By the end of School Hard, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a fundamentally different series to the one that existed the week before. This is a pivotal episode, and in my opinion is the most significant episode of the entire run, because it’s the one that ensures the show’s longevity. There is one simple reason for that: Spike.
Drusilla is an amazing character as well, of course. She veers back and forth crazily between mournful helplessness and pure evil. Like Spike (but in a very different way), her personality shows us a twisted version of human foibles without losing the element of danger. She is also a subversion of childhood, speaking to her dolls before biting into a neck.
It is Spike, not Dru though, who turns this series around. Up until last week we were still stuck in the Season 1 rut, with mostly monster-of-the-week episodes, drawing on old horror clichés. The portrayal of vampires and evil in general was far too traditional, although there had been some attempt to break the mould with the Master by giving him some comedy lines, while generally remaining within the ancient, deadly vampire trope. In contrast, Spike turns up and runs over the Sunnydale sign in his car, literally and metaphorically crashing into this world. He drives and smokes, fully interacting with the modern world in a way the Master never could. He has no interest in remaining hidden or following any rules, and it wrong-foots Buffy, who has had a year of worrying about rituals. It wrong-foots the viewers as well, because when Spike tells Buffy he’s going to kill her on a significant day for vampires, we are conditioned to expect the build up to that moment, like we had with the Master’s ascension. We have been primed to expect the contents of Giles’ books to provide the rules within which this show operates. Instead, Spike just shows up early, right in the middle of a parents’ evening at the school. This one doesn’t play by the rules.
Spike also brings two worlds crashing together, which pulls another rug from under our feet. Anyone who has seen a few genre shows will be used to the hero’s secret life being kept separate from their home life. As Buffy says, they don’t “mesh”. Now they are going to have to, because Spike doesn’t care about that boundary. That makes Buffy up her game, because the safety of her mother is in the balance. After all, we have a very clear indication of the threat Spike poses. He has already killed two slayers. This development turns a power balance we are used to completely upside down. The hierarchy of parent/child or teacher/child no longer applies, because it will get the parent and teacher killed. Immediately, the hold both of them had over Buffy evaporates and the parent/teacher stress seems so irrelevant and such a small issue.
“Who do you think you are?”
“I’m the one who knows how to stop them.”
Snyder is completely emasculated by this, which could have presented an ongoing problem for the series, but for the fact that we have a hint at the end that he already knows more than he’s letting on. Meanwhile, Joyce proves her strength as a mother with that fundamental protective instinct of a parent, and that’s what defeats Spike for the time being. The first episode of the season reaffirmed the importance of Buffy’s team. Once again, we see how vital it is that she has people to support her in life, a glorious statement of how we can be so much greater in life if we don’t just go it alone.
“A slayer with family and friends. That sure as hell wasn’t in the brochure.”
Just when we thought this episode couldn’t get any more perfect, Spike dispenses with the annoying child, and we have our mission statement for the series:
“From now on we’re going to have a little less ritual and a little more fun around here.”
There, in one line, is the reason Buffy ran for seven years. It will play with old horror tropes again, many times, and that’s fine, but with the arrival of Spike this is a grounded series that feels so much more real. The last 14 episodes were just a warm up. Now the party can get started. RP
The view from the Sunnydale Press…
This show is nothing if not cheesy. Corny? Cheesy corn? The moment this horribly titled episode, School Hard, opened, I was rolling my eyes. While I started this show with a smile and a sense of excitement, I’m getting tired of the absurdity. Principal Quark is holding Buffy in the same category as Sheila because Buffy burned her former school to the ground. Huh? That wasn’t even proven, according to Buffy! But since when do teachers put you in detention because of something you did somewhere else? Would a guy ever remain principal if he were like Principal Snyder? But perhaps I should have paid attention to the words “story by Joss Whedon”, because I’m beginning to notice that this is a good sign, although it would take me until half way through the episode to see why.
The first half of the episode is all that silly school crap that is so genuinely sophomoric, that it is starting to slow my progress with the show. Keep mom from the teacher – as if one principal is going to have that much sway. What about all of Buffy’s other teachers?! I mean, wouldn’t Giles have something to say? Ms. Calendar??? Then Snyder tells on Buffy and feeling all proud of himself, stands to his full 5 foot 1 and … turns off the lights during a parent teacher night. Because, that’s what you do. But then the unexpected happened…
The moment the bad guys burst through the windows, I should have known this was going to be different because up until then, we’re told that “Saturday”, is the day of power for the vampires. (Vampires have more holidays than my company celebrates and I’m wondering if I can convince my HR department that I’m a vampire and celebrate the Feast of St. Dumbas just to get a day off. Who was this saint from this episode and why would vampires gain power on a saints day?? Ah, the feast of Jesus, the day Vampires become immortal… The feast of St Patrick, the day vampires become lucky… etc etc.) But when Spike and company attack two days early, I was genuinely surprised. Then a hunt goes on that is really quite good. The camera has some fun with angles and shadows, but it creates a reasonable sense of tension. To add to the fun, people see what is going on. There’s no hiding this now! Sure, the highly intelligent principal that controls Buffy’s school fate thinks it’s kids on PCP, but that’s ok – he’s clearly trying to rationalize it. He’s also an absolute monster himself. Upon finding out his colleague died, he says “I told him not to go through the window!” Which is precisely what he didn’t say! Still, the fact that all of this goes on and is not only seen, but gets the local police involved… this could be the first step in a new chapter for the show! I can’t wait for the next episode! I almost wish this was the end of season 1.
Before I do jump into the next one, however, there’s more to be said. Cordelia (who seems to become prettier by the episode) helps make weapons which shows a shift in her character towards Buffy and friends and she still has some damned great lines to boot. I loved her prayers at the end while Willow is trapped with her in a janitor’s closet. (Especially when tricked into praying for aspirin!) Xander continues to be funny with his “ultimate Jinx” and Willow made me actually burst out laughing when she tried to figure out how many girls Angel has been with only to realize how that would make Buffy feel and promptly changes subject. (“Why do they call it a mace?”) Buffy’s mom goes from being a loathsome mother (“I don’t want to be disappointed in you again” – nice mom!) to a mother who sees her daughter as a capable woman. (Nice save for the character – up until then, I was hoping she’d get eaten! Mind you, hitting someone in the head with an axe should probably draw blood but mom epically fails and one wonders if that’s due to the axe or the idiot the mother is!) And in the unintentionally funny department, William Shatner can rest easy: they couldn’t get a good stunt double in the 90’s any more than they could in the 60s. Spike’s stunt double doesn’t even have hair that slightly resembles the character.
Speaking of Spike, he’s the same character as he is in Torchwood. I mean, one’s a vampire and one’s a nutjob from the future, but James Marsters must really bring a quality out in the writers. The only thing I can say about him is that he’s fun to watch as an over-the-top villain. He has an air of danger about him. (Can’t really say the same for his strange girlfriend though!) What I truly didn’t see coming was his attack on The Annoying One (… I mean Anointed One). I am sure the kid (Andrew J. Ferchland) was doing his best, but as characters go, he was lame and sat around looking like he didn’t know what to do from one scene to the other. I didn’t see his death coming though. But that’s what we want, isn’t it? We want something that feels fresh. For most of this series, it feels like it’s checking off boxes and not really being fresh in any way.
Well, this episode may have been a resounding success, but can the series maintain that? I guess it will come down to the continuity that the writers give us in the next episode. I’m hopeful. If they get this wrong, I’ll probably have to cry to my mummy. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Inca Mummy Girl