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Watching Buffy: s03e07 “Revelations”

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It’s been a while, but this episode offers one of those three-quarter twists this show does so well. It even lands exactly on the 3/4 cliffhanger. Gwendolyn Post, the officious new watcher who has arrived to supervise Faith, is revealed to actually be a naughty bad one. It’s a great twist because she already gave the show plenty of juice: she’s a logical plot development, a direct challenge to Giles, and a threat to the integrity of the Scoobies while being impossible to easily dismiss. She was even thematically on point, an oblivious adult authority for the teens to cope with and rebel against. The show throws all that out the window to make her a one-and-done villain, so presumably it thinks it’s getting something important in return.

Quick summary: at the beginning of the episode Buffy and Faith are slaying together, focused and happy and literally in sync. Then Mrs Post turns up and immediately assumes the Watcher role for Faith and Buffy, to Giles’s chagrin. She warns the group that a demon called Lagos is hunting a magical glove in Sunnydale. When the group exclude her to have a secret meeting about Angel, she manipulates Faith into finding out more. Shortly thereafter, Giles tells her the location of the glove. She knocks him out and rushes to Angel’s to take the glove, tricking Faith into fighting with Buffy before revealing her villainy and being (inevitably) destroyed. The final scene is Buffy and Faith again, but Buffy’s secrets have changed the relationship. Buffy says “you can trust me” but Faith isn’t interested. They are out of sync, their harmony in pieces.

Buffy’s transgressions against Faith are, by any reasonable standard, minor. They make for a pretty weak lever to split her and Faith, even with that relationship being new. The implication is that Faith’s retreat from Buffy is a response to the whole situation with Gwendolyn Post and Angel and so forth. This points directly at her central character flaw, essentially a fear of vulnerability. It’s smart character work from the show once again, eschewing any simple action/reaction model of behaviour for something messier and more authentically human – note also that, although Faith is shown that Post had been corrupted, she still takes Post’s advice on answering a knock at the door and adopts her description of her room as “Spartan”.

(Faith’s character flaw is also set up as an interesting mirror of Buffy’s: the motivations and methods are very different, but both of them retreat from other people and try to handle everything themselves when the pressure comes on.)

Faith’s retreat from Buffy marks the start of an actual storyline about her, and while it’s obviously a significant development and something that will be central to the season’s arc overall, it wasn’t at all an expected development and it’s very hard to anticipate what will follow – it is a shift that could play out in all kinds of ways. Once again, season three manages to avoid predictability, especially in comparison with the arc in season two which drew great power from its inevitability.

This is obviously a significant development for the show, but in my view it isn’t the most interesting thing going on in this episode. In fact, I don’t even think it’s the most important thing happening here. My nominee for both is how this episode handles Xander.

It’s been clear for a while the show is having issues with the character of Xander Harris. Just a few episodes ago Xander hit a new low, callously abandoning his post to nap when he was supposed to be guarding Oz. This was basically using him for a cheap joke and making him carry the idiot ball so the plot worked out more easily. Both of these are signs the show is struggling to make him work in the ensemble. This isn’t a surprise: a male character representing instinct is always going to struggle to make a good impression in a show with a female perspective, and having his strongest early episode also be the one that makes him an attempted rapist has tainted the character at a deep level.

Two episodes back, the show took a dramatic step to find a way to get some use out of Xander by throwing him into an affair with Willow. It’s a potent, divisive move (the kind of ruthless development that will become something of a trademark – or a cliche – for Whedon’s work) and it infuses every hang-out scene among the Scoobies with some edge-of-the-seat anxiety. Suddenly the audience has every reason to care a great deal about what Xander is doing, because there’s so much at stake – no less than the happiness of Willow, Oz and Cordelia (the three most beloved members of the cast). One thing it doesn’t do is engender any greater sympathy for Xander. I’d expect reactions to this affair are largely driven by where the audience member might sit on their view of Xander – specifically, if they see him as a terminal waste of space, then they’ll hate him for messing up so bad and they might see Willow’s actions as a betrayal of her character by the writers. And by this stage of the show’s history, a lot of people were over Xander. The many years since broadcast have not been kind to the character either.

Xander as he has been portrayed in the previous two seasons has given ample reason for dismay. While he has had several key moments of heroism and good character, his common role in stories from week to week seems to have become “make a thoughtless comment exemplifying male insensitivity and entitlement, and then blunder into a monster and fall down”. The show’s engine runs very easily on those kinds of comments and that kind of blunder, so it’s unsurprising Xander is used in this way over and over again, but it does make it very hard to cheer for him.

Almost in spite of this, Xander has been changing and growing. Xander at the start of season three is different from Xander of season one in many many ways. He is no longer hung up on Buffy, is no longer cruelly oblivious to Willow’s feelings, he is no longer unconvinced of his value as a human being. With the exception of his callous failure to watch Oz recently, he has moved beyond the truely clueless selfishness of his early teenage boy portrayal. These are positive steps, but they don’t seem to be helping: Xander still doesn’t feel right. There’s a simple reason why: the show has made changes in Xander by taking away some of his most egregious negative traits, but they have failed to give him any new aspects to make up for these losses. Xander in season three is in a real sense less of a character than he was in season one, because he has gotten past many of his hangups and now just bumbles along. Until this recent affair with Willow, the show just hasn’t found anything for him to actively do except comment on the action and get into trouble. It’s obvious they don’t have any idea any more what he is for.

In this episode, new writer Doug Petrie delivers a portrayal of Xander that provides the best vision so far of what he can be to the ensemble. (Petrie, like Jane Espenson last week, is another s3 recruit who stays with the show to the end then goes on to greater things.) Under Petrie’s pen, Xander gets plenty of interesting beats.

The episode begins in the Bronze, where Xander is trying to hang out in a group with Willow without encouraging their forbidden attraction; when he accidentally touches her hand, he recoils so much that he makes a gigantic spectacle of himself. He gracefully accepts the humiliation, clearly at peace with his traditional role as clumsy goof.

In the library, he bristles at being ordered around by Giles, but still starts to get stuck into the work, recognizing it’s important. Willow approaches him and rubs her temples to try and relieve her discomfort. He reaches out to do it for her, and she protests weakly, knowing the chemistry between them is dangerous. Xander listens to her, and stops. Whereupon Willow launches herself at him, and they kiss passionately until they are interrupted. Giles tells them of a suspicious location, and Xander volunteers to check it out, partly to get away from temptation with Willow and to (as he puts it to himself) alleviate his guilt.

All of the above is solid, featuring the best parts of Xander – he is trying hard to do the right thing, struggling with his instincts, at peace with the trouble he lands himself in. These are aspects of Xander we’ve seen before, although never quite with this clarity. But from this point on, things get much more interesting, as Xander sees Angel, alive and well – and then sees Buffy and Angel kissing.

Now this is a potent revelation. Xander was, throughout the previous season, the only one who opposed Buffy’s relationship with Angel. Giving the discovery to him is a clear callback to this. However, his response is not to simply blunder in and confront them. Instead, he hurries to Giles, which is unquestionably the best possible thing to do in the situation.

Giles makes the call to stage a kind of intervention with Buffy, and Xander’s first words here are compelling:
Buffy: It’s not what you think.
Xander: Hope not. Because I think you’re harboring a vicious killer.

This is a side of Xander we’ve seen from time to time, most memorably in episode two this season when Xander dressed Buffy down for how her behaviour had affected her friends. There, his anger seemed unfair and unkind, although perfectly understandable and human. Here, it stings because he makes a very good point, and he continues to hammer it home, even naming Jenny Calendar.

Let’s be clear about what the show is doing, here: it is not saying Xander is right. None of the other characters are as upset as he is, even Cordelia, and most of them are taken aback by the cruel way he is making his point. And yet, no-one contradicts him, and everyone else is making watered-down versions of the same complaint. When Buffy challenges Xander, accusing him of being motivated by jealousy, the rebuke just doesn’t work – while not even Xander would reasonably deny there might be jealousy in the mix somewhere, his behaviour clearly comes from a different place. Xander doesn’t even need to defend himself, as he is overtaken by the final word from Giles, who echoes Xander’s words: “Nor shall I remind you that you’ve jeopardized the lives of all that you hold dear by harboring a known murderer. But sadly, I must remind you that Angel tortured me… for hours… for pleasure. You should have told me he was alive. You didn’t. You have no respect for me, or the job I perform.”

This is, quite frankly, an incredible sequence, drawing on two seasons of character and story to find powerful fractures and put them under pressure, and Xander’s right at the heart of it. His flaws are vividly on display but for the first time in a while he’s doing something, pushing hard in a direction, and it works well.

We next see Xander at the Bronze, shooting pool and talking with Faith. This is a startling little sequence, as Xander’s dialogue is in a different register to anything we’ve heard before. He is normally extremely verbose (the default for many Buffyverse characters) but here he’s using clipped sentences with the blunt almost-poetry of a noir character. This matches his behaviour: he goes out of his way to point Faith at Angel, and offers to join her in going to slay him.

When they get to the library to grab some weapons, they discover Giles has been attacked. Faith instantly assumes it’s Angel, but Xander doesn’t. His instincts – so often used to get him in trouble – here give him exactly the right steer. He figures out some reasons why it probably wasn’t Angel responsible, but Faith of course doesn’t listen to him.

Buffy appears, and here Xander does something unexpected, coldly suggesting Angel was responsible for attacking Giles, and telling her Faith has gone to kill him. Buffy is appalled, but Xander is unrepentant. It’s a very interesting move for the character. He then pitches in to fix the problem, and later puts his body on the line to stop the slayers fighting each other.

His final note in the episode is another encounter with Buffy. She asks him if they are cool, and he tells her he trusts her. He doesn’t apologise for “leaning towards the postal”, and Buffy doesn’t ask one, knowing that he did have a point.

This view of Xander is a fascinating step change for the character. The hardened take on the character works surprisingly well, as does the clear indication that he is no longer thoughtlessly following his instincts (which are obviously improving regardless). Here is a Xander Harris who offers something new to the ensemble – a willingness to call it as he sees it, matched with judgments that are starting to show their worth; a fearless ability to challenge the other characters when he thinks they’re out of line, but founded on a commitment to the work; an egoless acceptance of his role as a goof and goat, which also allows him to say and do things the others wouldn’t even consider. This is a Xander who still brings “instinct” to the table, but does so in a way that is effective and distinctive and can drive situations forward in new and productive ways. The show has finally found a way to make Xander work.

If they can only make it stick…

Other thoughts:
* There’s a bit of a bait-and-switch at the top of the episode – it is called “Revelations” and it starts with Willow and Xander being awkward, but their infidelities are not revealed this week.
* Tony Head steals the open – supervising the Slayer duo and then reacting to the arrival of Gwendolyn Post – all without saying a single word. He also gets the best moment in the episode, Giles giving Buffy a private dressing down for keeping Angel secret and reminding her that Angel tortured him. It’s one of the few times in the series where adult/mature authority is given proper moral power, and it hits hard.
* Giles is once again shown to be somewhat forgotten and mistreated by the council, which continues to make zero sense given he is sitting on a powerful Hellmouth and serving as pointman to a Slayer who just came back from the dead. But it makes thematic sense I guess, so we roll with it.
* Sarah Michelle Gellar, whose soap training makes her an ace at communicating what’s going on in Buffy’s head, absolutely sells Buffy’s raw desire for Angel. It’s actually not a common performance beat for a young woman – they are typically the objects of physical desire, not the ones doing the desiring.
* Oz really doesn’t get much to do this ep, but his band play at the Bronze once again. Cordelia is also shaded out almost completely to allow a focus on the core Scoobies. This has become a big ensemble and it’s hard to manage everyone!

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Oral History Linky

Are we at peak oral history? This week: legendary weirdo flop Theodore Rex and the Space Jam website.

An NYT article has been circulating about how today’s creative class are no worse off even though no-one pays for anything any more. I wasn’t convinced by it; Salon has a counterpoint that seems more compelling to me.

Short history of breaking the fourth wall:

This was probably inevitable: Kermit’s TED talk

The AV Club has a link to an analysis of a Star Trek leadership test; they also embed the key movie scene it arises from.

Upheaval continues in my home discipline and in science more generally thanks to a reappraisal of statistical methods and a deeper question about how we establish knowledge at all. Psyc lecturer and stats guru Ron Fischer pointed me at this Nature article: problematic p-values are just the tip of the iceberg; and Retraction Watch has an interview with a methodology prof: Yes, may psychology findings may be too good to be true, now what?

The 1982 DC Comics style guide – lots and lots and lots of lovely clean illustrations by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.

And finally, a parental response form for an unusual school fundraiser.

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Watching Buffy: s03e06 “Band Candy”

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Headbang/air drum extra-hard to the theme tune, kids, because Jane Espenson is in the house! Espenson is royalty in the world of geek-culture TV-writing, which is not as much of a niche as it sounds when put like that. Anyway, this is the show where she earned her crown (er, because crowns are totally earned, monarchy is a meritocracy, shut up.) Her fingerprints are all over this ep: it is sharply assembled, full of acute character moments, and funny as hell.

This is one of those episodes where everyone goes a bit weird. In this case, some fundraising chocolate carries a lick of magic that sends all the adults in town hurtling back into teenage revelry, leaving the teenage Scoobies to keep everything together and save the day. The adults-acting-immature gags are fun but the juice of this wacky premise is in the show’s three main adult characters. Joyce, Giles, and Principal Snyder fall under the chocolate spell and cutting loose. The reversal is, of course, established pre-chocolate by reinforcing the status of these characters as the responsible voices of restraint in Buffy’s life. Notably, Buffy is caught out by Giles and Joyce who discover she has been lying to both of them to hide private activities. The two adults team up, parent and parental-equivalent, to deliver a clear message to Buffy that she is being immature. Buffy doesn’t want to listen.

It’s a nice little conflict, because both sides have a point. Joyce and Giles are right to be concerned that Buffy is playing them off against each other, and about her actual whereabouts when she is at large. Yet Buffy hasn’t exactly been going out partying – she is secretly going to help and tend to the recovering Angel. This isn’t a secret she feels she can share with the others in her life. While it is arguable whether or not she is being responsible in doing this, it’s hard to make an accusation of immaturity stick. And yet when she is called on it, Buffy reacts by expressing frustration that she is being over-managed and over-scheduled, saying that she feels treated like a child. This isn’t exactly what Buffy is being asked to address, but it feels very plausible for Buffy to respond to the situation in this way – it feels like a smart character beat, in other words.

Then the adults all change and Buffy (with her friends) has to step up and manage the very people who were just managing her. It’s a blast seeing Giles, Joyce, and Snyder as youth gone wild. (Particularly Giles – Tony Head brings the brutal punk-magician Ripper, discussed several times in season two, to vivid life here but very cleverly makes his defining trait vanity. I’m very curious how he landed on that character note, but it is just perfect.)

If you slow down and think about it, what we see does pose a few questions – pretty much all the adults go out of control, although in the real world teenagers display all manner of different behaviours besides hedonic excess, the Scoobies being a case in point. Perhaps the chocolate forces those who eat it into a party mode – in which case, why wasn’t Xander affected? (Well, because it’s a joke about Xander.) Now, I don’t know that this is something the production team ever thought about, but I think there are good answers to these questions. Namely: the adults we see acting out aren’t actually behaving like teenagers again. Instead, they are acting out a middle-aged perspective of what it was like to be young. They are expressing their own stereotypes, like people pulled out of the audience at a hypnosis dinner show. Teen!Joyce and Teen!Giles and Teen!Snyder aren’t meant to be perfect expressions of their teenage years, instead they represent how they presently imagine their old selves.

So this whole line of action, apart from being hilarious to watch, is also a solid reinforcement of a thematic pillar for the whole series: parents just don’t understand. The show has fought from the start to portray its teenage characters with depth and to allow them emotional continuity, and part of that is showing how they are consistently underestimated by the adults and authority figures in their lives. Snyder doesn’t develop empathy for his errant charges as a result of his teenage experience – quite the opposite, it reinforces his dislike and resentment, because he has only had his stereotypes confirmed.

And yet, the funny teenage versions of Giles, Joyce and Snyder all manage to be revelatory about who these characters are, and what complexities and history lie beneath the surface. The teenage Scoobies will never be able to look at any of these adults the same way again. Despite themselves, the Scoobies are saddled with empathy for their authority figures. It’s a lovely trick for the show to do both these narrative jobs with the same conceit!

Anyway, it’s good stuff, and I don’t have much more to say about it because it’s good stuff. The Mayor and Mr Trick are sacrificing babies to a demon, which is a pretty good way to demonstrate to your audience that the bad guy is a bad guy. Ethan Rayne reappears as an instrument of this plan, and he is once again played for comedy, to wonderful effect. Actually, the show misses a trick here – it cuts to commercial-break on the reveal of Ethan Rayne (the first time the show has used an unexplained continuity reference as a climax), and it fails to cut to commercial-break on Giles with a cigarette. So there you go. The episode is flawed after all.

Other thoughts:
* Willow and Xander footsie is painful to watch.
* But topless Angel tai chi is the most hilarious thing I’ve ever seen.

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Taken Linky

Cuz-in-law Jessica Grace Smith is kickstarting her short film, Everybody Else Is Taken. She’s fresh out of the Australian soap mines (Summer Bay variety), and raring to go on a very personal project. It’s looking pretty sweet. I particularly like her commitment to build a crew of women to help chip away at gender imbalances in film & TV industries. Take a look at the video, and think about kicking in a couple of bucks. Come payday, we will be!

The Jemaine Clement song from Rick & Morty, in its entirety

Simon C has written some Anne of Green Gables fan fiction. (“Fanne fic.”) I haven’t read it yet, but I am so looking forward to doing so. NB: “Graphic Depictions Of Violence”

Jenni sent me this: “Ryan North, creator of Dinosaur Comics got stuck in a hole with his dog. Twitter users suggested various ways to manipulate his inventory and eventually he got out

Topical references in Looney Tunes, explained!

Guess Wu: a Wu-Tang version of Guess Who

A look at the Star Wars toys Kenner pitched just before they abandoned the line in the 80s. Some of this is wildly overambitious, some of it is ridiculously half-assed. (The returning villain is a particularly dumb surprise.)

Interesting article on Christian Slater cult classic “Pump Up The Volume”, talking to the many kids who went into radio right afterwards.

That time Fonzie jumped the shark: actually not so bad?

Via Matt C: Alien Kiwi

This Vox piece on Google’s charity/altruist group is fascinating. Their decision about priorities feels like a 1st year philosophy tutorial discussion topic, rather than something real humans would do in the real world, but real humans are endlessly capable of being ridiculous. (via Pearce)

And finally… this fan-made video for the D&D segment of “Harmontown” podcast makes a scary amount of sense. Even non-Harmenians might understand. Might.

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Watching Buffy: s03e05 “Homecoming”

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You see it coming, the end of Buffy and Scott. The episode begins with awkward-cute agreeing to go to the homecoming dance together, and Buffy gives Scott a cute kiss – but then cuts straight to Angel. The cut underlines that Buffy isn’t over him. And then Buffy tells Angel she’s seeing Scott, and you know the end is close. But it keeps going, with Buffy talking about how great he is for her – and just as you’re getting exasperated – WE GET IT SHOW WE GET IT – there’s a smash cut to Scott saying “I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”

And this is before the credits, even. The show knows its game here – the characters don’t get to be happy, but as much as that is predictable, it can still surprise and wrongfoot us. Still, the doom-laden fate of Buffy/Scott, required by her ongoing connection to Angel, is an unpleasant portent for the other Scoobies. That opening scene has Buffy and Scott bring cute together in front of two other couples. In this show, however, a strong relationship is just a disaster waiting to happen, and Scott’s pre-credits dismissal of Buffy is a sign that we shouldn’t get too comfortable with either of those relationships either.

These couples are very different. Willow, of course, is paired with Oz. They are the two nicest characters on the show, and it’s a lovely pairing. Often TV pairs its nice characters with sparkier, dangerous partners as an unexpected plot development and an easy source of ongoing conflict, but Buffy has paired its most sensitive and empathetic character with its kindest and wisest one. There are no obvious sources of conflict between them – Oz’s lack of ambition vs. Willow’s sense of responsibility to one’s potential, perhaps, but that’s not a strong line to chase. Instead, the show has indulged itself with a relationship that exists simply to show happiness on-screen. Willow’s anxious over-thinking plays beautifully alongside Oz’s laconic discernment, and it’s evident how their relationship works, and how they complement and challenge each other without ever being conflicted. There’s a maturity in the show to have such confidence in this relationship – and it’s obviously no accident, given how carefully Oz was introduced. In a show where the characters experience real trauma, putting Oz and Willow on screen is a welcome relief.

Xander, meanwhile, is paired with Cordelia. This is a fundamentally unstable relationship, begun in secrecy and denial, with both parties regularly wondering why they are together. The characters also seem to be on contrary paths in relation to the show as a whole. Cordelia was introduced as a foil for Buffy, proved immediately to be redundant, and twisted in the wind for the whole first season before she was given some character depth and a reason to befriend the Scoobies. She has gone on to become increasingly valuable to the show, her function as truthteller making her an incredibly useful tool for the writers as well as a constantly refreshing presence. She steals scene after scene, and although she never threatens to really be a core character, she is regularly the show’s MVP. Xander, meanwhile, was introduced as a core character, the identification point for every boy in the audience, a point-of-view character whose centrality rivaled Buffy herself. His feelings for Buffy anchored the first season. Throughout season one and two he slowly grew up, not getting over Buffy but finding peace with the fact she didn’t share his interest, and showing his heroism several times, coming through when it counted. But he could never escape some aspects of his character – his thoughtless/instinctive response to problems and threats, and his defensive, anxious masculinity. He screwed up in some unpleasant ways, and as the show’s premise demanded it try harder to live up to its feminist ideals, he continued to be out of step. As Cordelia became more essential to the show, he has become less essential, and even problematic. The show, by this point, was flailing as it tried to find the right way to make Xander work. That flailing reaches a culmination in this episode, with a very risky move indeed.

The episode is mostly played as farce, although the stakes remain life-or-death. Buffy’s setback with Scott leads to the awakening of her “prom queen within” – the otherwise-forgotten backstory that had Buffy as the social elite of her previous school. This was never massively convincing given Buffy’s immediate alliance with the nerds and outcasts in the very first episode, and has only become less comprehensible over the two-seasons-plus since. The episode just shrugs and trusts we’ll go along with Buffy taking on Cordelia to get voted Homecoming Queen, and we do, because seeing Buffy suddenly want something so ordinary is hugely refreshing in contrast to her epic melodramatic trauma saga with Angel.

However, complications arise thanks to Mr Trick, who has set up a Slayer-hunting contest using his contacts in the supernatural world. (Notably, the bad guys are all at the silly end of serious – a returning Lyle Gorch, a patently ridiculous lizard monster, Kraftwerk as high-powered assassins, and a guy named “Jungle Bob”.) Buffy & Cordelia, thrown together in this crisis, find a way to newly respect each other and their mastery of their respective domains. It all plays as buddy comedy, and it’s delightful to see the show’s two best assets playing directly against each other. And the episode finishes on a note that is just perfect – as we see Buffy & Cordy, together at the dance, hear the announcement that there is a tie for Homecoming Queen! Everyone who has ever seen a TV show knows exactly what’s coming next – which is why it’s so satisfying when the show swerve to make two other people we’ve never heard of the joint Homecoming Queens. This is a minor episode for sure, but it plays out so well.

Except. That one move, right?

Willow and Xander are getting ready for the dance together. Getting into their nice clothes. And you can see their friendship, their history together – something the show has never underlined too much so it does feel fresh and light here. And Xander works in this scene, you can see why Willow likes having him around. Xander the friend – there he is! That’s what we’ve been missing!

But the show isn’t done, because part of that friendship was Willow’s love for Xander, and Xander’s borderline-callous romantic disinterest in Willow. And when they see each other dressed up, it’s a shock to them – a “here we are, growing up” moment.

But. The scene keeps going. It’s the longest single scene this episode, the longest in a while in fact. It keeps going, sticking with them as they are drawn to each other. As they get closer and closer, slowly. As they dance. As they lean in. As they, finally, gently, kiss. Taking time so the audience buys the reawakening of that old interest. And it’s believable enough – there are so many reasons why these two characters might spiral back together here. Sure, there are also many, many reasons why they wouldn’t – other paths, happier paths, where their two relationships might carry on allowing all these characters to stay in good places.

But by now we know what the show thinks of paths like that.

So Willow and Xander kiss, and they want to kiss again, and they are conflicted, and it can’t end well, it just can’t, and Xander is suddenly integral to the drama once again. He matters. Simple. The show just needed to wreck the happiness of every one of his friends.

Other notes:
* Trick’s plan is a bit weird. He’s in it to make some cash off contestant deposits, sure, but we just saw Trick excusing himself from a fight when there was nothing in it for him. Whereas here he not only sets up an assassination program against two Slayers, unprovoked – but he introduces it personally with a recorded video, and makes sure all the assassins know who he is so they can give him up. Why would he put a target on his chest in the event a Slayer survives? Why not just leave town? It’s inconsistent with what we’ve seen, but we still don’t know much about Trick, so it isn’t a big ask to let it slide. Also, this is a comedy episode – the rules of logic ease off a little bit here.
* We also get the on-screen introduction of the Mayor, spoken of in portentous tones for some time now. He gets an amazing introduction scene – smiling, polite, worrying about cleanliness and manners while seeing Trick as a potential ally for whatever dark scheme he has underway. The world of Buffy has been expanding for a while and here’s the next layer of the onion.
* Cordelia intimidating Lyle Gorch into running away is about as triumphant a moment as there’s ever been in this show.

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Watching Buffy: s03e04 “Beauty and the Beasts”

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Buffy has, from the very beginning, tried to be about things. The monsters were always a general metaphor for the many ways in which life sucks when you’re a teenager, and Buffy and the Scoobies were a metaphor for how teenagers can rise to challenges beyond the expectations of their teachers, their parents, and themselves. Often the show leaned harder on this, and the monstrous threat would be a specific metaphor for one aspect of teenaged life-suckery; in the world Buffy created, these metaphor monsters could be potent pieces of symbolism.

This episode by Marti Noxon takes that idea of addressing issues to a new level of blunt clarity. We meet Pete and Debbie, who seem happy and normal and friendly. However, we also see them when they are alone, and we learn Pete is jealous and controlling. Debbie is afraid of him. He is verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive, and Debbie covers for him. When Pete calms down from his rages, he blames Debbie for provoking him and begs forgiveness. She does forgive him. She loves him. When his violence is revealed, she tries to protect him. This is their conversation (source):

Debbie: Pete! You’re all right! God, you’re all right.
She throws her arms around him and hugs him close, but he doesn’t hug her back.
Debbie: She almost shot you. Did you see? I stopped her.
She lets go of her hug and looks at him.
Debbie: You have to leave, get out of Sunnydale. She knows.
Pete: How did she know, Debbie? Did you run your big mouth?
Debbie: (frightened) No! She just knew. It seemed like she just knew.
Pete: So you filled in the blanks!
He shoves her to the floor.
Debbie: (screams) NO! (looks up at him) No!
Pete: But what did I expect from a screw-up like you?
Debbie: (Shakes her head) I-I didn’t… Pete…
Pete: You’re nothing but a waste of space.
He moves to grab her.
Debbie: No!

The camera cuts away as Pete kills Debbie.

There are many depictions of partner abuse in popular media. The wife with the black eye is depressingly common. But among that mass of stories, this stands out for its brutality. There’s no escape here, no 3/4 swerve to reverse expectations. There is a monstrous metaphor here: the mood swings that keep love alive in an abusive romance are rendered as literal Jekyll-and-Hyde transformations. This metaphor provides no cover, however, and it is not intended to do so. It’s barely even symbolism at all, only there to provide the story with a genre trapping (and to allow the abusive Pete to go toe-to-toe with a werewolf and a slayer).

And there’s something very powerful in this. Buffy vs. monstrous abusive boyfriend is as pure an expression of the show’s feminist viewpoint as you could get. It feels, though, like dangerous ground for the show. There’s prior form for trouble: when it stops hiding behind metaphor, Buffy‘s storytelling starts to lose its moorings. The significant precursor here is Ted, where Buffy’s new stepdad was a dangerous and controlling man underneath his pleasant facade. Not coincidentally, that was another episode about domestic violence, and while the episode itself was a success, it achieved this by sacrificing consistency with the rest of the series.

This episode, however, manages these risks much more successfully. Partly this is the result of the show’s greater maturity. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has paid its dues and shown in the intensity of season two that it can deal with heavy themes with care and impact. It is hard to imagine such a bluntly violent storyline in earlier seasons. Crucially, the show also manages risk by putting the violent relationship one step away from the regular characters. Pete and Debbie are not friends of any of the group, and so everything that happens here is allowed to be brutal without creating more trauma for the core cast.

This social isolation from Buffy and her friends creates its own narrative problems – this feels in some ways like a Very Special Episode, those stalwarts of 80s TV where shows would address difficult and intense topics inside a single episode. As Vulture points out in its just published secret history of the Very Special Episode, one of the reasons these episodes went out of fashion was the rise of serialised stories; attempting to do justice to some of these important issues inside standard commercial running time rarely ended well. Introducing two brand-new friends and immediately revealing their awful secret feels clumsy and inauthentic in a series that trades on comics-style continuity and ongoing subplots.

However, I feel like this episode gets away with it, for two reasons. Firstly it manages this through the point of connection between Pete and Debbie and the Scoobies: Scott Hope, the lovely normal guy with whom Buffy’s embarking on a very hesitant dating relationship. Pete and Debbie are his best friends. It’s actually very refreshing for any TV show to acknowledge that part of the experience of a new boyfriend or girlfriend is meeting their social circle: the vast majority of TV shows have boyfriends coming and going without any sign that they have other people in their lives at all. We care about these new arrivals because their appearance is organic to the narrative and their friendship with Scott is a mark in their favour, so the introduction works well, and we can forgive the swift revelation of the truth because we believe Buffy and her friends are now skilled at uncovering these sorts of secrets once contact is made.

The second reason for the episode’s success is by locating this narrative within a strong thematic throughline for the episode. It isn’t just about Pete and Debbie, but about masculinity. Faith shoots from the hip in a bout of truthtelling that bites some of Cordelia’s style: “All men are beasts, Buffy… It’s not cynical. I mean, it’s realistic. Every guy from Manimal down to Mr. I-Love-The-English-Patient has beast in him. And I don’t care how sensitive they act. They’re all still just in it for the chase.”

So let’s take a moment to check out the other men in the story.

Scott Hope
He’s still lovely and funny and kind. He’s not particularly memorable in the grand scheme of Buffy, but’s that’s a point in his favour – he isn’t trying to hog any spotlight, he doesn’t screw up in dramatic fashion, he doesn’t dominate. He’s just happy to be spending time with Buffy. It’s lovely to watch, honestly. But by the end of this episode, he is shattered. His two best friends, who he’s known since they were all preschoolers, are dead in a murder-suicide. The abuse plotline is too far from the Scoobies to give any of them trauma, but Scott catches a huge dose of it here. Poor Scott.

Oz
We spend a lot of time with Oz this episode, for a change. He’s still a werewolf and Willow and the Scoobies take turns watching him as he spends wolf nights in lockup. The weight of werewolfiness is obviously wearing him down, and when he believes he might be responsible for a murder, he is sickened. In fact, Oz is pretty much perfect, with Seth Green again showing his dramatic and comedic acting chops are on a level above everyone else on the show as he sells every single beat. (“Uh, you know that thing where you bail in the middle of an upsetting conversation? I have to do that. It’s kinda dramatic, I know, but… sometimes, it’s a necessary guy thing.”
As a side-note, we also get more of Oz as the quiet wise observer, as he’s the one who figures out what’s happening with Pete and Debbie. As a second side-note, shirtless Oz.

Xander
If you’re looking for an episode where the show officially throws up its hands and gives up trying to “fix” Xander, you could do worse than his first scene here, where he promises Willow he won’t fall asleep while watching Oz-wolf, and then promptly settles down for a sleep as soon as she’s out of the room. As it happens the show has some good moves still to make with Xander, but it might yet be too little, too late.

Giles
Giles doesn’t get to do much this episode, but he does have a good conversation with Buffy, showing again their mature relationship, confessing his personal experiences after Jenny’s death to help Buffy reflect on her own grief process. He also calls out Xander for his failures. There is one curious note here, where Buffy asks about Angel returning from torture in a hell dimension, and Giles suggests there are “two types of monster. The first, uh, can be redeemed, or more importantly, wants to be redeemed. The second is void of humanity, cannot respond to reason… or love.” Within the framework of this episode, it’s clear where Pete should sit – void of humanity, with no desire for redemption – but it feels like an off-note, attributing abusive behaviour like Pete’s to some personal deviance or deficiency and denying the possibility of a social/contextual contribution to his violence. Still, a small point, and Giles’ views shouldn’t be taken as the show’s.

Mr Platt
The excellent Mr Platt is Buffy’s counsellor. He is a fun character, provoking Buffy to tell the story of her and Angel with the monstrous flavour stripped way, revealing the metaphor. It’s the show basically showing its cards. He’s a great character and useful for the kinds of exposition the show sometimes has to work hard to shoe-horn in. The kind of stories we’ve seen in this show – heck, in this episode – cry out for this kind of figure. He’d be a great regular character and would reduce the pressure on the characters. So, by the inevitable calculus of Buffy’s commitment to real threat, he has to die. (Sadly, as he’s just the third significant black character to be introduced on this show. Sigh.)

Shirtless Angel
And finally, Angel. He’s back, he’s bestial, he has no shirt. Buffy finds him, and in a very interesting move, keeps his return a secret. This is a shockingly great storytelling decision, a pure expression of the character flaw we saw just last episode, Buffy’s tendency to take things on herself. She wonders if the violence is Angel’s doing, and is relieved when it turns out Pete was responsible – even more so when Angel kills Pete to save her, then collapses before her, revealing he is still himself (and simultaneously resolving the problem of what to do about Pete, saving Buffy from becoming a killer…)

So this broad tour of masculinity does gently support Faith’s point. All of the other male characters are (more or less) uncorrupted, with the partial and notable exception of Xander. And yet the central theme of dangerous masculinity is reinforced because all of these men fret about their own potential for darkness – Angel is struggling to express his humanity, Oz is distraught about what his wolf-side might have done, Giles sees wickedness as a philosophical problem, Xander tries to hide his failings even from himself, and even Mr Platt clearly has no illusions about masculine failings. This gives the episode what it needs to make a particularly tricky episode land. A very special episode, indeed.

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Grunting Linky

On Billy’s blog: on the dangers of sympathetic magic when choosing one’s national animal. This made me laugh and laugh and laugh.

“Sexism”, the 1971 board game.

Mark Hamill appears to relish opportunities to sign old Star Wars trading cards.

Film Noir: explained via infographic. (“explained”)

The challenges of using itunes for classical music. (Really this is an article about metadata.)

Interview with the writer of legendary 80s horror flick Fright Night

Via Pearce, a troubling overview of research showing how men react to women in the workplace. As a bonus, the url is golden.

Via Peaseblossom: a girl’s guide to gaming. (Really nicely done, this.)

Reflections on Peanuts: Charlie Brown & Snoopy needed each other.

Psychologists highlight a bunch of academic terms that should not be used. There’s some good’uns here. Well worth a look.

Via Robert, a great story of massive, complicated, self-organising co-operation. By slashfic writers, of course.

Via Lisa B, whose new novel is now available at a bookstore near you: How to think about Islamic State.

And finally, via Pearce: Jerrys, and Etsy, and via Billy, Shia and Shias

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Watching Buffy: s03e03 “Faith, Hope & Trick”

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Most episodes of Buffy set out to do just one thing. One episode gets Buffy back to Sunnydale, another rebuilds broken bridges with her friends, to take two recent examples. But sometimes the show rolls out an episode that covers off a whole big mess of things inside that broadcast television hour.

Such episodes are usually written by Joss Whedon. This one is written by reliable stalwart of the writing team, David Greenwalt. The title divides the episode into three, so let’s start there.

FAITH
As much as Cordy is the truth-teller, Oz is the audience-speaker, the one who makes observations like those we make at home in our living rooms watching the show. So of course he catches on first: “I’m gonna go out on a limb and say there’s a new Slayer in town.” The whole gang has just followed Buffy out of the Bronze, after seeing a vampire guy (spotted by his out-of-date style in a conscious callback to the first episode) head through the doors with an apparently-vulnerable girl. They all watch, amazed, as she turns the tables on the vampire, borrowing Buffy’s stake to dust him. She knows who Buffy is, thanks her for the assist, and strides past them all without a backwards glance.

As character introductions go, this is pretty special. It is, of course, a note-perfect depiction of Whedon’s initial idea that became the Buffy concept, the vulnerable girl in the alley who turns out to be not so vulnerable. It is also the first time it’s actually been done – the original film script and the actual film that was made and the unreleased pilot episode and the actual first television episode all introduced Buffy Summers in a different way (the latter two by inverting the idea and having the girl be a vampire, not a slayer). However, although it is a pure representation of that initial swerve, it plays very differently to an audience (both in the fiction and in reality) who already know the world contains slight young women who happen to be ultimate badasses.

The details of Faith’s introduction here all communicate plenty. She embodies confidence, passion and instinct, which are all highly charged elements of the Buffy world.

Faith’s sheer confidence (social, physical and especially sexual) is a marked contrast with every one of the Scoobies, and it is clear she has no doubts about her capability in everything she does in this scene – dancing and slaying. Having an audience doesn’t bother her in the least. And though she is clearly on the same side as everyone else, this marks her as a foil for the whole group. The core Scoobies are all basically the awkward ones in their high school world – even Buffy, who ostensibly has a background as a popular girl, was reinvented early on as a natural member of the uncool club. (The expanded Scooby crew, Oz and Cordy, are allowed to be not-awkward, but both of them have explicitly disengaged from that world so they still don’t count as high-status cool kids.) Season two did have its cool kids, of course – the vampires. Here, exactly one season later, we finally get a cool kid on the side of the Scooby gang.

(Note that the show doesn’t go out of its way to emphasise this tension. As noted above, the show goes to commercial on Faith walking past the group without looking back at them, which is how you code a status gap in filmic/theatrical performance. Typically this exact move sets up some action where the characters try to get the attention of this other character – see countless high-school romance stories. However, right after the commercial, everyone’s sitting together and Faith is eagerly telling stories of her adventures. You’re spared any scenes of the Scoobies running after her and asking her to explain, or any other beat that tracks from the low status Faith has just bestowed on Buffy and her friends. The act transition disguises this missing moment, even if you’re watching with no ad break, but its absence creates a feeling of Faith hanging out being slightly too good to be true.)

Faith’s passion is also clearly evident. She doesn’t just know she’s good at dancing and fighting – she loves doing both. This is likewise out of place with every other character. The core cast are all reserved to a fault, and the show draws much of its drama – and humour – from the slow and stumbling way the characters cope with, and overcome, their hesitations. (Again, Cordy and Oz both dodge this – neither is reserved, but they are not passionate either.) She clearly likes her life, and after two seasons of Buffy slowly coming to terms with what it means to be a slayer, it’s a shocking comparison to see someone so happily integrated and comfortable with their fate. The unspoken challenge to Buffy is clear: why is this so hard for you, B? As the episode proceeds, Buffy shows herself to be quite aware of this challenge, and feeling quite threatened by it.

Faith’s reliance on instinct is also right on display. She’s clearly not following any plan by dancing with the vampire for ages before going outside with him. She isn’t being efficient or directed by introducing herself to Buffy while in the middle of a fight. In fact, she didn’t even have a stake on her and had no particular plan to acquire one – luckily Buffy happened to provide. She doesn’t need to think things through, here, she just dives headfirst and trusts that she’ll be able to figure it out as she goes.

Unlike the other two, this trait is not entirely absent from the Scoobies. I’ve suggested before that the core four at the heart of the show each foreground and represent a different attribute of a complete person. Giles is conscience and reason, both aspects of self-awareness and reflection, whereas Willow (despite her nerdiness) is the emotional core of the group – the conflict between head and heart is shown in this very episode when Giles warns Willow about delving carelessly into magic. Xander has had the duty of representing instinct, reliably speaking out of turn, following his gut, and getting in over his head. Faith’s appearance on the scene seems very likely to step on his toes. At the least, it puts a spotlight on some of the growing problems with Xander as a character.

Let’s do a quick review of those, actually. Throughout the last season, the show struggled to figure out exactly what to do with Xander. He was the “normal guy”, the doofus with a good heart, but most of his plot contributions seemed to be about him making stupid mistakes so everything gets worse for everyone. He’s also stuck as a representative of threatened masculinity, so more often than not the dumb stuff he says has a layer of unpleasant gendered foolishness that could make it hard to like him. This very episode has a case in point: Xander calls Buffy a “little slut” for expressing interest in going on a date. He’s just teasing her; the joke he’s making is that she isn’t even remotely being a “little slut”. However, the joke relies on an uncomfortable and misogynistic set of assumptions. (In response to this well-meaning but wrongheaded teasing, Buffy punches Xander a little too hard, or perhaps not remotely hard enough.) Now that Faith’s appeared, also with the instinct trait on display, the weaknesses in Xander’s character stand out more clearly: he’s not only the voice of (thwarted, nice-guy) patriarchy, he is also by design impotent in comparison to Buffy. Just this little scene with Faith underlines how, as a character, Xander’s been set up to fail, and in the world of Buffy where emotional consequences are real, he’s either going to learn and change, or he’s going to get bitter and self-righteous. Keep an eye on him.

Speaking of the word “slut” – Cordy uses it to describe Faith, having spotted her on the dancefloor. It’s another unpleasant beat, almost forgiveable because it comes from Cordelia who spent a season-and-a-half exercising her power by policing other women – that takes a while to get over. It’s a pity none of the other characters are given a rebuke to this, although it’s kinda in character that none of them would chastise Cordelia for this comment – the closest to a paragon present would be Oz, who is characterized above all by his tendency towards silence. (If only we could glimpse what he was thinking…) As it happens, the best rebuke to the comment comes (in delayed form) from Faith herself. Her introduction as a positive character, her mythological importance as a new Slayer, and her continuing role as a major character for this season, all serve to shout down this comment, or perhaps to put it in the context Faith would – as a pathetic attempt to insult her for being command of her sexuality. This show has a female perspective and feminist ideals, and Faith’s arrival immediately shows some weaknesses there.

Not that she’s an instant corrective or a perfect feminist. Faith is pointedly graceless, over-fond of violence, and in the same way her three primary attributes are conveyed immediately, it is also immediately clear how they can flip to become weaknesses: overconfident, overemotional, unthinking. When the episode and reveals that Faith does have weaknesses, in this case a fear of the vampire who killed her watcher, we are set up to wonder if she will listen to Buffy’s appeals to take responsibility and stay. (Not coincidentally, this is a speech she would have been unable to give with sincerity just one episode ago.) Then the vampires short-circuit the question by turning up anyway. Faith’s courage falters, but Buffy’s example gives her the presence of mind to move past her fears and take the monstrous vampire down.

And then we jump to Giles confirming that Faith will stick around, for the time being at least. Buffy is pleased, herself coming to terms with the fact that Faith is also a slayer (easier now it’s clear she has some personal qualities Faith is lacking). The contrasts Faith represents are going to provide plenty of drama, that much is obvious. Faith is a hard contrast with Buffy, the same way Cordelia was intended to be right at the start of season one. Kendra was also a contrast, but not one with much teeth – taking a bunch of awkward kids and showing them someone even nerdier was never going to be a convincing existential challenge. But here, the library nerds suddenly have to deal with someone cool in their circle, and that is definitely going to shake things up. It’s a delicious development, because as much as the dramatic conflicts are clear, the future is wide open – this could go in all kinds of directions. For the first time in Buffy’s history, it really is impossible to predict what is coming next.

HOPE
The introduction of Buffy’s new love interest is accomplished with such economy that it is instantly clear any romance between the two characters is doomed. Buffy is sitting with her friends just outside school when Willow delivers an info-dump worthy of the ones Giles delivers from his dusty tomes: “Ooo, Scott Hope at eleven o’clock. He likes you. He wanted to ask you out last year, but you weren’t ready then. But I think you’re ready now, or at least in the state of pre-readiness to make conversation, or-or to do that thing with your mouth that boys like.” (The double entendre finish is spectacularly forced, but the show gets away with it because Alyson Hannigan.)

Willow’s right that Scott likes Buffy and intends to ask her out; she’s right to be positive about this, because Scott is painstakingly set up throughout this episode as a nice, normal guy; but she’s not quite right about Buffy’s readiness. This is what the Scott Hope portion of the episode is about: Buffy’s personal baggage. We’ve seen in the first episode of the season that Buffy realizes she needs to go home to heal, and that’s where she belongs anyway; in the second episode we saw her reconnect with her friends and her mother. Now it’s time to actually show the impact of that healing, in accordance with the show’s established method of getting past the traumas it inflicts on its characters. Buffy needs to angst a bit, and then the show, and we the audience, will let her get on with the quips and the stakings.

Willow’s misapprehension here is simply because she doesn’t quite appreciate the magnitude of Buffy’s sorrow. She doesn’t know – no-one but Buffy herself knows – that Angel had recovered his soul at the time Buffy had to kill him. She’s underestimating just how messed up that experience was. Another intense dream about Angel, this one unmistakeably driven by her sense of guilt, marks out her unfinished business.

Buffy’s stated motivation is to get her life back so she can “do normal stuff”. This isn’t the same desire that animated Buffy back in season one – her normal has shifted. Patrolling cemeteries and beheading demons is part of her life now, but she also wants the other half, school and friends and time for picnics. Principal Snyder grudgingly readmitting Buffy to Sunnydale High is part of this throughline, and the victory over this petty villain is very entertaining.

So she’s back in high school, hanging with her friends, and has a normal boy to awkward-flirt with – everything is falling into place, except of course that big unresolved unpleasantness that haunts her dreams. And that’s brought to a head by Giles gently probing her for details in order to bind the demon that caused all this mess. Buffy dodges, rather than relive the worst day of her life in excruciating detail, let alone share its full awfulness.

Wait a second. Here’s a question: why does she she dodge? She’s already reliving that worst day over and over again; and does she really think her friends couldn’t handle the truth about Angel’s soul being restored? She’s returned to Sunnydale to heal, and she would heal best by sharing with her friends and receiving their acceptance and love. What’s really holding her back? Is it just dramatic contrivance, to spin an episode out of this plot point and force Buffy to earn her way out of misery? That’s certainly part of it, but is that all? Is there a strong organic reason why Buffy should so vividly keep this secret?

Well, yes, there is, and it comes down to Buffy’s fundamental character. From very early on, Buffy the slayer has been exceptional for surrounding herself with friends. But over and over again she has shown a fierce intent to step away from her team and carry the load and risk herself. This is a fundamental feature of Buffy’s character, or more pointedly it is her fundamental flaw. It could be called a martyr complex, or an ego problem, or any number of other things, but it boils down to the same thing: Buffy will always try and go it alone, and she will succeed often enough that she’ll always underestimate the problems such an approach can create. It is a lesson she will have to learn over and over again, and it will create almost all her major problems from here until the end of the series.

This time, she learns the lesson by witnessing that same instinct, to go it alone, almost get Faith killed. So in a move that shows her developing maturity, Buffy volunteers to Willow and Giles the truth about Angel, that he was cured when she killed him. The moment is played very simply and gently, and to the right audience – the head and the heart. It’s lovely. And then Buffy can go and respond positively to Scott, and to demonstrate closure with Angel by putting down the ring he gave her at the place where she killed him. Time to move on.

(Except, of course, Angel comes back, precisely at the moment Buffy gets over him. Why now? Because this show wants her to suffer. She knew that rule when she came back to town.)

TRICK
Joss Whedon has never been strong on race. Gender – he’s not too bad on gender. There’s no shortage of people giving him fierce critiques for how he addresses gender in his creative works (and, I should say, often making compelling points) but the fact is, he put Buffy on the screen, and she remains a titanic figure in terms of female representation in the media. (Back when Buffy was new we dared to hope the world was changing – but the fact Buffy’s still the titan shows it hasn’t changed as much as it could’ve.) There will always and forever be a convincing case that Joss Whedon pretty much did right by gender.

I don’t know that anyone has tried to say the same about how he addresses race. He’s not a total washout on the subject – Firefly had a few people of colour in its core cast, which is more than a lot of TV manages – but by and large his casting tends towards Whitey McWhitersons everywhere you look. And while Joss Whedon is not the singular deciding power behind any of his works, this show, his first, is the clearest expression of this failing. Sunnydale High is an astonishingly whitebread high school for California. While it’s fairly plausible there aren’t many black students thanks to effective segregation, California’s enormous Hispanic population and significant Asian population are both massively under-represented, even as background extras. After two complete seasons with only Kendra repping people of colour – and that being something of a misfire as well – it’s turned into a known issue.

Enter Mister Trick, a black man in a limo ordering a drink in the drive-thru. “Sunnydale. Town’s got quaint, and the people: he called me sir, don’t you miss that? Admittedly, not a haven for the brothers – strictly the Caucasian persuasion in the ‘dale – but you gotta stand up and salute their death rate.”

This entrance, and Trick himself, hang a lampshade (poorly!) on the show’s racial deficiencies, but litigating that isn’t what I’m most interested in here. The real function of this move is worldbuilding. The “Caucasian persuasion” of Sunnydale is not offered up by the show to excuse its lack of diversity, but rather to signal something about the wider world.

When your show’s title character is at high school, with friends at high school, and one significant older character who works at the high school… Well, that puts some boundaries around your show, and it’s tricky to step outside of them. (Cast your mind back to season one’s terrible effort.) Since then, the show has been carefully building some of the foundations it needs to successfully expand beyond high school. Principal Snyder’s connection to the mysterious Mayor has been a quietly developing subplot for a long time, for example. Sunnydale High is being put into context here: it is just one fragment of something larger.

It’s important to note that this worldbuilding is not intending to logically extend the things we know about the Buffy world into a coherent and consistent wider universe. This show doesn’t give the slightest damn about that: witness any story where the police appear. (Or, even more tellingly, any story where they don’t.) Or look at the Watcher’s Council: in this very episode we learn that Buffy is infamous in Watcher circles, and also that Giles doesn’t get invited to Watcher events. This doesn’t make a lick of sense. Sure, it can be justified if you bend over backwards a ways, but why bother? The show doesn’t care. It’s interested in establishing this wider world solely in order to tell more, and better, stories about Buffy and her friends.

So here, Mr Trick arrives on the scene. He’s a vampire with a gimmick of being tech-savvy and calculatingly self-interested. He is, in other words, an expression of urban power, in sharp contrast to the sheltered small-town suburbs of Sunnydale. And with his arrival we see the vampire metaphor shift again – the cool kids Rebel-Without-A-Cause-ing all over the place have had their moment. For this season, vampires (and those around them) are going to represent technocratic exploitation and the callous misuse of power. The smart young teenagers who are our heroes are going to discover that it isn’t school bullies playing status games who are the real sources of pain in the world – it’s distant suits pursuing their selfish ends, inflicting misery on the small and vulnerable along the way. Not for nothing is Mr Trick’s first victim in town a minimum-wage worker at a fast food joint. So the message of Mr Trick being a black man is the same as the message of him wearing that suit: Sunnydale is a sheltered little haven, and that’s about to change.

Oh, and hey, who else has just arrived in Sunnydale with a big-city attitude? Good thing Faith is on the side of the angels, right?

Other notes:
* The best moment in the episode is actually a very minor one, plotwise. Giles reveals to Willow that there never was a binding spell, and he just wanted Buffy to open up.
* When Faith flirts with Giles, Buffy asks for a show of hands to express everyone’s disgust at the idea. Willow just smiles.
* Oz gives Scott Hope bonus points for using the word “mosey”.
* Joyce: “Probably because you were an only child.” Heh.
* Although Cordelia Chase is almost the epitome of whiteness, Charisma Carpenter is Latina! I had no idea.
* Angel butt.

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Teacher-ESPN Linky

Amazing Key & Peele bit imagining a world where teaching was treated with the reverence we have for sports. (Plus bonus Ghostbusters easter egg.)

Two instances of 90s youth culture and its immediate co-optation by the mainstream media machinery:
First, Dangerous Minds has found the complete ’96 doco “HYPE” about the grunge scene – I watched this doco back on cinema release and I remember it being pretty good. The “guide to grunge slang” story DM talk about is priceless.
Second, there was a network-TV sitcom pilot based on Clerks? It is pretty close to unwatchable even when you’re watching to see just how bad it is.

via Hugh Dingwall – a great video breaking down what the heck was up with that Gamergate thing, what it was, what it meant, why it was, etc. Brings it all together in a very concise and often entertaining way, while resisting the temptation to mock. It’s part four, but on Hugh’s suggestion I started here, and it worked fine for me.

Remember that film Sky Captain & the World of Tomorrow? I do! Well not that I ever saw it, but I remember it being a thing. Say, what did those guys do next? Answer: nothing. It’s an interesting story.

Loads of people have been sharing this book excerpt on how the end of capitalism has begun. I am fascinated by all the facts discussed here, even though I remain completely unconvinced by the argument he’s trying to make with them.

Some vintage Star Wars I’ve never seen before: a warning against drink driving filmed in the Cantina set using all the familiar aliens.

A sharp, funny, scathing account of the state of the web: Web design, the first 100 years

This feature has been talked about everywhere, but not linked to so much, so I’m linking to it even though I can’t bear to read it: 35 of Bill Cosby’s accusers tell their stories.

What are the defining ingredients of the cuisine in each country?

Via Anoushka, a West Wing fan created an infographic love letter to standout episode “17 People”. (Disclaimer: I have never watched an episode of The West Wing.)

And finally, via Jenni: SECRET INGREDIEEEENT!

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Watching Buffy: s03e02 “Dead Man’s Party”

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In this episode, Buffy feels isolated from her friends and mother after her return to Sunnydale. Then zombies crash a party and that fixes everything.

Well, eventually. The zombies don’t really get mixed into Buffy’s storyline until the 3/4 mark of the episode, and until then we’re following her through some uninterrupted angst. The show initially has Buffy and her friends greet each other awkwardly but happily, but the relationships swiftly spiral into awkwardness: Joyce is full of smiles and tries too hard to be accommodating, but can’t help seeding every conversation with passive aggressive frustration; Willow is friendly and pleased to see her, but then avoids her while claiming not to be avoiding her; Xander is gleeful at her return, but also can’t help but voice his resentment. All this growing isolation is beautifully depicted, nicely underplayed with awkward silences and off-looks. The message Buffy takes from this is that returning home was a mistake: while she might be ready to return to Sunnydale, Sunnydale doesn’t really want her back. And so she gets ready to leave. Here, finally, the unspoken tensions come to a head as everybody discovers her attempt to leave, and it finally provokes everyone to say what’s on their mind. And then, zombies.

This is a solid metaphor monster episode. Metaphor monsters were initially meant to incarnate the horrors of high school life, but the zombies in this episode represent a much more general phenomenon. This is a sign of the show’s shift in focus, as it owns up to the fact that it was never about high school and teenagers at all, but rather about life in general. (After all, what is drama about teens but a metaphorical representation of proper drama about adults? Cough.)

The show hangs a lampshade on a metaphorical reading for the zombies:

Xander: You know, maybe you don’t want to hear it, Buffy, but taking off like you did was incredibly selfish and stupid.
Buffy: Okay! Okay. I screwed up. I know this. But you have no idea! You have, you have no idea what happened to me or what I was feeling!
Xander: Did you even try talking to anybody?
Buffy: There was nothing that anybody could do. Okay? I just had to deal with this on my own.
Xander: Yeah, and you see how well *that* one worked out. You can’t just bury stuff, Buffy. It’ll come right back up to get you.

Xander is calling out Buffy’s avoidant behaviour, fleeing Sunnydale without telling anyone, but the zombies also represent Joyce and the Scoobies giving Buffy fake smiles and denying that anything’s different or wrong. The conflict that drives this whole episode is about people not saying what they’re feeling, which is clearly presented as toxic: the weight of what is unspoken is far more dangerous than anything that could be said.

This is an amusingly self-serving message, as far as drama goes. On the one hand, fictional drama in general, and television drama in particular, sustains itself on matters unspoken. So many dramatic plots would be resolved swiftly and without much consequence if one character would just tell the other character something. Often the reasons why this talk is withheld are tenuous or absent entirely: they say nothing because the story demands it. (A notable subset: they never mentioned the secret because it hadn’t even been invented until the current episode is written.)

On the other hand, while fiction thrives on revelation and laying bare the resentments and secrets and concerns that sit between two characters, the real world does not always align with this. Real people often withhold their private thoughts. Their relationships may change or end as a result, but they also might continue pretty much as they did before. Telling people things doesn’t always solve problems, and can create many new ones. People aren’t stories, and popular fictions are poorly placed to moralize about secrecy and discretion. (See also: crappy 70s/80s therapy culture telling people to “be honest”.)

Buffy‘s plotting has always been happy to use dramatic contrivance – indeed, the final straw that has Buffy packing her bags is when she just happens to conveniently overhear when her mother finally confides her discomfort to a conveniently-introduced new friend. However, this show has always held itself to a higher standard than most pop culture in the dimension of emotions and emotional consequences, and this episode provides a solid showcase for this. The trouble among the friends is finally expressed with brutal honesty, which gets so unpleasant that Oz interposes himself to stop people really hurting each other emotionally; but the seeds are set for this conflict across the episode through many small awkward interactions, and the clear sense that everyone involved is only figuring out how they feel as they go along. Authentic emotional is even played for farce, setting up the old trope of a teenage party getting bigger than expected by having the core characters feel too awkward to face each other in a small group.

It’s notable that Buffy’s closest friends Willow and Xander carry most of the load here in making Buffy unhappy. Her relationship with her mother is obviously more powerful and more important, but it’s also somewhat expected that there would be issues between them. Willow’s and Xander’s anger at Buffy feels unfair and entirely human, and without the grounding of unconditional parental love the stakes even feel slightly higher. All of which points at the other central figure in Buffy’s life, Giles, who is a counterpoint to all of the above. He, alone, expresses nothing but satisfaction and relief in her return. His quiet relief, alone in his kitchen listening to Buffy and her friends, is enormously affecting. And as a bonus, because Giles doesn’t need to walk a path of forgiveness and acceptance, he is freed up to provide an absolutely hilarious performance in the zombie throughline that sits as a solid B-plot throughout the episode.

The action concludes with the shocking (and never-again-mentioned) death of Joyce’s best friend (shades of Ted, and a reminder that the emotional continuity so prized by this show is rarely applied to secondary characters like Joyce), and a runaround showdown where the gaze of the evil mask is crucial for no metaphorical reason worth discussing. The action itself is used to resolve the character conflict: basically, they all accept their interpersonal issues don’t count for much when zombies and vampires and demons are around and Buffy has a job to do smacking them down. The metaphor works – let the bad blood come out into the open, have the fight, then relax. Curiously, the metaphor positions the disputing friends on the same side, with the dissension between as the enemy that must be controlled – it’s a very interesting way to frame things, and it helps the resumption of friendship among the Scoobies feel both organic and earned even though none of the harsh words exchanged earlier have been addressed in the least.

Other thoughts:
* It’s a shame that when the show finally pulls a story out of Joyce’s gallery as a source of weird stuff, it’s with a Nigerian mask that she calls “primitive”. Perhaps it’s a blessing they mostly forget about the gallery.
* Is the zombie cat a deliberate reference to Pet Semetary?
* Snyder’s threat to keep Buffy out of school is obviously a false jeopardy – the TV show makes it inevitable she’ll be readmitted, so the dramatic question becomes, how (and under what terms) will Snyder be defeated? It is very satisfying to have Giles step in to put Snyder in his place, continuing the movement of his character into the badass role.
* Buffy finds in the basement a photo of Willow, her and Xander… but this framed photo is only a year old, right? What’s it doing in the basement?
* Another appearance of the Cyclops/Wolverine joke from X-Men: Cordelia: How do we know it’s really you and not zombie Giles? / Giles: Cordelia, do stop being tiresome. / Cordelia: It’s him.
* While I’m completely on board with the relationship depicted between Willow and Buffy this episode, the very final sequence, where they trade friendly insults? It just doesn’t feel right to me. Not entirely sure why.

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