"Lie To Me" has one of Buffy's best cold opens to date, beginning with a young boy hanging around a playground at night, waiting for his mom to come drive him home. Drusilla emerges from the shadows, acting sympathetic to the boy's plight, telling a story about how her mom used to sing to her when she was worried. Then Drusilla sidles up to him and asks, "What will your mummy sing when they find your body?" Angel quickly arrives to save the day, but this episode–written and directed by Joss Whedon, not coincidentally–has its overture. Playtime is over. And those people you think are your friends? Think again.
There are actually two old friendships anchoring "Lie To Me." One is between Drusilla and Angel, the latter of whom is responsible both for making her a vampire and driving her mad. (He killed everyone she loved, then completed her conversion to vampirism the day before she was due to become a nun. Cold-blooded.) The other friendship is between Buffy and Ford, a boy she grew up with and has always had a crush on, even though he's a year older and out of her league. Now that he's moved to Sunnydale, Ford's taken a belated interest in our Buffy, and with good reason: He's dying of brain cancer, and he's made a deal with Spike to be granted immortality as a vampire in exchange for betraying Buffy.
There's a lot to talk about related to the business in the paragraph above, but to be honest, what made this episode special to me was a plot element that's really more about setting the scene then driving the story. Ford hangs around with a subculture of vampire obsessives: teenage Goths who think of vampires as misunderstood gods-on-Earth, and who want to be a part of their world. (Or, as Willow describes their philosophy: "Vampires. Yay!") Whedon gets a lot of comic juice from these dopey kids, whether he's having one walk across the frame dressed just like Angel, or having Buffy dismiss their little club as an "all-you-can-eat moron bar." (Other funny bits from this episode: Buffy responding to Ford's comment that he saw her slaying a vampire by saying, "Whati-ing a what?;" Jenny dragging Giles to a monster truck rally; Angel noting that "One hundred years of hanging out, feeling guilty…really honed by brooding skills;" and Xander answering the question "Would I be imposing?" with, "Only in the literal sense.")
If I'm not mistaken, having Ford and his Goth pals be the bad guys this episode–or at least the facilitators for evil–marks the first time that the villainy in Buffy is something relatively mundane. These aren't masters of the supernatural; they're well-meaning, self-absorbed dabblers. (They're teenagers, in other words.) And Whedon gives them a hell of a comeuppance in Spike's raid on their little clubhouse, a scene as vicious and scary as any I've seen on this show. Again, he seems to be asserting that Buffy may not be what we think it is; that it can be fun, and funny, but that there are consequences.
As I've mentioned before, there are some big spoilers about what happens in this season that I already know, just from being alive and reading entertainment magazines in the late '90s. And this episode may be one of those cases where knowing something about where the story is going gives me a fuller appreciation of what Whedon is up to. I don't think it's at all accidental that in an episode about untrustworthy old friends, there are a lot of scenes of Angel integrating himself even further into our heroes' lives, whether he's getting Buffy to say she loves him or asking Willow if he can come into her room. This episode ends with the focus back on Ford, who is killed as requested by Spike, then slain by Buffy as soon as he rises, while she's in the midst of a heart-to-heart conversation with Giles about why the question of good and evil is so complicated. Frankly, the conversation is a little too blunt for my taste, but it culminates in a final line that foreshadows what's coming. Giles asks Buffy how he can reassure her about the path they're all on, and she responds with three chilling words:
"Lie to me."
"The Dark Age"
We follow up one episode about the curse of old friends with another that touches on the same topic. This one is Giles-centric. Picking up on the hints dropped in "Halloween" about Giles' wild past, "The Dark Age" reveals that back in the old country, Giles went through a phase of youthful rebellion, and abandoned rigorous study of the occult for something more reckless, as he joined a circle of young punks practicing spells for kicks. (Our "Halloween" bad guy Ethan was in that bunch; and I like to imagine John Constantine stopping by every now and then, too.) Back in the day, Ethan and Giles conjured a demon named Eyghon, who possesses humans that are either dead or unconscious, then goes on kill-sprees. Eyghon is now out for revenge, killing everyone who was in Giles' social circle back then–all of whom bear a special tattoo.
"The Dark Age" provides a strong corollary to "Lie To Me." Even though it's more plotty and less character-driven than the best Buffys, there are few well-played character moments: Buffy and Willow playing a game called "Anywhere But Here," in which we learn that Buffy's got a thing for Gavin Rossdale (now there's a dated reference); Giles answering Buffy's question "Have I ever let you down?" with a stoic "Do you want me to answer that, or shall I just glare?;" and Buffy breaking up a vampire raid on a hospital blood delivery with the help of Angel, who most likely was there to get some of that blood himself. There's also a laugh-out-loud line from Xander that's kind of hard to explain in print, but if you saw the episode, it's the part where Jenny Calendar says, "The first thing we're going to do is…Buffy?" and Xander chirps, "Did I fall asleep already?"
Mainly though, this episode is all about Giles: explaining why he's so driven, and following up on his conversation with Buffy at the end of "Lie To Me." I had problems with that conversation only because it says what might be better shown, and in some ways, "The Dark Age" serves as that illustrated version I was looking for. We can try to discern clear lines between good and evil, but if someone like Giles–who is basically good–dabbles in evil as a youthful indiscretion, is he marked forever? If Jenny Calendar gets possessed by Eyghon–which she does–is she doomed? Does one drop of poison taint the whole solution?
That's what Giles wrestles with throughout this whole episode, to the extent that he's practically crippled with worry and despair (leaving Willow to take charge in one thrilling moment.) But in the midst of all the business about finding a way to get Eyghon out of Miss Calendar without killing her, it's easy to miss one sly bit of symbolism. Ethan, in order to escape Eyghon's wrath, burns his tattoo off and puts the demon's mark on Buffy. Does that mean Eyghon will return some day and try to possess or kill Buffy? Doesn't really matter. The implication is clear: Stains spread.
"What's My Line" Pt. 1 & 2
When we love a TV series, we sometimes say that it's as good as any movie, but that's a bit of an exaggeration. This Buffy two-parter adds up to one nearly 90-minute story, packed with action and comedy, but while it's as thrilling an amusing as any movie, I don't think you could just slap it on a big screen and expect to sell a lot of tickets. There's too much foreknowledge required, and too much left unresolved. (Not unlike Serenity, come to think of it.) But at the same time, what makes an extended episode like "What's My Line" so terrific as a TV show is that it can take shortcuts that a movie can't. It's because we know so much about these characters and their situation already that "What's My Line" can pack more into 88 minutes than some movies pack into 140.
In fact, I'm not even sure where to begin describing what this episode is about. So I'll start with the title, which refers to Sunnydale High's annual Career Fair, in which students take aptitude tests to figure out what kinds of jobs they'd be best suited for, and then meet with representatives from those fields. ("Do I like shrubs?" Willow asks, while taking her test. "That's between you and your god," Buffy replies.) This whole process is making Buffy despondent, because she already knows what she's going to be doing for the rest of her life: slaying vampires. (I mean, it's right there in the name of the show.)
Meanwhile, Spike is equally bummed about Buffy's calling because it's getting in the way of his job: being awesomely evil, and taking care of poor, weak Drusilla. To the latter end, Spike has had one of his minions swipe a volume from Giles' library that promises a cure for Drusilla, and he learns that to complete the spell, he'll need to carve up Angel–something he'd be happy to do, if only Angel's chick weren't always hanging around. So Spike calls up a chick-removal service: The Order Of Turaka, a band of supernatural mercenaries who keep coming, one after another, until their prey is exterminated. Some look beastly (like the door-to-door cosmetics salesman whose body is made up of wriggly maggots), and some look ordinary (like the female cop at the Career Fair who calls Buffy's name and then starts shooting at her).
But the most dangerous person who comes after Buffy is someone who's not a member of The Order. It's Kendra The Vampire Slayer, who was summoned from the Caribbean after Buffy briefly died at the end of Season One, and arrives just in time to engage in the old superhero cliché of fighting her ally before joining forces. (She's like the Buffy of Earth-2.) Here's what I didn't like about Kendra: Her accent, and the fact that she leaves at the end of the adventure. Here's what I liked about Kendra: Everything else, including her disco fashion sense, her bookish devotion (which endears her to Giles), and her utter confusion at Buffy's network of friends and supporters. To Kendra, a slayer needs to be as focused, relentless emotionless as The Order Of Turaka. (And how does that make a slayer any different from a member of The Order? That's a question an already stressed-out Buffy would rather not contemplate.)
Does all that cover the action of "What's My Line?" sufficiently? I'll answer my own question: No, it does not. I left out Xander and Cordelia playing kissyface while under stress (an inevitable turn of events, really), and Oz and Willow finally meeting and hitting it off, and Drusilla torturing Angel, and Buffy chatting forlornly with Angel while staring at his non-reflection in the mirror, and the introduction of weaselly Willy, the human owner of an undead hangout. (I know Willy returns, because he was in one of the few Season Four episodes I watched a couple of years ago.)
I also failed to mention the many great lines in "What's My Line?," including: Buffy telling Kendra, "Back off, Pink Ranger!;" Angel explaining how he knows about Career Fair by saying, "I lurk;" Xander making his first reference to Buffy's crew as "the Scooby gang;" Willow admitting to Giles that "I have frog fear;" Buffy telling a vamped-up Angel that he shouldn't worry about his appearance because "I didn't even notice;" and Xander explaining to Cordelia how they're going to escape the bad guy, saying, "I have a plan. Buffy saves us." Oh, I also love the Giles/Xander interaction in these two episodes, from Giles snapping at Xander for cracking jokes all the time to Giles' cluelessly telling Xander that if he can't get to Buffy's house on his own he should "get Cordelia to drive you." (Giles really doesn't understand teenagers, does he?)
Thematically, "What's My Line?" is a little obvious, especially with Buffy whining every 10 minutes or so about how depressed she is that she'll never be normal, even as the dynamic between her and Kendra makes it plain that Buffy's far more normal than she could be. (Myself, I prefer the notion that Xander tosses out, that he'd rather live in the dark than know what kind of lousiness awaits him. He could just as easily have said, "Lie to me.") But clunky thematics aside, "What's My Line" is just a magnificently entertaining hour-and-a-half, all the way up to the final battle royale which ends–in true gothic fashion–with Spike crippled by a collapsing church organ and Angel sprawled out on an altar.
I don't know if "What's My Line?" is better than a good movie, but it's better than 95% of the superhero comics I've ever read.
What a great batch of episodes this was. I renew my above-stated objection to speeches and conversations that state the themes of the show too directly–not because I prefer obscurity, but because they're hard on the actors and spoil the mood of the show–but otherwise this season is settling into a very good groove.
-I want to say a few words about Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog eventually, but I'll wait until all three parts are complete. I will say that after watching just the first three minutes on Hulu, I jumped over to iTunes and ponied up $3.99 to subscribe to the whole series. That strikes me as a bargain.
-Is Buffy a churchgoer? Giles is taken aback to learn that there are 43 churches in Sunnydale (a fact that Buffy attributes to the presence of the Hellmouth), and when they're picking through some offbeat sacred artifacts, Buffy quips, "Note to self: Religion, freaky." But I'd always read that wielding a cross or a crucifix at a vampire is only effective if the wielder is a true believer. I'll be curious to see if this show ever addresses the whole faith thing.
-Where do you think Sunnydale is, California-wise?