Written By: Rob Des Hotel & Dean Batali
Directed By: Deran Sarafian
Broadcast Date: 3rd March 1998
Flu-stricken, Buffy battles a demon that sucks life from sick children.
*Warning: This review contains spoilers for this and past episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Please do not continue if you intend to watch this episode unspoiled*
The opening of this episode left my expectations low: Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) battling one of the main vampire antagonists of the season in a pre-opening credits choreographed fight scene has somewhat lost its magic, particularly when the episode in question is intended as a monster-of-the-week story and has little bearing on the season arc. The vampire in question is Angelus (David Boreanaz), fresh from bumping off likeable computing teacher/gypsy magic user Jenny Calendar (Robia LaMorte) in the previous episode. Though Buffy is feeling noticeably under the weather and quickly gets overpowered by the soulless vampire, her friends save her with some well-timed kicks and showing of crosses. It is good to see the Scooby Gang getting more involved in the fighting of vampires – I have always wondered why Buffy has mostly been patrolling alone in the past, she could have done with her allies warding off vampires with crosses on several occasions. Buffy was lucky to have them here, as here she passes out with illness, fatigue and a bump to the head. Angelus arrives at the hospital a couple of times while Buffy is admitted but I am very glad he doesn’t appear later on to draw focus from this episode’s plot. Too often, a primary/secondary antagonist on this show appears in episodes for the sake of it, and their effectiveness is weakened (I’m looking at you, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”). As this episode has a very intriguing premise, I’m glad focus was not pulled away by the needless inclusion of vampires.
This episode brings to light a traumatic event from Buffy’s past that has made the character terrified of being in a hospital. Buffy’s mother Joyce (Kristine Sutherland) reveals to a helpless Scooby Gang that, when she was eight, her similarly aged cousin, whom flashbacks show Buffy was close to, died in hospital when they were alone together. Her screams of protest when being sedated by the hospital staff takes on a new meaning, that Buffy associates hospitals with death and is more terrified of them than vampires and the other monstrous entities she has faced. Buffy’s friends can tell this fear is something more and there is a real sense of helplessness when they are in the hospital awaiting news of her recovery. Whilst in hospital, Buffy has disturbing and vivid dreams of the moment she pulls back a hospital curtain to reveal her cousin on her death bed. Further on in this episode the dream is repeated, but this time her cousin is moaning and screaming at something the viewers (and young Buffy) can not see, before growing silent as the life escapes her. This is a very unsettling scene, not least as the death screams of a child are being shown on screen. This traumatic memory is at the centre of Buffy’s motivations to investigate claims that kids are dying in the hospital and it makes for a great change to the vampire-heavy narratives recently. With this being a very good narrative premise and bit of character development for Buffy, I almost wish that this was hinted at previously and then fully explored here; it is almost a shame to reveal a prominent fear of Buffy’s solely for this episode.
The flip side of the revelation into Buffy’s past is that it contributes to an episode full of creepy imagery. In the flashbacks when the young Buffy was in the hospital when her cousin died, there is a great use of filming techniques to convey the terrifying and imposing nature of these hospital corridors. These techniques flow through to the present-day portions of this episode, and it is somewhat unnerving to the viewer watching Buffy and her friends creep around the hospital at night, with all parties not knowing what could be around the corner or in the shadows. Even in neutral or traditionally safe settings, such as the school library, the camera angles are purposely done to suggest that something is there, watching the characters’ every move. Adding to this unsettling feeling is an eerie score and a hideous demonic creature (James Jude Courtney) haunting the children in the hospital to feast on their life source, with a name that, translated from German, literally means “Child Death”, and has the added terrifying concept of being invisible to all except children suffering with a high fever. This demon actually was the individual Buffy’s cousin was screaming up in terror at, unbeknownst to Buffy at the time. There is also a great red herring, where the Scooby Gang suspect that the unethical Doctor Stanley Backer (Richard Herd) is the human form of Der Kindestod, only for him to be ripped apart in front of the terrified children’s eyes. From the camera angles, to the sound design, to the creature design, all aspects of this episode tie together to create a memorably creepy episode throughout.
There is a secondary narrative to this episode, that being Xander’s (Nicholas Brendon) unrequited love for Buffy, which has been hinted at several times this season, but never as outwardly as in its predecessor. When Xander prevents Angel from tormenting Buffy inside the hospital, Angelus refers to him as Buffy’s “white knight” – it was his CPR that brought Buffy back to life when killed by the Master at the end of season one. Angelus torments him with the fact that Buffy will never choose him, even though Angel’s soul has gone. Buffy and Xander’s relationship is referenced in parts throughout this episode, most notably when Cordelia is initially jealous of Xander’s feelings for Buffy, but later accepts that he will always care about the Slayer, even bringing him coffee and doughnuts and sitting with him while he keeps watch over Buffy in the hospital. With this in mind, the climax and resolution falls slightly flat as a result. After forcing Willow (Alyson Hannigan) to give her a diluted strain of the fever she suffered in order to see Der Kindestod again (scientifically nonsense but raises the stakes of the narrative all the same), Buffy faces off against the demon one-on-one in yet another choreographed martial arts fight. Xander, after getting the kids out of there (who, it must be said, were very smart to keep together as a group to initially escape the demon’s clutches), just seems to stand there, even as Buffy is having the life force sucked out of her, as it is invisible to him. Buffy eventually defeats it, which I guess is one way to resolve the trauma of losing her cousin to this demon. However, there definitely were parallels between Buffy’s cousin and then Buffy getting their life forces drained. In the case of Buffy’s cousin, young Buffy did not know what to do. Xander could see that Buffy was in danger, and it would be a neat way to show that Xander will always have Buffy’s back, in spite of their differing feelings, with him assisting her in some way. At this point, even though it is a trademark part of the show, I do get tired with choreographed hand combat scenes acting as a resolution – the final act isn’t bad, but it could have been made more effective.
Other Take Aways from the Episode:
- Gone but not forgotten, Jenny Calendar’s demise at the hands of Angelus in the previous episode brings an unspoken sadness to many of Giles’ conversations and behaviours. His conversation with Joyce when waiting for news on Buffy’s condition was touching, and well acted by both Anthony Stewart Head and Kristine Sutherland.
- Willow is a real scream in this episode and provides several funny moments with Alyson Hannigan’s brilliant line delivery. Highlights include her proud look when telling Buffy she has done all of her assignments while in hospital, her momentary childlike glee when wanting to push Buffy fast in her wheelchair before composing herself, and maybe the best line of all, in a deadpan fashion, “the frogs are gone.”
- Cordelia flirting with the security guard (played by the late Willie Garson, of Sex and the City fame) to distract him from spotting Xander searching sealed hospital files was genuinely hilarious, especially with the way she complimented his nose in an attempt to appeal to his low self confidence.
- Willow not realising the contextual humour in her and Xander playing Doctors when both were young for her own medical knowledge is both funny and adorable at the same time.
- That Dr. Wilkinson (Juanita Jennings) did not bother to check the empty children’s hospital room when discovering Buffy and Willow creeping around was unintentionally hilarious. Getting the security guards to chase and find her was pointless, as neither the doctor nor the guards appear in another scene, and this event isn’t mentioned once in the close of the episode.
After a brilliant previous episode, “Killed by Death” does not let the standard drop, with its effective and creepy tone assisted by some great cinematography and a chilling design for the demon Der Kindestod. Though essentially a filler episode that is not wholly related to the narrative arc of the season, this is also one that contains great acting performances, an expansion of Buffy’s childhood and her fear of hospitals, and some honestly funny moments that break up the tension well. The ending feels like a bit of an afterthought, but overall this is one of the stand out monster-of-the-week stories of this season.
Episode Rating: 8.5/10
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The next episode sees Sunnydale High haunted by the ghosts of a former student and teacher – can the Scooby Gang help these spirits find peace? Stay tuned for my review of Episode 19 – “I Only Have Eyes for You”.