Buffy The Vampire Slayer Reviews: Gingerbread

If the tone of Amends was Peace On Earth: Goodwill To All Men With Brooding Scowls and Copious Amounts Of Hair Gel, then Gingerbread's tone is a little less forgiving.

It's a curious tale, and one that follows a familiar Buffy The Vampire Slayer pattern of starting out as something unnervingly startling and then turning into something totally different halfway through. The overall picture with Gingerbread is a look at the dangers of mob mentality, bandwagon jumping, and ignorance of fact. It pulls no punches, but at the same time, it's a thoughtful and frequently very funny tale that manages to keep up the momentum of the impressive third season.

Gingerbread starts out with the horrific discovery of two dead young kids. It's too bad that Joyce, having chosen to accompany Buffy on patrol, with a packet of food and a flask of drink, has made this awful find. The death of a youngster is all the more tragic in that a whole future is cruelly ripped away in the blink of an eye. That feeling of injustice and rage comes through in the first act, especially through Buffy's anger in the library: “They were kids, Giles. Little kids! You don't know what it was like to see them there.”

Matters are made worse when a mark, found on the kids' hands, is suggested to be the work of human beings involved in ritual sacrifice. “Then while you're looking for the meaning of that symbol thingy, could you also find a loophole in that 'Slayers don't kill people' rule?” adds Buffy. It's a different approach in Gingerbread in that it seems like the series is looking at a real world crime rather than a supernatural one.

The mystery deepens when the end of the first act shows a clandestine coven getting up to shifty goings on with a skull, lots of smoke and – horror of horrors – the symbol found on the kids. The coven comprises a Goth kid called Michael, Amy the witch, and – surely not – Willow??

Jane Espenson's and Thania St John's clever script spins out this mystery and puts the audience in the place of Joyce and MOO (that's Mothers Opposed To The Occult, in case you didn't know). As viewers, we're starting to question whether the usually harmless Willow could be involved in such a terrible crime. It's that instant knee-jerk reaction that triggers later events in Gingerbread. Even Buffy is suspicious of Willow, whose nervous babbling isn't exactly calming her fears. At Sunnydale, Joyce and MOO have begun the crusade to bring down supernatural elements, as seen in a busy gathering at the local town hall. “This isn't our town any more,” Joyce tells the audience, including a shocked Buffy and Giles. “It belongs to the monsters and, and the witches and the Slayers.” Given that Sunnydale's been on the receiving end of more demon attacks and threats than passing traffic, it's a wonder that such a group as MOO hasn't been set up already.

What's worrying about all of this is that the MOO members aren't exactly taking in all of the facts in a reasoned fashion. Take the raid on Sunnydale High. Anything remotely connected with the supernatural is confiscated, with the guilty parties sent to Snyder's office. Snyder, naturally reacts like the boy whose Christmases and Birthdays have all come at once. “This is a glorious day for principals everywhere,” he proclaims. “No pathetic whining about students' rights. Just a long row of lockers and a man with a key.” Even Giles' beloved books are taken away from him, leaving the outraged librarian seething with rage.

It's a clever equation. By taking all the books that contain the right answers and the reasoned arguments, all that's left is festering suspicion and accusation. It's a common element in modern society. If ever a terrible crime or outrage is committed, a small minority choose to pick on people they think are linked with that atrocity, as opposed to the real culprits. Knee-jerk accusations are fired, whether it's online, or even worse in the real world, through a vigilante crusade. It's so sad that a small percentage of the human race chooses to jump on a bandwagon of hate rather than try and look at a problem from a logical, accurate perspective. It doesn't help that some of these mini-crusades are started so visibly, whether through ill-advised media reports (newspapers or TV) or through current social media trends.

And don't even get me started on certain political figures' dislike of cold, hard fact. That would only be “fake news”...

Espenson's and St John's script was a topical one at the time of writing in the late 1990s, but what's so unnerving about the thing is how that script seems so relevant today. It's so easy to follow the angry mob from behind a desk or on a mobile phone. Pointing fingers on social media is all too easy, and when the powers that be can't even accept what's going on under their noses, it makes me wonder whether we're all about to go to hell in a hand basket.

Anyway... The second act contains some gritty, real-world stuff. There's angry bullying of hapless warlock Michael. A furious jock and his friends nearly hammer the chap to the locker, until Buffy comes along to diffuse the situation (unfortunately, she can't save him from a brutal pummelling later on in the story). Cordelia, still bristling from her recent fall-out with the Scoobies, is naturally inclined to be on the side of the accusers: “If you're gonna hang with them, expect badness. 'Cause that's what you get when you hang with freaks and losers.”

Blind prejudice is breaking out, and it's a human emotion that's even more dangerous than a whole army of minions assembled by the Master. The scenes in which the police carry out their raid are superbly filmed with grimy, hand-held camera work, which emphasises the rough, no-nonsense act taking place. All told, James Whitmore Jr does a top job with this script, reacting very well to the action and dialogue with great attention to detail and imagination.

Naturally, there has to be a supernatural answer to this problem. Buffy and the Scoobies realise that nobody has even begun to consider the origin of the kids. They've been too busy focusing on the crime that took place rather than their lives. When they go looking for clues through the idiot box, they come up with a surprising discovery. The same kids have been involved in the same situation many times, dating all the way back to 1649. The payoff is that the fairy tales of old are steeped in reality – in this case, the legend of Hansel And Gretel, in which the eponymous duo blabbed about a mean old witch. As Giles expands on this: “Some demons thrive by fostering hatred and, uh, persecution amongst the mortal animals. Not by destroying men, but by watching men destroy each other. Now, they feed us our darkest fear and turn peaceful communities into vigilantes.”

It's intelligent writing – taking a real world issue and placing it in the context of fantasy and legend. The supernatural demon metaphorically turns ordinary people into close-minded vigilantes who turn fear and hatred into terrifying reality. Inevitably, the reappearance of the kids sees them turn into a great big snarling beastie. What's even more disturbing is that Buffy, Willow and Amy are captured by the mobs of Sunnydale and tied to wooden stakes before flamey mini-infernos. You can have as many vampires and demons as you like, but the evil that men and women do is arguably much more terrifying.

While Gingerbread's real world elements make the script one of the more unsettling of the season, it's complemented well by a plethora of funny lines. With Jane Espenson back on writing duties, the results are reliably fresh and funnier than a world tour of clowns. Joyce's decision to name the organisation MOO is a good example, especially the deadpan way in which Snyder announces that Buffy will have to answer to the sound that a cow makes (“Did that sentence just make sense that I'm not in on?”). Then there's Cordelia's claim that one of these days Giles will “wake up in a coma” (and Giles' reaction to this is just as funny), and also the dark humour of the demon's demise (“Did I get it?” bleats Buffy twice as she impales the demon through the neck with her stake – Sarah Michelle Gellar's delivery makes this all the more amusing). And let's not forget Xander's unease at trying to socialise with Oz (“It's more a verbal non-verbal. He speaks volumes with his eyes.”) or the continuing awkwardness between Joyce and Giles (“A rumour? About us?”). So many laugh-out-loud moments in such a short space of time.

That said, there are one or two elements that don't quite work. One is the introduction of Willow's mother. While it's nice to see an extra member of a Scooby Gang family, Willow's mother comes across as something of a disinterested cliché, and the running gag of calling Buffy “Bunny” isn't hot on humour. Amy fans may also be a bit disgruntled that she doesn't get a great deal to do in this. The only noteworthy moment is when she turns herself into a rat, beginning three long years with bits of cheese and a wheel for company. Likewise, it's a shame that Harry Groener isn't being given enough to do at this point. There's plenty of intrigue brewing about the Mayor's shady dealings and motives, but he's still relegated to the sidelines at this point in time – even when he makes a visible “Hmmmpphh” face while Joyce is berating the monsters of Sunnydale. It would have been nice to see the Mayor take some sort of action on this, but maybe this might have been over-egging the demon pudding.

Gingerbread manages to bury these small problems with a good, carefully plotted script, and the already established humorous style of Jane Espenson. It's a fine example of Buffy The Vampire Slayer tackling a real world issue, but instead of presenting it in an obvious, sledgehammer fashion, it's done with a subtle eye and a ready quip to stop things from getting too po-faced.

Another winner from the third season. Can the second half keep up the pace?