Nikki’s Spoilery Bits:
• Willow’s playing with a stuffed frog, but later we’ll find out she had a very dire frog fear; I wouldn’t think she’d be playing with a toy frog like that if she was terrified of the thing (you won’t see me playing with an African Zuni doll!!)
• Willow and Oz are my favourite couple on the show (even though I really do love Tara) and so I’m so excited to see him for the first time this week.
• Reptile Boy: And now I’ll begin to defend my Bangel-ness. See, Buffy can sense when he’s there, but she can’t sense Spike. He’s just problematic to her later, and she only turns to him for cold comfort. Being with Spike makes her feel guilty and dirty, but being with Angel gives her comfort and happiness, even if it almost kills her. Maybe I’m just a romantic, but that’s why I always preferred her with Angel. (Even though, as I’ve said, I prefer Spike of the two vampires.)
• Willow is SO angry that Buffy lies to Giles in Reptile Boy, and Buffy says no, she just didn’t fill him in on everything. Watch how later Willow will keep a few little things – like, oh, bringing Buffy back from the dead – from Giles in much the same way.
• This one’s for the Glee fans: How many people think the Dave character on Glee (the closeted football player who bullies Kurt while secretly wanting him) has his precursor in Larry? The moment I saw the guy on Glee I thought, “Hey, that’s just Larry all over again!” As with Dave, Larry will be Xander’s bully and we’ll find out he’s coming over all macho and muscle because he’s secretly gay. Joss makes it seem less tragic, but the seeds for Dave’s character are still here.
• I liked the black cat superimposed over Willow’s face as she looked through the window, and the suggestiveness we can see now, whether or not she was intended to be the Wiccan at that time.
• In the Watcher’s Diaries, they look at the girl in the entry for 1775, and Willow says Angel would have been 18, and still alive. Um… nope. They change Angel’s age by the end of season 2, and we’ll see him get turned in 1753.
• Ethan says, “Showtime!” the same way that Sweet says it in Once More, With Feeling.
And here once again is Chris's piece, this time with the spoilery bits not whited out, and an interesting comparison photo with season 2 of Angel.
“Not-you is you … but not you.”
By Christopher Lockett
Hello, all! It is a great pleasure and honour to be counted among Nikki’s band of luminaries and to take part in this collective re-examination of what is one of the best television shows of all time. It was often uneven, to be sure, and but was also the site of some utterly sublime episodes, deeply textured and nuanced characters, and one of the most innovative reimaginings of the vampite genre specifically and the gothic generally. I share the sentiments of some here (including Nikki) who mourn for the dilution of Joss’ brilliant vision by subsequent banal and toothless and inane sojourns into the vampire realm (I’m looking at you, Stephanie Meyer!).
That being said, I must confess that returning to early Buffy is a bit of an odd experience. There is an element, rewatching the early episodes, of datedness. When I first became a fan, the show was something of a revelation—basically, that a high school-based drama (that involved vampires, no less) could be so cheekily and unapologetically smart and well-written, not something that exactly proliferated on the tube at the time. The X-Files was one of its only contemporaries, really, at least in terms of possessing irreverent self-aware humour that at once set the show apart and tipped a wink to the viewers, even as it addressed pretty weighty themes and issues. Then came The West Wing, and then my inauguration into the HBO-centered “quality TV” revolution. I have in the past few years been working on a series of articles about HBO, and thus am frequently immersed in Deadwood or The Wire or The Sopranos. All of which means that when I return to early Buffy, I have an impossible standard in my head—it is not fair to measure Buffy by the yardstick of The Wire, for the simple reason that those series pioneering the unmapped territory of intelligent and indeed intellectual television back in the mid-late 90s didn’t have the freedom to do whatever the hell they wanted.
(As an aside: if I were a high-ranking producer at HBO or AMC or Showtime, I would be backing a Brinks truck up to Joss Whedon’s house, unlocking it, and leaving a note that said “Fuck Fox. Do whatever you like. We’ll air it.” Why hasn’t this happened?)
I was a late convert to the Whedonverse, only really getting into the show mid-season three (in my defense, I was in the early stages of my PhD and didn’t have cable at the time). When I had the opportunity to go back and watch the first two seasons from the beginning, the experience was a little incongruous: the show really did not, in my opinion, hit its stride until midway through season two, when it started to depart more confidently from the somewhat simplistic allegories of Monster=Adolescent Development. So when I saw the roster of episodes that Nikki posted, I leapt on these three because they do an excellent job of highlighting this transition. “Inca Mummy Girl” and “Reptile Boy,” as indicated by their very titles, exhibit the tendency toward allegorizing elements of teenage life by way of the supernatural, the former paralleling Buffy’s feelings of exclusion and difference with the titular Inca mummy girl, and the latter refiguring the sexual predations of frat boys on teenage girls with ritual sacrifice. Which is not to say that these are bad episodes, necessarily, though both harp a little overmuch on the theme of Buffy the put-upon slayer who really just wants some “normal” girl time. This theme is never far from the center of the Buffy narrative arc, but on returning to the earlier episodes one finds it repeated with rather tiresome frequency.
Conversely, “Halloween” is an episode that is thematically very complex and plays some interesting games with questions of identity and desire and the subjective self. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that we have Spike and Drusilla featured rather prominently, or that we are introduced to Giles’ erstwhile nemesis Ethan Rayne—having the conjunction of such villains with the identity-game of Halloween makes for all sorts of potential goodness, and Joss Whedon certainly rises to the challenge.
Basically, this is an episode that operates as a series of inversions: everyone (or most everyone) becomes the person they think they want to be, by way of Ethan Rayne’s spell that turns everyone into their costume. Buffy, possessed of the idea that Angel would be more into her if she were more like the aristocratic women of his youth, dresses as a noblewoman; Willow attempts to be sexy, but chickens out at the last moment and hides herself in a ghost costume; and Xander, who suffers the humiliation of being rescued from a bully by Buffy, dresses as a soldier. It’s worth noting that in this episode the triadic friendship of Buffy-Willow-Xander, so crucial to the series as a whole, is flipped, with Willow as the pivot point. Buffy becomes the helpless, fainting eighteenth-century damsel versus Xander’s no-nonsense hypercompetent soldier. It is Willow, of course, who figures out the source of the curse, in the process having to shed the obscuring shroud of her ghost costume and become (relatively) unselfconscious about her original, skimpy “costume”—which Buffy had harangued her to wear:
Buffy: It's just ... You're never gonna get noticed if you keep hiding! You're missing the whole point of Halloween.
Willow: Free candy?
Buffy: It's "come as you aren't" night! The perfect chance for a girl to get sexy and wild, with no repercussions.
Willow: Oh, I don't get wild. Wild on me equals spaz.
Later on, Buffy describes Halloween as “the night that Not-You is you … but not you.” Which really works as a neat summary of this episode’s theme: personal identity is put into play in truly elemental fashion by Ethan Rayne’s curse: all three of the series’ best friends become the “not-you” they are all chasing at the start of the episode, with varying results.
Xander’s transformation is the most straightforward. Though in season four he deliberately dresses as James Bond on Halloween in case they all get transformed into their costumes, he does pretty well in this episode (and it stands him in good stead in episode 2.14, when he liberates a rocket launcher from the local army base). His quasi-helplessness at the beginning of the episode, when Buffy has to rescue him from a bully, is salved by his transformation into a soldier while Buffy herself shrieks and runs from cars, and in her simpering state sees him as a better protector than Angel. To a certain extent, this episode presages his future role in the Scoobies, best summed up when Buffy defends his role to the Watcher’s Council in season five as having logged more “field time” than any of the watchers. Xander whispers to Willow that that is “Riley speak,” but really it reflects the role he discovers in this episode, as Buffy’s loyal soldier.
Willow’s transformation anticipates her evolution into a sexual being. Though this is not actually realized until the consummation of her relationship with Oz in the finale of season three, it does mark a break from her (undeserved!) status to date as Buffy’s frumpy friend. There is an essay to be written on Willow’s sexual development (actually, I’m probably showing my ignorance here—it occurs to me that there are probably several), especially taking into consideration the Anya-based alternative reality in which she and Xander are vampires. But here for the first time we see Willow as possessing sexual agency, even if she does not herself—capped at the end of the episode with Oz noticing her as she crosses the street in front of his van, having shucked her obscuring ghost costume.
And yet in Willow’s un-substantial being, there is a troubling of her sexualized ensemble, as she is not afforded the choice of covering up with her costume, but must walk about in the outfit she ultimately did not want to display. Her choice at the end of the episode to leave the ghost costume behind is an empowering choice—but one she did not have previously.
Finally, Buffy’s desire to embody an archaic femininity is ironically almost catastrophic, allowing Spike to very nearly bag his third slayer. But I say “ironic,” because we see the original of the model for her “noblewoman,” sketched in the Watcher Diary she and Willow filch from Giles’ office, appear some time later in Angel 2.07.
As has been remarked here previously, Darla’s later return and her narrative significance on Angel makes her brief appearance in season one of Buffy both pregnant and poignant. I cannot of course know if the figure sketched in the Watcher Diary was intended to be Darla, but the fact that her first encounter with Angel in flashback on Angel so perfectly matches the image Buffy tries to replicate speaks at the very least to a very shrewd writer/director (good on ya, Tim Minear!). Further, it means that we retrospectively look at Buffy’s desire to emulate the aesthetic of a woman she imagines Angel would be interested in with a somewhat more critical eye. At the end of the episode, Angel dismisses the noblewomen of his youth, saying “They were just incredibly dull. Simpering morons, the lot of them. I always wished I could meet someone ... exciting. Interesting.” Let’s take a moment and think about that, shall we? Starting with the fact that we now know Angel was a working class Irish lout who wouldn’t have gotten within three city blocks of an actual noblewoman (so perhaps this description he offers Buffy is from his experiences as a vampire?). More importantly, this seems a bit of Angel protesting too much: seeing as how his pre-vamp Irish lout found someone exciting and interesting in the person of Darla. Hence, Buffy’s desire in this episode to embody an aristocratic femininity based on her perusal of the Watcher Diary in the hopes that it would “interest” Angel is actually quite astute, if for all the wrong reasons. And I suppose that’s a good thing: it would have been a very different episode if Ethan Rayne’s curse had turned her not into a “simpering moron,” but Darla.
In an episode all about identity, the most surprising, and satisfying moment is our realization that Giles isn’t quite the buttoned-down stuffed shirt we have thus far seen. “Halloween” is the first episode in which we first meet the Ripper, Giles’ younger self, the occult-obsessed badass conjured here by Ethan Rayne. On watching this episode again, I felt a twinge of regret that he sends Willow away as soon as he sees Rayne—though we meet the Ripper here, it will be some time before Buffy &co. come to appreciate his badass side. But really, that makes his epic beat-down of Ethan even more priceless. While we see his young charges realizing (ambivalently) the identities they desire, we see Giles confronted with the one he has tried so hard to leave behind him.
By way of conclusion … I am grateful for the excuse to return to these early episodes of Buffy. It is easy to forget how innovative Joss’ vision was—and how smart many of the episodes of this series (and his others) are. Halloween, some theorists might be inclined to tell us, is all about drag. About the performance of identity. What I love about the Whedonverse is how it takes that complex of desire and grafts the transformative magic of fantasy on it.