This episode opens a whole can of worms about the Watcher’s Council, but let’s leave those worms wriggling for a moment and start, as we often do, with the relationship dynamics. Giles betrays Buffy, and it’s by far the worst betrayal we have seen this season or, indeed, ever in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s worse than Buffy keeping Angel’s return a secret. It’s worse than Willow cheating on Oz. It’s worse than Xander cheating on Cordelia. Giles sticks needles in Buffy’s arm and poisons her. Physically it’s an assault. Mentally it’s heartless and misguided. It’s such a betrayal that it’s hard to rationalise Giles actually going through with it, whether or not he believes in the value of the test.
The only thing that makes this in any way believable is that the writer follows through with the idea and the test does actually work, even under more extreme circumstances than were intended. In the end, Buffy does manage to defeat her enemy, and does so with resilience and cunning, just like the Council wants. That helps to ameliorate the sense that the test is absurd, creating a situation that the Slayer, by her very nature, would never have to face, and makes some sense of Giles’ cooperation. Having said that, it was still a massive gamble. She could have been killed. So it doesn’t quite work, whatever way you slice it. Giles obeying the wishes of the Council is at best hard to understand, and at worst poorly-written and inconsistent with the man we know him to be.
Another aspect of this that is challenging to the viewers is the way Buffy seems ready to move on by the end of the episode. I realise the fallout might be saved for another episode, but at the end she seems to be accepting the idea that Giles is sticking around to help her, in an unofficial capacity. Despite being physically assaulted by him, she allows him to remain a part of her life. This, I think, makes a lot more sense, despite the scale of his betrayal, and that’s because she is so desperate for Giles to be her dad. The writing is clever, because we get a reminder of what a loser Buffy’s real dad is. The one and only commitment he makes to her each year is broken. Her immediate reaction is to attempt to get Giles to take her to the ice show in place of her father. Later, Giles’ position in Buffy’s life as a father figure is shown to be reciprocal, when he is dismissed from being her Watcher because he has “a father’s love for the child”. That hits the nail on the head, but the stupid Council thinks that’s a bad thing, instead of the thing of beauty and strength that their relationship truly can be.
That brings us back to our can of worms: the Watcher’s Council. It reminds me a bit of the difference between Admirals and Captains in Star Trek, where the Captains know what they are doing and the Admirals are nearly always shown to be jerks, akin to self-serving politicians. But that presents us with a problem, because in the world of Buffy there are many Admirals, but only one Captain. That seems odd.
The idea of a council of Watchers has always been hard to rationalise. What is the point of them, especially as they seem to exclude the only Watcher who actually does anything from their inner circle (Giles was not invited to their retreat in the Cotswolds)? I think the key to that lies in the idea that Buffy is a very, very unusual Slayer, and Kendra was much more the typical example. They are expected to have violent, short lives, and they are expected to be entirely obedient to their Watchers. The Watcher/Slayer relationship is not designed to be that of a father and a child, because the child is expected to sacrifice her life pretty quickly, and a father could never allow that, let alone encourage it. The test we see here makes sense in those terms, because a Slayer is disposable, and if one of them dies during the test another just gets called and another Watcher justifies his or her existence by having a try at the main job. That also makes more sense of there only being one Slayer for the whole world. If the Council is the heartless organisation they appear to be, it makes sense for a Slayer to live a short life, do some good in the place they live, get killed fighting the good fight, and another Slayer fights evil elsewhere. Meanwhile, the Council gets to justify their existence. But they have a problem with Buffy, and also with Giles. The Council is very British, in the worst possible sense, and very much tied to their traditions. Buffy is a loose canon, a rule-breaker, whose strength lies in her friendships, the people who know about her calling. That isn’t supposed to happen. A Slayer, as Kendra reminded us, must fight alone. From the Council’s point of view, they probably assumed this atypical maverick of a Slayer wouldn’t last very long, so they might as well get shot of their bad apple as her Watcher. Give the Ripper his turn; send him across to that vulgar country across the pond; get rid of him. What they didn’t bank on was the power of friendship and the power of a Watcher being a father to his Slayer, and they find themselves now without a purpose, potentially waiting for years until they have something useful to contribute to the fight. Now, Buffy is clearly not going to be interested in what the Council has to say, with Giles continuing as her de facto Watcher, so as much as her continued acceptance of him after what he did might be difficult to understand, it is necessary to end the episode where we need to be: the Council no longer has any influence over Buffy’s life. Luckily for them, they have an unprecedented opportunity… Buffy isn’t the only Slayer in town. RP
The view from the Sunnydale Press…
I have to give it to the writers of Buffy: they’ve pretty consistently addressed issues I have had with the show at one time or another in often unexpected ways. I’m even having reservations about sharing any criticisms of the show at this point because sooner or later, they do get around to addressing my concerns. (So I’m especially excited to see how they explain the vampires clothing going up in a cloud of dust… but perhaps I’m being too hopeful there!) In Helpless I am given an answer to a question that has bothered me for a while now: why is Giles “the stuttering librarian” always sounding unsure of himself, always sounding a bit like Peter Davison’s Doctor gasping for breath to explain things? And I think the answer is given by Quentin when he says Giles has a “father’s love” for Buffy. Here we have a grown man who has to take charge of a young woman’s education which will periodically include some late night encounters. Yeah, I think I’d be a bit jittery too. That can’t be an easy thing all by itself, but its complicated by the feelings Giles has towards Buffy: he genuinely cares about her as a father would care for his daughter. I’m genuinely impressed; the writing is proving to be more than I’d bargained for. Of course, I could realistically counter with the obvious: well, we know the Slayer is a female so it should have been no surprise to Giles that he’d take charge of a young girl, but perhaps he could not have anticipated the feelings of fatherhood that would develop towards his ward. This is something I can relate to and can say without hesitation that it does complicate things. So yeah, I’m beginning to see why people love this show!
It doesn’t stop there. Continuity is maintained from the last episode with Amy still being a rat. Even within the same episode, I have to give credit to the makeup department because Buffy’s injuries from the events of this story are subtle but evident if you’re paying attention. (There’s a bruise on her collar bone and on her shoulder after what she goes through.) Further, Buffy is forced to wonder who she is if not the Slayer because her powers are waning throughout this story. That’s an amazing shift from last season where her identity was in question before meeting Kendra, the other slayer. After Kendra explains to her that she doesn’t have a job but an identity, we witness Buffy’s transition about her role: she begins to live it, not just do it like a job. So just as she’s been able to embrace her role in life, she’s now finding it taken away from her and that is a jarring experience. “If I’m not the Slayer, what am I?” Kendra helped her define herself, and she is forced to question who she is without it. Is that the message of the episode? To thine own self be true? Don’t lose faith in your own abilities? Or is there a statement about being a victim? Buffy is scared and allows herself to become the victim of a terrible act; it’s a physical betrayal by a trusted friend.
I was reminded of The Silence of the Lambs watching this episode. The creature in the crate (who is depressingly nothing more than a vampire) is very much the Hannibal Lector of the story, complete with being chained up because he’s “so dangerous”. The terrifying fight or flight scene as he chases Buffy through a maze of a house is right out of Clarice Starling’s book. There’s nothing wrong with that; if you’re going to imitate someone or something, go for the classics! Silence is an outstanding thriller and mirroring the movie, putting Buffy through a rite of passage based on that, is very scary. Perhaps scarier is when someone you trust turns on you, as I mentioned above. Giles betrays her physically and through his actions, makes her a vulnerable victim of a predator. When Buffy finds out that Giles is responsible for her waning powers, that’s a serious blow. That will have serious repercussions I’d say.
On the other hand, it does seem like a stupid ritual. Let’s think it through: in every generation there is one person who could save us all… so let’s try to kill her by removing her ability to save us because that will tell us if she’s actually able to save us! Um….. what?!?! (Was this is a Dr. Franklin plan?) It also lets us know that this ability can be taken away with chemicals so now the bad guys don’t have to actually kill her outright, but rather get this chemical into her system and then they can kill her. “Guys, reality!” Yeah, maybe I’m going too far down the rabbit hole here, especially since I’ve seen them get so much right at various points in the series, but that could actually work against it too. They might have shot themselves in the foot if they created a plot device that will be ignored forever more. I just don’t know which way I lean with this now, because by next week, they might have that very plot threat revealed!
That’s what is so hard to pinpoint with Buffy: for every light switch, there’s a helium balloon! Oh, I should explain that. Buffy has a helium balloon in her house for her birthday; fully inflated and looking nice. She goes out, comes back, and throws the deflated thing in the trash. News flash: those damned things can last for weeks. NO WAY was that thing deflated in a day. Anyone who has ever had one knows this. But equally, when Giles is trying to find Buffy in the Maze House, he opens a door and flails along the wall for a light switch before realizing it’s on the other wall, which makes complete sense as he’s never been in this house before. So we can take two totally insignificant examples of the writing and praise one bit while condemning another. So the question is: which way should I lean? With Buffy The Vampire Slayer it’s hard to ignore that they have been systematically dismantling my early criticisms, so I’m going to have to give the series the benefit of the doubt. Buffy gets the point, Mike gets zep. Um, zip. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Zeppo
Excellent, both of you! Quite right that the Watchers’ Council is extremely top-heavy; a whole bunch of middle-aged men to preside over teaching a succession of young girls the rules one at a time? I never thought of how silly that is. A conclave that holds the secret wisdom and dispenses it when it’s needed, maybe; but since Giles has every conceivable book of occult wisdom in the Sunnydale High library, even that is not necessary.
So was the Watchers’ Council formed on the basis that every time a Slayer died, her Watcher was promoted to full member? That would account for the numbers, and Giles not being in the inner circles. It would also be particularly idiotic, making failure (to protect) the basis of membership.
But what I cherish about this episode is the moment that, I think, deals with the issue of Giles having betrayed and assaulted Buffy. The look on her face– surprised, then moved– when the Council representative rebukes and fires Giles for his “father’s love for the child” shows that that realization makes up for everything. She sees that he did it because he was under orders from these creeps and that not committing to it fully has cost him his position, so she can forgive him and see him as a father. Lovely.
It also heals my heart when Mike points out that that balloon would not have deflated in a single day. I hate when they wring my heart by sticking in pathetic little details like that to signify disappointment. That balloon LIVES!
Great comment! The one point I would argue with is I don’t think the Watchers’ Council would see the death of a Slayer in terms of failure of a Watcher, so there’s no way they would see their system as idiotic. I think Buffy’s longterm survival is certainly incredibly unusual for a Slayer, and even if she had survived all the events of the first season and the Master had killed her (and she stayed dead) that would have probably been seen as a better track record for her Watcher than most. If they are used to a Slayer being killed once or twice a year (realistically, probably more often than that), then there’s no failure in a Watcher losing his Slayer. The only failure would be losing control of a Slayer, e.g. Wesley.