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Watching Buffy: s02e21 “Becoming, Part One”

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We’re at the big finale, and everyone knows it. Not just the audience – the characters, too. They sense something special is going on, the long-promised confrontation is looming and resolution – for better or worse – is just around the corner. The Scooby Gang never actually discover they’re in a TV show, but they sure do wonder about that fourth wall sometimes.

Oz: Uh, I was a little unclear about some of the themes.
Buffy: The theme is Angel’s too much of a coward to take me on face-to-face.

The teenagers are all busy studying for finals, which is the real-world equivalent of a season finale. Willow/Oz and Xander/Cordelia are happy in resolved romantic relationships, enjoying what passes for a state of grace in TV-land. Buffy is chasing hard after Angel, impatient for a confrontation.

Willow: Do you think you’re ready to fight Angel?
Buffy: I wish people would stop asking me that. Yes, I’m ready. I’m also willing and able. Just the one test I might actually pass.

She’s right, and the audience knows it. We’ve been with her on the journey from Innocence to Passion. Buffy has seen enough to overcome her doubts about striking Angel down; the audience has seen enough to accept her transformation. Buffy has become what she needs to be.

However, before the show can allow this final confrontation, it must draw together all loose threads, such as the floppy disk holding the spell that will restore Angel’s soul. It has sat undiscovered below Jenny Calendar’s desk since Passion. (Twin Peaks enthuasiasts collectively wince as they are reminded of the note that lay under Agent Cooper’s bed for a similar length of time.) Buffy and Willow at last discover the disk and the spell, and the confrontation suddenly becomes more complicated: Angel can yet be saved.

This allows the show to return to one of its core dramatic fault-lines: is Buffy’s relationship with Angel a good idea? Xander, who is Buffy’s main confidante right now, maintains his dislike for Angel (implicitly going back to the fate of Jesse in The Harvest). The show has baked this problem in very efficiently – while earlier in the show’s run Xander would have been on shaky ground simply because of Angel’s position in the opening credits, recent events have demonstrated he has a point. It’s an old problem, and this is the perfect time to put it on the table again.

The whole episode is full of moments where the story calls forth elements from the past, for example the return of Kendra, and Buffy moping over the ring Angel gave her in Surprise. Most notably (yes I’m finally getting to it), threaded throughout the episode are a series of scenes showing us key moments from Angel’s history. We see his transformation into a vampire at the fangs of Darla (returning in a brief cameo); his first meeting with Drusilla; the Romani cursing him; his discovery of Buffy. It’s fun seeing these moments dramatized, but that’s all that’s happening here – there’s no revelation, just rote performance of things we already knew. (Well okay, there’s kind of a revelation, namely that Angel was creepily stalking Buffy for much longer than we’d guessed before.) We’re not really learning anything about how Angel became Angel.

The role of these flashbacks, and all of this content from the show’s history, is really to provide momentum and weight to the narrative. We know we’re speeding towards a conclusion, and we are being shown how the threads thus far are coming together in this moment – that the whole narrative of the show has been quietly building to right here, right now.

However, there is something curious at work in all this. I want to zoom in on the moment earlier with Jenny’s lost computer disk. Buffy discovers the disk when she drops a pencil, retrieves it, and then says she has just experienced deja vu. She drops the pencil again, deliberately this time, and when she retrieves it this time she notices the disk. This is an odd little moment, completely unexplained except by tenuous reference to Buffy’s occasional prophetic dreaming. To me, though, it doesn’t feel like the same narratological force is at work. The prophetic dreams affect Buffy and the Buffy narrative in ways that are completely absent here. In fact, a moment’s reflection reveals that the deja vu is entirely redundant from a narrative point of view. The writers could have simply had Buffy notice the disk the first time she dropped her pencil. Why didn’t they do this? Why the elaborate invocation of a sixth sense just to get her to pick up a disk?

Part of the answer, no doubt, comes from the weight of storytelling itself. Stories are usually built from chains of cause and effect, and moments that don’t respect this feel odd and out of balance. The disk was lost as a result of the chaos and violence meted out by Angelus – cause and effect. If the disk is to be rediscovered, the event must arise from an appropriate cause or it should feel unearned and powerless, unacceptable descriptors for a potent weapon intended to divert the clear arc of the narrative.

It would be easy to have the discovery of the disk conform to a cause-effect structure. Perhaos Buffy decides to retrace Angel’s steps in preparation for battling him, looking for signs of weakness or patterns she can exploit. So, when visiting Jenny’s classroom looking for insights, she spots the disk. Or, more simply, the Scoobies are given classroom-cleaning duties by Snyder as punishment for their public displays of affection, and they discover the disk. It isn’t hard to get the disk into Buffy’s hands as a result of previous moments in the story, yet the show chooses a much more elaborate path.

What, in fact, is the cause of Buffy’s discovery of the disk? It isn’t dropping the pencil, which would be too insignificant and random. Assigning cause to the deja vu puts the cause into the realm of the ineffable, and a mysterious intervention in this show is probably enough to satisfy our desire for cause and effect to chain together. Buffy is a character in a supernatural story, therefore a supernatural event is sufficient to tip her towards this discovery. It isn’t elegant, but it is portentous, and so we might let it slide.

But I think there’s more happening here. As noted many times in this blog series, Buffy has fully embraced meta. The characters float close to the surface of the fictional bubble, regularly expressing an intuitive understanding that they are in a world that follows narrative rules. Sometimes it seems like the characters can use that intuition to seize control of the narrative and their place in it.

I think the deja vu is the same thing from the other side: it is the voice of the story itself. The narrative is telling Buffy what it needs her to know.

The episode is not about Buffy becoming what she needs to be, or about Angel becoming what he most feared. What is becoming in this episode is the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer itself. It is becoming the truest expression of its vision, its own proof of concept. From the start the show has committed to two principles, real threat and real emotion. The problem it’s faced has been the problem of Jesse, which is simply the difficulty of keeping your show going if your characters are being traumatised by horrific threats. The show has worked out some good ways to deal with this problem, but they have another one in their pocket right here: the end-of-season break. You can do bad things in the last episode of a season, and let the pieces fall where they may.

So we’re here. The show is ready to give you what you’ve signed up for by watching all these episodes, laughing at all these jokes, caring about these characters. The show doesn’t care if it has to put a thumb on the scales from time to time to get you carrying the biggest weight possible.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer has entered the narrative as a player, and it has no intention of playing fair.

Other notes:
* This episode marks the first appearance of Angel’s utterly convincing Irish accent. Not the last, happily for those citizens of the Emerald Isle who were so delighted to hear the distinctive cadences of their local speech echoed so perfectly here.
* Also: the first appearance of Whistler, a demon who is not a bad-guy demon but something-something-balance. Demons not being inherently bad will become a major feature of the Buffyverse as it develops, so this is a notable development although it passes nearly unnoticed in these two episodes with so much else going on. (Whistler is played by Max Perlich, quintessential “Hey It’s That Guy” of the 90s, best known by me for being a pathetic camera guy in Homicide: Life on the Street and a pathetic snowplow guy in borderline-paedophilic romcom Beautiful Girls. I am always in the tank for Max Perlich.)
* Also: the first depiction of the process of vampire creation. You take blood, then you give blood. Blood in, blood out, as they say. (They don’t say this.) (Well they do but not about vampires.)
* Also: the first sight of Buffy pre-Buffy, including a good look at not-Donald-Sutherland the Watcher.
* Giles gets called in to look at the weird relic by the Washington Institute. There’s a spin-off show waiting to happen.
* Willow’s dabbling with magic becomes official, and she volunteers to do the big restoration spell. She’s come a long way from anxious-nerd-Willow of the very first episodes.
* Kendra is killed. The only positive black character in the show so far is killed. Add in Jenny’s Romani heritage, and it’s not looking good to be a good guy who’s a minority.
* Buffy says she has to go before anyone else gets killed. Kendra immediately launches into a humanizing backstory speech. In a narrative sense, this is the same as painting a big target on yourself.
* Why did they not perform the ritual to restore Angel’s soul in a private home where vampires had not been invited? Because the story made it happen that way.

{ 2 } Comments

  1. Alasdair Sinclair | June 15, 2015 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    “Also: the first appearance of Whistler, a demon who is not a bad-guy demon but something-something-balance. Demons not being inherently bad will become a major feature of the Buffyverse as it develops, so this is a notable development although it passes nearly unnoticed in these two episodes with so much else going on.”

    This is also the first sign we get of anything like divine intervention. Before this, while crosses and holy water do things, the show has been resolutely silent on whether there is a god.

  2. morgue | June 17, 2015 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, that’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about that at all – my recollection of later seasons is that the series tends towards the absence of a Christian-style God? But I don’t remember in much detail.

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