[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: David Fury and Jane Espenson | Director: Alan J. Levi | Aired: 11/19/2002]
“Sleeper” does an surprisingly admirable job of following through with what was started in “Conversations with Dead People” [7×07]. Although not nearly as strong or inventive as “Conversations,” it’s a very respectable and solid follow-up that goes out of its way to begin showing us the scope of the First’s ambitious plans and its influence around the world. “Sleeper” is able effortlessly maintain a very slick pace that had a very firm grasp of my attention. Besides just striking the perfect tone, it also has some powerful character moments such as when Buffy confronts Spike about his evening activities, and when Buffy chooses to spare Spike’s life despite the fact he’s been killing again — albeit beyond his control — and wants to be dusted for it. Personally, I feel this is a very underrated episode.
Right when the episode begins, the writers give me a happy by picking up immediately after the events of “Conversations.” I particularly appreciated Willow’s early conversation with Dawn about what they both saw; both of their reactions rang very true to me. Willow was almost fooled by a very demonic presence while Dawn was left trying to convince herself that her mom really talked to her. There wasn’t anything obvious to make Dawn doubt the message, but Willow tells Dawn to express caution, and to not trust what she saw. The First’s message to Dawn is so convincing, though, that it’s almost impossible not to believe it.
Buffy comes knocking on Xander’s door at 4:30 in the morning asking about Spike. Xander asks if he’s in trouble. Buffy, with a very concerned look on her face, says, “I hope not.” If Spike is in trouble, of his own will, then that would mean her gut feeling about his newfound soulful potential is woefully misplaced, and has lead to dire consequences. Her reaction in this opening scene feels immediate, relevant, and real.
The conversation continues with Xander doing his best to not judge Spike unfairly — to be objective guy. Buffy, although at first trying to bring up objective points on her own in Spike’s defense, then just shakes her head and says, “No, mm-mmm. There’s something. I can feel it. He’s different. He’s changed.” When Spike arrives back at Xander’s, Buffy questions him but doesn’t really get anything conclusive. What makes the situation so difficult is the fact that non-triggered Spike genuinely can’t remember what he’s done at this point.
This leads to a scene where Buffy is following Spike in a crowd of people outside, trying to find out what, if anything, he’s up to. This sequence is really well-executed with a tense atmosphere, an excellent score, and genuinely invested stakes. Buffy, as a show, is simply so well built-up from existing pieces that even a scene like this one turns into something captivating to watch. On any other show this would be a fairly boring run-of-the-mill scene, but here it’s actually captivating.
When Buffy charges into Spike’s room with a boatload of serious accusations later that evening, after losing him in the street, Spike tries to defend himself even though he begins to suspect something’s not right. Their entire ensuing argument is loaded with some very important and emotional insights. Buffy’s pushing him into revealing that he does, indeed, spend time with ladies during the night, “But that’s all it is is time, ’cause, God help me Buffy, it’s still all about you.” He also emotionally says, “As daft a notion as Soulful Spike the Killer is, it is nothing compared to the idea that another girl could mean anything to me. This chip, they did to me. I couldn’t help it. But the soul, I got on my own… for you.” Wow. How is Buffy even supposed to respond to that, especially when it’s so obvious Spike is being genuine?
Later in the basement of the home Spike’s been storing his victims, the First triggers him to attack Buffy. He has the perfect opportunity to kill Buffy here. But at the taste of her blood, he remembers everything and snaps out of it, in complete abhorrent shock. The blood bringing Spike back to his senses was a little awkward in clarity when I initially thought about it, but it started to make more sense when I thematically connected it to S5’s blood theme, even harkening back to Buffy snapping out of Dracula’s thrall after tasting his blood in “Buffy vs. Dracula” [5×01]. The consistent imagery in regard to the power of blood makes this work.
When Spike exposes his chest for staking, expecting Buffy to do the job both Spike and the First expects her to do, I can’t help but feel a bit emotionally torn. Nothing that happened in this basement was Spike’s fault — he was being completely controlled by a manevolent and manipulative force, and there was not a reasonable thing he could have done to prevent it with the knowledge he had. Thankfully, Buffy sees it clearly as well — she’s smart in that she understands Spike was being used, and that the same force that is out to get all of them is likely the one manipulating Spike. This makes for quite a powerful scene where we see a huge blow dealt to the First. It knows that trust and compassion are very dangerous tools against its power.
Spike is actually a bit sad when Buffy won’t kill him — a part of him is in too much pain to keep going, which somewhat parallels what Buffy went through last season. Getting his soul back has been difficult enough, but having the First’s manipulations on top of it is understandably driving the guy nuts. And how ’bout that James Marsters? This guy is a really tremendous actor, and S7 gives him a ton of opportunities to flex those acting muscles. He’s just phenomenal in “Sleeper,” ranging from being terrifying to mysterious to heart-breaking to hilarious.
One thing I admire about “Sleeper” beyond what I’ve already said is that, despite the dire tone, it still makes time for the funny. The scene where Anya snoops around Spike’s room while he’s sleeping is utterly hilarious. It begins genuinely tense, but then abruptly switches to comedy in a way only Buffy can seem to do right. Once again, Anya ends up providing pure comedy gold. Thank you for existing, Emma Caulfield! I also admire Spike’s restraint here — he very well knows the hurt his actions back in “Entropy” [6×18] caused people, especially Xander. This is a stark contrast to pre-soul Spike, who probably would have given into the opportunity, regardless of the consequences, or as Anya hilariously states, “soulless Spike would have had me upside down and half-way to happy land by now.”
The cliffhanger with the axe going for Giles’ head is incredibly effective because this show is well known for its abrupt killings of main characters — I honestly wouldn’t put it past Whedon to do something like that. It also baits me, as a viewer, into desperately wanting to see the next episode. So while I don’t have any problems with it here, I’m not nearly as wild about the follow-up to this moment. More on that later.
“Sleeper” has a mix of all the right ingredients for a wonderful episode, while making next to no mistakes; it certainly didn’t make any major mistakes. Although it’s not a mind-blowing, intellectually complex and/or challenging episode, it exceeds at progressing the Season 7 arc in a way that stems from the characters’ decisions in crucial situations. Buffy’s faith in Spike and acceptance of his plea for help is not only powerful, but also the beginning of what will build into an amazing connection between the two of them leading to Spike’s stunning redemption. Overall, it’s an excellent well-rounded episode backed by some great performances.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The episode continuing right where “Conversations with Dead People” [7×07] left off.
+ Anya’s reaction to being asked to watch Spike.
+ Buffy’s candor about what Holden told her about Spike with both Xander and Willow.
+ The girl Spike takes to the back alley in the street kind of seems like an older version of the “bad” girl he sires in “School Hard” [2×03].
+ Poor Spike. The First is controlling him, and is even using Buffy’s persona to encourage his unknowing murder spree.
+ The irony of Buffy saying Spike’s “the only one that knows for sure” about the missing women. Poor Spike doesn’t have a clue what’s going on yet.
+ Buffy’s response to being asked if Spike is her boyfriend: “N-n-n-n-n-n o.” SMG nailed it. 🙂
– Spike’s fight with a vampire girl (that has some really bad vampire make-up on) at a club rubbed off as a little overly cheesy. Though I did appreciate the funny moment where the band stops playing when the vampire explodes, then just continues like nothing happened. Aimee Mann’s off-hand comment later about how she hates vampire towns is pretty funny too.
* Spike is humming “Early One Morning” as he digs a grave for his latest victim. We, of course, know that this is the song that “triggers” him, thereby disabling the chip and allowing the First to control him (see “Lies My Parents Told Me” [7×17] ).