Honestly, this was actually incredibly difficult because I had to choose between two episodes: Season Four’s “A New Man” and Season Two’s “The Dark Age.” Rupert Giles spends a lot of time and effort presenting himself in a proper manner, using his speech and intelligence to prove that, yes, he is indeed the smartest person in the room. But just how much of it is an act? Who is Rupert “Ripper” Giles, hmmmm?
And although “The Dark Age” gives us a glimpse into who he was – a violent rebel, almost Faith-like, really – it’s not until “A New Man” that we start to see him as an actual person, as someone with fears and questions about his purpose. Growing up and growing older doesn’t eliminate the unknown or make it easier. You just get more and more accustomed to dealing with it.
In “A New Man,” Giles is still unemployed (how he managed to afford to pay for his kickass apartment is still beyond me, but maybe that’s my millennial brain working), as he was fired by the Council and the high school is still apparently exploded (Where did the remaining students go then? Did they commute out of town? Was there another school located in Sunnydale? I have many questions, Joss Whedon). Buffy has been coming to him less and less, especially after she managed to defeat Monday the vampire in the first episode without his help, and even has picked up another mentor in Professor Walsh, the leader of a secret government organization that hunts and experiments on demons. Oh, and Buffy is also seriously involved with a new dude who seems stable and wholesome. Willow is learning stronger magicks and is secretly dating a woman (although Giles doesn’t know this), and even Xander is gradually morphing into the guy I don’t hate in the seventh season.
Basically, Giles is the older version of Xander, and I literally shudder at that comparison, but hear me out. Everyone is moving on, and he’s stuck. He doesn’t feel needed or even wanted any longer, and other than his paternal love for Buffy and her friends, he has nothing else tying him to Sunnydale or even the US. Unlike Xander, Giles somehow does not have a romantic partner, either, so that’s another check in the Leave? column. So when he realizes just how out of the loop he is while attending Buffy’s surprise birthday party, of course he’s going to be weak enough to accept the barbed companionship of Ethan Rayne (RIP Robin Sachs).
Naturally, this goes badly for Giles, and he wakes up as a Fyarl demon the next morning.
Unlike the Willow-centric episode, “A New Man” has a much more chipper tone, with plenty of humor overriding a sense of urgency, and I love seeing Rupert Giles being petty AF when he terrifies Professor Walsh while in his demon form. To this day, that scene delights me. It’s not as much a character study as it is a comical look into the concept of aging, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, Season Four was much more akin to the tone of the previous seasons, so it wasn’t going to be nearly as dark as the later ones, and while I think Giles’ struggles could have been handled with less comedic elements, “A New Man” does capture what he was going through as well as “Fear Itself” did the other main characters. And that’s saying something.