[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: David Fury | Director: James A. Contner | Aired: 01/19/1999]
An emotionally gripping episode that tests the previously thought solid relationship between Buffy and Giles to the extreme while also being one of the better ‘horror’ episodes in the entire series’ run. On a show with a less capable show-runner, this episode would have been a solid but forgetful episode. With Joss Whedon in charge things go in, once again, completely new directions. Relationships, jobs, locations, and even life itself isn’t a given on this show. Each of those things could change for any of the characters in an instant, as the death of Jenny Calendar in “Passion” [2×17] and the firing of Giles here demonstrates. This is what stand-alone episodes are supposed to do!
The episode begins with Buffy and Angel training together. It’s really fun seeing them playing around in an innocent way, but as soon as she jumps on top of him things heat up extremely quickly. This unreleased sexual tension makes her want to go out and patrol right away. Buffy doesn’t get her sexual fix so now she wants to go kill something. Faith’s “hungry and horny” theory continues to gain points. This eventually leads to the scene at night where Buffy gets dizzy in the middle of a vampire fight. Her stake then gets turned around and she almost gets staked herself. This action is unusual and exciting to see. Note that she actually does get stabbed with her own stake in “Fool for Love” [5×07] .
Buffy later explains to Giles what happened. He of course knows what’s going on and lies to protect the truth of the “the test” from her. The ‘test’ itself is interesting to consider but is ultimately nonsense. Is this excercise really helpful and will it make Buffy stronger? Perhaps in some ways, but it’s still a violation of her body and fundamentally wrong. Not only that, but Quentin Travers seems to toss aside Giles’ concerns about Buffy’s life. The most likely way the Slayer can fail this test is to die. Is that the purpose? Either the Slayer is strong enough or let a new one be called? All this seems completely ridiculous to me. If a Slayer is still alive by her eighteenth birthday that should be proof enough of her ability. It would have been useful to know more about the specifics of the test because I see it as something that would never be done by an organization trying to help in the fight against evil, especially not in today’s world.
The slow removal of Buffy’s strength is underpinned by the father-daughter theme running through the episode. Buffy gets all excited that her dad is coming to take her to the ice show. She soon discovers that he bailed on her. After this huge disappointment she decides she has had enough of her dad’s antics and realizes that he won’t ever be there for her. At this point she does her best to accept that fact and move on with her life. Occasionally, though, we see just how much her father’s absence in her life has hurt her. She makes her feelings painfully clear in “Forever” [5×17] when she says, “I can call my ####### father again to tell him that his ex-wife, our mother is gone.” Even as late as “Normal Again” [6×17] we see her wishing her parents were still together, in love, and there to take care of her.
With her father’s neglection exposed she next turns to Giles to be that father figure for her. He’s completely distracted by his ‘job’ to notice her cries for fatherly love. It’s pretty touching that she’d even ask him to go with her and shows just how far these two have come together since the beginning of the series. Unfortunately this makes it extra painful to see him put her in a trance so he can stick a needle in her. Poor Buffy just can’t win today and I feel terrible for her.
When it begins to look doubtful that she’ll get her powers back, Buffy begins to consider life without powers again. In reality this is actually what she’s always wanted and explains this to Willow. The problem is that she knows about the supernatural world now and can’t turn her back on fighting it, powers or not. She realizes with some finality that she’ll never have a normal life, even if the Slayer responsibilities were pushed aside, so she can finally be at some kind of peace with her life. This is why she’s so quick to ask Giles if he’s found out anything about her weakness. We don’t actually see Buffy complaining much about living a normal life after this episode.
All of these threads come together in the saddening library scene where Giles shocks Buffy with the news that he is poisoning her with muscle relaxants to make her weak. All that painstaking trust that was built between these two people has been violently destroyed in this massive betrayal of Buffy’s body and trust. She literally is having trouble even believing what Giles is telling her, and I can’t blame her.
This is the very first time Buffy catches a glimpse of this part of Giles’ personality. Giles is always willing to do whatever is needed for the “greater good.” While he never fully supports this ‘test’ he does go along with it until things begin to get out of control. He ends up ignoring council orders and goes to help Buffy fight the vampire because he realizes that the test is actually stupid and isn’t for any “greater good.” However, we see this “do what needs to be done” side of Giles come out again at several important junctions in the series, most notably in “The Gift” [5×22] when he kills Ben and again in “Lies My Parents Told Me” [7×17] when he stalls Buffy so that Wood can kill Spike.
I really enjoyed the entire ending “hide and seek” horror section where Buffy is trying to rescue her mom without her powers. It’s all genuinely creepy including the very well-acted moment when Buffy pulls out a cross, shaking but determined, and then the vampire grabs her arm and puts the cross on his stomach and keeps pulling it lower and lower getting some kind of satisfaction out of the pain. Buffy is naturally scared and disgusted by it and runs off.
All of the above would have made a really good episode, but courtesy of Whedon we get even more. Giles gets fired because, as Quentin puts it, he has a “father’s love” of Buffy. Hearing what Giles gave up to help her begins to heal the wounds of his betrayal. After Quentin leaves, Giles comes over to Buffy and in a tender moment, takes the wet cloth Buffy was using to wipe the blood off her forehead and cleans it for her. Buffy will never be able to ‘fully’ trust Giles again after this episode even though much of it is recovered from his after-the-fact actions.
To sum it up, I thought this episode was great. It had loads of darkness, raw emotion, and lasting importance which were all brought to life by the wonderful acting of Anthony Stewart Head and Sarah Michelle Gellar. My only complaints involve wondering why the vampire needs to take pills and some pacing issues. Otherwise this is another top-notch episode to add to the amazingly consistent third season.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Seeing Cordelia fend off a guy who threw Buffy is shocking.
+ Finally seeing other members of the Watcher’s Council.
+ Angel’s explanation of how he met Buffy before she was a Slayer.
+ A bruised and betrayed Buffy shoving the flowers her dad sent her into the trash.
+ The creepy and sick vampire is a really good foe for a weakened Buffy.
+ Buffy pouring holy water into the crazy vampire’s pill glass.
+ Cute ending scene in Buffy’s kitchen. Xander can’t open the peanut butter jar either.
– The early scenes with Quentin Travers are really awkward.
– The scene where Giles finds the massacare at Sunnydale Arms goes on a bit too long.
* Buffy’s dad bails on her, apparently because of work. We find out later that he’s off in Spain with a secretary “living the cliche” and that he decides to completely abandon Buffy.