Writer David Fury says in his DVD commentary that Buffy’s red coat in Helpless was a deliberate reference to Red Riding Hood. Kralik reinforced the reference at several points: “Why did you come to the dark of the woods?”; “To bring all these sweets to grandmother's house?”; and “If you stray from the path you will lose your way”. So, in line with the theme that fairy tales are real, let’s see what Wikipedia tells us about the original version of Red Riding Hood:
“The antagonist is not always a wolf, but sometimes an ogre or a ‘bzou’ (werewolf), making these tales relevant to the werewolf-trials (similar to witch trials) of the time…. The wolf usually leaves the grandmother’s blood and meat for the girl to eat, who then unwittingly cannibalizes her own grandmother…. In [other versions] she escapes with no help from any male or older female figure, instead using her own cunning.”
And what was Kralik’s plan? He told Joyce: “I won't kill her; I'll just make her like me. Different. She'll go to sleep, and when she wakes up, your face will be the first thing she eats.” But, of course, Buffy escaped using her own cunning (a word Quentin Travers actually used to describe the virtues a Slayer needs).
Helpless shows us Buffy deprived of her Slayer power, though she turns out not to be helpless at all. In my reading, Buffy’s reconciliation with Cordelia in Homecoming was necessary for this episode. When Cordelia stared down Lyle Gorch, that was telling us that Buffy had non-Slayer attributes she could use to face challenges as a person; she’s not limited to her Slayer side. Whatever you think of the Cruciamentum (see below), Buffy experienced the world the way ordinary people – people like Willow and Xander – do. That was a necessary step on her journey to adulthood, even if it wasn’t intended that way by the Watcher’s Council.
The big revelation in the episode, though, is the nature of the Watcher’s Council (gleefully abbreviated in fandom as the “WC”). We’ve heard about it for some time, but never seen any representative except Giles and (the presumably renegade) Mrs. Post. What we saw in Helpless was not promising, so let’s consider the Council’s policy.
I think the best case that can be made for the Watcher’s Council is along the same lines as Col. Graff made in Ender’s Game. If you haven’t read the book, spoilers for it follow.
Briefly, Ender is a child prodigy who is taken by military commanders in order to train him to become a commander himself. In order to make him ruthless, they isolate him from his fellow students, who torment him repeatedly. This results in Ender using his undoubted talents to find ever more creative ways to get back at the other students by winning the games the commanders set for him. Unbeknownst to Ender, at some point the games become actual combat situations in which his decisions are translated into commands for the Earth star fleet. He eventually ends the war by a ruthless and totally destructive move, something he never would have done but for the way he’d been treated.
The book is somewhat ambiguous about the way Ender was treated. The conclusion suggests real regret on his part, but Col. Graff excuses or palliates the harm done to Ender personally as necessary in the service of a greater good. The ending of Helpless, in contrast, left us with little sympathy for Quentin Travers or the Watcher’s Council.
So the question is, can the “military necessity” excuse justify the Cruciamentum? Or is it, as Giles says, nothing but an “archaic exercise in cruelty”? One could argue that the test is much less cruel than we’re shown precisely because a Slayer is likely to have gained enough combat experience to be able to pass it without as much risk as it may seem. Personally, I don’t find this very persuasive because Slayers will have gained their experience in exercising Slayer powers, not acting as ordinary teenage girls; it’s not like Cordy and Willow are capable of walking out of Thunderdome after a bout with an insane vampire.
That said, a Slayer who did survive – and didn’t realize how she’d been betrayed and manipulated by her Watcher – probably would gain confidence from the knowledge that she defeated a vampire “on her own”. That, of course, implies the “usual” case in which the vampire doesn’t escape and endanger third parties. Quentin’s behavior was inexcusable even if the Cruciamentum itself can be justified, because he was indifferent to the harm to Joyce and his own employees.
Assuming that military training does serve a purpose, however instrumentalist towards a human being, I find it hard to see why this particular exercise would be applicable to someone who’s already been a Slayer for (in Buffy’s case) nearly 3 years. A Slayer would surely have picked up the skills necessary to survive during that time; if not, she wouldn’t have survived (a la Kendra). Thus, the test itself seems unnecessary for training purposes.
What it is useful for, though, is controlling the Slayer. The WC structure is set up to isolate the Watchers (or at least the Council) from any real risk. The Slayer is the one actually fighting evil, as Giles pointed out. The Cruciamentum seems well-designed to eliminate a Slayer who gets too independent – since another will be called, the WC doesn’t need any particular Slayer. It can simply assert its authority over the newly Chosen One. She may very well be younger and will certainly be less confident of her own abilities, thus more willing to defer to the Council’s authority. The whole test seems designed to perpetuate the Council rather than to make the Slayer “better” in any meaningful way.
The test also seems to serve a disciplinary function for the Watcher in the field, as we saw at the end. The Council asserts its authority over them as an additional method of control. Giles clearly recognized the problem with the process, so we need to understand why he would agree to participate and to betray Buffy as he did. Part of it was surely the sense of duty he had as a subordinate to the WC, which seems to be its goal. We all tend to do as we’re told by our bosses. This would be all the more true of Giles, since his father and grandmother were both Watchers (NKABOTFD) and he was raised from childhood to become one. The fact that he felt somewhat ignored by the Council (Revelations) may have made him more anxious to prove to them what a good job he’s done with Buffy by having her survive the test. Part of it, though, may stem from lingering subconscious resentment at the way Buffy withheld Angel’s return from him. That’s not very noble, but it may be a real factor.
Buffy’s reaction to her loss of power was also interesting. The injections made her truly “just a girl” and she didn’t like it. Her commitment to being the Slayer is complete; she’s reached the stage where she rejects the very idea of opting out.Trivia notes: (1) The rather phallic crystals Giles used to hypnotize Buffy imply a patriarchal role for the Cruciamentum. The one Buffy was playing with suggests that her workout with Angel was less than completely, um, satisfying. (2) Buffy described Faith as on a “walkabout”. A “walkabout”, quoting Wikipedia, is “a rite of passage during which male Australian Aborigines would undergo a journey during adolescence and live in the wilderness for a period as long as six months.” It's a rite of passage, exactly what Buffy experiences here in Helpless. (3) Giles told Buffy to “look for the flaw at its [crystal] center”. That could be a metaphor for the flaw in the WC system. (4) Oz was correct about the various colors of kryptonite and their effect on Superman. So much for Xander’s geek cred. (5) Angel’s birthday gift was Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets From the Portuguese. They were love poems to her husband-to-be. (6) Buffy compared her pre-Slayer self to Cordelia, which is the passage I had in mind in discussing Cordy’s role as Buffy’s shadow self in my post on NKABOTFD. (7) Buffy’s concern that her calling might be a wrong number fits with the growing up theme. As highschoolers move towards graduation, they get secretly nervous that they’re not ready for the world outside.