FEATURE: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - What's My Line (Parts One & Two)
Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: A vampire stole a mysterious volume from Giles' library and immediately passed it on to Spike earlier in the season, tensions have been mounting between Cordelia and Xander and oh yeah, Buffy died.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing sometimes isn't it? Throughout this series re-watch, I've had some great moments; spotted things I'd not seen before, references that had previously passed me by, or little character moments that mean more to me than they did on the first few watches. It's largely been a positive experience, but there are also those moments, fleeting or otherwise, that expose flaws in the Buffy DNA that had passed me by before, one such episode being Reptile Boy earlier this season. The What's My Line two-parter manages to encompass both positive and negative aspects when revisiting this episode.
First of all, the summary: What's My Line finds Buffy contemplating her future as Sunnydale High hosts a careers fair whilst Willow finally meets Oz and Xander and Cordelia continue their sparring. All is not good in Sunnydale however (when is it ever?) as Spike and Dru unlock a ritual to restore Dru's health but it involves chaining up Angel half naked in a church. Obviously. To distract Buffy, Spike brings in the Order of Taraka, a nice collection of assassins with a variety of skillsets. When she is set upon by a mysterious female fighter, Buffy assumes her to be an assassin, but she reveals herself to be Kendra, another vampire slayer activated when Buffy 'died' in last season's Prophecy Girl.
First up, let's start with the positives; What's My Line is a cracking two parter that sets in stone some of the most important foundations for later seasons, particularly the third (with Faith) and the seventh (with the Potentials). It's also the episode where Buffy finally starts to confront her duty as the Slayer, rather than trying to run away from it and complain about it all the time. She sees Kendra as offering her a way out of the life, a chance to let her step forward so Buffy can have a normal life. However, by the end of the episode, working with Kendra shows her that actually, she's pretty damn good at her job and enjoys it at least a little bit. It's an important development for the character and though the tension continues between the role of the Slayer and Buffy's regular world persona, it is in What's My Line that she starts to get a little less whiney about the whole deal.
One of the major strengths of these episodes is the dialogue which (aside from the horrendously awkward Kendra moments which we'll get to later) sparkles with a ready wit and keeps the pace zipping along. It's the first episode with Marti Noxon in the writer's chair (along with Howard Gordon) who goes on to become one of the most consistently good writers in the Buffy dialogue bank. She gets to introduce another big character in Oz, though we've already seen him, with some brilliant deadpan one-liners and give our main characters some nicely witty exchanges. A particular favourite is Buffy's 'OK, a regular kid and her cradle-robbing-creature-of-the-night boyfriend'. It was a struggle to pick any one line as I usually do below, but I went for one I quote most often and is definitely the most difficult to get into a general conversation.
And so we come to the negatives which, in my lesser experienced days, I had glossed over simply because I wasn't quite tuned into them. Buffy as a show has always had a bit of a race problem, something which has been recognised and written about by more expert people than I. That I hadn't noticed how overtly problematic Kendra's introduction was says a huge amount about the insidious way in which race is presented in Buffy; it's normalised to the point where it took me countless watches of this two parter to really pick up on. Some viewers may not even see it as a problem, but now I've clocked on to it, What's My Line became quite uncomfortable to watch in places. It has been written about elsewhere and I particularly recommend Kent Ono's 'To Be a Vampire on Buffy' which is available to read here; he only focuses on the first three seasons of the show (those that had aired at the time of writing) but produces a really interesting analysis of the way in which race is presented.
Kendra's accent has been singled out for ridicule from the moment the episodes first aired and it is a terrible accent, a weird mash-up of Jamaican patois and whatever the producers were telling Bianca Lawson to do at the time (she too hated the accent). However, it is more how characters interact with her that becomes increasingly problematic. Upon Buffy's introduction to her, she describes a truce as 'no kicko, no fighto' in response to Kendra's accent, despite her clearly being perfectly capable of speaking English. Buffy goes on to mock her continually throughout the second part, even imitating her accent at one point for no apparent reason. Giles treats her with a patronising tone and Xander reduces her to a blubbering servant, incapable of getting a word out without stammering uncontrollably or making eye contact.
Within the show, this is attributed to Kendra's training; she has been brought up from day one to be a Slayer and isn't allowed to have friends or interact with boys. Unlike Buffy who has been granted a fair amount of freedom (despite her complaining), Kendra has been restricted throughout. However, when looked at within the context of Kendra's race, this behaviour, in contrast to the enlightened Californian blond, white Slayer, looks primitive and barbaric and most importantly, is treated as such. It's certainly eye-opening to watch these episodes in that context and suddenly, I find myself not liking this two-parter as much as I thought I would.
Returning to the duality of hindsight that I opened with, What's My Line becomes a curiously mixed bag; on the one hand, it is an absolute joy to hear some of this dialogue again, to see Oz and Willow interact for the very first time, to see the Order of Taraka get bigged up something rotten by everyone involved and then all get dispatched rather easily by the Scoobies. On the other hand, it brings one of Buffy's major problems into the limelight and somehow, seeing the treatment of Kendra for what it is means that I don't think I shall appreciate these episodes on the same level again which really is a shame.
Quote of the Week:
Oz - "I mock you with my monkey pants" (It had to be this. Just had to be)
Let's Get Trivial: This is the first time that the main characters are referred to as the Scooby Gang, by Xander as he is breaking into Buffy's house with Cordelia.
Inventive Kill: Two for the price of one this week - Buffy slits the first assassin's throat with a handy swing on some hockey nets and her ice skate blade. Willow bags her first vampire kill in a tag team effort with Giles.
Demonology 101: Spike was originally supposed to be killed off in this episode but James Marsters and the character proved so popular with audiences that he was written back into the season, going on to become one of the show's most memorable figures.
PS. I will one day get these posts out on time. I promise.
You can read Becky's look back at The Dark Age here.