Written by David Fury
Directed by James A. Contner
At the mansion, Buffy and Angel have a lovely romantic setup, like an indoor picnic in the atrium of the mansion. Also, they’re sparring. But as soon as Buffy pins Angel and mock-stakes him with a baguette, HELLO SEXUAL TENSION. They’re both smiling and enjoying their time together. Buffy’s birthday will be the next weekend, and Buffy will be spending it with her dad!
After the cute sparring picnic with Angel, Buffy goes to train with Giles. This, however, is not like any training we’ve seen before. For some reason, Giles feels it necessary to instruct Buffy on the properties of various crystals. Buffy doesn’t see the value in these lessons any more than I do. They talk about how Faith has been pretty unreliable lately, in terms of being able to get a hold of her for patrolling. Buffy is particularly restless about the crystal lessons because the sexual tension with Angel has left her in dire need of an outlet, preferably one that involves punching and staking vampires.
Later that night at the playground, she finally gets a chance to work out this energy on a vampire, when suddenly something comes over her and she’s too weak to fight. The vampire has her pinned and is about to stake her with her own stake when we go to the opening theme. Fortunately, after a quick head butt and then using the vampire’s weight against him, she manages to stake him anyway.
The next morning in the library, Buffy can’t hit the target with throwing knives to save her life, and she shares her concerns with Giles. He suggests she might be getting sick. She very much hopes this is not the case, because it’ll ruin her and her dad’s tradition of going to the ice show.
Buffy tells the other Scoobies about this tradition out at the picnic tables during lunch. This tradition means a lot to her. The other kids want to throw her a party, but she feels that would be unwise after what happened last year.
When Buffy gets home, there’s a vase of flowers and balloons from her dad, with a birthday card explaining why he won’t be able to do their tradition because of work. Joyce tries to soften the blow with her explanation, but Buffy is too hurt to be interested in explanations. She crumples the card, pretends for Joyce’s sake that it’s okay, and heads straight for her room.
At a very creepy rundown boarding house called Sunnydale Arms, three British dudes are getting set up for something that involves a large wooden box and will soon involve Buffy.
At the library, Buffy is slowly trying to talk Giles into going to the ice show with her in her dad’s place. Giles is too distracted with the lesson about the crystals to pay much attention. Buffy’s a bit hurt. When she looks at the big crystal, she suddenly goes into a kind of motionless trance. At first, it seems like Giles didn’t expect that, but then he pulls a syringe out of his briefcase and injects something into her arm. Only after he finishes and sets her arm back where it was does he break her trance. WHAT IS HAPPENING. GILES, WHY?! He pretends everything’s fine and tells Buffy she can call it a night.
The next day, Buffy asks Willow how things are going with Amy, who is still a rat. What the crap is that hat, Willow? Also, nice coat, Buffy. I think it’s the red peacoat again.
No wait, this red coat has a hood. Different pretty red coat! Anyway, Buffy and Willow notice some douchebag getting all hostile with Cordelia because she stood him up. Cordelia isn’t taking his crap, but then he grabs her and slams her against a tree, which is Buffy’s cue to do her standard display of intimidation. She can’t make him budge, and he knocks her flying into a stone bench. Cordelia chews him out and smacks him until he goes away, and Willow helps Buffy up. She has rarely looked so small and vulnerable. She goes running to Giles to demand an explanation. This isn’t the flu. Giles doesn’t fess up, and now Buffy thinks she might not be the Slayer anymore. She tries to get Giles to promise to help her, and he avoids her gaze.
It turns out that the British guys at the creepy boarding house are members of the Watchers’ Council, and the thing Giles has been doing with the syringe is part of a centuries-old tradition Watchers do with their Slayers on their eighteenth birthday, called the Cruciamentum (assuming they survive it). Giles hates it, but his arguments have no effect on the older British dude. He leaves, resigned, and the other three have to tend to the contents of the wooden box. It’s a vampire who seems to have some kind of migraine problem. He’s in a straightjacket and other restraints, and they give him pills with a long metal stick.
The kids are researching at the library to find out what’s going on with Buffy, and Willow talks to her about what’ll happen if she’s just not the Slayer anymore. Willow succeeds in getting her to think about the positives, but before that can sink in, Giles shows up, and Buffy immediately goes to him for answers. She’s obviously not interested in the good side of not being the Slayer, if being the Slayer is still on the table. He has no information (that he’s willing to be honest about).
At the boarding house, the older British guy has left the other two to look after Mr. Vamp-in-the-Box. He uses the sound of his yells to mask the noises of his straitjacket tearing, and then he tricks the one who brings his pills into coming inside minimum safe distance. Then he grabs him.
Buffy is at the mansion with Angel, where there’s a cozy fire and some candles. His birthday present to her is Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She’s not very excited, but not because she doesn’t like the present. She’s too preoccupied with her sudden weakness to think about anything else. She doesn’t think her life will have any meaning if she’s not the Slayer anymore. Before she was called, she was pretty much Cordelia. Angel tells her about seeing her get called as the Slayer. He loved her even then, and wanted to make sure she was happy. His speech is very comforting, but the wording choice is somewhat unfortunate. Still, nice hugs are had.
Mr. Vamp-in-the-Box has turned British Guy #1 into a vampire. When he wakes up, he breaks his sire out of the box, and together they go after British Guy #2. The main vamp still plans on doing the Cruciamentum, just not playing by the Council’s rules.
Giles arrives and goes looking for the British guys. They do a very good job of making this scene super creepy. He realizes something’s wrong when he finds blood on the banister, and then he finds the body of British Guy #2. There is a lot of blood (oh yay, they finally did that right!).
Buffy is walking home in her pretty red coat, holding Angel’s present. Some total creepers catcall her on a suburban street. She kicks herself for not taking Angel up on his offer to walk her home, and that’s when Migraine Vampire and British Guy #1 find her. She manages to get away, minus the coat and the present, and she squeezes through a chain link fence just in time to avoid getting grabbed by British Guy #2. She’s yelling for help in the street, and it soon arrives in the form of Giles in his car.
At the library, Buffy is completely breaking down, she’s so desperate to know what’s wrong with her. He finally gives in and tells her about the drugs he’s been administering. The effect is temporary. He tries to explain about the traditional eighteenth birthday Slayer test. Tradition isn’t particularly comforting in the face of the man she’s come to see as a father figure betraying her. He doesn’t care about completing the test anymore because of what happened to British Guys #1 and #2. And because he’s remembered he possesses common human decency and cares very much about Buffy.
Buffy feels so betrayed that she’s barely coherent. Giles is desperate to get her trust back. He’s almost crying (and I’m totally crying). Cordelia arrives, looking for help with a history paper, and Buffy gets a ride home from her. She’s surprisingly nice about it.
Joyce is working on bills when she hears a weird noise (wow, that happens a lot, doesn’t it?). She goes outside and finds someone in Buffy’s red coat lying on the front porch. It’s Migraine Vamp. Uh oh.
Buffy gets home, sweeps her dad’s apology flowers into the garbage, and then finds a Polaroid of Migraine Vamp and Joyce. She gears up and heads out.
Migraine Vamp is taking more polaroids of Joyce in the boarding house. Joyce is bound and gagged, and the vampire is telling her horrifying stories about his childhood and his plans for her and Buffy.
Buffy cautiously enters the boarding house, making sure to leave the door propped open. She goes exploring with her crossbow. British Guy #1 removes the stake she used to prop the door open, and she hears it slam shut.
At the library, Giles is chewing out the old British guy for how badly things are going out of control. He’s putting his foot down about this stupid test. Old British guy does not appreciate that at all, and he informs him that Buffy’s already doing the test anyway. Giles snarls in his face and leaves to go help her.
British Guy #1 sneaks up on Buffy. She shoots him with her crossbow and misses. Migraine Vamp is messing with her, because the place is too dark for her to see well. He grabs her, and she tries to scare him away with a cross. He seems to quite enjoy pain, though, so the results are more disturbing than useful. She flees into the room with dead British Guy #2, and then goes upstairs and finds a room completely covered in Polaroids of Joyce. (Holy crap how did he have time to do that.) He breaks in through the wall. She runs out, and he’s already there to grab her again. Before he can bite her, his migraines start up. She seizes his bottle of pills and scarpers.
She goes down the garbage chute or the dumbwaiter or something and slides all the way down to the room where Joyce is tied up. Migraine vamp comes bursting in, seizes the pills, and downs them with a glass of water. He starts threatening her, then stops. Buffy put holy water in that glass. He burns from the inside out until he turns to dust. So it looks like that stuff is way more toxic when ingested than when applied externally. Alas, British Guy #1 is still undead and well, but before he can attack, Giles comes to the rescue!
Old British guy congratulates Buffy on her performance in the Cruciamentum. Buffy thanks him with threats. But there’s more. Giles is fired as Buffy’s Watcher because he cares about her too much (Buffy is not unaffected by this information). Fired or not, Giles refuses to leave. A new Watcher will be arriving soon. Old British guy leaves, and Buffy allows Giles to tend to her wounds.
All the kids are at Buffy’s house, having snacks. Willow is very distressed about Giles getting fired. And she’s procured the second bizarre hat of the episode.
Oz’s shirt is pretty cool, though.
Xander attempts to enjoy the current status quo of him being stronger than Buffy by opening a jar that she can’t, but this backfires when he can’t open it either. Ha. Serves him right.
“Helpless” is excellent. Probably one of the best episodes in S3. Plot B is Buffy’s deteriorating relationship with her father and the way she’s been increasingly seeing Giles in that role. Plot A is the Cruciamentum, a heinous rite of passage for Slayers when they come of age. The two plots are tied together in the most painful way possible, which is what makes this one so deeply compelling. Buffy has to deal with the possibility of not being the Slayer anymore, and Giles has to reexamine his loyalties. If the Watchers’ Council has traditions like the Cruciamentum, it makes you wonder what kinds of lines Gwendolyn Post must have crossed in order to get ousted. Now that I think about it, this episode has a lot of parallels to “Angel.” An organization is plotting against Buffy, a guy Buffy trusts and cares about is revealed to have been keeping horrifying secrets from her, Joyce’s life is put in danger by vampires (which gives Buffy the motivation to fight that she previously lacked), and in the end, the guy Buffy cares about earns back her trust by staking a vampire before it can hurt her. That’s really nifty.
“Gingerbread” was about Buffy and her mom; “Helpless” is about Buffy and her dad—or, more importantly, since Hank Summers sucks, it’s about Buffy and Giles. At the beginning, Buffy seems completely confident that Hank values the birthday tradition as much as she does, but Willow’s comment about how he hasn’t been around as much lately foreshadows that all isn’t necessarily well in that department. Despite Buffy’s seeming confidence, surprise isn’t one of the emotions she displays when Joyce tells her he won’t be able to make it. And as the scales have tipped slowly away from Hank, they’ve been tipping towards Giles. Who then disappoints her far more painfully than does the absentee Hank. Ever since “Prophecy Girl,” it’s been obvious how much Giles cares about Buffy, but I’m not sure we’ve really seen as clear evidence about how Buffy feels about Giles until the moment she learns of his betrayal. She is completely devastated. The possibility that she was losing her Slayer powers for good was nothing compared to the horror of Giles being the one who disabled her. But even after that, she still cares about him enough to let him back in after he demonstrates that he’s loyal to her more than the Council.
Giles’s dilemma is whether or not to go along with the Council’s traditions. From a stance of pure pragmatism, the Cruciamentum might have its uses. And perhaps Giles is confident enough in Buffy’s cunning and ingenuity to not be worried she might fail. Whatever he’s told himself to be able to do as Quentin Travers ordered is clearly not enough to steel him against Buffy’s fear when she thinks she’s losing her powers. He avoids her gaze, he gives her feeble reassurances about the flu. Still, it isn’t until Travers completely loses control of the Cruciamentum that Giles reaches his breaking point. (Wow, I’m just realizing how full season three is of secrets and betrayal. Everyone gets a turn, don’t they?) I don’t think he realized until he was put in this position that he doesn’t consider it a job to be Buffy’s Watcher. He’s not doing this for the money. He’s doing it for love. Unlike everyone else keeping secrets in season three, he actually comes clean of his own accord. And then he proves Buffy can still trust him by staking the vampire coming after her and Joyce, and continuing to chew out Travers in front of her. He’s officially chosen his side now.
I know the writers were playing the whole Amy the Rat thing for laughs, but I’m not sure I find it very funny. Why is it so hard for Willow to turn Amy back into a human? Why isn’t Giles helping like he did in “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”? Amy is the only other female friend besides Buffy that Willow has (as far as we know), so how can she get so excited about buying new additions to Amy’s Habitrail when she should be freaking out that nothing is working to bring her back? (And if I were Buffy, I’d be wondering if the reason none of the spells are working is that the rat in that cage isn’t actually Amy. But I know it turns out to be her in S6, so that’s clearly not the issue.) But while she’s not exactly being a great friend to Amy, she’s definitely there for Buffy. She’s both willing to spend her time researching ways to get Buffy’s powers back and urging Buffy to deal with the possibility that she won’t ever get them back. This isn’t something Buffy’s capable of seeing the upsides to, but I’m sure Willow remembers how upset Buffy was at the career fair the previous year. Not being the Slayer would mean Buffy could have a normal life and do whatever she wanted with it.
I really like Cordelia’s moments in this episode. Even though she’s only in two scenes and she’s still not really involved with the Scoobies, she’s fantastic. It wasn’t really cool of her to stand a guy up on a date, but since it was that guy, I’ll give her a pass. What a jerk. She’s surprisingly protective of and compassionate towards Buffy, even when she was focusing on being moderately ditzy. It’s great to see how much substance she continues to have outside of the Scooby gang.
Xander and Oz are both largely reduced to chorus-level characters. They provide comic relief, but little else. It does seem like the reconciliation Xander was hoping to achieve in “Gingerbread” is sticking, though.
Angel is such a good boyfriend. Look how smiley he and Buffy both are in that opening scene! So adorable. But it’s not just there to be adorable; their sparring session shows that they’re equals. (Which is one of the reasons Buffy is so worried he won’t love her as much if she’s no longer the Slayer—it would mean she’s no longer at his level.) And where Xander and Willow both tried to help her feel better about being powered down, possibly permanently, Angel was the only one who could actually bring her a measure of comfort. It’s another great example of how valuable he is as a confidant. She wasn’t even opening up to Willow that much about her insecurities, but she was able to tell Angel. I’m not sure I buy that he wouldn’t have followed her home even though she declined his offer to walk with her, though. That feels a little bit contrived so that the focus could remain on Buffy and Giles. Bah. I suppose at that point, they had no reason to suspect that vampires would actually be coming after her. Walking home should’ve been safe enough.
“If I was at full Slayer power, I’d be punning right about now.”
The Watcher's Diary
In this blog, I'll be reviewing, analyzing, and generally fangirling over excellent television. Exhibit A: the Whedonverse.