Throughout the course of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s seven-season run, our eponymous slayer is put through the wringer, but few nightmares she endures are as surprising and disturbing as the events of the third season episode “Helpless.”
Joss Whedon’s series was always about the horrors of adolescence, but no other episode is as blatant about the mortal fear all young women face as this one. “Helpless” is set during the week of Buffy’s (Sarah Michelle Gellar) 18th birthday, and she’s eager to go to the ice rink with her usually-absent father. The plans fall through, but she barely has time to process her abandonment issues because she’s also mysteriously lost her chosen-one superpowers.
Unbeknownst to Buffy, she’s being drugged and tested by the Watcher’s Council, the traditionalist secret society of British guys in suits who make up rules about what slayers — who are historically always young women — are allowed to do. The patriarchal metaphors here seem to be right on the surface, but they actually run deeper than usual in this episode, which also includes a brutal woman-targeting serial killer, catcalling strangers, an abusive date, an homage to Little Red Riding Hood, and, as if all that’s not enough, a disturbing betrayal by Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), the only father figure Buffy trusts.
The Watcher’s Council is heartless at best, and in “Helpless” they reach a new low with the ritual they call the Tento di Cruciamentum. Early in the episode, Buffy goes up against a vamp and nearly loses, a brush with mortality that puts her on edge as she contemplates adulthood. Giles, usually a walking encyclopedia, suspiciously seems to have no knowledge that will help her figure out what’s happening. Then, in a brief but alarming scene, we see him hypnotize her with a crystal before covertly injecting her with some type of drug, which we later learn includes “muscle relaxants and adrenal suppressants.”
We’re quickly clued in to Giles’ distaste for the Cruciamentum, which he tells his superior is “an archaic exercise in cruelty.” But since Buffy doesn’t know where her powers have gone, she’s forced to suffer through thinking that her 18th birthday gift is life as a regular woman. And as written by episode scribe David Fury, life as a regular woman in Sunnydale sucks. Our heroine tries to intervene when Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) is pushed around by an aggressive suitor, only to be tossed aside like a ragdoll. Sporting a large bruise, she later walks home alone and is accosted by two male strangers, one of whom yells sexualizing comments at her. Without the beacon of light that comes from an ass-kicking, empowered superhero, Sunnydale is a pretty dark place.
Things only get creepier from here. It turns out the Watcher’s Council has a demented yet meticulously planned reason for drugging Buffy, and it involves her fighting an especially gnarly vampire without the aid of her powers or allies, in order to prove that she’s a capable slayer. There’s a lot to unpack there — didn’t Buffy already prove herself by literally dying to save the world? How much do women have to give before they’re seen as capable? — but the Council’s decisions go from frustrating to straight-up malevolent when we realize who she’ll be facing.
Zachary Kralik (Jeff Kober) is introduced in a straitjacket and metal head restraints. The vampirized version of a serial killer who tortured and killed over a dozen women, Kralik is a sinister dude who’s kept docile with pills but still manages to choke out his caretaker and turn him into a vampire as well. When Kralik escapes, the episode switches into rare full horror movie mode, with tense, thrilling music accompanying Giles’ discovery of the bloodied mess of a body. Episode director James A. Contner draws this scene out for the final Hitchockian reveal: limp arm in the foreground, Giles, ill and horrified, in the background.
After Giles reveals he’s been drugging his slayer, a weak and alienated Buffy heads to a showdown with Kralik anyway. Kralik is genuinely freaky, wearing Buffy’s red jacket to lure her mother out and kidnap her, then stringing up hundreds of Polaroid photos of her bound to a chair for Buffy to find. The abandoned building set piece that serves as their meeting spot is spooky enough on its own, but Kober makes the climax sing by having a nasty bit of fun with the role, playing Kralik like an unhinged pervert who’s simply playing with his food. Buffy eventually gets the best of the serial murderer, but not before he quotes Little Red Riding Hood while hunting her down and reveals that he ate his own mother, then moans as Buffy presses a burning cross into his stomach, saying “just a little lower” with relish.
Even before Kralik appears, there’s a looming presence of sexual violence in “Helpless” that makes the Cruciamentum feel even more twisted. Eighteen is the age of consent in Buffy’s home state of California, and in the episode’s first scene, Angel (David Boreanaz) and Buffy make it clear they aren’t having sex after a purposely misleading, romantically mood-lit sparring session. In the next scene, Buffy fiddles with a phallic-looking crystal and says she has a lot of energy to burn, and in the one after that, a vamp lays atop her, turning a wooden stake at her face and saying, “Let me know if I’m not doing this right.” Like most of Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s metaphors about womanhood, this one is muddled, yet still memorable.
The overall impression is one of a warped rite of passage, a transition into womanhood that’s corrupted, not only by the hegemonic powers-that-be (whose influence, fittingly, is initially invisible) but also by fallible father figures and the chaotic and violent men who make streets unsafe for women. Buffy Summers is remembered in our collective consciousness as a badass, demon-slaying heroine, but this episode, for all its dark fairy tale gleam, serves as a wake-up call for both her and the audience. Buffy’s win is only tentative this time; she’s left weak and unsure, but at least she ends up with a newly fired, deeply apologetic Giles by her side.
The slayer gets the last laugh, though, in a final season storyline that ensures that the overarching patriarchy metaphor, while by no means intersectional or consistent, isn’t a fluke. In Season 7, Buffy learns that a prehistoric group of men who would later become the Watcher’s Council actually made the first slayer by force. They captured a girl from their tribe and bound her to a demon, making her the first in a lineage of unconsenting, super-skilled protectors of mankind. This is all kinds of messed up, and Buffy knows it, too; after the Watcher’s Council headquarters is blown up (by a chauvinistic evil priest, but that’s another story), she declares that it’s time to rewrite history.
“In every generation, one slayer is born, because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule,” Buffy says before going to war one last time. In the series’ final moments, the slayer lineage is disseminated among any girl who decides to embrace the slayer power. “So I say we change the rule,” she declares. “From now on … every girl who could have the power will have the power. Can stand up, will stand up.” Down with the Watcher’s Council. Down with the Cruciamentum. This next generation of women is deemed worthy and strong without proof or testing, purely through their own choice.