Welcome back, Buffyphiles! Sorry again for the week off, though I confess I appreciated the brief respite from feverishly tapping out notes on Buffy and sorting through them for deeper meanings (or at least examples of awesomeness). Then again, I also missed watching the show, and hearing all of your thoughts. You have to give to get, I guess.
Which means I have to apologize anew for what is going to be a shorter-than-usual post this week. After the richness of "Passion," this week's three episodes are comparatively conventional–well, two of them anyway–and offer less to unpack. I don't mean that as a knock, necessarily. All three are entertaining in their way–and one in particular is top-drawer–but for the most part, they get their juice from positioning, being both in the wake of "Passion" and part of the lead-up to the Season Two finale. They're object lessons in how a good master-plot can make even a routine installment of an episodic drama into something memorable.
Take "Killed By Death." The A-story of the episode–which sees Buffy coming down with a severe case of the flu and landing in the hospital, where she fights a child-murdering apparition named Der Kinderstod–is a reasonably effective creepfest that gets a few demerits for recalling Season One's "Nightmares" too often, and a few credits for recalling some of the best Lee-Ditko Spider-Man stories. (Nothing adds drama to a superhero story like a sickly superhero.) The emotional undertones for this episode are supposed to be provided by Buffy's memories of seeing her cousin die in a hospital when she was 8 years old–an incident that that she later realizes can be attributed to the Freddie Krueger-esque Der Kindestod–but that all felt shoehorned-in to me. The real drama has to do with Buffy's persistent guilt feelings over the deaths that her dalliance with Angel has caused. In the past, I think Buffy has held a baseline understanding of her responsibilities as The Chosen One, but since Angel went rogue, the burden seems exponentially heavier. Now she's all the more driven to save the children–all the children.
The two best scenes in "Killed By Death" are Angel-related. Early in the episode, Angel and a weakened Buffy tussle in the cemetery and as he was knocking her around, I was thinking how in any other context, seeing a man stalk and beat up his ex-girlfriend would have a different meaning. Here, we still see Buffy as strong, even when she's getting slammed against headstones. Still, the connotation of "bullying ex" isn't completely gone. The other great scene in this episode has Angel strolling into the hospital to visit Buffy and getting turned away by Xander, and in that scene, Angel's cruelty in trying to kick an opponent while she's down very much reads as a stalker-ex-boyfriend-who-doesn't-want-his-woman-to-be-happy scenario. In less than five minutes of screentime, Angel raises the stakes of "Killed By Death," giving Buffy an extra level of drive to complete her otherwise routine mission.
"Go Fish," meanwhile, barely touches on Season Two's meta-narrative, and suffers mightily for it. I can't fully hate any episode as Xander-riffic as this one, and I like the idea of Xander joining the swim team in order to find out why Sunnydale High's heroes are all shedding their skins and turning into aquatic beasts. But is it me, or does this episode seem awfully Afterschool Special-y? It turns out that the swim coach has been dosing his team with an inhaled performance-enhancer derived partly from fish, which leads to several clunky conversations about how "winning is great, but steroids are bad." Which wouldn't be so crippling to the drama, except that action-wise, Go Fish takes a dive in its second half. Most of the amusing bits come early, with Buffy fending off the advances of one of the swim jerks–leading me to wonder whether she'll ever get to love again–but aside from the iconic pulp-novel image of a wet, cleavage-y Buffy being surrounded by fish-men, the end of this episode is undone by ridiculous explanations, improbably slow-moving MOWs, and a final image that's more goofy than haunting.
Even worse, "Go Fish" only has one Angel scene, during which he takes a bite out of one of the swim guys and is repulsed by the taste. (Really kids, if vampires don't want your blood, steroids must be bad. Stay clean, okay?) Coming so close to the finale–and given the sublime revelations of the episode that precedes "Go Fish"–the lack of forward motion in this installment is a bit of a bummer.
But let's not dwell on that. Instead, let's talk about "I Only Have Eyes For You," a really beautiful episode that raises the subtext of the season to the surface in a surprising and emotionally powerful way. Ostensibly, "I Only Have Eyes For You" is about a ghost named James who haunts the halls of Sunnydale High and possesses those who dwell there, forcing them to re-enact his 1955 murder of a teacher with whom he had an affair. In actuality, this is a story about obsession and repetition. It begins with the gang back at The Bronze, with Buffy in a familiar pose, listening to music and mooning over Angel. Meanwhile, Willow has apparently stepped easily into the shoes of Jenny Calendar, teaching her class and continuing her research; and Giles is still so wracked with grief over Jenny's death that when he hears there's a ghost hanging around, he's sure it must be her. (I hate to keep tying everything back to comic books, but Giles' single-mindedness reminds me of the classic Frank Miller Daredevil issue in which the hero is so convinced that his slain true love Elektra is alive that he digs up her corpse. And come to think of it, Buffy and Angel have kind of a Daredevil/Elektra relationship, with the gender roles reversed.)
When Giles eventually realizes the ghost isn't Jenny–answering with a soft, frank "I know" after Willow says, "Jenny could never be this mean"–the moment is heartbreaking. But not as heartbreaking as what Buffy goes through. Fed up with undead men making life miserable for young people, Buffy is determined to destroy the James The Unfriendly Ghost in as brutal a way as she can imagine, even as her colleagues tell her that the only way to dispatch James may be to forgive him for what he's done. When Buffy snaps that Frank should have to live with his crimes, Xander reminds her, "He can't live with it…he's dead," and the look on Buffy's face reveals that she's probably not ready yet to confront what Xander's point implies about the now-irredeemable, inhuman Angel.
Speaking of Angel, he's setting up house with Drusilla and Spike in a new HQ with a spooky garden, but just when we think we're seeing yet another iteration of an all-too-familiar scene–Angel flirting with Dru and belittling Spike–the Buffy team throws a curve. After Angel and Dru leave to go hunting, Spike rises from his wheelchair, ready to wrest back control of the Sunnydale underworld. (And about time; I missed the badass version of Spike.) Similarly, when Buffy and Angel are alone in Sunnydale High and seemingly about the reenact Frank's murder scene as so many others have done, there' a twist: Buffy takes the Frank role, and Angel becomes the scared teacher, trying to cut him/her off. We hear the Frank-and-the-teacher dialogue several times in "I Only Have Eyes For You," but hearing Buffy suddenly say to Angel, "Don't walk away from me, bitch!" isn't just funny, it's revelatory. As the exes go through the motions of someone else's break-up–complete with a goodbye kiss, and a little trail of spittle that connects their lips after they pull apart–there are multiple meanings to what they're saying and how they're saying it, and though both Buffy and Angel are possessed, they also seem to understand what they're expressing.
Any show that can achieve this kind of catharsis shouldn't have to settle for the not-quite of "Killed By Death" or the what-the-hell of "Go Fish." So this week, I only have eyes for "I Only Have Eyes For You."
-Last season I felt like the Buffy writers misused Willow; this season I feel like they've been letting down Cordelia. Making her a permanent part of the team and hooking her up with Xander? Good ideas. Having her be the same shallow, status-obsessed brat week after week? That's just lazy writing. I hope they can find a way to let Cordelia be Cordelia without making her so annoying that there's no way the Buffy gang would let her keep hanging around.
-Funny Xander lines…From "Killed By Death," babbling to the doctors at the hospital: "She fell!…The flu felled…She's sick, make it better." From "I Only Have Eyes For You," responding to Buffy's suspicions that trouble may be ahead: "Something weird is going on? Isn't that our school motto?"
-Has there ever been an emergency room scene, post-ER, in which a doctor didn't yell, "Get me a CBC and a Chem 7!"?
-I like that Buffy has to sicken herself further in order to see Der Kindestod in "Killed By Death," which strikes me as a nice metaphor for the situation she finds herself in this season, having to worsen her own lot in order to help others.
-At the end of "Killed By Death," Xander is drinking a Surge, a soda which no longer exists. I'm going to go pour a Vault on the ground, in memory of Surge.
-Worst line in "Killed By Death:" Buffy saying to Der Kindestod, "You make me sick!" (Another problem with "Killed By Death:" I can't say the title without singing it, Mötörhead-style.)
-A lot of Principal Snyder this week! I know he figures into next season's arc more than this one but it's still nice to be reminded that he's lurking, malevolently.
-Nice exchange between Xander and Giles…Xander: "I was just accosted by some kind of locker monster." Giles: "Loch Ness Monster?"
-Nice special effect in "I Only Have Eyes For You:" the cloud of wasps parting as Buffy enters Sunnydale High.
-I know I can be dense sometimes, but is it ever explained why Frank starts haunting Sunnydale High at this particular time, as opposed to 40 years earlier?
-Two "Hey, it's that dude!" casting moments this week: Deadwood's John Hawkes as the janitor in "I Only Have Eyes For You," and Prison Break's Wentworth Miller as the swimmer Angel can't stomach in "Go Fish."
-Funny Willow line, in response to Cordelia's comment that Sunnydale High doesn't excel at anything: "You're forgetting our high mortality rate!"
-Next week: Big Finish!