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Monday, January 30, 2012

Killed By Death

[Updated April 29, 2013]

Killed by Death is another episode which gets little respect in fandom. Part of that is its placement in the season, right after Passion and just before I Only Have Eyes For You. That’s a tough crowd, made worse by the fact that it’s hard to see much point to KbD. As I hope I’ve shown by now, though, I think every episode has a purpose for it and a reason why it appears in the season when it does.

I start at the beginning of the episode, with Buffy’s illness. This is the only time in the whole series when we see her actually sick (as opposed to being ill from a spell, as in Witch). The illness comes right after the terrible events of Passion and the effect is that she’s weakened to the point where she’s unable to carry out her duties as Slayer, which we see in the fight with Angelus at the beginning of the episode. I think it’s reasonable, in these circumstances, to see her illness as a metaphor for her feeling sick over the death of Jenny. Joyce gives us a big hint that this is the case: “Buffy’s been so down since it [Jenny’s death] happened… I mean she never gets sick….”
When we get sick, the natural thing to do is seek treatment in order to get well. Buffy fears the hospital because she’s blaming herself and the hospital reminds her of a previous occasion when she, in her mind, failed to act in time. That’s how I interpret the flashbacks to her cousin – Buffy thinks she should have done something to save Celia, just as she now knows she failed to prevent Jenny’s murder when she had the chance.
One consequence of being sick, at least if you’re very sick, is that you might die. Der Kindestod obviously represents this fear of death for children. The fact that Buffy is able to see him by making herself sicker shows us that she too is still a child in some ways even though she’s at that in-between age of adolescence and on the road to adulthood (“Believe me, I’m not that grown up.”). As I read it, then, Buffy is sick nearly to death about Angelus’ murder of Jenny and prevents herself from being overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness when she saves the children. Cordy’s right:

“So this isn't about you being afraid of hospitals 'cause your friend died and you wanna conjure up a monster that you can fight so you can save everybody and not feel so helpless?”

This doesn’t mean Buffy imagined the demon. No, within the confines of the show the demon was just as real as all the others. This is just a case of the dialogue making sure we don’t miss the message.
That leaves us to explain why the children can see the monster but adults can’t. The reason, I think, is that the feeling of helplessness is something children experience all the time. Adults can, we hope, act to solve their problems. By identifying the problem Buffy’s able to overcome the sense of helplessness all children suffer from and resume her Slayer duties – that is, her metaphorical road to adulthood.
The death of Jenny Calendar was Buffy’s first important failure on her road to her destiny. A major failure at trying to be an adult is not something any of us take lightly; it could even be enough to discourage the journey altogether. Buffy had to move past that sense of failure before she could resume hers.
Trivia notes: (1) Der Kindestod was obviously modeled after Freddy Krueger of Nightmare on Elm Street. For all that I think the episode itself is relatively weak, the monster is one of the show’s creepiest. (2) The tune Angel was whistling as he walked into the hospital and was stopped by Xander was the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. (3) Cordelia’s version of “tact” – “not saying true stuff” – should remind us of Lear’s daughter, after whom the character was named. (4) Power Girl, the role Buffy played with Celia, is a DC comics heroine. (5) Xander’s advice not to play chess with Death refers to the movie The Seventh Seal. And by the way, props to Xander for standing up to Angelus in the hospital. He behaved very badly in BB&B and Passion, but he redeems himself a bit here. (6) This dialogue between Giles and Cordy seems to me a subtle joke at the very premise of the show: “Cordelia: Wait, what does this one do? (points to another) Giles: (frustrated) It asks endless questions of those with whom it's supposed to be working so that nothing is getting done. Cordelia: Boy, there's a demon for everything.” (7) Willow told Giles she had “frog fear” in WML 1; here she uses it to distract the security guards.


  1. I like the reading of Buffy living through her "guilt" over Jenny's death, but overall not one of my favorites. One reason I tend to rate S05 and S03 over S02 is the way they're able to keep the intensity rolling in the back half of the season, whereas this season really stumbles on quite a few occasions.

    However, Xander standing up to Angel at the hospital is, in my opinion, one of this finest moments in the entire series.

    1. sorry . . . meant to say "one of his finest moments . . ."

    2. Yeah, metaphorically this episode works. But S3 does better on straight plot line.

  2. It hit me more on rewatch this time that Buffy as a child could not see Der Kindestod. So apparently you have to have a fever even as a child to see him. I'm not sure it really matters to the analysis, since sick children are particularly helpless, but I think I had previously understood the demon to just generally be something that children could see and adults couldn't. I guess we don't actually know if sick adults could see it, since Buffy at 17 isn't quite a grown-up. I'm guessing not.

    I really love the "Ode to Joy" touch. In this episode, it's like Angelus is rubbing it in that Angel's happiness with Buffy was what set him free. When we hear Angel listen to it in the shower in Rm w/a Vu later, it's like next-level brooding, listening to an ode to the thing that he's not supposed to have.

  3. Nice connection to Rm w/a Vu. I missed that.