Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “School Hard”

I don’t want to oversell the power of Spike’s arrival, but … holy cats, Spike’s arrival. “School Hard” sits neatly between the flawed “Some Assembly Required” and the hot mess of “Inca Mummy Girl,” and it crackles.

This isn’t all down to Spike; the episode is perfectly shaped around him. Snyder’s furiously frustrated authoritarian is good for contrast and laughs, and Sheila Martini (seriously) was a smart touch: an actual juvenile delinquent who makes Buffy look like she should be winning Most Diligent About Parent-Teacher Night awards. Running parent-teacher night is enough of a damper on Buffy’s other activities; doing it with gangly, impossible Sheila in tow is Example A in why some of us hated group projects in high school.

And then the new threat arrives in a swirl of smoke and minor property damage. That twinkle in Spike’s eye when he surveys Sunnydale: no other vampires have that. Not Angel, sulking guiltily; not the Master, raging with vampiric entitlement; not the many henchmen who are never allowed out of game face. Just Spike, come to trample on everyone’s expectations.

Season 2, Episode 3, “School Hard
Written by: David Greenwalt
Story by Joss Whedon & David Greenwalt
Directed by: John T. Kretchmer
Original airdate: September 29, 1997
Rewatch date: September 29, 2017

“From now on, we’re going to have a little less ritual, and a little more fun around here”

Spike seems like a one-off when he first appears—another single-episode villain, just in better boots and with great enthusiasm for his own lifestyle choices. Until now, vampires have been random threats in the graveyard, or working with the Annoying One. It’s all portents and proclamations and grand goals about hell on Earth until Spike turns up, calls a vampire on his vampire bullshit, and asks, “So, who do you kill for fun around here?”

The bad guy who enjoys being who and what he is is hardly a Buffy invention, but it’s something this show needed. And Spike, despite Giles’ later discovery of the history of his name (note: we never actually see him use railroad spikes on anyone), isn’t just living for torture and biting people and random cruelty. Sure, he might enjoy a spot of it now and again. But he’ll enjoy other things, too.

Like Drusilla.

Dru’s character could’ve gone terribly wrong in so many ways, but the writing serves her well, and Juliet Landau and James Marsters balance that relationship on the head of a very bloody pin. Spike isn’t softened by Drusilla, tempered by love—nothing treacly like that. He loves her, yes, and he looks out for her … and he understands her lust and her strangeness and what she’s capable of. Dru talks to her dollies and meanders like a vampire Miss Havisham, but she is also clever and strong and capable … and unwell, whatever that means to a vampire.

And Landau and Marsters fit all of this into not very many scenes. There’s a dance to their relationship: his harshness, her drifting, his bloody grit, her ethereal deadliness. Did the writers know, yet, what kind of tragedies they would build into these characters’ backstories? What would make Dru like this, and make Spike, even as a vampire, understand her?

Dru gets the short end of the stick, a ways down the road. But Spike’s eventual character development is not something anybody saw coming at this point, even as great as he is from the word go.

Meanwhile, Buffy is locked in mortal combat with a tangle. Which is scarier, Spike, or parent-teacher night? Parent-teacher night or the night of Saint Vigeus, yet another vampire holiday in which their power will be at its peak, again? Will Buffy and Giles bicker about slayer responsibilities vs. school responsibilities? You bet they will. And then Buffy will go to the Bronze anyway, because Angel might show. (Oh, the memories of doing things because someone might be there. Imagine Buffy now, with texting. Actually, imagine Angel texting. That’s funnier.)

The person who shows is Spike, who sets up a wee test for his Slayer target, then emerges from the shadows, sarcastically clapping. (Points to Xander, this time, for the casual stake toss.) Is Spike the only evil vamp with the gift of scheming? Practical scheming, I mean. He’s got a head on his shoulders, that guy. Of course you’d want to see what the Slayer is capable of before engaging. It’s vampire research mode.

Regular research mode is interrupted by Angel, who mopes in muttering about how Spike is worse than anything they’ve faced. Angel, dramatic much? His ominous commentary about Spike never really comes to pass—does Spike successfully kill everything in his path ever? Even once?—but in the midst of all the doom and gloom, he and Buffy slip in a little chat about their budding relationship that sounds like every awkward ‘90s would-be couple ever, and I love it.

(I love even more that Willow tries to do the math on how many dates happen in two centuries and has to cut herself off with “Why do they call it a mace?” when everyone gives her the stink-eye.)

Parent-Teacher Night, it turns out, is not just dreadful, but long. Hours long. Hours of sipping Buffy’s undrinkable lemonade (I wouldn’t have known how to make punch in high school either) and ensuring Buffy’s mom meets as few teachers as possible (a task at which Willow excels). Maybe if the night weren’t so long, they would’ve been gone by the time the vampires show up? As is, vamps save Buffy from Joyce’s post-meeting-Snyder anger, and truly, vampires are easier for Buffy to deal with than her mom’s disappointment. And dealing with one of these problems is, it turns out, a very good way to solve the other.

Everything about the last act of this episode is perfect. Willow clocks a vampire with a bust of Principal Flutie, for crying out loud! Buffy finally gets to not only stand up to Snyder, but to demonstrate the ways in which she’s a wildly capable person. More importantly, she gets to demonstrate this to her mother, at just the moment when Joyce is about to come down on her. She’s learning—and quickly—that there’s more to Buffy than she understands. Yet.

Buffy: Giles, my mother is in that classroom. If I don’t make it, I know you’ll make sure she does.
Giles: Bloody well right I will.

Buffy trusts Giles, and now, Joyce trusts Buffy. She sasses Snyder and she knows he’s not the one with the best chance of getting them out of this situation. Not by a long shot. Buffy might get in trouble, might not be great at school, but now Joyce knows what she is good at. Or at least part of it.

But no one really trusts Angel, who—fairly cleverly—pretends to be Angelus as a way to get close to Spike. (“People still fall for that Anne Rice routine?”) Plot-wise, this also serves to give us a nugget of their history, and within angry Xander’s hearing.

“You were my sire, man! You were my Yoda!”

This will come back to bite Angel in the ass, probably, but for now, what matters is the first round of banter between Buffy and Spike (“Do we really need weapons for this?” “I just like them. They make me feel all manly.”) and VENGEFUL GLORIOUS JOYCE, towering over Spike after clocking him with an axe.

I love this because how can I not, and I love this, specifically, because it’s so neatly the phsyical manifestation of what Joyce is always trying to do: protect Buffy, whether from the world or from what Joyce sees as her own worst impulses. Joyce is wrong about that second part, and while she’s not quite ready to know about vampires (“Was there something wrong with their faces?”) she is ready, maybe, to give Buffy more credit. To trust that maybe sometimes she does have to do the things she does, for reasons that Joyce may not fully understand.

Yet.

“I have a daughter who can take care of herself. Who’s brave and resourceful and thinks of others when there’s a crisis. No matter who you hang out with or what dumb teenage stuff you think you have to do, I’m going to sleep better knowing all that.”

That’s the flip side of “School Hard”: on the one hand, a new vampire who knows exactly what Slayers are and thinks he knows exactly how to kill them; on the other, a mother who thinks she knows exactly what her daughter is and exactly how much trouble she’s in. They’re both wrong. Buffy is not what anyone expected. This theme, which I shall try not to harp on despite how much I love it, is what elevates Buffy from a very good show to a really great show.. Making the Slayer special for who she is as well as what she is subverts some of the Chosen One mythology in a way that’s human-sized, that allows your choices to matter, even if you’re born into a life that seems like fate. Maybe the world wants something from you. Maybe you give it something else, too.

MISCELLANY

  • “Mice that were smoking?”
  • Why does English Spike say “Home sweet home” when he surveys Sunnydale?
  • Buffy’s ugly pillows are multiplying. Is it exponential ugly pillow growth? Are they tribbles in disguise?
  • “Rupert, you have to read something that was published AFTER 1066.”
  • “You said, ‘The couch should touch me from Thursday.’” Buffy may know what the Restoration era is, but she’s pretty bad at French.
  • Things that would be nice about being a vampire: immortality, no periods, no cavities, probably no hangovers.
  • “Ok, that’s it. I’m putting a collar with a little bell on that guy.” Hey, a good idea from Xander!”
  • The gradual involvement of Cordelia continues with her helping sharpen stakes.
  • Very important Buffy moment: The first use of “It’s a gang on PCP!”
  • “I messed up your doilies and stuff.”
  • Jenny’s maxi skirt is both entirely 90s and entirely now.
  • I didn’t even talk about all the great scenes of Cordelia and Willow in the closet. “As for some aspirin.”

HEY, THAT GUY! FACTOR Whoa, since being in Buffy Sheila (Alexandra Johnes) has been an exec producer on lots of documentaries.
DOES BUFFY GET INJURED? She gets knocked down, but she gets up again.
APPEARING BAND Nickel? They are not good.
IMPORTANT THING THAT NEVER COMES UP AGAIN The origin of Spike’s name, sort of.
IN HOW MANY WAYS DOES XANDER NOT DESERVE WILLOW’S AFFECTION He does OK this week! Just wait for next week, though.

Previously: “Some Assembly Required” | Next: “Inca Mummy Girl”

Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “School Hard”

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