Jul 2 2012 2:00pm

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Rewatch: Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Powers?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Helpless

“Helpless” opens with Buffy almost getting staked on patrol by one of the disposables, the sort of vampire she ought, by now, to be able to take with one hand tied behind her back and Faith actively interfering in the slay.

She prevails in the end and goes to Giles, as she always does, with a big cry for help. All he’s got to offer is maybe you’ve got the flu. This is entirely useless and she knows it—but hey, stuff happens. If Giles doesn’t know, maybe he’s having an off day. She heads off to update her friends on her birthday plans: go do big girly ice-skating things with her other dad, the one who’s actually her father. These plans involve nothing supernatural or emotionally painful.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Helpless

Naturally, there is a birthday conspiracy afoot, and it comes together pretty fast: Quentin Travers of the Watcher’s Council has shown up with one unrecognizable beta male and Dominic Keating (otherwise known as That Obnoxious Spy from Enterprise) in tow. They and Giles are planning to lock Buffy up with a vamp who used to be a serial killer before he was turned. This is what passes for a surprise party when a Slayer turns eighteen. Presumably it’s also a good method of weeding out the less popular Watchers, since some of the Slayers who survive this particular rite of passage must behead their benevolent role models ten minutes later.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Helpless

Everything goes much horribly wrong(er) than even the Watchers had dared to hope. The vamp gets loose, turns our friend from Starfleet Intelligence (um...) and goes off in search of Joyce and all the Polaroid film he can carry. Buffy is thus obliged to go hunting, despite her delicate condition.

As Team Watcher has obviously intended, she has not only lost her good right hook but also, by now, spiraled into a full-blown identity crisis. Anyone would, and Sarah Michelle Gellar is thoroughly convincing: she starts off uneasy, freaks out as her powers start to really fail her, and then gets dumped by her dad. The heartbreaking parts, though, are the her and Giles stuff: the bit when she asks him to take her to the skating thing, and her shock and horror when she realizes he’s betrayed her.

At that point, having to rescue Joyce from the creepiest vamp since Angelus is basically just lighting the candles on the OMG, FML birthday cake.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Helpless

I might argue that birthday number eighteen is even worse for Buffy than having the love of her life turn evil. At least last year she got some sex out the deal, am I right?

No, really, am I right? Which Buffy Birthday is the absolute worst?

“Helpless” is a big test of the Buffy/Giles relationship. She takes a big step over the ’we work together’ line when she asks him to the skating event. She’s also, naturally enough, furious when she finds out what’s happening. In an odd way, though, it’s Quentin Travers who repairs the damage, when he tells Giles that his part in the experiment was a big old fail and that he loves his Slayer like a parent. Would Buffy have forgiven Giles so quickly if he hadn’t got a snotty lecture and a pink slip? I’m not convinced.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Helpless

One way or another, the firing of Giles paves the way for Wesley’s arrival, which is another important stepping stone on the road to graduation. Faith’s still looking for her own big daddy, after all, and Wesley’s mishandling of his brief Watcher tenure has everything to do with why she chose the Mayor.

Next: If Xander is Zeppo, who are Chico, Harpo and Groucho?

A.M. Dellamonica has two short stories up here on First up: an urban fantasy about a baby werewolf, “The Cage” which made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. Her second story here is called “Among the Silvering Herd.” In October, watch for a novelette, “Wild Things,” that ties into the world of her award winning novel Indigo Springs and its sequel, Blue Magic.

1. Palpatim
Which Buffy Birthday is the absolute worst?
Definitely "Helpless." Buffy's relationship with Giles is more emotionally intimate, and skewed differently, than it was with Angel, and thus the fall was harder. There's never a guarantee in a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship and hearts will break along the way, heal, and go on to be broken again. But Giles' betrayal of his fatherly duty, and both of their subsequent anguish, changes the character of the relationship. It's a wound that cannot ever truly heal, and it makes Buffy's 18th the mother of all bummers of a Summers b-day.
2. Gardner Dozois
I agree that this episode sets up a number of important things to come, but I've never liked it, mainly because this is such an incredibly stupid thing to do, that even for the Watcher's Council, who frequently do stupid things, it sets a new low. No wonder most Slayers don't last long.

Buffy's betrayal by Giles is hard to watch, and I find it difficult to believe that she'd ever really trust him again.
Constance Sublette
3. Zorra
I dislike the episode with every fiber of my being because it is so stupid. There was nothing to be gained by the Council pulling this one, nothing. Maybe that's been the problem all along. The Council is all these old men who are stupid.

I won't watch it anymore. And that Giles of all the members would go along with it for as long as he did -- he got forgiven too easily and too fast -- except, well there was that Angelus killing of his sweetheart and Angelus torturing him. So, maybe this is the lesson of these episode: anyone, anytime, for all kinds of reasons can and will betray you?
Love, C,
Alyx Dellamonica
4. AMDellamonica
Totally agree that that Watchers Inc. could not have done anything more completely wrong than invent this ritual in the first place and see that it's carried out. They're not a great or particularly sensible element of the Buffyverse. One has to assume they got compromised by Wolfram and Hart types decades if not centuries ago.

I agree that Buffy let the betrayal slide awfully fast--she and Giles become so tight once Wesley is on the scene! And if one were no-prizing it, you'd have to go with the Jenny death/Angelus torture as the reason she lets it go... that, and some feeling of guilt on Buffy's part over how all that played out.
5. RobinM
There is no logical reason for the Watchers Council to perform this test ever. The reason the "Slayers" can kill vampires is a magical one and with out their Chosen One powers they're ordinary people. Ordinary people are vampire food. It only gives us a reason to fire Giles and skrew up the relationship with Buffy. She does forgive him sort of quickly but this is tv and love will let you put up with a lot of pain.
David Goldfarb
6. David_Goldfarb
This episode revolves around one moment: Buffy running down the street shouting, "Help! Somebody help me!"

The irony of it, is that nobody making the episode seems to have noticed that the moment was a double reversal. Buffy started out as an inversion of the trope, "helpless blonde cheerleader victim". In that moment, she was right back there where it all began. I suppose that's a testimony to how well the entire previous series had done in establishing her as a badass!

And just as the other commenters so far have done, I shake my head at the abject idiocy of the Council of Watchers. How could such a testing ritual have arisen? Who would ever have thought that was a good idea? It's unfortunately typical of Joss Whedon that he will junk any amount of logic, consistency, and worldbuilding for the sake of one cool moment. Which makes for cool moments, but not so much with the long-term story arcs.
7. McJulie
It's obvious: they do this because they don't want the slayers to live past eighteen. The slayer is not supposed to own her own power -- it's supposed to belong to the council. Compare the season 5 episode Checkpoint, where it clearly drives them INSANE to have an adult slayer calling the shots. The whole thing is a patriarchy metaphor.
Michael Ikeda
8. mikeda
The explanation I've liked best for the origin of the Cruciamentum came in a speculative fanfic history of the Watchers' Council.

(kudos to Stormwreath)

(summarising the relevant portion)

Basically the idea is that back in Roman times, the Watchers' Council had the problem of what to do with all of the Potentials who became too old to become the Slayer. One group suggested killing them when they turned 18. Another group suggested they be allowed to join the Council. The rest of the Council wasn't comfortable with either idea but didn't have an alternative suggestion.

After several inconclusive meetings the leader of the faction advocating killing the Potentials when they came of age suggested a "compromise". He'd support allowing the Potentials to join the Council if they passed a "test"--defeating a vampire in single combat. His intention was that almost all of the Potentials would be killed by the test. It didn't quite work out that way.

Eventually a (usually highly watered-down) version of the test was extended to male Watcher candidates and at some point the test (watered down or not depending on the Council's attitude toward the current Slayer) was extended to the Slayer (with the addition of weakening the Slayer before the test).
john mullen
9. johntheirishmongol
This ep never made a lot of sense to me, or to anyone else either. Giles isn't a drill sargeant and there is no way I believe that his character would put up with this abuse of his charge. Joss hasn't made many wrong steps with Buffy, but this is one of the most egregious.
Michael Ikeda
10. mikeda

I find it entirely believeable that someone who has been raised from childhood to be part of the Watchers' Council would follow Council orders even against his personal wishes.

It's almost more surprising that Giles did manage to rebel in this instance.
Emma Rosloff
11. emmarosloff
Kind of mixed on this episode, myself. Joss sure does love to twist the knife in the Buffyverse, sometimes a little too much. I agree that the test seems a little... contrived, for the sake of some extra delicious birthday torture. I mean... it would be one thing if she was put in a room with a typical vamp, sans her superpowers (and maybe even with the knowledge that she had to undergo such a test), but it's quite another to push her to her emotional breaking point and then lock her in a decrepit old house with an ex-serial killer.

It really does seem like a perfect recipe to get her horribly killed, and I had trouble with Giles just sitting by and letting it play out for as long as he did. I get it -- he's wrestling between his fatherly love for Buffy and his inbred Watcherly obedience, but if I had written it, I would've had him let Buffy in on it from the start, and had them find a way to tackle it together, even if it did get Giles fired in the end. Because that's the strength of Gile's character to me -- he's not perfect, and every person makes a few mighty mistakes, but shit, if there was ever a time to give Giles a shining moment it would've been now, particularly with Buffy's father decidedly out of the picture when she needs him most.

But if I've learned one law of the Buffyverse, it's that the worst can and inevitably will happen. Joss does more than torture his characters, he tortures his viewers with the kind of things he forces his characters to endure -- physical, mental and emotional. It's just how things go in the Buffyverse, and Joss often walks a fine line between keeping us riveted and jerking us around. I wasn't surprised by the draconian birthday ritual, just... annoyed at how heavy handed it felt.

Also, you'd think Buffy would spare a moment at the end of the episode to acknowledge how badass Xander and Willow are for following her into danger when they don't have any superpowers of their own (I know this changes for Willow, but being a witch doesn't make her super strong).
12. GaryJordan
I've always wondered how and why the Watcher's Council came to be mostly "stodgy old Brits." It is quite evident that the potentials come from everywhere, though several of the most recent were 'Mericuns. Would the council be different if it was more internationally representative? Even better, located on the same continent as the current Slayer?

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