FEATURE: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Halloween
Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Spike has arrived in town with a determination to kill the Slayer, Cordelia is still vying for Angel's affections and the Scoobies have various issues of their own to contend with.
Halloween finds the gang forced into taking around groups of children on a trick-or-treating mission around Sunnydale and having to dress up too, they get their costumes from a new shop in town, Ethan's. Setting up one of the best minor running gags in the series, Buffy mournfully observes that this was supposed to be her night off as demons and vampires don't really go in for Halloween though assumes it will still be a quiet night. However, Ethan turns out to have other plans, casting a spell that sees his customers transform into the costumes that they are wearing. Spike catches wind of this and spies an opportunity for mischief.
In last week's review, I did give you an advanced warning that there would be much enthusiasm in this post because Halloween is one of my favourite episodes, possibly number one on that list (which I'm sure will appear here one day). It was one of the first episodes I possessed on VHS and whilst I was still struggling with parental approval/sneaking into the lounge to watch episodes on BBC2 when my parents didn't realise, I watched Halloween a lot. And for me, it typifies everything that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is about; there's empowerment in there (for both genders), witty, endlessly quotable dialogue and a plot hinged on such a simple yet intelligent plot. What happens when you get to be someone else for a night?
I'm a sucker for episodes in series that upset the status quo, placing characters in situations they never usually find themselves in or completely changing who the character is in the first place, as in Halloween. And what dawned on me this time was that Halloween isn't just a throwaway monster-of-the-week, but an episode that is crucial for the development of the characters, particularly the central four of Buffy, Xander, Giles and Willow.
Played by the late, great Robin Sachs, Ethan Rayne becomes one of Buffy's best sporadic villains; each episode he appears in advances the show in some way, be it character or revelations. He's also a writer's dream character because he literally worships chaos which means pretty much anything could happen once he shows up. In this case, it's a manifestation of 'be careful what you wish for' that sees Buffy, Xander and Willow become the costumes they wear for Halloween, a 17th century noblewoman, a soldier and a ghost respectively.
First of all, Buffy who is suffering from major longing to be someone else after spying Cordelia drooling over Angel in The Bronze. She's not confident in herself, that she could be the type of girl that Angel would like. After sneaking a look at Giles' secret Watcher Diaries, Willow and Buffy see the kind of girl from Angel's time and when the opportunity arises for Buffy to dress up as someone equally 'coiffed', she takes it. Therefore when Ethan's spell takes hold, she becomes completely helpless and forgets all of her usual violent tendencies. Sarah Michelle Gellar clearly has a ball playing this version of Buffy who says things like "I want the man with a musket" and screams 'a demon!' at passing cars. Not only does it completely subvert everything that Buffy is, it also makes her realise that actually, she's ok with being the girl who thinks about beheadings and ambush tactics, even if it does mean a bad hair day once in a while. In short, she finds the confidence to be herself, something which is affirmed by Angel at the end of the episode.
For Xander, issues of masculinity and confidence in the face of Buffy's superiority has been an internal conflict from the very beginning. It flares up again here after Buffy takes down Larry after he picks on Xander. Naturally, Xander goes off in a huff and picks the most masculine costume he can think of, a soldier, and whilst in this guise he gets to rescue the girls and beat up Larry. It's at this point his future relationship with Cordelia is hinted towards and his strength of relationship with Willow is affirmed. Not because he's become more manly, but because he has become more confident in himself. It won't be the first time that Xander goes through this crisis and it is a series long journey to realising that he is the supportive role of the group, the watcher in all but name. This soldier trip is just the beginning of that. He also gets some crucial military knowledge which stands him apart from the rest of the gang and gives him something unique to contribute, calling on this when necessary for the rest of the series.
However, in this episode, it's perhaps Willow and Giles who undergo the biggest changes, the ones who will develop most as a result of the unmasking that takes place. Character development for Giles hasn't really existed up until now, something which didn't really occur to me until rewatching these early episodes. Not a huge amount is known about Buffy's watcher aside from his sense of responsibility towards his role and towards Buffy herself. Ethan constantly stands as a symbol of what Giles could have become had Ripper been the identity he took into adulthood, rather than of Watcher. His arrival in Sunnydale kickstarts revelations about Giles' past, particularly about the darkness of the character that hasn't really been seen up until now. Rather than being beaten up, it is Giles inflicting the violence, Giles going to extraordinary lengths to protect Buffy and her friends. The character will go much darker in the future (The Gift anyone?), but this is the first time that we as an audience get to see any of that.
Willow's future darkness isn't at all apparent yet, rather, like the other teenage characters, this is about her finding the confidence to be herself. Buffy and Willow's friendship feels at its most real here, their conversations about Buffy's relationship woes and Willow's confidence issues ring true for anyone who happens to have been a teenage girl. Buffy would never succeed in getting Willow to dress sexy, despite her persuading skills, as Willow doesn't see herself in that way. Her self-image is manifested in her costume, a ghost, incorporeal and inconsequential. However, the events of the episode force her to take on the leadership role usually reserved for Buffy in the sexy clothes that she previously rejects wearing (though with no reason to worry - look at those abs!). When she returns to herself at the end of the episode, she throws off the costume and strides across the street, completely comfortable in her body and once again catches Oz's eye. If you ever doubted, Willow is awesome and well on the way to discovering that for herself.
Even with all of this going on, Halloween is just a massively fun episode with a wicked sense of humour. Note Cordelia's costume for example; she's a cat and catty with it, insulting everyone she can and in this episode, she offers a distinct contrast to the three who do change with their costumes. On a symbolic level, Cordelia doesn't need to transform into anything else because she's completely comfortable in her own skin. Elsewhere, Spike gets some cool moments; 'Well this is just... neat." Then there's the various expressions that David Boreanaz gets to pull as he reacts to the double whammy of the amorous Cordelia and the helpless Buffy.
The only minor problem with the episode, and it is minor, is the convenience of the ending, which does feel a little over-egged. This is particularly the case with how long it takes Spike to gets to Buffy's neck once he has her pinned down. Although killing Slayers is a big thing for Spike so it makes sense he would take his time, it does get a bit silly towards the end as Giles takes an equally long time to smash the statue and end the spell. It's also odd that Buffy actually lets Spike just run off without even attempting to pursue. Though I suppose with that dress, sprinting was probably going to be an issue. And the episode was never really about the battle with Spike anyway, it's about the battle each character has with themselves.
After the disappointment that was Reptile Boy last week, I'm really happy that Halloween was every bit as good as I remembered it to be and so much more besides. Not to mention the excellent timing of getting this post out to you all actually on the 31st October.
Happy Halloween everyone!
Be seeing you.
Quote of the Week:
Buffy - "You know what? It's good to be me."
Inventive Kill: Buffy stakes a vamp with a Joe's Pumpkin Patch scene. Even Spike comments on her resourcefulness.
Demonology 101: This is just to say how cute are those mini-demons?!
Sunnydale Who's Who: Larry is played by Larry Bagby III who you may also recognise from Halloween classic Hocus Pocus in which he also played a teenage bully, four years prior to his appearance in Buffy. Tubular.
You can read Becky's look back at Reptile Boy here.