Thursday, 15 December 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Help


Cassandra was the ancient Greek prophetess who was cursed to always prophesy the truth, but never be believed. Because, like Sybil (similar to the Roman oracle the Sibyl) ‘Cassandra’ is a fairly common name still, it’s a perfect option for writers wanting a suitably symbolic name for a prophetically-inclined character, so it’s used fairly often. Sometimes it’s used just because it’s associated with prophecy, but other times, Cassandra’s particular problem is more relevant. In The X-Files, for example, Cassandra is the name of a woman who claims to be an alien abductee and, of course, only Mulder believes her. This occurred in Season 5, though, and then she reappeared in Season 6 with a different story and… I have to confess I was already totally lost by the arc plot by the beginning of Season 3. I love the individual episodes of The X-Files, and great stand-alone episodes continued to appear right up to the end, but even the weird summing up in the series finale couldn’t clear up what on earth was going on with the arc plot.

Anyway, the most touching use of Cassandra’s problem has to be this seventh season episode of Buffy. Like so many other series, Buffy fell prey to the tendency to try to be ‘darker’ by, basically, being more depressing in the later series (I remember The West Wing doing a similar storyline to one of its greatest ever episodes, Season 2’s ‘Shibboleth’, in Season 5’s ‘Han’, but altering the outcome to make it really depressing). Season 7 had its lighter moments, and a lot of rather dull but not overtly depressing stuff about potential Slayers, but it also included a couple of really ‘dark’ – for which read ‘depressing’ – episodes. Oddly enough, though, they were also two of the season’s best.

In ‘Help’, Buffy encounters a schoolgirl who is completely convinced that she is going to die. Buffy is determined to prevent this and most of the episode centres around the gang’s attempts to stop her being sacrificed by a bunch of unpleasant guys much as Cordelia and Buffy nearly were in Season 2’s lighter ‘Reptile Boy’. They are successful, but at the end of the episode, the girl dies anyway, of congenital heart failure. It’s a rather more effective reminder of the point hammered home with the subtlety of an ice pick (I was going to say sledgehammer, but that’s such a cliché) in Season 5’s arc plot centred around Buffy’s mother’s cancer – there are some things, and some deaths, even the Slayer can’t prevent.

Buffy might have realised that her efforts were going to be in vain if she’d known her Greek mythology because the girl’s name is Cassie – clearly, short for Cassandra. Cassie insists throughout the episode that she is going to die and there is nothing anyone can do about it, but not a single person believes her, because they are all convinced they can save her. Unlike Greek mythology (in which, in some versions, Troy burns partly because no one will listen to Cassandra), their insistence on refusing to believe her does do some good, because they catch and stop the bad guys, who could have gone on to hurt someone else after Cassie, someone less doomed. However, the essential point that Cassie is tragically aware of her own doom, completely unable to prevent it and also completely unable to get anyone to take her seriously is terribly poignant and terribly sad, and comes right out of the mythical Cassandra’s curse. Knowing the future is bad enough, but not being taken seriously when you know the future is even worse.

Cassie’s form turns up again when the First Evil visits Willow (and possibly other members of the Scooby Gang) in ‘Conversations with Dead People', but since that isn’t really Cassie (and was supposed to be Tara originally) it’s not really relevant to her particular story. Her main episode remains a rather nice and effective stand-alone story in which the mythological trope is used to maximum tear-jerking effect and, despite being really depressing, the episode really works as a commentary on helplessness and frustration.

(By the way, the other ‘dark’ Season 7 episode that is really good, even better than ‘Help’, is the Anya-centric ‘Selfless’).

(And the picture at the top of the page doesn't really have anything to do with this episode, it's just awesome).

All Buffy/Angel reviews

4 comments:

  1. I was wondering at that first photo... and awesome doesn't even begin to describe it! :D

    I remember Cassie... an excellent episode! I for one had no problem with the dark turn taken after Season 6, seemed reasonable considering Buffy's death and then being pulled out of "heaven" back into the Hellmouth.

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  2. I thought it was better done in season 7 - in season 6, the attempt to be 'dark' mostly just seemed to result in character assassination and the ruining of really promising storylines.

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  3. Another great Buffy blog!

    The fab picture at the top reminds me of Spike's summation of what Giles would see if his life flashed before his eyes: "Cup of tea, cup of tea, nearly got shagged, cup of tea..."

    And here's a new word for you, (stolen from televisionwithoutpity.com) "anvilicious", for when a plot point is so obvious it's like a delightful anvil falling on your head!

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  4. Wonderful! Anvilicious this definitely was - and season 5 even more so...!

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