“Help,” by Rebecca Rand Kirshner
The only show that opens in a funeral home more often than BtVS, I’m thinking, is probably Six Feet Under, and that’s where we are today, with Buffy, Xander, and Dawn waiting for the close of business before crawling out of a trio of coffins. It’s a nice change from waiting over a fresh grave for the latest new-hatched vampire, and they pass the time by jawing over about Buffy’s anxious-making new job in the exciting field of youth counselling.
Just as their attention turns to the old job, and whether or not the corpse du nuit is a vamp, it turns out she is. Surprise! Buffy dusts her, and with that we move onto the credits.
Next day at paying work, Buffy is momentarily bored until an assortment of teens, some of whom are there specifically looking to waste her time, come marching through her cubicle. There’s a young woman, Amanda, who attacked a bully. (We’ll see more of her in future episodes, as I’m sure you all recall.) There’s a kid whose brother is headed off to war. Dawn puts in a brief appearance.
Elsewhere, Willow is having a sunlit stroll with Xander, chit-chatting about cheery topics like the Hellmouth’s teeth and whether her own witchy powers will remain benevolent and fluffy. It turns out they’re in the cemetery, for her first visit to Tara’s grave. Great, now I’m sad.
Back in high school, Buffy’s most interesting customer of the day has turned out to be Cassie, a wee ethereal blond who says she’s got until Friday to live.
At first Buffy thinks the kid is articulating a suicidal impulse, and so she presses her for details. This gets her a lot of babble that sounds rather like Spike is writing Cassie’s dialogue for her. She makes vague utterances about coins and tells Buffy to put a sweater on to protect her shirt.
Why ruin a sweater? Next time, recommend a plastic art smock or one of those coats from the chem lab.
The message Buffy takes from this is not so much shirt-in-danger as kid claiming to be on the verge of death. She makes for Robin Wood’s office and tells him the scoop. He doesn’t quite shrug it off, but the response he musters is underwhelming. Soon Buffy is spilling coffee on her shirt and wondering if Cassie might possibly be psychic. She asks Dawn to go undercover as an ordinary high school student, the sort who might observe or even befriend a doomed teen.
This is such a Scooby assignment! Dawn makes a pretty suave approach, except maybe for the part where she reveals her last name is Summers and then mentions Buffy all but immediately. But let’s not criticize. It’s her first sneaky gig, and one of a very different stripe from all her previous thieving and break and enter crimes. Smooth or no, she begins to interrogate Cassie, who isn’t fooled at all but who puts up with it heroically.
Meanwhile, the adult Scoobies are on surfing up her web page, reading her poetry and finding Cassie to be a bit morbid.
The research yields a host of potential killers. Willow thinks the death-centric poetry might be normal, but the others aren’t ready to rule out self-harm. Except Dawn—she’s all for fingering one of their boy classmates, Mike, as a potential stalker. And Cassie’s father, it turns out, is a violent, alcoholic jerk.
BuffXander start with drunken dad, who is unpleasant and doesn’t love being accused of child abuse. (Somehow he isn’t so defensive that he picks up the phone to ask the Sunnydale school board WTF the counsellor’s office is doing sending people by to casually accuse him.) They end up eliminating him as a suspect based on his visitation schedule with his daughter—basically, he’s not seeing her on the Friday when she claims she’s going to die.
Cassie’s waiting outside the house when they leave. Xander asks, again, if she’s suicidal, but Cassie expresses a general wish to not die before graduation. Buffy tells her to fight. Instead, she replies with a long list of all the things she’s not going to get to do. You can see this striking a major chord with Buffy, who struggled with that same sense of loss more than once, and who wants so badly to make it come out okay for someone else.
Cassie insists that something “out there” is going to kill her. The next thing we see are a bunch of coins, some red-robed guys, and the ritual burning of her photograph. This makes it seem as though she may indeed know what she’s talking about.
Time passes. The Hellmouth fails to open, vamp activity is low, and Willow has another outstanding week of not destroying the world. Next thing we know, it’s Friday, and the Scoobies have gotten no further with their case. Dawn has continued to hang out with Cassie and Mike the possible stalker, possible friend.
Having used up all her clues for the moment, Buffy heads downstairs and finds Spike all but catatonic in the basement. He’s been trying to power down so his pesky restored soul will cause him less agonizing guilt about all his past homicidal misdeeds. When Buffy coaxes him back online, he starts punching himself, by way of doing penance for the suffering he’s caused her. This helps not at all with the problem at hand, and doesn’t earn him any points with Buffy either.
Having struck out there, Buffy initiates a locker search and finally checks out Mike the Friend. After a week in Dawn’s company, he’s thinking of moving on to asking her out, since Cassie is so perversely bent on saying no to him. Not exactly obsessive, stalkerish behavior. But then weird coins turn up in one of the lockers. Buffy tries questioning their owner, who promptly rats out some of his friends.
As all this is happening, Dawn is acting as Cassie’s official shadow or bodyguard. Unfortunately, she’s easily distracted. One of the kids we saw earlier, in Buffy’s cubicle, takes the opportunity to tease her about being dateless for the winter formal. While she’s got her back turned, Cassie disappears.
It was a trick, naturally. The mean kid, Peter, is one of the red-robed guys, and they’ve grabbed Cassie with the idea of sacrificing her. They have a demon to summon, one who apparently has the ability to make his worshippers infinitely rich. Didn’t we already have one of these? Something in a kind of snake theme?
Sadly for these clowns and their bank balances, every good slayer has a spare sacrificial robe or two in her closet. Buffy pops out of one of the costumes—did they not do a head count?—and gives Peter a kick he richly deserves.
The demon has already been summoned, though, and as Buffy’s fighting him off, Peter tries again to sacrifice Cassie. This time, it’s Spike to the rescue. He’s only too happy to smack Petey around whilst taking his lumps from the Initiative chip. Punch! Zap! Ow! Punch! Zap! Ow again!
Imagine all the good these agony zaps must be doing to what’s left of William’s terribly poetic neurons.
Teamwork wins the day. Buffy sets the demon on fire, and Spike unties Cassie.
“She’ll tell you,” she says to Spike. We know she means Buffy. We’re pretty sure we know what she’ll tell him. “Some day, she’ll tell you.”
Spike’s rattled by this, and takes off as what’s left of the demon bites Peter and then explodes. Wealth demons are such drama queens.
As Buffy is escorting Cassie out of the the library, they set off the booby trap the red-robed guys planted. But our Slayer is all over that; she catches the arrow an inch short of Cassie’s eye, by way of driving home the general concept of you aren’t going to die today, all right?
At which point Cassie, who hates to be proven wrong, keels of a heart attack.
The Scoobies are bummed by this outcome, especially Buffy, who really would rather stubborn her way out of every Kobayashi Maru scenario that comes her way. But she duly goes into work the next Monday, because what else can you do?
“Help” is typical of an early-season BtVS wheel spinner, a one-off story that keeps the gang busy but doesn’t change the board significantly. None of our main characters makes much progress on problems personal or slay-related: the demon and his summoners are of no real significance, and Cassie’s final prediction isn’t world-shattering to anyone but Spike. Her situation showcases some of Buffy’s new limitations as a cog within the school system—though she still threatens to beat a kid up, when push comes to shove, and the conversation with Cassie’s father is way out of line.
Cassie’s death is sad, pointless, and inevitable, serving to remind us that Buffy can’t save everyone, no matter how powerful or determined or amazingly competent she becomes.
A few tiny seeds do germinate in the story’s cracks: Buffy and Robin get to know each other a little better, Amanda is set in place, and we get to see that having been ensouled hasn’t done anything to affect Spike’s chip. There’s nothing much wrong with the episode; we can wish it was funnier, or sadder, or had more of a kick-butt fight scene, or even some kitten poker.
But no. We’ll have to take it as it is, an appetizer, really, and hope for spicier and more momentous developments in stories yet to come.
Next: Vengeance is a many-splattered thing
A.M. Dellamonica has a book’s worth of fiction up here on Tor.com! Her ‘baby werewolf has two mommies,’ story, “The Cage,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. There’s also “Among the Silvering Herd,” the first of a series of stories called The Gales. (Watch for the second of The Gales, “The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti”!)