Sunnydale High has a new principal, or as Giles puts it the “new Fuhrer”. It’s immediately obvious that Buffy’s life has been made more difficult by his presence, because this one is paying attention:
“There’s something going on with you. I’ll figure it out, sooner or later.”
Snyder is a very different headmaster to Flutie, and immediately his interest in Buffy’s school record presents a problem for her. The writers also take the opportunity to throw suspicion on him, although it doesn’t last for very long, just that atmospheric moment when Giles sees him lurking around in the darkness backstage. This is well timed, immediately after it has been established that nobody is missing from the power circle, prompting the group to look for an external enemy. It is also a wise move to have some acknowledgement of the weird occurrences and deaths stacking up, as ignoring that would start to feel silly pretty soon:
“This place has quite a reputation.”
This week’s weird occurrence to add to that reputation is apparently a killer dummy. We are firmly within the horror tradition here, and it’s not a bad choice; dummies are second only to clowns in terms of creepy things that are supposed to be fun, and it’s a close run thing. Both of them trigger the uncanny valley response, but with dummies you get those lifeless staring eyes into the bargain as well. Some clowns have those too, but that’s about their lifestyle choice rather than the eyes not being real.
This could easily have been an embarrassing episode to watch, and it does inevitably feel a little bit silly to be watching Buffy talking to a puppet whose voice is being dubbed in. However, this is helped hugely by the way the episode is structured. Firstly we have the puppet always paired with Morgan, and Richard Werner does a great job of looking like a rabbit in the headlights. Note how perfectly and tragically the writers make that all fit together, with the revelation that he had cancer and his desperation when he thinks he has lost Sid, which of course wouldn’t make sense if he simply wanted to be free of him.
Then we have the horror techniques, which work really well: the creepy sight of the dummy looking in at Buffy’s window; the dummy’s head turning to look at her in class; Xander’s theft of Sid making him look inanimate, until Nick Brendon walks towards the camera and blocks our view, only for the dummy to be missing when he moves back; finally we have Buffy trapped under the chandelier while Sid scuttles around, bringing her down to his level.
After all this classic horror stuff, Sid has been established as a credible threat, and that makes it easier to accept scenes of him conversing with Buffy and her friends after that fabulous twist in the tale. The identity of the real killer then seems unimportant; it’s the presence of an unknown killer that matters. His identity isn’t particularly interesting, although it’s a good choice on the part of the writers because it allows for a great showdown with Giles trapped under the guillotine. Despite possessing no special powers of his own, Xander is steadily proving his worth as part of the team, and he is the one who saves Giles’ life and kills the demon. That’s also a very clever move, because he was starting to be the damsel in distress of the group, the one who falls victim to predatory demon women and mind-altering curses, so it makes sense to establish the value he brings to the team as well and make him less of a liability. Everyone brings something to the party in Buffy. A “talentless show” or “avant-garde”? Neither. This is good, solid entertainment, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement… RP
The view from the Sunnydale Press…
This show has been pulling my strings from one horror-trope story to the next. I’m not unimpressed by the range, but there’s so many gaps in logic that it hurts! If it weren’t for the ridiculously charismatic cast, I’d be amazed if I could coax myself into season 2. Charismatic and quite attractive, I might add. I also need to give credit where due: the show does try new things, as evidenced by the appalling end credits that had me deep-belly laughing when Willow freaked out and ran off stage! And I do like that this show takes place in a recognizable universe. That might seem like a strange thing to say, but look at The Walking Dead. In almost all respects its our world, but I never once remember them calling the undead “zombies”. It’s as if that word doesn’t exist in their universe. Buffy, on the other hand, takes place in a universe where they could say someone had been Keyser Soze’d (referencing The Usual Suspects). This isn’t the first pop culture reference in the series and I kind of like that. It gives it a level of relatability that helps me bond with the characters. (Of course, then you counter it with the library that has a section on “toys and magic”, and my beliefs are dashed against the rocks!)
When new Principal “Quark” Snyder (Armin Shimerman) arrives on the scene in The Puppet Show logic begins slipping from the shelf and shattering on the floor. Let’s review. He says he’s been “watching you three” when he arrives during the talent show rehearsals. First, how much time has gone by and why would he be watching the main cast? (Well, I might have actually figured that out, above…) Worse though, the scene is setup with Giles watching the stage with Buffy and Xander facing the same direction, but Willow is facing the three of them… facing the direction Snyder is coming from. Yet she seems to be totally surprised because she apparently can only see what the camera sees. Much like Buffy when she was walking around the classroom with the kid hanging from a rope last episode. That’s a lapse in logic. It says the audience isn’t sharp enough to pick up on those things. And none of this explains why with every death, school resumes like normal. I mean, good god, this episode has a student murdered and her heart removed. Oh, it’s 2:00, English Studies, better throw a sheet on the corpse and get back to class! And please don’t forget when Buffy punches the lock out of the metal locker: Snyder turns up and has words with her. Does he not see the gaping hole in the locker?? Oh, right… he too can only see what the camera sees!
Now, I do think Snyder is going to have more going on than meets the eye! He knows the former principal was “eaten” and he lurks around plenty of dark corridors to the point where even Giles is a bit confused. I’d be ok with having someone else in on all the weirdness, if they would allow Ms. Calendar to return to the show as well. If this is like Highlander, and there can be only one, let Quark get back to DS9 and give us Calendar…
“I will be flesh!” Where the episode succeeds is that it relies on the uncanny valley from which to draw its chills and it does it brilliantly. Dummies have a human like quality that is just off enough that it can be disturbing. A bit like a clown, they have all the features, but they are distorted. This makes people “wig out”, as Buffy says. When Buffy sees the eyes of Sid, the dummy, watching her as his case is closed, that’s an unnerving moment, as is the scene of him looking into her window late at night. Then, to my utter shock, they totally subvert expectations by revealing that the dummy is not the bad guy. The bad guy is a demon who is so clever he can trick Giles to getting into a guillotine. I love when the monsters are the good guys! Oh, sure only one of them is, and it’s the uncanny one but it’s still completely unexpected and appreciated! I was also impressed with a minor backstory being built when Sid refers to a Slayer from the 1930’s.
The episode did make me laugh a few times too, like when Xander notices that Sid is gone and leaps onto a table for protection. My personal favorite is when Giles wants to make Cordelia go away and simply stares at her hair and says “your hair” to which she freaks out and runs off. As I said, a very likable cast and some really funny moments. But I can’t believe the lapses in logic. I know Joss Whedon is well respected and his products have stood the test of time and have a devoted following but this show did not start out on epic footing. Still, I have to give him a chance to pull a rabbit out of the hat. Otherwise, if this keeps up, I’m likely to have nightmares! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Nightmares