I'd have liked "GINGERBREAD" to be braver, by following through with what began as a largely non-supernatural storyline with Joyce (Kristin Sutherland) taking action against a double child murder. It was a brilliant way to have that character introduced to the dangerous world her daughter's involved with as The Slayer, and I loved the idea that Joyce would become a community activist against Sunnydale's supernatural problems—even founding the Mothers Opposed to the Occult ("MOO") movement, alongside Willow's (Alyson Hannigan) hitherto unseen parent Sheila (Jordan Baker).
Indeed, if the episode had continued with this idea of Joyce corralling the good people of Sunnydale to become vigilantes and protect their city from the scourge of monsters and vampires, I would probably have given it an extra half-star. But, perhaps unavoidably, Joyce's passion and enthusiasm was revealed to the result of a demon who has posed as the two murdered children to incite panic and a literal witch hunt, as the cute kids were actually Hansel and Gretel from the fairy tale. I wonder if this episode directly influenced Buffy the Vampire Slayer staff writer David Greenwalk to create Grimm many years later.
Thankfully, despite going down a more predictable avenue than it first appeared to be heading down, "Gingerbread" was a rollicking good yarn with some great moments. It was nice to see Sutherland being used in a more inventive way, by embellishing her character's caring nature so dramatically; and the climactic sequence of Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Willow and witch Amy (Elizabeth Anne Allen) about to be burned at the stake by a group of parents driven insane by their desire to eradicate evil, was exciting and ended on a very funny note—with Buffy almost accidentally spearing the demon through the throat with the giant stake she managed to snap asunder.
In terms of the season as a whole, it was great to finally see Willow's mother after so long (although I've been told this is her only appearance on the show, which is disappointing), but I'm becoming very impatient about the Mayor (Harry Groener) as this season's villain. We're practically halfway through the season and he's still a strange enigma, which is a shame when you remember how much better season 2 handled Spike, Drusilla and Angel (David Boreanaz). Hopefully the Mayor will become a bigger threat very soon, because in many ways this season has started to feel more like an addendum to last year's because of the bigger focus on Angel's safe return.
Equally as good was "HELPLESS", which had Buffy inexplicably drained of her strength, skill and dexterity. I was commenting on this tradition of superheroes losing their abilities only a few weeks ago, when the same thing happened to the eponymous hero of the BBC's Merlin in its finale, but BtVS handled the idea with far more élan. One thing I also like about the show is how the big picture of a story gets slowly revealed, so it was a genuine surprise when the reason for Buffy's "sickness" was revealed to be injections she was receiving from her own trusted Watch, Giles (Anthony Head). The explanation for Giles' actions were also interesting when it came time to let the audience in on the secret, with Giles being an unwilling participant in an archaic Watcher-controlled test, presided over by his superior Quentin Travers (Harris Yulin)—whereby a Slayer is sapped of her power, then expected to defeat a vampire single-handed.
The twist of Giles being involved in Buffy's torment was a big reason for this episode working so well, as it was such a despicable thing to do and keep secret, but it also felt good to get a feel for the organisation Giles actually works for. After three seasons, the Council still feels like a very vague and illogical setup to me considering there's only one Slayer in the world (under ordinary circumstances). What do they do all day? Giles must be thanking his lucky stars he's assigned to work alongside Buffy in Sunnydale (above a Hellmouth too), because otherwise I'm guessing being a Watcher is tedious work that goes unnoticed by almost everyone.
I also enjoyed this episode's villain, the pill-popping vampire Zachary Kralik (Jeff Kober) who escaped from captivity and kidnapped Buffy's mother, which led to a tense confrontation with the powerless Slayer where the hunter became the hunted. Naturally it also felt quite refreshing to have an episode where you genuinely feared for Buffy's life at times (and not only from creatures of the night, but everyday chauvinists). In fact, a part of me wondered if BtVS might have been better if Buffy's abilities were entirely the result of devout training and study, because you only really get anxious about her safety if there's a finale involving a Big Bad.
Overall, "Helpless" was another very good hour from a season that's hit a very consistent batch of episodes. I'm particularly interested to see what happens between Buffy and Giles, now the latter's been fired from the Council and another Watcher's on their way to take charge of The Slayer. And seeing as the relationship between Buffy and Giles may take time to heal, given how visibly upset Buffy was that Giles subjected her to an ancient test without her knowing, my guess is that Buffy may try to see the positives of a brand new Watcher governing her slaying.
written by Jane Espenson (story by Jane Espenson & Thania St. John) (3.11) & David Fury (3.12) / directed by James Whitmore Jr (3.11) & James A. Contner (3.12) / 12 & 19 January 1999 / The WB