Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Halloween”

One of the biggest lessons of Buffy is simple: many dramas could be avoided if we all just had more conversations! Here are some starter topics:

“I was once part of a coven-thing and my past may come back to haunt us.”
“Hey, why were you talking to Cordelia?”
“Has a costume shop every appeared overnight in Sunnydale before?”
“Can you love me even though I’ll never be normal?”
“Do you have any experience with small children?”

Any of these—or all of them—would be helpful in “Halloween,” which is one of those very good, very Buffy episodes that seems like it might be fluff but then most definitely is not.

It’s also the first appearance of Ethan Rayne and Larry, so you know it’s important.

(A note: I skipped “Reptile Boy”—for now. I watched it the week after the Weinstein story broke, and thought about it as more stories rose to the surface, and have been thinking about it ever since. My brain is not ready to process all of that, so rather than let it be a logjam, I’m just going to come back to it later.)

Season 2, Episode 6, “Halloween
Written by: Carl Ellsworth
Directed by: Bruce Seth Green
Original airdate: October 27, 1997
Rewatch date: October 27, 2017

“I’ll have you know I have many relaxing hobbies”
“Such as?”
“Well. I’m very fond of cross-referencing”

In the Buffyverse, Halloween is amateur night. Fake ghouls and goblins only; the real ones take the night off. Except when they don’t. The episode’s cold open is all Buffy, fighting a random vamp (her stunt double’s hair has improved notably!) while another vamp lurks in the shadows, filming so Spike can study up on his new Slayer opponent. Smart man.

(I love that Buffy always grunts when she hits or gets hit, but the hit-landing noises in this instance are hilariously absurd.)

Angel lurks in the Bronze, wearing another giant pale shirt, this one blue. I am certainly not the only person who blocked these early-days Angel outfits from memory. I also forgot that Cordelia ever dated Devon, the singer in Oz’s band, which seems so very not Cordelia but also entirely appropriate. (She probably tried all the jocks and found them wanting.) Since they’re both waiting for their dates, Angel and Cordy start talking; since Angel is talking to Cordy, Buffy walks in and then back out again, continuing the most believable and infuriating Buffy/Angel trend: Buffy misinterpreting a situation and choosing to run away rather than confront it.

This drives me up a wall personally because I am a talk-it-out-er, and narratively because in lesser shows, it’s a tactic frequently lazily used to stoke conflict, a narrative device too contrived and transparent. In Buffy’s case, even though it bugs me, it works. She confronts things all night long. She cuddles up to conflict until the cows come home, and then fights it some more when they head back out in the morning. Her job—her life—is conflict. So when she sees it sitting at a table in the Bronze, she backs away.

When Angel stops her, Buffy puts it a different way: Seeing him laughing with Cordy reminded her that she’s not a normal girl, that she’s thinking about ambush tactics and beheadings when “normal” girls are worried about manicures and not having hay in their hair. This is fair, and true, and gently sets up where this episode is going: Buffy knows a thing about herself, but there are layers she hasn’t considered yet.

They’re still kids, here. Teens. Juniors. There’s a lot they don’t know about themselves. Halloween, like Buffy says, is come-as-you-aren’t night—but what you aren’t, or what you think you aren’t, says a lot about who you are. Every one of their eventual costumes reflects those things. Things they might not know yet.

It’s so goddamn smart.

Less smart, unsurprisingly, is Xander’s gross line about his ongoing Buffy hangup (“I like to think of it less as a friendship and more of a solid foundation for future bliss”) and the entire shenanigans with him and Larry. It’s all a setup for Xander’s personal costume drama, but it could’ve used more calling out: his response is over-the-top aggressive and would’ve been threatening to any girl who wasn’t the Slayer. It makes sense—Xander’s whole problem is that he thinks he wants Buffy, but he wants a girl in spandex who needs his help, because he’s more typical than he thinks he is—but that makes it no less frustrating that Buffy just brushes his dickery off.

Willow has the best take on this: “Boys are so fragile.”

Wise Willow is the one to remind Buffy that Angel would never fall for Cordelia—and then also the one unwise enough to suggest that they read up on Angel in the Watcher diaries that Giles keeps locked in his office. It’s for knowledge! Of course Willow thinks it’s a good idea.

My primary takeaway from the diary they spirit away (let us not speak of the painful-to-watch hijinks of Buffy distracting Giles while Willow sneaks about) is that it makes zero sense that it would have information about 18-year-old, still-human Angel, who would be of no interest to a Watcher. (Unless it was research included after he turned, in which case there really should’ve been more horrifying details.) Buffy’s primary takeaway, on the other hand, is that girls back in those days wore pretty dresses and went to balls and had servants and horses and gowns.

Willow: Still, I think I prefer being able to vote… or I will, when I can…

All of Buffy’s fears about Angel make perfect sense, but that doesn’t make her worrying about them any easier to watch. It’s the same thing a normal girl might fear: that the person you’re falling in love with really wants to be with someone else. Someone drastically different. That you’ll never be the person they truly want.

So why not try to be that person for a night, Buffy figures. Be that person in a dress from a new costume shop, lent to her by a man who seems altogether too invested in her wearing it. Does Ethan Rayne know it’s the Slayer he’s turning into a fainting belle? Does he care? Probably not, given that it’s chaos he’s after.

And chaos he gets. Oh, Buffy. You got Halloween off after all. Just not quite the way you wanted.

While Buffy is being the person she thinks Angel wants-slash-a girl who doesn’t have to fight, Xander is dressed up like a soldier, which speaks to both his desire to be manly and in charge and his fear of being one of many, unspecial, just another fighter at Buffy’s side. (It makes him very good at bossing children, which comes in handy.) On the surface, it’s all about his anger at Buffy being stronger than him. “You would take orders from a woman? Are you feeble in some way?” Lady Buffy asks, and Soldier Xander has to process this—this exact thing that regular Xander can’t handle. He wants Buffy to be girly, and now he’s got it—but he’s not Xander anymore. It’s an odd way to express the idea that you’re better off loving a person for who they are, not who you want them to be. But it works.

And then there’s Willow, who snap-quips, “Oh, this is fun” when she has to be the competent one even in ghost form. Willow’s two-layered costume might be the most directly referential to this episode’s parts-of-self theme: she’s not the ghost she used to be, the retiring girl who’s good for homework help and being overlooked as date material, but she’s also not a girl who wears midriff tops and pleather—though she might want to be, sometimes, in secret. Her sides, and her sense of self, are all mixed up right now, which sounds about right for junior year.

Willow’s non-ghost outfit doesn’t suit her because she’s not confident in it, but when it comes time for someone to take charge, to process a stressful situation and make the best of it, she forgets. She forgets what she’s wearing, because that competence, that capability for taking care of things: that’s Willow, and it doesn’t matter what she wears. Dressing up as someone else’s idea of sexy becomes irrelevant. And what Oz sees when she walks in front of his headlights at the end isn’t what she’s wearing; it’s that tiny Willow swagger. She’s oblivious to him because she’s smiling to herself. She did good work. That’s what matters. Not what anyone thinks she is.

And what does everyone think Giles is? I have sung Anthony Stewart Head’s praises before and I will certainly do so again, but: watch. Watch the moment when Willow says they got their costumes from a new place. A place called Ethan’s. What Head does with his face is so subtle that you could miss it, if you were Willow, and in the room, and not us, watching him on screen. It’s the shift a face makes when its wearer is trying not to react. Writers describe this all the time, their characters trying and failing to hold their faces still, their poker faces unpracticed.

Though he’s not in costume, Giles doesn’t escape the questions of who a person is, and who he might also be, and how those selves interlock. When they get to the costume shop and find the statue’s head in the back, Willow asks what it means, and he tells her. (He also tells us, in case we weren’t paying attention, that this week’s evil force represents the division of self.) His explanation is more practical and helpful than anyone else’s would be—than Giles would be were he speaking to anyone else. These two know things, and he speaks to her like she’ll understand. It’s only a few lines, but it’s beautiful, in a way.

It’s also beautiful how clear he is when Ethan arrives. “Willow. Get out of here now.” When he’s truly angry, his face just goes blank. It’s like everything’s gone but the anger. Ethan smirks—”Hello, Ripper”—and Giles turns into a blank page, giving him nothing. But this scene gives us so much: the bad guy has a past! More than that, Giles has a past! In just a few words, Giles suddenly has an existence of his own, entirely apart from Buffy. These few lines close the mystery of the magical costumes and open an entirely new question: Who is Rupert Giles when he’s not in the library?

(I wish the show did this for the adult women more often, but I will take “the olds have lives too” where I can get it.)

Back at the ranch, Spike has cornered Lady Buffy and friends just in time for Buffy to come back to herself, and if Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Fancy Lady performance isn’t the most effective thing in the world, her face when she snaps back to being Buffy again sure is: it goes from a soft lostness to sheer will: “Hi, honey. I’m home.” (Why she doesn’t just kill Spike is somewhat unclear, but I suppose a case can be made that the no-longer-demon children needed to be taken care of first.)

When the fighting’s done, for once, Buffy and Angel have a conversation, when he (dressed in another huge pale shirt) asks why she thought he’d like her better dressed like that. If only his answer weren’t so tiresomely sexist: Ew, those ladies were dumb and awful! Angel, you tool, maybe think for two seconds about what might have led them to be like that?

It’s the patriarchy, you idiot vampire; pick up a book by a woman once in a decade or so.

Buffy’s fears about Angel haven’t gone away, but that was only the surface level meaning of her costume, and of her unexamined self. The bigger fear was the darker thing, and also the thing Buffy addresses head on when she says, “It’s good to be me.” That fear of not being what Angel wanted was, really, about fearing not being who Buffy herself wanted to be. She has no choice in being the Slayer, but that doesn’t mean she wants it—not any more than Xander wants to be shitty about his masculinity, or Willow wants to lack confidence. Coming as they aren’t shows them who they are, and that they can want and fear other things.

This is such a good episode.

MISCELLANY

  • Imagine having such a huge document of what you looked like when you were young.
  • How did Buffy’s hair get extra bad since the last episode?
  • “Most importantly, it would be wrong.” Oh my god, this makes my favorite Faith-as-Buffy moment into the greatest callback ever.
  • Giles’s extreme delight when Buffy tells him Miss Calendar said he was a babe is future-knowledge heartbreaking.
  • “But the cuddly kind. Like a Care Bear with fangs?”
  • Why is Oz mucking about with his guitar in the hallway, anyway?
  • “Take the princess and secure the kitchen. Catwoman, you’re with me.”
  • “This is just … NEAT.”
  • Cordelia’s disdain for Lady Buffy’s clinginess is great.
  • Ugggh, Xander bonding with Cordy about how neither of them are going to get between Buffy and Angel.

HEY, THAT GUY! FACTOR RIP, Robin Sachs, who plays Ethan Rayne, and who I will always double-super love for also playing the villain in Galaxy Quest.
DOES BUFFY GET INJURED? Almost, but not quite, unless you count fainting.
WORST FASHION CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY Buffy’s fancy lady dress. Or her wig. Tough call.
IMPORTANT THING THAT NEVER COMES UP AGAIN Oh, the important things are definitely going to come up again.
IN HOW MANY WAYS DOES XANDER NOT DESERVE WILLOW’S AFFECTION Let’s start with being a masculine shitball and level up via that line about future bliss.
DO ANGEL AND BUFFY FAIL TO COMMUNICATE Yes.

Previously: “Reptile Boy” | Next: “Lie to Me”

Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Halloween”

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