Time and time again, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is going to keep coming back to its favourite theme, and that has already happened several times: desire is dangerous, especially when it breaks the rules. In Reptile Boy, Buffy goes to a college party she is too young to attend, gets drugged and very nearly gets raped (and the only reason that doesn’t happen is she is being saved for somebody else… well, something else). She and Cordelia are then tied up, along with a random damsel in distress of the week, and they are menaced by a monster that could hardly be more Freudian. The thing is literally a snake, and my, what a big one. It’s obviously trying to be an allegory for the danger of sexual assault at college parties, and it’s not really veiled at all, but it does fit very well into the wider theme of the series.
Even Xander is punished once again for his desires. He gatecrashes the party with the aim of keeping an eye on Buffy, and is soon distracted by the opportunity to make a couple of college girls laugh at his antics. His reward is to be bullied and humiliated in a way that is also sexual, forced to remove his shirt and parade around in a bra and a blonde wig.
Before we get to the party it’s a slow-burner of an episode. Buffy is once again shown to be fallible in a very teenage way, and that’s fine. She’s a believable person, not just a superhero character. She has been obsessing about Angel, but it doesn’t take much for her to go all googly-eyed at a college dude, which makes her… well, a normal teenager. Her rebellion against Giles is normal too. Lying to him feels like it crosses a line, and rightfully makes Willow’s world go “askew” (she is the voice of the viewer there), but Buffy is going through emotional turmoil with her confused feelings for Angel, so there is nothing unrealistic or particularly out of character about her behaviour. One good thing this series keeps doing is reminding us that Buffy is 16, and having a burden of responsibilities that an adult would struggle to shoulder is never going to be easy for her.
Reptile Boy is a very negative representation of teenage interactions. That Greek letter college house thing they do in the US does seem a bit cultish, so it’s fair game for a story about one that really is an evil cult. But also the darker side of teenage life is represented through the actions of Cordelia, whose journey towards a more likeable character is undone, at least temporarily. She makes use of Buffy to suit her own purposes, only inviting her to the party because she has to, and then dumps her at the earliest opportunity in the most cruel way:
“She’s happiest by herself.”
It’s hard to watch Buffy looking so lonely for a while, but Cordelia’s punishment is to be easy pickings for the cult, as she immediately separates herself off from the person who could have protected her. In contrast, Willow continues to develop as a character, going through a steady arc of increasing confidence. As the outsider in many of the emotional dynamics, she also has the wisdom of an onlooker, and therefore has the strength to take Giles and Angel to task for their treatment of Buffy.
By the end of the episode, Cordelia appears to have learned a lesson, and has abandoned college dudes in favour of a safer choice of a date: that Jonathan chap we saw last week. He looks like a nice guy, right? I’m sure he would never treat women as objects. Then again, in the world of Buffy, there might not even be such a thing as a safe choice of a date… RP
The view from the Sunnydale Press…
David Greenwalt writes and directs Reptile Boy and in effect tells me to avoid his work for the foreseeable future. In fairness, he did give us Teacher’s Pet but that had the lovely Musetta Vander in it along with an actual creature from Babylon 5, so I might be giving him credit for an episode that gained my respect for totally different reasons. Thankfully, he only has 3 more episodes that credit him as the writer so I’ll press on, but that’s not the point. In fact, I have very little to say about this episode barring that I was clock-watching for entirely too long.
What was wrong with this episode, besides everything, is that so little happens for so long. Most of the episode is given over to flirting and fraternity parties (“There are no orgies!”). I felt uncomfortable with the Senior in college hitting on juniors in high school. (Although the age gap is a bit worse between 16 year old Buffy and 241 year old Angel, so why the seniors bother me does leave me scratching my head.) The mystery at the start of the episode takes forever to get anywhere and instead we get to see Xander dancing around in a large bra, blonde wig and lipstick. Would he ever debase himself to that level?? Giles continues that stuttering diction that I am getting tired of and Willow is relegated to hanging out with Sgt Stutter in the library. I mean I was hopeful here; we had an exciting opening with cultists and everyone knows cultists often worship Dagon, one of the Lovecraft pantheon of beings. There was even a pit in the basement, so there was loads of potential. I sat there chanting, “Ia! Ia! Cthulhu Fhtagn!” Did it matter? Nope. Instead we got slow snake and slower plot. Buffy never seems particularly worried and even the girl who had been chained up doesn’t seem particularly put out. This is no worse than an economics pop quiz. As if that’s not enough, when the cultists are arrested, Angel walks Tom off the premises. Was Angel going to arrest Tom? Or perhaps the plan was to eat him?? When did Angel get brought into the police academy? I admit the show has had ups and downs before, but this was about the lowest it’s sunk in some time.
That said, I still love the cast. Cordelia is definitely the best looking of a really attractive cast, but she’s also perfect in her role as ditzy, self-centered nitwit. Xander is consistently funny (“My whole world is askew”) and I love Willow’s outburst at Giles and Angel for driving Buffy to the point of lying. And there are great lines throughout the episode, for instance: “Angel, how do you shave?” as if this is an important point! And I do credit the writing that they are still managing to address some real life teen issues but usually they do it in a format that’s a bit more exciting. Babylon 5, this is not! I feel distinctly like I’ve been tricked with this episode. I really hope next week is a treat. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Halloween
I think that I missed this episode all these years. From what you both wrote about it, maybe that’s just as well. And yet for a sci-fi or supernatural allegory for real-life predators, The X-Files had of course proven how that could visually tolerable enough for TV drama. Buffy’s take on it would be something for teen fans in the audience to think about. Thank you both for your reviews.
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