‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’: "Him"

26Mar09

Of course some episodes of Buffy are lackluster. “Beer Bad,” “Spiral,” and much of season seven are equal parts ridiculous and dull. But few episodes, in my opinion, are as embarrassingly, insultingly awful as “Him.” If not for its last nine or so minutes, I would easily call it the worst episode of Buffy ever.

First, the writers are ripping themselves off. “Him” is an obvious retread of season two’s delightful “Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered” in which Xander accidentally casts a spell on himself that causes all the women in Sunnydale to love him…to DEATH. (I know that sentence sounds like a crib from a Lifetime promo, but I couldn’t resist.) Why does “Him” fail where “Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered” succeeds? Because the latter is not an exercise in the complete humiliation of every female character on a supposedly feminist show.

In “Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered” it becomes clear pretty fast that the females are acting strangely due to Xander’s botched spell. Xander acts quickly to reverse its effects, and he doesn’t take advantage of any of the girls who throw themselves at him. Giles chastises him for his foolish use of magic, and the women’s escalating emotions for Xander threaten his well-being. As for the effects of the spell on the women, it causes them to be sexually assertive toward Xander, but none of their initial come-ons make me feel embarrassed for them. And the later mob scenes are so over-the-top that I know they would never happen without the spell.

In contrast, when watching “Him” I wasn’t certain a spell caused Dawn’s behavior until Buffy starts to hit on RJ, which doesn’t happen until halfway into the episode. Sure, Dawn pushing that guy down a flight of stairs is creepy, but I wouldn’t put it past her even when she’s spell-free. I experience physical discomfort watching Dawn’s attempts to win RJ, humiliating herself in front of him and his friends. The petty backstabbing and catfights between girls competing for him is nauseating, but none of it is behavior I haven’t seen before on other shows and in movies as representative of how women might actually behave. Despite the girls’ degradation, RJ doesn’t suffer any ill effects from wearing the enchanted jacket. Because he doesn’t seem to know about the enchantment, he doesn’t have to learn a lesson about exploiting young women. Both Buffy and Principal Wood give him small lectures but to little effect, and having his jacket taken away by Spike and Xander hardly seems like much of a punishment.

Another important distinction between the two episodes is that “Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered” provides character and story development for two main characters. Xander gets to show he’s really a good guy when he refuses Buffy, and he and Cordelia become an official item when Cordy calls her friends out on being sheep and decides that she doesn’t care what they think about who she dates. “Him” doesn’t further story or reveal anything new about any of the main characters, though it does prove that Dawn really would win Miss Teen Angst Sunnydale.

I wouldn’t give this episode a second viewing if it weren’t for the nine minutes following Willow and Anya falling under RJ’s spell. I love the shot of Willow and Anya reacting to the love spell because of Alyson Hannigan’s wistful expression that morphs into confusion tinged with disgust at lusting after a guy. Much of the following dialogue is very quotable and excellently performed by Hannigan, Emma Caulfield, and Sarah Michelle Gellar.

Buffy: “Willow, you’re a gay woman.”
Willow: (So?)
Buffy: “And he isn’t.”
Willow: “This isn’t about his physical presence. It’s about his heart.”
Anya: “His physical presence has a penis!”
Willow: “I can work around it!”

Anya: “Well, you’re gonna have to do better than that—I’d kill for him.”
Willow: (scoffs) “You’d kill for a chocolate bar.”
Buffy: “No. Yes! Kill for him. I’m the slayer. Slayer means kill. Oh, I’ll kill the principal.”
Anya: “Ooh, that is hard to top.”
Willow: “Yeah, well, I have skills. I can prove my love with magic.”
Anya: “Yeah, right. What’re you gonna do? Use magic to make him into a girl?”
(Willow’s eyes widen with realization and delight.)
Anya: “Damn!”

The wonderful comedic acting continues with the montage and split-screen of the women doing their things to win RJ’s heart, with the exception of Dawn who has to spoil the fun by wallowing on the railroad tracks. Willow and Xander have a fun exchange after he stops Willow’s spell (“Will, honey, RJ’s a guy.” “I know. ‘S why I’m doing my spell, ’cause, you know, he doesn’t have to be.”), which leads to some excellent physical comedy by SMG and James Marsters as Spike tries to take the rocket launcher away from Buffy. I also enjoy Dawn’s line about Buffy having “sex that’s rough,” and Spike and Xander wrestling RJ’s jacket off of him and running away. The writers hadn’t managed to churn out that amount of continuous comedy for a while, and they don’t for the rest of the season. (This moment comes earlier in the episode, but I also like Willow commiserating with Xander that “she is right there with him” feeling disturbed at finding Dawn attractive. It’s one of the show’s more subtle “Willow is gay” moments.)

This episode includes a lot of callbacks to previous episodes. Dawn wears Buffy’s cheerleading outfit from “Witch,” Buffy tries to use the rocket launcher from “Innocence,” and Xander references the events of the above-mentioned ripped-off episode “Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered.”

I really like the music in this episode. UPN seems to have made Buffy‘s music supervisor use songs that people might have actually heard of instead of the California alterna-rock of the first five seasons. I applaud the show for trying to use music from lesser-known, local bands, but sometimes they tended to be indistinguishable from each other. “Him” features a song by The Shins, a song by Coldplay, and a couple from The Breeders, who are playing at the Bronze. The Breeders are one of my favorite bands and I was happy to see them on the show, but their music seems an odd choice for dancing tunes. I also really like the Charlie’s Angels-ish music that plays over the split-screen montage. Kudos to Robert Duncan if he composed that score.

Despite this episode’s solid comedy and trendy indie music soundtrack, I feel bothered and bewildered (but not bewitched) that the writers thought this story had a place on Buffy. I do not tune in to a show about a young woman with super powers who kills vampires to watch women bicker pettily about a boy and then be saved by two men.

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