One episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that perhaps has the hardest tug on the cockles of where my heart used to be, gentle readers, is Season 3’s “Helpless”. Perhaps I am just all maudlin right now, but there is a nice knapsack full of emotions which I think are worth exploring.
One of the most important principles I hold dear is honesty. It is the guiding principle of our home. It is certainly something I expect, though have often found myself not receiving from, my family members. I have fought to always provide it, even though frequently in my younger life the ability to lie convincingly became a survival skill. Funny how the things that help you often hurt you later in life.
Often times I have found myself on the wanting end of withheld information “for my own good”. You know, that tidbit that isn’t slid to you so that you weren’t distracted from exams or to ensure that you wouldn’t come running to the bedside of a sick relative. It is a fairly regular happenstance that someone will slip up and mention when Uncle So-and So was under anesthesia and had an allergic reaction to it casually in conversation when nattering on about something else that keeps me feeling good about being far from home.
I hate having information withheld from me. I hate it more when it is from people I love.
Even worse, are the times I know something is wrong. I can feel it. Everyone I know seems to be on eggshells. Papa seems tired more so than usual and hasn’t picked up The Kid for a hug today. The air crackle with fear as thick as morning fog on Whitefish Bay. Nothing is wrong and the pancakes are burned, but suddenly my grandfather comes home with a report of a heart that has been beating completely backwards in his chest for over seventy years and needs “corrective” surgery. And I didn’t know he had a surgery at all. No one wanted me to worry or distract me from my life. I suppose I should be grateful that none of these things has ever threatened my life directly, but it did threaten my chances of knowing that I might lose people who meant a great deal in forming me into the person I have become today.
Most of all it hurts when the people who lied to you are the people you trusted with the deepest parts of you.
“Helpless” sets us up for another fun year of celebrating Buffy’s natality (here’s a hint: they always turn out exactly as planned and no one ever dies *nod nod*). Buffy is excitedly discussing with anyone who will listen about the ice show her absent father takes her to every year. He must be more absent than I have come to expect, because I don’t remember him taking her to ice shows the last two years. Wev.
Any time she becomes excited about something it seems that Buffy becomes determined to redouble her Slayer Training efforts, and she begins studying the various uses of crystals and gems with their respective properties. Part of what I love about the show is the special relationship between Buffy and Giles, the one that proves that the influence of a father (not that it is necessary) can come from a place not of blood, but of love and intention and devotion. Through his work and commitment, Buffy has come to trust Giles, possibly more than any single person we see her interact with ever, with her life. When her father fails to come through, Buffy even tries to convince him that Ice Shows aren’t as cartoon-y as everyone thins they are, hoping to get him to take the hint. (If someone were free, they’d take their daughter, or student, or their Slayer…)
Over several scenes, we see that Buffy is a little off her game. To put it in Buffy’s terms, her game has left the country. She comes to Giles, scared, asking for help in figuring out why the thing she which she always thought she wanted to happen is now happening. But even she knows that this is something for concern, because Buffy puts her life in harm’s way every day, and her powers have become a lifeline. When Giles tap dances around this, when he skirts the issue, when he seems less concerned than Buffy, who verges on tears whenever she chances her voice to talk about it, we wonder how Giles can be so calm. We know he loves Buffy like his own kin.
Which is why when she is told to meditate upon a specific crystal during her studies, and we see Giles pull out a syringe to inject Buffy with some mysterious fluid while she is entranced in the flaw deep within, it is alarming indeed. Logical conclusions made through TeeVee magic tell us that he is the cause of this mojo that has afflicted Buffy. We, the viewer are let in on the deed that Giles has committed as we watch Buff struggle with what has been not only done to her, but withheld from her as well. Giles has been intentionally aloof, and now we know why.
The scenes at the Sunnydale Arms show us that, once again, our beloved Watchers’ Council is back in the action inflicting archaic testing and rites upon Buffy when they have spent most of her life “watching” from afar. When a slayer reaches her 18th birthday she is to be tested on her abilities without her…um, abilities, and they seem to feel that the best way to do this is to trick her, without giving her any clue what is happening to her. Sending a scared woman into a boarded up house with a supercharged vampire, in this case one who was turned as a patient from a psychiatric facility, and I am sure I don’t need to go into the deep issues packed up in Whedon’s decision to go that route (how it feeds a stereotype of how people with mental illness are all dangerous, how it exotifies mental hospitals and the people in them who are quite possibly and very likely not dangerous at all) so I am not going to, is rather messed up. Giving her any hint of the test before her invalidates it. And it has been done this way for centuries, so it must be the right way, nevermind, you, that it is rare for a slayer to reach her 18th birthday.
But Giles not only knew, he did this to her. And we watched with wide eyes as Buffy’s trust and autonomy were violated.
Predictably, because this is television, like a good plot voucher, the vampire breaks free and kills one of his attendants, changing the rules up and eventually kidnapping Buffy’s mother, giving Giles the opportunity to slink out from between his rock and hard place. As honorable as it is that Giles finally fessed up to his actions, it was only after the colloquial shit hit the fan that he came clean, inciting Buffy’s ire, breaking her heart (If you touch me, I will kill you…), and imbuing her with enough righteous indignation to realize the talents she still possessed. Lest ye misunderstand: Buffy’s anger is what drove her, not Giles’ actions. Through no good deed of Giles did Buffy realize that she was still resourceful, but I believe through her own desperate inner searching. In fact, it is only after, in an odd moment of kindness, Cordelia has driven Buffy home and she realizes that her mother is gone, that she rises to the occasion.
I tell you, ex-con vamps must have a lot of cash to blow on Poloroids.
Long Episode Synopsis is Long.
Apart from the glaring truth that lying hurts and liars kind of suck (even though we all do it and we try not to), there are serious issues with violation of autonomy here, which might even me a more important rule to me than honesty, but really they are inextricably linked in many ways. The person who knows Buffy better than anyone in the whole world should have known what a clear violation of their relationship that was, how invaded her person would break that trust. In fact, he did know, and instead of fighting against protocol that he knew was wrong, he did it anyway. He allowed people detached from Buffy’s life to make calls and enforce rules upon her body, and then insist that he lie about it to her. Then, they wanted his aid in luring her into direct danger.
In the end Buffy learns the Important Lesson that she was meant to learn in that her powers are not everything and that she is clever and resourceful beyond her supernatural abilities, but, is it any wonder that Buffy’s mistrust of the Council is so vehement? And while her relationship with Giles does manage to mend, I am of a mind that it has more to do with TeeVee magic than actual good writing of the mind of a young woman whose whole world was violated to such a degree.