Has our heroine lost her will to slay? Back at Sunnydale High, Buffy fails to save a student's life and ends up questioning the purpose of her efforts, says Rachel Lovinger
Sarah Michelle Gellar, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Credit: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Robert Voets/UPN

Has our heroine lost her will to slay?

”Buffy the Vampire Slayer”’s fourth episode, ”Help,” returned us to the newly renovated and dangerous-as-ever Sunnydale High. In this familiar setting, Dawn has begun her career as a high school student and Buffy has taken a job as a school counselor, despite her lack of a college degree or any counseling training whatsoever. This soon spells trouble, as we see our heroine grappling with the question of how much help — or how little — she’s actually able to provide.

The main storyline begins with a montage of shots of counselor Buffy meeting with students. She’s eager to assist them but seems a little out of her element when confronting non-paranormal teen problems (a girl bullied by a classmate, a guy whose older brother wants to join the Marines). But when a student named Cassie (short for Cassandra, if you’re up on your Classics) lets it slip that she has given up on life because she has foreseen her own death, we enter the realm of the supernatural that is Buffy’s true calling.

As the hour unfolds, there are some funny moments (while examining Cassie’s personal website for clues, Xander exclaims, ”Poems. Always a sign of pretentious inner turmoil”). There are some surprising moments (Buffy threatening to beat the crap out of one of the students if he doesn’t tell her what he knows about Cassie’s fate). And there are some painfully telegraphed moments (the interminable scene where Buffy is holding the cup of coffee that she is obviously going to spill on her shirt, causing her to stain it as Cassie predicted, thus proving the girl to be, as Willow puts it, ”some kinda precog”).

But, mostly, Buffy uses all of the Slayer skills to try and save Cassie’s life — not once, but twice. First she intervenes to save the girl from being the victim of a human-sacrifice by some boys who think they can offer her up to a demon who will grant them obscene riches. Next, she stops a flying arrow inches from Cassie’s face (part of a booby trap set up by the occult boys’ club). But right after Buffy offers the counselor-like platitude, ”See, you can make a difference,” Cassie drops dead from heart failure.

In the end, the lesson seems to be that you can fight the good fight and still not be able to avert some of life’s tragedies. But isn’t this the same moral we learned when Joyce died? And again when, uh, Tara died?

Still, the episode takes this idea to another level when Buffy asks, ”What do you do when you know that…maybe you CAN’T help?” It’s one thing when she’s unable to solve ”normal” teen problems, but now Buffy must face the fact that even when she’s doing what only the Slayer does best, she might not be of aid. Dawn’s suggestion that a lack of success doesn’t equal failure if you’ve put forth your best effort offers little comfort.

I’ve always been supportive when ”Buffy”’s creators take risks, but I’m not convinced that an action show can sustain this level of ambiguity. Isn’t ”Buffy” all about demonizing life’s problems so we can watch the heroine slay them? Can we have an action show with a main character who’s losing sight of her motivation to act? Being in the high school setting has always been fertile ground for Buffy storylines, but now that the gang is back there, let’s hope that it doesn’t turn into Degrassi Haunted High.

What did you think of this week’s episode?

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