Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: The Dark Age

When I was a teenager, I hated it when adults on teen-focused shows got their own episode-long narrative arcs. I hated it when they just got extra much screen time, like Angela’s dad and his stupid restaurant on My So-Called Life.

In reality, Graham Chase’s culinary dreams probably didn’t really take up that much time. (That’s a show I’ve been afraid to rewatch.) And even back then, I might reluctantly have acknowledged that storylines like that played an important role: they made adults people, and they made them fallible. In so many stories about teens, adults—parents—are perfect or useless, idealized or dead. Their selves, and their missteps, aren’t the point, so they’re irrelevant.

Joyce gets left out too often in early Buffy, which is less than ideal but also understandable from a Slayer perspective; she and Buffy have already had 16 years to try to see each other as people, and we’re picking that up mid-process. The Slayer is busy finding her Slayer footing, and looking to her Watcher for advice and guidance. And she has to come to see her Watcher as a full, flawed human—a human who’s made mistakes, and reinvented himself, and may continue to do both—as well.

Enter Ethan Rayne. Again.

Season 2, Episode 8, “The Dark Age
Written by: Dean Batali & Rob Des Hotel
Directed by: Bruce Seth Green
Original airdate: November 10, 1997
Rewatch date: November 10, 2017

“This is what happens when you have school on Saturday.”

This time, Ethan himself isn’t precisely the problem—a fact that he rather enjoys. (I still don’t know—or remember—why Ethan came to Sunnydale in the first place. Did he know Giles was there? Did he want to mess with the Slayer? Was it just the Hellmouth’s mystical energies?)

For once, it’s the adult getting a cliche made real: Giles’s past has come back to haunt him, in the form of a zombie-ish lady who melts into a pile of goo after encountering a very worried man who is looking for Giles. (Why is Sunnydale High’s campus so dang creepy in the dark?) Giles sees none of this, but knows something is coming because of the very, very, very special dream flashback he has, which cannot be described in mere words. It simply must be seen.

Giles’s life may be at the forefront here, but that doesn’t mean the Scoobies are going to like it. They don’t know anything about young Giles; they’ve never even considered what he might’ve been like. “His diapers were tweed,” Buffy cracks, but Willow, being the quiet one with a largely unexplored internal life, is a little more pensive: “You don’t think he ever got restless as a kid?” It’s a notion they’re willing to consider—until they consider Giles and Jenny getting together. Some things are a step too far.

(Jenny knows exactly what a step too far is for Giles: she pretends to have ruined his books, filling them with dog-eared pages and underlining and spilled coffee, and the look of utter panic on his face is matched only by the look of evil glee on hers: “I just love to see you squirm.”)

But “what Giles is and has been like” remains the affecting running theme: When Giles misses an appointed stakeout, Buffy stresses not because she needs the help, but because it’s very not Giles. When she eventually tracks him down at home, she’s completely rattled by his appearance: Scruffy, tie loose, he’s utterly distracted, and not at all the man who insists that she miss out on teenage funtimes to go prowl in the graveyard. It’s all entirely the opposite of what she thinks when she thinks of Giles, and it throws her off.

It throws everyone else off, too, when she meets everyone else at computer study class the next morning and mutters, “he might’ve been … drinking.” In a direct contrast with what Buffy does every time Angel acts weird, she decides to call weird-acting Giles and ask him about the homicide investigation Cordelia just, you know, forgot to mention.

And then Buffy finds Ethan sneaking about in the ever-changing-in-size library stacks. As much as I like Ethan’s chaotic villainy, he’s kind of a non-entity here—a mechanism by which certain things happen, but mostly just a smirking reminder that he knows something about Giles that the rest of them are not privy to. He turns up and escape as needed: turning up so Buffy can spot his matchy-matchy tattoo, escaping so that they’re left with the threat of the zombie dude who lurches in through a window, gets locked in the library cage, and escapes, only to turn into goo and possess poor endlessly put-upon Jenny Calendar. Giles, understandably, worries about Jenny, but also he uses her as an excuse so he doesn’t have to answer Buffy’s entirely justified questions.

He can’t put them off forever. After Buffy leads the troops into research mode—comfortable territory where the world still works like it should—she has to save Giles from the Jenny who is no longer Jenny, but possessed by a shitty, sexist demon with a weird resemblance to one of the space elves from Thor: The Dark World. There is no harder moment in this episode than the scene where a crumpled, horrified Giles apologizes, and Buffy needs him to stop: “Don’t be sorry! Be Giles!”

Be Giles now, or be Giles then? His story about how he and his friends got high on the power of Eyghon until it killed one of their own is very sad and very stressful, and the kind of thing it might have been useful to tell the Slayer when she was wondering, on any given night, why she was being worked so hard, and held to such a high standard.

Or maybe not. How do you know when to share the dark pieces of yourself, when they’re help and when they’ll do harm? How do you know when it’s safe to talk, and when it’s safer to stay quiet? When do you take that gamble? Giles doesn’t have any choice, here: Buffy and Willow, and their half-assed research assistants Xander and Cordy, are his only chance to save Jenny, and to right at least some small part of the wrong he set in motion all those years ago.

All the action in the climactic scene makes perfect sense: Ethan being a shit, Buffy enduring (ugh, that tattoo, goodbye, allowance), Willow being clever, and Angel proving more useful than anyone expected. (I would have liked to have seen the conversation in which Willow convinced Angel to do this, to volunteer to add another demon into his weird ecosystem.) Sometimes, the day gets saved and it’s business as usual; other times, everything changes.

And the grace of “The Dark Age” is that it changes for both good and bad. “I don’t think I could take the stress,” Willow says, when Xander says she should consider being a Watcher. Despite all the dead people, and almost losing their favorite teacher, and having to consider “Giles” and “orgies” in the same sentence, they have a new appreciation for him: for what he’s been through, and what he does, and for the fact that he too chafed at the constraints of his foretold life, his destiny, before coming to accept it. Mid-episode, after he confesses this demonic problem’s origins, Giles says to Buffy, “I’m sorry,” and she says, simply, “I know.” Their lives are full of apologies, but some of them mean even more than others, some more gracefully given, some more thoroughly accepted.

Some of them, on the other hand, can’t be enough. As much as I dislike Jenny’s frequent use as emotional torment for Giles, it’s important that this episode, when it all winds down, leaves her the space to process her trauma. She is not going to instantly be fine with Giles, or with what happened. She knows it was his fault, in a past-coming-back sort of way; she also knows that he didn’t want it to happen.

Their scene is a painful, honest, difficult moment—”I would like to help.” “I know.” She knows. But that isn’t what matters, and when she sidles away from him, like a nervous cat, it’s hard to watch even when you’re firmly on Team Jenny. Her reaction is fair and the episode lets her have it, with no expectation that their romance pick up where it was, but no dramatic break-off, either. There’s a space. What fills it is unknown.

The Watcher/Slayer relationship, on the other hand, is only stronger. “I’m not gonna lie,” Buffy says, which after the end of “Lie to Me” stings especially hard. But what she says next is full wise-beyond-her-years Slayer, learning things she didn’t necessarily want to know yet. “It was scary. I’m used to you being, you know, the grown-up. And then I find out that you’re a person,” she says. A fallible, complicated person—who hasn’t always been the same person.

That’s the other part of this episode that makes it bigger on the inside. It’s not just about Buffy and the gang learning Giles’s deepest, darkest, ugliest secrets. It’s about learning that you’re not the same. That adults aren’t who they were back then—Joyce hinted at this when she told Buffy the story about meeting her father—and might not keep being who they are right now. That teens don’t have a monopoly on change, for good or bad. And, therefore, they’re not trapped being who they are right now. Not even Buffy, as much as she chafes against destiny. She might grow up to be someone else. Or she might grow up to embrace the tweed—or the Slayer version of it.

MISCELLANY

  • Buffy’s workout seems awfully easy for a Slayer. Also her music sounds like the Tetrisphere soundtrack.
  • My question about Buffy’s personal weather system remains: This week, she’s wearing a miniskirt and tank top while Willow and Giles have full sleeves and pants.
  • I love that bored, on-patrol Buffy regularly talks to herself; sure, it’s good exposition, but it’s also 100% believable.
  • I’m trying to remember if the cop who interviews Giles is the first black woman with actual dialogue we’ve seen on this show to date. Yikes.
  • “It’s delivery day. Everybody knows about this.”
  • Is this the first reference to Xander’s Uncle Rory?
  • “Super! I kicked a guy.” Cordelia is notably useful this episode, and also notably doesn’t flee: she helps, she says she cares about Giles, she even sticks around for research mode, albeit somewhat reluctantly. She can’t quite help herself.

DOES BUFFY GET INJURED Tattooed, so, sort of, since it’s not by choice.
WORST FASHION CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY Willow is wearing a murdered lime-green muppet.
IN HOW MANY WAYS DOES XANDER NOT DESERVE WILLOW’S AFFECTION He’s spending most of his time paying attention to Cordelia, so …
WHO GETS LOCKED IN THE LIBRARY CAGE A zombie dude! Good use of library cage!
BEST DATED REFERENCE Buffy’s fantasy involving Gavin Rossdale
BEST UNEXPECTED REFERENCE “I care from you Lost Weekending in your apartment.”
DO BUFFY AND ANGEL FAIL TO COMMUNICATE Angel basically has two cameos in this one, so they’re fine.

Previously: “Lie to Me” | Next: “What’s My Line Part I”

Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: The Dark Age

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