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Watching Buffy: s02e06 “Halloween”

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Here we go. The episodes leading up to this feel like shakedown runs, but here this show goes into high gear. This is where Buffy the show becomes Buffy the classic TV show, launching into a sustained run of excellence, hitting new heights every couple weeks and still climbing, just nailing every aspect of its premise and execution and having a massive influence on the world of TV in the process. Even with one loser in the mix (Bad Eggs), this must count as one of the greatest runs of TV ever produced.

And it starts right in the precredits. It’s a vamp-fighting sequence, bread-and-butter for the opening spot. But this one is an exceptional example. It’s funny. The fight is in a pumpkin patch and it leads to vampires being pelted with pumpkins, a scarecrow getting a stake through the heart, and some silly business with a haywagon and the pumpkin patch sign.

It’s also clever and portentous: there’s another vamp filming this battle on a camcorder, and seeing Buffy through the lens is instantly creepy, making her seem very vulnerable, while also nodding to the meta that this post-modern show loves to reference – the villain, like us, watches Buffy through a screen, and has a position of power over her as a result. (They didn’t forget the comedy here either – the camcorder’s battery is in the process of dying out.)

That’s the show’s offer: we do scary, and we do funny, and we do self-awareness. Like that stuff? Stick around.

There’s one other feature of the opening worth noting: not a single word of dialogue. Buffy says nothing. The vamp says nothing. There’s no ominous voice-over. It’s just action, but the storytelling couldn’t be clearer. There could be no greater sign of the show’s increasing confidence.

But here’s another anyway, just a few minutes later:

Buffy: I was gonna stay in and veg. The one night a year things are supposed to be quiet for me.
Xander: Halloween quiet? Oh, I figured it’d be a big old vamp scare-apalooza.
Buffy: Not according to Giles. He swears that tomorrow night is, like, dead for the undead. They stay in.

The casualness of this exchange – note how this exposition would usually be delivered by a stammering Giles in dramatic tones – hides some genius. For the first time in the series it is suggested the monsters of the night have their own social rules – they aren’t just horrific aberrations of our world, but a whole self-contained counterpoint to it. This puts the creatures of the night in an essentially satirical frame, as despite their otherwordly nature they still embrace mundane habits like taking a night off. The show gestured to this a bit in season one, where the Master would sometimes undercut his own bombast, but this is a bolder act, wrapping the show’s deadly horrors in the logic of comedy – it’s only a step or two away from the Sheepdog & Wolf Looney Tunes where the two enemies exchange small talk and clock in before beginning their vicious struggle.

The “night off on Halloween” has the curious effect of raising the tension instead of lowering it – we’re watching an episode of the show so something exciting has to happen, and it has to originate outside the normal boundaries of the show’s monster logic. It threatens to upset our expectations of what can happen on this show. In the end the danger doesn’t really deliver that kind of conceptual upheaval – the big shake-up is still a few episodes away – but it does remind the viewer not to get comfortable.

Monsters taking the night off on Halloween reinforces the message from School Hard about what kind of bad guys we’re dealing with here. The implication is, unmistakeably, that the vampires think Halloween is beneath them. Once again, the vampires are being set up as the cool kids, the rule-breakers, the ones who grew up too fast. They ‘re natural enemies for the sheltered nerds of the Sunnydale School Library.

And just one more sign of the show’s faith in itself: we’re over fifteen minutes deep before the supernatural threat finally turns up. That time is spent investing in character stories, and we get to explore the episode’s theme in a different way: while the show overall is revelling in its confidence, the characters are suffering from a lack of same. Questions of confidence beset the whole crew, giving us a good opportunity to check in on all our characters as season two gets properly rolling. The nature of the threat – costumes that turn the wearer into whatever they depict – allows this exploration to get charmingly literal.

Buffy’s lack of confidence falls in the usual place – her love life. She is still a bit in awe of Angel, and finds herself wanting next to Cordelia. She has just started dating Angel, her first romantic connection of the series, and it’s natural for her to be anxious about it. She ends up becoming a fainting, weak Ye Olden Times lady like those in Angel’s past.

Xander’s lack of confidence is in his “manliness”, specifically his reputation among other men. This follows on from Inca Mummy Girl where his fundamental heroism was affirmed, complicating the picture by showing that the opinions of others are crucial to his sense of identity, which is a very human failing. It’s also, unfortunately, not an encouraging direction for the character, and Xander comes across as even more foolish than usual. Still, it’s neat to see him transform into a badass military man.

Willow’s lack of confidence is in her sexuality – no-one notices her, and she thinks if she tries to act on her feelings she’d just make a fool of herself. This was hinted at in Inca Mummy Girl, where we were reminded that her attraction to Xander was unrequited and her only other romantic prospect in the series was a computer demon. The viewer is in a privileged position to know that her confidence is due a bump because she’s caught the attention of Oz, but once again Willow herself doesn’t find this out. And just as well – it gives her a chance to improve her confidence on her own terms, rather than because some boy likes her.

At the halfway mark the episode turns into a Willow showcase, because her confidence needs actual work, whereas Buffy and Xander basically need to get over themselves. Willow’s thematically perfect ghost costume ends up trapping her in the sexy outfit she’d chickened out of wearing, and she’s forced to guide everyone through the crisis and solve the mystery (which, pleasingly, she and Giles do in about ten seconds). She nails it, basically, and by the end she’s almost catching up to the viewers in how she sees herself. Finally she’s ready to actually meet Oz.

Giles also gets an arc. It’s weighted a bit differently, but you could describe his reserved personality as lacking in confidence. In the library sequence he is as stuffy and boring as he’s ever been, and Buffy saying Jenny Calendar liked him manages to throw him completely. This demonstration of Giles the stick in the mud is just setting us up for the three-quarter swerve, when we find out Giles was also known as Ripper, and has some kind of dark and dangerous past he’s not divulged before. The Giles we see facing down Ethan Rayne is a rougher, steelier version of the librarian.

So in this episode, all our core characters get some new layers and some reversals of expectations. They all get deeper and stronger and more interesting. This is the magic of season two – your groundwork is done, but your cast and situation is still fresh. Season two is your big chance to make something special – and this enormously fun episode demonstrates this show intends to be very special indeed.

Other thoughts:
* There’s some hilarious attention to continuity when the show remembers that Cordelia still hasn’t discovered Angel is a vampire, and plays it for lovely black comedy. (When Cordy is told Angel’s parents are dead, her first response is “oh good”!)
* And yet the show forgets its own rules about invitations with a random vampire in the Summers house. Like the breathing stuff, this show is much more interested in the consistency of its characters than the consistency of its fictional monster logic.
* Cordelia and Xander get another nice moment. Their characters have great chemistry right now.
* Spike basically just wanders through the episode being cooler than everything else. Until Buffy pummels him of course – and lets him get away. (This confrontation is superhero comic logic, once again.)
* Hmm, could’ve done without the pirate rape threat from Larry. Hi recurring bit player Larry, welcome to the show!

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Linkery

Secretary is no better than 50 Shades, guys. (Except for being a *much better movie*.)

The journal Basic & Applied Social Psychology just banned significance testing, p-values, t-tests, and the rest from its pages. Every method you learned in that undergrad psychology class you took just went out of date…

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is back, and once again the major story each week is posted for international viewing on the Youtubes. Here’s a great one on tobacco – those who remember the crazy fight in NZ over plainpacks will appreciate this, as will everyone who raised an eyebrow at the National party bringing in two ex-tobacco lobbyists in its new crop of MPs. Hilarious and crucial. Watch it.

Christina Aguilera doing musical impressions of Cher and Britney is pretty entertaining.

An MH370 obsessive talks about being an MH370 obsessive.

Tom the Dancing Bug on the new Harper Lee book.

Big Birdman – perfection. Caroll Spinney is 81 and still in the big yellow birdsuit!

And finally…

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Watching Buffy: s02e05 “Reptile Boy”

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In August 2012, a high school girl in Steubenville, Ohio went out to a party and got drunker than she intended. In the hours that followed, a succession of popular boys took sexual advantage of her, and two raped her. The case went big after it appeared the town was rallying behind the boys instead of their victim. It marked a turning point in global discussion around sexual abuse and consent, particularly in the context of young intoxicated people.

This case, and many others like it before and since, cast a long shadow over this episode of Buffy. The episode was deliberately aiming at a known target: powerful young men luring young women into trusting them, and then feeding them drinks or drugging them, and raping them while they are insensible.

It happens a lot, and it’s been happening for a long time. The focus for some years has been on campus, particularly college fraternities, where this kind of abuse is rife (as researchers were at pains to point out after one story of frat brother abuse turned out to be unreliable).

This is heady stuff for a TV show about cheerleaders fighting vampires. It takes the ostensible structure of the show, monsters as metaphors, and slams it hard against the unavoidable emergent theme of rape culture. Vampires are metaphorical rapists, sure, but episode writer (and show veteran) David Greenwalt takes the idea much further – the metaphor here becomes almost literal, and the intention unmistakeable.

The episode is about a fraternity at Sunnydale’s elite school Crestwood College. (The fraternity is portrayed much like a Skull and Bones-style secret society, but it’s definitely part of the Greek system – this means Greenwalt gets to incriminate both types of boy’s club at once.) The frat boys have an unpleasant habit of luring high school girls into their clubhouse, then drugging them and feeding them to their (phallus-shaped) demon. The demon, in return, delivers wealth and power to their families.

There’s no metaphor at all to the first part of that, the luring and the drugging. The show makes this explicit by having one frat boy correct another who is about to follow through the real world script by raping the unconscious Buffy: “I was just having a little fun.” “Well, she’s not here for your fun, you pervert. She’s here for the pleasure of the one we serve.” The show applies the monster-metaphor as late as possible to make its real-world target crystal clear.

The effect of this is interesting. In the text of the show, literal rape is about pleasure and satisfaction, whereas metaphorical rape is about consolidating social and economic power. Or put another way: being a good business executive is morally equivalent to rape.

This is a politics I can get behind – linking the show’s in-built feminist angle to a left-wing criticism of capitalist power structures. But it is, as stated, heady stuff for this show. Aren’t we meant to be focusing on the horrors of high school? What are all these frat boys doing here?

The episode glosses this link by examining the age difference between Angel and Buffy, and having the frat boys use their age and “maturity” to lure in younger girls. (There’s no particular reason the frat boys target younger women when they have access to a campus full of co-eds.) It’s a pretty weak link, and the two halves of the episode never really illuminate each other. For what it’s worth, the resolution to the age difference conflict is “Buffy doesn’t care about it, and Angel eventually accepts this and gets over his own anxieties about it”, which is about the only way you can play it. Age differences are really about power differences, and if Angel doesn’t fret about that, then the dynamic gets very problematic very fast.

Throughout her relationship with Angel, Buffy never really commits to a perception of Angel as an older man. Instead he’s almost a wish-fulfilment teenage projection of what an older man boyfriend would be like. (Later, when he gets his own show, we see Angel outside the filter of Buffy’s perspective, and he’s kind of goofy and uncool.)

Anyway, with that conflict disposed of, the show is finally able to take the step it’s been teasing since episode one: Buffy and Angel becoming a couple. He asks her out – and she says maybe. In an episode in which we saw so many awful men with so much awful power, this is a nice way to go out – with all the power in Buffy’s hands.

Other thoughts:
* The Buffy/Willow/Xander threesome is portrayed as so close in this episode it almost gets weird – Buffy and Xander together braid Willow’s hair.
* I’m not sure if the costuming here was a deliberate nod to the “what were you wearing?” victim-blaming around rape culture, but Buffy wears two separate outfits where her bra is visible through her top.
* Buffy lying to Giles is a big moment for her. As discussed a couple episodes ago, she doesn’t often do the wrong thing. This is a pretty clear instance of after-school special mistake-making. The show goes out of its way to make sure we buy this act of rebellion, not by really giving Sarah Michelle Gellar a convincing emotional journey to sell (she still almost pulls it off), but by having Willow berate Giles and Angel for not understanding it. Who could resist that?
* As wild frat parties go, this ones looks pretty sedate – close dancing and chill-out music and only one drunk person!
* Jonathan is back and he gets his name!

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Austen vs. Sherlock Linky

My lovely friend Debbie Cowens, half of the people behind Mansfield with Monsters, has a novel being PledgeMe’d into existence by Paper Road Press. “Murder and Matchmaking is a dark comedy that answers the question: if Mrs Bennett is so worried about what will happen to her if her daughters don’t marry … why doesn’t she really do something about it?” It’s already written and edited, the funding campaign is to get it printed and into bookstores. Check it out!

via Rachel B: Scientific experimentation to really figure out what’s up with those McDonalds hamburgers that don’t decompose.

via Shane: a trailer for the new Terminator film that finally makes sense of all those Terminator films

Hey, remember Cosmopolitan? It was like a website made out of paper updated every month? And it was an early master of the clickbait headline. Anyway, now I’ve reminded you, I bet you wonder what it’s doing these days! Well here’s something it’s doing: publishing NSFW images of Disney princesses enacting scenes from 50 Shades of Grey. Because who the hell knows.

The Ruminator: how the card game Presidents & Assholes describes a left-wing view of life. (Read to the bottom to find out what card game describes a right-wing view of life.)

The fat woman who designed the fitness game Zombies Run, on being a fat woman who designed a fitness game.

Laurie Penny & Meredith Yayanos bring you Fifty Shades of Socialist Feminism

Lots of “what is ISIS really” articles going around. Here’s one I read, at the Atlantic, who are usually pretty good. I have no idea how to evaluate how accurate it is.
EDITED TO ADD: I’ve seen quite a few responses to this article claiming it portrays ISIS as Islamic and thus Islam is the problem; but that’s now how I read this article at all. Here’s a good response that adds lots of great info to the discussion but, in my reading at least, doesn’t actually contradict the Atlantic piece at all.
SECOND EDIT: An overview of pushback on this piece, but I still think Wood’s point in this article was to say ISIS is Islamic in the same way that, like, people who bomb abortion clinics are Bible-literalist Christians. That said, finding this article celebrated by Fox News people and Richard Dawkins doesn’t give me much comfort.

The WaPo digs into what’s really going on with this new Harper Lee book, showing evidence that it’s actually a first draft of what became To Kill A Mockingbird. (I see this article has been syndicated all over the place! Good.)

Via Scott A: absolutely compelling evidence that Stevie Wonder is not blind OMG

And finally… Which freaky James Spader character are you?

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Football Game & Eric Garner

Podcast confluence today. I listened to this:

You Are Not So Smart episode 41, which opens with a discussion of a divisive Ivy League football match in 1951, and the studies where students from the two schools watched tape of the match and simply couldn’t see their own side’s poor behaviour but were really quick to spot infractions from the other side.

Then I listened to this:

This American Life: Cops See It Differently, part 2, which opens with a TAL reporter watching the video of Eric Garner’s arrest with her friend the police officer, and her astonishment that they couldn’t agree on what they were seeing.

Transcript of the TAL episode is not up as I type but should appear at that link in a few days.

No transcript of the YANSS podcast, but mostly McRaney’s reading from his own book, and the relevant section is conveniently available in this excerpt from the publisher.)

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Watching Buffy: s02e04 “Inca Mummy Girl”

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Not a praying mantis.

So, Xander falls for a woman who is actually a monster, and yes the show is fully aware they already did this story. They’re having a second go the same reason anyone has a second go – they want to get it right this time.

This episode has some character work to do, too. As we’ve seen, the Willow-Xander-Buffy love triangle (really an unrequited-love-chain I guess?) was resolved in the season one finale, and its end was reiterated in the first episode of this season. This raises some questions – what is going on among the trio now, exactly? We saw that Buffy, Willow and Xander have love for each other at the end of When She Was Bad, and we saw them happily dancing together in School Hard, so we know they are in a good place with each other. But the intense romantic feelings of teenagers don’t untangle easily, and if this show is going to live up to its promise of real emotions then it needs to look harder.

But let’s start with the monster. Inca Mummy Girl (her real name is never revealed) is a complex character. She was an innocent girl chosen for an unpleasant fate, and now she is willing to sacrifice people in order to experience some of the joys she missed before. Her powers are classic Bathory – draining the life from other people to maintain her own youth! It’s really just vampirism in a slightly different form (a form traditionally marked as feminine, in fact, with its emphasis on looking youthful).

The show takes care to portray Inca Mummy Girl with sympathy, but also to point out repeatedly that her murders are horrific and inexcusable. It’s an effective balance, and she remains understandable even when she decisively chooses murder at the end.

So, what’s the monster-as-metaphor this time? The argument she has with her bodyguard points the way – he insists she must accept her fate rather than hurting other people. This is ultimately a monstrous riff on that blinkered teenage selfishness where you think the whole world revolves around you, and anyone (usually a parent) who stops you doing what you want is a monster who is ruining your life! The show is savvy enough to complicate this metaphor, because the people who sacrificed the Inca Mummy Girl were indeed monstrously unfair, and submitting to her fate will indeed ruin her life. So the show cleverly has its cake and eats it too – it criticises that selfishness while also agreeing that teenagers can be right about stuff.

This metaphor works just fine. She is a moral counterpoint to Buffy, who explicitly notes the parallels between them (although Xander has to remind Buffy that she made a different choice when she was faced with death). It also ties her to Xander, who is at the centre of this episode. Xander’s behaviour in season one was pretty awful, although the show tried to make it forgivable. Xander even had a heroic redemption after hitting rock bottom in Prophecy Girl. His post-redemption relationship with Buffy is given a lot of time this episode, and it’s pretty damn healthy. There’s hope for him after all!

But Xander still manifests the fundamental flaw of patriarchy: thinking the whole world revolves around you. (That’s also the fundamental flaw of teenagers, it’s just people who ain’t white male heterosexuals get it knocked out of them faster.) For all his obvious love for Willow – he outright states it, even – he still hurts her, over and over again, by not considering her feelings. And because it’s Willow getting hurt, the show knows you will feel that pain thanks to Alyson Hannigan’s talent for being a wounded puppy. These harmful acts don’t make Xander a villain, far from it – but he doesn’t get to be an uncomplicated hero either.

The climax brings Xander’s and IMG’s respective selfishnesses into collision. Xander is the one who demands the Inca Mummy Girl leave Willow alone – if she’s going to murder anyone, it’s got to be him. It’s his turn to step up to his responsibilities, the same test that Buffy passed, and that Inca Mummy Girl failed. For all is failures with the day-to-day business of not being a dick, when the choices are clear, he chooses well. After saving him from the consequences of his sacrifice here, Buffy gives her endorsement by comparing this to his saving her from her sacrifice in Prophecy Girl. Through Buffy, the show forgives him his weaknesses. The implication is that he will learn to see himself more clearly and do better all ’round. He’ll grow up. It’s a hopeful moment.

Willow, meanwhile, drifts along in the wake of Xander’s journey. She’s not over him, and she’s stuck. She doesn’t even get any dialogue after Xander makes his big heroic stand to save her life. All you get from this episode is that Willow feels unnoticed. However, even though Willow doesn’t get to address this problem, the show solves it for her by having someone notice her. This is quite heartening too – Willow hasn’t been doing anything wrong, after all, and by introducing Oz the show acknowledges this. In the rhythm of the episode the Oz scenes are very strange – why are we suddenly cutting away to some random other person? – but because we have been primed to sympathy for Willow this episode they work, another hopeful moment, and an emphatic expansion of possibilities for our core characters and the show.

Other notes:
* When you appeal to a sympathetic villain with the power of love, the villain is supposed to have a crisis of conscience and repent. Hasn’t Inca Mummy Girl seen any movies! Oh well okay I guess she hasn’t. This is the episode’s biggest swerve.
* Who’s that near-victim? Hey, it’s Jonathan! Like Harmony, he’s another bit player from the unaired pilot who returned in a very minor role in the regular series and ended up becoming an important part of the story.
* This ep was written by Matt Kiene and Joe Reinkemeyer, who were also behind The Pack, another episode that did smart work with the monster-as-metaphor. The Pack had a significant rewrite from Joss Whedon, though, and I suspect this episode did as well.

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Redpill Linky

Beginners guide to the “red pill” movement, a.k.a. the hive of theatrically oppressed men who are causing so much crap right now.

Wash that nonsense out of your brain with this: 17yo Megan Follows’ audition for Anne of Green Gables. Just perfect. (via Marguerite)

Jen’s report on the search for 43 lost students and her Contributoria page for a proposed follow-up trip to the UN.

Replace all internet images with Cookie Monster

A dystopian Young Adult novel, twitter-style. (via Matt Cowens)

Jon Stewart may be going but Last Week Tonight is back:

Phil Sandifer has finally concluded his epic critical journey through the 50-year history of Doctor Who. The final piece: a book-length account of the entire story of the show’s creation and development, as a single post. Stunning.

A visit to a future Earth, after the ravages of climate change.

Vanity Fair has been asking celebrities about the Serial podcast.

20-minute doco about the people inside the Jabba the Hutt puppet. I can’t make this play on my machine for some reason. Someone tell me if it’s good.

Norman Rockwell art facts. I have much love for Rockwell thanks to a marvellous coffee table book owned by my parents through my childhood.

Reddit’s NZ community is extremely helpful with this request about the size and ferocity of spiders in New Zealand. Spot the member of Parliament…

Apparently the entirety of the Game of Thrones world has been created in Minecraft

Fascinating account of how Ta-Nehisi Coates created one of the best comment sections on the internet, and how it just couldn’t last.

Fanart corner: Hipster Star Wars

Visualisation of colour words by gender. I haven’t even looked at this properly, maybe one of you will tell me if it’s worth the trouble.

More from Nate’s dive into classic tunes: 1979 Aussie hit Space Invaders.

I had never heard of the witch who exorcised the demons from Bowie.

Might be time to go back to weekly Friday linky. This got long. And finally…

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Watching Buffy: s02e03 “School Hard”

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Vampires can breathe now okay

In the precredits, a new vampire rolls into town and smashes the Sunnydale sign with his arrival. It represents the destructive path he intends for the town – but it’s also a marker that his debut overthrows the current order. Sunnydale stories have been told a certain way, but now there’s a new antagonist in town and all that’s gonna change.

Season two starts in earnest right here. Episode one tidied away the overhang from the first season, then episode two let us catch our breath with the show in default mode. Now, the new era begins. And in a very real sense, that sign getting smashed is also the beginning of Buffy the cultural phenomenon. Across season one we watched the show work itself out and get all its pieces in place. Now the engine is assembled, it puts its foot on the accelerator and starts to race.

Back up a bit. The actual intro for this episode is Buffy being snagged by Principal Snyder and put in charge of parent/teacher night. Snyder marks Buffy as a “bad element”, pairing her with another troublesome student for this chore. This pairing is a weird move, exposing one of the faultlines in the show. Part of the premise of the show is that the teenagers know the truth and the adults don’t – otherwise the adults would take over the whole battle and the show wouldn’t exist any more. To keep Buffy independent, she has to fight in secret, breaking adult rules as she goes. There’s metaphor here of course – teenagers have their important reasons to sneak out of school that boring old people just wouldn’t understand. The trick here is that Buffy’s reasons for sneaking out are laudable and heroic, and if the grown-ups ever did figure that out they would start to appreciate what she’s doing.

And, of course, Sarah Michelle Gellar just doesn’t play Buffy as a troublemaker. Seeing Buffy side-by-side with Sheila just makes it comically obvious how that label is a very unconvincing fit for Buffy. Sure, she skips classes and she burned down a school building or two, but she radiates good sense and consideration. She isn’t a bad kid. It’s obvious. Buffy-as-delinquent is an unsustainable premise, which in turn shines a light on the way that Sunnydale is beset by monsters on a regular basis without anyone noticing. We suspend our disbelief because that’s the way genre storytelling works, but moves like this really rub our noses in it.

But, surprise! Later in this same episode, we find out the show is ahead of the game here. Snyder and the Police Chief discuss a cover story for the vampires, revealing that the town’s authority figures do know the truth, and in fact are actively working to keep the town in the dark. While the show will never really take this conspiracy far enough to absolve us of the need to manage our disbelief – a gang on PCP, that’s the whole cover story? – for the rest of its run the show will give us little handholds like this to make the burden easier. (This also changes the nature of Principal Snyder’s relationship with Buffy. Does he really think she’s just a troublemaker, or does he know the truth about her too? The conspiracy is kept small for now to keep the focus on the high school, but ground continues to be laid for looking at the wider world.)

This doesn’t shore up every aspect of the Buffy-as-unconvincing-troublemaker problem. The same issue was used throughout season one as the basis of conflict between Buffy and her mother. But, surprise! The episode has you covered here too, putting Joyce in the middle of the action and giving her this lovely little speech: “Principal Snyder said you were a troublemaker… And I could care less. I have a daughter who can take care of herself. Who’s brave and resourceful and thinks of others in a crisis. No matter who you hang out with or what dumb teenage stuff you think you need to do, I’m gonna sleep better knowing all that.” In other words, Joyce sees what the viewer does, and sensibly decides that this “troublemaker” label is a very poor fit.

So, what are these monsters that threaten Sunnydale? Our sign-smashing vampire is Spike, and this is the best character intro in the series so far. (It sure beats the way Buffy herself was introduced, also every other regular with the possible exception of Giles.) He steps out of the car, takes a drag from a cigarette, shot from below like a rock star. The show’s visual storytelling has moved up a level – when Spike crashes the Anointed’s gathering the dialogue could be in Swahili and you’d still get every plot beat.

At the end of the episode, Spike casually wipes out the Anointed One. The old way to do bad guys is over. Out goes emotional coldness and ruthless efficiency. In come new villains who are full of emotion, who are driven by their feelings. The Master was all about ironic distance and not really feeling anything any more, but Spike and his crew promise villains who get reckless and wildly out of control. And feeling out of control is something that resonates for teenagers. Now Buffy and her friends have something new to push against, bad guys who are even more messed up and dramatically interesting than they are. In other words: the bad kids.

Other notes:
* There’s a cute scene at the Bronze where Buffy, Xander and Willow dance together. It’s a pointed (and pleasant!) contrast to the dance of cruelty from When She Was Bad.
* Willow rescuing Cordelia is marvellous.
* Back in comments for When She Was Bad, Pearce talked about how a key message from the end of season one was Buffy’s reliance on her friends, which is how she managed to survive. Spike complains about exactly that in this episode: “A Slayer with family and friends. That sure as hell wasn’t in the brochure.”
* This episode’s TV broadcast in NZ infuriated me to the point of writing a letter to the broadcaster. It was screening pre-watershed, and all the violence was being cut from the show, which meant whole sequences became unintelligible. The end of the episode, with the Anointed One being killed by Spike, was impossible to understand and I had to go on to usenet to figure out what the hell was going on. Dumb. I remember getting a reply that seemed to ignore my complaint entirely, which just made me grumpier, but they did change the timeslot for the show a few weeks later.

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Watching Buffy: s02e02 “Some Assembly Required”

Some-Assembly-Required-cordelia-chase-20634183-820-616
Angel’s never-to-be-seen-again tan jacket: hot or not?

In terms of the overall 22-episode arc of Buffy season two, this episode is nothing but padding. It’s there to put some space between the last episode, which had the important job of making sure the door hit season one’s ass on its way out, and the next episode, in which the grand story of season two will begin. On the whiteboard for this season, this ep was probably marked “business as usual”.

Which gives us some irony. Business as usual can only mean “just like those season one episodes”, so we have the bemusing spectacle of the show defiantly promising not to do season one over again and then straight away doing an episode that could be right out of season one.

It’s a very standard metaphor-monster-of-the-week. A Sunnydale student resurrects his dead jock brother into a decaying zombie-like form, and then promises to build him a female companion out of parts. Aided by his creepy best friend, the student gets to work graverobbing, but targets Cordelia for the head, which leads to Buffy smashing the crap out of everyone and the zombie jock being destroyed in a burning building.

The metaphor this episode is brutally clear, and utterly in line with the core concerns of the show. It’s about male entitlement and the objectification of women. All three men are guilty of variations on the theme: Daryl feels utterly entitled to a woman and clearly doesn’t consider himself complete without one; his brother Chris promises his brother a woman in the first place, fully endorsing Daryl’s views; and Chris’s creepy friend Eric eagerly evaluates the bodies of women and attacks those he chooses as victims. It’s all utterly typical high school sexism, dialled up into the fantastic realm of Buffy, and while it’s ultimately a pretty forgettable episode it is clearly lining up some worthy targets.

And yes, the first season echoes are plentiful:

  • The monster being consumed by a burning school building is precisely the fear Principal Flutie expressed in Welcome to the Hellmouth – pity he’s not around to see it.
  • Cordelia wears her cheerleader outfit again, as seen in Witch, and we actually see the football team – Sunnydale seems like a real school again!
  • Cordelia gets abducted by the bad guys – twice in one episode. (To be fair, this happens a fair amount in future seasons too.)
  • The source of the trouble is Sunnydale’s supreme geek (this time the “reigning champ” of the science fair) – see also Fritz and Dave in I Robot, You Jane and, swerved, Morgan in Puppet Show. (It’s a bit weird how the show keeps going to this trope – don’t they know that geeks are their audience?)

Still, it’s obvious that all these echoes are fairly superficial. While the surface material is very familiar, the changes wrought in the previous episodes have stuck as the characters start being pushed into different emotional places. The flashes of humanity we’ve seen in Giles coalesce into the very funny and very charming sight of him nervously going on a date with Jenny Calendar. Angel and Buffy continue to deepen their relationship, as they talk through Buffy’s behaviour with Xander the previous episode and Angel admits his jealousy. Even Cordelia continues to accrue sympathy as her attempt to thank Xander gets completely brushed off. It’s all small-scale stuff, quietly laying groundwork for major emotional beats down the line, but it’s satisfying to see. This is a different storytelling mode to season one, where mostly the relationships between the characters were simply repeated every episode – now they are all moving.

Overall then, a pretty solid placeholder. The show knows what it’s doing now, and even its wheelspinning is funny and charming and thematically on point. There are much worse ways to fill out a season than this.

Other thoughts:
* the character of Jenny Calendar continues to be developed in the most excellent ways possible. The fascinating and diverse female ensemble on this show is great, with the male contingent both outnumbered and outshone.
* I have no further thoughts. There isn’t even really a 3/4 swerve this time. This was a perfectly acceptable and unremarkable episode of Buffy. Next!
* EDIT: I forgot to note the writer – Ty King & Joss Whedon are credited together. Okay.

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Yogathulhu Linky

Thanks Mundens for making sure I didn’t miss Cthulhy yoga. Delightfully, this short vid is narrated by right-on leftie journo (and personal fave) Laurie Penny.

Beastie Boys: Fight For Your Right To Party, without the music.

Chait vs everyone else (in this case, Gawker) re: online political correctness. I am not unsympathetic to Chait, though – but I see the tense battles over language as a sign of a massive growth step currently underway, as the entire English-language discourse tries to level up to a new level of self-responsibility. Sure there’s counterproductive stuff going on, but the overall direction of change is pretty clearly towards increased love for thy neighbour, and if Chait could step out of his paradigm for a minute he might see that.

Via Craig Oxbrow: every time travel movie ever, ranked. (They get the Bill & Ted films around the wrong way, though.)

Via John Fouhy – A discussion forum for “junior crew” on the official website for the late-90s Douglas Adams computer game Starship Titanic spawned an eager roleplaying community that continues today.

Dangerous Minds has the recording of a Nirvana concert where the band, furious at how their support act had been treated, trolled the crowd hard. I didn’t know about this but I’m keen to listen!

And finally, a three-frame gif that will put a song in your head for the rest of the day.

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