Thursday, 17 January 2013

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, 3.13 & 3.14 - 'The Zeppo' & 'Bad Girls'

Cordelia: (to Xander) Boy, of all the humiliations you've had I've witnessed, that was the latest.

It's strange "THE ZEPPO" aired after "Helpless", because the previous climax where Giles (Anthony Head) is fired as a Watcher and Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) reassesses their relationship had little bearing here—despite an irrelevant "previously on..." preface. Besides that scheduling oddity, almost everything else about this Xander (Nicholas Brendon) showcase was excellent. Maybe this is to be expected because Dan Vebber's script purposefully upended the show's formulas and patterns, but there still plenty to recommend even without its format-breaking structure and peculiar tone.

Ironically, I hadn't noticed Xander is often overlooked by the Scooby Gang when they're saving the world (because he offers little beyond cynical wisecracks and another pair of eyes when research is needed), but it's very true. The way season 3's torn up his romance with Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) hasn't helped matters, as it's made Xander surplus to requirements in more ways than one. So it was fantastic to have an episode tackle this problem head-on, by making Xander realise this fact for himself (with a little help from spiteful Cordelia), and thus fuel a very unusual storyline where his attempts to change his social standing leads to an unforgettable night...

The memorable thing about "The Zeppo" was how it put Xander's storyline front-and-centre, despite how the primary subplot with Buffy and friends concerned preventing an apocalypse. It was intrinsically amusing to be following Xander's solo adventure, only getting quick glimpses of the much bigger drama unfolding in Sunnydale—involving big fights with Faith (Eliza Dushku), another heartrending goodbye scene between Buffy and Angel (David Boreanaz), and the return of the multi headed Hellmouth creature. But that's not to say Xander's story didn't have value, as he made an enemy of psychotic teenager Jack O'Toole (Channon Roe)—who took an immediate and disturbing dislike of Xander at school, until he abruptly changed his mind and tried to recruit Xander into his own gang because he bought a swish car... and proceeded to drive around town picking up his equally psychotic friends, who just happened to be nihilist zombies intent on destroy Sunnydale with a bomb. Got that?

Indeed, "The Zeppo" was the oddest episode Buffy the Vampire Slayer's I've seen thus far in my catch-ups. But it was also incredibly entertaining; blessed with a self-assured swagger that made you overlook its unlikely or weird developments. I loved the quirky musical accompaniment (reminding me some Jerry Goldsmith '80s compositions), it was easily the funniest episode in ages, Brendon was having a ball (I'm almost angry his character gets snubbed so much now), Jack was genuinely unnerving as a knife-wielding bully, and even in an episode this wilfully crazy there were moments that really surprised me (like Xander losing his virginity to an aroused Faith in her scummy motel room). The only thing that slightly disappointed me is how, by the end of the entire episode, nobody learned about Xander's heroics. I understand it was enough for the character to now know he's an asset to the team, walking away from another of Cordelia's taunts with a buoyant grin on his face that vexed her, but I still would have liked to see Xander's storyline somehow prove instrumental in preventing the apocalypse in Buffy's storyline.

Regardless of that debatable complaint, it wasn't enough to damage this episode in my eyes. This was a funny, clever, inventive and unpredictable hour of fantasy entertainment that did a lot of great things if you're attuned to BtVS in its regular state. You can also feel its influence of many other TV episodes that came since, which have similarly played with conventions and limited the involvement of their leads to focus on the smaller characters. It wasn't perfect, but "The Zeppo" was unforgettable.

Buffy: Okay. We got ten, maybe twelve bad guys and one big demon in desperate need of a StairMaster.

It's surprising to realise we're now into the second half of the third season, and the show's only just starting to get stuck into the characters of Faith (Eliza Dushku) and the Mayor (Harry Groening). I'm getting through my catch-up at twice the pace of a weekly broadcast, so wondering if fans felt twice as aggrieved about it back in 1999. Or maybe I've forgotten how the pacing of a season-long arc worked pre-millennium, because these days I find it hard to believe BtVS's mayoral mystery wouldn't have concluded already, segueing into another villain to defeat.

"BAD GIRLS" was a great episode that finally did something interesting with Buffy and her relationship with fellow-Slayer Faith. The show's treated them as "odd couple sisters" half the time, but here we really saw Faith's unruly behaviour and rebellious nature start to infect Buffy—transforming them both into the hell-raising Slayers, partying the nights away after avoiding classes and taking dangerous risks in their nightly exploits to rid the town of vampires. Plausibly, this only had a chance to happen because Giles was officially removed as her Watcher, replaced by the similar but stiffer Wesley Wyndham-Pryce (Alexis Denisof)—a man for whom being a Watcher doesn't involve having affection for a Slayer, and certainly shouldn't include hands-on experiences with creatures of the night.

The story was predominantly about the Buffy/Faith friendship evolving into something dangerous, thanks to the latter's influence, but I also liked how Giles/Wesley complimented that idea of similar people being fundamentally different underneath. It seems likely Giles will be forgiven and allowed to become Buffy's Watcher again very soon, purely because he's a rock she desperately needs to cling to given her lifestyle.

Like almost every episode, there was a thin storyline for all of the character moments to hang from in "Bad Girls". This one involved an obese demon called Balthazar (Christian Clemenson), who sits in a round pool having measures of water poured over his chubby body to prevent him...drying out? Chafing? Uggh. A brilliantly revolting visual and a memorable villain (resembling a splat of human skin ringed with hideous rolls of fat), Balthazar was commanding a gang of vampire swordsmen out to find a magical amulet that can improve their master's physical condition.

Simultaneously, we had more of the Mayor and his acolyte Mr Trick (K. Todd Freeman) in this hour, but it still feels like they're being marginalised. Beyond a brief appearance in a sewer, I don't recall the Mayor even leaving his office over 14 episodes. That doesn't strike me as a good move from a narrative standpoint, but at least "Bad Girls" gave us some indication of the Mayor's intentions in Sunnydale: as the episode ended with him performing a ritual to become invincible (blessed with T-1000-style regenerative abilities) for one hundred days before the Ascension. Um, whatever that is. I'm just glad we've been given something tangible about the Mayor—although I hope we're in for something significantly different to what The Master gave us in season 1.

Away from the hokum, "Bad Girls" was actually a success because of where it took Buffy's character and, in particular, how it left things. After an hour spent watching them both have so much naughty fun killing vampires and escaping from cops, it was a genuine shock when Faith accidentally killed the Deputy Mayor, Allan (Jack Plotnick), by staking him through the chest... but a bigger one when she later claimed to have disposed of the body and doesn't care that she murdered an innocent man. I doubt that's true (the Lady Macbeth-style scrubbing of Allan's blood from her shirt signifies that pretty well), but it'll be interesting to see what Buffy does next. I'm guessing this is how the Mayor will become involved with Buffy on a personal level, too.

Like I said, a great episode for Buffy/Faith and a very entertaining once whenever we dropped into the subplot with Giles having to deal with his supercilious replacement. I even quite enjoyed the monster-of-the-week plot, mainly because Balthazar was so visually strong (reminding me of a similar character from Blade), it was great to get more insight into the Mayor at last, and I appreciated the mentions of Xander (Nicholas Brendon) losing his virginity to Faith... which I'm really hoping balloons into something bigger, once everyone else finds out what happened in that motel room...
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