Jun 25 2012 2:00pm

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Rewatch: Attack of the Sugar Plum Fairy Tale

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Rewatch: Attack of the Sugar Plum Fairy Tale

Things in the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer build to the events of “The Wish” and then fall off, just a bit, giving us a breather before we drop into Buffy’s latest horrific birthday, the arrival of Wesley, and Faith’s big downward spiral.

So in one sense, “Amends” and “Gingerbread” are the eye of the hurricane, the slack weeks on the Slayerwatch. Which is saying something: it’s downtime where all Buffy has to deal with is a little brush with the First Evil and, oh yeah, almost getting burned alive by her mother.

Though there’s nothing much wrong with it, I was nevertheless surprised when I saw that “Amends” had been written and directed by Joss Whedon—usually his episodes pack more of a punch. This one’s not quite a whimper, but it doesn’t really bang, either. The story goes thusly: Angel starts having big ol’ guilt dreams about the people he killed when he was a vampire. He runs into Buffy and is spooked enough to get her worrying; in time, he’s scared enough to consult Giles, who is still holding a grudge over that whole “You killed my girlfriend and tortured me” thing.

To which Angel’s all, “Yeah, sorry, but why am I back on Earth?”

Good question! The murdered dream-peeps, who by now include Jenny Calendar among their number, claim the answer is that they brought him; they’re urging Angel to give in to his dark side and go on a killing spree, with Buffy as the opening ceremonies.

But we’ve all been there, seen that, and so the Scoobies swing into research mode. They work out that the would-be puppetmaster is the First, and Buffy tracks down its Bringers for a punch-fest. All very well and good, but Angel has decided the answer to his problems is to work on his tan for a second or two. Buffy shows up, barely in time, can’t convince him to come indoors, and soon they’re punching each other and yelling and it’s too late . . . or it would be, except that the oft-mentioned Powers that Be of Angel the series decide to dispatch their top vampire-saving blizzard to the Hellmouth.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Rewatch: Attack of the Sugar Plum Fairy Tale

“Amends” is something like a holiday stocking filled with comparatively minor treats. We get our last sight of Robia La Morte as Jenny, our first wee glimpse of the S7 Big Bad, a little bit of Joyce and Faith, and a swing back in a romantic direction. By the time it’s all over, I’m not sure anyone has really made amends. But Buffy and Angel have got themselves some consequence-free dream-nookie, a walk out during shopping hours, and are somehow, magically, a couple again.

Oz, too, has decided to give forgiving Willow a shot. (There could have been nookie there, too—she even puts on Barry White!—but he turns her down. And not for the first time! You’d almost think one of these crazy kids was gay!)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Rewatch: Attack of the Sugar Plum Fairy Tale

Not so much in the treat category, this time around, is everything to do with Xander. Cordelia is standing firm on being so very done with him, and we also officially hear, for the first time, that his home life is pretty much appalling.

A week later, Buffy’s out patrolling, all alone and Faithless, when Joyce brings her a snack. This is so incredibly sweet it’s unbelievable, am I right? She wants to see the slaying. She wants to cheer from the sidelines! I am all for this.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Rewatch: Attack of the Sugar Plum Fairy Tale

When an obliging undead Mr. Sanderson from the bank turns up to serve as a live demo of Buffy’s nightly warm-up, everything seems on-track for a beautiful mother-daughter bonding experience. Then, instead, Joyce finds the bodies of two small children.

Not surprisingly, she’s shattered by the experience. Ignoring Buffy’s usual modus operandi, she summons the townspeople, publicizes the crime, gives Snyder an excuse to be awesomely oily and search all the lockers at school. She tells the Mayor that Sunnydale damn well isn’t a good town, in a genuinely moving speech, and forms MOO—Mothers Opposed to the Occult.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Rewatch: Attack of the Sugar Plum Fairy Tale

It’s not just an overreaction, of course. It’s magic. In “Gingerbread,” we learn that a hideous demon stages the murders of the two kids every fifty years. He then appears to a leader of the horrified townsfolk—in this case Joyce—as the slaughtered kids, using his patsy to whips up a mob. The group then kills whoever looks witchiest to them. The demon presumably feeds off of the bad time.

So MOO latches onto Buffy, Willow, and Amy Madison.

“Gingerbread” marks the one and only appearance of Willow’s mother, Sheila, and if I’d been needing a reason to continue making up with Joyce, her parenting style would be it. Sheila is the queen of not listening. Really, it’s something of a miracle that Willow didn’t try to destroy the world sooner if that’s what she’s living with.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Rewatch: Attack of the Sugar Plum Fairy Tale

While Sheila is undermining her kid’s confidence, Joyce appears to be doing the same. But even though she’s under a spell and plotting murder, I can’t help thinking she’s asking some tough and depressing and rather legitimate questions about the nature of Buffy’s calling. The Slayer beats evil back, she points out, but there’s always more.

This is a theme that comes up often in Angel the series, of course, and I’m betting in cop bars around the world.

Sheila proceeds from grounding Willow and being generally annoying to being Joyce’s partner in trying to burn their daughters. They pick an indoor venue for the book-and-teen-burning, which is baffling. Amy turns herself into a rat to avoid the flames, and remains that way, mostly, until “Smashed.”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Rewatch: Attack of the Sugar Plum Fairy Tale

In S1 I talked about Buffy and how she builds not just a circle of friends but an ever-expanding resource base. Something that’s interesting about “Gingerbread,” is that she and Willow get rescued not once by the whole team but twice, by two halves of it. First Giles and Cordy show up and reveal the demon for what it truly is, allowing Buffy to spear it. But Xander and Oz, though they are a little slower due to manfully climbing through the building ducts, are on their way too as this is happening. They’d have got the job done, I’m sure.

And Angel and Faith were out there, somewhere, on the benches.

Not quite filler but simply less exciting than their fellows, these episodes show up, build some bridges to a variety future seasons’ storylines, entertain us all for an hour and then fade into the scenery. But this is only really apparent on rewatch.

“Amends” and “Gingerbread” are good enough episodes—they just aren’t the shining lights of S3; not only aren’t they “Graduation,” they don’t quite rise to standard set by “Band Candy” or “Bad Girls.” Every class has to have a few C students, right?

Next: Very Unhappy Birthday, some more.

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

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Gardner Dozois
1. Gardner Dozois
These are my two least favorite episodes of the whole season. My least favorite is "Gingerbread," which I won't even bother to watch if it comes on TV as a rerun. "Amends" is better, and has some nice moments, including the intense scenes at the end between Buffy and Angel, but is still fairly weak. The whole Angel-being-brought-back-from-the-dead thing never DID receive an adequate explanation. Supposedly the First Evil did it so that his presence would "distract" Buffy (distract her from WHAT, though?), but that makes no sense when you consider that the First's power is to torment people with hallucinations of dead people, as is happening with Angel in this very episode, so certainly he could "distract" her just as easily, perhaps more effectively, with created images of Angel as he could with the physical Angel himself. (I find it hard to believe that Angel would not make an attempt to rescue Buffy, in "Gingerbread"; even Faith, who has not turned bad at this point, would probably do so.)

Definitely a low point in Season Three, with better stuff before it and even better stuff to come.
Constance Sublette
2. Zorra
I agree with you both about both episodes, though my most unfavorite episode in this season is the first one. I do watch "Amends" but skip completely "Gingerbread." For one thing, I hated those kids on first sight. I really hate the portrayal of Willow's mom; as this is the only time we ever see a Willow relative, I did not believe in her as anything, but most particularly Willow's mom.

Love, C.
Gardner Dozois
3. T Earl Grey
Amends is one of my favorite episodes of the entire series, and I've never understood the general apathy towards it. To me, it's exactly what a Christmas ep of a series should be: a quiet pause in the action with a touch of grace, just like the winter soltice. The confrontation between Buffy and Angel at the end is spot-on, as is the conversation between Angel and Giles earlier on. And the dialogue-less ending as the snow falls on Sunnydale always makes me smile.

Maybe I'm just a sucker for Christmas episodes...
Gardner Dozois
4. Gardner Dozois
Will certainly agree that "Amends" was much better than "Gingerbread," which was one of my least favorite episodes of the entire show.

Maybe it's the unexplained "miracle" solution to the whole problem, snowstorm-in-a-box rather than god-in-a-box neatly solving everything, that makes people value it less.
George Brell
5. gbrell
I actually quite enjoy "Gingerbread" if only because it seems to channel a very-Dresden Files-esque vibe that, deep down, the supernatural simply isn't stronger than good, old humanity if humanity would ever wake up and realize it.

Weakest episode of the season, in my opinion, is "Dead Man's Party."
Gardner Dozois
6. Gardner Dozois
True, "Dead Man's Party" is a pretty bad episode. Thinking about it, I'm not sure whether I was least fond of "Dead Man's Party" or "Gingerbread." I might even have to give a razor-thin edge to "Gingerbread," although both of them are bad, back to the level of quality of "Inca Mummy Girl" or "Reptile Boy."
Gardner Dozois
7. juan-man
If there is a vibe I feel in Gingerbread, that's a "God Loves, Man Kills" one... and I love the episode because of it.
Alyx Dellamonica
8. AMDellamonica
They're neither of them major, and neither is a fave of mine, which would be why they get the lump-together treatment. I'm with gbrell, though--"Dead Man's Party" is harder to watch.
Gardner Dozois
9. Gardner Dozois
If forced to it, I'd have to agree that "Gingerbread" is better than "Dead Man's Party." "Amends" is by far the best of the three episodes that we've been discussing here.

None of them are BUFFY at its best, though.
Ilan Lerman
10. Ilan
It's intersting to see 'Amends' cropping up on a number of best-of lists for Buffy episodes. I find it hard to watch it objectively any more as it is so coloured by Angel the series and S7 of Buffy, and because of that I can't help feel that the whole thing is as much a set-up for Angel's forthcoming solo extravanganza as an episode with anything to add to this season. When I recall my first time round watching Buffy, this episode fades from memory and I think it's one of the weaker Joss Whedon scripted/directed episodes overall.

Perversely it's 'Gingerbread' that sticks in my mind far more solidly than 'Amends', mostly because it annoys the hell out of me. I actually kind of like the premise, and it even raises some interesting issues about the fight against evil, but the adult character's (albeit under magical influence) behaviour is painful to watch and I never understood the burning inside the building.

Bring on the latter half of the series, which is one of the strongest in Buffy overall.
john mullen
11. johntheirishmongol
Gingerbread has some good moments, but it followed one of the themes to Buffy that I never did care for and that was that adults were simply not to be trusted. They did this with Joyce a few times, but every other parent of all the other scoobies was a total horror story.
Keith DeCandido
12. krad
I totally get the dislike for "Gingerbread," but it did one thing right that the show and its spinoff consistently missed the boat for the most part: it made use of actual folklore. Joss Whedon said at San Diego Comic-Con in 1998 that his usual method of creating monsters was to "put a horn on it and give it a history," which was fine as far as it went, but I always thought it was a massive missed opportunity to not make more use of actual folklore. (Cf. Supernatural, which doesn't always get it right, but at least makes the effort.) Imagine Buffy or Angel facing off against Baba Yaga or Anansi or the Morrigan -- or going up against an actual god from human mythology in season 5 instead of Glory.

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
Gardner Dozois
13. Gardner Dozois
My guess is that they didn't often use real gods and mythological figures for fear of offending some of their audience--can you imagine the furor if Buffy staked Jesus? Even her fighting an angel might have offended people back then.--and perhaps for fear of legal complications in some cases; having Buffy fight Thor might have embroiled them in legal difficulties with Marvel, for instance.

In a way, I think NOT using mythological figures might have given them added creative freedom. The Gentlemen are very vaguely based on real mythology, but the show's interpretation of them is radically different. Hard to imagine any pre-existant mythological figure that would have been as original and effective as the Mayor.

A couple of times when they did have her fight real mythological/folklore figures, such as Dracula, the results were rather lame.
Alyx Dellamonica
14. AMDellamonica
I'm with Krad--a little Baba Yaga here and there could have been very entertaining and powerful. And I have to admit I rather enjoyed "Buffy vs. Dracula." (Chick pit!!)

I don't know that I think if they'd done it now and then they'd have been locked into drawing on folklore all the time.
Gardner Dozois
15. General Vagueness
probably my least favorite thing about the series is how the biggest baddest zOMG srsly you guys nastiest worstest evil ever is randomly introduced here and then never mentioned again until the show is about to wrap up
Alyx Dellamonica
16. AMDellamonica
Heh. Imagine how much worse it'd be if they never got back to the First Evil!

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