maybe, and Buffy having to stop him and restore him without killing him. But it was not to be. Maybe in some Alternate World...

Jonathan's history with Buffy goes way back, and he is actually a sympathetic character in a pathetic kind of way. I still think they missed a bit by having him the one sacrificed later on. He was the only one of the Three Nerds who showed any remorse as their deeds got darker, and deserved to survive, reform, and become a Watcher a lot more than Andrew, who never showed even a sliver of remorse or regret for what they did.
Alyx Dellamonica
6. AMDellamonica
I always preferred Jonathan to Andrew, too. I'm really looking forward to rewatching "Earshot" when we get to S3.

I'm definitely with you on the YA feel of some of the earlier stuff. I hadn't thought of it in those terms but yeah. It's the same tone and content that sometimes frustrates my enjoyment of Glee.
7. Gardner Dozois
Practically every episode in Season One that didn't directly involve the Master plotline had that YA feeling to it, as did many in Season Two that didn't directly feature Spike and Drusilla. If they hadn't moved beyond the YA thing, the show could have ended up as no more than a slightly more sophisticated version of SCOOBY-DO, except that the ghost would turn out to really be a ghost instead of an evil lighthouse-keeper in a glowing sheet. (Obviously this had occured to somebody else too, since they ended up referring to the group as Scoobies, a definite shout-out.)
Michael Green
8. greenazoth
Yeah, the Ripper background is weak -- but only by degree. The base outline is fine -- Giles as a rebellious (teen!) bad boy actually has thematic resonance with what they were doing this season. Really, all it needed was some kind of active evil on Giles' part -- but possibly they were afraid of ruining the character or somesuch. Ah well.
9. tarbis
From the point of view of making a television show (i.e. make money) none of these episodes were bad decisions. If you're making a show with a lot of young characters on a netlet whose only sucesses to date have been teen focused then you want the series to be very teen focused with stories that work for that demographic (cute girl that likes you isn't what she seems, boyfriend's got a secret, guilt for letting down the sibling you admire, date rape, etc.).
Similarly with a fantasy series you need realism where you can get it (father figure that was a public school boy who ran off and had orgies on speed is more relatable than having the father figure be reformed massive evil and feels more realistic to most viewers). The fact it avoids having multiple episodes that aren't about your title character or having to write out a major character helps too.
Were the choices of stories and character direction perfect? Of course not. They were however wiser than starting a new season on a new netlet with the main character dead and fun factor of zero. (Seriously season 6 episode 1 is a terrible episode to hook new viewers and somebody at UPN should have stopped them at the script stage.)
john mullen
10. johntheirishmongol
Lie to me is probably the best episode in this group, although I have a fondness for Dark Age too. Ford was a really nasty piece of work. completely self centered and with no morals at all. He is already a vamp, just hasn't been turned yet. Chantarelle, on the other hand, is like too many kids we really do know, living in her own fantasy world, just trying to get thru the day with no real connection to reality. She receives her own sort of shock therapy. A very good episode.

Dark Age was worthwhile just because of Ethan and learning Giles childhood nickname was Ripper. I did think there was more darkness there than was ever let out, and that to some extent, Giles was on his on path of redemption.

I wouldn't say that BtVS was the first to do arc writing perfectly. They were really good about making it work with a Big Bad every year, and I really enjoy that style of storytelling for tv, but B5 was the first show that was driven as much by the arc as the episode. Admittedly, their arc was 4 years rather than 1 with an extra tacked on, but it was definately an arc.
11. Gardner Dozois
I wonder if the first show with an overall arc--although they didn't touch on it that much--wasn't THE FUGITIVE?
Alyx Dellamonica
12. AMDellamonica

You're right, of course. B5 had great arc writing, and it sure didn't hurt that JMS wrote almost all the scripts. My (only) beef with B5 is that it's so very tight that it's hard to get into anywhere but S1. Buffy had a nicer balance, I think, between episodes that are crucial to the overall story arc and episodes that are a little more accessible. There are more hooks, more ways in.

BtVS also felt fully formed very early in S1. And you're right, Tarbis, some of the things we're complaining about, as writer-fans, may indeed have been brilliant marketing choices.

Gardner, I can't think of anything earlier than THE FUGITIVE that had arc... THE PRISONER came later, didn't it? Hmmm. Maybe I'll throw that one to the blogosphere.
Jack Flynn
13. JackofMidworld
I have to agree with JimmyMac80 - the ending of "Lie to me" is one of my favorite pieces of tv, period. Giles gets to be a real father-figure (I mean, really, part of being a parent is telling our kids those little lies that let them sleep at night, right?), setting the tone for their relationship for years to come.
14. wiredog
A B5 rewatch would be fun...
john mullen
15. johntheirishmongol
You are right Gardner, Fugitive had an ongoing story line. But it was much more episodic with weeks going by with nothing but a quick glance at Lt Girard. Yes I am that old.

AM, I am not so sure that there was a path to The Prisoner. My understanding is that it wasn't going to be renewed and they just put a final wrapup ending out there to close the story. I mean there was an ongoing story line to Gilligans Island too if you look on it that way.
16. General Vagueness
I didn't have much of a problem with the lack of backgroundon Giles's wild side, I was satisfied that I'd been shown it was, well, dark, and it seemed like he'd already gained any redemption he wanted or needed, probably years ago, and if not then by the end of that episode or not long after.
Alyx Dellamonica
17. AMDellamonica

Yeah, any arc to The Prisoner was vague. I suppose I was thinking that they must have known the ending all along to have pulled off the weekly exchange between Numbers Two and Six.
22. byron_wilde
I never thought Giles' background weak. He wasn't just playing around with drugs and demon posession. Those actions directly led to him killing one of his best friends. And the shame of those events sent him right back to the Watcher's Council where he continued to follow orders like a good little soldier until the events of Buffy's 18th birthday.
23. chiMaxx
It wasn't until my third trip through the series that I recognized how much Reptile Boy set in motion part of Cordelia's personal arc. There are repeated but never explicit suggestions that if she and Buffy hadn't gone to that frat party, she wouldn't have to work in a dress shop in season 3.

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