“Sleeper” (season 7, episode 8; original airdate 11/19/02)
Writing about television for an engaged, sometimes contentious audience over the past half-decade has been instructive in a lot of ways, most notably in helping me to understand what I’m looking for in TV—serialized TV especially—versus what some other people are looking for. Please don’t misunderstand; I’m not saying I’m some kind of maverick. I know a lot of folks watch TV the way I do. And I’d never say that our way of watching is the right way. But the division fascinates me. For example, I’m a big fan of TV episodes that experiment with the form, and I also like episodes that allow me to spend idle time with characters whose company I enjoy, in unusual or unexpected scenarios. In the past, when I’ve written about shows like Lost or Fringe, I’ve found myself at odds sometimes with viewers who are more interested in seeing the plot move forward, while I’m perfectly happy to let the writers waste time, so long as they do so in a way that’s entertaining.
“Conversations With Dead People” is generally considered to be one of the better episodes of season seven—and of the series as a whole, if I’m not mistaken—so I was hardly taking a bold stand last time out when I gave it a big thumbs-up. Still, it was interesting to read the comments from the few of you who aren’t big fans of the episode: who find it overly chatty, or too scattered, or just kind of cobbled together. I can see where the dissenters are coming from, but boy… there’s so much wit, and angst, and true terror in that episode that it just thrilled me from start to finish. To me it was an example of what Buffy is capable of when its talented creative team really stretches.
“Sleeper,” on the other hand? It’s not a bad episode. It has a few funny lines each from Xander and Anya—who’ve both been reliable characters all season—and it features some legitimately skin-crawling horror scenes. It’s also vital to the overall arc of the season, helping to explain what’s been going on with Spike, and bringing Buffy closer to an understanding about her latest adversary—an understanding that will come into fuller fruition in the next episode.
Well, I’m going to save the “and yet” for a moment. First, a hurrah for Xander, who was shut out of the previous episode’s “Conversations,” but appears right at the start of “Sleeper,” receiving Buffy shortly after the events of “CWDP,” hearing what she’s learned about Spike’s possible vampiric activities and helping her to break it down in “a cold, impersonal, CSI-like manner.” And hurrah too for Anya, who when asked to keep an eye on Spike distracts him from the big wooden stake in her hand by stammering, “I’m here obviously for sex.” (In the same scene she chalks up her strange behavior to “nerves… and horniness.”)
I can’t really complain much about Spike’s arc in “Sleeper” either, at least not in the abstract. Spike insists to Buffy that any girls he’s been stalking in bars has only been out of Buffy-free loneliness—“to pass the time.” And yet the Scoobies’ research turns up a lot of missing persons in Sunnydale since Spike’s return, and when Spike drops by The Bronze—presumably because he’s a big Aimee Mann fan—he gets cornered by a woman named Charlotte who claims he sired her, and that now she wants to prowl with him. But just when it looks to the viewer like Spike is absolutely guilty, there’s a twist! A second Spike appears, singing an eerie little song and talking about “the plan.” Could this Spike be responsible for all the new vampires in town? Yes and no. It turns out he—or “it” I guess, as we’ll learn soon—has been mesmerizing Spike into killing. When Spike shows Buffy a basement filled with his victims, the dead rise and attack her, in an unsettling scene that climaxes with a dazed Spike feasting on one of Buffy’s open wounds.
The problem with “Sleeper” for me is that despite some admirable efforts to liven up the dialogue and the plot, the whole episode is a bit too “here’s what comes next.” This is a common problem with serialized shows with extended, complicated narratives, especially when those narratives are nearing their end. Getting to the finish line requires treating the characters sometimes like pieces on a game board, to slide along as needed. And compared to the creativity of “Conversations With Dead People,” “Sleeper” comes off as merely requisite.
That said, it’s hard to fault an episode too much for doing what it’s designed to do. The end result of “Sleeper” is that Buffy now knows that something’s legitimately wrong with Spike, and that it may have something to do with the “from beneath you it devours” prophecy. Meanwhile, there’s trouble overseas, where a pair of Giles’ colleagues have been murdered by the robed killers from earlier this season. Then one of those killers goes after Giles. The plot thickens!
“Never Leave Me” (season 7, episode 9; original airdate 11/26/02)
There are times when “Never Leave Me” comes close to being as dry and functional as “Sleeper.” It too is very talky, from the debate among the gang about why Buffy doesn’t just kill Spike, to yet another long conversation between Spike and Buffy about their evolving feelings for each other. It’s like the writers are making up for all the times in season six when Spike and Buffy would screw and fight and screw some more, semi-inexplicably. This season all they do is explain.
And yet even though almost the entire episode takes place in the Summers house—and even though it seemed unusually short for a Buffy episode, clocking in at under 40 minutes pre-credits—I really liked “Never Leave Me,” which brings together some loose threads of the season seven master-plot, while providing some actual entertainment along the way.
Credit the heavy presence of Andrew, who after killing Jonathan is striding cockily through Sunnydale in a long black trench coat, trying to ignore Ghost Warren and Ghost Jonathan as they urge him to complete the ritual that opens the Hellmouth. (Apparently, Jonathan was anemic and didn’t bleed enough. Nevertheless, in ghost form he claims that dying was the best thing that ever happened to him. This is because Ghost Jonathan is neither a ghost nor Jonathan. But more on that in a moment.) Eventually, the spirits do induce Andrew to try killing a pig, which Andrew is hesitant to do because “Babe 2: Pig In The City was really underrated.” Finally he pulls his knife, shouts, “That’ll do pig!” and… completely fails to stab the pig. So instead he goes to a butcher shop and asks for blood, sneaking it into a large meat order as though he were asking for condoms at a pharmacy.
There, Andrew runs into Willow, who is picking up some blood for Spike. The two trade some very funny comic-book-style threats. (“Stand down, she-witch, your defeat is at hand!” “I am a very powerful she-witch! Or ‘witch,’ as is more accurate.”) Willow drags Andrew back to the Summers house, where he tries to explain that he’s buying blood because he “fell in love with a beautiful vampire girl down in Mexico and now we’re trying to make a go of it on the straight and narrow and put our lives back together here in Sunnydale.” But Anya and Xander are having none of it, and practice their tough-guy interrogation tactics on Andrew to find out what he’s really up to. (“The weasel wants to sing. He just needs a tune.” “He’s primed. I’ll be pumping him in no time.”)
The dialogue in “Never Leave Me” is very funny, especially as delivered by Tom Lenk, who has a way of making Andrew seem at once slimy and fundamentally sweet. And the episode is well-plotted too, bringing together Buffy’s heart-to-heart with Spike in one room and Anya and Xander’s grilling of Andrew in the other. When Buffy leaves to check on the Andrew situation, the “second Spike” rematerializes, and sings his song that makes the original Spike go crazy. When Buffy returns, he flings her aside and bursts through the wall, attacking Andrew. Buffy saves Andrew and incapacitates Spike, and in the ensuing Scooby debriefing, Xander suggests that Spike may be a sleeper agent, whose violent tendencies are being triggered by an unseen demon. (He adds that in the army movies he’s seen, “Usually the operative completes his task and either blows his head off or steals a submarine.”) When Buffy tells Spike this, Spike insists that she kill him, because she doesn’t know what he’s capable of when he’s really being evil. (Hint: it involves torture and rape and seeing little girls cry.) But Buffy won’t pull the trigger, saying, “I believe in you, Spike.”
Then worlds collide again, as the robed fiends who’ve been tormenting young girls across Europe bust into the Summers house, have a brutal—and exciting—fight with our heroes—and then kidnap Spike. After they’re gone, Buffy says she knows what they’re up against: The First Evil, the ancient spirit of malfeasance that she and Angel dealt with way back in “Amends.” A non-corporeal being who takes the form of the dead in order to persuade the living to do ill. In “Never Leave Me,” The First has its minions take Spike to the Hellmouth, where the vampire gets hung up and slashed, so that his blood drips and opens the portal, loosing one ugly looking super-vampire.
The special effects in the big climactic ritual look kind of cheap, and there’s a secondary climax at The Watchers Council—in which they make some bold claims of standing up to Evil just before they get blown up—that doesn’t work as well as it should because of shoddy editing and effects-work. (For real shock value, the Council should’ve been shown exploding in their chamber, preferably mid-sentence.) Still, it’s satisfying to see the smug Council, who refuse to tell Buffy anything useful, get its comeuppance, even if that makes the fight to come that much harder. And it’s satisfying to get all the slow hints and teases about what’s going on out of the way at last. Now bring on “Bring On The Night.”
- As the gang compares notes about the conversations they had with dead people, they wonder whether everything that The First (or whomever they were actually chatting with) was untrue. As Anya notes, “I used to tell the truth all the time and I was evil.”
- Classic Xander-ism as he tries to prevent Spike from leaving the apartment: “Buffy was very clear about the not-leaving of you.”
- I like Xander’s attire when he goes to a business meeting: suit with hardhat.
- Spike’s fight with Charlotte freaks out Aimee Mann. (“Man, I hate playing vampire towns.”)
- Spike is not a Billy Idol wannabe. Nevertheless, he does well in bars because “chicks like Billy Idol.”
- Spike, confused about how to explain who’s been talking to him, asks Buffy to kill him and says, “Do it fast. He said you’d do it. Me.”
- Killers like to keep trophies sometimes. Scalps. Necklaces made from human teeth. Genitals.
- I know I should be more worried about the fate of Giles after the end of “Sleeper,” but I know he’s coming back later this season, so that kind of defuses the tension, for better and worse.
- Ghost Warren (or First Warren, I should say) tries to explain his non-corporeality to Andrew by using a Star Wars metaphor: “I’m like Obi Wan.” A smitten Andrew sighs back, “Or Patrick Swayze in Ghost.”
- Filed away for further study: the strange behavior of Principal Wood in “Never Leave Me.” He finds Jonathan’s body on the Hellmouth and takes him to a remote spot to bury him. Do we have another evil principal on our hands, or is there more to this than meets the eye?
- Buffy asks Willow to get some blood for Spike. “Do you want me to kill Anya?” Willow asks, brightly.
- “She’s killed more men than smallpox.” “Does smallpox still kill people?”
- Next week: “Bring On The Night” and “Showtime”… another double-Buffy week, oddly.