For the second week in a row we’re exploring a classic horror theme, but it’s a very different kind of horror. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of horror: the creepy kind, and the yucky kind. Last week was the former, Go Fish is very much the latter. It works by showing us gross things: somebody ripping open his own skin; a body floating in the sewers; human skin discarded on a beach. Psychological horror works on me, but body horror never does. I don’t find it scary. It’s just distasteful. So the visual aspect of this episode was never going to interest me much (or anyone who doesn’t enjoy watching yucky things), so the story behind the visuals therefore takes on an even greater significance.
That’s not great, either. The main theme couldn’t be simpler: drugs are bad. I would be the first to agree with that message, but drama needs to say something more than that, because if the message is just “drugs are bad”, then the only two responses from the viewer can be “yes, they are”, or “no, they’re not”. That’s not exactly engaging the brain. Instead, a show like this needs to say, “drugs are bad, because…”. That “because” needs to be something a bit more nuanced than “you’ll turn into a monster”, and then show us the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Show us addiction; show us psychological damage; show us the impact on friends and family; show us something, that isn’t just a bunch of teenagers inhaling and then heading off to live in the ocean. The writers have nothing to say.
The same problem occurs with the representation of inappropriate and predatory behaviour towards women. The writers show us some of that, and don’t really say anything about it. I realise we were a couple of decades before the Me Too movement, but it’s not good enough to show the things this episode shows and then move on with little more than a shrug that life’s like that. So we have to watch Buffy being the victim of an attempted sexual assault, fighting back and then getting blamed for her attacker’s injures; we also have to watch her being blamed for provoking teenage boys because of the clothes she chooses to wear. And that all passes us by with no punchline other than a jokey reference to the coach meeting his end being gang raped by his team of monsters. Like the drugs theme, the writers select a bad thing, tiptoe around the topic, and then say nothing much about it.
Fortunately there is a tertiary theme that does work well, and that’s the way Willow, as a substitute teacher, is instructed to grade a member of the swim team higher than he deserves. At times like this, Cordelia is an extremely useful character, because of the way she speaks her mind and understands the unpleasant truths about the cut and thrust of society, as seen through the lens of teenage life.
“Certain people are entitled to special privileges. They’re called winners. That’s the way the world works.”
The episode suffers greatly from its placement. As a Season One episode it would have been weak. As the last episode before the big finale, it’s dismal. The only interaction with the season arc is Angel turning up to spit out some unappetising blood, and all the hallmarks are there of an episode moved to a position in the season where it really doesn’t belong. The biggest problem is Snyder, who last week was revealed as somebody who knows exactly what’s going on with the Hellmouth, is working for some shady bosses, and is trying hard to cover up all the weirdness going on at school. This week he’s a proud principal, obsessed with how his school can cover itself in sporting glory. It’s hugely out of character. Why should he care? This man hardly cares about anything, and his only concern here should be the headache of having to deal with hushing up even more student and staff deaths.
There’s not much to enjoy here apart from the comedy Xander brings to proceedings. He’s so entertaining that a silly episode like this is always going to keep us reasonably entertained. One week before the two-parter to end the season, that just doesn’t feel like enough. RP
The view from the Sunnydale Press…
It’s hard to come to terms with Buffy The Vampire Slayer. It shows some real promise some weeks then seems to take a step back into season one territory which I would call sophomoric. Most of this episode seemed dated and, frankly, more than a little awkward. I think that’s largely because of Principle Snyder. First he tells Willow to allow a student to get a better grade because he’s an athlete. Then, right after Buffy is assaulted by another student, Snyder blames Buffy because the athlete can do no wrong. Perhaps it’s intended for a laugh, perhaps to show he just wants to win the state championship, but it’s very uncomfortable. (And that says nothing of the coach who offers this lovely comment upon hearing that Buffy was sexually assaulted by the athlete: “try to dress more appropriately.”) This doesn’t sit well with me at all. Besides the obvious, one reason it bothers me is that Snyder recently shared with the audience that he knows about the hellmouth. One would think he’d be more accepting of the situation when Buffy tells him what happened, but instead he’s single-minded about the state championship. I almost see this as a harsh look at sports fans that can’t see past the game even when a young woman could be violated by one of those sport stars. Of course, if Snyder is working with the coach, maybe they both know about the creatures which might mean that he is not actually against the evil. Snyder may be working to position himself safely with whatever evil entities exist but that doesn’t square either. And that leads me to rethink all the scenes with Snyder from previous episodes; how often would something jive with the idea that he knows about the hellmouth? Additionally, how much would give credence to the idea that he is in league with it? This sort of sudden change in writing is what I found at odds with Jenny too. When we learned her secret, it changed the way we viewed everything leading up to that moment. Even if it were planned, that’s not how it appears. It would seem far more likely that the writers made a sudden turn. Since there are multiple writers on this series, I’m reminded of a game I used to play with friends where one person wrote a sentence then the next person did something with it as it went around a series of people. One “writer” might have something terrible happen to a character but that was the effect of how the game was played. That’s equally sophomoric as games go and was played just to kill the time, but that’s the feeling I have when something so jarring happens with a major character when there was no indication of it previously.
Complaints aside, readers know of my favorable response to undersea creatures, often planning my summer breaks in R’yleh. I did enjoy the idea of sea monsters being this weeks threat. More than that, I liked the message. I’ve often said science fiction doesn’t need a lecture to teach science. Think of the superb Doctor Who episode Extremis which provides us a brief lesson in ontology. It doesn’t do that with nerdy teacher, nasally voice and pocket protector. It instead offers an interesting idea that gets us thinking using the plot to show us something new. And that says nothing of the historical episodes that typically did teach me something as well. Buffy takes a fairly weak story and explores the dangers of steroid use. Willow basically sums it up in one line which is all it needs but it demonizes the use of a performance enhancing drug in a very literal way and I applaud that. I think that’s the sort of thing that makes a series stand out and Buffy has been doing an amazing job at addressing real life concerns in season 2.
I also applaud the gender flip with the jock asking Buffy to “walk me home” after being attacked by Angel. (I’m slightly less inspired by the idea that Angel seems to do nothing but sit around pining for Buffy but maybe that’ll get addressed soon; we are coming to the end of the season!) Less impressive is the silliness of a high school coach, probably working for close-to-free, also being a geneticist. He figures out how to make sea monsters using steroidal gas. Yeah… not so sure about that. If he were a chem teacher… Nor am I sure Xander taking a wrench to the back of the head would be ok, but since he was recently doped up with sea monster steroids, maybe we can attribute his resilience to new cartilage. (As Buffy said, perhaps he was channeling his “inner halibut!”)
On the horror front, I was stunned at how gruesome the corpses were and was amazed by the onscreen transformation. Well done. On the other side of this show, however, is the humor and I can’t help but flag some of those truly outstanding lines. “Any demons with high cholesterol?” was Buffy’s win for the day but Xander and Cordelia really knocked it out of the park with the discussion around the “Creature from the blue lagoon”. “Black Lagoon! The creature from the blue lagoon was Brooke Shields!”
While I really felt this was a slightly subpar episode, which is unfortunate coming off of a run of good ones, I confess that it’s still a fun series. The cast continues to really win me over. I know I’m approaching a two part finale now, so this will really determine a lot about the show overall. In just 32 episodes I’ve seen an evolution that has me really impressed. I can’t wait to see what’s becoming of the series as it goes into the next season. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Becoming (Parts 1 and 2)