Thursday, 11 October 2012

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, 2.5 & 2.6 – 'Reptile Boy' & 'Halloween'

Thursday, 11 October 2012
Buffy: I told one lie. I had one drink...
Giles: Yes. And you were very nearly devoured by a giant demon snake. The words "let that be a lesson" are a tad redundant at this juncture.

I sensed a shift happening in Buffy the Vampire Slayer with "REPTILE BOY". It first came to my attention that the characters, particularly Willow (Alyson Hannigan), were wearing smarter, brighter clothes. It may be a weird coincidence, but the image quality of my DVD also rose a notch from the soupy haze that's hitherto typified BtVS's Complete Series box-set. More importantly, this episode just felt confident about its narrative and thematic targets. Tellingly, it was also the first episode where the villains (well, before the tardy reveal of the eponymous scaly demon) were all very human. And normal people are so much scarier than vampires...

The B-movie title didn't sound promising, and once the story started hammering the idea that Buffy finds it hard to balance a "normal life" with slaying duties (again), I was about ready to let this one slip by as a rehash... but there was more to it than I expected. The episode took an obvious tack in equating a frat house to a cult, but the results were worth this sacrifice of predictability. A group of handsome, affluent frat boys managed to turn the heads of Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) and Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar), particularly as the latter was feeling depressed about her lack of a social life and unrequited love for vampire Angel (David Boreanaz). Naturally, the boys were more interested in the girls as sacrifices to Machida, a snake-god they summon from a pit in their frat house's basement..

A number of things stuck out about this episode. It was great to have a story where the characters were actually being developed and weren't always just chasing a monster. Also, as much as I enjoy the show's weekly beasts, it was noticeable how the tension rose once it became obvious Buffy's enemies were normal people this time. She can't just kill humans without any consequences. This gave the episode a refreshing sense of volatility—at least until a formulaic climax with Buffy facing-off against a reptilian pit creature. A scene where a tipsy Xander (Nicholas Brendon) was cajoled into wearing a bra and wig, then laughed at by the bullying fraternity, was easily the scariest and most humiliating thing BtVS has served up—and there wasn't a single vampire in sight.

It may sounds strange, but "Reptile Boy" is my favourite episode of BtVS at this point in my ongoing catch-up. Willow's character was more assertive (her incensed critique of Giles and Angel's treatment of Buffy was great), Buffy's life/duty dilemma was communicated better than before, and the lack of a supernatural opponent (until the climax) gave the episode a different feel in terms of narrative. It loses points for some sketchy characterisations of the fraternity boys, and for continuing to treat Cordelia as a handy damsel-in-distress (whenever she isn't the comic relief), but this was mostly a pleasant surprise hinting at a more nuanced style emerging.

Drusilla: Do you love my insides, the parts you can't see?
Spike: Eyeballs to entrails, my sweet.

Cynical as I am, I expected things to revert back to mediocrity with "HALLOWEEN", but this spooky special was even better. After 17 episodes, it feels like Joss Whedon and his writers are starting to get a firm grip of their show and its ensemble. This hour was imaginative, amusing, fast-paced and gave characters like Giles (Anthony Head), Willow and Xander something of a refresh. As with "Reptile Boy", Carl Ellsworth's story felt like it had room to breathe and likewise benefited from having a human antagonist at its core—magical costume proprietor Ethan Rayne (Robin Sachs). After Buffy, Willow and Xander bought costumes from Ethan in preparation to go trick-or-treating with some neighbourhood kids, they soon found themselves transformed into the character's they'd chosen to dress as. Willow became a ghost in a sexy crop top, Xander a bad-ass soldier in combat fatigues, and Buffy a faint-hearted throwback to 18th-century womanhood (intended to melt Angel's heart by reminding him of the girls he must have dated as a teenager).

I loved the pervasive sense of fun this episode had, and it was perfectly-timed to capture new fans—who might have given a show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer a try four days before 31 October. Aside from the brilliant idea of having Sunnydale terrorised by little kids transformed into real monsters, it was also great to see some of the regulars play against type. Xander, who was having masculinity issues before his bewitching, became the group's Alpha Male (cowing Angel and earning the attention of Cordelia); while Buffy went from hard-as-nails Slayer to coquettish Disney princess. And while he wasn't affected by the spell, the episode even found time to make us reconsider bookish Giles, once it became clear Ethan knows him from the past and clearly considers him a far dangerous character than the bumbling librarian persona he's perhaps adopted. The moment when Giles unleashed some bone-cracking moves on Ethan was genuinely unexpected and had me re-evaluating his whole character. Has he just been pretending to be useless when training Buffy, or is he just more of a deadly threat to regular folk? And is the background of this Watcher we've come to trust, and Ethan's mention of the word "Ripper" to describe him? It was a sublime idea to give us a peek behind Giles' mask, in an episode that was more concerned with false identities being forced upon others.

For the first time, BtVS actually broke through and started to appeal to me more. I liked almost everything about "Halloween" (Cordelia was even a fun, whip-smart presence), as the only disappointing element was a pat resolution. It was also fun to catch hints that Cordelia and Xander might be perfect for one another (as smart alec gooseberries of the Buffy/Angel love-fest), and I really like what appears to be a running gag that Oz is never quite able to introduce himself to Willow and ask her on a date.

"Halloween" was the best instalment of BtVS yet, and hopefully a precedent-setting hour. If nothing else, it promises the return of Giles' adversary Ethan (with his handwritten "be seeing you" nod to The Prisoner; a show also about the slipperiness of identity), and there's a sense the show has starting to exploit its character's dynamics for richer storytelling.

written by David Greenwalt (2.5) & Carl Ellsworth (2.6) / directed by David Greenwalt (2.5) & Bruce Seth Green (2.6) / 13 & 27 October 1997 / The WB