For a very long time “Fool for Love” was my favourite episode of Buffy. I’ve cooled on it, somewhat, now preferring more generally acclaimed fair like “Hush,” “The Body,” or “Once More With Feeling,” but this episode is still shamefully absent from most people’s top ten lists. While it may not be as “groundbreaking” as the other episodes I’ve listed, I defy anyone to find a better constructed story on this or any other show. I’ll probably meander a bit in this review, as there’s no part of this episode I don’t enjoy, but the point I’ll try to come back to is that every element of this story serves to support not one, not two, but three surprising, powerful, and contradictory character moments.
To set the stage, this episode arrived at the perfect time for Spike. The character was popular as an antagonist but, since getting the chip, he’d become a fan favourite. No longer merely someone we wanted to watch, Spike was someone we wanted to root for. Sure he was “evil,” but he was becoming aligned with the Scoobies more often than opposed to them and most of the audience was waiting for an excuse (if they even needed one) to just forget the whole soulless thing and join Team Spike. This episode lets us do that. Sure, he’s an evil vampire who loves to fight, kill, and shag, but that’s not the “real” William, it’s just a personae he assumed. We get to have the sensitive poet looking for love and the badass vampire looking to brawl. We’re finally given a Spike that it’s okay to cheer for… until the last act. The mastery of “Fool for Love” is in spoon-feeding the audience exactly what it wants before twisting it into something far better.
But, before we get to that, let’s talk about sex. Not only to help me creep up in some search rankings, but because this episode is covered in it. Sexual imagery is nothing unusual for a Buffy episode, but this one turns it up to 11. There’s so much here that I can’t begin to cover it all but, also more than usual, sex is particularly linked with violence this hour. We start off with Buffy in what appears to be a typical fight, she delivers her usual playful banter/foreplay but it’s not the vampire who ends up getting penetrated this time. This is followed by what’s clearly a date between Spike and Buffy, oen which centres on the subject of death and features the most sexualized of all sports, pool (the cue will later be used as a weapon). Spike’s history is even more innuendo laden than the present, with a highly sexualized scene where he’s both killed and born, followed by an equally sexualized fight between him and Angelus. For those who don’t see the homoeroticism here, just consider that Angelus ends up on top of Spike, threatening to impale him while their women look on in avid interest. If that’s still too subtle for you we move on to more figurative organisms with Spike’s first Slayer-kill followed an even more explicit encounter with Dru.
All this sex/violence conflation is about one thing, the moment that Spike tells Buffy how he killed two Slayers. For vampires, murder is always a sexual act. and if the first 24 scenes failed to remind us of that, Spike’s account of this murder damn well better. Our old friend the pool cue becomes a prop as he describes his “dance” with the “hot” Slayer. There’s the expected back and forth, before it ends with Spike straddling her, declaring, “She really wanted it.” In offering the rapist’s defense, Spike neatly undermines 100 years worth of sympathy.
The story of William the Bloody offers a character arc we can sympathize with. He’s treated cruelly by the woman he loves and spends the next century trying to be someone else. Over time we see the Spike personae develop as William adopts the name, the accent, the attitude, and the scar. It’s fitting that he should get the last piece of iconography, the coat, just as we’re reminded of who he really is. Spike may have been a personae created in response to William the Bloody Awful Poet, but if you play a part long enough, it becomes a part of you. Whatever he may once have been in no way mitigates the fact that he’s become an unrepentant rapist. Spike’s rationalization is repellant, to both the audience and Buffy… brining us to the second great character turn of the hour.
At this point I’ll credit Gellar, Marsters, Petrie, and Marck for achieving the seemingly impossible task of restoring our sympathy for Spike. A single line of dialogue cannot, from a moral perspective, erase the monster that Spike’s confirmed himself to be but, from a narrative perspective, “You’re beneath me” brings us right back to that sad pathetic twerp we were introduced to. Spike’s spent over a century exercising the worst sort of depravity it order to escape that man and not a thing’s changed; he’s still in love with a woman he can’t possibly have and she still rejects him in the cruelest of fashions.
The difference here is that the cruelty’s deserved. Buffy’s contempt isn’t rooted in her own callous arrogance, it’s based on the fact that Spike really is a loathsome creature. William’s failure to make himself into someone who could be loved could, perhaps, be seen as some form of justice, but that’s not the way this scene is played. Beyond the queues in the acting and music, there’s the simple fact that we’re left with Spike as he cries rather than following Buffy as she leaves the alley. The camera never stays with the villain once he’s defeated, it focuses on the hero as he celebrates. Lingering on Spike makes this the story of his mistakes rather than of the Slayer’s triumphs, and that’s not cause for celebration.
What then, is it a cause for? After delivering pure fan service for most of its running time, this episode managed to both demolish and restore our sympathy within the space of a single scene. The end result is being more confused than even about who the “real” Spike is. The initial answer is the last one we wanted. Much was we might not want to see Spike lying on the ground sobbing, we also don’t want to see him kill Buffy. Hating yourself because some girl rejected you, while unhealthy, isn’t quite as bad as deciding to murder said girl.
Of course, we know that Buffy’s not going to die in episode 5-7 at Spike’s hands, but we don’t even really want to see the attempt. His rage may be understandable, but we can get behind Harmony when she tell Blondie-bear than he needs to calm down. The self-loathing may not be at the forefront here, but Spike’s still trying to prove something and thus still making the same mistake he always has. Watching him be the same old badass just isn’t as fun when we know that it’s a reaction against the “good man” he used to be. Our only alternative to viewing him as a tortured example of self-degradation is to see him as an unrepentant monster. Neither are the Spike we wanted to cheer for before this episode.
And then things turn for a third time. This episode could’ve ended after the first one and been great, or after the second and been amazing, but it’s the final scene between Spike and Buffy that elevates it to be among the best in the series. As definitive moments go, this one’s pretty big. Spike arrives when Buffy’s at her most vulnerable; if ever there was a time that he could kill her, chip or no chip, this is it. Instead, we get the following dialogue:
Buffy: What do you want now?
Spike: What’s wrong?
Buffy: I don’t want to talk about it
Spike: Is there something I can do?
The comfort Spike offers as the episode ends may be candy for Spuffy shippers, but it’s this exchange that redefines the character. Rather than capitalize on this vulnerability, as we might have expected him to, Spike’s unsure how to respond. And, rather than posture in the face of such uncertainty, as we also might have expected him to, he asks for guidance. The last act of this episode is all about putting Spike’s character into a place of uncertainty. We had our desire for a sympathetic Spike served, undermined, restored, and then pushed aside and we’re left struggling to understand who the real Spike is. Spike’s struggling too. He doesn’t know what do when faced with Buffy’s vulnerability and, rather than posture or push on with his plans, he asks. It’s a powerful, complicated, beautiful ending to the episode that acknowledges all that Spike is and William was while holding out the possibility that maybe, with help, he could become something else.
This, for me, is the point at which Buffy becomes more than a mere infatuation for Spike. Lacking a soul, Spike does not have the internal compass to point him towards good. This would be fine, except that it hasn’t gotten him what he wants. Asking Buffy what he can do isn’t just about reaching out to her, it’s about trying to change himself via the only means available.
“It’s code. Think it means ‘choo-choo'”
The B-story this week is perfect accompaniment as Riley’s going through pretty much the exact same thing Spike did. The girl he loves doesn’t love him back and his answer to this is to try to be someone else. The fact that that someone else also happens to be reckless and self-destructive is no coincidence.
I love the fact that Willow takes a big handful of chips before ditching them. There really is no detail here that doesn’t bring something worthwhile.