Sunday, June 19, 2011

Buffy Blog: "Helpless"

Over the course of two and one half seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer we viewers have been introduced to a number of rituals that high schoolers typically pass through on their way to graduation in the United States, including those students we have become attached to at Sunnydale High. Previously on Buffy we have been introduced to the May Festival, the Sadie Hawkins Dance, and the ritual taking of the SAT’s, the Scholastic Aptitude Test that play important roles in whether the American high school student gets into college or not. But we have not seen any of the rituals, apart from the fact that when one Slayer dies another is called, associated with Slayerhood and Watcherness. That is until now.

“Helpless” written by David Fury, who after “Helpless became a writing fixture on the Buffy stage, and directed by James Contner, starts with a bang. The teaser ends with a dizzy and much weakened Buffy apparently about to die at the hands of a vampire. And since Joss and Company have killed off other major characters previously some of us undoubtedly think twice about what is going to happen to our Buffster. With the commercial over and with act one begun, however, we find out that the Slayer manages to survive her near death experience thanks to her quick wits. Despite the fact that Buffy manages to survive, however, there is at least one nagging questions we viewers (or at least this viewer) can’ t help but wonder about. Why is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the killer of vampires and demons, suddenly so weak?

OK so it has been a year since season two’s “Surprise/Innocence” and its Buffy’s birthday again. Buffy has plans to go with her father on their annual pilgrimage to the ice show. After last years birthday Buffy is hoping that this year’s will be better than the last. She intends, she says, to put a moratorium on parties in her honour. Despite Buffy’s intention and hopes to put her recent birthday past behind her, however, there is something strange going on in Sunnydale yet again. Buffy, as I said, is experiencing dizziness, a loss of strength, and a decline in Slaying punning power for some reason—“Helpless’s” mystery of the week—and Giles seems rather slow if not reticent to help clear up the question of what is going on.

We don’t actually have to wait that long for “Helpless’s” first mystery to be cleared up. Giles, Giles the Watcher, is hypnotizing Buffy with a large blue vibratory stone and injecting something into her with that syringe. Why? With one mystery down a a number of other related mysteries appear on the Sunnydale scene in quick succession: Who are those Brits at the Sunnydale Arms? Why are they bricking in the windows? What are they doing with that vampire they have chained up in a box? Why are they giving him pills? Why is he in pain? What do they mean “the Slayers preparation” is almost ready?

We soon learn that the Watchers Council is in town and they are preparing for the time honoured rite of passage that has been done for centuries, the Cruciamentum, which takes place when the Slayer reaches the age of eighteen (here beginneth the episode arc of “Helpless” and here again is one of those coming of age and hero’s journey themes in Buffy the Vampre Slayer). Boy those Brits sure do like their ancient rituals don’t they? Giles, who must answer to the Watchers Council and its apparent head, Quentin Travers, however, regards the Cruciamentum as “an antiquated exercise in cruelty” though he is following orders, at least for the moment. And this is why he is injecting the Bufster with a herbal solution that makes her weak.

In the world of the Buffyverse, however, bad things tend to happen without much of a wait. Zachary Kralik (Fury named this character after his nephew), the vampire being held by the Watchers Council and who is to play a role in Buffy’s Slayer rite of passage, manages to escape part of the straight jacket that binds him and turn Blair, one of Travers’s Watcher Council assistants who is trying to give him his medicine, into a vampire. Soon they are bonding by feeding off Hobson, the other Watcher Council assistant and preparing a trap for our beloved Vampire Slayer.

Giles, however, puts, or so he thinks, a chink in Kralik’s plans when he comes to the Sunnydale Arms. Discovering what has happened our Watcher exists Sunnydale Arms stage right.

While Giles is discovering what horrors have happened at the Sunnydale Arms, Buffy has been transformed into a vulnerable Red Riding Hood, a fairy tale Vampire Kralik will reference several times in the episode before its over, by Buffy’s own Big Bad Wolf, the vampire Kralik himself, who even masquerades as Red at one point, and his henchman Blair. Fortunately for our weakened Slayer Giles happens along in his how does it keep running Citreon and saves our Buffy from the frightening Big Bad Wolf.

Back in the safety of the library Giles reveals, in an incredibly powerful and superbly acted scene, to Buffy what we viewers earlier learned in act three, he has, in Buffy’s words, been “poisoning” her causing her to momentarily loose her Slayer strength. Buffy traumatized and in tears throws the syringe that Giles has “poisoned” her with and which is lying on the table in front of her at our Watcher asking Giles how he could betray her. “How could you do this to me”, she asks. When Cordelia walks into the library Buffy asks her to take her home. With the scene ended we viewers, or at least this viewer, wonder whether Buffy can ever trust Giles again and whether their relationship and Buffy the Vampire Slayer itself will ever be the same. Drama, pain, and tragedy the things Joss and Company do and bring so well all rolled into one scene.

When Buffy arrives home our Slayer discovers that Kralik, who it turns out, has an anti-mother complex, he “ate” his own he tells Joyce, has taken Buffy’s mother hostage leaving behind for Buffy to find a photo of a kidnapped and frightened Joyce with the words “Come” finger written in the black of the Polaroid instant film photograph on the back. So it’s Buffy, but this time a weakened Buffy, to the rescue again. Buffy, in what are rapidly becoming her overalls of pain, the same overalls she wore when she thought she had killed the human Ted in season two’s “Ted” (she also wore them in “Inca Mummy Girl” where they were mistaken for Buffy’s white trash costume by Xander), gathers up her weapons and heads to the Sunnydale Arms, all unbeknownst to Giles.

Giles only learns that Buffy has entered the Cruciamentum arena when Travers arrives at the library. After telling Giles that he is too close to his Slayer Travers tells our Watcher that the Buffster has already entered the “field of [ritual] play” at the Sunnydale Arms. In classical horror and thriller fashion Kralik chases Buffy through the dark, shadowy, and tiny yet labyrinthian space of the Sunnydale Arms apartment. Kralik catches Buffy a couple of times but she is able to escape, the second time thanks to her wily theft of Kralik’s medication for his mental instability. Buffy grabs Kralik’s pain pills and drops down the laundry chute finding Joyce at the bottom. Kralik soon follows, takes the pills from Buffy, and washes them down as he has done before with a glass of water. This is not your normal glass of water, however. Buffy has poured holy water into the glass that Kralik has drunken his pills with. As Buffy watches Kralik burns up from the inside out. Just as everything seems safe and Buffy is trying, unsuccessfully to get Joyce’s ropes off, Blair arrives with Giles in tow. Giles manages to dust the vamp ending the threat for the moment.

“Helpless” ends with another brilliant scene (Buffy, in the course of seven seasons, has so many of them). With Buffy and Giles back in the library Travers tells Buffy that she has passed the Cruciamentum thanks to her “extraordinary courage and clearheadedness”, and I would add her skills at improvisation and quick wittedness. Giles, on the other hand, who has, claims Travers, a father's love for his “charge” has failed. Buffy upset that the Watcher’s Council ritual has let a monster loose that kidnapped her mother responds to Traver’s congratulations with that wonderful line and title of Nikki Stafford’s episode guide to Buffy, “Bite me”. Travers response to our beloved Slayer is patriarchal. Buffy, he says, is a “colourful girl”. For Travers and presumably the Watchers Council then Buffy, even though she has passed the Slayer coming of age ritual, is still a “girl”, their girl.

Buffy really gets hammered and betrayed by men in “Helpless” whether it’s her father, her surrogate father, Giles, or the male dominated Watcher’s Council. And while Buffy may be down but she’s nowhere near to being out. The Buffster’s snarky responses to Travers—“[b]ite me” and “[do] I get a gold star”—has some of the rebellion against patriarchy in it suggesting that Travers and the Watchers Council may have a rebel on their hands. Only time will tell.

Though Giles is told by Travers not to have further contact with “the Slayer” the scene ends with Giles walking over to Buffy sitting at the table and, after Buffy gives him a white washcloth, washing out her wounds. Has Buffy, to some extent, forgiven Giles? Will they reconcile? Is the Buffster seeing Giles more and more as her surrogate father? Only Buffy time will tell.

The Cruciamentum arc isn’t the only one at play in “Helpless”. The Buffy-Angel arc makes an appearance and is still complicated—is the relationship platonic or is it, as Spike recognized earlier, a romantic relationship?—and Angel admits for the first time that he saw her before she became a Slayer (we viewers, of course, learned this in “Becoming”). The Buffy-Buffy’s Father arc, though we don’t know this yet, comes to a close in this episode when Buffy’s father, Hank, doesn’t show up for their annual daughter-father ice show outing thanks to business problems (interestingly Buffy will tell Travers that slaying is not a business in the last act of “Helpless”). With respect to the Faith arc, Faith the Vampire Slayer is once again missing in action and is on a “walkabout”, as Buffy calls it, somewhere. And then there is the Giles arc. What is Giles going to do now that he has been fired, a concept Willow can’t seem to “cruise past” at this point in season three?

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