With its ongoing emotional sagas and character studies, it's sometimes easy to forget that Buffy The Vampire Slayer has its roots in horror. Week after week, Buffy battles toothy vampires, slimy demons and other horrors from the Hellmouth – but don't forget that the show equates these monstrosities with the trials of growing up.
The latest instalment is no exception. Helpless is more of an overt horror story, using the tried and tested 'Stuck in a haunted house' trope as the backdrop for a scary tussle between Buffy and a bloke who resembles a three-way cross between a vampire, Steve Tyler from Aerosmith and the bass player guy from Blondie.
Which means another gold star from me, I'm afraid. Having sat through the last batch of Buffy The Vampire Slayer episodes, I've noted how faults seem to be few and far between. Hell's teeth, I've gone soft. Possibly it's because I'm accelerating towards the pipe and slippers genteelness of middle age. Or possibly because the Buffy producers knew a good formula when they saw one. Quality will out, and again, the combination of the writing, acting, direction and music comes together to produce a high standard product.
Helpless is another Buffy Birthday story. Which means the greatest gift that Sunnydale can give our heroine: Misery. Not only is her wretch of a father too busy to come back to take Buffy to an ice show for a birthday treat, her substitute father Giles has gone all shifty. The latest training sessions have been about the mind rather than the action, but staring into a crystal is clearly too much for Buffy, given that she zones out in under five seconds flat. If Giles had ferried over an imported box set video collection of Last Of The Summer Wine, this would have achieved instant snooze, but the crystal does the job just fine. Which is just as well, since Giles is injecting Buffy with some mysterious liquid which can't be good.
As with all good Buffy stories, the mystery slow burns for the first act – it's somehow tied in with the haunted house, a stuffy old fart from England and a screaming man in a casket. Can Giles really have turned traitor? In fact, it's all a test, devised by said fart, Mr Quentin Travers, head of the Watcher's Council. Yet again, he's portrayed as a pompous posho of a Brit, swilling tea while gabbling on about Slayer rules and regulations in the most patronising manner known to man, woman and child.
The rules supposedly go that once a Slayer turns 18, she is forced to take a test in which she is weakened and pitted against a deadly adversary: in this case, the screaming Aerosmith/Blondie guy in the casket, who's called Zachary Kralik. “She must have cunning,” blusters Travers. “Imagination, a confidence derived from self-reliance. And believe me, once this is all over, your Buffy will be stronger for it.” It's regrettable that Quentin's overly detached rulebook of a brain can't see that Buffy will be put in deadly danger, and the situation starts to escalate out of control once Kralik manages to break free from his bonds.
A dangerous scenario then, and this enclosed claustrophobia makes for a noted contrast to the epic scale of Buffy's previous birthday two-parter. It's no less effective though, scoring high on atmosphere and dread. Everything works in this regard from James A Contner's masterful direction through to the unsung heroes in the lighting department, who make a skilled job of bathing the creaky old house in subtle low-down lights.
Another notable addition is the music of Christophe Beck. He has provided some atmospheric scores in the past, but the track for Helpless must surely rank as one of his finest. He uses many a great trick to heighten the mood, whether it's the quiet clicking as both Buffy and Giles make their way around the house or the evil violins of doom as Buffy battles with Kralik. It's annoying that Beck left the show full-time after the fourth season, since his scores add much to the atmosphere on the show – the Helpless soundtrack is one of the creepiest and the most effective.
Linking back to the second season, Helpless' undercurrent is that of grown-up betrayal. It's been put on the back burner after many a Season Two story dealt with this theme, but Helpless looks at this from all angles. Hank is the ultimate Bad Father, making do with an OTT bouquet of flowers to over-compensate for going AWOL for Buffy's birthday outing. Quarterly projections? If you'd believe that, you'd believe anything.
Twisting the metaphorical knife further in Buffy's back is Giles, the unwilling participant in Travers' freak show. Not only does Giles poison Buffy, he lies to her face. In a sense, it's the reverse situation of Giles' betrayal in Revelations – the difference being that while Buffy quietly and sadly took the sting from Giles' rebuke, here Giles is a desperate man, frantically looking for a way to make it up to his Slayer. “You have to listen to me,” he urges. “Because I've told you this, the test is invalidated. You will be safe now, I promise you. Now, whatever I have to do to deal with Kralik...and to win back your trust...” As Quentin later points out to Giles, he has a “father's love for a child”. Giles has come a long way from the stuffy Watcher of the first season. He's notably mellowed and relaxed by the third season, but he's seen as more of the Hank replacement than ever before. He goes looking for Buffy on planes. He offers fatherly comfort in the aftermath of a bad break-up. Plus, there's the constant possibility that Giles and Joyce could end up as a couple (although, this never comes to anything in the end). If Giles is seen to be betraying Buffy in this episode, the difference between him and Hank is that he does everything in his power to put things right – even if it ultimately costs him his job and calling.
Even Kralik's been dealing with parental issues, which is probably why he's so messed up now. He has a main beef with mother figures, which is why he captures Joyce and creepily ties her to a chair while taking millions of instant camera photos of her. “My own mother was a person with no self-respect of her own, so she tried to take mine,” he tells Joyce. “Ten years old, she had the scissors. You wouldn't believe what she took with those.” You don't just need traditional trappings to provide good horror, you need the right dialogue, too. Kralik's frequently disturbing outbursts make him one of the most unsettling foes that Buffy battles in the show (“Your face will be the first thing she eats” is another example). It also helps that he's played to perfection by Jeff Kober, whose deep, raspy drawl adds much to the threat of Kralik. Even though Kralik is defeated and killed, Kober would still return to the show to play the different but equally threatening Rack in the sixth season.
Kralik's demise is ingeniously handled, and is just one masterstroke of David Fury's tightly plotted script. Even though Buffy is at her weakest, she still has the brainpower to switch regular water with holy water for Kralik's regular pill intake, causing him to burn to a crisp from the inside out. “If I was at full Slayer power, I'd be punning right about now,” she half smiles, and even in a weakened state, Buffy still has the power to call the shots. Sarah Michelle Gellar does a superb job as the weakened and helpless Slayer. It's another good example of how Gellar successfully brings out Buffy's emotional side, especially in her furious rant at Giles. She even manages to bring the requisite venom to the dated riposte of “Bite me!” to Travers.
In a story containing vampires and enemies, it's clear that the greatest enemy is the cold, calculating bureaucracy of the Watcher's Council. Travers fires Giles without so much as a raised eyebrow, but fails to see the bigger picture. Given that Buffy told Kendra that her emotions gave her power in What's My Line, it's human emotion that matters in the supposed “war” (as Travers puts it). As we'll see, Giles' replacement isn't exactly the man for the job, given that his initial by-the-book approach doesn't exactly get the required results.
There's little to criticise again with Helpless. Admittedly, the other Scooby Gang members are sidelined a little this episode, with Oz noting the benefits of ice and Xander failing to open a jar at the end. The two boarding house workers are no more than Red Shirt fodder, with one turned into a vampire and the other eaten and left like buffalo wing remains for Giles to gag at. Otherwise, this is another superb episode, high on the horror content, full of atmosphere and quality performances. Anthony Head and Kristine Sutherland provide top flight back-up, and again, bring out the more vulnerable sides to their characters. Harris Yulin also gives a perfectly realised performance as the stuffy, by-the-book Travers. Even Quentin's final parting shot is full of stiff upper lip pomp: “Yes, well... Colourful girl”.
Combining spooky atmosphere and emotional undercurrents, David Fury pulls another rabbit from the hat with this episode. Helpless is well worth a look, containing equal helpings of thrills, spills and chills, and continues to take this corker of a season into the upper echelons.