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Watching Buffy: s01e09 “Puppet Show”

Pictured: a piece of wood shaped like a person, and also oh forget it you can do the rest of the joke yourself

Last episode I talked about how the show had built up a lot of confidence and then promptly screwed up. This time around, they stick the landing – with style. If this episode was a talent show entrant, it would win the prize.

It surprises me that this episode has a poor reputation. It’s charming as hell. The show is relishing being itself, telling here a story that only Buffy the Vampire Slayer could tell, and the gags are interwoven with horror flourishes and solid character work in a way that shows off the potential of the Buffy formula.

Most of all, this episode wants to show off the 3/4-ish swerve that is steadily becoming a more important part of the Buffy style. This show doesn’t just want to keep you entertained, it wants to utterly wrongfoot you at least once an episode. The promise to the viewers is clear: we will surprise you.

Surprise, genuine surprise, is rare on television. The Twilight Zone traded in surprise, but most other classics of television found that surprise didn’t deliver what they needed. Structure and repetition were the things that kept viewers happy and kept them coming back. Now and then TV did offer surprises planned and unplanned, but these were memorable precisely because they cut against the ethos of the times. By the 90s, surprises were more frequently encountered on the screen, especially on the fringe networks where shock and surprise had value. They still didn’t have too much penetration in weekly scripted comedies and dramas, where they tended to be saved for “sweeps week” episodes where surprises were teased in advance to create a ratings bump. And here was this new young show deciding to make surprise one of the stylistic anchors of their whole endeavour.

Of course this goes right back to the pilot episode and the death of Jesse – the idea that noone, and nothing is safe. The flipside of that is, everything is possible, and this episode lays that out in the most clear-cut way possible.

So, the story. This episode is about a sinister ventriloquist’s dummy. Mysterious deaths are happening at the school talent show, and the dummy (and its owner) are implicated. The audience even sees the doll stalking Buffy. And yet the sinister dummy motif is openly mocked throughout the first half of the the episode. The show is taunting us: do you really think we’d go there, to the living ventriloquist’s dummy, the stupidest of all horror motifs? Can you guess what we’ve got up our sleeve? Here, let’s tease that the new Principal is the villain! Ha, that’s too obvious a swerve. Or is it?

This gamesmanship will only work if the reveal, when it comes, lives up to the hype. And they nail it. The dummy is alive! But – wait a second – it’s a good guy? It’s a demon hunter?

People who, like me, have fallen in love with the Buffy mythos are inured to its flourishes of weirdness and goofiness. This episode is where all that really starts up. Once you introduce an animate ventriloquist dummy demon hunter, you have opened a road to kooksville and put up a welcome sign. But that’s not the whole story, of course: Sid the dummy isn’t just a piece of weirdness, he is a character in every sense, and given both respect and sympathy by the script. They don’t just play him straight, they put him right at the centre of the episode’s dramatic arc. There was no other show that could tell this story. Buffy was marking its territory.

With 9 episodes down, Buffy isn’t done growing yet. It hasn’t properly started grappling with the problem of Jesse, and the dense emotional content that will become the show’s backbone isn’t in place. But so much else is right there to see in this episode, and that’s why I think the bad reputation is inexplicable. This is far and away my favourite story in season 1.

Other thoughts:
* The show’s confidence is also on show in the willingness to let the cast play a bit more loosely, encouraging and keeping some ad libs, like Xander’s “redrum” and – this one’s perfection and signals the actress’s future anchoring a long-running sitcom – Willow freezing and running off-stage. There’s also a marvellous gag where Giles brings all the young performers in for a “power circle” just before the show starts. Hilariously deadpan.
* Poor dead Morgan was the smartest kid in school. So were the demon-abused computer geeks in episode 8. It doesn’t pay to be a geek in Sunnydale High!
* Sinister, nasty, slimy Principal Snyder is introduced this episode. He immediately starts laying the groundwork for the world of Sunnydale beyond the confines of the school.
* More signs of the influence of 70s/80s Marvel Comics on this show: the subtle continuity references when Snyder refers to the school’s reputation for “Suicide, missing persons, spontaneous cheerleader combustion…”; the willingness to embrace goofiness plays to me very much like the stranger end of 70s Marvel, particularly the work of Steve Gerber – Sid the demon hunting dummy would fit right into his Defenders run.
* But most of all, this episode plays out like every single superhero team-up – two heroes meet, have a fight due to a misunderstanding (they each think the other is a demon), then figure out their mistake and team up to take out the bad guy.


Missile Toe Linky

Carol of the old ones (via Tom Crosby)

Why James Cameron’s Aliens is the best movie about technology

Lord of the Rings: Let It Go

Quartz has picked its chart of the year.

Talk about your end-of-an-eras – cartoonist Jack Davis retires at 90. Truly a legend.

Slate has selected their picks for the 25 best podcast episodes ever.

Introducing Carrot: a pitch-perfect satire of the tech industry (from the Atlantic)

Rewriting the rules of Dreidel so it’s actually fun and doesn’t take 19 hours to play. (If, like me, you didn’t know the rules of Dreidel, this works as a neat example of how simple rules that *seem* sensible have unexpected consequences, and how simple changes can deliver much much more fun. I spend a lot of time playing Snakes and Ladders right now, and it’s pretty tedious, but I keep myself entertained thinking of simple hacks like this that would make it awesome.)

The transfer of Buffy to HD/widescreen has been something of a debacle. Characters have their heads cut off, crew members appear on the screen, etc. i09 has the goss (via beloved leader David R)

And finally, Pulp Fiction’s most famous scene, a shot-for-shot remake, underwater


Watching Buffy: s01e08 “I Robot, You Jane”

wow this show has awesome looking monsters!

um wait what

Buffy has been shaking down its approach for seven episodes now, and it clearly feels good about how it’s going. The Angel reveal is in the bag, and the show is clearly ready to spend the back half of the season showing what it can do!

Naturally, it immediately screws up.

The story in this episode: Willow gets an internet boyfriend who turns out to be a demon. If the self-awareness and fashion choices don’t already tip you off, this storyline dates the show precisely to a few years in the mid/late 90s. There was a very narrow window of time where “mysterious internet boyfriend” was a thing. The internet was starting to become a visual environment and making waves in the wider world, but users still played in a text-only world. It was a good time to be online – hey there SCFBBS alumni – but also a short-lived one.

Anyway, the show figures it can take this core idea and make good Buffy out of it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Let’s count some of the ways this episode fluffs it:

One: It fails Willow. The show doesn’t actually have much idea what to do with Willow. As with Cordelia, she’s in the opening credits but what does she actually contribute? She’s Buffy’s best friend, OK, sure – that means she listens to Buffy sigh about Angel. And she’s in unrequited love with Xander, so she gets to sigh at him while he sighs about Buffy. And she’s in the know about fighting evil, so she gets to help out/be captured whenever an extra character is needed to help out/be captured. Oh yeah, she’s a hacker – in the 90s every show had a computer hacker – so she gets to supply crucial plot information whenever the writers need to throw it in. These are all useful things when you’re writing a scene and you need to get on to the interesting stuff, but they sure don’t add up to a character you root for or a character who generates stories and drama.

Just two episodes ago the show had started to figure out what it had in Willow and Alyson Hannigan. Sadly, this episode puts her right at the centre and it still has nothing to offer her. She is a lonely wallflower geek, so naturally she gets obsessive about a mysterious internet boyfriend who gives her the attention she craves, but he turns out to be a demon so whoops, and that’s all really. It’s a waste. The show doesn’t even give her the minimal respect this plotline affords – her obsession is sudden and happens offscreen (she goes from “I have a cute boyfriend” to “I’m cutting classes and you don’t understand wooo” literally overnight), she doesn’t get to work out her boyfriend is a demon until he kidnaps her, and oh yeah he kidnaps her. At least she gets to yell at him at the end before he smacks her to the ground, and she lies there while Buffy deals with him! Oh okay that’s no good either. Sigh.

Hindsight gives us some comfort though – as with Cordelia, we know the writers’ll figure out what to do with Willow, and soon.

Two: the metaphor sucks. Yes, sometimes people who claim to be nice on the internet are not actually nice. This is metaphorically represented by making the internet boyfriend a demon. Well, I guess it counts?

Three: the monster sucks. The show has its best-looking monster yet for the demon Moloch – but you only see it briefly in the opening prologue sequence. Then the show has its worst-looking monster yet when Moloch turns into a cyberdemon for the final act. It’s such a misjudged visual, it’s kind of embarrassing. In between, the demon hangs out in a high school intranet and romances Willow while controlling some other people and it just isn’t very interesting or good.

Four: the tone is all over the place. The episode goes from goofy and stupid to really dark and back again like a drunk driver weaving back and forth across the centre line. The demon has one high school boy murder another while faking it as a suicide, which is one of the darkest scenes in the entire series, but then right after there’s a poor graphic of a demon face saying BOO on the library computer and it’s just silly.

Five: the scale is off. This one is an interesting one – it’s a rule that isn’t obvious, so the show could probably only learn it by breaching it. But if you are a show about teenagers in high school facing monstrous representations of teenage life problems, then your scale is high school life and you have to stick with that. In this story, there’s a big factory staffed by dozens of adult workers under the spell of the demon. It’s too big. It violates the high school rule. If there’s all those adults there, then what happens to them? Where are the police? What do they have to do with high school life? It just doesn’t feel right – it’s the wrong sort of show to have that kind of setup. (Now those who know what’s coming know season 3 does step resoundingly outside the high school scale with an enemy who’s part of the wider world – but note that the show has been diligently setting up this move since, well, since the very next episode. You can get there, but you have to lay the groundwork first.)

Six: technology and magic don’t mix. I’m not even really sure why this is, but mixing technology and magic/supernatural stuff just doesn’t seem to combine well in the Buffy aesthetic. This episode tries hard to mix and match, and it just clunks – Giles fretting about the endless damage the demon could do now it is loose on the internet just seems stupid. New character Jenny Calendar is a “techno-pagan” but that mostly comes to mean “pagan who uses the internet sometimes”. Willow is a hacker and (spoiler!) in time she does a little magic but never ties the two together. As the show goes on, it shows little interest in bringing these back together again. (Until season four, of course. We’ll get there.)

So the episode just doesn’t work. But that’s not to say it’s without merit. There is one part of this episode that is worth remembering and celebrating, however: the final scene. It features our core group of friends sitting together discussing their doomed love lives. And they all laugh! And then the laughter fades out into a miserable silence. It’s a great scene that does cool stuff.

It’s a parody of many other shows that liked to close on the cast sharing a joke together, only here they let the laughs die away into silence. Also, note the self-awareness of the trio knowing they’re doomed. Both of these put Buffy firmly in the post-modernist mode of self-aware 90s entertainment, and combined into one scene they come close to breaking the fourth wall and knowing they are characters in a TV show.

But I’m most interested in the specific references to previous episodes: “Hey, did you forget? The one boy I’ve had the hots for since I’ve moved here turned out to be a vampire.” / “Right, and the teacher I had a crush on? Giant praying mantis?” This signals one of the key structural influences on Buffy: comic books, specifically Marvel superhero comics. Casual but obsessive references to past stories like this had a key role in creating “the Marvel universe”, and it’s easy to imagine the caption box that would appear in the corner of the panel here: “Episodes 4 and 7, Slayerettes! – Japin’ Joss”. These references send a message to viewers: this show knows it has a past, and it will use that past to enrich the present. The show isn’t just telling stories – it’s building a world.

Other notes:
* If “Never Kill A Boy On The First Date” is the best episode title in all of Buffy, this one is clearly the worst. The WORST.
* Xander isn’t awful this episode, and there’s a nice bit where Buffy calls him on enjoying being the object of Willow’s unrequited adoration, although she of course lets him off pretty easy.
* Librarians everywhere will snort at the show’s attempt to sell librarians vs. technology opposition to create conflict between Giles and Jenny. Librarians, of course, embrace tech harder than anyone not actually involved in tech. Get-out clause: Giles is not a real librarian.
* Speaking of the show feeling like it knows what it’s about – this episode actually contains a cheeky parody of its own surprise 3/4 swerves, setting up Jenny Calendar to be revealed at the 3/4 mark as a villain (c.f. the zookeeper in The Pack), but then revealing she’s a heroic technopagan. (It was the 90s, we’re all lucky she didn’t call herself a cyberpagan.)
* Jenny is kinda fun, and her flirtation with Giles is cute. I hope they bring her back.


Hoff Linky

The Rip-Hoff pt.1 from Matthijs_Vlot on Vimeo.

Sadly Hoffspace, the David Hasselhoff social media site, is no longer functional. I had, like, five friends on Hoffspace, all of them middle-aged women from Bible belt America. It was great.

Does Sean Bean really die more than other actors?

Ian’s shoelace site. (via shoelace-technique evangelist Jack)

Generate a planet.

Move the unhappy shapes – and learn about segregation. An incredible interactive demonstration of how small effects snowball into big consequences.

Adding some Flight of the Conchords music to the new Terminator trailer is kinda nice.

The Empty Kingdom: this neat game (play right in your browser) is a short & lovely experience (via Angus Dingwall)

Catch up on Classic Doctor Who in 15 minutes by watching every episode at the same time (via David R, who says it was terrific in HD on his TV screen)

12-minute John Constantine/Hellblazer fan film. Forget about that American TV show, this is what you want.

And finally, via my Cal, the worst possible way to display extra-large trousers for women on your web storefront.


Watching Buffy: s01e07 “Angel”


Every vampire story is a romance.

That isn’t true, but it comes close these days. As I understand it, while the vampire has always been seductive, the idea of a two-way romance with a bloodsucker emerged via Anne Rice’s swooningly gothic Lestat books, with Coppola’s weirdly magisterial film of Dracula the turning point. “I have crossed oceans of time to find you,” Gary Oldman’s Dracula says to Winona Ryder’s Mina Harker, imbuing the line with both romance and threat, and it’s a straight line from there to Twilight.

In this episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel comes into focus as Buffy’s romantic match. The show has of course been setting this up since episode one, primarily by casting David Boreanaz as Angel. What has he done so far?

  • Episode 1: He follows Buffy in an alley, freaking her out, then says she has to be careful because of bad stuff happening, and then he gives her a cross on a chain.
  • Episode 2: He intercepts Buffy before she goes to face the vampires, and tries to talk her out of going down there. And he refuses to help because, in his words, “I’m afraid”. He does tell her his name at least.
  • Episode 3: He isn’t in this one.
  • Episode 4: He finds Buffy to warn her about fork vampire, and gives her his leather jacket because she looks cold. Then after fork vampire is dead, he turns up to say “well done”, and says she can keep the jacket. He refuses to tell her anything about himself beyond his name. And voila – Buffy is smitten.
  • Episode 5: He interrupts Buffy’s date with Owen, and acts perplexed by the fact she’s on a date.
  • Episode 6: He’s not in this one either, but it’s established that Buffy talks with Willow about how she’s into him, and she wears his jacket too.

So as groundwork for romance goes, well, they cast David Boreanaz and put his face in the credit sequence. He does get that one bit where he gives her a jacket. That’s enough, it seems. Basically the show relies on the grammar of television to mark out that Buffy and Angel are going to romance each other – she’s the title character and he’s the mysterious hunk, say no more.

That leaves this episode to do pretty much all the heavy lifting for the romantic storyline. The show doesn’t mess about, putting Buffy in vampiric danger as the precredits cliffhanger, and resolving it with Angel turning up – and getting hurt in the ensuing fight. Buffy takes him home to look after him.

(Side note: this method of getting two characters together is not exactly original, in fact there’s an entire genre of fanfic devoted to making these exact moves.)

Buffy caring for Angel here involves him taking off his top and wincing a few times while they engage in flirtatious banter about whether or not he was actually following her around. There’s some comedic stuff with Joyce, and then Angel gets hidden away in Buffy’s room for the night, where they have that sexually charged discussion about who will sleep on the bed and who will sleep on the floor, you know the one, you’ve seen that movie lots of times. The next day she goes to school and he’s still there when she comes home. And he’s been the perfect gentleman the whole time, but he confesses that he shouldn’t be around her because he just keeps wanting to kiss her, and he’s so much older than her it’s really inappropriate. He doesn’t say how much older when she asks, but his admitting his attraction rivets her attention, and they get close, and then they kiss, and it gets passionate –

– and then Angel pulls away and he has vampface. Buffy discovers he’s a vampire! He leaps out the window and is gone.

So, let’s review:

  • Angel is an adult. Buffy is underage.
  • He gives her expensive presents (the cross, the jacket).
  • He doesn’t admit just how big the age gap between them is, despite being directly asked.
  • He knows all about Buffy but doesn’t volunteer any information about himself.
  • He follows Buffy around and doesn’t admit it when called on it.
  • He tells her he’s attracted to her by saying he can’t control himself around her.
  • When they kiss, he does lose control, and goes vamp-face.

These are what’s known in the real-life relationship biz as “red flags”.

That last one is worth some extra consideration, because it’s different to the rest. While the first six points are all things that directly apply to the real world, actual people don’t turn into vampires when they lose control. So what does this moment mean? What aspect of real-world relationships is evoked by the sudden vampire? You get to pick your own meaning, but you’ll struggle to find one that’s not awful.

(This is a hugely important beat, revealing that Angel’s a vampire, and finally putting all the essential dynamics of the show in place. But if I remember things rightly, his sudden vamp-face is never explained directly. We just have to take Angel at his word – he’s so obsessed with Buffy that kissing her is super-intense, and that intensity means he loses his self-control, so because he’s up close to pumping veins the predatory vampiric nature comes out. There’s an interesting parallel here with something that happens in season 2 – yes, that thing, I won’t spoil it here – where the intensity of an experience with Buffy means he loses self-control, but in a different way, for very different plot reasons.)

Anyway. The rest of the episode is Buffy finding out Angel’s history as a vicious killer linked to the vamps lurking under Sunnydale, and Angel showing he’s actually a good guy by killing vampiric badass Darla to save Buffy’s life. (Gypsies made him good.) And then Buffy and Angel smooch some more, despite both of them saying they shouldn’t and it’s a bad idea. Romance!

This show is another in a long tradition of film & TV entertainments that make unpleasant behaviour seem romantic. They do this through the power of editing – careful selection of moments, pointed juxtapositions to establish sympathy between characters, etc. Add in the weight of expectation when your limited cast has only one obvious love interest figure for the leading lady, and viewers are happy to go along with it. It’s a shorthand. It doesn’t actually mean the show thinks the behaviours it depicts are acceptable, and it doesn’t actually mean that the viewers who buy into this romance think that either.

And yet, and yet. This is a show that is starting early on to dig into the dangerous grounds of sexuality. It’s clear the show wants to go to these dark places, and that it thinks it can take these issues on in a responsible way through its “monster metaphor” approach. It wants to do teenage life right, not by depicting it realistically, but by showing its essence via scary creatures with big fangs. And all of those things, the whole reason and purpose of the show, pull in the other direction from that shorthand. If we’re encouraged to read the hyena spirits as a metaphor, then why should we hesitate to read Angel’s behaviour here as a metaphor for a man grooming an underage girl to be his lover? Well, the obvious answer is because the show clearly doesn’t want us to embrace that reading. But it’s there anyway, like it or not.

It could have been done differently. Angel’s relationship with Buffy could have unfolded more slowly, and carefully avoided every one of those red flags. Could have, could have. But it wasn’t, and I wonder how much of Buffy’s future character stems from this. Over the series, Buffy’s romantic choices are increasingly presented as unhealthy – Buffy herself comes to admit it. I think that course gets set right here. Pretty soon Buffy turns into the kind of show that wants to interrogate these issues and the way Angel and Buffy got together doesn’t look too healthy when you give it that kind of scrutiny. This wasn’t the intention – the goal was to get you on board with a swooning relationship – but the shorthand approach dooms Buffy to a twisted romantic future. Like Xander an episode ago, in a way Buffy gets broken here. To the show’s credit, across the next six and a half seasons the show will grapple hard with just what that means.

A few other notes:

  • This episode was the low point of my early rewatch notetaking, so all the above is new. My scribbles for this episode, in their entirety: “Buffy has a diary. A DIARY. joyce gets bit!” But on that note:
  • Joyce gets chomped by Darla. This is part of a stupidly over-elaborate bad guy plan, but it sure is scary to see Joyce under threat, and even scarier to see the threat realised. Again, the show is showing it’s edge – no-one is safe – by taking the threats to cast regulars further than you would ever expect.
  • Buffy keeps a diary! That seems… really out of character.
  • The swerve is really minor in this episode, but it is there – it’s when Darla pulls out guns and starts shooting. A vampire with a gun really throws out expectations, as there’s a style/iconography clash that is massively jarring. Guns don’t turn up in this show very often.
  • Darla is also the first example of a villain type that Buffy will return to – the little bad, who is a major villain in the first half of the season but who gets killed around the midpoint, usually to launch the big bad on to the scene. She doesn’t perfectly fit the type, but you can see the outline in place.

Well Actually Linky

Argh. Journalist returns to Steubenville to see how things have changed since “that whole rape thing”. Spoiler: they haven’t.

Via Maire, a discussion of Racism and Middle-earth, going into detail about what Tolkien wrote (and didn’t write) about skin colour and race and ethnicity, and how that got refracted through the Jackson films, and the implications thereof. (This is a PDF compiling articles from this blog, so if you’re on mobile or otherwise PDF-averse you can presumably find plenty to read there.)

Did you hear that story about four illegal immigrants at a podunk southern school who beat MIT in a robotics competition? You will – there’s a movie coming. Wired has put the original story, from 2001, back up as a prominent feature. But the teachers involved didn’t stop there – they then turned their attention to the gender imbalance at STEM. Result: an all-women robotics team.

Every Frame a Painting – I’ve linked to a couple of his vids before – looks at Jackie Chan’s HK and US films to show some of the many ways U.S. directors don’t know how to shoot comedy. (via Hugh D)

Seth Rogen and James Franco play the Freaks & Geeks computer game. Kind of lovely if you are a F&G nerd, probably incomprehensible if not…

Digital alteration of Hollywood bodies has hit a new level in the last few years. Everyone knows about Photoshop and magazine covers – but there’s a new trick in town, and it’s top secret.

Twitter accounts @ireland and @sweden hand over the keys to a different person every week. It’s pretty cool.

25 Invisible Benefits of Gaming while Male – a lovely short video, via Feminist Frequency. Benefit #25 is brutal.

Nature makes all its articles free to view. Progress!

The amazing Jordan Peele tweets the entire story of “The Babadook” – in emoji. (I haven’t seen The Babadook yet, so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of Peele’s summary. Must get on that.)

David Simon, in typically lengthy detail, discusses converting The Wire to HD and widescreen framing, what was gained and what was lost in the transfer. I found this fascinating!

Article on the typography of ALIEN descends into some lovely film nerdery extending far beyond the initial subject, revealing several things about the film I’d never heard of before. Such a good article! (via Luke Crane)

Dangerous Minds talks about John Carpenter’s amazing film The Thing and has pics and a video showing how closely it hews to the detailed storyboards. (Which were by Mike Ploog! Who knew!)

William Gibson on how Neuromancer was a commissioned book, and how that came about. I’ve never heard this story before, thanks D3vo!

Via Jenni, eleven seconds of penguin perfection. (You need the sound.)

The John Clarke Repatriation Society of New Zealand

And finally, via Andrew S, this is… wow. Just watch the first ten seconds and I dare you not to stick around for the rest.


Where The Rēkohu Bone Sings: a few thoughts

Where the Rekohu Bone Sings, Tina Makereti
I just finished reading Tina Makereti’s novel Where The Rēkohu Bone Sings (2014, Vintage). In a short twitter conversation with the author and another reader, I mentioned an intense passage late in the book featuring some graphic and unpleasant content. (I said I wasn’t sure I could recommend the book to my mother on account of this sequence – it was a flippant comment, but sincere nonetheless.) When I tried to go into further thoughts on this sequence I gave up, the Twitter format defeating me. They both suggested taking it to blog – so here we are.

Context, then. The novel follows two stories in parallel. First, in the 1880s, the forbidden love arising between Māori girl Mere and her family’s Moriori slave, Iraia. Second, in a contemporary setting, twins Lula and Bigs investigate the secrets of their own ancestry that leads them back to Mere and Iraia, and then to Rēkohu (Chatham Island). Woven through the narrative is another voice, the spirit of an ancestor even further back who accompanies Iraia, and then Lula, on their respective journeys.

(Some plot spoilers, inevitably, follow – but despite the name I don’t think knowing the things I’m about to discuss will spoil the book for you at all.)

Late in the book, Lula and Bigs return to Rēkohu and for the spirit this is an awakening of unpleasant memories, recounted in two powerful sequences. First, we relive with him his death at the hands of invading Māori, an intense build-up to a battle that ends almost immediately in his death. The second section is the one that gave me pause. Here, we stay with the spirit as he finds he does not move on into the afterlife, but instead lingers, attached to his body. And the narrative follows what happens to that body, in careful detail, as it is cooked and eaten by the conquerers. The back cover describes the book as “quietly powerful and compelling”, and it mostly is, but this sequence is a clear violation of that tone. It is gruesome and confronting. I think it’s also important and valuable and probably crucial. Many reasons. Let me try and catch some of them.

The book is, in part, about the historical relationship (and conflict) between Māori and Moriori. This is, to put it lightly, poorly understood by New Zealand at large – this well-researched novel is certainly the most information I’ve ever encountered on the subject. But one thing that everyone knows – well, “knows” – is that Māori were the aggressors towards the Moriori, and killed and ate them. The reason everyone knows this is because many socially conservative voices try to invoke this historic injustice as a way of dodging the current inequality in NZ. If Māori were wicked to Moriori, then they can’t complain about Europeans turning up and being mean to them, and besides it’s not as if the Europeans ate the Māori, they aren’t barbarians, the Māori should be thankful for all the things we gave them… These sentiments are regularly expressed in the letters to the editor of every newspaper in the nation, not to mention in more than a few opinion columns and other venues. (Don’t even think about what gets said in comment sections. It isn’t good.)

In a sense this sequence was necessary – if you write a novel about the history between Māori and Moriori, I’d guess you can’t avoid this narrative. Not that I’m suggesting Makereti is obliged to address the social conservatives out there in NZ – far from it, no author owes anything to anyone – just that a novel on this subject would feel incomplete if it avoided addressing the best-known historical factoid about this relationship. Makereti in fact deftly structures the novel to exclude those grumpy old men entirely by locating the issues raised by this history in the relationship between twins Lula and Bigs, who share lineage from both sides of the historical conflict and each come to identify more with one side than the other.

So Makereti had to talk about the details of what happened somewhere. But the sequence she gives us is clearly far in excess of simply acknowledging this history. The intense dramatisation makes this a climactic moment of the entire novel, and a tonal disruption that colours everything around it. This serves her literary purpose well, because in historical terms that violence colours subsequent history right up to the present – the tone structure of the novel echoes the history that is its subject.

But the genius in this sequence, and why I think it’s so important, isn’t just that it presents this history so vividly and unforgettably. It’s that it contextualises these acts of, to my eyes, barbarism, with an anthropological eye filled with empathy. As the spirit becomes attuned to his new afterlife, his relationship to his body changes, and the perspective of the invaders slowly approaches knowability in his eyes. The crucial moment comes as he witnesses part of his body fed to an infant, and through this moment, leaves his body and moves perspective to hers. The description, unflinching in the detail of chewing and swallowing and digestion, is subsumed under the child’s innocence, and the spirit becomes able through her to perceive the other oppressors as people driven by their own fears and needs and loves. The sequence becomes, somehow, beautiful.

When I say, then, that this sequence of grotesque violence hangs over the rest of the novel, what I mean is the strangely comforting moment where the spirit allows himself to feed the child. It promises some redemption, someday, for conflicts that remain unresolved.

So, yeah. It’s structurally and thematically huge, and it works beautifully on many levels. That’s what I got out of this sequence, as best I can express it today anyway! The rest of the book of course is not full of violence. I should point out it’s a beautiful book and I love the characters and the storytelling and the whole thing. And in writing this I’ve talked myself around – the violence here shouldn’t dissuade anyone, my mum included, from reading this. It’s worth it.

No wonder I couldn’t fit all that into 140 characters…

(Edited to add: “Makereti” in this post feels wrong, but “Tina” would be even more wrong, and “Ms. Makereti” would be even even more more wrong. I dunno.)

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Watching Buffy: s01e06 “The Pack”

dodgeball 3

Everyone knows the basic genius of Buffy: it made monsters out of the horrors of high school. But if you actually trawl through the episodes, you find there are a lot of Buffy eps that don’t do this, or do it only loosely, or in a roundabout way. There’s no secret as to why: this metaphor monster trick is hard. In season one there are really only three episodes that have a metaphorical monster at their heart. As we’ve seen, Witch flubbed it a bit. Invisible Girl is a few weeks away yet. But in this episode, the show nails it.

The episode features a bunch of mean, popular kids – and Xander – getting possessed by hyena spirits, and turning their cruelty dials all the way up. If you’re in the group, you’re great. If you’re out? You’re meat. The metaphor is plain and strong and central and brutal – but it’s also complex enough that a simple description doesn’t do it justice. The show is talking about power, status, in-groups/out-groups, bullying, and other crucial aspects of the high school experience, and I’m sure every viewer would see their own variation on these themes in the behaviour of the Pack. (Particularly the behaviour of Xander. We’ll get to Xander.) In terms of the general theme, to me the most shocking moment is the Pack devouring Principal Flutie. First, this is obviously another marker that in this show, no-one is safe. Change will happen! Even writing out a minor supporting player like Principal Flutie stands out from the reluctance to upend the status quo that marked most TV at the time. Looking at it now, though, with Buffy‘s reputation for character death well-established, what strikes me is the metaphor. The bullies have amped up their cruelty and they are targeting, not fellow students, but the school institution itself. The message seems to be that institutions are helpless before bullying. If you were in high school, being bullied, and you watched this episode – well, I don’t think you’d find it very comforting. (And from what I understand of bullying response statistics in the US and further afield, perhaps that’s how you should be feeling.)

Okay, Xander. Comments over on Facebook for my last Buffy post were not kind to Xander, and there is nothing in this episode that will turn you around. But this episode does something that I think is quite shocking and potentially brave: it uses the excuse of Xander’s possession to lean all the way into Xander’s creepy nice-guy entitlement that colours his every interaction with Buffy and Willow. He actually grabs and holds Buffy down while he says out loud all the things a “nice guy” says to himself about the girl he desires. He holds her against a wall and forces a kiss on her. It’s an upsetting sequence, even more so because Buffy reclaiming her power (by knocking him out) happens off-screen.

This is an instance of the show recognising that if it wants to talk about the horrors of adolescence, it has to talk about sex, and power, and the abuse of both of those things. There is nothing metaphorical in hyena-Xander’s behaviour towards Buffy – he is sexually assaulting her, and potentially on the way to raping her. And his dialogue indicates this is not an outsider impulse that comes from the demonic possession, but an expression of some genuine thoughts and feelings that he holds and experiences. It would be going to far to say that the episode portrays Xander as a repressed rapist – but the show is definitely showing that his desire isn’t all innocent boyish frustration. There is real darkness in the mix. And, to the extent Xander is intended as the “everyguy” character in the show, it’s a pretty ruthless and damning portrayal of the unpleasant undercurrents in the cultural experiences and assumptions of teenage boys as a class.

Of course, the show lets him off the hook. I don’t know how to feel about it exactly. Buffy, in particular, shrugs it off: he wasn’t himself, you can’t hold that against him! The parallels between hyena spirits and alcoholic spirits pass without remark. And in a sense they have to – this show can’t throw one of its core cast off the cliff in episode 6. If they couldn’t justify Xander staying friendswith Buffy and Willow, then they’d be forced to cut the scene. And I think it’s a good scene, an important one for the show. However, in terms of Xander’s character, it’s a black cloud that he never entirely escapes. Partly it’s mitigated by the fact Xander has to live with the memories of his behaviour, and he is obviously mortified and traumatised by them. Partly, too, there is some relief in Xander’s growing up/redemption plot at the close of this season. Still, to me it feels like these aren’t enough to counterbalance the dark weight of this scene. The show doesn’t want you to hold this moment close, but it’s hard not to feel that Xander won’t ever shake off the unpleasant aspects of his character. The show doesn’t quite know how to deal with the issues of sex and violence it is grappling with here, and it can’t quite address the problems with Xander before they get embedded too deep to change. From now on, he is damaged goods.

But for the show, this is a return to the issues of sex, power and abuse that were treated so lightly in Teacher’s Pet a few weeks ago. The show has a handle on what it’s doing here, and takes it all much more seriously. The challenge it faces is, of course, the Problem of Jesse, which is the difficulty with including both real threat and real emotions without destroying your show. Buffy distinguishes itself here with its willingness to explore sexual threat and sexual violence as a common feature of teenage life, but it can’t yet allow itself to honour the real emotions side of the equation, excusing itself this time with “a hyena did it”. This is just a step along the way of course – so much of season one is the show figuring out what it wants to be – and I find the weak consequences here much easier to accept knowing that the show is learning as it goes, and in future the consequences of this kind of threat will be addressed head-on.

A few other notes:

  • There’s some great silent storytelling in the interactions among the pack. The show’s confidence in non-verbal storytelling grows as it goes on.
  • I remembered this ep as a showcase for Nick Brendan’s Xander, but it actually turns into something of a Willow showcase – she gets a huge punch-the-air moment when she’s dealing with Xander in the cage (and compare that to the equivalent scene in the writer’s draft). But man, this episode also reveals Alyson Hannigan’s secret power: when she has emotions, you feel them. Fairly quickly the show realises what it has here, and Willow starts carrying more and more of the feels.
  • The 3/4 twist here actually comes a little bit after the final commercial break, when you find out the zookeeper was a crazy cultist all along! The actual 3/4 cliffhanger is basically “Willow is suddenly in danger”, and it works like gangbusters, because of Alyson Hannigan’s secret power.
  • Giles realises Xander’s hiding something at the end. This becomes a character trait for Giles, figuring out when people are holding things back. It’s certainly useful as a storytelling tool, because secrets that never come out aren’t much fun. But where the show shines is in how it uses this as a way to communicate Giles’ character. Every time he identifies, and sometimes guesses, a secret, his choice about how to act on the information is pretty much perfect. It’s something the show does consistently well.

Mop Linky

How Long Would It Take Darth Vader To Mop The Death Star? (via Ben Sedley)

Ferguson. No words. But read these: Ta-Nehisi Coates, of course, from the perspective of Obama’s comments; and also (via Gem) How to parent on a night like this by Carvell Wallace

Svend talked me into actually reading this link, and he was not wrong: “What the hell am I doing? I kept asking myself. Why am I forcing a fine new machine to pretend it is a half-dozen old, useless machines? Eventually I realized: This might be about my friend Tom dying.” Emulating old computers as part of a process of grief & reflection.

Lotta MIT stuff this week for some reason:
Cute profile of the MIT Science Fiction club, which has a pretty astonishing library.
History of the MIT football team (undefeated this season in Div 3) – the photo of the 1978 marching band is priceless
And a look back at MIT’s Tech Model Railway Club, home to the first computer hackers

Can you spot the snipers hidden in these photos?

Every aspect of this is fury-making. “Tech Dudes Take Credit For Female Scientist’s Work; Plan To “Hack” Vaginas So They Smell Like Peaches”

Meryn Cadell’s “The Sweater” – Steph P emailed this thru asking if I’d heard it, and it does sound kinda familiar but from looooong ago. Wikipedia says it’s from ’91, and went top 40 (!) in Canada in ’92, which was about when I started listening to radio Active sometimes, so… maybe? Anyway it’s pretty great!

Kickender collects a whole big bunch of Kickstarter projects that didn’t even manage to secure a single backer.

Person on Reddit says a friend claimed gardens were illegal in New Zealand. Kiwis rush to confirm this in glorious detail.

Kids write jokes (via Jenni) – marvellous! I love weird kid jokes, they’re such vivid windows out of my headspace and into something else!

Batman vs Darth Vader. This fan film is way way better than it has any right to be – the set dressing alone is breathtaking. (This may also be the only filmic depiction of Batman where he’s the guy who’s prepared for everything, which is a major feature of his comics identity.) Via Anthony K.

Next time you ask someone out on a date, make it sound exciting. Let this 4 year old boy be your inspiration. (via Robert W)

Interesting thought from that same Robert W – with the massive casualisation of the workforce, is organised labour a thing of the past? Is it time to organise around another shared context like your relationship with your home?

David Roberts at Grist: Yes, we can beat climate change (but it will require massive international governmental co-ordination) – I’m still not optimistic about the climate change challenge but that recent surprise China/US deal definitely says it ain’t time to throw up your hands and abandon all hope. This short article highlights a project that assigned different teams to each high-emitting country to develop plans how that country could hit its goals. It’s brutally clear-eyed stuff. Read it.

Lindsay Weir is appalled – a tumblr blog that is nothing but screenshots of Freaks & Geeks hero Lindsay with her appalled face on. Because tumblr.

The AVClub found this – a video explaining how Anna Kendrick hid the truth about 9/11 inside her hit film “Pitch Perfect”. WAKE UP, SHEEPLE.

And finally, via Mike U: cat montage, where people have drawn eyes on a thng and are holding the thing in front of a cat’s eyes oh just go look at it


Watching Buffy: s01e05 “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date”


A.k.a. “The One I Forgot About”

I missed this episode on first broadcast, so it was a surprise to me when I saw season one again. It was also a surprise when it came up in this rewatch, because I’d completely forgotten about it. And then it was a surprise again today when I realised I was about to write up this episode and not “The Pack”, because I’d forgotten it again.

But it feels harsh to label this as forgettable, because it is perfectly solid season one Buffy. Archetypal, even. There isn’t much to it, but it finds a nice balance of humour and threat, wooden stakes and emotional stakes. Which is a reminder – it was pointed out to me that I haven’t done a great job putting some context around these blog posts. So how about I do that. I’ll put it in a blockquote:

I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I think it was an extraordinary piece of television, and is one of the greatest works ever to be produced for the small screen. Not top ten greatest, sure, but I’d put it in the conversation for top twenty. I love it for being funny and smart and just self-aware enough and achingly well-written and, sometimes, emotionally devastating. I love it for changing the conversation about female characters in popular fiction (although sadly that hasn’t led to much actual change, yet). I love it for being a genre piece that unashamedly embraced its genre while making a case that genre isn’t actually a limitation at all.

Writing these posts, I don’t talk about that much. The internet doesn’t need another set of episode reviews that recite the funny lines and celebrate the great plot twists (or mock the stupid ones). I don’t exactly know what I am going to be talking about – it’s a voyage of discovery for us all! – but I think I’m looking for new angles on these episodes, finding stuff that feels fresh to me. And considering I’ve been reading online chat about Buffy since Usenet days… Well. We’ll see how I go.

Aside ends. Back to Never Kill.

This episode completes a gentle shift in the show’s concept: this is where Buffy becomes a geek.

It’s basically a subtle but definite retcon. At launch, a few episodes back, Buffy’s backstory was swiftly but clearly sketched: at her old school, she was popular, and part of the in-crowd, like Cordelia with the bitchiness dialed down a bit. Then she became the Slayer and that ruined her popularity because she had to keep doing antisocial stuff. On arrival at Sunnydale, newly sensitised to the judgment of the popular kids, she veers away from an invite into the social elite and finds common cause with the outcasts. But there was always going to be a tension here. A popular girl choosing to join the outcasts – how genuine could this choice be? Could it hold up under pressure? Isn’t there something a little condescending about it?

In this ep, Buffy is interested in a fellow student called Owen, who states outright that she doesn’t seem “bookwormy”. Giles also comments on her lack of interest in books. This is in line with what has been established about Buffy – a cheerleader and fashionista who belongs in the shallow popular crowd. Also in this general line: she asks Giles if she looks fat in her outfit, and when she approaches Owen in the cafeteria, she makes a bitchy comment about Cordelia’s body.

But just one commercial break later, Buffy tells Giles she’s never been on a date before. This is… not entirely compatible with the prior Buffy we’ve heard about. (This is just one line of dialogue, so maybe she means “my first date at this school” or something, but calling it a “maiden voyage” is a pretty telling metaphor.) Weirder still for a fashionista, she seeks clothing advice from her social outcast friends, and when she and Owen encounter Cordelia at the Bronze, Buffy dissuades Cordy with a very different register – she makes a clear statement with no meanness and no subtext at all. It’s a completely different way of acting to the undermining mean-girliness we’d seen ten minutes earlier. With hindsight, I’d pinpoint this interaction with Cordy as the moment when Buffy is redefined. As of this moment she is revealed as a girl who was popular, but who wasn’t a “popular girl”, whose instincts are not those of a Cordelia, but are in fact much more aligned with Willow and Xander.

This is an interesting choice, because the show does sacrifice something real here. The show had a ready-made source of dramatic conflict in the different social histories of Buffy and Willow/Xander, but as of this scene it throws that potential away. Buffy belongs with Willow and Xander, and she’s happy there. (The show does end up mining these issues with some vigour next season, though – but using a different character.)

It’s clear that this sacrifice is a good thing for the show. It lets season one build a bedrock-strong trust relationship between Buffy, Willow and Xander, one that anchors the entire series. It gives the show a lovely hangout vibe which helps it through its weaker moments. It’s just nice to have Buffy belong in her milieu. But it does have one negative consequence: it pulls the rug out from under Cordelia. She’s a core cast member, and her role in the show is to be Buffy’s dark shadow – the girl who Buffy might have been, had she not been Chosen. Except as of this episode, it becomes clear Buffy was never going to be Cordelia. Buffy was always a geek at heart. So what the hell is Cordelia for, then? I know viewers wondered the same – who is this girl in the opening credits who just says something bitchy and then disappears from the story every week? My guess is, by the time they were writing this episode, Whedon and co. were asking themselves the same question. Before the season is done we’ll see their answer.

This has been long! My original notes for this ep were six short sentences, hah. Anyway, some other notes:

  • This may be the best episode title in all of Buffy. I mean, look at that, it’s perfect.
  • Season one Buffy is fun to hang out with! She’s peppy, funny, and largely free of angst. This doesn’t last. (Because: the problem of Jesse.)
  • The resolution of the episode is about setting up how the Xander/Willow/Giles trio are special – they are careful. Owen isn’t. While I’m thinking about the problem of Jesse, this plays like a justification for why the show can throw threat after threat at these characters without making it traumatic every time.
  • Xander being mean to Buffy because of his jealousy, and then trying to sneak a look at Buffy getting changed, is not cool. Time has not been kind to what comes across as “teenage boy hijinks” and what comes across as creepiness and entitlement. I don’t remember much pushback on this at the time, but it sure seems unpleasant and worthy of comment now.
  • Because it’s putting a twist on the season arc, this ep saves its “Whedon swerve” for the sting: the anointed one is actually the little kid! This is about as exciting as it sounds.