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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Helpless

[Updated April 30, 2013]

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.

15 comments:

  1. I completely agree that the Crucaimentum was a way to weed out Slayers before they became too independent. And the point you make about the Watchers in the field is interesting. In the Season 9 comics(this isn't a spoiler for any plot, just new info about past stuff) it's been revealed that Nikki Wood was pregnant when she underwent her Cruciamentum, and her Watcher also attempted to interrupt the trial because of it, but was unsuccesful. Apparently he wasn't caught, because he wasn't punished, and remained her Watcher and helped to raise Robin.

    If your interpretation of Faith's walkabout is correct, it gives me a better frame of reference for Faith's age, which I have always been curious about. I always assumed she was older than Buffy, because she was on her own, but I've seen other stuff that hints she's younger. But if her and Buffy were facing their trials concurrently, then it establishes them as the same age. But Buffy's nonchalant reference to it, makes it seem that this was something Faith did often, and the only actual American cultural reference to "walkabout" that I can think of, is from Crocodile Dundee, where the term walkabout was more implied to just be Dundee disappearing for long periods of time, which is how I've always seen that reference.

    The connection to Little Red Riding Hood is awesome, especially with my OUAT fixation, which also makes the Wolf in her story a werewolf, and I wasn't aware that was a common interpretation at the time.

    The scene where Buffy tries to help Cordy, is an interesting mirror to the scene in Gingerbread(that I love to a million pieces*) where the warlock guy is being bullied near Amy, and Buffy just walks up with her head cocked to the side inquisitively, and the guy backs off. This time, she didn't allow her very presence to intimidate the guy, but immedeately became physical, which backfired heavily for her. There's probably a moral in that somewhere.

    *I just love how she's all "whatchadoin?" and the guy runs off, her reputation as a badass is established.

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    1. Of course now I realize any reference to Robin is still a spoiler, so OOPS sorry!

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    2. It is, but it's vague enough that I won't worry about it.

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    3. Aeryl—

      I also took the scene with Cordelia to be significant because, if she is indeed Buffy's shadow-self, it vaguely prefigures Buffy's coming loss of self-confidence, her inability to defend herself when she first runs into Kralik and has to be rescued by Giles. (Is that too convoluted?)

      Very mild spoiler

      I have always found that scene, from Buffy's mild fright before the rude men to her terror running down the street screaming, to be one of the most gut-wrenching... Although we get the pay-off in Buffy's brilliant triumph with the holy water and her "If I were at full Slayer strength, I would be punning right now," the affective force of her absolute abjection continues, for me at least, to haunt: there is nothing like it in the entire series.


      (That said, I, too, love the "Whatchdoin...?")

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    4. I like the suggestion that the scene with Cordy prefigures Buffy. Wish I'd thought of it.

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  2. "Walkabout" is also what "The Firm" (the British royal family) call trips to perform their ceremonial duties.

    I often think of the The Watcher's Council as the equivalent of the bureaucracy supporting the royal family--and, as you say, they aren't particularly invested in one Slayer (Queen or King) because another one can just be called. Even if he needs a lot of speech therapy.

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  3. I like your reading of the Cruciamentum and the WC.

    A question about Buffy's commitment being complete

    (MILD SPOILERS):

    do you think she's completely reached that stage by this point? It sort of seems like the journey she has to complete this season (by way of the upcoming conflict with Faith), and the doubts she must overcome as part of it, really seal her commitment because Buffy still needs to be . . . tempted by the dark side? . . . before she can fully commit not only to being the Slayer, but to doing it right.

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    1. MILD SPOILERS FOR THE REMAINDER OF S3

      The way I see it, her commitment to being the Slayer is complete. The *kind* of Slayer she'll be is still open. So I see it as a two-stage process.

      I think of it in metaphor: we all (eventually) commit to becoming adults. The *kind* of adult we become remains fluid.

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    2. Well put, that makes sense.

      MILD SPOILERS cont'd

      I guess the way she responds to Giles's firing and her continued dedication to being the Slayer regardless of her or his official situations makes your point.

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  5. A few posts behind, still have to respond to Amends.

    I agree with your read on the Cruciamentum and the episode. I do think the Cruciamentum has the trait of both keeping slayers in line and of giving them confidence in their abilities. I also think the Cruciamentum makes a lot of sense once we apply the knowledge that it is also meant as a test of the Watcher -- in fact, it might even be the primary function of the test, to ensure that the Watcher is both willing and able to manipulate their slayer.

    I think that the fairy tale element is in part about the possibility of a fairy tale being used as a (patriarchal) control structure: the Council basically set up the Cruciamentum as a narrative, wherein the slayer, the vampire, and the Watcher play well-defined roles, which they are not expected to break free from. There's a neat parallel between the way the Council keeps Kralik drugged and the way they keep Buffy drugged; and that the Watcher who is turned by Kralik is "corrupted" by the vampire in a similar way to the way Giles is "corrupted," from Quentin's POV, by Buffy's love. I think this resonates with Joss et al.'s overall reason for creating the TV series, which is to put Buffy in the position of being a potential victim so that she might rise above it. I think it's about here that the writers start questioning the basic premise of the series. There is some ambivalence to the Cruciamentum as a result. Buffy does gain something from her rite of passage, but it was wrong of the Council and Giles to force her through it. Obviously the responsibility of a writing staff to fictional characters is much different than the responsibility of Watchers to the slayer, but there are parallels between the writers putting Buffy through the wringer and Quentin/Giles doing so. (SPOILERS) I think this ambivalence about what Buffy has to go through as THE HERO of the story is part of what leads to the willingness in the last two television seasons, culminating in Chosen, to do away with that structure. (END SPOILERS)

    I got pounced on for saying this in the notes with Maggie, but I do think it's remarkable that Buffy doesn't use the opportunity of having lost her powers to further connect with Willow or Cordelia. Certainly they wouldn't understand what it's like to lose power, so it's perhaps understandable that she only speaks to Angel directly about it (since he is the other superpowered person in her life). That said, our ability to see what Buffy goes through gives us a hint of the life of fear that her friends were left in when Buffy is not there to protect them, which is somewhat frequent. Anyway, the fact that Buffy doesn't even begin to consider the possibility of it being a good thing that she's lost her powers does suggest that she has accepted slaying as a part of herself, if perhaps not entirely consciously.

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    1. Very good and interesting points.

      Willow did try to talk to Buffy about the loss of her powers, but as so often happens they were interrupted:

      "Willow: Buffy. (they stop) I know you are *definitely*, without a doubt, gonna get your powers back.

      Buffy: Thanks, Will. (starts up to the stacks)

      Willow: But what if you don't?

      Buffy: (stops) Okay... (sighs) if I don't get my powers back, then I don't. I'll deal. (considers) And there's a whole lotta good sides to it.

      Willow: Actually, this could open up so many...

      Giles comes into the library. Buffy runs up to him.

      Buffy: Giles. Did you find anything?"

      It would be interesting to know what Willow was going to say, but we never get it. My speculation is that it would have gone along the lines we'll see in Choices.

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  6. "Walkabout" is also the title of the fifth episode of LOST, written by David Fury (who scripted "Helpless"). It's named by a huge number of fans as the episode that hooked them on the series.

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    1. Sorry, make that the FOURTH episode of "Lost".

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    2. Cool. I think all the Buffy writers drew on their experience with Buffy when they moved on to new jobs.

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