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Watching Buffy: s02e18 “Killed By Death”


Buffy has been *roaring* along, building momentum and confidence and impact to such a height that last week’s episode slammed into the viewer like a freight train. And to follow that – well, here’s the thing. The writing team have been using a long-form storytelling strategy where you take the 22 episodes of a standard US network TV season, and you treat those like chapters of your story. You put your pieces in place in the first chapters, you tighten the noose and build to a strong midpoint confrontation that foreshadows the rest of the story, then you put your big switch-up reversal to reveal a whole new horrifying challenge. Then you build up that new horror in intensity until it hits a peak of awfulness, and then you ride the inevitability of that right into climax mode.

Up until now, it’s all worked beautifully. Sadly, the plan squeals off the tracks right here. In a 22-chapter story, chapters 18, 19 and 20 can focus on building up to the climax, drawing all the threads together and preparing the ground, but in a serialised TV series, it doesn’t work like that. The show has found itself with three episodes to fill in before it can allow the final conflict to happen. Each episode has to be a unit of storytelling in its own right, not just buildup to the end, and while you can make an episodic story do that build-up work, it’s not easy.

So we have Killed By Death, with the unenviable task of explaining why Buffy has to have a few more adventures when she has every motivation to bring this whole saga with Angel to an end. It stalls for time in the most shameless way possible: Buffy suddenly gets sick. And the point is underlined not just by having Xander say “you’re too sick to fight Angel”, but having Angel turn up himself to demonstrate the same.

So the viewers, like Buffy, are forced to go to the hospital when they’d rather be doing something else.

The show drops Buffy into a spooky situation where there’s a monster stalking sick children. We’re kept off-balance by some ER-style handheld camerawork and a weird flashback sequence to Buffy as a child, where it’s hard to even work out that the child we see is young Buffy. This leads to a tragic backstory revelation: Buffy’s cousin was killed by a monster years ago,

The backstory feels very out-of-place in the greater Buffy mythology. That’s because it jars with the kind of ongoing, iconic comics-continuity narrative this show employs. The revelation that the monster killed her cousin
when they were both children belongs to a different kind of story, a filmic self-contained structure where the protagonist is intimately connected to the horror and overcomes her emotional wounds through the cathartic act of defeating it. It is no accident that we never hear about Celia or Buffy’s extended family ever again.

This is the second time an episode has focused on a threat to children, and like Nightmares, it doesn’t marry up with the thematic interests of the show. (Giles’ line “Well, sometimes small children *do* see something we adults don’t: us. Our true selves, our, our… our hidden faces.” is perhaps the low point of the whole season.)

Overall the episode is just out of alignment with where Buffy is at by now. The proof is in the resolution of the threat. I can just imagine the story conference: “Look, maybe she just punches him so hard he dies and that’s the end,” and everyone shrugs in resignation. They have two more episodes to fill in before they can get to the next part of the real story. D’oh.

Other thoughts:
* SMG continues to show unexpected versatility. Her ravings are genuine and quite moving.
* The showdown in the hospital, Xander vs. Angel, is simply superb. Xander is really working as a character at last.
* But the show’s MVP right now is Cordelia. They have her character down now, and she is extremely useful for storytelling – she drags subtext into text with great efficiency, and that makes it much easier for the show to play its tricks of subvert or outmaneuvering that messaging. She’s instant laughs, instant sexy, instant pathos, instant plot. She rules.
* I LOVE the final scene where Buffy, Xander and Willow are all insensitive teens to Joyce. Charming.


Halal Linky

This is amazing – spot-on riff on the sitcom format assuming a family of Muslims who are “not that kind of Muslims!” – beautifully done to highlight some of the challenges & injustices faced by Muslims in the US today. And funny! Four very short episodes, and I loved them all.

Via theremina: communes where no-one turned up

New blog you want to read: watching 1970s Coro Street.

Saw Avengers: Age of Ultron. I liked it. I could probably write a lengthy blog post about it but, who cares, right? Anyway, you can basically reverse engineer my opinion by reading this Wired piece about how Marvel’s killing the popcorn movie, and assume I think the writer is wrong about every single thing.

Video games don’t have to be fun

Weird hidden levels of the Kanye West computer game

The unpleasant truth about climate change

Via Billy: the Chewbacca hoodie.

Via Peter A: lovely close-ups of Star Wars original trilogy models. (I feel like some of these models are old friends, but I’ve never seen them in this level of detail before!)

Apparently there was a medieval English colony in the Black Sea? Fascinating piece of history, lining up evidence from various sources.

Nerd culture world exploded about some comments from Simon Pegg. The reaction was dumb. Pegg’s explanatory blogpost is good.

How the media didn’t talk about the WACO shootout. (Hint: race.)

And finally, via Pearce, a job ad that provides a very special opportunity. Full of wonder. “I sometimes just quickly write movie pitches that are 200 pages long so I just need an assistant who isn’t overwhelmed by 200 page movie pitches.” That’s about the most sane thing in there, too.


Watching Buffy: s02e17 “Passion”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Angel controls this narrative.

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

Jenny runs right into his arms.


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

Now Buffy can kill him.

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


Cybercrime Linky

Important piece of cultural history: when the FBI raided a game company because they thought their game about hacking was real

David Simon goes into more detail on his prescription for Baltimore, and his fury over what’s going wrong

Reconsidering the Wire in the wake of Baltimore events – what David Simon left out. I don’t find this argument convincing, to be honest, but there are some cogent points in there. Worth a read.

Enter the completely unique fantasy world of Clichéa! It’s so original!

Why does the US Army care so much about women’s lacrosse?

Keith Ng breaks down the journalism breakdown. This is where it’s at, and it ain’t good.

Those ads in your podcast – what’s going on there? Does it matter that they’re there? Interesting overview of the business of podcasting.

The lost short film that played before the Empire Strikes Back has been found

Amazing Lego Millennium Falcon interior

And finally, via Ben: hands being cut off in Marvel movies – a deliberate tribute to Star Wars? Maybe so!


Pitch Perfect 2 (USA, 2015)

I loved Pitch Perfect. That, to my surprise and delight, was a good film.
This sequel is very much a sequel. It’s not as good. It’s not a good film.

There’s still some nice laughs and some good tunes, and although the studio pressure to turn this into a series of slumber-party classics is visible on-screen, it has its heart in the right place. So it feels kinda mean talking about all the reasons why it doesn’t work.

Instead I’ll just say the film certainly has some high points, particularly whenever David Cross or Keegan-Michael Key are on screen; but what a disappointment that in a film full of interesting women, the highlights are both men in cameo roles.

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Watching Buffy: s02e16 “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”


So your writing team have been knocking it out of the park – taking risks, gaining attention, turning all the right heads. The show is surging into the zeitgeist, and the world is starting to notice. Suddenly there’s proof of how well things are going: the star of the show is booked to host Saturday Night Live. Quick, writing team! We need a new episode with no Buffy in it, and we need it now!

This is the episode they come up with, and it’s the biggest proof you’ll get that Buffy was on a roll. They produced not a filler episode, but an important, funny character piece that is remembered fondly as one of the better episodes of the entire series. That just doesn’t happen unless you’re in the zone.

So, following an episode examining the perils of masculinity, we get an episode examining… the perils of masculinity. This time, however, the show turns its attention to a different flavour of Buffy man: Xander Harris, who remains something of an unsolved puzzle.

In typical Western storytelling modes, different characters usually embody different approaches to problems and challenges, and I’ve previously suggested that Xander embodies “instinct”. Following your instincts is an important problem-solving approach for anyone, but especially for teenagers, and so a character with this approach is essential for the Buffy ensemble. Unfortunately, the show is generally down on the efficacy of instinct. It’s a nerdy show where part of the fun is being wrongfooted by the twisty plots. In the narratives deployed on this show, it’s very easy to use ‘instinct’ for comedy beats.

Instinctual responses are also useful to generate conflict when a protagonist needs to take a risk – “instinct” tends to be conservative, associated with “common sense”. Witness the somewhat odd spectacle of Xander being the one who maintains his resistance to Buffy’s relationship with a vampire, while the more cerebral Willow and Giles quickly fall into line. In a show with a vested interest in upending received wisdom, this usually puts Xander in the wrong.

As if that wasn’t enough – in this show, gender is very much under the microscope, and masculinity is often a source of frustration. An “instinct” character who happens to be male will also easily fall into the role of expressing objectionable male instincts and assumptions. This was a role Xander assumed in The Pack, where he became a way for the show to talk about sexual power and its abuse.

So with these three complicating factors more potent than ever as the show enjoys a golden run of quality, it’s interesting for the show to look a little closer at Xander. Of the core characters, his character arc has been the most patchy and uncertain. Willow has clearly blossomed into greater self-confidence and autonomy; Giles has changed his perspective on his responsibilities and his relationship to Buffy; and Buffy herself has come to terms with her duty and assumed the mantle of power. Xander, however, has had a series of small triumphs quickly reversed into humiliations, and while his heroic instincts and indeed his courage have strengthened he continues to fail to apply these in any consistent way. The obvious direction to take Xander is to give him some control over his circumstances, and that means addressing his continual downfall: his relationships with women.

There’s lots going on in this particular kettle of weird fish. Xander’s “girl trouble” arises from his general sense of inadequacy and tendency to overcompensate; his expectations of and assumptions about women; his habit of speaking without thinking; and many, many other happy contributing factors. Xander is a deeply flawed character. However, at this point in the show’s narrative, the writing team are working hard to show him in a redemptive light. He does keep trying to do the right thing – to rise above his limitations. His moments of heroism have never quite been able to eclipse the entitlement and poor judgement that typify his behaviour, but consistently, when he does find a clear and noble path, he commits. He represents, then, another important archetype of all storytelling: the sinner who keeps trying for redemption.

This comes out very clearly in the inciting incident in this episode, where Xander buys Cordelia a locket and tries to be honest with her about what’s happening between them. It’s a brave move, and one he’s uncertain about, but it’s also unquestionably the right thing to do. The audience can’t help but get on side with him here.

Unfortunately, Cordelia dumps him, and Xander immediately does something unspeakably awful, and all of that viewer identification and goodwill gets set on fire.

This is his role. He’s instinct, specifically a male instinct in a female-voiced narrative. He is going to screw up, and those screwups will reproduce the gendered biases at large in our world. To be blunt: Buffy is invested in taking on rape culture, and Xander is the best vector they have for bringing that on-stage.

Xander’s crime is to blackmail the witch Amy to enchant Cordelia so she’ll love him, giving him the power to break up with her and devastate her emotions. It’s a terrible thing to do, and though the show takes care to draw boundary lines around his intentions (specifically, he makes clear he doesn’t intend to use magic to rape her) it doesn’t soft-pedal the ugliness of his actions.

The use of Amy the witch as an instrument is interesting, however. She returns here for the first time since Witch (another instance of the show’s delight in recurring minor characters), and her engagement in Xander’s revenge is a reminder that this show does always speak with a female voice. The spell she casts ends up making all the women characters lust after Xander, but it reads to me as a very female-friendly take on that particular male fantasy. In fact, once you dial out a bit, this episode is revealed as a remarkable showpiece for the many diverse female characters of the Buffy world, and while the episode is unmistakably a spotlight for Xander, it is equally unmistakable that the hero is Cordelia.

Cordelia doesn’t get to lead the story, because the story is all about the weird experiences of Xander Harris. However, the character arc is hers. The story happens because of her crisis of self-belief and consequent bad decision, and it tracks her movement to a place where she can reverse that decision and lay claim to her true identity. Xander doesn’t get that kind of arc. He makes an awful decision and pretty much immediately realises it was an awful decision. For the rest of the story he’s just coping with the mess he’s made, which is very entertaining but doesn’t make him the protagonist.

Cordelia’s return to focus also means it’s time to bring back another recurring player, Harmony Kendall, who reigns supreme on the mean girl throne she claimed back in Out of Sight Out of Mind. Cordelia’s secret hookups with Xander are now common knowledge, and Cordy’s status with the in crowd is in the toilet. That she decides the best way to fix this is by dumping Xander and trying to hold on to her established identity is entirely understandable, even though it’s obviously the wrong option. Cordelia, after all, is the narrative’s truthteller, but here she can’t even bear to tell the truth to herself. She’s found out by the magic spell, which doesn’t affect her because the magic knows the truth even if she doesn’t – she’s in love with Xander. (Note that this is the second time a big magic spell hasn’t affected Cordelia – she evaded the madness of Halloween by shopping upmarket – underlining her association with truth and authenticity.)

The episode concludes with Cordelia choosing Xander, choosing truth, and choosing the Scooby Gang nerd vampire life over whatever she had before. Her final duty in the story is to pass judgement on Xander. The show, as noted above, is set to make Xander screw up a lot of times, and forgiving him will get more and more difficult each time, but he’s not yet too far gone. In Xander’s favour this time – he very quickly figures out what’s going on and doesn’t hesitate in confessing to Giles, whose absolute disgust makes clear the degree of his failure, as does Willow’s refusal to talk to him after. The episode sticks the landing on this, I think – “You came through. There might just be hope for you yet.” says Buffy – but it’s Cordelia’s acceptance of him, flaws and all, her empathy and love, that allows him to carry on.

Other thoughts:
* This episode has some standout gags – barricading the door only to reveal it opens outwards, and Willow’s “Force is okay!” comment is just the first hint of hidden depths…
* Likewise, Spike wondering what rhymes with lungs plays very differently after some later revelations about his origins as William the Bloody.
* The “suddenly, Angel!” instant threat move continues to work brilliantly.
* Oddly, this is the second time in recent weeks that Jenny has attempted a seduction while not in control of herself. She’s past due for a big spotlight episode to give her some dignity at last. Maybe next week?


Rinky Dink Linky

via Jenni S: A Good Cartoon, helping out editorial cartoons that need a bit of assistance to be good.

This is why I stopped making an effort to see festival films with a director q&a: every question in every Q&A session ever.

Actually-useful tourist tips for anyone going to NYC. Delivered by an Italian puppet. This would have been good to watch in advance of my visit to Noo Yawk.

It’s no longer Star Wars Day but Tim Russ’s performance in this video is great, so: a Star Trek guy explains Star Wars Day!

A site all about those picture transfer activities, where you rubbed a pencil on a picture to stick it on a background? Anyone younger than me will be saying whut but my GenX peeps will know the ones. Loads of pictures – nostalgiafy your brain: Action Transfers.

Joss Whedon talks about why he left twitter, and it wasn’t because of militant feminists. Where did that story even come from anyway?

How to extract a confession ethically. Really interesting – five simple techniques that work much better than waterboarding.

My fave pop culture critic writes a defence of Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch.

And finally… Anna Kendrick’s Shower Thoughts


Watching Buffy: s02e15 “Phases”


Oz was already a firm audience favourite before he was inducted into the Scooby Gang. It’s not hard to see why, as he holds three mighty assets: an abundantly good heart, sardonic imperturbability, and the laser-accurate comic timing of Seth Green. All three of these meant Buffy now had a voice perfectly suited for mordant self-aware observations, its favourite comic mode.

Oz’s slow introduction, in isolation from the rest of the cast, allowed the show and Green to find their way into the character and work out how to best make use of him. This paid off in spades – his first full conversation with Willow in What’s My Line part 2 is a strong candidate for the show’s all-time highlight reel. The writing team had figured out how to ground Oz’s humour in good sense and morality, instead of leaning on character flaws like anxiety (Willow), overcompensation (Xander), and self-obsession (Cordelia). Oz was presented as a good man, Buffy-style. Which raises the question – what kind of man is that?

And so we come to Phases, an episode with Oz at its heart, and with the question of masculinity very much on its mind.

But before we talk about any of that, there’s some other business on the table. It’s the same damn thing I’ve been bringing up since the start of this blog. You guessed it: the problem of Jesse.

To recap: the first Buffy story ended with Xander and Willow laughing happily with their new best friend Buffy, despite having just seen the horrible death of their old best friend Jesse. If this show wants us to take its threats and its emotions seriously, this just isn’t good enough. And yet, if deadly and existential threats and the resulting emotions are taken seriously, then what room is left for laughter? This show would have to be completely different if Xander and Willow were embittered by grief from Jesse’s death. So how can you balance this triangle?

Over the last two episodes the show threw down its marquee storyline, in which Buffy had sex with Angel, transforming Angel into a murderous psycho. This plot twist turned the dials on real threat and real emotion right up to 11. Here’s the test we’ve been waiting for. Has the show worked out the Jesse problem? What happens next?

At the conclusion of the previous episode, Innocence, Giles refused to judge Buffy for her sexual activity. This redemptive moment was founded on empathy and respect – on love. In that moment, Buffy was able to find a way to escape judging herself and accept her own humanity. This is essential to the show’s method of resolving the problem of Jesse: the core ensemble of characters must love one another, so they can give each other the strength to move past trauma and remain in touch with joy.

That moment couldn’t escape the whole problem. The emotional consequence of Angel’s threat isn’t limited to Buffy’s profound guilt. Indeed, I made a comment last week about how killing Angel would mean tumbling into the problem of Jesse, by which I meant, such an action at this point in the narrative would be so emotionally devastating to the characters that there would be no plausible escape back to “normality”. However, that exchange with Giles shows the model that Buffy wants to apply to the more-manageable grief and confusion currently at play.

The problem of Jesse is really about the compact between a show and its audience. The show encourages us to love its characters, then puts those characters into enormous misery. Then it must earn back the right to have the same characters crack jokes without making us feel cheated. It does so like this: it shows us pain, and then it shows us love, and then it shows us the bruises.

There are storytelling choices at work here. The story has to show us pain on a scale that matches the harm they suffered. And then it must show us enough love that we can believe the character sees some light in their darkness. And that’s usually enough for us to accept they have been to a dark place. We are being told a story, here, and like all stories, we don’t need to be told all of it to believe in it. After this, the character can step back into the regular narrative function, as long as – and this is essential – we can see the bruises. We can’t settle back into “business as usual” unless we are shown from time to time that the character is still hurting.

It’s a neat solution to the Jesse problem, and it works fairly well here. It doesn’t stand by itself – this process only works because of other qualities of Buffy, like the hazy timekeeping that never quite nails down how much time is passing between (or even within) episodes; like the clearly different rules for minor characters, who don’t need to be depicted with psychological believability, thus allowing the whole edifice of a monstrous and murderous Sunnydale to continue; and above all, like the embrace of self-awareness on the part of the show as a whole. Being meta allows Buffy to get away with its neat solution to the problem of Jesse, because it enlists the show’s viewers as co-conspirators in achieving big tears and big laughs (two great tastes that taste great together).

But the heart of this process is love. Love is the pivot point that lets us, the audience, take the character’s hand and walk them back into the party. Our love for the characters, as expressed through the love the characters show for each other.

So: maybe the perfect Buffy man is one who can solve the problem of Jesse. One who is wise enough and good enough to save other characters with his love.

Through this episode we get a bit of a tour of the male cast of Buffy, but it isn’t love at the forefront, it’s lust. (Willow: “I want smoochies!”) Hello metaphor monster: there’s a werewolf on the loose and werewolves (says hunter Cain) are drawn to “sexual heat”. This is the show directly addressing something previously only featured in Xander’s dialogue: guys only have one thing on their minds. Right?

The episode dives into it hard, featuring returning character Larry (the I-became-a-rapist-pirate from Halloween) as the uber-macho sports guy sexually harassing all the women, to the point of outright groping Buffy Summers (which doesn’t go down well). He’s the obvious candidate to be the werewolf, especially after he shows off his dog bite injury.

Then it introduces new character Cain the werewolf hunter, who is even more macho than Larry. His attitude towards women is condescending rather than salacious but he still reinforces the theme by instantly assuming Giles and Buffy were having a sexual rendezvous.

Next the episode gives us a young woman named Theresa, who is the designated victim of the early episode – she was harassed by Larry before, and we are led to believe the werewolf is about to strike. Instead, Angelus steps into frame, and he smoothly lures her into his fatal embrace.

Three men, each of them a cliche, each of them dangerous. The show is making it clear in no uncertain terms that there is a problem with men and masculinity. Against these three, we are given compelling portraits of Xander and Giles: the first, too hung up on Willow to make out with his girlfriend, and the second nearly moved to violence by the insolence Cain the hunter shows towards Buffy. Both presented as flawed but clearly on the right side of things. And then there is Oz, presented as essentially a mystery – Xander frets about him, in fact.

Having put all its pieces in play, the episode immediately sets about subverting them. Most dramatically, there’s Larry. The decision to have Xander lead the investigation would tip off any audience members who hadn’t yet clicked that he was a red herring. But then the show makes a beautiful ju-jitsu move, taking that audience expectation of Larry’s innocence and yanking them right around into a reveal that Larry does have a secret: he’s gay, and all that sexual harassment has been overcompensation. It’s a splendid move that quickly undermines the very idea of hypermasculinity by revealing Larry’s version was just a performance. The show moves on to make Cain the hunter such a male cliche that you can’t take him seriously either: his unrelenting manly man act is clearly positioned as a performance like Larry’s, even if it isn’t hiding anything.

Angel, however, doesn’t need to be subverted. He’s a straight-line character at this point, a murderous troublemaker out to make Buffy’s life miserable. When he sends his message to Buffy via the girl he killed and turned into a vampire, it shocks Buffy, rips open that wound – we see her bruises.

Giles is essentially a secondary character this episode, with his bravery and support for Buffy and her friends reinforced several times. With Xander however, the show makes some trickier moves. Xander’s past (I-became-a-rapist-hyena-spirit in The Pack) hangs over him, and the show overtly references it when he almost reveals to the other characters that he remembers what happened in that episode. Buffy lets the moment pass, which is just as well, because that unpleasantness is the last thing the show needs to put front-and-centre. Later, Xander is allowed to save Buffy when she loses herself before Angel’s threat, and then he is the character on-hand to give her the love she needs to continue. The moment between them is layered with the complexity of their relationship, but the central emotional transaction is clear.

Which leaves Oz, who turns out to be the werewolf. The climax comes, hilariously, when Willow confronts him to demand that he be *more* of an animal, whereupon he turns into a werewolf and attacks her. After OzWolf is incapacitated (and saved from the hunter), we finally get the measure of Oz the man. He is calm, and considerate, and suggests forgoing his own happiness for the greater good of everyone. But Willow doesn’t accept that: “Yeah, okay, werewolf, but that’s not all the time. I mean, three days out of the month I’m not much fun to be around either.”

And Oz listens to her.

If you follow pop culture at all, you’ll know just how unusual that is. The man is meant to make the decision for both of them – it is his tragic burden. (The prominent recent example is Spider-Man, which has had film after film where Peter Parker must tragically end his relationships to protect his partner regardless of her opinions on the matter.) The episode never really explains why Oz has been withholding smoochies – presumably he just likes to take things slow – but it makes it very clear what kind of man he is.

Xander’s moment comforting Buffy made clear that he could do the job of carrying her through the problem of Jesse, but it also showed he was compromised. Oz, in contrast, has none of those limitations. Oz has empathy and respect. He cares, and he listens. He’s just what this show needs.

Other notes:
* At the top of the episode, Oz is watching the cheerleading statue from way back in Witch. It’s a neat little continuity nod, the kind of comics-style back-issue reference that was leveraged last episode to save the day. It’s also a cute reinforcement of Oz’s acuity and perceptiveness.
* It’s kind of beautiful that Xander’s many, many flaws can bring together Willow and Cordy.
* The introduction of werewolves to a vampire-focused mythology is commonplace now, but wasn’t when this episode aired. The show has been working through a list of non-vampire monsters since Witch, so it was bound to hit “werewolf” eventually, but it sure does play differently in 2015 when it’s almost a cliche.
* Using werewolves to talk about masculinity might seem obvious (men are animals!) but it wasn’t actually that much a feature of werewolf fiction. The reverse, using werewolves to talk about femininity (they change with the moon!) has perhaps been more common, with two standouts being Alan Moore’s story The Curse in Swamp Thing and the subsequent film Ginger Snaps.
* Oz’s cousin Jordy is just a kid, and also a werewolf. Apart from being a very amusing bit that is pointedly never referred to again, it’s interesting to note that a pre-pubescent werewolf clearly serves as counterpoint to the association in this episode between lyncanthropy and sexual drive.
* Angel is a great villain because the show can just have him be nice to someone and cut away and you know it’s awful.


Outrageous Linky

Here’s a brutal metaphor for social inequality, compellingly illustrated by Toby Morris.

Jamas has dug up a Wonder Woman TV pilot from the 60s. I’d never heard of this. I can’t bear to watch it, either. Maybe you are stronger than me?

Via Tom Crosby: turns out Lovecraft has strong game in the field of Yo Momma jokes.

David Simon on what’s going on in Baltimore – first on his blog, a short post but read the comments for dozens and dozens of replies from Simon; and then in this detailed Marshall Project interview.

Also, Ta-Nehisi Coates – an address at Johns Hopkins on the roots of the problem and a blog post about why he does not condemn the rioters.

Undisclosed a new podcast offering deep-dive nitty-gritty on the Adnan Sayed case covered in the smash-hit podcast Serial, by people who know more about the case than anyone.

Upsetting detailed article on how there’s no fury like a man scorned, especially when he wants to whip up an online hate group. Discover the seedy, nasty origins of gamergate in this Boston Magazine feature.

Interesting article about the “missing stair” theory in creating safe spaces, involving a typically unpleasant story about a man being out of control and a woman being targetted, this time at a punk gig in Austin, Texas.

Does this link work for all you foreigns? I dunno. But locals should definitely know – probably NZ’s finest ever piece of television, the superb Outrageous Fortune about a criminal family who try to go straight, is all online for the watching at the TV3 site. (This is promotion for the upcoming prequel, Westside, which I dearly hope is as good as it needs to be.)

And finally… girl, you don’t need makeup


Watching Buffy: s02e14 “Innocence”


This is peak Buffy. The highest viewership ratings, the greatest critical acclaim, the favourite episode of the show’s creator, the archetypal metaphor-as-monster, the definitive “what people want is not what they need” Whedon storytelling decision. The last eight episodes of excellence have led to this, making television history. This is why you came.

The first people you see are Spike and Drusilla and the newly-assembled demon, the Judge. It’s a brief sequence offering a minuscule recap, a few character beats, and a tiny bit of exposition. It isn’t there to excite or illuminate. It’s there for rhythm. It’s ushering you back into the fiction, giving you a chance to find yourself there again. It’s the rollercoaster cranking up to the first high at the start of the ride. You breathe out and in. You hold on as it comes into view:

Buffy, alone in Angel’s bed.

Then Angel. Hurting in the rain, still. His pain stops as a woman approaches him. She looks a bit like Buffy, blonde, red jacket, but older, smoking a cigarette, hanging out in an alley. A prostitute as surrogate for the leading lady. This is not a category of character we’ve seen before. Angel has stumbled outside the frame, dragging the camera with him to somewhere colder, more desperate. Yet even here, the instincts of ordinary people are good and kind. The woman comes to offer help. Then you watch Angel kill her. He murders her swiftly and callously, then mocks her with a breath.

He mocks her and smiles.

You feel the show tilt on its axis.

Credits play, and you nod your head to the propulsive music. Then you’re in the Summers home. Joyce finds Buffy just after she sneaks in from her night with Angel. Buffy’s knowledge that she has just lost her virginity is all over her face. (You know exactly what’s going on inside Buffy’s head, because Sarah Michelle Gellar has a special talent for taking you along on Buffy’s internal journey.) Joyce senses something, and starts to say Buffy looks different or changed – but she stops, leaving her sentence hanging, unfinished. You hold on to that ambiguity.

The library. The Scooby Gang confer with Buffy. You can see the pieces being arranged for the next phase of the story. Along the way, Xander is mean to Cordelia. It’s the exact kind of snarky put-down he’s been throwing all season but now they are a secret couple, it snags you – because it’s about Buffy, and her importance, and because Xander does love Buffy more than he loves Cordelia. And you know in that instant he always will. And you see that Cordelia knows it too. A tiny throwaway moment but Whedon finds another knife to twist. Everything is working in this episode, everything raising the stakes, everything charged with emotion.

The Factory, and Angel saunters in to join Spike and Dru. The Judge tries to harm him and fails, proving to them that Angel has changed. Proving the same to you, reinforcing the implication of that cruel murder before. It is sinking in: this isn’t pretend. They’re not kidding around.

Library. Xander tries to apologise to Cordelia, and she doesn’t let him, but they make out anyway. You are just wondering how you came to feel so much empathy for Cordelia when the pair are discovered by Willow. Alyson Hannigan uses her special powers to make you feel every part of her devastation. You knew this was coming, and it is exactly what it had to be, and you hoped that somehow you could get through this without hurting Willow, but you can’t. She has to get hurt. You have to feel it.

Angel’s apartment. Buffy finds him and is so relieved – and you tense up, because Angel just said he was going to destroy her. But he doesn’t threaten her. He is… almost gentle. His casual attitude and his belittling words are given so little weight. And you see Buffy try to understand, you see her connecting the dots. Review the dialogue in this scene and you discover it is so bare, so simple, there’s almost nothing there at all, because it was written specifically for Gellar’s talents. You are there with her, every moment, as her self-assurance crumbles. “Was I not good?” And you see how Angel is choosing to destroy her, the sheer pettiness of it, and it’s breathtaking. The metaphor in this episode is widely shorthanded as “the boy who turns into an asshole after sleeping with you”, which is accurate, but it misses out a whole layer in what’s going on. The interaction is coded in the status politics of high school existence. Everything Angel says is an expression of power and distance as channeled through the iconography of high school bad boy popularity, because this is the culmination of the vampires-as-cool-kids imagery that’s been deployed since episode three. The cool kids are good at adult stuff, and the uncool kids or the kids who secretly fear they are uncool – which is to say, you – are not. That boy you liked is too cool for you. You thought he loved you but he was just using you. You don’t measure up. You know about this feeling, this nightmare. It happened to you or to one of your friends, or maybe just to someone you wished was your friend. But it happened. Because high school is hell.

Jenny and her uncle. It’s a jarring sequence for you not just because it follows Angel’s awful betrayal, but because it’s still a very strange development. Jenny’s secret gypsy heritage and mission concerning Angel is hard to reconcile with everything you’ve seen before now. Uncle Vincent Schiavelli is superb of course but it feels forced and perhaps inauthentic in an episode where everything else rings so true. But the scene adds to the rhythm of the episode, letting you catch your breath with a side character while you process, and you start to realize that Angel is only just starting.

The school. Willow and Xander reach an uncomfortable truce, and are interrupted by Angel. The scene plays as straight terror, with shadows and isolation and an audience who knows badness is there as a coiled snake. It is no accident Angel targets Willow. She is a lightning rod for our emotions. That’s why the writers choose Willow, you know that. But Angel knows it too. Angel goes after Willow because he knows it will hurt everyone who loves her. And you love Willow, right? She’s fictional, but so what? After all those real emotions and real threats, you have a connection with her. How can you not? You love her. And Angel knows. He is targeting Willow to reach out of the television and hurt you, too.

Xander figures it out. Jenny is already there, and Buffy too who knows the moment she sees. The characters catch up to you in a rush. The show wants you right there with them. But it’s Xander who makes the move, takes the risk, frees Willow, sees Angel off without anyone getting killed. His role in the Scooby Gang – Willow is the heart, Cordelia the truthteller, Giles the conscience – he is the instinct. He gets it wrong as often as he gets it right, more often, but he is necessary, and sometimes he is the only one who can save the moment. Right now, Buffy can’t fight Angel. She can see, she can say, but she cannot yet do. It’s too big. You’re with her.

Then in the library, the gang piece it together and Buffy realizes this change happened because they slept together. It’s too much for her. (Willow, of course, instantly understands.) We’ve already left any close analogy to the source of the metaphor – when boys sleep with girls and don’t call them again, they don’t start a campaign of terror to make the girl guilty. But it doesn’t matter. The metaphor was just the crank that wound up this nightmare. What matters now is that Buffy feels terrible and there’s no way out.

Factory. Angel returns. You watch him put Spike in his place. It’s fascinating to watch. Angel the villain starts making sense to you as a character. You discover he’s fun to watch. That’s an awful moment.

Buffy’s room. She sleeps, cries, dreams – then school, confronting Jenny. Again the show burns through a secret, puts it out in the open as quick as possible. You’re still not convinced about this plotline but Buffy’s rage gives her and you something else to feel, gives you a focus. Anger at Angel’s betrayal is seamlessly transferred on to Jenny.

Angel kills the gypsy man.

Oz’s van. It is such a relief to see Oz. This episode has been pushing your emotions into bad places and he is reliably a source of sanity and delight. And while Xander and Cordelia steal army weaponry, revealing comics-style continuity links to the events of Halloween where this run of storytelling began, you get a moment of perfect Oz, albeit one where he doesn’t give Willow, or you, what you want. Instead he gives you what you need. It’s the only joy you will feel this episode.

Jenny, Giles and Buffy find the gypsy man. Buffy knows, now, deep down, what you’ve feared. There is no way out of this: she must kill Angel. At the factory. Angel usurps Spike. The season has, at last, its Big Bad. At the school, Buffy takes control, telling Jenny to bugger off, snapping out orders, coming into her own. What’s My Line had Buffy embracing her slayer identity and power; and here is the test. Giles dismisses Jenny as Buffy says. There is no question where the power lies.

The mall, as you saw just eight days ago. The surprise of the rocket launcher, upending “no weapon forged” as a comedy beat, somehow finding levity in this awfulness and shortcircuiting the great battle with the Judge (3/4 swerve!) so the episode can focus on what really matters:

Angel in the rain, as he was at the start of the episode. Now you/Buffy are ready. Now you can fight. And you defeat him, but you can’t kill him yet. You let him go, knowing he will kill again. You have no choice, because to kill Angel would be to tumble irrevocably into the problem of Jesse. Threat is real. Emotions are real. What possible future can there be, apart from misery?

Giles and Buffy speak at last, and your heart breaks because Giles refuses to be disappointed in Buffy. He is full of love. Love is the answer to the problem of Jesse. Love will carry Buffy forward. Love will carry you forward.

Buffy with her mother. At the beginning of the episode Joyce stopped short of saying Buffy looked different. Now, she says it clearly: “You look the same to me.”

You don’t feel the same.

You watch to the end of the credits. The little monster says “Grr Arrgh”.

It’s just perfect TV.