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Jurassic Linky

This kid-made Jurassic Park remake is delightful.

Computers are making weird artworks when they try and draw things. (Via Mike Upton, and indeed the rest of the internet as well)

A history of movie trailers and a guide to the typefaces of classic film posters.

Pippin Barr’s made a free flash game to highlight human rights issues in the host country for the European Games.

I had no idea the Joy of Sex was illustrated by consummate spaceship painter Chris Foss. Lovely article by the BBC on those famous illustrations.

Sweden’s anti-Russian-sub defence strategy is… interesting.

Vulture gives an overview of Marvel’s “ultimate comics” imprint that prepared the ground for the Marvel movie juggernaut, then burned itself out.

Bloomberg presents an article about economist Paul Krugman’s arguments against austerity policies as a classic arcade beat-em-up.

The challenges of translating the very wordy, very culturally-specific Seinfeld

Rich people are jerks: the statistical proof

James Horner has died. The composer’s work on my favourite Aliens was messed with and he was chucked off the movie, creating a long-standing rift with Jim Cameron. But there are pieces of the score that I love. So here’s a film soundtrack site writing in extensive, sometimes scathing detail about Horner’s music for this film.

US Supreme Court Justice Kagan claims to be a comics fan, and her latest judgement was seeded with Spider-Man references.

Via Svend, my new fave board game site Shut Up & Sit Down has a great, eye-opening article about a poker tournament.

And finally… Congrats, you have an all-male panel!

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Watching Buffy: s02e22 “Becoming, Part Two”

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In any television show, season one is usually spent working out what the show is exactly going to be – taking the ideas you have, trying them out, seeing what sticks and what doesn’t. All going well, you get renewed for season two, and by this time you have it figured out. You know what the show is about, you know how it’s about it, but you haven’t really done much with those ideas yet. In later seasons you’ll have to start looking for new angles and fresh takes to avoid repeating yourself, but here you have an open field. Season two is when you grab hold of the ideas and themes at the heart of your show and you chase them as hard as you can. In the history of television, few shows have exemplified this as well as Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

This is part two of the finale, and it starts with everything in a very bad place. Kendra is dead, Giles is captured, Willow is badly hurt, and Buffy is about to get tangled up with law enforcement. The rules of end-of-season episodes are in play, which is to say, there are no rules. Everything is up for grabs. Buckle in.

Spike knows. Not too long ago, he was gleefully central in a plot to destroy the world using the Judge. Now he comes to Buffy for help – his true motivation is to extract Drusilla from Angel’s influence, of course, but he is also very clear that he doesn’t want the world destroyed. (As he says, “I’m in the world!”) This could be seen as an inconsistency or a change of heart, but I read it as just another sign of how close these characters float to the truth about their reality: that stuff with the Judge was middle-of-season, the world wasn’t ever going to end. But this is end-of-season, and while the world is still probably safe, a lot of things can get torn to pieces at a time like this. Trying to get out with your skin intact is a perfectly sensible strategy.

Buffy knows, too. That’s the point of the cliffhanger from last episode, where she is confronted by a police officer over the dead body of Kendra. There is no surprise in the resolution of the cliffhanger – Buffy gets away and goes on the run. She couldn’t allow herself to be processed by the police, but now she is on the run from them. We know from previous encounters with the police that they don’t belong in Buffy’s world, and their presence is a sign that the narrative rules are breaking down. With that end-of-season looming, they pose a real threat to her for the first time. The episodic nature of her life cannot save her this time.

Back at the end of season one, the show did an impressive job of throwing out as much of its formula as possible – the romantic triangle, Buffy’s attempts to maintain a normal life, her relationship with Giles. Here, even greater change is threatened. She could end the season behind bars. Snyder expels her from the school, so maybe this show doesn’t get to be a high-school drama any more. And maybe Buffy doesn’t keep her home life either, because Joyce finally finds out about her daughter’s extracurricular activities.

After killing a vampire right in front of her mother, Buffy finally confesses that she is the vampire slayer. Joyce tries to keep up but can only muster a litany of objections and sensible suggestions, none of which can work because we’re in Buffy’s narrative, not reality. And Buffy’s reply is to recite the entire premise of the show: “Do you think I chose to be like this? Do you have any idea how lonely it is, how dangerous? I would *love* to be upstairs watching TV or gossiping about boys or… God, even studying! But I have to save the world… again.”

This is a culmination of some of the long-standing threads in Buffy’s development. There have been three significant arcs in her character this season: first, from When She Was Bad to What’s My Line, she came to understand her role as a slayer, building an understanding of what this means, including accepting that she has people close to her who love her and support her despite risk to themselves. Second, from Ted to Innocence, she followed this greater sense of self-confidence to admit, and act on, her love for Angel – which turned out to be a tragic mistake. Third, from Phases onward she sought self-mastery, expressed in her resolve to kill Angelus and to move past her guilt over his fall (achieving the first in Passion and the second in I Only Have Eyes For You). Throughout these final episodes she demonstrates what she has become across the rest of the season, and her decision to walk away from Joyce could only come at the end of all three of these arcs, having earned the attributes of self-awareness, self-confidence, and self-mastery.

Similarly, her showdown with Angel brings all of these together. She begins this battle and pursues it fiercely. When the momentum shifts to Angel, she stops his deathblow by catching his blade between her palms – her mastery moment, signalling that she has achieved a unity of purpose and selfhood. She finally demonstrates what it means to be the Chosen One, the Vampire Slayer. From the moment she catches the blade it is clear she has won the battle, and her triumphant defeat of Angel is inevitable.

Except this show doesn’t care about triumph, except as prelude to pain. And so, as Buffy readies her own killing blow, Angel’s soul is restored. As the gate to hell opens, Buffy understands that she must kill him. Every shade of anguish flickers across her face, and then she drives the sword into her lover’s chest and watches him fall into hell.

I’ve seen this moment called weak by some, because Buffy has no real choice here – she must kill Angel or the world ends, so it ends up feeling like an unfortunate accident of timing without any real dramatic heft (c.f. the end of Romeo & Juliet). I disagree. I think it’s absolutely clear from Sarah Michelle Gellar’s performance that Buffy wants with every fibre of her being to do exactly what Spike did with Drusilla – to take Angel with her and leave, and let the world take its chances. That she doesn’t – that she has the strength and clarity to act as she does – is huge. If catching the blade is the ultimate demonstration that she has become the Slayer over the last two seasons, here is the ultimate demonstration of the cost. The choice Buffy makes here destroys her.

The core principles of this show have been, from the start, real threat and real emotions. The logic of those principles has trapped Buffy. She has chosen to do something too awful to bear, and the show has allowed her – encouraged her – to go through with it. This act will have consequences, terrible ones for her. The problem of Jesse rears its head here in its most extreme form. Buffy is no longer a fit protagonist. She is too damaged, too hurt. Now what?

The show has cultivated a method of rehabilitating traumatised characters over this season: love, specifically the compassionate and accepting love of close friends. This is the end of the season, and we know that Buffy could have three months of off-screen love and support from family and friends before she needs to return to headline another episode. She could return next season and as long as the show acknowledges the depth of her hurt from time to time, she could start out pretty much in her normal mode – quippy, fun, the kind of character you like to hang out with when you turn on the television.

Here is the show’s final swerve, then. In these two episodes the show has woken up, and it has shown that no-one is safe. Buffy knows. On some level, she senses she is a fictional character, stuck in stories that will hurt her and those she loves over and over again. So she does not want to be rehabilitated. She wants out. She exits the show’s milieu entirely, climbing on a bus and departing, rejecting the show that bears her name.

Except we, the audience, know she can’t really escape. The show will drag her back to us, when we’re ready, and she will be made to face what she has done.

Because she is our chosen one.

——

Other notes:
* Don’t worry, by next season the police have forgotten about Buffy. They don’t belong in her world, after all.
* At the time of broadcast, it was widely reported that Angel would be getting his own show, so the dramatic conclusion here was robbed of some of its weight.
* Giles’ torture is terrifying, although it does finally bed in the new version of Giles as the tough-as-nails badass that’s been gently pushed all season. The return of Jenny Calendar is played with maximum cruelty to the audience, a Whedon-show motif.
* Also cruel: Xander confesses his love to Willow, who wakes and asks for Oz. Xander has some odd moments this episode, once again showing he’s representing impulsive action. Most importantly, he lies to Buffy about Willow trying to restore Angel’s soul – it’s a selfish betrayal, and also ultimately meaningless, which just adds to the discomfort here.
* Oz, meanwhile, is still basically redundant. I guess they’ll find more stuff for Seth Green to do next season?
* Whistler is sadly underused here. He just spits out the plot info and saves the Scoobies a library visit. Disappointing after his build-up in the previous episode. I guess if Angel’s getting his own show he might be a recurring character there! That’d make sense, right?
* Giles: “They get inside my head, make me see things I want.” Xander: “Then why would they make you see me?” Giles: (considers) “You’re right. Let’s go.” Whedon used this joke again in the first X-Men film with Cyclops and Wolverine.
* Joyce making small-talk with Spike is priceless. Great comedic chemistry.
* I remember usenet running hot with upset viewers who insisted Buffy did not need to kill Angel – his blood would close the portal, so she needed only to cut his hand again! These people were silly.

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Home Linky

Via Cal, this home interiors magazine delivers a surprising message in an extremely clever way. Much respect.

Via Pearce, what your sleeping positions *really* say about your relationship

Lena Dunham interviews Lorde

I still haven’t watched this black-and-white mashup of Prometheus and Alien but maybe some day I will.

Eight-minute “video press kit” from 1986 for Jim Cameron’s Aliens. Some lovely behind-the-scenes stuff I’ve never seen before, like Cameron rehearsing the marines for their entry into the colony. Plus, nerd trivia alert, the narrator twice calls the planet “Acheron”, a name never used in the actual film.

Via @mlle_elle, a great Vulture piece on the rise and rise of Amy Schumer, with a particularly potent final couple paragraphs. (Judging by the Trainwreck trailers, Lebron James may have failed to win an NBA title this year, but he definitely beats Michael Jordan in one statistical category: on-screen charisma. And I say this as a fan of Space Jam.)

Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop webseries has spun off a new series where some LA actory types play a D&D-type game on camera. It’s called Titansgrave, and it’s worth a look if you’re curious. (It feels exactly like every beer-&-pretzels game I’ve ever participated in.)

The original article about Sherlock Holmes that gave us the idea of “canon”, and how it might be just a parody of Catholic theological debate.

Will your automated car drive you off a cliff if it would save two other lives? Some interesting questions will need to be answered as these systems approach reality.

The Guardian hosts another voice in the ongoing pushme-pullyou debate over whether microfinance is a good thing or not. The writer here argues compellingly that it’s a bad idea. There’s some good stuff in the comments too – yes, sometimes there is good stuff in the comments, it is possible.

Velociraptor Disney Princesses

Adorable zookeepers are recreating Chris Pratt’s moves in Jurassic World

The AV Club pays due respect to the music of the wondrous Josie and the Pussycats movie.

And finally, via Urs: death metal cover of John Cage’s 4’33”. My favourite thing about this is that it’s only about 90 seconds long, because death metal covers are always at a faster tempo.

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Watching Buffy: s02e21 “Becoming, Part One”

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We’re at the big finale, and everyone knows it. Not just the audience – the characters, too. They sense something special is going on, the long-promised confrontation is looming and resolution – for better or worse – is just around the corner. The Scooby Gang never actually discover they’re in a TV show, but they sure do wonder about that fourth wall sometimes.

Oz: Uh, I was a little unclear about some of the themes.
Buffy: The theme is Angel’s too much of a coward to take me on face-to-face.

The teenagers are all busy studying for finals, which is the real-world equivalent of a season finale. Willow/Oz and Xander/Cordelia are happy in resolved romantic relationships, enjoying what passes for a state of grace in TV-land. Buffy is chasing hard after Angel, impatient for a confrontation.

Willow: Do you think you’re ready to fight Angel?
Buffy: I wish people would stop asking me that. Yes, I’m ready. I’m also willing and able. Just the one test I might actually pass.

She’s right, and the audience knows it. We’ve been with her on the journey from Innocence to Passion. Buffy has seen enough to overcome her doubts about striking Angel down; the audience has seen enough to accept her transformation. Buffy has become what she needs to be.

However, before the show can allow this final confrontation, it must draw together all loose threads, such as the floppy disk holding the spell that will restore Angel’s soul. It has sat undiscovered below Jenny Calendar’s desk since Passion. (Twin Peaks enthuasiasts collectively wince as they are reminded of the note that lay under Agent Cooper’s bed for a similar length of time.) Buffy and Willow at last discover the disk and the spell, and the confrontation suddenly becomes more complicated: Angel can yet be saved.

This allows the show to return to one of its core dramatic fault-lines: is Buffy’s relationship with Angel a good idea? Xander, who is Buffy’s main confidante right now, maintains his dislike for Angel (implicitly going back to the fate of Jesse in The Harvest). The show has baked this problem in very efficiently – while earlier in the show’s run Xander would have been on shaky ground simply because of Angel’s position in the opening credits, recent events have demonstrated he has a point. It’s an old problem, and this is the perfect time to put it on the table again.

The whole episode is full of moments where the story calls forth elements from the past, for example the return of Kendra, and Buffy moping over the ring Angel gave her in Surprise. Most notably (yes I’m finally getting to it), threaded throughout the episode are a series of scenes showing us key moments from Angel’s history. We see his transformation into a vampire at the fangs of Darla (returning in a brief cameo); his first meeting with Drusilla; the Romani cursing him; his discovery of Buffy. It’s fun seeing these moments dramatized, but that’s all that’s happening here – there’s no revelation, just rote performance of things we already knew. (Well okay, there’s kind of a revelation, namely that Angel was creepily stalking Buffy for much longer than we’d guessed before.) We’re not really learning anything about how Angel became Angel.

The role of these flashbacks, and all of this content from the show’s history, is really to provide momentum and weight to the narrative. We know we’re speeding towards a conclusion, and we are being shown how the threads thus far are coming together in this moment – that the whole narrative of the show has been quietly building to right here, right now.

However, there is something curious at work in all this. I want to zoom in on the moment earlier with Jenny’s lost computer disk. Buffy discovers the disk when she drops a pencil, retrieves it, and then says she has just experienced deja vu. She drops the pencil again, deliberately this time, and when she retrieves it this time she notices the disk. This is an odd little moment, completely unexplained except by tenuous reference to Buffy’s occasional prophetic dreaming. To me, though, it doesn’t feel like the same narratological force is at work. The prophetic dreams affect Buffy and the Buffy narrative in ways that are completely absent here. In fact, a moment’s reflection reveals that the deja vu is entirely redundant from a narrative point of view. The writers could have simply had Buffy notice the disk the first time she dropped her pencil. Why didn’t they do this? Why the elaborate invocation of a sixth sense just to get her to pick up a disk?

Part of the answer, no doubt, comes from the weight of storytelling itself. Stories are usually built from chains of cause and effect, and moments that don’t respect this feel odd and out of balance. The disk was lost as a result of the chaos and violence meted out by Angelus – cause and effect. If the disk is to be rediscovered, the event must arise from an appropriate cause or it should feel unearned and powerless, unacceptable descriptors for a potent weapon intended to divert the clear arc of the narrative.

It would be easy to have the discovery of the disk conform to a cause-effect structure. Perhaos Buffy decides to retrace Angel’s steps in preparation for battling him, looking for signs of weakness or patterns she can exploit. So, when visiting Jenny’s classroom looking for insights, she spots the disk. Or, more simply, the Scoobies are given classroom-cleaning duties by Snyder as punishment for their public displays of affection, and they discover the disk. It isn’t hard to get the disk into Buffy’s hands as a result of previous moments in the story, yet the show chooses a much more elaborate path.

What, in fact, is the cause of Buffy’s discovery of the disk? It isn’t dropping the pencil, which would be too insignificant and random. Assigning cause to the deja vu puts the cause into the realm of the ineffable, and a mysterious intervention in this show is probably enough to satisfy our desire for cause and effect to chain together. Buffy is a character in a supernatural story, therefore a supernatural event is sufficient to tip her towards this discovery. It isn’t elegant, but it is portentous, and so we might let it slide.

But I think there’s more happening here. As noted many times in this blog series, Buffy has fully embraced meta. The characters float close to the surface of the fictional bubble, regularly expressing an intuitive understanding that they are in a world that follows narrative rules. Sometimes it seems like the characters can use that intuition to seize control of the narrative and their place in it.

I think the deja vu is the same thing from the other side: it is the voice of the story itself. The narrative is telling Buffy what it needs her to know.

The episode is not about Buffy becoming what she needs to be, or about Angel becoming what he most feared. What is becoming in this episode is the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer itself. It is becoming the truest expression of its vision, its own proof of concept. From the start the show has committed to two principles, real threat and real emotion. The problem it’s faced has been the problem of Jesse, which is simply the difficulty of keeping your show going if your characters are being traumatised by horrific threats. The show has worked out some good ways to deal with this problem, but they have another one in their pocket right here: the end-of-season break. You can do bad things in the last episode of a season, and let the pieces fall where they may.

So we’re here. The show is ready to give you what you’ve signed up for by watching all these episodes, laughing at all these jokes, caring about these characters. The show doesn’t care if it has to put a thumb on the scales from time to time to get you carrying the biggest weight possible.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer has entered the narrative as a player, and it has no intention of playing fair.

Other notes:
* This episode marks the first appearance of Angel’s utterly convincing Irish accent. Not the last, happily for those citizens of the Emerald Isle who were so delighted to hear the distinctive cadences of their local speech echoed so perfectly here.
* Also: the first appearance of Whistler, a demon who is not a bad-guy demon but something-something-balance. Demons not being inherently bad will become a major feature of the Buffyverse as it develops, so this is a notable development although it passes nearly unnoticed in these two episodes with so much else going on. (Whistler is played by Max Perlich, quintessential “Hey It’s That Guy” of the 90s, best known by me for being a pathetic camera guy in Homicide: Life on the Street and a pathetic snowplow guy in borderline-paedophilic romcom Beautiful Girls. I am always in the tank for Max Perlich.)
* Also: the first depiction of the process of vampire creation. You take blood, then you give blood. Blood in, blood out, as they say. (They don’t say this.) (Well they do but not about vampires.)
* Also: the first sight of Buffy pre-Buffy, including a good look at not-Donald-Sutherland the Watcher.
* Giles gets called in to look at the weird relic by the Washington Institute. There’s a spin-off show waiting to happen.
* Willow’s dabbling with magic becomes official, and she volunteers to do the big restoration spell. She’s come a long way from anxious-nerd-Willow of the very first episodes.
* Kendra is killed. The only positive black character in the show so far is killed. Add in Jenny’s Romani heritage, and it’s not looking good to be a good guy who’s a minority.
* Buffy says she has to go before anyone else gets killed. Kendra immediately launches into a humanizing backstory speech. In a narrative sense, this is the same as painting a big target on yourself.
* Why did they not perform the ritual to restore Angel’s soul in a private home where vampires had not been invited? Because the story made it happen that way.

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Soth Linky

My buddy Steve has just released his game Soth – a story game about cultists in a small town who are thiiiis close to summoning the dark god Soth. Check out the trailer:

Find out more here!

Moby Dick, each chapter read by an appropriate famous-type person (via Grant Stone)

These portrait-style photos of Mongrel Mob members are quite striking

How to check if your 20-sided die is off-balance

Great look at those “please report this error” requests you get when your computer fails, and how they have contributed to a turnaround in Microsoft – have you noticed that Microsoft are actually making kinda good software lately? Even Windows 8 is hated for its user experience, not its unreliability…

Slate rips the lid off the divine internet parody site Clickhole, and then confuses me by publishing an apparently serious literary takedown of the Poky Little Puppy.

And finally, I’ve caught up on The Comic Strip That Has A Finale Every Day. The last week of strips have been pretty amazing. So sad to see it end.

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Watching Buffy: s02e20 “Go Fish”

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The third and final space-filler episode between Passion and the finale is a comedy episode with lots of Xander. Buffy has built up its ability to zig and zag through tones and moods but if that sounds less than credible as a diversion in the middle of the worst crisis imaginable, you’re right, it is.

The episode starts with a gruesome image of victims being skinned alive, and reveals a mysterious sea monster clearly inspired by the Gill-man of the Black Lagoon films. The Scooby gang end up investigating the Sunnydale High Swim Team, who are using performance-enhancing drugs that turn them into sea monsters. That’s the premise, but the don’t-do-performance-enhancing-drugs message is so heavyhanded it plays as parody, and it turns out the episode has a few other things on its mind.

Buffy meets swimmer Cameron, who wins her interest with his poetic/philosophical ruminations on the sea. Of course, in a reprise of Reptile Boy, he’s deeply involved in the trouble and not as nice as he appears. This becomes apparent as soon as he gets alone with Buffy in his car, when he turns the encounter sexual, tries to convince her she wants him to, and locks her in with him when she tries to leave. After that when he lays a hand on her she smashes his face into the steering wheel, breaking his nose. That’s unpleasant enough, but the episode’s only getting started: Snyder witnesses this and Buffy finds herself in the high-school courtroom of the principal’s office. Here, Cameron goes directly to blaming Buffy: “I don’t know what happened. I mean, first she leads me on, then she goes schizo on me.” Cameron’s importance to the school’s sporting fortunes is directly invoked, and the swim coach walks Cameron away with a shot at Buffy: “…try to dress more appropriately from now on. This isn’t a dance club.”

This is part of the show’s continuing interest in what has come to be called rape culture, here with a focus on the culture of entitlement and victim-blaming that surrounds high status young men in high school and serves to promote, protect, and excuse sexually predatory behaviour. However, unlike Reptile Boy which based its narrative on similar ground, this episode refuses to mitigate the troubles here with a supernatural flourish. Cameron wasn’t trying to recruit Buffy into a cult or suck on her blood, and the school isn’t protecting him due to a demonic bargain or to fulfill a dark prophecy. It’s all simply literal: a high school boy simply assumes the girl he’s with will accept his sexual advances, blames her for the trouble when she refuses, and is protected by the school.

This is refreshing. Buffy is intended to be powerful enough to violate the scripts about young women, and throughout the show she has thrown down every instance of patriarchal oppression thus far (with the exception, of course, of the still-unfolding danger of Angel). It is salutary to remind viewers (and Buffy herself) that these scripts can envelop a young woman in a whole social structure with a vested interest in her failure. Buffy is strong enough to break Cameron’s nose, but there is nothing her chosen status can do that will stop society around her from turning on her for harming the untouchable golden boy. Without occasional reminders like this, Buffy’s messaging would start to look like a fairy-tale feminism where every threat to gender equality could be neutralized if women just learned some martial arts and pumped themselves with just a smidgen of super-strength. The show is intended to be fundamentally empowering, but it has to stay honest about the limitations of its message as well.

However, this also plays weirdly in the larger narrative of the season. As mentioned, we’re currently carrying the open wound of Angel’s murder of Jenny Calendar, an ongoing reminder of Buffy’s limitations and a potent metaphorical invocation of the insidious power of rape culture. Moving Buffy into a headspace where she can be the focus of this Cameron storyline is not entirely unbelievable, but it does feel deeply unnecessary, especially when the next episode is driven right from the start by Buffy’s furious focus on Angel. Both of the previous interludes manage to sustain some psychological continuity from Passion, but this story can’t manage it.

This plotline, about the institutional sexism protecting these powerful young men, is resolved piecemeal. Swim team star Gage is humbled by Buffy’s saving him from Angel, and asks her to walk him home, symbolically removing their power; the institutional protection is shown to be in service of a deeply corrupt (fishmonster-creating) system, and therefore shown to be illegitimate. However, the episode can’t resist ending the narrative on a particularly sour note, where Buffy is captured by the coach and threatened with being literally raped to death by the fish monsters that were once powerful young men; this fate instead befalls the coach himself. There is no ambiguity or reading-in here, it is made very clear in dialogue: “So, what, you’re just gonna feed me to ’em?” “Oh, they’ve already had their dinner. But boys have other needs.” And later, “Those boys really love their coach.” I’m going to say that again to give it due emphasis: Buffy is threatened with being raped to death. The Coach is raped to death. Buffy reacts with quips, and the show’s zippy pacing carries you through the moment, but by any measure this is a deeply unpleasant and entirely unnecessary denouement.

For all the joy to be had in the episode – series-MVP Cordelia’s incredible speech to the monster she thinks is Xander! – it is hard to get past the deeply unpleasant content threaded throughout, making this episode a hard one to love. I think it’s quite likely the creative team fumbled this episode because they were so focused on what was coming up – it isn’t the first time they’ve done that, after all. And as with that previous instance, they knew that they were about to lay down something very special indeed.

Other notes:
* The ep was written by David Fury and his wife. It’s Fury’s first episode, and he’ll be another important figure for Buffy down the line, but it’s hard to work out what’s up with this story – was it a spec script he was shopping around that got him the writing job? Possibly.
* Sunnydale has a beach! Who knew.
* Jonathan gets bullied, and is unhappy that Buffy intervenes to help him. (Xander’s played this same tune before.) He ends up becoming a legitimate subplot for the first time, a big step up for the recurring bit player. Willow accuses him of summoning a hellbeast, even…
* Speaking of Xander, he gets a big surprise-sexy-body moment where the girls all ogle him. The moment is delightfully undercut by Nick Brendan’s anxious flapping, one of the best uses the show has found for this schtick. Sadly, the Xander moment that sticks with me is his snarling zinger calling Buffy a “swim team perk”.
* Putting over the steroid-abuse narrative regrettably means forcing Snyder to act out of character – the idea of Snyder bending the rules for sports stars doesn’t mesh with anything previously established about him, and the “be a team player” mantra is equally jarring.
* There’s a meta moment where Willow refers to Sunnydale High’s unfeasibly large mortality rate – weirdly, this plays against a moment later on when Buffy tells swimmer A that, hey, you know how swimmer B and C got viciously killed? You might be next! And he’s all meeeh, no biggie.
* Nurse in the water under the grill is a riff on Aliens, right?
* Giles: “Either we’ll find an effective antidote or…” *walks away*

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The Linky is the Linky

Wire tautology supercut:

NZ John Oliver takes on our media, via Angus.

Via d3vo, writers talk about obscure(ish) words they love

Neat graph charting sequels that exceed expectations from their first instalments, via Allen Varney.

We’ve been watching Top Gun wrong all this time: Iceman was right. And he wasn’t alone.

A glimpse at China’s renowned/feared university entrance exam.

The Hobbit film trilogy, recut so it’s just the Gandalf bits.

Via Jamie N, online game randomises the race of player avatars, and the predictable but still depressing thing happens!

NY Mag has a great, engaging account of how a massive scientific fraud was uncovered – you might have heard the stunning research that gay political canvassers could change people’s minds after a very short conversation? Turns out it was indeed too good to be true.

Kinda related, via Ivan: how a transparently fake diet science story ended up being reported all around the world as fact. Sorry, chocolate doesn’t help you lose weight.

Star Wars prequels – part of a genius hidden plan by George Lucas? Or is that guy just falling victim to the allure of confirmation bias & pattern recognition? Yeah, I think the second one, but this link is getting spread everywhere too.

Some kids in the 70s made their own versions of Jaws and Aliens, and they’re marvellous.

This Predator fan film, set in the Dark Ages, is really very good indeed.

And finally, via Pearce, the surprising thing that wrecked the economic viability of a Lego online game: the penis cost.

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Watching Buffy: s02e19 “I Only Have Eyes For You”

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I’ve been pretty useless about mentioning episode writers in these things. Probably the main reason is that the kind of analysis I’m doing – reverse engineering the underlying story structure of whole seasons – works best if you pretend Buffy is an expression of a single harmonious vision rather than the result of a bunch of creative people pushing and pulling on ideas with frenzied showrunner Whedon putting his hands on everything and mostly pulling it all into the lines he wants. But even so, it’s worth shining some light here on Marti Noxon. She will become a crucial figure in the Buffy story, and a fairly controversial one (her twitter bio: “I ruined Buffy and I will RUIN YOU TOO”). She’s written a bunch of episodes this season, starting up with the What’s My Line duo, but they’ve mostly been unpromising assignments – weirdo misfire Bad Eggs, water-carrying setup episode Surprise, and last-minute fill-in Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered. This is another placeholder ep, marking time between Passion and the season finale, but (unlike last week’s offering) it finds some very fruitful space to explore, and I think here’s where Noxon’s voice really cuts through for the first time.

The episode is a ghost story, continuing the process of the show working through the classic monster repertoire for its non-vampire non-demon stories. Given Buffy‘s emphasis on emotional consequence, it might seem odd that they’ve waited this long – after all, what is a ghost but an emotional consequence that can throw things around the room? But ghosts are actually not a straightforward fit for the show because they don’t metaphor easily. A ghost story is stubbornly literal about its emotional content.

The genius of this episode is that it chases that literality right down the rabbit hole. The ghosts in the story are two dead lovers who died in an (apparent) murder-suicide and possess people to repeat the tragedy over and over, unable to find closure. The story works its way to an astonishing conclusion where the ghosts possess Buffy and Angel, forcing them to re-enact a tragic, doomed love affair, a situation that echoes their own tortured story. This is the perfect inverse of the usual metaphor-monster approach but it works just as well. (It also cleverly takes the meta approach that is the show’s hallmark down a level; instead of having the show’s characters making subtle comment on the story they are part of, we have Buffy & Angel’s relationship commenting silently on the ghost’s story.)

It’s a very clever set of moves to make, and yes it does load up the melodrama that will become a Noxon trademark, but she absolutely nails the heart of the story, finding a new way to examine the Buffy/Angel romance and make the characters (and us) feel the pain of its loss. When the ghosts find their peace, and Angel is released from the spell, he simply reels from the experience and flees. It’s a completely convincing moment, and thematically powerful.

The episode also tracks a very important subplot where Giles attributes the haunting to Jenny, until Willow forces him to admit to himself that it couldn’t be her. His grief is palpable throughout, as is the deep compassion shown to him by the other characters, and his acceptance that it isn’t Jenny is a gentle, crucial step in his process of moving on. This also perfectly fits in with the show’s method of resolving the problem of Jesse – Giles has to show the emotional wounds he suffered from Jenny’s awful fate, but through the love of his friends he is guided towards peace.

In fact, the whole episode in a sense echoes this solution to the problem of Jesse. The haunting takes place because the ghosts cannot move past their emotional anguish, and they are only released when they find a way to continue their scene past its usual end point (because undead Angel is not killed by the reenacted murder) and they are able to forgive each other. Love and acceptance are the answer. Buffy spends the whole episode seeing herself in this situation and refusing to forgive herself, and we know she can’t resolve these questions until she does confront Angel face-to-face. Her final scene in the episode makes a marvellous choice of showing she’s been affected profoundly by the experience, but refusing to draw it into some kind of pat lesson:

Buffy: A part of me just doesn’t understand why she would forgive him.
Giles: Does it matter?
Buffy: No. I guess not.

It all comes together as a superb and unexpected way to highlight these themes and this relationship before things come to an awful end. The episode isn’t flawless – the other aspects of the haunting (snakes, wasps, an arm in a locker) feel completely out of place – but its emotional heart is fierce and true. And that feels like Noxon to me.

Other thoughts:
* Great to see Snyder again, and to reiterate his awareness of the supernatural truth, complete with portentous namedrop of “the Mayor”.
* Willow gets some huge moments in this episode, where she for the first time steps into the world of magic. I’d forgotten how directly her movement into magic was attributable to Jenny’s “technopagan” identity.
* The episode’s final reveal is marvellous too – this show has such confidence it can give an episode ending to a bad guy secretly standing up, and it WORKS.

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Pinup Linky

Twin Peaks pinups – the men!

Vox does an explainer on the theory that lizard people control the world

Kiwi cartoonist Toby Morris went seriously viral with this lovely little piece about how many tiny inequalities add up to real differences of opportunity. It has generated many, many point-missing comments. I particularly enjoy the ones from people who have no idea Toby’s writing from New Zealand. Here’s a favourite: “We don’t see Richard’s immigrant ancestors who were Paula and her parents. This is misleading.”
Toby has followed up with some reflections on this piece going viral and what he’s trying to achieve with it.

Another great comic about the awkwardness of working out how to greet people in different cultures!

Evil Dead/Marvel Zombies mashup short:

I somehow think the photographer behind these portraits of purity ball fathers-and-daughters is not being entirely genuine when he talks about his respect for the subjects. Evidence: the bloody great oil pump in the background of the headline shot.

Via Michael U: why we love repetition in music. (In Mike’s tweet he especially recommended listening to the speech-to-sound illusion tracks, and I repeat that recommendation. I repeat that recommendation. I repeat that recommendation.)

Way back when, I wandered into a record store (kids, ask your parents about those) and saw a young woman doing a lovely acoustic set. I bought the CD (kids, ask your parents about those) the minute she was done. Anika Moa has been a consistently delightful person since then, but she reveals an unexpected (by me) comedic talent in her incredible interview series for the Herald. Check out her chat with the NZ Bachelor about his experience on the programme. Kiwi as, and I laughed like a buffoon.

I’ve seen lots of smart & savvy people sharing this Jacobin piece about recent trends for “natural foods” and the history of eating. It’s well-researched and full of surprising little facts, and it seems to be resonating with lots of good folks. But I really, really disliked it. Linking it anyway because it’s definitely getting attention, but I’ll also link to Phil Sandifer’s very brief reply.

My lovely friend Jaimee’s publicising her fascinating longitudinal research into patterns of bullying, with some genuinely fresh insights, like: if you were a bully to others but were never a victim, you’re marked for trouble down the line.

And finally, via Mat Gritt: Catalog Living, a glimpse into the exciting world of people living in your catalogs

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Watching Buffy: s02e18 “Killed By Death”

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Buffy has been *roaring* along, building momentum and confidence and impact to such a height that last week’s episode slammed into the viewer like a freight train. And to follow that – well, here’s the thing. The writing team have been using a long-form storytelling strategy where you take the 22 episodes of a standard US network TV season, and you treat those like chapters of your story. You put your pieces in place in the first chapters, you tighten the noose and build to a strong midpoint confrontation that foreshadows the rest of the story, then you put your big switch-up reversal to reveal a whole new horrifying challenge. Then you build up that new horror in intensity until it hits a peak of awfulness, and then you ride the inevitability of that right into climax mode.

Up until now, it’s all worked beautifully. Sadly, the plan squeals off the tracks right here. In a 22-chapter story, chapters 18, 19 and 20 can focus on building up to the climax, drawing all the threads together and preparing the ground, but in a serialised TV series, it doesn’t work like that. The show has found itself with three episodes to fill in before it can allow the final conflict to happen. Each episode has to be a unit of storytelling in its own right, not just buildup to the end, and while you can make an episodic story do that build-up work, it’s not easy.

So we have Killed By Death, with the unenviable task of explaining why Buffy has to have a few more adventures when she has every motivation to bring this whole saga with Angel to an end. It stalls for time in the most shameless way possible: Buffy suddenly gets sick. And the point is underlined not just by having Xander say “you’re too sick to fight Angel”, but having Angel turn up himself to demonstrate the same.

So the viewers, like Buffy, are forced to go to the hospital when they’d rather be doing something else.

The show drops Buffy into a spooky situation where there’s a monster stalking sick children. We’re kept off-balance by some ER-style handheld camerawork and a weird flashback sequence to Buffy as a child, where it’s hard to even work out that the child we see is young Buffy. This leads to a tragic backstory revelation: Buffy’s cousin was killed by a monster years ago,

The backstory feels very out-of-place in the greater Buffy mythology. That’s because it jars with the kind of ongoing, iconic comics-continuity narrative this show employs. The revelation that the monster killed her cousin
when they were both children belongs to a different kind of story, a filmic self-contained structure where the protagonist is intimately connected to the horror and overcomes her emotional wounds through the cathartic act of defeating it. It is no accident that we never hear about Celia or Buffy’s extended family ever again.

This is the second time an episode has focused on a threat to children, and like Nightmares, it doesn’t marry up with the thematic interests of the show. (Giles’ line “Well, sometimes small children *do* see something we adults don’t: us. Our true selves, our, our… our hidden faces.” is perhaps the low point of the whole season.)

Overall the episode is just out of alignment with where Buffy is at by now. The proof is in the resolution of the threat. I can just imagine the story conference: “Look, maybe she just punches him so hard he dies and that’s the end,” and everyone shrugs in resignation. They have two more episodes to fill in before they can get to the next part of the real story. D’oh.

Other thoughts:
* SMG continues to show unexpected versatility. Her ravings are genuine and quite moving.
* The showdown in the hospital, Xander vs. Angel, is simply superb. Xander is really working as a character at last.
* But the show’s MVP right now is Cordelia. They have her character down now, and she is extremely useful for storytelling – she drags subtext into text with great efficiency, and that makes it much easier for the show to play its tricks of subvert or outmaneuvering that messaging. She’s instant laughs, instant sexy, instant pathos, instant plot. She rules.
* I LOVE the final scene where Buffy, Xander and Willow are all insensitive teens to Joyce. Charming.

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