[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Carl Ellsworth | Director: Bruce Seth Green | Aired: 10/27/1997]
“Don’t wish to blow my own trumpet, but it’s genius. The very embodiment of ‘be careful what you wish for’.” – Ethan Rayne
It’s almost as if writer Carl Ellsworth (with likely plenty of help from Whedon) is reaching through the screen and bragging about how great a story this is, because that quote really sums up “Halloween” perfectly. “Halloween” is actually brilliant in its structural simplicity: the Scoobies turn into their costumes on Halloween and Giles has to figure out how to revert the changes. This basic framework unlocks a lot of breathing room for both insight and growth from a nice variety of characters.
The best thing “Halloween” has going for it, besides said character growth, is that it’s fun! After the heavy-handedness and occasional boredom of the last two episodes it’s nice to see a well-paced episode that is enjoyable from start to finish. It’s an episode with nary a crippling flaw.
“Halloween” splits up its attention evenly amongst Buffy, Willow, and Xander, with Ethan Rayne invoking Janus — along with fond memories of Sean Bean in Goldeneye — as the catalyst for their mini journeys. It’s a “division of self,” Giles says, who himself reveals a pre-existing division between Tweed Man and Ripper. In Giles’ case it’s the division of past and present. Cordelia, on the other hand, doesn’t change into her costume — metaphorically — because she has no schism of self: she comes as she is. The other characters, though, aren’t so lucky. Drusilla says, “Everything’s switching. Outside to inside:” you become your costume. Where Xander and Willow find inner confidence from this change, Buffy discovers that her princess fantasy is not only dangerous, but also a barrier to both what she wants now (i.e. Angel) and to the woman she is to become — it’s a reduction of self on multiple levels.
Janus, the Roman god of (per Wikipedia) “beginnings and transitions,” is at the heart of what “Halloween” has to say and also marks a transition into the next thematic section of the season. What does this mean for the characters though? Well, it hints that their world is going to be changing soon and that people may have more sides to them than are initially seen. The opening episodes of Season 2 have thus far been strongly focused on Buffy’s sexual awakening, but “Halloween” marks a bit of a thematic shift in focus with Janus as the guide.
Starting with Ethan Rayne in this episode we see a sequence of featured newcomers, and one regular, that aren’t entirely who they appear to be, from Ford (“Lie to Me” [2×07]) to Giles (“The Dark Age” [2×08]) to Kendra (“What’s My Line? Pt. 1” [2×09]) to Ted (“Ted” [2×11]). Finally, “Bad Eggs” [2×12] will pull the focus right back to strong sexual themes leading into “Surprise” [2×13] and “Innocence” [2×14], where both of these competing themes are equally at play, thus kicking off an earth-shattering emotional arc for Buffy that will forever change who she is. This all fits right into the larger picture of the characters’ burgeoning adolescence — harder choices, surprising people, and changing roles. Season 2 is a very personal, intimate season, but not only in a sexual way, which means that Buffy’s not the only one to come out of the season changed.
Some of that change starts right here though! Each of the core characters learns something important about themselves in “Halloween”, and we thankfully don’t run into the dreaded Reset Button at the end that wipes it all away. The episode kicks off with Buffy dispatching a vampire on a nightly patrol. This causes her to be late to the coffee date that created all the excitement in “Reptile Boy” [2×05]. The competition from Cordelia for Angel’s affections — even though he has no interest in her — along with the effect that Buffy’s slayer sacrifices will always have on her personal life lead to a false belief that a lack of traditional feminine ‘grace’ might not be so appealing to Angel. It doesn’t help that Cordelia’s telling Buffy “when it comes to dating, I’m the Slayer.” The 18th century dress Buffy finds in the Watcher Diaries gets her thinking that this is the sort of girl Angel might have been into at that time (which turns out to be entirely false). All of this leads her to the decision to dress up as a proper princess for Halloween — one that that can “coif with the best of ’em.”
The problem with all the “coifing” is that it is precisely the kind of character Buffy was built to subvert! To see her want to inhabit this persona is self-defeating, although I can certainly understand her motivation for it. For one, she really doesn’t know Angel very well, and they don’t really talk extensively about anything other than ‘work’. Although the princess fantasy can be naïve, childish, and arguably dangerous, there’s also something inherently charming and appealing about it. Disney movies, if nothing else, prove that there’s definitely an appetite for the fantasy of the strapping young prince rescuing the beautiful pampered princess. In the world Buffy lives in, though, this kind of fantasy isn’t a realistic option, as we find out through the ease in which Spike can get to this version of Buffy.
What Janus does for Buffy is showcase the split between her inner child and her maturing adolescent state. For this one episode Buffy gets to become a child again, and the results aren’t pretty. While in this childlike state, the more complex world of adolescence is more than she can handle — she is helpless, scared, and easy fodder for a hungry Spike. Buffy’s underlying cry for support and warmth comes through clearly: “No! I, I don’t understand any of this! (Looks at photo of herself) This is some other girl! I would never wear this, that low apparel, and I don’t like this place, and I don’t like you, and I just want to go home!” This is the language of a frightened child, or, per Spike, a “lost little lamb.”
These cries to be taken care of may live in a corner of Buffy’s psyche, but they don’t define who she is anymore. Buffy has chosen to step on the path to adulthood. This is why when the spell breaks, the first words we hear from her — in reference to her earlier cry of wanting to go home — are “hey honey, I’m home!” These words, said to Spike, mock the helpless version of herself while reinforcing who she is now: a confident albeit still maturing girl with a whole lot of power. None of this insight is particularly revelatory considering everything that was explored in Season 1 and “When She Was Bad” [2×01], but it’s a welcome reinforcement of those themes nonetheless.
Willow, on the other hand, gets some hard growth in “Halloween”. Early in the series one of Willow’s biggest insecurities is her lack of confidence. The ghost costume is perfect for Willow right now, and a clear attempt to hide anything that might bring attention to her. The fact that Willow keeps the skimpy outfit on underneath the ghost outfit is very telling and suggests that a much more confident individual lies beneath the shy exterior. Sometimes all that’s needed is a gentle, yet forceful, push to begin that transformation.
Well, Willow doesn’t exactly get pushed forward gently here. Janus brilliantly causes Willow to turn into an actual ghost, but the real treat is that it’s a ghost of the sexier, confident persona she was previously trying to hide. This is incredibly clever! Even better is that with Buffy out of commission and Xander with no memory of who he is, Willow’s the only one capable of leading everyone to safety in the midst of all the chaos. Without missing a beat, Willow takes charge by corralling the Scoobies to relative safety, syncing up with Giles at the library to find out what is happening, and then meeting back up with the group to fill everyone in.
In taking charge and handling a crisis, particularly when in an embarrassing (to her) skimpy outfit, Willow has gained a nice bit of natural confidence from the experience. Down the road, unfortunately, magical confidence will become a substitute for personal confidence, which leads her down a dangerous path. For now, though, Willow is on the right track to becoming a more assured girl who’s capable of holding her own in a healthy way. As an added bonus, Willow gets rewarded for this growth by Oz becoming increasingly infatuated with her as a result of specific changes she’s been making in her life (i.e. letting her crush on Xander go and putting herself out there more). After all, when Willow bumped into Oz at the school covered up in the ghost costume he didn’t notice her at all! This is slick character writing.
Finally we come to Xander, who’s facing a bit of a masculine version of Willow’s struggles. Xander has trouble sticking up for himself at school, as initially shown by his confrontation with Larry. When Buffy roughs Larry up a bit to defend him it violates the “man code,” causing him to be (overly) offended. Within the halls of a high school this sort of incident can sadly lead to a whole lot of bullying, especially for those that appear weak. High school can most certainly be hell at times.
Similar to how Willow overcompensates for her shyness with a ghost costume, Xander overcompensates for his struggles with an ultra-masculine army costume. Janus ends up having a similar effect on Xander as it did to Willow, as it allows him to be the hero — the lead guy — for probably the only time in his life thus far, and just like Janus’ effect drew Oz to Willow, Cordelia is further drawn to Xander thanks to this transformation. Despite all of Janus’ transformations, I really feel like there’s a seed of the individual personalities shining through. This means that Buffy really does still have childish fears living inside her, Willow really does have a well of confidence inside of her, and that Xander definitely has inner strength and is capable of defending himself — the last part being why beating up Pirate Larry gives him so much “closure.”
“Halloween” is a really pleasant episode that offers a bit of depth but a surprising breadth of character growth that is spread among a lot of characters. Throw in some humor, a little Spike, and one of the best plots in the entire series, and we’ve got a definite winner. The only thing holding back my excitement a tiny bit is that none of the action here strikes a deep emotional chord. It’s a fun episode, no doubt, but it’s lacking in moments — whether comedic or dramatic — that find my gut and deeply affect me. Buffy is capable, at its best, to deliver everything “Halloween” can while simultaneously launching my emotions into the stratosphere. Even though “Halloween” doesn’t quite reach that level, it doesn’t detract much from my enthusiasm for what is truly a wonderful, classic episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Neat little teaser fight in the pumpkin patch.
+ Spike getting some film on Buffy in secret. It’s smart, sure, but I think Spike also enjoys simply watching her fight.
+ The nice bit of continuity from “Reptile Boy” [2×05] regarding the coffee date.
+ Seeing Cordelia flirting with Angel at the Bronze is just so fun considering the friendship the two of them will have over on Angel.
+ The notion that the evil forces of the world take the night off for Halloween, which is itself a kind of reversal of expectations.
+ The scene where Buffy distracts Giles so Willow can sneak into his office to snatch the Watcher Diaries. Cute!
+ Buffy telling Giles that Ms. Calendar said he was “a babe.” Even better? Willow’s scowl of disapproval. Hah!
+ Ah, Ethan Rayne, chaos worshiper. His presence is always solid for a few chuckles.
+ The background continuity of Cordelia having problems with Devon, which is clearing the stage for a relationship change. Right after Cordelia complains about Devon, Willow and Oz casually bump into each other. Awesome.
+ Spike’s pure glee at seeing the chaos in the streets. I like how he has a similar reaction — even after a ton of character growth — in “Bargaining Pt. 2” [6×02]. A soulless demon is still a soulless demon.
+ Willow walking through the wall and freaking Giles out! This is one of my favorite laugh-out-loud moments in the entire series!
– It would have been nice seeing Buffy exert a little more effort at the end to prevent Spike from leaving.
* The hints about “Ripper” will be brought up again soon, as in two episodes soon (“The Dark Age” [2×08]).
* Angel recalls that in his youth he didn’t care for the noble women of the day. He wanted someone “exciting; interesting.” As we’ll come to find out in “Becoming Pt. 1” [2×21], Darla fits that bill. This is kind of like pre-shadowing!