This isn’t one of the very best BtVS season 3 episodes, but it can be argued it’s one of the most important ones, for several reasons: it completely changes our views on the Council of Watchers; it irrevocably changes Giles’ status/relationship with them, and therefore represents a crucial moment in his arc; and it also deals with an issue that may be at the heart of the show’s themes: what would happen in Buffy lost her superstrength?
It’s also worth mentioning that this is the second episode in the show where Buffy is celebrating her birthday, and it’s continuing the tradition started by Surprise/Innocence that something terrible must happen on Buffy’s birthday.
Even though it’s developed into something much more complex than that; Buffy the Vampire Slayer was conceived as a story of empowerment that reverses the usual gender dynamic in horror fiction: a girl who would be the typical victim of monsters in most horror films is the one who kills monsters. But there’s one very legitimate criticism of BtVS’s premise: if your heroine must have superhuman physical strength to be empowered, well, how does that help the empowerment of real life women, who do not have any such powers, and are usually significantly physically weaker than men? What does it say about our idea of empowerment in general, if it requires a person to be incredibly physically strong, or more powerful than “normal” people, and if the empowerment must be reflected in kicking, punching and killing?
This is why I like the fact that Helpless temporarily takes away Buffy’s powers and puts her in the position more similar to that of most women. It shows her being threatened, powerless, scared; but ultimately, she is not helpless, she just has to dig deeper, puts herself in more danger, and make more of an effort to defeat the monster. Her first shock is when she loses her strength in the middle of a fight with a vampire. Now, I think Buffy should still be able to use her training and martial art skills to a point, even without strength; and she does just that, head-butting the vampire and provoking him to impale himself on her stake. But, since the shots Giles is giving her are also messing with her coordination, she seems to be increasingly unable to use her skills as well. Not to mention that Buffy is actually physically weaker than most females, since she’s very small and thin, her athleticism and dexterity is also hindered by the substances injected in her blood, and she needs time to adjust to the shock of such a huge change in strength level. When she tries to defend Cordelia from an asshole in school who was being very sexually aggressive with Cordelia and not taking ‘no’ for an answer, Buffy gets easily punched out – and in a reversal of roles, it’s Cordelia’s time to start protecting Buffy. It’s painful to watch Buffy too scared to even talk back to a group of assholes in the street who are making offensive sexual remarks at her, but it’s realistic that, without superpowers, she’d be terrified walking home alone at night and walking across several such men, as most women would be.
It’s then really satisfying when she manages to kill the villain of the episode, insane psycho vampire Zachary Kralik, ultimately by using her wits and – since he needs to take some kind of pills - tricking him into drinking them with holy water, which burns him inside. Now, this proof of Buffy’s intelligence, courage and resourcefulness is, in a way, something that was not necessary: we’ve seen Buffy use her intelligence and resourcefulness many times before, we’ve seen her courage, determination and responsibility. She used a clever trick to kill Luke, a vampire who was stronger than her, back in episode 1.02, and in most of the episodes she’s been the one to figure out what’s going on, even though Giles and Willow were the bookish ones, and therefore considered the clever ones by the characters in the show. Nevertheless, there are still fans who have this completely wrong idea that Buffy is a “dumb blonde” who relies just on her strength (and this is not far from how she’s written in the comics), so it’s good to have it confirmed that she can kick ass even without superstrength.
Another reason why this episode is important is because Buffy wasn’t always sure how she felt about being a Slayer and wished to be a “normal girl”. But here, she gets to be reminded what it’s like to be without Slayer powers, and she hates it. She’s not the same girl she was before she was called. It’s not just because she hates being personally powerless and having to be scared of various assholes – she also hates not being able to protect others.
An interesting ‘What if?’: what if Buffy had really lost her powers permanently, which she was scared would happen before she learned what was going on? I don’t think she would be able to go back to “normal life”, knowing what she knows about monsters, Hellmouth and forces of darkness, and having been used to fighting them. She could be training others, using her experience. She could also participate in monster-killing activities as a part of a group with other Scoobies: in the season 3 opener Anne, the non-superpowered Scoobies (Xander, non-wolf Oz, Willow who was not practicing magic, and briefly Cordelia) were doing relatively well killing ordinary vampires (they were supposedly killing 6 out of 10) during the summer when Buffy was in LA. Willow, at least, isn’t much physically stronger than non-superpowererd Buffy. It would be however much more effective if they had at least one superpowered person; I don’t know how Buffy would take being second fiddle to Angel, and she certainly would not like being second or third fiddle to Faith.
The Council of Watchers and Cruciamentum
There’s another way in which the metaphor of “Slayer powers = empowerment” has become more complicated and questionable as the show progressed: as this episode emphasizes, Slayers are teenage girls fighting a war, risking their lives and dying young, while being supervised, trained and controlled by a patriarchal organization made up of a bunch of traditionalist middle-aged and old people who mostly don’t have to risk their lives. Which is a lot like real life wars, if you replace “teenage girls” with “(mostly) teenage boys/young men”. Furthermore, the Council of Watchers pays salaries to their employees – but not to Slayers, who are given huge responsibilities and required to perform, but are given no wages: I suppose they’re given food and accommodation if they are separated from their families and raised by their Watchers, like Kendra, but others are expected to make a living however they can; Buffy, so far, at least hasn’t had problems with that, being from a middle-class family and living with her mother, but nobody seems to give a damn that Faith lives in some crappy motel room.
There’s an even darker aspect to the Council of Watchers, which we learn about in this episode: a traditional test/rite of passage for every Slayer on her 18th birthday, called the Cruciamentum (Latin for “torment”), which consists of taking the Slayer’s powers by secretly injecting her with muscle relaxants and adrenaline suppressors, and then locking her up in a building with a particularly dangerous and nasty vampire and expecting her to kill him without any help… and all that without even telling her beforehand.
Well, that’s obviously really messed up. And it also doesn’t make sense, if the idea is to test Slayer’s abilities and prove that she’s not just relying on strength – since tests are normally something you are told about and get a chance to prepare for. It looks more like “an archaic exercise in cruelty”, as Giles calls it. It’s often said that Slayers live short lives – I wonder what percentage of them die during the Cruciamentum. Which, again, is not beneficial to the “cause” since it means losing a more experienced Slayer and having to train a new, young, inexperienced one. Trying to make sense of it, fans have speculated that the real reason is the Council’s need to have an excuse to get rid of more mature Slayers who may have become too strong, experienced and independent. But that doesn’t explain the lack of interest the Council has otherwise shown for Buffy and Faith, who are both quite unconventional Slayers.
I’m not sure that the writers have really thought this one through, except as a plot device to create temporary conflict between Buffy and Giles, and permanent conflict between Giles and the Council. It’s also the point in the show where the Council of Watchers stops being an organization that doesn’t get involved in the story and serves as a butt of jokes, often referenced but never actually present, and becomes a much darker organization that’s often antagonistic to our heroes, and pretty much stands for “old-fashioned, patriarchal assholes” in the show.
One thing remains the same, though: they still seem really incompetent. More about that below.
Little Red Buffy and Big Bad Kralik
For the second episode in a row, the fairy tale references are explicit. This time it’s The Little Red Riding Hood – from Buffy wearing a red hooded cloak, to Zachary Kralik, the Big Bad Wolf figure, wrapping himself in Buffy’s cloak when he goes to kidnap her mother, and uttering lines directly referencing the fairy tale. Kralik kidnaps Joyce, leaves photos of himself and Joyce to threaten Buffy and lure her in, and Buffy goes inside the boardinghouse on her own (presumably out of fear he would kill Joyce if Buffy came with reinforcements) to save her mother. From that moment on, Helpless feels a lot like a slasher movie. It is one of the darkest episodes of the show, in the literal sense – the boardinghouse is poorly lit, and Kralik is hunting Buffy through the dark rooms and corridors. Buffy is closer to the classic slasher heroine here – without her superpowers, she is not super-confident as she usually is, she is the one who is physically much weaker and likely to be the victim; which is why this works even better than the rest of the show as the manifestation of Joss’ idea the show was based on: girl being chased by a monster, girl turning around and kicking the monster’s ass.
Kralik is one of the most terrifying MOW on BtVS, largely thanks to guest star Jeff Kober, who’s really great at playing villains and creepy guys. (He’ll come back in season 6 to play Rack – the recycling of the actor is a bit more acceptable since he’s constantly in vampface in this episode.) Vampires generally seem to be metaphors for evil people – serial killers, sexual predators, people who ruthlessly use others, psychopaths with no conscience – but with Kralik, it’s all doubled as he was also an insane serial killer when he was human. As with the Gorch brothers previously (though they were a much more humorous example), we get more evidence that evil psychopathic murderers, when turned into vampires, practically don’t change at all, just becoming immortal and super-strong versions of themselves. Kralik’s personality, insanity and serial killer MO seem to be things he has carried over from when he was human; he also seems to have retained a dependency on pills. It’s not clear if it’s physical or psychological – the latter would make more sense, since we already know mental illness is something a vampire retains from the time they were human (Drusilla was another example), but you would expect physical ailments to be made non-existent through vampire superpowers/physical status.
This is particularly interesting because of its ramifications to the mythology of the show, as it further disproves the idea that vampires are “nothing like the humans they were” or that “when you die, a demon sets shop in your body, and it walks and talks like you, but it’s not you”, which is supposed to be the official Watcher stance, but seems like the BS that is used in order to make it easier for people to kill vampires, especially those they knew as humans or who were even their loved ones. That was, for instance, what Giles told Xander in episode 1.02. of the show, to make it easier for him to stake Jesse (“remember, you’re not looking at your friend, you’re looking at the thing that killed him”), but in season 2, he was describing how dangerous and bad the Gorch brothers were by talking about the crimes they had committed when they were human. It seems that the Watchers themselves may be perfectly aware that line of thinking is BS. In fact, the Council seems to have picked Kralik specifically not just because he was so nasty, but because of his pill addiction, believing they would be able to control him that way. They’ve proven themselves to be really incompetent, underestimating Kralik and leaving just two guys to guard him, in two shifts – which practically means that he’s guarded by just one guy at a time, which leads to Kralik killing and turning one of them (Blair, played by Dominic Keating, aka Malcolm Reed from Star Trek: Enterprise), and making him free him, help him kill the other Council employee, and become his minion.
What’s especially interesting is that Kralik is a serial killer who murdered and ate his mother, who had abused him in horrible ways when he was a child, perhaps even castrating him. What he wants to do with Buffy is not just to kill her – but to turn her into a vampire, like himself, and let her kill and feed on her own mother. (In his own words: “I have a problem with mothers. I’m aware of that.” At least no one can deny that he’s a self-aware serial killer vampire.) The Big Bads of BtVS have often been an epitome of the dark side of some aspect of Buffy and the themes her arc was grappling with that season (this is most obvious with Faith, but we can also see it with the Master in season 1 – tradition and father issues, Spike, Drusilla and of course Angel in season 2 - romance/sexuality, the Mayor – community leader, or Glory – family/‘home’). In this light, it’s really interesting that this happens right after Gingerbread, the episode in which we saw Joyce act in a really disturbing way (granted, under the influence of a demon) and try to burn Buffy at the stake, telling her she’s a bad girl and a disappointment; and that Buffy is now fighting to save her mother, putting herself in grave danger going against him on her own with no superpowers. This Red Riding Hood does not need a Huntsman to save her – Giles does arrive in the end, but only to kill Blair; it’s after Buffy has already tricked Kralik into dying.
Buffy and Giles
This is the second of the two back-to-back episodes where Buffy is betrayed by a parent figure. In Gingerbread, it was her mother, here it is her father figure, Giles. In addition, Buffy is previously let down by her biological father, Hank: she was looking forward to spending the day going to an ice skating show with him, but he cancels it, to Buffy’s deep disappointment. Hank is not actually seen in the episode, and will be completely absent from her life for the rest of the series (except as a part of a vision/alternate reality in season 6 Normal Again).
The relationship between Buffy and Giles, and Giles’ conflicted feelings between the demands of his job and his desire to protect Buffy, are central to this episode. Considering how awful the Cruciamentum is, and that it requires Giles to deceive Buffy and take her powers without her knowledge, his betrayal seems really bad. Giles hasn’t always followed the Council’s rules and has always been willing to give Buffy leeway, so why does he obey the Council in this, the worst of all of their rules, even though he thinks it’s wrong and openly criticizes the ritual to the representative/senior authority figure of the Council, Travers? The crucial difference seems to be that the ritual is a test for the Watcher, too, rather than just for the Slayer (which Travers explicitly confirms): apparently, Watchers are required to be cold, unfeeling and ruthless with their Slayers, loyal to the Council rather than to the Slayer. Giles’ previous history and his close relationship with Buffy as well as her unconventional behavior have been probably put him under particularly close scrutiny. And this time Giles has an authority figure from the Council, Quentin Travers, right there to inspect his behavior and decide if he’s suitable for his job.
I don’t know if this is enough to justify Giles going through with deceiving Buffy and giving her shots to take her powers away for the ritual, but at least he does at least partially redeem himself later by admitting the truth to Buffy – only after he learns that Kralik has escaped, though. If it hadn’t been for Council’s extreme incompetence, which Giles could use to criticize them for, he may not have found the strength to make the decision to go against their orders. In his favor, he does feel really guilty. However, that doesn’t help Buffy see him more favorably, at first – she is shocked and rightfully feels betrayed. SMG is always great in poignant dramatic scenes, and she does some great acting in the scene where Giles comes clean, and Buffy is brought to tears: “You?! (…) You bastard! (…) Liar! (…) Who are you? How could you do this to me?” (I’ve always loved the fact that, while Buffy may be an action girl with witty lines, but she is also a heroine who cries for loss, grief and betrayal during big emotional moments.)
Although Giles does more to try to redeem himself, going into the building to help Buffy and killing vampire!Blair (which could also be seen as Giles metaphorically exorcizing his dark side, since Blair is a Council employee gone wrong who helped a vampire endanger a Slayer), what helps Buffy forgive Giles is that, in the end, the two of them present a united front against Quentin Travers. Giles tells it to Travers as it is when he points out that the Council is not “fighting the war”, as Travers claims: “You're waging a war. She's fighting it. There is a difference.” The real twist comes when Travers, after congratulating Buffy on passing the test and exhibiting courage and resourcefulness, announces that Giles has failed the test and will be fired because he cannot be impartial and clear-headed: “You have a father’s love for the child”. This is, ironically, what really helps mend the relationship between Giles and Buffy.
The perception of Giles and his status on the show has been quite contradictory: in season 1, he seemed to be the epitome of stuffy, old-fashioned, upper-middle-class Brit, but we’ve since gotten to see other layers to him, including his surprising Ripper past. In Buffy’s eyes he was “old and stuffy”, in Faith’s he is “young and cute” – especially compared to what she’d expect from a Watcher, for Quentin Travers – someone older, sterner and more traditional – Giles is too emotional and personally attached to be a satisfactory employee (while some fans have a problem with him being too detached and “Big Picture” guy), and Gwendoline Post was able (like Maggie Walsh will in season 4) to really get under his skin by criticizing his intellectual abilities and knowledge. From now on, Giles’ position will be even vaguer, since he’s not even employed by the Council anymore, but his status within the group will, at least for now, remain the same, due to the strong ties he’s formed with Buffy and the other Scoobies.
In the subsequent season 3 episodes, it seems that their relationship is, if anything, even stronger than before. Still, I wonder if everything has been fully forgotten or forgiven. At the start of season 3, in Dead Man’s Party, Giles was the only one who did not argue with Buffy or voice anger over her disappearance in the season 2, when she left Sunnydale to spend months in LA without telling anyone where she was. As Xander said in that episode: “You can’t just bury stuff, it will come right back to get you.” Giles and Buffy tend to do just that with the resentments against each other; Giles just once voices his anger at Buffy over harboring Angel (in 3.07. Revelations), reminding her that Angel had tortured him sadistically for hours in season 2, and accusing her of having no respect for him or his job; but even then, he can’t bring himself to bring up the death of Jenny Calendar. When the relationship between Buffy and her mentor broke down in a rather bad way in season 7 Lies My Parents Told Me, I wondered how much of it was due to buried resentments on both sides – Giles’ over everything that happened with Angel, including Buffy not being able to kill him in Innocence, Jenny’s death, and Buffy skipping town after sending Angel to hell; Buffy’s over the events of Helpless, and Giles’ abandonment in season 6.
Since Giles gets fired in this episode, another Watcher is to come to Sunnydale to replace him – a setup for the introduction of Wesley in two episodes time. Which makes me wonder, why the hell hasn’t the Council bothered to send someone when they learned of Faith’s Watcher’s death?
Speaking of Faith, it’s another episode without her, but this time at least a reason is provided why she’s not here - she is conveniently on “one of her walkabouts” – whatever these are. If Faith hadn’t gone rogue, she would have also gone on to be subjected to the Cruciamentum, but she would have known about it beforehand, which Slayers are not supposed to. It’s odd that the Council is not concerned about that. Then again, they don’t seem to be giving Faith much thought at all, until she kills Alan Finch later and starts giving everyone trouble.
The Bangel of it
The Buffy/Angel scenes are the weakest part of this episode. This is the point where it’s starting to be obvious that the writers didn’t really know what to do with Angel or the Bangel relationship in season 3, and that, instead of a well thought-out arc, it’s just threading water before Angel gets to leave in order to have his own show. Not that there haven’t been episodes that seriously dealt with the relationship in a poignant way, without ignoring what happened in season 2 or treating it as some abstract obstacle to the couple’s happiness (Beauty and the Beasts, Amends), but for most of the season, Buffy and Angel’s relationship is following the “a step forward, a step back” repetitive pattern of breaking up/telling each other it’s over because they can never be together (Lovers Walk) but then continuing as before a couple of episodes later, or Angel is just hovering in the background as Buffy’s supportive love interest who gets a scene or two where he and Buffy are either having some really cheesy scenes that are supposed to show sexual tension (the shirtless Tai Chi/training together in Band Candy and Revelations) or even cheesier scenes where Angel is giving Buffy an earnest/sensitive look and uttering the kind of lines that make little sense, but that a teenage girl in love would love to hear from her boyfriend.
Helpless features both kinds of scenes. The latter is especially bad: as Angel gives Buffy a birthday present – the book of Victorian poetry (specifically, it is “Sonnets from the Portuguese” by Elizabeth Barrett-Browning; I know just one poem from it, the most famous one, “How Do I Love Thee”, which is IMO corny as hell), which I guess is supposed to confirm his old-fashioned-cultured-guy cred, even though I don’t think the present is something Buffy would particularly enjoy; she asks him if he would like her if she wasn’t a Slayer, pointing out that she was a rather shallow girl before she was called. Angel reassures her that she was already a very special and amazing person even before she became a Slayer – and utters the worst lines in the episode:
Angel: I saw you before you became the Slayer.
Angel: I watched you, and I saw you called. It was a bright afternoon out in front of your school. You walked down the steps... and... and I loved you.
Angel: Because I could see your heart. You held it before you for everyone to see. And I worried that it would be bruised or torn. And more than anything in my life I wanted to keep it safe... to warm it with my own.
Dude, what?! Not only is this “love at first sight”, “I saw your heart right there on your face” thing complete nonsense in itself, but it also comes off as both phony and creepy, because we saw that scene in a flashback in season 2 – and what we saw was Angel watching the 15-year old Buffy sucking on a lollipop, gossiping with her friends, and being scared that she’s been caught shoplifting for lipstick. If he had said he fell in love with her afterwards for her strong, brave and mature beyond her years personality that he got to know, or that he felt natural empathy and connection when he saw how lonely and sad she felt as an outcast after she was called, or even if he had said: “I thought you were really hot and you kind of looked like Darla, so small and blonde and sassy” that would have made some sense (well, that last one wouldn’t have gone well with Buffy)… but this is utter BS.
But, on the positive side, it leads right into the best lines in the episode:
Buffy (overwhelmed): That's beautiful. (Hugs him; then frowns: ) Or taken literally, incredibly gross.
Angel: (grimacing) I was just thinking that, too.
So, if Bangel is descending into parody at this point, at least the writers were aware of it. The next episode, The Zeppo, will openly treat it as parody.
On the positive side, there’s some charming banter between the two (Angel commenting on Buffy’s lack of enthusiasm over her birthday present and referencing the Judge in Surprise: “So why did you seem more excited last year when you got a severed arm in a box?”) and a funny exchange in which Buffy teases Angel, referring to her planned quality time with her father: “Actually I do have a date. Older man. Very handsome. Likes it when I call him Daddy” (now, that sounds like something Faith would say while not referring to her father; and it’s also ironic since Angel is an older man who could be Buffy’s great-great-great…grandfather) and Angel has a very dorky moment in which he’s first startled, relieved: “Oh, your father…” and then concerned: “It is your father, right?” I’m not sure if that’s enough to make up for the silliness of Angel’s lines above.
Also on the positive side, the unresolved sexual tension between Buffy and Angel leads to some amusing phallic symbolism, with Buffy being full of energy and distracted during her training, and playing with and stroking a particularly long crystal!
Recurring characters introduced: Quentin Travers, senior Watcher, played by Harris Yulin (known to fans of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine for his amazing performance as Maritza from “Duet”), who will come back for one-off appearances in season 5 and season 7.
Ooh, kinky: It’s not the first, nor the last time we see that particularly evil and dangerous vampires exhibiting certain degrees of masochism, but Kralik takes it to the next level. Most vampires are terrified of a crucifix, not for any psychological or religious reasons, but because, in Buffyverse, it burns their skin. The Master showed his badassery and ability to face fear by holding a crucifix and tolerating the pain without flinching or screaming; Angel in the eponymous season 1 episode didn’t even notice the crucifix was burning him due to being wrapped up in kissing Buffy; Spike in season 7 Beneath Me in an extremely emotional scene will embrace a large crucifix without appearing to even notice the pain, for complex emotional reasons. Kralik, however? He just laughs when Buffy tries to scare him with one, grabs it and starts masturbating with it (or at least rubbing it against himself – of course, we don’t see the details, since the show was on WB).
Pop culture references: Buffy is once again compared to Superman – Xander refers to whatever took away Buffy’s powers as “Slayer Kryptonite”, which leads to a super-nerdy debate between him and Oz on different types of kryptonite, which I won’t even pretend to have been able to follow. There is also a lot of talk about ice skating (SMG is apparently a fan, which was incorporated into the story in season 2 Surprise as Buffy’s favorite hobby), something I know even less about. An ice skater is mentioned doing a version of “Carmen”, and Willow mentions “Snoopy on Ice”.