FEATURE: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Helpless
Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Angel and Buffy are back together as she approaches her 18th birthday. Giles has felt increasingly alienated from the Watcher's Council.
Buffy's about to turn 18 and everything seems to be going well, particularly now her relationship with Angel is largely back on track as is her relationship with Giles following the latter's distaste at finding out Angel was alive. However, on a routine patrol, Buffy is nearly staked on her own weapon by a vampire and becomes a distinctly lesser version of her Slayery self. Elsewhere, her father cancels on a rare date to the ice show for her birthday and her attempts to get Giles to take her fall flat.
Then there's the small matter that her powers appear to be waning and what at first looks a little like the flu is actually a calculated test called the Cruciamentum, something all slayers must pass on their 18th birthday. Or, you know, die. Giles has been administering drugs on the sly and the Watcher's Council have brought with them a nice insane vampire with a mother fixation called Kralik, just waiting to attack her.
There's a real sense of dread and heartbreak building throughout the episode as we witness Giles, the staunchly principled father figure, betraying Buffy in such a fashion early on in the narrative. It also helps that the brief glimpses we get of Kralik show him to be a singularly terrifying vampire. There aren't many outright moments of action; instead writer David Fury opts for something quieter, building to the haunted house-like sequence in the confrontation with Kralik. Even the final moments in which Giles is fired and Buffy is told she has passed the test are softly done. Rather than exchanging words or apologising, Giles simply tends to Buffy's wounds in a display of the fatherly affection he has just been admonished for.
Helpless also happens to be another interesting fairytale nod here, albeit a little more subtle than last episode's overt offering. Kralik continually draws metaphorical parallels to Buffy's plight as that of Little Red Riding Hood, asking her why she enters the woods or warning her to not stray from the path. The original tale was a warning about the dangers of speaking to strangers, particularly as a young girl. It's something that, with her powers, Buffy has never really had to worry about, but this sudden loss finds her stripped of her defences.
We see Buffy sexually harassed on the street, walking alone and suddenly terrified of the shadows, unable to kick the chauvinistic bastard's head in. Ahem. She also happens to be wearing a red coat in a nod to the aforementioned classic fairytale. As a visual symbol, that red coat carries a few other functions too. Red is traditionally used in many places like fairytales to signify a loss of innocence. For Buffy, it's the realisation that not only is her biological father abandoning her, but the other father figure in her life is capable of betraying her.
The confrontation between Buffy and Giles is one of their best moments in the series, a visceral scene that causes the cracks in their relationship to start widening just a little. It's one of the earlier signs that they're not particularly rock solid as a pair and, like any human relationship, the situations in which they are placed take their toll. It's a sad part of any child's life when they realise their parents are only human and subject to forces outside of their control. It just so happens that Buffy's also comes with the triple whammy of losing her powers and being chased by an insane vampire.
Buffy's loss of power builds into a loss of identity and a loss of confidence; Buffy has spent so long coming to terms with the fact that she is the slayer that when it gets taken away from her, she fears losing herself in the process. It's a standard crisis for a teenage girl, but doubled with the whole power thing, makes it seem that much worse.
Sarah Michelle Gellar gets a lot of emotional work to deal with in Helpless, much more than she's been given to do recently and she handles it well, reminding everyone of why Buffy is a hero to root for in the first place. She's just like us, lacking in confidence, ashamed of her younger self and sometimes, she gets betrayed by someone close to her.
This episode offered some much needed development for Buffy who had fallen by the wayside a little bit in the first half of the season. Now, we're over the halfway point, it'll soon be time to get into the overall arc of the season, but not before Xander gets his own moment in the spotlight. Yes, next week's episode is The Zeppo.
Quote of the Week:
Buffy [watching as Kralik has a Holy Water-based death]: If I was at full Slayer power, I'd be punning right about now.
Let's Get Trivial: This episode marks the beginning of Buffy's breaking away from the Council, something that will be severed entirely in Graduation Day and not repaired until much later.
Inventive Kill: Buffy poisons Kralik by substituting his water for H2O of the Holy variety.
Demonology 101: This is the only time we see what happens to a vampire when it ingests Holy Water. Which is probably for the best really. He's melting... meeeelltttiiiing.
Sunnydale Who's Who: That's Dominic Keating who goes on to play Malcolm in maligned Star Trek series Enterprise and Kralik is played by Jeff Kober who also portrays magic dealer Rack in Buffy's fifth season.
You can catch Becky's look at Gingerbread here.