Flu. What's all that about then? As if this time of year isn't rubbish enough, the Autumn and Winter seasons always seem to give you the gift of the snotty, phlegmy flu. While chemists have good cause to celebrate, the rest of us are confined to bed with copious amounts of tissues, hot water bottles and those funny medicines that taste like edible hell.
Superheroine she may be, but Buffy has nevertheless succumbed to this infernal condition. It's understandable, given that she's not at her peak. Her ex has turned psycho and has killed her friend's girlfriend. These are not peppy times for Buffy. So naturally, while fighting Angelus and phlegm, Buffy is for once, floored by the latter evil. Cue a trip to the local hospital, which naturally turns out to be a haven for a child-killing monster. No place in Sunnydale is safe, it seems. The local sweet shop is probably haunted by a demon made out of chocolate. The library is presumably managed by the Gentlemen. Tourists to Sunnydale must surely be decreasing by the year.
This latest concoction of fluey hi-jinks addresses the question of “What is death?”, an eternal poser that's stumped many a big brain for all eternity. Killed By Death offers some answers – the figure of Death isn't so much the chess-playing, scythe-totin' hooded doom merchant. Instead, he takes on the form of a repulsive, wheezing monster from the shadows of your darkest nightmares. Part Child Catcher, part Freddy Krueger, this hat doffing monstrosity goes by the name of Der Kindestod. Translated as 'Child Death', Der Kindestod feeds off terrified kids by sucking the life out of them and making it look like an extreme case of flu.
All grim stuff, and in fact, Killed By Death is a small screen horror homage. Der Kindestod is appropriately gross, most notably in the sequences in which his eyestalks extend to press themselves against the foreheads of his screaming victims. The death of the shifty Dr Backer is also brutal stuff, as a ward full of trembling kids witness the invisible Kindestod slash him to bloody ribbons. Top marks to the mask makers for creating such a nightmarish visage. Der Kindestod may be relegated to the background this season, thanks to the ongoing Angelus battle, but he's still a memorably disturbing baddie – Death literally takes no prisoners, and what's worse, Der Kindestod seems to enjoy his killing spree. Cordelia equates the children's hospital ward with an “all you can eat kind of thing”, which is chilling in the extreme.
Angelus himself can't resist a cameo appearance in Killed By Death. After declaring all out war in last episode's thrilling instalment, he's recharging the batteries, so to speak. He's reduced to making gloating threats when battling Buffy in the opening salvo – “This does not look good for our heroine!” he chuckles, although it's enough to make you wonder why he can't go straight for the kill, given that Buffy's strength is not at its best. More than likely, it's the slow-drawn out torture that Angelus likes – killing Buffy would be too easy, so he has to prolong the attack for all it's worth.
Part of this attack comes in the form of terrorising her friends, and this week, it's Xander's turn. Bringing a snarky bunch of flowers, Angelus is quick to put the boot into Xander's loyal defence of Buffy: “Buffy's white knight (!) You still love her – it must just eat you up that I got there first.” Mind you, Xander puts up a spirited defence with his barbed reply of “You're gonna die – and I'm gonna be there.” In fact, he misses that show, but his vivid hatred of the vampire comes through loud and clear in this excellent little setpiece. Nicholas Brendon actually does subtle fear very well (think also of his terrified reaction to Caleb and his thumb of evil in the Season 7 episode Dirty Girls) and his shaky reaction in the aftermath of Angelus' departure is a very good example of this.
As Giles points out though, Buffy is looking for a tangible foe to conquer, especially after the events of Passion. “Death and disease are things, possibly the only things, that Buffy cannot fight. It's only natural for her to try to create a defeatable opponent. Especially now...after Jenny.” It's notable how lately, Buffy hasn't exactly chalked up successive conquests. The Angel(us) problem has resulted in an extra foe for the Scoobies to battle against – one who has killed Giles' beau. Buffy's even been turned into a rat after falling foul of a jealous Amy.
So she's itching to even the score, even while suffering from the lurgy. She gets right into the heart of the problem, investigating the machinations of the mysterious Dr Backer, who initially seems to be the likely culprit for the deaths in the hospital. He has been dabbling in controversial experiments, which have led to reprimands and malpractice suits. Turns out though, that his experiments were, in fact, trying to combat the disease.
Buffy commands her Scooby team like a general delegating orders to the troops. While Giles, Willow and a reluctant Cordy do the research, General Buffy and Captain Xander do their level best to keep the evil at bay. Buffy also has a personal score to settle, since she's still haunted by the death of her cousin Celia. Celia died in a hospital at only eight years of age, another victim of Der Kindestod. Killed By Death contains flashback interludes, slotted in at various points of the story. While the kid selected to play young Buffy looks absolutely nothing like her, the flashback scenes are still quite effective, in particular, the harrowing death sequence for Celia, who's seen screaming in terror and pushing away at a powerful, invisible force.
These scenes are directed well by Deran Sarafian, who gives these flashbacks a childlike, dreamscape quality through brightly tinting the picture to suggest younger, carefree days. Sarafian does a good job with the script overall, making use of the old trick of tilting the camera to create the impression of a dark, forbidding environment. Good, urgent camera work too, for the Kindestod attacks – Backer's death is particularly handled well, using implied shadowy slice 'n' dice on the walls and grim close-ups of bloody wounds appearing out of nowhere.
Killed By Death provides some good material for all the regulars. Buffy is seen in this episode the way in which younger viewers of the show saw her – a likeable but empowering heroine who saves the day. She strikes up a good rapport with the kids, particularly Ryan, who's so grateful that he sends her a picture of a crayon Buffy standing atop the bad guy with a bloody heart. While other central TV characters are portrayed as patronising dullards, Buffy refreshingly talks to Ryan as a normal person. Ryan's quick to explain what's going on: “He comes at night – the grown ups don't see him... He'll come back for us.” Ryan instantly trusts Buffy and sees her as the older sister type who can make the nasty stuff go away. It's a nice return to the Buffy of old, especially bearing in mind the last few weeks. Mind you, she does temporarily leave her brain behind when she's about to down a jar full of 100% proof serum. Seems that flu gets to the parts of the brain that other diseases just can't reach.
The other Scooby regulars work well as a unified team – the events of Passion have brought them into a tighter unit, even Cordelia, who's willing to fetch doughnuts and coffee for her boyfriend who's still seen to carry a torch for Buffy. “Your obsession with protecting Buffy – have I told you how attractive that's not?” she complains. Xander's roving eye will land him in a whole heap of trouble in the future – in more ways than one.
Nevertheless, Cordy gets all the best lines in this episode. Whether it's Spike or Anya, the Buffy team always has to have a lone dissenting voice. In the early days, Cordy fulfils this function more than adequately. “Tact is just not saying true stuff,” she pipes up at one point, and it's a key part of her personality. This results in many a great line such as “Lysette got her nose done here... She came in looking for the Gwyneth Paltrow and it looked more like the Mr Potato Head.” She forms a surprisingly funny double act with a reluctant Giles, who's evidently not keen on using her services as a temporary researcher. “Let's go, tact guy,” she says to the spluttering Watcher. Not only that, she's good in a crisis, whether she's hitting the books with a frequent “Eeeewwww” or flirting with the security guy who played the handyman fan, President Steve, in Friends. Just don't ask her to buy gifts for the sick, that's all. “It's a tradition among, um, people,” says Giles in deadpan fashion.
Giles seems to be battling well with his recent loss. There's a charming scene in the early part of the story when Joyce consoles him over Jenny's death and offers a cup of tea and sympathy. It's a quietly understated friendship that will continue to have its highs and lows, from the jealousy in Anne through to the chocolate-affected events of Band Candy, and both Kristine Sutherland and Anthony Head play this very well. Head plays Giles' touched reaction to Joyce's words superbly. He's again the straight man to Cordy's funny gal, but it's the deadpan, typically British humour that makes it so amusing.
Killed By Death may not be the first tale of Season Two to spring to mind, but it's still very good. It's certainly light years ahead of shaky earlier tales such as Reptile Boy or Some Assembly Required. The script is another from the joint pens of Dean Batali and Rob Des Hotel, and they provide a tale that weaves together good character work and teatime horror. The story makes the most of the grim hospital setting and taps into those long-established fears of something nasty in the shadows of the wards. Der Kindestod is a memorable foe for Buffy to take on, and this results in some vividly grisly imagery. Buffy The Vampire Slayer certainly wasn't a programme to shy away from scaring kids, and Killed By Death is a good example of this.
Perhaps the only problem is the tinny incidental music which doesn't quite fit with the drama unfolding on screen. Never have those synthesised violins sounded so dated.
Otherwise, Killed By Death manages to find the wellness that Buffy can't. It's well plotted, acted and directed, and continues the strong second season run.