Mon
Apr 23 2012 1:00pm

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.”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Tor.com: ‹ previous | index | next ›
28 comments
Constance Sublette
1. Zorra
The most interesting thing about "Killed by Death" is this is the first time the hospital features in in the series -- which it will do so majorly for seasons 4 and 5 in particular.

The other point of importance is, as you point out, this is a bit of a glimpse of Buffy the child.

Many viewers have seen this episode as a perfect metaphor for pedophile sexual abusers.
Walker White
2. Walker
Go Fish is a throwback to the type of episodes we got in season one. It is a very good, and funny, season one episode on those grounds. But by this point the bar is much higher, because we can still have funny episodes (such as Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, or the Zeppo in a later season), that have more meatiness to them.

Ironically, I Only Have Eyes for You is an episode that I have always hated with a passion, and is my least favorite of the series. One of the biggest weaknesses with BtVS is just how immature it is when dealing with relationships; the writers have even admitted that the show thrived on putting Buffy in toxic relationships. And this episode really drove home for me just how immature relationships are in BtVS.

I have always hated the Buffy/Angel relationship. It is particularly symbolic of the immature relationships that you would see in high school. Now, as a show about high school, maybe that is a good thing for the show to do (and fitting that Angel left as she went to college). But as the show progressed, Angel became the high bar for her relationships, and that is not a good thing.
Aeryl
3. Aeryl
I don't mind Go Fish, it does suffer from its placement, but the part that really throws me, is the end.

When the coach is threatening to throw Buffy down to the monsters, he implies that its not only for food, but for sexual purposes "Boys have their needs."

So, when Buffy throws him down instead, she comments, "Those boys really love their coach." To me, based on the rapey tone of the earlier segment, that line implies that they are now sexually violating the coach instead.

Which really isn't very funny, especially considering how the show demonstrates that the rape attempt against Buffy by the swimmer earlier in the show, was wrong, as Snyder and the nurse are shown to be grody. To then have titular character have a punny retort to the rape of another person, even one as scummy as the coach, kind of undoes the good done early by demonstrating that victims don't "ask for it" by hanging around a guy or wearing certain clothes.
George Brell
4. gbrell
My worst episode: Him (S7E6).

Runners-up: Doublemeat Palace (S6E12); Beer Bad (S4E5); I Robot...You Jane (S1E8).
Aeryl
5. Wizard
Re 3 Aeryl In retrospect, I can see how you could read Buffy's comment to mean they are raping the coach. But when I first saw the episode my understanding was of the sort, " Boy, I really like eating steak." And I still think that was the intent.
Aeryl
6. Aeryl
See, it's the continuous references to sexual assualt and entitlement that make me feel that "Ummm, steak" is implicitly NOT what that remark is about.
john mullen
7. johntheirishmongol
I always thought the failed romance was one of the sadder episodes of the entire series. They revisited the same theme in Angel with the ballet episode, mixing the romances together, giving the broken lovers the chance to get together.

While there were definately some weak elements in Go Fish, I thought the point of it was about steroid use and what it does to your body. Not a bad theme. And I know my girls liked seeing Xander in a suit. I don't think they ever quite looked at him as quite as geeky again
Aeryl
8. Gardner Dozois
As I've said before, "Go Fish" is far from my favorite episode; I think Walker hit it right on the head: it's a fairly good, decent not great, Season One episode, with that YAish tone that some Season One episodes had, but it looks out-of-place alongside the more complex episodes (without a YAish tone) in the rest of the season. I disliked Season Seven intensely, so it would beat almost any episode from that for me, and I was lukewarm about Season Six, so I would agree that "Doublemeat Place," for instance, was worse. Even limiting it to episodes that had already run by the time this episode appeared, though, there had been weaker episodes, including Praying Mantis Lady, Inca Mummy Girl, and the episode mentioned above where a computer gets horny for Willow (an early formula, which they fortunately dumped eventually, was to have one of the Scoobies, usually Xander, menaced by a monster, that Buffy kills at the end of the episode; the Frankenstein-monster episode with Cordelia would fit into this pattern too). That's about as good a job as I can do to defend "Go Fish," which is not even remotely among my favorites.

"I Only Have Eyes For You" isn't among my favorites either, although it has more points of interest. I too was bewildered by the snakes, wasps, arms reaching through the wall, and so forth, none of it making sense either in terms of traditional poltergeist activity or the tragic ghost story that's being acted out. It is amusing, though (and ultimately touching) to see Buffy and Angel playing cross-gender with each other. I think that the whole episode was basically a way to come up with a reasonable excuse to have Buffy and Angel play out another romantic love scene and kiss on-screen without having to stop the ongoing Angelius arc and turn Angelius back into Angel for the occasion. It is a very nice reveal that Principle Synder is actually aware of the real situation in Sunnydale and trying to cover it up; when you think about it, how could he NOT be, especially after the events in the Parent-Teacher night episode, when vampires attacked the school?

"Killed By Death" is a solid decent episode, not great, not awful, although I did really like Xander bravely standing up to Angelius (not only an immesely more powerful and dangerous creature, but one who has proven himself to be a stone killer who will strike without the slightest hesitation or qualm) in the hospital. Since he also saved Buffy in "Go Fish," that means that he does so in two of these three episodes (and he still doesn't get any respect).

These are basically non-arc episodes, filler, spinning their wheels to fill out the season while they wait to get to the climax of the Angelius arc, although they are shrewd enough to fit Angelus moments into them, to keep you reminded of the season's overarching story.
Ilan Lerman
9. Ilan
Agree wholeheartedly about 'I Only Have eyes for you' - it is a greatly underrated episode, and that final scene between Buffy and Angel possessed by the ghosts is such a clever way of giving the two of them a touching scene together. I found it quite powerful and it shows how great the show's writers were at using the 'monster of the week' format to play out larger plot points, deal intelligently with character and advance the story.

'Killed by Death' is hit and miss for me. There are some nicely creepy scenes and a good overall atmosphere of sickness and death, but in the end the Kinderstod feels like a Freddy Kreuger knock-off, right down to the mutilated face, and I alwasy felt that Buffy killed it far too easily in the end.

'Go fish' is very much a season one episode, but like so many of the 'bad' Buffy episodes it has its good points and funny moments. It absolutely suffers, as Aeryl points out in comment 3 above, from being the penultimate episode before the big 2-part finale. As such it feels like so much filler and like it doesn't really belong in this season. It's placement creates poor pacing, and it just doesn't live up to the standards of any other episode in this season. And that final shot of the fish-creatures returning to the sea is so unbeliveably lame...

As for my worst episode - 'Where the wild things are' in season 4 is pretty shocking. 'Wrecked' in season 6 is some of the laziest writing in the whole series, taking the 'black magic as drugs' metaphor to ridiculous heights. 'I robot you Jane' is terrible, but I'll always love Giles' commentary on computers in it, and it's season one so expextations are low, but in later seasons there's no excuse!
Corkryn Williams
10. MadCow21
@3 - So we are comparing the acts of dressing slutty and hanging out with boys to turning people into mosters and threatening to subject other people to rape at the hands of said monsters?

I don't really feel those are in the same ballpark.
Alyx Dellamonica
11. AMDellamonica
I always thought "Those boys really love their coach meant rape, too." Mmmm, steak doesn't quite fit given the other material in the episode. And yeah, it's tacky and offensive, just as it's tacky and offensive on cop shows when an interrogator threatens a suspect with the prospect of prison rape.

Xander standing up to Angelus is just a world of Yay, as far as I'm concerned.
Aeryl
12. Gardner Dozois
Yes, Xander always had a lot of guts. Fortunately, Angelus didn't pull them out and show them to him,
Aeryl
13. Dr. Thanatos
Gardner: snerk!

Least favorite episode is very hard, because every episode had something to lend itself to entertainment.

Of these, I found the hospital story least interesting because it was the least connected to the story arc.
Aeryl
14. Gardner Dozois
Dunno, I would think that "Go Fish" was the least connected to the story arc. In "Killed By Death," Angelus tries to attack Buffy in the hospital, and in "I Only Have Eyes For You," they get to have a romantic scene and kiss again (and have a brief fight). Plus the reveals about Principle Snyder and Spike being able to walk again. That Spike reveal will have huge consequences for the end of the season.

You have to wonder about Angelus's potency as a supervillian. He's got all the time from the time he changes at the beginning to the season to the end of the season to make some kind of concentrated attack and kill Buffy, and although he futzes around and leaves her scary notes and kills a high-school teacher and a couple of random victims, he doesn't really come even as close to getting the job done as Spike once had. It's enough to make you wonder if somewhere deep down inside, when Angel lurks, he doesn't really WANT to kill her, and so subconsciously isn't trying hard enough.
Aeryl
15. Gardner Dozois
I mean, think about it. Angelus is an immensely powerful being who can snap your neck in a second. He knows where to find Buffy at any time, an immense tactical advantage. (True, he can't go to the school, where he knows she'll be, during the daytime, but since he knows she's going to be there, he could always set a bomb the night before and blow it up.) He knows where she lives. He knows who her friends are, and where they live. He can sneak undetected into her room at night while she's sleeping and leave her little notes. If he hasn't been able to kill her by now, he's just not trying very hard.
Ilan Lerman
16. Ilan
@Gardner They always made the point that Angelus made works of art out of his murder, and if you consider that he he still had twisted feelings for Buffy, he's far more interested in breaking her down, terrifying her, enjoying her terror and grief at Jenny's murder. Simply blowing up the school would so not be his style. He's all about the mind games and the pyschological torture, which it appears he'd be happy to prolong for as long he feels like; especially in Buffy's case.

Whereas Spike is much more of a blunt instrument, approaching the task directly, albeit sloppily at times, which is why he fails.
Aeryl
17. Gardner Dozois
The ultimate answer, of course, is that neither Angelus or Spike succeed in killing Buffy because the scriptwriters don't want them to.
Anthony Pero
18. anthonypero
Regarding Angelus:

In the scheme of things, Angelus is small potatoes, because he's only interested in self-gratification. On the small-time level, he's something of an artist. As an evil overlord? Not so much. He's too self absorbed to see past his own immediate desires for too long. He'll play a long game with individual victims, but that's because it is gratifying him in the moment to savor the anticipation of the terror the victim is feeling.
Aeryl
19. Dr. Thanatos
Angelus reminds me of the bad guy in "Heavy Metal" who suspends the girl over a chasm and lights a candle which will eventually burn through the rope and fling her to her death. She asks why he doesn't just kill her.

His response, as I suspect Angelus's would be, is: "These things must be done with style"
Aeryl
20. Gardner Dozois
Agree that Angelus usually has no overarching Vision or Plan. He's more interested in his own welfare and gratifying his immediate desires and needs than in, say, Conquering The World, the way other supervillains and Evil Overlords do. And yet, twice this very season, he plots to destroy the world, a long-range goal if there ever was one (it apparently doesn't occur to him, or he doesn't care, that he's PART of the world and will be destroyed with it--although that certainly occured to Spike). So he's capable of goal-oriented thinking and long-term planning, but only in terms of destroying the world, not conquering it. If you offered him the chance to take over as Master of the World, I doubt he'd be interested. Most of the time, as long as he gets to hunt, feed, and play his sadistic little torture games, he's satisfied with that--which is why, in a way, his plan to destroy the world in this season is actually a bit out of character.
Anthony Pero
21. anthonypero
Completely out of character... but then again, they probably hadn't fleshed out his backstory and character as much yet as they would later on.
Alyx Dellamonica
22. AMDellamonica
This is a human thing... which may or may not argue that it's a vampire thing, too. We sorta want something, but we can't quite bring ourselves to do it, or we can't figure out how to get what we want in a sustained way.

Angelus, I think it could be argued, really just wants to cause pain. And he's pretty good at it in the short term. If Acathla had sucked the world into hell and most/many humans had lived to endure it, that might've been a not bad outcome from A's point of view. But mostly he is all about the pain of the moment, the shiny hurting plan, and not so much the long-term profit.
Aeryl
23. Gardner Dozois
Whereas Spike reacted to Angelus's plan in a completely logical way--hey, wait a minute, if you destroy the world, you destroy US with it--demonstrating again that while Spike may be Evil, he's not batshit crazy, the way Angelus is. Spike has no desire to destroy the world--he LIKES the world, full as it is of cigerettes and beer and onion flowers and people, otherwise known as "happy meals on feet"--which makes it a little more likely that he'd later end up fighting to SAVE the world, even before he got his soul back. I doubt that Spike would want to become Master of the World either; it would be too much of a pain in the ass to deal with everything, when you could be having a happy meal or kicking back with a beer and a soap opera instead.

So both Angelus and Spike are rather lazy supervillains. Neither of them really want to conquer everything or become Master of the World. Unlike The Master, who did. (The Mayor wanted to conquer Sunnydale, at least, and however much of the surrounding territory a big snake demon would need to be happy; Adam wanted to conquer the world so that he could create a new race to rule it; and Glory didn't give a crap about conquering the world, she just wanted to get her Key and blow through town as quickly as she could, whatever shape she left the world in behind her. Interesting that the only two characters in the show who actively wanted to DESTROY the world rather than taking it over are Angelus and Willow.)
Anthony Pero
25. anthonypero
It's also why Spike is ever so much more interesting then Angel. Or Angelus.

William the Bloody, Murderer of Poetry. Alyx, you should have featured Spike's poetry on the re-watch this month! Who cares if it's out of sequence? ;)
Aeryl
26. Aeryl
IOHEFY is essential in driving Angelus to Acathla. His initial plan with Buffy mirrored the one with Dru, torment and turn her. But after he was possessed by the spirit of Grace, he changed his plans, and took the opportunity presented to destroy existence.

It was because of the emotions he felt, and how he was subsumed by Angel's capacity for love, grace and kindness that drove him to that place. So while it was an opportunity to make the story of Buffy/Angelus that much more heartbreaking by giving us another beautiful scene, it was also a catalyst is driving Angelus to pull the sword from Acathla.
Michael Green
27. greenazoth
What Aeryl said, exactly. The reaction Angelus has in the aftermath of the possession always seemed very telling to me.

I Only Have Eyes for You is one of my favorite episodes of the season -- some of the logic isn't there, but all of the emotion is. Which is really what I care about, anyway.
Alyx Dellamonica
28. AMDellamonica
I care if it's out of sequence! I'm hopelessly sticklerish in that sense.

I'm also a few weeks ahead of the posting dates for these columns, so you'll see a lot of "Not long ago you were all saying, and now I respond..."

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