Posted by: thebuffyrewatch | November 24, 2011

Robin’s Review: S3, E12 – Helpless

Synopsis: As her 18th birthday approaches Buffy begins to lose her powers. Giles is secretly administering injections for a rite of passage which the Watcher’s Council are in town to administer. They plan to lock her in a house with psychotic vampire Zachary Kralik. Kralik turns one of his handlers and then attacks Buffy. She gets away but he kidnaps Joyce to force Buffy to go through with the test.

The Good: There were times when this bordered on the brilliant but it never quite got there. It was however very good throughout.

The issue of Buffy losing her powers was explored with thoroughness and real emotional resonance. Before Kralik even became involved I liked the way the Scoobies explored every possibility. At first Buffy is understandably freaked out but manages to cope with the basic idea of going back to normal. Angel points out that she survived for many years without powers and Willow even hints at the normal life that she may now be able to live.

However the realities of the situation then begin to dawn. Buffy’s self worth gets called into question as she wonders whether her status as Slayer is the part of her identity that has attracted her friends. Then she points out (as a true hero would) that she wouldn’t be able to go back to living a normal life now that she knows of the dangers threatening humanity. Then she sees the physical results of her loss of power as boys at school outmuscle her and men in the street seem threatening.

She then heads off to face Kralik and encounters the terror that other people feel when a powerful vampire is stalking them. The house of horrors set up was good and her ability to outwit her enemies was well written to allow her victory without a hint of the silliness that has accompanied her recent kills.

Kralik was a good choice as a villain. He played the role with creepy menace and the writing gave him a sense of humour and personality to make him seem more than just another vampire. I liked the back-story surrounding his childhood abuse which helped explain his mother-centric psychosis.

The Giles side of the story was very strong as you would expect. His acting was as good as ever as he was able to play a slight shiftiness throughout the first half of the episode without seeming too obviously up to something. Then he and Buffy were both superb during the scene where he reveals that it is he who took her powers away. Their emotions were so convincing that it really drove home the sadness of his betrayal.

The Watcher’s Council at last actually turn up to do something in Sunnydale which was good to see. Their brutal methods for testing Buffy were very well thought out. I liked the way Giles had to use the word “if” when describing a Slayer’s 18th birthday. The Council have been guiding Slayers for centuries and have learnt not to get attached to them. To them Buffy is just another in a long line and one day she will die and be gone. The way that Giles has so obviously and understandably diverged from that viewpoint was well contrasted. It felt especially moving to have an outsider sum up Giles’ paternal feelings for Buffy the way that Travers did (see Best Moment). It was a very touching scene to complete the story with as Buffy lets Giles back into her life because of his obvious love for her.

The actual final scene was very good too. We see Buffy returning to normal with Joyce (somehow) obliviously happy to brag about her daughter’s skills and Xander unable to show off his manly strength. It was just the right moment to inject some humour into the story and that’s not always been the case this season.

Although it’s out of place I did want to return to the scene where Angel comforts Buffy by telling her about what we saw in flashback in Becoming (221). It was the quintessential bit of Buffy dialogue (as he talks about seeing her heart). Angel was sweet and it captured the essence of their star-crossed love and then BAM, Buffy managed to see the funny side of it and stop it from being too saccharine. Not many lines capture what is good about a show so neatly (“That’s beautiful. Or taken literally, incredibly gross”).

The Bad: This episode captured the dramatic problem of threatening to kill your main character. Buffy was in more danger than she has ever been and yet it didn’t feel like she was going to die. I actually liked the pre-credits fight where a vampire turned her stake on her. It was such a change from her usual flippant fight scenes that it got my attention. Whereas no matter how creepy Kralik was I still couldn’t feel tense. I can’t blame the writers for his need for pills as it was both plausible that he would need them and a clever weakness to give him. Unfortunately it did signpost his death minutes before it happened. You then had to wonder how Buffy had kept a glass bottle on her person and not have it break despite being thrown around and sliding down a laundry chute. You would also think that Kralik’s throat would have immediately been burnt by holy water passing across the skin.

The use of Cordelia felt unnecessary and she used the same memory-loss gag we have heard before.

The Unknown: Where has Faith gone? Who will the new Watcher be? I’m still not happy with making jokes about Amy being turned into a rat but Willow does her best to make it seem cute.

Best Moment: “She passed, you didn’t. The Slayer is not the only one who must perform in this situation. I have recommended to the Council and they have agreed that you be relieved of your duties as Watcher immediately. You’re fired…your affection for your charge has rendered you incapable of clear and impartial judgement. You have a father’s love for the child. That is useless to the cause.” It’s a beautiful speech because it serves the plot perfectly while providing an unexpected moment of realisation for both Buffy and Giles. They both knew that was the case of course. But to have someone else sum it up for you somehow makes more of an impact.

Earlier in the episode Buffy’s Dad had let her down by not taking her out to the Ice Show for her birthday. She turned down her mother’s offer to take her and went to Giles almost directly asking him to take her. He is already her father in one part of her life but in this episode we see that it goes deeper than that. The bond they share has become increasingly precious to both of them and this captured that feeling superbly.

The Bottom Line: This is one of those episodes where the re-watch makes life very difficult. I didn’t feel the tension in the drama as perhaps I might have done once. I also knew the emotional conclusion which the episode was going to draw. And yet looking at it dispassionately it is a wonderfully constructed piece of television. It covers an issue in Buffy’s life more completely than anything (outside of Passion or Becoming) we’ve seen before. It was focussed and entertaining. It was moving and funny. If the direction had somehow convinced me that Kralik might kill her then this would be a much higher score. As it is I have had to settle for 74.

74/100

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Responses

  1. I thought the discussion of the Council’s testing Buffy was very interesting. Up until now, there have been times where Buffy has not been that effective a slayer. She was killed by The Master and was lucky enough to have Xander revive her. She also had her emotions get in the way of killing Angelus quickly enough to save Jenny Calendar, so perhaps the idea of the Council testing her, and, if she fails, hoping the next slayer is better might have some merit,

    However, there is a special circumstance here. It is not at all clear whether a new slayer will be called when Buffy dies, when Faith dies, or both. Surely the Council’s interest would be better served by having two slayers rather than one, even if they felt that one was not exactly what they would want in a slayer.

    I think that what ultimately makes me come down on the side of the test being ridiculous is what happens when the slayer passes the test. The absolute best case would be that they would have a slayer that is absolutely furious as the Council and distrusting it completely. The worst case is that they would have a clearly very resourceful slayer intent on killing everyone in the Council. For this reason, I am also disappointed with Giles going along with it.

  2. Yeah, I’m afraid the Cruxiamentum comes across as nothing more than a plot contrivance invented specifically to bring about a Big Dramatic rupture between Buffy and Giles. It makes no sense within the Buffy lore. The Watchers Council exists almost entirely to support the Slayer. But instead of putting their resources behind that Slayer, they instead try to kill her? For no clearly defined purpose? What kind of idea is that?

    In fact the whole episode is a little contrived. Kralik’s pills and his rapid drinking of the holy water without noticing anything odd, while it is a fairly neat way for Buffy to beat him, still feels a little false. And the confrontation between Giles and Travers seems forced. It is not a bad episode, but the writer’s thumbprints are clearly visible.

    While we are on the subject of the Council not supporting their Slayer, shouldn’t the Slayer really get some sort of stipend? The Council has “all those alchemists making gold”, yet we see Faith staying in a fleabag motel and Kendra having only one shirt. Buffy apparently receives some compensation from Giles in the form of cookies when she completes a mission but this is is hardly a substitute for a salary and a comprehensive benefits package.

    And even after she turns 18 and is not longer a ward of her mother, Buffy apparently gets no pay. She has to work long shifts at Doublemeat Palace to make ends meet when she could be averting apocalypses. Or whatever the plural of apocalypse is.

    I am thinking the Slayer should be pulling down high five figures—– at least. Plus health and dental.


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