Sunday, 18 December 2011
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: School Hard
“From now on we’re going to have a little less ritual and a lot more fun around here.”
At last we’ve reached School Hard. I was worried for a while that I wouldn’t get to it before Christmas, but here we are. This is a massive milestone and in some ways a reboot of the entire series; up to now the baddies have been rather clichéd, hierarchical and obsessed with ceremonies and other such things. They’ve been more than a little perfunctory, frankly. And this has been entirely appropriate; the show needed to establish the premise and the characters. It made sense to keep the baddies a little dull and perfunctory for a while, plus this very dullness allowed for the occasional bit of metatextual silliness about how predictable and trope-ridden the vampires were. All that ends here.
Spike is magnificent; charismatic, cool, irreverent, wearing a black leather trenchcoat which is, er, a bit like mine, and completely rewriting our ideas about how vampires are supposed to behave. He has absolutely no time for the kinds of rituals and ceremonies that have dominated vampire behaviour in Buffy up to this point and just wants to have some gloriously chaotic fun. There’s quite a parallel with what punk rock did to music in the ‘70s, so it’s appropriate that Spike should come across like a kind of blond Sid Vicious. He gets all the best lines, too (“Please! If every vampire who said he was at the Crucifixion was actually there, it would have been like Woodstock.”).
James Marsters is amazing here; he just owns the screen. The accent isn’t quite perfect (he has particular trouble with his flat o’s, as in “not”), but that’s easily explained away if we suppose that Spike has spent quite some time in the United States. On the other hand, it sounds a bit modern and estuarised for someone who hasn’t lived in Britain for a while, but we mustn’t be picky. The mannerisms are all there from the start, and the contrast with the vampires we’ve seen thus far is huge.
Just as amazing is Juliet Landau as the uber-gothic and wonderfully mad Drusilla, who comes across like a character from Alice in Wonderland (“Do you like daisies? I plant them but they always die.”), especially with her dolls. It seems appropriate that she should be named after the Emperor Caligula’s favourite sister. She’s gloriously, sexually evil and the little erotic touches between her and Spike really highlight their amazing chemistry. This season is going to be fun.
Of course, this episode isn’t all Spike and Drusilla. The theme here is all the different lives that Buffy has to juggle (at least three, as she mentions), while somehow keeping them apart against all odds. It’s stressful and horrible to be a teenage girl, and this episode just piles on the pressure. We begin with Snyder piling extra pressure on Buffy by forcing her to arrange the parent / teacher evening or be expelled, which sets the benchmark. Later on we get two scenes in quick succession which pile on the pressure even more. Joyce reminds her daughter that she’s made sacrifices in moving towns, starting a new business and a new life, all because of her daughter’s behaviour in LA. Worse, she tells Buffy that she doesn’t want to be disappointed again, a horrible thing to hear.
As if this wasn’t enough (she’s already mixing up studying with her social life at the Bronze to fit everything in), along comes Giles, in the very next scene, with dire warnings about this St Vigeous thing on Saturday. The pressures on her have never been more intense. Her life is very complicated and this must be overwhelming for a teenage girl. And yet… it’s her mother who ultimately saves her from Spike, and Spike refers to the fact that she has a life as a strength.
Although, of course, there's an obvious parallel with John Maclean, of Die Hard fame, a similarly put-upon individual from the film which obviously inspired this episode.
Other interesting stuff happens, too. Joyce and Snyder meet for the first time, and clearly don’t like each other. And our hints that Snyder knows more than he’s letting on are confirmed at the end of the episode, as he and a senior police officer discuss a cover-up of what happened at the school. I wasn’t expecting this to happen quite so early.
Oh, and we have Angel pretending to be his evil former self, Angelus. How very interesting. We’re also told that Angelus “sired” Spike, and I think it’s pretty obvious what that means.
This is a pivotal episode, where the show really changes gears. The arrival of Spike and Drusilla has instantly made things seem more exciting, dangerous and fun, but perhaps equally important is the gradual emergence from the shadows of characters such as Joyce and Snyder.