The Puppet Show

Season One, Episode Nine

Once you've tried wood...

The Puppet Show: The Review

Wooden Acting

The Puppet Show is an example of the genius of the fundamental thesis of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It takes a familiar, one justly might say worn, idea, the animated ventriloquist's dummy with a mind of its own, and gives it a new life. The classic example of the story is the episode of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone, The Dummy, starring Cliff Robertson as the ventriloquist who is convinced that his dummy is possessed by an evil intelligence. Anthony Hopkins survived another, more risible, version of the story in the theatrical movie, Magic. There have been variations on the theme in other movies, among them those featuring the demonic serial killer Chuckie. All are themselves a variant of the prototype, the Pinnochio story, which spawned such classic characters as Eando Binder's Adam Link of I, Robot (a title that ought to ring a bell) and Roddenberry's Data, who had his own evil counterpart, Lore, machines who aspire to be human. Ultimately, the Pygmalion story is the source for all. Puppet Show plays against the whole literary and dramatic corpus.

The episode begins brilliantly with the hilarious scene of the auditions for the school talent(less) show. Starting from the viewpoint of the demon, the menace is established, and then the hint is dropped that Morgan has become possessed, he rubbing his temple as the demon closes on him. The abrupt shift in viewpoint seals the perception. Here is misdirection in its most refined form: a succession of images build an idea, allowing the viewers' psychological predisposition, that wants to make connections between discrete serially acquired pieces of information, whether related or not, to do the work.

The Scoobies then settle into their comfortable position with respect to Giles, treating him almost as an equal, though he is an adult, deriving immoderate amounts of pleasure from his impressment into the role of faculty advisor for the show. The scene continues to improve as Principal Snyder makes his indelible first impression as a rat-faced little Nazi. Giles has already set him as such, and Snyder exceeds the manufactured expectations. Snyder is a martinet, with only a sense of irony to make him tolerable. The viewers hate him on sight. Performing before an audience is the worst of all human fears, and Snyder punishes the gang by dragooning them into the talent show. The torture and the humor derived from it are exquisite, for the latter of which the writers should be ashamed, as should the viewers, who, despite a deep empathy, cannot suppress a relieved laugh that they themselves are not the recipients of such punishment. Adding to the instantaneous dislike that the viewers are encouraged to feel for Snyder, the script drops one unambiguous clue that Snyder knows something about the manner in which his predecessor predeceased, sowing the suspicion that the seedy little man has dangerous secrets. The suspicion is reinforced later, when Snyder recurs to the subject of Flutie's cannibalistic end and links that fatality to the late principal's coddling of the students. Snyder is putting Giles on notice: the new principal knows that reality is quite different than the officially sanctioned version.

Morgan and Sid take the stage. Morgan's ineptitude as a ventriloquist is painfully displayed. Then the transformation occurs: Sid develops his own personality and begins to speak without any visible assistance from Morgan. It seems that the demon, which the previous misdirection indicated might have possessed Morgan, might have possessed the dummy, instead. Or did the demon really possess Morgan and is now expressing itself through Sid? The end of the teaser suggests that the dummy is the one that has been possessed by the demon, as the demon's goal is to become flesh. This teaser is the most effective and entertaining of any of the series since the first.

Bodies of evidence.

The ambiguous situation with Morgan and Sid is further developed. The script makes every effort to point the fickle finger of accusation at Morgan, while sustaining the possibility that Sid is really the controlling entity, not merely a separate personality created by Morgan. Meanwhile, the humor is relentless. Cordelia's self-possession in the presence of yet another death is certainly unambiguous: she is single-minded in her egocentricity. Xander's brushes with her are becoming more frequent: for the second consecutive episode, he is thrown together with her and makes unnecessary comments about how much he dislikes her: which recalls the parallel situation when Buffy said that she disliked Angel. (Xander's increasingly intimate understanding of Cordy is stressed later in his advice to Giles.) Buffy chides Giles about his priorities, weighing the relative importance of talent show to murder, then tries to use the murder to excuse herself from the talent show, a neat bit of sophistical argumentation, which betrays the all-too human and satirical nature of the character. In a lesser degree, she and the others are like Cordelia, whose view of the tragedy can be confined by unapologetic self-interest. Even the hero can have her faults, amusing as they are.

By the end of the second act, all doubt about Sid's animation have been removed, and it appears that the murder of Emily has been solved. The last misdirection is delivered. The dummy is out of his case and is stalking Buffy. The viewer might feel justified in thinking that the script has taken the easy way out and done nothing truly innovative with the subject, however amusing the treatment has been to this point. If this were any other show, the complaint might have substance, but the fact that there are two more acts to come should give one at least the hint that this show is different.

The show has established by now that Buffy's instincts are invariably the standard against which all hypothetical understandings of any situation must be measured: thus it is that the insistence by Giles, Xander, and Willow that Morgan might still be the demon, despite Buffy's witness to Sid's animation, must be taken cum grano salis. Giles adds his lore to the plot, but the viewer is now conditioned to believe that his knowledge can only supplement Buffy's direct experience. Most impressive, however, is Buffy's uncertainty about the ultimate identification of the killer. She is relatively certain that Sid is alive, and she is disinclined to believe that Morgan is the killer, but she does not insist that Sid is the killer. Buffy's instincts restrain her: she accepts neither the evidence of her own experience nor the conclusion urged by Willow, Xander, and Giles.

To this point, the episode has artfully concentrated the viewers' attention on the choice between Morgan and Sid, with Buffy acting as a lone amber light against the rush to judgment. The culmination of all suspicions begins with Xander's abduction of Sid. This leads, indirectly, to Morgan's death. Separated from Sid, Morgan is killed by the demon. Buffy and Sid discover that they have been working at cross purposes, and the great screen of misdirection is finally withdrawn. Sid, as Buffy has known, is a living doll, but the final revelation is even more amusing, as it plays upon the same theme of the unexpected as Buffy herself: Sid is a demon slayer. The unlikeliest hero is not a petite teenage girl, but a ventriloquist's dummy.

The eventual destruction of the demon on stage, in front of the audience and talent show participants, is a bold stroke, which emphasizes the theatrical illusion of reality in Sunnydale, in which the whole town participates. As a tableau, the decapitation of a demon, who only moments before was Marc the student magician, in the theater of the absurd which is life and death in Sunnydale, is accepted. Only Snyder has the sense to say, "I don't get it." The great pathos of the death of Sid, however, is something that only Buffy and her friends can appreciate. The truly magical feat was the creation of a personality for a piece of wood. That the viewers can be moved by the imaginary expiration of a doll is amazing. Indeed, the death of Sid is more moving than the deaths of Morgan and Emily.

The episode concludes, uniquely, during the closing credits, as Buffy, Xander, and Willow present their "dramatic scene", which had been mentioned, but never identified, several times during the episode, and the rehearsal of which had never been seen. The viewers get a glimpse of truly wooden acting, as the three perform, in makeshift costume, the Greek tragedy Oedipus the King with all of the artlessness which only art can achieve. It is without doubt the most ludicrous moment in the series, and is rightfully placed outside the normal bounds of the show.

In Sum

The Puppet Show is the nonpareil of episodes from the first season, encapsulating all the show's virtues. Every one of the shows major premises is exercised. Authority in its three major characters, Joyce, Giles, and the school's principal, is tested and found wanting in varying ways.

Supportive but ineffectual Joyce is back, ironically, exactly when Buffy does not want her. The scene from Angel, in which Joyce runs to her daughter in response to Buffy's screams, is iterated in mock replay. Joyce is there, but there is nothing that she can do to comfort Buffy, who has shut her out of the Slayer's life, and who has now asked her not to attend the talent show. The detached parent is pushed away both by necessity (nightmares about bills) and by the secret life of her daughter. Yet Joyce is tender, even if her sentiments are all Hallmark. Her great advice to Buffy is that she shouldn't sleep with the window open.

Giles remains the adult most able to assimilate himself to the teenagers, and his authority is respected, if not always obeyed. Giles looks to the books for answers, but he is most useful when he can confirm Buffy's instinctive understanding of the problem at hand. His word on any subject, although backed by centuries of knowledge culled from the best sources, is not the final one. His purpose is to support Buffy.

Snyder is, of course, the caricature of the traditional male authority figure. He is small, indignant, punitive, and over-compensating. He has power, and he enjoys reminding people of that fact. He hates both children and educators, and is, therefore, the principal of a public high school. He is not to be trusted in any circumstances. He advances by being subservient, and he expects no less from those over whom he has been placed.

Destiny is mocked in the teaser, as Buffy and Giles are placed in reversed roles. Giles has a destiny to be the faculty advisor of the talent show, a job that he hates, and Buffy has the pleasure of watching him hate it, offering her helpful observations from the sidelines. Her taunts point up her own dislike for the dictates of destiny, which consulted neither her wishes nor her convenience in assigning to her the job of Slayer. Sid himself is a puppet, comic instrument of a capricious fate. Destiny will have its jokes, a fact that the show is smart enough to comprehend and to exploit.

Reality is subject to redefinition—yet again. The episode is played out mainly on and behind the scenes of a stage, and the crisis is enacted on the stage, the last scene sprung upon the audience completely out of context as a staged tableau. The reality is presented as though it were unreal. Xander's observation, that they all have real talents, but which they cannot put on the stage, is borne out in fact: Buffy does slay the demon on stage, and, because it is on stage, nobody comprehends it. The line between reality and fiction has become increasing blurred. The edge of the stage is no longer a dividing line. Seeing is not believing, even when it ought to be.

The value of Buffy's friends is affirmed. They are multipliers, who increase her effectiveness while dividing her burden. Their knowledge of her calling relieves her isolation, which otherwise would be intolerable. In this episode, they provide her with information and, in the final battle, additional force, but their most valuable provision is morale, the humor and companionship which make the constant scenes of death bearable. The war is horrible, and it is beautiful.

Wit, of course, is the leaven of the show, and it is used liberally in The Puppet Show. The jokes are almost always integral, rather than throwaways. Even a casual remark in passing can have some serious intent at bottom, as many of Xander's lines prove to be prophetic. Buffy does, indeed, end up offering to be the Dummy Slayer, for instance.

The episode is constantly poised on the edge of self-parody, at the same time exposing the strength of the show, which can bear such comic examination. Nothing is taken seriously, but the characters are deeply engaging and sympathetic. The Puppet Show is an exemplar of all those qualities that mark the show as superior.

Horace LaBadie

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