30:01 – The End
We were still in Act II of “The Puppet Show” the last time our little club met here in the Sunnydale High School library. This means the entirety of Acts III and IV are squeezed into Part 3.
The set up of the story has been leisurely, and a bit confusing. As we last touched base with our Scooby Gang, Buffy had just bumped into Principal Snyder backstage at the school auditorium while she looked for Morgan Shay, the ventriloquist. Xander Harris had stolen Morgan’s dummy, Sid, and had him in the library while librarian/watcher Rupert Giles and the sweet-but-nerdy Willow Rosenberg continue their bookish research into organ-harvesting demons.
Willow had stumbled upon some information about certain dolls and mannequins harvesting human hearts and brains in order to become human themselves. It seems that we’re leaning heavily on the fact that Sid is, in fact, this episode’s Big Bad. What are we going to fill our final two acts with?
As we reached the 30-minute mark, we all noticed that Sid had vanished from the chair that Xander had placed him in earlier. Xander hadn’t noticed yet when we left him. Let’s rejoin our story already in progress.
Xander finally notices. He wigs out, naturally. Climbing on top of the table and making a loud exclamation that brings Willow and Giles running from the stacks.
Meanwhile, Buffy Summers—the vampire slayer of the series title—continues snooping around backstage, looking for Morgan Shay the ventriloquist. She eventually finds him, but he is dead and seems to be missing something.
“Morgan,” Buffy whispers to herself. “Demon’s got himself a brain.”
Buffy hears a sudden noise above her as she backs away from Morgan’s corpse. She looks up and sees a huge iron chandelier falling on her. This cliffhanger marks our transition into Act III.
We don’t have to wait long to find out if Buffy is all right. She regains consciousness, still pinned down by the weight of the chandelier. She hears footsteps and sees what appears to be Sid the dummy running across the catwalk above her.
Sid attacks with a knife before Buffy can get out from under the chandelier. Buffy fends him off, gets out from under the chandelier, and manages to pin the dummy to the wall.
“You win,” Sid says. “Now you can take your heart and your brain and move on.”
Buffy says, “I’m sure they would have made great trophies for your case.”
“That would have been justice,” Sid responds.
“Yeah, except for one thing,” Buffy says. “You lost. And, now you’ll never be human.”
“Yeah,” Sid says. “Well, neither will you.”
Both are confused.
“What?” Sid and Buffy say, in unison.
Cut to: the library. Giles and Xander stare at Sid the dummy, stupefied, open-mouthed, and perhaps a bit flabbergasted. Willow and Buffy are there as well, also staring on as Sid speaks.
“This is what I do,” Sid says. “I hunt demons. Yeah, you wouldn’t know it to look at me. Let’s just say there was me, there was a really mean demon, there was a curse, and the next thing I know I’m not me anymore. I’m sitting on some guy’s knee, with his hand up my shirt.”
After some witty back-and-forth, the Scoobies (and, incidentally, the viewer) find out that Sid didn’t team up with them because he thought that Buffy was the demon.
“Who can blame me for thinking?” Sid says. “Look at you. You’re strong, athletic, limber . . . (he lapses into degenerate dummy schtick for a moment) nubile . . .” He shakes his head as if dismissing mental cobwebs. “I’m back! In any case, now that this demon’s got the heart and brain, he gets to keep the human form he’s in for another seven years.”
The tea kettle begins to whistle. Giles gets up, and says, “I must say, it’s a welcome change to have someone else explain all these things.” The librarian/watcher is lampshading the fact that it is he who usually carries out the duties of Professor Exposition.
This series frequently flirts with breaking the fourth wall.
Sid convinces Giles that he needs to pull all of the talent show performers together to form a pre-show power circle, ostensibly to give a pep talk. The show is scheduled to begin in just a few minutes. The general thinking seems to be that whomever’s not present is the demon they’ve been looking for. Meanwhile, Buffy has assigned Willow the task—in her team role as Computer Girl, of course—to pull up the home addresses of all the student performers. If someone’s missing, maybe they’ll track them down at home.
Buffy takes a moment to give Cordelia Chase her own individual pre-show pep talk, giving her the hackneyed advice to imagine the audience in their underwear to reduce her performance anxiety. They both agree that Mrs. Franklin probably shouldn’t be imagined unclothed.
Then, Sid and Buffy share a moment alone on the catwalk above the stage. Presumably, they are looking down to see who’s missing from the power circle.
“What’s your deal, kid?” Sid asks. “I don’t figure you for a demon hunter.”
“I’m a Vampire Slayer,” Buffy tells him.
“You? You’re the Slayer? Damn! I knew a Slayer in the ’30s. Korean chick. Very hot. We’re talking muscle tone. Man, we had some times.” Off Buffy’s reaction take: “Hey, that was pre-dummy, all right? Now, I was a guy!”
“So, you kill the demon and the curse is lifted, right?”
“That’s the drill.”
“You don’t actually turn into a prince, do you? I mean, your body—”
“Is dust and bones. When I say free . . .”
“You mean dead.”
“Don’t get sniffly on me, sis,” Sid says. “I’ve lived a lot longer than most demon hunters. Or Slayers, for that matter.”
This comment seems to affect Buffy, who is dealing with her own unfair lot in life.
Sid puts a hand on her knee. “Of course, if you want to snuggle up and comfort me . . .”
Buffy removes the hand. “That horny dummy thing really isn’t an act, is it?”
This exchange accomplishes several things. It informs the viewer that the price of victory over this episode’s demon is the death of Sid the dummy. It also reinforces the precarious existence of both demon hunters and Slayers, reminding us all—as well as Buffy—that we shouldn’t expect our hero to reach old age. And, it also provides a bit more skeevy ventriloquist dummy humor.
It also, retroactively, makes me think about the television series Supernatural. The fact that this other long-running supernaturally-themed CW show was influenced by BTVS was never in doubt, of course. But, this conversation about “hunters” and their short lifespans was repeated, more than once, by the Winchester brothers. My personal head canon insists that both series take place in the same universe, only with different species of vampires.
None of the students are missing from Giles’s rather weak power circle. Buffy drops down from the catwalk to join Giles on the stage. They agree that no one seems to be missing. When Buffy glances back up at the catwalk, she sees that Sid is no longer there. Giles notices Principal Snyder lurking around backstage. He follows the principal as he walks away.
Meanwhile, as Buffy still looks for Sid, something begins dripping onto her arm from above. Buffy reaches up to a shelf and a brain falls into her hands. Morgan’s brain, one might assume. Buffy makes a startled sound and drops the brain onto the floor.
End of Act III.
We cut to the library, and Act IV, where Willow is at the computer and Buffy stares at her own hands, swearing that she will never stop washing them.
Xander says, “So, the dummy tells us that he’s a demon hunter, and we’re like—la-la-la-la. He takes off, and now there’s a brain. Does anybody else feel like they’ve been Keyser Soze’d?”
Which is a reference to that excellent film, The Usual Suspects, in which a pre-scandal Kevin Spacey wowed us all with his transformation from Verbal Kint to Keyser Soze during the final minutes of a story directed by a pre-scandal Bryan Singer. Oh, sorry—SPOILERS. The reference was more topical back in 1997, the movie having premiered only two years before.
Of course, I still get the reference now, even more than a quarter-century later. I’m not sure that younger viewers new to BTVS would, however. I could be a bit on the myopic side, I’ll admit. I understood references to movies from the 1940s such as Citizen Kane and Casablanca, even though they predated my existence by nearly the same amount. I shouldn’t underestimate nerds of any generation.
Our final act break has thrown another twist into the mix. We had become temporarily convinced that Sid the dummy was one of the good guys. Now, that’s in question. He disappeared from the scene just before Buffy discovered the dripping, jiggly brain. If our UNSUB demon doesn’t have the brain necessary to make himself (or herself) human for another seven years, what does that mean?
Sid could be the episode’s Big Bad. However, Principal Snyder is also being made to look like the episode’s villain, what with all his lurking about and looking all Ferengish.
This is a good example of how to keep your audience guessing until you want the whole truth revealed. I must admit that I had forgotten the ending to this story before watching it again.
“Sid’s on the level, I’m sure of it,” Buffy says. Admit it: we trust Buffy’s Slayer-sense. That means we’re sure of it, too, now. “But why would the demon have rejected the brain?” she continues. “I thought Morgan was the smartest kid in school.”
“He was,” Willow says, looking at the computer screen. “Look at his grades. All A’s. He was even taking college classes. Wait a second.”
“What?” Buffy says.
“All these sick days.”
Xander gets a line. “He was off for like half the year.”
“Check the school nurse’s file,” Buffy says, commandingly.
Willow complies, naturally, her dutiful fingers flying over the keyboard. “Look at this. ‘In case of emergency, contact Dr. Dale Leggett, California Institute of Neurosurgery, Cancer Ward.’”
“Brain cancer?” Xander says, in case the audience doesn’t understand the implication.
“That’s why he had all the headaches,” Willow says. Our superhero team doesn’t need just one Captain Obvious.
Buffy helps us reach a conclusion. “This means that whatever’s out there still needs a healthy, intelligent brain.”
“In other words,” Xander says, “I’m safe.” Hardy-har. This is the sort of joke I would have made in this situation. Self-deprecating humor is a baseline nerdish defensive strategy.
Buffy decides that the demon will be looking for the smartest person around, now that Morgan is now, sadly, dead and most unmourned, it seems. Someone needs to tell his parents, don’t they? “The show must go on” doesn’t begin to justify all of our characters’ actions.
Buffy and Xander look at Willow. She’s pretty smart, isn’t she?
The following scenes are intercut. Giles is backstage assisting Marc the Magician in his pre-show preparations. Marc has a guillotine in his act that quite handily cuts a melon in two during his demonstration. The magician’s assistant is sick, he says, and he asks Giles to lie down at the guillotine. Meanwhile, the rest of our Scoobies continue to talk in the library, assuming that the demon is after Willow now. Xander is still convinced that Sid is the demon.
“No,” Buffy says, closing the matter. “So, we ruled out all the people in the talent show . . .”
Willow says, “That’s because they were all there. But that’s before we found the brain.”
Well, Buffy found the brain. But, that’s splitting hairs.
“Right,” Buffy agrees. “So, it probably is one of them. And Giles doesn’t know. He’s with them all right now!”
“Giles can handle himself,” Xander says. “I mean, he is really . . . smart.”
Xander is capable of an occasional logical conclusion himself.
Buffy leads the charge through the high school hallways to save Giles. The librarian is now strapped down to the guillotine bench and notes that the blade isn’t aimed at his neck. Marc tells him that this way Giles’s scalp gets sliced off and his brains come pouring out.
Magicians are the next most sketchy category, right after ventriloquists. I should have seen this coming. Giles, as a trained member of the top-secret Watchers organization, probably should have seen it as well. He sees what’s coming now, though, as Marc uses a hatchet to begin hacking through the rope holding up the guillotine blade. The rope is either very strong or the hatchet very dull. After four swings of the hatchet, the blade still remains suspended by a thread.
Which is Buffy’s cue to burst onto the scene and begin sparring with Marc the demon while a terrified Giles looks up at the guillotine blade in abject terror. The rope snaps while the two are fighting, but Xander improbably grabs the rope out of midair and stops the blade’s descent. Even if the guillotine blade is a dull as the hatchet, its acceleration due to gravity would have been enough to snuff out the librarian. The heroic Xander kicks the hatchet over to Willow, who uses it to hack through the locks keeping Giles restrained while Xander keeps the blade from killing him.
As Buffy and Marc continue to fight, Marc backs up into his disappearing act box. Buffy tries to find a way to lock him inside the apparatus, but the demon easily kicks and punches his way out. He has now fully reverted to his demonic form. He grabs Buffy by the neck and slams her into a wall, much in the same way Buffy slammed Sid into the wall.
Speaking of the dummy, Sid now appears and jumps onto the demon’s back, stabbing it with his knife. Willow frees Giles from the guillotine, Buffy kicks the demon so that it falls back on the guillotine bench with its neck lined up exactly right, Xander releases the rope and the blade lops off the demon’s head.
Giles in his stammering Hugh Grant-ish way, says, “I must say, all of you . . . your timing is impeccable.”
“And now for the big finish,” Sid the dummy says. He stands over the demon’s body, his knife leveled at its chest.
“What are you doing?” Buffy asks.
“It’s not enough. He’ll come back. You have to get the heart. Then all of this’ll be over.”
“Let me,” Buffy says, holding out her hand.
“I got it. Thanks.”
And, he does. In one fell swoop, Sid plunges his knife into the demon’s heart and then slumps over the demon himself, now just a lifeless puppet. Buffy looks on sadly, letting out a sighing exhalation.
Giles removes his glasses, which is the British way of showing deep emotion. Buffy picks up the ventriloquist dummy and holds him in her arms. Then she walks off the stage.
And that’s how this story ends. A bittersweet victory.
I rated this episode 3 stars after this second (maybe third) viewing. It benefits from immediately following the dismal “I, Robot . . . You Jane,” because anything would look better when compared to that disappointment. In the end, however, I was unable to get past my innate aversion to all things ventriloquism (I’m looking at you, Jeff Dunham).
There are parts of this episode that I would rate higher, of course. Mostly character and worldbuilding moments. The expected but still delightful subversion of expectations. Principal Snyder (hey, I like Shimerman—what can I say?). Xander and Willow saving Giles instead of Buffy (at least directly).
But, the episode’s entire premise was weakly built and threatened my willing suspension of disbelief. The entire talent show thing comes across as a bit sitcom-like. The ending of the story also reminds me of “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date.” You remember that one, don’t you? It was just four episodes ago. The crematorium controls are accidentally turned on and Buffy kicks the religious vampire Andrew Borba into the chamber. Substitute a guillotine magic trick for the crematorium, and a high school backstage for a funeral home, and the endings are a bit too similar for my tastes.
Not a true dealbreaker, of course. Just troublesome.
Join me next time, here in the Sunnydale High library, when we’ll begin our dissection and annotation of the episode “Nightmares.” It’s one of my three favorite episodes from the first season of the series. In the interim, keep your stakes sharp and crucifixes handy.