We all have our own childhood demons to face. They might be memories that haunt us: the trauma of a death in the family; that thing we saw that we should never have had to witness; the person in need who we couldn’t help, because we were just a child. Or our childhood demons might be more literal: the monster under the bed; the phobia that nobody else could understand; the irrational fear our parents shrugged off because in their world it was invisible. For Buffy, these childhood fears and bad memories are all combined very neatly in one foe: the Kindestod, a monster who murdered her cousin in hospital, while Buffy helplessly looked on. Buffy gets to do something few people can ever do: she faces her childhood fear and vanquishes it.
The moment that puts Buffy in hospital is a fight with Angel when she is unwell with the flu, giving her a raging fever and an altered state of mind that allows her to see her enemy. The Kindestod is a classic horror movie villain, invisible to most people, making it almost impossible to fight back, but when anyone manages to catch a glimpse he’s frighteningly creepy. The way he kills his victims is icky and disturbing, as is his targetting of children. There is a very clever red herring, when it looks for a while as if the doctor tending to the children is the culprit in some way, until he gets brutally murdered.
Apart from vanquishing the demons of childhood, there are some other deep themes. Buffy is normally incredibly strong and is used to being able to fight all her enemies with her super strength, but when Giles allows himself to speculate on Buffy imagining her foe he reflects on the demons she can’t kill:
“Death and disease and things, possibly the only things, that Buffy cannot fight.”
This is especially relevant so soon after Jenny’s death, which is directly as a consequence of Buffy failing to kill Angel. There is also an interesting reflection on children being able to see things adults cannot, which is not just imaginary monsters, but the uncomfortable reality of “us, our true selves, our hidden faces”.
Within this mix of childhood themes, Cordelia provides us with an interesting peripheral character, because her flaws could easily be interpreted as an inability to move beyond the very natural and normal selfishness of childhood. Young children have to learn empathy, and sometimes that process goes wrong. For Cordelia, that has manifested itself in a childlike tendency to blurt out whatever she is thinking, oblivious to any concerns of whether her words might hurt or annoy others. But she also points out the inherent dishonesty that is part and parcel of the way adults use empathy to blunt the sharp edge of their interactions:
“Tact is just not saying true stuff. I’ll pass.”
So this might be a monster-of-the-week episode, but it covers some fascinating ground, and also provides us with some important character moments. The face off between Xander and Angel feels very dangerous, but Xander holds his own impressively. We also have a lovely, quiet moment between Joyce and Giles, where she thanks him and offers her condolences for the death of Jenny. This is an important moment, because Joyce and Giles exist in very different parts of Buffy’s life, but Joyce’s acknowledgement of Giles is an important step on the road to opening Joyce’s eyes about how Buffy’s life works, a road we have been on for a while. We need moments like that, to show that she’s far from being an oblivious fool who isn’t noticing anything about her daughter’s life. To make a comparison with another show that had a daughter keeping her powers a secret from her parents, The Secret World of Alex Mack was a show I absolutely loved, but Alex’s parents never noticed the obvious signs that her daughter was different, and that made them plot contrivances rather than people. Buffy could easily have fallen into the same trap, but there has been a steady progression of Joyce’s character and a general sense that she sees more than she’s letting on. Her recognition of the importance of de facto surrogate father Giles in Buffy’s life is an example of that.
In the end, Buffy faced her childhood enemy and snapped it’s neck, but what about Willow? That frog phobia obviously still haunts her, and she is able to draw on that to stage a manic episode as a distraction technique. Not all fears can be conquered, amphibian or otherwise. RP
The view from the Sunnydale Press…
After the last episode, which was such an incredibly good one, I was really let down by Killed to Death. It felt strangely out of place. If not for the comments about Jenny Calendar and the hatred the group shows towards Angel, I’d have been convinced this was an episode from season 1 that was just misplaced. It opens with a fight between Angel and Buffy in a graveyard while her friends watch. There is a moment that leaves Angel’s back exposed to Xander and Willow who spectacularly fail to stab him and instead watch as he gets the better of Buffy. So right away, I was losing some of the respect I had for the show thanks to the previous episode. I mean, how do you go from one to the other? Then after being beaten, Buffy’s illness (which came up out of nowhere; no indication that something was coming on from the previous episode) causes her to collapse leading her friends to take her to the hospital. While in hospital, Buffy sees a creepy creature. And man, it is seriously creepy!
So ok, we’re putting a massively strong story on hold for a weird episode about a creature that takes children’s souls. Ok. Well what better place to do it than in a kids hospital. Really the creature is the best part of the episode because it’s actually very disturbing looking, made even more frightening when it opens its eyes and two probing mouths extend from where his eyes had been. I love strange looking things and this dude gets top marks! To add to that, there’s a great special effect when the creature kills Dr. Backer, the subversion-of-expectation-character who we initially expect to be a villain, by dragging him down the hall. Since the creature is invisible, it’s a fantastic effect. I’m sure it was a wire-stunt, but it came across very well. But the big reveal in this episode doesn’t offer us any great payoff: we find out simply that Buffy was present when her cousin was killed by the same creature that she encounters in this story. So it just establishes the amount of time Buffy has been exposed to these things and little else.
Unfortunately the resolution is almost too simple, where Buffy just snaps the creatures neck. It was very anticlimactic because of its simplicity. Beyond that, it left me wondering how the family deals with things after these horrific events. Not just Buffy’s family, but the family of all the children. But that’s been a gripe of mine since the start of this show: where are the “real world effect” of these events? I know it’s fiction but let’s talk world building for a minute by jumping forward in time to the Doctor Who spinoff, Class. There’s an episode where cherry blossoms eat people. Cool idea, but there should be an impact from that – something to show that those things were not just forgotten. That doesn’t have to be a big thing: a newspaper article indicating the tree burning that’s been successful… something to say “this big event was actually big and had an impact”. Buffy is from an earlier time so I’m certainly more willing to give the show a pass on those things, but I still find myself struggling. Do those kids need therapy? Is there any greater effect than what we saw on screen? And as if that’s not enough, I doubt Willow is so advanced scientifically that a mixture of a potentially lethal virus in a cup of water is a good idea for a drink. She may be the class “geek” but she’s no scientist! Although she does have a long history of medical knowledge I guess… “How did you play doctor?”
Well, I will give it the standard praise every episode deserves: the cast is stellar and the comedy is still gold. Willow again references frogs, which is a nice character touch to maintain. It’s been subtly referenced at least twice now. Giles is genuinely surprised at a child’s drawing and asks Buffy, somewhat incredulously, “this is your work?” It was clearly the work of a smaller child, which makes the question very funny. And Cordelia is a bit obsessed with “that thing” on Buffy’s face that no one can see. (She also humorously identifies that “tact is just not saying true stuff.”) But I’m afraid I’m not sold on the story even with the comedy. Yes, the comedy is still wonderful, but what happened to the storyline we were just facing a mere episode earlier with the death of Jenny and the increasingly horrible transformation of Angel. To think, I disliked him from the start, then started to really take to him, and now I hope he walks on a rotting pier, falls through and gets impaled! It’s a testament to the writing. I have learned to attribute character arcs to really good writing, and that does still seem to be present, but the story arc has been put on hold and now was not the time to do that. It’s simply not cool. As much as I like the characters and the humor, it’s where this storyline goes that I’m really interested in right now. Please come back in the next episode, Story Arc! You know I only have eyes for you! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Buffy the Vampire Slayer: I Only Have Eyes for You