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Watching Buffy: s02e17 “Passion”

passion

When She Was Bad: “Buffy cannot do this alone. She needs her friends, so her friends are part of her fight, and yes, she won’t always be able to protect them. That’s the deal she makes – the deal we make – with the show.”

Innocence: “Angel in the rain, as he was at the start of the episode. Now you/Buffy are ready. Now you can fight. And you defeat him, but you can’t kill him yet. You let him go, knowing he will kill again. You have no choice, because to kill Angel would be to tumble irrevocably into the problem of Jesse.”

From the first seconds of this episode you know it will be bad. We see Buffy and Xander dancing as friends, their relationship anxieties settled after the shakedown of the previous episode. We see Willow and Cordy chatting as friends, their friendship starting to bloom, also after the previous episode. They seem happy. Then we see that Angel is there watching them.

And then, awfully, we hear Angel’s voice.

We’ve had Buffy lose her position as protagonist before, in The Dark Age, when Giles seized control of the narrative and held on to it for most of the episode. But this, putting us inside Angel’s head from moment one – we know this is a lot worse. Because the rules of television are inexorable. If someone narrates the beginning of an episode, they will narrate the end of it. Angel has us in his power.

He makes us watch Buffy in her bedroom, her safe place. And as we watch her, she checks the window, she settles down to sleep, and there’s a fade transition that suggests we’ve moved to her perspective. She’s the title character, grabbing her rightful control of the narrative. We can breathe out.

But it’s a bait and switch. Angel is in the room. There is no escape.

Angel – Angelus, really – has already threatened to reach outside the bounds of the narrative and harm the viewer. Here he follows through on that threat, kidnapping us, forcing us into his head, controlling the editing and the framing of the episode so we have to listen to his words and see the world through his eyes. He owns this story. He’s been waiting for this.

The credits play, storming Buffy back into the narrative, and the Scoobies have a war council in the library. But Angel has upset the balance: ordinary students come in wanting books. The bubble of narrative expectation has been punctured. Since the beginning we’ve recognized that this show features real threats, but that promise has continually struggled to assert itself against the structures and expectations of weekly action-adventure television. Those structures can’t be relied on, because Jonathan’s in the library.

As if sensing that the structure of their narrative is shifting, Buffy and her friends start pushing back themselves. One of the cardinal rules of vampires is the power of invitation: but if there’s magic in the world, then that rule can be chucked out the window, right? That’s just using one narrative device to take down another.

Buffy tells Joyce that Angel is threatening her, and the metaphor is abruptly altered. Back in Innocence, Angel was the cool boy who sleeps with the girl then mocks her for giving in to him. Now, he’s the ex-boyfriend who won’t let go. The scary one. Like the first metaphor, this one is far too familiar for too many women. Ex-partners who commit violence against the woman who left them – this is such a well of sorrow I can’t bear to even allude to real cases. This is the darkest metaphorical territory we have yet entered through this show. Angel, again, reaching out of the show to hurt us. And inside the show, Angel counters Buffy’s attempt to seize the narrative by telling Joyce they had slept together, forcing Joyce to assume a direct parental role – something she usually doesn’t have space to do. Whatever Buffy and her friends do, he is ready with a way to hurt them right back.

Buffy doesn’t stop trying. She speaks with Jenny. The show wants them to be enemies or to be friends, because that’s how narratives usually work, but Buffy doesn’t submit to this distinction. She doesn’t forgive Jenny, but she gives her permission to be with Giles anyway, ignoring what the structures of television narrative would expect of her. The show is breaking into pieces all around her and she’s trying to make her people as strong and safe as she can.

Jenny. Such a fun character, a rulebreaker from her first appearance as a “technopagan”, a provocateur to counterbalance Giles, a passionate but still cerebral figure who in a way unites the best features of the entire rest of the Scooby gang. And she’s trying to break the rules again here – trying to restore Angel’s soul. She’s a minor character, not even in the opening credits, and there’s no way a standard TV narrative will let her do this. But she cracks it. She breaks the code, translates the ritual, saves it on a floppy disk, all in time for her romantic rendezvous with Giles.

But Angel controls this narrative.

The chase through the school is shot differently to anything we’ve seen before now. We’ve seen other chase sequences in Sunnydale High, but this one just keeps going. It slowly becomes clear, we’re not in a TV show any more – we’re in a movie where women get hunted down and killed.

Jenny runs right into his arms.

~

Angel has held the narrative all episode and used it to thoroughly violate the show, to finally demonstrate what it means to have “real threat”.

Now Buffy can kill him.

Other notes:
* The magic shop is great: “Oh, you’re in the trade!”
* The phone call where Buffy and Willow are told by Giles that Jenny is dead is utterly heartbreaking. Willow’s breakdown is hard to watch. In the whole seven seasons of this show, this moment affected me the most, and it’s a scene I will never forget.
* There’s a common story online saying Jenny was only chosen to be Angel’s victim when Oz became a fan favourite. I can’t find any source for this but it’s on wikipedia and the Buffy wiki among other places. Count me as unconvinced – Oz hasn’t even had a connection with the Scoobies until just a few episodes ago, and I find it hard to believe that lengthy buildup to set up Willow’s boyfriend would be followed by immediately killing him to traumatise Willow. Giles is a much more sensible character to carry this trauma, and Jenny is a character who is much closer-to-home for the Scoobies as a group. So I think this is probably just fan theory, or someone on staff misremembering. I might be wrong of course, but I can’t find anything authoritative on this.

{ 6 } Comments

  1. Alasdair Sinclair | May 18, 2015 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    You’re on target with all this emotional reality stuff – well spotted and articulated.

    Isn’t this also quite a good moment to reflect on just how much more competent Angelus is than Angel was? If we’re frank, Angel was often a bit of a wet blanket and needed rescuing more than once. Angelus is in charge, in control, and getting what he wants. How are we to interpret this apparent endorsement – and how do we read this transformation alongside Spike’s virtual emasculation in season 4?

  2. morgue | May 18, 2015 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    Oh wow. I had never thought about that except in roundabout ways – Angelus is definitely presented as hugely competent, because (structural reason) he needs to be a credible challenge to Buffy, as opposed to Angel, who needs to be a credible second banana to Buffy. Also (narrative reason) because Angel is always holding back, and uncertain about being a hero, whereas Angelus has no scruples and is free to “express himself”. But yeah, you describe it as an endorsement, which feels eye-opening to me. I can totally see it – there’s some weird thematics where evil is associated with kicking ass and taking names, and good is associated with soggy blanketness, and the same thing is echoed with Spike. Hmm. Does that amount to the show implicitly undermining its own moral message? Is it less “goodness is hard” and more “goodness is weak”? Another thing to think about!

  3. Alasdair Sinclair | May 18, 2015 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    It hadn’t really occured to me in those terms, but we saw the same thing with Giles v. Ripper, and we’ll see the same thing with Willow before and after Tara.

  4. Freya | May 18, 2015 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps less it’s ‘good is weak’ than ‘good is controlled’. The examples you list (Spike and Willow) are both examples of characters who change after aspects of their control change; Spike is no longer in control of his love life, and instead of being hopelessly in love with Drusilla, who wants nothing to do with him, his sire with whom he has a power imbalance, he falls for Buffy, who while human, is also strong enough to stand as an equal to him (she isn’t but that can wait till the actual episode…). Willow becomes evil when she is in the middle of grief-fuelled rage, and is brought back to morality only by the memories of her friends.
    Just a suggestion.

  5. Simone | May 19, 2015 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to think that it’s less ‘good is weak’, but perhaps ‘while good is our ultimate goal, and it has the potential to whoop ass, it has these moral conundrums to deal with. However, even with moral conundrums, it is still the equal of bad with no such restraints’.
    I guess the outcome is that it’s the act of working through the moral issues that elevates good to the level of whooping ass, whereas bad has peaked and has no further growth.

  6. morgue | May 20, 2015 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    Love these comments – Freya, yeah yeah yeah, that’s got some teeth to it. Had a convo with Simone in chat about her ideas too, copy-and-paste the highlight of my contributions:
    “OMG it’s the marshmallow test
    where you put a marshmallow in front of a child and see if they can hold out long enough to earn another marshmallow.
    You can go evil right now, throw off your moral scruples and get power
    but if you wait and wait, you get the second marshmallow of power
    this being the classic test for “emotional intelligence”, which cycles right back to moral/emotional self-mastery
    And that also suggests that working to resolve the moral burden is where the greater power comes from. You just can’t get there by taking the straighter, simpler, eviler road”

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