[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: David Greenwalt and Joss Whedon | Director: Bruce Seth Green | Aired: 12/08/1997]
“Ted” is an odd episode. It’s thematically a bit scattered, but is structurally quite rigid; it covers some tough topics, but then abruptly recoils from them. The dreaded Reset Button is utilized here, which saps the life out the story’s big emotional beat. This means that all we’re left with is some admittedly solid Buffy character insight along with some thematic and functional setup for the future. It’s a bit of a jumble, but I’m going to try to sort it all out.
There are three clearly defined segments to explore here: (1) Buffy’s struggle to accept Ted’s intrusion into her home, (2) her overwhelming guilt over thinking she killed him, and (3) the reveal of Ted as a maniacal robot. Segments 1 and 2 are pretty compelling television, albeit a bit rushed considering their emotional gravity. Segment 3 doesn’t quite entirely negate the prior segments, but it does curb the episode’s emotional resonance and immediate relevance, taking the whole thing down a couple pegs. The earlier segments do at least leave some lasting echoes into the future, particularly into Season 3 (think “Bad Girls” [3×14] and “Consequences” [3×15]).
The best take-away from the first segment of “Ted” is being able grow even closer to Buffy and getting to know the character better. The insight we gain from her reaction to Ted’s forceful presence will become useful in the later seasons when Buffy begins to analyze why her relationships don’t seem to be working out the way she wants them to, and to test just how much jurisdiction the Slayer should have over human matters. It also helps inform her interaction with Giles, who will increasingly become a father figure to her.
If we go back to “Nightmares” [1×10] for a moment, recall that scene when her nightmare dad said all those nasty things about her. He said it was Buffy’s fault that her parents got divorced and added that “you’re sullen and… rude and… you’re not nearly as bright as I thought you were going to be.” This was all, of course, how Buffy felt about herself at the time in regard to the divorce and was what she had always worried was the reason for it all. None of that is particularly true, but it’s an honest sentiment from a girl who had recently lost her dad as an important figure in her life.
Divorce is often incredibly hurtful and destructive to children, and it statistically as well as intuitively doesn’t give them favorable odds for the success of their future relationships (among other things). With her dad gone, it’s all up to Joyce to both be a strong role model and help surround Buffy with them. Unfortunately for Buffy, Joyce often seems more thrilled with her gallery than she is with her daughter, and is often not even home. I’ve seen far worse mothers than Joyce, but it doesn’t change the fact that she rarely takes an active interest in really getting to know and raise her daughter. She can’t just be a parent after something’s gone wrong — it’s a full-time joy and sacrifice.
It’s with this background that Ted enters the picture at the beginning of the episode. The manner in which Buffy first meets Ted — kissing her mom within her own home, in what is an excellently executed and acted teaser — is utterly devastating. Buffy looks surprised, suspicious, and intimately hurt by seeing this, as she should. Bringing a man who is not Buffy’s father into her life needed to be something Joyce had some important talks with Buffy about well before it happened. Being a good parent involves a lot of sacrifice, not just financially but personally. Children have to come first because they are incredibly impressionable and absorb the example their parents set for them, whether consciously or subconsciously.
So for Joyce to say, “Buffy, I really want you to be okay with this,” is crushing. That statement is the very definition of selfish, putting an incredible burden on Buffy — her child — to be okay with something that is not okay. No wonder the scene cuts to Buffy taking out her pain by wailing on an unsuspecting vampire. I mean, Buffy’s secretly in the midst of her own struggle between mind and body regarding Angel, and here we have her mother essentially saying her own romantic desires trumps her daughter’s well being. No wonder Buffy essentially says ‘screw it’ and jumps into bed with Angel soon.
My instinct here is to rip into Joyce, but I really wonder just how responsible she is for her actions in “Ted”. After all, she was drugged! This is actually a major issue I have with the episode. Just how much agency do Joyce, Willow, and Xander have throughout this episode? Willow and Xander are fairly ancillary to the core story, so it’s not as big a deal, but it plays an important role in how we look at Joyce. I don’t think there’s a clear answer here, but I do think Joyce is still at least partially responsible for her behavior.
The lack of strong role models and parenting in Buffy’s life thus far is vital to understanding some of the struggles she will have in her relationships, and contributes to why she’s not able to say no an unsuitable boyfriend (especially at this age), like Angel. Xander even says, “I sometimes like things that are not good for me,” which is both true and a reflection of Buffy’s feelings for Angel. Unfortunately, the parental issues of neglect and guilt are only going to grow as Buffy learns the extent of her father’s indifference to having a daughter — a situation, like divorce itself, that’s far, far too common and normalized in American society today.
To Buffy’s credit, she shows far more restraint and selflessness than her mom in all of this. Buffy reasons that maybe she’s not being fair to Ted due to an understandable desire to have her dad return home. When Willow asks, “you don’t like him?”, Buffy fairly answers, “I don’t know him.” It takes some maturity to recognize this, even if it turns out Buffy was absolutely right about Ted. The scene where Buffy is venting about vampires and mini pizzas to Giles outside is a classic: “Uh, Buffy! I believe the subtext here is rapidly becoming text.” Feeling like an outsider in her own home, Buffy’s calling as the Slayer is suddenly a comfort in comparison. Thanks to Sarah Michelle Gellar’s rock solid performance, I really feel for Buffy throughout “Ted”.
That whole miniature golf scene is incredibly uncomfortable. John Ritter plays Ted in such a realistically disconcerting manner. Actually, both Ritter and Gellar turn in excellent performances throughout the episode. To see how quickly Ted can switch tone and demeanor is incredible. Some people can really change on a dime like that, and it’s super disconcerting. It’s why, shocking though it is, it didn’t surprise me when Buffy said she’d feel like killing herself if her mom married Ted. If all of those moments were uncomfortable, then the scene where Ted assaults Buffy in her room is even more freaky. Domestic abuse like this sadly really happens in some marriages, which marks one of the rare times the use of divorce should be encouraged. Buffy ends up wailing on Ted in retaliation but loses control of her anger and kicks him down the stairs to his apparent death. This is when “Ted” transitions into the second segment of the episode: Buffy’s guilt.
Within the scope of “Ted” itself, Buffy’s powerful reaction to thinking she killed Ted ends up being unimportant. Not only is Ted still “alive”, but he’s revealed to be a robot! It’s unfortunate how, in retrospect, this reveal takes the wind out of the powerful emotions and moving performance from Gellar. Moving beyond this notable flaw, though, there is fortunately still a bit of value to pull from how Buffy handles this situation. This comes in the form of setup for similar situations down the road that don’t end up getting retracted.
When the police investigator comes to Buffy’s house and questions Joyce about Ted’s “death”, a key thing happens: Buffy takes full responsibility for the event, despite Joyce trying to cover for her daughter by claiming it was an accident (one of the only nice things Joyce does in “Ted”). Buffy doesn’t shy away from the weight and the consequences of her actions, but rather faces it all head on. There’s no question that Buffy has grown tremendously as a person thanks to both Giles’ fatherly guidance and the inherent selflessness required to excel as the Slayer. The moral compass Buffy has is one of her best qualities. This will come to really pay off down the road when Faith comes to town and accidentally kills the deputy mayor.
“Ted” is the first episode to raise the question of just how much authority the Slayer should have. Does the role and its associated superpowers make slayers above human law, thus implying they’re better than regular humans? These are definitely questions that will surface again in Season 3. Here in “Ted”, there’s no debating that Buffy had every right to defend herself from Ted’s physical assault, but she went beyond that and unleashed the full brunt of slayer strength on him. Buffy ‘gets it’ when she tells her friends, “I’m the Slayer. I had no right to hit him like that.”
In having these superpowers Buffy must be held to a higher standard, which brings us back to the season’s thematic undercurrent of individual restraint, personal responsibility, and consequences — all important things to learn about and embrace during adolescence. We’ll see these themes reiterated in “Bad Eggs” [2×12], but in the very different context of sexual relations. The latter part of Season 2 will bring these underlying themes into the light as well, particularly the consequences of not showing responsibility and restraint.
The wisdom Buffy gains through experiences like these will form the basis of what kind of person she is and what her moral center will always be. It’s why she’ll become known for refusing to kill humans unless she’s truly left with no alterative to defend her family and friends. This will become very relevant not only with Faith in Season 3, but also with Ben in Season 5, Warren in Season 6, and even in leading the Potentials in Season 7, among other individual moments such as dealing with killing “Katrina” in “Dead Things” [6×13] and how to handle Anya in “Selfless” [7×05]. The ground explored by “Ted” does provide some solid character insight about Buffy. It’s just unfortunate that this information doesn’t really pay off much in the short term.
This brings us to the letdown of a reveal that Ted was just a robot. On one hand, it’s nice that this fits right into the idea introduced through Janus in “Halloween” [2×06] of people sometimes having two faces — one they show on the surface, and a scarier one that lurks in dark corners. I also fully get that this season isn’t and shouldn’t be about Buffy having to deal with killing a human being and its associated fallout. On the other hand, if Whedon’s going to go there, he’s got to offer follow-through. I appreciate the long-term insight we gain through this whole ordeal, but the lack of emotional resonance will never feel anything but unsatisfactory.
“Ted” is constructed in that annoying way most procedurals are: build up an emotional situation that gets you invested in the story, then hit the Reset Button before things get too hairy so we can forget about everything in the next episode. The entire end of the episode comprises a rote fight sequence that ties everything in a neat little bow. It’s frustrating! I expect more from Buffy, particularly from Whedon himself, who co-wrote “Ted” with David Greenwalt.
The one non-Buffy thread in “Ted” involves Giles and Jenny reconnecting. It’s pretty much shoved into the background of the episode and also comes together a little too neatly, but it’s a nice development overall. It showcases two adults that are maturely working through their reservations and developing their relationship at a more nuanced pace, which continues to provide a nice contrast to the kids’ relationships. It’s also great to see the fallout from Jenny’s traumatic experience in “The Dark Age” [2×08] continue to linger.
It’s excruciating to summarize my feelings about “Ted”. There are aspects of it that really succeed, such as the performances, bits of thematic relevance, and long-term character insight, but it’s equally frustrating in its inability to offer an emotionally satisfying conclusion, instead only amounting to a huge cop out. The insight “Ted” offers doesn’t propel any character arcs forward, and is mostly interesting only when considering later seasons. By mixing the pros and cons together, it’s clear that “Ted” is an overall mediocre episode, but an unusual and colorful one at that.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ I’m guessing the Captain and Tennille discussion might have something to do with the power shift between Spike and Drusilla, but that’s pure speculation.
+ Buffy, Willow, and Xander all casually referencing the events of “What’s My Line? Pt. 2” [2×10]: Spike and Drusilla seemingly finished off, and the assassins’ contract on Buffy being scrapped. I love this kind of continuity!
+ Buffy enjoying a moment of happy non-thoughts. Non-thoughts can be quite nice, rare as they might be.
+ Xander learning from his jinx in “School Hard” [2×03] by at least admitting he might have just done it again. Such fun, casual continuity.
+ Willow squealing over Ted hooking her up with a free computer upgrade.
+ All the early subtle references to Ted being a robot, like “we call him The Machine” and “I think every house should have one of you.”
+ Ted having folded Buffy out of a photo of her and Joyce is nice and creepy.
+ Ted threatens to put Buffy in a mental institution for her diary writings about slaying. “Normal Again” [6×17], anyone?
+ The Overalls of Shame make an appearance!
+ Willow being such a friend and helping Buffy find out more about Ted. Xander, on the other hand, is too busy making out with Cordelia in utility rooms.
+ Giles sticking a cross in Jenny’s face, to which she responds, “yeah, I get the response from men all that time.”
+ Great make-up for Ted when Buffy whacks him in the head.
– It was totally douchey of Xander to force Buffy into going to the miniature golf event with Ted. I’m just not sure how much he was being influenced by Ted’s drugs.
– Oh, Joyce. Ted’s all faux religious and now suddenly you’re all into praying at the table. Must be the drugs.
– Buffy getting knocked out way too easily again.
* Willow keeping some of Ted’s parts briefly ties her to into the episode’s themes. She claims, “I just wanna learn stuff!” Oh, Willow. Just wait until you start thinking that way with magic. Self-control, self-control!