“Him” (season 7, episode 6; original airdate 11/05/02)
“Are you telling me I don’t feel what I feel?”
For a Buffy episode that’s so silly—in a good way, I think—it’s probably inapt to begin by focusing on a line so earnest. But a large part of why I like “Him” is that it’s rooted in such a common adolescent feeling: that sense that your elders can’t possibly understand what you’re going through when you’re stricken with lovesickness. I remember talking about being “in love” at 15, and getting annoyed when my older brother said that no one who’s 15 knows what “in love” means. Now I know he was right, but at the time I thought he was being a patronizing jerk.
So I get what Dawn goes through when she suddenly develops a crush on Sunnydale High quarterback RJ Brooks. She tries to get him to notice her by asking him inane questions in the hall, and then by trying out for the cheerleading squad with a painfully awkward pro-RJ cheer. Finally, Dawn wins him over when she pushes his chief football rival down the stairs, clearing a path for RJ to regain his starting spot on the team. Soon she’s doing raunchy dances with him at The Bronze, prompting Buffy to say—rather cruelly—that she’s glad their mom’s not around to see what Dawn’s up to.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been away from Buffy for two weeks (one a vacation, and one an all-Angel week), or maybe it’s because “Him” continues the enjoyable season seven trend of recalling classic Buffy high school adventures (in particular the Xander-becomes-irresistible season two episode “Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered”), but I found all the Dawn-loves-RJ business at first kind of touching, and then very funny once all the other Scooby women become smitten with RJ too. “I bet you run a lot, huh?” Buffy coos when she’s alone with him, heightening flirtation into physical comedy. (She also notes that she’s not much older than he is, so she’s really just like him “but with the sexual experience and stuff.”) Willow and Anya meanwhile at first rebuff RJ when he comes by the house—“No Buffy for you; leave quickly now!”—but after he’s gone they pine for him, with Anya insisting, “AJ is my best friend and dearest darling.”
It turns out that RJ’s attractiveness is tied to his varsity letterman’s jacket, which Spike and Xander discover when they go to see RJ’s brother Lance, who used to be a BMOC in Xander’s day—when Lance wore the jacket—but is now just a schlubby pizza delivery guy. So while Dawn, Buffy, Anya and Willow go about trying to woo RJ—by, respectively, laying down on train tracks, killing Principal Wood, robbing a bank, and casting a spell to turn him into a woman—Spike and Xander try to defuse the crisis by tracking RJ down and swiping his jacket.
The staging of the last act of “Him” is pretty crackerjack, with the four ladies’ schemes taking place first in split-screen and then in a series of boffo gags. We see Willow interrupted during her invocation of Hecate, and grumbling, “Now I have to start all over; Hecate hates that.” We see Buffy in the back of a shot, through a window, attempting to fire a rocket-launcher at Principal Wood before Spike and Xander tackle her. And we see Spike and Xander run at RJ and take his jacket, before burning it. (When asked if he considered using it himself, Xander says, “I refuse to answer that on the grounds that it didn’t fit.”)
“Him” is a fairly inconsequential episode on the whole—aside from a couple of developments I’ll note down below—and it doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. (If the jacket’s so powerful, why has it taken so long to drive a group of women into hysterical madness?) But “Him” has a lot of that old Buffy snap, both in the dialogue and the pacing. And per spellbound Buffy, the episode serves as a reminder these characters really aren’t that far removed from being teenagers themselves. Which means that while they’re confident that they know what they’re doing and Dawn doesn’t, there’s some 30-ish version of themselves lurking around the corner, shaking their heads.
“Spin The Bottle” (season 4, episode 6; original airdate 11/10/02)
“Spin The Bottle” has some similarities to “Him” in that it features the Angel characters suffering through a spell that reverts them to adolescence. But the Buffy episode it resembles even more is “Tabula Rasa,” in that it considers what might happen if a group of people who’ve developed deep hurts and resentments were suddenly given a hard restart on their relationships. I like “Tabula Rasa” with reservations, and I liked “Him” as well, but to me “Spin The Bottle” is clearly on a level above both of those episodes. And I’m not just saying that because it was written and directed by Joss Whedon. (I mean, I’m sure he’s the reason the episode is so good, but I also know I would’ve enjoyed “Spin The Bottle” a great deal even if I hadn’t read the credits.)
To start with, the episode is stylish, and cleverly structured. At the start, when Wesley is testing out his new bad-ass retractable weapons, Whedon switches to a hand-held camera, giving Angel the jittery edge of a modern cop-show. But he also uses the camera to lighter effect, as when Lorne explains the immediate backstory of all the Angel principals—Fred’s near-murder of her old mentor, Gunn doing the killing for her, etc.—while the camera swoops between the characters. And Lorne tells the story of “Spin The Bottle” to us directly, in flashbacks that sometimes have him addressing the camera right in the middle of the action, which is an appropriate way to guide us through a plot that has so much to do with memory.
Whedon keeps that action moving right along too, with his usual pithy dialogue and emotional swings. Lorne arrives at the beginning with a bottled spell he believes will restore Cordelia’s memory, and so the gang assembles in the lobby, somewhat reluctantly. Gunn rolls his eyes when he sees Lorne’s set-up. (“Symbols on the floor… that always goes well.”) Fred’s still shell-shocked from the events of the last episode. And though Wesley shows up, when Gunn asks him why he’s so pissy, Wes grumbles, “I had my throat cut and all my friends abandoned me.” But then the spell begins to waft through the lobby, and everyone gets giddy. (“We’ll just wait to see if there are any side effects,” Wes giggles.)
Unfortunately, Cordelia freaks out and smashes the bottle mid-spell, which means she does get her memory back, but only up to the age of 18, when she was a snippy narcissist at Sunnydale High. Worse, the rest of the people in the room return to their 18-year-old selves: Wesley’s a nervous, pompous student at the Watchers Academy; Fred’s a paranoid dope-smoker from a small Texas town; Gunn’s an angry, homeless demon-fighter; and Angel’s a skittish, pre-vampire Irish lad named Liam, wriggling under his father’s thumb.
Whedon gets a lot of comic mileage out of the change, especially via Wesley, who’s frightened by his own weapons, registering every anomaly as “a clue,” and trying to hard to exert some authority over his cohorts. (When Gunn interrupts one of Wesley’s dramatic speeches to say, “Vampires are real,” Wes petulantly yelps, “I was telling it!”) Whedon tosses in some irony and fannish in-jokes, too, such as Gunn insisting that he will never take orders from white folks. And he thinks through the possible directions the story might go: we see Angel attempt to flee the hotel, then run back in because he’s never seen cars before; later, when Wesley tries to test everybody to see who might be a vampire, Angel holds the crucifix then quickly tosses it back before his hand catches fire. These are funny moments, but they also push the plot forward.
Ultimately, Angel’s efforts to hide his vampirism from the rest of the gang are undone when they all stumble on Lorne, who wakes up from a stupor and—not knowing what’s going on—tells everyone who Angel really is. Even before that though, the characters had begun to revert to form: Gunn’s feeling kill-y; Wesley’s feeling research-y; etc. If “Spin The Bottle” is meant to show how these characters would relate under different circumstances, it seems to prove that they were always going to have trouble being a united, happy little family.
But that’s not all “Spin The Bottle” is about. It’s also about being a sex-obsessed teenager. Early in the episode, we see Connor saving a young prostitute from a band of vampires and then feeling hurt when she won’t give him “a reward” without getting paid. Later, we see Angel unconsciously shift into vampire form when he gets turned on by Cordelia. (We then hear him changing back and forth in the bathroom, making an embarrassing squeaky noise as he does.) We see Wesley’s retractable knife spring out of his sleeve when Fred talks about being stripped naked and probed by aliens. All these characters are trying to impress each other with how rough and cool they can be, while underneath they desperately, desperately want to mate.
That’s what drives Connor to attack his dad, after Cordelia tells him, “You kill that freak and you’re getting a big reward.” But during the fight, Angel reveals a little about his own troubled relationship with his father, giving Connor some insight into where he came from. That’s how Whedon finesses a change of tone in “Spin The Bottle,” which grows more melancholy at the end. Lorne restores everyone’s memories, which for Cordelia means remember the apocalyptic prophecy she’s been repressing. She tries to run away, but Angel stops her, asking her what she remembers. “I remember all of it,” Cordelia says. Then, as if to prove that adults are no different from kids in some ways, Angel throws a question back at her that she threw at him during her amnesia:
Angel: “Were we in love?”
Cordelia: “We were.”
- The potentially significant developments in “Him” involve Buffy bringing some of the outcast Scoobies back into the fold. She stops by Anya’s apartment for example—while Anya’s in the middle of being attacked by a demon—and invites her to stay at the Summers house for a while, saying, “I don’t want my friends out there alone right now.”
- Buffy also places Spike in Xander’s apartment, over both’s objections. Spike says he doesn’t want to be coddled—“It’s not coddling,” Buffy says. “Now go to your closet.”—while Xander just can’t stand his new roommate. (“Do you need some kind of English-to-constant-pain-in-the-ass translation?” he asks Spike while giving him a tour of his new digs.)
- Dawn’s a little concerned about the renewed Spike interest by Buffy too, not finding Spike’s restored soul to be enough of a change to forgive his attempted rape. “Xander had a soul when he stood Anya up at the altar,” she reminds Buffy, indicating that “soul” does not equal “good.” (Xander has his own opinions about that too: “Once you get back the soul, don’t you start picking up your own wet towels off the floor?”)
- Nice music cue and cut as “Theme From A Summer Place” swells up and then end abruptly as the commercial break begins. (Also, am I the only one who hears that song and begins singing it with the title as the lyrics, a la Jasper on The Simpsons?)
- Speaking of music, the soundtrack to “Him” was especially hip for 2002, with songs by The Shins and Coldplay. Plus, the band at The Bronze is The Breeders!
- Xander and Willow both get turned on watching a young lady dance at The Bronze, and then feel disgusted with themselves when they realize it’s Dawn.
- Buffy figures Anya’s going after RJ because, “She’s recently evil, y’know.” To which Willow whines, “So am I… why should I miss out?”
- Cordelia, taking inventory of what she remembers: “I know my ABCs, my history. I know who’s president, and I sort of wish I didn’t.”
- Lorne got the bottle spell from a wraith. “Sweet girl, not overly tangible.”
- Wesley tells the post-spell Cordy that there’s no need to be snippety, and she snaps back, “This is a clarion call for snippety!”
- Thank goodness the 18-year-old Angel doesn’t speak with an Irish accent, so we’re spared David Boreanaz’s forced lilt. The character does though still think like an Irishman. When that English bastard Wesley fights Gunn, Angel says, “I’m rootin’ for the slave.”
- Nice call-back to Buffy as Wesley wonders if they’re all going through the much-talked-about Watcher test where they’re stuck in a locked building with a vampire.
- While the gang is speculating on whether this predicament they’re in is part of a government conspiracy—which is pot-head Fred’s theory—Cordelia touches her short hair and moans, “The government gave me bad hair!” (Officious Wesley dismisses her concerns, but does think the short hair could be a clue. “Perhaps the whole point of this experiment is hair!”)
- Wesley, trying to sound smart while talking about Lorne: “I know this breed is nocturnal and feeds on roots or possibly human effluvia, and, uh… It’s a horned race.” Gunn scoffs, saying that Wes doesn’t really know anything, so Wes reiterates: “They’re nocturnal…?”
- Gunn suggests they cut Lorne’s head off, but as we know from two seasons ago, that won’t really work.
- Cordelia admires her post-18-year-old body, saying, “I’ve filled out even more.” Fred checks her own out and sighs, “And I apparently ain’t gonna.”
- Cordelia, pushing the vampire Angel toward Fred: “Look at her, half of her is neck!”
- Lorne, addressing us after a commercial break: “Well those were some exciting products, am I right?”