"Inca Mummy Girl" / "Reptile Boy"
I want to start this week by returning to something I wrote last week. When I said I had qualms about Buffy's surliness in Season Two's balky first episode, I didn't mean to imply that I want Buffy to be peppy all the time. I expect–and hope–that the character's life, responsibilities and emotions will be increasingly complicated as the series develops and the mythology deepens. I just felt the tone of "When She Was Bad" was off, and that the abrupt character shifts weren't much help. As this week's trifecta of episodes proves, there's a sweet spot to writing, directing and performing the Buffy character, and when Buffy gets too one-note, it throws everything out of whack.
I'll be covering the first two of this week's three episodes together, since they're both MOTWs with some striking similarities and some significant differences. Among those key differences is the portrayal of Buffy. I may have been annoyed by Cranky Buffy in "When She Was Bad," but when she's too chipper or too dim or too sentimental, that's not so good either. In "Inca Mummy Girl," Buffy takes in a foreign exchange student–or rather, she takes in the 500-year old demonic mummy that killed her foreign exchange student–and she spends most of the episode commiserating wanly with mummy girl Ampata about how hard it is not to be "normal," all while missing the fairly obvious clues about who's been sucking the lives out of teenage boys all over Sunnydale. It is not her finest hour.
Nor is it the series'. Buffy isn't the only one who's off her game in "Inca Mummy Girl." Xander's flirtations with Ampata spend too much time in the "I'll talk extra-loud because you're a foreigner" realm; meanwhile, he's being overly cruel to Willow, emphasizing on multiple occasions that she's "a good friend," not a romantic prospect. (When Willow contemplates another woman entering their circle, she sighs, "Then Xander can find someone else who's not me to obsess about.") And when the whole gang is attacked by Ampata's knife-wielding bodyguard early in the episode, they shrug off the assault too easily and unaccountably fail to investigate fully enough, which allows them to get duped by Ampata. Sloppy work, that.
Still, even in a relatively down episode–which returns to the slack pacing and choppy action of Season One's MOTWs–there are highlights. The most significant one is the arrival of Oz, playing guitar in a local rock band and immediately pining after Willow. (Non-spoiler alert for the commenters: I do know a little about Oz's character arc in Season Two, so don't fret too much over spilling the beans on that. I do not know how long Seth Green stays on the show though, and what if anything ultimately happens to Oz in future seasons, so if you could keep those comments spoiler-guarded, I'd appreciate it.) Also good: Xander's line about the Eastwood-style cowboy outfit he wears to the school's multi-cultural costume party ("I'm from the country of Leone; it's in Italy, pretending to be Montana."), and Willow's one-word response when Xander tells her that rather than shrugging in her immobile Eskimo costume, she should probably just say "shrug." (Willow: "Sigh.")
Given a choice between this week's two hit-and-miss MOTWs though, I'll take "Reptile Boy," written and directed by one of Buffy's honchos, David Greenwalt, who shows a baseline level of quality and competence even in an episode that he partly botches.
"Reptile Boy" has a strong premise: Cordelia persuades Buffy to join her at a college fraternity party (which Buffy agrees to do because she's tired of getting the runaround from Angel), and the fraternity brothers drug both girls and chain them up as sacrifices for the Snake God who grants their families wealth and power. There's some sly commentary here about how legacies and traditions are passed down through the generations to people who haven't earned the privileges they enjoy, but Greenwalt doesn't give that theme enough oomph or enough nuance. (Though I do like the way the frat boys conclude their arcane ritual: "'In his name' Okay, brewski time!")
Greenwalt has more success with the theme that runs through this episode's subplots: How boys and girls meet, flirt, and mate. Buffy's been having sexy dreams about Angel ("What did he do in your dream?" Willow asks To which Buffy replies, "Stuff."), but when they talk in person they get tongue-tied and touchy. Meanwhile, Buffy finds she has a much easier time flirting with the frat boy who's taken a liking to her. When that frat boy turns out to be the head of the whole human sacrifice ring, Angel (and to a lesser-but-braver extent Xander) races in to save his woman, turning feral in the process. As with the Greenwalt-penned "Teacher's Pet" from Season One, "Reptile Boy" reduces romance to a matter of base animal instincts...including fear.
And as with "Teacher's Pet," I can't make any great claims for "Reptile Boy" as a masterful 40-odd minutes of TV. But it is smart and entertaining, and shows some of that depth of character I was talking about up top. Our heroine can be girlish and goofy watching Bollywood movies with her friends, then she can be stung and waifish when Giles dresses her down for not working hard enough. And ultimately, all of those aspects of her personality feed the not-always-great choices she makes through the rest of the episode. A foundation has been laid for her mistakes, and for her ultimate triumph. Good for Greenwalt.
Kudos also to "Reptile Boy" for a couple of other touches. The brief glimpse we get of a poster on the Sunnydale High wall that reads "Not Everyone Who Drives Drunk Dies" is a quick reminder that to be a teenager in the modern age is to be reminded constantly by authority figures that youthful hijinks can have awful consequences. (I thought too that it was cute, intentional or not, that the cut-up face on that poster resembles one of Buffy's usual monsters.) And I especially liked the character of Willow in this episode, whether she was giddily asking the reflection-less Angel "How do you shave?" or telling Angel and Giles off for being too hard on Buffy. Willow's coming into her own, just in time for the next episode, in which she moves even closer to center stage.
Ordinarily, I might be a little disgruntled that a series would have a costume party be the centerpiece of one episode, and then dress its cast up in Halloween costumes just two episodes later, but in one key way, the costumed tomfoolery in "Inca Mummy Girl" feeds into what happens in "Halloween." In the earlier episode, Willow is very excited about her outfit: a puffy Eskimo suit that covers her body from head to toe. In "Halloween," she resists Buffy's suggestion that she dress up as a hottie, and instead chooses to cover up the revealing clothes Buffy loans her with a Ghastly Ghost costume. She does not want to be noticed.
Yet when the proprietor of Ethan's Costume Shoppe casts a spell that turns kids and teens into the living embodiment of the costumes they're wearing, it's Willow who takes charge. She literally becomes a ghost, dressed in Buffy's sexy duds, but unlike everyone else who's transformed–unlike Xander, who becomes a commando, or Buffy, who becomes a meek 18th-century noblewoman–Willow remembers who she is, and starts moving her friends around like chess pieces, keeping in mind the limitations of their new personas. This comes in handy when Spike (yay, Spike!) reappears and decides to take Buffy down in her newly clueless state.
So yeah, "Halloween" is a winning episode for Willowphiles like myself. She's adorable when she and Buffy are scheming to swipe Giles' diary, like two little scamps. She's funny when she's complaining that she can't do research in the library in her ghost form because she "can't turn the pages." She's moving in the way she shudders a little when Xander walks through her. And she's alluring when she's walking home at adventure's end and getting scoped out by Oz (who always seems to stumble across her when she's wearing a costume).
I wouldn't say "Halloween" is a perfect episode. I don't buy Buffy starting to storm out of The Bronze when she sees Angel talking with Cordelia. (Too much dimestore melodrama there.) And I didn't care for the plot contrivances that had Spike waiting just long enough before attacking Buffy that she could regain her personality and whup him with a pole–a metal pole of course, not a wooden one.
On the other hand, this episode sees the introduction of Giles' old nemesis Ethan Rayne, who wreaks havoc and then promises to return. It has Spike reveling in the chaos in Sunnydale's streets, muttering, "This is just neat!" It has Xander The Soldier beating up the boy who taunted him earlier in school and saying, "It's strange, but beating up the pirate gave me a weird sense of closure." It has Buffy The Noblewoman shrieking at a passing car, gasping, "What does it want?" And it has Buffy The Noblewoman responding to the crisis by saying, "Surely some men will protect us!"
That last line is key, because this episode is very pointedly about the masks we wear on Halloween, and how we can pretend to be who we're not–or even who we'd like to be. It's not inconceivable that there would be some part of Buffy that would love to be the heroine in a bodice-ripping romance, letting the men do all the physical stuff, instead of the lead in a post-modern horror-comedy in which gender roles are more fluid. "Surely some men will protect us" is a joke–and a funny one–but it's also an honest plea.
Similarly, although Cordelia doesn't change into a catwoman because she bought her cat costume from somewhere other that Ethan's, it's also implied that she doesn't change because she already is pretty catty. And though the ghost costume Willow gets from Ethan turns her into a ghost, she becomes a ghost in sexy clothes, because to some extent, that is who she is. Or, at the least–whether she'll admit it or not–who she wants to be.
I have no idea whether I'm going against the grain with my indifference to "Inca Mummy Girl" and my tentative embrace of "Reptile Boy," but I'm pretty sure most of you like "Halloween" as much as me, and I hope you'll all agree that even though this is an up-and-down set of episodes, none of them is a total tank, and all of them are enjoyable to some extent or another.
One thing though: Doesn't the six-episode run of Season Two so far–"School Hard" excepted–feel a little like a re-do of Season One? I understand that there's only so much that can be done with high school and beasties, but last week we had a revival of the "Which relative is the bad guy?" switcheroo from "The Witch" in "Some Assembly Required," while this week Xander gets the hots for a monster in "Inca Mummy Girl," just as he did in "Teacher's Pet," and Cordelia gets captured and chained up alongside Buffy again, just like in "Out Of Mind, Out Of Sight."
That isn't intended as a criticism, because as I said, it feels more like a "re-do" than a "re-hash." As in: Let's take some of those good Season One ideas and give them some more juice this time. But I wonder how much of that was intentional, and how much was just formula?
-I'm glad the opening credits for Season Two have kept the screaming, hair-blowing girl from the Season One credits. Every time that clip comes up, I raise my hands and emit a silent shriek just like I used to waggle my hands in the air during the opening seconds of Midnight Oil's "Blue Sky Mine" video.
-Hey, there's actual Coke products in the Coke machine! I know some folks abhor this kind of product placement, but I love it, and I'll tell you why: Here it is more than 10 years after these episodes aired, and when I see the Coke machine, I don't think, "Great, they're trying to sell me Coke," I think, "Hey, that's what a Coke machine looked like in 1997!" I'm always on the lookout for actual cultural artifacts when I watch old movies and TV shows, and product placement goes a long way to grounding these shows in a specific place and time. (Of course, that doesn't explain how Buffy got a Diet Dr. Pepper from a machine with no Diet Dr. Pepper button, but hey, at least she looked surprised by it too.)
-Aside from the Eskimo and ghost outfits, Willow's looking a lot more stylish this season. I'm sure some of that was driven by the network and by Alyson Hannigan, but it does make sense for the character too. Her new best friend has a good sense of style; why wouldn't she pick up some pointers?