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Watching Buffy: s02e13 “Surprise”

buffy_surprise

Two episodes, broadcast over two nights, that changed everything for this show. This is the story that still defines Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the perfect expression of teenage emotional trauma as monstrous action adventure. The big turn still feels ambitious today, a brutal twist of the knife that is equal parts ridiculously melodramatic and fiercely poignant. This is critical, mighty television.

With all this import, it’s strange to be reminded the first episode is kind of weak.

There’s certainly plenty going on. Willow and Oz start dating in the cutest way possible, Jenny Calendar is revealed to have a secret mission of vengeance, Drusilla and Spike are gathering the pieces of a terrifying demon, and Cordelia thinks chips & dip = cooking.

However, through all this it’s Buffy’s relationship with Angel that stays in tight focus. The episode begins with a prophetic dream in which Buffy witnesses Angel’s death at Drusilla’s hands. (The dream sequence is superbly done, laden with symbols and a hilariously obtuse callback to the Monkey Pants conversation from What’s My Line part 2 – the show has now figured out how to present dream sequences that actually feel like dreams without being a waste of time, a magic trick that will be deployed multiple times in coming seasons.) Buffy rushes to Angel and they can barely control their desire for makeouts – the same beat from Bad Eggs but here played not for gleeful comedy but as an urge that threatens to overtake their sweet romance with something riskier. Then Buffy relates all this to Willow, and confides that she thinks sooner or later their relationship will become sexual. That’s the show opening with three scenes in a row entirely devoted to Buffy/Angel. And there’s more to come on this front. As with What’s My Line and Bad Eggs, the show has realized it needs to actually put the Buffy/Angel relationship onscreen where we can see it and tries to cram as much into this episode as possible. It’s great to watch as the two actors have solid chemistry – Sarah Michelle Gellar continues to build her performance and take the audience along her emotional journey, while Boreanaz is almost pleasingly wooden, deferring to his role as the love interest in a female-led show and not yet leavening his performances with the self-mockery that would become his trademark.

All of this intense relationship focus is intended to bring both characters, and the audience, to the climactic moment. After a tearful farewell (later rendered unnecessary), and then a showdown with Spike and Dru, Angel and Buffy seek shelter in Angel’s apartment. There’s a deliberate counterpoint to Angel’s makeout-heavy visit to Buffy’s bedroom window in Bad Eggs, and Buffy’s chaste sleepover there in What’s My Line part 1. The energy between the two is very different to anything we’ve seen before. Buffy cries, simply overwhelmed from the highs and lows of the last few days. This is perhaps the last piece of the relationship we needed to see to believe in it: Buffy allowing herself to be vulnerable, and trusting in Angel to catch her. And then the moment pivots into desire as the emotional intensity jumps to a different track and engulfs both of them. They confess their love for each other, and Buffy takes the initiative, and the camera cuts away. It’s a well-played sequence, surprising in its tenderness and rawness after the goofball makeouts and high melodrama that have characterised their relationship before now. The moment is grounded in real threat and emotional reality, giving it major weight.

Then the climax is Angel mysteriously walking outside and wailing and um what? If you don’t know what this actually signifies, and the portentous gypsy talk earlier doesn’t give much clue, then the ending is incomprehensible. If you do know what’s coming – and I think even on first broadcast most viewers had some idea – then you can read it as a chilling and exciting cliffhanger, but if not, it’s just bizarre. It’s a bit of a head-desk moment, the most important cliffhanger of the whole series so far, the one the show has been deliberately building too all season, and it’s a complete clunker.

But that’s the story of this whole episode: not really Buffy at its best, loading up with stuff but not really making much of it count. Two separate mook-fights over the Judge’s arm? Couldn’t the show have figured a better way of managing that? The obvious diagnosis is that everyone was so focused on what was about to happen, they didn’t tighten up the steps getting there.

That said: what was about to happen was worth getting excited about. So goodbye, early Buffy. It’s been fun, but this is where you finish. Everything’s about to change.

Other notes:
* Willow in a Blossom hat is love. Also, Seth Green is the best at delivering Whedonesque dialogue, they must have loved writing for him.
* Dru is in charge and in control of herself, but she’s still pretty loopy while Spike still has the wits in the relationship. Keeping Spike around definitely dilutes the recovery of Drusilla we supposedly saw in What’s My Line.
* It’s a two-part macguffin chase, right? Wrong! 3/4 swerve – the bad guy is fully assembled as of right now!
* Vincent Schiavelli! Another lovely swerve with Jenny – we know she’s pledged to harm Angel, and we think she’s taking Buffy away to some sinister destination, only to have her deliver Buffy to the previously-mentioned surprise party. Although there is a bit of weirdness where Jenny apparently drives Angel home to get some dry clothes, then drives him back again, and it’s only mentioned in passing. Missed opportunity…

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Practical Effect Linky

Too busy! So this week, just this, because you know you want an excuse to watch it again

And in case you missed it, this, which is actually even more breathtaking

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Watching Buffy: s02e12 “Bad Eggs”

CompleteBuffy_Bad_Eggs_S2_E12_003_Buffy_and_Angel

Everyone’s thinking lustful thoughts in this episode. Buffy wants to buy a sexy outfit. Cordelia and Xander can’t keep their hands off each other. Buffy and Angel likewise, although they aren’t conflicted about it. There are makeouts a-plenty (though not for Willow or Giles, whose partners are missing this week) and it is super-strongly implied that Cordy and Xander are going All. The. Way.

Trust a boring health class assignment to pour cold water all over this sizzle! It’s the old “look after an egg to learn about responsibility the egg is a metaphorical baby okay kids NO SEXING” thing that apparently happens! By the way the eggs are monsters. And with that, the episode runs out of ideas.

It turns out the egg monsters are mind-controlly bodysnatchery things and there’s a thing in the basement of the school they want to dig up. There are definitely some creepy set-pieces with the critter in Buffy’s bedroom (complete with Alien homage shot of creature landing on shoulder) and the reveal that Willow has already been controlled, and there’s a brilliant 3/4 swerve (actually at the 3/4 break for once) where Joyce ends up joining the fun. But beyond the set pieces, there’s not much here to talk about.

The episode thinks it’s about “responsibility”, i.e. look after an egg, don’t forget to pick up your mother’s dress, um, stuff. It all feels thin because the episode has actually set the viewer’s eye on one of the most intense subject areas in its thematic focus area – the powerful experience of teenage lust – and then does literally nothing with it. The monsters just mind control people to go dig a hole together as asexual drones. There is so much to work with here and the episode can’t backpedal away from it quickly enough.

All of which is very disappointing because this is the very same move you get from most teenage media, at least, it was in the 90s. Lust was a feature of after-school special morality plays, Christian rock songs, and dumb comedy films, but didn’t much get talked about beyond that. Buffy has so far been pushing hard at taking the emotional experiences of teenage life seriously, but here it doesn’t want to get involved, and the avoidance is jarring. Buffy is meant to be better than this! (The show does start getting stuck into lust as a thematic interest next season, at least.)

What this episode should have done is make the egg-monsters lean right into the sex and lust continuum. There’s some ironic appeal in having the abstinence eggs turn their hosts into ravening lust machines, but given that this show can’t actually descend into a wild orgy, that episode would be tricky to write. So maybe something like this.


PRECREDITS

  • The mall – a shop. Buffy wants a sexy skirt that Joyce won’t buy for her. Then she spots a vampire (Lyle Gorch) on the hunt. She makes some transparently false excuses why she has to slip away, and Joyce lets her go.
  • The back rooms – Buffy interrupts Lyle, but he gets away.
  • The mall – Buffy returns to Joyce, who reveals she didn’t believe Buffy’s excuses. “I know that look. You spotted a cute boy and suddenly had somewhere better to be.” “Um, kinda.” Then Joyce initiates a super-awkward version of “the talk (teen version)”, about how sometimes her head is going to want to do one thing, while her body is pushing hard to do… another thing. The talk goes swiftly out of Joyce’s control too. (Buffy: “Oh please don’t say any more words.” Joyce: “Too late for that. I’m terrible at this.” Buffy: “Let’s just pretend we never have any of those feelings.” Joyce: “Milkshake?” Buffy: “Milkshake.”)

ACT ONE

  • Closet. Cordy and Xander having makeouts in the closet, both conflicted about it.
  • Health class. Teacher introduces the egg challenge to a very distracted class! He has to yell a few times to get people to settle down. Willow spots that there’s something happening between Cordy and Xander.
  • Library. Xander and Willow give Buffy her egg. Xander is like “I’m not sure one little egg will make much impression on the frying pan of testosterone that is the teenage boy.” Giles identifies the Gorches.
  • The park. Buffy and Angel make out instead of hunting. The Gorches are watching, identifying Buffy as the slayer and Angel as Angelus. Tector Gorch is envious of Angel – he thinks Buffy is pretty. Lyle berates him for always thinking with his crotch. “Ain’t like there’s anything down there any more, not since that crab demon got super friendly with her pincer hands!” Tector is unrepentant. “Don’t matter that I’m dead. See a pretty girl, and things get stirred.” Lyle says he knows how to kill the Slayer.
  • Buffy’s bedroom. She falls asleep, with some dialogue to the egg indicating she’s going to be thinking about Angel – all those makeouts are fresh in her mind. As she slips into bed and closes her eyes with an Angel smile on her face, we see the egg… crack… a tentacle extends…

ACT TWO

  • Buffy’s bedroom. She wakes up. The tentacle is gone. The egg has repaired itself.
  • Summers kitchen. Joyce observes Buffy getting ready for school – impressed by how she’s uncharacteristically calm and well-organised. Buffy suggests the egg is just focusing her attention, reminding her she has responsibilities…
  • Library. Buffy (with egg) reports “no Gorches” to Giles. Willow has her egg too. Xander has boiled his egg! After Xander leaves with Cordelia, Willow confides that there’s something weird happening between them. Buffy asks Willow if she’s also feeling really alert and focused; Willow says she is. Giles asks Buffy to once again go Gorch-hunting with Angel.
  • Near the park. Angel meets Buffy, who is carrying her egg this time. Angel goes to kiss her – she avoids it. They talk about the egg, and hunting. Buffy doesn’t even seem to notice Angel’s physical interest in her.
  • The park. The Gorches attack! Tector tangles Angel in a lasso (might as well put that old west style to some use) and Lyle seizes Buffy, saying “Like I tell Tector, lust is a distraction. And distracted slayers are -” He is cut off by Buffy smashing him in the face and clinically giving him an ass-whupping. The Gorches flee in different directions.
  • Near the park. Angel asks Buffy about her change in tone – last night, he was a distraction. Tonight… is she feeling all right? Buffy isn’t sure. Something’s off. Like she’s run out of steam. But… that little fight scene might have woken her up again… Makeouts start in earnest. But Angel pulls away – “I’ll get after Tector. You track down Lyle.” Angel goes, and Buffy looks after him, and it’s obvious that she did not want to stop kissing him. And while she thinks these thoughts, the egg cracks open and the creature emerges, and it crawls up her and it COVERS HER FACE…

ACT THREE

  • Near the park. Buffy FIGHTS OFF THE THING. She stabs it to wriggly death, and then realises it came from the egg. “That’s not good.”
  • School. Morning. Willow arrives, cradling her egg. She looks around the school, and observes many couples doing couple things. All seems normal. She opens her locker, sees the Dingoes band poster with grainy Oz picture – and sighs happily. The egg quivers. She doesn’t notice. And she goes to the…
  • Library. Willow finds Buffy, Xander and Cordelia are already there. “Where’s your egg?” they ask. They grab it from her, and put it in a box, then slam on a lid. “There might be a creature in there,” Buffy says. Cordelia says it was probably only Buffy’s egg. If it was her egg, then her maid might be in terrible danger! Xander reminds everyone he hardboiled his egg. Willow comes up with the idea of opening his to see what’s inside. And she’s still noticing Xander/Cordy chemistry, as she remarks to Buffy again…
  • Giles’s Office. Willow leads the dissection. The egg is cracked open revealing a weird, disgusting creature. They make a plan: Giles and Willow will hit the books, Buffy will investigate the Teen Health classroom, while Xander and Cordy volunteer to check out “several out of the way places”. Willow doesn’t stay with Giles – she moves to follow Xander and Cordy.
  • Health classroom. Buffy stalks around. She finds several additional racks of eggs… and a pickaxe? Why would a health teacher need a pickaxe? Then the teacher enters. Buffy hides as he goes to the egg racks, picks up an egg, and it extrudes a tentacle to wiggle at him…
  • Hallway. Willow creeps after Xander and Cordy, who are obviously looking for a good makeout spot. They go into a closet. Willow goes over, pushes it open: “All right you two, caught in the act -” Except they are NOT making out. Cordelia is putting one of the weird egg creatures on Xander’s face! They both turn to look at her! She backpedals, falling, sprinting back to the
  • Library. Willow rushes in. “Giles!” The librarian tells her he’s just had a very interesting phone conversation with Ms. Calendar and he now knows what they’re dealing with – a Bezoar. The eggs are disguises for their hibernating young. They feed off hormonal surges. When they get enough hormones, they come alive and take control of their host.” Willow says “Well here’s a couple of hormonal hosts right now!” Sure enough, Xander and Cordy, smiling oddly, are coming into the library as Willow backs away… only for Giles to PUT AN EGG CREATURE ON HER TOO.

ACT FOUR

  • Health classroom. Buffy hides. Teacher comes very close to where she is hiding when… the door opens and her classmates start filing in! Time for Teen Health! Buffy pops up with a grin and takes her usual seat. There’s Cordy and Xander and Willow, all sitting happily smiling in the class. In fact the whole classroom is sitting smiling, calm and easy. Teacher asks: “Now, does anyone still have their egg?” As Buffy watches, Jonathan holds up his hand. He gives an uneasy “Yay me?” as classmates all around him converge, and he too is creature’d up. They pull back. Teacher: “Anyone else?” Willow looks at Buffy: “She broke hers.” Buffy has to think fast: “Oh I did. But then I came sneaking around in here and one got me. Also I found a pickaxe.” She hefts the pickaxe. The room is silent. Teacher: “Great! Well let’s get moving then.” And they all start filing out…
  • Tunnels. Tector Gorch, wrapped up in his own lasso, is walking with Angel. “I swear, Angelus, Lyle will be down here somewhere.” Angel realises they are almost under the school. Tector asks Angel about Buffy. “No judgement, brother. Nothing like forbidden fruit to give you an itch. Like the time Lyle put some stinging nettles down my trousers.” Angel has to defend his feelings for Buffy – it isn’t just an “itch”. Tector calls him on it. “I seen you kiss that girl. There was itches. I reckon she’d like to be scratched.”
  • Cavern. Tector leads Angel into a cave where a weird critter peers through the floor – the Bezoar. A tentacle wraps itself around him and drags him close! Tector unwraps himself. He lied about Lyle coming here. He’s fallen under the spell of the Bezoar.
  • School basement. The class descends through a bashed-open hole in the floor into the basement. The teacher takes the pickaxe from Buffy and knocks some of the hole wider to allow easier access. They all go down and see… the Bezoar, and Angel wrapped up, and Tector nearby. Teacher: “Now, let the Bezoar cleanse you of your impure thoughts!” and they all form a line to let the Bezoar soak up their hormonal surges. Appalled, wondering how to free Angel, Buffy shades back when someone grabs her and pulls her to…
  • Tunnels. Lyle has grabbed Buffy. He proposes an alliance to kill the Bezoar and free Angel as well as “my dumb brother”. Buffy figures out what’s up – the Bezoar is feeding on teen horniness. “Like a disgusting old man at a bus stop.” They both roll out – into the:
  • Cavern. Lyle and Buffy make their move, but the class move with swiftness and co-ordination, Cordy and Xander cleanly take down Lyle. Buffy’s attempt to get to the Bezoar fails – Willow and Giles cut off her options. She ends up next to the still-trapped Angel. Teacher: “You can’t stop us, Buffy. We’re all focussed. Calm. Our minds are clear in service to the Bezoar.” Buffy: “Well my mind isn’t clear. But I do know what I want.” And she turns and locks eyes with Angel. “Trust me,” she whispers. And begins the MAKEOUT TO END ALL MAKEOUTS. All the servants of the Bezoar shudder, close their eyes, as the psychic feedback hits them. Xander and Cordy reach out and hold hands. Willow bites her lip. Tector gyrates foolishly. And Lyle RUNS FORWARD AND SINKS THE PICKAXE INTO THE BEZOAR’S BRAIN. Game over.
  • Basement. The Gorches have fled. Everyone is rubbing their necks in confusion. Giles is telling everyone there’s a mold problem down here, everybody out… Willow approaches Xander, “Are you okay? Can you believe I thought you were having secret kissing sessions with Cordelia? But no, you were just being mind-controlled by a demon! I should have known.” Xander flails. Meanwhile, Buffy and Angel have a moment. Then he leaves too.
  • Summers home. Buffy sits with Joyce on the couch. Joyce breaks the small talk to say, she didn’t mean to worry Buffy before, and if there is anything she wants to talk about – any person or any feeling – then she should. Because Joyce will always be there for her, and will probably not ground her too bad. Buffy is reassured. They talk about how everything would be so much simpler without any of that stuff. Joyce: “But also, kind of boring and pointless.” It isn’t easy finding the right balance. Buffy rests her head on her mother’s shoulder. End on a nice mother-daughter bonding moment.

So.

Where was I.

Bad Eggs is a bit of a failure as a Buffy episode. It’s the one bum note in this great run of episodes – and being surrounded by amazing episodes surely does it no favours, reputation-wise. Perhaps because of its thematic problems, it never finds its tone – it is bizarre for a purely-plot episode to play all the final defeats of the bad guys as comedy beats.

Anyway, this episode does contribute something to the bigger picture. All this physicality and lust is an important aspect to the Buffy/Angel relationship, and one we haven’t yet seen. The relationship has often felt a bit weak onscreen because the show forgets to actually put them in front of us as a couple doing chemistry-laden couple things, and this episode attempts to make up for that all by itself by underlining just how hot and heavy (and yet chaste) their relationship is. This is necessary setup – and just in time for a very significant payoff. Next episode. (Hint: abstinence eggs don’t work.)

Other thoughts:
* A rare visit to the Sunnydale mall! We don’t see it much, because it’s a complicated set to manage requiring masses of extras, but that’s a pity because it does make a lot of sense as a hunting ground for Sunnydale’s vampires.
* Buffy sniffs out a vamp in a crowded place, just like in episode one! Which is to say, she uses her powers of observation, not the slayer-senses spoken of by Giles. Another gap in Buffy’s education?
* The Gorches have no role to play in this episode, but there they are anyway! Note that these are characterful season 2 vampires, not boring season 1 vampires.
* Urgh, the tentacle violation of a sleeping Buffy is something I could have done without, especially in an episode that encourages you to read everything sexually.
* If midriff tops weren’t on trend, this invasion would have succeeded.

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Jaws Linky

Deconstructing the beach sequence from Jaws

Oral history of Max Headroom

Fascinating and deeply disturbing account of the Boston bombing trial – the questions that were asked, and the questions that weren’t, and what that reveals

VHS covers for recent movies. Superb.

Here’s a poem: The Ten Best Issues of Comic Books (via Pearce)

Also via Pearce: President Obama unleashes the bees as children scream in terror

Two Medieval Monks invent bestiaries – this has gone viral for good reason, it’s very hard to maintain a straight face through this.

Apparently you can bounce a battery to see if it still has a charge

Ten overlooked horror movie classics – I ran this by Pearce and some of these even he hadn’t heard about.

Star Trek fan film, featuring multiple cast members from real Star Trek, and, like whoa man. I don’t care about Trek but this is something special.

Via Daryl & Suraya, a map of rude placenames in the UK

The five psychological barriers to climate action

Via Nancy & Michael U, the New Yorker on the fascinating way “no” can mean “yes”.

Shakespeare Star Wars guy is turning Jar Jar into a political radical.

Jen W’s Contributoria piece on the parents of missing Mexican students at the UN

Fifty great genre-bending books everyone should read – I mostly clicked through to compare cover designs. The rules of cover design are different in each genre, so these books pose some challenges!

And finally, a simply perfect Carly Rae Jepsen/NIN mashup.

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Watching Buffy: s02e11 “Ted”

ted
This is not a moment you fix with one scene eating vegetables on the porch.

This is a tricky one.

Buffy’s mother takes up with a new man, Ted. Buffy is protective and suspicious, and it is revealed that she is right to be: Ted is dangerous and abusive (and a robot). The experience of a divorced mum or dad meeting a new partner is a common one for teenagers, and although it falls outside the high school environment, it still slots neatly into the core “high school years are hell” premise. Put Whedon and Greenwalt on the script and cast the marvellous John Ritter as the boyfriend, and you’ve lined up a solid episode. You’d think so, anyway.

Sometimes, however, when you start actually turning an idea into a series of actual scenes in which things happen, you find things don’t turn out as you expected. Hidden in this premise are a bunch of nasty hooks, enough to rip down the whole Buffy machine and transform it into something else.

Before tumbling into this pile of trouble, the episode checks in on Giles and Jenny. This is part of the show’s new commitment to ongoing/longform storytelling and emotional consequences. Jenny is still in a bad place after the events of The Dark Age. Giles is desperate to help her, to restore their connection, to fix things. And he can’t. This is quite an emotionally sophisticated move. Typically, conflict in a dramatic situation is generated by a character who gets pushed to change but, for reasons sensible or irrational, refuses to budge. Then the story forces the character to appreciate the consequences of both paths, and lands them in a crisis where they have to either stand firm or give way or (often) compromise. That’s the basic structure underneath enormous amounts of dramatic entertainment, including the last trauma-coping episode of Buffy, When She Was Bad. This situation, however, is different. There is no refusal to move here. Jenny, we sense, would like to make the change Giles is ever-so-gently pushing her towards, but she is emotionally unable. It’s a jarring, unpleasant situation. As viewers we feel the helplessness that torments Giles here, because it’s clear the usual story pattern will be no help at all. Jenny has fallen outside of the story. We’ve lost her.

Jenny’s trauma doesn’t lend itself to typical storytelling structures, especially not the abbreviated versions you need for a 45-minute television episode. The creative team seem well aware of this, although it isn’t clear how they’re going to land a resolution out of it. The same team, however, seem to have missed that the episode’s A-story presents the same kind of difficulty. I presume it slipped by because everyone was so focused on the evil robot stepfather, which seems like a solid Buffy premise, that they missed the real problem area until it was too late. The problem here isn’t what the robot boyfriend means to Buffy, it’s what the robot boyfriend means to Joyce.

To make the episode work, the show has to put the relationship between Buffy and her mother under enormous strain. Buffy witnesses abusive behaviours from Ted, but for the episode to work, Joyce can’t listen to her. Buffy is subjected to psychological and then physical abuse from Ted, but Joyce can’t protect her. In a stunning mid-episode swerve, Buffy causes Ted’s death, and Joyce has the shocking experience of finding the man she has fallen for dead at her daughter’s hands, but the two characters have no way to make sense of this. When it turns out Ted is a robot, it’s a thin salve on what has been a very straightforward portrait of a family becoming overwhelmed by toxic abuse. The show puts a wash on it by indicating Joyce was not properly herself, but this doesn’t go nearly far enough to create a protective layer around this plotline that will allow Joyce and Buffy to walk away from the experience unscathed.

There is a clear sense throughout of the episode getting out of control. It breaks the rules of Buffy by bringing in the police. (Recall we last saw the police in The Dark Age when Buffy lost control of her own narrative and it became the Giles show – here the show itself is losing control.) This violation is especially jarring when those rules were just restated one episode previous, when Buffy was shot at in a school by an assassin posing as a police officer – those events wouldn’t just have drawn police attention, they would have made global headlines.

But all of this is necessary because we are invested in Joyce, who is Buffy’s only remaining foothold in the normal world. A story that threatens Joyce is led inexorably towards police intervention. (The school, meanwhile, is so thoroughly framed by the supernatural that the assassination attempt seemed almost reasonable; it would be far more shocking to see Buffy actually attending a class or handing in some homework.)

In this way, by relentlessly following its own logic, the episode forces Buffy into a new shape. It is as if Ted’s robotic need to remodel the world around him is reaching outside the fiction to affect the show itself. And as with Ted, the corrective has to be drastic. Buffy has to break its own principles to get out of the situation. This is supposed to be the show where emotions are real and danger is real and things have consequences. Jenny is embodying those principles, but in the very same episode we have Buffy and, particularly, Joyce dodging them entirely. If the same emotional care was applied to Joyce as to Jenny, then these events would destroy her emotionally and change her forever. The wrap-up mother/daughter bonding scene is laughably inadequate at providing a realistic emotional resolution to the awful experiences depicted throughout the episode.

The episode ends with Giles and Jenny getting back together. Jenny just announces she’s stopped being upset, and happiness ensues. It’s a funny way to play out the conclusion of this subplot, but it gets the job done, and the overall feeling I get from this episode is getting the job done. At the end of act one you know Buffy’s mum is in a relationship with an abuser while Jenny is experiencing trauma – and in both cases the end of the episode just announces “problem fixed” and hopes that’s enough.

So Ted disappears down the memory hole to allow Joyce to remain the same. It’s sad to break the run of great episodes with this – and it is a good episode, even a good Buffy episode, but it’s one that can’t be subjected to the same emotional scrutiny as the rest of the Buffy narrative. It’s the Problem of Jesse, of course, and proof that part of how you deal with that problem is by avoiding some tricky situations entirely.

And it should be said, also, that I can’t really see this episode as a failure. Sure, it has to be yanked unceremoniously back into line at the end, but it’s a heck of a ride getting there. (Also, John Ritter!) It’s a problematic piece, a misfire, but also a brave attempt to keep pushing into risky territory with intense emotional stories about women being challenged and rising above the threats they face. One of the big reasons people have started to care about Buffy is because this show takes risks. An episode that jumps the rails is part of the deal, and ultimately, a small price to pay.

Other notes:
* As noted before in I Robot, You Jane, Buffy’s robot/technical episodes often feel a bit wrong. This one is no exception. I still have no clear sense of why this might be. Any new ideas, anyone?
* Imagine an alternative version of this episode that wouldn’t mess up Joyce – it could be a friend of Joyce, with a daughter in Buffy’s class, who’s just found a great new man. This is more or less how Some Assembly Required insulated the regulars from the weight of its intense abuse storyline. It could work, but the episode would lose a lot of its juice as a result (see: Some Assembly Required).

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Rap Battle Linky

Hodor vs Groot rap battle

Classical violinist does comedic vines. Pretty good stuff! (via Bruce Baugh)

David Roberts at Grist writes a smart, sensible response to Jonathan Franzen’s wacky climate change vs birds New Yorker essay. He hits on some truths about how we make sense of something as big and messy as climate change. It’s a good read.

Sewing pattern art with dialogue added

One of my friend Emma’s poems is being studied in schools. The poem is lovely, and the comments from the yoof of today are marvellous.

The scarily organised system of spreading Russian propaganda through the medium of internet comments.

How tech journalism is failing us, using the example of Meerkat and Periscope. Actually it really is about ethics in tech journalism this time.

If Square Enix designed Star Wars

Did Hugh Hefner build an underground tunnel from the Playboy Mansion to Jack Nicholson’s house?

Hidden behind the dumbest headline you’ll see this month is a great piece on the casting agent behind Freaks & Geeks, the Office, Parks & Rec, and so much more.

Google Maps now has a Pacman mode, where you play Pacman on the streets of your hometown (via Ed)

Buzzfeed guy who randomly becomes a celebrity in China is a fun story.

And finally, Dangerous Minds is right, the musicless music video of the Ghostbusters Theme is very, very interesting

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“True Love Match” launches today!

TLM_stackedlogo

I’m excited to release into the wild the full edition of my game of romance and reality TV, True Love Match. Yep, it’s The Bachelor: The Role-Playing Game.

You and some friends move between two rooms and pretend to go on dates with each other, and if it works right you all end up with nightmares. NO, I mean you all end up with FUN STORIES TO TELL yeah that’s it.

The game is also a demonstration of the power of interactive experiences, which is what this whole Taleturn thing I’m doing is about.

It’s free to download and released into Creative Commons too. If any of this sounds interesting to you, go grab it! Or spread the word to those who might be into it.

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Watching Buffy: s02e10 “What’s My Line, Part Two”

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What does it mean to have your name in title of the show? Especially when your name is accompanied by a succinct job description: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Recent episodes have put this question into focus, with both Halloween and The Dark Age spending much of their runtimes with Buffy stripped of her rights and responsibilities as protagonist, and the first part of this story shining a light on the relationship between the Buffy part of the title and the Vampire Slayer part. Of all the possible directions to take in this second season, the show has turned its focus on its own premise (as represented by the title character), and started interrogating itself, forcing itself to justify and re-justify the storytelling choices involved in placing this particular teenage girl at the centre of a narrative world where both emotions and threats are real.

That’s not all that’s at work in the show right now. In this episode we properly meet Kendra the Vampire Slayer, Buffy’s successor after her death (nearly) at the hands of the Master in Prophecy Girl. Kendra brings on-stage more of the wider supernatural world. We already knew about the Watchers and the lineage of Slayers – they’ve been part of the mythology from the very beginning – but we’ve never really seen them before, and it’s no coincidence that they materialise now just after Halloween and part one of this story revealed more of a monster society, while Lie To Me and The Dark Age allow glimpses of how humanity at large copes with the existence of magic and monsters. Again, this is the show interrogating itself, extrapolating from its own conceits not to build a coherent and believable world – it doesn’t much care about that – but to add weight to the core structure of Buffy and friends versus monsters.

And it’s no coincidence either that almost all the episodes I just mentioned are from the Halloween-onwards period. I said in that episode write-up that it was the beginning of a fantastic run of episodes, and it’s obvious that the show’s creative team are getting fuel from diving hard into the story they’ve created. They’re engaging with Buffy the Vampire Slayer with the zeal and care of fans who write fanfiction and create video mixes and write lengthy analysis on their blogs, and while their priorities are necessarily different to those fans, there is an obvious deep respect for their own creation that is often absent on such shows. (I hasten to add that this absence of respect in other shows is often due to the frenzied pace of creation and the contradictory pressures of studio higher-ups, not because the writers and producers themselves have contempt for what they are doing.) To me, this ascension of Buffy into excellence is intimately linked to its embrace of the fandom aesthetic.

Returning to the point – what does it mean for Buffy to be a protagonist? Buffy’s uneasy relationship with Kendra can easily be read as her reaction to the existential threat Kendra poses. How can she be the protagonist if her titular role is claimed by another?

The episode spends its time reassuring Buffy of her position. Kendra represents tradition, the accepted and expected way Vampire Slaying should be done, the very approach Buffy spent her first season rejecting. Indeed, her rejection of it was so successful – so moral, in fact – that Giles himself became her biggest champion, and her friend rather than her master. Simply explaining to Kendra about Angel and Buffy indicates the extent to which the show has the rejection of traditional expectations and restraints at its heart. Likewise Buffy’s and Kendra’s argument about emotions – assets or weaknesses? – which, in a narrative world where emotions are real, is
basically asking “are you a central character in this story?”

The implication is that Kendra is not just compromised and limited by her adherence to tradition, but that she is also unable to be a protagonist. She doesn’t have the freedom and initiative to assert herself over a narrative, and so she cannot be a good centre to a story world. (One might imagine that in the future Buffy might encounter the counter-example, a potential usurper who is unable to be a protagonist because she is too committed to freedom and initiative.)

This encounter with Kendra is, in a sense, the ultimate challenge for Buffy, rounding off the process of becoming a Slayer that began with her choice in Prophecy Girl. The demonstration is a charming decision to treat Angel as a damsel in distress – a male damsel is still vanishingly rare in popular culture, and Buffy relishes the chance to rescue him. Buffy emerges from this reinforced in her role, and in fact even more freed from limitation, as Kendra carries the baggage of tradition with her when she walks away.

Buffy is at the peak of her powers. She is confident and together. She defeats Spike, who has emerged as the most significant threat to her so far. At this point, it looks like she will move steadily forward to conquer every obstacle that might be set before her. It’s a high point.

But stories are like rollercoasters, and the high point always comes just before a fall.

Other notes:
* I recall at the time of this episode a lot of geeks proposed a female empowerment methodology: the Watcher’s Council should stop the heart of each new Slayer, then revive her. You get a new Slayer so you haven’t lost anything, and if they survive the heart-stop and stick around like Buffy did, you have a net gain! Sweet! You only have to murder a bunch of innocent teenagers to get there! (At the time this proposal struck me as ridiculous because it was so out of keeping with the storytelling approach in the show, but given what is later told about the Slayer lineage and its origins, I actually think it would be a chillingly plausible plotline for late-period Buffy.)
* Xander and Cordy makeouts. It’s played for comedy – overplayed, probably – but it’s nice to realise that they’ve had a romantic comedy playing out in the margins for the whole season. Contrast with Oz and Willow finally getting together, which is also hilarious but is played for beautiful, beautiful pathos. Oz is just so charming. SO charming. But he’s been set up for so long you know he’s totally genuine underneath the quippy stuff. And his animal crackers monologue is perfect. Apparently most of this dialogue was ad lib by the actors, and Seth Green has said the Monkey Pants line was taken from a dream Alyson Hannigan had.
* The other deadly assassin: a person with a gun. Guns are still pretty much the scariest thing in this world. Also, HOSTAGE JONATHAN!
* I haven’t talked about Spike-and-Dru here. The original plan, I believe, was that Spike was going to die here, but a cured Dru would rise up to become an even more bad-ass foe – the little bad/big bad pattern that this show will return to several times. The show knew Spike was special, though, and spared his life, leading to a very interesting dynamic in the back half of the season.
* Also, Kendra. First significant character of colour in the show – there’s a whole discussion to have about Buffy & race. But that’s for later.

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Call-Out Linky

I have a new piece up at the Ruminator: Regarding “call-out culture”: the uncontained fury of the imagined teenage Tumblr feminist. It’s kind of long. Patricia Arquette gets a mention.

Via Pearce: guy makes working Speeder Bike toy

Via Pearce: official US govt website for the Judiciary Committee goes GIF-crazy

Wowsers. 7-minute Star Wars anime, made on weekends. Superb.

Epic piece by one of the original writers on Lost, revealing exactly how much they had planned out at the start. Very revealing, vivid description of being on a writing team for a hit show, loads of industry smarts on display. found it revelatory.

Via Andrew L: Cracked hits up the 7 most demented Choose Your Own Adventure books. Wonderfully weird.

Can’t say I’m convinced by James Corden as Late Late Show host, but this piece with Tom Hanks re-enacting scenes from lots and lots of his films is great fun, because Tom Hanks.

CNN does a parody of Too Many Cooks

Father & daughter team up to make astonishingly good Lego Jurassic Park short

Google Feud is a fantastic way to waste some time.

If you read that strip from the Nib last week where the cartoonist is asked to lighten the skin tone of an ethnic character? You should definitely read this piece looking at the comic in question.

Via Jessica H: solving poverty with four simple words. This is one hell of a piece, extremely worth your time.

Via kate Beaton: 1903 special issue on Bifurcated Girls

How obesity became a disease

UK paper the Daily Express endlessly recycles the same insulting themes for its cover stories. Here’s a great visualisation tool!

All-time top 50 works of interactive fiction (2015 poll results)

A door broke in a German university. You won’t believe what happened next! (But seriously though, this is good, I lol’d.)

Forgot to do this one last week: loads of behind the scenes model shots from Blade Runner

Post-punk icons reimagined as Marvel superheroes.

Huge recent-ish Alan Moore interview that I hadn’t seen.

Via David R, and definitely R-rated so don’t click, Alien: A Sitcom In Space. In space nobody can hear the studio audience.

And finally, via Meredith Y,

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Watching Buffy: s02e09 “What’s My Line, Part One”

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In every generation there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.

These words have been intoned near the beginning of nearly every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and if the show has any mission at all it is to prove them wrong. Yes, Buffy was chosen – but the more important choice was the one she made herself. And Buffy will not stand alone – her friends are with her, no matter the risks. And yes, she slays vampires and demons, but “the Slayer” label isn’t enough. There’s more to her than that. Right?

One of the principles of this show is a commitment to emotional realism, and this is applied to the nature of Buffy’s heroic identity. “Vampire Slayer” is an iconic role that exists in immediate tension with normal life. In a simpler show, that wouldn’t matter – Buffy wouldn’t need to worry about mundane concerns because her heroic identity would define her completely, the way Michael Knight never had to worry about the real-word costs of having his face shot off then assuming a new name and new identity fighting crime with a talking car as an agent of a mysterious agency with the initials FLAG. Here, though, Buffy is a teenage girl with ordinary emotional concerns, and integrating the business of being a chosen slayer of vampires with her desire to do fun stuff and fit in and have a boyfriend – that’s a challenge. How can you be a Slayer and still fit into the rest of the world?

It’s career day at Sunnydale High. Everyone is prompted to start thinking long-term about how they might enter the world beyond high school, and more simply, about what they want to be. Buffy doesn’t see the point in thinking about it, because as far as she can tell her future is fully booked up with vampire slaying. Giles encourages her to think about finding “gainful employment” but she is unconvinced. Hoping for a normal life seems futile. The comparison is gently made with her naive childhood ambitions to be a figure skater like Dorothy Hamill: “I wanted to *be* her. My parents were fighting all the time, and skating was an escape. I felt safe.”

This confession was made to Angel, in a scene that really gives us a sense of how they make sense as a couple – Buffy relaxes around him, and he becomes less impossibly uptight as well. This episode does a good job of showing their compatibility, with a nice scene later where Buffy reassures Angel that his vampiric look doesn’t upset her, because she still sees that it’s him within; and by rhyming Angel waiting in her bedroom with Buffy going to his apartment and falling asleep in his bed. For the first time the show takes the time to make sure they feel like two people in love.

It is Angel’s thoughtful care for Buffy that points the way out of her frustrating cycle of futility: he offers to take her skating. The scene at the rink is shot with a different emotional rhythm to the rest of the show. It’s a notable breakout from the house style by new director David Solomon. Buffy skates, and we (like Angel) watch, and it’s kind of lovely. This sequence comes directly out of actress Sarah Michelle Gellar’s own life – she was a competitive figure skater with a few placings under her belt. It’s a moment of simplicity, and an indication that the answer to Buffy’s dilemma is to embrace knowingly the idea of escape – she is stuck with her calling, but she can still create moments where she is allowed to be something else. This will be Buffy’s challenge – being able to find peace on her own terms, and enjoy it in the shadow of her responsibilities. (Of course, the show issues a pointed reminder of those when she is attacked at the rink. It’s a short, brutal fight scene, finishing with the skate blade gag you knew was coming.)

That’s a coping strategy, however. It’s important, and it does mark a lesson learned for Buffy, but it doesn’t banish the burden of being the Chosen One. The show has a plan here as well, revealed in the climax, which is a tremendous swerve: one of the mysterious figures stalking Buffy is revealed not to be an assassin after all, but instead claims to be the Slayer. Buffy is not alone after all.

It’s a fittingly momentous end to the first installment of a two-parter, the show’s first proper double. (Welcome to the Hellmouth/The Harvest was conceived and aired as a single double-length episode.) The episode takes care to raise the stakes all over, with the new Slayer locking Angel up to face the rising sun, a strange assassin threatening Xander and Cordelia, and Giles and Willow discovering Spike’s ultimate goal in Sunnydale – the restoration of the clearly damaged Drusilla to full health. This is a proper event episode, and it shows that the Buffy team don’t need a season-ender to shake everything up – in fact they had barely settled into their new status quo. Once again, it’s clear that they have ambitions for this show. If this is the kind of upset we’re seeing in episode nine, then what might be coming down the pike in episode fourteen?

Other notes:
* Co-writer on this episode is Marti Noxon, whose importance to the show will rapidly grow in the seasons to come.
* We get some more neat scenes with Oz, but the show still isn’t ready to pay him off. He even gets his long-awaited meeting with Willow, but the scene cuts away before they even interact. Still, his selection as an exceptional student with the smarts to match Willow, combined with his sense of humour and rocker credentials, not to mention his good taste in being interested in her – all of this does an excellent job in putting him over. In fact, it finally gives me an idea why they’ve put so much effort into giving him point-of-view scenes even though he’s outside the Scooby Gang. Willow’s innocence and emotions make her the exposed nerve of the group, and the audience is highly protective of her – these scenes show us we can trust Oz not to hurt her.
* Speaking of which: “Scooby Gang” is used for the first time here. “Slayerettes” will turn up again I think, but “Scoobies” will soon catch on.
* Back in Halloween, the show started binding its monsters together. No longer just a series of isolated threats to normal life, the monsters now present an alternative society and culture. Spike’s move to call in the “big guns” is the most dramatic example of this so far, giving a sense of scale to this hidden world. Another, bigger, marker of this transition is the arrival of the demon bar, Willy’s Place. The main bad guys of season one and season two both had standing sets, but now the everyday sort of monsters do as well.

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