In the interest of honesty, and because it’s a dumb story no one else is going to hear or care about, my wifi was out for about four hours just now, and during that time I finished this review, tried to post it, failed, because you cannot post things onto the internet when you do not have access TO said internet, and decided to screw everything and just start on “What’s My Line” Pts 1 and 2. I made up the rules, I get to bend them at whim. My notes for “What’s My Line” are finished, I just have to watch the audio commentary tracks (something I’ve decided to start doing when they’re available) and then I can get started writing. “What’s My Line” is probably going to take a few days to get finished; since it’s a two part episode I’m fairly sure this is going to be a long review.
There are some very dated elements to this episode, particularly the flashbacks, but the dated feel contributes here to the overall feeling that we’ve seen this before. We’ve seen it, and we did it better literally two episodes ago in “Halloween.” I didn’t think I was going to agree with Passion of the Nerd on this one, but Ian hit it on the head—we’ve already seen all these elements before, and putting them all together into an episode doesn’t really seem justified.
Part of the problem is that we really have just seen this idea—that Giles has a colorful, if not checkered past, that Ethan is a slimy villain-type with connections to Giles, that Jenny and Giles are flirty heading toward more, that the Scoobies have trouble understanding that adults are people too sometimes (this will be a much bigger theme in S3 coming up, when Buffy and by proxy the rest of the gang have to deal with the idea that adults aren’t just there to be benign advisors or the bad guys, they’ve got lives and problems and plans, too, and we’ll continue to deal with this idea through seasons 4 and 5 as well in various ways). We’re dealing with these plot elements all at once, this time, and it seems a bit much.
I wrote in my notes that the episode starts with Buffy doing something any teenage girl does—listening to loud music—but that it keeps her from saving someone’s life, as is usually the case when Buffy tries to be normal. But I think in this instance, the loud music was more to set up the gap between Buffy and Giles, and how there are things about Giles Buffy has no clue about. Between this and the scene where Buffy and Willow play their fantasy game, the writers are trying to establish that the Scoobies don’t have the first clue that Giles is a functioning adult with knowledge of the real world.
This isn’t really fair to Giles, though, since they (and we) see him interact with Jenny Calendar, calling people in the course of his research, and actually doing his job as librarian at various points throughout the earlier episodes this season, not to mention the first season. Additionally, the idea that Willow doesn’t understand and goes along with Buffy and Xander’s opinions of Giles is a little weird to me, since she’s the one who went with Giles to see Ethan in “Halloween,” but she doesn’t step in and say “Hey, no, Giles has friends, he does things, I have no idea what they are, but he beat this guy up on Halloween and it turned everybody back from being their costumes!”
I think the one thing I don’t agree with Ian (Passion of the Nerd) about on this episode is Jenny. Her characterization seems consistent to me, and while her lines here are occasionally cringe-worthy, they don’t seem out of character to me because I find most of S2 Jenny’s lines that aren’t imparting knowledge or talking to Buffy cringe-worthy.
Aside from that whole unbelievable story line with Buffy et al not getting Giles, the episode isn’t bad, but it’s also not great. It’s a fairly standard monster-of-the-week (MOTW) episode. Cordelia has some really great moments, including the moment where she trips Ethan to stop him from escaping. We set up the idea that Giles being secretive or dismissive of Buffy in particular is a warning sign that he’s doing something that will ultimately be dangerous for more people than just himself—this is a continued tell throughout most of the next three seasons, although it trickles off in season 4. It also sets up magic as something addictive, and something that stays with you, even if you’re not actively practicing anymore.
There are two things, though, that really, genuinely bother me about this episode, and in more than just the “we’ve already been here” way. The first is that Ethan seems more like a prop than anything else. He’s not really necessary to the story. He could have been written out of the episode entirely and the basic plot would still have stayed mostly the same. His character is basically there to be mysterious and then kidnap Buffy and try to sacrifice her in his place. Ian talks about this in his review, but it bears mentioning here as well.
The other thing is that, for whatever reason, Jenny has lasting damage that we don’t see in other victims of possession, vampires, demons, or whatever monster. Even Xander, who had his best friend turned into a vampire that then tried to kill him doesn’t seem to have lasting damage like Jenny does. Willow, who gets kidnapped by the same vampires and then rescued, who ends up online-dating a vengeful demon, Willow, who literally everything bad happens to because Joss’ rule was “when in doubt put Willow in danger,” doesn’t have lasting damage until much farther down the line. Jenny, who was raised by her Romany relatives, who knows about magic, vampires, demons, the occult, she’s the one who freaks out and can’t deal? This rings really false to me. Like I know they do interesting things with this from a storytelling perspective in the next few episodes, but it seems inconsistent, given the track record of people just dealing with the existence of the supernatural in the past. Even Cordelia doesn’t really bat an eyelash when she finds out.
In any case, I’ve heard this season referred to as both one of the best and one of the most inconsistent. I think emotionally it has the most weight we get until S5, and I’m inclined to agree with the idea that it’s both the best and most inconsistent season at this point. I may change my opinion on that later in the show, but my memory seems to agree with that assessment. Certainly most of my favorite episodes are in this season—”School Hard,” “What’s My Line,” “Passion,” “I Only Have Eyes For You,” “Becoming,” and of course, the brilliant “Surprise/Innocence.” When I think of Buffy, these are the episodes I think of, and these are the ones I most want to share with people, although really only “School Hard” is appropriate for someone who hasn’t ever seen the show before, in my opinion.