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Watching Buffy: s02e09 “What’s My Line, Part One”

whatsmyline

In every generation there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.

These words have been intoned near the beginning of nearly every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and if the show has any mission at all it is to prove them wrong. Yes, Buffy was chosen – but the more important choice was the one she made herself. And Buffy will not stand alone – her friends are with her, no matter the risks. And yes, she slays vampires and demons, but “the Slayer” label isn’t enough. There’s more to her than that. Right?

One of the principles of this show is a commitment to emotional realism, and this is applied to the nature of Buffy’s heroic identity. “Vampire Slayer” is an iconic role that exists in immediate tension with normal life. In a simpler show, that wouldn’t matter – Buffy wouldn’t need to worry about mundane concerns because her heroic identity would define her completely, the way Michael Knight never had to worry about the real-word costs of having his face shot off then assuming a new name and new identity fighting crime with a talking car as an agent of a mysterious agency with the initials FLAG. Here, though, Buffy is a teenage girl with ordinary emotional concerns, and integrating the business of being a chosen slayer of vampires with her desire to do fun stuff and fit in and have a boyfriend – that’s a challenge. How can you be a Slayer and still fit into the rest of the world?

It’s career day at Sunnydale High. Everyone is prompted to start thinking long-term about how they might enter the world beyond high school, and more simply, about what they want to be. Buffy doesn’t see the point in thinking about it, because as far as she can tell her future is fully booked up with vampire slaying. Giles encourages her to think about finding “gainful employment” but she is unconvinced. Hoping for a normal life seems futile. The comparison is gently made with her naive childhood ambitions to be a figure skater like Dorothy Hamill: “I wanted to *be* her. My parents were fighting all the time, and skating was an escape. I felt safe.”

This confession was made to Angel, in a scene that really gives us a sense of how they make sense as a couple – Buffy relaxes around him, and he becomes less impossibly uptight as well. This episode does a good job of showing their compatibility, with a nice scene later where Buffy reassures Angel that his vampiric look doesn’t upset her, because she still sees that it’s him within; and by rhyming Angel waiting in her bedroom with Buffy going to his apartment and falling asleep in his bed. For the first time the show takes the time to make sure they feel like two people in love.

It is Angel’s thoughtful care for Buffy that points the way out of her frustrating cycle of futility: he offers to take her skating. The scene at the rink is shot with a different emotional rhythm to the rest of the show. It’s a notable breakout from the house style by new director David Solomon. Buffy skates, and we (like Angel) watch, and it’s kind of lovely. This sequence comes directly out of actress Sarah Michelle Gellar’s own life – she was a competitive figure skater with a few placings under her belt. It’s a moment of simplicity, and an indication that the answer to Buffy’s dilemma is to embrace knowingly the idea of escape – she is stuck with her calling, but she can still create moments where she is allowed to be something else. This will be Buffy’s challenge – being able to find peace on her own terms, and enjoy it in the shadow of her responsibilities. (Of course, the show issues a pointed reminder of those when she is attacked at the rink. It’s a short, brutal fight scene, finishing with the skate blade gag you knew was coming.)

That’s a coping strategy, however. It’s important, and it does mark a lesson learned for Buffy, but it doesn’t banish the burden of being the Chosen One. The show has a plan here as well, revealed in the climax, which is a tremendous swerve: one of the mysterious figures stalking Buffy is revealed not to be an assassin after all, but instead claims to be the Slayer. Buffy is not alone after all.

It’s a fittingly momentous end to the first installment of a two-parter, the show’s first proper double. (Welcome to the Hellmouth/The Harvest was conceived and aired as a single double-length episode.) The episode takes care to raise the stakes all over, with the new Slayer locking Angel up to face the rising sun, a strange assassin threatening Xander and Cordelia, and Giles and Willow discovering Spike’s ultimate goal in Sunnydale – the restoration of the clearly damaged Drusilla to full health. This is a proper event episode, and it shows that the Buffy team don’t need a season-ender to shake everything up – in fact they had barely settled into their new status quo. Once again, it’s clear that they have ambitions for this show. If this is the kind of upset we’re seeing in episode nine, then what might be coming down the pike in episode fourteen?

Other notes:
* Co-writer on this episode is Marti Noxon, whose importance to the show will rapidly grow in the seasons to come.
* We get some more neat scenes with Oz, but the show still isn’t ready to pay him off. He even gets his long-awaited meeting with Willow, but the scene cuts away before they even interact. Still, his selection as an exceptional student with the smarts to match Willow, combined with his sense of humour and rocker credentials, not to mention his good taste in being interested in her – all of this does an excellent job in putting him over. In fact, it finally gives me an idea why they’ve put so much effort into giving him point-of-view scenes even though he’s outside the Scooby Gang. Willow’s innocence and emotions make her the exposed nerve of the group, and the audience is highly protective of her – these scenes show us we can trust Oz not to hurt her.
* Speaking of which: “Scooby Gang” is used for the first time here. “Slayerettes” will turn up again I think, but “Scoobies” will soon catch on.
* Back in Halloween, the show started binding its monsters together. No longer just a series of isolated threats to normal life, the monsters now present an alternative society and culture. Spike’s move to call in the “big guns” is the most dramatic example of this so far, giving a sense of scale to this hidden world. Another, bigger, marker of this transition is the arrival of the demon bar, Willy’s Place. The main bad guys of season one and season two both had standing sets, but now the everyday sort of monsters do as well.

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Geolocked Linky

Mediahint is a way to get around territory limitations on what internet stuff you can see. Like, for example, a show you like that’s on Yahoo Screen but isn’t available to NZ viewers. For example.

Via AndyMac: Tintin – boy reporter or gonzo journalist?

Help the crew of the Enterprise escape a holodeck rendition of the classic adventure game, Maniac Mansion

“Just how did our nation’s 750 million acres of forests become overrun with adult magazines?”

Fascinating – a cartoonist describes, in comic form, how he was asked to lighten the skin tone of an ethnic character.

The other moose has a compelling, funny review of 50 Shades of Grey. “Dudes. Get real drunk and see this movie.”

Timely: as New Zealand is ROCKED by the sight of a woman farting on her first date with The Bachelor NZ (“the Fart the stopped the nation“), new research reveals the truth about fart anxiety variance by gender and sexuality.

The writer of that Atlantic piece on ISIS replies to comments & criticism

Challenging, angry Al Jaz editorial after they saw how much people care about coverage of Syria.

Robert W’s getting closer to launching his association for renters in the Wgtn region – and has revealed the name: Renters United! Check it out, and follow him for updates.

A plot outline for one of the original Hardy Boys novels, as handed over to the writer who’d have to bang it out in a month.

How did depictions of Jesus end up making him so hot?

Alasdair reviews a minor Stallone film from 2013 and excavates ideas of vigilantism in film and the history of crime and its civic response and it’s just a great post, read it.

10-year-old kids do a school play based on Twin Peaks. Wonderful.

Alternative March Madness bracket: the worst things on the internet. Nice!

Extremely watchable and often very funny 25-minute film telling the story of why wrestling is fantastic entertainment, using the example of the most hated man in wrestling, and with all the wrestlers played by women, and with some great cameos to boot. If you’re like me, you’re still thinking “25 minutes is a long time”. Just give it a try. It’s pretty great.

This supercut will make you happy. Dancing makes everyone happy.

And finally, speaking as a hardcore fan of the film in question, I just don’t think there’s much market for this particular kind of merchandise: a life-replica of Bishop from Aliens after he got torn in half.

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Taleturn has launched!

taleturn logo with subhead

Introducing Taleturn – exploring the intersection of story, interactivity, and social psychology.

For a few years now I’ve been mustering all my efforts in games, writing, social change, etc under the name Taleturn. (That’s the name appearing on my invoices!) Now I’ve finally shifted that identity into the public sphere. Feels good!

Taleturn.com is the website. It’s partly a portfolio site, and partly an ongoing blog where I can share whatever I’m thinking about games and engagement and so on.

There’s also a twitter feed, @taleturn, where I’ll share links to interesting content in the games/interactivity/social psyc arena.

Please do check it out, and give me an RSS or twitter follow if this seems like your sort of thing!

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Watching Buffy: s02e08 “The Dark Age”

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Chris Claremont took over the Marvel Comic The Uncanny X-Men for issue #94, cover date May 1975. Joss Whedon was about to turn eleven. And since the golden age of science fiction comics is twelve, he was perfectly placed to soak up Claremont’s heady mix of outsized action and soap operatics across the coming years. Claremont’s X-Men work is known for its strong female characters and closely-tracked emotions, and the influences on Whedon’s vision for Buffy the Vampire Slayer are obvious. Like other Marvel books, continuity was celebrated, with returning villains a particularly common occurrence. Plot threads would deliberately be left dangling, relationships between characters would constantly change under the influence of dramatic events, and shocking revelations would be made that change your understanding of a character. You were constantly reminded that the story you were reading was just a component in a larger narrative, one that a casual reader might not fully understand.

The first season of Buffy had the Claremontian strong female characters and sympathetic emotions, but it was also very episodic, with only occasional and superficial nods to continuity and development. From the start of season two a clear shift was evident as Whedon and his team started encouraging continuity and pushing characters into arcs of change. In this, the eighth episode of the second season, Buffy slips entirely out of the world of self-contained episodes and becomes the television equivalent of a Chris Claremont comic: full of action, full of emotions, and comprehensible only as part of a greater whole.

Sure, you could watch this episode as your first Buffy and you’d be fine. Scary stuff happens, there’s jokes, it’s an engaging way to spend your time. But you’d also spend the whole episode thinking “I’ve arrived in the middle of something”. This episode draws on multiple plot threads spun out over this season and the last: the flirtation between Giles and Jenny, the changing relationship between Giles and Buffy, the mystery of Giles’ past with Ethan Rayne, the uncertain position Angel holds with the rest of the group, to name the most prominent examples. As of now the show doesn’t just reward the committed, it aims directly at them and leaves casual viewers to fend for themselves. It’s a daring move. Buffy wasn’t the first show to bring in continuity-dense ongoing narrative to weekly drama/action TV, but this mode was still uncommon. The move was also very savvy indeed, because it turned out that the show’s audience was ready to commit, and commit hard.

A commitment to long-form structures allows (requires?) a heightened engagement with the show’s ensemble. This episode delivers something genuinely new: a Giles spotlight episode. Giles is an odd character, both inside the core group (because he knows the truth) and outside of it (because he’s an adult). When a show about being a teenager at high school suddenly turns its focus upon an adult… well, what does happen?

The precredits sequence has a man seeking Giles getting killed by a very creepy monster. His screams for help are drowned out by Buffy’s aerobics music, which is perhaps the cruelest gag in the series so far, but also puts us gently in the Giles frame of mind – he spends the sequence complaining about the noise. But this is just softening us up for what we get right after the credits: a spooky dream sequence like the ones that bothered Buffy in season one, only this time it’s Giles having the rough sleep. And once we get that shot of Giles in his PJs, our point of view is locked in with him for the first time. Not coincidentally, it’s clear we’re about the get some insight into Giles’s dubious history, as hinted at just two episodes previous.

We get some time with our Buffy/Xander/Willow trio, as they talk about and speculate about Giles, before handing off to the man himself. Away from the young people we track Giles through a lovely moment with Jenny Calendar, who continues to be charmingly forthright about what she wants, and then crash right into trouble: there are police in the library investigating the murder of the precredits victim.

Now this is a shocking moment for this show. There have been quite a few deaths on this show before, several of them on-campus, but apart from the brief moment at the end of School Hard, the police haven’t been seen once. (And they were only seen in that episode to make the point that they absolutely wouldn’t be investigating the death.) A murder investigation is simply not part of the way stories work in Buffy. We have to suspend our disbelief for metaphor monsters to keep threatening high schoolers, and police investigations put all of that in doubt.

What this signifies, of course, is that we are not in a Buffy story any more. We are in a Giles story. He’s an adult, the gatekeeper to the real world, and handing him the point of view means opening the door to all kinds of adult complications. Speaking of doors – shortly afterward he closes his door in Buffy’s face, refusing to allow her to reclaim the POV of her own show. And a few scenes after that we see that the logic of Giles-POV is asserting itself over the entire show, when Buffy makes the uncharacteristic suggestion of handing Ethan Rayne over to the police, instead of electing to just beat the snot out of him. We’re in the Giles show now, whether we like it or not – and it’s clear from Giles’s behaviour that no-one’s going to like this one.

The monster, a possessing demon, seizes control of Jenny Calendar. We then have an unnerving sequence where demon-Jenny tries to follow through on real-Jenny’s promises by seducing Giles. And so we see the merit of Giles’s caution and reserve – he doesn’t give in to a demon, of course, but more importantly, he refuses to take advantage of a situation where consent is unclear. Nice work, Giles.

So, Giles has shown his worth by remaining steadfast and moral in the face of temptation, but he’s also shown he’s unworthy of carrying the show by shutting Buffy out in the first place. Time for the title character to grab control of her own show again. She does so, of course, by kicking in the door that Giles had previously closed in her face. She stomps in to save Giles from Jenny, and the truth comes out about Giles’s youthful foolishness, meddling with powerful forces that are now coming to kill him (and his old mate Ethan – the point isn’t made strongly, but Giles’ old circle is a clear parallel to the current group around Buffy).

With Buffy reinstated as protagonist for the final section of the show, we get a rush of problem-solving and ass-kicking. Willow figures out a way to out-manoeuvre the demon and Angel shows up at just the right time to make it happen. Of course, the police disappear from the narrative entirely.

Then we get a concluding moment between Giles and Jenny. Traditionally in this kind of adventure narrative, jeopardy like this brings a couple closer together – but this show is not that show. In accordance with the principles of genuine emotion and genuine threat, Jenny is unnerved by her experience and doesn’t want to pursue a relationship with Giles any more. It’s a very human reaction, and completely unexpected in terms of television storytelling, although perhaps not as surprising if considered as a relative of the unlucky sad sacks of Marvel comics. It’s also a further illumination as to how this show intends to manage the Problem of Jesse: by embracing the misery, when it comes, so the bright spots shine all the brighter in comparison.

The episode closes, as it must, with an exchange between Buffy and Giles, where Buffy reflects on her greater understanding of Giles as a person. She takes on the role of adviser and comforter to him – a direct mirror of the closing moments of the previous episode. The most interesting thing in this exchange is so small you almost miss it, however. Giles says “I never wanted you to see that side of me.” Note that he speaks in the present tense. The Giles that Ethan calls Ripper, the short-sighted and angry and foolish and dangerous Giles, is not gone. Ripper isn’t a youthful phase he grew out of – it’s an aspect of his personality that remains, suppressed but far from gone. This conversation with Buffy is the start of Giles’s slow journey to accept that side of himself. We have not seen the last of Ripper.

Other notes:
* Curious that Buffy’s breaking up a blood heist – surely it’s preferable that vampires drink stolen blood supplies rather than go out hunting for the fresh variety? And doesn’t Angel get his blood from supplies like this? This is all glossed, typically for this show, which never really pays much attention to where all these vampires are getting their blood. The real-world implications of a vampire plague in Sunnydale would belong in the Giles show, but they have no place in Buffy.
* There’s a great bit where Xander can’t stop Ethan, but Cordy promptly nutsacks him and he goes down. There’s some great Xander-Cordy action throughout this episode showing their growing sympatico – Xander grabs Cordy to protect her, Cordy asks Xander to explain things – but they still talk about how much they hate each other at every opportunity. The show is canny here, quietly priming us for something to happen between these characters but always hiding it in the periphery of scenes so it never gets soap-opera obvious.
* It’s unpleasant to see the show go after Jenny, who’s such a fun character. Luckily it all turns out all right! Phew, it’s good to know she’s safe from now on!
* This episode has a superlative three-quarter swerve: Buffy gets betrayed by Ethan Rayne. After spending the whole episode convincing you that they wouldn’t do the most obvious thing in the world, they then do the most obvious thing in the world. Love it.
* Crazy green backlight as demon Jenny arrives at Ethan’s shop. It goes out as she comes in. Traffic lights? Or is a Russell Mulcahy film being shot outside?
* “We’ve got to figure out how to solve this problem and we have to do it now!” *sips cup of tea*

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Good Old Linky Brown

Is Charlie Brown the worst baseball manager ever? Well, yes, obviously. But also: no, he’s not.

The Guardian moves to put climate change in a prominent place in its media coverage. The 24-hour news cycle is not hospitable to complex, large-scale issues that don’t regularly generate controversy. This kind of strategic action from media gatekeepers is necessary if we the public are ever going to truly appreciate how important this is. I hope other media channels – those less associated with handwringing lefties like myself – take the same step.

Robert Downey Jr., in character as Tony Stark, delivers a kid a bionic arm. This is just neat.

Back to the Future – in makeup to look 30 yrs older, vs. what they actually looked like 30 years later

Watching Aliens for the first time with a bunch of kids – this resonates with me, I saw that film age 10 and it (a) scared the crap out of me (b) inspired the crap out of me. I had no crap remaining by the end. (Jack Elder helped me find this again after I lost it, cheers)

Via Jenni – new digital games explore an alternative to shooting people with your sweet machine gun: showing them empathy, seeking consent, and caring for them.

Office Space, with the real Michael Bolton.

And finally, via Meredith Y, monetising the last untapped resource in Silicon Valley:

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Watching Buffy: s02e07 “Lie To Me”

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The arrival of Spike & Dru has changed up the vampire metaphor at work in the show. Now vampires are the cool kids, the dangerous ones who get into fights and have sex and don’t do their homework. This episode takes this imagery and swerves it hilariously, by introducing a subculture of wannabe vampires. They desperately want to be in with the cool kids, even if they don’t really understand what that means.

The Vampire groupies are played for laughs – there’s a fantastic gag, one of the best in the whole series, when Angel sees a groupie dressed just like he is – but it also allows them some beats of tragedy because the groupies are obviously much more like the nerds and outcasts of the library than the cool kids of vampiredom. Their attraction to the cool kids is understandable, but their sheer cluelessness is almost painful to watch, because we know – we have seen – that Spike and Drusilla and their kind are dangerous to be around.

The groupies, desperately wanting more, mirror the emotion running in the main cast this week: jealousy. One of Buffy’s old friends has turned up, and Angel (and Xander) get jealous, but Buffy saw Angel with Drusilla, so she gets jealous too, and Spike gets jealous when he finds out Dru talked to Angel, and everyone’s pretty messed up with their jealousy.

The show’s principles are in action here – even though this show is full of vampires and silly groupies, it promises to take emotions seriously. All of these jealousies are not random, they are based on the insecurities built into each character. Spike knows Angel and Dru have history, and Buffy knows that Angel has a past gien his enormous age difference. Angel knows Buffy is a young girl with a life of her own that might have no place for him. Etc, etc.

This swirl of jealousy is actually just groundwork for even higher stakes. The insecurities drive the characters to expose themselves and that pushes their relationships to new places. Most notably, Angel asks Buffy if she loves him, and she says the words. That’s a big deal. But the show doesn’t stop there, moving on to use this moment to address the reality of Angel-as-love-interest. Angel confesses the horrific crimes of which he is guilty. It’s a crucial moment for the show – and a clear-eyed look at what exactly Buffy’s romance entails. (The show underlines that Angel is right to bring this up, despite his personal change this past overhangs the present – remember, at the start of the episode Angel saw Drusilla try to kill a child, and he let her go without a fight. The world looks different when you’re a vampire, even a vampire with a soul.)

Which brings us back to the groupies, specifically to Ford, Buffy’s old friend. His beliefs and hopes are also focused in a vampiric direction. Does he understand the horror he’s opening himself up to? The show equivocates on this a bit – Ford is played partly as clueless, and partly as ruthless. A late revelation that he’s terminally ill is meant to justify his embrace of horror, but it doesn’t quite work – it doesn’t really explain anything by itself, just muddies up the picture even more.

Nevertheless, the show ultimately makes clear that Ford doesn’t really appreciate what he’s dealing with, and in so doing it makes us uneasy about Buffy’s entanglement with Angel. In Ford’s fate we see the show’s principles unstintingly applied: the threats are real. There is no forgiveness for Ford, no easy out. He makes bad choices and he is killed. The show’s other principle is for the characters to experience real emotions as a result of this trauma, and this hurts Buffy. The final scene of the episode has Buffy and Giles by Ford’s grave, and we see her carry that weight: “Does it ever get any easier?”

And so we stare directly at the problem of Jesse. (If you’ve been following these posts you’re sick of me mentioning it, but for completeness, it’s this: putting real threat and real emotion into your stories threatens to trap you in misery.) Ford’s death has shaken Buffy. Yes, the loss is different: Jesse was an innocent casualty, whereas Ford betrayed Buffy and brought his death upon himself. But this just makes the loss all the more painful: Ford’s death is awful, but his betrayal is agonizing.

Back when Jesse was killed, the show didn’t know how to engage with the emotional impact that would follow, and so it dodged the issue entirely. Nineteen episodes later, the show has built up the emotional repertoire to embrace a character’s pain, confident that it can find its way back to joy. And in the final exchange of the episode, it demonstrates exactly how it intends to resolve the problem of Jesse. Buffy asks Giles if life will ever get easier:

Giles: What do you want me to say?
Buffy: Lie to me.
Giles: Yes, it’s terribly simple.
Giles: The good guys are always stalwart and true, the bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies, and everybody lives happily ever after.
Buffy: Liar.

Life is hard and complicated, and people die, and it hurts like hell. Faced with this, Buffy asks Giles to lie to her. And – in a final confirmation that he has abandoned his Watcher remove – he does. And it is unconvincing, and of course it was always meant to be, because the lie is not the point. The point is, he gave Buffy what she needed.
We stave off despair by leaning on each other. It’s love, of course. The pathway from misery back to joy is simply love.

Problem solved.

Other thoughts:
* Unsurprisingly, given this one pretty much gives a thesis statement for the show, this is a Joss Whedon joint. Accordingly, the dialogue is heavy with his Buffy-speak: “You made him do that thing where he’s gone!” – and a sex joke that other writers wouldn’t dare: “Of course I had no idea what it was about.”
* Not to mention that the whole arc of the season is foreshadowed in this episode in Angel’s horrific past and Ford’s painful betrayal.
* The comic-book style storytelling goes full Claremont with some juicy backstory revealed (Buffy’s past life, Angel’s past life) and some continuity threads deliberately dropped now to be picked up later (a book is stolen from the library, Willow invites Angel into her home).
* Wisely, the show never goes back to the vamp groupies, and it mostly forgets about how normal people might react to a world where vampires are real. Doing so would torpedo the metaphorical work it’s trying to do – it’s hard to keep up the idea that monsters are metaphors if they’re forced to interact with normal people as well. (Later on, in the Angel spin-off, the show’s purpose is different, allowing a return to this well.)
* hello Chanterelle, another of Buffy’s recurring bit players – we’ll probably end up talking more about her later.

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Jupiter Linky

Why women love Jupiter Ascending

We know willpower is a resource that can be depleted. Here’s a way to actually manage it like a resource.

Anti-VD posters from WWII are pretty amazing.

Watchmen, described for the visually impaired

Fifteen-minute adaptation of Lovecraft’s “Shadow Out Of Time”. Off-kilter mix of animation and live-action, which suits the fevered tone of the story pretty damn well actually. (via Mad Lizards on G+)

Fifty Shades of Hutt (Jabba, not Lower)

Via Ben: the secret history of knock knock jokes

d3vo showed me this crazy short video of Wired trying out a new service where you send a text asking for anything and they’ll get it for you. As d said in his email to me, this probably won’t scale very well…

Also via d3vo, someone who’s never watched Doctor Who ranks the Doctors

And finally, Dr Phil with no talking

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Watching Buffy: s02e06 “Halloween”

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Here we go. The episodes leading up to this feel like shakedown runs, but here this show goes into high gear. This is where Buffy the show becomes Buffy the classic TV show, launching into a sustained run of excellence, hitting new heights every couple weeks and still climbing, just nailing every aspect of its premise and execution and having a massive influence on the world of TV in the process. Even with one loser in the mix (Bad Eggs), this must count as one of the greatest runs of TV ever produced.

And it starts right in the precredits. It’s a vamp-fighting sequence, bread-and-butter for the opening spot. But this one is an exceptional example. It’s funny. The fight is in a pumpkin patch and it leads to vampires being pelted with pumpkins, a scarecrow getting a stake through the heart, and some silly business with a haywagon and the pumpkin patch sign.

It’s also clever and portentous: there’s another vamp filming this battle on a camcorder, and seeing Buffy through the lens is instantly creepy, making her seem very vulnerable, while also nodding to the meta that this post-modern show loves to reference – the villain, like us, watches Buffy through a screen, and has a position of power over her as a result. (They didn’t forget the comedy here either – the camcorder’s battery is in the process of dying out.)

That’s the show’s offer: we do scary, and we do funny, and we do self-awareness. Like that stuff? Stick around.

There’s one other feature of the opening worth noting: not a single word of dialogue. Buffy says nothing. The vamp says nothing. There’s no ominous voice-over. It’s just action, but the storytelling couldn’t be clearer. There could be no greater sign of the show’s increasing confidence.

But here’s another anyway, just a few minutes later:

Buffy: I was gonna stay in and veg. The one night a year things are supposed to be quiet for me.
Xander: Halloween quiet? Oh, I figured it’d be a big old vamp scare-apalooza.
Buffy: Not according to Giles. He swears that tomorrow night is, like, dead for the undead. They stay in.

The casualness of this exchange – note how this exposition would usually be delivered by a stammering Giles in dramatic tones – hides some genius. For the first time in the series it is suggested the monsters of the night have their own social rules – they aren’t just horrific aberrations of our world, but a whole self-contained counterpoint to it. This puts the creatures of the night in an essentially satirical frame, as despite their otherwordly nature they still embrace mundane habits like taking a night off. The show gestured to this a bit in season one, where the Master would sometimes undercut his own bombast, but this is a bolder act, wrapping the show’s deadly horrors in the logic of comedy – it’s only a step or two away from the Sheepdog & Wolf Looney Tunes where the two enemies exchange small talk and clock in before beginning their vicious struggle.

The “night off on Halloween” has the curious effect of raising the tension instead of lowering it – we’re watching an episode of the show so something exciting has to happen, and it has to originate outside the normal boundaries of the show’s monster logic. It threatens to upset our expectations of what can happen on this show. In the end the danger doesn’t really deliver that kind of conceptual upheaval – the big shake-up is still a few episodes away – but it does remind the viewer not to get comfortable.

Monsters taking the night off on Halloween reinforces the message from School Hard about what kind of bad guys we’re dealing with here. The implication is, unmistakeably, that the vampires think Halloween is beneath them. Once again, the vampires are being set up as the cool kids, the rule-breakers, the ones who grew up too fast. They ‘re natural enemies for the sheltered nerds of the Sunnydale School Library.

And just one more sign of the show’s faith in itself: we’re over fifteen minutes deep before the supernatural threat finally turns up. That time is spent investing in character stories, and we get to explore the episode’s theme in a different way: while the show overall is revelling in its confidence, the characters are suffering from a lack of same. Questions of confidence beset the whole crew, giving us a good opportunity to check in on all our characters as season two gets properly rolling. The nature of the threat – costumes that turn the wearer into whatever they depict – allows this exploration to get charmingly literal.

Buffy’s lack of confidence falls in the usual place – her love life. She is still a bit in awe of Angel, and finds herself wanting next to Cordelia. She has just started dating Angel, her first romantic connection of the series, and it’s natural for her to be anxious about it. She ends up becoming a fainting, weak Ye Olden Times lady like those in Angel’s past.

Xander’s lack of confidence is in his “manliness”, specifically his reputation among other men. This follows on from Inca Mummy Girl where his fundamental heroism was affirmed, complicating the picture by showing that the opinions of others are crucial to his sense of identity, which is a very human failing. It’s also, unfortunately, not an encouraging direction for the character, and Xander comes across as even more foolish than usual. Still, it’s neat to see him transform into a badass military man.

Willow’s lack of confidence is in her sexuality – no-one notices her, and she thinks if she tries to act on her feelings she’d just make a fool of herself. This was hinted at in Inca Mummy Girl, where we were reminded that her attraction to Xander was unrequited and her only other romantic prospect in the series was a computer demon. The viewer is in a privileged position to know that her confidence is due a bump because she’s caught the attention of Oz, but once again Willow herself doesn’t find this out. And just as well – it gives her a chance to improve her confidence on her own terms, rather than because some boy likes her.

At the halfway mark the episode turns into a Willow showcase, because her confidence needs actual work, whereas Buffy and Xander basically need to get over themselves. Willow’s thematically perfect ghost costume ends up trapping her in the sexy outfit she’d chickened out of wearing, and she’s forced to guide everyone through the crisis and solve the mystery (which, pleasingly, she and Giles do in about ten seconds). She nails it, basically, and by the end she’s almost catching up to the viewers in how she sees herself. Finally she’s ready to actually meet Oz.

Giles also gets an arc. It’s weighted a bit differently, but you could describe his reserved personality as lacking in confidence. In the library sequence he is as stuffy and boring as he’s ever been, and Buffy saying Jenny Calendar liked him manages to throw him completely. This demonstration of Giles the stick in the mud is just setting us up for the three-quarter swerve, when we find out Giles was also known as Ripper, and has some kind of dark and dangerous past he’s not divulged before. The Giles we see facing down Ethan Rayne is a rougher, steelier version of the librarian.

So in this episode, all our core characters get some new layers and some reversals of expectations. They all get deeper and stronger and more interesting. This is the magic of season two – your groundwork is done, but your cast and situation is still fresh. Season two is your big chance to make something special – and this enormously fun episode demonstrates this show intends to be very special indeed.

Other thoughts:
* There’s some hilarious attention to continuity when the show remembers that Cordelia still hasn’t discovered Angel is a vampire, and plays it for lovely black comedy. (When Cordy is told Angel’s parents are dead, her first response is “oh good”!)
* And yet the show forgets its own rules about invitations with a random vampire in the Summers house. Like the breathing stuff, this show is much more interested in the consistency of its characters than the consistency of its fictional monster logic.
* Cordelia and Xander get another nice moment. Their characters have great chemistry right now.
* Spike basically just wanders through the episode being cooler than everything else. Until Buffy pummels him of course – and lets him get away. (This confrontation is superhero comic logic, once again.)
* Hmm, could’ve done without the pirate rape threat from Larry. Hi recurring bit player Larry, welcome to the show!

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Linkery

Secretary is no better than 50 Shades, guys. (Except for being a *much better movie*.)

The journal Basic & Applied Social Psychology just banned significance testing, p-values, t-tests, and the rest from its pages. Every method you learned in that undergrad psychology class you took just went out of date…

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is back, and once again the major story each week is posted for international viewing on the Youtubes. Here’s a great one on tobacco – those who remember the crazy fight in NZ over plainpacks will appreciate this, as will everyone who raised an eyebrow at the National party bringing in two ex-tobacco lobbyists in its new crop of MPs. Hilarious and crucial. Watch it.

Christina Aguilera doing musical impressions of Cher and Britney is pretty entertaining.

An MH370 obsessive talks about being an MH370 obsessive.

Tom the Dancing Bug on the new Harper Lee book.

Big Birdman – perfection. Caroll Spinney is 81 and still in the big yellow birdsuit!

And finally…

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Watching Buffy: s02e05 “Reptile Boy”

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In August 2012, a high school girl in Steubenville, Ohio went out to a party and got drunker than she intended. In the hours that followed, a succession of popular boys took sexual advantage of her, and two raped her. The case went big after it appeared the town was rallying behind the boys instead of their victim. It marked a turning point in global discussion around sexual abuse and consent, particularly in the context of young intoxicated people.

This case, and many others like it before and since, cast a long shadow over this episode of Buffy. The episode was deliberately aiming at a known target: powerful young men luring young women into trusting them, and then feeding them drinks or drugging them, and raping them while they are insensible.

It happens a lot, and it’s been happening for a long time. The focus for some years has been on campus, particularly college fraternities, where this kind of abuse is rife (as researchers were at pains to point out after one story of frat brother abuse turned out to be unreliable).

This is heady stuff for a TV show about cheerleaders fighting vampires. It takes the ostensible structure of the show, monsters as metaphors, and slams it hard against the unavoidable emergent theme of rape culture. Vampires are metaphorical rapists, sure, but episode writer (and show veteran) David Greenwalt takes the idea much further – the metaphor here becomes almost literal, and the intention unmistakeable.

The episode is about a fraternity at Sunnydale’s elite school Crestwood College. (The fraternity is portrayed much like a Skull and Bones-style secret society, but it’s definitely part of the Greek system – this means Greenwalt gets to incriminate both types of boy’s club at once.) The frat boys have an unpleasant habit of luring high school girls into their clubhouse, then drugging them and feeding them to their (phallus-shaped) demon. The demon, in return, delivers wealth and power to their families.

There’s no metaphor at all to the first part of that, the luring and the drugging. The show makes this explicit by having one frat boy correct another who is about to follow through the real world script by raping the unconscious Buffy: “I was just having a little fun.” “Well, she’s not here for your fun, you pervert. She’s here for the pleasure of the one we serve.” The show applies the monster-metaphor as late as possible to make its real-world target crystal clear.

The effect of this is interesting. In the text of the show, literal rape is about pleasure and satisfaction, whereas metaphorical rape is about consolidating social and economic power. Or put another way: being a good business executive is morally equivalent to rape.

This is a politics I can get behind – linking the show’s in-built feminist angle to a left-wing criticism of capitalist power structures. But it is, as stated, heady stuff for this show. Aren’t we meant to be focusing on the horrors of high school? What are all these frat boys doing here?

The episode glosses this link by examining the age difference between Angel and Buffy, and having the frat boys use their age and “maturity” to lure in younger girls. (There’s no particular reason the frat boys target younger women when they have access to a campus full of co-eds.) It’s a pretty weak link, and the two halves of the episode never really illuminate each other. For what it’s worth, the resolution to the age difference conflict is “Buffy doesn’t care about it, and Angel eventually accepts this and gets over his own anxieties about it”, which is about the only way you can play it. Age differences are really about power differences, and if Angel doesn’t fret about that, then the dynamic gets very problematic very fast.

Throughout her relationship with Angel, Buffy never really commits to a perception of Angel as an older man. Instead he’s almost a wish-fulfilment teenage projection of what an older man boyfriend would be like. (Later, when he gets his own show, we see Angel outside the filter of Buffy’s perspective, and he’s kind of goofy and uncool.)

Anyway, with that conflict disposed of, the show is finally able to take the step it’s been teasing since episode one: Buffy and Angel becoming a couple. He asks her out – and she says maybe. In an episode in which we saw so many awful men with so much awful power, this is a nice way to go out – with all the power in Buffy’s hands.

Other thoughts:
* The Buffy/Willow/Xander threesome is portrayed as so close in this episode it almost gets weird – Buffy and Xander together braid Willow’s hair.
* I’m not sure if the costuming here was a deliberate nod to the “what were you wearing?” victim-blaming around rape culture, but Buffy wears two separate outfits where her bra is visible through her top.
* Buffy lying to Giles is a big moment for her. As discussed a couple episodes ago, she doesn’t often do the wrong thing. This is a pretty clear instance of after-school special mistake-making. The show goes out of its way to make sure we buy this act of rebellion, not by really giving Sarah Michelle Gellar a convincing emotional journey to sell (she still almost pulls it off), but by having Willow berate Giles and Angel for not understanding it. Who could resist that?
* As wild frat parties go, this ones looks pretty sedate – close dancing and chill-out music and only one drunk person!
* Jonathan is back and he gets his name!

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