Wednesday, August 24, 2011

"Helpless" (Buffy 3.12): Your heart is showing in that outfit

So the parade of incompetent parenting continues! After the bad mommy witch-hunt of "Gingerbread," now we've got the "Helpless" bad daddy brigade. Poor Buffster. Coupled with that, it's Buffy's birthday, which always bodes ill for the Slayer. According to my intrepid co-watcher Jenn, B is an Aquarius. According to the random Internet site I found, that makes her:
Friendly and humanitarian
Honest and loyal
Original and inventive
Independent and intellectual

She's going to need all of those traits if she hopes to make it to nineteen! Let's take a look at the Whedonverse guide to surviving your eighteenth birthday on the Hellmouth.

DO sublimate.
We've got some lovely sexy sparring from Buffy and Angel to open the episode. Ah, it reminds me of the sensual Tai Chi that calmed the savage Angel beast way back in "Revelations."
No, not technically a scene from this episode, but can you blame a girl for reminiscing?

You've got to put all that chi somewhere, amiright? Further channeling takes the form of Angel's birthday gift to Buffy, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese. Brit-lit expert Jenn could tell you more about this collection, I'm certain. My knowledge basically begins and ends with the facts that Elizabeth wrote them for/about her husband, fellow poet Robert Browning, and that I'm pretty sure they were allowed to do it without one of them losing their soul.

DON'T be afraid to be vulnerable.
To my mind, this episode is all about identifying and embracing vulnerability. Which is actually pretty genius. Giles, following Watcher protocol and submitting Buffy to the Council-mandated "Cruciamentum" challenge, administers an injection of Slayer Kryptonite (a troubled metaphor, as Oz [I love you, Oz!] explains) to impose physical vulnerability on B. This weakness translates into the latest (but not the last) in a series of existential crises for our Slayer. She tells Angel that without her superpowers, she doesn't know who she is and what she has to offer. He responds with a very heartfelt story about seeing Buffy in LA, before she was slayer-ized. Emphasis on HEARTfelt. He says he fell in love with her right then, because, and I'm paraphrasing, she held her heart in front of her for the world to see, and he wanted to protect and warm her heart with his own. Buffy responds with a hug, deeming his metaphor "beautiful . . . or, if taken literally, incredibly gross." Hee.
Well, at least he didn't get a horribly literal tattoo like that moron from The Bachelorette.

The physical vulnerability points toward the episode's real interest--emotional vulnerability. Not only Buffy's but Giles's (his "father's love" for Buffy causes him to tell her about the challenge and lose his job) and even uber-psycho vamp Kralik has a weakness (his headaches, which I guess becoming a vampire didn't cure--I mean, can you think of another vampire who's bothered by something mundane and human like headaches? Picture Drusilla complaining about eczema. See? Weird.).

DO improvise.
And wouldn't you know it, those very headaches allow a sub-par Slayer to overcome the masochistic vampire who has escaped his Council-designed straitjacket and kidnapped her mother (AND snagged her best Little Red Riding hood).
Subtlety, thy name is Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Because Buffy can't rely on her strength, she employs her smarts. While watching the episode's early scenes featuring Council lackeys carefully allowing Kralik to sip from a glass of water, I said out loud to no one in particular, "What other vampire washes down his headache pills with water?" Well, thank God this one does.
Yep, she slipped him Holy Water. And yep, that's the actor who plays Rack, a character who will be doing some world-class, havoc-wreaking enabling in season 6.

DO love your family no matter when or where you find them.
One of the crucial subplots of this episode is the full reveal of Buffy's dad's douchebaggery. Though he's been MIA since the early moments of season 2, it isn't until now that his absence evolves into full-on neglect. His failure to take Buffy to their traditional birthday ice show (where was this beloved family ritual in season 2's birthday episode "Surprise"? No matter.) leads her to position Giles as a father substitute. Though I have my reasons for mistrusting the impulse to jam their complicated relationship into this limiting father/daughter paradigm (presented a paper on it at Slayage 2010--won't bore you with the details), it does reinforce the common trope in the Whedonverse that the best families are the ones you choose, not necessarily the ones you're born with. Though Giles initially fails at protecting Buffy as a father should, he more than makes up for it by revealing the nature of the test to Buffy, saving her (and Joyce) by slaying the Kralik-sired Blair, and by tending to his wounded Slayer in the penultimate scene.

Another episode with Whedonverse-wide implications, as Giles's firing by the Council heralds the arrival of none other than Wesley. Wyndham. Price. Can't wait to re-watch you, Wes!

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