Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Episode: “Helpless” (January 19, 1998)
Synopsis by Jason Henderson
Buffy’s eighteenth birthday looms as she her powers begin to wane- - has she had contact with Slayer Kryptonite, or is something more sinister going on?
Buffy: Sarah Michelle Gellar
Joyce: Kristine Sutherland
Willow: Alyson Hannigan
Xander: Nicholas Brendan
Oz: Seth Green
Angel: David Boreanaz
Giles: Anthony Stewart Head
Cordelia: Charisma Carpenter
Zachary: Jeff Kobor
We open with Angel and Buffy wrestling in his candle-lit pleasure-pad. She runs off to see Giles, and says she’s unavailable for the weekend: Buffy’s birthday is coming up, she says, and her father is coming to town.
Giles trains Buffy in recognizing useful stones, but she’s antsy to get on patrol. (Faith has gone on “unannounced walkabout.” Soon Buffy’s out there taking on a vampire on patrol. Suddenly, she feels woozy, and nearly gets herself impaled by her own stake. She manages to bash the vampire’s head with her own and gets away, but it’s a terrifying experience.
Something’s wrong with her powers. “I’m way off my game. My game’s left the country. It’s in Cuernavaca.” Giles shrugs; maybe she should lay off for a few days until she feels well.
Meanwhile, Buffy’s stoked about going to the ice show with her dad, a “girly” thing she looks forward to each year. The gang wonder if they should throw her a party for her eighteenth birthday. “Parties in my honor... tend to go badly. Monsters crash, people die.”
Then, horror: Dad’s backed out of his visit. He’s very sorry, he’s very busy. Buffy is crushed.
In a nearby boarding house, a stodgy-looking suited man checks the time as he directs a pair of helper watchers in babysitting a chained vault. “The Slayer’s preparation,” he says, “is nearly complete.”
Buffy practically begs Giles to take her to the ice show. (“Brian Boitano’s Carmen is a life-changer,” she asserts.) But he isn’t listening. He puts her out with a hypnotic crystal, then administers a shot (!) to her arm.
Willow and Buffy see Cordelia getting the third degree from a buff guy, and Buffy steps in but finds she has no strength, and the guy tosses her like a rag doll. Cordy smacks him away, but Buffy runs to Giles. “I have no strength... like I’m not the Slayer.” Giles dodges her, assures her they’ll get to the bottom of it. Buffy looks scared and vulnerable.
Giles meets with a highly placed Watcher named Quentin at the vault- - this is the suited man from earlier. Giles is horrified that Buffy must be put through this “archaic exercise in cruelty,” a rite of passage reserved for every Slayer’s eighteenth birthday. In the vault is a strait-jacketed Uber-vampire who the watchers apparently keep for just this purpose, feeding him pills with a long spoon. This is the guy Buffy will have to fight, powerless.
The Slayer gang try to figure out Buffy’s power loss, and Xander and Oz debate the finer points of Kryptonite. Meanwhile, the Uber Vampire manages to kill one of his watcher captors.
Buffy’s worried that she’ll be “pathetic” if she loses her powers. “I've seen too much... If I weren’t the Slayer, what would I do?” Angel assures her she could never be helpless or boring—he says he saw her before she was the Slayer, and loved her.
The Uber vampire is freed by the vampirized watcher, but he’s still eager to play the game he’s been locked up for. By the time Giles shows up, the watchers at the vault are all dead, and Uber Vampire is on the loose. Giles runs for Buffy, sickened.
Buffy, feeling vulnerable, gets hassled by some guys on the street, then is attacked by the Uber. She runs for help, and is picked up by Giles.
He tells her he’s been slipping her a Slayer mickey of muscle relaxants and adrenal suppressants- - it’s a test. The Slayer is disabled, and entrapped with a vampire she must defeat. The one she was to face, called Zachary, was a criminally insane maniac. Now he’s in the open. Buffy is horrified. “How could you do this to me?” The test is invalidated now, Giles says. “I don’t know you,” Buffy says. Cordelia shows up and agrees to drive Buffy home. But before they get there, Zachary does.
Buffy finds Mom’s been taken and packs a bag of weapons, and heads for the boarding house where the vault is. Zachary is terrorizing Mom with talks of how he killed and ate his own mother. (“I have a problem with mothers- - I’m aware of that.”)
Now the stalk begins. Buffy enters the dark house.
Giles finds Quentin alive and says the test is off. No- - the Slayer entered the field of play ten minutes ago, Quentin reveals.
Buffy manages to knock out Zachary’s helper vampire, but Zachary is prowling her. He gets off on cross burns, she finds out. The chase moves through the house, until Buffy finds herself in a room full of Zachary’s snapshots of Mom. He nearly bites her, but is suffering withdrawal from his pills, and she steals the pills. When he gets the pill bottle back, he downs them with holy water Buffy placed for him, and dies. “If I were at full Slayer power I’d be punning right now.” Giles arrives to off the last vampire.
Buffy passed the test, Quentin says. She tells him to get out of ton before she gets her powers back. Quentin says they’re fighting a war, and they can’t afford to be easy or fair.
“We’re waging the war,” Giles says. “She’s fighting.” But Quentin says Giles is relieved of his duties. He’s too much of a father figure, and will be replaced. As Quentin leaves, Giles nurses Buffy’s wounds in silence.
The key element to this episode is vulnerability. Buffy, as the Slayer, is blessed with super-human Slayer powers- - she can sense vampires, bend steel, anything short of fly. So in honor of our heroine’s eighteenth birthday, the powers that be strip the character of everything. She’s under stress emotionally because she feels abandoned by her absentee father. And physically, she’s lost it completely.
I was pleased at how the show handled Buffy’s loss of power. She doesn’t become “pathetic,” rather, she worries about becoming pathetic. The show could have gone in the direction of Buffy running away and having to be goaded out to prove her mental aptitude and cunning. Instead, we get a Buffy who’s still fighting, but scared to death.
And how well Sarah Michelle Gellar handles that. Buffy seems genuinely smaller here, honestly afraid for her life as she walks through the streets, taunted by men and vampires. The opening sequence where she’s almost stabbed to death is truly scary- - quoting directly from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, the moment smacks us with the knowledge that despite every plan, it could all be over in a second. Is Buffy ready to die?
That’s not a question she’s had to grapple with before. To some extent Superheroes are cheaters, they can afford to run headlong into battle because they’re hard to hurt. Would Buffy have the fortitude to take on the night creatures if she had never been blessed with super-human strength? Interestingly, she seems to think not.
But she’s wrong. We only get one good scene with powerless Buffy using her wits to kill a vampire (something Giles, presumably, has done numerous times), but she does pass the test. I would have preferred her loss of power linger for a few episodes - - there’s a lot of potential there - - but she acquits herself well. She’s terrified, and she can still think like what she is: a woman destined to lead us against a ferociously tenacious predator army.
I've often wondered about the underlying creepiness of Giles’ and Buffy’s relationship, and this episode goes a long way towards laying those concerns aside. Here, Giles is the father figure, literally: Buffy even turns to him in an explicit attempt to make him a surrogate father (a role he puts off, though, because he’s too guilty about having to poison her.) Buffy’s rage at Giles’ betrayal is hard to watch, but even she can see his genuine concern, and he’s back in his Slayer’s good graces by the end.
Because Giles gets fired. Where can that lead?
A few other notes. Jeff Kober, always reliable for maniacs and other intense characters, has a nice turn as Zachary, a vampire who, like Angel, was a psychopath before he was turned. (Kober was the holder of the “First Power,” a concept that appeared in Buffy just a few episodes ago, in the movie of that name.) He has a red-riding-hood fixation, a snapshot fetish, and mother issues, and on top of all that he’s very large. Perfect foe for a powerless Size 0.
I loved the Kryptonite argument between Oz and Xander. Nice to see them getting along. In fact, the group seems to be slowly working its way back to status quo, with Cordelia even showing up to be sweet, in her own quirky way. She still admires Buffy. Remember: Buffy without her powers is Cordelia with Slayer training, and it’s nice to see Cordelia slap away the bruiser who tosses Buffy across a park bench.
Amy the witch is still a mouse, we learn, and she loves the wheel Buffy got her. I love that this show keeps track.
Lastly, what sort of maniacal group is the Watcher Council, anyway? I still would like to see (or write) a full book on them. Look how seriously they take these Slayers! They're willing to have Buffy killed if she’s not strong enough, presumably so they can grow another one. Are they preparing for some sort of vampire holocaust? I guess we’ll have to see.
I still think Giles should run out and get tickets to that ice show. Buffy deserves at least that.
“It’s not so girly. Ice is cool. It’s water...but it’s not.”
(Oz, drifting away to his own planet, responding to Buffy’s statement that ice shows are “girly.”)
On how to celebrate one’s birthday:
“Where is it written that quiet reflection can’t be combined with cake and funny hats?”
(Xander, who thinks they really do need another ill-fated Buffy party.)
On Angel’s occasional slowness-on-the-uptake
Angel: “You have a date?”
Buffy: “Older man, very handsome. Likes it when I call him Daddy.”
Angel: “Your father. It... is your father, isn’t it?”
(You know, if he didn’t do tai-chi with his short off...)