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Watching Buffy: s03e12 “Helpless”


The relationship between Buffy and Giles sits at the centre of the show but is never the centre of attention. He was initially a stuffy patriarchal authority but across the first season, Buffy slowly won him over, until he adopted an unorthodox style that complemented her own. In the second season their relationship was shown to be strong and loving, with Giles giving Buffy support (and, occasionally, correction) in what was very much a parental mode. It is no accident that Buffy has been without an actual father! Giles has been shown to consistently be the conscience of the show, the higher-order Freudian superego that keeps the other aspects of the show’s character balance in check. Giles the character has been broadened and explored in other ways too, through his romance with Jenny Calendar, and subsequent loss and hardening; but throughout, he has been the show’s bedrock, a reliable presence who only wavers in the most extreme circumstances, and the one who gives comfort and safety to Buffy on her very worst days.

With this context in place, the first act break in this episode gives us a devastating revelation: Giles has been hypnotising Buffy and secretly injecting her with some drug or other. The betrayal is absolutely enormous. It isn’t absolutely clear that these injections are the source of the lethargy that is affecting Buffy – just one episode previous, after all, the first act break was Willow’s involvement in a sinister ritual that turned out to be innocent in nature – but the act itself is violation enough, a deeply creepy penetration of Buffy’s bodily autonomy without her knowledge or consent. This alludes to the crime of drugging a woman and then sexually assaulting her, which even in metaphor is a horrific association with Giles. While shocking, this intrusion into our safe assumptions about Giles is one the core themes of the show: women are hurt by men.

This episode puts at the forefront a problem with the show’s structure that has sat quietly unaddressed since the end of season one: even though her personal relationship with Giles has changed, Buffy is still subject to a large patriarchal institution. It turns out that Giles’s betrayal is mandated by his own masters, the Watcher’s Council. We have heard much about them before now – most recently, that they tend to exclude Giles from their activities – but this is the first appearance on-screen of the embodiment of establishment power that is Quentin Travers. Giles cannot protect her from the Council. Women are hurt by men, and the Watcher/Slayer relationship, even in the ameliorated form existing between Giles and Buffy, is impossible to fully reconcile with this theme.

The Council was never made to be looked at closely. If there is an global organisation with the resources to put a highly-trained occult researcher into an undercover role in a school she’s going to attend – well, then, surely the global org can deliver other support too, especially given Buffy seems to keep saving the world. Of course, this would violate the thematic structure of the show – Buffy cannot be part of a large organisation or all the metaphors break down! So the Council is portrayed as distant and virtually uninterested in Buffy and her activities. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, but we roll with it, because that’s how we get the show we want to watch.

It is notable, though, that the Council’s first appearance in the series is through a violation of Buffy’s autonomy that is inexcusable and abhorrent. The nature of the Council is being made absolutely clear by this storytelling choice: although they speak loftily of the importance of their work, they exist to harm those with less power. They are tainted and corrupt and inimical to Buffy.

The drama of the episode arises from two questions: how will Buffy manage to overcome this dramatic trial? How will Giles respond to the test of his character posed by his part in the abuse of Buffy? Both are answered in most dramatic fashion.

The challenge Buffy faces is depicted with as much intensity as anything in the series. Without her powers, she is extremely vulnerable, and the show makes you feel it by deploying the visual structure of a horror film – doubly effective because of the jarring awareness that it is powerful Buffy stumbling about in terror here. (The only precedent for the sustained and terrifying chase sequence is the one where Angelus hunted Jenny Calendar through the school, and that ended in a shocking fashion.) The episode’s monster, Kralik, is a fantastic threat, charismatic and unnerving and full of personality – exactly the kind of figure that could carry the dramatic weight of doing something really bad to the show’s balance. The showdown between Buffy and Kralik, when it comes at last, is again right out of a horror movie, Buffy as final girl, and edge-of-seat terrifying to watch. It would be easy to let down this storyline with a resolution that feels false, Buffy winning because she must for the show to continue, but the show doesn’t drop the ball here. It finds a beautiful resolution where Buffy outsmarts Kralik, and her victory feels totally earned.

The challenge to Giles is similarly powerful, albeit less breathlessly thrilling. The parental aspects of his relationship to Buffy are highlighted by the failure of Buffy’s father to come through for her, and the presence of Joyce in the narrative, and even the clear evocation of Buffy’s teenage sexuality in her sweaty sparring session with Angel and the suspiciously phallic crystal (another reading of Giles’s intrusive injection is a father sedating and annulling the sexual urges of his daughter, because he doesn’t want her to be a sexually independent being).

Obviously and unsurprisingly, Giles does not hold the line for Travers and the Council, but defects to confess the truth to Buffy. And here the show does not do the unsurprising thing: Buffy does not forgive and appreciate Giles’s confession. She is horrified and repulsed and flees from him, forcing him to appreciate that his actions were even more awful than he has admitted to himself. Later, after the danger is past, Giles faces the consequences of his actions: he is summarily dismissed from the Council and his role as Buffy’s Watcher. Although he is affronted because he sees this as a disruption of his relationship with Buffy, it is in fact the best thing that could happen for their relationship: he is freed of the tainted institution and can give Buffy support without the unsettling structural power hanging over their every interaction. There is a lovely scene where they reconcile as he gently, silently tends her wounds.

The show reasserts its fundamental opposition to structures where men claim power over women. The imbalance that has been part of the show since the first episode is finally expunged, and patriarchy is properly undercut. The show celebrates the occasion in typically distinctive style: by ending on Xander failing to open a jar. Just one more great moment in an episode full of them. Buffy‘s third season continues to excel.

Other notes:
* Typically Whedon geek reference, where Xander and Oz debate types of kryptonite. This kind of nerdery has become a lot more common in the years since this show!
* And, as is now customary, some gratuitous continuity references to Amy the rat and even Kendra’s stake, Mr Pointy.
* Angel confesses to Buffy that he saw her before she became a slayer. It plays… weirdly. Their relationship is kind of fuzzy and strange here, guilt-wracked self-denial replaced with a kind of self-deprecating chemistry.
* One interesting switch on a recent episode – once again Buffy steps up to stop some schoolyard bullying, but this time the guy she steps to doesn’t even know who she is. This isn’t really a continuity error – it’s a big school! – but it does jar.


Apophenia Linky

The puzzle book that drove England to madness (doubles as a primer on where conspiracy theories come from)

Via Marieke, a good explainer on Syria and the migrant crisis:

Last Week Tonight on the migrant crisis has a particularly lovely finish (but you can’t skip to it, you gotta watch through or it doesn’t make sense).

Downton Abbey characters battle each other with lightsabers. (Star Wars is everywhere, Star Wars goes with everything.)

Ten minute creepy horror film by a friend of Pearce:

Chess master analyzes chess games from films.

More 70s ads from Dangerous Minds, this time, sexist stereo ads. “Here is a picture of a naked lady, buy our stereo” is just the beginning.

Also via DM, another Twin Peaks video game: Fire, Dance With Me

Via Allen Varney, two articles about how the world is all broke:
From the Boston Globe, a look at how much of the government of the USA is unaccountable to the President or to anyone really. And at the Awl, the gathering mess of “fascist teenage dungeon master[s]” that is Neoreaction, and why they are really bad news.

And finally, try to read this to the end – Pearce and I didn’t make it.


Watching Buffy: s03e11 “Gingerbread”


We know by now that this show isn’t afraid to mess you up. So when the broad comedy opener of Buffy’s mum bringing her a snack while she hunts vampires – a joke that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Scooby Doo – suddenly swerves into an unnerving tableau of murdered children, it hits harder than it might on any other show. The show has been working up the ability to punch the viewer in the chest like this for a long time, funny enough that you laugh along, and yet able to kill off Jenny Calendar in brutal fashion and make you feel every moment. In the audience, it takes you a moment to take it in, and the credit music is pounding before you catch up and remember that kids don’t die in horror stories from the USA. With only a few exceptions, if there’s a kid or an animal in your horror film, they’ll make it intact to the final scene. (One of the many unnerving delights of insane Italian horror flick Demons is its eagerness to turn both a pet and a child into grisly victims of the monsters. If you were raised on a diet of US horror, as I was, then you’ll get the full jarring effect of the culture clash.)

It isn’t at all clear what the show is doing, but it is obvious you’re out of familiar territory. After the credits, we’re straight in on a police investigation scene, which once again signals a violation of the usual narrative rules in place around the show. Buffy‘s narrative world is collapsing. It actually started to break even before the kids were revealed, when Joyce identified a random vampire as “Mr Sanderson from the bank!” Very rarely does the show give its vampires identities and human pasts, and I think this is the only time it’s someone from the “normal” adult world.

Continuing the theme, when Buffy reports to Giles on the crime, Giles almost immediately voices the idea that the culprit might be a person, not a monster. If I remember correctly, this is not something he has ever said before now, which seems a bit strange if there is (as Buffy mentions) an important Slayer rule against killing humans. He’s never much needed to say it before now, of course – the show is called Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the narrative therefore provides vampires and monsters to slay. But in this episode, the bounds of the narrative have been shaken, and the possibilities are broader.

This episode, then, presents a collapse of Buffy‘s fundamental narrative structure. The proximate cause is the two dead children, an event so shocking it cannot be contained within standard Buffy. On a deeper level, however, this collapse is caused by something else: the looming presence of the world beyond high school.

The fundamental metaphor and mythology of the show thus far has been intensely linked with the high school experience. Keeping this association intact has forced the show to weird contrivances. (Remember a season ago in What’s My Line, Part 2 when a police officer visiting the school turned out to be an armed assassin who tried to execute someone? Remember how no-one ever referred back to this moment?) For some time, however, the show has been sketching the outline of a world beyond the school. This is a tricky process – the high school setting is well-established and insular, and it isn’t clear how to make the rest of the world function next to it.

Especially because, as this episode shows, that “rest of world” is not inclined to sit passively outside the school fences. As soon as it is invoked in this episode, it begins an intrusion into the safe and familiar world of the show. As Buffy says to her mother in a school corridor, “his hall is about school, and you’re about home. Mix them, my world dissolves.” The show has been mixing them more and more this season with the introduction of the Mayor as a major villain, and the narrative collapse in this episode is the dissolving world of which Buffy speaks. There is no greater symbol of the extent of this intrusion, and the way it wrecks the show’s narrative structure, than the sight of police officers confiscating books from the school library: what are these occult tomes doing there anyway?

This intrusion is, cleverly, itself an element of the high school experience. The parental/adult world’s interference is explicitly tied into the kind of moral panic that runs through a community from time to time, and which is inevitably focused on the misdeeds (real or imagined) of independent teenagers. Partner to the confiscation of library books is a scene where school lockers are searched, filmed as a queasy handheld sequence that disrupts the visual vocabulary of the show as much as the events violate its fictional structure. Amy the witch is marched away after something is found in her locker, which directly evokes a panic over drugs on campus (the contraband in question is even a baggie of herbs). The flip side of this panic is the dismal truth that the adult world mostly does not pay attention to teenage existence. Parents mostly don’t care, and so when they do look, everything appears shocking. It’s a difficult bind.

This whole process of collapse and disruption reaches its apex when Joyce voices a criticism of the show that only becomes visible when the usual narrative structure is pulled apart:

Buffy: …you have to let me handle this. It’s what I do.
Joyce: But is it really? I mean, you patrol, you slay. Evil pops up, you undo it. And that’s great! But is Sunnydale getting any better? Are they running out of vampires?
Buffy: I don’t think that you run out of…
Joyce: It’s not your fault. You don’t have a plan. You just react to things. It’s bound to be kind of fruitless.

Buffy doesn’t have a good response, of course. How can she? The episode is challenging fundamental aspects of the show’s premise. Bringing Buffy into the wider world means these difficult questions need to be addressed, and Joyce’s words hang in the air, aching for response, and it becomes clear that this episode might just change everything.

Then the show reveals that Joyce is being haunted by the two dead children, and everything goes spectacularly off the rails.

It turns out the children are a monster, the adults are being mentally influenced to act out of character (again – Band Candy wasn’t that long ago!), and everything goes absurd very quickly with Amy and Willow and Buffy tied to stakes to be burned as witches. Somehow pointing out the children don’t seem to have parents is enough to break the spell (huh), but not before there’s a wildly uneven attempt at a farcical comedic action showdown.

The back half of the episode abandons all the important material that was in play. It’s a shame. This season is the final season of the-show-as-it-is. The high school setting is about to run out as the cast all graduate. The characters and the show both share the queasy knowledge that the end is coming and what the hell will you do next? Everything in the world beyond school starts to matter. Many a show before now has foundered on the rocks that lie just outside the safe harbour of the high school setting. Buffy has no intention of finishing at the end of season three, so the invocation of the wider world this season performs a very important function of readying the show for this change. But every time you reach further into that wider world, you run the risk of the show collapsing in on itself, as happened here.

And for all that, the show still answers Joyce’s question, and gives once again a clear statement of purpose, one that reaches beyond the high school setting and shows just why the show is confident it can sustain itself against a wider canvas.

Angel: Buffy, you know, I’m still figuring things out. There’s a lot I don’t understand. But I do know it’s important to keep fighting. I learned that from you.
Buffy: But we never…
Angel: We never win.
Buffy: Not completely.
Angel: We never will. That’s not why we fight. We do it ’cause there’s things worth fighting for.

Earlier in the episode, two bullies start causing trouble for vulnerable goth kid Michael. That’s why Buffy fights. And she just has to show her face to make the bullies back down. She’s done with high school, and ready for the wider world.

Other thoughts:
* A bunch of characters get good moments that don’t amount to much here. Once again, Oz is basically wasted, despite the amazing line: “Just so we’re clear you guys know you’re nuts, right?” He is funny as hell, but contributes nothing at all to the story.
* Returning player Amy is similarly squandered. She’s the narrative’s object, not it’s subject, with her only clear action in her own right being turning herself into a rat to escape being burned alive. Amusingly, she doesn’t turn back into a human at the end of the episode – this is classic Claremont-style long-form plotting.
* Even Willow, who should by rights have a big role in this story considering it features her mum and directly challenges her growing involvement in witchcraft, ends up with little of consequence to do. Although you do get a lovely first-ad-break cliffhanger of seeing Willow involved in a small witchy ritual with Amy and Michael – the early placement of this shock revelation allows the audience to enjoy it while knowing full well they’re not actually bad guys.


Ballet Linky

Happening in Wellington: Ballet for Everyone. This video is the cutest thing I’ve seen in a long time. Maybe your city needs Ballet for Everyone too?

The most misread poem in America: interesting article that, oddly, includes a very detailed recap of a New Zealand car commercial.

1902 trading cards depicting “women of the future”

Paintings tell kind of a love story in the shadow of giant robots… (via Craig Oxbrow)

The British PM and the pig. Two articles that are worth your time: Why people are laughing and (via Ivan) what it says about the state of British politics.

This sounds lovely – how traditional stories become part of the British landscape (via Hugh Dingwall)

Charming short telling a story with 1978 vintage Star Wars figures. (Coulda done without the “twist ending” though…)

The Twin Peaks tarot (via Pearce)

Someone discovered a third all-purpose caption for New Yorker cartoons.

And finally… I almost didn’t include this because I prefer not to go blue in the linky, but somehow I’ve talked myself into it… a hilarious three minute re-edit of apparently-legendary 1980s spoken word album “The Way to become a Sensuous Woman”. Definitely NSFW. (Dangerous Minds has more info.)


Watching Buffy: s03e10 “Amends”

SMG gives awesome face-crumple.

The Buffy audience learned before the end of season two that Angel was getting his own spinoff show. This wasn’t just the secret insider info of the superfans, either, but commonplace knowledge discussed in the TV Guide. The audience knew as they watched season three that Angel would be gone by season four. Buffy and Angel can’t end up together, because they are going to be on different television shows, and there’s no fate more final than that.

Has there ever been another romance on TV that went down like this? The Buffy-Angel relationship was central to the show as it reached its greatest heights of public awareness and broke through to become a critical favourite. The show was on the WB, so there had to be yearning and makeouts and two beautiful people hot for each other. It was also a Whedon show, which meant emotional tragedy, so the two lovers were pitted against each other against their will. Everything else in the show – and yes, there was a lot of everything else – revolved around the central fulcrum of Buffy/Angel. The show had not overplayed its hand with these characters either, taking its time to bring them together, making sure there was plenty more to explore between them. And now, with this love story at the peak of its importance to the narrative of the show, and not even close to being exhausted, the decision is made to end it?

Splitting up a show’s central relationship to give one of the characters a spinoff – why would you do that? Even if you had faith that Angel could sustain a new show (and based on what we’d seen thus far, it was hard to see how this would work), how do you make sure you don’t wound Buffy in the process of extracting him? What if you end up with two broken shows and no working ones? And what the heck do you do with Angel in the meantime?

The show’s central romance becomes in season three a kind of slow unraveling, and the viewers can only root for them to find the least painful way to their separate futures. The characters already seemed to have a sense of what was before them, with both Buffy and Angel reluctant to resume their romance early on. This came to a head in Lovers Walk as Spike got under their skin with his claim that they couldn’t stay together without destroying each other. But the chemistry and history between these characters can’t be undone by a single speech, no matter how potent it is; the point needs to be made over and over again before it feels real. And, as ever, emotional reality is key in this show.

This episode’s purpose is to continue the unraveling, to pull a few more threads loose from the Buffy/Angel relationship, but to ensure each movement and change feels authentic. The episode (a Whedon joint) puts a focus on Angel, an important move to ensure the coming separation is mutual and thus sustainable. (Also, a bit of a test run for giving Angel the narrative focus ahead of his solo debut.) Angel is haunted by nightmares of his past sins and visions of his victims. He is being tormented by something called The First, or The First Evil, which no-one else can see, and slowly he is losing control of himself. The First seeks to drive him to kill Buffy, but even in his disoriented state he cannot do it, and resolves to kill himself instead.

What is the First? Giles knows it as an ancient power of evil. By its own account it is “something that you can’t even conceive… Beyond sin, beyond death. I am the thing the darkness fears. You’ll never see me, but I am everywhere. Every being, every thought, every drop of hate.” Angel decides to kill himself instead. “You’re not supposed to die. This isn’t the plan. But it’ll do.” Note that word, “plan”. The First claims that it (in concert with unidentified other powers, it uses the word “we”) brought Angel back from the hell dimension, and wants him to transform back into Angelus. Is this a reasonable goal for the First Evil, to bring Angelus back? And if it is – why is Angel’s suicide an acceptable alternate?

There is no attempt to make this aspect of the plot make any particular sense. Perhaps it is simplest to return to the metafictional lens. This positions the show itself as an entity with motives in the fiction, namely to make Buffy and her friends suffer. For example, Angel returned from the hell dimension precisely at the moment his return would cause the most harm. The First’s motivations suddenly make sense if we understand it as an expression of the show’s own need for antagonism and pressure. The show can freely threaten both Buffy and Angel, knowing that it needs both of them to headline their shows the following season – of all the characters to pick on, these two have absolute plot immunity. It doesn’t therefore worry that either of them will die, because they cannot. What matters is they are both pushed to a point of absolute breakdown, so they can split apart. Angel becoming Angelus and Angel trying to end his own life both work to collapse the Buffy/Angel relationship, so they are both acceptable to the First.

As things transpire, Angel attempts to kill himself by facing the sunrise, and Buffy runs to stop him. The conversation they have is extraordinary. Angel says he is too weak to resist his darkness and it is better for everyone that he die, but Buffy refuses to accept that he should give in. When Angel calls his self-destruction an act of strength, Buffy’s reply gives him pause: “Strong is fighting! It’s hard, and it’s painful, and it’s every
day. It’s what we have to do. And we can do it together.” This is as good an expression of the core ethos of the Buffy/Angel cosmology as you’ll find. And to underline the point, it starts to snow.

The snow is something of a controversial moment in Buffy. Whedon suggested it as a potential act of God, but certainly not necessarily the Christian God; a higher power, saving Angel from the sunrise, and giving him a sign of absolution. It was too crazy, too inexplicable, too sickly-sweet, too deus ex machina for many viewers. For me, it feels like the perfect ending. If the First is the show itself expressing its need to harm the characters, the snow is the show’s compassionate love for them. Angel and Buffy walk through the snowfall holding hands, their romance in a strange and breaking place, their world unsteady and uncertain, but the moment abundant with beauty and connection and meaning. Fighting is hard and painful and every day; but sometimes, if you’re lucky, it might just snow.

Other thoughts:
* What would the show be doing if Angel wasn’t spun off? Would the storyline be working out the same way? It is very hard to say. There is always pressure in an ongoing television show to avoid settling into a comfortable pattern, and Whedon has already shown his eagerness in this regard, casually throwing out patterns almost as soon as they get established. A sustained happy-ever-after for Buffy and Angel was never a possibility. At the same time, Angel was an important part of the show and a big drawcard for the audience, and it’s hard to see him getting written out – even if Whedon wanted to, the producers might have balked. The way most shows handle these twin pressures is to end up playing mix-and-match with relationships, giving every combination of established cast a chance to have a romantic connection with each other until the possibilities are exhausted. Thanks to the Angel spinoff show, Buffy manages to (mostly) escape this phenomenon (although Angel itself won’t do quite so well).
* Some cracking scenes in this one. Angel going to Giles for help, and the sudden appearance of Jenny Calendar; Cordelia’s justified coldness; the return of Willy’s demon bar (and Xander as comedy goofball again); Willow’s attempted sexytimes with Oz.
* But also some stuff that doesn’t quite land. The flashbacks never quite work, and the First doesn’t come together as a foe. The whole episode feels unbalanced structurally, which I think is a sign of ambition rather than carelessness but it still doesn’t feel right to me.
* Nice to see Faith again, and to see her joining Joyce and Buffy for Christmas.
* There’s some interesting juice in the idea of Angel’s ultimate weakness being his sexual desire for Buffy, given the association between vampires and rape culture that the show gestures towards on a regular basis.
* Buffy says to Angel: “You have the power to make amends. On your own series.” (slight paraphrase)


Atomic Linky

Next generation design tool Atomic has officially launched.
“Design has become an essential function inside every modern software business, and is destined to become a major software category. Atomic has over 30,000 beta users and many thousands more reviewing their designs, and we’ve only just begun.
The world’s most recognisable brands are using Atomic to create interactive prototypes without ever touching a line of code. It’s powerful, insanely fast and even runs in the browser, so there’s nothing to install and available everywhere. We’re determined to make prototyping more available to designers, and design more available to everyone.”
My friend Grant is one of the original gangsters of Atomic, and I am insanely happy for him.
Here’s the overview video:

Overview of Atomic from Atomic on Vimeo.

I wrote a big article about the racism embedded in Lovecraft’s famous story “The Call of Cthulhu”, and whether you can extract it when you do your follow up Cthulhu thing. (Everybody’s doing follow-up Cthulhu things at the moment. Lovecraft = so hot right now.)

Peanuts – strip out the last panel and all you get is the despair.

The Grauniad has a great interview with wonderful cartoonist Kate Beaton

How did I not know about this December 2014 video by NASA interns, “All About That Space”?

New Ta-Nehisi Coates epic act of journalism to rend your heart and challenge your understanding: The Black family in the age of mass incarceration. Intimately personal to the experience of Black America, but given the way the USA tends to export its cultural discourse, crucial reading all over the place.

Can rice actually save your wet phone?

Why do we admire mobsters? It’s a bit once-over-lightly, but this is something I wonder myself every time I bounce off “The Sopranos”.

And finally, ads for cocaine paraphenalia from the 70s. These seem so strange now, our perception of that drug has changed so much over the years.


Watching Buffy: s03e09 “The Wish”


The hidden connection between Xander and Willow was revealed last week, with predictably devastating consequences for their respective romantic partners. This episode is dedicated to the fallout. Mostly the focus stays on Cordelia, but the interaction between Oz and Willow is of course the most painful: Oz gives Willow a smackdown that is so clear and gentle and insightful it is almost kind, and therefore it hurts the most.

Willow has always been the audience’s emotional conduit into the fiction, and so we could expect to be wounded there. Our relationship with Cordelia, however, is much more ambiguous. She has been part of the Scooby Gang for a long time but has never been admitted to the inner circle. Although her role as truthseer/truthsayer hasn’t been used much lately, she still maintains the outsider’s position. Her relationship with Xander has consistently been seen as unusual and inexplicable, including by the characters themselves. After an event like this, any realistic emotional reaction would likely see Cordelia distance herself from the gang, and therefore from the show. It is entirely unclear what the show is going to do with her now: the show tacitly acknowledges this by positioning her symbolic destruction of the Scooby gang, by chopping up a photo and burning the others, into the pre-credits climax.

Apart from a perfunctory demon at the cold open and a perfunctory vampire just before the first commercials, the whole first act is monster-free, and mostly devoted to Cordelia. Crucially, we see her bedroom for the first (and only) time, helping us identify with a character who has often been kept at a distance by the show. Then it’s the return of Harmony, who is predictably cruel to Cordelia, but even more so by the handsome popular guy who suggests they might hook up as long as it’s “someplace private”. These scenes do all kinds of work – they of course show Cordelia heartbroken and looking for comfort, but also reinforce our empathy by reminding us that she made a socially-costly choice in choosing Xander, one that refuted something previously core to her identity. Cordelia is not just betrayed, she is also suddenly isolated.

The show takes the time to show us all the ways in which Cordelia is wounded because her heartbreak is to assume fairy-tale power in this episode. She meets a new girl, Anya, and they bond instantly (in a way that rhymes with Cordelia and Buffy’s first, friendly, encounter in the very first episode). However, it turns out Anya is a demon who lures Cordelia into making a vengeful wish – that Buffy had never come to Sunnydale – and then grants it.

This is a form of metaphor monster – “what if your hurt feelings came to life?” It’s interesting to note just how much power the show gives Cordelia’s emotional injury, sufficient to overwrite reality itself. Cordelia finds herself in a dangerous, burned-out Sunnydale, fearful and beset by vampires after the Master successfully rose from his imprisonment. The ruined town is presented vividly, with much of the logic of nightmare, slowly heaping unsettling revelation upon unsettling revelation until we meet Xander and Willow – both vampires in the new reality. Cordelia is narrowly rescued by Giles and his helpers, and learns that this is indeed the world she wished for.

This is (if I remember right) the most dramatic change caused by magic in the whole series, approached only by a similar effect in season four’s Superstar (which, not coincidentally, was also driven by intense personal anguish). It is incredibly effective. The model for this kind of story is Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge witnesses a dark future that awaits if he does not change his ways. The more recent and more apposite exemplar is It’s A Wonderful Life, in which George Bailey is shown what his town would be like if he’d never been born, and discovers it an awful and dark place. The structure of these tales is clear: the dreamer has a vision of an unpleasant reality, and has a change of heart about the world and their place within it. And so the audience is set up for a breathtaking swerve: Xander the vampire kills Cordelia. Cut to commercial.

Even in a show that delights in subverting audience expectations, this is an exceptional act of rug-pulling, perhaps the most unexpected reversal ever pulled off by the show. It echoes the early twist in Psycho, and not much else: Western storytelling methods have trained us to accept that our primary point-of-view character early on will remain so to the end (and will probably grow as a person along the way). By ditching Cordelia – and at the half-way point, not waiting for the three-quarter – the episode throws out the rulebook and lets us know we are off the beaten narrative track from here on in. Watch out folks, this is bat country.

The rest of the episode continues a brutal tour of the alternative Sunnydale, culminating in a nasty showdown where the returned Buffy and the other remaining good guys engage in a lethal showdown against the Master where pretty much everyone dies before Giles grabs Anya’s magical necklace and smashes it, restoring things to normal. We see Cordelia make her wish, but Anya can no longer grant it; delightedly, Cordelia proceeds to make many more vengeful wishes as the episode ends, having learned no lessons and had no change of heart. The experience was not for her benefit, in the end. It was for ours.

This dark alternative was presented for the audience. It shows us that the show is playing fair, holding to its commitment to real threats. It shows us that this is a story worth telling – that the battles Buffy and friends fight matter to the world. It shows us new aspects of familiar characters (Willow!), and how they have influenced each other (the hardbitten friendless Buffy). And it gives us the visceral thrill of showing how bad things could be if the bad guys won.

Marvel Comics geeks of a certain vintage – approximately the vintage of Joss Whedon, as it happens – will already know where I’m going with this. “The Wish” is a riff on It’s a Wonderful Life, sure, but more than that, it is a very specific take on Marvel’s What If.

The original, classic run of What If was from 1977 to 1984, roughly contemporaneous with the Claremont X-Men run beloved of Whedon and cited by him as a major influence on Buffy. It was the creation of Roy Thomas, a comics superfan turned pro, and displayed his enthusiasm for continuity and winding the many strands of Marvel comics publishing into a single coherent universe. In each issue, a comics tale was reimagined as alternate history: what if things went a different way? Usually this ended with tragic death, often with mass death and destruction, and occasionally the end of the universe itself. Every aspect of the wishverse is right out of the What If? playbook: the triumphant villain, the good-guys-turned-bad, the death and despair.

Within the shared Marvel universe that Roy Thomas loved so much, these imagined alternate histories didn’t matter. They were described as other dimensions or other worlds, but by their nature they couldn’t influence the main reality. They were purely provided as entertainment for the reader, and the effect was to give the experience of depth to this imagined world. A world that can sustain alternate histories is a world that has a history; a world where the fates of characters can change is a world where those fates matter. All stories are imaginary, but this kind of dark counterpart elevates these stories into a special kind of imagined space. Buffy is not just a story – it is a story world.

This claim sits oddly with the show’s gleeful shrugs when it comes to building a believable world outside the main protagonists and their emotional lives. Perhaps it can only be taken seriously as a restatement of the principle of emotional reality: after all, the wish that creates our vision of a different world arises from emotion, and this vision is clearly focused on corruptions of the core relationships amongst our cast.

The events of the previous episode didn’t just send Cordelia careening away from the core cast of this show – they also convincingly argued that Buffy and Angel cannot remain in the same narrative space together without tearing each other apart. If Buffy is a story world, then these emotional trajectories can be followed through: Angel and Cordelia don’t need to stay in Sunnydale, with Buffy. There is a whole wide world out there full of possibilities, and though it might not make much sense in terms of logic, it sure does make sense in terms of passion.

Other thoughts:
* Buffy’s in Cleveland! The idea of Cleveland as another Hellmouth is a minor bit of series lore the show will return to several times, although it never particularly takes it seriously. (Remember, the world doesn’t need to make logical sense!)
* Buffy in the wishverse joins the long tradition of alternate-universe-person with a scar across their face.
* This is a wonderful episode, but there is one note that clunks. The Master – delightfully revived by Mark Metcalfe – reveals his big plan is making an automated blood factory. Once again, technology and the supernatural don’t feel right together on this show, and it doesn’t feel of a piece with the rest of the stuff in the episode or with what we know of the Master. It’s always seemed clear that vampires like hunting, and drinking straight from the source.


Team Ball Player Thing Linky

New Zealand is a very strange country. This will be all over NZ by the time this blog goes live, so I’m including it for international friends – it’s a charity song linking to the Rugby World Cup, featuring All Blacks on unicorns and dressed as wizards and running away from giant ants, and there’s Flight of the Conchords and Lorde and Kimbra and Peter Jackson and all the other usual suspects plus loads of cool NZ creative sorts without big international profiles and just watch it and love it. And then donate!

I love this story about a cute teenage couple in an online relationship in the 90s. So much of this resonates – online was different in the 90s, kids. *makes modem sound*

Are you a famous comedian worried about political correctness? This essay says it’s time to take a lesson from the Beastie Boys.

Deeply weird & fascinating photo essay of the City of London financial district (via George Monbiot)

A Grauniad film reviewer’s two-star review made it on to the film’s poster in a very sly way. Here’s what he has to say about it… (via David Ritchie)

Grab the audio from a legendary 1992 Sonic Youth concert

Why do we suddenly care about Syrian refugees? That photo of course, but what else is going on? An enlightening assessment.

Before you sit a test in a stereotypically male domain, imagine you’re a stereotypical male. (This MIT student blogger is marvellous – thanks Jamie for sending it my way.)

Download the audiobooks of your favourite movie novelizations.

Nabokov gave clear instructions on what should be on the cover of Lolita. YOU’LL NEVAR GUESS WHAT HAPPENED NEXT.

Cool fan art: Disney Princesses, Star Wars style

The new Star Wars novel is being targeted for masses of one-star reviews! The culprits: Star Wars fans.

Vox has an interesting explainer on what the heck is going on in the Republican party right now, including what “cuckservative” means. Spoiler: it makes no sense, they are well out of the zone of reason.

This Atlantic piece says J.K. Rowling’s habit of continuing her fiction in random twitter updates is basically the same as George Lucas writing over his Star Wars films. I link to it as this week’s example of being completely wrong.

Speaking of being completely wrong, an article by Jonathan Chait! But this time I hope he is right: the planet is starting to get on top of the climate change challenge. (If he had just managed to avoid scolding the “despairing left” at the end I might have made it through the whole piece without rolling my eyes. Chaits gotta Chait I guess.)

Fascinating tale of an American who was thrown out of teaching for being anti-government, and ended up coaching the Ugandan basketball team as a spy for the CIA. (If there aren’t a dozen spec scripts being written RIGHT NOW based on this story, I’ll eat a copy of Save The Cat.) Excerpt: “At dinner one night, without warning, he broke into the New Zealand national anthem”.

And finally, a Pinky & the Brain supercut: are you pondering what I’m pondering?

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Watching Buffy: s03e08 “Lovers Walk”


Most TV shows have a tone that is fairly easy to understand. Lots of cops-investigating-murders shows run on furrowed brows and gallows humour; most sitcoms have families and friends who love each other despite wacky misadventures. Some shows go for more tonal complexity: Shonda Rhimes makes hugely successful TV that drops near-campy levels of romance all over gut-punching procedural problems; Mitch Hurwitz’s Arrested Development dares you to like the miserable, self-absorbed characters at the heart of the show; Justin Roiland & Dan Harmon’s Rick & Morty makes you both laugh and cry every time a character suffers a messy death.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer encapsulates in its title one of the most challenging tonal mixes of all: horror-comedy. What a misbegotten subgenre, populated with countless misfires that all came about because someone thought “they both involve tension and release – this is gonna be easy!” This is the wrong thought. It is not easy. If you’re not careful, you end up with moments like Pee-Wee Herman’s death scene in one particular horror-comedy film called “Buffy the Vampire Slayer“. Ahem.

It is, of course, not impossible to get right. There was a particularly good batch in the 80s, Fright Night, Ghostbusters, Return of the Living Dead, Evil Dead 2, and a few others, but the list of failures is long. My personal take on why it’s so hard is that most horror effects rely on trapping you inside the fiction, and most comedic effects function by positioning you outside the fiction, and it’s really hard to move back and forth. There’s no reliable route to get around this, and each of the successful films above finds its own solution: they tell a horror story with a dusting of comedy (Fright Night), they tell a comedic story with a dusting of horror (Ghostbusters), they go right through conventional sensibilities and burst out the other side laughing and wielding a chainsaw (Evil Dead 2).

Nonetheless, the Buffy TV show wants to be legitimately scary (it is committed to presenting real threats to its characters) and also legitimately funny. But it doesn’t stop there. If those two contrasting tones weren’t enough of a challenge, the show adds a third: it wants to deliver dramatic, realistic character beats as well. It wants to be a tense horror/delightful comedy/authentic drama. That mixture’s a high degree of difficulty.

Over the last two seasons the show has slowly been getting more skilled at managing these tone differences, and now in season three it is routinely pulling off tonal gymnastics that would have been unthinkable just half-a-season back. This episode is a showcase performance in getting terror, laughter and feels working in harmony.

“Lovers Walk” brings the return of Spike, the scary enemy who had worked so well as a threat in season two. His first appearance in School Hard had given the show a shot of fierce new energy, throwing out the staid vampire threat from season one and replacing it with something that felt much more dangerous and unpredictable. Across the long season Spike was never undermined, and even his period diminished in a wheelchair turned into a reveal of just how canny and dangerous he was. Finally he entered into a very uneasy alliance with Buffy to regain lost ground, then exited the show on his own terms. He remained a scary figure right to the end, even while the show played some delightful deadpan comedy off his cruel wit and that final team-up of convenience.

Spike returns to the show in rather a different state than he left, highlighting the contrast by having him once again crash into the Sunnydale sign on arrival, but this time because he is a pathetic drunken mess as opposed to a fearsome vandal. The show is delightfully clear about how we’re meant to take this: the cut to Spike happens on Cordelia saying “what kind of moron would want to come back here?” Yep – last season’s scary vampire is now comic relief.

And what comic relief he is! Peering drunkenly through the window at Angel, muttering to himself that he’s not afraid even while he slinks away, then tripping over himself and knocking himself out, to being woken by the sunrise setting his hands on fire. Next stomping into a magic shop and ineffectually demanding some kind of lurid curse, oblivious to the magnitude of his decline.

However. Willow enters and leaves the scene, and we swing back to Spike expecting more of the same, but the show pivots right under our feet. Vamp-face on, he cruelly murders the helpful shopkeeper. It is terrifying. And suddenly he’s moving through the narrative with deadly purpose, using Xander to kidnap Willow and then brutally threatening her with a broken bottle.

But this wasn’t just a bait-and-switch, dishing up comedy pathetic Spike before surprising us with his true badass self again. The show continues to use him for laughs: he makes Willow listen to his tale of woe and weeps on her shoulder, prompting her to pat his knee and say “there there”; but then it spins right back to terror, as he homes in on her neck and openly covets her blood. And then both tones at once, as Willow says she might not succeed at what he is asking, and he replies: “Well, if at first you don’t succeed, I’ll kill him [Xander], and you try again.”

The episode continues to pull off this interaction between laughs and horror. The mid-episode climax: Spike turns up at Buffy’s home and finds Joyce, alone and undefended. Of course we’re terrified for her – but the show cuts to reveal Spike sharing his heartbreak with Joyce over hot chocolates. (He asks for the little marshmallows.)

Then Angel appears, correctly identifies that Spike is dangerous- but Joyce knows him only as a threat and refuses to let him in. Spike taunts Angel, pretending to bite Joyce. It’s hilarious and yet we know he’s not kidding – he could turn on Joyce in a moment and kill her without a second thought.

Only when Buffy arrives on the scene does Spike’s deadly threat recede into neutral. The show doesn’t make the slightest effort to maintain tension over Spike’s use of Willow and Xander as collateral, with Buffy guessing very early “he’s probably just got them locked up in the factory.” And yet tension doesn’t disappear. We know by now that the show can pivot fast, and Spike’s threat could be reawakened. But more importantly, we know that Spike is a wild card. He can push the story in all kinds of unexpected directions. He knocks things down and stirs things up, and his presence means nothing is safe.

Which is how we end up with one of the most devastating scenes in the whole run of Buffy: when Oz and Cordelia, who have been so charming and positive and in love with their respective partners, bravely risk their lives to rescue Willow and Xander, only to discover them kissing. This is the show extracting its pound of emotional flesh. There must be pain.

Meanwhile, Spike tears apart the veil that keeps Buffy and Angel from being honest about their feelings for each other with one of the show’s most memorable speeches: “You’re *not* friends. You’ll never be friends. You’ll be in love till it kills you both. You’ll fight, and you’ll shag, and you’ll hate each other till it makes you quiver, but you’ll never be friends. Love isn’t brains, children, it’s blood… blood screaming inside you to work its will. I may be love’s bitch, but at least I’m man enough to admit it.”

And still the show isn’t done with the tone switches. Right as Spike rediscovers his true bad self, as he’s starting to seem scary and capable again, he offers the best laugh of the episode: “Oh, sod the spell. Your friends are at the factory.”

There, Cordelia has fallen on some rebar and is horrifically wounded. With Xander, the betrayer, kneeling at her side, she murmurs some final words, then lies still as the camera holds sombre and steady. And we cut to a funeral. And the show immediately shouts “PSYCH!” and has Buffy and Willow talk about how Cordelia’s going to be okay.

These are just the biggest back-and-forth moments this episode; there are plenty more, and several that manage to be hilarious and terrifying at the same moment. This episode makes it look easy, when it really, really isn’t. It’s a sign of how the show has grown, and how good it has become at being what it is. Season two gets the accolades but season three is a clear step up in quality in pretty much every way imaginable.

The show is pulling off these gymnastics and landing beautifully. But how? What is allowing the show to balance comedy and horror so effectively? Not to mention making room for dramatic feels as a third tone! Every tonally complex show has to figure out its own solution to this puzzle. What is Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s?

The answer is right there in front of us, hiding in plain sight. That third tone, the one about realistic characters and emotions? Despite appearances, that doesn’t actually make things more complicated. The third tone allows the first two to work together. How do you make comedy and horror work in harmony? You make them happen to people who feel real.

This episode is the best example so far of the show successfully hitting all three tones, comedy, horror, and personal drama, and switching between them so seamlessly that they are clearly one united whole; each aspect strengthens the rest. It is a significant achievement, something that marks Buffy out as special, that justifies its reputation and importance.

And my instinct, of course, is to cycle right back to where this watching project began: the problem of Jesse, the tension that arose from the show’s core mission to have real threat and real emotions while still being fun to watch. We saw in season two how the show solved the problem of Jesse, but we’ve never really considered why it even tried. What was so important about those principles in the first place? Striving to make a show with real threat (horror) and real emotions (personal drama) that is fun to watch (comedy) – what becomes possible as a result? What makes it worthwhile?

This episode becomes possible. This episode makes it worthwhile. And many more such episodes to come.

Other notes:
* Apparently Buffy nails the SATs? Where does that come from? Huh. The show at least has the grace to lampshade it. Cordy is also academically gifted – the Scoobies are basically the school’s smartest kids. (Except Xander.)
* The precredits climax landing on Spike’s arrival is the second climax that works only if you’ve watched the show before. As the show’s mythology grows, they’ll rely on this more and more.
* The Mayor as big bad doesn’t really work yet. He’s funny and interesting but he doesn’t seem to be up to anything much – he’s very reactive.
* Willow turning to magic straightaway to solve problems – that’s some character that’ll stick.
* The writer for this ep is Dan Vebber, who only wrote one other episode for Buffy. That one’s a cracker too, as we’ll see soon enough.


Gremlins 2 Linky

I love Gremlins 2. Don’t you love Gremlins 2? You should love Gremlins 2. But even if you love Gremlins 2 you must have wondered: HOW Gremlins 2? WHY Gremlins 2? Key and Peele finally reveal the truth:

The Atlantic has a great, readable overview of the psychology study reproductions controversy.

Also at the Atlantic: everyone knows the decline in cursive handwriting is because of new technology – but instead of the iphone, perhaps the culprit is… the ballpoint pen?

This Vox article on how tech nerds just don’t get politics, and how they should make the effort because if any system needs to be disrupted it’s this one, kept turning up in my streams. When I finally clicked on it I saw it was by David Roberts, who was the best thing at Grist and is now the best thing at Vox. You should read it too, it’s great.

Ten fascinating minutes on the making of the Masters of the Universe movie (which is weirdly good considering how bad it is):

And fifteen fascinating minutes on the making of the Blair Witch sequel (which, as a reminder, was made by the guy who did the legendary Paradise Lost documentaries). I really liked this film when I watched it, even though it’s obviously a mess – this video really helps make sense of exactly what was going on there. I’d love to see the director’s cut one day.

Smart little vid comparing three filmed versions of the same Hannibal Lecter scene.

Tribute to Wes Craven: his many film screams.

Why can’t our camera capture that image we’re looking at? Interesting look at how the camera technology works differently to the eye and how this affects what we photograph and what we think we photograph.

And finally… unconvincing stock photos of punks.