In the wake of “Conversations With Dead People” it’s easy to understand why “Sleeper” gets overlooked. This may not be a classic of the Buffy canon, but it is a great episode. Spike’s soul is one of the most intriguing elements of season seven and some focus on it was long overdue. I’d say it was worth the wait as the last thing anyone expected was for soulful Spike to be a killer. The episode does a good job keeping us guessing about what exactly is going on and things only get more intense after the reveal.
The success of this story rests squarely on James Marsters’ capable shoulders. He’s done some fine work over the course of the series, but he’s got so much to do here that things would’ve collapsed had he not been at his best. By turns guilt ridden, predatory, wounded, and coldly manipulative, the narrative would’ve been derailed had any of these shifts not been credible. In keeping with the varied personas he’s presented before, we understand that Spike is all these things… Including the evil mastermind that explicitly isn’t him.
We know that the Big Bad is able to assume a variety of forms, but Spike’s seems to be its second favourite, and it’s not just the better to taunt him with; this thing likes to appear as Spike even when he’s not watching. The why likely has a lot to do with its own twisted sense of humour but it’s also a cue that, brainwashed or not, Spike still bears some responsibility for what he’s doing. Big Bad (a title Spike has claimed for himself on multiple occasions) is leveraging what’s already inside Spike in order to get him to do what it wants. Spike’s struggle is, literally, against himself.
The same blurred culpability can be found in Evil’s most favourite form, Buffy. The twisted sense of humour and better manipulation is here, but Buffy’s responsibility for what Spike does is weighing on her. This isn’t the first time she’s allowed him to live despite the obvious risks and, more than that, their relationship took them both to a very dark place. My favourite scene of the episode is when Spike kills the girl in the alley while “Buffy” looks on and offers encouragement. She’s a definite part of the scene’s sexual energy and, given that Spike’s appetites haven’t changed, we need to wonder just how far removed this is from their past couplings. Spike’s lust hasn’t always been something she wanted to curb.
While Spike’s love for Buffy is typically framed as redemptive (I got a soul for you), there’s an element of their relationship which can and has brought out the worst in both of them. Big Bad has used this fact to push Spike to do some truly horrible things. One has to wonder how it will use it against Buffy.
I don’t mean to suggest that Buffy’s wrong to let Spike live, just that the choice, right or wrong, has consequences.
Sarah’s no slouch either in this episode, her performance in the basement scene is a particular highlight.
While it’s completely absurd that Anya would hazard a search for clues when she thinks that Spike is a killer, the hilarious results are more than worth it.
In a nice small touch, there seems to be just a little bit more blood than usual on display here.
How ‘bout that cliffhanger? So utterly awesome the time around.