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Watching Buffy: s02e21 “Graduation Day, part one”

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Berkeley Professor George Lakoff gained international attention early in the 2000s for his work on political framing, specifically his analysis of what was happening in the United States of America. He analysed the logic of conservative/republican and liberal/democratic politics, and argued that they built their appeal around two very different fundamental metaphors for the role of government. Liberal politics is structured around the idea of a nurturant parent as the ultimate moral authority – someone who listens to other’s troubles, and tries to protect the weak and help those who are in need. Conservative politics is built on the metaphor of a strict father – one who is the ultimate decision-maker for his family, who establishes a behavioural code and punishes transgressions, and who interprets the moral world for his family members, thus training them to be wise enough to stand on their own two feet. Lakoff has his detractors of course, everyone does, but nearly two decades on from the publication of Lakoff’s Moral Politics his ideas continue to resonate.

Buffy is no stranger to the importance of metaphor. The show was born soaking in the cultural conflict Lakoff described, broadcasting into a world where the news media were fracturing and these competing frames were being expressed ever more vividly. Buffy was however never a particularly political show, except in the way any show with a female perspective has to be political, and for that matter how every narrative expresses a particular construction of the world. Which is to say, everything is political. So.

In the pre-credits we see Faith go to work. She smiles her way into the office of an unsuspecting academic, and then she murders him, making jokes as she does so. This continues Faith’s progression into ever-more extreme violence. She started out enjoying killing dangerous demons and vampires a little too much, then she shrugged off the accidental murder of a human, then she murdered a demon who was not trying to harm her, then she was excited about torturing her nemesis Buffy, then she coldly assassinated a human involved in criminal activity, and now she happily engages in the pre-meditated murder of a total innocent.

Then, right after the credits, the episode takes us into Faith’s home, where she tries on the dress the Mayor has given her. She is insecure about her appearance in the dress, but the Mayor reassures her, giving us the clearest picture yet of the nature of their relationship: “Let me tell you something. Nobody knows what you are. Not even you, little Miss Seen-it-all. The Ascension isn’t just my day. It’s yours too. Your day to blossom, to show the world what a powerful girl you are. I think of what you’ve done, what I know you will do… No father could be prouder.”

Faith visibly brightens. We next glimpse her on a rooftop, having shot Angel with a poisoned arrow, an affliction that can only be lifted by letting him drink he blood of a slayer. Then we see her reporting back to the Mayor. She calls him “boss” and begs for another job killing or maiming someone. The Mayor cheerfully calls her a “firecracker”, and we get something unprecedented from Faith – personal disclosure. “My mom used to call me that when I was little. I was always running around.” After another exchange where the Mayor confirms he will need Faith’s help “always”, she offers more: “When I was a kid, a couple of miles outside of Boston there was this quarry. And all the kids used to swim there and jump off the rocks. And there was this one rock like forty feet up. I was the only one that would jump off it. All the older kids were too scared.”

In terms of revealing backstory, these lines don’t give us much: Faith was active and fearless as a child? Hold the front page! What is revealing here is how these moments feel in the context of this conversation and of their relationship. There’s nothing in the interaction that pushes Faith to talk about herself, and the Mayor isn’t trying to find out more or even saying his own personal things to encourage her to match him. She just offers it up. This seems to represent the entire tone of their relationship – the Mayor doesn’t want anything from her in an emotional sense. He makes no demands that she share, or feel, a certain way. He does put a lot of pressure on her, but it is entirely behavioural – she should dress nicely, use polite language, and be mindful always of his status. He polices her behaviour down to the detail, and lets the emotions take care of themselves. And it works – she comes to him wanting to share herself with him, to position him as someone who understands her as a parent understands a child.

Compare this to Faith’s experiences with Buffy and the others. They always wanted her to feel things – friendship, remorse, responsibility. The Mayor starts with behaviour, and expects feelings to settle in place when she does the things he asks of her. The Scoobies start with feelings, and expect behaviour to resolve itself when those problems are fixed. Over and over again, the Scoobies acted as if Faith’s behavioural problems would fall away if she could just get her emotions lined up right. This never worked for Faith. She pushed Buffy and the others away, and when they persisted, she began to resent them.

For me, this is the episode when Faith finally snaps into focus as a character. It reveals the fundamental concern at the core of Faith, the one that has driven her every action from her first appearance, and which has seen her turn her back on the people who tried to look out for her and throw in with a monster who seeks to wreck the world. That core concern is fear. Faith is afraid. We saw her experiencing fear vividly once, when the vampire who killed her watcher came after her as well, but she seemed to overcome that fear. This one is deeper still, and it is the fear that she is an awful and hateful person that deserves no love. Every interaction with the Scoobies was a threat: if she let them in, if she played their games, then she would risk revealing – discovering, even – her own awfulness. She went to the Mayor in search of someone who would not judge her for her troubled inner life, who would see it not as a failure but who would welcome her worst impulses. She expected she would feel safe with him, and she did – but she received so much more than that. She probably anticipated the kind of business relationship the Mayor had with Mr Trick, someone who said “it doesn’t matter if you are awful, because I can make use of that.” Instead she found someone who accepted her, celebrated her, and even offered her love. A man who wiped away any uncertainty by giving her a clear structure in which to thrive. There is a sharp contrast to the similar interactions she had with Wesley the watcher – there, she never felt safe. Here, because she felt safe first of all, she was free to appreciate the parental form of his relationship to her, the security that comes with an abdication of responsibility.

Meanwhile, Buffy was acting the general. Giles was a calm emotional centre, providing wisdom and counsel, but trusting completely to Buffy’s emotional and strategic leadership. Buffy calmly instructed her mother to leave town, and her mother did as she was told. Buffy’s friends gathered around her and pledged to follow her into battle. And when the Watcher’s Council attempted to assume control of her, she simply refused. This confidence is expressive of someone completely at home with her identity, aware of her weaknesses but also of her greater strength, able above all to trust herself. Buffy’s self-fulfillment, her graduation, is set against Faith’s failure to achieve the same. Faith’s self-loathing means she could never do what Buffy did here.

That means Buffy’s continued existence is a reminder for Faith that she might be awful after all, and it’s why Buffy and Faith’s battle at the end of the episode is so charged. The two characters talk, but there’s nothing meaty or thematic in what they say to each other – Faith challenging Buffy to cut loose is as dramatic as it gets. The fight is nonetheless hugely powerful. It shows two worldviews pitted against each other – one, where power arises from empathy and trust in others, and the other, where power arises from the avoidance of self-knowledge and the rituals of approval and reward.

It is no surprise, given the overwhelmingly liberal politics of those who make Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that the metaphorical ethos of the nurturant parent defeats the metaphorical ethos of the strict father. It is no surprise as well that this emerges as the fundamental thematic conflict at work in this storyline. This isn’t really about politics, but about something deeper than that, the underlying structures from which Lakoff’s frames draw their strength. This story is about the right way to exist as a moral being. More than that, it’s about the fundamental nature of being human – what really makes us happy, and gives us dignity, and furthers the well-being of all. Isn’t every story, in the end?

The answer is love, of course, just like every other time on this show. The story of Buffy has been about turning to your friends when you are hurt and vulnerable, and accepting their love for you as a healing force; and it’s about giving that love to your friends just the same. It’s a lesson Buffy has struggled with for three seasons, and will continue to struggle with for four more, but it’s the truest heart of the show. It’s why Buffy defeats Faith, but it’s also exactly why she loses so thoroughly in doing so – Buffy’s fundamental sense of love gives her pause, and in that moment Faith takes away her chance to use her to save Angel.

But it isn’t just Faith that takes this option away. It’s the show itself, intervening again, contriving the circumstances for Buffy to be tested once again. The question posed by the cliffhanger is not, how great s Buffy’s love great enough to sacrifice herself to save Angel? Every moment we’ve seen in this show has answered that question, a thousand times over.

The question is, what will be the cost?

Other notes:
* A great hidden joke as the Mayor talks to Snyder: “Anybody who doesn’t feel like coming to graduation, well, they’ll just have to live without a diploma.”
* The Mayor sauntering into the library is a beautiful moment. Here, at last, we have a villain worth reckoning with, and stakes that feel intense and personal.
* Angel gets full-on damselled. Last chance before he gets his own show and becomes a protagonist!
* Xander & Cordy are hanging out happily, no snark between them. It’s a genuine relief. Cordelia doesn’t even eyeroll at Xander’s unfathomably awful pullover.
* Xander starts the episode with half-serious joking about how he’s going to die so close to the end – when Whedon’s reputation as a character-killer solidifies in a few years, this kind of talk will make the audience very, very antsy.
* Xander also gets a nice low-key heroic moment, a sign they’re finally working out what to do with him – he’s obviously tempted by Anya’s offer of getting out of town, but instead he stays to help his friends. (Again, after Whedon’s rep solidifies, this kind of moment will make the audience prepare for disaster.)
* As with the last episode, Anya is fully herself and she continues to be fascinating. Her bluntness with Xander form a curious contrast with Cordelia – she makes the same kind of moves as Cordy, voicing thoughts that others would be too sensitive to say, but they play out completely differently. I think it’s because Cordelia was always concerned with status, whereas that couldn’t be furthest from Anya’s mind. The lack of status-threat also means Xander isn’t put on the defensive (helped, of course, by the character growth we have witnessed). It seems like a dynamic that has potential to be sparky and interesting, and also not be completely toxic.
* Oz & Willow do the sex.

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