[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: David Greenwalt and Joss Whedon | Director: John T. Kretchmer | Aired: 09/29/1997]
After the thematically interesting but somewhat boring “Some Assembly Required” [2×02], it’s a joy to see the show rebound with a strong outing in “School Hard.” This is an energetic episode with the show’s new big villain, Spike, as the centerpiece. The other characters take a back seat for this one, but there are still plenty of goodies hiding in the details. These numerous character details help keep this from being an otherwise straightforward plot-heavy episode with little immediate fallout.
There’s no point in trying to delay discussion of the highlight of “School Hard”: Spike and Drusilla’s introduction. Simply put: they steal the show. These vampire lovers inject a powerful energy and newfound excitement into the world of Buffy the likes of which the show has never had before. As far as character introductions go, Spike fares better than Drusilla (who, of course, will get more to do later in the season), which works out for me due to how important he will eventually become to the show.
Spike comes crashing into town, knocking over the “Welcome to Sunnydale” sign. It’s safe to say that Sunnydale, Buffy, and Buffy will never be the same thanks to Spike. “Home sweet home” are Spike’s first words on the show, and they’re more true than Spike could possibly comprehend at this point. He soon makes fun of a vampire boasting about being at the crucifixion (“It would have been like Woodstock”). This is hilarious and a lot of fun. Spike just oozes intrigue and charisma in a way that no other villain thus far has come close to. James Marsters clearly has an excellent grasp on this character from the get-go.
Beyond great acting and a lot of charisma, what makes Spike such an interesting character, exactly? Well, I feel it’s because he’s full of contradictions. He’s a badass, ruthless vampire that softens considerably around those he cares about; he’s a tactical, smart fighter that often lets impulsiveness get the better of him; he’s driven by blood in sex, war, and love. Best of all? He’s capable of transformation. This is something we will see of him within the confines of Season 2 but even more so later in the show. The fact all of these traits — some more subtly than others — are established in his very first episode is an indicator of a writer who has a love of complex characters. I wonder who wrote this episode… oh wait, of course, it’s Joss Whedon (with co-writer David Greenwalt)!
“School Hard” gives us a lot of chew on regarding Spike, and it uses a variety of methods to disseminate it all. Sure there are some interesting tidbits gained through exposition (from Giles and Spike himself), like knowing he’s killed two slayers, but the juiciest stuff lies in the… wait for it… details. “School Hard” is jam-packed with sexual subtext, but perhaps even more interesting is that Spike simply doesn’t do what’s expected of him as a villain (“it’s time for a little less ritual, and a little more fun around here!”) — he won’t be shackled by old rules and rituals.
This notion of subverting the societal expectation thrust on you feels kind of familiar, doesn’t it? Well, it should, because it’s exactly what makes Buffy such a special slayer, and person. Both Buffy and Spike subvert these expectations and they play by their own set of rules. They are equally matched rivals in the truest sense, which puts them on opposite sides of a level playing field. It’s because of this very connection that Spike turns out to not be the real villain of the season, but instead ends up actually helping Buffy in the end. This thematic link between the two of them is no accident — they are counterparts.
Early in “School Hard” Drusilla cuts Spike’s left cheek, eventually leaving a red streak of dried blood on it. Later in the episode we curiously see Buffy with a red streak of dried paint on the exact same spot of her cheek. If this isn’t symbolic of their connection, both as adversaries (blood as violence) and — much later — as lovers (blood as sex), then I don’t what is. At minimum, it’s further evidence that they won’t be able to stay out of each others’ lives for very long.
Being in Season 2 it’s of no surprise that Spike’s entrance comes with a jolt of sexual energy. In Spike and Drusilla we see a villainous counterpart to all of the other couplings that are trying to form this season. Right from her first scene Drusilla can sense that Buffy is a danger to her relationship with Spike, saying, “I can’t see her, Spike. It’s dark where she is.” Drusilla will later tell her dolls that Miss Edith needs to be punished because she “spoke out of turn.” Is that not what Buffy does throughout the show: metaphorically speak out of turn? Drusilla does not like Buffy one bit, nor her effect on Spike.
This all brings us to the scorching dance scene at the Bronze. What is with Season 2 and intense dance scenes? Whatever it is, I love it! Spike’s expressions here are so multi-faceted and can be read into far more with knowledge of how the show eventually plays out. Take a moment to recognize that the very first time Spike sees Buffy she is not fighting, but dancing. Now transport yourself to this exchange in “Fool for Love” [5×07]: Buffy asks Spike, “You think we’re dancing?” Spike quickly responds, “That’s all we’ve ever done.”
Spike’s first impression of Buffy could be best characterized as ‘awe.’ His mouth is gaping open as if he is without words to express just how taken he is at the sight of her. You might even say that this is — initially — a childlike awe without menace or sexual intent. But as soon as the song — which is very forshadowy — picks up, his expression morphs into that of a predator with definite sexual undertones. Spike is allured by Buffy, attracted to her, and wants to devour her. He’s so affected by her that he needs an extra second to snap himself out of the moment. Only then does he finally get down to the business of testing her skill — a smart thing to do. Having a villain be so forthcoming in his intentions is quite refreshing. This is a marvelous scene that hints at so much about Spike’s character without spelling it out. Knowing what’s ahead for these characters makes this moment absolutely thrilling.
If the scene at the Bronze is loaded with sexual energy, then the scene in the school hallway between the two of them doubles down. “I smell the blood of a nice ripe girl,” Spike says, implying that he knows Buffy is on her period. Oh, but that’s just the start! Then the barrage of double entendres from the two of them start to fly! We’ve got weapons making Spike feel “all manly” while holding a pole. Then there’s Spike saying, “As a favor from me to you, I’ll make it quick. It won’t hurt a bit,” which has a definite virgin vibe directed at Buffy. He likely wants to have sex with her almost as much as he wants to feed off her, both of which will be developed in the seasons to come. Buffy’s response to all this is equally heated and prophetic: “No, Spike, it’s gonna hurt a lot.” Wow. All of the scenes that Buffy and Spike share in “School Hard” are packed with subtext, prophecy, and tension. There’s some wonderful writing at work here, and it’s a joy to see.
“School Hard” is very focused on Spike, and although no other character gets the spotlight it doesn’t mean there aren’t any interesting… details. Take the scene where Buffy is fighting a vampire outside the Bronze while she commands Xander to find her a stake. Xander rummages through Buffy’s purse frantically looking for the object in question. Before finding what he’s looking for, though, he fumbles through a yo-yo (a remnant of Buffy’s childhood), a tampon (an indicator of Buffy’s sexual awakening ), and then finally a stake (the object that will lead her to adulthood).
Not only do these objects hint of Buffy’s larger character trajectory, but Xander’s reactions to them give us an idea about where he’s at too. It’s interesting that he shows indifference to Buffy’s yo-yo (i.e. her childhood, just as he did to her trauma in “When She Was Bad” [2×01]) yet treats her tampon like a hot potato. Right now Xander is terrified of female sexuality as much as he is attracted to it, which is probably why his relationship with Cordelia will turn out to be so childish. In a less than 30 second sequence we get a ton of character detail and a hefty chuckle, something few (if any) shows can match with this amount of ease. Simply wonderful.
Another detail I appreciated was the emotional insight into how Buffy feels about her life right now. Buffy rightly points out (in private) that she already has a job, unbeknownst to her mother. To hear Joyce say that she doesn’t want to be disappointed in Buffy again is heartbreaking. Buffy feels helpless to the circumstances of her life right now, and has people imposing their authority on her from all sides. There’s Snyder at school, Giles at work, and her mother at home. The pros and cons of these pillars of authority just so happens to be one of the major themes of Season 3! Cheers for subtle thematic setup!
The final scene in “School Hard” is glorious in more ways the one. The Anointed One represented eternal childhood, but because Buffy has chosen to accept — albeit begrudgingly — her destiny, he no longer holds any power over her. This is why he’s seen outsourcing to other vampires and ends up becoming burnt toast by the end of the episode. It’s awesome to see Spike torch such a boring character and then go watch TV with Dru. What a surprising and thrilling moment! This is yet another indicator that the show’s improvement is here to stay!
There’s a whole lot to love about “School Hard.” Probably its weakest aspect, and where its title comes from (re: Die Hard), is that it devolves into a bit of a toothless action movie in its last half or so. It’s all adequately done and holds my attention alright, but it takes up quite a bit of the episode without delivering much in the way of payoff. Since this turns into more of an action outing than an emotional one, my investment in its conclusion isn’t nearly as high as it otherwise would be. This takes a bit of the sheen off an otherwise fabulous episode, but it’s a small price to pay considering how much character insight we get.
“School Hard” is a brilliant introduction vehicle for Spike, who will turn into one of the most complex and fascinating characters in Buffy‘s seven season run. Action movie instincts aside, we get an episode packed with character detail, thematic setup, several standout scenes, and a whole lot of fun. We have another winner!
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Parent-Teacher night at the school represents one of Buffy’s biggest challenges in the early years: trying to keep the disparate aspects of her life separated from each other in a futile attempt at normalcy.
+ It’s harsh that Buffy gets lumped into the same category as a girl who stabbed a teacher. Being blamed for something you’re not really responsible for always sucks, which is something Buffy constantly has to put up with.
+ It’s interesting that the moment Drusilla walks in — while Spike is bragging — he stops himself, switches back into his human face, and shows concern and kindness towards his partner. This is a twisted but loving couple, which is yet another thing we haven’t yet seen out of vampires on the show before (the Angel/Darla history is mentioned in Season 1 though).
+ The synchronized face turn that Spike and Dru do is just glorious. It’s both creepy and cool.
+ Drusilla is somewhat childlike here, what with the white dress and all, due to her injury. It’s interesting to watch how she changes when she gets healed up in “What’s My Line? Pt. 2” [2×10].
+ Buffy’s pathetic attempt at chopping a large zucchini (or possibly cucumber) is hilarious.
+ Cordelia slamming Xander’s dating life is highly amusing considering their mutual future.
+ Willow punishing Cordelia by suggesting she drinks Buffy’s tasteless lemonade. Haha.
+ Drusilla is incredibly creepy, but no more so than when she takes out Sheila. Yikes!
+ The score in this episode continues to showcase Christophe Beck’s impact on the show’s improving presentation.
+ Joyce being proud of her daughter’s resourcefulness is a nice coda to the action, but it’s far from permanent.
+ Snyder knowing more about the happenings of the town than we initially suspected is an awesome development. It creates more intrigue and utility out of him while helping to lay the groundwork for the plot and themes of Season 3. Great stuff.
+ Cordelia doesn’t get much to do in this episode, but her offhand comment, “Unless it’s that time of the month,” alludes to Buffy’s implied period during the episode.
+ David Boreanaz’s acting has definitely improved since “Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01], but it’s still not that good. He barely sells the scenes he has to share with James Marsters. The acting gap between these two couldn’t be farther at this point.
* The song that plays at the Bronze when Spike first lays eyes on Buffy is called “Stupid Thing” by Nickel. The lyrics basically spell out what Spike will do later in the episode, but also in later seasons. They’re generally insightful towards Spike’s personality as well: “I did a stupid thing last night, I called you. A moment of weakness. No, not a moment, more like three months of weakness. I’m one step away from crashing to my knees. One step away from spilling my guts to you.”
* “In a few week’s time…the stars will align, and smile down on us.” Spike brought Drusilla to the Hellmouth to restore her strength. They need to wait for the stars to align a certain way in order to help her. This line is a setup for their plans which begin with the stealing of one of Giles’ books in “Lie to Me” [2×07], then stealing the decoder cross in “What’s My Line? Pt. 1” [2×09], and then the execution of the actual ritual in “What’s My Line? Pt. 2” [2×10].
* Spike shows disgust that Angel has appeared to switch sides, saying “you Uncle Tom!” This is ironic considering that Spike will be the one helping Buffy by the end of the season.
* Spike pointing out that Buffy’s “family and friends” weren’t “in the brochure” is very astute. This is something specific to Buffy that will give her strength in the years to come and separate her from other slayers.