Follow by Email

Monday, December 24, 2012

Help

[Updated May 3, 2013]

In my view, Help plays the same functional role for S7 that Inca Mummy Girl played in S2. Ampata was a Chosen girl who sucked the life out of others for her own selfish purposes. That’s exactly what Buffy saw herself as having done with Angel, as her emotional reaction in IOHEFY showed:
“Buffy:  No. James destroyed the one person he loved the most in a moment of blind passion. And that's not something you forgive. No matter why he did what he did. And no matter if he knows now that it was wrong and selfish and stupid, it is just something he's gonna have to live with.”

Buffy gave in to her selfish desire when she slept with Angel and that sucked the (metaphorical) life out of him. She therefore saw herself as worse than even Ampata; she failed a “chosen one” test.


Similarly, the events of Help create in Buffy’s mind a standard which she doesn’t know how to meet. This begins very subtly in the teaser. The dialogue there implicitly raises the issue Joyce first noted in Gingerbread, namely that Buffy can’t really put a dent in the vampire population:
XANDER
33 minutes. Since when do we go through all this trouble for one lousy vampire. Excuse me, one lousy potential vampire.
BUFFY
Vampire by vampire. It's the only way I know how.

If you think about Buffy’s calling in the context of Joyce’s challenge, then Buffy’s response to Xander leads directly to her rhetorical questions at the end of the episode: “So what then? What do you do when you know that? When you know that maybe you can't help?” The connection with the teaser is that if Buffy can’t defeat all the vampires and demons, then there will inevitably be those, such as Cassie, whom she can’t save. Note that this builds on the accusations of the manifest spirits in Lessons, each of which berated Buffy for failing to save them. It also builds on the girls who’ve mysteriously died, one of whom Buffy saw in her dream in Beneath You.
The questions she asked will haunt Buffy all season just as Ampata’s behavior haunted her in S2.
The problem posed by Help is inherent in the role of the Slayer (another “back to the beginning” theme). If you’ll recall, Buffy eventually answered Joyce’s challenge in Graduation Day with an act of rebellion which incorporated the entire Sunnydale High student body to defeat the Mayor. Because Help ended as it did, many viewers see it as bleak, even despairing. At best it seems to suggest that you can’t stop trying even when failure is inevitable. I suggest that both of these interpretations are wrong.
In the context of the season as a whole, this is a key moment -- it defines Buffy’s problem for the season arc just as Glory’s introduction in episode 4 of S5 defined Buffy’s problem that year, Flooded introduced the Trio, and Fear, Itself showed Buffy and the Scoobies separated by their fears but united at the end. (Are we seeing a pattern here?) Much of the season will explore possible solutions. Help isn’t intended to make you give up, or to slog on in existential despair, it’s intended to make you think about the problem a little harder. And Cassie’s last words are, indeed, prophetic.
The opening of Help (up through the scene of Willow at Tara’s grave) is, IMO, terrific. Xander’s hammer analogy describes the adult dilemma perfectly. The episode remains very good while Buffy is talking to the students, but IMO the rest is problematic. When Buffy goes to see Cassie’s father, she’s doing what she thinks is the correct, adult thing to do, but she’s painfully, embarrassingly wrong and the scene grates on us (well, me) for that reason. (This I might justify on the ground that it may foreshadow another plot point later on.) The demon-raising boys are a metanarration on Reptile Boy (continuing the “back to the beginning” theme), the idea being that events which seemed important to a high schooler look downright lame when viewed from the perspective of an adult. The problem is, most people saw Reptile Boy itself as lame; lame on lame is not a pretty combination. Dawn’s over the top “friendship” with Cassie, while it works metaphorically to show Buffy’s human side determination to save Cassie, isn’t all that plausible as a story and MT’s acting in the final scene is off to me.
One final point. Some fans criticized Buffy for being so determined to save Cassie and so worried about Willow, while leaving Spike in the basement all by himself. One way to explain this is to note the thematic connection between Buffy’s inability to save Cassie and the fact that Spike’s demons – whatever their source – are invisible and she can’t fight them. Getting Spike to help her save Cassie might well have been the best thing she could have done for him because it enabled him to “protect the girl” instead of wallowing in his guilt.
Trivia notes: (1) Xander mentioned the jingle “I like Ike”, which was the slogan for President Eisenhower’s presidential campaigns. (2) Putting stones on a grave as Willow did is a Jewish tradition. You can find several different explanations on the internet, which is good evidence that the true origins of the tradition, and what it represents, are unknown. (3) Buffy mentioned “occupying Algeria” in connection with the French Foreign Legion because Algeria was once a French colony before it broke away in a civil war. (4) Cassandra was the name of a Trojan princess who could foretell the future but was fated never to be believed. Like Cassie, Cassandra knew her own fate but was powerless to avoid it. (5) The book Cassie is reading in the library, Slaughterhouse Five, involves a character who knows when he’ll die and publicly predicts it. (6) Though it doesn’t exist anymore, there actually was a website with the address cassienewton.com, where you could read Cassie’s poems. (7) Willow mentioned that she used to post Dougie Howser fanfic. Neil Patrick Harris, who played Dougie Howser in the TV show of that name, later starred in How I Met Your Mother with Alyson Hannigan, and in Joss Whedon’s internet hit Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. (8) The actual name of the rock group Buffy got wrong was Blue Oyster Cult, whose biggest hit was “Don’t Fear the Reaper”.

8 comments:

  1. There have always been people Buffy can't save. She's only one person, after all, even w/ Superpowers. You'd think maybe she'd come to accept that, and cut herself some slack.
    As for her desire to love and be loved, it's not "selfish" in the least. It's natural. She had no idea what was going to happen, or the consequences she'd face as a result.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree. I didn't mean to suggest that Buffy was selfish in Help; she wasn't at all. I was describing Inca Mummy Girl only to show how Buffy felt back then, in order to show how she sets standards for herself just as she sets one for herself in Help.

      Delete
  2. "Buffy gave in to her selfish desire when she slept with Angel..."
    This is the line to which I was referring. So you think this is how she regarded her actions?
    Time and again she denies herself, blames herself, feels guilty for the least little thing. It's ludicrous.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sadly, that is how Buffy herself characterizes what she did in IOHEFY. She is big on the guilt trips.

      Delete
  3. In the script, Cassie was reading Franny and Zooey (which I haven't read). Any ideas what the connection would have been with that book?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I haven't read it, so I'm just judging on the summaries I looked up.

      Franny and Zooey is by J.D. Salinger. That's the kind of work which would fit with Cassie as a hipster. There's also a world-weariness sense to the stories, which could fit someone who's supposed to be suicidal.

      Neither fits nearly as well as Slaughterhouse 5. Said the guy who hasn't read it (but has read Slaughterhouse 5).

      Delete
  4. Continuing with "back to the beginning," I see this episode as a callback to "Prophecy Girl," in which Buffy is placed in the exact same predicament as Cassie is here.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There are some differences, but yeah, I think that's fair.

      Delete