Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “What’s My Line”

It turns out that when you’ve been having a sort of gentle, persistent, underlying existential crisis—the mental equivalent of one of those colds that’s just sniffles for weeks on end—the “What’s My Line” two-parter can be a little disconcerting.

The crisis is not solved, but Buffy rolls on. And while there’s a lot of plot in these episodes—Dru’s illness, the Order of Taraka, Ice Skating Princess Buffy, Buffy’s desire for a normal life and its conflict with her vampire boyfriend, the introduction of Kendra and her baffling accent—what most interests me is how kind they are to Buffy. Not in the fashion department, of course (lavender shoes with chunky heels!), but in terms of genuinely considering what a fated destiny would feel like to a teenage girl, and what the struggle to come to terms with that might entail.

This two-parter was Marti Noxon’s first appearance as a writer for the show. Her episodes are not universally perfect (“Bad Eggs” is rushing down the pike at us), and Noxon took a lot of the blame for the things fans hated about season six. (Here’s another take on that argument.) But given how often I’ve noticed that Buffy’s weakest episodes are written by, well, men, Noxon’s appearance here, in a two-parter dedicated to bolstering Buffy’s sense of chosen-one self-worth, is more than notable; it’s a sort of signpost, indicating the kind of influence Noxon will have on the show as the seasons progress.

Season 2, Episode 9 & 10, “What’s My Line Parts 1 & 2
Written by: Part 1: Marti Noxon & Howard Gordon; Part 2: Marti Noxon
Directed by: Part 1: David Solomon; Part 2: David Semel
Original airdate: November 17 & 24, 1997
Rewatch date: November 17 & 24, 2017

“You’re the one freaky thing in my freaky world that still makes sense to me.”

As if being the Slayer isn’t stressful enough, Buffy has another mortal enemy to face: the horrible aptitude tests the powers that be make you face in high school. (Or did. Do they still do that?) I’m pretty sure mine said I should go into the Forest Service because I like trees, so Buffy’s question about whether or not she likes shrubs felt impossibly accurate to my fading high school memories.

But if those things were horrible and felt like a special curse bestowed upon us normals by unthinking adults, imagine how they feel when you’re the slayer, and it doesn’t matter what the test says. There is no result for “Just keep on saving the world, you got this.” For Buffy, the entire process—forced upon her by Principal Snyder, no less—is a reminder of the choices she doesn’t have. Willow, ever curious, our seeker of forbidden knowledge, asks: Don’t you ever wonder? To which Buffy snaps, “Do the words ‘sealed’ and ‘fate’ ring any bells for you, Will?”

She doesn’t mean to be cruel. She’s just facing a harsh reminder about her lack of choices. “I’m stuck in this deal,” as she says to Angel after snapping at him, too, and then relenting, in the way of cranky people the world over.

That crankiness returns when Snyder, in his infinite cruelty, posts the results for all the world to see. Xander: prison guard. Buffy: law enforcement (“As in polyester, doughnuts, and brutality,” Xander quips). Willow: not on the list. This sends Willow off on a little side-quest involving weird fancy computer people who want to hire her—and, at long last, an introduction to Oz, who is also being courted by the nerd goon squad.

This is maybe the most delightful couple introduction in all of Buffy, simply because it’s about how much they have in common. It’s not the fated love of the Slayer and a vampire, or the fight-and-make-out cliches of Xander and Cordelia. It’s two nerds giggling at each other about animal crackers and turning down the overtures of some rich man who is definitely not Bill Gates.

The world reaches out to the smart nerds, but not to Buffy, who spends a lot of the first episode directing her crankiness at Giles (somewhat understandably). He’s older; he’s accepted his fate. He might even like it, now, but we know it wasn’t enough for him once, either. Sometimes Giles forgets that, the way adults are prone to forget at least some of the details of our youthful whims and desires. We have to, else we keep returning to them, wondering where the path could’ve veered, or what things might’ve looked like if we acted differently. Giles doesn’t do much looking back, but Buffy, being a high school student, is constantly told to look forward.

And everything she sees is the same. Vampires stealing shit from mausoleums. Ancient evils. Dubious decoder rings. Xander thinking snacks are the most important thing imaginable. The world conspiring to keep her from her ice-skating date with Angel—or trying to.

That date, though. It’s both dopey and perfect. Her freedom on the ice, lonely but on her own terms, interrupted by a freaking assassin sent by Spike, who is then interrupted by Angel, all of whom are being spied on by someone in the bleachers. Some part of me accepts that Buffy telling Angel she didn’t even notice his game face is entirely cheesy and unlikely, but the part of me that hopelessly loves this show accepts and understands it for what it is: Buffy embracing her weird, inescapable life, and the complicated love that is part of it. It’s the moment she really loves Angel, and that moment had to arrive for the show to go where it’s going. Think about this, when we get to “Innocence.” Think about Buffy forgetting to care that she’s in love with a vampire, and just accepting him, instead.

But as she accepts one part of her unusual life, another goes entirely sideways, as Giles freaks out about the order—a freakout that extends to Buffy, who starts to see everything as a threat. Home isn’t safe, given Giles’s warnings. So she goes to Angel’s, curling up small and alone in that basement apartment. He is her best chance at safety, but it’s so much more than that. A relationship, even with a vampire, is something that verges on normal. A thing people have, even if they aren’t the Slayer.

So naturally Angel is the key to Spike’s ritual to restore Dru’s power, and Angel is presently locked in yet another cage, this one in the back of Willy’s bar, because if Buffy is going to want this life of hers, she’s going to have to fight for it. Literally, with the appearance of Kendra in Angel’s apartment. (How did she find it?) All her self-doubt, all her frustration, all her chafing against the role she’s been chosen to play … and along comes another young woman, proudly announcing that she’s the Slayer.

The two-parter is kind to Buffy, by the end. But it’s not easy.

And it truly wasn’t the wisest choice for the show to opt for using a heavily othered Slayer-of-color in order for Buffy to find herself and accept her calling. Kendra’s existence is so pre-woke ‘90s as to be almost breathtaking: while it seems likely that Whedon and company were trying to make a point that Slayers weren’t all white American lasses, they instead introduced their first prominent character of color … and made her entire existence a lesson to Buffy. (Who, let us not forget, is an utter bitca to Kendra from the word go.) Kendra is never about Kendra; Kendra is about the way that is more than one road to Slayerhood, and that maybe Buffy’s road works for her better than she thinks it does.

If there is a tiny saving grace in all of this, it’s the angry hauteur with which Bianca Lawson plays Kendra—when Kendra is on comfortable ground. (Her sudden simpering around boys fills me with righteous fury: What kind of directorial garbage choice is that?) Her scorn for Buffy, her fierce fighting, her certainty: those are in opposition to Buffy, and they’re all her own. The script doesn’t pull any punches in how disconcerting her appearance is for Buffy, or make Kendra be nice to Buff until she feels the other Slayer has earned her respect. Giles and Kendra hit if off immediately; they’re both by-the-book types, and their easy rapport leaves Buffy in the cold once again.

But what Noxon’s script realizes is that in some ways, this is Buffy’s choice: she feels left out, she takes it personally, she reacts with frustration and hurt and doesn’t at all consider, for much of the episode, where Kendra is coming from, as a person and as a Slayer. None of this conflict, once the two of them call a truce in Angel’s largely destroyed apartment, is Kendra trying to make Buffy’s life difficult. It’s Buffy making her own life difficult, and fighting her own battles with herself.

The Kendra plot, when it’s used to advance Buffy’s narrative, is about how different Buffy is, and how much Giles has been willing to work with her, not make her work for the Slayer legend. As much short shrift as it gives to Kendra herself, it’s still interesting as a challenge to the Slayer as we know her: is she sloppy, rebellious, resistant, maybe not that great at her job? Is our hero a mess? Is she truly not trying, because she’s so conflicted? And could she just stop being the Slayer after all, handing off the full baton to Kendra? Would Kendra be better at it? Is Kendra better at it?

Maybe. In her own ways. The beauty of “What’s My Line Part 2,” flawed and frustrating as it is, is that it leaves room for both of them: for the by-the-book Slayer and for the seat-of-her-pants Slayer. Maybe it changes the heroic view of Buffy a little, and for the better; maybe she could read a few more dusty old books. And maybe Kendra could lighten up a little, and accept her emotions can be strengths as well as liabilities.

Maybe. Buffy’s little game, pushing Kendra’s buttons to get her riled up and angry—it’s not enough, really, and it’s not fair enough to Kendra, who could have played the same game with Buffy but remained cool and aloof while she rattled the hotheaded Slayer. That scene isn’t about Kendra learning from Buffy; it’s about Buffy re-establishing herself, and accepting herself. She went from resisting Slayerhood to having her version of being a Slayer threatened by Kendra’s own version, and by Kendra’s easy connection with Giles. It made her defensive of the very thing she thought she wanted to be free of. And then up pops the one thing that she understands better, or differently, than Kendra: using her emotions as fuel. Instead of gloating, she demonstrates how it works. For her.

That’s the important part: the moment when Buffy makes room for Kendra. The show hews so closely to Buffy’s viewpoint that it was never going to be fair to Kendra; the writers just should have thought about how that looked (though to your average white audience it looked a lot less fraught twenty years ago). As a compromise, for these two, in that time, it works well enough, primarily because it’s not about winning. No one’s right. They can learn from each other, if they will. If they’re willing.

It’s a hint of what’s to come so much further down the road, when there are countless Slayers, all able to learn from each other; it’s a middle finger in the face to the isolation the show invented for its women. We’re better off when we don’t stand alone, no matter what that portentous introduction says. That’s been the lesson of Buffy’s success—she’s better with friends and family and feelings—but Noxon extended it: she’d be better yet with an equal.

It’d be easier, though, if that equal could just understand about Angel, who becomes the focus of the end of this episode. He’s been the understanding boyfriend to Buffy, taking her ice skating; he’s been locked in the bar cage; he’s been tortured by Drusilla; now he’s the key to Dru’s restoration, a process which will, naturally, kill him. Not that Kendra cares. But when Willy leads Buffy to the Order—and Spike—Kendra cares enough about Buffy to show up for her.

The church is way too bright, the episode sometimes feels static despite all the things that are happening, and yet this fight is such a glorious moment. Kendra’s attack is backflips and cartwheels and double-jump-kicks and, vitally, cooperation with Buffy (of course Spike and Buffy would rather be fighting each other). It’s full of goofy moments (“Dat’s me only shirt!”) and perfect details (Buffy using the incense censer as a weapon) and compromise: in the end, Kendra helps rescue Angel after all.

She has to come around to Buffy more than Buffy has to come around to her—but the show isn’t called Kendra the Vampire Slayer (though I would’ve watched that, too) and, like I said, this pair of episodes is a kindness for Buffy before what’s coming. It’s full of fighting, and threats to Angel, and things Buffy really doesn’t want to know about (Xander and Cordelia), but that’s all par for the course. The entire narrative—and probably the reason it feels so static—is very clearly set up to give Buffy a new perspective on her calling.

From the contrast of Kendra to the Order of Frightfully Powerful Bug People to Dru needing Angel to make her strong again, it’s designed for maximum stress and maximum appreciation. The writing is a powerful demonstration of Noxon’s understanding of Buffy and what she’s up against: herself, sometimes, more than anything; her unwillingness or inability to settle into what she has, what she is, runs alongside external threats, and when those struggles come to the surface in tandem, the show is all the stronger for it.

It’s also a huge part of what made Buffy mean so much to me: the message that you can have something that seems so meaningful and important, and still be unsatisfied, and striving and searching, and that’s ok. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure or a jerk, but that you’re human, with flaws and strengths, no matter what. I’ve always done the same thing Buffy does: keep looking at what’s over there, even though what’s right in front of me is interesting in its own right, and maybe even the most important thing. But what if I were on that career path, had stayed in that job a little longer, had found a way to make the most of that frustrating situation? Why is this the person I am, the place I’m in, the way I do things? How do I change my place in the world?

All those questions, and I’m definitely not a chosen one.

In the end, Kendra has one last insight to offer, though she credits it to Buffy herself:

“You talk about slaying like it’s a job. It’s not. It’s who you are.”
“Did you get that from your handbook?”
“From you.”

What she leaves out, though—what Buffy will have to figure out on her own—is that it’s not all she is.

MISCELLANY

  • Angel’s moment of truth: Buffy: “How did you know?” Angel: “I lurk?”
  • “I’m not really a computer person, you know. Or a work of any kind person.”
  • I am running out of pithy observations to make about Xander and Cordy, except that they are truly awful fake kissers.
  • Drusilla’s chipper sadism is really something.
  • This is when we learn about the 43 churches. “It’s the extra evil vibe in Sunnydale. Makes people pray harder.”
  • Willy leads Buffy to the Order and then they let him live? I mean, I know the good Slayers don’t kill humans, but what the fuck, Willy, you owe Buffy some seriously good intel after that.
  • “I mock you with my monkey pants!”
  • Buffy’s lime velvet pants are like … a shade or two darker than Midori.
  • Dru one-handedly picking Spike up out of the rubble and then a terrible green screen! AMAZING.

HEY, THAT GUY! FACTOR Other than Kendra herself, Bianca Lawson, not a winner in this category.
DOES BUFFY GET INJURED? She ices her knee! A rare occurrence.
IMPORTANT THING THAT NEVER COMES UP AGAIN Seems like the Order of Taraka would be useful for other villains down the road, but nope.
IN HOW MANY WAYS DOES XANDER NOT DESERVE WILLOW’S AFFECTION To my great delight, she is much less attentive to ol’ X this week.
WHO GETS LOCKED IN THE LIBRARY CAGE Bar cage! Bar cage!
DO BUFFY AND ANGEL FAIL TO COMMUNICATE They do a really good job, for once. A+, fated lovahs.

Previously: “The Dark Age” | Next: “Ted”

Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “What’s My Line”

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