You know, nothing’s really gonna change. The important thing is that I kept up my special birthday tradition of gut-wrenching misery and horror.
Two weeks in a row our Slayer has to deal with the betrayals of her parental figures. Last week, Joyce, under the influence of the Hansel and Gretel demon, tried to burn her alive. This week, both her fathers let her down.
“Helpless” is another Buffy birthday episode. As the Slayer herself notes, her birthdays tend to be “gut-wrenching misery and horror” – last year she punched her v-card and unleashed Angelus, and this year, her substitute father poisons her in the name of tradition and her mother gets kidnapped by a particularly vicious vampire. She hasn’t even gotten to the birthday where her not-sister traps them in the house a la Groundhog Day. Or the one where Giles gets turned into a demon.
Our summary – according to The Council, on the day of the Slayer’s eighteenth birthday, she has her powers stripped away and is trapped with an enemy. She must defeat the vampire using only her wits and resourcefulness. The Watcher must incapacitate his Slayer, because it’s a test for them too – Watchers are supposed to be unemotional guides. (Not that that ever works – Giles mentions in a later episode that most Watchers whose Slayers are killed are unable to continue their duties because they’ve been devastated by the loss.) We meet the head of the Council, Quentin, and our vampire-du-jour, Zachary Kralik, whom Buffy must slay. (Trivia: the actor will go on to play Rack in Season 6.) Kralik escapes his jail, kidnaps Joyce, and torments Buffy through a house of endless corridors until she defeats him with her cleverness. Everyone good? Let’s talk details.
Like “Gingerbread,” “Helpess” is another fairytale-influenced episode. The darkest ones in the series seem to have deep ties to folklore. A lot of fairy tales deal with deep-rooted fears – that’s one of the reasons they’ve survived the centuries – so it make sense that working the tropes produces episodes that are dark and frightening. “Helpless” pulls from a couple of different stories – I still see shades of Hansel and Gretel here, and there’s a strong Red Riding Hood visual motif.
Last week I mentioned that the H&G tale deals with parental abandonment and fears that children have that they can’t trust the adults closest to them. Buffy’s no-goodnic father flakes on her birthday once again, bailing on her birthday and their annual ice capades date. Giles hypnotizes her and then injects her with a serum that renders her weak, “like a girl,” and drives her off into the woods (Sunnydale) with no way to get home, all on the word of the organization he’s married to. When Buffy wanders through the dark streets, she has a not-exactly-unobtrusive red “cape” – check out the swing of the coat and the volume of the hood. I don’t believe we ever see this jacket again. She’s accosted by “wolves” on the street (two guys that harass her and ask for a lap dance) and the Baddest Wolf of All, who steals her coat and tricks her mother into thinking it’s her when he’s lying on the porch wrapped in her skin. My, what big teeth he has. And should the symbolism have not been drummed into your face hard enough, Kralik, when he traps Buffy in the nightmare house full of long corridors and dark rooms, warns her not to stray off the path.*
We are not always subtle here in the Buffyverse.
As usual, the most emotionally satisfying and complex relationship on the show at this point is between Buffy and Giles. I – and practically anyone with eyes – has noted before that their relationship is strongly father-daughter, with Giles stepping into the role that Buffy’s father has vacated. Sometimes that parallel is subtext and other times it’s super-text. When she is stood up for the ice show, Buffy asks, hints, and attempts to cajole Giles into taking her instead, hinting around that anyone who loves her like a father would be happy to do this for her birthday. ASH is such a superb actor – the look of pain that flashes across his face as she’s talking about this and he’s preparing to give her his shot is one of the best scenes in this episode, which frankly, is full of really good scenes. What makes Buffy a great Slayer is her willingness to buck tradition. Giles is deeply influenced by her attitude, but not enough to completely turn his back on the traditions of the council. While he might argue with Quentin over the barbarism of this rite of passage, he does nothing to stop it until it’s too late. (Remember, Giles once confessed that it was the order of the Council that saved him from the Ripper.)
It’s notable that Buffy can forgive a lot of things – Angel, Willow, Xander, Joyce (just last week), and Spike individually betray Buffy at different times, but she always finds a way to move past it. There’s two people to whom she has a hard time extending that forgiveness – Giles, as her father, and eventually Faith, as the reflection of who she could have been. Buffy is devastated, just devastated, when Giles confesses what happened:
BUFFY: Who are you? How could you do this to me?
GILES: I’m deeply sorry, Buffy, you have to understand –
BUFFY: If you touch me, I’ll kill you.
GILES: You have to listen to me. Because I have told you this, the test is invalidated. You’ll be safe, I promise. Whatever I have to do, to deal with Kralik and to win back your trust –
BUFFY: You stuck a needle in me. You poisoned me.
She tells him if he touches her, she’ll kill him. Everything that’s happened between them, and she threatens to kill him. That line jumped out at me this time and I felt so terrible for her. Buffy has betrayed Giles, too, this season in fact, when she hid Angel’s return from him and asked for help for the man who tortured him. But thoughtlessness is something children do. Adults – parents – are supposed to protect you. Every significant fight they have seems to revolve around this point. There is some fence mending – Quentin fires Giles for having “a parent’s love for the child” – and Buffy allows him to tend to her wounds. But still, at the end of the episode, the Scooby gang gathers at Buffy’s house for a birthday celebration of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The only person missing is Giles.
*Of course, this is not the only time Buffy plays at being Little Red Riding Hood. She dresses up for Halloween in the costume in Season 4, carrying around a basket of weapons.