“Faith, Hope & Trick”
May 8th, 2010
You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.
As this project indicates, I didn’t exactly get introduced to the work of Joss Whedon in the traditional order: going from Firefly to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and then to Dollhouse is probably a little bit bizarre, but for the most part I was able to enjoy those series on their own merits without too much concern that a lack of previous experience was detrimental.
However, when I was watching Dollhouse, I didn’t really have any context for Eliza Dushku’s rather horridly weak central performance. To her credit, she improved as the show moved on (and Whedon moved Echo into a supporting role), but early on I was fascinated that anyone would ever think she was capable of carrying a television series. I was perplexed as to why Whedon had not cast Amy Acker instead, and frustrated that this project having been conceived “for” Eliza had become the deciding factor in casting. I had never seen Tru Calling, so I was just struggling to understand what anyone would see in Dushku that would recommend her for that role.
Whenever I would make these complaints, or read similar concerns, people would always say that she was “only good at playing Faith,” a comment which had very little meaning to me: I knew that Faith was a character on Buffy, and I knew that Dushku played her, but I had no other information. So as people kept returning to Faith as proof that Dushku is capable of being an action star, especially in episodes where Dollhouse allowed Echo to enter into that mode and the show was a whole lot better for it, I started to create this image of Faith in my head based purely on these stray observations.
I don’t think I ever really compiled these observations into a definitive image, but I’d like to believe that it would have emerged looking awfully similar to Faith’s introduction in “Faith, Hope and Trick,” the third episode of Buffy’s third season. Looking past the latest in a long line of inconsistent accents for the series, Faith is cocky without being immature, vulnerable without being weak, and strong without seeming indestructible; in this episode, Dushku shows confidence and range that was either buried in Dollhouse’s premise or has simply been lost with age.
However, what was lost has – through my rather odd way of making my way through the Whedonverse – been found, as Faith’s introduction is a breath of fresh air in an episode which manages to balance three different purposes and deliver on each of them in order to set up a foundation for the remainder of the season.
For the second time, the arrival of a new Slayer is cloaked in mystery and the show utilizes a bait and switch in order to heighten the impact of their arrival. However, while Kendra’s case of mistaken identity – assassin, rather than slayer – was necessary to keep the bland (if, as a subtle comparative, functional) character interesting, Faith is pretty fantastic as soon as she arrives. Her cavalier attitude makes Buffy look like Kendra, and the idea of a slayer jumping on the open road and heading to the Hellmouth to have some fun while her Watcher is out of town gives us a glimpse at another personality-type who has been chosen for this task. Xander is smitten (he clearly has a thing for slayers), and everyone is fascinated to hear her stories of dangerous and exotic encounters which are better suited to social situations compared than Buffy’s tales of personal struggle and emotional woe. The character is just a whole lot of fun, and before things start to seem a bit fishy it’s fun to watch someone who shares Buffy’s affinity for slaying vampires and is just as capable of being quippy (which, as the Scoobies pointed out while taking over her slaying duties, is part of Buffy’s repertoire which doesn’t get the respect it deserves).
What sets Faith apart from Kendra is not just that she’s a heck of a lot more interesting in general, but also that the subterfuge surrounding her introduction isn’t so much a plot contrivance as it is actual character development. This time around, the shift in character is not a simple bait-and-switch designed to make the slayer’s arrival less predictable, and Faith’s actions and confidence are placed in an entirely new light when we learn that she witnessed her Watcher die in front of her. Dushku nicely captures the subtleties of this change: I’ve seen the following episode, and Faith’s early behaviour here is not so much out of character as it is amped up to 11. She’s throwing herself out there because she doesn’t know what else to do, and Dushku is impressive at both the simple pleasures and the deeper emotions of the character.
However, perhaps the real star here is David Greenwalt, who puts together a really great script. He is juggling three balls in the air with this episode, and his most intelligent move is playing them off of one another before we entirely understand the connections. The episode needs to get to the point where Mr. Trick is established as an ongoing villain, Faith’s true reasons for running are revealed/resolved, and Buffy comes to terms with her experience with Angel so that she can true to search for closure. However, while ideally you would want these stories to be connected to one another for the sake of dramatic impact, they start out as independent tales: Kakistos and Mr. Trick get their memorable drive-thru sequence which identifies them as antagonists, Buffy encounters Faith at the Bronze, and Giles drops a small mention to Buffy about needing more information about Angel’s death in order to create a binding spell.
We eventually learn that all three stories are not what they appear, but the episode accomplishes this through reveals and shifts in one storyline migrating into another. Our time with Kakistos reveals that Faith is actually running away from him rather than just road tripping, allowing Greenwalt to connect the two stories and raise suspicions about Faith’s story. At that point, Buffy shifts into a mode where she tries to get Faith to tell her the truth about what happened with her Watcher, which leads to Faith getting her closure while Buffy feels inspired to come clean with Giles about Angel’s soul returning right before she murdered him. Throw in Mr. Trick abandoning Kakistos in the midst of his battle with Buffy and Faith in a memorable fashion, and you’ve managed to introduce two new characters, kill an ancient vampire, resolve your protagonist’s inner turmoil and even (just for fun) introduced a potential love interest in Scott Hope.
That’s a lot for a single episode to handle, but everything feels cohesive and the emotional elements in the episode don’t feel like they’re rushed in any capacity. Yes, Dushku starts out as the cocky slayer and within an hour transforms into a damaged teenager running away from a traumatic experience, but it is both (as discussed) well-played by Dushku and well-placed by the show. It raises the question of what would happen to Buffy if Giles were murdered, and it offers a parallel with Buffy’s situation which feels “real” in a way which the anvil-like demons in the first two episodes failed to achieve. Faith is a real character suffering a real tragedy, and while her closure inspires Buffy to take her ring to the mansion and place the past behind her it doesn’t only feel like a launching pad for that story. This is a pretty substantial setup episode, but it never feels laboured in the same way that the first two episodes of the season felt as they suffered (if logically) under the weight of the end of last season.
I do think that the episode leans a bit too heavily on the bait and switch: between the truth behind Faith’s visit to Sunnydale, Mr. Trick proving to be the real “villain” being introduced, and Buffy’s attempt to get closure actually bringing Angel back from the depths of hell, there might be one twist too many in there if we think of them out of context. However, the first ends up being far more emotional than you’d expect from a character we just met earlier in the episode, and the second is done in a matter of fact way which says a lot about the character; only Angel’s sudden arrival, intended as a cliffhanger, is meant to remain a “twist,” and serve as a direct source of pure momentum rather than a foundation on which future stories can be built. It’s a really well-struck balance which managed to live up to my conceptions of Faith as a character while restoring my faith (see what I did there?) in the series’ ability to be a bit more subtle at this early stage of the season.
- The one problem the episode has is how it cuts Scott Hope off at the knees: the fact that we knew nothing about the character and that he’s so gosh darn generic isn’t helpful, but for Angel to return (in any form) at episode’s end makes the character doomed to failure. I think there could have been more done with the character to make him somewhat more endearing, but considering the conclusion it is obviously a lower priority.
- It also doesn’t help that giving Buffy the same ring that Angel gave her was the one beat in the episode which felt too anvil-like – I would have preferred if the speech had sounded similar enough that Buffy would flash back, only for the box to hold some sort of chintzy bracelet instead. It could still freak Buffy out without being quite so on the nose.
- I didn’t talk a whole lot about Angel’s return above for the rather logical reason that I’ll be talking more about it tomorrow – we don’t know the details within this episode, so why speculate when we can actually discuss in my post on the episodes which follow?
- Another credits annoyance: Mr. Trick appearing in the opening credits (in a brief image, not as an actor) immediately led me to presume he was actually more important than Kakistos, although the episode doesn’t entirely try to hide that fact either. The second season showed that it tends to favour the talkative over the brutish (see Spike/Drusilla/Angel controlling, rather than taking orders from, the Judge), so it’s no shock it would go in this direction.