BtVS succeeds yet again in digging through the hidden cabinet of my favorite tropes and spinning gold from the wonders within! I’ve already covered how much I enjoyed what Marti Noxon did with my treasured parasitic possession/replacement fixation (à la Invasion of the Bodysnatchers) in Bad Eggs, and now with David Greenwalt’s Homecoming, they’ve struck my personal paydirt once more, this time with “the world’s most dangerous game”: hunting humans for sport!
I can’t explain my enthusiasm for this trope any more than I can my affection for the surreptitious identity co-option of the Body Snatchers films, though I suppose I can hazard the guess that my delight in “people as game” relates to my general discomfort with hunting – and the equation of hunting to murder made explicit by substituting humans for animals as quarry. I always felt that hunting for sport was really about joy in killing, not food, and what’s a greater rush than stalking and taking out your own species? t’s more refined than straight-up cannibalism but also more pointless. There’s no practicality to it, just semi-organized bloodlust, kind of like those farm/hunting grounds where you pay money to shoot animals who live in semi-enclosed spaces. Except in this trope’s case, it’s usually duped, kidnapped, or otherwise trapped humans.
My earliest memory of this odd enchantment traces to a Gilligan’s Island episode featuring Rory Calhoun as the madman adventurer in safari-style pursuit of the castaways. He embodied the character wonderfully – keen, self-possessed, driven, and ruthless. As so often is the case, Calhoun’s human-hunter boasts fabulous wealth and extensive resources for funding his extreme hobby, adding an element of deranged elitism to the existing nuttery of the sport.
Gilligan’s Island plays it for laughs, of course, though I believe when I watched this episode as a small child, I was not immune to the suspense generated by the music (drums!) and the general twistedness of the whole concept. I somehow remember the hunter eyeing all seven castaways and imagining their heads mounted on a wall, though I may have this confused with another episode with a lion watching the group and seeing zebras and gazelles and the like. At any rate, with people as prey – it’s a surefire winner.
The pilot for Fantasy Island struck humor from the “man as game” story all together and chocked in a twist: Hugh O’Brien played a big game hunter whose fantasy was for the tables to be turned: for the hunter to become the hunted, I guess sort of like the big-shot executive who sees a dominatrix to explore the submissive role. Well, maybe.
Aaron Spelling knew a good thing when he hit it and made sure that Charlie’s Angels included an episode where the Angels become people-prey. Lloyd Bochner, always an entertaining villain, gives Rory Calhoun a run for his money as the hunter in pursuit of Cheryl Ladd, Jaclyn Smith, and Shelley Hack. He meets what I always considered a just end for any hunter who’s also a true sportsman: he gets eaten by wild game.
So it’s established. I like shows that feature organized hunts for humans.
Homecoming is accordingly a bit of a dream BtVS episode for me. I think it’s especially fun because I didn’t realize what was brewing with all the spying until the rogues’ gallery of mercenaries and monsters showed up at the Slayerfest ’98 gathering in the home of the mysterious old man in the wheelchair and Mr. Trick lays it out for us. A competition!
And I still didn’t see the twist coming where Cordelia would be mistaken for the more elusive Faith and she along with Buffy would end up the target of competitors. No need to shed tears for Eliza Dushku missing out, however. Whedon apparently didn’t get enough of the trope himself because it turns up again in Dollhouse! In one of the first episodes, the character Echo played by Dushku ends up on a camping trip with a sadist who’s arranged and paid a high sum for the opportunity to fuck and hunt a perfect specimen – of human!
I thought the Dollhouse hunter a bit of a washout, really just a standard-fare psycho, which really lets the air out of the highly specialized sub-genre.
In contrast, the Slayerfest ’98 hunters offer more fun all over the place – and they vary considerably both in their backgrounds and their manners of elimination. Mr. Trick must really know how to attract top-flight talent!
Our Host: Mr. Trick
First up – or down – comes Frawley, the traditional hunting overenthusiast, who so closely recalls werewolf tracker Cain from Phases that I wish they’d just brought Cain back. Frawley hews most closely to the traditional individualist who hunts for sheer sport and just longs for a higher order of prey. Once captured, he rats out his Slayerfest competitors almost immediately! After Buffy and Cordy abandon him to writhe in his own bear trap, Kulak comes along and offers to cut off his leg, an offer he declines, much to my disappointment.
Next on the chopping block is Kulak, the demon of the bunch, whose arms detach razor-like projectiles and who sports an attention-grabbing lizard crest on his head. He meets his end when the cabin explodes after fending off Buffy and the spatula-wielding, gun-misfiring Cordelia.
I award Kulak extra points for his natural biological weaponry and his concern for fellow competitors like Frawley.
Lyle and Candy Gorch
The only vampires of the hunting party! Lyle gets recycled from Bad Eggs where he complicated Buffy’s battle against the demon Bezoar as half of the cowboy-outlaw outfit the Gorch Brothers. Now he’s taking revenge against Buffy for the slaying of his brother, but he’s got a new partner! Leave it to Lyle to unearth a lady friend who dresses and talks as though she just stumbled out of an 1850 Texas bordello. The unlovely Candy, who I believe never appears without her game face, ends up on the wrong end of Cordelia’s wooden spatula, and the just-widowed Lyle hightails it to the Great Plains after Cordelia colorfully enumerates the other hunters’ memorable eliminations.
I appreciate the return of Lyle here. He served mostly for humor in his last appearance, so he immediately sets a lighter tone in this episode.
I rather wish that we’d had a few more past offenders return for Slayerfest, but Buffy usually annihilates all her opponents! Spike and Drusilla are too big as characters to make such casual appearances, and Spike is dropping in on Sunnydale soon anyway. Ditto for Ethan Rayne (next week!) from The Dark Age.
Hans and Frederick Gruensthaler
Foxy twin terrorists from Germany who do the bidding of the mysterious old man in a wheelchair. They are the highest tech of the hunting party, employing advanced weaponry like mini-missile launchers, while their surveillance includes high-power binoculars, bugs, and tracking devices planted in corsages. They’re also the last competitors eliminated, when Buffy tosses her tracker onto the back of one, hard telling if it’s Hans or Frederick, and the twins fire their automatic weapons at each other through a wall.
Who is this fucker anyway? I don’t remember a name, and he’s just listed as Old Man on the wiki. At first I thought the house where the hunters all gathered was his since he’d filled it with all his gadgetry, but then it seemed he was there just as another competitor. Old Man strikes me as the most diabolical and potentially perverse of the bunch, sort of a James Bond villain not so far removed from Blofeld, but with less charisma. I would have liked to see some fist-pounding in both frustration and jubilation. Plus, he should have had a pronounced German accent and been gazing lasciviously at his twin henchmen.
And as long as we brought back Lyle Gorch, why couldn’t we have Old Man return as a villain later on down the line. We went through all the trouble of meeting him only to dismiss him forever – without so much as a meeting with a Slayer? I’d like more familiar faces turning up as nemeses, which would spare us from some of the more strained monster-of-the-week creations that we’ll be subjected to in later seasons.
Happy to have our first Cordelia-centric episode so early in the season! The rivalry angle would have grown tired fast, though, so I felt quite happy when the limo was diverted to Slayerfest. Nevertheless, I did find great joy in Buffy’s whiteboard chart, especially Cordy’s Weaknesses column, which lists brie and Xander as personal faults.
Willow and Xander’s kiss: not my favorite point in the episode. Their flirtation and mutual temptation doesn’t much interest me since they’ve paired off with Oz and Cordy. Buffy and Angel not being able to have sex or even touch lips is enough of a crush-frustration for me, but I supposed Whedon wanted to split up Xander and Cordelia so he could ship her off to L.A. with Angel, but I might have suggested another means for the rupture.
So many enemies means so much battling! The fight in the cabin in the woods brought us this spectacular moment. Buffy, not content to become another hunter’s trophy mounted on the wall, takes a lesson from one of her prey forerunners and puts the antlers on the offense!
MAYOR WILKINS HAS ARRIVED!
The long wait is over. Snyder started dropping his name by the end of s2, and this season we’ve heard about him several times as teasers. Now we finally get to meet Sunnydale’s leader, which is fortunate for I wasn’t sure how much longer I’d hold out. Harry Groener’s mayor is one of my favorite villains from the series – for his comedic neuroses about cleanliness and sterility, his 1950s Mayberry-like goody-goody outlook whirled together with demonic aspirations, and the strangely touching relationship that he develops with Faith. The mayor gets my vote every time.
And to close, Smokey Robinson’s great take on the tables being turned on the hunter, as performed by The Marvelettes: