[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Rob Des Hotel and Dean Batali | Director: Deran Serafian | Aired: 03/03/1998]
It’s got to be tough being “Killed by Death”, an interesting little episode stuck between two powerhouses. The basic plot here feels very much like a leftover from the Season 1 handbag, which initially doesn’t inspire much excitement. Surprisingly, though, “Killed by Death” ends up becoming another example of just how much the show has matured between seasons. By taking this relatively uninteresting plot and seamlessly integrating Season 2’s ongoing themes, characters arcs, and tone into it, what would have been a really poor episode is transformed into something worthwhile.
As mentioned, “Killed by Death” seems almost completely inconsequential at first glance — skippable, even. Buffy gets sick and saves some kids from a demon. The pace is a bit on the slow side, little happens in the season’s larger story, and it has some other legitimate flaws. So what value does “Killed by Death” have then, if any? To answer that question we have to ask several new ones; questions like why is Buffy sick? What purpose does the demon serve within the story? Does defeating the demon provide any deeper meaning? Where do her friends factor into all of this? Answering these questions, it turns out, will help us understand the importance of “Killed by Death” to Buffy’s Season 2 arc.
Right from the first scene of “Killed by Death” it’s clear that Buffy is ill — indeed, she has the flu. Why is Buffy sick though? Well, Joyce explains it pretty clearly to Giles: “Buffy’s been so down since it happened. She never gets sick.” It would be easy to think that Angelus’ murder of Jenny is solely responsible for Buffy’s sudden illness, but it runs a lot deeper than that. Since “Innocence” [2×14] we’ve seen Angelus murder several people, several more are referenced or implied, and it can only be assumed that there are yet more on top of that. Some of these deaths are people Buffy personally knew, like Theresa in “Phases” [2×15] and, of course, Jenny. Most of the others may be nameless victims, but Buffy is still feeling the weight of letting them down.
Buffy has endured a string of failures for the first time in her tenure as the Slayer, and the cumulative weight of these failures has literally sickened her. Then by trying to overcompensate for a growing feeling of helplessness by tensely taking yet more blows from Angelus in the beginning of the episode, it pushes Buffy over the edge and right into the hospital. Recovering from this bout won’t be easy either: there’s a demon in the hospital killing kids, and Angelus is still lurking around every corner. In Buffy’s brief time at the hospital she quickly witnesses a child being carted off and the doctor being murdered, which is not lost on her (“Another person I wasn’t in time to save.”) Willow tries to plea with her that “one night of rest won’t kill you,” to which Buffy bitingly retorts “no, but it might kill someone else.” When it rains it pours, and Buffy can’t even find rest while hospitalized with the flu.
After a scary scene involving a crazed Buffy pleading to get out of the hospital (giving me serious “Normal Again” [6×17] vibes), Buffy soon suspects that there’s a demon walking the halls of the hospital that is sucking the life out of children. The demon, Der Kindestod (a.k.a. Child Death), turns out to be very real and targets children because they’re naturally weak and must rely on others for protection. So the demon is deadly to the most vulnerable, a scenario that hits Buffy right where it hurts at this point in the season because Sunnydale’s population, among them her friends, have been relying on her protection to survive what goes bump in the night, particularly Angelus. Sick or not, Buffy is the Slayer, and she will not let this thing kill another child. “Killed by Death” argues that Buffy’s protector instinct may run even deeper than we had previously thought.
The Der Kindestod situation is personal enough to Buffy thanks to Angelus, but “Killed by Death” feels the need to add a seemingly redundant piece of backstory to make the situation even more personal. This backstory, of course, is her cousin Celia who we find out was killed in a hospital, conveniently, by the very same demon! So Buffy also feels guilty because she couldn’t save her cousin back when she was a little kid. Okay, so there’s no doubt that this is quite forced, particularly that it’s the same demon, but the more I started thinking about Buffy’s flashbacks in “Killed by Death”, the more I started liking what they were actually suggesting.
In one of the flashbacks we see Buffy playing the role of a superhero (“Power Girl to the rescue!”) and saving her cousin from faux peril. When thinking about this from the perspective of only this episode, it’s totally forced, but if we expand our perspective series-wide, it suddenly becomes revelatory. How so? Well, it seems to me that Buffy’s childhood roleplaying of a super-powered protector is actually an expression of being a Potential Slayer. As we’ll learn in Season 7, potentials have some enhanced instincts and abilities even if they never get called as the Slayer. This flashback fits in perfectly with the larger slayer mythology, thus further enriching Buffy’s character arc. It also makes episodes such as “Helpless” [3×12], “The Weight of the World” [5×21], and “Help” [7×04] all that much more interesting. Season 5 and Season 7 benefit the most from this knowledge — heck, it turns out Celia is actually the prelude to Dawn. Suddenly some of these flashbacks don’t feel quite as forced. How fun!
“So this isn’t about you being afraid of hospitals ’cause your friend died and you wanna conjure up a monster that you can fight so you can save everybody and not feel so helpless?” – Cordelia
While blunt, Cordelia is totally right here, and Giles validates it by adding that “Death and disease are things, possibly the only things that Buffy cannot fight. It’s only natural for her to try to create a defeatable opponent. Especially now, after Jenny.” These statements hit even harder because of what we know is in Buffy’s future, “The Body” [5×16] and “Normal Again” [6×17] being two prime examples. Cordelia’s statement is neat in that it has two meanings, one on a story level and one on a meta level. On the story level, Buffy is more than eager to encounter a demon she can effectively fight and stop from hurting people — in fact, this is the very cure to her larger illness. Buffy needs a ‘win’ right now along with a bit of rest to get back on her feet. On the meta level, the statement speaks to how Buffy, as we know, uses the supernatural as a metaphor for very real world issues. This is the writers effortlessly slipping in a little wink of self-awareness through Cordelia, which is quite amusing.
Thankfully, a regular demon just might be what the doctor ordered for Buffy. To defeat the demon, Buffy ends up making herself sick (again) so she can actually see and kill the creature. This is exactly what the doctor was doing to help the kids: give them more of the flu so it would quickly flush out of their systems. Becoming sicker acts as a catalyst (i.e. sight) that helps Buffy properly heal (i.e. kill the demon). It’s also a reminder of the sacrifices often required of the Slayer to succeed, a notion that has been muddled for Buffy ever since things heated up with Angel.
Killing Der Kindestod restores Buffy’s sense of confidence and frees her to prepare for the bigger challenge that lies ahead: killing Angelus. Buffy thinks she’s ready to put down Angelus, per the end of “Passion” [2×17], but there are some major roadblocks that Buffy must break through before her words become truth, such as the need to forgive herself for what happened to Angel and then completely let go of him. Only then will she be able to reclaim her identity from Angelus and be whole again. Both of these steps will also be “sickening” to go through, but Buffy will come out the other end stronger for it, which is what “Killed by Death” lays down the template for.
Spike made an insightful statement in “School Hard” [2×03] in saying, “A slayer with family and friends. That sure as hell wasn’t in the brochure.” In the coming years there will always be a tension between Buffy’s solitary burden and her connection with said family and friends, but here in Season 2 we’re still at a point where that tension is at a minimum. (Season 3 will begin to show some strain.) The benefit of having a support system is readily apparent in “Killed by Death”, as all the Scoobies work together to help Buffy learn about the demon. Even better is how genuinely friendly they are to Buffy, not just as her sidekicks. Although they all help out the best they can, Buffy is still the one that figures out how to see the demon and eventually put him down. This suggests that that her friends aren’t strictly necessary for success, but they are one reason she continues to succeed.
Speaking of friends, the best individual scene in “Killed by Death” is when Angelus enters the hospital to bring Buffy flowers. Could he get any creepier than he’s been lately? Yikes! Xander being quite gallant in standing up to him on Buffy’s behalf is quite likely one of the best Xander moments in the entire series, particularly in the high school years. Go Xander! Angelus, of course, does everything he can to twist the knife, saying to Xander, “Buffy’s White Knight. You still love her. It must just eat you up that I got there first.” Oh my! It’s crude, but it definitely cuts. In a nicely subtle touch, Xander literally gasps for air after Angelus walks away. What a tense scene, especially after everything that went down in “Passion” [2×17]. I love the follow-through!
I’d like to take a moment to express my appreciation for the general “Passion” [2×17] creepiness spillover, particularly in the first half of “Killed by Death”. When Der Kindestod walks by Buffy’s hospital room for the first time, it’s definitely worth a hearty shiver for being genuinely unsettling. The cinematography is also worth noting, particularly those tilting hallway shots of the hospital at night. Another contributor is Shawn Clement and Sean Murray, who fill in for Christophe beck with a solid original score that nicely mingles the creepy, surreal, and somber.
For all it does well, “Killed by Death” is certainly not without its flaws. There’s definitely some filler that can be spotted here and there, such as the scene where Cordelia flirts with the security as a distraction for Xander. The banter between Cordelia and Xander, while playful and inoffensive, doesn’t really shed any new insight into either character or their relationship. It is nice to see them in more of a normal ‘relationship’ mode, what with Cordelia actually being helpful by bringing Xander some food and assisting Giles with research. The plot itself isn’t particularly interesting in of itself, and the pacing becomes a bit of a slog in a few places, usually accompanying the group’s attempts to hunt down information on the conveniently suspicious doctor. Then, of course, there is the flashback of Buffy’s cousin being conveniently killed by the same demon that’s hanging around the hospital.
Flaws and all, “Killed by Death” is an important and necessary emotional recharge (and through-line) for all the guilt and pain that Buffy’s accrued since “Innocence” [2×14]. I found myself pleasantly surprised by it more often than I was disappointed by it. While certainly not a ‘great’ episode, or particularly amazing in any one area, it’s not that bad either — decent even. Its theme, characterization, and tone are all quite solid, and the more I think about it the better it gets. This is not to excuse its rough edges, because it definitely has several of them, but that shouldn’t mask what is unfortunately a forgotten episode that has far more to offer than initially meets the eye.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ There are a lot of “Normal Again” [6×17] vibes in this episode. I keep thinking about the mental institution reveal.
+ Joyce offering Giles condolences over Jenny’s death.
+ Giles getting a big warm smile out of Buffy by making a pointed comment about Cordelia.
+ The Scoobies’ discussion on “playing doctor” is quite funny, but it also ties into the larger theme of adolescence. Something that used to be innocent now has new meanings.
+ Xander surprisingly pulling out a reference from The Seventh Seal. Did Willow force him to see it?
+ Cordelia being very… Cordelia in this episode, which is generally pretty amusing, although I do wish we’d see her evolve a bit more quickly than we do.
+ Cordelia calling out Xander for checking out Buffy’s body. I like that Cordelia isn’t taking his fawning lying down.
+ When Buffy tells the boy, “believe me, I’m not that grown up,” it’s the truth, which is a subtle reminder that she’s in that awkward stage between a child and an adult.
+ The way Giles asks Buffy if the demon drawing was her work is pretty funny. We’ll get to become quite familiar with Giles’ sketching ability in Seasons 4 and 7. 🙂
+ Buffy saying, “too bad Angel didn’t put me in the hospital sooner,” and actually kind of meaning it. Buffy can’t catch a break!
+ Buffy drinking the flu on purpose. Ew. I really don’t think I could bring myself to do that.
+ Willow’s ridiculous “frogs!” distraction.
+ The appropriately disturbing effect of the demon’s eye suckage.
+ The very cozy final scene where Buffy, Willow, and Xander munch on snacks and watch TV together. Enjoy this while it lasts, folks, because everything’s about to change for these kids.
+ The hilarious drawing the boy made for Buffy. Awesome.
– Buffy’s line, “you make me sick,” is a bit too on-the-nose for my taste, even coming from her.
* Xander tells Angelus, “you’re gonna die, and I’m gonna be there.” Well, close enough anyway (“Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22]).