“My predecessor, Mr. Flutie, may have gone in for that touchy- feely relating nonsense, but he was eaten. You’re in my world now. And Sunnydale has touched and felt for the last time.”
This week we climb out of the doldrums of “I Robot, You Jane” into the vastly superior “Puppet Show.” It would be a great episode if all it featured is the introduction of Principal Snyder, the poor, consumed Principal Flutie’s replacement, but we also get Giles organizing a school talent show, Cordelia’s “talent,” and a murderous ventriloquist dummy. A creepy, creepy dummy.
We open on the busy Sunnydale High stage, where students are preparing for a rehearsal of the school talent show. Hello, flexible dance and unnecessary shot of dancer’s crotch. Hello, bad student magician. Hello, weird-looking student we haven’t seen before and your creepy, creepy dummy. And helloooo, Cordelia, whom we have missed over the last couple of episodes. Cordelia’s contribution to “talent” is a warbling, off-key rendition of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All.” We’re not the only ones being subjected to this atrocity ““ there’s Giles in the audience, whose face of doom tells us he’s not there of his own free will.
Buffy, Xander, and Willow show up to rub Giles’ new responsibilities in his face. It might seem mean spirited, if you haven’t been watching all season as he browbeat Buffy. After all, as she says, “”¦ to every generation is born one who must run the annual talentless show. You cannot escape your destiny.” Principle Snyder appointed Giles the faculty coordinator so he would have more contact with the students ““ something, as a librarian, Giles tries to avoid.
The very same Principal Snyder, otherwise known as Quark from Star Trek: DS9, drops the hammer on the Scoobies for making fun of Giles, and forces them to join the talentless show too.
And there’s our set up, kids. Every single thing that comes out of Principal Snyder’s mouth on this show is gold. This episode is very noir-y investigative and is paced oddly, but it’s worth hanging out to hear Snyder drop gems like this:
I know the three of you will come up with a wonderful act for the school to watch “¦ and mock “¦ and laugh. At.
Kids today need discipline. That’s an unpopular word these days, ‘discipline’. I know Principal Flutie would have said, ‘Kids need understanding. Kids are human beings.’ That’s the kind of woolly-headed, liberal thinking that leads to being eaten.
There are things I will not tolerate: students loitering on campus after school, horrible murders with hearts being removed, and also smoking.
On stage, the ventriloquist is setting up his run through. His jokes are painful, his mouth is moving – Giles can’t even watch the kid humiliate himself. But the dummy, Sid, takes over, cracking lines that were fresh in the Catskills in the ’50s, but none of these kids were alive then, so everyone laughs at them. I am giving nothing away when I say it’s the dummy dropping the jokes – possessed dolls are, like, one of the oldest tricks in the books. Because they’re fucking scary, man. It’s the dead eyes.
Offstage, the ballerina is getting changed in the locker room. Someone is watching her – someone besides us. The scene switches between color and black and white, which is really more like black and white with a purple wash, so we know we’re seeing through some demon’s eyes. The ballerina gasps, the camera zooms up from the ground, everything goes black, and a hoarse voice-over says “I will be flesh.”
Giles tells the gang later that the ballerina’s heart was removed from her corpse. Everyone is grossed out – that’s a bit disgusting even for Sunnydale. Buffy notes that the police took a knife into evidence. Demons don’t usually need to use knives, so the gang is going to be looking for a human killer. Or something human-like. “Did I mention how much I hate this school?” Xander says, and I can’t blame him. The gang splits up to start investigating their fellow talent-show performers.
All of the other talent show performers – Marc the inept magician, Elliot the musician, and Cordelia, the, uh, Cordelia – all mention that Morgan the ventriloquist is, you know, really strange.
Buffy finds the dummy sitting alone on a stool in the middle of the empty auditorium. He’s talking but Morgan is nowhere to be seen. And when Morgan does wander in from offstage, all he can gives is a weak “I was practicing throwing my voice” excuse when Buffy gives him the side-eye. She’s not convinced. Our girl wasn’t born yesterday.
And Jebus Christ, Buffy’s suspicions are proven right when she wakes up in the middle of the night to see Sid STANDING OVER HER BED, and that shit is creepy. I mean, I know this is just a show and everything, but I once woke up in the middle of the night as a kid and can swear that one of the dolls I owned sat up and looked at me, at which point I screamed my fool head off and my mom told me I was dreaming. It didn’t matter if I was dreaming or not. I had seen Poltergeist. I know what happens to kids who don’t pay attention to dolls watching them in the middle of the night. Those kids get killed. I put that stinking doll in the basement where it could never stare at me sleeping ever again.
Buffy, Vampire Slayer or not, also screams and calls her mom, because that is a totally logical response to a doll stalking you. (This first season sees Buffy screaming and her mom running a few times – which is completely reasonable when you remember that not only is she the Slayer, but she’s also only 15, and even sometimes supernatural badasses just want their mommies.)
Giles pooh-poos her story because he’s found information about a human-looking demon that needs to harvest a brain and a heart every seven years or revert back to its demonic form. His money is on Morgan being the culprit. But then during history class, Sid, which Morgan is carrying around for no explained reason, twists his creepy head around and stares at Buffy. Which herring is the reddest?!
The history teacher confiscates the dummy and locks him in a cabinet until after school, when, predictably, Sid is missing when Morgan shows up to claim him.
Oh, Xander stole him. Sid didn’t walk away on his own at all, which I bet is what you expected to find out. Xander stole him and is tormenting Buffy and Willow with his terrible jokes and the dummy’s soulless stare. Slamming the dummy’s head into the library checkout counter to prove Sid isn’t real seems like one of those things that will come back to bite you in the ass later, but Xander is still breathing as the gang goes their separate ways.
Maybe not for long! He goes to get a book from the shelves and when he returns, Sid is gone. Xander rightfully freaks out.
Buffy goes searching for Morgan backstage. She finds him all right – or what’s left of him. He’s been de-brained. And she has a chandelier dropped on her. While trying to free herself, Sid appears and attacks her. Luckily, chandelier or no, he only weighs as much as a dummy and Buffy fights him off one-handed until she gets un-pinned. As he attacks her again, the Slayer is able to knock Sid’s knife from his hand and pin him to a wall. “Now you’ll never be human,” Buffy tells him. “And neither will you,” Sid says. Wait, what?
Back in the library, Sid tells his story. He was a human once, and a demon hunter, before his soul got trapped in the body of the dummy. He won’t be free until the seven demons that cursed him are dead. Six of them have bit it and Sid’s tracked the last demon to Sunnydale, though he doesn’t know exactly who the demon is. He thought it was Buffy. Understandable. It won’t be the last time Buffy gets accused of having a little demon in her.
The group confers. They head back to the stage where Giles will call all the performers together for a “power circle” before the show. From the catwalk above the stage, Buffy and Sid do a quick head count. Everyone is accounted for, and Giles dismisses them with the worst pep talk ever. Buffy leaps from the catwalk to talk to him.
One of the things I love about the show are the casual ways it works in references to Buffy’s superpowers. She’ll be sitting on the catwalk, talking to a demon-hunting puppet and la-di-dah, leaps off to the stage without a second thought. It’s actually really nice. She’s a superhero with tremendous strength and agility and she’s a teenaged girl – why wouldn’t she capitalize on her abilities?
With no leads and an auditorium full of people, Giles insists the show has to go on. Buffy agrees. As she stumbles through the backstage area, something disgusting falls on her. It’s Morgan’s brain.
Buffy, Willow, and Xander converge back at the library to figure out why the demon left his brain behind. Willow hacks into Morgan’s medical records to find out he had brain cancer – a diseased brain won’t cut it for the demon. The gang figures the demon will be going after the smartest mind it can find, and everyone is worried about Willow until they realize that Giles isn’t there “¦
Because he’s backstage with Marc, the magician, helping him get one of his props working. Marc needs a bit of help, see, because his assistant didn’t show up, and if Giles will just lay down in this guillotine here “¦
Giles, who has never watched an episode of his own show, agrees, and allows himself to be strapped down before he figures out something strange is going on. Luckily for him, instead of just dropping the blade down and finishing the job, Marc has tied the rope to a block of wood, and laboriously tries to cut the rope with the world’s dullest hatchet, giving Buffy et al. enough time to show up. Xander catches the rope just as the blade begins to fall and Willow uses the hatchet to break the locks holding Giles down. Buffy does what she does best, kicking Marc’s ass all over the stage. His seven years must be up, because he reverts back to full demon mode. Buffy manages to trip him onto the guillotine and Xander lets go of the rope.
That’s not enough though. Sid is there with his knife for the killing blow. Once the demon is truly dead, Sid will be released from his wooden body. Released into the hereafter, because his real body is long since dust. Buffy offers to make the final blow, but Sid insists, and collapses across the demon’s torso after the killing stroke.
Our girl looks confused and troubled, seeing a fellow monster killer meet their end. She gathers up Sid’s dummy and walks towards the center of the stage, perhaps about to say something.
The stage’s curtains part to show the gang spread out after their fight is over – Buffy holding the dummy, Willow with an axe, Giles and Xander standing near a guillotined demon – exposed to a full audience of teachers and parents. Principal Snyder looks at the strange tableau oddly and then says, “I don’t get it. What is it? Avant-garde?”
For this week’s worst 90’s fashion, I offer one Cordelia Chase, clad in a silver crushed-velvet, mock-turtleneck bodysuit, paired with lime green cigarette pants and a lemon yellow sweater tied around the waist. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t owned a bodysuit just like it.