Thursday, July 29, 2010

Buffy 2x18 - "Killed by Death"

After an extremely dark episode, which advanced the ongoing story arc a lot, we get something a little more standalone and less dark. It's a strange occasion when an episode about a monster that murders sick children can be described as "less dark." Anyhow, more after the break.

"So this isn't about you being afraid of hospitals 'cause your friend died and you wanna conjure up a monster that you can fight so you can save everybody and not feel so helpless?"

- Cordelia

"Killed by Death" is one of those episodes described by some Buffy fans as "filler." for those unfamiliar with the term, "filler" is used to describe material of little artistic worth or quality, included as part of a package to increase the size of the overall package. It's usually used to describe songs on an album, scenes in a novel or film, or episodes of a television series. The implication being, of course, that significantly less effort (and therefore value) was put into this material, and it exists only to make the overall "package" appear more substantial.

Although there are some valid uses of the term filler (particularly in the music industry and in classic Doctor Who), there really is no such thing as "filler" on a show like Buffy. Making a single episode of television involves a herculean effort of talent and logistic on the part of hundreds of people. And in a writers room like the one on Buffy, everybody's hands are on everyone's scripts, working hard to make each episode better. It's easy to forget this, because we can consume an episode in less than an hour and pay as much or as little attention as we like. There's not a single episode that was thrown together haphazardly to fill out a season order. The notion that they could do that even if they wanted to is absurd.

Which is not to say that every episode is worthy of high praise, or even particularly consequential. Not every episode is going to affect the viewer in the ways "Passion" did. "Killed by Death" certainly doesn't. But to call it "filler," to imply that it was slapped together to fill an hour they didn't know what to do with, isn't really fair.

It's not a bad episode of Buffy at all. In fact, I think you'd be hard pressed to find an episode this season that does as good a job making use of the entire cast. Even Cordelia feels like an integral part of this story. Even Joyce. Sure, there's some retreading of familiar ground vis a vis Xander's affections for Buffy, but this is used to fuel a great dramatic scene between Xander and Angel in the hospital waiting room. And the premise is kind of cool: a monster that can be seen by sick people, and Buffy making herself sick to fight it is a nice heroic moment for her.

It's just a very competent, well-put-together episode. Perhaps that's not enough, especially watching it right after "Passion." Going straight from the grief over Jenny Calendar's death to "Oh no! Buffy has the flu!" is a bit of a jarring transition. But then again, I'm not watching the episodes the way they were designed to be watched. I should say, though, that had this episode appeared in season one it would have been one of the strongest of the lot.

What else am I supposed to say about it, that Sarah Michelle Gellar is really good in it? News flash, Sarah Michelle Gellar is always really good.

By the way, if you want a real example of filler, in which the writers are knowingly padding the season with inconsequential material, look no further than the early part of the third season of Lost, culminating in the dismal "Stranger in a Strange Land." It was this that convinced ABC  to set an end date for the show, allowing the writers to better plan and pace the remaining seasons.


  1. Lol--"here's how Jack got his tattoo!" I wrote a bit about that one in my latest "Lost for Beginners" post!
    Anyway, Buffy. Right. I highly, HIGHLY disagree with your assessment of this episode as "much less dark" than the previous one. Maybe it's just the child-lover in me, but for me, this episode was extremely dark. It's not "Oh no! Buffy has the flu!", as you make the conflict out to be; it's "Oh no! Innocent sick children are dying by getting the life sucked out through their eyes!" How is that in any way less dark than Angelus snapping Miss Calendar's neck? Less consequential to the overarching storyline, sure, but taken by itself, it's incredibly dark. Also, Der Kindestod is one of the most scary-looking Buffy villains, in my opinion, right up there with The Gentlemen.

  2. I've always really enjoyed this episode for a variety of reasons, though chiefly because it's one of the few times (that I recall) where we see Buffy saving people who aren't regular cast members or recurring characters--here we see the Slayer saving the innocent, and it's lovely.

  3. That wasn't meant to be a statement of the episode's conflict. I was referring specifically to the strange incongruity between the final momments of "Passion" and the opening moments of "Killed by Death," not the overall plot of either episode.

    And yes, the murder of sick children is dark subject matter, but "Passion" is much, much darker because of the way it's presented. "Dark" is a description of overall tone, not the relative heinousness of particular acts. For one thing, that episode is LITERALLY a lot darker than this, in the sense of the mood created by the use of dim lighting. The script and direction give far more tension and emotional weight given to Angel's psychological warfare against Buffy than to the fate of a bunch of kids whose name I can't remember.

  4. Really good point, Erik. When a show gets too insular in what's at stake and whose fates the main characters are concerned with, it becomes.... well, it becomes "Heroes."

  5. There's also a really great moment between the Scoobies in this episode, when they discuss Willow and Xander "playing doctor." Giles' and Buffy's reactions, in particular, are hilarious