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Watching Buffy: s03e01 “Anne”

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Once there was a girl whose life went bad. Vampire romance turned into vampire horror, until it became just too much for her. So she ran away. She left her home and every friend she had and disappeared into the anonymous big city. She had had enough. She just wanted a simple life. She wanted out. And it worked, for a while. She wasn’t happy, but she was safe.

Then she met Buffy Summers again, and it all went horribly wrong.

The first episode of season three of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has crucial work to do. When we last saw Buffy, she had run away from Sunnydale and the show. Now it’s time to bring her back. But in order to do this, the episode delivers a truly unexpected return. Chantarelle from Lie to Me, a vampire groupie who narrowly escaped slaughter, reappears here. Even in a show that makes a point of treasuring its bit players and revels in comics-style continuity callbacks, this is an astonishing move. She was a minor element in a minor episode, notable only for her clueless optimism. Why on earth would the show build such a crucial plotline around her reappearance?

Like the first episode of season two, this episode is about recovering from the weight of the previous season. Once again, the title character has lost her way and is trying out a different identity, deliberately out of step with audience expectations. Both episodes launch 22-episode seasons in which Buffy must slay some vampires, so for the following 21 episodes to function, they have repair work to do. The Buffy of “When She Was Bad” was troubled and angry, but her recovery to normality was fairly easily achieved. This time the path is not so simple: Buffy had to kill the man she loved, the man who betrayed her and murdered her friend, and whose betrayal was precipitated by her own actions. This is a heavy burden, and true to its founding principles, the show does not stint on the weight. Season two began with Buffy’s return to Sunnydale, but this season she is resolutely away from her friends and family, trying to make a new life. She is alone.

How to bring Buffy back? There are of course countless ways this could be accomplished, but the obvious options are not as suitable as they might first appear. The show could simply contrive a reason to force her back – she forgot something crucial, or she has a message she must deliver,or she discovers a crucial threat to Sunnydale that she decides she can’t ignore. Yet none of these easy answers would address the substance of her departure. Buffy could be made to return and stay, but the emotional reality of her return would be lacking, and in this show, that hurts. Similarly, Buffy’s return could be facilitated by one of the core cast – Cordelia is an obvious candidate, still in her role as truthteller and dispeller of self-delusion, and with a built-in reason to be in Los Angeles as well. But no, even there, the move would be hard to sell. If Buffy comes back because she is persuaded, or because of something temporary, then her true discomfort would remain unaddressed. The troubles ahead would either drive her away again, or destroy the reality of her character.

The truth is, Buffy knows that if she returns to Sunnydale and to the title role of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then there is more pain ahead of her, more heartbreak, more suffering. She has not passed through a nightmare and come out the other side, but simply glimpsed the horror that awaits her. To be in Sunnydale is to be part of the anguish and certain harm that will be delivered to her life and the lives of all those around her. And so she fled.

The reason she understands is that she senses the rules of the universe around her. She believes she is fated for pain because she is aware that she lives in a reality governed by higher laws. She is a character in fiction, and part of a narrative, and although she is not quite aware of that, she sees enough. The world she lives in is one of realistic pain and realistic threat, but little else stands up to scrutiny. The writers cannot help but make her sense this truth, her above all, because she was created with a self-awareness and insight that is crucial to her whole character, and to maintain the veil from here on would neuter her.

Call it the problem of Anne. Either Buffy’s reflective awareness is stunted, harming her character, or she lives in knowledge and desires only to flee the trap that is this show. How can the show thread the needle?

Buffy is in Los Angeles, living alone, working a thankless job in a diner. The music sting as she does not react to sexual harassment reveals everything we need to know about her: she is hiding from herself. If she stops being Buffy the Vampire Slayer, if she can just be Anne, then she might escape the narrative entirely. She might be forgotten. We, the audience, might let her be. But then Chantarelle, now Lily, appears in her diner with her friend Ricky. Buffy runs from this sign of her past but she meets Lily again later, outside. And then she sees an old man about to be run down, and she cannot help herself: she saves him. Soon after, Lily asks for help: Ricky is missing.

And so we see why Lily is here. Buffy needed a character from her past, one to remind her of the value of her old life, and also to show her that her fate would never leave her alone. It helps the storytelling more if character is tangential enough that Buffy would feel no obligation to them, and innocent enough that she would not be able to feel manipulated. Lily fits all these criteria.

There’s more. Whether Lily was chosen deliberately and strategically for this reason, or it is just creative coincidence, her earlier episode resonates heavily with this one. The great arc of Season 2 began in earnest in Halloween, and Lie to Me immediately followed, encapsulating the whole tragedy of season two in a single episode – someone Buffy loved and trusted turned on her, and his death shook her to the core. Life is hard and complicated, and people die, and it hurts like hell.

Lie to Me was also the episode where the show charted a course back from this kind of trauma: through the love and support of friends. Giles lied to Buffy that everything would be fine; she drew strength not from his lie, but from the fact he cared enough to tell it. The narrative principles of this show inevitably traumatise the characters, but they recover through love. Buffy is hiding from the trauma, but Lily’s appearance proves to her that the trauma will always find her. All that she has accomplished by fleeing is to cut her off from the only remedy to her pain: the love of her friends.

So Buffy makes her choice. She decides not to hide any more. She embraces her identity and her role. She goes to save Lily and avenge Rickie, and finds herself in a slave-ridden hell. She asserts her identity as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (note the invocation of the title of the show, the first time Buffy has ever said it), but then indicates that she is adopting a new strategy. Hiding hasn’t worked. She is going to grab her fate with both hands and take as much control of it as she can. The new direction is signalled in her very next line of dialogue: “Anyone who’s not having fun here, follow me.”

Fun has been conspicuously absent from this story. Buffy has been miserable, and has found only further misery. Enough of that. The show has always believed in true threat and true emotions, but also in joy and laughter. It has always been fun. It has to be fun. Fun is the point. And Buffy’s going to make things fun if it kills her.

Moments later, as Buffy takes control, becomes a leader, and dominates the bad guys, there is an incredible hero shot, the camera coming down on a crane past Buffy on a platform waiting for the bad guys to come at her… And then a huge run-and-punch fight scene that takes the show’s action choreography to a new level. Ending, of course, with the main bad guy finally getting a moment where it looks like he is back in control, holding Lily (of course) at knifepoint. He tells Buffy she has disobeyed, and Buffy’s response? “Yeah, but it was fun.” And then: the bad guy, ranting, grandstanding, steps forward while Lily drifts out of focus behind him.

So Lily uses this as an opportunity and pushes him off the platform to his defeat.

It’s rip-roaring punch-the-air great, and it’s also hilariously meta. It’s hard to read the moment as anything but the show itself intervening again, giving a minor character the chance to unseat a powerful villain via the simple power of blocking. It’s so dumb it’s delightful, and it feels like this is the show *wooing Buffy back*. Yes, there will be pain, you can’t hide from that. But there will also be moments like this.

This is the answer to the problem of Anne. The show is striking a deal with Buffy. She will go back and be herself again, the title character, and she will face the pain. In return, the show will let her be a hero – her kind of hero, the kind of hero who knows too many narrative rules to be safe. The kind of hero who would deliver a coup de grace on a trapped enemy – while comparing herself to Gandhi, no less. A different Buffy. A Buffy who we can believe will go back to Sunnydale, and stay. The show makes with her the same deal it makes with us, the audience: we need to laugh and cheer as well as cry.

The episode ends with Buffy and her mother reunited in a wordless embrace. We’re back. But there’s still some work to do…

Other notes:
* Lily also originated in an episode by Joss Whedon, who is writing this episode – when he cast his mind back for a character to use, she would have been right there.
* Buffy’s working at a place called “Helen’s Kitchen”. The Hel’s Kitchen joke must have been a bridge too far.
* The demon wearing a human mask saying “do you know how long it takes to glue on?” – well I lol’d.
* All of the above completely ignores the parallel storyline in Sunnydale where everyone’s coping with Buffy’s absence. It’s pretty good stuff – the Scoobies trying to slay vampires and not being much good, a subtle demonstration of how intensely Giles is feeling Buffy’s absence, the surprisingly frank discussion between Joyce and Giles about his role in her life, Willow being in charge and thriving at it, it’s all good stuff. But to call out two particular shining lights here:
* Seth Green in the credits! The beautiful moment where Oz throws a stake at a vampire and misses underlines his worth to this show.
* and Cordy just being perfect everywhere, still! There’s a lovely moment where Cordelia and Willow reunite after summer and instantly smile and chat as close friends, which is such an incredible and yet believable contrast to season one. But even better the weird relationship she has with the show’s misfit child of instinct, Xander, where they both talk themselves out of being honest with each other and need to bicker themselves into a life-threatening situation before they can get past their own issues. The problems with Xander continue to grow this season but right now it’s a lovely sequence.
* Now that the core cast have figured out that they’re not really in the real world, the world stops trying so hard to pretend, with amusing results, notably Larry (another recurring bit player) saying “If we can focus, keep discipline, and not have quite as many mysterious deaths, Sunnydale is gonna rule!”
* Although, this episode does feature the extremely rare sight of students in the school library…

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Demonic Linky

Short film about following a Youtube tutorial to summon a demon. Starring dear friend of this parish Johnnie Ingram!

Related: writer/director/producer of the above, Hugh Hancock, posts on Charlie Stross’s blog about “geek Cthulhu” as a genre. (Although he fails to mention Ghostbusters, which is probably the ur-text of any geek-Cthulhu subgenre.)

Time management is only making our busy lives worse! There’s some smart summary in here of how time is a social construct and overmanaging it can be counterproductive.

On the NYT: what it’s like to face a 150mph tennis serve.

Via Dylan, a comic that breaks down what’s going on with peak oil

Great profile on Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is everywhere right now on the back of his recently-published book.

Reddit can’t be saved – linking is not endorsing but I find this pretty persuasive…

Two good pieces on cultural appropriation.

Pride & Prejudice mixed with Onion headlines works rather well

Amusing & brief summary of the Marvel cinematic universe to date

And finally, the Marvel Dubsmash War – super cute. (Ignore all the text on this page, just watch the clips.)

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Just a linky

Via Maire, stop telling women that they can fix their problems by changing how they talk. This article feels like the long-awaited second half of a psyc class twenty years ago about gendered language, which introduced some of these ideas but didn’t seal the logic and consequences down like this does. Highly recommended.

Via hix, a (mostly) gender-swapped live reading of the script for ep 1 of Dawson’s Creek. Feat. showrunner Kevin Williamson, Dawson alum Kerr Smith covering Michelle Williams, Arrested Development’s Mae Whitman in the Dawson role, and other semi-familiar faces. I enjoyed the heck out of this because after all I just blogged about Dawson.

Via Cal: father vs. daughter beatbox contest. She kills it.

Piketty tells Germany where to get off in their condemnation of Greek debt. This interview is great – both sides so blunt with each other.

Not the typical “I lost lots of weight” story. A thoughtful account of losing weight, interrogating motives, gender, privilege, a bunch of other stuff. For the most part, a rebuke to most other weight-loss stories, which as a genre are… problematic.

37-minute video breaking down why Ghostbusters is really that good. Via someone on G+, if this was you, thanks.

The Shining boardgame

The great John Clarke explains New Zealand. Of a key incident in the 70s when NZ rugby was told they couldn’t visit apartheid Sth Africa: “They saw this action by the government as a direct threat to the way the country was run.” So good.

Via Dylan Horrocks, on McSweeneys: Nobel Prize-winner Peter Higgs regrets fielding your physics-based Dungeons and Dragons questions.

And finally, a shovel plays Nirvana

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Watching Buffy: Dawson’s Creek

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In the 90s, reflexive post-modernism moved out of academia and found an unexpected home in popular entertainment, through the overlapping outlets of irony and self-awareness. Nirvana wanted to title their post-breakthrough album “Verse Chorus Verse”, Sprite advertised itself with the slogan “Image is nothing, thirst is everything”, Scream brought horror films back to the multiplex with victims who knew the rules of horror movies. And so on.

The affection for meta was never as dominant as trend pieces would have you believe – trends never are – but it was definitely a part of the zeitgeist, and fledgling network The WB had what the era demanded: wisecracking, weird-talking teens who parsed reality as if it was fictional. Two shows’ worth, in fact, and during 1998 the WB’s critical darling Buffy the Vampire Slayer was used as a platform for its similarly-meta counterpart, break-out teen smash Dawson’s Creek. It’s almost forgotten now, but for that year these two shows were all tangled up with each other.

The WB launched Dawson’s Creek on Tuesday, January 20, 1998, the same night as the heavily promoted Buffy episode in which Angel turned evil, Innocence. The two shows screened as a block, with Buffy as the sillier, goofier lead-in for the more adult Dawson, which courted huge controversy by having its young characters discuss masturbation in the pilot episode.

Dawson immediately became an enormous hit among the coveted teen audience, scorching past Buffy‘s numbers. But by the time Dawson’s short first season and Buffy’s second reached their final episodes (on the same night of course), there was no question that Buffy had become the more grown-up show. Dawson was delivering intense teenage feelings all right, but Buffy was working on another level entirely.

The reputation of Dawson’s Creek has not aged nearly as well as Buffy‘s. It is remembered with great fondness, but with minimal respect. There’s good reason for this: for most of its run, the show was a charming, head-smacking guilty pleasure. But don’t be too quick to write it off. As I’ve argued before, season one was great.

Despite the absence of giant monsters in Dawson and giant foreheads in Buffy, the two shows had much in common. They both featured attractive teenagers uttering highly-stylised dialogue, and used that to sucker-punch the viewer with startling emotional realism. They also both featured a deeply meta approach to their content.

It’s illuminating to compare the ways they played with this aesthetic, particularly how they delivered theme and meaning. Stories have to have meaning, of course, if they’re going to matter to anyone, and the meaning has to sit somewhere. It’s traditional to hide the meaning in subtext, making it implicit in what happens: you get a sense of it by seeing what the characters do, and how they are rewarded or punished, and how they feel about the whole thing.

However, subtext is the exact opposite of self-awareness, and this is the high watermark of an era of self-awareness. Hiding meaning in the subtext doesn’t work cleanly when your characters are constantly exposing and tearing up the subtext. So with all that going on, what happens to the meaning of your story? Where the hell do you put it?

The two shows solve the problem in different ways. Kevin Williamson uses in Dawson the same basic approach he used in Scream. There, the subtext of slasher horror as a contemporary morality play was explicitly called out by the characters; in fact, subverting it became part of the motivation for murder. In Dawson season one, Williamson and his writers have the characters explicitly reference the fact that they are living through a coming-of-age tale, justifying this trick with the device of Dawson’s obsession with films. In both cases, the characters talk about the general meaning of stories like the one they think they’re in, and so end up talking about their story’s actual meaning. In Dawson‘s case, the trick couldn’t sustain itself – the application of a film narrative to an ongoing TV series hints at why – and this structural game was dropped after season one. In fact, the only reason it could last that long was because the characters were never able to solve any of their problems by talking about them. Like figures in a classical tragedy, they were doomed to know their fates but unable to use that knowledge to escape them.

Contrast this with Buffy. The characters talk a lot – endlessly! – and they also seem to know some of the “rules” that govern their reality. But where Dawson and friends seemed to be aware of their position in a dramatic narrative, Buffy and co. have a narrower understanding, where they guess they are inside a story about monster-fighting and use that knowledge against the monsters. They get to be just as self-aware and reflexive as Dawson & company, but because their show is about much more than just fighting monsters, the meaning of the stories can still sit just out of their reach. The Buffy equivalent of Dawson‘s anxious speeches about “what is really going on” are the scenes when metaphor monsters try to tear the Scooby gang to pieces.

During season two, however, Buffy‘s boundaries were starting to fail. The last run of episodes pushed the characters towards a wider awareness, and gave Buffy in particular a clear sense that she wasn’t in a monster-fighting procedural, but in a different kind of narrative that has a larger, more punitive agenda.

Buffy’s insight is the inevitable fate of any show that breaches the boundaries of story and allows itself to be reflexively post-modern: the game is exposed, and the player is revealed. What happens to the show then becomes a reflection of its true nature and the values at its core. Dawson was a show that wanted to push its characters into drama, but never to truly harm them. It depended, ultimately, on keeping them always fundamentally safe so they could love each other. It had a commitment to real emotions, but there was no counterbalance at its core. Such a show can’t do anything but give in to its characters once they become aware of their own narrative position. Dawson’s Creek corrupted into a merry decadence swiftly, losing the rawness and honesty and sexual frankness and awkward edges that so defined its first season.

Buffy had no interest in protecting its characters. Its founding principles were to match real emotions with real threat. These principles created a story engine that wanted the opposite: to break the characters into pieces, slowly, carefully. Committing to real emotions and real threat made Buffy incorruptible despite handing self-awareness to its characters. Those who discovered the truth, like Buffy at the moment she killed Angel, could find no comfort in their status as focal characters in a story. The show’s cruel touch waited above them like a hammer ready to fall. They could only fear the heavens.

This, then, was the challenge facing Buffy the Vampire Slayer as it entered its third season. If the fundamental structure of your show drives the main character to run away from your story – how can you possibly keep the enterprise going and find some joy and laughter along the way? It’s the problem of Jesse again of course, but complicated by the third factor of Buffy‘s and Buffy’s self-awareness. Does it need it’s own name? Maybe. Let’s call it “the problem of Anne”, then. Because that’s where we’re headed next.

Other notes:
* There are, of course, other links between the two shows. Katie Holmes was considered for the role of Buffy Summers. Some sources say she was shortlisted, but I find that hard to credit – Holmes was a developing presence and she radiated awkwardness, like she was always just about to fall over. Even her weird-cute lopsided smile was the opposite of balance. It’s hard to see how her energy could work for the supremely grounded and balanced Buffy.

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Avenge-Oz Linky


Via Steve Hickey. Very clever.

This one via Billy; click on image for the story.
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Action Man Battlefield Casualties by Veterans For Piece: wow. Watch the fake-80s commercials. Jawdropping.

Also on Dangerous Minds, freaky collection of early arcade games advertised by scantily clad women.

I expect you’ve heard about the Colbert public-access TV guest host interview with Eminem. It’s… unique.

Via Jenni – YouTube compilations of every word spoken by a person of colour in a given film. Most of them are very, very, very short.

Also via Jenni, HitFix celebrates the 30th anniversary of the scariest kid’s film of all time, Return to Oz. Scared the crap out of me.

Via Theron, giant 800-track 90s playlist focused on alt/indie stuff.

Via Joel, Canadian dance moves

Oh man, we’re losing London? London: The City That Ate Itself via Cory Doctorow’s post on why he’s leaving London.

Buuut…. Hadley Freeman on how super-much London sucks.

Virtual Trebuchet. If you are a certain type of person, this will take up the entire rest of your day. You know who you are.

What I learned leading tours about slavery at a plantation.

The Satanic Temple political art project is not blinking yet: they built their giant statue of Baphomet.

Via Bruce Baugh, a review of a Hot Wheels car that is Chewbacca. I don’t know man. Society should be over by now I guess.

Also via BB, images of 3D-model of ancient Babylon.

Via AndyMac, a great comics explainer about the TPPA.

And finally, also via AndyMac, BROTHER

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Jurassic Linky

This kid-made Jurassic Park remake is delightful.

Computers are making weird artworks when they try and draw things. (Via Mike Upton, and indeed the rest of the internet as well)

A history of movie trailers and a guide to the typefaces of classic film posters.

Pippin Barr’s made a free flash game to highlight human rights issues in the host country for the European Games.

I had no idea the Joy of Sex was illustrated by consummate spaceship painter Chris Foss. Lovely article by the BBC on those famous illustrations.

Sweden’s anti-Russian-sub defence strategy is… interesting.

Vulture gives an overview of Marvel’s “ultimate comics” imprint that prepared the ground for the Marvel movie juggernaut, then burned itself out.

Bloomberg presents an article about economist Paul Krugman’s arguments against austerity policies as a classic arcade beat-em-up.

The challenges of translating the very wordy, very culturally-specific Seinfeld

Rich people are jerks: the statistical proof

James Horner has died. The composer’s work on my favourite Aliens was messed with and he was chucked off the movie, creating a long-standing rift with Jim Cameron. But there are pieces of the score that I love. So here’s a film soundtrack site writing in extensive, sometimes scathing detail about Horner’s music for this film.

US Supreme Court Justice Kagan claims to be a comics fan, and her latest judgement was seeded with Spider-Man references.

Via Svend, my new fave board game site Shut Up & Sit Down has a great, eye-opening article about a poker tournament.

And finally… Congrats, you have an all-male panel!

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Watching Buffy: s02e22 “Becoming, Part Two”

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In any television show, season one is usually spent working out what the show is exactly going to be – taking the ideas you have, trying them out, seeing what sticks and what doesn’t. All going well, you get renewed for season two, and by this time you have it figured out. You know what the show is about, you know how it’s about it, but you haven’t really done much with those ideas yet. In later seasons you’ll have to start looking for new angles and fresh takes to avoid repeating yourself, but here you have an open field. Season two is when you grab hold of the ideas and themes at the heart of your show and you chase them as hard as you can. In the history of television, few shows have exemplified this as well as Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

This is part two of the finale, and it starts with everything in a very bad place. Kendra is dead, Giles is captured, Willow is badly hurt, and Buffy is about to get tangled up with law enforcement. The rules of end-of-season episodes are in play, which is to say, there are no rules. Everything is up for grabs. Buckle in.

Spike knows. Not too long ago, he was gleefully central in a plot to destroy the world using the Judge. Now he comes to Buffy for help – his true motivation is to extract Drusilla from Angel’s influence, of course, but he is also very clear that he doesn’t want the world destroyed. (As he says, “I’m in the world!”) This could be seen as an inconsistency or a change of heart, but I read it as just another sign of how close these characters float to the truth about their reality: that stuff with the Judge was middle-of-season, the world wasn’t ever going to end. But this is end-of-season, and while the world is still probably safe, a lot of things can get torn to pieces at a time like this. Trying to get out with your skin intact is a perfectly sensible strategy.

Buffy knows, too. That’s the point of the cliffhanger from last episode, where she is confronted by a police officer over the dead body of Kendra. There is no surprise in the resolution of the cliffhanger – Buffy gets away and goes on the run. She couldn’t allow herself to be processed by the police, but now she is on the run from them. We know from previous encounters with the police that they don’t belong in Buffy’s world, and their presence is a sign that the narrative rules are breaking down. With that end-of-season looming, they pose a real threat to her for the first time. The episodic nature of her life cannot save her this time.

Back at the end of season one, the show did an impressive job of throwing out as much of its formula as possible – the romantic triangle, Buffy’s attempts to maintain a normal life, her relationship with Giles. Here, even greater change is threatened. She could end the season behind bars. Snyder expels her from the school, so maybe this show doesn’t get to be a high-school drama any more. And maybe Buffy doesn’t keep her home life either, because Joyce finally finds out about her daughter’s extracurricular activities.

After killing a vampire right in front of her mother, Buffy finally confesses that she is the vampire slayer. Joyce tries to keep up but can only muster a litany of objections and sensible suggestions, none of which can work because we’re in Buffy’s narrative, not reality. And Buffy’s reply is to recite the entire premise of the show: “Do you think I chose to be like this? Do you have any idea how lonely it is, how dangerous? I would *love* to be upstairs watching TV or gossiping about boys or… God, even studying! But I have to save the world… again.”

This is a culmination of some of the long-standing threads in Buffy’s development. There have been three significant arcs in her character this season: first, from When She Was Bad to What’s My Line, she came to understand her role as a slayer, building an understanding of what this means, including accepting that she has people close to her who love her and support her despite risk to themselves. Second, from Ted to Innocence, she followed this greater sense of self-confidence to admit, and act on, her love for Angel – which turned out to be a tragic mistake. Third, from Phases onward she sought self-mastery, expressed in her resolve to kill Angelus and to move past her guilt over his fall (achieving the first in Passion and the second in I Only Have Eyes For You). Throughout these final episodes she demonstrates what she has become across the rest of the season, and her decision to walk away from Joyce could only come at the end of all three of these arcs, having earned the attributes of self-awareness, self-confidence, and self-mastery.

Similarly, her showdown with Angel brings all of these together. She begins this battle and pursues it fiercely. When the momentum shifts to Angel, she stops his deathblow by catching his blade between her palms – her mastery moment, signalling that she has achieved a unity of purpose and selfhood. She finally demonstrates what it means to be the Chosen One, the Vampire Slayer. From the moment she catches the blade it is clear she has won the battle, and her triumphant defeat of Angel is inevitable.

Except this show doesn’t care about triumph, except as prelude to pain. And so, as Buffy readies her own killing blow, Angel’s soul is restored. As the gate to hell opens, Buffy understands that she must kill him. Every shade of anguish flickers across her face, and then she drives the sword into her lover’s chest and watches him fall into hell.

I’ve seen this moment called weak by some, because Buffy has no real choice here – she must kill Angel or the world ends, so it ends up feeling like an unfortunate accident of timing without any real dramatic heft (c.f. the end of Romeo & Juliet). I disagree. I think it’s absolutely clear from Sarah Michelle Gellar’s performance that Buffy wants with every fibre of her being to do exactly what Spike did with Drusilla – to take Angel with her and leave, and let the world take its chances. That she doesn’t – that she has the strength and clarity to act as she does – is huge. If catching the blade is the ultimate demonstration that she has become the Slayer over the last two seasons, here is the ultimate demonstration of the cost. The choice Buffy makes here destroys her.

The core principles of this show have been, from the start, real threat and real emotions. The logic of those principles has trapped Buffy. She has chosen to do something too awful to bear, and the show has allowed her – encouraged her – to go through with it. This act will have consequences, terrible ones for her. The problem of Jesse rears its head here in its most extreme form. Buffy is no longer a fit protagonist. She is too damaged, too hurt. Now what?

The show has cultivated a method of rehabilitating traumatised characters over this season: love, specifically the compassionate and accepting love of close friends. This is the end of the season, and we know that Buffy could have three months of off-screen love and support from family and friends before she needs to return to headline another episode. She could return next season and as long as the show acknowledges the depth of her hurt from time to time, she could start out pretty much in her normal mode – quippy, fun, the kind of character you like to hang out with when you turn on the television.

Here is the show’s final swerve, then. In these two episodes the show has woken up, and it has shown that no-one is safe. Buffy knows. On some level, she senses she is a fictional character, stuck in stories that will hurt her and those she loves over and over again. So she does not want to be rehabilitated. She wants out. She exits the show’s milieu entirely, climbing on a bus and departing, rejecting the show that bears her name.

Except we, the audience, know she can’t really escape. The show will drag her back to us, when we’re ready, and she will be made to face what she has done.

Because she is our chosen one.

——

Other notes:
* Don’t worry, by next season the police have forgotten about Buffy. They don’t belong in her world, after all.
* At the time of broadcast, it was widely reported that Angel would be getting his own show, so the dramatic conclusion here was robbed of some of its weight.
* Giles’ torture is terrifying, although it does finally bed in the new version of Giles as the tough-as-nails badass that’s been gently pushed all season. The return of Jenny Calendar is played with maximum cruelty to the audience, a Whedon-show motif.
* Also cruel: Xander confesses his love to Willow, who wakes and asks for Oz. Xander has some odd moments this episode, once again showing he’s representing impulsive action. Most importantly, he lies to Buffy about Willow trying to restore Angel’s soul – it’s a selfish betrayal, and also ultimately meaningless, which just adds to the discomfort here.
* Oz, meanwhile, is still basically redundant. I guess they’ll find more stuff for Seth Green to do next season?
* Whistler is sadly underused here. He just spits out the plot info and saves the Scoobies a library visit. Disappointing after his build-up in the previous episode. I guess if Angel’s getting his own show he might be a recurring character there! That’d make sense, right?
* Giles: “They get inside my head, make me see things I want.” Xander: “Then why would they make you see me?” Giles: (considers) “You’re right. Let’s go.” Whedon used this joke again in the first X-Men film with Cyclops and Wolverine.
* Joyce making small-talk with Spike is priceless. Great comedic chemistry.
* I remember usenet running hot with upset viewers who insisted Buffy did not need to kill Angel – his blood would close the portal, so she needed only to cut his hand again! These people were silly.

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Home Linky

Via Cal, this home interiors magazine delivers a surprising message in an extremely clever way. Much respect.

Via Pearce, what your sleeping positions *really* say about your relationship

Lena Dunham interviews Lorde

I still haven’t watched this black-and-white mashup of Prometheus and Alien but maybe some day I will.

Eight-minute “video press kit” from 1986 for Jim Cameron’s Aliens. Some lovely behind-the-scenes stuff I’ve never seen before, like Cameron rehearsing the marines for their entry into the colony. Plus, nerd trivia alert, the narrator twice calls the planet “Acheron”, a name never used in the actual film.

Via @mlle_elle, a great Vulture piece on the rise and rise of Amy Schumer, with a particularly potent final couple paragraphs. (Judging by the Trainwreck trailers, Lebron James may have failed to win an NBA title this year, but he definitely beats Michael Jordan in one statistical category: on-screen charisma. And I say this as a fan of Space Jam.)

Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop webseries has spun off a new series where some LA actory types play a D&D-type game on camera. It’s called Titansgrave, and it’s worth a look if you’re curious. (It feels exactly like every beer-&-pretzels game I’ve ever participated in.)

The original article about Sherlock Holmes that gave us the idea of “canon”, and how it might be just a parody of Catholic theological debate.

Will your automated car drive you off a cliff if it would save two other lives? Some interesting questions will need to be answered as these systems approach reality.

The Guardian hosts another voice in the ongoing pushme-pullyou debate over whether microfinance is a good thing or not. The writer here argues compellingly that it’s a bad idea. There’s some good stuff in the comments too – yes, sometimes there is good stuff in the comments, it is possible.

Velociraptor Disney Princesses

Adorable zookeepers are recreating Chris Pratt’s moves in Jurassic World

The AV Club pays due respect to the music of the wondrous Josie and the Pussycats movie.

And finally, via Urs: death metal cover of John Cage’s 4’33”. My favourite thing about this is that it’s only about 90 seconds long, because death metal covers are always at a faster tempo.

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Watching Buffy: s02e21 “Becoming, Part One”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Soth Linky

My buddy Steve has just released his game Soth – a story game about cultists in a small town who are thiiiis close to summoning the dark god Soth. Check out the trailer:

Find out more here!

Moby Dick, each chapter read by an appropriate famous-type person (via Grant Stone)

These portrait-style photos of Mongrel Mob members are quite striking

How to check if your 20-sided die is off-balance

Great look at those “please report this error” requests you get when your computer fails, and how they have contributed to a turnaround in Microsoft – have you noticed that Microsoft are actually making kinda good software lately? Even Windows 8 is hated for its user experience, not its unreliability…

Slate rips the lid off the divine internet parody site Clickhole, and then confuses me by publishing an apparently serious literary takedown of the Poky Little Puppy.

And finally, I’ve caught up on The Comic Strip That Has A Finale Every Day. The last week of strips have been pretty amazing. So sad to see it end.

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