One of my favorite early episodes of BtVS. I love how the show takes a concept that could have been just an opportunity for a comedy episode full of wacky hilarity – people being transformed into their Halloween costumes – and makes it into story full of revealing character moments.
The choice of Halloween costumes is very telling of the characters’ issues with their own identity. Everybody is trying to be someone they’re not. Well, except for Cordelia, who dresses up as a cat, and she is catty – which is the meta reason why she doesn’t get transformed into anything else (in-universe it’s because she didn’t buy her costume at Ethan’s). Buffy and Xander are both struggling with traditional gender roles that neither of them fits, and secretly wishing that they could be more traditionally “feminine” and “masculine”. For Buffy, the immediate cause is seeing Angel talking to Cordelia in the café - even though he was actually just waiting for Buffy (I assume this is the date they talked about at the end of “Reptile Boy”) and Cordelia came to talk to him, after being stood up by Devon, the singer of Oz’ band Dingoes Ate My Baby that we’ve met in “Inca Mummy Girl”. It awakens Buffy’s insecurities about not being attractive enough due to the fact that she’s a woman with a “job” (“Bad day at the office”, she says when she comes back from slaying) who’s spending a lot of the time fighting monsters, can’t have the time anymore to make herself look great all the time, and generally because she’s not a stereotypical girly girl anymore, which Cordelia is (and which Buffy used to be before she was called). So Buffy and Willow decide to steal Giles’ Watcher book for a while and read “fun facts about Angel”, such as what kind of women Angel liked when he was human. (Oh, Buffy and Willow – you’re still real adolescent girls, more concerned about who Angel used to date, than about other “fun facts” from his past. I wonder how much do the books say about Angel’s crimes from his soulless days? They probably didn’t contain any info about what he did to Drusilla, since Buffy only learns it from him in the next episode.) A drawing of some beautiful noblewoman that he was supposedly involved with, or whatever, makes Buffy dress up as her - literally trying to make herself into someone else, into a weaker, conventionally feminine girl because of what she thinks a man (or men in general) would like more. Then she gets a case of “Be careful what you wish for” when she’s transformed into the worst case of stereotypical helpless screaming damsel who can’t defend herself and expects men to save her.
Xander is, on his part, feels not masculine enough because he can’t fight well against the school bully, Larry, when he tries to be the white knight and defend Buffy’s honor, and Buffy gets to save him from Larry instead. Xander still hasn’t resolved his feelings of inferiority about not being a “man” because he isn’t as strong as Buffy, and gets angry at her instead for embarrassing him. (Willow wonderfully comments on the fragile male ego: “Poor Xander. Boys are so fragile.”) As Soldier!Xander, he gets to do what he can’t in real life - be a traditionally masculine hero, beat up Pirate!Larry, and save Damsel!Buffy. Meanwhile, Willow dresses up as a cool, sexy girl, with encouragement from Buffy, but chickens out and decides to go as a ghost instead, literally covering herself in a sheet before Xander can see her; she’s still too insecure and afraid of people seeing her. But she’s the only one out of people transformed in their costumes who retains her own personality. She even gets to be the one to take charge, since Buffy and Xander aren’t themselves – prompting Cordelia to say “Who died and made her the boss?”
But it’s Giles, who doesn’t dress up as anything, that we learn most about in the episode. Characters having doubles or being split into two sides of their personality is a big theme in season 2, and the show in general. Angel/Angelus, Oz and his wolf nature, and Giles and his bad boy rebellious Ripper persona from his youth, which we’ll learn more about in “The Dark Age”. Ethan, a Chaos worshipper, prays to the statue of the two-headed god Ianus, who represents the duality that exists in everyone – male and female, light and dark, etc. Why does Ethan do the spell? Unlike most villains who do it for some sort of personal gain, it seems he just enjoys creating mayhem, pulling people out of their comfort zones and showing that everyone has another side to them. But maybe an additional reason is that he wants to create a reaction in his old friend Giles, specifically, because he wants him back on the Chaos side. Giles has become the epitome of Order, and that he’ll remain (except when tranformed into his teenage self in “Band Candy”), but we still get a glimpse of his more sinister side when he tells Willow to leave – was it because he thought Willow was in danger, or because he wanted to kill Ethan and didn’t want her to see it?
Giles’ stuffy librarian persona, we learn, is really a costume; but when you wear a costume long enough, it becomes you – “the outside becomes the inside” as Drusilla puts it. In a similar way, we later learn that the “Spike” persona was a costume that William decided to wear – but the costume did eventually become who he is. (Joss has said that Giles is what Spike refused to become, while Spike is what Giles grew out.)
And the choice of costumes that characters in this episode wear do tell a lot about their secret fears and desires. At first glance, Larry’s choice of pirate costume seems just to reflect his macho persona, but we’ll later learn in “Phases” that Larry is gay and in the closet; is it a coincidence that he chose to be a pirate, someone who’s embodiment of following their desires and not caring about the rules of the society. We’ll later see that Willow can indeed be a leader (which she is at the start of season 6) and that she can be sexy and confident (not to mention the vixenish Vamp Willow), so this is something she did have in her all the time. Buffy will, fortunately, never try to be a damsel, but while she’ll always struggle to reconcile the “Slayer” part of herself with the “girl” part that wants to dress nicely, be attractive, that wants romance and relationships (which most Slayers aren’t supposed to have) and years to find a way to feel like a girl/woman while still doing her duty. She’ll have to find a less conventional way to do this, just like Xander will be struggling to find his “masculine” identity, and will eventually have to build it in a less traditional way: as a “comfortador” rather than “conquistador”, helping and saving his friends with love and comfort (as in season 6 finale) rather than muscles. Not that the soldier persona is completely abandoned – he also continues to participate in Buffy’s fight, and in season 8
Incidentally, this episode is the second time Buffy gets sexually assalted – first it was Hyena!Xander in “The Pack”, now it’s Pirate!Larry, though Soldier!Xander saves her before he gets to hurt her.
This is Oz’s second episode, and he and Willow again almost meet: first they bump into each other, but she’s completely covered in her “ghost” costume (i.e. sheet with the word “Boo” written on it), and then later he sees her in her sexy clothes and utters the same line he did in “Inca Mummy Girl”: “Who’s that girl?” Xander, on the other hand, doesn’t get to see Willow in sexy clothes – except as Soldier!Xander – and probably still thinks of Willow as someone without a sexual bone in her body.
It’s refreshing to see Buffy and Angel out of the over-dramatic “When you kiss me, I wanna die” mode and acting like a normal couple instead. They seem like a couple in this episode for the first time since “Angel”. When Angel says at the end of the episode that noblewomen of his time were “simpering morons” and that he always wished he could meet someone different and exciting, the idea was obviously that he got to meet someone like that in Buffy, but watching it now, the first thought that comes to my mind is that he – as a human – eventually did get to meet someone different and exciting – Darla.
Seeing Willow assure Buffy that Cordelia is not Angel’s type is funny in hindsight – though I’m sure at the time it was meant to be taken as true, since nobody planned to put those two together at the time.
And talking about subtext
and things that sound so funny in hindsight – how about Buffy quipping: “Honey, I’m home” to Spike as she comes back from the spell and proceeds to kick his ass? Who would’ve thought we’d get a callback in season 7, with Spike telling Buffy “Honey, you’re home” in “End of Days”.
Speaking of Spike, he is at this point already obsessing over Buffy, if only as a Slayer whose fighting techniques he needs to learn more about in order to beat her. He even has other vampires film her fight, and gets so engrossed in it that he almost doesn’t notice Dru coming in. But the way he talks about Buffy is very sexualized, even though at this point he would, no doubt, be horrified at the idea of feeling anything for her than a desire to kill her. He comments on her impressive fighting skill with an almost affectionate “Baby likes to play”, and later describes her in usual cannibalistic/sexual way that vampires talk about their victims, as “the tenderest meat you’ve ever tasted” – which reminds me of “School Hard” and his lines about being a “veal guy” as well as “the blood of a nice, ripe girl”. I’ve never understood why so many people thought it was outrageous of the show in season 7 to have Spike talk about raping teenage girls in his evil days – these early episodes are full of sexually predatory lines ike that and allusions that his preferred victims are young women, and of course, at this point the show was using biting as a metaphor for sexual assaults (both BtVS and AtS will later drop the metaphor and make it more explicit). Despite liking the challenge that the Slayers present, he’s also quite excited in this episode at the sight of a scared, meek, helpless Buffy.
That duality is similar to the way he talks to Dru: his main goal at this point is to restore her strength, and he admires her dark predatory power, but at the same time treats her as parent would a cute, beloved child. Maybe this is the time to start listing Spike’s nicknames
: Spike calls Sunnydale “Sunnyhell”. His terms of endearment for Dru include “my pet” and “poodle”, and he calls himself her Daddy (“Talk to Daddy”). A lot of people thought that First!Drusilla calling Spike Daddy in “Bring on the Night” was a mistake; this episode proves it wasn’t, and contrary to fanon, Angelus wasn’t the only one Dru called Daddy, even though he was her sire. It does make sense - Drusilla may have sired Spike as it was later established in S5, but Dru is childlike in many ways, ansd at this point Spike is taking care of her… and even after she regains her strength, she’ll still keep acting like a little girl.
Drusilla: Do you love my insides? The parts you can’t see?
Spike: Eyeballs to entrails, my sweet.
Ethan Rayne, who’s going to be a recurring villain; Larry, who is going to have a very interesting minor character arc in seasons 2 and 3.
Contrary to expectations, Halloween is the one night in the year when vampires and demons traditionally don’t go out. (Spike makes an exception only because he thinkd he has a perfect opportunity to kill Buffy.) We also learn that vampires can be captured on film (and in the next episode we’ll see thatyou can also take a photo of them).
Willow says that Angel was 18 in 1775, which would make his birthdate 1757, but later we learn that he was born in 1727 and sired in 1753. Either Willow read something wrongly, or Watcher’s books can’t get anything right.
Pop culture references:
Willow bemoans the fact that Buffy didn’t dress up as Xena. Willow is compared to Casper, the friendly ghost. Xander calls Cordy Catwoman. Godfather
reference as Ethan says he’s going to make Buffy “an offer you can’t refuse” – quite a sinister way to sell a costume.
Buffy bad (?) liar:
She actually manages to keep Giles distracted long enough for Willow to find the book – I’m not sure how she managed it, though, since she wasn’t too convincing. She does, however, think of the right way to keep his mind occupied, telling him about the compliments Jenny allegedly said about him.
As soon as Buffy comes to herself, she kicks his ass easily – and he runs away, again. Well, at least this time he runs away from Buffy, rather than Joyce. Really not a great showing in his first two episodes. Wait, he was supposed to be at his most badass in season 2, right? And then later he went through “Badass Decay”? How odd then that this “not badass” Spike of later seasons didn’t have any problem confronting Buffy directly and not running away, not to mention going straight against people much stronger than her, like Caleb.
Xander says he’s into women in spandex – and Cordelia is the only one wearing spandex in this episode. After seeing Buffy and Angel make up, Xander tells Cordelia he realizes that neither of them can get between those two; neither of them probbly realizes it at this point, but maybe they’ve just decided that they should better pursue other romantic options – like each other.
The way Buffy says “It’s wrong!” about stealing Giles’ book, with the obvious intention of going through with it anyway – which she does – sounds a lot like Faith in Buffy’s body in “Who Are You”.
Ethan’s words about Giles, apart from the reveal about Giles’ past in “The Dark Age”, don’t get a pay-off in the show for a long time – until “The Gift”, when we see what Giles is capable of when he strangles Ben; as well as in season 7 when he tries to go behind Buffy’s back and help Wood kill Spike, and in season 8
So far I’ve given six episodes the rating of 4, and the highest rating I’ve given an episode is 4.5 to “Prophecy Girl”. If you’re wondering when I’m going to give my first perfect rating of 5… The answer is: very, very