While researching last week’s post, I happened to notice that “The Wish” originally aired in December, and I wondered to myself whether Buffy had ever attempted a full-on Christmas episode. Then I remembered making note of some Willow comment about A Charlie Brown Christmas back in Season Two, and I went back to find out which episode it was in. Turns out the last Christmas reference appeared in “Passion,” a.k.a. “The Shocking Death Of Jenny Calendar.”
Both Christmas and Jenny make a return appearance in “Amends,” a meditative, mythology-heavy episode—as those credited exclusively to Joss Whedon as writer and director often are—about Buffy’s enduring Angel-problem. Buffy’s been sharing dreams with her ex-lover (including dreams in which they’re doing that thing that turns good Angels bad), and through that collective consciousness Buffy’s discovered that the man she claims to want nothing to do with anymore has become troubled in a way that she can’t ignore—not just because she still cares about him, but because a troubled Angel left unattended could become trouble for all of Sunnydale.
So gradually, a couple of avowed Angel-haters re-enter the fold, agreeing to help Buffy and her ex. First Angel knocks on Giles’ door, to confess that he’s being haunted by visions of people he’s killed—including Giles’ beloved Jenny. Giles strikes a precise balance of “I’m not going to give you the satisfaction of me fearing you” and “But I’m no chump, chump” by granting Angel entrance to his home while aiming a stake-loaded crossbow at Angel's chest. But after Giles hears Angel’s tale of woe, he agrees to do some research.
Xander also has to make some amends after spending weeks bitching at Buffy for following her heart at the expense of her friends, only to find himself in the same position in regards to his secret affair with Willow. So he accompanies Buffy on a reconnaissance mission to the noted underworld hangout Willy’s Bar—which I was happy to see back on the show for the first time since the Season Two two-parter “What’s My Line?”—where he self-consciously threatens the proprietor into spilling info about the arrival of “The Harbingers,” three eyeless priests associated with what’s really happening to Angel.
Turns out Angel is being tormented by an entity known as “The First Evil,” an eternal noncorporeal malevolence that assumes the form of deadfolk. (Or as Buffy breaks it down, after getting sick of The FE’s spiel, “All right, I get it, you’re evil…”) When I was a kid growing up in Tennessee, we were often told the legend of The Bell Witch, a poltergeist with the declared intent “to torment the life out of old John Bell.” The First intends to torment Angel into going rogue again—or barring that, to torment him into killing himself. Angel chooses the latter option, planning to greet the Christmas sunrise and incinerate himself, thereby inadvertently living out Buffy’s Grinch-quoting yuletide plans: “Tree. Nog. Roast Beast.”
At first I liked Angel’s little suicide speech to Buffy about all the beautiful notion of kids waking up early at Christmas—an image he plants in her head to explain why he doesn't fit in this world anymore—but then the dialogue pushed a little to the overwrought side. And although the vision of Angel being saved by a freak, sunshine-obliterating snowstorm was undeniably poignant, I can’t pretend I was anxious about the outcome. (The existence of a little show called Angel kind of deflates the tension of this episode now.) Still, the conversation between Buffy and Angel is one that needed to happen at this point in the season, because at the moment there doesn’t seem to be much of a point to Angel’s continued presence on the show. If he hates himself, and everyone else hates him too, and he’s neither incredibly helpful nor terribly dangerous, then why is he here? And the answer is as simple and complex as adolescent romance: Because Buffy wants him here.
I had a friend in college—a big Buffy fan, in fact—who was deeply devoted to a man who would dump her and then come crawling back, roughly every two or three months, for about two to three years. She knew it was stupid to get back together with him But she also didn’t see the point in denying herself what she wanted. Why punish herself just to prove a point to his sorry ass?
There’s a little bit of that vibe going on with Buffy’s ongoing affection for Angel (despite his trying to kill her) and her for him (despite her actually killing him). There’s also a little bit of that vibe with Oz deciding to forgive Willow for her Xander transgressions. (Willow tries to prove her devotion by putting on a sexy outfit and some Barry White and giving up her virginity to Oz, but her forwardness throws him, and leaves him feeling like one of those dreams where “it’s the middle of the play and you don’t know your lines.”) I know this was a Christmas episode, and all about forgiveness and second chances and all those Christian virtues, but I couldn’t help dwelling on all the variations of the word “first” in an episode that takes place at the time when we all sing “The First Noel.” There’s Willow wanting Oz to be her first lover; Buffy fighting to keep her first love from killing himself; and, of course, The First Evil. I’m not saying they’re all connected, though inconvenient love, bitter spite and dogged faith are all aspects of the human experience that do endure across the centuries, haunting us all like ghosts.
It was weird watching “Gingerbread” immediately after “Amends,” because “Amends” ends with Buffy walking hand-in-hand with Angel, and “Gingerbread” opens with her walking alone, wearing the same coat. Beyond that though, these two episodes couldn’t be more different. Wedged in between two fairly dark Buffys, “Gingerbread” is a straight-up treat, full of some of the season’s funniest lines. I’ll dispense quickly with the plot, which involves Buffy’s mom Joyce discovering two dead children laid out in a ritual murder scene and subsequently forming a group called MOO, standing for Mothers Opposed to the Occult. Later we discover that the dead kids Joyce found actually aren’t dead at all, but are aspects of a demon who for generations has traveled from community to community, whipping the locals up into a paranoid frenzy (and apparently inspiring the fairy tale “Hansel & Gretel”).
“Gingerbread” isn’t perfect. Once the mechanics of the plot are in place—Joyce and the parents wig out, the kids fight back, the parents step up their efforts by preparing to burn all witches—the action gets a little drawn-out and repetitive, with too much reliance on an implausibly thick line between Sunnydale’s “adults” and “children.” (In this way “Gingerbread” is a lot like “Band Candy,” which was also written by Jane Espenson.) The premise too is a bit too Twilight Zone-y. But as with the other two episodes this week, I was impressed by how “Gingerbread” uses an imaginative plot to help get some necessary business done.
Specifically, “Gingerbread” restores Xander and Oz’s friendship, as they band together to fruitlessly try and rescue Willow and Buffy from MOO’s witch-pyre. (“We’re here to save you,” they groan after falling through the ceiling, a few beats too late.) The episode also brings back The Mayor (continuing to pursue his anti-teenager agenda under the guise of helping MOO), and Principal Snyder (who calls the MOO-sponsored locker-searches “a glorious day for principals everywhere”), and Cordelia (who seems to be easing herself back into the slayer circle on her own terms). This episode also marks the first (and last?) appearance of Willow’s witch-buddy Michael, played by Blake Sennett, who’s better-known now as the co-leader of the indie-rock band Rilo Kiley. And it features the return of Willow’s original witch-buddy Amy, who escapes MOO’s pyre by turning herself into a rat and scurrying away. (Cue frustration from Buffy: “She couldn’t do us first?”)
Mostly though, “Gingerbread” is all about the dialogue, which has a wonderfully wry snap. Here are some of my favorite moments:
-Joyce, asking the assembled Sunnydale parents how many of them had a child who “just disappeared… or got skinned… or suffered a neck-rupture.”
-Willow explaining away her suspicious witch symbol: “A doodle. I do doodle. You too, you do doodle too.”
-Buffy mishearing the Little Dutch Boy story as being about a kid with his “finger in the duck.”
-Buffy telling her Mom that she’s going to patrol, “if that’s all right with MOO.”
-Giles getting irritated at Cordelia’s suggestion that he might “wake up in a coma,” then shrugging it off and saying, “Never mind, we have to help Buffy fight Hansel and Gretel.”
-Buffy rolling her eyes at Willow’s threat to use her witch powers on the crazed parents, snapping, “What are you going to do, float a pencil on them?”
-Buffy threatening MOO after Amy’s stunt: “You will all be turned into vermin. And some of you will be fish. Yes, you in the back. You’ll be a fish.”
-Buffy and Willow failing to revert Amy back to human form and sighing, “Maybe we should get her one of those wheel thingies.”
-Willow getting annoyed at her suddenly too-involved Mom and launching into a long, hilariously sarcastic rant about her occult activities.“Do you see any goats around? No, because I sacrifice them!”
The scenes between Willow and Mrs. Rosenberg were key to me for a few reasons, some of which I’ll get to momentarily. Mainly I liked it because it was a reminder to me—a father myself—that there are few things worse than under-informed, over-involved parents. (My mom never worried much about how I spent my leisure time unless one of my friend’s parents called her to ask whether I had her permission to go to a certain movie or concert, and then suddenly she started second-guessing.) And I find it amusing that in an episode about parents freaking out over benign occult activity, the kids save the day with the help of the internet, a tool that today might worry parent even more than a few books of spells.
From one of the funniest episodes of the season, we come to one of the most overtly horrific, with creepy dark houses and blood-spattered rooms and a vampire—Zachary—who used to be a serial killer. Oh, and a heroine with no powers.
As Buffy nears her 18th birthday, the still-trying-to-make-amends Xander is stoked about “celebrating the birth of the Buff,” but Buffy herself is uneasy. Her father cancels their annual trip to a big ice skating show at the last minute. Her father-figure Giles is more emotionally distant and demanding than usual. And she’s suddenly off her game, unable to hit targets with deadly accuracy or prevent Sunnydale’s brutes (both living and undead) from pushing her around.
The reason for the weakening? Because when a slayer turns 18, she’s required to endure The Cruciamentum, a test in which she’s sapped of her powers and locked in with a vampire—Zachary, in this case—to see if she can still prevail. (It’s like SERE training!) Under orders from The Watchers’ Council, Giles has been secretly injecting Buffy with the strength-draining serum for days, which has the side effect of making him feel like a total heel. When he finally explains to Buffy what’s happening, his apologetic tone and her stung reaction is genuinely moving.
For the most part though, the only emotion conveyed in “Helpless” is straight-up fear. This is easily one of the most terror-heavy Buffys I’ve seen, and though Zachary’s presence prompted a few too many serial killer clichés—from the low-key sinister tone of Zachary’s voice to his “I was an abused child” origin story—the episode was also full of skin-crawling images, like Zachary’s room full of polaroids of the kidnapped Joyce, and him inducing his jailers to come closer to give him his pills. The endgame is clever too, with Buffy tricking Zachary into washing his pills down with Holy Water. And there’s a major plot development at the end, as Giles is relieved of his official Watcher duties for being too close to his charge.
Giles of course has a higher calling, and has no plans to leave Buffy in the lurch. “We’re waging a war; she’s fighting it,” he says to his superiors while trying to explain why he resents The Cruciamentum. “There’s a difference.” The difference is that while the Council draws up plans behind closed doors, their soldiers are out in the field having individualized experiences that can’t be reduced to mere strategy. Buffy is a person, with her own set of strengths and weaknesses that need to be nurtured and worked around.
At one point in “Helpless,” Oz and Xander have a nerdy argument about whether Buffy’s being affected by some kind of slayer-Kryptonite, and they debate what color of Kryptonite that would be. Yet the truth—as Giles well knows, as he hypnotizes and injects were the weakening serum—is that Buffy does have one major weakness. Buffy’s Kryptonite is trust.
I have no idea how the Buffy writers’ room broke stories or assigned scripts or planned out arcs, but while each of these episodes had their weaknesses, I can’t help but be impressed by the way they all dispatched some necessary business—advancing character relationships, answering some nagging questions—while also telling interesting, often highly unique stories. (I mean: The Cruciamentum? That’s just an incredibly cool and ambitious idea, especially for a TV show.) Here’s a case-in-point for what Buffy does well: When Angel showed up at Giles’ door in “Amends,” I briefly wondered why he had to ask permission to come in, when he’d been in Giles home before multiple times. Then I remembered that Willow cast the spell at the end of Season Two to bar Angel from his old haunts. It’s not just nice to know that the Buffy writers remember such things, but it’s also impressive that they use that little tidbit to create a powerful scene, with Giles pointing a weapon at Angel and practically daring him to step inside. That’s smart writing.
-I’ve been meaning to comment for a while on the persistent absence of parents of Sunnydale. I’ve been wondering why we hear so much about our hero’s folks yet (outside of Joyce) never really see any of them. I’m chalking that up to the show being on a tight budget. Why cast a role and pay an actor before you really need him or her? (Besides, once you do, that actor is likely locked into that role for the duration of the series. May as well wait and make sure you’ve got the right person.)
-Though I’ve lived in the south my whole life, the weather here tends to be nice and cold at Christmastime. I can’t imagine what Christmas is like in California. (“‘Tis the season… whatever that means.”)
-Joyce, dismissing the idea of inviting Giles over for Christmas: “No I’m sure he’s fine.”
-Fun facts about demon expert Lucius Temple: “Hey, he likes beets!”
-I wonder what the bands are like that play at Willy’s Bar? Judging by the poster-board outside, he’s got a full line-up.
-Also, I wonder what snow-covered comic book Xander was reading while sleeping outside at Christmas? Judging by his pathetic knowledge of Kryptonite, it wasn’t Action.
-The red cap on Willow’s doorknob in “Gingerbread” made me think of Little Red Riding Hood.
-I’m sure Amy’s mom would’ve been part of MOO too, if she weren’t still trapped inside a statue
-How long does it take for people to burn anyway? Buffy and Willow stay surprisingly un-singed.
-Mrs. Rosenberg, on the patriarchal bias of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood: “Well, that King Friday, lording it over the other puppets…”
-One of my few Buffy experiences prior to starting this TV Club adventure involved “Gingerbread.” My wife and I were channel surfing one night and we came across the scene in this episode where Willow’s mother tries to explain what’s “typical of her age group” and Willow replies, “I’m me. Willow group.” Donna and I both found that scene enchanting—and quoted the line “Willow group” for years—and pledged to get back to Buffy at some point.
-“If I were at full slayer-power I’d be punning right now.”