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Watching Buffy: s03e20 “The Prom”


High school is hell. This is the concept Buffy has run with right from the first episode, when new kid Buffy opted out of popularity to hide with the weird kids in the library. From there she and her friends would take on all the pains of late adolescence, as filtered into monstrous metaphorical form.

Over this last run of episodes, as graduation day approaches, the show has remembered it’s set in high school. Earshot coloured in Sunnydale High, and Choices began the process of resolving outstanding questions. This episode carries on from both of these, solidifying the show’s high school context and locking down more conclusions to get ready for the end.

The heart of this episode is the prom, perhaps the one moment in high school where even in the real world people are beguiled by mythic metaphor. For Buffy, it is a last chance to party before the coming apocalypse, a precious opportunity for her friends that she will protect at all costs. Her own belief in the magic of prom and its promise of “one perfect high school moment” is, unfortunately, broken early in this episode when Angel unilaterally ends their relationship.

Marti Noxon carries a bad reputation in the received wisdom of Buffy fandom, accused of overloading the show with melodrama. Whether or not she earns that rep later on, the breakup scene between Buffy and Angel is breathtaking. It runs long, a two-hander that takes its time and gives Sarah Michelle Gellar plenty of space to walk the audience through every beat of Buffy’s internal journey. It is painful and very believable. It’s clear Angel’s already made up his mind, and Buffy’s anger at this is palpable – “Who are you to tell me what’s right for me? You think I haven’t thought about this?” But there’s no way to say Angel is wrong. It’s an utterly believable split, the same fracture in their relationship that almost led Angel to kill himself in Amends but played out in a different way. And it’s so downbeat, so simple. There isn’t even a precipitating incident, except perhaps for the Mayor and Joyce who separately deliver the same message that Angel is clearly already thinking. The relationship comes to pieces quietly, because Angel thought about it long enough to lose his faith in its future. It’s not the way we’d expect a TV show to break up its central romance, it’s too quiet, too sensible. The contrast with the usual mode of TV storytelling gives it extra impact. It feels solid. It feels irreversible. It feels real. That’s why Buffy’s line at the end of the scene strikes so deep: “Is this really happening?”

By way of answer, the show dissolves to a shot of the moon. Dissolves aren’t really part of the show’s visual language, and neither is a wide establishing shot; the show keeps its edits tight and clean and holds its eye on the world immediate to the Scoobies. With this edit, which leads into shots of Buffy and then Angel alone, the show tells us that the split is real. Buffy’s life just changed forever.

We’re still in this moment as we land on Buffy trying to make sense of it by spilling her guts to newly-confirmed BFF Willow. And she says out loud what the show has already told us: “But he’s right. I mean, I think, maybe in the long run, that he’s right.” And then she breaks down into sobs, and it’s powerful to see her so undone, because she is so strong and capable now, so indomitable in the full bloom of her slayer authority. The show keeps its promise: real emotions when bad things happen.

Buffy pulls out of her funk only when it becomes clear the prom is under threat: “I’m going to give you all a nice, fun, normal evening if I have to kill every single person on the face of the earth to do it.” It’s another moment of closure, the ultimate expression of Buffy’s relationship to the school and to her friends – as the Chosen One she has slowly come to recognize she needs her friends, but she is also ready to sacrifice herself for them and be their champion. We also get a further demonstration of the team in action, with Buffy as the effective general, again showing us the outcome of three seasons of team development. We even get Willow throwing down some hacking prowess, a callback to the very beginning of the Scooby Gang working together. But there’s one further note of conclusion here: as Buffy takes responsibility for her friends’ happiness, her friends step back and allow her to do this. It’s a group dynamic that is settled and mature, and it is satisfying to see.

More closure, this episode finally puts an end to Xander’s troubling and obsessive behaviour towards Cordelia. For some time now he has been cruelly attacking her, an unpleasant habit that arose from his own insecurities after betraying her. In this episode he finds that things are going poorly for her, and it shocks him out of this pattern, reminding him that she is a human being. In a rare generous gesture, he pays for her prom dress, and they have a genuine moment of mutual respect and despite-everything affection at the prom. For too long Xander’s behaviour towards Cordy has echoed uncomfortably with the dark core of male entitlement shown in The Pack, but his generosity here – not just buying the dress, but covering up her fall from grace, giving her a simple, friendly compliment, giving her the last word, and not imposing on her evening at all – speak of a Xander who is not in thrall to those weaknesses. It comes far too late to make Xander any kind of shiny exemplar, but it is a healthy and welcome change.

The episode also provides a contrast to Xander’s escape from toxic masculinity, by presenting an episode villain who is completely engulfed in the same. The prom is threatened by a school student named Tucker, whose entire motivation for mass murder is getting turned down by the girl he asked to go with him. The show displays its contempt for this with a flashback that is merciless in its brevity, but the premise stings in the present moment, after several mass murders in schools motivated by exactly and precisely this kind of petty self-loathing. The show has unwittingly struck on the perfect expression of its thematic interest in the female perspective by allowing Buffy to close out her high-school years with an unequivocal victory over a pitiful red pill/MRA ideologue.

The climax of the episode, however, isn’t anything to do with the monsters. It comes in an unexpected addition to the prizegiving ceremony, where Jonathan – just saved from suicide by Buffy one episode ago – gives Buffy an award on behalf of all the students: “We’re not good friends. Most of us never found the time to get to know you, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t noticed you…. Most of the people here have been saved by you, or helped by you at one time or another… So the senior class, offers its thanks.”

And the students of Sunnydale High all turn to celebrate Buffy, and the moment echoes back through every episode we’ve seen, every moment in this school, when Buffy’s courage and sacrifice was seen, and was remembered. The senior class become one with the audience, and we know Buffy deserves her perfect high school moment, complete with Angel to take her in his arms and dance.

Buffy wins. She defeats high school by discovering its true face – a community of people who see the good in others and, stumbling and hesitant, show them love as best they can. A community facing real threat, but blessed with real emotion, enough that they can see the guarding angel who’s been among them from the start.

The show always claimed that high school was hell. Turns out it was heaven all along.

Other notes:
* We finally discover where Angel gets his blood, underlining yet again how little the show cares about procedural questions like “where does Angel get his blood”.
* Joyce coming to see Angel plays as a really nice, gentle moment. Buffy would no doubt be furious at Joyce interfering in her life, but the show is basically on Joyce’s side here.
* The Giles-Buffy relationship is beautifully played here as well. His deep fatherly concern and his profound respect for her both resonate in the moments when he learns of her breakup with Angel and congratulates her at the prom.
* For all the unpleasant overtones that now attach to Tucker’s revenge scheme, it is genuinely hilarious how he trained the beasts to attack formal attire by forcing them to binge-watch Carrie, Pretty in Pink, and the Prom Night franchise.
* Anya returns in this episode, and while she is kind of irrelevant to the action she makes an immediate impression. This is an almost entirely new take on the character compared to her previous outings, displaying an arresting mixture of blunt speech, social naivete, and a helpless awareness of stormy emotions. She is utterly irresistible.
* The show has trained us to expect dream sequences now, so when we see Buffy and Angel getting married we know what’s going on. But the show has a swerve – it’s actually Angel’s dream this time. In retrospect it’s obvious, because it’s way out of character for Buffy to dream about getting married.


Dystopia Linky

via Scott Common: ranking dystopias by their livability.

via Ben Sedley: that time Alan Moore wrote stories for Star Wars.

It’s Steph Curry playing HORSE with his dad! (If you don’t know who Steph Curry is… he’s like, in the movies where an overlooked kid with none of the physical attributes rises to somehow become the champion of the world, he’s that, but he really exists and is really doing it.)

How smiling evolved over a century of yearbook photos. (I knew people maintained a neutral expression in early photos because the images took time to fix, and neutral faces were easier to hold – but this article attributes smiling in photos to a marketing campaign from Kodak!)

Einstein’s complex ideas, compellingly explained using only simple and commonplace words.

More Steph: professional ballet dancers analyse his grace on the court.

Big, warm-hearted article on the outsize presence of Samoans in American Football.

Via David R: the perfect shot in Alien 3.

Via Steve Ellis: the 6 ballsiest moments in the history of American espionage.

And finally, probably the extreme-est of the extreme haunted houses trend.


Watching Buffy: s03e19 “Choices”


Buffy will always be remembered as a high school show. “High school really is hell” is the catchy high concept that sums up what this show was about. Buffy, Xander and Willow hanging out in the school library, making plans to fight vampires with Giles? That’s the show, always and forever. (Example: just this week Buffy made it as far as the semi-finals in’s “best high school show of all time” bracket.)

This memory is wrong, of course. Buffy was at high school for little more than a third of the series run, and it had mostly stopped caring about the school by the halfway point of those episodes. When last week’s episode suddenly devoted screen time to the school, it came as a shock, a surprise reminder that yes, these characters were in fact high school students. (Vulture published an explainer for Buffy’s failure to progress to the final, acknowledging that the show is about much more than just high school.)

The high school label will stick around regardless. In high school Buffy became something exceptional in season two, and delivered ambition and quality in season three. With this episode, the end of high school comes looming into view. It isn’t entirely clear how the next season will work. Buffy isn’t much of a high school show, but it still uses that setting to keep its narrative together. What’s going to happen next? How big a transformation will this be?

The show is heading for a format change that will have a bigger impact that anything else in the its history. While the change will not be as momentous as other shows that take their high school setting seriously and then have to transition to a wholly new set of concerns upon graduation, it will still adjust the context and relationships of every character and change the context of every threat. More importantly, it will pull the rug out from under that high concept: high school might have been hell, but the characters are almost out of high school.

Effecting change on this scale takes a bit of time and care to do properly, and that’s why the end of Buffy starts here. The closing quartet of episodes that are all concerned with resolving the many ongoing threads that have animated the show through this season, and in fact through its whole existence. There is a lot to get through, and four episodes will prove barely enough.

Before closing things off, though, the show finally puts its major antagonist in the picture. Last season Angelus arrived too soon and the show struggled to delay the inevitable confrontation, but this time the show has held the Mayor back and he and Faith are peaking at just the right time.

The relationship between Faith and the Mayor is depicted clearly in a vivid fragment where the Mayor gives Faith a gift-wrapped present. Faith’s attitude and sass disappear as soon as the Mayor chides her, showing Faith is desperate for the kind of father-figure approval the Mayor can provide. He gives her the performance of love and security while at the same time encouraging her most anti-social tendencies – an unlikely combination that Faith has not, of course, been able to find anywhere else. Faith’s relationship with the Mayor is an interesting contrast with the approaches of Giles (I will treat you as an adult, don’t disappoint me) and Wesley (I will treat you as an errant child, but I have no claim to authority), and even with her erstwhile mentor Buffy (I will be your friend but we have to be honest with each other).

Faith’s character is certainly thriving in the Mayor’s care, for a certain definition of thriving. She murders another human in this episode, assassinating him from behind and from a distance in the absence of provocation. This behaviour is deeply disturbing – even the vampire sent to help her is creeped out by her eagerness to mutilate the body in order to free her prize. As ever in this season, it is hard to see how this storyline can end – Buffy is firmly against killing, but it doesn’t seem like Faith can be stopped without killing her, and her brutal cruelty doesn’t leave much room for redemption.

The Mayor, meanwhile, finally gets some context as he explains that he did have a family, a wife who died of old age while his immortality kept him alive. It doesn’t really make him any easier to understand as a villain, but it provides some depth and complexity that has been absent in the character before now. Delightfully, he uses his experience as a reason to tell Angel and Buffy that their relationship is similarly doomed, and his message strikes home in just the same way Spike’s warnings of doom resonated earlier in the season.

The episode does turn its attention to resolution, starting with a look at the competence of the Scooby Gang. A lot of genre entertainment generates pleasure from “competence porn”, the joy of watching skillful people do hard jobs with aplomb. This show has never done this. For all of season one, much of season two and even into this season the group have often been presented as defiantly, gleefully amateurish in their approach to fighting bad guys and saving the world. In this episode, however, they are operating with a smooth operational confidence. The episode takes on the structure of a heist movie, complete with a Mission Impossible “dangling from cables to uplift the treasure” sequence. Every member of the team has a role to play and does the job with care, deferring always to Buffy’s leadership. It doesn’t quite go according to plan, of course, but that’s perfectly in keeping with our expectations of a heist narrative – and more importantly, none of the problems are seen to arise from character flaws or poor decisions on the part of our heroes. Indeed, the only reason it doesn’t come off is because of Faith, whose position as a counterpart to Buffy allows her to be disruptive to the best-laid plans.

Until this reveal, however, it is very enjoyable to watch the team work so well together. We’ve seen them stumble and fail and mess up over and over again, and seeing them do the job so well is a pleasurable culmination of three seasons of growth and improvement. The show was never concerned with high school as a place for education, but the skillful spycraft on display here is a solid proxy for it. What we are given in this episode is a bunch of characters who have mastered their craft and are ready to graduate.

After we learn about Willow’s capture, the focus of the episode shifts rapidly. As the group negotiate a hostage exchange with the Mayor, the episode makes a significant swerve by giving Willow some meaty hero beats. Although her image has always been shy, gentle, squeamish, anxious, and caring, Willow has been capable of steel right from go – her big moment in The Pack was an early highlight. But nothing before now has prepared us for the resourceful courage Willow displays here, luring a vampire in to attack her so she can use her magic to stake it with a pencil, then forgoing a chance to escape in order to uncover more about the Mayor’s plans, and then upon being discovered by Faith she shows even her deep empathy has limits as she delivers some home truths to the current vampire slayer: “You’re just a big selfish, worthless waste.” While her decision to sit and read in a corner for an hour wasn’t terribly wise, it does mean she can deliver some crucial information about the Mayor’s plan.

This is all about dealing with the first bump in the road for the show: keeping the cast together. Buffy wants to go to a university far away, but her obligation to the Hellmouth will keep her in place. Her friends, however, have no such obligations. In fact, the show has embraced the fact that Willow should have opportunities to go almost anywhere in the world. Her hero turn in this episode serves as justification for her choice to stay. She is badass enough to pull her own weight, and she has clearly bought into the mission: “And I just realized that that’s what I want to do. Fight evil, help people. I mean, I think it’s worth doing. And I don’t think you do it because you have to. It’s a good fight, Buffy, and I want in.”

Buffy’s response: “I kind of love you.” And their relationship does appear to go up another level in this episode, as Willow’s and Buffy’s friendship becomes very strong and very special. If there is true love in this show, it exists between Willow and Buffy, and how right that this story with its devotion to a female point of view should so resoundingly celebrate strong female friendship.

Sadly, this comes at the expense of Oz. He is not entirely absent, of course. He gets a cracker of a scene in the middle, cutting short the gang’s discussion of the train problem by smashing the magical preparation he’d put together earlier. Seth Green, as usual, delivers beautifully, but after that he is thoroughly sidelined, and ignored entirely when Willow is recovered to allow the show to focus on the relationship Willow has with Buffy. This is, unfortunately, symptomatic of the way Oz has been treated throughout the season – he does everything so well, but is given frustratingly little to do. After this episode it is easy to imagine Seth Green looking again at his contracts and thinking very carefully about whether he wants to return for season four.

Other notes:
* The episode puts some attention on Xander. Even in the episodes where he is well-handled, his obsessive negativity towards Cordelia weighs him down. This is a burden the show needs to shift, and we get some groundwork for this in this episode. Notably, Xander is clearly portrayed as being out of line here – Willow tells him off for his attitude towards Cordelia (perhaps too gently, but still), and later we see him visibly give into the temptation to be an abusive ass towards her. It is a positive for the show to be portraying Xander’s poor behaviour as actively unpleasant, as opposed to an amusing comedy moment. This episode doesn’t actually resolve any of this, instead laying the groundwork for next time.
* Xander reading On the Road – well, that book won’t make him any more of a feminist, but a road trip actually sounds like a really good idea for the character.
* Not everything in the ep goes smoothly. It has to really work hard to contrive a circumstance where the monsters get out of the box – Snyder bursting in on what he suspects is a drug deal with a security guard who will act like an idiot. This is bizarrely out of sync with three seasons of genre expectation, full of late-night activity in the school with no security guards to be seen. It’s also out of step with Snyder’s own awareness of the supernatural and his position as a more complicated foil than he first appeared to be. Finally this forces a set-up in the first act where we have a sequence of Snyder shaking down two random students, completely disconnected from everything around it. Elegant plotting this is not, a shame in an episode that otherwise works so well.
* No better sign of just how little Buffy cares about believable world-building than seeing the Mayor operates his sinister schemes right out of the front door of city hall.
* Faith is aided by a vampire in a deeply unfashionable shirt. Nice to see this motif again.


Weird English Linky

Via Allen Varney: Why English is so weirdly different from other languages

Also via Allen: the heartbreaking truth behind Snape’s first words to Harry Potter

The New Yorker has a great longread about one of the most visible faces of the Westboro Baptist Church and how she ended up leaving it. The reason? Twitter.

Fascinating look at privacy and security concerns arising from a new piece of technology: a talking Barbie doll.

It’s Star Wars Week at the AVClub – all the Star Wars linky you could want.

The Spinoff has a fascinating long report on what went on behind the scenes at “Scout”, the entertainment/gossip news hub for NZ media conglomerate Mediaworks. It’s a slow-motion trainwreck of epic proportions. Indicative anecdote: unpaid intern writes listicle about influential Kiwi youth and puts Lorde at the top; politically-connected head of Scout forces her to replace Lorde with the widely disdained son of the Prime Minister.

And finally, via Pearce – an oral history of when Mr Snuffleupagus was revealed to the grown-ups of Sesame Street. Quite lovely.


Watching Buffy: s03e18 “Earshot”


Across three seasons, this show has honed a skillful technique of using supernatural elements to expose and explore widely-shared teenage concerns. Strangely, while this episode offers up a supernatural feature that is extremely well-suited to Buffy‘s method of monstrous metaphor, it then ignores the most obvious and potent aspect of teenage experience so exposed.

In the commentary, Espenson says the episode began with the idea of a student using magic to cheat on a test, and grew from there into a “be careful what you wish for” story – Buffy wishes she knew what Angel thought about Faith, and when she gains the power to find out, it almost kills her. You can see how this idea expanded into its final form, but the episode also shows an uncharacteristic insensitivity to the inner lives and priorities of teenagers. With all the shenanigans around mind-reading that fill the second act, we get only glimpses of what would surely be its most potent aspect, the fundamental anxiety among teenagers (and people in general): “What do they really think of me?”

Perhaps this is because of the nature of Buffy herself. She is a strong, independent figure who has happily defied convention throughout her story. If any character really didn’t give a toss about what other people thought of them, surely it would be Buffy? This superficially seems right, but I think the show itself has discouraged this kind of view of Buffy’s character. Although her courage and independence have been mainstays, the show has also been at pains to show her as flawed and human, hauling the same raft of emotional baggage as her fellow teens, and the desire for approval from those around her is absolutely in keeping with this. Indeed the very first mindreading Buffy experiences after discovering her power has her reacting with surprise and delight that a boy in the hall finds her attractive. It is hard to accept Buffy’s lack of interest then in her status in the eyes of others.

(To underline the point – there is of course a character in the show who has could convincingly be a telepath with no interest in the opinions others have of him. The show has spent a long time establishing Oz’s imperturbability, and the comparison between his characterization and Buffy’s is stark.)

Although the episode continues to give Buffy no curiosity about how she is seen by others, it keeps pointing in that direction. Buffy’s first thought of what to do with the power is to stand out in class with (telepathically stolen) insights into Othello. It’s a weird scene, straddling a logic gap – Buffy uses the power to impress people, but doesn’t use it to see if other people are actually impressed.

The teacher, continuing to discuss Othello, addresses the gap directly: “We all have our little internal Iagos, that tell us our husbands or our girlfriends or whatever, don’t really love us. But you never really see what’s in someone’s heart.” This leads directly to Buffy approaching Angel and attempting to use the power on him. However, once again, Buffy doesn’t try to discover what he thinks of her, only what he thinks about Faith.

Continuing the theme, when the Scooby gang gather again in the library to discuss Buffy’s power, her telepathy reveals mostly what the others think about themselves and each other, rather than what they think about Buffy. This is not really a moment where we’d expect Buffy to be fishing for their thoughts of her, but still the absence of these thoughts shows the episode is simply disinterested in this question.

Shortly after, Buffy is overwhelmed by the telepathy, and the power disappears for the remainder of the episode. Throughout, Buffy has been uninterested in what others think of her, and no-one else seems to be thinking of her anyway judging by the sampling of thoughts we hear. There’s some merit in this – although I maintain Buffy’s lack of curiosity is strange, it is not at all surprising that we don’t hear much from others. The eventual cure for teenage anxiety about how other people think of you is the slow-dawning discovery that mostly, they don’t. Other people aren’t thinking about you, they’re thinking about themselves.

Indeed, it is healthy for the show to finally gesture towards putting some context around the Scooby gang. Sunnydale High has always been extremely poorly drawn, clearly a prop for stories about the Scoobies than anything that had a real existence in its own right; filling it with students who are seen to be thinking about themselves redresses this balance. (Whether this is too little, too late, or just in time for the finale of Buffy’s school years, is down to the subjective taste of the viewer.)

The episode’s “whodunnit” structure, initiated when Buffy overhears the thoughts of someone intending to kill everyone, means the episode needs a raft of suspects. Espenson is forced to offer a whole roster of Sunnydale bit players to fill out the edges, including returning character Percy the jock, and a key role for perpetual featured extra Jonathan. There are some delightful touches here, including the revelation that Sunnydale High has a school newspaper, leading to perhaps my all-time favourite Oz quip, delivered in typically deadpan style by Seth Green:
Willow: The school paper is edging on depressing lately. You guys notice that?
Oz: I don’t know. I always go straight to the obits.

As it happens, that missing feature of Buffy’s telepathic experience – “What do they really think of me? They don’t.” – turns out to be the crux of the episode’s resolution. Buffy confronts Jonathan, who is in the school clock tower with a gun, and delivers exactly this truth as a way of talking him down: “Every single person down there is ignoring your pain because they’re too busy with their own.” It seems clear to me that the episode would have been improved by setting this up more clearly and portraying Buffy more honestly, having her try and use her power to see what other people think of her, and then discovering they mostly aren’t doing so at all. The omission is not disastrous, but it does make the story feel slightly off, like it’s failed to grasp something essential about the emotions of its characters. Mostly, I think this is important because it points out just how rarely this show gets the emotional stuff wrong. This weird little show about a teenage monster hunter and her geeky friends has become so consistently good at nailing character emotions and motivations that even this small oddity stands out.

And one of the reasons that matters is because of the infamy attached to this episode. It was held back from broadcast due to its depiction of a potential school shooting just a week after Columbine. Add to this an attempted suicide, and you have some weighty material for the monster-hunting show. Yet three seasons of intense emotional clarity have earned Buffy the right to tell this story, and never once in this episode do these intense aspects feel gratuitous or mishandled. This is difficult material, addressed with great skill while still being gloriously fun and funny. Pop culture can ask for no more than this.

Other notes:
* I like the show having Buffy try to use her power to read Angel’s thoughts. It’s at the very least rude, and conceivably an awful intrusion – not Buffy’s proudest moment, for sure. But very human, and a nice and believable flaw for our protagonist.
* Perhaps thankfully, the show doesn’t dwell on the rape culture aspects it usually approaches through metaphor – Buffy’s initial mind-reading experiences clearly trouble her for this reason, and she later comments “…the boys at this school are seriously disturbed.”. That’s enough to demonstrate awareness of the issue, but also to allow the show to look at other things.
* Cordelia is, without explanation, back in the Scooby Gang, helping out with the investigation. The show still doesn’t really know what to do with Cordelia – she’ll be out of the group again next week – but I think including her in the scene actually shows the character some respect. It is a relief to see her there, even if it might be inferred her motivation is not “help because it’s important and I’m a good person and to hell with Xander” but rather “help as a way of getting close to Wesley”.
* That said, the gag that Cordy’s thoughts are identical with her dialogue is too funny to get grumpy about.
* Xander, meanwhile, is being misused again. His panicked thoughts about sex and naked women are entirely to be expected, but using the investigation as an excuse for flirting with women is the kind of cheap gag that the show really needs to let go of if they want to keep him around. Likewise, his hero moment at the end, running around throwing jello to the ground, is dialed too far into pathetic physical comedy when it would be amusing enough (and less damaging) played straight.
* The character story of the episode, however, is of course Jonathan. After three long seasons as a running gag, he suddenly gets a meaty dramatic scene and becomes an important part of the overall Buffy tapestry. Funnily enough, he doesn’t even appear until minute 22 – that’s pretty late when you’re setting up a mystery!
* “On the front of a police car? Twice?”


Logo Logic Linky

Inadvertantly sexual company logos – what, no London 2012?

Step-by-step walkthrough of how to solve the hardest logic puzzle ever devised.

This one is an essential read. Watching as political leaders make policies that will cause significant social harm (“austerity” as the current example in many regions), you wonder how they can sit there so pleased with themselves. Monbiot has some leaked correspondence to and from David Cameron that shows exactly how. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so deeply, infuriatingly awful. For additional fury, consider how the politically subservient media portrays people like Corbyn and Sanders as “unrealistic”.

Great article/interview about Harvey Danger’s surprisingly long-lived 90s track “Flagpole Sitta”

Comic about a dog. Make sure you have tissues handy.

10,000 wax cylinder recordings, digitised and free to download.

Star Wars fan makes full-sized model of the holochess game from the original film.

Incredible huge crowd photo that you can just zoom and zoom and zoom into. (via my mum!)

An oral history of the geeky half of Freaks & Geeks. Many anecdotes I hadn’t heard before – I love the thought of Martin Starr and James Franco working out together then staying up until 2am writing a brutal revenge screenplay.

Victorian nipple rings (via d3vo)

Blair gives an epic review of classic Judge Dredd story “The Apocalypse War”. (I picked up the Eagle Comics reprints of this amazing story in the 80s and it blew my little head off.)

The Scooby Doo gang in the changing fashions of the decades. (via Jenni)

Ladybird’s Book of the Hipster

There’s a great image-heavy website for street photographer Vivian Maier, whose photos (beginning in the 1950s) were only discovered in 2007. (via Andy McLeod, who saw the doco about Maier)

10 kids TV episodes that have been removed from distribution. Fascinating 6-minute video. WARNING: number 10 in this list is that Pokemon ep with the flashes that caused epileptic fits – the video shows the flashes! So if you’re visually sensitive like me, turn it off when you get to that last item!

King Tut’s excavation photos – in colour! (Colourised, but in a very clever way.)

Lovely interview with the real life inspiration for Charlie Brown’s Little Red-Haired Girl

And finally, via Steve Piner, a German safety video for forklift drivers.


Watching Buffy: s03e17 “Enemies”

Image: Turning evil is the best hair straightener.

The Mayor
The Mayor remains, seventeen episodes into season three, an awkward fit as a Buffy villain. He is now a well-defined onscreen presence – his screen time in this episode is almost as much as all previous appearances added together, and we get plenty of his ’50s-TV-dad charm as he develops this or that supernatural threat. And yet for all that we are clear now on how the Mayor behaves, he remains essentially a cipher.

He is, of course, the Mayor of Sunnydale. We are given some backstory here, suggesting that the Mayor is very old and in fact founded Sunnydale on the Hellmouth in order to set up the plan he is currently unfolding. That does give him some civic weight, but apart from that historical association, his status as Mayor is utterly irrelevant to the story. He seems to spend all his time plotting his supernatural ascension; if he has responsibilities as Mayor, then they are handled entirely off-screen and never mentioned. In fact his presentation resembles nothing so much as the Master in season one. This is unfortunate; while the Master was trapped underground with just a few acolytes to bounce off, the Mayor is holding the office of Mayor and has all of Sunnydale’s infrastructure and society at his beck and call. From what we see onscreen, you wouldn’t know it.

In his insightful essay “What stories want“, Alasdair looks hard at my regular references to the “logic of Buffy‘s story world”, and argues that the structure I’m referring to is “myth as metaphor”. He pulls some fascinating observations out of this analysis, such as identifying Buffy as supernatural law enforcement.

I think, with his essay in mind, that this shows why the Mayor’s presentation is so thin. If Buffy’s world is a metaphorical infrastructure where she is the law enforcement, the Watcher’s Council is the government, and the school is the community at risk, then the Mayor of Sunnydale is simply redundant. The Watcher’s Council in Helpless metaphorically communicated rule and misrule in a way directly relevant to Buffy’s life and milieu; what space is left for the Mayor? What is he going to do to affect Buffy – change the parking laws and raise taxes? All he can do is move right back into the supernatural space, where his civic/metaphorical role loses all its meaning. The Mayor-as-villain was an attractive construction because it reaches out beyond the limitations of the show’s usual setting at the same time as the characters prepare to graduate from it, but it turns out there isn’t anything much out there of interest just now.

The Mayor spends a lot of time in this episode with Faith. He has very quickly formed a fatherly affection for her, which Faith clearly finds strange. It is suggested that this aspect of their relationship is part of the appeal for Faith – she is obviously looking for an accepting parental substitute to give her respect and love, and the Mayor for better or worse fits the bill.

It is an odd relationship, and the show doesn’t put much effort into making it feel authentic. Richard Williams in a G+ comment points out the strangeness of Faith’s sudden decision to ally with the Mayor: “It’s a huge jump to go from ‘I don’t like my side and they’re after me so I’m going to get away from them’ to ‘I don’t like my side and so I’m going to switch and actively start working for the incredibly evil enemy and try to kill them’.”

He’s right, of course. There are two other aspects of the situation that provide useful context, however. First, although Faith is around all season, she is almost always presented only in a shallow way. Apart from the business with the fake watcher, she has not really been tested or exposed, and neither the Scoobies nor the audience really get to know her. This means that we can argue that Faith’s heel turn is in fact a simple revelation of her true character all through the season, and if we thought otherwise, that was simply because we were filling in gaps to make her seem nice than she was.

The idea that we are finally seeing the true Faith is bolstered by the other aspect. In this episode, Faith sets about torturing Buffy. Her ostensible friend, her fellow Slayer, an innocent young woman – Faith eagerly announces her desire to inflict on her to the agonies of torture. This is an awful moment. The Faith we had assumed we were dealing with – troubled, but ultimately good – is clearly not the Faith we actually have.

And if that is so, then retroactively Faith’s alliance with the Mayor makes more sense. She was on her way out of a place that didn’t seem fun any more, and then Trick ended up dead and there was a job opening at the Mayor’s side, so she impulsively changed plans. It isn’t the greatest storytelling, but I think it does hold together and it does assemble from the facts of the case.

Their continued relationship makes more sense. It is easy to see how someone mistreated and guarded like Faith might rapidly build loyalty to a strong, kind, lovely father figure who makes her feel appreciated – particularly if he also indulges and normalizes her most suspect impulses. The idea of a father sending his daughter to seduce an enemy is almost gleefully perverse.

The Angelus Gambit
Faith tries to fool Angel and get him into bed. It doesn’t work, except to set up a much more elaborate con job played right back on her. Angel apparently loses his soul and becomes, once again, Angelus. As he acts out his brutal alter ego he gathers information about Faith, the Mayor, and the big plan of the bad guys. The episode keeps this reveal up its sleeve, swerving the viewer and Faith alike in the final act. While there was never enough information available for viewers to work out how the switch-up worked (it turned out a small character helping the Mayor owed Giles a favour and told him about the plan), the show did drop a few clues, such as Angel’s eagerness to torture and kill Buffy – season two made very clear that Angelus prefers to ruin people by harming those they care about, instead of coming right at them.

However, perhaps the biggest clue that all was not as it seems was simply that more Angelus seems like too much, too soon. This show has been enthusiastically driving itself into new spaces and pushing innovative new character challenges, and dragging Angelus out of the closet feels immediately like a step backward. This, more than anything else, makes it satisfying rather than frustrating when Buffy and Angel reveal to Faith that they’ve played her.

This episode is credited to Doug Petrie, who also wrote perhaps the best take on Xander in a long time in Revelations, which also turned on the scary prospect of Angelus. True to form, Xander gets some good stuff to do here. While most other writers shrug and just make Xander the butt of jokes, Petrie gives him a few solid beats that show how he belongs in the team. He goes on an information-gathering mission to Willy the snitch, and he’s successful (although, he confesses, he bribed Willy to cough up what he knew). And as in Revelations, says out loud what others are thinking, noting the chilly tension between Faith and Buffy.

In fact, through the whole episode, he is never made the butt of the joke – Petrie comes close with a bit about Xander asking if some secret books might have dirty pictures, but it’s clear Xander’s making the joke himself and at his own expense.

He is also much less objectionable in his treatment of Cordelia – while he is still (unjustifiably and obsessively) on the offensive whenever she’s in range, he only comments on her actions, not her looks or intelligence or choice of clothes or anything else. (And her actions are pretty mockworthy.) When he’s alone he rants to himself about her interest in Wesley, and while again it’s not a good look, his resentment and jealousy are very human and not particularly expressive of the awful toxic masculinity that has sometimes been a feature of his behaviour.

Having played particularly deftly with Xander for the first half of the episode, Petrie then gets deliberately reflexive for the back half. First, Angel (in character as Angelus) punches Xander cold in the middle of his anxious chatter, and saying “that guy just bugs me.” It is no accident this comes right after Xander’s selfish fretting over Wesley and Cordelia – Petrie is giving the audience a moment of pleasure here and indicating that we shouldn’t think Xander’s behaviour is acceptable.

And then, as a direct outcome of this moment, Petrie has Xander consciously follow up his big moment in Revelations, once again speaking up to argue an unpopular opinion as he tells the others Angel has flipped back to Angelus, and that Faith is at his side. This time he takes the opportunity to lay blame for the situation on Wesley, who should have Faith under control. Just as in Revelations the self-serving aspect cannot be ignored, but like his charge against Buffy in that episode it stands up as a fair point – and one that only Xander could vocalize.

So what we have here is Petrie following on with some of the aspects of Xander we saw in Revelations – but also discarding the noir “hard-boiled” aspects teased in that episode. Instead he fills the spaces with the goofball Xander who was a product of The Zeppo, making this a episode effectively a proposal for a best-of-both-versions take on the character, and proof that using Xander just for cheap laughs does him, and the show, a disservice.

Buffy Loves Angel
Jealousy is something of a theme here for the Scoobies, in fact. While Xander frets about Cordelia and Wesley, Willow is troubled by Faith and Xander, and Buffy is upset about Angel and Faith. The Buffy/Angel relationship is back in the spotlight here, opening on some cute romance between them as they emerge from an unexpectedly steamy foreign film and get all awkward. It’s the first good look we’ve had at their relationship since way back in Amends, where Angel was ready to kill himself to keep Buffy safe. Turns out they’re a cute romantic couple pledging forever love to each other, and all that angst is behind them. I can dig it – I guess that moment in The Zeppo shows the same – although it feels like clumsy storytelling to have avoided a clear picture of what was going on between them for so long after the ambiguous resolution in Amends.

Typically for this show, the relationship is foregrounded at the start only to lay the ground for upheaval. The Angelus gambit worked a little too well, and at the end of the episode a shaken Buffy tells Angel she needs some time and space. I think this is a simply remarkable move by the show. That commitment to realistic emotional consequences is again honoured, in the process splitting Angel and Buffy apart in a dramatic way that requires no misunderstanding or misdeed on either part. The fact that Buffy is unsettled so deeply as a side effect of her own successful plan is a painful irony, and it provides real uncertainty about what lies ahead for the two characters and their relationship. As much as the world around the narrative has flattened into irrelevance, that narrative is regularly delivering excellent and unexpected character-based stories.

Other notes:
* As fake-foreign-film names go, Le Banquet D’Amelia is very fake.
* Why the heck does the Mayor want to take Angel’s soul away and bring back Angelus? Surely that plan would fall into the “more trouble than it’s worth” box?
* More Willow/magic stuff, as Willow gets into Giles’ secret stash containing magic that (as she acknowledges) Giles doesn’t think she’s ready for. Her confidence – overconfidence? – is notable here, and while it isn’t exactly presented as a flaw here, it’s easy to see the writing team trying out that idea to see what Alyson Hannigan does with it.
* The demon in this episode calls himself “people”, and brings into question Faith’s equation that “a demon’s a demon”. That distinction between humans and monsters is continuing to break down. Wesley says “And you say this demon wanted cash? That’s very unusual.” – and it is at this stage of the show’s development, but in a year’s time when we’re deep into Angel this won’t seem unusual in the least.
* The late-episode reveal that even the audience wasn’t in on the hero’s plan, and that moment when all seemed lost was really just things falling into place, was most famously pulled off in The Sting. It isn’t much done on television, although I think it plays a bit better as an instalment of an episodic narrative rather than as the structure of a whole; false jeopardy is an interesting twist when you know there’s more trouble coming next week, but can feel like a cheat when that’s all you’ve been watching.


Webb Ellis Linky

Rugby World Cup was last weekend I know, but I liked this: top five heartwarming moments from the rugby world cup. I’ve never followed rugby that closely but it seems to me this sheer niceness in the sport these days is a new trend – not something I remember from decades past. Am I wrong?

Matt Taibbi: the case for Bernie Sanders, or how mainstream US media’s cynical obsession with the horserace is letting everyone down.

The Comics Journal (coincidentally the first place I ever heard about her, way back in the 00s) has a mammoth interview with Kate Beaton (who is soon to be a guest at the NZ Festival Writer’s Week!)

Every conversation between parent and child, in four conversations

And finally, via Campbell, Choose Your Own Adventure meets the paradox of free will


Watching Buffy: s03e16 “Doppelgangland”


It’s a Joss Whedon joint! The showrunner slips into the writer-director cockpit once again, this time not to deliver a major turning point in the show’s narrative arc, but just the write the hell out of a great episode premise. But I do wonder how exactly this came about. Or put another way, what was this episode going to be about, before it had to be about Vampire Willow?

You see, Emma Caulfield (who played Anya) says she was signed up front for two episodes in season three – her debut in The Wish, and a follow-up episode that ended up being this one. I think it’s likely she’s right, because Wish ends with the villain in fine health and still committed to wickedness, albeit without her crucial power. It’s a dangling loose end that the show usually makes a point of tying off.

In which case, the writers’ room always knew there would be a chaser to The Wish where Anya came back. On their big planning board they must have written up “Anya 2: Electric Boogaloo” or something. But whatever ideas they might have had for the episode would’ve been quickly scratched out as soon as they saw what was happening on Wish. Alyson Hannigan as Vampire Willow was incredible. The part would have looked good on the page, sure, but until they saw Alyson Hannigan in the makeup, saw her performance, they couldn’t have known that they’d struck a rich vein of gold. (The world sure didn’t end up clamouring for more Vampire Xander, or for more Vampire Buffy for that matter.)

I think it’s likely that Joss went right into the writers’ room after watching Wish dailies and put his name on the board: “I’ve got this one.” He wanted to write for Vampire Willow.

And credit where it’s due (presumably Whedon, but who knows for sure): bringing Vampire Willow into the regular world is a stupendous idea. It ties in so much that’s going on with Willow right now. She’s been working all season on self-development – her affair with Xander, her steady exploration of magic, and her frequent leadership of the Scoobies have all deeply expanded her role as resident nerdy girl and emotional lightning rod. Confronting her with an alternate self is a powerful way to drag all of these aspects into the foreground and force her to address some of her issues.

In an early scene, Willow is carefully levitating a pencil while talking to Buffy, and she says something about how magic works that we’ve never heard before: “magic is all about emotional control.” This is a perfect frame, giving magic a clear character-defining function. Almost all dramatic storytelling is about characters struggling with the emotions provoked by this or that event, so it’s a very potent model – I’m almost surprised I’ve never heard this formula stated so baldly before now. (Note that this description doesn’t really fit with how we’ve seen magic used before (Amy ratting herself in a panic) or how we’ll see it after this point (basically everything in season six), but I don’t see this as an inconsistency – it’s just a stage of understanding Willow’s going through.)

So this story specifically becomes focused on how Willow is, despite appearances, a mess of upset and anxiety just below the surface. Her reaction to mention of Faith is a case in point – she loses control of herself entirely. This is a callback to the moment last episode when she worked out that Xander and Faith had slept together, and the show gave us a brief, unremarked-on shot of her sobbing in the bathroom at the news.

As well as this, the show starts pushing Willow back into earlier forms of herself – her fashion sense dials back to a look more in keeping with early season two, and Snyder saddles her with a dumb jock needing academic help (another season two move – Snyder even references the swim team). The dumb jock in turn leans on her to just do all the work for him. All of this pressure makes it very believable and relatable that Willow decides she’s going to stop holding herself back and take some risks.

Oddly enough, this comes right after the two-part “bad influence” story where Buffy decided she was going to stop holding herself back and take some risks. That didn’t go so well. Willow follows the pattern herself, as she meets Anya and is lured into helping her with a spell. When she sees a vision of the Wish alternate reality, she breaks the spell. Well, there’s that lesson learned – Willow walks away from Anya, aware she had gone too far.

So that complete character arc for Willow – I’m a rebel and I’ll take risks! Oh no that went wrong I’ve learned my lesson! – is just setup for the real meat of the story. The spell works just well enough to bring Vampire Willow through to Sunnydale. She walks down the street, horrified by what she sees (in a shot that matches Cordy’s reaction to the devastated Sunnydale of the Wish universe.)

What we get from here is a beautiful comedy of personal growth, where the vampiric Willow is able to solve real-Willow’s problems by being badass (the show gives her the same prowl-of-dominance that Xander did in The Pack), and then real Willow must access her own hidden depths in order to impersonate vampiric Willow and save the day. Along the way, we get superlative character comedy between the Scoobies and their wider circle, and more than a few hits of solid drama. (Seth Green, as per usual, absolutely nails his very short scene witnessing his girlfriend as a vampire.)

But the beautiful part is the conclusion, where Willow – having exceeded her own expectations, and proved to herself that she isn’t just the nerdy anxious girl – is true to her empathic nature, demanding the group spare her vampiric doppelganger. It’s a simple gesture, and it doesn’t play as heroic or naive or anything at all on that axis. It is clearly pitched as a much more personal decision, and the metaphorical reading is clear: Willow knows that she has complexity inside her, and potential untapped, and just like everyone else, part of that is the potential for evil. Willow’s self-insight gives her a powerful sense of kinship with her other self. It’s a great gesture for the story, and for the overall philosophical point being made by this show, about the nature of identity, and the choices that we make. The show doesn’t explicitly endorse Willow’s choice, but it respects it, and I think it would be a hardhearted audience member who didn’t feel the same. We’ve learned something about Willow, here, but I think her example helps us learn something about ourselves.

Also, this:
Willow: I’m so evil and… skanky. And I think I’m kinda gay.
Buffy: Willow, just remember, a vampire’s personality has nothing to do with the person it was.
Angel: Well, actually… (off Buffy’s look) That’s a good point.

Other notes:
* Anya returns! She’s still a pretty shaky character, but there’s the definite shape of what she will become here in her immense frustration.
* Sunnydale High still has a basketball team? Who knew!
* The tranq gun works on Vampire Willow. So if it works on vampires… why don’t the Scoobies start carrying it around with them on patrol? (Because this is not the sort of story where that happens, of course.)
* The perils of the huge ensemble – Faith appears early then disappears, Angel waits until the show’s half done before he appears, and Cordelia doesn’t make an appearance until an astonishing 32 minutes have gone by. The show really has no idea what to do with Cordelia in these episodes.
* The Mayor is finally interacting with someone interesting, namely Faith, but it’s still very hard to read what’s happening here. Faith’s move to his side was undercooked in the previous episode and this sheds little light – she likes the fancy apartment he’s got for her, but Faith has never been motivated by wealth or luxury. The Mayor tells her he’s a family man, but we don’t even get any information about how to take that – is he? If he is, where are they? The Mayor remains a fairly frustrating figure, despite being very amusing and a little creepy, because although he signifies the wider world, he seems to possess no real links to that world – no governmental responsibilities, no family relationships, no ambitions or concerns other than his villainous supernatural ones. Maybe next episode we’ll finally get a handle on the guy…


Blood Linky

There are vampires everywhere.

A collaboration between Jean-Michael Jarre and John Carpenter? Neat! The whole album’s great writing music. (via Bruce Baugh)

Some straight talk: wellness is not the answer to overwork. A few scary anecdotes in there too.

Via Jenni – the website for You’ve Got Mail is still alive! Oh man, back when every website had a flash intro. Who ever thought that was a good idea?

The amazing Michele A’Court explains exactly why a hijab is not OK in New Zealand.

I’ve seen some of these but many were new – behind the scenes on Godzilla films

Fascinating report on some new research by the memory lab up the hill at Vic Uni: if you ask eyewitnesses easy questions first, they get more confident that they are remembering things accurately. In court, jurors find confident eyewitnesses more convincing. In other words, if you ask an eyewitness easy questions first, they end up more convincing to a jury than if you asked exactly the same questions in a different order. That’s wild.

Via Maria: “Netflix and chill”: just an updated “Come up and see my etchings”? Warning for sexy sex sex stuff.

Via Ivan, an artist attempts to design the most frustrating objects imaginable – I’ve seen a couple of these before, but most were new to me. Artist website here.

Some vintage horror film lobby cards.

You will have seen it, but I still have to link to Chewbacca getting arrested in Ukraine. Because Star Wars gets in everything.

And finally… oral histories of pop culture things have become a pretty tired genre already. Along comes the WaPo, with an oral history of a six-second clip of a sports guy shouting some words. Beautifully done.